Over the last 30 years or so, the Chilean wine industry has grown beyond recognition, and in fact still continues to develop and innovate at a remarkable pace.
We're sure you’ve enjoyed a glass or two of Chilean wine, but have you ever really thought about what makes Chilean wine so unique?
As Chilean Independence Day is on the 18th September, it’s a great time to explore this fascinating country and find out what makes its wines so special.
Chilean wine: a history
Chile has a distinguished winemaking past stretching back to the 16th century when Spanish Conquistadors brought vines with them from Europe, but it was the return to democracy and subsequent economic growth of the 1990s that fuelled this recent boom.
Chile enjoys consistently dry and sunny summers, which means it can easily produce ripe, healthy grapes. Furthermore, there are few diseases and pests to worry about and a plentiful supply of water, thanks to the ice melt from the Andes. With all of these natural advantages, Chile has become a notable producer of reliable, everyday wines.
But that is a little unfair. There is so much more to Chile than that, and in recent years there has been an emphasis on better understanding their unique and varied ‘terroir’ (in essence how the natural environment produces grapes with particular characteristics) and a move towards producing more premium wines.
One great fact about Chile is that due to its geographical isolation, it has not fallen victim to the scourge of Phylloxera, which devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. As a result of this, pretty much all vines grown for wine around the world are composed of American rootstocks (which are immune to the pesky phylloxera) with European vine varieties grafted on top. Chile is able to grow ungrafted vines, which combined with their natural climatic and geographical advantages, puts them in perfect position to make some truly outstanding wines.
If you are looking to try a new Chilean soon, here is everything you need to know about their fascinating wine regions.
The most northerly of Chile’s wine regions is Coquimbo, which is made up of three sub regions, Elqui, Limarí and Choapa. These areas were only developed in the 1990s and, although accounting for only a couple of percent of Chile’s total vineyard area, they seriously punch above their weight in the premium wine market. Benefitting from cooling sea or mountain breezes and lots of sunshine, Elqui has already established a reputation for its Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, while Limarí makes some of Chile’s best Chardonnay.
Aconcagua is Chile’s second smallest wine region, but it boasts a big reputation. It comprises three sub regions, Aconcagua Valley, Casablanca and San Antonio. The Aconcagua Valley is steep sided and benefits from cool breezes, although it is one of the warmest regions and so red wine does well here-especially Chile’s most planted red grape (accounting for over 50% of black variety planting) the thick skinned Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah is also growing in popularity, astonishingly it was first planted in Chile as recently as 1996, yet is becoming a real signature style.
Casablanca and San Antonio are situated between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean and so are noticeably cooler thanks to the morning fog and sea breezes that blow in from the sea. Here, thanks to the lower temperatures, it is white wine that takes precedence, with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay dominating, most notably in San Antonio and its cooler Leyda Zone . In terms of red wines, Pinot Noir has done well, but again it is Syrah that is taking the plaudits.
The Central Valley runs from Sanitago to Itata and is warm and flat and has easy access to plenty of water from the Andes, hence it is where most of Chile’s vineyards have always been found. It is undoubtedly where Chile’s reputation for good value, everyday wines was founded. But there is increasing interest in developing better quality sites in the Central Valley.
There are four sub regions here, Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule. Maipo is nearest to Santiago, and so has always been important in the Chilean Wine industry. The best vineyards are located in the foothills of the Andes, where they benefit from cooler temperatures at altitude. Maipo is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon that sometimes has a minty character.
Rapel is warm and known for its full bodied reds, notably Carmenere , while Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are gaining a reputation in the cooler areas. Carmenere originates in Bordeaux, but its popularity there was cut short by the arrival of phylloxera. Luckily, Chile has revived its fortunes and given this old variety a new lease of life. Up until recently, most Carmenere was thought to be Merlot, in fact many vineyards were planted with a mix of varieties, until better vine identification in the 1990s made it possible to separate the two distinct grapes.
Curicó and Maule form the southernmost end of the Central Valley and together make up the largest vineyard area in Chile. Here the warm temperatures and rich soils make it an important source of wines for inexpensive blends. Maule is Chile’s oldest wine region and tends to be cooler, so the wines retain more acidity and freshness. After a period of neglect, the area is once again rising in status.
The Southern Region, made up of Bío Bío, Itata and Malleco, is the coolest and wettest part of Chile. A big part of the output here is for local consumption, but Bío Bío is showing great promise for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and aromatic varieties like Gewurztraminer and Riesling. The full potential of this region is only just starting to be understood, with premium producers moving south and experimenting with plantings here. Definitely a region to look out for!
Hopefully this has whet your appetite and given you some ideas. Why not raise a glass of and toast Chilean Independence Day with a fine glass of Chilean wine. Explore our selection on Winebuyers today
Photo credits reserved to Chilean producer, Lapostolle Wines