Part of the success of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Chile has been a decades-long process of finding the right place to grow the grapes. As happened in California through much of the 20th Century, the importance of finding the suitable micro-climate or terroir for particular grapes in Chile was relegated to the scientific principle of: “How ’bout plantin’ grapes over there?” “Uh, o.k., looks good to me.” The slow and meticulous process of searching for appropriate vineyard areas began in the 1980s and continues today, bringing a focus for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to cooler-climate regions like Casablanca and Leyda valleys, from which you could drop-kick a corkscrew to the Pacific Ocean. With one exception, all of these sauvignon blancs or chardonnay are from those two areas.
Viña Leyda was founded in 1997 in the Fernandez Valley (about 80 kilometers — 50 miles — southwest of Santiago), which the winery successfully had changed to the Leyda Valley and named an official D.O. in 2002. The Pacific Ocean lies just over a series of low hills, and when you walk up Viña Leyda’s sloping westward-facing vineyards to an elevation of about 180 meters (540 feet), you feel the freshening of the breeze and a bracing salty bite. The valley is increasingly a home for wineries or vineyard owners looking for prime sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir acreage, though syrah is beginning to be planted too. From no properties some 12 or 13 years ago, the Leyda Valley now holds about 2,000 hectares of vineyards planted by 20 producers. Viña Leyda owns 249 hectares, about 615 acres. The winery was acquired by Viña Tabali in 2007; the overarching entity is now Viñas Valles de Chile. Chief winemaker for Viña Leyda is Viviana Navarrete.
The Leyda Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2010 delivers a heady bouquet of lime, lemon and grapefruit in a pungent welter of gooseberry, dusty limestone, fennel and dried tarragon. The wine is terrifically bright and lively, keenly crisp and endowed with heaps of lime and tangerine flavors highlighted by sunny- leafy elements amid a tidy balance between lushness and spareness. It keeps you on edge for another sip and cries out for fresh oysters. Very Good+. About $9 to $11, a Great Bargain. How different is the Leyda Garuma Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010? It’s spicier than its cousin, rounder, a little lusher and clearly more high-toned and elegant yet vibrant with limestone, oyster-shell and penetrating gunflint qualities. Fruit tends toward gooseberry and yellow plums. This is an extremely attractive and beautifully balanced sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $14 to $16, representing Good Value.
The fresh, clean Leyda Classic Chardonnay 2010 offers simple, direct appeal in a well-made package. Scents of green apple, pineapple, grapefruit and jasmine are bolstered by prominent limestone-like minerality, while spicy pineapple and grapefruit flavors are couched in a smooth, moderately lush, chewy texture. Very Good. About $9 to $11. A wholly other creature is the light gold Leyda Lot 5 Chardonnay 2009, a bright, bold chardonnay that features notes of pineapple and grapefruit, spice cake, toasted hazelnuts, camellias and (after a few moments) almond brittle but no whit of anything tropical or buttery. It’s almost opulent in the mouth, rich and dense, yet finely balanced by crisp acidity and traceries of limestone and shale; 25 percent new oak lends a sheen of blond spice and subtle wood. Thoughtful winemaking. Excellent. About $25. Production was 500 cases, so mark this one Worth a Search.
The wines of Viña Leyda are imported to the U.S.A. by Winebow Inc. New York. Image of Viviana Navarrete from leyda.cl.
Veramonte has a complicated history into which I will delve more thoroughly when we touch upon red wines, particularly its “icon” pinot noir called Ritual. Suffice to say that Veramonte came early to Casablanca Valley, which lies northwest of Santiago close to the ocean. When I was in Chile in April 1999, the winery’s impressive Palladian facility was just a couple of years old; I was surprised when we pulled up on the afternoon of October 4 — two weeks ago! — to see the place looking rather shabby and badly in need of a coat of paint.
