Welcome to my notes on the chilean wine! Before delving into all the aspects of viticulture in Chile, let's make a very brief summary to help us fix the key concepts and make the following paragraphs easier to flow through. The climate in Chile is very different in different areas: in the Central Valley the climate is temperate while in the south and on the coast it is cooler. Despite the scarcity of rainfall, irrigation is possible thanks to the numerous rivers coming down from the Andes. Soils are varied, sometimes excessively fertile and deep. I Most cultivated white grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay while the most cultivated black grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carmenére. Thanks to theabsence of phylloxera the vines are all free-standing. Since the end of 1980, technologies have been modernstainless steel tanks for fermentation and French oak barriques for ageing were introduced. The key wine-growing areas are the Rapel Valley (Rapel Cabernet Sauvignon), the Colchagua Valley, Maipo and Casablanca (wine: Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc). Now I would say that you are ready to descend into the magical world of Chilean wine, as always for your convenience I have created a handy index to facilitate your study. To use it correctly, I remind you to unlock the entire article!
- History of wine
- Climate and the Territory
- Grape varieties
- Wine-growing areas
- Viticulture and vinification
- Key Wines
- Typical dishes & Food & Wine Pairing
1. Chilean wine: the history
The chilean wine has a relatively long history for a New World wine-growing area. Wordplay aside, the grapevine entered Chile in the first half of the 1500s thanks to the Spanish conquistadores who implanted it in one place after another as they colonised the country, especially around the capital Santiago. Legend has it that the famous conquistador Francisco de Aguirre planted the first vine himself in 1554. The very first vines to be planted were the ancestors of the Pais vine, the 'common black grape' that Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico and Peru in 1520. At the end of the century, Chile's first historian, Alonso de Ovalle, described the plantations of Muscatel, Mollar, Albilho and Torontel. The missionaries began to cultivate vines with dedication to satisfy the needs of all the Spaniards living in Chile.
After all the Spanish were great consumers and connoisseurs of wine and it is not surprising that starting production was one of their priorities once they moved to South America. Let us also not forget that the Spanish people of the time was a fervent Catholic and wine was also essential for officiating at mass. Nor is it surprising that the first grape varieties to be imported overseas were French onesThese were the years of the Valois-Angoulême, of Catherine de Medici married to Henry II, and Catholic France had given its daughter Elisabeth to the Catholic King of Spain, Philip II.. France and Spain were intimately linked, although relations were sparse despite the royal marriage. But maybe the history of the French 16th century doesn't interest you... after all, we are talking about Chilean viticulture! I, on the other hand, love history... it's always been my favourite subject! 😍
The wealthy producer Don Silvestre Errázuriz was the first importer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Malbec, Sauvignon and Sémillon... and also a renowned French oenologist.
Viticulture in Chile, thanks to the particularly favourable soil and climate environment, grew very rapidly. This led the Spanish winegrowers to exert strong pressure on the royal house to limit imports of Chilean wine into Spain. In 1641, wine imports from Chile and Peru were banned in Spain and this loss of market caused a large surplus of grapes, which was consequently devoted to the production of a famous distillate, Pisco, and in Peru wine production was practically wiped out. The Chilean winegrowers, on the other hand, did not abide by Spanish rules and did not adapt to producing Pisco. They continued to produce wine and were bold enough to export it to neighbouring Peru by sea. On one of these expeditions, the ship was captured by the Frenchman Francis Drake and the absurd thing was that when Spain learnt of this, instead of picking on Drake, it ordered Chile to uproot most of the vineyards. Fortunately, the Chilean winegrowers raised the so-called middle finger to the mother country!
In the 1700s, Chile was famous for its sweet wines made from Pais and Muscatel grapes. To achieve a high degree of sweetness, wines were often boiled to concentrate the sugars in the grape must. At the same time, Admiral John Byron, grandfather of the world-famous poet Lord Byron (even if you don't read poetry, I'm sure there's a Byron street in the centre of your town!!), shipwrecked off Cape Horn and went into Chile, falling in love with Chilean Muscatel to the point of comparing it to the more famous Madeira.
