Chile

Chile is a long, thin sliver of land on the West Coast of South America. It shares a border with Argentina, Bolivia and Peru and faces out to the Pacific Ocean. It is approximately 3,000 miles long and never more than 220 miles wide. Its climate is mainly Mediterranean with rains concentrated in winter and spring, and a long dry season through autumn.

Chile’s geographic position gives rise to unique and diverse geology that has made it renowned for wine production. The Atacama Desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east, the Patagonian ice fields to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west make Chile a veritable agricultural island. Together they help maintain healthy conditions and protect vineyards against pests and disease.* The Chilean landscape also offers a vast mosaic of terroirs and soil types. Soils are healthy, well-drained and have a variety of origins (alluvial, colluvial, fluvial, etc.) and textures (loam, clay, sand, silt). The interaction between the effects of the sea and those of the Andes result in a growing season that revels in bright sunny days and temperatures that take a dramatic dip each night to create the broad daily temperature oscillation that wine grapes need to develop fresh fruit flavors, crisp acidity and, in the case of red wines, ripe tannins, deep color and high levels of antioxidants and flavonols.*

Chilean Wine Laws

  • D.O. (Denomination of Origin) defines regions, sub-regions, zones and areas and only establishes the grapes’ origin.
  • Only approved grape varieties may be planted. Hybrid grapes are strictly forbidden.
  • 85% of wine must be from geographic area when using a denomination of origin.
  • Estate bottled may only be used when the winery and vineyards are located in the same geographic area within the D.O.
  • D.O. wines may use the terms Gran Reserva, Gran Vino, Reserva, Reserva Especial, Reserva Privada, Seleccion and Superior. These words do not have a specific definition and may be used with a different meaning in each winery.

Wine Facts

  • The main wine regions of Chile follow the valleys of rivers running down from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, transecting the 625 mile Central Valley
  • Grapes originally planted by the Conquistadors
  • Phylloxera – free
  • Some of the largest organic vineyards in the world
  • Chile’s premium wine growing regions are located between the 30 & 40 latitudes (Napa Valley is 36)
  • Soils differentiate between appellations and range from sea sand to volcanic rock
  • Rated among the finest in the world

CHILE

Chile is an odd-shaped, exceptionally long, thin sliver of land that hangs just like a fingernail on the west coast of South America.

Natural barriers, sandwiched between the majestic snow-capped Andes, some of whose peaks extend to 23,000 feet, covering one-third of the country’s total area to the east isolate it. To the west is the Pacific Ocean with a longer coastline than that of the United States. Chile is about 3,000 miles long, yet an average of only 100 miles wide. The country’s width, in fact, never exceeds 220 miles. In acreage, Chile is comparable to Texas (if you were to stretch the state almost to a ribbon.)

The name Chile comes from the Indian word “chili,” meaning “when the land ends.” It definitely does not mean “incandescent death of the palate.”

GEOGRAPHY

As in the rest of South America, the dominating topographical feature remains the Andes running north to south, with a series of plateaus and snowy peaks, leaving only a narrow strip of coastal lowlands on the Pacific side.

The northern and northeastern part of Chile, largely desert and known as the Atacama, borders Peru and Bolivia. Here is where the country’s mineral wealth is located — copper, nitrates, sulphur, iron and manganese. It is said (by the 2,000 year-old man) that in some parts of this desert, there has been no rain for 400 years.

In contrast, the central area of the country, thanks to innumerable irrigation canals that channel the crisp, clean, fresh waters from the snow-capped Andes, is a veritable Garden of Eden. An added contributor to this natural bounty is the weather-moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean.

A visitor is mesmerized by central Chile’s bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears, avocados, oranges, lemons, table grapes, wheat, barley, corn, peas, olives, lentils and many others. Above all, the star here is the wine grape. Vines will grow up to an altitude of 1,800 feet on the western slopes of the Central Valley and to 3,000 feet on the sunnier eastern slopes of the Andes. The complexity of various soils with ideal microclimates combine to provide noble wine grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the perfect conditions in which to produce world-class wines.

By no accident, three quarters of Chilenos live in this central area and enjoy its Mediterranean-like climate, though there are distinct variations between individual regions and even sub-regions with warm, dry summers and rainfall averaging between 14-31 inches a year (generally restricted to the winter months, thanks to the high-pressure effects of the Pacific Ocean). Chile’s capital, Santiago, is also located here.

Rainfall in the Central Valley tends to be higher in the south and the west, with summer temperatures averaging about 64 degrees though they may rise to 86 degrees F. Clear skies, strong sunlight and relatively low humidity also contribute to the ideal viticultural conditions found here. The eastern edge of the valley, which finds itself under the influence of the Andes, is much cooler at night, has higher humidity and much greater temperature variations which produces very good levels of acidity and color in the grapes.

The geography of Chile is responsible for the absence of humid rain forests typical of most of the rest of tropical South America.

The very southern part of the country extends, literally, to the bottom of the inhabited world. (Antarctica is the actual bottom of the world, but it is not inhabited by humans — only penguins, polar bears and assorted denizens of the deep freeze.) This southernmost Patagonia straddles present-day Chile and Argentina and here one finds an expanse of forests, gleaming lakes and fjords, all framed by the majestic, snow-capped Andes. Wool and timber are the major exports. The land ends at the Straits of Magellan, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; it is named after the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan.

Midway in the strait, a dangerous passage is Tierra del Fuego (Isle of Fire.) According to some sources, Magellan bestowed the name for the explosive sunsets that make the island look ignited. Others suggest that the name comes from the fires built by natives in past years to guide mariners through this difficult-to-navigate passage.

Tierra del Fuego is not an island, but an archipelago, constellated by thousands of small islands. Chile’s ultimate geographic end is Cape Horn, which skirts the Argentine frontier

Chile is a mestizo country, of mixed European and indigenous extraction and the indigenous tradition is still visible and viable in several parts of the country. In the desert north, once part of the Inca Empire, are important archeological sites. Aymara Indians still farm the valley and terraces of the Andean foothills and tend flocks of llamas and alpacas on the high plains of the altiplano.

South of the Chilean heartland in the Central Valley, hundreds of thousands of Mapuche Indians inhabit communities whose symbolic status in Chilean life exceeds their political and economic significance. Nearly into the 20th century, the Mapuche maintained an effective and heroic resistance to the southward advance of Chilean rule, earning a grudging respect from the expansionist Chilean state. Cities like Temuco and Osorno are proud of their indigenous heritage.

Chile’s history includes indigenous wealth, greedy invaders from Spain (the conquistadors), civilized settlers and aristocratic land barons. These wealthy people were frequent visitors to Europe, especially France, and developed a taste for fine wines. Eventually, they promoted the growth of noble wine varieties on their properties.

Immigrants from Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, France and the Basque country account for much of the foreign influence in Chile. Today, Chile’s endless beaches, great fishing in rivers, lakes and seas, plus great skiing in the Andes Mountains, are attracting tourists from all over the world.

HISTORY

Some 50,000 years ago, the very first peoples crossed the temporary land bridge spanning Asia and America at the Bering straits and began a long migration southward. They were hunters and foragers, following in the path of huge herds of now extinct animals. The first signs that these people had reached South America date from around 10,000 BC, if not earlier.

As sources of game in forested valleys dried up, some groups settled along the coasts, particularly drawn by the abundance of marine life provided by the warm Humboldt Current in the Pacific. Some of the earliest evidence of humans in Chile has been found in the north, on the coast and in the parched Atacama desert. The coastal people lived on shellfish gathered by the shore and on fish and sea lions speared from boats.

One such group, the Las Conchas, migrated from the inland valleys to the coast around 7,500 BC. They were one of the first peoples of South America to take hallucinogenic drugs. Many graves excavated in their area contained mortars, which may have been used to grind up seeds also found nearby. The seeds were said to contain an alkaloid that had mind-altering effects and were similar to those used by modern peoples elsewhere on the sub-continent.

Gradually the nomadic lifestyle gave way to more settled occupation of a fixed site, with agriculture subsistence taking over from hunting. By about 2,500 BC agriculture was practiced throughout much of Chile, as it was across the rest of the continent. Maize, beans and squash have been found in northern Chile from as early as 5,000 BC, when they would have been cultivated to supplement hunting and gathering food supplies. The extremely dry climate here is a great preservative, allowing archeologists to build up a detailed picture of early life. The people lived in solidly built adobe houses, arranged in complexes around inner courtyards and corridors, such as the village of Tulor in the San Pedro de Atacama oasis.

