- History - A history of Chilean Wine and winemaking
History of Chilean Wine
Chiles wine history goes way back, nearly 450 years, to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. These soldiers and explorers brought vine seeds with them from the old world, and promptly introduced these species to the Americas. The first vineyard in Chile, established in 1540 by Spaniard Francisco de Aguirre, grew well in the northern town of La Serena. This success led to further plantings around the central Santiago area. At this time, the chief grape was País, which grows easily but has weak flavors.
Wine production in Chile failed to expand quickly despite the favorable climate zones, due to the powerful native groups in the region. For the most part, the Spaniards were not welcome, and outlying vineyards were attacked and destroyed. Furthermore, winemakers in Spain resented the import of Chilean wines, and hence disapproved of their expansion. In fact, in 1744 the king of Spain prohibited the sale of Chilean wine in Spain or any of its colonies outside of Chile.
Chiles wine fortunes improved in 1822, when the former colony gained its independence. A wine and agricultural school was established, and French and Italian immigrants began the work of improving and expanding Chiles vineyards. During the phylloxera epidemic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chiles geographical isolation kept its vines safe, and its wine exports filled much of the demand in Europe and North America.
In the 1930s, overseas demand reduced as European wineries began to recover. Furthermore, the event of World War Two cut shipping lines and isolated Chile even more. Overproduction therefore became rampant, and laws were put in place to stem this disastrous trend. In the 1980s, Chile finally began to emerge from its viticultural woes, investing heavily in technology and modernization techniques to improve its vineyards. With the rise of democracy in the 1990s these efforts paid off handsomely. In the last ten years of the twentieth century Chiles revenue from wine exports increased dramatically, and vine cultivation expanded throughout the countrys wine regions.
Today Chile leads its rival South American wine-producing countries both in terms of volume and quality of its exports. Cheap land and labor costs keep wine prices low, so the countrys wines have been particularly successful in the inexpensive wine market.
- Overview - An overview of Chilean wine.
Overview of Chilean Wine
In the wine imports section of the average U.S. store, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Australian wines typically dominate. However, in the last decade or so, Chilean wines have made their way into this coveted location. Spurred by rapid economic growth at home and dramatic technological advances, Chiles wine outperforms and out-competes that of any other country in South America.
Over 3000 miles long (greater than the distance from San Francisco to New York), Chile is never much more than 200 miles wide. Therefore every major wine region in the country lies relatively close to the ocean. Stretching from the incredibly arid Atacama Desert in the north to the storm-swept, Antarctic Tierra del Fuego in the south, Chile spans every imaginable climate zone as well. This unique geographical situation has granted Chile with countless perfect wine production areas which the country is now using to its fullest.
Though many of its wine regions produce no fine wines of note and are devoted to the cheap Pais grape, Chiles finer areas are capable of making top wines in the low to mid price level. A few top wineries have produced incredible wines rivaling the best in the world. With a population of just fifteen million and vast potential to expand and improve its viticulture, Chile will undoubtedly be a significant wine producer in the future.
Valle de Aconcagua
Nestled between the coastal mountains and the towering Andes Range, the Aconcagua Valley takes its name from the imposing Mount Aconcagua. Towering nearly 23,000 feet above sea level, this peak is the tallest mountain in the South America and the entire Western Hemisphere. Wineries here make use of the area’s dry climate to produce strong, fruity wine; the best of this sub-region are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Aconcagua Valley’s history is recorded into the time of the Incas, who were so enthralled by the valley’s beauty that they named it "aldea donde se pone el sol,” or ‘village where the sun is put.’ The Spanish colonizers found it beautiful as well, and were awed by the majesty of the mountain of Aconcagua overlooking the valley. Initially planted with orchards, Aconcagua Valley now splits its terrain between fruit and wine production.
Located north of Santiago between the coastal range and the Andes Mountains.
Aconcagua Valley has a hot and dry climate tempered by some maritime influences and cool air off the Andes.
Vineyards are grown along the flat valley floor, with the occasional vine planting along the slopes of the valley’s borders.
Aconcagua Valley’s soil consists of rocky hillsides and sandy, relatively unfertile alluvial plains. Drainage is excellent.
Cabernet Sauvignon : Generally fruity and intense, due to the dryer climate and warm temperatures.
Valle de Casablanca
Roughly fifty miles west of the capital city of Santiago, the Casablanca Valley is a new and rapidly expanding wine sub-region. Fairly cool and coastal, this area has provided Chile with an excellent location to produce exciting, high-quality white wines, an area in which the country has not traditionally excelled.
Viticulture began in the Casablanca Valley in the 1980s, making this sub-region the youngest major wine area in Chile. It served a leading role in turning around Chile’s reputation for white wines, and made the country famous for fruity Sauvignon Blanc. As the main highway from Santiago to Valparaíso cuts through the valley, Casablanca’s wine tourism industry has expanded along with its production.
Located northwest of Santiago, along the highway to the coastal city of Valparaíso.
