Chilean wines: what to know?

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Chile’s wine industry was established in the mid-1500s with the introduction of the País wine grape by Spanish Catholic missionaries. The industry has flourished since then, with Chile becoming one of the leading wine producers in the world. The country’s unique landscape and climate are suited to a wide variety of wine grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the most popular. Chile’s wine regions include Elquí, Limari, Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio, Maipo, Rapel, Curico, Maule, Itata, Bío Bío, and Valle Malleco.

The País wine grape, also known as the Mission wine grape, is considered to be the original variety brought to Chile by Spanish Catholic missionaries in the mid-1500s. Although the wine grape, Vitis vinifera, is not native to the Americas, it is flourished in Chile since it was first introduced, making Chile one of the leading wine producers in the world. In the mid-1800s, wine production in Chile was widespread and well established. As other wine grape varieties were brought and planted in Chile, the country’s original grape, País, took on a more peripheral role and was considered hardy compared to the increasingly popular French varieties.

Interestingly, the wine grapes of Chile have remained uniquely unaffected by the pest, Phyxollera. This pest had spread through the vineyards of the Americas and Europe during the 18th century, rendering large numbers of vines useless. During this period, attention turned to the unaltered vineyards of Chile, and a number of French professionals traveled to Chile to find work in the vineyards there. The experience and expertise brought in by the French, combined with Chile’s rich natural capacity for winemaking, has led to the increase in the quality and quantity of Chilean wines. Popular demand for Chilean wines has grown both at home and abroad.

In the early 1900s, the political upheaval in Chile diminished the global availability of Chilean wines and the Chilean wine industry began to lose its position as a top player in the global game. However, in the later part of the 20th century, Chile rebuilt its former reputation as a producer of fine wines.

Chile’s landscape and climate are suited to a wide variety of wine grapes, but some varieties are more common than others. The most common red wine varieties are respectively Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Common white wine varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel of Alexandria, Riesling, Viognier and Gewürtztraminer. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular grape in the country and is grown in nearly every wine region.

A total of 116,793 hectares (288,601.79 acres, 1167.93 sq km) of Chilean land is devoted to wine production and about ¾ of this area to red wine. Scattered in the shadow of the Andes, 13 valleys are responsible for the production of Chilean wines. In the northernmost valley of Elquí, the vineyards also have the highest elevation of all Chilean wine regions. The wines produced here generally take on fresh and spicy flavours.

The Limari Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in Chile, first planted in 1549. In the following centuries, the Limari Valley has turned towards fruit production and the cultivation of Muscat grapes for the popular Chilean spirit Pisco. At the end of the 1900s the Limari valley had renewed its attention to the production of fine wines.

The Aconcagua Valley sits in the shadow of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. The 19,000-foot (6,956 m) peak irrigates the vineyards here, along with numerous fields of fruit, vegetables, and flowers for which the Aconcagua Valley is also famous. Sangiovese, one of Chile’s minor varieties, is produced here.

Casablanca Valley is comparable to Napa Valley in California, both in terms of climate and popularity among tourists. The San Antonio Valley is one of the smallest wine regions in Chile and is the closest to the Pacific Ocean. Due to the region’s proximity to the coast, Syrah produced in the San Antonio Valley takes on a distinct uniqueness from Syrah produced elsewhere in Chile. Sauvignon Gris, a minor variety in Chile, is produced in the San Antonio Valley.

The Maipo Valley sits between the Andes and a coastal mountain range, and is the home of Chile’s capital city, Santiago. Maipo Valley is home to many of Chile’s best known and most established wineries, although boutique wineries are common here as well.

Rapel Valley is divided into two wine regions. The northernmost of these, the Cachapoal Valley, is known for producing Chile’s archetypal grape, the Carménère. Colchagua Valley, also part of the Rapel Valley, is renowned for producing some of Chile’s best red wines, as well as its focus on organic wine production.

The Curico Valley is known to contain the largest vineyards in Chile. Just to the south, the Maule Valley is Chile’s largest wine region, responsible for 43% of Chilean wine production. The Maule Valley dedicates 8,471 hectares (20932.29 acres, 84.71 sq km) to Chile’s pioneer grape, País.

The Itata Valley is criss-crossed by rivers and is one of the youngest wine regions in Chile. Numerous minor Chilean varietals are grown here, including País, Cinsaut, Carignan and Semillon. Bío Bío Valley also dedicates a large part of its vineyards to less produced vines, such as Riesling and Gewürtraminer. Chile’s southernmost wine region, Valle Malleco, boasts just 17 hectares (42 acres, 0.17 sq km) of vineyards. These are dedicated to two varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

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