One of South America’s most prolific New World wine producers, Chile can thank 16th century Spanish missionaries for introducing indigenous European vitis vinifera, or climbing grapevines, to the region. The descendants of these vines, which were primarily comprised of País grapes used for sacramental wine, are now part of the country’s winemaking history and tradition; however, Chile has evolved into a producer of remarkable wines heavily influenced by Old World classics, most notably those hailing from France’s iconic Bordeaux region. Now the world’s sixth largest exporter and seventh largest producer, Chile’s modern reputation is built upon its Bordeaux-inspired offerings.
It is an understatement to say that Chile’s greatest wine influence has historically been Bordeaux. Wealthy 19th century landowners and diplomats often vacationed in France, and were known to bring French vines home with them in order to
With Chile’s widely diverse selection of terroirs, this long, narrow country blessed with a Mediterranean climate is able to produce an equally eclectic spectrum of wines. (In fact, it’s been said by industry experts that if you can’t find a Chilean wine to your liking, you simply aren’t looking hard enough.) Most of Chile’s vineyards align with a 200-mile vertical stretch of land in the central part of the country. Only 100 miles wide and nestled between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s climate, often described as similar to those found in California and France, is most impacted east to west versus north to south, thus allowing its variety of grapes to flourish. Most of the growing areas are dry, and as in Argentina (its neighbor to the east), many are irrigated by the melting snow of the Andes. The main wine growing areas are the small but critically acclaimed Aconcagua Valley known for its strong and dynamic reds; the ocean-cooled Casablanca Valley which produces refined Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the Maipo Valley, comprised of the Alto, Central and Pacific Maipo sub-regions; the celebrated Colchagua Valley, famous for deeply robust, full-bodied reds; the Curicó Valley, known for its consistent and dependable production of affordable reds and whites; and the Maule Valley, the oldest and one of the largest wine producing regions in all of Chile.
While its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are now considered the best among Chile’s offerings, Carménère remains its prominent varietal. Fruity, spicy and considerably lower in tannins than other reds, the grape was thought to be all but permanently lost after the phylloxera blight. Even Chilean winemakers had no idea until the 20th century that their lines of Merlot were actually the elusive Carménère. Perhaps this miracle finding is part of the reason behind the grape’s prominence and stature.
Although the mid-20th century brought Chile both political and economic obstacles to its wine industry growth, its dual reputation for ideal terroirs and good wine at reasonable prices piqued the interest of American and European investors, thus facilitating a much-welcomed recovery. With investments came advancements in the winemaking process, including stainless steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels replacing Chile’s traditional beech wood. Production soon soared, and Chile became the world’s third leading wine exporter to the U.S. Now ranked fourth due to Australia’s 21st century prominence among American consumers, Chile has refocused much of its effort on making the same impact on Asian and European markets.
In past decades, the affordability of Chilean wines may have played a role in its inability to compete with some of the more respected European wine producers. The truth, however, is that select wines from Chile can more than hold their own against its illustrious competitors. For example, Seña, produced by noted winery Viña Errazuriz, placed ahead of Château Lafite and Château Margaux in a 2004 blind tasting in Berlin. An unexpected yet exciting first for the country’s wine industry, Seña, whose name means “signal,” lived up to its moniker, as its win sent the message that Chile is poised to become a viable producer of world-class wine. Now, with aggressive investors determined to develop Chile’s dynamic terrain to its fullest potential, the country’s winemaking future is sure to be an interesting one.