FD Wine Column May 13, 2009

Chilean wines reflect diverse surroundings

Chile is a land of extremes, and that variability is reflected in its wine-making history and tradition.

From the Atacama Desert, the world’s hottest and driest desert in the north, to the frigid near-polar regions of Patagonia, this 2,600-mile long slip of a country (it’s only 110 miles at the widest) is unique in many terms but particularly in wine-making opportunities.

Chile is blessed with few pests and, to the great relief of its grape growers, it has never suffered the vineyard-devastating effects of the phylloxera louse, which nearly destroyed wine-making in the United States and parts of Europe.

The country also has the blessing of a temperate climate with hot summers and cold winters moderated by Andean breezes and ocean currents.

While the country’s wine history goes back at least 450 years to when Spanish missionaries arrived, the modern revolution began about 30 years ago when another Spaniard, winemaker Miguel Torres, introduced new technologies, including stainless steel tanks.

More changes came swiftly as today’s generations of winemakers, both homegrown and from abroad, brought modern methods and techniques to the homeland.

The result is today’s vibrant wine industry where quality and price make Chilean wines some of the best values on the shelf.

I recent had the opportunity to taste a selection of Chilean sauvignon blancs, a white grape that when done well sings of summer afternoons and meals with friends.

I don’t go into tastings with expectations, but in this case I’d just finished reading a few seasonal reviews of sauvignon blanc, and the opinions of varied widely.

I really like the writing and palate of Eric Asimov of the New York Times (his delightful blog “The Pour” is at thepour.blogs.nytimes.com), and last July he wrote, “Nobody is trying to fashion sauvignon blanc into a great wine, and for that reason it is permitted to be very good.”

He was talking specifically about California sauvignon blanc, but the same can be said about sauvignon blanc in general. Not that anyone necessarily hesitates to make this grape into great wine; winemakers instead allow the wine to be very good without ruining it by being stuck on pretension.

In the last month or two, I’ve had wonderful sauvignon blancs from northeast Italy (Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Alto Adige, which I’ll write about soon), France (the Sancerres from the Loire are other worldly), California and New Zealand.

Exhausting work, yes, but you know how it goes.

I was particularly impressed with the six Chilean sauvignon blancs, all of which offered crisp, full flavors, none of which was identical to the one before.

This difference, at times marked and other times subtle, made the tasting even more fascinating, a reminder that Chile is a diverse land with many micro-climates and environments.

Here’s what they had in common: tropical fruits, citrus (ranging from lemon-lime to blood orange), grass and a bright acidity made for summer wine and dine.

They differed in levels of minerality, a reflection of those vineyards edging into the Andean foothills.

What was noticeably missing was the “cat pee” aromatic that many sauvignon blancs have to an unpleasant degree. Well, I guess any wine described as smelling like “pipi du chat” probably ranks as unpleasant, although the pungent aromatic is considered typical of Loire sauvignons.

These Chilean wines, instead, smelled of fresh-cut grass, grapefruit, mango and citrus, flavors reflected in the glass. Drink these young and not too chilled to allow the aromas and flavors to develop.

Here’s the list of the wines and their approximate retail price. Chilean sauvignon blancs are an affordable and delicious addition to your summer wine menu.

• Santa Clara Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $9.99.

• San Pedro Castillo de Molina Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $11.99.

• MontGras Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, $11.99.

• Haras Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $12.

• Luis Felipe Edwards Family Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $14.99.

• Botalcura La Porfina Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $17.99.

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