Background on Chilean Wine
Wines that come from Chile’s various flavor prone regions have long been undervalued. But there’s something special emanating from the gorgeous terroirs of Chilean Wine Country. Something that has vast wine markets, such as China, thirsty for something fresh and complex.
It may be some time before the entire world warms up to Chilean wine regions and their offerings – but as the world begins to recognize that you don’t need to pay over $15 for a great bottle of wine, Chile will become a more prominent New World player.
Chile is considered a New World wine region, as it was not until the 16th century that the Spanish brought various vines with them as they began to colonize the region. More recently, an assortment of French grape varieties were introduced to many of Chile’s wine appellations – once it was discovered that they could easily thrive here.
Since the 19th century, native Chilean’s have enjoyed a rich wine market within the country. Much of the rest of the world didn’t become aware of the quality and value of Chilean wine until the 1980s when the export market around the world, especially within the United States, began to improve.
Chilean Wine Region Geography
The majority of Chile’s vineyards are centrally located within the country. That’s because many of the Central Valley’s – which make up almost all of the individual wine appellations (sub-regions) – are flanked by both the Andes Mountain Range to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West.
Up North, the wide-spread Atacama Desert provides a natural border, while the glaciers and frigid temperatures of Patagonia guard the Southern end of the country.
The unique geographical situation of Central Chile allows for not only an assortment of ideal micro-climates for wine growing, it provides natural protection and more predictable weather patterns within each sub-region. By predictable, I mean in no way that these weather climates are particularly stable. I just mean that wine makers here are able to anticipate varying degrees of weather.
Note that from a North to South perspective the climate and terroir varies widely. Within the individual regions, Vintners have begun to master the art of winemaking within their own unique terroirs.
All in all, from North to South, Chile extends for over 2,600 miles and only a mere 177 miles East to West. This expansively long landscape traverses rolling hills, snowcapped peaks, green valleys and sandy shores.
Chilean Wine Country Terroir & Climate
Chilean wine regions experience a Mediterranean climate. In short, this style of climate offers long, warm, sunny days followed by starkly cool evenings during the growing season. This type of climate is ideal for growing a variety of wine grapes, as it helps reveal some of the bright, juicy-fruit flavors backed by chewy tannins present in many South American New World wines.
While a Coastal mountain range lines a good portion of Chile’s Pacific Coast, sheltering much of the inland sub-regions from cool ocean winds – a very strong current – dubbed the Humboldt Current, flows Northwards from Antarctica along Chile’s coastline. If it wasn’t for the Humboldt Current, cool ocean breezes would have no way to penetrate inwards through the various river systems that traverse the sub-regional valleys and Coastal mountains.
Below, we’ll break them down North to South and one by one while providing some of the more pertinent information about each Chilean wine sub-region.
Chilean Wine Country Appellations
Located near the Southern tip of the Atacama desert, the Elqui Valley has only been cranking out wine since around 1990. Being so close to the desert, it’s warmer and far drier than many of its more Southern counterparts. Rainfall rarely exceeds 3 inches annually, and the soil here is primarily a rocky composition. Vines grow here both near the coast, as well as at elevation along the Andes mountains, where the hills are cooled by funneled winds coming down from the Andes and across from the Pacific. Much of Chile’s “Pisco” liquor is made in Elqui, in addition to increasing amounts of Syrah grapes which respond well to the cool air coming down from the Andes. A fair amount of Sauvignon Blanc is also grown throughout the Elqui Valley.
On the white front, Chardonnay reigns kind in Limarí, followed closely by Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon plots. Each morning during the growing season, a fog called Camanchaca approaches from the Pacific and covers much of the vine acreage in the area. When the sun finally appears over the Andes mid-morning, the fog goes back into hibernation. Even though Limarí is a little further away from the Atacama desert, rainfall here is still minimal. Vintners resort to a form of drip irrigation that forces the grape vines root to work for their nutriment in the calcareous soil. This helps create refined and complex mineral rich wines.
A small, up and coming sub-region, the Choapa Valley is dominated by mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah plantings. While vine acreage is small, and no actual wine producing facilities exist in the area, some of the most refined Syrah in Chile is being cultivated beneath the Andes.
Aconcagua manages to receive a bit more rainfall each year than its Northern brethren. In addition, it receives an abundance of fresh water that trickles down from Mount Aconcagua throughout the year. Towards the center of the valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir are grown in earnest. Closer to the Pacific, growing acreage of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are both beginning to gain notoriety.
