Chile: Taste the Unexpected!
“I think Chile is the most exciting New World wine country on the planet right now.”
— Paul Grieco, Sommelier/Restaurateur, Terroir, NYC (Sep-2020)
Thanks to its geography and history, Chile offers wine lovers some of the most diverse and exciting wine choices of any country in the world. Here’s why. Chile is the narrowest country in the world, averaging just 110 miles wide. It’s also the second longest (Brazil beats Chile by just 57 miles). At 2,600 miles, Chile is as long as the U.S. is wide, ranging from 17 degrees south to 56 degrees south. That translates to the distance between the Caribbean island of Antigua and Quebec in the Northern Hemisphere. In terms of width, the country is wedged between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east, with a long strip of coastal mountains separating the two.
So, not only do most viticultural areas get a “two-fer” of extra-strength maritime and alpine influences, but micro-terroirs are abundant, and often cheek-by-jowl. Chile’s rich vinous history also factors into the array of choices. The first vines were planted in 1544, making Chile one of the oldest wine cultures in the New World.
Winegrowing in Chile started with plantings of mostly Spanish-origin País (known as “Mission” in California – those Jesuits knew a thing or two about viticulture!). The great French invasion followed later, in the eighteenth century, as wealthy landowners introduced Bordeaux varieties at their estates near the nation’s capital of Santiago. In 1889, those Bordeaux-style wines won fame and international recognition in Europe akin to the Steven Spurrier “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, at which two California wines triumphed over offerings from Bordeaux.
By the late-twentieth century, Chile’s wine industry was dominated by four major players. These did an impressive job of introducing thirsty wine drinkers around the world to the country’s well-made, well-priced blends and varietals, notably Carmenere, a French variety now synonymous with Chile. At the same time, legendary winemaker Pablo Morandé began planting in Casablanca, initiating a movement to explore cooler and cooler sites ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Fast forward, and that movement has become a flood, with ever more extreme sites coming online each year, from desert plantings in the north to vines in the far south. With it comes a growing consensus at the international level that Chile’s middle and top-end wines, in particular its Cabernets, rank among some of the best that the world has to offer.
Many of us came of age drinking value-driven varietals and blends from Chile; then we discovered Carmenere and Chile’s iconic Cabernet Sauvignons. Those categories remain wonderful options, but with so many new regions and styles to explore and enjoy there are now more reasons than ever to check out Chile:
1. The only phylloxera-free country in the world
2. More own-rooted vines than any other country worldwide
3. A tradition of vine health-conciousness
4. A history of open-minded innovation
5. An early pioneer of wine industry sustainability
6. A super-dry climate (in most areas)
7. Old vine Pais, Carignan and Cinsault
8. Iconic Cabernets
9. The best Carmenere in the world
10. Tangy, minerally Chardonnays
11. Olive-inflected Syrahs
12. A growing cadre of Natural wines
13. A dedicated artisinal movement
14. Possibly the highest concentration of female winemakers in the world
Tradition and trends, classic and new appellations, legacy vineyards and new plantings of different grape varieties, local and international capital and talent – it’s a heady mix. Taste the unexpected from the narrowest country in the world. Welcome to Chile!
Fun Facts, Chilean Wines: Did You Know?
- 1544: First recorded plantings of vines in Chile, making it one of the oldest viticultural areas in the New World. Only Mexico beats out Chile, by a decade or so.
- 1545: In a letter dated September 4 from Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, the first royal governor of Chile, to Charles V of Spain, Valdivia mentions that the vines are thriving and asks the king to send more. As a result, each September 4 Chileans celebrate National Wine Day with parties and fiestas around the country.
- 1880s-1890s: All things French are in vogue in Chile. With newfound wealth derived from the mining of nitrates (used in fertilizer and making gunpowder), Santiago’s elite start planting vines from Bordeaux, including Cabernet Sauvignon in the Maipo Valley, just a horseback ride away from the capital.
- 1889: A Chilean wine wins the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The shock created was akin to that experienced 77 years later at the 1976 “Judgement of Paris,” a blind tasting held in Paris by wine merchant Steven Spurrier, at which two California wines, one white, one red, bested the French competition.
- 1980s: The original Concha y Toro family estate in Pirque, near Santiago, complete with its “Devil's Cellar,” opens to the public. To this day, it remains one of Chile's premier tourist attractions.
- 1994: Originally from Bordeaux, Carmenère was long misidentified as “Chilean Merlot,” until set right in 1994 by French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot. A bit more hang-time and planting in the right soil has transformed this Cinderella grape into an authentic Chilean princess.
- 2006: Michelle Bachelet becomes the first woman President of Chile (2006-2010 and 2014-2018). Bachelet’s great-great-grandfather, wine merchant Louis-Joseph Bachelet, emigrated to Chile after his business in Chassagne-Montrachet was upended by phylloxera – a prescient move as phylloxera has never entered Chile, one of the only phylloxera- and peronospora-free countries in the world.
- Chile is home to the widest range of “extreme” viticulture in the world, including wines made in the Atacama Desert (“Tara Atacama” from Ventisquero), at high altitude (Viñedos de Alcohuaz, with vineyards ranging 5,413-7,237 feet), and on an island in the chilly south, at 42⸰ latitude (Viña Montes in Chiloé).
- King Cab! Chile is home to 15% of the world’s production of Cabernet Sauvignon.
- The Chilean Wine Palm, Jubaea chilensis, is the largest palm in the world, and protected in Chile. It can grow to 6-feet in circumference at the base, and top 53 feet in height. Some especially fine examples exist at Viña la Rosa’s “La Palmería” vineyard in Cachapoal. A form of “wine” is made from the sap.
- While the toast, “Salud!” (Cheers!) is commonly used in Chile, if you are comfortable, or linguistically adventurous, say: “Arriba, abajo, al centro y adentro!” (Up, down, towards the center, and down the hatch!!) or “Pasito a Pasito” (Step by Step).
Sustainability 365 Participating Wineries
Concha y Toro, Natura, Santa Rita, Toro de Piedra, VIK, Vina San Pedro Tarapaca (1865, Tarapaca, Leyda, etc.), Montes, La Playa, Los Vascos, Veramonte, Escudo Rojo, Aromo, Terra Noble, Santa Ema, Aresti, Casa Silva, Ventisquero, Maquis, Errazuriz, Cono Sur, Lapostolle, Garces Silva, Via Wines (Chilensis, Oveja Negra), Matetic, Odjfell, Miguel Torres, Tapijue Wines, Bouchon, Morande, Tabali