The País wine grape, also known as Mission wine grape, is thought to be the original varietal brought to Chile by Spanish Catholic Missionaries in the mid 1500’s. Although the wine grape, Vitis vinifera, is not native to the Americas, it has flourished in Chile since it was first introduced, making Chile one of the world’s top wine producers. By the mid 1800’s wine production in Chile was widespread and well established. As more wine grape varietals were brought to and planted in Chile, the country’s original grape, País, took on a more peripheral role, and was considered rustic in comparison to increasingly popular French varietals.
Interestingly, Chile’s wine grapes have remained uniquely unaffected by the pest, Phyxollera. This pest had spread across vineyards in both the Americas and Europe during the 18th century, rendering vast numbers of grape vines useless. During this time, attention turned to the unaffected vineyards of Chile, and a number of French professionals traveled to Chile to find work in vineyards there. The experience and expertise brought by the French, in combination with Chile’s rich natural capacity for wine production, resulted in increasing quality and quantity of Chilean wines. Popular demand for Chilean wines grew both within the country and abroad.
In the early 1900’s, political upheaval in Chile lessened the global availability of Chilean wines, and the Chilean wine industry began to lose its position as a top player in the global game. However, in the later part of the 20th century, Chile rebuilt its former reputation as producer of fine wines.
The landscape and climate of Chile are suited to a wide variety of wine grapes, but some varietals are more common than others. Common red wine varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, respectively. Common white wine varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel of Alexandria, Riesling, Viognier, and Gewürtztraminer. Cabernet Sauvignon is the country’s most popular grape, and is grown in nearly every wine region.
A total of 116,793 hectares (288,601.79 acres, 1167.93 sq km) of Chilean land are devoted to wine production, and about ¾ of this area to red wine. Scattered in the shadow of the Andes, 13 valleys are responsible for the production of Chilean wines. In the northernmost Elquí Valley, vineyards also claim the highest elevation of all Chilean wine regions. Wines produced here generally take on fresh, spicy flavors.
Limari Valley is one of Chile’s oldest wine regions, first planted in 1549. In the following centuries, the Limari Valley turned toward fruit production and the growing of Muscat grapes for Chile’s popular spirit alcohol Pisco. By the late 1900’s the Limari Valley had renewed its attention to fine wine production.
The Aconcagua Valley lies in the shadow of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. The 22,828 ft (6,956 m) peak irrigates vineyards here, along with numerous fruit, vegetable, and flower fields for which the Aconcagua Valley is also famous. Sangiovese, one of Chile’s minor varietals, is produced here.
Casablanca Valley is comparable to the Napa Valley in California, both in terms of climate and the popularity it holds among tourists. The San Antonio Valley is one of Chile’s smallest wine regions, and is closest to the Pacific Ocean. Due to the region’s proximity to the coast, Syrah produced in the San Antonio Valley takes on a decided uniqueness from Syrah produced elsewhere in Chile. Sauvignon Gris, a minor varietal in Chile, is produced in the San Antonio Valley.
Maipo Valley rests between the Andes and a costal mountain range, and is the home of Chile’s capital, Santiago. Maipo Valley is home to many of Chile’s most well known and longest established wineries, however boutique wineries are also common here.
The Rapel Valley is divided into two wine regions. The northernmost of these, Cachapoal Valley, is known for producing Chile’s archetypal grape, Carménère. Colchagua Valley, also part of the Rapel Valley, is reputed for producing some of Chile’s finest red wines, as well as for its attention to organic wine production.
Curico Valley is known for holding Chile’s largest vineyards. Just south, the Maule Valley is Chile’s largest wine producing region, responsible for 43% of the production of Chilean wines. The Maule Valley devotes 8,471 hectares (20932.29 acres, 84.71 sq km) to Chile’s pioneer grape, País.
Itata Valley is crisscrossed by rivers, and is of Chile’s youngest wine regions. A number of Chile’s minor varietals are grown here, including, País, Cinsaut, Carignan, and Semillon. Bío Bío Valley also devotes much of its vineyards to less produced varietals, such as Riesling and Gewürtraminer. Chile’s southernmost wine region, the Malleco Valley, claims only 17 hectares (42 acres, 0.17 sq km) of vineyard. These are devoted to two varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.