These northern people had contacts with neighboring highland communities in present-day Bolivia, Argentina and Peru, shown by the presence of plants and other goods found only in the adjacent regions. The important Tiahuanaco culture in present day Bolivia is thought to have had particularly close links with the people of northern Chile. Trade between these peoples boosted the wealth and cultural development of desert peoples.

By about 500 – 900 AD, the association between these communities had become even stronger. In return for Tiahuanaco agricultural produce, the Chileans offered copper, semi-precious stones and the use of some grazing lands. People in the south of Chile turned to agriculture at a much later date, not until about 500 AD.

South of the Chilean mainland, numerous small populations of Indians subsisted through hunting and fishing. These isolated archipelagic peoples long avoided contact with Europeans, but are now extinct or nearly so.

In 1494, the papal treaty of Tordesillas ratified the Spanish-Portuguese division of the Americas, granting all territory west of Brazil to Spain, which rapidly consolidated its formal authority and, by the mid-16th century, controlled most of an area extending from Florida and Mexico to central Chile.

The conquerors introduced plants and animals to the new continent that were unknown to the native people, which gradually changed the way of life in the new region. Among these novelties were the sheep, ox and horse and crops such as wheat, olives and grapevines which, together with utensils like the plow, would significantly expand fishing and farming activities that were still in the early stages of development.

When the Europeans arrived in what is present day Chile, they encountered a variety of native peoples whose customs and economies differed greatly. While politically subject to the Incas, most cultures in the region predated the lords of Cuzco by centuries or even millennia. In the canyons of the desert north, sedentary Aymara farmers cultivated crops including maize and potatoes; to the south, beyond the Rio Loa, the Atacameno practiced a similar livelihood, while the Chango fishermen occupied coastal areas from Arica almost to the Rio Choapa, south of present day La Serena. Diaguita Indians inhabited the interior of this region.

At the peak of its growth in the 16th century, the Inca Empire stretched deep into Chile as far south as the Aconcagua Valley. The advancing armies of the Inca suppressed resistance in the valleys of the Central region. Hostile forest tribes at the Rio Maule finally stopped them. This was the southernmost limit of the Inca Empire and the deepest that any imperial movement had penetrated into the Southern Hemisphere.

Inca rule barely touched the Central Valley and the forest of the south where the Araucanian (Picunche and Mapuche) Indians fiercely resisted incursions from the north. Several other groups closely related to the Mapuche lived in the southern lakes region, while Cunco Indians fished and farmed on the island of Chiloe’. Not until the late 19th century did the descendants of Europeans establish a permanent presence beyond the Rio de BioBio.

THE SPANISH INVASION

Spain’s successful invasion of the Americas was accomplished by groups of adventurers, lowlifes and soldiers-of-fortune against whom the colonists of Australia’s Botany Bay penal colony look like exemplary citizens.

The first Spanish expeditions to Chile were led by Diego de Almagro in 1535 (who originally arrived in Panama after fleeing a Spanish murder charge) and Pedro de Valdivia in 1540 (who is seen by many historians as driven more by the spirit of adventure and the excitement of exploring unknown lands, than by the desire to acquire gold and silver, which motivated many including the Pizzarro brothers with whom he was closely associated) — both of whom followed the Inca road from Peru to Salta in Argentina and then west across the Andes.

Almagro and his expedition were bitterly disappointed at not finding gold, their primary goal, but they ruthlessly appropriated precious metals through outright robbery when possible and by other no less brutal means when necessary. They returned almost immediately to Peru.

Valdivia’s group carried out what initially appeared to be a swift and successful conquest, founding Santiago in February 1541 and a series of other settlements in the following years. In the 1550s, these Spanish settlements were shaken by a Mapuche Indian rebellion which resulted in the death of Valdivia. The Mapuche were fearsome opponents; they soon mastered the use of horses and were effective guerrilla fighters. By 1598, they began a general offensive which destroyed all of the Spanish settlements south of the Rio BioBio and for the rest of the colonial period (throughout the 1700s), the Spanish presence south of the river would be limited to the island of Chiloe’ and to the coastal city of Valdivia.

While El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, proved elusive, the Spaniards soon realized the true wealth of the New World consisted of the surprisingly large Indian populations. Disdaining physical labor themselves, they exploited the indigenous populations of the New World through mechanisms like the encomienda, best translated as “entrustment” by which the Crown granted an individual Spaniard (encomendero) rights to Indian labor and tribute in a particular village or settlement. Institutions such as the Catholic Church also held encomiendas.

In theory, Spanish legislation required the encomendero to reciprocate with instruction in the Spanish language and the Catholic religion but, in practice, imperial administration was inadequate to insure compliance and avoid the worst abuses. Spanish overseers worked the Indians mercilessly in the mines as well as extracting the maximum in agricultural produce.

In the most densely populated parts of the Americas, some encomenderos became extraordinarily wealthy, but the system eventually failed when Indian populations declined rapidly, not so much from overwork and physical punishment as from epidemic disease, from which they had no natural immunity against, such as smallpox, influenza, typhus and other such killers.

In Chile, the encomienda was most important in the irrigated valleys of the desert north where the population was large and sedentary – the most highly organized Indian peoples were the easiest to subdue and control, since they were accustomed to similar forms of exploitation. In states like the Inca Empire, the Spaniards easily replaced established local authority.

In central Chile, the Spaniards also established dominance, but the semi-sedentary and nomadic peoples of the south mounted vigorous resistance and even into the late 19th century, the area was unsafe for white settlers.

The encomienda in Chile, unlike in many parts of Spanish America, became highly correlated with land ownership despite the Crown’s disapproval — Chile was too remote for adequate imperial oversight. Valdivia had rewarded his followers with enormous grants, some valleys stretching from the Andes to the Pacific. More than anywhere else in the Americas, the system of control resembled the great feudal estates of Valdivia’s homeland of Extremedura in Spain. Such estates (latifundios), many intact as late as the 1960s, became an enduring feature of Chilean agriculture and the dominant force in Chilean society.

Though large estates remained intact, they did not always remain in the same hands. Later immigrants, especially Basques, became a major influence from the late 17th century to the end of the colonial era. Surnames like Eyzaguirre, Urrutia and Larrain became prominent in Chilean commerce and those families purchased many landed estates. Basque families have remained important in Chilean politics, society and business.

Within a few decades of Columbus’ Caribbean landing, Spain possessed an empire twice the size of Europe, stretching from California to Cape Horn. Yet the empire disintegrated rapidly in less than two decades; by the late 1820s, only Puerto Rico and Cuba remained in Spanish hands.

Many factors contributed to the rise of Latin American independence movements. One was the emergence of the criollo (creole) class, American-born Spaniards, who soon distinguished themselves from the Iberians. In every Latin American country, the development of a definable American identity increased the desire for self-government.

When war broke out in 1811, Bernardo O’Higgins, the illegitimate son of an Irishman, who had served the Spaniards as Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru, recruited his own troops and, along with Jose de San Martin, crossed the Andes to free Chile from Spanish domination. Soon after, an assembly of leading Chilean patriots proclaimed O’Higgins Supreme Director of the new Chilean republic. He formally proclaimed Chilean independence in February 1818. O’Higgins dominated Chilean politics for five years but the landowning elite, who had first supported him, objected to increased taxes, abolition of titles and limitations on inheritances. Pressured by the military, he went into exile in Peru in 1823 and died there in 1842, never having returned to his homeland.

MODERN HISTORY

Although other Latin American countries emerged from the wars in severe economic difficulties, Chile quickly achieved a degree of political stability, which permitted rapid development of agriculture, mining, industry and commerce.

The country was well situated to take advantage of international economic trends, as the port of Valparaiso became an important outlet for Chilean wheat, which satisfied the unprecedented demand of the California gold rush.

The opening of the Panama Canal nearly eliminated traffic around the Horn and Chile sought a broader Pacific presence. Chilean vessels sailed to Australia, Asia and Polynesia. Extremists advocated the annexation of the Philippines, however, Chile’s only imperial possession was the remote, tiny Easter Island, annexed in 1888.

Chile emerged from the War of the Pacific considerably enriched due to the Atacama’s nitrates and, later, copper. Mining expansion created a new working class that challenged the political power of the landowning oligarchy. The War of the Pacific had its roots in a border dispute between Chile and Bolivia, as the nitrate rich frontier in the Atacama Desert was ill-defined and the Bolivians believed that Anglo-Chileans were exploiting riches in Bolivian held Atacama. Bolivia seized the assets of a Chilean owned company. Peru then announced its support of Bolivia and Chile declared war on both countries.

