The Wine Regions of Chile

Chile is one of South America’s most important wine-producing countries. It is home to a wide range of terroirs, and an equally wide range of wine styles. 

The Chilean viticultural industry is often associated in export markets with consistent, good-value wines, but some world-class reds are also made, commanding high prices. For red wines the initial export mainstays have been Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Like many New World countries Chile has adopted a signature grape variety.  In this case it is Carmenère, which was once widely grown in Bordeaux, France.   The French variety was virtually wiped out following the European phylloxera outbreaks of the 19th Century.  However, it was rediscovered in Chile in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir from the cooler parts of Chile is beginning to make an impression and Syrah is increasing in popularity in many regions offering a wide variety of styles. Other varietals grown in Chile include Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

White wine varietals include Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.  Viognier, Riesling and Semillon are among those varieties grown on a smaller scale.

Chile has been producing wine since the first European settlers arrived in the mid-16th Century. However, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that viticulture began to expand in Chile, mainly due to the spread of wealth associated with mining. European trends started to infiltrate.

Throughout the 20th Century, Chilean wine was limited to a domestic market, but a push toward quality in the latter half of the century saw an uptake in the international market. Whereas Chilean winemakers had traditionally used tanks and barrels made of beech wood, in the 1980s stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels were introduced, marking the start of a technology-driven era.

Aconcagua Valley

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are grown in this region.  ‘Sena’, a wine produced as a joint venture between Vina Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi, came to the region in 2004.

Atacama

The Atacama wine region in Chile’s far north produces large quantities of table grapes and other fruit. However wine production is on a smaller scale. Red wine grapes cultivated here include Pinot Noir and Syrah. White wine is made mainly from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Corporate giant, Viña Ventisquero, is the major player here.

The region also produces Pisco, the Chilean eau-de-vie. This is a brandy-like spirit which has been distilled in Chile since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century.

Bío Bío Valley

This region has enjoyed a dramatic rise to fame since the year 2000. There is an international appetite for its crisp, aromatic wine styles. Bío Bío has provided an excellent place for Chilean winegrowers to work with varieties such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Viognier.

Cachapoal Valley

Cachapoal Valley is a central wine zone in Chile that forms the northern half of the Rapel Valley region. The most noteworthy wines from the region are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. However, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay are also grown there.

One of Chile’s up-and-coming wine districts, Peumo, is located in Cachapoal Valley. Peumo wines now include some of the country’s finest Carmenère wines.

Casablanca Valley

This wine-growing region of Chile is best known for its crisp white wines, most notably Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It has attracted considerable investment from wine companies based in other regions and from other countries.

The region is relatively new by Chilean standards as the Casablanca Valley’s first vineyards were planted in the 1980s during the revitalization of the Chilean wine industry.

It is the region’s cooler climate that makes Casablanca’s white wines stand out from their local rivals. With a longer ripening period, the white grapes have more time to develop greater flavor complexity, while maintaining sugars and acids in balance.

The difference between Casablanca’s climate and that of Chile’s more southerly regions led the prestigious Casa Lapostolle to choose the valley as the exclusive source of grapes for its Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay. The region is now growing a wide range of white grapes, notably aromatics such as Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and is at the heart of Chile’s efforts to prove that it is able to excel at more than just red wines.

Central Valley

The Central Valley (El Valle Central) of Chile is one of the most important wine-producing areas in South America in terms of volume. It is also one of the largest wine regions, stretching from the Maipo Valley, just south of the capital of Santiago, to the southern end of the Maule Valley.

The Central Valley is home to a variety of grapes, but is dominated by the internationally popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chile’s ‘icon’ grape, Carmenère, is also of importance here. The cooler corners of the Central Valley are being increasingly developed, as winemakers experiment with varieties such as Viognier, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

A wide variety of wine styles and quality can be found in this large area, including the fashionable, and relatively expensive Bordeaux-style wines.

Because the area covered is so large and the terrain so varied, the name ‘Central Valley’ on a label is unlikely to communicate anything specific about the style of wine in the bottle. Also, with a number of independently recognized sub-regions now in place, such as Colchagua and Cachapoal, most wines of any quality are able to specify their sub-region of origin rather than the generic Central Valley. As a result, the Central Valley title is mostly used for mass-produced wines made from a range of sources.

