Despite its success with Cabernet and, in recent years, with Merlot as well, Chile has struggled with white wines.
Sauvignon Blanc arrived in the 19th century, with Cabernet, but traditionally was blended with Sémillon (as in Bordeaux) and aged in oak until the fruit disappeared, in the style of white Rioja. When Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres introduced cold fermentation techniques in 1978, the whites perked up, but then winemakers realized that much of the Sauvignon Blanc growing in Chile was an inferior clone (called Sauvignonasse or Sauvignon Vert here) that made dull or vegetal wines.
Chardonnay has only been widely planted over the past decade, largely in response to international demand, and so far the results have been humdrum. Though fruity and inexpensive, most of the wines have no advantage in style or quality over fighting varietals from Australia or California.
But this, too, may be changing, thanks to pioneering efforts in the Casablanca Valley, a rapidly developing vineyard region just west of Santiago which is now the country’s most promising for white grapes. Unlike the Central Valley, which runs north and south, Casablanca opens west to the Pacific, allowing cool ocean fogs to roll in. Pablo Morandé, winemaker at Concha y Toro since 1978, thought it looked like Sonoma and planted the first vines here in 1982. Today, the valley counts 4,400 acres owned by Carmen, Concha y Toro, California’s Franciscan Winery and others.
Driving through the valley in late November with Pedro Izquierdo, 36, vineyard manager for Errazuriz Panquehue and Caliterra (which also own vines in Casablanca), the rolling rural landscape appears dry but fertile. It’s springtime in Chile. Eucalyptus trees perfume the air; bougainvillea, wisteria, roses and jacaranda color the small gardens; roadside stands offer five pounds of avocados for a dollar.
But for grapes, Casablanca presents many more problems than the Central Valley. During the growing season, from October through March, the region totals nearly 30 percent fewer degree days (a measure of heat summation) than the Maipo Valley; the harvest can be a month later. The risk of spring frost is much higher here, and the melting snow that runs off the Andes and irrigates the Central Valley vineyards is unavailable, so all the vines must be drip-irrigated.
“Outside the valley you can get five to six tons of fruit per acre easily,” Izquierdo says, and he’s discreetly understating the case, by nearly half. “Inside, no one is getting more than three and a half to four. It’s too damn cold.”
But with the right clones, appropriate vine density and trellising systems, reduced yields and careful winemaking, Casablanca fruit achieves full flavor maturity without losing acidity or structure. It’s a vineyard laboratory that’s attracting Chile’s wine hotshots. At Viña Casablanca, Ignacio Recabarren (who also works with Caliterra and Concha y Toro) is making intense Sauvignon Blanc (the 1993, $8, scored 87 points) and aromatic Gewürztraminer. Thierry Villard, 45, was born in Paris and worked for 15 years in Australian wineries; now established in Chile selling French oak barrels, he has hooked up with Morandé to make Casablanca Chardonnay that has a near-Burgundian richness (the 1993, $8, scored 88 points).
“In Chile, all the white wines taste the same,” asserts Villard. “We’re trying to make wines with personality.” He’s making his point. If Cousiño-Macul suffers from handicaps the Chilean wine industry still has to overcome, Casablanca is proving that solutions are already on the way.