None of the three countries was really prepared for war and eventually Chile won. Apart from souring relations between Chile and her two northern neighbors, to this day the War gave Chile a monopoly over the world’s supply of nitrates and enabled her to dominate the southern Pacific coast.

Today Chile has become an increasingly popular destination not just for travel, but also for foreign investment.

THE CITIES

Santiago, the capital of Chile, was founded on February 12, 1541. The founder, Pedro de Valdivia, wrote a letter to King Charles V indicating that he had selected the spot because, “…there is not a better place in the world.”

In 1925, Spanish America, a publication in London wrote, “Santiago is said to be a mixture of Paris, Madrid and Seville. It is far ahead of Spanish towns in its electric tramways, broad avenues and brisk movement. But the larger houses are all characteristically Spanish. They are built around a central court or patio, which is usually open to the sky above and full of flowers and graceful shrubs. Very often there are sparkling fountains and statuary. In fact, through the great gateway of a large Santiago house the most delicious little views of water, flowers and greenery can be gathered in passing.“

Today, Santiago is a multi-faceted metropolis, a city of contrasts. A dynamic economy fueled by prosperous professionals who pack fine restaurants reflects a glitzy exterior. Yet Santiago has many splendid parks, most designed by a 19th century British landscape architect. It is a city where poplars, eucalyptus, weeping willows, even Lebanon cedars thrive.

Santiago is also a city of luxuriant flowers, among them roses — the most popular of which is the European wild rose known as “dog rose” (from the Latin “Rosa Canina,” hence the name.) This species is characterized by single pink flowers and hooked horns. The small, freshly ripened fruit is used to make a very popular rose syrup.

Santiguenos, as the inhabitants of Santiago are called, are very hospitable. Their drink is wine, but at times they indulge in another national gift of nature, Pisco — a brandy that some people consider “fiery.” It is the distillation of local grapes. The name Pisco, of Peruvian origin, comes from the tribe of the same name, whose members made tall earthenware jars to hold the local brandy. Soon, as the fame of this distillate spread, the name Pisco became popular. One of its most popular drinks is the Pisco sour, a cocktail of Pisco shaken with fresh lemon juice and sweetened with confectioner’s sugar; it is said to revive the dead.

For those souls who have had occasion to sip an Italian grappa, Pisco feels like a distant relative. It has a taste that faintly brings to memory slivovitz, the renowned plum brandy of Eastern Europe.

Unknown to many, Santiguenos are also tea drinkers. The tea ritual in mid-afternoon is very much appreciated as an occasion to discuss business or exchange gossip.

The coastal strip west of Santiago includes two major cities, Valparaiso and Vina del Mar and a string of 24 other resorts.

Valparaiso, “the Pearl of the Pacific,” is a stunning city, with forty-one hills and cable cars, just as in San Francisco. Seen from the ocean, it presents a majestic panorama; a great circle of hills is backed by the snowcapped peaks of the distant Andes. Valparaiso is the principal port of Chile and an important naval base.

Founded in 1542, Valparaiso became, in the colonial period, a small port used for trade with Peru. The city prospered from independence more than any other Chilean town. In the 19th century it was used by Europe and the US as a trading base for the southern Pacific and became a major international banking centre as well as the key shipping port between the northern Pacific and Cape Horn. Valparaiso declined after the opening of the Panama Canal and the move of the middle classes to nearby Vina del Mar.

Vina del Mar is the largest seaside resort in the country. It is a South American Monte Carlo with gambling, shopping and fine restaurants.

THE FOOD

Of all the cuisines of South America, that of Chile is perhaps the most European. It features foods not normally available in the neighboring countries of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay or Brazil, although they all share one common preference — grilled meats. Chilean cuisine is a delightful blend of Old World Spanish and New World referred to as “cocina criolla Chilena.”

Just as Tuscan cuisine is renowned for its simplicity and the absence of overwhelming sauces and condiments, so is Chilean cuisine. In addition, much like their Tuscan counterparts, Chilenos are voracious eaters of beans (porotos) as well as onions. Chileans are also partial to Aji, a very hot yellow pepper and Aji de Color (Chilean sweet paprika).

French cuisine is very much appreciated, especially in Santiago. Seafood dishes are a national specialty. The most appreciated fish is congrio (eel in Spanish), served fried (congrio frito) or in a well-seasoned stew (caldillo de congrio). The fish has a large head, tapering body and firm, well-flavored meat.

Extraordinary variety can be found in Chilean meals reflecting both the geography and history of the country and its diverse bounty of fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. A favorite bean dish includes cranberry beans (porotos granados) cooked in a stew with pumpkin, corn and tomatoes.

Perhaps, the symbol of Chilean cuisines is “empanada,” the equivalent of the Italian calzone. One finds empanadas everywhere, in fashionable restaurants, fancy hotel dining rooms and even street vendor’s carts. The classic version is “empanada de horno or empanada Chileana,” stuffed with small cubes of beef and onions (known as Pino) as well as wedges of hard-boiled eggs, baked in the oven and served with a special sauce. Another favorite is “empanada fritta,” much smaller in size, resembling large Italian ravioli but served, at times, sprinkled with sugar.

Among Chile’s gastronomic specialties is a chicken soup (cazuela de ave), a delightful dish that includes boiled chicken, potatoes, stringbeans, pumpkin, onions, peas, rice, green peppers and egg yolks.

Just like other South American gourmets, Chilenos enjoy “chupe,” a classis casserole that at times includes seafood (thickened with breadcrumbs) or meat (sometimes tripe). Chupe is always cooked with bread soaked in milk or cream or potatoes and served with wedges of hard-boiled eggs and red peppers.

What really distinguishes Chilean cuisine is its varied seafood, among the world’s best. Always very much appreciated are the delectable lobsters from the waters around Juan Fernandes Island (of Robinson Crusoe fame), outside Valparaiso.

Popular seafood dishes include the delicious sopa de mariscos, or cazuela de mariscos, which is more of a shellfish stew. Paila marina is a fish and shellfish chowder (cooked in a two handled earthenware casserole known as a paila), while sopa de pescado is a fish soup. Chupe de locos (abalone stew) is delicious when available. Giant mussels, shrimp, small oysters, crabs and giant sea urchins (erizos) are excellent, but do insist on all shellfish being thoroughly cooked, which is obligatory since the cholera scare of 1991-92. They are also common ingredients in omelettes and in crepes served in a light cream sauce.

“Charqui,” dried beef (beef jerky) available either in powder form or in tablets is used as an ingredient in many soups and dishes. One such soup is called “Valdiviana,” which originates from the seaport of Valdivia. It is also used to flavor scrambled eggs, cooked very dry with sea urchins and peas or with cubed and fried potatoes.

“Pollo en Escabeche” is another local gastronomic specialty of Spanish origin. This chicken dish is cooked in a mixture of olive oil and vinegar.

In southern Chile, and especially on Chiloe’, one of the typical specialties is curanto, a hearty stew of fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, lamb, beef and potato – some liken it to a New England Clambake or Hawaiian Luau. Curanto is eaten with chapalele or milcao (potato breads).

Chile’s desserts (postres) are commonly fresh fruit or helado (ice cream) but might include “tortas,” large flatbread sweets laced with nuts, like the ones enjoyed in Spain, and fritters enriched with palm-tree honey, a distant cousin of maple syrup; arroz con leche (rice pudding) and flan (egg custard). Chileans of German descent bake exquisite kuchen (pastries) filed with local fruit such as raspberries.

THE WINE

By consensus, Chilean wines are South America’s best and rate among some of the finest in the world. Reds (tintos) and whites (blancos) are both excellent. From virtual nonexistence in the American market two decades ago, Chile now ranks as the third largest source of wine imports for American consumers, with only Italy and France larger.

More than one hundred wineries now compete for the export business here, compared to no more than a dozen in the mid-1980s. Chile achieved all this by supplying us with friendly, agreeable, uncomplicated red and white varietal wines at bargain prices. The wines were good but, perhaps, not great.

In the last decade Chilean wine exports have multiplied exponentially, reflecting not only the continuing success of familiar brands but also the introduction of a host of new brands.

It is not an idle question to ask why a small country at the tip of South America has such a great winemaking vocation. The Spanish colonization that followed the Discovery of America was marked by a pronounced missionary zeal, and the colonization process cannot be understood without taking into account the religious aspect that guided it. The very needs of the Catholic liturgy, consecrated wine, made it essential from the beginning to cultivate the grapevine which was first administered by the convents and abbeys.

