Taste the Unexpected from the Narrowest Country in the World

Thanks to its geography and history, Chile offers wine lovers some of the most diverse and exciting wine choices of any country in the world. Here’s why.

Chile is the narrowest country in the world (averaging just 110 miles wide) and the second longest (Brazil beats Chile by just 57 miles). At 2,600 miles, it is as long as the U.S. is wide, and goes from 17 degrees South to 56 degrees South. That translates to the Caribbean island of Antigua and Quebec in the Northern hemisphere. In terms of width, the country is wedged between the Pacific Ocean with its Humboldt Current to the West and the Andes mountains to the East, and a long strip of coastal mountains parallel to the Andes running north to south. So, not only do most viticultural areas get a “two-fer” of extra-strength maritime and alpine influences, but micro-terroirs are abundant and check-to-jowl. What this means for wine lovers is an abundant and unexpected diversity of wine styles. In addition, Chile’s vinous history contributes to the abundance of choices. (For more information on how Chile’s geography impacts wine production, please see our companion piece “Chile: Climate and Soil.”)

The first vines were planted here in 1544, making Chile one of the oldest wine cultures in the New World.

Here’s a brief summary of Chile’s winemaking history. Founded in the mid-16th century with plantings of mostly Spanish-origin País (known as “Mission” in California – those Jesuits knew a thing or two about viticulture!), the great French invasion followed in the late 18th century as wealthy landowners brought Bordeaux varieties to their estates near the capital. In 1889, those Bordeaux style wines won fame and international recognition in Europe, akin to the Stephen Spurrier “Judgement of Paris” (when a California wine triumphed over a Bordeaux). In the late 20th century, the Chilean wine business was dominated by four major players, who introduced thirsty drinkers around the world to well-priced wines, and Carménère became synonymous with Chile. At the same time, legendary winemaker Pablo Morandé planted in Casablanca, starting the movement to explore cooler and cooler sites, ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. Fast forward, and the movement has become a flood, with ever more extreme sites coming online each year, from desert plantings to vines in the far South. Concurrently, there has been arrival of vine wave 3.0 – mostly French varieties, from Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah.

Many of us came of age drinking value-driven varietals from Chile, then we discovered Carménère, and possibly iconic Cabernet Sauvignons. Those categories remain wonderful options, but, in addition, there are many new regional wines and styles to be explored and enjoyed. Here are some choices and reasons to check out Chile.

“Pure wines”/ Naturally “natural” wines

Heritage, unmistakably Chilean wines

  • Cauquenes (Maule), Itata and Bío-Bío. (Southern region). These dry-farmed, bush vines are being rediscovered and treasured. There are wines for sale made from vines that are over 150 years old!
  • Vignadores de Carignan” wines: The name is a conflation of “VINO” (“wine”) and CariGnan and it covers old vine Carignan from the Maule. It is the first true French-style appellation in Chile, meaning production criteria are also spelled out. Both large and small producers collaborated on this vision, making it a possible blueprint for other regions and types of wines.

Meet the new wines from the historic heartland and the new extreme reaches of Chile.

And, most importantly, meet the winemakers.

As a closing note, Chile came to our attention through its budget, familiar grape variety wines. Today, in addition, both the middle and top-end offer outstanding value-for-the-money. Tradition and new trends, classic and new appellations, historic legacy vineyards and new plantings of different grape varieties, local and international capital and talent – it’s a heady mix. Taste the Unexpected from the Narrowest Country in the World. Check Chile Out.

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