The story of Chilean wine begins over 450 years ago when Spanish settlers first arrived in Santiago. With them, they brought large quantities of the “mission” grape, also known as Pais, whose production quickly spread throughout the country. Today, Pais remains one of the most widely planted grapes in Chile, though it is rarely used in quality wine production. Production of Pais quickly spread throughout the country, but it wasn’t until Chile’s emancipation from Spain in the early 1800’s that the modern wine story began to unfold.
Soon after, Chile caught the eye of many prestigious families in Europe who visited and even settled in Chile, perhaps most notably those from France. Naturally, Chile’s new preoccupation with French culture combined with the French people’s desire to feel at home abroad spurred the adoption of French foods and culture including, of course, their winemaking.
One of the most important figures for Chilean winemaking at this time was Claudio Gay, the man responsible for the initial transportation of over 30 Vitis vinifera varieties to Chile. Soon following, Silvestre Ochagavia brought over notable French varieties, including Carmenere, the “Lost Grape of Bordeaux,” which was historically mistaken for Merlot until relatively recently. Around the same time, many of Chile’s most widely-known and powerful wineries opened their doors. Today, these wineries are still strong assets in the Chilean wine industry. Just ten wineries account for 53% of total production. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the rest of the world got their first taste of Chilean wine due to the country’s “closed-door” policies which prevented open trade of wine and technological advances. Throughout the 1980’s Chilean wine exports grew to 2% and since then there has been incredible growth. Over 70% of Chilean wine is exported and through this it has become the most globalized wine-producing nation in the world. To date, Chile is responsible for 8% of the world’s global market share.
It is necessary to understand the geographical structure of the country in order to understand the importance of terroir in Chile. Chile is located on the southwest side of South America nestled just south of Peru, southwest of Bolivia and east of Argentina. To the west is the Pacific Ocean which accounts for the influence of the Humboldt Current, a cold northern current that creates a great cooling affect on much of the country. The high Andes mountains border Chile on the East creating a unique geographic situation – there is greater difference in temperature east to west. Chile is one of the most unique countries in the world, not just because of its history, but largely because of the shape of the country. Similar to California, Chile is a long, narrow land mass – between the northernmost and southernmost winemaking regions there is a distance of over 3,000 miles. However, the microclimate of each region cannot be determined by its geographical location, but rather by the formation of the land.
The Andes are also somewhat responsible for the fact Chile has remained virtually unaffected by phylloxera –the louse responsible for much of the destruction of the world’s vineyards in the late 1800’s. Chile is one of the few places left in the world that can make this claim, though how this remains to be true is relatively unknown as vines from Europe were imported to Chile at the same time the disease was destroying much of the vines in Europe. To ensure Chile remains phylloxera free, the Chilean government has established strict laws on clones and vines brought into the country. Each is required to be isolated for a period of seven years before it can be released to Chile’s vineyards.
Because of Chile’s isolation from this destructive disease, Chile is one of the few wine proudcing regions in the world whose grapes grow on natural rootstock. It also means Chile is home to some of the oldest vines in the world, many nearly 150 years old. Several examples of old vine Carignan, Mourvedre and Malbec are still produced in Chile, primarily in the region of Maule and are highly sought after by those in the know.
Chile has made great advances in the use of viticulture over the past few years. There has been increased focus on the soil types, clonal selection, and geography of each region that has allowed Chilean wineries to produce higher quality grapes than ever before. Across Chile, there are approximately 117,559 hectares of vineyard coverage that are dedicated to winemaking. The country is dominated by red grapes at 73% of the total vineyard area with Cabernet Sauvignon being the most widely planted variety accounting for approximately 38% of the vines. Next in line for quality wine producing grapes is Chardonnay, though it is the third most widely planted variety, followed by Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenere, Moscatel of Alexandria, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Malbec/Cot, Semillon, Viognier, Riesling and finally Gewurztraminer. Other grapes are grown in Chile, but they make up a very small percentage of total production.
Despite the fact that most wines in Chile are not certified organic, many have still made the choice to practice organic and biodynamic viticulture; maintaining a natural equilibrium is of great importance.
Chile’s strict laws of the importation of vines have allowed the country to keep all damaging disease and insect populations at a controllable level. Still some winemakers are experimenting with rootstocks as new clones enter the market to help fight against diseases that are present within Chile such as nematodes, and also to help fight drought. Because of the location of many of Chile’s vineyards, most of the vineyard sites are irrigated, drip irrigation is the most common at 78%.
Chile has made large strides in winemaking technology in the past few years, focusing on the use of state-of-the-art facilities and tools. Many of Chile’s wineries are now run by a new generation that was trained in prestigious wineries and schools throughout the world. Their new knowledge in combination with the adoption of updated winemaking practices such as whole-cluster fermentation, pneumatic presses, destemming and smaller fermentation vessels has resulted in a superior product.
Chile has five DO classified regions and within these regions each classified valley lies
Chile’s wine label laws live by the rule of 75% (must be 85% to be distributed in all export markets)