Chilean Wine – A Real Hidden Gem

Harry Lambourne
14th February 2023

In terms of production, Chilean wine ranks around sixth in the world. However, in relative terms this is only equivalent to the Italian region of Veneto. While they don’t produce copious amounts of wine, they can be an excellent source of both value and really premium rarified wines.

Chilean wine is also grown in an isolated and special location. Very few wine regions are bordered by mountains, desert and the ocean. This serves to create a variety of distinct microclimates which allow a whole host of grape varieties to thrive. Chilean wine can replicate offerings of many great old world wine-making regions, particularly Bordeaux. However, Chilean wine can also serve as a point of difference. Indigenous grapes and international varieties both grace the vineyards in distinct, desirable styles.

Maybe your experience of Chilean wine is the £7 bottle of Casillero del Diablo Cab Sav from Tesco? It can be so much more. Have you tried País from the Maule Valley, Carménère from the Cachapoal Valley, or Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley? Maybe it’s time to!

That may seem like a lot of valleys but that’s because Chilean wine is full of them. We’ll get into the history of Chilean wine, as well as the terroir and climate of the various regions which are scattered from North to South, across 2700 miles of beautiful scenery. We’ve even got a couple of recommendations and a producer which we think you’ll love!

So, let’s slide down the Andes and dive straight into the world of Chilean wine.

Chilean Wine – The History

All About Export

We touch upon Casillero del Diablo and indeed these affordable mass-produced wines have formed the backbone of the burgeoning Chilean wine industry. The export market has put the turbo-chargers on, with around 70% of the annual production of Chilean wine being exported. When you get down to brass tacks, it’s easy to see why. In 1990, the value of Chilean wine export was around $50 million dollars, as of 2010 it was $1.5 billion, (MacNeil 2015, pg.863).

Though, this is both a blessing and a curse. People expect affordability with Chilean wine. So, many Chilean winemakers won’t opt to create those special, premium offerings as customers in other countries don’t look for Chile when they’re looking for something special. In spite of this, times are changing and more Chilean producers are looking to branch out from the quaffable quantity-driven styles of wine which many people associate with this wine region.

Chilean wine may be relatively new on the UK markets, but viticulture has a long history here. The first European vines date back to 16th century when both Spanish conquistadores and missionaries began planting here. One grape in particular found its roots here fast and formed the basis for Chilean wine today. Originally known in Chile as criolla chica, (‘creole girl‘), but today simply as país, (‘country’). From this, and the sheer weight of history, it would be easy to assume that Chilean wine has formed in a similar style and sensibility to that of Spain.

A South American Bordeaux

Yet, it is France, not Spain, that has left their indelible mark on the world of Chilean wine. This move happened far more recently though. In the mid-nineteenth century a number of rich Chilean land owners chose to flex their wealth in the form of wineries. These wineries were modelled on the great Châteaux’s of Bordeaux, which was the pre-eminent wine superpower of that time.

This influence is evident today. The primary Bordeaux grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are all found in Chile. Then, the Chilean trademark Carménère. This variety was also a staple of Bordeaux, but has nearly gone extinct in its ancestral homeland.

This is actually an indication of Chile’s uniqueness. Phylloxera has devastated much of the wine-making world and Carménère vines in Bordeaux were no different. However, thanks to the isolation of the Chilean wine regions, phylloxera has never managed to penetrate the borders of the Chilean wine world. The phylloxera points goes further. French winemakers were fed up of these pesky pests and fancied moving to greener pastures. Chilean land owners could lure them away to help cultivate the French grapes they were familiar with on new land, (MacNeil 2015, pg.865).

Sadly, despite these promising moves, Chilean wine remained largely unexciting for quite some time. Political instability, high taxes, low wages and low demand in the country meant that scope was limited. Wine remained a niche market. Enter the 1980s. Enter vast economic, political and social change. Enter foreign investment.

A Chilean Wine Boom

Chilean wine was on the rise and their link to Bordeaux grew ever tighter. The fabled Château Lafite-Rothschild were a key foreign investor. The Château Lafite-Rothschild actually purchased sizable plots of land in the Chilean wine regions of Curicó and Colchagua. The director of another Bordeaux first growth, Château Margaux did the same. As did famous faces in the world of premium wine from Spain and the USA. However, the Grand Dame of the France-Chile wine connection is certainly Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, owner of the world-renowned, family-owned Grand Mariner, (MacNeil 2015, pg.867).