One of my personal favorite wine growing areas, the Casablanca Valley saw its first wine grapes during the 1980s. Here, cool Pacific winds are accessible to the low lying areas of the valley, enhancing beautiful Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and increasing amounts of Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. In addition to the cooler climate, rainfall here is a bit more frequent and white wines tend to have a stony tilt thanks to the soft clay and sandy soils in the region.
San Antonio Valley
A coastal sub-region, the San Antonio Valley offers Vintners a more temperamental climate given its proximity to the nearby Pacific Ocean. This area is best known for producing refined Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay on the white wine side, while wine makers who are able to master Pinot Noir’s fickle temperament can produce great quality, mineral forward dry, refreshing and light bodied reds.345 ha (853 acres)
Central Valley Sub-Regions
A popular destination for both locals and tourists, the Maipo Valley is quite close to the city of Santiago. It’s divided further into into three sub-regions: Alto Maipo, Central Maipo and Pacific Maipo. Each sub-region is known to produce wines of great quality (though often undervalued). Cabernet Sauvignon does exceedingly well in Alto Maipo and also holds the most acreage, while the rest of the region produces quality Merlot, Carménère and Syrah – in addition to smaller quantities of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec.
The Rapel Valley offers Vintners an opportunity to craft beautiful reds given the two micro-climates offered in the area. Northern Rapel, also known as Cachapoal Alto, produces beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll find a lot of reds at many major wine wholesalers from this region. Separately, as you get near the mountains by the Pacific and towards the Southern Colchagua Valley, plantings of Carménère increase substantially. Carménère is actually one of Chile’s most sought after varietals, as it’s one of the few New World regions that has succeeded in producing varietal versions of the red grape in earnest.
Probably most noted for playing host to San Pedro Winery, the Curicó Valley is also one of Chile’s longest standing. It is arguably the most important region with regards to paving the way for the rest of Chile’s expansion into growing wine. Cabernet Sauvignon holds the most acreage here, closely followed by Sauvignon Blanc plantings. Most of the wines produced here tend to be well balanced, given the more tame Mediterranean and consistent climate.
Another one of the larger sub-regions of Chilean Wine Country, the Maule Valley contains extensive plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also one of the few regions actively producing smaller quantities of Carignan. These wines are elegantly fruit-forward and grow within sandy and clay based soils. Malbec from the Maule is also always worth a try.
Chilean Southern Sub-Regions
One of the few regions in Chile producing a relatively extensive amount of wines from the “ancient” Muscat of Alexandria grape. This grape variety which errs on the sweeter side, is also utilized for making raisins. One of Chile’s popular table, and sometimes fortified wines are also made from Mission grapes in the Itata region. Besides these somewhat obscure grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon from Itata is also quite good.
Traditional Chilean wine grape plantings here are somewhat minimal, given the difficulty of wine growing in Bio-Bio. This region gets an excessive amount of rainfall when compared to many of Chile’s Northern wine regions. However, if Vintners are able to navigate the intricacies of avoiding over saturation and rot, Pinot Noir’s from the region can be surprisingly refreshing with bright red fruit and crisp acidity.
This region receives the most rainfall of any located within Chile currently. Plantings here are quite minimal, and vine growers are even beginning to work and experiment with Gewürztraminer. The weather here is fickle and vineyards require an excessive amount of care to be successful. As such, we aren’t expecting large volume producing from Malleco currently, but keep an eye on their Pinot Noir’s as the years progress.
Wine Grape Varieties Grown in Chile
Red Wines of Chile
White Wines of Chile
Muscat de Alexandria
Well Known Chilean Wine Brands and Wineries
Some of the more famous winemakers that have received substantial notoriety in the past 5 years include Concha y Toro, Viña Maipo, Casa Silva, Matetic Vineyards, Viña Miguel Torres, Altair and Viña Errázuriz, San Pedro and Santa Rita.
While Concha y Toro and Santa Rita may be more well known domestically for producing consistent, good value table wines – some of Chile’s more boutique and obscure wineries actually offer more refined, complex and well balanced wines across a number of grape varieties. We’ll discuss some of our tops picks in a separate post.
What’s your feeling about wine from Chile? While it’s been undervalued since the 1980s, progressive wine makers are making serious strides to produce wines of excessive quality. Markets in Japan, Korea and China are now looking at New World Chilean wine as a serious competitor to even the fanciest of Old World Bordeaux’s. Folks are even considering certain Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon to be superior to elegant Cab’s from Napa Valley.