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Chilean Wine - What's all the fuss about?

Among the many reasons to visit Chile, high quality, affordable wine has to be one of the best! Here we take a look at what it is that makes Chilean wine so special and how you can enjoy it to the fullest during your trip to Chile. Salud!
 

Wine making in Chile

The first grape vines arrived in Chile along with the European colonisers in the mid-sixteenth century. These early missionaries and conquistadors went one step further than simply bringing along a couple of bottles of their favourite tipple for the road, bringing whole swatches of vine cuttings from Europe to plant in the fertile lands around Chile’s capital city Santiago. Although this wine was originally meant for use in religious ceremonies, it wasn’t long before people began to recognise its potential and Chilean wine exchanged Mass for the masses.

The warm climate of Central Chile proved to be an excellent environment for these Mediterranean new kids on the block, and by as early as the 1800s Chile was already exporting wine back across the pond to Europe, pushing the Spanish Crown to impose heavy taxes and restrict production to protect their own sales. The hot days and cool nights around Santiago helped Chilean grapes to develop balanced acidity and thick skins in time for the harvest, resulting in wine that is rich tannins and has a deep red colour.

wine barrelsToday, Chilean wine continues to go from strength to strength and gain a well-deserved reputation on the international scene. Vineyards carefully restrict the watering of their vines, either through traditional methods or more modern solutions such as drip irrigation, to keep their grapes small and full of concentrated flavour. The resulting crops are transformed into first-rate wines including Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Carménère, Syrah and many more.

Throughout the Southern Hemisphere, grapes are harvested between mid-February and early March depending on the particular variety of grape. After the initial crushing and fermentation process is underway, the wine is transferred to steel barrels if the winery wants to maintain the pure taste of the wine, or to oak barrels that can lend tones of dark chocolate, spices and vanilla to the wine. It is then left to fully ferment for several weeks or months before it is bottled and appears at your dinner table alongside a platter of sweet razor clams or a traditional Chilean corn bake.

The Tale of the Carménère Grape

Perhaps Chile’s most important claim to a stake in winemaking history is as one of the last bastions of the Carménère grape, which was once considered completely extinct. This red wine producing grape hails from the Bordeaux region of France and was once commonplace throughout the whole of Europe. However, it suffered badly in the devastating plague of phylloxera mites that swept through the continent in the late 19th century.

These aphid-like bugs latch on to the roots of grapevines to feed, eventually causing them to be completely cut off from the plant, which rots and dies. Some experts estimate that up to nine tenths of European vines were wiped out by the plague and whilst other varieties of grape were reintroduced from surviving populations in the New World, the Carménère grape was thought to have been lost forever.

Vines in ChileIn 1994 however, French Professor of Wine (yes, really!) Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered that the Carménère grape had been happily thriving in Chile for all of this time, masquerading as a local variety of Merlot. Protected by the natural barriers of the Atacama Desert to the North, the craggy Andes mountain range to the East, the chill expanse of Patagonia to the South and the wide Pacific Ocean to the west, Chilean wineries had been completely protected from the phylloxera mite and Carménère vines had been living all the while, in and amongst blocks of Merlot vines, to which they bear a close resemblance.

Chilean wine growers had long suspected that there was something unusual about this vine variety, as its leaves have an unusual reddish hue when young and its grapes ripen two or three weeks later than the Merlot. However they had assumed that it was simply a local cousin of the Merlot vine, and never suspected that it was in fact the long lost Carménère.

Grafts of the Carménère vine do still exist in small quantities elsewhere in the world, but the vast majority of complete plants are found in Chile, making it the largest exporter of Carmenère wine in the world.  Today, Carménère is mainly grown in the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley, and Maipo Province in Chile’s Central region not far from Santiago.

Wine Tours in Chile

vineyard in chileWhereas Chilean wine was once all about the valleys of Central Chile, these days, increasing technological involvement is enabling wineries to push the boundaries of vine growing and wine production without compromising on taste and quality. You can now visit any one of 188 wineries and vineyards over a 1,000 kilometre stretch from the Elqui Valley in the north to the Malleco Valley in the south.

Not only are there many wineries to choose from, there is also a wide variety of sizes and levels of mechanisation on display, so you can gain an appreciation of the full range of businesses from the traditional, family and boutique to the large-scale and technologically advanced.

As well as walking tours through the vineyards and, of course, wine tastings, there are also a growing number of more adventurous ways to explore Chile’s verdant vine-striped valleys. The thrillseeker in you can opt for a winery zipline flight that whisks you over the vine tops, a sure way to make your head spin if the wine hasn’t already done the trick! Or why not try a gentle cycling tour through the wine valleys, stopping off at three separate and very different wineries on your way. There are also multi-day wine tours for those who want a fully immersive experience and find that one day just won't cut it!

 

Chile combines a huge variety of wineries with a high quality selection of wines and any number of ways to explore. Take a glass, sniff, swirl and sniff again, then take your first sip and find out for yourself what all of the fuss is about!