Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Chile selection.
Chile is the narrowest country in the world, averaging just 110 miles wide, and the second longest (Brazil beats Chile by just 57 miles). In fact, at 2,600 miles, it is as long as the U.S. is wide. This long thin country is wedged between the Pacific Ocean with its Humboldt Current to the West and the Andes mountains to the East, meaning it’s one of those countries where you can be skiing in the morning and surfing in the evening. It also provides vineyards with maritime and alpine influences producing an abundant and unexpected diversity of wine styles. It is a country of extremes, with the Atacama desert in the north being the largest dry desert in the world, while Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean off the Chilean coast is the most remote inhabited island of the world, you can really spend some time rattling off all the natural extremities Chile can boast. Its national dish are the insanely delicious Empanadas, which are essentially a more exotic Cornish pasty, and arguably Chile is better known for its local spirit Pisco (makes a delightful cocktail called Pisco Sour) than for its wine culture which centres around the quirky Carménère and País (also known as “Mission” in California) and value for money international styles.
Again, like most of the new world countries, it is foolhardy to assume winemaking is a 20th century invention in Chile: its first vines were actually planted in 1544. These plantings were focused around the Spanish-origin País. However, the great French invasion in the late 18th century brought Bordeaux varieties and planted near the capital. While their European counterparts were being ravaged by Phylloxera, the French who had settled in Chile found that the cuttings they had brought over were thriving on their own rootstocks with no sign of the dreaded Phylloxera (to this day, Chile, is the only major wine producing country not to be hit by phylloxera).
By the late 20th century, the Chilean wine industry was dominated by four major producers, who succeeded in producing well-priced international style wines which were popular world-wide, including the Carménère variety brought over by the French which has now become synonymous with Chile. It was at this time when winemaker, Pablo Morandé, began planting in Casablanca, starting the movement to explore cooler climate sites, ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Another pioneer of the modern Chilean wine industry is Miguel Torres, already famous for his work in Penedes, Spain, he arrived in Chile and modernised wine production. He introduced stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels to transform the production processes.
It is true that the Chilean wine industry is still dominated by large-scale companies making value-for-money wine, however in recent years there is a growing number of small-scale artisanal family producers cropping up across the country. Ranging from hipsters focusing on minimal sulphur, low intervention wines produced form the traditional varieties, to the glossy echelons of Viñedo Chadwick which in 2015 made headlines by scoring a perfect 100 from wine critic James suckling for their 2014 vintage. It is fair to say there is an awful lot more going on in Chile than cheap and cheerful merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Climate and Soil
There are two main geographic features which influence Chile’s climate – The Andes mountain range, and the Pacific Ocean. The Andes Cordillera, the longest mountain range in the world, creates a natural eastern border that stretches from the arid desert in the north to the lush desert of the south in Patagonia. With sedimentary soil and cool mountain breezes that sweep down from great heights to descend upon the wine producing valleys, the Andes Cordillera is a cooling influence which helps with temperature control in the vineyards. These climatic effects create longer growing periods while preserving acidity. When the breeze off the Pacific Ocean collides with the wind from the Andes Cordillera, it produces a unique and beneficial cool climate in the Coastal area, where white wine varieties and some cooler-climate reds thrive. A naturally cool climate is produced thanks to the influence from the Humboldt Current.
The soils in Chile are understandably diverse. However, in most regions, soils are fertile and there is no shortage of rainfall, therefore the challenge centres around controlling vine vigour. Most wine production takes place on alluvial river valleys and plains, with the deposits typically being old decomposed sandstone mixed with some limestone. Despite the damp climate, these free draining soils can sometimes lead to water stress in dry periods in summer and as such irrigation is widely practiced in many regions.
Chile produces a vast array of international varieties and is particularly well known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. However, there are a couple of varieties introduce by early settlers which have lasted the course, and are now increasing in popularity as Chile continues to explore its premium winemaking market.