With greater or lesser degrees of success monks, and later laymen, planted grapevines in different colonies. Whereas in Central America or the Caribbean these intents were frustrated or only partially successful, the results were more auspicious in what were then called the Viceroyalties in the southern cone of South America. In fact, the growing of the vine was so successful in Chile that it became the main exporter of wine to the rest of the Spanish colonies in the 18th century.

The first grape grower in what is now Chilean territory was Francisco de Aguirre who planted vineyards on the land granted to him in San Francisco de la Selva (now Copiapo) and La Serena. Pedro de Valdivia, the Conqueror of Chile, referred to the abundant consumption of grapes in La Serena and Santiago in letters he sent to King Charles V of Spain in 1551.

Valdivia himself, one year earlier, provided proof of the commitment to grape culture by threatening to nullify concessions of lands granted to the Spanish colonist Diego de Oro in the Conception area if they were not dedicated to grape culture. The first grapevine that was cultivated and used to make wine was the “Pais Negra” known all over the continent as the “Creole” and in California as the “Mission.” According to tradition, it was first brought to Chile by the Jesuit priest, Francisco de Carabanates in 1548.

Some historians state that the first vineyard in Santiago belonged to Diego de Caceres and was planted in 1554. What is certain is that the “father of Chilean wine” was Juan Jufre’ de Loayza y Montesa, a brave Spanish soldier who entered Santiago with Valdivia and was granted lands in Macul and Nunoa in 1546 in recognition of his valuable service. It is known that the grapevine was one of the many crops Jufre introduced to those fertile lands.

History relates that a large number of grape arbors existed on the grounds of homes in the capital. The Jesuit Alonso Ovalle, one of the most illustrious chroniclers of the era of the Conquest, wrote among all the wines “the muscatels are the best and the most highly regarded. I have seen some that apparently look like water, as clear and crystalline as water, but the effect is very different on the stomach because they heat it like spirituous liquor. There are also other white wines that are well regarded, like those of the Torontel and Albilho grapes There are other red ones that are made from the common black grape and from the molar.”

The fruit from these arbors was acquired by the Town Council of Santiago to make the wine used in the Eucharist. The minutes of the Town Council meeting of March 9, 1555 mentioned the lack of wine to say mass and specified “at present there are some grapes in this city from which wine could be made so that the divine right can be celebrated and is celebrated: let those grapes that are in the city be purchased until there are enough to make two jugs of wine with them.”

However, Gonzalez de Najera writes contradictory information: “There are many very good vineyards in our towns with thick vines and very good grapes. Their shoots brought from Spain, I believe, in earthen barrels from which excellent wines are made, especially in Santiago. Light reds and whites because black grapes have not been brought like the others. The wines of Santiago, taken to cool lands at higher altitudes, keep well even if they are sent by ship, and if they are taken to warm lands, like the city of the Kings, they go bad and are spoiled.”

When Jeronimo de Villegas settled the city of Concepcion for the third time on January 5, 1558 – after repeated destruction by the Araucanian Indians – he was said to have planted vineyards and other fruit trees. In the following years, vineyards spread even further south until 1576 when grape culture experienced a serious crisis. The Araucanians destroyed seven cities and all the vineyards planted by the Spanish in sheltered areas south of the BioBio River. Unlike previous sackings, the Indians did not uproot the vineyards this time. Instead, they picked the fruit, fermented it and made the grapes into “chicha,” the alcoholic beverage they customarily drank.

The abandonment of vineyards in the south resulted in increased plantings farther north. From that time on, without interruption, Chile developed a wine growing industry that may have experienced difficulties, but always maintained its continuity. The influence of the Spanish conquest was, therefore, decisive in determining this winegrowing vocation.

However, there was another, perhaps more important factor, Chilean landholding aristocracy, perhaps in reaction to the magnitude of the Spanish colony and the war that divided the two nations, always was sensitive to the spirit of France which not only served as a model to Chile for its legal and university system but also for tastes and manners. Travels of the wealthy landowners and miners in the last century to bring back fine French vines mainly from Bordeaux and Burgundy must be understood in the context of this spirit. The idea was to make fine wines that, in turn, would give added luster to the particular property.

The wines of Chile were considered so excellent in quality that by the 1650s, the Spanish Crown considered the production of wine in its colonies harmful to the Peninsula’s brandy and wine trade. Therefore, in June 1654, the government decreed that new plantings would be prohibited and vineyard owners had to pay a tax to the Crown to keep their vineyards. Yet even with these deterrents, by the end of the Colonial era, Chile was the largest wine producer.

In the 17th century, Spain tried to protect its own export trade to South America by banning new plantings of vines. This met with little success. In fact, in 1678, the Chilean governor not only lifted this ban but also actively encouraged the production of new vineyards.

It was at the behest of a Frenchman, Claudio Gay in the mid-19th century, that the government set up Quinta Normal, an experimental nursery for exotic botanicals, including European vines such as the Bordeaux cuttings (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, among others), first brought to Chile in the 1840s. This allowed Chile to have its own collection of vinifera cuttings safely isolated before the onslaught of the viticultural scourges of Powdery Mildew and Phylloxera. These vines, spared the devastation that occurred in the rest of the viticultural world grew very well, developing into vines that produced fruit of great complexity and character.

Wealthy Chileans, including Silvestre Ochagavia Echazarreta and Don Melchor de Concha y Toro became the founders of the modern wine industry in Chile and had the foresight to welcome the prestigious French enologists who came to Chile (after the Phylloxera devastation in Europe) and left their indelible mark on the wines the country would produce. By the end of the 19th century, owning a vine-growing estate outside Santiago was considered a great sign of success. It was not long before Chile could boast of having the world’s only healthy wine industry.

Unfortunately, as the Chilean wine industry became more and more profitable and consumption soared, the industry was increasingly taxed and eventually constricted. In 1938 the second Law of Alcohol was enacted. This basically prohibited new plantings and vine transplants and restricted maximum production per capita to 60 liters. By means of this statute Congressmen, closely linked to winegrowers, were convinced that they were protecting their own economic interests. This law coincided with the start of the Second World War and in Chile, the policy of closing frontiers to all imports except those considered essential. New technology did not arrive until the sixties.

In 1965, the Agrarian Reform Law which allowed the planting of 10 hectares (25 acres) was passed. However, the Alcohol and Alcoholic Beverage Law continued to view winemaking as a necessary evil by keeping in place polices that stifled its development.

By the end of the 1970s the area of vine totaled over 250,000 acres, practically the same as in 1938, but while a population that had doubled domestic demand for Chile’s wines declined, prices plummeted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many vineyards were uprooted or owners were forced to graft them with table grapes. The unsettled nature of the country’s politics and economy brought the winemaking industry to a halt.

Finally, with the return of democracy in the early 1980s, significant investment in technology occurred and more than 25,000 new acres of vineyards were planted. The results were soon apparent. The potential of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, grown in specific zones and now made into wine by using state-of-the-art technology, was realized. Once again, Chile produced wines that gained international recognition at events held in Atlanta, Bordeaux and Paris.

Major Chilean labels include, Concha y Toro, Emiliana (Walnut Crest), number one and two imported Chilean wines to the US; AlmaViva (joint venture between Baron Philippe Rothschild and Concha y Toro); ConoSur; Undurraga (first to export to US); Vina Acquitania (Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier); Vina Bisquertt; Vina Calina (Jess Jackson); Casa LaPostolle; Cousino Macul; DeMartino; Errazuriz (jointly owns Caliterra with Mondavi); Francisco de Aguirre; Gillmore; Los Vascos (Lafite Rothschild is an owner); Montes; Morande; Portal del Alto; San Pedro; Santa Helena; Santa Ines; Santa Rita (also owns Carmen); Sena; Santa Carolina (owns Vina Casablanca); Vina Valdivieso; Veramonte; Torres (Miguel Torres of Spain); Caliterra (originally established between Errazuriz and Franciscan, when Franciscan dropped out, Robert Mondavi became an equal partner), among others.

THE WINE REGIONS

The country’s commercial winegrowing districts stretch from the Atacama in the north to the Rio BioBio region in the south. From north to south, rainfall increases and irrigation decreases. In the north, irrigated vineyards produce grapes with high sugar content that are made into Pisco (grape brandy).

