The World of Chilean Wine

Jan 20, 2010

Chile has become synonymous with affordable quality wine. Buying a decent, sometimes excellent Cabernet Sauvignon for ten dollars here in Canada is quite easy. If you happen to go up the price scale, a twenty dollar Chilean wine is more often better than a forty or fifty dollar counterpart in California.

But why is this?

If a wine is difficult to make, this will effect the cost. In Germany, especially in the Mosel where vineyards are planted on steep slopes - making grape picking a hellish and sometimes dangerous venture - the price of Riesling  is affected by the geography and the labour involved.

Chile, by contrast, is a 'viticultural heaven'.  Sometimes compared to the Mediterranean and California, the vineyard land here is ideally isolated by the Andes Mountains to the east, the Pacific on the west coast,  the extensive Atacama desert to the north and the Antarctic south. Variations in altitude and exposure create variations in local climate while the Humboldt Current, a cold wind current moving north-westward up along Chile’s coastline helps moderate temperatures. In addition, there are few if any truly treacherous slopes here.

So what does this mean for the grapes? Well, varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc can thrive in cooler areas (namely the coastal sub-regions), attaining natural acidity while Cabernet Sauvignon, which grows throughout the country  (half of all reds varieties planted) can take on different nuances depending on where it is cultivated - in the warmer valleys or further up the mountains.

Along with the Andes (which also contributes irrigation water when the snow melts) and the ocean, there are strikingly few diseases and pests which cuts down the need for chemical sprays and treatments. This and the cost of vineyard land and labour is also cheap compared to other countries. 

The result: Chilean wines  are  relatively affordable.

CHILE - HISTORY  "There is more history than geography in a bottle of wine" - Jean Kressman, French Vignoble

But what makes the wines here so great? Let's take a peek into Chile's history. 

Before the conquest of European settlers, much of Chile was inhabited by several tribes. In the 15th century, the Incas invaded the north followed by the first wave of Conquistadors arriving in the early 16th century. European traditions soon followed and wine, playing a large part in religious and social life came along for the ride. Émigrés from Spain set up homes and managed estates – the disenfranchised indigenous underclass became their new slave labour.

In the 17th century, Spain attempted to undermine Chile's wine export trade with few results. Throughout the 18th century, Chilean wines competed with their Spanish counterparts and were fairly inexpensive.

Conquistadors 'rule and punishment'
By the early 19th century, revolutions in North America and France gave rise to a wave of immigration inspiring a much need and very important shift towards planting quality European vines (before this much of the wine was made using the low-quality País or Misíon grape). Chile, recently independent of Spain began to experiment in the vineyards and many of Chile’s most famous wineries were established: Cousiño Macul, Concha y Toro, Undurraga, Errázuriz, La Rosa, Santa Rita, Carmen and San Pedro. Exports took off, production rose and Chile experienced its first wine heyday.

The Twentieth Century would prove rocky for the blossoming wine industry. Two world wars, an economic crisis and of course, the September 11, 1973 coup, overthrowing the Allende government led to a rough road towards success and quality. Domestic consumption virtually plummeted.

By the 1990s, the transition back to democracy smoothed things out and prestigious French and American investors came on the scene followed by the rise of flying winemakers. 

Over time, it was discovered that certain areas were ideal for European varieties while others were suitable for producing jug wines. 

There are in total four regions (Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley and Southern) but only two that contribute to Chile's quality wine industry.

The Aconcagua is named after the highest peak of the Andes at 23,000ft (7000m). The region is made up of two sub-regions, the warmer Aconcagua Valley itself and the cooler Casablanca Valley. The former is famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, while the latter is best known for being the ideal place to grow Chilean whites.    

Errazuriz - first founded in 1870
The Casablanca's presence in the world of winemaking is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In 1982, Pablo Morandé, a winemaker for Concha Y Toro first began to explore the valley’s potential. The area was considered too close to the Pacific and too far from the Andes. With a bit of time, innovation, the valley soon developed with dozens of working wineries producing award-winning Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Pablo Morandé - modern wine explorer
The Leyda Valley is a sub-region often considered part of Casablanca. The Sauvignon from here is crisper, complex with zesty herb and citrus notes. The wines can be especially complex with roasted grapefruit and nettles.

If you love Chilean reds, the bulk of your favourites will most likely be sourced from the grapes in the Central Valley.

The region is comprised of the most famous wine-producing sub-regions of Chile.

Maipo, just south of Santiago is synonymous with world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon and the most famous in Chile.

Rapel, divided into the Cachapoal and Colchagua areas is widely planted with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Within Colchagua, Apalta has a reputation for fine Merlot, Carménère and Syrah. The Los Vascos winery, in which Chateau Lafite-Rothschild has an important stake resides here.

Curicó Valley was put on the map by the Torres family of Spain in 1979. It is made up to two different mesoclimates. Towards the east, around Molina and just north of the Claro river, it is relatively cooler due to the breezes from the Andes; in the west, the Coastal range shields the ocean influence resulting in a warmer, comparatively hotter climate.

And finally the Maule, an area formerly known for the País grape and providing bulk wine, it has become home to quality Cabernet Sauvignon. Here, the skies are cloudier thanks to the Pacific influence although it is hotter and drier than Bío-Bío in the south.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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