The Old World envies Chile for its low costs, lack of vine pests and diseases and its dependably dry, warm summers. Much of the New World, and Australia in particular, envies its plentiful and regular supply of water from the melted snow of the Andes. But for much of the 20th century, winemakers would not have been tempted to join their Chilean counterparts in what was effectively a wine cultural vacuum. The revolution in the last two decades has been swift and remarkable.
Chile’s golden age was the end of the 19th century, when the rest of the wine world had been crippled by downy mildew and phylloxera but this isolated wine producer could supply almost limitless quantities of healthy, deep-coloured wine, made from familiar vinifera vines that had been imported into Chile earlier in the century. The world’s most prosperous wine industry was then owned by just 10 Chilean families, many of them still dominant players today. For the next hundred years there were very few changes in the vineyards and cellars of Chile, but the return of democracy fuelled extraordinary economic growth throughout Chile in the early 1990s, including a real determination to drag the Chilean wine industry into the modern world.
The vast old raulí (evergreen beech) vats have been replaced by oak barriques imported from the US and France. Refrigeration has been installed both for fermentation and maturation. The lazy hazardous technique of irrigation by simply flooding a vineyard and hoping the water will drain down specially dug channels and water each vine equally has been replaced by the use of drip irrigation systems which administer set amounts of water to individual plants. New wine regions are being developed by the dozen, not just west and therefore cooler and more ocean-influenced than the traditional ones, but also in the far south and way to the north in Elqui and Limarí where, again, the Pacific helps to moderate temperatures.
There is a still a thriving fruit industry and thousands of acres of mainly Moscatel grapes dedicated to the production of the local spirit pisco. Pisco sours are the great revelation for many visitors to Chile.
Until recently few Chileans were interested in wine. This may have been frustrating for Chile’s small elite of dedicated native viticulturists and winemakers, but it has done nothing to stop an influx of foreigners attracted by Chile’s growing reputation for making good to very good wine such as the Rothschilds of Bordeaux’s Ch Lafite (Los Vascos), Marnier Lapostolle of Grand Marnier fame (Casa Lapostolle) and Miguel Torres from Spain (the first to import oak barrels into Chile). Partly as a result of this international interest, much more attention is now being paid to matching grape variety to location and developing cooler areas influenced by breezes from the icy Pacific in the west or by the elevation of the Andes in the east. The geography and local climates of Chile’s wine regions are arguably determined to a greater extent by proximity to the mountains and ocean influence than by latitude. Fine wine is made as far north as Elqui and as far south as Malleco, closer to the south pole than Bío Bío. As in California, gaps in the coastal range can be crucial.
Chile’s brake on progress for much of the 20th century, apart from a lack of investment, was the gap between grape growers and wine producers. Almost all grapes were grown by gentleman farmers who knew very little about wine and cared even less. By not having to use phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, Chileans were denied this tool for controlling excessively vigorous vines and some soil pests. In the 1970s and 1980s, domestic consumption declined, about half of Chile’s vineyards were pulled up and producers began to switch their attention to the export market. By the mid 1990s, most exporting wineries were planting heavily or occasionally buying vineyards in order to be more self-sufficient in terms of grape supply, and the quality of fruit has improved almost beyond recognition. Grape-growers, who benefited considerably during the Chilean wine boom of the very early 1990s, were expected to switch to other fruit crops, although some have built their own wineries. This new extended control of production has helped enormously to curtail excessive yields, achieved by over-enthusiastic irrigation. Much more sophisticated trellis systems designed to maximize quality have been introduced, and are resulting in a wider spread of vine varieties matched more carefully to the sites on which they are grown. Coupled with investment in modern equipment, this has catapulted Chile into a strong position in markets such as those of the UK and Germany, especially on the shelves of price-conscious supermarkets.
Chile’s most important red wine variety by far is Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for more than a third of all vines planted. País (Criolla Chica in Argentina), grown mainly in the unirrigated south, ends up in cheap cartons sold on the local market. Merlot still has a very strong presence but less so than before the formal identification in 1994 of the old Bordeaux variety Carmenère. For many years no distinction was made between the two varieties and many vineyards had mixed plantings. A growing pride in what many refer to as Chile’s signature variety has resulted in many more high-quality wines labelled Carmenère or comprising Carmenère blends. But Chile's fine wines now include Syrahs, Malbecs, old vine Carignan from Maule and, increasingly, red blends. Chile’s red wines used to be plagued by unripe, green flavours but control of yields and better site selection have to a large extent resolved this, so that most wines that leave the country are full of exuberant fruit, as long as they are not overoaked. Some producers are dedicating considerable energy to Pinot Noir, especially in the cooler parts of Bío Bío in the south and Leyda in the north.
Vine identification has also been important for white varieties. Much of what was once sold as Sauvignon Blanc was in fact Sauvignonasse (also known as Sauvignon Vert or Tocai Friulano). However, thanks to extensive recent plantings of genuine Sauvignon Blanc, particularly in the cooler valleys in the north such as Casablanca and Leyda, Chile has gained a reputation for good-value renditions of this crisp, zesty variety with some premium wines also worthy of attention. Other aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer are starting to perform well on cooler sites. Semillon is extremely widespread (often mixed in the vineyard with Sauvignon) and therefore thoroughly scorned – although there have been some experiments with sweet wines and barrel-aged examples.