From here, Chilean wine went from strength to strength. Money flowed in, investing in high-tech modern winery equipment, shipments of French and American oak barrels. Business was booming and the first high-priced premium Chilean wines, (which were typical Bordeaux blends), began to come out of these new wineries.

This high-profile premium style of winery was not the only venture beginning to pop up though. The investment gave way to a trend towards the viticultural and small family-owned estates saw the opportunity to establish themselves. The appetite for Chilean wine was there and they were happy to service that appetite. Interestingly, Chilean winemakers actually produced wines for the US and UK palates. They looked to produce grapes which were popular in those countries and their bets certainly paid off!

Chilean Wine Landscape
The stunning Chilean Wine Landscape

Chilean wine – The Geography

We’ve alluded to the fact that the climate and geography of Chile is particularly special, so we can dive into this a little bit more. There are a few particular elements which are of key importance to the Chilean wine world.

The Andes Mountains

The first and perhaps most famous is the commanding Andes Mountain ranges that divides this country from their neighbours, Argentina. The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world with an average height of a whopping 4000m. They’re stunning and beyond creating an awe-inspiring landscape actually provide a number of helpful benefits to grape growers.

Chile is a deeply hot country for the most part. This fact could be a serious hindrance to grape growing. However, through planting in the foothills on the Andes grape growers are afforded the luxury of altitude. Altitude provides a cooling effect. This helps to ensure grapes don’t become overly ripe, or even sunburnt.

There’s another big benefit to the Andes. It provides an excellent source of irrigation. Rainfall can be a scarcity as well. Yet, winemakers can utilise the melting snow of the Andes to irrigate vineyards. This is utilised in the distilled spirit – Pisco, famously used for the delicious Pisco Sour. Pisco Sour is made from the wine grapes of Muscat of Alexandria, Torrontés and Pedro Ximénez. Then, it is distilled using mountain water.

In the world of Chilean wine, if you see the label ‘Andes’ on the label, you’ll know it comes from vines on these foothills. It is also of note that the West of Chile has a number less prominent, but still sizeable, mountains range to the West. These again provide the help of altitude, but also help to create a buffer to the worst of the weather from the Pacific ocean. These wines will have the term ‘Costa’ on the label.

Entre Cordilleras

This is also a term you’ll see listed on Chilean wine bottles. However, it is slightly more contentious than the clear and defined Andes mountains. Essentially, this term means ‘between the ranges’. The Andes to the East and the range of Coastal mountain ranges to the West. This accounts for around 60% of Chile’s wine production. This is clear when you see how many Chilean wine regions contain the word ‘valley’.

Again, this isn’t simply a term without meaning behind it. These great depressions in the mountains have a viticultural purpose. First of all, the valley floors are hotter and more fertile than the foothills. Although this isn’t always desirable. More crucially, the depression between the mountains has great differences between day and nighttime temperatures. This in viticultural terms is called a high diurnal range. This means that grapes have a respite from the hot days as cool air descends from the mountains and can therefore lock in acidity and freshness that is essential for creating balanced wines.

Atacama Desert

Another key area in Chile is the Atacama Desert. This spans much of the northern border and is particularly of note as a source of Pisco. Viticulture is unsurprisingly limited due to the fact that this is the driest desert in the world. However, it does act as a means of keeping Chile boxed in so to speak. Chile is isolated away from much of the outside world in a sense.

This microclimate is what makes it such an interesting place to grow grapes. The shielding from pests like phylloxera, intense rainfall and many other potentially harmful factors means that winemakers can stand back and take more low-intervention, environmentally friendly approaches. No pesticides, herbicides or fungicides are required due to a low disease pressure so organic and biodynamic farming are both widely practised.

Chilean Wine Regions

Chilean wine regions are spread out over a fairly narrow width, due to the closing in of the coastal Pacific and eastern Andes mountains. However, it is fairly expansive from north to south which allows for greater variety in the terroir of the individual regions, as well as the grape varieties that thrive here.

Coquimbo

This is the most northern of the Chilean wine regions, which borders the Atacama Desert. These vineyards often produce far smaller quantities of wine than those to the south, but the quality found in Coquimbo does tend to be high. There are three main valleys within Coquimbo that have a high reputation.

These are the Elqui, Limarí and Choapa Valley. They benefit from great levels of sunshine, balanced by cooling sea breezes and mountain air, with some vineyards being planted at very high altitude.

The key problem facing vintners in Coquimbo is a lack of water. Irrigation is still perfectly possible, but water is notably less plentiful than the vineyards to the south.

Regardless, this is a source of great wine. Elqui Valley is known for fantastic Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. While Limarí is renowned as the source of some of the best Chardonnay in all of Chilean wine.

