Lack of character
As you approach the little town of Las Dichas, one of the coastal-most zones planted to vines in Casablanca, you realize just how diverse the valley’s landscape is. The hills, the creeks, forests, and lakes, the native vegetation in the midst of the dry secano, the hillsides facing in every direction, the different colors of the soils, and the cool breeze that announces the Pacific Ocean is near.
Standing there, surrounded by those hills, looking at the green leaves of the vineyards reflecting the sunshine, I, at least, can’t help but think of sauvignon blanc, of those herbal and fruity aromas, and immediately, my mind turns to seabass ceviche or scallops or just about anything that has just been pulled out of the Pacific, only a handful of kilometers away on the other side of the hills.
In Chile, there are 15,000 hectares of sauvignon, making it the third most planted variety in the country after cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Of those 15,000, some 2,500 are planted in Casablanca, which could be considered the variety’s “ground zero,” the valley where it all began and expanded out to the rest of the country from there.
Chile’s first true sauvignon blancs began to appear in Casablanca. And, for many years, it was the center of attention and one of the greatest points of interest when talking about Chilean wine in the 1990s and 2000s, although things seem to have gone downhill in the past 10 years. There are still good examples, but the standardization of the variety, a repetition of the formula, seems to be the norm today.
Casas del Bosque vineyards at Las Dichas.
There may be many factors that contribute to a sense that if you’ve tried one sauvignon blanc from Casablanca, you’ve tried them all—or almost all of them. All cut from the same cloth, they are a wild card that lacks personality, but yes, they are refreshing, and yes, they play their role as an aperitif. But yes, of course, that is not enough. So, what happened? Before responding to the question, let’s review a bit of history.
Winemaker Pablo Morandé was in Carneros in the late 1970s. And while there, he not only tasted wines, but he also took a good look at the landscape, the soils, and the vegetation. Upon returning to Chile, and excited about the way the influence of the sea shaped the fruit in that part of California, Morandé—then a winemaker at Concha y Toro—set out to find a place with similar conditions at home. He finally decided on Casablanca, a valley that at that time was primarily used for cattle and dairy farms.
Taking the climate into account, in 1982 he planted fast-ripening varieties, especially sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and Riesling, on 20 hectares of flatlands in what is now known as La Vinilla, about 27 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean. It was quite a feat, especially since at that time it was considered a tremendous risk. “The vineyards are going to freeze, Don Pablo,” the local farmers told him. And that’s exactly what happened.
But he persisted, and by the mid-1980s, he had his first wines. The results of this adventure motivated Chile’s large wineries, led by Santa Carolina, Santa Rita, and Concha y Toro. Although there are some vineyards registered earlier, the true birth of the area as a wine valley took place in the first half of the 1980s, and sauvignon was there from the start… Almost.
Until the early 1980s, most of what Chileans believed to be sauvignon blanc in their vineyards was, in fact, sauvignon vert or sauvignonasse. In 1987, Pablo Morandé, who owned a major nursery in Chile at the time, was one of the first to import clonal material from the University of Davis at California.
Trying to diversify and update the offer of his nursery, Morandé imported the UCD 1 clone, also known locally as clone Davis, “We realized that the new clonal material ripened much later—at least a month later—and it had more pronounced acidity. The aromas were fruitier with less onion smell, and the wine maintained its freshness for much longer,” recalls Morandé, who planted his new material in Casablanca.
The first artisanal trials with this clone impressed Ignacio Recabarren, who was the winemaker at Viña Santa Rita at the time. But because the yields were still not large enough to be commercially viable, Recabarren bought grapes from La Vinilla, the first vineyard Mortandé planted in Casablanca with what was available, which was sauvignonasse. The grapes went into the 1989 Real Audiencia, one of the first whites that spoke of the valley’s potential. And that first approach turned out to be fundamental in the history of Chilean sauvignon blanc.
In 1990, and imposed by the impact that sauvignon from New Zealand was having, Recabarren went there to learn more about it. Upon returning to Chile in 1991, he started the Viña Casablanca project as a subsidiary of Santa Carolina.
Obsessed with sauvignon blanc, Recabarren bought grapes from El Ensueño, Morandé’s new vineyard planted to clone 1, for his first sauvignon from Viña Casablanca. And that was the beginning of the story. Pablo Morandé believed, intuitively, that sauvignon blanc would be a good bet for Casablanca. Ignacio Recabarren was in charge of demonstrating, in real terms, that that intuition was correct.
The years that followed were the years of the sauvignon boom. They even spoke (and rightly, I believe) of a new category: Chilean coastal sauvignon blanc. There was enthusiasm and a desire to dig deeper into its potential. But it seems that that’s as far as it went—it got stuck at desire.
Despite the immense diversity of the valley’s climate, topography, and soils (or, perhaps precisely for that reason), there is no serious study on the different terroirs and their relation to sauvignon. Unlike other zones of the world (little or none in Chile), Casablanca seems to have remained in that vague distinction between areas closer to the sea and those that are farther away. The experience of the producers says that sauvignon blanc planted on sand is different from that planted on clay, but there are not studies that prove that—nor are there any wines that include the topic of soils in their communications. At most, they might speak of single vineyards, but we all know that this is equally vague, especially when a so-called single vineyard can extend over 100 hectares. From the outside, it seems that Casablanca has not taken the variety seriously. It smacks of a certain conformity.
