Chile – the wine dragon of the Andes


Chilean vineyards have their roots in the Spanish conquest, but now young talented and educated winemakers know how to take advantage of the most up-to-date enological techniques and equipment.

Chile produces fine wines and exports substantial quantities to many countries mainly to the U.S.A, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Most consumers regard Chilean wines as good value.

The exponential growth of the Chilean vineyard acreage proves the growing international interest in this country’s wines.

The country is exceptionally long, and narrow in shape stretching form the Atacama Desert in the north to the Tierra del Fuego in the south; a distance of more than 4000 kilometres, a range of climates, all of which are influenced by the Humboldt Current.

The Andes mountain chain that separates Chile and Argentina has prevented the deadly phylloxera vastatrix from entering the country. The vigilance of agricultural ministry officials must also be credited for the prevention.

Chile is one of the few countries along with Cyprus that has remained phylloxera free. Chile’s red wines outnumber white wines, but with the opening up suitable terroirs in the south white wine production is increasing and improving.

Cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, pinot noir, syrah, malbec, and grenache are the most important red grapes planted. Chile’s red wines are deep in colour, well extracted, flavourful, layered and if well cellared smooth with long after taste. For white wines growers like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Semillon, viognier, and now Riesling.

Pais, a variety brought by conquistadors in the 16th century is used for low-end and local-consumption wines.

Columbus is said to have brought vitis vinifera wines to the Americas, and which conquistadors tried to cultivate in all regions they occupied. Although their barbaric behaviour towards natives has been well documented, aboriginals followed catholic religious rituals clergy has introduced.

Upon urging of Catholic clergy conquistadors built, with plenty un-paid labour, impressive cathedrals. Wine was produced first in 1551 from grapes planted in 1548.

Don Silvestre Ochagavia who had the wisdom to plant French varieties uprooted pais grape vineyards to the extent possible. The ancestors of Chilean vineyards can be traced back to Pauillac(Bordeaux) over two centuries and some still produce only a few bunches per vine.

After the introduction of mostly Bordeaux grape varieties, the Chilean viticulture revived and many new wineries came on stream. Later on other French grape varieties were introduced. Vina Undurraga, Cousino Macul , Vina Sante Carolina and Vina Santa Rita are only a few that come to mind.

The impetus also came from the arrival of French, Italian, and Spanish immigrants in the 19th century, abandoning their vineyards due to phylloxera infestation.

Vineyards had expanded from 40 000 hectares in 1900 to 100 000, 70 years later, when the military junta overthrew President Salvator Alliende and liberalized the economy. At the same time, the economy collapsed and internal wine consumption declined approximately by 50 per cent by 1990.

Since then Chilean wineries made Herculean efforts to improve quality and increase exports.

With American and European technical and financial help, the industry’s output improved by leaps and bounds, and today Chile is world’s 16th largest wine producer and fifth largest exporter.

In 1998 acreage had increased to 63 000 hectares, flourishing in a 600 kilometre stretch from 30th to 40th parallel south, a region that enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate with wet winters and a long growing dry season. Harvest occurs between March and April due to reversal of seasons.

The sun ripens grapes fully and rarely does one encounter `green flavours in Chilean wines. Acidity is low, however, and thus long cellaring not recommended, even for very high-end wines, unless they are acidified.

In the north the Aconcagua- and Casablanca Valleys are noted for their cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah wines.

Most Chilean wines are marketed as varietal, although of late some blended wines started appearing in export markets.

By convention Chilean varietal wines contain 85 per cent of the grape stated on the label.

The Central Valley consisting of Maipo-, Rapel-, Cachapoal-, Colchagua-, Curico- and Maule Valleys are by far the biggest producers of both red and white wines.

Bio Bio, a few hundred kilometres south of Santiago de Chile is quite cool, and mostly plated to pinot noir and riesling. The white grape of note are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, semillon, riesling, chenin blanc and viognier.

Bio Bio`s grapes are often used for sparkling wine production due to their relatively high acidity.

Chile’s white wines are always well balanced, somewhat higher in alcohol than their European counterparts, but definitely lower than California bottles.

The Chilean wine industry distinguishes between export and local consumption wines. The former are called vino fino and must be government approved, whereas local-consumption wines are called vino corriente and are sold without certification.

Exported Chilean wines are generally considered value wines and have become quite popular in important wine consuming countries in the past decade a few large Chilean wineries started joint projects i.e Errazuriz with Baron de Rothschild Wine Enterprises.

Torres from Spain and Kendall-Jackson from California, Casa Lapostolle, William Favre from Burgundy have established their own wineries and vineyards.

All of the joint ventures and company owned wineries produce high end wines some selling for six to eight tie s more than the average priced bottles.

These are superior quality products and can compete with the best in the world.

Here are some of the best wineries of Chile:

Casa Lapostolle
Vina Carmen
Chateau Los Boldos
Emiliana Organic Wines
Torres Chile
Terra Andina
Perez Cruz
Laura Hartwig
Haras de Pirque
Santa Carolina
Santa Rita
Cousino Macul
Vina Casa Blanca
Montes Premium Wines
Vina Tarapaca
Los Vascos
Viu Manent
Vina Undurraga
Vina Camino Real
Vina Casa Silva
Vina Montgras
Vina Morande
William Fevre Chile
Odfjell Wines

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