460 Years of Wine Heritage
Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are not native to the Americas; they arrived in the 1500s with the Spanish missionaries who needed wine to celebrate the Catholic mass.
Fray [Brother] Francisco de Carabantes is credited with bringing the first vines into Chile through the port of Concepción in 1548. This was the País (pa-EES) grape that is similar to California’s Mission grape. Such was the variety’s success in adapting to Chilean soils that vineyards were quickly planted throughout the country from the Limarí Valley in the north to the Bío-Bío Valley in the south. Uncannily, although quality wine production historically tended toward the center of the country, modern technology has once again extended the frontiers of Chile’s fine wine appellations (Denomination of Origin or D.O.) precisely to its original northern and southern extremes.
The 16th century residents of the burgeoning capital city of Santiago—mostly sons and daughters of the earliest Spanish immigrants—clamored for more wine to quench their thirst and whet their appetites as well as to satisfy their spiritual needs. The surrounding Maipo Valley proved to be a tremendous source of red wine, and Chile’s first wine boom began in earnest.
With time improvements in maritime transportation made cross-Atlantic travel possible for the upper classes. Chile, freshly emancipated from Spain in 1810, yearned for knowledge of its wider European roots, and members of the country’s wealthy families embarked upon intercontinental pilgrimages that would profoundly change Chilean life, culture, and wine forever. France was a favorite destination, and soon French customs, from food to clothing to architecture and fine wine consumption, flourished in Santiago. It did not take long for the first new French-style wineries to appear on the outskirts of the city.
Pioneers and Pests
By the mid-1800s, interest in European-style fine wine production had caught on. Well-heeled families with fortunes from mining and early industry built extraordinary mansions beyond the city limits and surrounded them with vineyards and European style gardens.
Pioneering naturalist and scientist Claudio Gay brought some 30 Vitis vinifera varieties from France for experimental purposes in the nascent University of Chile’s Quinta Normal agricultural department.
Silvestre Ochagavia was the first to introduce French varieties for commercial purposes a few years later in the Maipo Valley. Others quickly followed suit, and many of Chile’s established wineries were formed during this period including Carmen, Concha y Toro, Cousiño Macul, Santa Carolina, Santa Rita, and Undurraga in the Maipo Valley, along with Errázuriz Panquehue in Aconcagua and what is now San Pedro in Curicó.
Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillón, and Riesling produced noble wines that quickly gained popularity and replaced the País grape, which was relegated to the country’s winemaking extremes, where it is still used today for rustic wines for local consumption.
Chile had entered into a new phase of its winemaking history and once again led the New World as the first to make noble wines for export. This small South American country was also fortunate; the European wine industry was about to undergo a crisis that would never touch Chile.
Trans-Atlantic exchange brought with it tremendous benefits to both continents, but it also had its downside. European gardening enthusiasts had unwittingly imported the devastating vineyard pest Phylloxera hidden in the roots of the native American grape vines that were beautiful though useless for wine production. Europe’s Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless against the tiny and voracious louse that advanced unchecked and quickly decimated thousands of hectares of ancient Old World vineyards along the way. The pest was re-introduced to the Americas with the import of Vitis vinifera vines, yet for reasons that have never fully been understood, Chile remains phylloxera-free to this day.
Politicians & Protectionism
Despite Chile’s turn-of-the-century successes in the wine industry, two world wars and decades of state protectionism forced the country down a solitary path that isolated it technologically for nearly 50 years. The mid-century Agrarian Land Reform took its toll on an industry that had belonged to the elite, and the country’s relative isolation from the increasingly trade-oriented world essentially kept Chile out of the wine trade for decades more. The country reversed its closed-door policies in 1980s, effectively giving rise to the third and best-known boom in the history of Chilean winemaking.
Musts for Modern Times
Chile once again opened its doors to international trade in the late 1970s, when complicated restrictive domestic policies were repealed and political interventionism was relaxed or eliminated. Beginning in 1980, legal liberalization and the country’s economic opening kicked off a revolution in the wine industry with the introduction of modern techniques and technology.
Once again, foreign influence played a key part in Chile’s wine industry. Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres chose the Curicó Valley to establish his New World winery and others from France, Germany, Italy, and California soon followed.
Initial investments concentrated on updating winemaking facilities with temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, gravity-flow infrastructure, modern low-impact crushers and presses as well as annual investments in smaller oak barriques. Changes in the vineyards would soon follow.
Back to the Fields—Growing Better Wines
A second wave of industry-wide renovation looked to the vineyards. Winemakers who once considered their work to begin when the grapes arrived at the winery were encouraged to step out into the fields and work closely with the winegrowers to improve the quality of the fruit that would ultimately led to much better wines.
Varietal selection had stagnated to concentrate primarily on Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. New varieties were added and new vineyard management techniques such as drip irrigation and vertical trellising were incorporated to increase quality and reduce crop loads.
Chile’s signature grape Carmenere appeared during this process of vineyard renovation. The world was aware that Chile’s “Merlot” was unique, but it wasn’t until 1994 that French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquo t finally attached a name to the variant variety: Carmenere, a Bordeaux red variety that had been thought lost to phylloxera was alive and well in Chile.
A Mosaic of Terroirs
Today Chile’s winemakers continue their quest for knowledge of the land, climate, and relationship between the terroir and the vines they plant. They actively seek out new viticultural zones, and young vineyards now scale to ever higher altitudes and push the extremes of the long-recognized D.O.s: east to the Andean piedmont and west to the Pacific coast, north to the Elqui Valley, south to Bío-Bío, and even as far south as Osorno and beyond.
In the process of exploring this vast land full of viticultural possibilities, these “terroir hunters” have rediscovered ancient dry-farmed vineyards that have never seen a chemical fertilizer, that have reached their natural balance without extremes of intervention, whose deep, ungrafted roots seek nutrients deep within the earth and come back with everything they need to produce gorgeously complex wines that reconfirm the benefits of letting nature take its course, unique wines that speak of their origins as few wines in this world can.
Chile is a viticultural paradise where the benevolent climates and multitude of geographical conditions and soil compositions make sustainable viticulture a logical choice. Where organics and biodynamics are perfectly viable and increasingly preferable options for ecologically-friendly winemaking. Where nature provides all the vine needs to produce its finest grapes for the wines that today’s ecologically minded and value-conscious consumers demand.
Despite its nearly 500 years of winemaking heritage, Chile’s wine industry is fresh, young, and boldly evolving to meet the needs of today’s demanding world markets. Chilean wines are now available in more than 90 countries on 5 continents, and sales continue to grow healthily amidst today’s belt-tightening times.
Wines of Chile plays an important part in the effort to promote the national wine industry and is a constant source of information for trade and consumers alike.