Sauvignon Blanc: The End of a Myth
After successfully adapting to the coastal valleys, the story of this variety has taken a whole new dimension, one of greater balance and deeper flavors. Its wines have now become a standalone international category and one of the pillars of Chilean exports. But before being hailed as a new classic, Sauvignon Blanc needs to develop higher complexity, wipe out the myths around it and set foot in higher price segments. And it is getting there, slowly but surely.
For centurIes, Sauvignon Blanc remained a second-class cultivar, always eclipsed by the grandiloquence of Chardonnay, the undisputed center of attention, or the complex notes of Riesling, the intellectual choice of a few unconditional followers. Although its noble stock was never questioned, its wines appeared a bit shy, simple and country-like, without much theatrical talent or, like King George VI, stuttering and agoraphobic. Fame seemed always elusive and unjust.
But today Sauvignon Blanc is making headlines on its own, proud, charming and unabated. Consumers have finally surrendered to its fresh and sassy character, its seemingly trouble-free and austere way of life, and its merrily casual personality. It finally freed itself from its golden prison in Bordeaux and the Loire and moved to new latitudes where it has proven its genius and versatility to reflect a myriad of disparate origins.
In Chile, the new coastal valleys have given it the opportunity to reach new heights, with a balance that was simply unimaginable under the scorching sun of the central valley. Sauvignon has reinvented itself, gaining in depth, freshness and complexity. Today it plays new tunes, far and away from the once popular tropical beats. Its nose has become more potent and its demeanor less abrupt, reaching higher and deeper notes. Its repertoire now includes new genres, from classical masterpieces to the powerful contrasts of symphonic rock.
With over 12,000 hectares planted and counting, Sauvignon Blanc is now one of the pillars of Chilean wine exports and a centerpiece of Vinos de Chile’s 2020 strategic plan. In the UK, its sales have even surpassed those of Cabernet Sauvignon. Quite a feat indeed, considering that in the early 1990s Chilean white wines had virtually no presence in the international scene. Today, they shine with a light of their own.
Sauvignon Blanc is living its glory days. A glory that is also crucial for Chile’s ambitions to become a benchmark in this category. Now is the time to prove its capacity to produce higher-end wines of greater complexity, deepness and aging potential, like Cabernet Sauvignon and other red varieties before it. Unfortunately, determination is not enough. Critics still do not recognize Sauvignon Blanc as a premier variety and associate it mostly to simple and young wines for quick consumption. So the road ahead is still long and uphill.
SAUVIGNON BLANC IS NOT A MAJOR LEAGUE VARIETY
I remember an American critic – Mike Steinberg, I think – once said that this variety could hardly raise any interest, that it was insignificant and boring. That it would never come even close to Chardonnay or Chenin blanc, and that being internationally recognized just for the quality of one’s Sauvignon Blanc, as is the case of New Zealand, was just about the same as being recognized as a good rice producer.
I wonder if he’s ever had the time to enjoy a sea bass nigiri served with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Personally, I like rice in all its forms and colors. And Sauvignon Blanc too. I take great pleasure in its simplicity, its freshness and straightforwardness; and its capacity to go straight to the point, without any unnecessary detours or existential questionings. But above all, I admire its ability to reflect different origins: the mineral, elegant and deep notes of the Loire; the fruity exuberance of Bordeaux; the wild herbs and citrus acidity of Marlborough; the smoky tones of Friuli-Venezia; the charming rusticity of Rueda; or the fresh balance of Casablanca, San Antonio and Limarí.
Once and for all, Sauvignon Blanc has planted itself on firm ground, as was demonstrated at the 1st Concours Mondial du Sauvignon Blanc held last year in Bordeaux. Organized by the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the competition was an excellent venue for discussion and debate. While Bordeaux representatives incessantly swore by the ripeness of their continental fruit, the new World counterattacked with herbal and briny notes. And one of the winning wines was, precisely, Cipreses from Casa Marín, probably the flagship of the new Pacific generation and Chile’s first to dare cross the US$ 20 per bottle.
Sauvignon Blanc is indeed major league stuff, and Chile is well prepared to play for the Superbowl.
ClONAL SAUVIGNON BLANC IS KEY TO PRODUCE QUALITY WINES
Rediscovering the Casablanca Valley signified a true white revolution. From a handful of sweetish and boring wines, production took off to a new galaxy of straightforward, limpid and fresh wines. And Pablo Morandé, who pioneered this white rebirth, is convinced that once the new clonal plantations reach maturity, a second revolution will shake Casablanca and all other coastal valleys.
Let’s just remember that until a few decades ago, Sauvignon Vert, considered a poor relative of blanc, reigned undisturbed across Chilean vineyards. Its coarsest representatives, sometimes stinking of onion and elusively acidic, were a substantial part of the Chilean offer. Many vineyards were mixed, and confusion spread even to the labels, much like the legendary Merlot-Carmenère affair. Today, most plantations have been purged and Casablanca is now virtually free of Sauvignon Vert, except perhaps for a handful of well-camouflaged plants.