As at many wineries in Chile and Argentina (and the United States of America), a “Reserva” or “reserve” label indicates the least expensive line of wines, another indication that outside of the European Union the term, which should imply some prestigious limitation, is meaningless. On the other hand, it’s the quality of wine in the bottle that counts, right, and in their price range, the Veramonte Reserva wines are real stand-outs, though to be honest, I found the Veramonte Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Colchagua Valley, too dense, woody and tannic and generally too big for its britches. (See, however, last week’s Wine of the Week.) Veramonte’s winemaker is Cristian Aliaga.
The Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca, is pale straw-gold in color; lively aromas of grapefruit, damp limestone, tarragon and dried thyme, Key lime and tangerine burst from the glass, and whoa! wait a sec! is that a tinge of mango? The wine is tremendously vibrant, crisp with tingling acidity and a scintillating limestone-like mineral element, all of this balancing a texture that’s almost powdery in seductive softness. The bright finish brings in more spicy lime and grapefruit and a hint of shale. I challenge you not to slurp this up. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Value.
Veramonte wines are imported by Huneeus Vintners, Rutherfordm Cal. Image of Cristian Aliaga from veramonte.com.
My group visited Viñedos Terranoble’s El Algarrobo (the carob tree) estate in Casablanca on Tuesday, Oct. 5, an occasion notable not only for the wines we tasted but for our initiation into the traditional Chilean barbeque. During this al fresco lunch I discovered that in Chile (and Argentina, I later found out), a bit of salad and vegetables on the plate serves merely as an excuse for piling on the meat. The winery was founded in 1993; owner is general manager Juan Carlos Castro. Terranoble owns 4,750 acres of vineyards in Casablanca, Colchagua and, farther south, Maule Valley, where the wines are made. Unlike at many other wineries, the “Reserva” label is Terranoble’s second tier; the “Classic” label forms the base of the production pyramid. Chief winemaker is Ignacio Conca. I’ll discuss Terranoble’s red wines later, but here’s a mention of the very attractive Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, whose grapes derived from El Algarrobo. The vineyard was planted in 1998.
Made all in stainless steel, the Terranoble Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Casablanca, is a pale straw color; the aromas seem typical for the grape and the region: lime and lime peel, tangerine, grapefruit and its zest, dried thyme and tarragon, but there are touches of acacia, almond blossom and even a hint of toasted almond for added intrigue. The wine displays lovely weight and balance, feeling not just crisp and vibrant but rather welcoming in the mouth, with deft poise between soft roundness and taut acidity. Flavors are dominated by lemon and lime, but include shades of melon and mango. The finish is dry, herbal and chalky. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Absolutely delightful. Very Good+. About $13, another Great Value.
Imported by Winebow Inc., New York
Viña Cousiño-Macul was founded in 1856 and is the only 19th Century winery in Chile still owned solely by the founding family. Once distant from Santiago, the estate today is surrounded by the city, though buffered by a 150-acre private park of magical dimensions, especially when toured at twilight. Though grapes are still grown at the family domain, most of the productive vineyards for Cousiño-Macul are in other provinces. Technical director for the winery is Pascal Marty.
The Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay 2009, Maipo Valley, is fermented 90 percent in stainless steel and 10 percent in new French oak barrels. While the color is pale — that is, a pale but intense gold — there’s nothing pale about the effects that follow. Fashioned rather in the out-going Californian mode, this is a bright, bold and ripe chardonnay that bursts with notes of baked pineapple and grapefruit and hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. Quite tasty and appealing, the wine stays on the sensible side of flamboyance to set a classic tone of a lush, almost creamy texture balanced by chiming acidity and a strain of limestone-like minerality. Alcohol level is 13.7 percent. Very Good+. About $14, a Nice Bargain.
Imported by Winebow Inc., New York.
It was a tough day at Valdivieso, despite the distraction of a superb view and a plethora of passed appetizers — including chopped bull’s testicles for the Anthony Bourdain types — and a nice lunch; loved the truly comforting quinoa pudding for dessert! But we tried 30 wines, and that was after a very long bus ride through Colchagua along little twisty dirt roads and over rickety plank “bridges” until the point that, within sight of the tasting pavilion, high on a hillside, the driver gave up and we walked the rest of the way. The whole enterprise gives new meaning to the word “remote.”