In 1841, the Fifth Normal was born within the district of the same name in the city of Santiago of Chile. The Quinta Normal was and still is a botanical park of just over 35 hectares where plant species from all over the world can be cultivated. The Quinta Normal also had a very strong impact on viticulture because it made it possible to experimenting on vitis vinifera rooted cuttings and isolating the best strains as well as allowing the production of the rooted cuttings directly there. This had two very important consequences: on the one hand the reduction of costs, on the other hand the‘isolation of European free-standing vines at the same time that phylloxera was destroying the European vineyard. Moreover, the same Spanish and French oenologists, now out of work, left for Chile and made extraordinary improvements in agriculture.
However while the European grape variety emerged renewed from the terrible period of phylloxera with a wine of much higher quality than its predecessor, Chilean wine did not experience the same growth in quality. This created a downward spiral: Chilean wines were not suitable for export as they were inadequate compared to European wines, and as a result Chilean viticulture went through a major crisis period which led to the uprooting of numerous vineyards around the middle of the 20th century. After all, Chilean wines were not welcome in Argentina eitherdespite the fact that in 1909 the inauguration of the Transandine Railway had facilitated trade across the Andes. [Read more: Argentina and Argentine Wines]
To save 'goat and cabbage' came French emigrants to Chile since 1980Their good taste and technological innovations led to a true renaissance of Chilean wine. In this period temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks and French oak barrels were introduced replaced the old Chilean beech barrels. Chilean wines became quality and exports grew rapidly. There were 12 wine cellars in 1995 and more than 70 in 2005. Today, thanks to the investments of many foreign producers in a land of great environmental and climatic resources, Chilean wine has conquered the world with its reputation for high quality at a reasonable price.
2. Chilean wine: climate and territory
Chile is the longest and narrowest country in the world: 4,300 km long with an average width of only 180 km. Its being long and narrow makes it a strip of land dominated to the east by the Andes and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. Obviously, viticulture does not take place along its entire length, partly because some parts of Chile are truly inhospitable to vines. Viticulture takes place in an area of about 800 km from the Atacama region in the north to the Bio-Bio region in the south. Chile's vineyards are in the area between 32° and 38° south latitude. The wine-growing areas of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and the South African Republic fall in the same band. If I were to draw a parallel with the Northern Hemisphere, one could say that we are talking about southern Spain and North Africa, and I would be surprised to think of Chile as an area so suited to viticulture. In reality, the climate in Chile is much milder and the real parallel would be Bordeaux or the Napa Valley in California.
But what makes Chile such a wine-growing area?
Chile is surrounded by natural barriers that not only influence its climate but also its characteristics:
- North: Atacama Desert
- East: Andes
- South: Tierra del Fuego
- West: Pacific Ocean
The climate is varied and the northern regions are very hot and dry compared to the colder and wetter regions in the south. Overall, the climate is Mediterranean, with winters that never fall below 0° and summers that never exceed 30°. Rainfall is very varied, but it can be said that it is mainly concentrated in the south where no viticulture is practised, while in the north in wine-growing areas it is scarce:
- North: 40-200 mm of rain/year
- Centre: 300-700 mm of rain/year
- South: over 1000 mm of rain/year
However, viticulture takes place in an area that can be defined as more or less dry and this protects the grapes from mould and fungal attacks. However, this also makes us realise that the vineyards of the northernmost areas (Limary Valley) depend on irrigation, which is made possible by the melting of the Andes ice caps. A little further down the other wine-growing areas benefit from the water of the Maipo, Rapel and Maule rivers.
The proximity of the Andes favours large temperature differences between day and nightWe are talking about a 15° difference in coastal areas and about a 20° difference in inland areas. This, in the ripening period, promotes phenolic concentration, resulting in particularly fragrant grapes with excellent acidity.