The central part of Chile has the ideal soils and microclimates to produce wines of world-class stature. However, irrigation is still crucial. The climate varies from semi-arid in the north, sub-humid in the center and humid further south. There are also two variants: a warmer interior one west of the Coastal Cordillera, and a cooler, mountainous one influenced by the Andean foothills. Where the Coastal Mountain Range diminishes in height or simply ends, it is also possible to find areas cooled by the Pacific Ocean.

Reduced irrigation takes place in more humid conditions south of Maule. The BioBio receives sufficient rainfall to make irrigation unnecessary, but that same weather makes for difficulties in producing finer wines.

Chile’s variety of growing conditions, made even more complex by its abrupt topography, produces a considerable range of wines. While Atacama and Coquimbo wineries specialize in the brandy-like Pisco and the tasty dessert wine known as pajarete, they also produce small quantities of white and sparkling wines. Central Chile produces the country’s best known wines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and other reds planted under French tutelage in the 19th century.

Chile is probably most famous for being free of Phylloxera and downy mildew which saves vineyard owners the cost of spraying and grafting vines onto resistant rootstocks. Grafting is only used to change vine stock using mainly chip budding in irrigated vineyards and cleft grafting in vineyards in rain fed areas.

Chile is divided into viticultural regions which run from north to south: Atacama; Coquimbo; Aconcagua (which encompasses the sub-regions of Aconcagua and Casablanca); Valle Central or Central Valley (includes Maipo, Rapel, Maule and the Curico, which is part of Maule); and Valle del Sur or Southern Valley. A new area just planted in the last few years is San Antonio located south of the city of Valparaiso.

Although some wine can be produced in the northern regions of Atacama and Coquimbo, in general, most of Chile’s wine production is to be found in the more southern regions of Aconcagua, the Valle Central and the Valle del Sur. In general, Chile’s vineyards are planted on flat, fertile land where water is readily available, either naturally or through irrigation, so that the root systems are relatively shallow, though the plantings are now found on the lower slopes of the Andes as well as the Coastal chain.

The healthy fruit-growing climate of Chile and ready access to ports make the country also an important exporter of table grapes. In general, it is the hotter, more northerly vineyards in the Atacama and Coquimbo regions that produce table grapes.

Atacama and Coquimbo – in each of these regions, viticulture (such as it is) takes place in the valleys of the rivers that start in the Andes and flow to the Pacific Ocean following the course of tectonic depressions filled in by the rivers’ alluvial deposits.

From north to south the valleys of Copaiapo’ and Huasco are located in the Atacama regions, while the valleys of Elqui, Choapa and Limari’ lie slightly south of the Atacama Desert and about 25 miles inland. Limari’ is about 250 miles north of Santiago. The name was adopted from the name of a Franciscan monk who planted the first vineyard (nearby) in Chile around 1548. In each of these areas there are two distinct sectors: the valley formed by different levels of terraces of recent alluvial deposits left by rivers or the sea, and the foothills with soil of colluvial (rich in organic materials) origin with fairly important slopes. Inside the valleys, the terraces disappear and only the valley and foothills can be distinguished. Vineyards can be found as high as 4500 feet above sea level.

Soils vary in depth and normally have good permeability; the sub-soil is calcareous (limestone of calcium carbonate), with tufa (very porous limestone formed by deposits from springs and streams) substrata. The soils in Limari’ have an extraordinary mineral content and that characteristic can definitely be found in its wines.

Aconcagua – so-called after the river that runs through it is home to the sub-region of the same name, the interior of which is the hottest and driest zone and Casablanca, one of the coolest and newest wine areas in Chile.

The interior of Aconcagua is hot and dry. In the summer clouds are rarely seen and temperatures are often above 86F. Soils are mainly alluvial and the area produces some good red wines. Errazuriz is one of the few important exporters to have a base in this area at Panquehue in the much gentler intermediate sub-region, cooled by coastal breezes.

Casablanca, located on the coast near Valparaiso, experiences cool morning fogs and frequent cloudy days, which slows the ripening process. Spring frosts are also a potential hazard here. Chardonnay is extensively planted here, most notably by Concha y Toro and Franciscan.

Officially part of the Aconcagua, it is quite different from the vineyards of the hot interior. Casablanca’s vineyards are cooled to Winkler Region I by cool morning fogs, the result of the Pacific’s icy Humboldt Current, which has similar effects thousands of miles up the coast in Carneros in California. Frequent cloud cover slows ripening and reduces the average number of clear days to 180 as opposed to between 240 and 300 in the interior (mirroring the climatic contrast between Corners and California’s San Joaquin Valley).

The influence of the Pacific Ocean on the climatic conditions in the Casablanca Valley came to light in 1982 when enologist Pablo Morande (Concha y Toro) was the first to experiment in the cultivation of fine varieties on a 35-acre site and by 1993 there were nearly 3,700 acres of vines thanks to extensive plantings (mainly Chardonnay) by both Concha y Toro and Franciscan. Spring frosts are a real hazard here. Today, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir tend to do well here.

Soils are generally alluvial. To the south, soils of volcanic origin can also be found.

Vineyards that produce fine wines grow their grapes on simple vertical trellises or crosspieces. Very occasionally, the overhead trellis method is used.

About 60 or so miles south of the city of Valparaiso, we find the San Antonio Valley. The first vines were planted in this decidedly cool coastal zone in 1998. This valley runs parallel to the Pacific (whereas the Casablanca Valley further north runs inland from the sea and offers some warmer areas) and this climate seems to prefer early ripening grapes. All of San Antonio’s vineyards are currently planted on hillsides. Soils here are rather shallow and rocky with lots of clay and loam over a base of granite. A very long growing season here can produce whites with more mineral characteristics and less tropical fruit than some counterparts in the Casablanca Valley.

Valle Central or Central Valley is the area where, traditionally, most of Chile’s wine grapes have been grown. The area is a 600-mile long plateau which reaches as far south as Puerto Montt and is separated from the Pacific Ocean to the west by a relatively low coastal range (1,000 to 2,600 ft), high enough to precipitate rainfall in their immediate shadow and separated from the Argentine Mendoza wine region to the east by the Andes, which can reach altitudes of 23,000 feet. Vines will grow up to 1,800 feet on the western slopes of the Central Valley and 3,000 feet on the sunnier eastern slopes of the Andes.

The Central Valley is dissected by rivers which, during the growing season, carry torrents of melted snow from the Andes to the Pacific — irrigation made easy. Though there are distinct variations in climate even between sub-regions, the Central Valley is generally Mediterranean with warm, dry summers and rainfall averaging 14 – 31 inches a year, restricted to the winter, thanks to the effect of the Pacific high-pressure area. Rainfall in the Central Valley tends to increase both in the south and west – in the shadow of the coastal range. On the western edge of the valley, summer temperatures average 59 to 64F and may rise to 86F with clear skies, strong sunlight and low humidity of just 55 to 60 percent. On the eastern edge of the valley, however, under the influence of cold air drainage from the Andes at night, there is higher humidity and much greater temperature variation resulting in particularly good levels of acidity and color in the grapes.

The Central Valley is divided into the sub-regions of:

Maipo located just south of Santiago and the most famous, yet one of the smallest wine areas. Production here is split between white and red grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon and Sauvignon being the most important. Santiago, Pirque, Puente Alto, Talagante, Llano del Maipo and Buin are official sub-zones of the Maipo.

Rainfall averages about 12 inches a year, most of which is the result of sporadic storms. Irrigation is common, although the water can be high in salt around the Maipo River from which the area takes its name. Potassium levels tend to be low.

The valley is quite large and altitudes vary up to 1,000 meters above sea level. It is divided into three sections based on altitude – the high, middle and low Maipo.

High Maipo includes the zones of Macul, Pirque and Puente Alto where vineyards, which are close to the Andes, are influenced by the cold currents that make their way through this part of the valley. Wines from this area offer intense tannins and are very well structured.

Middle Mapio is made up of the districts of Alto Jahuel, Buin and Huelquen at an altitude of around 550-650 meters and produces very fruity wines.

Low Maipo corresponds to the valley’s lowest and flattest zone. This area includes the districts of Calera de Tango, Talgante and Isla de Maipo. Temperatures are warmer here and produce wines with soft fruit and sweeter tannins.

Maipo houses the headquarters of many of the major wine-producing companies including Concha y Toro.

Rapel, found just below the Maipo, is officially divided into the sub-zones of Cachapoal (Peumo Vineyard is found here) and Colchagua and is quite famous for its plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Semillon and has a particularly good reputation for full-flavored reds. Santa Emiliana (Walnut Crest), Cono Sur, Los Vascos, Santa Rita, Undurraga, and the smaller Discover (Montes) are found here. The region, overall, is hotter than Maule to its immediate south.

