Name a good white wine from Chile. Stumped? I’m not surprised. While the media -- myself included - - poured attention and praise on the country’s reds over the last decade, the whites have gone relatively unnoticed.
Overwhelmingly they are made from either sauvignon blanc, with 12,159 hectares planted, or chardonnay, with 13,082 hectares, along with a few thousand hectares of semillon, viognier, riesling and gewurztraminer. Sauvignon blanc is, after cabernet sauvignon, Chile’s second-biggest varietal, with sales of $9,140,725 this year, an 8.6 percent increase from last year.
Quality wines from these white varietals appeared only very recently. Previous land restrictions from the socialist government and the isolation of the vineyards in the western mountains encouraged high-volume mediocrity, mostly from the pais grape planted by Spanish missionaries.
While Chile didn’t develop a modern winemaking industry until the 1980s, it has been quick to catch up, employing the best new technologies of viticulture. In the vanguard of the change was Spanish producer Miguel Torres, who planted grapes in the Curico Valley in 1979.
Over the last few weeks I tasted a wide range of Chilean whites -- on their own and then with food -- and, overall, found a quality level I’d rank at or above the same varietals from New Zealand and California.
While some of the South American nation’s sauvignon blancs mimicked the overly grassy, vegetal smell and taste common in those other New World rivals, others showed a remarkable breeding for so young an industry.
All were cleanly made, with few trying to impress by high alcohol or overripened fruit flavors.
Many, as is common in Chile, have screwcaps. While winemakers may debate the merits of cork over screwcaps for red wine, the metal seal is clearly better and easier to open when it comes to white wines to be drunk within a year or two of release.
Here are some of the Chilean wines I enjoyed most.
Cono Sur Vision Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($12-$14)
From the Casablanca Valley, with rich mineral clay soil, this exhibits a true sauvignon blanc nose with minerals and new grass, still pretty vegetal on the finish. It flourishes with foods like chicken and corn.
Casas del Bosque Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($15)
From this family owned estate in the Casablanca Valley comes a green-yellow wine with lots of body, the fragrance of litchi, and the pronounced tang of lemony fruit and good acid. It was perfect with a lunch of just-picked tomatoes, mozzarella, bread, and olive oil.
Palo Alto Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009 ($13)
Very pale green-gold color, with both nose and flavors more herbaceous and mineral than grassy, very close in style to a Loire Valley Sancerre and therefore ideal with simple seafood, especially shrimp and lobster.
Matetic Vineyards EQ Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($20)
Made according to biodynamic principles in Valle de Rosario vineyards, this is a sauvignon blanc with plenty of vigor, not least a delightful minty finish. Of more than a dozen sauvignon blancs I tasted, this to me seemed to have something distinctive that might indicate the future expression of the Chilean terroir.
Aquitania Sol de Sol Chardonnay 2008 ($10)
This is a sunny wine from the Malleco Valley, and a little age has bolstered its lovely bouquet and chardonnay flavor that I associate with some of the lighter examples from Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. That’s hardly surprising since three of the four owners are French winemakers -- Paul Potallier, Bruno Prats and Ghislain de Montgolfier. The fourth is Chilean enologist Felipe de Solminihac. I enjoyed this wine with Chinese noodles, fully complementing the soy sauce, ginger, and pepper.
Leyda Lot 5 Wild Yeasts Chardonnay 2008 ($20)
Only 500 cases are made of this Leyda Valley wine, and while it’s not very convincing as a chardonnay, its brisk acid and tang made it a capital choice with a beef frankfurter layered with sauerkraut, mustard, and horseradish.
Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay 2009 ($20)
Made by the huge Concha y Toro wine company, this is a chardonnay for those that like them gutsy, with lots of vanilla, a decent amount of oak, and 14 percent alcohol. It’s quite a mouthful, excellent with spicy food.
Emiliana Vineyards Eco Balance Chardonnay 2010 ($9)
It sounds like a jogging shoe, but this is a very good buy for a wine from organic, sustainable vineyards The acronymic name Eco stands both for “ecology” and for “Enjoy life to the fullest, Care for the world around you, and Open and share with family and friends.” Lovely sentiments for a big, 14 percent alcohol charmer that seems an honest marriage of California boldness and French earthiness.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)