Chile is one of South America's most important wine-producing countries. Occupying a thin strip down the western coast of the continent, it is home to a wide range of terroirs, leading some commentators to describe the country as a "winegrower's paradise". An equally wide range of wine styles are made here as a result, from the crisp, grassy Sauvignon Blanc of the Casablanca and Elqui valleys to the elegant, age-worthy Bordeaux Blends made in both Maipo Valley and Colchagua.
Chile spans 2700 miles (4300km) of land running north-south between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. The topography is very favorable to viticulture, and despite the fact that Chile is only 100 miles (160km) wide, most climatic variation in the wine-growing regions happens from east to west, rather than from north to south. The Pacific, with its Antarctic Humboldt Current, brings cooling breezes to coastal vineyards, while the sheltering presence of the Coastal mountain range makes Chile's Central Valley relatively warm and dry. Along the eastern edge of the country, in the foothills of the Andes, high altitudes and abundant meltwater rivers make for a different terroir again.
© Jonathan Reeve
Chile has been a wine-producing country since the first European settlers arrived in the mid-16th century. The original vines, to make sacramental wine, were brought by Catholic missionaries directly from Spain or via Peru or California. The Mission grape variety – known here as Pais – was widely planted during this time.
It wasn't until the 19th Century that viticulture began to expand in Chile, mainly due to the spread of wealth associated with mining in the Atacama Desert. European trends started to infiltrate Santiago, and a wine-growing industry sprang up in the south of the city, around the Maipo Valley. Wine estates were built, with the styles of both wine and architecture heavily modeled on those of France. The estate vineyards of Concha y Toro, Cousino Macul and Santa Rita were established in this time.
Throughout the 20th Century, Chilean wine was limited to a domestic market, but a push toward quality in the latter half of the century saw an uptake in the international market. Whereas Chilean winemakers had traditionally used tanks and barrels made of beech wood, in the 1980s stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels were introduced, marking the start of a technology-driven era.
The Chilean viticultural industry is often associated with consistent, good-value wines, but some world-class reds are also made, commanding high prices. Traditionally, this mantle has been filled by the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but Pinot Noir from the cooler parts of Chile is beginning to make an impression.
Like many New World countries, Chile has adopted a signature grape variety, Carmenere, once widely grown in Bordeaux. It was thought to be extinct following the European phylloxera outbreaks of the 19th century, but was rediscovered in Chile in the 1990s. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the forbidding barrier of the Andes on the other, Chile's vineyards have remained protected from phylloxera, allowing Carmenere to flourish.