Catching Up with Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

P1070230A shipment of four Chilean Sauvignon Blancs arrives at our door (courtesy of Wines of Chile) along with a request to see how they paired with seafood. That’s the kind of challenge that we like, so we called our friends Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly and organized a dinner tasting.

The conversation was stimulating, with Pierre and Cynthia exchanging tales of their wine research in China (which has been reported here at the Wine Economist) and their WSET classes for news of our recent travels in  Idaho and Australia. Then we got down to business with the food and wine.

For appetizers I decided to focus on wines from the coastal areas and the pairings were very successful. The Santa Carolina Leyda Estate Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2013 was good on its own but fabulous with a rich smoked salmon dip. And the Los Vascos Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc 2012 that we have enjoyed before was even better with fresh oysters from nearby Hood Canal and white prawns.P1070228

For the main course I selected the wines from the central valley and Andes foothill areas. The minerality of these wines (Calcu Colchagua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and Santa Ema Select Terroir  Maipo Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012) really stood up to and enhanced a special brodetto (a seafood stew from Romagna) made with Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipe from The Splendid Table cookbook.P1070232

The meal was great (especially topped off with Sue’s raspberry-currant crostata) and the Sauvignon Blanc-seafood pairings really worked.

Taken as a group these were the best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs yet — an indication that perhaps Decanter reviewers were right when they said that Chilean wines just get better every year as site selection is fine tuned and the winegrowing and winemaking techniques continue to improve. Significantly, the wines were not carbon copies — either of other wine regions (think Marlborough SB) or of each other — we appreciated the diversity as much as the overall quality.

Four wines can’t possibly tell the whole story of a complicated wine country like Chile. But if these four are representative of the kind of Sauvignon Blancs being made there today, I think Chile has finally arrived!

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Thanks to Emily Denton of the thomas collective for arranging this tasting. Thanks to Pierre and Cynthia for their help and to Sue for the photos.

Good to Great: Rethinking Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

“Good wine, great value” — that’s been Chile’s wine reputation for many years. And while this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it is a bit of a self-limiting category. “Great wines” might be a more desirable label, or maybe “great values, great wines.”  But things are changing in Chile. Is it time to rethink Chilean wine?

A Tale of Two Tastings

This post is inspired by a pair of tastings of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The first was in London at Decanter magazine’s headquarters, where a team of four experts tasted 80 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines for a report just published in the June 2012 issue. The tasters included Peter Richards MW, Mel Jones MW, Juan Carlos Rincon and Annette Scarfe.

The second tasting, a much more casual affair, took place 4500 miles away at our house in Tacoma. Sue and I were joined by three of my University of Puget Sound “Idea of Wine” students for a tasting of wines supplied by Wines of Chile. We tasted five Sauvignon Blancs (see wine list below) that were sent to us along with three Chardonnays that we tasted separately.

I was very interested to hear what my students would have to say about these wines. Abby and Marina studied abroad in Chile, so they brought some regional focus to the group. Ky is a quintessential Millennial wine “newbie” with a refreshingly open and thoughtfully candid attitude. They were the perfect tasting team to balance the experienced Decanter experts.

Upward Trajectory

Sauvignon Blanc is an important factor in the Chilean wine industry, as this table from the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020 makes clear. Sauvignon Blanc is now #2 in the export dollar league table behind Cabernet and ahead of Merlot and Chardonnay. Exports of Sauvignon Blanc almost tripled in dollar value between 2002 and 2009 — much faster growth than Cabernet, Merlot or Chardonnay. Why?

One theory is that Chile has ridden New Zealand’s wave. Certainly Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has opened doors and minds to Sauvignon Blanc, to the benefit of producers in South Africa, Chile and elsewhere.

But the Decanter tasters have a better theory: the wines themselves have improved as winemaking practices have caught up to the global “best practice” standard. Decanter’s team recommends buying the most recent vintage of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc not just for freshness but because they believe the quality of the wine making is improving every year.

That said, stuff sometimes happens and the Decanter team reported a few bottles that suffered from too much sulfur or excess acidity. We had the same problem — one of our five bottles pushed acidity to the borderline in our opinion.

Common Ground

Of the 80 wines that the Decanter team judged, two earned 5-star honors, twelve received four stars and 50 were “recommended” 3-star winners. Fifteen wines were judged “good values.” Is this a good showing?