The winery traces its origin to Alberto Valdivieso, who founded a sparkling wine company in the Curico Valley in 1879; that’s where the wines and sparkling wines of Valdivieso are still made, though the winery has vineyards in Casablanca, Leyda, Colchagua (where we were), Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, Maule and Curico. Director of enology and winemaking for Valdivieso is New Zealander Brett Powell.
We’ll work our way through the multitude of Valdivieso’s red wines in the future, but for now, I’ll stick to sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, the subject of this post.
The Valdivieso Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda Valley, is attractive yet typical of its grape and region. That is, it features bright, cleansing acidity; pert and pungent elements of lime, grapefruit and limestone; some leafy touches of dried thyme and tarragon; and a crisp, tart texture balanced with a bit of soft lushness. Not compelling but quite nice to drink. Very Good+. About $15. The Valdivieso Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda, on the other hand — aged six months in 500-liter barrels, 30 percent new — delivers a powerfully earthy, flint-laced wine that’s lovely enough that it stops short of being dramatic. This is deeply spicy and herbal, with tangerine-and-clove-tinged citrus flavors that feel packed into a texture of great presence and personality. A superior sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $20, and well worth the price.
The Valdivieso Wild-Fermented Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, also from Leyda Valley, rests one year in mixed oak barrels, that is, of various sizes and ages. I’ll say that while this bright, bold, exuberantly spicy, ripe, slightly tropical and creamy chardonnay is not my favorite style, there’s no denying the thought and craft that went into its making. At least you don’t feel the wood too much; that’s a blessing. Very Good+. About $20.
Imported by Laird & Co., Scobyville, N.J.
It turns out that Viña Ventisquero is even more remote than Valdivieso, and the landscape, in the high Apalta region of Rapel Valley, is even more spectacular, especially as the setting sun gilded the steep, vineyard-fledged hillsides. The winery is a project of Gonzalo Vial, who owns Agrosuper, a leading purveyor of fresh food in Chile. The winemaking facility is in Maipo, though like most producers in Chile, Ventisquero owns vineyards in many regions. Chief winemaker is Felipe Tosso, who left Concha y Toro in 2000. He works (on the top wines) with Australian consulting enologist John Duval, who made his last Penfolds Grange in 2002. Ventisquero means “glacier.”
These white wines are from Casablanca, far north of where we were tasting them.
The Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a shimmering pale straw color. The bouquet offers penetrating scents of lime and grapefruit, dried tarragon and a scintillating strain of clean earthiness and bright limestone. The wine is very dry, crisp, lively, chalky, with that pert, fresh, taut, damp grassy, bracing salt marsh thing, yet it lies blithely, smoothly on the tongue with its notes of lemon balm and lemon drop, pear and melon. A truly compelling sauvignon blanc, one of the best. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent. About $13, a Phenomenal Value.
Equally enticing is the Ventisquero Reserva Chardonnay 2009, a wine that displays Chablis-like minerality in the limestone/shale range, with a hint of pungent flint, and lovely tones of pineapple and grapefruit with a slight tropical bent. Thirty percent of the wine is fermented in stainless steel with the rest in French oak, approximately 10 percent new barrels; some of the wine — Tosso said, casually, “maybe 15 or 20 percent” — goes through malolactic fermentation. The result is impeccable balance between richness (almost creamy) without ostentation and spareness without aridity; in other words, this chardonnay is earthy and elegant, juicy yet crisply taut, and it just feels damned terrific in the mouth. Excellent, and another Great Value at about $13
The “Grey” label is next to the top-line for Ventisquero. The Single Block “Grey” Chardonnay 2009 is a fine example of the grape from a cool climate, making a wine that exudes confidence and elan and displays great presence and personality. This sees French oak, 50 percent new, and goes through 40 percent malolactic. Again, the limestone-infused Chablis style is indicated, though in the case of “Grey” the manner is hyper-intense and concentrated and fraught with electrifying acidity, though the wine is balanced by lovely ripe and spiced citrus and pear flavors and a modicum of slightly creamy lushness. Another Excellent rating. About $20. How can they sell it so cheaply?
Imported by Austral Wines, Atlanta, Georgia.