What comes to your mind first when you think of famous wine countries? There’s a good chance your mind travels to France, Italy, or Spain. That’s understandable. These countries do produce some of the most incredible wines in the world. But they’re not the only ones.
While Chilean wines might not be as well-known as their European cousins, you don’t want to overlook these South American delicacies. While its wines are from the “New World,” Chile has been producing them for close to 500 years. It’s the second-largest wine producer in South America and the seventh-largest in the world.
The wines of Chile are diverse, unique, and flavorful. If you’ve never tried one before, you are missing out. Here, we provide you with a quick Chilean wine guide to help you learn a bit more about the beautiful wines this country has to offer.
A Brief History of Chilean Wine
The first grapevines in Chile were planted in the 1500s. Even so, significant wine production didn’t begin until the 1800s. During this time, European immigrants brought more varieties of grapes with them to the South American country.
The success of Chile’s wine production during the 1800s was due, in part, to the country’s location. During the mid-1800s, a pest called phylloxera ravaged vineyards worldwide. Isolated from the rest of the world by the Atacama Desert, the Andes Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s grapevines escaped a similar fate. As such, the country has some of the oldest vines. Older vines tend to produce more concentrated, nuanced grapes — traits that are a significant asset to Chile’s wine industry.
Up until the 1990s, it was Chileans who enjoyed a vast majority of Chilean wines. Once the country’s winemakers began exporting their wines though, people all around the world began taking notice of their exceptional quality.
Key Grape Varieties in Chile
Chile is a unique country when it comes to wine. Different climates across its various regions allow it to grow a wide range of grape varieties. The warmer weather inland provides an ideal environment for more powerful grapes, while the cooler coastal and higher-elevation areas provide excellent conditions for more delicate ones.
The country is renowned for its red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes, which grow in Chile’s warmer regions, are typically rich and juicy. The wines they produce have soft tannins and have a smooth, silky texture. In addition to the cherry fruit flavors, they feature notes of spice and earth. Many of them age particularly well.
While Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most well-known varieties in Chile, the country’s “niche” grape is the Carménère. Originally thought to be Merlot imported from the Bordeaux region, genetic testing later found otherwise.
The wines produced from these grapes are more savory. They’re medium-bodied with noticeable notes of bell pepper, along with green peppercorn, chocolate, and pomegranate.
Chilean Pinot Noir wines are gaining popularity. They are light-bodied reds with flavors of strawberries, raspberries, and vanilla yogurt.
Chile’s full-bodied Syrah wines are also becoming more prevalent. These wines feature notes of black cherry, black pepper, chocolate, raspberry, and spice.
While Chile may be best known for its red wines, the country’s white grapes have been gaining popularity over the last few years as well. Sauvignon Blanc wines are Chile’s signature white variety. The cooler climate and proximity to the ocean give the grapes — and the wines — a distinct minerality. The wines also tend to be fruit-forward, citrusy, and delightfully bright.
Chile Wine Regions
The fertile soil and suitable climate of Chile make it an ideal place for various types of grapes to grow. The country has several growing regions. Here, we’ll focus on a few of the most notable ones.
As the name suggests, the Central Valley is right in the center of Chile. It’s also one of the country’s largest and most diverse growing regions. The cooler climate of the Northern Valley is ideal for such varieties as Riesling and Viognier, while the warmer Southern Valley produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot.
The Colchagua Valley region features a warm climate, along with cooler ocean breezes and fertile soil. It’s most famous for the country’s most popular wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Syrah, and Malbec. The western part of the region also produces some notable whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
The Casablanca Valley region is a newer wine-producing region. It’s only been producing wines for around the last three decades. It’s a cooler, hilly region. As such, it produces some great whites — most notably Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It also provides some excellent Pinot Noir grapes.
The Maule Valley region has the largest wine production in Chile. It produces some incredible reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carménère. The climate is warmer, and the soil is both fertile and free-draining, making it an ideal area for such grapes.
How to Read a Chilean Wine Label
Chile’s requirements for labeling wines are not as strict as those in other countries. For instance, the law only requires that the grape, vintage, and geographical location stated on the label make up three-fourths of what’s actually in the bottle.
Chile does have labels like Reserva, Reserva Especial, Reserva Privada, and Gran Reserva — similar to Spanish Rioja wines. Unlike Spain, however, the requirements in Chile aren’t nearly as stringent. Generally speaking, Reserva and Reserva Especial labels indicate that the wine has at least 12 percent alcohol. To bear the Reserva Privada and Gran Reserva labels in Chile, a wine is required to contain at least 12.5 percent alcohol and to have spent at least some time in oak barrels.
So, while the labels won’t really provide any indication of quality, they can still tell you a bit about what’s inside the bottle.
Are You Ready to Add Chilean Wine to Your List of Favorites?
Chilean wines might not be as well-known as those from France, Italy, or Spain, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of renown. In fact, wines from this South American country are some of the most unique and delicious you’ll ever taste.
If you haven’t poured yourself a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, or Sauvignon Blanc, your next dinner party or night curled up with a good book is the perfect opportunity.
JJ Buckley Fine Wines has a vast selection of wines from all over the world, including Chile. If you need help, our wine specialists are available for a consultation. Visit our website today and check out our selection.