With its enormously long coastline occupying a 2,610 mile tract of South America's western seaboard, Chile has a terrific diversity of climate and geography. With the Atacama desert to the north and the desolate ice-fields of Patagonia to the south, the scope for winemaking is confined to a small central belt of the country with a more moderate climate. Wine has been made in Chile for centuries. Indeed, there was a European heyday for its wines in the late 19th century as the phylloxera louse ravaged the vineyards of the Old World and consumers and merchants turned to Chile for a reliable supply of good wine. But it was a century later in the 1990's that Chile stepped up a gear in terms of both international recognition and quality. This was fuelled partly by a reawaking of commercial spirit under new-found democracy, and then by inward investment by some of the biggest and best wine making concerns of France, the USA and Spain amongst others. Chile burst onto the international scene once again offering fruity, oaky Chardonnays and juicy, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Most importantly of all, they did so at around two-thirds the price of similarly endowed wines from Australia - at that point the darling of the UK wine market.
The two greatest influences on Chile's climate are the huge mass of the Pacific Ocean to the west and, most importantly, the spectacular mountain range of the Andes which runs as a boundary down the entire eastern edge of the country.
These two monumental forces serve to cool the air. In the Andes case, they also provide a supply of irrigating water which drains down off the mountain and is channelled to the sea via an ancient system of canals built by the Incas.
That is a vital factor in this dry landscape, though temperatures are moderate, on average something akin to the south of France. The major vineyard areas in the Central Valley are clustered just south of the capital, Santiago.
One of the most often quoted facts about Chilean viticulture is the remarkable fact that Phylloxera has never reached these lands. The rampant louse that stormed across Europe in the 19th century, devastated California over the past 10 years and has altered wine growing practices throughout the world, simply never made across the Andes or survived in the sandy coastal soils. Therefore Chile's vineyards are planted with ungrafted rootstock: a rare phenomenon in modern wine production.
Chile grows most of the “international” varieties, with a programme of experimental plantings supplementing the ubiquitous Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet and Merlot with everything from Gewürztraminer to Viognier. Pais is a Chilean variety that is still very widely planted, but has not earned a place in the international scene. One of the most interesting names to look out for on a Chilean label is Carmenère, a variety once believed to be Merlot, but now discovered to be a forgotten Bordeaux grape which has been living happily in Chile all along. It makes a vibrantly fruity and deeply flavoured wine.
There has been much investment in Chile's wine industry over the past decade or so, and a massive swing towards cleaner, new technology winemaking. Traditionally, ancient wooden vats were used for vinification, made from a local wood called raulí, a species of evergreen beech. In general, standards of winemaking and hygiene were in decline through the middle of the last century, but the old vats are now relegated to the poorest wines for cheap local consumption. They have been replaced by high-tech temples full of shining stainless steel and new French or American oak. Chile has attracted many foreign collaborators and investors including Robert Mondavi of California (Caliterra), The Rothschilds of Bordeaux's Château Lafite (Los Vacos) and Miguel Torres of Spain (Torres). These estates have either set up operations in Chile, or have formed partnerships with the best Chilean houses.
Traditionally wineries sourced their grapes from all over the country, but in recent years Chile has begun to demarcate its vineyard regions into a system of controlled viticultural areas. Thus, the labelling of modern Chilean wines will carry the name of one of these areas. Basically, these named areas are the valleys formed by rivers flowing east from the Andes to the sea.
Aconcagua This northerly, hot and generally arid region is best suited to red wine production. Some quality Cabernet Sauvignon is produced. The Errázuriz estate is the area's only really significant name, where Californian wine maker Ed Flaherty is turning out very serious Chardonnays from hillside vineyards, as well as excellent reds.
One of the new quality regions that has really put Chile on the global map, Casablanca is a relatively cool and largely coastal region producing classy Chardonnay and world class Sauvignon Blanc. It is also being planted with Pinot Noir in an attempt to exploit its cool climate conditions with one of the sexiest grape varieties amongst knowledgeable wine consumers. Some of Chile's top wines come from this small region, including the Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay of Casa Lapostolle and the Casablanca Chardonnays made by Ignacio Recabarren, one of the leading lights of the Chilean industry.
The Maipó region, just south of Santiago, is one of Chile's best-known and longest established quality wine regions. Here also are some of the biggest names of the Chilean industry such as the giant Concha y Toro and Santa Rita. Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay of the region and quality is high. A fine example is Antiguas Reservas from Cousiño Macul, a long-lived and classy wine at a bargain price.
The largest of the fine wine areas, the Rapel valley features a range of climatic conditions and soil types which makes generalising about the wines difficult. Merlot is one of the stars here, from producers like Carmen (whose base is in Maipó) and Mont Gras. You will see the name Colchagua valley on Rapel bottlings, a small high-quality sub-region towards the coast. Cono Sur is one of the most interesting producers in the region, constantly experimenting with Pinot Noir, Viognier and Gewürztraminer amongst others, to very good and moderately priced effect.
The Maule Valley is separated in the northern Curicó region, and the southerly Maule. A lot of pretty ordinary wine is produced in this region, but then there are numerous exceptions where the best soils and cooler microclimates lend class in wines from producers like San Pedro, Miguel Torres, Domaine Oriental and Montes. Another sub-regional name you will see on labels is Lontué, Valdevieso being one of its biggest and best producers.
This large region (not shown on map) lies south of the Maule Valley. Though larger given over to inexpensive 'jug' wines, there is investment in the area. With its cooler southern climate it is an area to watch over coming years.
It was inevitable given the quality of Chile's raw materials and the growing confidence brought about through investment in the wine industry that they would not be content with supplying a mass market of budget to medium-priced wines.
Perhaps with one eye on the drive towards premium pricing in Australia, perhaps with a view of the crazy prices obtained by California's cult wines, several houses have begun to release super-Chilean Bordeaux blends. Valdevieso was one of the earliest, its Caballo Loco being launched on the market in 1997 as a deliberate move to create the first Chilean superstar wine. Many others are now on the market, several breaching the £20/$35 barrier, taking them firmly into the arena of prestige wines. Amongst the best examples are reckoned to be Cousiño Macul's Finis Terrae, Montes “M”, Errázuriz's Seña and, with a brand new state of the art winery, Almaviva, a collaboration between Mouton-Rothschild and Concha y Toro.