Yes! A review of 121 Argentinean Malbecs in the same issue produced three 5-star wines, sixteen with 4-stars and 55 “recommended” 3-star wines. Twenty were declared good values.  Adjusting for the number of wines sampled, I think you’d have to declare it just about a dead heat between Argentina and Chile (a statement that is likely to provoke a response on both sides of the Andes!).

We enjoyed the wines and commented upon the French stylistic influence which made them a change from the New Zealand wines we often drink. How did they compare to the wines you drank with your homestay families in Chile, we asked Marina (upper photo) and Abby (shown with Ky in the lower photo)? We didn’t drink white wines, they both replied. Always red.

Good to Great

“At the top end, I think New Zealand is still ahead of Chile, because the experience it has counts for so much,” according to one of the Decanter reviewers. “But the very best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic wines that can more than hold their own in a global context. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic value for money next to New Zealand, South Africa and the Loire, and that is its forte”.

Overall these wines were very good — we will certainly enjoy them with summer meals — and our ranking of individual wines matched very well to Decanter’s point scores. Yet we a little disappointed. Good, no question, but not great.

Or not yet great. If quality continues its upward trajectory, “great wines, great values” may soon be within Chilean wine’s grasp.

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Thanks to Wine of Chile for supplying wine, olive oil and spices for the tasting. Here is a list of the Sauvingon Blancs we tasted along with their U.S. suggested retail prices.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley ($25.00)

 Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($13.99)

 Cono Sur Visión Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($14.99)

 Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($12.99)

 Veramonte Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($18.00)

Chilean Wine at the Crossroads


When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.

Preaching to the Choir

Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious  Strategic Plan 2020  about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.

The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of  “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.

The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:

  • Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
  • Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
  • Country Image. Chile is good for you.
  • Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.

The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine  (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)

Audacious Goals?

Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production.  The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.

Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth.  Good idea, but easier said than done.

So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with  with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report  issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.

 Something Completely Different

Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even  negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.

It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so  “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”

There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.

Getting the Message Out

One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.

This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)

Is Carmenere The Key?

Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program.  Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?

A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.

Reimagining Chile’s Wine Identity

What do you think of when you think of Italian wine? Many people think first of Italy — the place, the art, the people, the culture and the food (OK, especially the food). The romantic idea of Italy sells Italian wine. Brand Italy is stronger, it is said, than any Italian wine brand and Italian winemakers have profited from this fact.

Changing Places

The relationship between country and wine image is reversed for Chile, or at least that’s the theory I found in a recent report called the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020.  The wines of Chile are the nation’s ambassadors to the rest of the world, the report asserts. The wines of Chile have a more distinct image than Chile itself (although of course the two are related) and so when people think of Chile they think first of its wines.

I am not sure that I completely agree with this idea — “Chile” conjures up many images and associations for me — but I am willing to consider it for the sake of argument. Certainly how we think about the wines of Chile has some impact on our attitudes towards this country more generally. Chile’s wine identity, as important as it is to people in the wine industry, may have an even broader significance in terms of international investment, export sales, tourism and so forth.

Good and Good Value

So what is Chile’s wine identity? Well, for most of the last 50 years Chilean wine has been synonymous with “good value for the money.” As I wrote in a previous post, Chile has been trapped in a vicious cycle of rising expectations that has made it difficult for them to increase price even as the quality of their wines has continued to improve.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I know that it is better to be known for good value than for bad value, but in today’s very competitive global market it is also good to have products that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for. The average FOB export price of Chilean wine hovers around USD 2 per liter or less than USD 20 per case. The appreciation of the Chilean peso in 2010 combined with the difficulty of raising the USD price has really put the squeeze on Chilean wine producers.

Chile is the most trade dependent of the top wine producing countries, according to the Wines of Chile report, exporting nearly 70 percent of their production.  Wine accounts for over 2.5% of Chile’s total export earnings. So enhancing the image of Chilean wine abroad by moving it upmarket is important.

There are several ways to define a country’s wine identity and this video illustrates the current theme, Wines of Chile: The Natural Choice. As you can see the theme connects the dots of factors contributing to Chile’s complex terroir and stresses the fact that that its phylloxera-free vines grow on their own rootstocks — a  nice “natural” connection.

But broad messages like this have their limitations since by definition they cannot thoroughly take into account detailed factors that may be important to understanding and promoting the wine.  The New Zealand wine tagline is “Pure Discovery,” for example, and here in Washington the motto is “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” None of these tag lines is especially stirring or sharply defining, although the key words — Natural, Pure, Perfect — have obvious appeal.

Is Carmenere the New Malbec?

