During the late 1980s, favourable change finally came to the Chilean wine industry. In less than 10 years, Chilean wines went from nothing of note to wines that were first class. Today Chile is the seventh largest exporter of wine and one of the top ten producers by volume, but it was a long road to get there.
The evolution of Chilean wine
The story of Chilean wine begins with the arrival of the conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century, who brought with them European Vitus vinifera. Despite political links with Spain, Chile’s wine history was mostly influenced by French winemaking, particularly Bordeaux. Wealthy Chilean landowners visiting France began importing French vines. In the late 19th century, the phylloxera aphid epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in France, leaving the winemaking industry in ruin. Because Chile had avoided the phylloxera plague, many French winemakers headed to South America bringing with them their techniques and experience.
Technological advances support a move to premium wines
For much of the 20th century, political instability, bureaucracy and high taxes hobbled the Chilean wine industry. Up until the 1970s, Chilean wine was considered low quality, suitable mostly only for the domestic market. But increasing awareness of Chile’s unique growing conditions lead to foreign investment and scientific intervention in the country’s wine regions. Technical advances in winemaking saw a leap in quality and a reputation for premium wines at reasonable prices. Chile began to export extensively, with a focus on major markets such as the US, Canada, UK and Japan.
Climate and geography
Chile is a narrow country, bordered by the Andes in the east and the vast Pacific to the west. These two geographical features have a profound effect on climate. Proximity to the Andes means broad diurnal variation between day and night temperatures. This results in a cooling drop in temperatures, which is essential in maintaining the acidity in Chilean grapes. The dry Atacama Desert and Antarctica also have an influence.
Not surprisingly, wine styles vary from north to south. Wines from the warmer northern regions are generally richer, concentrated and more powerful than their cooler climate southern counterparts. Southern wines are notably more constrained and elegant.
White varietals are mostly made using New World techniques, fermented in stainless steel tanks resulting in maximum fruit flavour and freshness. Reds are often big, bold and heavily oaked. Predominant Chilean varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Carmenere and Cabernet Franc. Other varietals worthy of mention include Semillon, Riesling, Viognier, Syrah, Carignan and Pinot Noir.