Wines of Chile

High up in the Andes Mountains of South America is the world's best place for quality bargain wine: Chile. Vines were brought over in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. The early Chilean wine industry was quite successful, much to the dismay of their Spanish rulers in Madrid, who wanted them to be dependent on Spain for wine. When Chile started exporting wine to neighboring areas, the Spanish authorities ordered the destruction of many of the vineyards. Thankfully, this order was largely ignored by the locals.

Chilean winemakers were already studying under the French masters prior to the phylloxera epidemic that swept Europe. They got an additional boost when the epidemic hit when numerous French winemakers relocated to Chile. Chile remains one of the few places in the world that still grows European varietals on original rootstock. The extreme isolation of Chile's wine-growing regions, bordered by mountains, desert, and the Pacific ocean, has prevented phylloxera from arriving, allowing them to grow the European varietals on the original rootstock. If you want to taste wines from the original European vines, you can find them in Chile!

Continued growth and development was hampered by political instability. The wine industry really took off after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, and by the beginning of the 21st century, Chile was the fourth largest exporter of wine to the United States (after France, Italy, and Australia)


Chile is a very long and very narrow country hemmed in by significant geographic barriers: the Andes Mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atacama Desert to the north, and Antarctica to the south. There isn't much space for wine growing in many parts of the country due to the terrain.

Most fine wine growing is concentrated near the Central Valley region near the capital of Santiago, directly across the mountains from Mendoza in Argentina. Casablanca (to the north of Santiago) has a cool and mild climate and a longer growing season. The Central Valley itself is surrounded by mountains (which affect the weather and microclimates quite positively) and contains the famous subregions of Rapel Valley and Colchauga. Weather in Chile is quite consistent, so there is minimal variation between vintages, except in cooler Casablanca.

Winemaking and Wine Laws

The modern Chilean wine industry is marked with heavy foreign investment, especially from Bordeaux, France. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild of Bordeaux has extensive operations under various names (including Los Vascos). Domaine Paul Bruno is run by the former winemaker of Chateau Margaux. As for other countries, several Californian concerns have operations in Chile as well, including Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson. Even the Spanish Torres company (from Catalonia) has a branch there.

Chile grows most of the French varietals and a smattering of others. For most of its history, the main grape was Pais (the Spanish Mission grape), known for its mediocrity, but it has since been surpassed by Cabernet, which is known in Chile for its excellence. Recently, scientists have discovered that much of what was thought to be Merlot in Chile is actually Carmenere, the legendary lost noble grape of Bordeaux that was essentially wiped out during the phylloxera epidemic. This certainly explained why Chilean "merlot" tasted rather different from other merlots! Since the rediscovery of Carmenere, Chilean winemakers have been selling it under its own name and aggressively promoting the varietal as a uniquely Chilean wine (as it is found almost nowhere else in the world).

Chilean wines are stylistically a blend of Old and New World sensibilities. Their Cabernets are reminiscent of French Bordeaux but have softer tannins and more smoke essences in the flavor. And of course, Carmenere is uniquely Chilean and as a single-grape varietal wine tastes like a cross between Merlot and Cabernet.

Despite the massive amount of European influence in winemaking, Chile's wine laws (originally passed in 1995) are patterned after the looser American appelation system. To name a varietal, vintage, or region, 75% of the grapes must be as listed. For example, a 2005 Cabernet from Rapel Valley must contain at least 75% 2005 grapes, 75% cabernet grapes, and 75% Rapel Valley grapes, with the balance being whatever. Theoretically this means that as little as 25% is actually all three (2005, Cabernet, and Colchauga), but in practice most of the wine is what it claims to be. Like the United States, the term "Reserve" is not legally regulated either.

You may see that some labels simply indicate an area, such as "Central Valley" or "Casablanca" while others indicate a denominacion de origen, such as "DO Valle Central). I do not know if there is an actual legal distinction between them (but doubt that there is) as they both indicate legally-defined geographic regions; it may be up to the producer which form to use (there are no standardized government seals as of 2011, unlike some European countries).

What's Good?

Everything! But some are better than others. Chilean Cabernet is excellent all-around, with both Old World sophistication and depth and New World approachability. Carmenere, of course, is unique to Chile in the commercial wine market and will delight any lover of the Bordeaux grapes. Stylistically, carmenere can be almost anything, as it has only been recently identified and winemakers are still learning how to make it as a standalone varietal. On the white side, the sauvignon blanc is highly regarded.

