What’s 900 km long, 100 km wide and makes great wine? The answer is Chile.
Spanning seven degrees of latitude, from 30 to 37 degrees south of the equator, its huge coastline and varied mountainous geography make it Latin America’s most exciting wine making region.
Climate and Viticulture
The warm Mediterranean climate is moderated by cooling influences that provide ideal growing conditions, and the span of latitudes and altitude allow for a great variety of grapes. The country is nowadays making more of the light, fruity, innovative wines that are increasingly loved by international buyers, and it is competing hard for export market share.
The terroir benefits from cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the downdrafts of cold air leeching off the Andes in the east, where the country shares a border with Argentina. The biggest producing region is the hot and arid Central Valley, which is sandwiched between the coastal mountain ranges and the Andes. Here, the dry air prevents the spread of fungal diseases and the river valleys that thread through the region create patches of land that can be used for premium wine cultivation.
The country is subject to the alternating pattern of weather called El Niño and La Niña, which affects a number of Indo-Pacific countries. This brings heavier precipitation in the years where El Niño prevails, but the downside is that La Niña years can also bring extreme drought in a country where vines need regular irrigation due to lack of water.
The other notable feature about the climate is the Humboldt current, which sweeps cold air all the way from the Antarctic, and provides cooling winds for the sun-scorched vineyards in the west of the country, as well as dense fogs that also cool the vineyards. This creates a huge diurnal temperature range, and the grapes love it.
Black Grape Varieties
Among the black grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is preeminent, making the most of the full sun of the Central Valley, and producing wines in a range of styles from simple to premium. These often have a herbaceous quality. Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah are also widely used. Carmenère is a late-ripening grape that needs warm, sunny climes and is suitable for the dry Central Valley region. It makes wines that taste of black fruit and herbal, sometimes herbaceous flavours. Syrah shows particular diversity in its expression, ranging from fruity peppery wines from the Elqui valley to fuller black fruit flavours in the reds from Colchagua. In the south, and in higher altitudes such as the Casabalanca and San Antonio valleys, Pinot Noir has a growing reputation.
White Grape Varieties
Among the whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have been the mainstays. The former is widely grown in the Casbalanca and San Antonio valleys, expressing the ripe apple, citrus and tropical fruit flavours that are typical of the grape. Sauvignon Balance is also made in a richer style using lees stirring. Chardonnay is popular in Aconagua and the Limari valley, as well as in the high altitude Casablanca valley. It is made into fresh fruity wines but also oaked and left on the lees for more complex varieties. Aromatic grape varieties such as Viognier, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer are grown in some regions, particularly in the south.
Pisco is a type of brandy, and if anything can claim the title, it is the national drink. Its origins are disputed: Chile claims to have invented it, but neighbouring Peru also claims the crown. In Chile, Pisco is made from the Muscat d’Alexandria grape. It is a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored liquid, and is served across the country, in almost every bar.
Coquimbo is the northernmost region, lying just to the south of the Atacama desert, and it is one of the driest parts of the country. The high altitude and cooling breezes allow for the production of high quality wines, but volumes are relatively low compared to the regions further south. Here, the wine regions of the Elqui Valley, Limari Valley and Choapa Valley swelter under a southern hemisphere sun whose heat is only partially relieved by sea breezes from the Pacific and the altitude. These wine regions are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah production, although recently Chardonnay has been successfully introduced in the Limari Valley.
The Acoganagua region has a warm climate but this is moderated by the steep sided valleys that are cooled by sea breezes, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah flourish. The slopes here produce red wines with soft supple tannins and a fresh flavour. White grapes such as Chardonnay also do well.
In the Aconagua Valley sub-region, Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay grape, but Syrah and Carmenère do well on the higher slopes where the climate is milder. As tastes for wine change, the slopes have become increasingly attractive for growing these lighter, fruitier wines.
Premium wine regions in the Aconagua district include the Casablanca Valley and the San Antonio Valley, both of which have varied soils and aspects. These regions are cooled by morning fogs, and ocean winds, and have become known for their Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as white wines from Sauvignon Blanc. The Leyda valley further to the east is also known for good quality Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Chardonnay.
The biggest wine producing region is the Central Valley. Think bones drying in the sun and vultures. This vast, warm flat region produces large volumes of tannic, full bodied red wine and sharp, fruity whites from the valleys of Maipo, Curicó, Maule and Rappel, the latter incorporating the flatter plains of Colchagua and Cachapoal. These regions produce around half of all Chile’s wines, much of it cheap and rather generic Chardonnay.
Maipo is the region nearest to Santiago, and is surrounded by mountains which cut off any cooling influence from ocean breezes. Here, as well as in Rappel which has a similar climate, large volumes of Cabernet Sauvignon, often with a minty tang, as well as Syrah and Carmenère are produced. The Colchagua region makes fuller-bodied reds form the same range of grapes, but these are often grown on the valley slopes and the Apalta region produces premium quality white wines. The Curicó and Maule valleys lie further to the south, making inexpensive reds and whites, with those in Maule slightly tarter and more acidic because the climate is cooler. Local winemakers are experimenting with new grapes and have had outstanding success with Carignan, grown from ancient bush vines planted in the western hills.
The Southern region is also having its own successes, particularly with organic and biodynamic wines. The cooler, wetter valleys of BíoBío, Itata and even further south Malleco have experimented successfully with ever-sensitive Pinot Noir and delicate Chardonnays, as well as aromatic grapes such as Riesling. The País grape is widely used here, and Muscat of Alexandria is grown for production of Pisco brandy. Malleco in particular is making some exciting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and has attracted considerable investment in recent years.
This section is under construction.
The country is divided into four main regions: Coquimbo and Aconagua in the north, the huge Central Valley that runs all the way down from Santiago, and the Southern region, which is cooler and has some of the most exciting new wine-making regions. These four Geographical Indication regions are then sub-divided into 13 sub-regions within which the wines are identified by their Denominacion de Origen or DO status. Each of the sub-regions has zones with specific micro-climates and soil types.
As well as the GI and DO system, Chilean wines labels may also contain an indication of the terroir and quality, although these are not always used. Under a reform in 2012, wines were allowed to carry the words Costa, Entre Cordilleras and Andes to indicate whether they were grown on the coastal region (Costa), between the mountain rnages of the coast and the Andes (Entre Cordilleras) or on the Andes mountain slopes (Andes). Wines also use the terms Reserva, Reserva Especial, Reserva Privada and Gran Reserva to give an indication of quality or wine-making style, although these are very loosely applied and are essentially more or less meaningless.
This section is under development.
This section is under development.
This section is under development.