Chile has done a good job in promoting its recently created but straightforward appellation system based on the names of the east–west valleys, though it is difficult to generalise about individual valleys since the soils and climate can vary so much within the same valley, even though the country is so narrow. It is particularly difficult to generalize about the three main wine valleys Maipo, Rapel and Maule, partly because there is such variation between the valley floor and the increasing number of vineyards planted on higher ground. Producers are working hard to identify new and more specific subregions within these valleys. North of Santiago is the broad Valle de Aconcagua, home to Errázuriz. Newer plantings tend to be up into the hillsides or towards the coast. North and east of Santiago are the valleys that have been most successful in the last 10 years for Sauvignon Blanc, other aromatic whites and Pinot Noir: Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio, Limarí and, further north and extremely narrow, Elqui, which is also producing some very good Syrah. 160 km (100 miles) north of Elqui, Viña Ventisquero is making wines in the Huasco region of the Atacama Desert. All these areas are strongly influenced by the cool ocean breezes and fogs and have attracted ambitious pioneers such as Amayna, Casa Marín and Matetic. Some of the very big companies such as Concha y Toro have vineyards here too.
The Valle del Maipo is the most famous Chilean wine region even though it is nowhere near the biggest, at least partly because it is so close to Santiago, Chile’s capital and centre of wealth. Some famous vineyards such as those of Cousiño Macul are right up against the Andes just east of the city itself. Here wines tend to be fragrant and more elegant than those from central Maipo around Pirque and Buin, where the industry giants Concha y Toro and Santa Rita have their respective main wineries (though each follows the Chilean pattern of buying grapes from all over the Central Valley). Both companies have been developing separate subsidiaries, but such is the extent of their vineyard holdings that Concha y Toro can, for example, claim to be the world’s most important grower of Cabernet Sauvignon. Vines are increasingly grown on the west side of the Coastal Range, but it is much more expensive to ensure water supplies here (boreholes have to be drilled instead of just opening sluice gates).
For all the focus of the appellation system, the differences between the east and west of the Central Valley are every bit as telling as those between the north and south. On the eastern edge of the valley, the nights are much cooler than on the valley floor thanks to cold air from the Andes, so that mornings are coolest and acid and colour in the grapes grown here are particularly marked, but frost can be a very real problem. The western edge, on the other hand, is cooled in the afternoon by regular sea breezes whose extent varies with the precise shape of the Coastal Range nearby. A vineyard’s distance from the rivers can also affect how usefully cool and damp the soil is. Reds dominate in this hot spot and the best wines, such as Almaviva, Aurea Domus, Casa Real (Santa Rita) and Viñedo Chadwick come from the Maipo Alto region, higher up in the Andean foothills, which seems to impart a minty or eucalyptus flavour to the reds.
Red wines tend to flourish in the valleys south of Maipo, in Cachapoal, home to some very fine Cabernet and Syrah, particularly in the subregion of Apalta, and Colchagua, which is recognised for its superior Merlot from soils which tend to clay mixed with fertile alluvial deposits. Blends from these two regions are usually labelled Rapel, though this is becoming less common as producers focus more and more closely on regional characteristics and points of difference.
Continuing south, the Curicó is much warmer and wetter and was where Torres chose to build his winery in 1979. Maule is Chile’s oldest wine region. After a period of relative neglect, it is being rehabilitated, with some parcels of very old vines producing intense, ageworthy red blends, often based on Merlot and/or Cabernet. Curicó has vast tracts of land planted with high-yielding vines and yet there are individual mesoclimates obviously capable of producing distinctly superior wine.
Vineyards in southern Chile are increasingly highly valued, producing wines labelled Maule, Itata, Bío Bío and Malleco. Smallholders' parcels of ancient dry-farmed bushvines are typically País and Moscatel supplemented by Carignan in Maule and Cinsault in Itata. Viña Aquitania was a pioneer in Malleco with its celebrated Sol de Sol Chardonnay but all manner of producers are investigating the south.
Most Chilean wineries are careful to bottle their best produce as Reserve wines. Of the big four companies Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, San Pedro and Santa Carolina, most own several wineries and many different vineyards, although it is also the norm to buy in grapes from a wide range of growers. Some truly magnificent wines are now emerging from Chile in the mould of Altaïr's top bottlings, Concha y Toro’s (and Mouton-Rothschild’s) Almaviva, Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, Errázuriz’s Don Maximiano, and Montes’ Folly. And there are signs that the number of seriously interesting mid-priced wines being exported from Chile is increasing dramatically too.
The potential for organic wine production in Chile's dry climate is vast but is only slowly being realised.
Some favourite producers: Almaviva, Altaïr, Amayna, Anakena, Antiyal, Casa Lapostolle, Casa Marín, Concha y Toro, de Martino, Errázuriz, Falernia, Gillmore, Haras de Pirque, Loma Larga, Matetic, Montes, Pérez Cruz, Veramonte, Viña Leyda, VOE (Viñedos Organicos Emiliana).
See Wines of Chile for more information on wine in this region.