Chile is considered a New World country, but the wine industry is certainly seasoned. Quality Chilean wines have been exploding over the past three decades, but the first vines were planted in the 1500s. In the 1800s, immigrants from Europe brought even more varieties to Chile.
It wasn’t until recently that Chilean wine has been enjoyed by anyone except residents of the country itself. As Chile started exporting their wine, the world took notice of the value and quality of the wines, causing it to expand rapidly.
Chile is a small country, but the wine industry is diverse, lending excitement to the types of grapes, varying climate, and varieties of wine. From festive and refreshing to bold and deep, there’s a wine for everyone from Chile.
About Chilean Wine
Chile is on the west coast of South America. It’s a little strip of land that’s long and narrow, but the topography makes it unique. It stretches so far from north to south that the climate varies greatly depending on where you go.
The Pacific Ocean is on the west and the Andes are on the east with the Atacama Desert to the north and the Patagonia region to the south. Chile is protected on all sides by some sort of natural landscape.
The benefits of this type of protection are that the phylloxera devastation that plagued the rest of the world’s vines in 1800 didn’t affect Chilean vines at all. Chile has always been the only country free of phylloxera. These are some of the oldest vines in the world and many of them are ungrafted.
The older a grapevine gets, the more nuanced and concentrated it becomes, making these ancient vines a huge asset to all Chilean vintners who strive to make a living cultivating these plants for wine production.
The narrowest country in the world is only 110 miles wide. However, it stretches for almost 2600 miles along the coast from north to south, which means it’s longer than the distance from Los Angeles to New York.
The benefit of Chile’s geography is the dramatically varying climate. All regions benefit from plenty of sunshine and dry conditions, which is a natural repellant for the disease. It can be a challenge to deal with lack of water, but Chile’s climate is a natural resource for biodynamic, sustainable, and organic wine production.
Chilean Wine History
The history of the wine industry in Chile starts with the Spanish conquerors who arrived in the mid-1500s. These missionaries introduced their grapevines to the land in order to produce wine for their Catholic rituals. Records state that the first Chilean vineyards were planted at the north end of the country by Francisco de Aguirre Copiago.
In 1554, Diego Garcia de Caceres planted vines in Santiago. These vines proliferated and were used for mass production. Wine production continued to migrate south throughout the country and within 100 years, it had reached more than 345 miles to the Bio Bio River and beyond.
Wine exports in Chile increased at a rapid pace in the late 1700s and they began competing with the finest European wines in the international market. It was after Chile’s independence from Spain in 1818 that the wine industry blossomed.
Chile’s Modern Wine History
In 1830, French explorer, botanist, and illustrator Claude Gay influenced the government in Chile to create the Quinta Normal de Agricultura. This state-driven project involved implanting, domesticating, breeding, and propagating new species for the purpose of a better understanding of grapes and how they grow in the region.
Grapes from Italy and France were then imported to “the Quinta” for wine production. By 1850, the Quinta had more than 70 varieties of grapes and more than 40,000 vines. After Bordeaux arrived, Chile wine production entered the modern era.
In 1851, Don Silvestre Ochagava Echazarreta introduced Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Semillon. These vines adapted easily to Chile’s climate and because the phylloxera epidemic didn’t hit Chile, these are the only known clones of grapes in the world today that existed prior to the devastation.
In the 1880s, Chile exported and marketed their wines in the European market, and the quality of their wines was recognized in many competitions. In 1889 they won the Grand Prix in Paris. Fast forward to 1938, when Chile’s exports reached maximum levels and the vineyards surpassed 100,000 hectares.
The wine industry began to decline during World War II and entered a time of recess until 1980. Taxes were levied on the wine industry, causing it to suffer, and the social policies put in place to limit the consumption of alcohol took a toll.
Despite the fact that the country’s population had doubled since 1938, the number of hectares of vineyards only grew to 106,000. The decline in demand for Chilean wines both domestically and internationally caused a drop in grape prices, and half of Chile’s vines were uprooted.
Recovery and Rebirth
When Chile returned to democracy in 1990, the wine industry began to grow. Slowly but surely, it added 10,000 hectares of vineyards in various strains and an influx of investment in new technologies saw a growth in the international market and demand.
Today, Chile is lauded for being an excellent global producer of wines and spirits. Centuries of experience make these some of the most popular wines in the world. The combination of sunlight, soil, humidity, and temperature lead to world-class grape growth and wine production.
Because of the dry summer season, the vineyards are naturally resistant to infestation and the natural landscape creates a barrier against all kinds of threats. Chilean wine is some of the most organic in the world because winemakers can rely less on chemical agents due to a natural resistance to pests and disease.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada lead exports of Chilean wine, but exports today reach five continents and exceed $1.2 billion. Foreign investment from international vintners like Kendall-Jackson, Bruno Prat, Rothschild, and many others is propelling the industry forward. Everyone is attracted to ideal conditions, quality fruit, healthy crops, and growing demand.
