Wine has been produced in Chile since the first Europeans settled there in the 16th Century but it wasn’t until the 1980s and the modernisation of Chilean wine production, with the introduction of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, that wines from this part of the South America started to come into their own. Leading the way were soft, fruity reds made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Many of these still represent excellent value for money.
Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s vineyards are situated along a strip of land 2,700 miles from north to south and 100 miles wide, which has a climate remarkably well suited to wine production. The wine production areas have traditionally been located in the centre of the country, in Maiop and Cachapoal, but, increasingly, wine producers are moving south into Malleco and north to Elqui and experimenting with different grape varieties.
If there is one grape which is attracting the attention of discerning wine drinkers it is the Carmenere, a grape thought lost forever, but thanks to science, the reported demise of the Carmenere proved to greatly exaggerated. Once a popular grape of Bordeaux, Carmenere was pronounced extinct following the 19th century phylloxera outbreak which decimated European vineyards. Due to the vine leaf of the Merlot and Carmenere looking identical, much of the Merlot produce in Chile was made from Carmenere, but mistakenly labeled as Merlot. It took DNA testing in 1994 to distinguish between the two and verify that the Carmenere was alive and well and flourishing in Chile.
Whilst the reputation of Chilean reds led the way in years gone by, the white wines of Chile (most notably Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) have gained an equally good reputation in recent years. Now, in the cooler climate of Malleco, Chile is producing quality, aromatic Rieslings and Gewurztraminers too.