No other country has a variety of climates that Chile can boast. From the hot and arid Atacama Desert in the north where star gazing through clear desert skies has shaped our view of the universe beyond our own Mother Earth; to the Arctic tundra in the south were penguins roam about like short waiters in an old fashioned restaurant. From west to east, the icy depths of the Pacific Ocean cool the coast while the warm central valleys enjoy long summers as the Andes Mountains tower like a sentinel towards the clouds.
With such a diversity of landscape and climate, there surely is a wine for everyone’s palate. This could not be more true today as young and passionate men and women explore the country’s extremes and the possibilities in the cellar.
Chile’s fine wine industry began quite some time ago, by New World standards, in the early nineteenth century. The wealthy who made their money in minerals mined from the Andes were able to travel to France, catch the “wine bug,” and bring their thirst for French wine back home with them. As the only plantings in the country were from the original conquering Spanish, these wealthy Chileans planted Bordeaux varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. These varieties adapted quickly to the local climate and soils, and the rest is history.
Carmenère, in particular, is a grape variety, which isn’t often seen in Bordeaux these days, even though it’s still permitted to be used in the blend. It made its way to Chile, where it flourished, and as the country is surrounded by natural barriers (the Andes and the Pacific Ocean), the vine never succumbed to phylloxera, a vine root louse which ravaged the vineyards of Europe in the late nineteenth century. It’s often called “the lost grape of Bordeaux” as it wasn’t replanted after the phylloxera epidemic. It’s delightfully peppery, dark-fruited, almost like a liberally spiced Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc based blend.
Chile’s wine regions are organized by the DO (denominaciós de origen) system. Similar to Spain’s DOCs or America’s AVAs, broader regions are usually defined by geography, and winemakers are free to plant or experiment with whatever grapes or styles of winemaking they choose.
In the far north, you will find the Atacama DO, this is a region best known for growing grapes for Pisco, but there are some exciting new projects at high altitude in mountains that are worth keeping an eye out for. South of here is the Coquimbo DO, known for peppery Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, although you will also find Chardonnay grown on rare limestone outcrops.
Aconcagua DO is named after the Aconcagua River, where Errázuriz’s “Seña” made the region famous. Now many great wines are made here, including Caliterra and many more Reserva wines from Errázuriz. There are also refreshing styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grown in the Casablanca and San Antonio valleys where they are cooled by the Humboldt Current, which brings cool air inland from the Pacific.
The Central Valley is perhaps Chile’s most famous stretch of world-class vineyards. Starting in the north, Maipo is home to many of the big names of great Chilean wine such as Almaviva, Concha Y Toro, and Cousiño Macul, who make some of the best Bordeaux style wines from white to red. Rapel is south of Maipo, where Cachapoal DO and Colchagua DO are excellent sites for Carmenère (like Montes’ Purple Angel). The Curicó and Maule Valleys are here too where their true potential for balanced and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon is just beginning.
In the south, innovating winemakers push the boundaries and revive old plantings and old winemaking techniques in the Itata, Bío Bío, and Malleco DO’s. Fresh and fascinating wines with a core of minerality play a counterpoint to the broader wines made further north.
Chile is now starting to divide its growing regions from west to east using the terms “Costa” (coastal), “Andes” (mountain,” and “Entre Cordilleras” (between hills). We will see these terms used on some labels as Chile further defines their incredibly varied wine growing landscape.
It’s an exciting time in Chile, and the wines are still affordable despite their quality. It’s a country worth exploring through a wine glass as there’s a flavor profile for everyone’s palate to be found and a wine for every occasion to be discovered in what might be the world’s most diverse wine growing landscape.