Chilean Wine Regions

Pimsleur Approach • December 4, 2012 • Food & WineComments (0)

Chilean wines have risen from a regional favorite to become an international sensation. In fact, you can find Chilean wines in nearly 100 countries throughout the world.

Chile’s vineyards lie between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, where climate conditions and fertile soils combine to produce superior quality wine grapes. Most vineyards are situated from the Elqui Valley, located 250 miles north of Santiago, to the Malleco province in Central Chile, but new growing regions are popping up every year.

As the industry has expanded, wineries have adopted state-of-the-art growing methods that were developed in Spain and France, making it possible to produce a wide variety of wines, including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Riesling, Malbec and Sauvignon Vert.

Chilean Wine: Fundacion de Santiago
Pedro Lira’s painting of the founding of Santiago – Image via Wikipedia

History

The Spanish introduced the first wine grapes to Chile in the mid-sixteenth century. Historians continue to debate the origin of the plants, but most believe they came from Spanish vineyards previously established in Peru.

Catholic priests operated the first vineyards and primarily used their wines for weekly Eucharist. The Spanish government placed strict control on the amount of wine produced, requiring Chile to import most of its wine from Spain.

The restrictions were so stringent that wineries were forbidden from exporting products to other South American countries. This led to massive grape surpluses, which created an economic burden on colonialists and the fledgling wine industry.

In an effort to salvage the extra grapes, Chilean vineyards started producing Aguardiente and Pisco. Eventually, Chilean wineries ignored the edict and exported their products to Spain and Peru. While the move saved Chile’s wine industry, it had a negative effect on Peruvian wineries, which also produced Pisco.

Although Chile existed as a Spanish colony for more than 250 years, its early wineries were primarily influenced by the winemaking traditions of Bordeaux, France. Throughout most of its history, Chilean wineries produced sweet wines, which were not highly regarded by connoisseurs.

During the twentieth century, Chile suffered decades of political instability, which stunted the growth of its wine industry. Government restrictions and taxes made it difficult for winemakers to survive, so most produced low-grade products that they could only sell domestically.

Bureaucratic restrictions improved for winemakers in the 1980s. With a more reasonable tax structure and reduced regulation, wineries were able to apply new growing technologies in their fields, which boosted the quality of their products.

By the end of the twentieth century, the Chilean wine industry had gained favor with international importers. As the new millennium began, Chile exported wines primarily to the United States, but today also counts Japan and the United Kingdom among its largest foreign buyers.

Chilean Wine: Old Ruili Barrels
Old Ruili Barrels – Image via Wikipedia

Winemaking

Since the end of the twentieth century, European and American winemakers have made massive investments in the Chilean wine industry, which has bolstered production and raised the quality of wines. Winemakers continue to increase their land holdings and have expanded operations into high altitude locations.

Today, many winemakers use the latest in winemaking equipment. While some wineries continue the tradition of aging their wines in rauli beechwood barrels, many have switched to newer stainless steel or oak containers, which connoisseurs claim produce a more pleasant tasting wine.

Many foreign wineries now operate their own vineyards in Chile, while others collaborate with existing Chilean winemakers. For instance, Miguel Torres, a Spanish winemaker, has operated its Miguel Torres Chile winery for the past three decades. Robert Mondavi, a California winery, maintains a partnership with the Chilean Vina Errazuriz winery and the French-owned Chateau Lafite Rothchild operates in Chile in association with Los Vascos.

Chilean Vineyard in Andes Foothills
Chilean Vineyard in Andes Foothills – Image via Wikipedia

Regions

The Coquimbo province contains three wine regions, located in the Choapa, Elqui and Limari Valleys. The Elqui Valley, where skies remain clear throughout the wine growing season, is the most productive in the area. It is famous for its Piscos, but its cool weather creates a perfect environment for producing Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well.

In the Aconcagua region, you can find vineyards in the San Antonio, Aconcagua and Casablanca Valleys. The Aconcagua Valley lies less than 100 miles north of Santiago and features hot, dry weather throughout the wine growing season. Its wineries, which produce Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, have only operated in the region since the 1980s, so the vineyards are relatively young compared to others in the Chilean wine industry.

The Casablanca Valley is also a newer growing region, but its wines have quickly gained domestic and international popularity. The secret of Casablanca Valley’s wines lies in the Mediterranean climate, which creates foggy mornings and cool days – a perfect environment for producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

The Central Valley province encompasses several winemaking regions, located in Maule, Maipo, Curico and Cachapoal Valleys. The Curico Valley lies about 125 miles south of Santiago and produces nearly three dozen varieties of wine grapes. In the past 40 years, Curico Valley wines have become popular with foreign-owned winemakers, including Miguel Torres, which dominates the area.

The Southern region features vineyards in the Malleco, Bio-Bio and Itata Valleys and has produced wine for centuries. This region has a reputation for making low quality wines, but in recent years wineries in the area have expanded their product line to include good quality Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminers.

The Itata Valley is one of Chile’s most prolific regions, producing up to 20 percent of the wine consumed in Chile, but its vintages are typically low quality. The Bio-Bio Valley produces only a small percentage of Chile’s wines, primarily due to its difficult climate, which creates rain and frost during the spring season.

The Malleco Valley is a young winemaking region and contains only a handful of experimental vineyards. However, despite its high annual rainfall – up to 50 inches per year – results have been promising for making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Chilean Wine
Chilean Wine – Image via Wikipedia

Harvest Festivals

February to May is harvest season in the vineyards and you know what that means. That’s right, it’s time for a party.

Throughout the wine regions, you can find dozens of harvest festivals in small towns and cities. Each community sponsors its own festivities, so you can expect a wide variety of events, each with a unique sense of local tradition.

In most towns you can enjoy a good grape stomping competition, but you might also find rodeos and cavalcades. Most parades feature a local harvest queen and many towns hold traditional dance demonstrations and contests.

At festival grounds, you can almost always find a great selection of wines to taste, as well as delicious typical foods. While you’re there, take time to join a few wine tours, where you can see winemakers process the fruits of their harvest.

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