Back to back interesting varietal wines, and if you thought Largein was obscure, get a load of this: Casa Marín Sauvignon Gris 2008. I have to talk about the grape variety first, because it’s quite unusual.
First off, Sauvignon Gris is a real grape variety, though I had never heard of it until I visited Casa Marín for a tasting. It’s a clonal mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, but not to be confused with Sauvignon Vert which apparently has nothing to do with either of them. It’s primarily found in Bordeaux (who knew?) and Chile where is was brought in along with Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Vert clippings. Stories of varieties in the New World mistakenly being thought of as another variety abound, from Carménère growing in Chile under the name Merlot, to the recent Albariño that turned out to be Savagnin confusion in Australia. However, while Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Vert are difficult to distinguish on the vine, Sauvignon Gris has grapes that are more pink, along the lines of Pinot Gris. It also ripens earlier, has thicker skin and is fuller-bodied.
Bordeaux, New Zealand, and Chile have Sauvignon Gris producers. In Bordeaux it’s allowed in their whites, and Haut Brion grows some, most likely as part of their white blend. However, it’s seriously obscure, and as identifying the exact blend of your wine is very optional, there’s no good way of knowing who else might be using it. There are a few producers experimenting there with it as a varietal, such as Domaine des Marechaux. I’ve found references to it being known as Fié Gris in parts of France, but the only Fié Gris wines I’ve come up with are from the Loire and it’s not clear it’s the same variety.
New Zealand has a few producers experimenting with Sauvignon Gris. The largest, Montana Wines, now known as Brancott Estate, released a Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Gris 2009, and as Brancott Estate it released the “R” Renwick Marlborough Sauvignon Gris 2010, though I don’t know if it was considered enough of a success for them to continue with it. Clearview of Hawkes Bay released a 2010 Reserve Sauvignon Gris, though it’s not clear if they’ve released a 2011 (yet?).
Chile is where Sauvignon Gris has the most traction. That’s not to say it’s an important grape there, rather that there are more producers making varietal wines out of it and advertising them as such than anywhere else. Cousiño-Macul does a varietal in Maipo Valley. Viña Leyda produce a Single Vineyard Sauvignon Gris in their corner of the San Antonio Valley, inland and south from where Casa Marín produces it, 4km from the Pacific.
Even though this is the first Chilean wine I’m covering, I’m going to focus on the San Antonio Valley in particular instead of Chile in general. While the wines of Chile are a bit thin on the ground in this part of the world, I’m sure I’ll find others about which to write, and failing that there are more in the cellar.
The San Antonio Valley in Chile is a very small region and officially part of the D.O. Aconcagua, situated between the Pacific Ocean and the much larger Maipo Valley. (Confusingly, there is also a San Antonio Valley AVA in California.) The entirety of the region is within 15km of the sea, with both maritime influences and altitude. While the Aconcagua Valley is generally described as having alluvial soils, on their official website Casa Marín itself has a detailed description of the terroir of each of their vineyards. (Their blog is worth a look as well.) They have a wide variety of clays: red, deep, heavy and loamy depending on the vineyard, along with other calcerous and sandy influences. Plantings in the San Antonio Valley are largely dominated by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir, though there is no shortage of less widely planted varieties.
Casa Marín is a medium-sized, family-owned winery that was established in 2000, and it sits only 4km from the coast. To me it is one of the ultimate New World wineries, in that the founder created it from absolutely nothing. Much of the land that is now their vineyards had never been cultivated. Effectively, Maria Luz Marín arrived with expertise in wine and business, as well as what I imagine must have been considerable funding. She picked a location, divided it into blocks by terroir, planted appropriate varieties in each, and built a state of the art winery. Four or so years later she brought her wines to the UK as the most expensive white wines from Chile. Nicely done.
As to the wine in front of me, it’s very interesting. On the one hand, it’s very familiar. Colour with most modern whites says so little, and this is no exception. It has slightly more of a green tinge than most, but nothing out of the ordinary. The nose is herbaceous in a way that is not uncommon in Sauvignon Blanc, but with a slight whiff of Eastern Skunk Cabbage. (It was a common water plant where I grew up and the smell is very distinctive, and not in a bad way. Apologies for using an obscure reference, but it’s really the only thing that it conjures up.) The palate is medium-bodied, with zesty acidity. There’s certainly some citrus, lime perhaps, and it’s very crisp. The palate is not overt – there’s some underlying pepper, but it’s as though the flavours are so well integrated that it’s hard for me to pull out individual flavours. (That may be more me and my palate than the wine.) I think this is a very well made wine, and I’m putting it in the very good quality bracket.
On the other hand, with a new (to me or on the scene) varietal wine, the question is where does it fit? I think the obvious starting point is Sauvignon Blanc, which is incredibly popular of late. It’s a great grape, but fashion is fickle and people drift in their tastes. I can imagine some moving to Sauvignon Gris, in that is offers many familiar flavours, but has more body and seems to focus on the flavours of Sauvignon Blanc that people like most. I think it will not be an easy sell, but I’m sure starting a world class winery from nothing in Chile in 2000 wasn’t easy either.