The best thing about all this is that Chilean wines still remain inexpensive. Most wines are in the $10 bargain range but taste like $20 or $30 wines. If you want fine wine on a budget, you'll have a lot of Chile in your cellar.

Wine Comments

White Casa Lapostolle, Sauvignon Blanc 2001 (Rapel Valley)
27 February 2002 Very fruity, apple and pineapple flavors, fairly strong acid, short finish, and a touch light.
$9 / bottle
White Terrenal, Chardonnay 2010 (Curico)
1 April 2011 Crisp and bright with strong citrus. Surprisingly heady (13.5%)
$4 / bottle
White Terroso, Chardonnay 2008 (Lontue Valley)
14 August 2009 Indistinct fruit with a round and plump mouthfeel. Unremarkable.
$10 / bottle
White Terroso, Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (DO Valle del Maule)
7 August 2009 Bright and fruity with a slight buttery mouthfeel and hints of grass.
$10 / bottle
White Alfasi, Chardonnay 2007 (Valle del Maule)
18 December 2009 Crisp and smooth, with strong apple-pear flavors. Slightly heady.
$9 / bottle
White Alfasi, Chardonnay 2006 (Valle del Maule)
28 November 2008 Very crisp citrus in a lower-oak style. Headier than expected.
$9 / bottle
Rose (oops) White Carmenere 2005 (Central Valley)
27 June 2008 Very light slightly tropical fruit with light berry flavors and extremely heavy bell pepper notes. Sharp finish.
$10 / bottle
Red (oops) Cabernet Franc Carmenere 2006 (Central Valley)
7 August 2007 Dry but fruity, with strong grassy and herbacious notes. Mild but plentiful tannin.
$10 / bottle
Red Santa Rita, "120" Carmenere 2011 (DO Valle Central)
11 September 2011 Smooth fruit with strong notes of tobacco and smoke on the finish. Like drinking a cigar, but with well-balanced tannins.
$9 / bottle
Red Santa Carolina, "Reserva" Carmenere 2006 (Rapel Valley)
26 January 2008 Fruit-forward with massive wood, bell peppers, giving it an initial unrestrained impression. Tobacco and vanilla on the finish. It gets better as you wait, though.
$10 / bottle
Red Cono Sur, Pinot Noir 2007 (Central Valley)
20 December 2007 Rich cherry fruit with notes of mushrooms and barnyard smells. Lots of "terroir" for the price.
$10 / bottle
Red Peteroa, Reserve Pinot Noir 2004 (Central Valley)
3 March 2009 Dark cherry fruit and well-balanced tannins combined with an overabundance of wood and potpourri and plums on the finish.
$14 / bottle
Red Vina La Rosa "La Capitana" Barrel Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Cachapoal Valley)
2 June 2008 Dark and smoky earthy flavors over heavy wood and slightly spicy mouthfeel. Heady and unsubtle.
$14 / bottle
Red Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Colchagua)
6 December 2007 Plump plummy fruit with ripe cherries and bell peppers. Very soft and smooth tannins, with a hint of smoked cheese. Delightful and unusually sophisticated for its price point.
$9 / bottle
Red Concha y Toro, "Casillero del Diablo" Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Central Valley)
12 May 2004 Very biting, sharp grass and crunchy pepper, with moderate flavors of roses and other flowers in the finish. Almost no fruit. Bone dry. An ambitious attempt.
$9 / bottle
Red Casa Viva Pinot Noir 2002 (Casablanca Valley)
7 March 2007 Dark currant flavors with moderate tannin and bloody mouthfeel.
$7 / bottle
Red Casas del Bosque, Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Cachapoal Valley)
28 June 2007 French-style, smooth and very full-bodied, tobacco and berry flavors, huge nose, heavy oak. Good buy.
$9 / bottle
Red Casas del Bosque, Reserve Pinor Noir 2003 (Casablanca Valley)
30 September 2006 Bright cherry flavors over light wood. Young and fruity.
$12 / bottle
Red Los Vascos, Cabernet Reserve 2001 (Colchagua)
4 October 2004 Earthy tannins, smooth but moderately astringent and very muted fruit.
$16 / bottle
Red Hacinda Araucano, Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Colchagua Valley)
13 July 2005 Bold with smooth tannin, bloodlike and astringent.
$12 / bottle
Red Carmen, Carmenere 2003 (Rapel Valley)
30 August 2007 Grassy and stemmy tannins over plump fruit.
$5 / bottle