Cool and somewhat coastal, especially compared to the hotter regions of Aconcagua Valley and the Maipó Valley. Casablanca Valley also picks up more moisture than the inland valleys.
Vineyards grow along the valley floor, and have spread into the surrounding hills as well.
The soil types vary extensively. Sandy loam, clay, and gravel are all present. Fertility is generally low, which allows for the production of high-quality wines.
Chardonnay :Classy, fruity, and good.
Sauvignon Blanc :The most well known variety of the region.
Pinot Noir :The valley’s only popular red variety can be quite elegant and smooth.
Valle de Curicó
120 miles south of Santiago, the Curicó Valley is an expansive region with plenty of space for wine production. Blessed with a true Mediterranean climate of warm summers and cool winters, this sub-region produces good red and white varieties of wine, although a lot of basic wine is made as well. With its rolling hills, microclimates ideal for fine wines are abundant, and local wineries have taken advantage. Even foreign wine companies, such as Spain’s Miguel Torres, have invested in the Curicó Valley area.
Spaniard Jose Manso de Velasco founded the town of Curicó, the center of the wine sub-region, in 1743. Vineyards were planted sparsely throughout the region as settlers began to move in, but no concerted wine production effort was made until the late 1800s. Curicó Valley’s importance was principally agricultural, with countless apple and cherry orchards dotting the landscape. Today the valley’s orchard space is shared with vineyards, as the economic force of wine has become a powerful force in the Curicó.
Located 120 miles south of Santiago in a very broad valley between the coastal range and the Andes
The climate of the Curicó valley is mild Mediterranean, with fairly hot and dry summers and cooler, wetter winters. Extreme temperatures remain rare year round.
The Curicó Valley is covered with gently rolling hills and slopes separated by broad flat sections of valley. Elevation is moderate, with the valley floor about 600 feet above sea level. The best wine grapes are typically grown on the sloping terrain.
Soils are uniform throughout the Curicó Valley, and are composed chiefly of clay loam and volcanic material.
Red Wines dominate, with much of the land devoted to growing the low-quality Pais variety.
Valle del Maipó
Chile’s top wine region, Maipó Valley is also its oldest. Situated just south of Santiago within the Central Valley, this sub-region has warm weather cooled by the Andes and is a popular destination for wine tourists. The valley contains many of Chile’s top wineries: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, and Cousiño Macul, the country’s oldest winery. Maipó is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first vineyards were planted along the Maipó River in the sixteenth century, making this one of the oldest wine growing areas in South America. Maipó’s wine production increased quickly thanks to its proximity to Santiago, and remained successful throughout Chile’s wine struggles in the first half of the twentieth century. Recently, Santiago’s suburban sprawl has begun to encroach upon the vineyards of Maipó, so vineyards are now being planted farther to the south and west, away from the city.
Located just south of Santiago in a broad valley between the coastal range and the Andes
The Maipó Valley has a moderate climate thanks to cool air coming off the Andes.
Vineyards are mostly confined to the flat valley floor.
Soil in the Maipó valley is rocky, with broad alluvial sands and volcanic materials.
Similar to the region of Atacama, Coquimbo is a hot, desert region with climates mostly unsuitable for the production of fine wine. There are some exceptions, but most grapes are still used to sell as grapes or to produce Pisco, a type of brandy. The Elqui Valley, a picturesque area joining the coast and the desert, is a popular tourist destination within Coquimbo.
Similar to the region of Coquimbo, Atacama is a hot, desert region with climates mostly unsuitable for the production of fine wine. There are some exceptions, but most grapes are still used to sell as grapes or to produce Pisco, a type of brandy.
Cool and wet, this region of Chile has been in wine production for hundreds of years but produces few fine wine crops. Most of the territory is devoted to Pais or other cheap varities, and only recently have Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay made strides forward. The region is separated into two sub-regions, Itata and Bío-Bío. The former produces nearly twenty percent of Chile’s grapes, but again most are of poor quality. The southernmost wine area in all of Chile, Bío-Bío struggles with spring frosts and wet weather, but is a sub-region to look out for cool-climate varieties in the coming years.
Valle de Maule
With over 40,000 acres in wine production, the Maule Valley has the largest amount of land allocated to vineyards of any sub-region in Chile. Though reds make a strong showing, the majority of the valley goes to white wine production, specifically Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Good portions of vineyards still produce the domestically sold Pais grape as well. The Maule Valley is the southernmost sub-region within the Central Valley, with a Mediterranean climate similar to its northern neighbor, Curicó.
Valle de Rapel
South of the Maipó Valley, but still relatively close to Santiago, the Rapel Valley excels in the production of Carmenere. This grape, cultivated almost exclusively within Chile, is similar to Merlot and was in fact thought to be the same variety until the 1990s. The Rapel Valley differentiates itself from its northern neighbor, Maipó, by having a much cooler climate. The coastal range is low at this latitude, so chilly sea breezes blow into the inland valley. The sub-region’s wine production has expanded dramatically within the last decade, with red varieties holding a clear majority.