Even if you’re new to the world of wine, you’ve probably heard about the great wines coming out of Argentina, especially Malbecs from Mendoza. However, many wine enthusiasts haven’t heard about the fascinating wine culture in neighboring Chile. Just across the Andes Mountains is a country with a unique climate conducive to growing a diverse array of grapes.
The following is a brief history of how vines arrived in Chile and how the country has developed a strong wine culture over the years.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact date when vines arrived in Chile, most sources point to the middle of the 16th century. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought grapevines to Mexico sometime around 1522 and issued an edict two years later that required all Spanish settlers who had been granted land to plant vines. Soon after, Cortés brought vines to Peru, then further south to Chile sometime around the middle of the 16th century. It is thought that Chile’s first vineyards were planted circa 1547 under conquistador Francesco Pizarro.
The Role of Missionaries
Missionaries played a huge role in the development of viticulture in the New World. In 1548 Fray Francisco de Carabantes brought vines into the port of Concepción.
The Spanish quickly planted vines in Chile and Argentina because missionaries needed wine for Catholic rituals, namely the Eucharist. Wine production became so prolific that some winemakers began to export wine back to Spain, but this proved to be a threat to Spanish winemakers, leading King Philip II to impose restrictions on wines from the New World in the late 16th century.
However, Chileans argued for the ban on new vineyards to be lifted, stating that it discouraged economic growth. They went on to continue producing wine, and by the 18th century, Chilean winemakers had developed a reputation for creating cheap yet high-quality wine, much to the chagrin of Spanish winemakers.
After Chile became independent from Spain, wealthy Chileans started to travel abroad to Europe, bringing back winemaking traditions, especially from France, which helped the country to further develop its craft in winemaking and establish a culture centered on wine. The influence of French culture was profound on those in Chile’s wealthy class, who were eager to move forward after years under Spanish rule. The wealthy became enamored with French culture, food, and wine, which led to the development of wineries modeled after those in France.
Claude Gay, a Frenchman, convinced the Chilean government to establish a state agricultural station, called the Quinta Normal Agriculture. In 1830 he arrived in Chile’s 5th Region with approximately 30 Vitis vinifera vine varieties from France. Further influence from France came in 1851 when Chilean aristocrat Don Silvestre Ochagava Echazarreta brought back to Chile a number of French varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon, Riesling, and Semillon.
These vines are of particular significance, as they are thought to be the only clones that existed before Phylloxera, a small insect that has wreaked havoc on vineyards around the world. In fact, Chile is the only large wine-producing country to have escaped outbreaks of the Phylloxera.
One of the major milestones in the development of Chilean wine culture came in 1889 when a Chilean wine won the Grand Prix at a wine exposition in Paris. This came on the heels of recognition earned by Chilean wines at festivals in Europe in the mid-1880s.
20th Century to the Present
Despite this success, the Chilean wine industry faced a major setback in the early 20th century with the two World Wars and many years of state protectionism, which kept the country isolated. However, the wine industry staged a comeback in the early 1980s as the country began to open up to trade with the rest of the world. Winemakers began to integrate new technology and equipment, including stainless steel tanks, which were brought to Chile in 1979 by Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres. Further, winemakers began to use new French and American oak barriques as well as facilities with gravity-flow design.
Another change that helped Chile’s wine culture move forward was the addition of new varietals, which eventually led to the appearance of the Carménère, the country’s signature grape, named by French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot in 1994. This French red grape was brought from France before the Phylloxera crisis.
Today, Chilean winemakers produce highly recognized wines in three major zones: the North, South, and Central regions. With centuries of history, the Central region is considered the classic wine region in Chile and is home to the famous wine-producing valleys of Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua.
Although Chile is a small country locked between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, it has a rich history of winemaking that continues to this day. With unique microclimates and terrain, the country is well positioned to continue creating high-quality wines that rival Old World wines well into the future.