Wine has always been a part of the collective memory of Chile’s national patrimony. It has been a source of inspiration to writers, singers, and other national artists like Pablo Neruda, Claudio Gay, Jorge Teillier among others. From the far north to the deep south, traveling through Chile means passing through some of the world’s finest vineyards.
The Spanish conquistadors introduced wine to the national territory, and during the first years of the colony, in almost every lot of Santiago and surrounding farms, trellis holding grapevines existed, ready to make homemade wine for personal consumption. With time, this practice extended throughout the country from Coquimbo to Concepción and around 1594, 1.6 million liters of wine were produced nationally.
A brief history of Chilean wine
During the colonial period, the price of wine stayed relatively stable. It would rise or fall only in relations to a bad harvest, or the Arauco war that affected production in the south. Until the mid-19th century, the grape farming system and the technology for producing wine would stay the same. Until the emergence of capitalism, the expansion of the Chilean economy and the opening of North Atlantic commerce, a radical transformation of the wine industry took place in Chile.
Silvestre Ochagavía, a diplomat considered as the father of modern Chilean vineyards was instrumental in the modernization of wine production. Ochagavía traveled to Europe and hired French experts, who began replacing the national strain País for Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillón. The result was so successful, that other businessmen began doing the same; Domingo Fernández Concha, Bonifacio Correa Albano and Melchor Concha y Toro, among others, founded their respective vineyards and started a tradition that has lasted until today.
In 1879, Alberto Valdivieso started the production of sparkling wine. He brought, from the region of Champagne, strains of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir together with production technology. By 1880, this economic activity began to flourish, and Chilean wine acquired a new presence. Increases in production with more efficient transport systems and commercialization tactics brought Chile’s name back in to market.
In 1902, governments began to tax wine, which discouraged production. This worsened because of the prohibition in the United States, one of Chile’s biggest export markets. During this period, planting new strains was prohibited as well as the import of production technology. This caused a great downfall in the exporting market for Chile. It is important to consider that the production of País strains satisfied the internal market. It represented the popular forms of pipeño and chicha, commonly drank now a days during Chile’s independence day.
Thankfully, by 1980 wine production for export rose again. Worldwide producers recognized the quality of Chilean strains and decided to start investing in them. Modern technologies replaced the older installations, and legislation for the production of wine was introduced. This allowed Chile a comeback on the global stage of winemaking, giving it the popularity it has today.
World famous Chilean wine
Over the years, Chilean wine has become famous for constant and excellent quality at a reasonable price, positioning Chile as a popular global wine producer. New technology has helped make better quality wine every year, which in turn means better prices on the international market. The most important factor in the quality of Chilean wine is the mediterranean climate. It includes very marked seasons, dry and warm summers and large differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
White wines are fresh, easy to drink, fruity have a great balance between sweet and sour. On the other hand, red wines stand out for their color and body. Overall, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most valued, even though new strains of Syrah and Carménère are right behind. Out of all of its strains, Carménère is Chile’s most famous. Especially considering the complexities in the maturing of the strain.
Chilean Wine Route
Grapes are cultivated and made in to different types of wine all throughout the country. A great deal of knowledge and research about which techniques, climate, and locations are necessary to bring out the best of each strain and have been used to develop the Chilean wine drank nationally and all over the world.
To the north, the limit is defined by Valle del Elqui 500 km from the capital city of Santiago. Ventilated and very dry valleys make up excellent climate conditions for the region. This create ripe and sweet grapes, perfect for making Chile’s national drink: Pisco. Close by, Valle del Limarí is used for more noble strains. It consists primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, where two vineyards are open to the public: Viña Casa Tamaya and Agua Tierra.
Continuing south, still 100 km to the north of Santiago, Valle de Aconcagua offers hot days and humid nights which are ideal for wine production. The floors are sandy, rocky, and full of minerals perfect for making it’s most famous strain of Syrah. Viña Errázuriz is open to the public built with modern installations and technology. On the other hand, tourists who are interested in wine can find a variety of minor warehouses and vineyards. Among these, Viña Sánchez de Loria still produces wine liquors from antique machines.
Nearing Santiago, about an hour away by car, one of the newest wine regions rises to the public. Valle de San Antonio has only ten years in the market, but it has grown with much success thanks to the innovative technology of vineyards like Matetic, Garcés Silva and Casa Marín. Elegant Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are given a home thanks to the varied clay-like and dry floors. Also, in this region its possible to find delicious combination wines like Merlot-malbecs of the Matetic Vineyard.
Closest to Santiago, Valle del Maipo is where wine production in Chile was born back in 1555 when it was first officially certified by document. The most successful wines exported are created here including carmènére, which was thought to be extinguished worldwide. The climate in this region is stable, with warm summers and short dry winters. The use of canals that transport water from melted snow give way to the best red wine grapes. Chile’s biggest vineyards are here, including Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Cousiño Macul, Tarapacá, Carmen, and Barón de Rothschild.
100 Kilometers to the south of Santiago, lays Valle Cachapoal and is represented by Chile’s most internationally known vineyards together with Valle Colchagua. Typical mediterranean climate characterizes the central Chilean valley. It consists of very hot summers and mild winters with great variations between day and night. All this gives way to incredible wines of all different types of strains. Merlot and carménère are the most famous ones with concentrated fruity flavors with hints of chocolate and mermelade. The most popular vineyards to visit here are Lapostolle, Casa Silva, Montes, Laura Hartwig and Montgras. In Valle Colchagua especifically, the Montes Alpha, Folly, and Clos Apalta are considered icons of the Chilean winery industry. All are internationally proclaimed by the American magazine Wine Enthusiast as the “wine region of the year”.
Further south, about 220 km from the capital, Valle de Curicó is a much rainier area, with flat lands rich in minerals. Here is where the country’s largest amount of white wine is created. Also, Viña Miguel Torres was the first to start one of the countries biggest wine festival La Vendimia visited by wine lovers all over the world.
In Valle del Maule, all great strains of red and white wines are created by 16 different vineyards including Balduzzi, Casa Donoso, Calina, Domaine Oriental and Carpe Diem. Carménère is considered to be the region’s most common wine, to the point that a special event named La Noche del Carménère is celebrated the second saturday of November.
Valle de Itata starts about 400 km south of Santiago, and it is one of Chile’s most traditional winery zones, where it has grown from classic table wines to more high quality wines. The zone is known for having plenty of rain during the winter, and cold, windy days during the summer. The vineyards of Casas de Giner, Viñedos del Larqui, Tierra y Fuego and Tierras de Arrau are working to revive the lost tradition of winemaking in this zone.
Finally, the most southern border of the winery zone in the country is composed by Valle del Bío Bío. The wineries are set up around a river by the same name as the valley, almost 500 km from Santiago. Like it’s northern neighbor, this zone is known for its table wines. Winemaking activities around the BíoBío river consist of massive production of simple wines. Vineyeards like Carpe Diem, Don Francisco and VinSur create the most successful strains of Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.
As a year-round drink for almost every occasion, it’s no surprise wine occupies such a great part of Chilean culture. Most have privilege in enjoying some every day at dinner, barbecues, and with the seafood of the country. Although Chile had less time to develop the industry than its European competitors, it sure doesn’t stay behind in the race. Working every day making sure the whole world knows it’s growing and creating the best wine in the world.
Maria Paz Rodriguez Zaninovic. Born in Santiago, Chile and moved to the US at a young age. Here she began noticing the differences between societies and her curiosity grew about how people think, how countries work, and how culture affects lifestyles around the world. Although professionally a dentist, her passion for writting and photography has always been a part of her everyday life.