This has become one of the emblematic red wine of Chile, even though it disappeared from European vineyards during the 19th century, it reappeared among the Merlot varieties in Chile a hundred years later. Chile now has the largest surface area planted with this variety. It is known for its garnet red colour, red fruit aromas, damp earth, and spices. It pairs particularly well with Chilean food thanks to its signature spice characters.
The Pais variety arrived in Chile along with the Spanish missions in the 16th century. Pais is a hardy variety which can thrive in adverse climates such as those in the south-central region of Chile. This terroir has been able to maintain vines that are over 200 years old, and which are still active grape producers. In recent years, they have experienced a resurgence and great interest from the press and consumers.
The Regions of Chile
The Key Sub-regions of Chile
Most of Chile’s vineyards are centrally located within the country because many of the Central Valley’s, which make up almost all the sub-regions, are bordered by the Andes Mountain Range to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West. To the North, the Atacama Desert provides a natural border, while the glaciers and frigid temperatures of Patagonia guard the Southern end of the country. Below discusses the details of each sub region, moving North to South.
Copiapó is a recent addition to Chile’s wine producing regions and is the northernmost wine-producing valley and is part of the Atacama Desert. The small winemaking projects in this desert climate are irrigated with water from natural oases. However, most of the vineyards are planted with Pisco grapes to produce Pisco Liquor.
Located on the border of the Atacama Desert and subdivided into two regions: Coastal Huasco and Upper Huasco. Coastal Huasco is about 20 KM from the Pacific Ocean and experiences a cooling influence from morning fog and the strong breezes of the Pacific Coast, these factors, along with the calcareous soils, produce wines with a pronounced natural acidity and mineral salty notes. In Upper Huasco fresh, sweet, and aromatic wines have historically been produced called “pajarete,” which are produced from different Muscat varieties grown at an altitude of over 1,100 metres.
Elqui is an arid region and as such the vineyards in this region are centred around the greenness in the mountains. The soils here are poor helping to control the vigour of the leading varieties of Syrah for red wines and Sauvignon Blanc among white wines.
Limarí and Choapa Valley
The Limarí valley is hot and relatively dry however, it is cooler and greener than the land on either side thanks to the Limarí River. On either side the coatal ranges rise to almost 700 metres, preventing cooling Pacific breezes from reaching the inland areas. On summer mornings a fog called the “Camanchaca” carries moisture to the vineyards in the valley every morning and then vanishes while cooling the native soils with an ocean breeze in the afternoon. The Limarí Valley is best known for Chardonnay, Syrah and more recently Pinot Noir. The small Choapa Valley, farther inland and located in the mountains, also produces Syrah.
Originally formed by the Aconcagua River, which flows from the Andes Cordillera to the Pacific Ocean. There are alluvial and colluvial terraces along its banks. The red varieties tend to be planted towards the inland valley close to the Andes. While cooler climate varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are planted in the valley’s coastal area.
Casablanca is the trailblazing cold-climate wine-producing region of Chile. It is known for the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean and the morning fog that settles into the valley. This valley is one of the main producers of white wine in Chile, however, the higher, warmer altitudes free from frosts are ideal for red varieties such as Merlot and Syrah.
San Antonio Valley
The small and relatively new San Antonio Valley has three sub regions: Leyda, Lo Abarca, and Rosario. The soil is characteristically thin and rocky due to the proximity of the valley to the Pacific Ocean. Primarily known for producing white wines with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay planted on the steep slopes of its coastal hills where the region’s vineyards grow. However, there are some plantings of cold-climate Syrah farther inland.
The Maipo Valley is one of the most well-known wine-producing regions in Chile, particularly for its red wines. It experiences a mild Mediterranean climate with dry, warm summers and cold, wet winters. Easterly vineyards are planted in the foothills of the Andes and Westerly vineyards stretch to the sandy soils of the Coastal Mountains. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates plantings followed by Merlot, Syrah, and Carménère.
Located in the Northern half of the great Rapel Valley, Cachapoal has traditionally been known for its red wines, particularly Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, which account for approximately 80% of the region’s total production.
