Guides to Chile’s Wine Regions
Chilean Wines: A Journey from Historic Roots to Global Acclaim
In recent years, the wines of Chile have become firmly established on the international wine scene, with the country enjoying certain heightened fame after its wine industry recovered from a devastating earthquake in 2010. The resilience and dynamism of the Chilean wine industry were apparent for all to see as they quickly responded to the needs of their grape growers by providing accommodation and support in those turbulent times. Chile has, in a relatively short space of time, risen to the forefront of the global wine industry, and its growth and progress continue apace.
Traditionally, the country’s reputation was built on value and, particularly in the case of Chilean reds, a forward, ripe, fruity style. However, more recently, some impressive and often astounding super-premium wines have been produced, suggesting that the country is starting to harness the potential of its terroirs. There is still work to be done, but the best examples from Chile now compete favorably with their counterparts in Australia and California.
Chile’s Viticultural Beginnings
Despite being labeled a ‘New World’ wine-producing country, Chile’s viticultural history began in the mid-sixteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores. Their missionaries planted vines to provide wine for the Catholic mass rituals. Francisco de Aguirre Copiapó, who planted vines in northern Chile, was credited with starting Chile’s foray into wine production. Over the next 100 years, planting increased and moved south, reaching beyond the Bío Bío River. Chile’s wine production grew, as did international exports in the 18th century, and by 1831, 19 million vines were planted across the country.
We can trace the modern history of wine production in Chile back to one man, visiting Frenchman Claude Gay. He saw the potential for high-quality wine production and convinced the government to create a state body to manage, regulate, and promote the emerging Chilean industry. Vineyard plantings multiplied, and when Don Silvestre Echazarreta brought the great Bordeaux varieties back from France, the country was well and truly placed on the wine map. Grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc flourish in the benign climate and are noted for being the only surviving clones of grapes that were not affected by the Phylloxera louse that plagues vineyards worldwide. By the late 19th century, Chilean wines were making a name for themselves in European markets, winning awards and competitions, culminating in 1889 when a Chilean wine won the ‘Grand Prix’ in Paris.
20th-Century Challenges and Recovery
In the 20th century, the country’s flagship wine industry suffered and entered a period of decline. The Second World War saw demand for Chilean wine fall, a recession that did not decrease until the late 1980s. The government levied high taxes on the wine industry, and government policy designed to combat alcohol abuse hurt the nation’s winemakers. The late 1970s saw domestic demand drop considerably for Chilean wine, and over half the vineyards were uprooted. Salvation came with the return to democracy in 1990 after the nation’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was overthrown. A new, stable democracy embraced the country’s wine industry. Between 1990 and 1993, an additional 10,000 hectares of vines were planted with the most significant investment program the Chilean wine industry had ever experienced.
Today, wine producers worldwide cast an envious eye over Chile’s wonderful grape-growing climate; its valleys receive a magical combination of soil, sunlight, and cool, moderating coastal breezes, which lead to world-class grapes and wine. The dry, warm growing season is a natural barrier to vineyard diseases and pests and a desirable place to grow vines. Outside investors, sensing the potential of Chile’s terroirs, have shown great interest in the country, including such famous names as Miguel Torres, Lafite Rothschild, and Pernod Ricard. Every year, new wines and producers emerge, suggesting that this stunningly beautiful and dramatic corner of the wine map is most definitely on the rise!
Chile’s Diverse Viticultural Zones and Microclimates
Today, the modern viticultural map of Chile is split into five zones. Running from north to south, they are Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Valle Central, and the Region del Sur. These zones contain several sub-regions, and these may also be further subdivided. Each region offers a distinct terroir, and invariably, certain varieties are more suited to a particular sub-zone, although there is some overlap in grape variety plantings. It is important not to underestimate the effect of local microclimates or the proximity to the coast or mountains when asking for an overview of Chile’s viticultural climate. The country enjoys a benign, warm Mediterranean climate that has facilitated organic grape growing relatively easily; diseases are not generally prevalent in Chile’s vineyards. The growing season, while naturally varying from region to region, often shows large variations between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which both red and white varieties thrive on. Elements such as coastal fogs, vineyard altitude, and proximity to the Andes conspire to offer the wine grower an extremely varied mosaic of terroirs and growing conditions. Indeed, Chile’s landscape and soil variation is staggering, with alluvial clay, sand, and loam soils all present. Snow-capped Mountains, desserts, wide valleys, and dramatic coastal scenery – check. This truly is the land of diversity, as the following regional overviews demonstrate.
Chilean Wine Regions
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