Blessed with a Mediterranean climate very similar to California and France, Chile has the added advantage of Chilean flagbeing south of the equator. That places their summers from November through March, allowing them to harvest wine grapes during the off-season of most other wine producing countries. This season shift allows them to satisfy the market when others can’t.
This advantage has served Chilean vintners well since vineyards were first planted in the mid-1500’s. By the mid-1700’s the Chile saw the importation of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, by the mid-20th century the Chilean wine industry was stagnant and producing inferior wines. But a 21st century renaissance has seen wineries again produce world class wines, garnering several major awards in recent years.
Chile is divided, like France’s appellations, into several viticultural regions running north to south along this narrow sliver of land in South America. Some regions lie in the fertile central plain 750 ft (229 m) above sea level, while others are closer to the Andes mountain range. The area has seen superior growth in recent years, expanding from only 12 wineries to over 70.
Blessed not only with a favorable climate, but because of its unique geography, the region has never been invaded by the Phylloxera louse that devastated so many European vineyards. When France and others looked to rebuild their vineyards in the 1870’s, they imported much of their stock from Chile.
Not only is the weather similar to France, but many of the wine grapes would be immediately recognized by French vintners. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Semillion and others. German varieties are also represented: Riesling and Gewürztraminer are plentiful.
The red wines of Chile have become the country’s most notable exports. Chile is the fourth largest exporter of wine to the United States, a significant distinction, considering the enormous wine industry of the U.S. As long ago as 1998 it surpassed 5.3 million bottles and has continued growing.
Many of these premium wines come from vineyards located in cooler areas with poorer soils. Along with modern pruning techniques, this e results in concentrated flavors. Adding stainless steel fermenting tanks alongside French oak barrels has brought Chile’s wines to the peak of world wine making.
In the Apalta Valley, for example, conditions are ideal for Syrah, Merlot and other favorites of the California wine market. Produced from grapes grown on 50-year-old vines in sandy soil, it competes with the best vintages anywhere. Those seeking a superior, full-bodied wine will seek the Montes Alpha ‘M’ designation.
While still small in area, at around 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) total under cultivation, Chile can still produce one of the finest Syrahs found anywhere. This peppery appellation from the cooler Elqui Valley is the envy of vintners from Australia to California. The warmer, southern Colchagua region offers a fruity version that compares well with those of the Hermitages of France.
With the disruption of its past political turmoil now receding from memory, Chile is well poised to take its proper place among the major quality wine producing regions of the world.