Wine grapes are not native to the Americas; they arrived with the Spanish in the 1500s. Early attempts to form vineyards in more northerly climes, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru proved unsuccessful; in Chile, however, the vine found its first true New World home.
History of wine growing in Chile
The Catholic missionaries who followed the Spanish Conquistadors lamented the lack of wine that was essential for celebrating religious rites, and they set about to resolve the problem.
Fray Francisco de Carabantes is widely credited with bringing the first vines – probably País (pronounced “” pah-EES”” and known as “”Mission”” in California) into Chile through the port of Concepción round 1548. Such was the success that vineyards were quickly planted throughout the country – from the Limarí Valley in the north to Bío-Bío Valley in the south – precisely the areas that still delimit the vast majority of Chile’s wine production today.
Of course the desire for wine in Chile was not limited to the Church-there were plenty of secular uses for the traditional European beverage of choice. The thirsty residents of the burgeoning capital city of Santiago also clamored for wine, and the surrounding Maipo Valley proved to be a ready and abundant source of red wine.
Improvements in maritime transportation made cross-Atlantic travel much more viable by the early 19th century.
Chile, freshly emancipated from Spain, yearned for knowledge of its European roots, and members of the country’s wealthiest families embarked upon an intercontinental pilgrimage that would change Chilean life and culture in many ways.
France was a favorite destination, and soon French customs, from food to clothing to architecture, flourished among Chiles upper classes. It did not take long for the first French-style wineries to make an appearance as well.
Pioneers and Pests
By the mid-1800s, interest in European-style wine production was taking hold. Well-heeled families – many with fortunes earned in the mining industry – built extraordinary mansions beyond the city limits and surrounded them with vineyards.
Pioneering naturalist and scientist Claudio Gay brought some 30 Vitis vinifera varieties from France for experimental purposes in the nascent University of Chile’s Quinta Normal agricultural center.
Silvestre Ochagavia is generally credited with being the first to introduce French varieties for commercial purposes 20 years later in the Maipo Valley.
Others quickly followed suit, and many of Chile’s now traditional wineries were formed, including Carmen, Concha y Toro, Cousiño Macul, Errázuriz, San Pedro, Santa Rita, Undurraga, and Urmeneta.
New varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillón, and Riesling produced noble wines that quickly gained popularity and replaced the then-traditional País grape, which was relegated to the country’s winemaking extremes, where it is still used today for rustic wines destined for local consumption.
Chile had entered into a new phase of its winemaking history, again one of the first in the New World to make serious noble wines. This small South American country was also fortunate; the European wine industry was about to undergo a crisis that would never touch Chile.
Trans-Atlantic exchange brought with it tremendous benefits to both continents, but it also had its downside.
European garden enthusiasts had unwittingly imported a devastating vineyard pest – Phylloxera – hidden in the roots of America’s native grape vines that were beautiful, despite being useless for wine production. Europe’s Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless against the tiny and voracious louse, which advanced unchecked, quickly decimating thousands of hectares of ancient Old World vineyards along the way.
The pest was re-introduced to the Americas with the import of Vitis vinifera vines, yet for reasons that have never fully been understood, Chile remains Phylloxera-free to this day.
It took years to understand and find a solution to Europe’s Phylloxera problem, generating a large base of winemakers willing to travel to the New World in search of work.
Chile happily received many French experts to help develop its own growing industry. Thus, with French vines and expertise, matched to Chile’s excellent natural conditions, the country’s renewed wine industry made a tremendous leap in quality and was quickly in demand not only at home, but abroad as well.
The early 20th century is a story of seclusion and distance from the world for Chile. Despite its turn-of-the-century success in wine, two world wars and decades of state protectionism forced the country down a solitary path that technologically isolated it from the world for nearly 50 years.
The mid-20th century Agrarian Land Reform took its toll on Chile’s wine industry, and the country’s relative isolation from the increasingly globalized, trade-oriented world essentially kept Chile out of the wine trade for decades more. The country reversed its closed-door policies in 1980s, effectively giving rise to the next wave in the history of Chilean winemaking.
In the Bodega: The part of Chilean wine history that most affects today’s consumer has taken place since the 1970’s, when complicated restrictive domestic policies were repealed and political interventionism was relaxed or eliminated.
Beginning in 1980, legal liberalization and the country’s economic opening kicked off a revolution in the wine industry.
Once again, foreign influence played a key part in Chile’s wine industry. Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres chose Curicó establish his New World winery and introduced modern techniques and technology, such as stainless steel tanks and initiated a new direction in the industry.
The initial phase, which took place during the 1980s and early 1990s, was dedicated to updating equipment and incorporating new technology in Chilean wineries. Ancient wooden vats made of native rauli wood were replaced with shining temperature-controlled stainless tanks, new French and American oak barriques began to fill the barrel rooms, and modern facilities were designed to incorporate gravity-flow design.
In the vineyard: A second wave of industry-wide renovation looked to the vineyards. Winemakers who once considered their work to begin when the grapes arrived at the winery were encouraged to step out into the fields and work closely with the winegrowers to improve the quality of the fruit that would ultimately lead to much better wines.
Varietal selection had stagnated to concentrate on primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. New varieties were added and new vineyard management techniques such as drip irrigation and vertical trellising were incorporated to increase quality and reduce crop loads.
Chile’s signature grape Carménère appeared during this process of vineyard renovation.
The world was aware that Chile’s Merlot was unique, and local growers were certain that not all of the vines were the same, but it wasn’t until 1994 that French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot finally attached a name to the variant variety: Carménère.
This is a red variety from France that arrived in Chile prior to the phylloxera crisis. Because the late-ripening variety is difficult to manage in cool climates and highly susceptible to phylloxera, it was never replanted in its native Bordeaux and had long been forgotten until its rediscovery in Chile.
Since that time, extensive work has been done to separate the two varieties and treat each according to its own specific requirements, resulting in major style changes in both.
In search of “”Terroir””: The third and current phase of modern Chilean winemaking involves a search for “”terroir”” to better understand and more appropriately match the vine to its environment. Pioneering growers are now planting vineyards at higher altitudes and pushing the extremes of the long-recognized wine regions: north to the Elqui Valley, south to Bío-Bío, and even Osorno, east to the Andean piedmont, and west to the Pacific coast.