Chile's wine heritage dates back to 1548, when Spanish monks brought wine grapes with them to the New World. The Spanish settlers quickly discovered that their new country's soils and climate were perfect for growing grapes. By the time Chile declared its independence from Spain in 1810, the Chilean wine industry was well-established and flourishing.
Today Chile's wines, particularly its red wines, are considered some of the best in South America. Wine writer Kevin Zraly calls Chilean wines "world-class." Let's take a closer look at Chile's wines.
Chilean Wine History
As mentioned previously, Spanish settlers brought wine grapes with them to Chile and the rest of their New World empire. The first vines planted in Chile were país, or mission, grapes. After independence, Chileans began to travel more and to bring new grape varieties and ideas about wine production back with them from trips to Europe.
Chile's wine industry took on a more international flavor when Silvestre Ochagavía planted French wine grapes in his vineyard in the early 1850s. His winery, Viña Ochagavía (now owned by Carolina Wine Brands, a division of Watt's SA), was the first in Chile to sell wines made from French varietals. Neighboring growers followed his lead, and Chile's wine industry continued to grow.
Unfortunately, Chilean wine producers saw their burgeoning industry dwindle to almost nothing as the world was torn apart by World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. Post-war isolationism, a product of the country's political struggles, persisted until the early 1980s, when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet reversed the country's commitment to isolationism and state ownership of property. At that time, wine producers began to upgrade and modernize their equipment and expand production of wines for export.
In 2004, winemaker Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errázuriz made history in Berlin. His Viñedo Chadwick 2000 took first place in a blind tasting of 16 wines from France, Italy and Chile. Second place went to another Chilean wine, Seña 2001. Following in third place was Château Lafite 2000. The secret was out in the open: Chilean wines were not only about value, but about true quality as well.
Today, Chile exports about 60 percent of the wines it produces. Chilean wines are known around the world for their quality and value. The wine industry in Chile is evolving; innovation and terroir are becoming increasingly important.
Geography, Soils and Climate
Chile is a long, narrow country on South America's west coast. The nation is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the east by the Andes Mountains, on the north by the Atacama Desert and on the south by chilly Patagonia. Protected on all sides by these geographical barriers, Chile's Mediterranean climate varies just enough to allow many different wine grape varieties to flourish there.
Chilean summers are warm and very dry, although nights are quite cool. Winters are cool and most of the annual rainfall occurs during this season. Summers in and near Santiago, Chile's capital, are quite warm, with average temperatures near 67 degrees Fahrenheit and maximum temperatures reaching 90 degrees. Concepción, to the south, is cooler, with summer average temperatures near 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters in Concepción have average temperatures near 49 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 46 degrees in Santiago.
On the coastal plain and in the coastal mountains, sea breezes and fog affect the climate. Cool air also blows toward the west from the soaring Andes Mountains, affecting temperatures in Chile's central plain. The Humboldt Current, which flows northward along the Chilean coast, also helps to bring down temperatures.
Rainfall in Santiago averages 13 inches per year, but areas to the north and south see differing amounts. Near the northern desert areas, rainfall is scanty. In Concepción, June and July are especially rainy, with monthly totals typically reaching 10 inches.
Soils in Chile vary widely from place to place. In some areas, such as the Maule wine region, soils are predominantly volcanic. In others, loam, clay or limestone and sand predominate.
Chilean Wine Regions
Chile's Denomination of Origin (D.O.) system divides the country's winegrowing areas into four large regions. Each of these regions is divided into sub-regions, and some sub-regions are further divided into zones. When you look at a Chilean wine label, you are most likely to see the name of a sub-region, although you may see some wines bottled under the regional name. Chile's wine regions are:
This region is the northernmost in Chile. Elqui is known for its fruits as well as its wines. Limarí receives very little rain, less than four inches per year. Choapa does not yet have any wineries, only vineyards.
Aconcagua is named for the mountain of the same name, which soars to 22,828 feet and whose snow pack provides water for the vineyards. Casablanca, known for its cool-climate wines, is one of the newer wine sub-regions in Chile; the area was not planted until the wine industry revival of the 1980s. San Antonio and its four zones also produce cool-climate wines.
