The diversity of Chile is one of its greatest strengths. Chile is an intriguing country that’s been making wine for nearly five hundred years what makes it so special.

California is a helpful comparison for understanding Chile. Both share the common winemaking heritage of the Spanish missionaries and remarkably similar geography.

Chilean wine history

The history of the Chilean wine started 500 years ago when the Spaniards arrived in Chile.

In the middle of the 15th century, the first wine grapes appeared here by Spanish missionaries, and among the earliest grapes to arrive was Pais. Some centuries later, after Chilean independence, the elite looked to European culture as a model. Many Chilean winegrowers developed an interest in French varietals and began importing cuttings of French vines to Chile. This was fortunate because some decades later when France was hit by phylloxera and vines there began dying by the score. Chile would become a sort of repository for French vines and varietals, especially those from Bordeaux. So many winemakers in France that were struggling to find work while their vines were dying, made their way to Chile. They shared valuable experience and technology with local winemakers.

The Spanish Pais grape was actually Chile’s most important grape until it was overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon at the end of the 20th century. These days there are maybe 10,000 acres of it planted. Meanwhile, Cabernet Sauvignon is currently planted at around 90-100,000 acres. Furthermore, it still reigns supreme as Chile’s flagship grape with wines bursting with black cherry flavors. There are significant plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah, and Carmenere.

Isolation as an asset

Chilean wines are widely available and have been developing a better and better reputation for quality. Chile’s wine regions only take up a small portion of the entire country. Chile is relatively isolated thanks to the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Andes Mountains on the east, and the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, on the north.

This isolation is thought to be the main reason why Chile remained phylloxera free. From Antarctica, the Humboldt Current flows along the Chilean coasts that has a cooling effect on Chile’s wine regions. While a cooler climate is a blessing for some varietals others need warmer temperatures. Chile’s coast has a number of hills that shield some areas from the cool temperatures produced by the Humboldt Current. While valleys between the hills in other areas funnel cool air to some regions giving Chilean wine country a fair degree of climatic variation and allowing for the planting of a wide number of varietals.

During the day Chilean vineyards may benefit from reliable sunshine and a useful lack of rain. However, the nights are always cool which helps keep the wines fresh as well as ripe.

The more and more Chilean wine producers are crafting styles based on blends. About two-thirds of all Chilean wine is exported, making Chile, either the fourth or fifth largest exporter of wine in the world, depending on the year.

Chilean wines should be on every wine drinkers’ radar because Chile is producing excellent wines in a broad range of styles and increasingly demands renewed attention and exploration. Chilean red wines can be a great match with red meats or mature cheeses.

Photo credit: Matthew Heinrichs