Chilean Wine Varieties
The wines in Chile vary as much as the regions do. The country of Chile is a great expanse from north to south, and the wines vary based on where they’re from. While Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape, each region adds its own unique touch to every bottle, and no two are the same.
This wine is more lightly colored and less tannic than many others with flavors like juicy plums, black cherry, smoked bell pepper, pencil lead, and mint. You can find much great value Cabernet Sauvignon in regions like Maipo, Maule, and Colchagua Valley.
If you’re looking for finer Cabernet Sauvignon, check out Maipo Valley for bolder styles and darker notes like cocoa powder and blackberry. There are also Bordeaux-styled Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the Colchagua Valley.
Vintages 2009 or 2011-2014 are excellent. If you go for a 2015 vintage, it may be more tannic because of the heat of the summer that year. However, it is still excellent. Top brands producing Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile include Santa Rita, Lapostolle, Veramonte, Emiliana, Montes, San Pedro, and Concha y Toro.
Chile makes Chardonnay with tropical flavors, much like you would find in California, but it has crisper, sharper acidity because of the cool ocean breezes. You can expect refreshing flavors like baked peach, pineapple, lemon, or meringue with a creamy finish.
Chardonnay is affordable in regions like Aconcagua and Maipo and they are fantastic representations of delicious Chardonnay from Chile. For finer Chardonnay, check out San Antonio Valley, Casablanca Valley, or Leyda Valley. If you want starfruit and mineral notes, head farther south to the Malleco Valley.
Sauvignon Blanc from Chile offers zesty mineral flavors and great value. Even the finest Sauvignon Blanc from Chile is under $25. You’ll find flavors like white peach, grapefruit, and lemon-lime with a racy finish. They model a ripe white Bordeaux style.
Aconcagua, San Antonio, Leyda, and Casablanca Valleys produce the best Sauvignon Blanc. Even the steep valleys of the Elqui Valley where the sun rarely shines makes some very intriguing Sauvignon Blanc.
As with Chardonnay, 2012-2014 are great vintages, and because of the early harvest in 2016, this year also has potential.
When grapes are blended in the Bordeaux style, they make a complex and enjoyable drinking experience. Every Bordeaux is different based on which wines are blended, but Chile’s version is fantastically unique.
Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec, and Carmenere are used to make some of the best wines in Chile. You’ll often find these excellent varieties labeled with names just as unique, like Alpha M, Don Maximiano, Auma, or Alluvion.
The potential blending options are endless, so the flavors range from plum, raspberry, and dried blackberry to savory olives and pepper with a smoky finish. You can’t go wrong with the value Bordeaux from Rapel or Maipo Valley.
For fine Bordeaux blends, check out Alto Colchagua, Aconcagua, or Los Lingues. Find years 2009 or 2011-2014 for excellent quality reds of all kinds that make a fantastic Bordeaux.
One teensy little mistake is likely what saved Carmenere from extinction when it was first transplanted. Many people thought it was Merlot, and took great care in preserving it for that reason. This happy accident was due in part to the fact that is has a very similar profile.
Like Merlot, it is a light-bodied, juicy wine that contains black cherry and plum with mild tannins. However, what makes Carmenere different is its Pyrazine aroma compound. This characteristic brings forth more bell pepper, black pepper, and cocoa powder flavors.
Find both value and fine Carmenere in Colchagua, Cachapoal, and Rapel Valleys. Great vintages include 2009 and 2011-2014.
Syrah is distinct and elegant, but it’s an up and comer in many wine communities. They have notes of spiced meat with black and red plummy fruits. Bold tannins are a characteristic of Chilean Syrah as opposed to Syrah from other places around the world. This allows Chilean Syrah to age much better than other Syrah wines.
Some fine examples of Syrah from Chile include the Rapel Valley region which contains Colchagua and Cachapoal Valleys. It also grows alongside Chardonnay in regions like Leyda and Casablanca Valley. If you want value Syrah, look for anything from Choapa, Limari, or Elqui Valley.
Seek out vintages like 2009 or 2011-2014 for excellent reds. If you like bold, herbaceous tannins, the hot weather of 2015 made a bottle of excellent red wine.
Pinot Noir from Chile features flavors as plush as plum, black cherry, and allspice. Floral aromas include bergamot with a spiced but creamy finish. It is smooth and round with low tannins. The best Pinot Noir regions are close to the cost with Leyda, Casablanca, and San Antonio Valley leading the way.
You may also find intriguing Pinot Noir in Coquimbo, Limari Valley, Malleco Valley, and Bio-Bio. Pinot Noir from farther south is much more floral and delicate. Years 2009 or 2011-2014 are worth trying.
