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Wines of Chile
The real vines
Chile has the oldest wine industry in the Americas, going all the way back to the 1500s when the Spanish missionaries planted the black Pais grape to produce sacramental wine. Viticulture established itself so well that by 1803 Spain was losing market to local production to such an extent that Spain ordered Chilean wines banned from international commerce.
In the 1830s, a scientist named Claudio Gay brought over 60 varieties of European vinifera vines to Chile. By the 1850s, French varietals were being produced commercially and French winemakers were flocking to Chile to tend the vines. This viticultural colonization intensified in the 1870s as phylloxera destroyed the vineyards of Europe and many of those in the industry fled to Chile for employment where the vines were not affected. The vine-destroying phylloxea root louse never made it to South America, and today the only Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other original, ungrafted vinifera root stocks still survive there.
By the 1880s, Chile was exporting wine to Europe to replace the wines lost to the phylloxera epidemic. Chile's wine industry flourished through the turn of the century until the combination of two world wars, state protectionism and land reform forced Chile out of the wine trade. In the 1970s and 1980s, the laws and policies that restricted the industry were changed and the country's economy was opened up to the rest of the world.
This liberalization started a revolution in the wine industry as it attracted foreign investment and modern wine making technology. Money and expertise flowed into Chile from France, the United States and Spain. Traveling winemakers also arrived, taking advantage of the reversed season of the Southern Hemisphere to oversee the creation of two vintages a year, one in the south and one in the north. In the late 1990s, the standing joke among winemakers in Napa was that you were more likely to run into your neighbor in the airport in Santiago than in San Francisco. This combination of new state of the art facilities, a tremendous natural growing region and some of the world's best winemakers kick-started Chile's wine industry like no wine industry has ever been kick-started before.
Today everyone from the Rothschilds to the Mondavis have partnerships in Chile and Chilean wines are distributed throughout the world. Over the last ten years, the watchword has been quality. Chilean wines have begun breaking out of the world of "best buys" and grocery shelves and into places like the Wine Spectator Top 100 with Cabernets and blends rivaling California and France both in quality and price.
The major wine regions are all clustered in the central valley surrounding the capital, Santiago. There are seven major viticultural regions, also known as viticultural zones or appellations. These regions are all valleys formed by rivers flowing across Chile from the Andes to the sea.
Northernmost of the appellations, it is hot and generally arid, best suited to red wine production. A lot of quality Cabernet Sauvignon is produced. Aconcagua is home to the Errázuriz estate, one of my favorite producers, who make some very affordable, very good Cabernets and Chardonnays.
One of the most important regions that has fueled Chile's wine renaissance of the last 10 years, Casablanca is a relatively cool and largely coastal region producing world-class Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is the home of the Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay that has managed to garner 90 point plus scores from Wine Spectator for the last four years.
The Maipó region south of Santiago is one of Chile's most famous and oldest wine regions. It is also home to some of the largest and most important wineries in Chile, Concha y Toro and Santa Rita, as well as the country's oldest winery, Cousiño Macul.
The largest and most diverse of the appellations, the Rapel Valley has a wide range of climatic conditions and soils. Carmen and Mont Gras are among the largest producers in the area. Rapel contains the sub-regions of Colchagua Valley and Cachapoal Valley.
The Maule Valley is relatively undistinguished, it has a sub-region in the north called the Curicó region and another sub-regional area called Lontué.
The most southerly of the wine-producing regions, it produces a lot of jug wine but shows signs of development as Chile's large producers expand their production.
If you think that Chile still produces the green jug wines of the 1980s, think again. I have devoted the rest of this issue to reviewing Chilean Cabernets ... if you have not tried a Chilean Cabernet, try one of these. If you don't like it, bring it back and I'll drink it!
March 22, 2006