Diving deeper into the world of wine should be easy, exciting, and fun. We’ve created these 5-Minute Primers with the goal of bringing it back to the basics — in other words, we’re honing in on the core fundamental facts you need to know about a given growing region/appellation. Today, we’re traveling down to the Southern Hemisphere to introduce you to everything you need to know about Chile, South America’s capital for earthy reds and crisp, palate-quenching whites.
Chile’s rich viticultural history dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors arrived on the land and began cultivating vitis vinifera. During this time, most of the country’s production was sent back to Spain, though upon its export ban in 1641, the rise of pisco and distillates began to surpass that of bulk wine. By the 18th century, Chile was best known for its sweet wine production made from Pais and Moscatel grapes, though overall, the country had a relatively bad reputation in the realms of viticulture and vinification.
By the 19th century, a handful of French winemakers arrived in Chile and brought a profound sense of European influence to the country’s winemaking scene. Native varieties were ripped out and replanted with more fashionable varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and more. However, these wines remained relatively poor in quality until just a few decades ago. As the world’s overall interest in wine increased, Chile finally began advancing their viticulture and vinification techniques to keep up with the growing demand for quality juice. Today, Chile’s production is more focused and better than ever, though knowing who to drink from is key.
Chile’s vineyards are scattered across an 800-mile (approximately) stretch from the Atacama region in the north to Southern Chile’s Bio Bio region in the south. The country’s overarching climate is greatly influenced by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountain range to the east. The northern part of Chile tends to be hotter and drier compared to the wet, cooler-climate southerly regions. Because of the region’s mountainous terrain, many vineyard sites benefit from large diurnal temperature swings, which means that days are hot and nights are chilly. This helps maintain optimum levels of acidity in fruit. Chile’s climate is rather desert-like, which means that many vineyard sites depend on irrigation to survive. Chile’s overall climate is Mediterranean and is similar to that of Central California.
Chile is broken down into five major viticultural zones: Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley, and Southern Chile.
Atacama – This northernmost Chilean region is divided into two valleys: Copiapo and Huasco. The region’s production is dominated by table grapes, most of which are used to produce Pisco.
Coquimbo – Coquimbo is broken down into three subregions: Elqui, Limari, and Choapa. This region stretches from the Pacific to the Andes and is dominated by Syrah, Chardonnay, and table grapes. The region is dry and rocky, and its climate is similar to that of New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
Aconcagua – This region is home to Chile’s famed town of Valparaiso, as well as two wine-producing subregions: Aconcagua Valley and the Casablanca Valley. Vines were planted here in the mid-1980s and are mostly dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Cooling Pacific breezes and strong morning fog keep this region cooler than many other Chilean vineyard sites. Well-draining clay and sandy soils make Aconcagua’s terrain very conducive for grape growing.
Central Valley – The Central Valley is home to four subregions: the Maipo Valley, the Rapel Valley, the Curico Valley, and the Male Valley. The Central Valley is undoubtedly Chile’s most well-known growing region, as it is the closest to the country’s capital (Santiago). Maipo wines are known for their strong saline character and are mostly produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Sauvignon Blanc (closest to the Pacific). Chile’s famed Colchagua Valley is also located in the overarching Central Valley region. This region runs from the Andes to the Coastal Range and is best known for its full-bodied and spicy reds produced from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carmenere.
Southern Chile – Southern Chile is broken down into three subregions: the Itata Valley, the Bio Bio Valley, and the Malleco Valley. Here, Pais, Muscat, and Carignan reign king, though other international varieties are also finding their footing. The region is dominated by a Mediterranean climate similar to that of California’s Central Coast.
Many of Chile’s vineyards are dedicated to similar varieties seen in California’s Central Coast and Bordeaux, as their Mediterranean climates are very similar. The country’s most planted red grape varieties are Carmenere, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pais, and Carignan. White grape plantings are mostly dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, and Chardonnay. Although these grapes are the most commonly found varieties, many winemakers are experimenting with other popular European varieties, including Barbera, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc. Chile has also remained phylloxera-free up until this point, so many of its vines are ungrafted (and very old!)
5 Key Takeaway Points
- Chile’s viticultural scene dates back to the 16th century, though a modern day revolution for quality juice began in the 1980s.
- Chile is broken down into five major regions: Atacama, Coquimbo, Alconcagua, Central Valley, and Southern Chile.
- Chile’s climate is greatly influenced by the Pacific Ocean and Andes mountain range. Vineyard sites benefit from large diurnal temperature swings, various soil types, and cooling fog/breezes.
- Carmenere, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon are three of the best known varieties cultivated in Chile, though Pais is making a comeback.
- Chile has remained phylloxera-free, so many of its vines are ungrafted and very old.