Sauvignon Blanc to Eat

by | 4 Apr, 2015

Breaking up with the New Zealand style and offering wines 
that are more ambitious and gastronomical is today's main
challenge for Chilean producers. Some already are rising up to it,
with very promising results. 

The term gastronomical wines is becoming more and more mainstream, and all discussions about it are becoming somewhat superfluous and shallow. As is the case with all fashions, which by definition are always short-lived, today most producers are talking about a wine style that is different, less heavy and more refreshing. But very few have seriously taken the challenge of making wines of greater complexity and amplitude, especially white wines.

Creating a white with pretensions to be more than just an aperitif wine, a white that is a serious pairing for any dish, is a lot more than producing a blend of low pH and rich acidity. Wine must have a certain structure and specific weight to support and complement the protein in our menu. And this is the result of careful planning, from the vineyard to wine aging.

Nobody questions the great push forward of Chilean whites over the last few decades, especially Sauvignon Blanc. However, as is often the case in our country, whites tend to be too uniform and, why not, somewhat dull and boring.

The majority of our winemakers have opted for over-reductive vinifications, emphasizing the aromatic impact instead of the mouth component. Imposed by New Zealand, this strongly herbal and acidic style (sometimes with a high percentage of residual sugar) has become an example to follow that has stripped the Chilean offer of much of its identity and added value.

The trend is so far reaching that many Chardonnays have been sauvignonized, dismissing the wood component as if it were the deadliest of sins. Sometimes the results are positive, especially when we get those chalky mineral notes from limestone-rich terroirs like Limarí. But there are other times, more that we would actually like, when wines are kind of left half way through, missing out on a real identity.

How many Chilean Sauvignon Blancs have been designed to age gracefully and reach the highest and most complex gustatory thresholds? Just a handful. Or how many of them ever come into contact with wood, either during fermentation or aging, in order to gain a firmer, more gastronomical structure?

In fact, I can only recall a couple of names like the fantastic Montes Sauvignon Blanc Fumé that was available at a very affordable price even in open market eateries. Or perhaps Amayna Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Fermented, a wine from the new generation of Leyda that proposes a riper yet very interesting style. Or the latest release of Lurton Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that bets on warmer tropical flavors, clearly benefiting from wood contact during its vinification process.

All these wines have stirred more than one controversy, at least when they debuted in specialized circles. This new breed of clean and reductive Sauvignon Blancs that explode in the glass with their intense aromas has made a great impact on consumers, who have somehow got used to this style. However, a group of winemakers are going out for more, seeking new quality levels in the Sauvignon Blanc saga. Their bet is on wines that not only conquer through the nose, but wines we can also chew on.

A SOUTHERN STRUCTURE

In order to savor the new generation of Chilean white wines, let us head to the rising Malleco appellation, about 620 kilometers south of Santiago. Despite its youth, it is already possible to speak about a certain consolidation of Chardonnay, picking up on the successful story of Felipe de Solminihac and his acclaimed Sol de Sol. But his neighbor William Fèvre Chile has placed its chips on another white variety: Sauvignon Blanc.

According to its winemaker Cristián Aliaga, this variety (and not Chardonnay) has yielded the best results. “At the beginning nobody knew what wines would be like. There was very little experience with Sauvignon Blanc in Malleco. Everybody was too busy with Chardonnay. So we thought about it and decided that more than making Sauvignon Blanc and being part of an already stigmatized category, we would be making a wine from the south,” he explains.

His idea was to move away completely from his excellent Chardonnay grown on the foothills of San Juan, in the self-proclaimed Muy Alto Maipo appellation. His wines from the south, marketed under the Quino label, are surprisingly juicy and well-structured, but above all they feature a unique personality that places them a million miles away from their coastal cohorts, instituting what may well become a promising new category.

Both his Quino Blanc – a blend of Sauvignon with a small percentage of Riesling – and Little Quino Sauvignon Blanc are fermented in barrels. While in 2012 the high temperatures caused Sauvignon Blanc to develop more tropical notes, the cooler 2014 season showed an impressively floral nose with refreshing citrus notes that match the wood to perfection and evolve pleasantly on the palate. Both wines are at the very limit. Their grapes can reach 11.5° of probable alcohol when harvested in late April, but they still retain enough power and structure to fill the mouth with interesting flavors.

The biggest challenge for William Fèvre Chile in Malleco is to deal with frosts. During 2013, they suffered a total of 18 episodes that ruined most of the fruit. Unlike Sol de Sol that grows in an area protected by gentle slopes, the flatlands are more exposed to frosts and the mighty southern wind. So far this year, while high temperatures still reign in the central valley, Malleco has already suffered three frosts.

Still, Cristián Aliaga is very enthusiastic about the enormous potential of this area. The 2014 vintage occupies 8 barrels, most of them new, and the results are very promising. “Everything has run very smoothly. Despite the low alcohol, the structure of these wines makes them very apt for the addition of wood, especially those made from clone 242. I can hardly wait to put it in bottles. Not today, but yesterday,” he jokes.

THE POWER OF THE PRESS

The winemaking couple García & Schwaderer are true food lovers, and this is well reflected in their wine portfolio. Their wines are made to be paired, not only with interesting aromatic proposals, but also with full, complex structures. That is why for them the wood- Sauvignon Blanc combination is not an issue. In fact, the Marina line offers a Barrel Fermented version.

Contrary to the fears that these wines may be hard to sell, the success of Marina Barrel Fermented was instantaneous. In 2013 they sold 50 cases in Brazil, but in 2014 the number shot up to 200. Today, the line is also available for sale in Belgium and Chile.