Up and Coming Chilean Wines
Aside from these popular varieties, there are a couple of other distinct Chilean wines rising to fame among adventurous wine lovers. If your taste buds are up for some exploring, try these out for something new.
- Pais: Also known as Listan Prieto, these grapes are some of the oldest in the Central Valley. This variety came from the Spanish Islands and is light in color with punchy, red fruit flavors. Chile’s terroir adds a touch of herbaceous, meaty spice to the sweet fruit.
- Carignan: Once again, the Central Valley is experimenting with something new. The VIGNO project intends to champion and protect old Carignan vines. With notes of roasted plum and raspberry, these wines are fruity with a minerality like graphite.
Chilean Wine Regions
Your vacation to Chile wouldn’t be complete unless you explored each wine valley and the flavors that flow out of it. The wine regions have greatly flourished and expanded since the first settlers in the 1500s and Chile is one of the largest wine producers in the world, so there’s a lot to see.
Each region has its own climate variations and production specialties. They lend themselves to different types of wine because of their diversity. With mountains, oceans, deserts, and ice, Chile provides breathtaking scenery of all kinds.
Actually, the Colchagua Valley lies within the Rapel Valley region, but it has become more well known that the region where it resides. It is south of Santiago by about 110 miles and is one of the best wine regions in the country.
This region is known for Malbec, Syrah, and Carmenere. It’s regularly featured on leading lists throughout the world. It’s a quiet valley with cool ocean breezes but has been transformed into the most important red wine regions in the world with wineries like Montes and Casa Lapostolle leading the way.
There’s a lot of Chilean history in this region from the grapevines dating back to the first Spanish conquistadors to the Bordeaux importation in the 19th century. After it made a name for itself, the wine industry really took shape.
Today, the Maipo Valley is known for its Cabernet-based wines from wineries like Santa Rita’s Casa Real and Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor. This is the closest region to Santiago, but the wineries stretch all the way to the Andes Mountains. Touring wineries is the perfect way to spend a weekend of your vacation while enjoying both the city and the majestic mountains.
The most interesting thing about this wine region is that the vineyards on the side of the mountain have to wait for the sun to rise over the Argentinean side of the Andes. They won’t see any warm sunlight until the afternoon. Coupled with the cool mountain breeze, these grapes make elegant, rich, and bold Cabernet.
This is one of the northernmost regions in Chile. Regions near the equator aren’t normally associated with winegrowing, but the Limari Valley seems to accomplish it with grace. The brilliant green vines and dry, arid soil promote exceptional growth.
The nearby Pacific Ocean and the Atacama Desert create a unique microclimate that is home to San Pedro, Santa Rita, and Concha y Toro wineries. You’ll find refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Chardonnay with a mineral edge.
Just north of the capital city stands the Aconcagua Mountain, holding enough fresh water to feed the wine valley below. This region is known for the mountain it’s named after. It also happens to be the tallest mountain in all of the Americas. However, it’s making a name for itself in wine production, too.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes have a lot of success here because of the warm climate with cool, high altitudes. Not to mention, the breathtaking scenery of the mountains and the atmosphere of the Vina Errazuriz winery make for a great escape.
The Casablanca Valley saw its first grapes as late as the 1980s, so the fact that it’s already on the map as a prominent wine region in Chile is no small feat. These were the first cool-climate vineyards planted by Pablo Morande, or El Pionero as he’s known in the history books.
Today, this region thrives on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. These wines have coastal aromas and majestic appeal. They are crisp and refreshing and have been lauded all over the world. Matetic is one of the most famous vineyards in this region.
Chilean Wine Recommendations
The following are among some of the best value wines that anyone can try. They’re excellent wines at a great price and worth venturing out to find.
Concha y Toro, Marques de Casa Concha, Limari Valley, 2016
This Concha Chardonnay from Marcelo Papa is a lean and mineral savory wine. By picking early and aging in oak, this Chardonnay achieves complex flavors like nectarine and pear with just a bit of cashew.
It has a lovely, silky texture with a great finish. You can always depend on Concha y Toro to make dependably delicious wines at a fantastic price that meets your budget and allows you to enjoy even more.
Matetic, EQ Chardonnay, San Antonio, Chile, 2015
Yes, there’s already a Chardonnay on our list, but we couldn’t resist this one either. The San Antonio Valley has pioneers of cool-climate wines that continue to blaze the trail for high-class Chardonnay.
This is the every-so-famous Matetic vineyard we talked about earlier and they’re offering a Chardonnay with fresh, punchy acidity and sweet peach fruits. The dry, saline finish is crisp and refreshing. It can be enjoyed well into next year.