Aconcagua

The Aconcagua region can be seen as punching well above their station. It is the second smallest of the four key Chilean wine regions, but has begun to establish a reputation for itself.

The Aconcagua Valley is found on thigh-burning steep slopes, with a narrow valley that benefits from the cooling influence of the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains. In spite of these cooling factors, the fertile valley floor, (or Entre Cordilleras region), offers some of the warmest growing conditions in the whole of Chile.

Red wine dominates production in Aconcagua. Cabernet Sauvignon has dominated this area traditionally. However, Syrah and Carménère have both become increasingly important. The former of which first found success in Chile right here.

The other trend has been to move away from the sun-baked valley floor. Winemakers are looking to plant on the slopes allowing for fresher, lighter examples of these Chilean red wines.

The Casablanca and San Antonio valleys are also regions within Aconcagua. They feature the same cooling characteristics as the rest of Aconcagua. However, they’re exacerbated here and also have the benefit of morning fog. This means that these areas specialise in white wine, in particular Sauvignon Blanc. Then, in the neighbouring Leyda Valley, Chardonnay rules the roost alongside Pinot Noir and lean, peppery Syrah.

Central Valley

This is the powerhouse of Chilean wine production. The vast, warm and fertile flat plains produce the vast majority of Chilean wine. Grapes ripen well and produce a great deal of wine which is a fantastic balance of quality and value. The four key sub-regions of the Central Valley are the Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, (which is further split into the Cachapoal and Colchagua Valleys), Curicó Valley & the Maule Valley.

The Maipo Valley is the heartland of Chilean wine, in part due to its proximity to Santiago. It is enclosed by mountain ranges meaning very little cooling influence on the primary growing areas. However, premium sites can be located in the foothills of the Andes which are cooled by the descending cold air. A key wine is Cabernet Sauvignon which often displays a distinctive menthol quality here.

Next, is Rapel. First, the more northerly Cachapoal Valley which is a notably warm area where grapes such as Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah thrive. Then, there is the larger and varied Colchagua Valley. Again, big full bodied reds of the ones in Cachapoal have found success here. Expansion in this area has led winemakers to seek the slopes where high-quality white wines also show great promise.

Finally, we have the Curicó and Maule Valley regions, at the southern end of the Central Valley. Maule in particular is home to wines which retain a great deal of acidity and freshness. Beyond that, dry-farmed and old vine wines can be found. These are particularly concentrated and low-yielding, but can be a real source of exceptional quality.

Southern Region

This, unsurprisingly, is the most southern area in the world of Chilean wine. As such, it is noticeably cooler and wetter. There are certainly still regions worth knowing here. They are the Itata Valley, the Bío Bío Valley and the Malleco Valley. The latter especially, is quickly becoming a real source of high-quality value wines.

The Itata and Bío Bío Valley however produce higher quantities of wine from this region. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are key here, but perhaps more crucially are the País and Muscat of Alexandria plantings. The Muscat being used in Pisco production.

Producer Profile – The Bouchon Family

Bouchon Family
Bouchon Family – Talented Chilean Winemakers
(Photo courtesy of: https://bouchonfamilywines.com/)

Now we’d like to introduce you to one of the producers who we think represent some fantastic offerings in the world of Chilean wine. They are the Bouchon Family.

The Bouchon Family winery began with a bold Bouchon from Bordeaux. Emlie Bouchon ventured abroad to find a new life and make some fantastic wines, like a number of French winemakers chose to do in the mid to late 19th century. The knowledge gained from his life as a small winegrower in Arveyres would serve him well as he would come to establish the Bouchon Family winery in the Maule Valley, after spending time advising winemakers in Chile.

The fourth generation of the Bouchon Family are now part of the operation, creating wines which respect the classic styles of wine that have been produced by the family for over 100 years. Yet, they also want to put their own stamp on things. This led them to the Las Mercedes line. It allows them to express their own modern style of viticulture.

They wanted to create wines which they themselves would enjoy with their friends. They are all grown in the Maule Valley, a place where the Bouchon Family have deep ties to. They want to respect the growing environment and create wines that greatly reflect the place which they call home. This is evident in their clear commitment to sustainability as they are currently in the process of converting to organic farming.

While these wines represent a look to the future, they aim to honour the classic grapes of Chile. Grapes which have been grown here for over 100 years. The likes of País and Semillon.

In their own words, the Las Mercedes line is “an invitation to taste wines that rescue the old and history of the south of Chile, together with the novelty and innovation of making wines in a different way.”


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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.


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