White Chile

Quick Quiz: Name the country in the Western Hemisphere with the longest tradition of wine production…

Considering I’ve already given away the answer, if you answered “The United States,” “Peru,” or “Trinidad & Tobago” – you may stand in the corner for the duration of this installment. Observant readers have already fixed their collective gaze south past the Equator to Chile – the nation stretching thinly down two-thirds of the western coast of South America.

Chile’s wine production began in Spanish missions 450 years ago. “Modern” winemaking in Chile began in the 1820’s when traders brought the first vinifera (WineSpeak for the major grape varietals: cabernet, chardonnay, syrah, et al) vines to the valleys and downslopes of the Andes. Chile’s climate is very “Mediterranean” and the grapes loved the soil. Unfortunately, Chilean winemaking tools lagged far behind the country’s potential. For over 150 years, wines were made with 19th century technology.

Chilean Wine countryIn the late 1980’s, the Chilean wine industry overhauled everything after the Pinochet regime left power. With modern techniques in place, production exploded. By the late 90’s, Chile became one of the world’s vital centers for value wines.

Chile is best known for three varietals – cabernet sauvignon, carmenere (similar to merlot), and sauvignon blanc. I want to focus on the last, as I think these wines stand out. Here are a few Chilean sauvignon blancs catching my attention:

Peñalolen 2005 Sauvignon Blanc — A very lightly scented wine with flowers and mandarin oranges as a base. The Peñalolen isn’t as tart as many sauvignon blancs. While there’s some grapefruity flavor, there’s honey and pineapple to balance it. The finish of this wine is a little spicy and very long — you can actually taste a little tannin, extremely rare for a white. This well-rounded flavor makes this a fantastic summer food wine. For dinner, I’d probably pair this one with a shrimp pasta, bruschetta, or grilled fish and veggies. It’s also light enough to simply have as an aperitif. This wine runs between $9-11 and is probably the best SB I’ve had recently.

Duo 2005 Sauvignon Blanc– another gentle bouquet on this wine from Alto de Casablanca winery. A nice pear scent goes along with fresh flowers to start. The first taste is much more along the lines of a classic, grapefruity sauvignon blanc. The tip of your tongue gets a peppery, limey note. The finish is what some wine reviewers refer to as “flinty,” although there’s still some decent fruit hanging around. This is very crisp — much more of a “refreshing” wine than a true food wine. You could certainly pair it flexibly with a chicken or fish dish, and I was pleasantly surprised when, by chance (and by need – it’s all we had open!), we paired it with a spicy Thai chicken & green bean stir fry. The Duo balanced it almost perfectly. For people who like crisp sauvignon blancs, you could do much worse than this one at under $10.

Errazuriz 2005 Sauvignon Blanc — This starts you off with a gentle combination of lemons and apples. At first taste, the wine falls neatly between the above in terms of the citrus flavor. The main flavor I got was of fresh lemons (although not sour, per se) with a mild berry flavor. The finish is long, with a fruity roundness and a little citrus “bite.” This one goes for between $8-10. This wine would go excellently with any light meal with chicken, fish, or vegetables — and would work with wine-killers like a Caesar salad or asparagus.

For me, one of the best attributes of Chilean sauvignon blanc is consistency. I’ve seen bottles of Chilean SB for as little as $4-5. Even at that price, you’re still going to end up with a decent bottle for use at the pool, a picnic, or general dining.

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