Cachapoal stretches from the city of Rancagua in the north to Pelequen in the south. The climate is warm and rains are concentrated in the winter months. The vineyards that are concentrated near Peumo receive a greater marine influence (colder than other areas of the Rapel). Soft, delightful wines with intense fruitiness are found here, especially in the Peumo area.

Colchagua sits between San Fernando in the north and Chimbarongo in the south. The climate is Mediterranean but, like the Maipo, has cool, mid-range and high temperatures according to proximity to the Andes.

Maule located south of Rapel is also a wine producing area. It encompasses the sub-districts of Curico, (Teno (Rauco vineyard) and Lontue’), Claro (Talca, Penchaue and San Clemente vineyards); Loncomilla (San Javier, Parral and Linares vineyards); and Tutuven (Caquenes vineyard). Well to the south of Santiago, this region is one of Chile’s cooler and cloudier thanks to the influence of the Pacific, although it is hotter and drier than BioBio. In the past, the rustic Pais had dominated plantings in rain-fed areas, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon and Semillon have become increasingly important.

Vineyards in the rain-fed western areas often suffer from serious deficiencies of nutrients, especially nitrogen and, to a lesser extent, potassium. Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres’ purchase of vineyards in the Curico’ in 1979 was interpreted as an unusual act of faith in the region, although the San Pedro winery also has its headquarters there.

Valle del Sur or Southern Valley includes Bio-Bio, the most southerly and most extensive wine region in Chile and the Itata sub-region in the north. Over two-thirds of the vineyard acreage in Bio-Bio is said to be planted to red grapes including the Pais. Yumbel and Mulchen, which are becoming more recognized growing areas, are sub-zones of Bio-Bio.

Bio-Bio is more open than Maipo and Rapel to the north, lacking the protection of a high coastal range, so that rainfall is higher and average temperature and sunshine hours are lower.

In the past, the most popular variety had been the Pais, although Moscatel Alejandra is widely grown for basic wine to be consumed within Chile. A significant portion of western vineyards can be found in swampland, capable of producing high quantities of undistinguished wine.

However, research suggests that with drip irrigation and appropriate vine training, some good quality wines from international varieties can be produced here.

Both the Central and Southern Valleys have the natural limits of the Andes on the east and the Coastal range on the west. In the latter, there are also extensive areas of vineyards, especially in the sub-zones of Maule and BioBio located further south where the Coastal range is lower.

The latest area to be planted in the south is the Araucania. So far, only about five hectares have been planted here.

Mountainous transversal cordons occasionally break up the Central Valley which, naturally, delimits the Maipo and the Rapel sub-zones of Cachapoal and Colchagua. Farther south, the Central Valley widens and there are no barriers of this kind.

In these regions there are six major kinds of soil:

Alluvial Soils: They are best represented in the Maipo Region and are found as far south as the city of Curico’ (Maule region). They are stratified (layered), flat to slightly undulating, medium to very deep loam (rich soil composed of clay {firm, fine-grained earth}, sand and some organic matter) to clayish-loam, highly fertile.

Low Position Soils of Fine Materials: They are located preferentially near hills and are flat to slightly undulating. They correspond to depression areas where fine materials have accumulated so their texture is clayish with poor drainage. Fertility can be low or very high.

Alluvial Colluvial Soils: They are representative of the Maipo region and the Cachapoal sub-region (Rapel). Their texture is loam to clayish-muddy-loam, they have medium depth, moderate organic material content and good drainage. In certain areas there is some rockiness and sometimes these areas suffer erosion from irrigation.

Soils Derived From Conglomerates (rocks composed of smaller rock particles cemented together in a mass of hardened clay and sand), Breccias (stone composed of fragments of the same rocks) and Tufas: They are found as far south as Colchagua in Rapel and in the Maule. They are flat and slightly undulating. They may be shallow to deep, have clayish-loam texture with good drainage or, on the contrary, drainage may be impeded by the presence of volcanic tufas.

Soils Derived From Volcanic Ash: They are found in the eastern part of the Central Valley from the area level with the city of Talca to the south (Maule). They are flat to slightly undulated, with loam to muddy-loam texture. They have good drainage, no erosion and a high organic material content. This kind of soil, which is glacial in origin, now appears south of the city of Curico’ (Maule) and continues toward the south (BioBio). It is only interrupted by a cone of boulders at the level of the city of Linares (Maule) which eliminated the old sediments and replaced them with alluvial material, with sand to sandy-loam texture, which is very poor in organic matter. In some places there is erosion. These characteristics extend as far as Nuble River basin (BioBio).

Granitoid Type Soils: (granite-like, hard igneous rock, composed of quartz, feldspar and mica, crystallized together and varying greatly in texture and color). They generally cover the eastern part of the Coastal range in the Maule and BioBio. They make up a very dissected plain, which has formed extensive foothills, alluvial valleys and intermountain valleys. They are medium to deep soils with variable slopes to 30 degrees. They have abundant quartz gravel on the surface and are loam soils. At a certain depth, they have dense, compact clays with moderately slow drainage. They are susceptible to erosion. Organic material is low.

VITI-VINICULTURE

It is generally believed that Spanish settlers brought the vine to Chile in the mid-16th century. Initially, Catholic priests who followed the conquistadors used local wild grapes called “black grape” (which may be related to Pais) for sacramental purposes. Some say that this was an indigenous variety; others claim that it grew from the seeds of raisins, a staple food of the Spanish sailors who originally occupied the land. The grape is still planted in the southern part of the country to make ready-to-drink, unimpressive wines, just as the Thompson seedless is used in California. Other vines mentioned by the Jesuits were Muscatel, Torontel, Albilho and Mollar.

By 1831 there were over 19,000,000 grapevines in Chile. The most common varieties consumed and made into wines were the red “cock claw” grape with a large, long berry; red and white Italian grapes; the red San Francisco grape used to make Pisco, the rustic Pais (equivalent to California Mission) used mainly for the making of wine. The Aceituno (white), Huasco (rose) and Curacavi (Muscatel Pink) were common as well. These wines were generally sweetened with boiled must and a concentrate with the consistency of syrup.

Irrigation is necessary in about half of all Chilean vineyards and is made possible by the melting snows of the Andes. Until the early 1990s, when drip irrigation was introduced, water was diverted to the vineyards through a series of cannel and channels. Fertilizers are also widely used.

Average yields are about four tons per acre. There is also quite a diversity of training and trellising systems in use including variations on the Tendone system of high training; the standard Spanish practice of growing unstaked vines as free-standing bushes; layering, whereby one-year old shoots are buried into the ground during the winter to establish their own root system; headtrellising using the guyot system or vine spacing to allow for mechanization.

Harvest usually begins at the end of February for more early-maturing varietals such as Chardonnay and continues through the end of April and can even last well into May for Pais grown in the more southern districts.

Mindful of its unique status as a wine-producing country unravaged by two of the most famous vine hazards, Chile imposes a particularly strict quarantine on imported plants. The most commonly planted variety and found only in Chile is the dark-skinned Pais, thought to be like the Criolla of Argentina and Mission of California, a direct descendent of vine cuttings imported by the Spaniards. Other varietals found include Moscatel, Torontel (local form of the Torrontes of Argentina), Semillon, Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Carignan, Chasselas, Cot, Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir. It is thought that a great majority of the vines called Sauvignon by the Chileans are almost certainly Sauvignonasse brought from Bordeaux 150 years ago or Sauvignon Vert and, occasionally, Sauvignon Gris, rather than the more familiar and aromatic Sauvignon Blanc.

Discussion of Chilean viticulture would not be complete without the notation of a varietal called Carmenere. The vineyards of Chile, mostly planted with Bordeaux vines a century and a half ago, are pre-phylloxera which means the vine blight that wiped out virtually all of the vineyards of Europe in the latter years of the 19th century never got here. As a result, there are some varieties of French grapevines thriving here that no longer exist in France or that still grow there only to a very limited extent.

One of these is Carmenere; originally from France and now almost extinct there, it is noted for its deep color and fruit character, very similar to Merlot and its aromas and tannins that often replicate Cabernet Sauvignon. For many years, Carmenere was thought to be a clone of Merlot but that has recently been identified as a separate variety from the Cabernet family of vines. It has been common practice for this grape to be interspersed with Merlot in the same vineyard. In fact, until modern vine identification techniques only recently revealed the true identity of this variety, many Chilean vintners had no idea it was in their vineyards. Further, the Chilean government did not recognize Carmenere as a variety until the 1996 vintage. As a result, Carmenere is often sold as Merlot. Winemaking in Chile has undergone possibly the most dramatic technological revolution in the wine world. Wineries that were for decades underfunded and equipped with vats of cement or local rauli, the evergreen beechwood have, for the most part, found investors willing to commit to the long-term future of the Chilean wine industry, thus equipping new wineries with state-of-the-art facilities.