And it’s the same in the winery. The commercial yeast boom has created a community of clones. They’re all the same, all cut from the same cloth. The B2000 yeast is the one most often used, but if everyone uses the same sauce, it’s likely that all of the fish will leave the same aftertaste. “It’s the fastest way to ensure the process. Of course, commercial yeasts help complete the industrial process, but on the other hand, the standardizing effect has been unfortunate in Casablanca,” says Rodrigo Soto, now the winemaker at Quintessa winery in California, although he worked in Casablanca from 1999 to 2017, first at Matetic, and then at Veramonte.
For Soto, the future of sauvignon is on the palate and in the flavors. “Varietal aromas don’t generate much interest. For many years, we were focused on having wines rich in aromas, but we weren’t working on the palate. The way I see it, serious wines are made from the palate, not from the smell. Everything else just seems to be a basic, primary expression.”
There are those wines in Casablanca. Palate-driven wines, whites focused on structure rather than on the mere decorative aspects, such as aromas. But not many. We need more. And the way to obtain them begins with knowing much more about the valley than whether it is closer to or farther from the Humboldt Current. The Humboldt largely defines the valley, but it is far from sufficient to build an appellation around it.
When Casablanca starts focusing on getting to know itself, on studying its soils and topography, it will be a first big step. When it gets over the fear in the winery and dares to lay bare its wines, to strip them of any technological artifice, it is likely that only then will we see the true flavor of the valley’s sauvignon. For now, it’s B2000, or whatever other yeast in fashion. For now, it’s about the influence of the sea, although the Pacific is not enough to make up for a lack of identity.
The best sauvignon blancs from Casablanca, according to Descorchados 2019
Concha y Toro
Terrunyo Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
A very cool year in Las Dichas, one of the coldest zones in Casablanca and one of the closest to the sea as well, pushed the harvest back to mid-April. The delay was related to the slow pace of the ripening and waiting for it to lose that vegetal side, Ignacio Recabarren, Terrunyo´s historic winemaker, tells me. The yields per plant in Casablanca this year were generally high, and here in this vineyard, they were managed to reduce the number of grapes per plant and concentrate the flavors. And they achieved that effect in a wine that combines acidity that is vertical, fine, and sharp with tremendous density. And excuse me for insisting, but the acidity shoots across the palate and soars on and on, refreshing everything like a spinal column of minerality because in addition to being deep, it?s also saline. This wine has at least 10 years of life before it, maybe more, in a version that, as far as I can recall, is the best I´ve tasted.
EQ Coastal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
Matetic owns the Valle Hermoso Vineyard in the Casablanca Valley. It´s 9 kilometers from the Pacific in one of the valley´s coastal-most zones and was planted in 2007, basically to clone 242 and clone 1. The former is fruity and friendly, the latter is very severe and mineral, and this Coastal is a combination of the two materials that together make a deliciously fresh wine rich in mineral and herbal notes with a certain saline tone on the finish that lends complexity and may just evoke those ocean breezes.
Casas del Bosque
Pequeñas Producciones Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
The Casas del Bosque vineyards are in Las Dichas, one of the coolest zones in Casablanca, and one of the closest to the sea. There, a selection of clonal material is planted on the granitic clay soils typical of the Coastal Range. From a cold year, this sauvignon shines with herbal notes and medium body with deliciously crisp acidity. It´s long, with a slightly bitter note toward the finish that lends complexity without being a problem. And the flavors linger a good long while on the palate. xx
20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
The Centinela Vineyard is the closest to the sea in Casablanca, just 7 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean. Planted in 2001 on granitic soils, this sauvignon is a clonal mix that in the cool 2018, offers a charmingly herbal side, with medium body, a touch of citrus, and friendly, juicy texture. With a depth of flavor and intense, penetrating acidity.
Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
Kingston winemaker Amael Orrego tells us that 2018 was a cooler year in Casablanca than the very warm and higher-yielding 2017, and that´s evident in this sauvignon grown on vines planted in 1999. It´s extremely fresh, with notes of white fruits and herbs and spices, but the body is light, subtle, and refreshing. A blend of clones 107 and 242, from the second clonal generation to be planted in the valley in the late 1990s, the vines in Las Dichas, one of Casablanca´s coldest zones, give rise to crisp, piercing wines. This white deserves a good ceviche.
CJ's Barrel Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Casablanca
CJ´s Barrel is a selection of four rows of a vineyard planted to sauvignon in 1999 on unusually thin soil that allows the roots to reach the granite below. That soil profile has always given this wine a very firm, very penetrating structure of tannins and acidity. The aromas are ripe, not surprisingly, considering how warm Casablanca was in 2017. But we´re talking about Las Dichas, a a very cold place very close to the sea, and that seems to have offset the season´s heat. Put it to the test by cellaring this wine for 2 or 3 years. You?re sure to be surprised.
Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Casablanca
Ritual is a selection of blocks from the coolest mesoclimates and the oldest vineyards, planted in the late 1970s. A third of the wine fermented in cement eggs, another third in neutral barrels, and the last third in stainless steel, all with intense aging on its lees, which certainly lends a much more serious and complex tone in texture as well as in aromas and flavors. The wine is fruity, but it goes beyond that, entering into earthy and mineral tones within a context of tremendous freshness. And it continues to be a good option with goat cheese. xx
Bill Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Casablanca
Bill is one of the pioneers in the use of barrel aging for sauvignon blanc. In the beginning (the first vintage was the 2006) the oak played the leading role and added more toast than texture. Things changed 3 vintages ago, and now it´s the fruit from low-yielding vineyards that predominate. This new vintage has a spicy side from the oak, but what stands out is the freshness of the year, its intense acidity, and its delicate body. Don?t miss this sauvignon. xx