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Cool wines getting hot

Chile's Casablanca Valley has winning way with whites

Bill Daley

The Daley Question

September 8, 2010

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Sometimes it pays to play it cool; just ask President Obama, Lauren Bacall, Johnny Depp and the grape growers and winemakers of Chile's Casablanca Valley.

Located 11 miles from the Chilean coast, bathed in cool breezes and morning fogs from the chilly Pacific Ocean, the Casablanca Valley was once thought too cold for growing wine grapes. Happily the pundits were proven wrong and now the region is home to thriving plantings of cool-friendly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines. Casablanca winemakers celebrate their unique clime with the slogan: "Premium cool valley."

Why is cool important? Wine is all about the grapes, most vintners will tell you, and the best wine grapes grow where a balance can be achieved between warm and cool temperatures. Warm days build up ripeness, cool nights impart a crispness, an acidity, that holds the ripeness in check. The result? Grapes with character and flavors that, in turn, make compelling wines.

The grapes from this valley have brought "new and completely unexpected flavors" to the Chilean wine, writes Giorgianna Cuneo in an e-mail from Chile. Her family owns the Casas del Bosque winery and she is president of the region's winemakers group, Asociacion de Empresarios Vitivinicolas del Valle de Casablanca.

"Casablanca today is the most important cool valley in Chile and is recognized to be the best place in Chile for sauvignon blanc wines,'' Cuneo says. The proximity to the ocean, the fogs and the cool breeze "give us really great wines, good character, fresh fruit, balance, acidity and elegant wines."

The soils of the valley also are a factor. The first vineyards were planned on sandy loam soils, Cuneo noted, producing wines with "riper, tropical fruit aromas." Moving toward the northeastern reaches of the valley, the soil becomes heavier clay, which imparts an herbal or vegetal character to wines.

Chardonnay was the valley's first big grape variety; it remains the region's most planted grape. Sauvignon blanc is in second place. Far behind these whites are the reds, including merlot, pinot noir and syrah. Merlot has more acreage than the others but pinot is getting the cred, Cuneo insisted, followed by syrah.

Casablanca winemakers will continue to work to keep their valley the best place in Chile for sauvignon blanc, Cuneo predicted, while working to improve their pinot noir. Interestingly, she said the first pinot noir clones in the valley came from Oregon. Then there's syrah. Little is planted now but Cuneo said the results are more than encouraging.

"The aromas of Casablanca syrah recalls … black fruits and notes of leather instead of plum jam,'' she said. "And in its best representatives, minerality is its most seductive element."

Stay tuned; Casablanca's cool is surely going to make its wine very, very hot.

wdaley@tribune.com

By the numbers

9518

Number of vineyard acres in Chile's Casablanca Valley

4559

Number of acres planted with chardonnay vines in the Casablanca Valley

1982

Year first wine grape vines planted in the Casablanca Valley.

Sources: Wines of Chile; Asociacion de Empresarios Vitivinicolas del Valle de Casablanca; The World Atlas of Wine

Whites rule Casablanca

White wine grapes clearly dominate the Casablanca Valley as shown in these acreage statistics from the region's wine groups.

1 Chardonnay: 5606 acres

2 Sauvignon blanc: 4771 acres

3 Pinot noir: 1754 acres

4 Syrah: 264 acres