Winemaking in Chile dates back to the 16th century where at that time production was largely by way of unsophisticated techniques that resulted in simple wines meant to be enjoyed young, with little thought to cellaring. As a result, the country became well known for decent value wines, but it was a rarity to see a Chilean bottle within a fine wine collection. That started to change in the 19th century when wealthy businessmen travelling to Europe started bringing Bordeaux varieties back to Chile to plant on their properties. They also brought with them French winemaking techniques that has since transformed Chile’s wine reputation from quaffable to world-class.
Geographically speaking, Chile is a wine region with the ability to grow many different grape varieties. The South American country is long and narrow stretching 4300kms, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east, with climates ranging from dry desert to cool coastal.
Chile has over 200,000ha under vine with most of the whites being grown closer to the Pacific Ocean where the cooler climates are, and the red wines are grown closer to the mountains. In terms of consumption, the most popular white wine is Sauvignon Blanc while the most widely planted red variety by a long shot is Cabernet Sauvignon. This might surprise many given that Carménère is the grape variety that is so often associated with the wines of Chile.
There are 5 main regions running north to south with a total of 16 valleys peppered among them.
The Atacama Region in the far north has the Copiapo and Huasco Valleys, best known for growing the grapes that are made for the country’s signature drink, Pisco (a brandy made by distilling fermented grape juice into a spirit). The Coquimbo Region is an up and coming region featuring the naturally stunning Elqui Valley, Limari Valley and Choapa Valley. The Aconcagua Region, while small, is one of the better-known regions home to Aconcagua Valley, San Antonio Valley and Casablanca Valley. The latter is just a 45-minute drive from Santiago and is characterized by its cooler climate, and where some of Chile’s best Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs are being made.
The Central Valley Region is the largest of the 5 with 6 valleys: Maipo, Cachapoal, Rapel, Colchagua, Curico and Maule.
Maipo Valley is home to some of the most recognized wineries in the country and Colchagua is getting serious global attention for the high quality Syrah it is producing. The South Region has the Itata Valley, one of Chile’s traditional wine-growing regions, the Malleco Valley and the Bio-Bio Valley—about as far as south as you can go and still grow grapes. Until you get to the Austral Region which has two valleys: the Cautin and Osorno. The Osorno Valley is a recent development as a wine region that has only had planted vines since 2000. This emerging cool climate region focuses on Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling and is also starting to produce sparkling wines.
The country’s entire economy is dominated by perhaps a dozen large families. This means that there is a wide chasm between the big businesses and the small ones. The big businesses are, well…really, really big. And this is true within the wine industry as well. Chile is currently one of the top 10 wine producing countries in the world and one of the top 5 largest wine exporters in the world. Although there are approximately 600 wineries in Chile, the majority of the wine produced is by just a handful of wineries, which explains why Chile is best known for big wineries like Vina Santa Rita, Concha y Toro and Montes.
Big is certainly not bad with respect to winemaking in Chile but it certainly makes it challenging for independent wineries in Chile to get noticed. One such group trying to help bring smaller, artisanal winemaking to the forefront is MOVI, the Movement of Independent Vintners. MOVI was founded in 2010 by 12 small-scale wineries (less than 10,000 cases produced per year) with a focus on quality over quantity. We had the good fortune of visiting one of its founding wineries, Polkura, and can certainly vouch for the high quality and passion behind the movement.
Polkura is located in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, perhaps the country’s best regarded winemaking region.
Just 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean, it has an intermediate climate: cooled by the Pacific Ocean breezes, but with moderation due to the existence of the mountains that separate the coastal town of Pichilemu from the Marchigue Valley. It is a dry and unforgiving country, something we saw firsthand during our visit. Winemaker/Propreitor Sven Bruchfeld is very respectful of the land and he utilizes minimum intervention, a shared philosophy amongst MOVI members.
MOVI’s larger counterparts have been working hard and investing heavily in French parnterships to distinguish themselves from the reputation of mass produced, decent value wines, creating smaller sub-brands or Icon wines that demonstrate how capable Chile is of making quality world-class wines.
For example, Chile’s second largest winery, Vina San Pedro has created Altair, a special collaboration with France’s Laurent Dassault that combines Chile’s top terroir with top winemaking techniques coming out of Bordeaux. Concha y Toro Winery produces the renown Almaviva wine in collaboration with Château Mouton Rothschild, and Los Vascos has a collaboration with Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.
For a very long time, we were guilty of generalizing Chilean wines based on what we tasted that was exported to Canada. We certainly found value wines, but we found inconsistency in terms of quality. Our enlightenment came via a memorable trip down to Chile (curated by Iberian Wine Tours) that ranks as one of our favourite AdVINEtures to date.
The beauty of the country with its vast vineyards surrounded by the Andes, the terrific culinary scene both in Santiago and in wine country, the uber-civilized “quincho” experience of slow eating and drinking on a terrace in the actual vineyard, the warmth of the people, and of course the very high quality wines we tasted, won us over completely. Since that trip last November, we’ve purchased or recommended more Chilean wine in the last 8 months than we have in the last 18 years. We are definitely keeping an eye on this region as we believe it hasn’t even come close to reaching its full potential.
What we now know is that Chile makes much more than some of the “cheap” wine that we were introduced to many years ago. We have learned that they have their own quality producers whose wines can stand tall among the great wines of any region. Their quality wines in the $30 to $50 range offer terrific bargains as the quality is more akin to wines selling for twice that price coming from more prestigious wine regions.