Chile’s wine industry is roughly 500 years old, making it one of the New World’s oldest viticultural characters. Legend has it that the conquistador Cortez planted the first vines here at the same time as colonising the country.
During the country’s Spanish rule wine production was strictly limited to ensure exportation of Spanish wine to the region. Understandably the Chilean locals thought this was a little unfair and largely ignored the regulations imposed upon them. Equally understandably perhaps – and certainly to their lasting benefit – they looked to France rather than Spain to influence and guide their wine styles. Importing French varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) before Phylloxera destroyed Europe’s wine industry is arguably the most important part of Chile’s wine history. Chile avoided the epidemic, inherited masses of talented, displaced wine makers and to this day boasts ungrafted ‘pre- Phylloxera’ vines.
Chile’s wineries are widely spread down the line of the Andes, in steep valleys running down to the Pacific. Climatically similar to California and Bordeaux, wineries are divided into six regions. Maipo and Aconcagua produce what is generally recognised as being the highest quality wines in Chile. Here Cabernet Sauvignon is king. Rapel, vast and climatically diverse, turns out decent wines as disparate as Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir to much acclaim, but more and more it is the region’s Merlot that is causing people to take notice. The Casablanca region is also beginning to turn heads, having initially been written off as too cold to do well. Here the whites, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, are showing promise and there is talk of Pinot Noir gaining ground as well. The last two regions, Curico and Bio Bio, churn out domestic jug wine at the moment but surely it is only a matter of time…