Located in the southern half of the Rapel Valley, Colchagua has evolved over the last twenty years from farmland to becoming one of the largest wine-producing regions in the country. The relatively low altitude of the coastal hills allows the Pacific breeze to mingle with the Andean winds, these cool the valley and create a longer growing season. Most wine produced here is red, focusing on Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. However, there are newer plantings close to the coast focusing on cool-climate white wines.
The Curicó Valley boasts some of the oldest vineyards in Chile, with some centennial vineyards. It is also one of the most diverse, yet largest winemaking areas in Chile. The region has a broad diversity of volcanic and alluvial soils, with loamy and clay textures. It has a Mediterranean climate, with warm days and cold nights and an annual rainfall of 600 mm that primarily occurs in the winter months. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are the main varieties planted in the Valley.
The largest wine-producing region in Chile encompassing the Andes towards the East, the flat and sunny valleys along the central corridor, and the coastal hills towards the West. It has a Mediterranean climate, with cool winds that sweep down from the Andes Mountains at night. Unlike many of the other regions in Chile, the Maule Valley does not have any ocean influence. Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot flourish here, along with excellent examples of old vine Carignan.
The Itata Valley is one of the country’s oldest wine-growing regions and is located in the Bío-Bío Region in the Province of Ñuble. It has a humid Mediterranean climate, with lower temperatures than in other valleys, and very distinct seasons. Clay and granite soils rich in minerals are planted traditional varieties such as Pais and Muscat of Alexandria, which dominate this region.
Bío-Bío – Malleco Valley
The Bío-Bío Valley marks the real transition to the deep Chilean south, which used to be considered too southerly for winemaking. The cooler weather conditions mean that producers are focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also an area to the south of the Biobío River that is planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Bío-Bío is cold and very windy, even in summer, and rainfall reaches up to 1,100 mm annually. The soil is naturally sandy and rocky, and the fluvial, organic deposits make it fertile and fruitful.
The Osorno Valley has traditionally been farmed for livestock and dairy, with virgin volcanic soils with vines only planted for the first time in 2000 as an experiment. It is a wet valley, with rain falling year-round and an annual average temperature that only reaches up to 10 °C.
Wine accounts for a significant contribution to the Chilean economy, representing 0.5% of the GDP and employing over 100,000 people in direct work, of which only 53% work in the vineyards (followed by 19% in logistics, transport, and marketing, 17% in wineries, 9% in bottling, and 2% in production). Today, there are 800 active wineries in Chile, 11,697 producers, and 394 wine exporting companies. Wine in Chile accounts for 5.7% of exports that are not copper and 16.5% of agricultural exports. Total wine production in 2020 was around 1,033 million litres, 13.4% down compared to 2019. It is worth noting that a large percentage of Chile’s export market consists of low value high volume bulk international varieties. This sector of the market also experienced a decline of 4.6% in volume but a huge drop of 17.8% in value indicating that Chile is having to reduce costs of it bulk wines to compete with other lower value wines being produced by South Africa, and more recently Argentina, although Argentina has only recently reduced bulk costs due to a series of large vintages causing an oversupply. In 2016 China overtook the US as the biggest wine export market for Chilean wineries in terms of value. The US is closely followed by the UK and Japan.
2008: A long and dry season reduced yields but produced wines of great concentration.
2009: Dry and warm with reduced yields (higher than 2008) with inland valleys more variable than coastal regions.
2010: A cool spring and a delayed harvest for Carmenère and Cabernet with low yields. Coastal areas fared best.
2011: Cool and cloudy producing smaller yields but elegant styles.
2012: A warm summer with an early harvest of clean disease-free fruit with yields 15% above average.
2013: A cooler vintage producing wines of structure and balance with plenty of concentration.
2014: Spring frosts produced a smaller yield, although overall quality was good.
2015: A warmer season producing powerful reds but only average quality whites.
2016: Rains throughout vintage in Colchagua, Maipo and Casablanca cut yields & concentration in wines.
2017: A hot summer and an early harvest of ripe fruit but low yields. Reds fared well, and whites are fruit driven.
2018: Cooler than average temperatures with normal yields produced wines of great structure and elegance, with Carmenère and Cabernet leading the way.