Montes, Folly, Colchagua Valley, Chile, 2015
The dry farming of the Montes Folly makes a wine that wows. These grapes are from exceptionally steep vineyards in the Colchagua Valley. They feature a beautiful deep purple color with intense blackberry and blueberry aromas. A dense palate of juniper, pepper, kirsch, and bilberries has a hedonistic finish.
After aging for two years in a French oak barrel, you’ll also enjoy full fruit flavors with lusciously sleek tannins and flexible acidity. It’s a compelling wine that’s one of the most magnificent on our list. You can’t afford to miss this one.
Casa Silva, Micro Terroir Carmenere, Los Lingues, 2011
The Silva family has always exhausted their search for the perfect terroir expression in Los Lingues. They carefully select each micro-plot for the perfect parcel to grow Carmenere fruit. This results in an incomparable spicy, smoky character.
The 2011 vintage has ripe black fruits with a savory finish. It is deep, lengthy, and wonderful.
Vina Galdolfini, Las 3 Marias, Maipo Valley, Chile, 2013
A powerfully intense nose announces itself in this classy Cabernet from Maipo Valley. It is full and refined, with spicy blackcurrant and blackberry fruits. Enjoy the bitumen and tar finish with sleek tannins and sophisticated acidity. It has plenty of structure that makes it good now but allows it to age well for later.
3 Reasons to Choose Chilean Wine
Chilean wineries commit themselves not only to producing the best wines, but to the entire growing, harvesting, and the winemaking process. Chile has spent years finding the best plots of land for vineyards and experimenting with the ideal harvest seasons.
Many different winemaking techniques have come together to perfect some of the best wines in the world. There are plenty of reasons to give Chilean wine a try, but here are our three favorites.
Cool Climate Quality
When immigrants first came to Chile from Europe and began planting vineyards, they seized the land in the Central Valley first. This gave them access to Santiago coupled with the land that was easy to irrigate and large parcels with plenty of room to grow.
Vintners in the 1990s began to realize how similar the land in Chile was to that of Northern California, where many winemakers were already thriving, which led to a winning formula involving seizing all of the available land they could in cool regions close to the coast.
Over time, they dug wells and tapped rivers, using the natural resources available to them to cause the grapes to thrive. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, winemakers had to rip out bad vines and replace them with new clones that were better suited for the cooler climate.
These clones are nearing maturity today and you’ll find some remarkable wines in these cooler climates, just miles from the coast. As Chilean winemakers learn when to harvest, they become more adept at picking the best grapes and making new recipes that fit with what they’re trying to do.
Yes, you’ll find some fantastic old world wines in Europe, but Chilean winemakers have something spectacular to offer, and the cool climate is one of the main reasons why.
Another compelling reason why you should try Chilean wine is that Chile is known for powerful, warm, and unique blends. Instead of finding the same blends made from the same varietals all the time, Chile is experimenting with plenty of new things.
Viu Manent has a Malbec called Viu 1, and it’s a fantastic example of something fresh. It comes from a vineyard that’s almost a century old, but instead of focusing on maximum ripeness, extraction, and high alcohol levels, the vintner is more concerned with freshness.
While Malbec is a familiar product because of its popularity in neighboring Argentina, this new approach has been taking over red blends in Chile. New varietals and new ways of harvesting them are going into many other well-known blends and a few new ones.
Kuyen is a blend containing Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot hailing from the Alto Maipo region. The recipe varies from year to year based on climate and grape growth, but they are opening themselves up to this experimentation and it’s working.
Picking the correct harvest times and the correct processes for winemaking have allowed the blends to do just that – blend. And they do it better because, in their natural state, they are more compatible with one another.
Value Reds and Fine Wines
Chile long met the demand for cheap wine by producing millions of bottles of the stuff using sprawling vineyards and cheap labor costs. However, this lifeblood soon became a curse in the sense that people thought the only thing Chile could make was cheap wine.
By using the resources at their disposal, Chile was able to produce millions of bottles of affordable wine to meet the demand. However, the perception was that the industry was only about money rather than quality.
To offset that idea, virtually every winery in the country now has an “icon” wine that they sell for at least $50 a bottle. The snobbery of consumers makes it hard for these wineries to sell expensive wine, but consistent quality changed minds slowly but surely.
Fortunately, value and quality are subjective, and Chile’s wine industry varies enough to offer something for everyone. From excellent wines under $15 to “icon” varieties in the hundreds, the value is in the eye of the beholder.
When you think of wine, you may not immediately think of trying something from Chile. However, Chile contains some of the oldest vines in the world, some of the best climates for growth and production, and some of the most innovative vintners around.
Whether you’re looking for scenic views, exotic experiences, or fantastic wine tours, Chile is one spot you should never overlook. While you can’t beat drinking wine on location, you’ll find something from Chile that you’re guaranteed to love at almost any liquor store and almost any country.