Another way to think about wine identity is in terms of grape varieties, although this has limitations, too. If you think Burgundy  you think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example. And Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon. There is much more to the wine from these regions than type of grape, of course, but the iconic varieties are straightforward identifiers that confused New World consumers can easily understand.

Wine in Chile is really about three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere. Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc together account for more than two-thirds of all wine grape plantings in Chile. These wines can be very good, but it must be said that they are cursed with that “good value” label that will be hard to shake no matter how many Wine Spectator Top 100 awards they receive.

Carmenere represents only 7 percent of vineyard plantings now, but it is seen by many as the breakthrough wine of the future, a uniquely Chilean wine that has the potential to do for Chile what Malbec has done for Argentina. The Wines of Chile report has high hopes for Carmenere both as an export product and as a tool to redefine Chile’s wine identity. But it warns against cutting corners to capture low price sales. Carmenere needs to be a premium brand if it is to serve its useful symbolic function.

Blogger Wine Tasting

Which brings us to Syrah and Pinot Noir — not grape varieties that you usually associate with Chile. They were the focus of a recent tasting organized by Wines of Chile that brought together, if that is the right phrase, a virtual group of U.S. wine bloggers including members of The Wine Economist staff. The idea was to use new media to get out the message about Chilean wine’s new directions and to help establish its wine identity among younger tech-savvy consumers. We were sent wines to sample, literature to read and provided with online access to Chilean winemakers for interactive Q&A.

Are wines like these the way forward for Chile? Syrah and Pinot Noir are high value bottled wine exports (FOB prices of $4.66 and $4.08 per liter respectively in 2009 compared with $3.37 for Cab Sauv and $2.79 for Sauv Blanc) and so they may be useful tools in this task of getting consumers to rethink the wines of Chile and what they might be willing to pay for them.

(Math note: Chile receives only about $2 per liter on average for its wine exports because lower priced bulk wine sales drag the average down while higher priced bottled wine exports try to hold it up.)

I asked the winemakers to comment on the potential for these wines on the international markets. How can Chilean Pinot Noir differentiate itself from New World Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand? And how can Chilean Syrah succeed in the U.S., where Syrah sales are slumping?

Wine Economist volunteer tasting staff: Scott, Janice, Kevin and Jeni

Their responses were not very enlightening, but I blame the online environment for that, with the group of winemakers in a boardroom in Chile trying to answer questions submitted from thousands of miles away by faceless bloggers. Anyone who has been on a conference call knows the problem. But, like conference calls, this internet session facilitated a great deal of interaction even if it wasn’t completely satisfying and so the pluses outweigh the minuses. I’ll just need to follow up, that’s all.

Tasting Notes? From the Wine Economist?

No one comes to The Wine Economist to read tasting notes, but I thought you might be interested in the team’s reactions to the wines. On the whole we liked the Pinots a bit better than the Syrahs — we just found more complexity in the glass and more to talk about. That said, I noticed that when everyone was given the opportunity to take home a partial bottle, it was the Syrahs that disappeared. Interesting.

The Syrahs were better with food, which in our case included tasty empanadas purchased from Pampeana Empanadas here in Tacoma and bruschetta with Fontina and  Huerto Azul Myrtleberry Chutney with Merken, a Chilean product that was provided by Wines of Chile along with the wines and is available from puro-gourmet.com.

I was especially interested in how college students Jeni and Kevin reacted to the tasting since young consumers are a key wine marketing target and new media initiatives like this are often organized with them in mind. Jeni said that she had never purchased a bottle of wine from Chile — her image of Chilean wine was pretty much a blank canvas –  but that the tasting put Chile on the wine map for her and she was more likely to try these wines in the future. Jeni’s image of Chilean wine changed from invisible to positive — a good sign.

Kevin had tasted Chilean Pinots before — he comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is friends with many winemaker families. In Oregon, the aim is to be Burgundian, he said, and he was surprised by a couple of these Chilean Pinots. They weren’t exactly what he was expecting, which made him want to taste more to try to understand the Casablanca Valley terroir and the winemaker styles a bit better. Another good sign

Overall I would say it was a successful tasting that answered some questions and raised many more. The question of the future of Chile’s wine identity remains to be answered, however, so I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post.

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Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate in the blogger tasting and to Amber Gallaty of the thomas collective for making the arrangements. Special thanks to Sue Veseth, Janice Brevik, Scott Hogman, Jeni Oppenheimer and Kevin Chambers for their insights on the wines and the virtual tasting process. The photos are by Sue and Scott.

Here are the wines featured in the April 2011 blogger tasting

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