CARMENERE BACKGROUND

Midway through the nineteenth century, Carménère was one of several noble vines planted extensively in Médoc near Bordeaux. Carménère was a key component in the appellation’s great wines until the scourge of phylloxera devastated France in 1860 changing the grape’s destiny.

Just like Chilean viticulture today, the history of Carménère is rooted in the country of supreme wine tradition, knowledge and development, France. Great Médoc wines have always arisen from the intricate blending of several different grape varieties. Cultivated within a single vineyard, under the Chateaux principle, the proportions of grapes used from the range of varieties available bring about unique wines.

Vineyards in nineteenth century Bordeaux were planted with Carménère and other local varieties such as Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In 1860 phylloxera attacked and laid waste French vineyards before helpless winegrowers’ eyes. Bordeaux had to start afresh. Replanting began in earnest using pest and, specifically, phylloxera resistant American rootstock. Carménère, like every other variety, had to adapt not only to the new conditions but also to more demanding and controlled vineyard practices that needed to resuscitate a broken industry.

Carménère performed poorly. In the Bordeaux climate Carménère proved sensitive at fruit set to the cold spring weather which reduced yields and, as this grape variety has to be harvested so late, the region’s early autumnal rains impaired grape quality.

So Carménère was overlooked by the region’s resurgent industry when choosing which varieties to cultivate. It was simply forgotten; not for the quality of its wines but because of its difficult nature.

Vineyard owner and Medoc magistrate, Armound d’Armilhacq, said of Carménère in 1867, “Its flavor is excellent. The taste is even better than the two cabernets; the wine it produces reflects these qualities. It is mellow, yet full and rich in body. It mixes a rounder flavor. It lasts about as long and, with age, improves toward perfection.”

Prosperous visionary entrepreneurs, convinced of Chile’s outstanding potential for viticulture, traveled to Bordeaux in search of the best red grapes and brought many back with them. Several varieties, including Carménère, arrived in a big mix of vines to be planted in true Bordeaux style, emulating the French Chateaux use of various grape types in a single vineyard.

Like many European immigrants, Carménère headed for far off lands in South America looking for a sunny climate and fertile soils. Unwittingly it saved itself from assured extinction.

Chile, a naturally protected land geographically, is extraordinarily diverse. In local lore, when God created the Earth, on the final day it only remained to give life to this long, thin stretch of land, so he gathered up all the natural beauties left over from the rest of the planet and thus shaped the diversity of this singular country.

Divine intervention, along with importing disease and pest-free vines, has led to Chile being the only country in the world not to suffer phylloxera’s devastation. The pest has never managed to traverse Chile’s insurmountable natural defenses. It has not managed to cross the majestic Andes Mountains, nor the Pacific Ocean, nor the arid Atacama Desert. Antarctica blocks passage from the south.

In addition to strong geographical barriers, the exceptional and stable climate of long dry summers provides this land with a natural antidote to vineyard diseases, which has never escalated out of control in Chile.

Carménère found its new home in sun-soaked, naturally protected valleys. Charmed by the sun, Carménère flourishes here and yields its finest fruit. Carménère was phased out and replaced with Merlot in Bordeaux. In Chile, meanwhile, Carménère became known as a late Merlot clone. Here it was also referred to as Chilean Merlot, given the characteristics of its aromatically fruity and spicy wine – kind, sweet and soft in tannins.

Carménère, nevertheless, belongs to the Cabernet family. One of the first pointers linking the parentage of the two, after observing the similarity in the shape of the leaves was that, in France, Carménère is also known as Grande Vidure, where Cabernet Sauvignon is classified as Petite Vidure due to the difference in the size of the grape.

In Chile, Carménère was mainly planted in the sunny Rapel and Maule Valleys. The vine demanded uncommon care in the vineyard. Yields had to be controlled and grapes insisted on time to ripen to avoid excessively green notes.

Captivated by the long, sunny summers, Carménère faithfully delivered its best fruit which rounded the world labeled Merlot. Its intrinsic friendliness, however, never failed to seduce.

Jean Bertrand Delmas in his Ampelographical Assay at Chateau Haut-Brion in 1989, delivered the following description of Carménère: “Carmenere’s wines resemble those of Merlot for their roundness and suppleness, and they approach Cabernet Sauvignon for their aromas and tannins. The wine is long in the mouth, very harmonious and presents an ensemble of exceptional qualities.”

In the late 1980s, Chilean winegrowers joined the global drive of selling more markedly varietal wines and worked hard at classifying each type of grape and identifying the best soil to maximize each one’s potential.

In 1994, French leaf specialist, Jean Michel Boursiquot, came to the Sixth Latin American Viticulture and Enology Congress in Chile and recognized the late clone as, in fact, Carménère.

Since then, Carménère has reappeared in world markets and its development in Chile has been crucial to most of today’s great Chilean red blends.

Patrick Léon, winemaker at Chateau Mouton de Rothschild, Opus One and Almaviva noted, “The proportion of Carménère in Almaviva has grown significantly. It is now the second wine, after Cabernet Sauvignon, and is more abundant than the rest of the better-known varieties from Bordeaux, such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. With the Carménère we get more maturity in the tannins, a rounder, more elegant less wild wine”.

Carménère, once rooted in France, now Chilean at heart, prefers its fruit to ripen slowly under the Chilean sun from spring right through to fall, from the moment the first shoots appear to the time it is harvested. If the vine does not get sufficient sunshine Carménère will issue green, vegetative wines. Sometimes, the ripe tannins and sweetness of the fruit make it seem that the grapes are ready to pick, but it is Carmenere’s aromas that dictate precisely when to harvest.

Carménère is noble and demanding when it comes to extracting quality. It prefers a balanced soil, one not too poor not too fertile. It likes a soil that lets it develop gradually, at its own noble pace. Weakly water retaining, clay loam soils need to be managed until shortly before harvesting so its fruit does not lose the distinctive qualities of the variety.

Carménère, originally French but now Chilean at heart, gathers up the affability and warmth of this land and offers it to the world through its ripe fruit.

“The Carménère speaks of the Chilean mountain air settling on the vineyard at night, bringing the cherry flavors into a darker succulence, of the sea breezes bringing their own sort of austerity to the setting of the fruit”. Joshua Greene, Wine & Spirits

Concha y Toro and Carménère – Andrés Larraín, Manager of Agriculture at Concha y Toro since 1973. “The history of Carménère at Concha y Toro mirrors its development in Chile”.

What is the story behind Carménère at Concha y Toro? The history of Carménère at Concha y Toro mirrors the grape’s progress in Chile. One of Concha y Toro’s first vineyards at Peumo in the Cachapoal Valley was planted from the outset with a range of phylloxera-free Bordeaux vines. Despite at the time being known as Merlot, Carménère developed healthily in the area. More recently, and with the help of Montpellier University Director, Dennis Uval, our department made a selection of Chilean Merlot vines at the Peumo estate, later identified as Carménère. In 1983 we made the first plantation of selected vines which provided nursery for future plantings.

Where is Concha y Toro planting its Carménère? The Maule and Cachapoal Valleys have been the traditional origin and have proved the terroir for the grape for over a century. Concha y Toro’s first plantings were in its Peumo Vineyard, in the Cachapoal Valley.

Cachapoal is the sunniest valley in Chile whose temperatures are moderate with warm days and cooler nights. In this microclimate, unlike valleys even further north, it never freezes. All of this adds up to the area being known as the Valley of Carménère, which Concha y Toro has been actively planting for the past twenty years. In the early 1990s Concha y Toro began developing two new areas for Carménère at Villa Alegre and Lourdes, in the Maule Valley.

How do you see the future for Carménère? We believe resolutely in Carménère, which is why we are planting more, looking for new origins, assessing hillside locations and even seeking sunnier spots so we can get the best out of the variety and provide distinctive wines that express their origins. Presently, at Concha y Toro, we are investigating our clones with the help of the French specialist nurseries, Mercier, with the idea of later reproducing them.

