While Chile is considered by many as part of the New World, wine has technically been produced in the South American country since the 1500s, when Spanish missionaries started cultivating the País variety to make wine for Mass. Today, around 800 viñas (wineries) and 11,697 growers cultivate 336,000 acres or 136 sq km.
What the curiously narrow Andean nation lacks in breadth — a mere 221 miles or 355 km at its widest point — it makes up for in length, boasting an impressive 2,653 miles or 4267 km of Pacific coastline, of which 800 miles or 1287 km are cultivated with vineyards. Positioned as the world’s sixth-largest producer according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, 17 main winemaking regions that incorporate more than 110 denominations of origin (DOs) are cocooned between the omnipresent mountain range and the ocean. There are three climatic designations known as Andes, Entre Cordilleras and Costa at latitudes extending between 17° and 46°, from the Atacama desert in the north, to the Osorno Valley in the southern Los Lagos lake district. Cool-climate influence comes from the Pacific and the Humboldt Current that create cool morning fog as well as Andean breezes, while hot, dry summers contribute Mediterranean characteristics to wines.
While French varieties and winemaking techniques kickstarted Chile’s wine industry in the 1850s (as in neighbouring Argentina), phylloxera almost destroyed France’s industry. Chile’s fledgling wine industry, however, benefited from an influx of suddenly out-of-work French winemakers, and still continues to cultivate many pre-phylloxera clones; today, wines from 150-year-old vines are the norm. As for more contemporary history, both World War II and the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship dampened wine production, but following the general’s demise in 1990, the industry was rebooted; in 2022, Chile produced 1.24 billion litres.
While 80 percent of Chilean wine is produced in the Central Region, which is home to the renowned Maipo Valley, Chile’s fascinating topography allows a diverse range of varieties to thrive. Bold reds lead the charge, notably full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, smooth and fruity Merlot as well as Carménère. Wine lovers should also look out for Syrah and Pinot Noir, as well as light-skinned País, Carignan, and Cinsault. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the most sought-after whites, though Riesling, Viognier, Moscatel and Semillon are also cultivated; a whopping 96 varieties are grown in total.
Best wines of Chile
The Bordeaux native grape migrated to Chile in the mid-19th century, and has been proving its worth ever since. Today, it’s the country’s most widely cultivated red — a true star that basks in Chile’s sunlight and thrives on the wide temperature range, which contributes to its complexity.n Its finest expressions come from the Maipo Valley.
“Cabernet Sauvignon is clearly Chile’s favourite grape, whether alone or playing a major part in a Bordeaux-style blend,” says Kylie Sherriff, sommelier and owner of Chile Wine Trails. “The Maipo Valley alone spans from Maipo Andes — known for its rich, premium Cabs — across the Central Maipo plains and on to Coastal Maipo, leading to fresher expressions as the Pacific Ocean starts to have a cooler influence.”
Silky tannins and herbal notes create highly quaffable and cellar-worthy vintages. Buoyed by its success, winemakers are building on this big red.”Cabs are coming from further south and higher up the mountains in the Cachapoal and Colchagua valleys — great examples are Calyptra‘s Zahir and San Pedro’s Cabo de Horno — and as far north as the desert-like Elqui valley,” Sherriff adds. “This warm-climate grape is nothing if not versatile: there are several saignée roses on the market while some winemakers are experimenting with a sparkling version.”
A Médoc transplant that was almost wiped out by the phylloxera blight, history recounts that some fortuitous winemakers brought Carménère cuttings to Chile, mistakenly believing them to be Merlot; its true identity was discovered a full century later. This intense purple-hued wine boasts black fruit, bay leaf, floral, meaty and red bell pepper notes, depending on its origin. It has truly made itself at home to become an emblematic Chilean red.
The late-ripening, spicy red loves the drawn-out summer in Colchagua, and Cachapoal in particular, a region whose fertile soils impart fruity character to the wines, says Cristián Aliaga of 3 Monos winery. “Good temperatures, diverse soils and little rain mean Carménère is much more at home here than in France,” he says. “It’s adapted really well and in the past 20 years, we enologists have grasped its potential. With lower acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon and silky tannins, it’s attractive and intense, and a great example of versatility.”
Cultivated on Limarí’s calcareous soils in the north, while also straddling Casablanca, San Antonio and sub-region Leyda as well as newer valleys such as Bio-Bio and Malleco (Chile’s most southern wine region) in the south, red Burgundy has made itself perfectly at home in Chile’s cool climes. Good thermal amplitude and close proximity to the sea are contributing factors when it comes to producing notable Pinot Noir, says Jean-Charles Villard, winemaker at Villard Fine Wines in Casablanca Valley.
“My father Thierry pioneered planting Pinot Noir here in the 1990s and our vineyards, which have granite and quartz soils, are a little warmer than the rest of the valley. We pick early, at the end of February, to retain freshness,” he explains. The family-run winery makes two Pinot Noir as well as excellent Chardonnay and an iconic Syrah. The complex Le Pinot Noir Grand Vin is aged in third- and fourth-use French oak barrels and foudres, the Pinot varietal expression bursting with red fruit, mushrooms and forest floor flavours.
Chile’s heritage grape was introduced by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, and incredibly, many grape growers work with 150-year-old País vines, also known as the Mission grape. Underappreciated for many years, a new wave of winemakers has initiated a renewed interest in this easy-drinking, light-skinned red that thrives in the difficult, southern terroir of Maulé, Yumbel and Bio-Bio.
According to Maximiliano Avendaño, sommelier and owner of Tintoleos wine shop, micro producers have passed down their knowledge through the generations, which has helped to restore the prominence of these ancient País vines. “This grape’s history, combined with the juicy, refreshing wines produced from it, makes it an attractive alternative for consumers who enjoy drinking Gamay and Cinsault,” he says. Raising the style’s profile even further are sparkling País and Cinsault-País blends fermented in clay amphorae.
Aromatic, bursting with fresh stone, citrus fruits, herbal notes, and acidity, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 20 percent of all wine exports from Chile, according to Julio Alonso Ducci, executive director of Wines of Chile.
“Given that it is cultivated from Huasco and Limarí in the north to Chile Chico, in Patagonia, at 46° in the south, there are lots of different expressions,” he says. “Coastal Sauvignon Blanc benefits from the Humboldt Current, which keeps Chile cold in general, contributing to its renowned expression.”
Chilean cuisine has a delicious array of seafood dishes worth savouring with this diverse white. Try abalone or choritos al vapour (mussels steamed in white wine) with Cono Sur‘s organic variety cultivated just 11 miles from the Pacific Ocean in San Antonio Valley, while the utter Chilean classic of creamy machas a la parmesana (clams a la parmesana) makes quite a match with Viña Ventisquero’s unusual mineral-led Tara Sauvignon Blanc cultivated in the Atacama.
The world’s favourite white is also Chile’s go-to premium white. Thanks to winemakers who are looking to express the country’s diverse topography, Chardonnay reflects diversity in both style and terroir. “Restrained use of oak and malolactic fermentation gives a fresher edge to the light creaminess of some Chardonnays, particularly out of the Casablanca region,” says Sherriff. “Along with other coastal areas such as Aconcagua, we are seeing crisp, fresh vintages with some mineral notes with little to no oak at all,” she adds.
The Central Region is also home to noteworthy sparkling wine; Sherriff recommends Casablanca Valley’s Villard Le Chardonnay, Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa, and William Fèvre Gran Cuvée, from the Maipo Andes foothills.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère are two of the most popular and well-respected varieties grown in Chile.
Answer: Chile's top wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux Blends, Carménère, Syrah and Pinot Noir.