In the wine world, “Chilean” used to be code for “good everyday wines for a steal.” They weren’t wines that, after a first sip made people go, “Dios mio, nothing will ever be the same from this moment forward!” But they were wines that halfway through a bottle made people go, “I would have gladly paid much more than $7 for this wine. Let’s go back to the store and stock up.”
Things have changed since then — since 20 or 30 years ago — and a lot of the changes have been for the better. The $7 bottles are pretty much all gone, but Chilean wine is still available at budget-bin prices and at prices that inch up a little bit beyond those. What “Chilean” says in today’s wine world is, “in addition to those decent, inexpensive everyday wines that you can quaff at backyard barbecues or with your delivery pizza, there are some serious wines too.”
Without looking at a map you might not instantly recall just how long and skinny Chile is, a sliver of a country knifed in between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the prodigious Andes mountain range to the east. The country is almost 2,700 miles long, from the Atacama Desert in the north to the icy Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, and little more than a comparatively wispy 200 miles wide at its thickest spot. Chile’s latitude is from 17 to 56 degrees south, with the majority of the country’s wine regions falling between the 32nd and 38th parallels. Therein lies a pocket where good things have been happening with wine for a long time.
The good thing in recent decades has been the proliferation of decent wine that is somewhat easily available in the United States, and at price points that have ranged from dirt cheap to more-than-fair. The good thing these days is better wine — a different class of wine — coming from one of the world’s most prolific wine-producing countries. In recent years Chile has been ranked between fifth and seventh in worldwide production, mainly due to the gallons of inexpensive wine it ships beyond its borders. Of course that is still happening; most of Chile’s wine gets exported. But winemakers there are also crafting exquisite wines worthy of collectors’ attention. And we’re getting those bottles too.
The country’s history with humble winemaking reaches back more than four centuries. Grapes have been growing in the vineyards of Chile’s Central Valley since the mid-16th century, and the general consensus is that the vines were brought to Chile by Spaniards. All (or practically all) of the country’s wine stayed in the country until the 1980s when exports started making their way to the United States in larger numbers. Exports grew in the 1990s and into the new century.
Today the country continues to crank out those good, inexpensive bottles while also focusing in part on finer wines that can cost 10 times as much as the entry-level bottles. The latter movement began in the 1990s, when outside talent and capital began trickling in. The Chilean wineries that were the beneficiaries of this influx of money, equipment, technology and talent — from France, Spain and California — have ushered Chile into the larger world of fine wine production. The country that had been producing nothing more than serviceable domestic wine for 400 years was now finally, solidly and wholly a part of the modern winemaking world, and this is where it remains today.
Soon after those budget bottles started arriving here and Chile had its own section among the wine aisles of retail stores, the country became well known as a producer of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay that were good and wouldn’t eat up an entire $10 bill. Most of these wines came from Chile’s dry and sunny Central Valley, which is home to the Maipo Valley, southwest of Santiago. The Central Valley is also home to the Rapel Valley, which is even farther south, and includes Cachapoal and Colchagua, two of the country’s most famous high-quality red wine regions. Another important region is the northerly Aconcagua, which contains the cool-climate, coastal white-wine havens of Casablanca and San Antonio (and the even smaller Leyda), among others. Two more notable regions to the south are the Maule Valley and Bio Bio.
Besides those pioneering bargain exports of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, today Chile turns out even better versions of those varietals, along with good versions of sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir and the grape variety that has become the country’s signature, carmenere. This red grape, originally from the Bordeaux region of France, has, in a way, become to Chile what malbec is to Argentina. Arguably, cabernet sauvignon remains Chile’s most successful grape variety and wine style. But the Chilean wine industry has adopted carmenere as its own, just as Argentina did with its own French import, malbec, on the other side of the Andes.
If you are interested in exploring another part of the wine world — with wines that possess everything from New World freshness and drinkability to layers of fine wine complexity — Chile is for you. No, those decent bottles don’t cost $7 anymore, but hardly anything does. Even a pack of gum costs close to $2 these days. Check back here in the coming weeks for more coverage of Chile, with recommendations of specific bottles.
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