If you ever have the chance to walk around one of the vineyards and come across a grapevine with noticeably less pubescent leaves, mark it as suspicious: the leaves of Sauvignon Blanc, especially the youngest ones, have a soft, downy-like underside, while the rustic Sauvignon Vert looks much smoother.
Today, the prevalent clone in Chilean vineyards is American 1, the clone responsible for Sauvignon Blanc’s great leap in quality. It is a late-ripening variety that produces classy and deep wines. However, in recent years there has been extensive use of 242, a french clone that is rich in tropical aromas like passion fruit and provides a perfect wine finish. Other french clones of recent introduction are 107 and 376. Both have a fresh personality with a marked penchant for herbal and spicy notes.
These new clones have allowed Sauvignon blanc to gain in complexity as it develops new layers of flavors and enhanced freshness and deepness. Their contribution has been crucial, though there is still ample room for testing and experimenting.
SAUVIGNON BLANC REACHES ITS BEST IN COASTAL VALLEYS
When María Luz Marín planted her first grapevines in Lo Abarca, San Antonio, just 4 kilometers from the ocean, many raised an eyebrow as if to say, “Why going to such extremes?” But today the situation is radically different and war has been declared. Let’s see who dares planting nearer the water. In their search for fresher, deeper mouthfeels and mineral, brinier notes, producers are now living a life filled with wind and seagulls.
Casablanca and San Antonio-Leyda now face stiff competition. Elqui, Limarí, Chilhué and Manzanar (Aconcagua Costa), Paredones (Colchagua Costa), have their Sauvignon Blancs already on the table. And the results are mouth-watering. Each one in its own style has stretched the coastal map beyond any imaginable limits. Last year, even wines from Huasco (Atacama) and Chanco (Maule Costa) had their debut. Soon will follow the wines from Zapallar.
But despite these impressive results, one should not disregard the potential of this variety in other areas. Wineries like Calyptra in the Cachapoal pre-Andean highlands, and Ribera del Lago, in the heights of the Colbún Lake in Maule, have bottled wines of tremendous stature: Complex, distinct and with great bottle aging potential. Also, the new plantations in Maipo Alto located just above 1,000 meters promise lots of character and freshness.
We should not leave aside the great potential of the south of Chile, either. Itata and Bío-Bío can become a benchmark for this variety, provided vineyards are established on proper soil and mesoclimates. Even further south, new surprises may arise, like the wines Casa Silva is producing in Futrono, on the banks of the Ranco Lake, at least as far as sparklers are concerned.
SAUVIGNON BLANC HAS LIMITED AGING POTENTIAL
Sadly enough, most people think that Sauvignon Blanc is a short-lived variety that should be consumed as soon as possible, hopefully within a year from its harvest. Although youth is associated with what may well be some of Sauvignon’s best attributes – freshness, restlessness and persistence – this variety is totally apt for further exploration in search of greater complexity.
The bad news is that older vintages are by no means an easy find. Not even the wineries themselves keep a stock of their own production.
A word of caution, though. Most wines currently produced are meant for the short term and not for prolonged aging. More than once have I come across a 2 or 3 year-old bottle, even from a cool valley like Casablanca, that more than a tasting note deserves an epitaph. The reason? They are wines intended for quick consumption, made with very reductive vinification processes and without the concentration and aging needed to stand the test of time.
According to Brett Jackson, winemaker of Valdivieso, Sauvignon Blanc indeed has great aging potential. As time goes by, its aromas gain in depth and attractiveness. the variety develops new aromatic layers. But this is only possible if the enological goal is clearly stated, from vineyard management to vinification and aging. Unlike common belief, Sauvignon Blanc stands barrel aging perfectly well, especially in larger containers and preferring oxygenation to woody notes.
Fortunately, there are many winemakers who go against the flow and establish new trends. Wineries Morandé, Valdivieso and Veramonte, to name a few, have released their first barrel-aged, even barrel-fermented, Sauvignon Blancs. And results are more than promising.
SAUVIGNON BLANC IS JUST A SHORT-LIVED TREND
The boom of Sauvignon Blanc started in the 1990s when New Zealand took the world by storm. Since then, demand seems unstoppable. Consumers somewhat fed up with cloying and boring Chardonnays, happily embraced the freshness and joyful character of Sauvignon Blanc. Today it lives its 15 minutes of fame, minutes that may become years or even decades if producers play their chips wisely.
Its high yields turn it into a profitable variety. Unlike other white cultivars, production reaches several tons per hectare without significantly compromising quality. This makes it suspicious and the target of some criticism, though it also makes it a great business opportunity for wine producers who have to face increasing competition from a hostile environment and escalating production costs. But we need to keep our head cool. If Sauvignon Blanc is to remain in the spotlight we must avoid self-complacency and ensure quality in every price range.
Sauvignon Blanc will only become a classic if it can deliver freshness and good spirits, and also demonstrate to the world that it can soar to great new heights, that it can transcend and stir our emotions.
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