On his second voyage to the New World Christopher Columbus took vitis vinifera vines to America. Subsequently Conquistadors tried to cultivate vines in each region for religious purposes. While they were pillaging and killing mercilessly they never failed to conduct daily religious ceremonies. Planting vines had two purposes: first they needed wine for holy communion; and wanted to abandon the costly and time-consuming method of importing Spanish wine. Vines were introduced into Chile in 1548m during the exploratory phases of the country. The first occurred in 1551. Viticulture, although occasionally threatened by local Indians, soon became established especially around monasteries to the north and south of Santiago. Indians started producing “chicha” (a partially fermented crude wine) from trodden grapes.
Vines flourished on the foothills of the majestic Andes Mountains fed by the rivers from melted snow above. Spanish wineries noticed the competition of Chilean wineries by means of declining sales. Even though the Chilean vines were young the wine was fine and this troubled Spanish wineries even more.
Soon practically the whole lucrative South American market was lost.
Climatic conditions, being dry and hot with appreciable diurnal temperature changes in the summer and wet and mild in winter, in Chile are far more conducive than those in most European wine growing countries. Vines are less prone to diseases and sprayed only once or twice, if at all necessary.
It was mid 19th century when Don Silvestre Ochagavia started importing French vines from Bordeaux nurseries to replace Spanish vines. Today’s Chilean vines of French ancestry are propagations of the initial shipment. Chile’s vineyards have never been affected by the dreaded disease called phylloxera vastatrix, thanks to the Atacama desert in the north and the Andes mountains to the east.
With French vines and imported winemakers, Chilean wineries started acquiring a world-wine fame that continues to day with much improvement.
All the large and still important wine estates were established in the 16th and 17th centuries. Vina Concha y Toro, Vina Cousino Macul, Vina Undurrage, Vina Santa Carolina and Vina Santa Rita date back to at least a century or longer. The first internationally important awards for Chilean wines were bestowed in 1882 (Bordeaux) and 1889 (Paris). By 1900 there were 40,000 hectares under vine and by 1970 the number had grown to 100,000. During the 20th century the expansion of the industry was predicated on exports, mostly due the liberalization of trade under the rule of general Augusto Pinochet in 1970’s. While acreage decreased to 53,000 hectares, quality increased and more importantly exports leaped to unprecedented levels. Since then billions were invested in vineyards, winemaking equipment, cooperage and education. Today Chile is the world’s 16th largest producer, and fifth largest exporter mainly to the U S A, the U K, Canada, EU countries and Japan. Significant sums of money were invested by American wineries (Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson being the most important), and French interests (Lapostolle family, the owners of Grand-Marnier).
Today, Chile’s vineyards cover approximately 70,000 hectares but their location on the foothills of the Andes and selected valleys yield far superior fruit.
Chile is a long (4000 km) and narrow country along the Pacific Ocean. In the south, the climate happens to be cold, and in the north too Hot!
Vineyards flourish in a 600 km stretch from the Itata Valley in the south to Maipo Valley in the north. This section of the land enjoys a continental climate that helps ripen fruit fully and every vintage. Chilean wines are always balanced, with good extract, fine colour and long pleasant aftertaste. Tannins are almost always well integrated making it possible to enjoy red wines, even those made entirely from cabernet Sauvignon much earlier than would be possible with wines from other countries, but unfortunately they also can not be cellared for more than 10 – 15 years at the most.
Irrigation is a must, but used to control quality and limit yield, rather than diluting taste by watering excessively.
In the last 20 years, several appellations of origin regions were established starting in eh north with the Aconcagua Valley, and going south to the Maipo Valley, Rapel ( divided into two Cachapoal and Colchagua), Maule, Casablance, Itata and Bio Bio.
In the hot Aconcagua and Maipo valleys Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmener thrive; Rapel and Curico Valleys are somewhat cooler and more suited for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon Chenin Blanc and Pi not Blanc.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert, Carmenere and Merlot are responsible for 60 percent of the total Chilean wine production, Pais, the Spanish grape, represents 24 percent, and experimental grapes share the remaining 16.
Chileans wines rep[resent excellent value, and since climatic conditions are relatively constant, vintage variation remains minimal, virtually guaranteeing a fine wine every vintage.
Export wines must be vino fino quality, less flavourful vino corriente (ordinary wines) is meant for local consumption. All export wines must be analysed by independent laboratories and pass a taste testing control panel before approval – a system most European countries lack, and should institute!
Chielan wineries early on decided to market varietal wines, which represent 90 percent of all exported. They are all vino fino, followed by reserva, which tend to be more flavourful and refined. Practically all are barrel aged varying from 6 – 12 months, some longer!
Wine enthusiasts everywhere can buy confidently both white and red Chilean wines and consume them confidently in the knowledge that they are carefully made from sound and ripe grapes, but above all represent good value.
Below please find a list of reliable wineries:
Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle, Santa Carolina. Santa Rita, San Pedro, Cousino Macul, Undurraga, Los Vascos, Domaine Oriental, Vina Tarapaca, Torres Chile:
The best and most reliable Chilean wineries:
Vina Casablanca, Vina Carmen,(Subsidiary of Santa Rita), Errazuriz, Echevarria, Caliterra, Montgras, Valdivieso, Los Baldos, Montes, Santa Ines, Vina Porta. Casa del Toqui, Aquitania, Villard, Santa Emiliana, Carta Vieja, Francisco de Aquirre, Vina Moinent, Luis Filipe Edwards, Vina Bisquertt, Torreon de Paredes, Vina Canepa, Segu Olle and Los Robles.