In Carménère, for the first time in its history, Chile can deliver to the world an exclusive and truly fine variety that does not adapt well in other countries. Carménère has developed a unique identity in Chile since its arrival from Bordeaux over 150 years ago that is now nigh impossible to achieve elsewhere. So we have to take up the challenge of providing the world fine, expressive typicity for the variety. The experience and knowledge we have amassed has led to better management of Carménère and drawn critical acclaim. Such fine results encourage us to work ever more closely with the grape in the vineyard. At Concha y Toro, we believe the quality of a wine develops in step with the growing vine.

Mapping Carménère – To ripen fully, Carménère needs natural balance. At Concha y Toro, Carménère is nurtured and cultivated in an ongoing quest for combinations of soils, climates and vineyard architectures in which the vine flourishes. Years of working with Carménère have handed Concha y Toro’s winemakers and technicians the tools to understand and manage the tricky grape well. We found that Carménère prefers a heavy, yet balanced top and subsoil, consisting of similar proportions of clay, loam and sand. Soils should afford good drainage, but need to retain some water to let Carménère produce strong foliage and so delay ripening of its fruit right up until it is picked.

The ideal climate should involve wet winters and a prolonged dry spell, as harvesting takes place well into fall. Carménère is surprisingly sensitive to cold and frosts and prefers average minimum and maximum temperatures to rise gradually during spring and then to remain constant right through to the day the grapes are picked. Sharp daily swings in temperature are also needed as the fruit ripens.

Orientation of the rows of vines is crucial within the layout of a vineyard. Ideally, sunlight should fall evenly throughout the day. Plant density, training, trellising and irrigation policies are equally important for thriving Carménère vineyards.

Carménère Management in the vineyard – Top priority when managing Carménère is to ensure that each cluster of grapes receives as much sunlight as possible from fruit set right through to the crucial picking day. Lacking sufficient sunlight, the wines rebel and kick in green notes. Deft touch is needed too, to respect the process of gradual ripening and to help the plant achieve the natural balance this delicate variety demands.

Carménère needs special care and attention all year long in the vineyard. Concha y Toro adopts a vineyard management philosophy of subdividing each vineyard into homogeneous blocks grouped by similar soils, plant vigor and age. Each block is then tended according to its needs, affording better control and, hence, attaining riper bunches of grapes.

The architecture of the vine (grapes, leaves, shoots, trunk and roots) ought to be maintained in perfect balance during vegetative growth. Every job in the vineyard – de-leafing, irrigation and controlling yields – aims to realize the maximum expression of this variety’s potential.

Canopy management is achieved through de-leafing, which governs how much sunlight grape clusters receive, while irrigation needs to be controlled to avoid the plant suffering hydric stress. Carmenere’s foliage should be strong right up until the day it is picked so as not to halt the ripening process.

Then comes the PICKING DAY – “For Carménère the picking day is crucial. If it is too early the wine will be exotic and unbalanced. Later on it will be round and present a long finish”. Domingo Marchi, Cachapoal vineyard manager.

Overall, the aim of vineyard work is to prolong the ripening period to achieve the most expressive, fully ripe grapes possible. Traditionally, when the fruit exhibits optimal enological maturity, which is determined by the sugar content and total acidity, it is time to harvest. However, Carménère is unforgiving when it comes to extracting quality. Sometimes, the ripe tannins and sweetness of the fruit make it seem that the grapes are ready to pick, but it is Carmenere’s aromas that determine the crucial picking day. All of the work in the vineyard and the efforts to prolong the growing season and ripening period go to waste if we get the picking day wrong.

Revealing Carménère’s expressiveness in the cellar – Carménère grapes, harvested block by block, arrive at the cellars in peak condition. Work at
the cellar has to conserve the grape’s unhurriedly developed qualities and expression, without altering or harming the variety’s identity.

At Concha y Toro, cellar management revolves around respecting the qualities of the grapes and total dedication to the winemaking process from the moment the grapes are received to the time the bottled wines are dispatched.

When the intensely colored Carménère grapes arrive at the cellar they are fully mature and bursting with potential. The winemaker’s job in the cellar is to reveal the fruit, aromas, the tannins and all the expressiveness of the variety, layer by layer.

Care is needed, because Carménère is as equally unforgiving in the cellar as it is in the vineyard. This variety needs to be aerated throughout the vinification process; from fermentation to barrel aging in order to release all of its fruit and its friendly character.

Correct barrel selection is crucial for conserving the product of the hard work in the vineyard and, later, in the cellar. The wood must not impair the almost ready Carménère; it simply adds complexity and enhances its singular character.

Concha y Toro, shaping the identity of Carménère wines – In 1998, Concha y Toro took steps to promote Carménère worldwide and to develop a range of products for everyone. The first Concha y Toro Carménère-labeled wine was a well-received Terrunyo. The 1998 Terrunyo Carménère marked the beginning of our commitment to reintroduce the world to this noble and now Chilean grape variety. “Terrunyo Carménère is unique. Peumo Vineyard’s Block 27 has given us this distinctive, supple, yet concentrated wine. The elegant and affable Terrunyo is a powerfully colored juicy wine with lots of spice and blackberries, plums and black cherries. Its long, long finish is achieved with softer, kinder tannins than other reds”, Ignacio Recabarren.

“Casillero del Diablo Carménère is a really distinctive wine whose silky tannins and mouth filling roundness captivate. Add in the bountiful red fruit and spices, and consumers are won over instantly”, Marcelo Papa.

“This wine expresses the typical aromas of Carménère beautifully, delivering plums, blackberries and spicy hints. Soft and silky, it invites you to explore the pleasures of tasting Carménère wines”, Héctor Urzua.

Each Concha y Toro brand of Carménère has an individual style to show off the range of character available from the grape. But every Concha y Toro wine faithfully exhibits the intrinsic identity of Carménère; a friendly, fruity and intensely generous wine.

Carménère plantings in Chile and France – Following the outbreak of phylloxera, cultivation of Carménère in France declined swiftly. In 1994 just 14 hectares was planted countrywide and although Carménère has once again found favor, only around 100 hectares exist today. Chile – Since the Government of Chile formally accepted the existence of the grape variety in 1995 on the official register, the area cultivated with Carménère has grown explosively.

Some 3 million cases of Carménère labeled wine were exported in 2003, accounting for 12% of all bottled wine exports.

What the pundits say:

“Chile’s Carménère is now being planted separately and picked at the proper time, thus producing better wines with plumy, fleshy profiles that are marked by tobacco leaf hints” James Molesworth. He also mentioned, “Carménère is not a household name, but this red grape variety is beginning to play a vital role in Chile’s steadily emerging wine industry.”

“A notoriously uneven and late ripener, the fickle Carménère seems to have found a home in this valley-perfect weather. In time, the grape has potential to distinguish itself in the wide world of red wines”. Michael Schachner, Wine Enthusiast.

“With its dry, warm climate and absence of pests, Chile has been described as God’s own vineyard”. Wine Magazine.

“For me, Carménère is a combination of roundness, softness and creamy tannins that fill the mouth. At the same time there’s a lot of fruitiness and a combination of red and green pepper. Carménère comprises the fruitiness of a Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz, and the roundness and suppleness of a Merlot”. Patrick Léon, of Chateau Mouton de Rothschild and Opus One.

Chile’s wine styles run the gamut from light, fresh and fruity whites to sophisticated, harmonious reds suitable for extended aging.

THE WINE LAWS

Indications of Designation of Origin (geographic origins) may appear on the label if at least 85% of the wine is produced with grapes that come from that geographic area. Only names of government approved grape varieties and zones may appear on the label. If a harvest year is included, 85% of the wine must be obtained from that harvest. If the words “estate bottled” are used, the vineyard, vinification process and bottling must all take place in the same geographical area as understood in the Designation of Origin.

Estate bottled may only be used on a label if the bottling plant and vineyard, from where the grapes originated, are located in the area stated in the indications of origin.

Residual sugar may be stated as the following:

A: Dry, Sec or Seco – not above four grams per liter (or no more than nine grams per liter when the acidity is very high – in this case residual sugar can be up to nine but not more than two grams per liter over that of the acidity.)

B: Medium Dry, Demi-Sec or Semi Seco – no more than 12 grams per liter (or 18 grams per liter when the total acidity corresponds to that expressed in letter A.)

C: Medium Sweet, Moelleux or Semi Dulce – when the residual sugar is over 12 and reaches a maximum of 45 grams per liter.

D: Sweet, Doux or Dulce: When the content of residual sugar is at least 45 grams per liter.

New G.I. – Andes, Costas: Wines produced in proximity to Andres or coast and Entre Cordilleras produced between the Andres and the lower coastal range.

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