Wine in Chile, Olé

Blessed with a Mediterranean climate similar to France or California, Chile has the added advantage of being south of the equator. That puts their summers from November to March, allowing them to harvest wine during the off-season of many other countries. Time shifting allows them to satisfy the market when others can't.

This has served Chilean wine producers well since vineyards were first planted in the mid-16th century. By the mid-18th century the country saw the importation of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Regrettably, by the mid-20th century the industry was stagnant, producing inferior wines. But a 21st century renaissance has seen vintners produce world class wines again, taking several major prizes in recent years.

The country is divided, like France's appellations, into several viticultural regions running north to south along this sliver of land in South America. Some lie in the fertile central plain 750ft (229m) above sea level, others are closer to the famous Andes. The area has seen superior growth in recent years, growing from only 12 wineries to over 70.

Blessed not only with good weather but, because of its unique geography, the region has never been affected by the Phylloxera louse that devastated so many European vineyards. When France and others looked to rebuild in the 1870s, they imported much of their stock from Chile.

Not only is the weather similar to France, but many of the names would be immediately recognized by vintners there. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and others. German varieties are represented too: Gewürztraminer and Riesling are plentiful.

The reds of Chile have in many cases (pun intended) become the country's most notable exports. Chile is the fourth largest exporter of wine to the United States. A significant distinction, considering the U.S. has an enormous wine industry of its own. As long ago as 1998 it passed 5.3 million bottles and has continued to grow since.

Many of these premium wines come from vineyards sited in cooler areas with poorer soils. Along with modern pruning techniques, the result concentrates the flavors. Adding stainless steel fermenting tanks alongside French oak barrels has brought Chile's wines to the pinnacle of world winemaking.

In the Apalta Valley, for example, conditions are ideal for Merlot, Syrah, and other favorites of the California market. Produced from grapes grown on 50-year-old vines in sandy soil, it competes with the best anywhere. Those seeking a superior, full-bodied wine will look for the Montes Alpha 'M' designation.

While still small in size, at around 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) total under cultivation, Chile can still produce one of the finest Syrahs anywhere. The peppery product from the cooler Elqui Valley is the envy of vintners from Australia to California. The warmer, southern Colchagua region offers a fruity version that competes well with those of the Hermitages of France.

With the shackles of its past now receding from memory, Chile is well poised to take its proper place among the major quality producers of the world.

Atacama Deert region, Chile.

Region of Atacama Desert in Chile.

History of wine in Chile

Chile has a long wine history dating back to the mid 16th century (first recorded wine production in 1540). The Spanish Conquistadores who colonized Chile established a thriving wine production initially with grapes from Peru....so strong that the Spanish government banned exports from Chile in fear of it weakening domestic Spanish production. Despite the early Spanish impact, Chilean wine has been more influenced by France, particularly Bordeaux. In the mid 19th century wealthy Chilean landowners traveled extensively to France and brought back many French varieties, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century led to an exodus of French wine professionals to Chile. Chile has never had a phylloxera problem.

Political turmoil disrupted the wine business and it was not until the return of the free market in the 1980s that it began to revive. Until this time, Chilean wine was of poor quality and largely consumed in the domestic market. The speed of change has been phenomenal. In 1995 there were just 12 wineries in Chile; by 2005 the number had risen to over 70. Major foreign investment accelerated in the early 1990s and with it came new technology and a dedication to producing export quality wine.

A key change was the move away from wooden barrels - beech wood - to stainless steel. Stainless steel enables greater temperature control, particularly during fermentation. Without this temperature control and refrigeration Chilean wines would not have progressed.

Chile continues to enjoy high investment. In many ways, Chile is an ideal place for producing wine. It has 300 days of sunshine. It is 4300 kilometers long and only up to 177 kilometers wide. Most of the country is therefore influenced by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific - particularly the Humboldt Current - moderates the weather which is often described as Mediterranean. The Andes provides irrigation.

Chile is a relatively small world producer - producing less than Portugal. However, its influence on the non-producers market is considerable. Between 1990 and 2008 Chile's production increased by over 200. This has meant an even greater focus on exports. Today, Chile exports around 68 of its production. Per capita wine consumption in Chile is around 15 liters....well below the most consumer countries.

Chilean grapes and wine production

Most of the wine produced is red: about 76% of Chilean wine is red. In the early 1990's Cabernet Sauvignon was the dominant Chilean wine. It remains the most important grape but Chile has now become more diverse.

Carmenere is now virtually unique to Chile. The vines originated in Bordeaux and w-'ere long assumed to be Merlot. It was not until 1991 that DNA testing established that many of the "Merlot" vines were in fact Carmenere. Current estimates are that between 60 and 90 of Chilean "Merlot” is really Carmenere. Since the mid 1990s many of the wine from these grapes have been correctly labeled as Carmenere. The Carmenere grape is later ripening than Merlot. It has many of the softness characteristics of Merlot but with a little added backbone similar to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many observers believe that the exciting red wine developments are with Pinot Noir (Cono Sur in particular) and Syrah/Shiraz. Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted white wine grape followed by Chardonnay. There are increased plantings of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Viognier.

The vineyards are located in the many valleys. The most important are Colchagua, Maule and Curico. Perhaps the most exciting developments are in the far north – Atacama - and the far south - Patagonia. The south looks particularly promising for cooler grape varieties such as Pinot Noir.