Chilean vineyards protected by the mountainsChilean vineyards protected by the mountains

French influence

Valle Central

Sunset ambience in the Valle CentralSunset ambience in the Valle Central

The country’s best Cabernet Sauvignons grow in a Mediterranean climate.

The Andes are home to some of South America’s most elegant wines.

Chile has more French influence than any other wine-producing country in South America. Granted, it was the Spanish who introduced the first grapes, when they conquered the continent in the mid-16th century. But by 1830 the French botanist Claudio Gay had established an experimental grape farm in Santiago. As a result, the country had quite a respectable collection of noble European grape varieties early on.

This would turn out to be a real stroke of luck. Starting in the 1860s, phylloxera, a pest that entered Europe from North America, destroyed 90 per cent of European vineyards. Not only did Chile remain phylloxera-free (and still is today), but it also had plenty of potential plant material for its emergent wine scene. This got another boost from wine experts who had emigrated from France to Chile, where they started new lives and livelihoods. Ownership of a vineyard soon became a status symbol for wealthy Chileans. And nothing was chicer than having a French winemaker on your estate.

The transformation from mass product to delicacy

In the 20th century, the Chilean wine industry had a bumpy road. For a long time winemakers had been producing mainly for the domestic market. Then in the 1970s and ‘80s other drinks became fashionable. On top of this, economic development was stymied by the Pinochet regime. It wasn’t until the dictatorship ended, in 1989, that the country began to prosper once again – and its wine along with it. More than 10,000 hectares of international grape varieties were planted, investments were made in vineyards and cellars, and the switch was made from mass production to high-quality wines destined for the export market.

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, Chile is a country of almost inconceivable proportions. It stretches for nearly 4,300 kilometres from north to south, while it’s only 15 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. 80 per cent of its surface consists of rugged mountains, severely restricting the amount of arable land for vineyards. Yet the sheer extent of the country provides a wide array of terroirs. In total, around 130,000 hectares are planted with grapevines.

The curious case of the Carmenère grape

The most important winegrowing region is the Central Valley, or Valle Central. To the west this 100-kilometre-long valley is bordered by a low coastal range, the Cordillera de la Costa, and by the majestic Andes to the east. It is traversed by a great many rivers, fed by snowmelt from the high mountains, which is ideal for irrigating the vineyards. In the southern Central Valley is the country’s most famous agricultural area: Maipo. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, it yields very high-quality red wine that is based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. There is good reason that it is nicknamed the «Bordeaux of South America». Merlot and Chardonnay also flourish here – not to mention Chile’s premier grape, Carmenère.

This grape has a long history with many twists and turns. It was once among the main Bordeaux varieties, but often developed a coarse and herbaceous character there. It was hardly planted at all after the phylloxera disaster. In the meantime, it had found a new home in Chile – but under the wrong name. What winemakers had believed to be Merlot was in fact Carmenère. In 1997 the mistake was finally realised, and ever since that time the grape has experienced an absolute boom. No wonder: in the Chilean climate, it develops a velvety soft quality, with a fine eucalyptus note.

Cold ocean currents yield fragrant white wine

If you are looking for Chilean white wine you will find top quality in the Casablanca region. The cold Humboldt current in the nearby Pacific affects this area more than any other. The result is an aromatic Sauvignon blanc. The Chardonnay and Pinot noir Burgundy varieties also come into their own here. Wine lovers should keep an eye on the southernmost part of the country. The Itata winegrowing region in particular is currently up and coming. Some inside tips: the red Cinsault and the white Moscatel.

Wines from Chile