The grapes are sourced from Casablanca and vinified in stainless steel tanks with staves inside. These staves have been toasted at very low temperature and for a prolonged period. Therefore, the three-month aging period does not translate into woody notes in the nose, but into rich and complex sensations in the mouth.

According to Felipe García, the production of wines that are more gastronomical implies a number of aspects, wood being just one more component:

The use of two different yeasts during inoculation: Torulaspora delbrueckii and the traditional Saccharomyces cerevisiae. When the must reaches 10° of alcohol, Torulaspora die and Saccharomyces take over and finish the job. Therefore, fermentation takes longer to complete and is less aggressive, thus promoting the development of thiols, which can be 10 times those obtained through classic inoculations.

During fermentation, specific nutrition is required to promote yeast development.

The use of barrels improves the amount of lees (NTU-150).Too much turbidity during fermentation in a stainless steel tank may lead to over-reduction. This is not the case with barrels, as the column is much wider.

In this case, the wood contribution is not exclusively aromatic: it also improves the wine’s texture and breadth in the mouth. Pressing the wine is an essential task, as this improves its texture and increases weight and bitterness. Many winemakers do not understand or simply fear using a press, but according to Mr García bitterness is key to a wine’s length.

In his opinion, the main criticism to Chilean Sauvignon Blancs, especially in Britain, is their lack of a well-defined structure. “They say these are just aperitif wines, clean, with beautiful noses but not much weight. But for me the mouth plays the biggest role! When we started with Marina back in 2006 we obtained wines with 13.5° of alcohol. Today, we have 12.5°, and also a great texture and body. Without doubt, this is a more technical type of wine, more for experts and connoisseurs. But we are very happy with it. I am glad to say this has been one of our greatest achievements during these years,” he affirms.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

The winemaker Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque is on a personal battle against the wines from his native country. “New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs suck. Some of them, just a few, have an interesting nose, but you cannot pair them with anything. Once at the table you just have to change the wine.The aromas of asparagus and cat’s piss are too dominant and make an awful match,” he affirms.

Mr Phelps has spent the last six years aging this variety in barrels. Today, he has 400 barrels, which he uses in all his lines of Sauvignon Blanc: Reserva (8%), Gran Reserva (78%) and Pequeñas Producciones (98%). None of these barrels are new. They are all at least second use, because the goal is to move away from the New Zealand trend by making wines that are more complex, broader and eminently gastronomical.

But barrels alone will not make the difference. The approach itself is much more comprehensive. To begin with, grapes are harvested at night, when berry temperature is between 1 and 3° C, thus enabling extended macerations that can last anywhere between seven and eleven days. The next step is fermentation in a very cool environment before completing the transformation of sugar into alcohol in the barrels, where temperature can rise to 22 or 23 degrees Celsius.

“If you wish to produce Sauvignon Blancs that are more fruity, then you have to ferment at low temperatures. We cool our tanks down to 6. 5° C . That’ s insane! The process takes approximately three and a half weeks. This stresses the yeasts, which begin to produce esters with those notes of sweat that drive me crazy. The volatile components do not evaporate as in traditional fermentations, but reach the bottle in a liquid state and then burst out in the glass,” he explains.

Mr Phelps recalls a visit to the Loire Valley in the height of the harvest season. While ambling through the wineries, he could smell intense notes of Sauvignon Blanc all around the place, but then in the bottle those aromas were rather discreet. At Casas del Bosque, the process is exactly the opposite. During fermentation, the cellar smells of practically nothing. The objective is for it to reach its maxi- mum expression at the right time, that is, after uncorking the bottle.

“Fermenting in barrels is not a good idea if you want to obtain edgier wines. The barrel will help you to achieve an exquisite texture and very complex aromas.You can lose some of those primary fruit aromas, but then you get the rocky and mineral elements from the soil. Chile has a golden opportunity to fill the tremendous gap New Zealand is leaving. Unfortunately, many winemakers are obsessed with aromas. They try to imitate that style and do not dare to play a different, much better game,” he concludes.

NOBLE AGING

The area of Coya on the Andean foothills of Cachapoal is the birth- place of one of the most interesting Sauvignon Blancs I have ever tried. Enter Calyptra Gran Reserva 2007, a wine fermented in barrels just like in the old days that not only captures the freshness of its organic grapes, but also develops a surprising texture and a multiplicity of aromatic and flavor layers. For its winemaker François Massoc, this is the right time to savor this wine, but sadly only a few dozen bottles are left.

The winemaking decision to produce barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc has also been a commercial success. Today, these wines are exported at over USD 200 a case and sell out fast. “But we have to fight against prejudice. Chilean wineries believe they cannot sell at a high price. They do not believe in their potential. For them, selling at more than USD 50 per case is a complicated issue. They prefer to follow the New Zealand trend that still sells pretty well, although sales are clearly on the downswing.”

Mr Massoc had already tried with grapes from Leyda, and the results were simply great. But without doubt, the fruit structure he achieves in Coya provides the motivation to continue exploring this new style, even to increase the percentage of new barrels, which reached 20% in 2011.

Thanks to the oxygenation provided by the barrel, the wine develops its resistance to oxidation and increases its lifetime. Also, aging the wine on its lees and the presence of tannins protect the aromatic precursors, adding a more intellectual, complete and r ic her side . We sacrifice some of the aromatic intensity, but the mouthfeel is simply spectacular,” he explains.

But as Mr Massoc puts it, it is not only a question of fermenting in barrels. Grapevines must be farmed with the objective of producing wines of a long aging potential in mind. The work also includes the use of presses and a lot of serious planning. But the results are very much worth the effort. This niche of wines that are more ambitious and multi-dimensional offers great market opportunities. Once and for all, we should make the decision to sell more and, above all, sell better. The new consumers are demanding whites with a mouthfeel, whites that                      are ready to eat.

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