Chile’s long history with wine is complicated and filled with setbacks.
Wine in Chile dates back to mid-16th century Spanish conquistadores and missionaries, who carried grapes wherever they went. These grapes, often referred to as the “common black grape,” filled the vineyards of local Jesuit priests.
Like many colonies, Chilean vintners were restricted to local distribution. The settlers were expected to buy their wine from Spain. Imports of Chilean wine to Spain were banned, which held back the development of their wine industry. Chileans drank their own wines and exported some of their product to Peru.
In the early 20th century, political instability in South America caused an increase in taxation and regulation. Combined with the demise of free trade agreements, circumstances conspired to keep Chilean wines close to home. Eventually, though, Chile’s exceptional climate for growing grapes paid off.
Chile is a long, narrow county with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes Mountains on the other. It ascends from sea level to 22,572 ft (6,880 meters) in less than 110 miles. The incredible variation in terroir gives each region a unique character.
Wine storage tanks at a winery producing Chilean wine near Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley in central Chile, South America.
On the west-facing slopes of the Andes and running to the Pacific Ocean, the Colchagua Valley has a warm, dry climate that compares to the Napa Valley. The primary grapes of this area include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carménère. Grapes are grown from 650 ft to 3,110 feet above sea level in combination clay and volcanic soils.
With a wine history going back to the Spanish conquistadores of the 16th century, this area changed when Bordeaux grapes--Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon--were imported from France in the 19th century.
The valley is divided into three growing areas: Alto Maipo, with its alluvial gravel soil, produces some of the country’s best Cabernet. The Entre Cordilleras area is characterized by its location--equidistant between Chile’s Coastal Mountains and the Andes. The Pacific Maipo, due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, is known for producing wine varieties like Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the oldest growing regions in Chile, the Maule Valley was once dominated by the old Pais vines. All things change, though, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère are replacing the “common black grape” of the Spanish.
Some things are never lost, as Chilean winemakers discovered. What they thought was a Merlot was actually Carménère, a nearly extinct vine. It was one of the six original red grapes of France’s Bordeaux region. Now Chile has more vineyards planted in Carménère than any other place in the world. With its aromas of red fruits, berries and spices, and softer tannins, it is best enjoyed young. A pure Carménère can be incredibly complex with smoky and spicy notes and a flavor that hints at chocolate and tobacco.
Montes Purple Angel, a Carménère from the Colchagua Valley, is a great introduction to this historic grape. Their 2018 is Carménère with 8 percent Petit Verdot, aged in French oak barrels for 18 months.
"Blackberry, blueberry, sage, and five spice on the nose. Medium-to full-bodied with fine tannins. Balanced and creamy with a fresh, juicy character palate. Silky texture with great structure. Savory finish with length. Peppery and spicy aftertaste....” ~ James Suckling
If you are feeling like a splurge, look for Lapostolle Clos Apalta, 2017 with its almost unheard of 100 points from James Suckling. He describes it as “The most classical structured wine ever from here.” He goes on to describe its nose, taste, and texture as:
"Full-bodied with a beautiful, dense palate of blackberries, chocolate, walnuts, and cigar box. Fantastic length and composure. The tannin just rolls over the palate….”
For something more on the affordable side, Los Vascos Cromas Grande Reserve Carménère 2019 is a bargain. With anything from 93 to 90 points from Suckling, Vinous’s Antonio Galloni, and the Wine Spectator team, at under $25 a bottle, it is a steal.
“Vibrant acidity backs the concentrated dark fruit and Asian spice flavors in this red, with plenty of dark chocolate accents, followed by dried mint and forest floor notes on the finish.” ~ Wine Spectator
Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s Le Dix de Los Vascos from the Colchagua Valley is another standout. With remarkable constancy, Le Dix de Los Vascos has received between 90-96 points on every vintage year since 2001 from Wine Enthusiast, James Suckling, Decanter, and Wilfred Wong of Wine.com.
Viña el Principal 2010 Andetelmo from the Maipo Valley is big and bold. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah blend for a 93-point score from Wine Enthusiast.
Kuyen 2011 Red from the Maipo Valley is a hard-to-find standout. A biodynamically made wine, it’s a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère , and Petite Verdot.
Echeverria 2010 Founder’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley. A complex wine, this is a full-bodied Cab with herbal overtones plus oak, vanilla, and spice on the finish. It received 90 points from Wine Enthusiast.
Concha y Toro Casillero Del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon is a beautiful, inexpensive Chilean Cab with rich, balanced flavors and a lingering finish. It pairs well with beef and blue cheese.
Young wines can often benefit from decanting, which promotes oxygenation and provides a beautiful way of displaying the depth of color found in many of the red Chilean wines. The 2018 Carménère Purple Angel, with its rich purple hue and garnet shimmer, is just the wine for one of our engraved, handblown decanters.
With the diversity of the Chilean climate, many different types of grapes thrive. From Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Bordeaux Blends to Carménère, Syrah, and Pinot Noir, there are a lot of Chilean wines to explore.
Have a favorite? Tells us about it. Drop a line in our comments section.