One of Chile’s biggest claims to fame is its booming wine industry. The country’s location, sandwiched between the cool waters of the Pacific and at the foothills of the Andes, provides just the right amount of precipitation to grow grapes. And with ample warm sunshine by day, cool evenings, and rocky soils, Chile is a vintner’s paradise.
You’ll hear of several different valleys - Curacavi, Casablanca, Mapocho, Maipo, Aconcagua, and Colchagua - each one comprising a small slice of the greater wine-producing region. In these valleys, you’ll find row after delicious row of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and - the country’s crown jewel - Carmenere.
Carmenere: Chile’s Crown Jewel
Once believed to be extinct, thanks to a devastating Phylloxera infestation in France, the Carmenere grape was found to be thriving in Chile, mistakenly identified for years as being Merlot.
Carmenere has many green and herbal notes, with hints of hops, tomato leaves, bell peppers, and peppercorn, balanced with juicy flavors of black cherry, currant - and occasionally hit with a bit of smokiness.
While some of these notes may not be to everyone’s liking, beer drinkers may well fall in love with Carmenere. Many of these same flavors can be found in a robust, hoppy IPA, making it a nice pairing with burgers, poultry, and herbs and vegetables.
Sauvignon Blanc: Bright, Acidic, and Citrusy
The Casablanca and Leyda regions of Chile provide the right mix of cool ocean breezes to produce brightly acidic grapes as they slowly ripen in the warm Chilean sun. Chilean Sauvignon Blancs pair well with anything fresh, bright, and lemony - try them with trout or Chile’s famous corvina (similar to sea bass).
Chardonnay: Creamy, Oaky, and Rich
Chardonnay has a mixed reputation among oenophiles. While many chards these days are aged in steel barrels instead of oak, many fans of this classic wine enjoy it precisely because of its oaky flavor and creamy mouthfeel.
The Casablanca region of Chile is particularly notable for their excellent Chardonnays, thanks to its cool climate, allowing the grapes to concentrate their flavors and not overripen in the process.
If you’re not a fan of Chardonnay and you’re accustomed to North American production, try a good bottle of Chilean Chard to see if perhaps your mind may be opened to a new appreciation for the varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon: The King of Reds
Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the warm, sunny regions surrounding the capital of Santiago. These hefty wines offer the strong flavor and dryness typical of Cabernet Sauvignon. In these wines, in particular, you may get hints of blackberry, pepper, tobacco, and even leather. Pair these with the excellent steaks from Chile’s next door neighbor, Argentina.
Deciphering the Labels
There’s quite a bit of information on just one label. For starters, Chilean law requires bottles to contain 75% of the stated grape, vintage, and the region of origin (denominación de origen) on the label. While a quarter of the bottle doesn’t need to be disclosed, most will contain a minimum of 85% of the stated contents, to remain legal for distribution in Europe.
And what’s up with phrases like “Reserva,” “Reserva Especial,” “Gran Reserva,” and “Reserva Privada”?
Surprisingly, they have nothing to do with quality.
Instead, they refer to subtle differences in alcohol content. Reserva and Reserva Especial must contain at least 12% alcohol, but Reserva Privada and Gran Reserva contain at least 12.5%.
Also, Reserva Especial and Gran Reserva must have been fermented in oak barrels.
Experience it For Yourself
The best way to get familiarized with Chilean wines, of course, is to visit the wineries themselves! Wine tours make a fantastic addition to any trip to Chile (how about combining it with a trekking experience in Patagonia or exploring Easter Island?).
Many wineries offer tours very similar in nature to the ones in California or France; however, for an unforgettable afternoon, plan to visit a couple of wineries in a day and make the experience count!
We recommend taking a brief walk around the vineyard with a sommelier, who can introduce you to the winery’s history, specialty, and give you little-known details about the wines. You’ll then take a look around, getting an in-depth look at the wine-making process, from start to finish. Top this off with a private tasting of several different labels produced by the winery, often paired with bites of food to enhance the wine’s flavors. Allow enough time in the early-afternoon for a perfectly-prepared private lunch from the vineyard’s in-house chef, complete with a full wine pairing.
Yes you will be a little tipsy by the end of the day and yes, it will be one of the best foodie days of your entire life.