Chilean Sauvignon Blanc Is the Most Interesting Wine of the Year

Chilean wine is undergoing a fascinating transformation. Here are 11 of the country’s Sauvignon Blancs to try right now.

Recently, I got an email from an American friend who lives in Chile. “I feel like I am missing the most pivotal movement in the U.S.,” she wrote. “The scenes remind me of Santiago—on steroids.”

I know what she means. As I participate in demonstrations sweeping the United States against structural racism and the police murders of Black Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chile. The contexts may be different, but there’s common cause in the struggle for justice, and the energy of young activists here recalls the mass protests I witnessed earlier this year in Santiago, where resisters were fighting against economic inequalities enshrined in a constitution that dates back to Pinochet, the murderous dictator that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. (Their protests had similar success to what we’re witnessing here with new legislation and prosecutions against police brutality; in October, Chileans will vote on a referendum to rewrite their constitution.) The city was covered in the movement’s graffiti, and nights brought marches by kids in face masks, shouting, “Free Chile! Revolution! End capitalism!” at cops in riot gear armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

I had come to Chile to drink wine, but wine does not exist in a vacuum, and every dinner, every tasting I had with Chileans was an opportunity to talk about politics and the need for change. There’s no denying that capitalism is at the heart of winemaking, with its grand estates, its international owners, its global trade. In Chile, I visited some properties that had been founded under the neo-liberal policies of the Pinochet era. Yet, an energy has been kicked up in Chilean wine that, if not itself anti-capitalist, mirrors the country’s political fervor. Chileans are in a period of awakening, including in food and wine. “It’s the spirit of the new confronting the old,” Rocío Marchant, a young winemaker and marketer, told me about the protests. “I think it’s the same with the wine here in Chile. It’s trying to do something different.”

Some young winemakers are next in line to run established wineries, while others are startup bootstrappers. As a whole, they have been upturning old ways, eschewing conventional production for organic, low-intervention methods; discovering new terroirs; and forming new coalitions to market their wines. 

“I think it’s very important, the work this younger generation is doing,” says veteran winemaker María Luz Marín, whose career spans 44 years in the industry. “They have a lot of passion, they’ve traveled, and I think that we have an interesting future. Chile is on the move and making a lot of noise and doing interesting things.”

It may not be a revolution, but it is a transformation, and it’s abetted by other contemporary events, as producers innovate in the face of COVID-19 and a climate change–induced drought. “Virtual tastings are more transparent,” Sofia Araya told me when I caught up with her over Zoom. I first met Araya, 41, at Veramonte Winery, founded in the Casablanca Valley in the late 1980s. Its mall-like hospitality center sees busloads of visitors, but for now, as Chile reaches the top of its pandemic curve, Araya is holding virtual tastings for handfuls of consumers. “It’s made us more approachable. You can talk to the winemaker directly very easily,” she says.

Though she’s worked at this establishment winery (now owned by the multinational González Byass) for a decade, Araya represents the new guard. In 2018, after helping the winery go organic, she was promoted to head winemaker. Now she’s converting her 500 hectares to certified biodynamic. That’s good for the environment, and it’s good for the wine. “A conventionally farmed vine is a disconnected vine,” she told me. “It’s not reading the terroir. It’s almost like having it in a pot. The soil is not rich or even alive. There’s a certain balance in any biological system, and this is not in balance because it’s a monoculture, so let’s keep the grasses to bring the balance back.”

I tasted that balance most markedly in her transporting Sauvignon Blancs. In fact, everywhere I went in Chile, the Sauvignon Blancs blew me away. The country’s second-most planted grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon, used to be simple, straightforward, and boring. But as producers have pioneered plantings in cooler areas a stone’s throw from the coast, up in the Andes, further south, and now, even on Chile’s islands, the wines have gained layered complexity, acidic vibrancy, and textural lushness—along with serious aging potential.

Not only that, but with Chileans exploring a diversity of climates and soil types, their Sauvignon Blancs show a tremendous range of terroir-driven character. With summer upon us in North America, it’s a great time to taste through them. Here are 11 to try from diverse terroirs.

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