- San Antonio (Zones: Leyda, Lo Abarca, Rosario and Malvilla)
Chile's most famous wine region is the heart of the country's wine industry. Maipo's cabernet sauvignons are well-regarded. Rapel's two zones, Cachapoal and Colchagua, are known for their cabernet sauvignons, carmenères and other red varietals and blends. Curicó, one of the areas affected by the February 2010 earthquake, is known for white wines as well as reds. Maule, Chile's oldest wine area as well as its largest sub-zone, is revitalizing itself with plantings of traditional and newer varietals.
- Maipo (Divided into Alto Maipo, Central Maipo and Pacific Maipo)
- Rapel (Zones: Cachapoal and Colchagua)
Chile's southernmost wine region also took damage during the February 2010 earthquake. In Itata, many growers plant moscatel de alejandría. The same holds true for Bío Bío, although here innovative growers have brought nontraditional wine grape varieties, such as gewürtztraminer and pinot noir, to their vineyards. Malleco is still a small sub-region, in terms of acres planted, but local producers' chardonnays and pinot noirs are attracting favorable attention.
- Bío Bío
Chilean Wine Grape Varieties
Chile is best known for its cabernet sauvignons, merlots and sauvignon blancs. Only about 25 percent of Chilean vineyards are planted in white wine grapes. Sauvignon blanc predominates, followed by chardonnay, sémillon, moscatel de alejandría and riesling. You will also find vineyards planted in chenin blanc and gewürtztraminer.
The remaining 75 percent of Chilean vineyards are planted in red wine grapes, mainly cabernet sauvignon, país (mission) and merlot. Carmenère, Chile's rising star, is gaining in popularity. Some growers are planting syrah, pinot noir and cabernet franc.
Growers in Chile have been spared the ravages of phylloxera; Chile has managed to keep the louse out of its vineyards by aggressively regulating the movement of plant materials across its borders. Scientists have done research on Chilean grapes, using DNA analysis to determine which varieties have been planted there. In the early 1990s, French scientists identified a Chilean grape previously thought to be merlot as carmenère, a variety that was thought to be extinct. Carmenère vines were brought to Chile and planted before phylloxera obliterated the variety from French vineyards.
Visiting Chilean Wineries
Wine tourism in Chile is gaining popularity. Several wine sub-regions, including Casablanca, Curicó, Maipo, Maule and Colchagua, have established wine routes. In some areas, tour companies offer guided visits to several wineries in one day. You can also visit wineries on your own.
Many Chilean wineries offer tours and tastings. For example, Matetic Vineyards in Rosario, a zone of the San Antonio sub-region, offers three tour and tasting experiences as well as a restaurant and guesthouse. Miguel Torres Chile, in Curicó, also has an on-site restaurant, where visitors can relax over a meal after their wine tour. Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta Winery in Rapel's Colchagua zone offers tours, tastings and lunch. It's always a good idea to contact the winery before your arrival date to ensure a place in the tour group.
The Future of Chile's Wine Industry
Over the past 30 years, Chilean wine producers have modernized their winemaking processes and invested in new equipment and technologies. They are now turning their attention to terroir. Chile's diverse climate, soils and elevations allow growers to focus on the elements that make each vineyard unique. So far, the results have been impressive.
A group of dedicated, innovative and independent boutique wine producers banded together in the summer of 2009 to form MOVI – the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or Movement of Independent Vintners. This group, the first of its kind in Chile, consists of small, independent winemakers who have conceptualized a "vision" for their wines, one that goes beyond terroir. The emphasis is on winemaker involvement at every stage of production and marketing. In a country where large, family-owned wine businesses are the rule, MOVI is attracting attention. Best of all, members' wines are receiving their fair share of attention and awards.
All is not perfect for the wine producers of Chile. The February 2010 earthquake that devastated Concepción also damaged nearby wineries. At Miguel Torres Chile, for example, wine casks, a steel vat and, of course, glass bottles were broken and the wine they contained was lost. It will take some time for wine producers to assess the earthquake's impact and decide how to proceed. They will rebuild, of course, but will no doubt take advantage of this opportunity to examine their properties, plans and goals for the future.
 Zraly, Kevin. Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, 2009 Edition, page 167.