3. Chilean wine: grape varieties and wines
As I mentioned in the chapter on the history of Chilean wine, the vines are all free-range because phylloxera has not struck. The free-range vine is more long-lived, balanced and resistant and this is also reflected very positively in the wines. The vines are for 75% black-grape varieties and the vines are mainly trained by spurred cordon and guyot. The planting densities depend on the vigour of the vine and the fertility of the soil. In soils with little fertility and no possibility of irrigation, bush-trained vines are cultivated (as on certain islands in Southern Italy).
Black grape varieties:
- Cabernet Sauvignontraditional grape variety that gives soft wines with delicious red fruit aromas, herbaceous and minty notes, but unable to age for long due to low acidity.
- MerlotThis is a traditional grape variety that gives soft, fairly structured wines with good drinkability and is therefore particularly appreciated by the American market.
- Carmenèrea traditional grape variety that has now disappeared from its native France and gives quality wines with fruity and herbaceous aromas but with over-emphasised pseudo-caloric notes.
- Paisa traditional grape variety that produces low-level wines for the domestic market and which (fortunately) is cultivated less and less.
- Syrah: newly planted vine that gives wines of excellent quality
- Pinot Noir: newly planted vine that gives wines of excellent quality
- Malbec: a vine from old vines recovered after its success in Argentina and which also gives good quality wines in Chile.
- Viognier: newly planted vine that gives wines of excellent quality
- SangioveseThis is a newly planted grape variety that produces wines in Chile at a lower level than in its native country, Italy.
- Zinfandel: newly planted vine
White grape varieties:
For producers applying modern winegrowing techniques, producing a good quality white wine is no longer a utopia thanks to the use of temperature-controlled fermentation and the French Allier oak barrels. However, it is highly advisable to consume Chilean white wines within 2 years of ageing.
- Sauvignon BlancThis newly planted grape variety is often confused with Sauvignon Vert, which gives less elegant wines with little ageing potential.
- Chardonnay: newly planted grape variety that gives elegant wines with intense notes of exotic fruit
- Muscat of Alexandria: newly planted vine used in the distillation of Pisco
- Riesling: newly planted vine still little cultivated
4. Chilean wine: wine-growing areas
There are five main wine-growing areas in Chile, some of them with different sub-zones:
5. Chilean wine: viticulture and vinification
- Essential irrigation in almost all of Chile, except in the south.
- Absence of phylloxera, the vines are at frank foot.
- Lately, modern technology is being invested in, steel casks are being used stainless steel and some wines are aged in cask.
- There are not many differences between the various vintages because the annual climate varies little from one year to the next.
- HarvestFor white wines such as chardonnay it is in February, for red wines such as cabernet sauvignon it is in April, and for carménère it is in May.
- Labour costs in Chile are quite low, however the process of mechanisation seems unstoppable and is continuously growing.
6. Chilean wine: legislation
7. Chilean wine: key wines
Chile is the most highly rated area in all of South America for the production of great red wines, and it is no coincidence that 74% of the entire local vineyard is reserved for black grapes. In the whole state there are just over 300 companies producing about 1/5 of Italy. Chilean red wines are immediate on the nose, spicy and fruity, quite structured and with silky tannins. They always passed in wood and its scents can be found more or less markedly in every wine. These are wines that are perfect for a market that is looking for something smooth, ready and well-made such as the Asian or North American market.
8. Chilean wine: typical dishes & food-wine pairing
- Cazuela de ave o de vacuno = Soup made from broth and chicken or beef with a cob, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, onion and seasoned with oil, salt, chilli and spices. It is particularly tasty and goes well with a aromatic and structured red wine like the Merlot of Colchagua, Central Valley.
- Pastel de choclo = Chicken and beef pie topped with sultanas, onion, slices of hard-boiled egg, whole corn and a corn sauce. Goes well with a Rapel Cabernet Sauvignon.
As always, I hope you find this article useful. These are notes extracted from my book "How to become a Sommelier: everything you need to know about wine in one book" which you can buy by clicking HERE. If you have any doubts or questions, please scroll down the page and leave me a comment.