Choapa Valley

Choapa Valley is one of Chile’s newest wine regions, located north of Santiago in the narrowest part of the country. Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon have proved well suited to the terroir here, producing smoky, elegant wines with characters of dark fruit.

One of Chile’s largest commercial producers, De Martino, has helped put the region on the map by producing a Choapa Valley Syrah that has already garnered international attention.

Colchagua Valley

This region in central Chile is one of South America’s most promising wine regions. Some of Chile’s finest red wines are made in the valley, mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah grapes.

The dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Malbec and Merlot in the warmer east is mirrored by that of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the ocean-cooled west.

Curico Valley

Curico Valley is a wine-producing region in central Chile, located roughly 185 km south of the capital, Santiago. It is divided into two sub-regions: Teno in the north and Lontue in the south. The valley is known for its reliable, good-value everyday wines, particularly the reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Curico’s vineyards are planted with more varieties than anywhere else in Chile.  However, the dominant grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Curico may have yet to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon to rival Maipo’s red wines and its Sauvignon Blanc still does not match the fresh, complex style found in Casablanca, but the valley is one of Chile’s workhorse regions and its output is consistent and reliable.

Elqui Valley

The Elqui Valley wine region is located 400 km north of Santiago, at the very southern edge of the Atacama Desert. It is Chile’s northernmost wine region. Traditionally the region focused exclusively on producing Chile’s trademark brandy, Pisco, but today Elqui Valley vineyards are producing bright, intensely aromatic wines, most notably from Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah grapes.

Alongside Sauvignon and Syrah, the Elqui Valley is also home to plantings of Chardonnay, Carmenere and Pedro Ximenez. It is one of Chile’s up-and-coming regions, and its wines are attracting attention from international critics and consumers alike.

Itata Valley

Itata Valley is a wine region in the southern end of Chile’s long, thin wine producing zone. This historical, cool-climate region is dominated by plantings of Carignan, Muscat of Alexandria and Pais (aka Mission, aimed more at domestic consumption), although producers are beginning to plant more modern grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The first vines are said to have arrived in the Itata Valley the 1550s, potentially making the region one of the first to be planted with vines in Chile. By the 20th Century, the region was associated with the production of bulk wine, which is evidenced by the large amounts of Pais and Muscat of Alexandria vines still planted here. The region became unfashionable in the 1980s as Chilean producers started to put quality before quantity. It is now beginning to make a comeback with plantings of more internationally accepted varietals.

Leyda Valley

Leyda Valley is a small sub-region of the San Antonio Valley wine region in Chile, located just 90 km west Santiago. This cool-climate region produces bright, vibrant wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The region is also provides some excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

Limari Valley

Limarí Valley is one of the northernmost winegrowing regions in Chile, located 320 km north of  Santiago.

Chardonnay is the mainstay in Limari Valley wines, producing wines with a certain minerality thanks to the relatively cool climate and the limestone content in the soil. Syrah is also successful here, producing savory styles in the cooler, coastal vineyards and fuller, fruit-driven styles in warmer, inland sites. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – Chile’s most successful varieties, also feature alongside the Chilean signature grape, Carmenère.

Historically, the grapes grown in Limarí’s vineyards were either eaten as table grapes or were distilled into Chile’s trademark brandy, Pisco. Even today, as winemakers continue to seek out new spots within the valley, less than 20 percent of the region’s grape output is used for quality wine production.

Maipo Valley

Maipo Valley is one of Chile’s most important wine-producing regions. Located just south of Santiago, Maipo Valley is home to some of the country’s most prestigious wines. It is often described as the ‘Bordeaux of South America’, and rich, fruit-driven Cabernet Sauvignon is the most celebrated wine style.

The region can be roughly separated into three broad areas: Alto Maipo, Central Maipo and Maipo Bajo.

Alto Maipo

The vineyards of Alto Maipo run along the eastern edge of the Andes Mountains which encompasses the sub-regions of Puente Alto and Pirque,  and is the most prestigious of Maipo’s viticultural areas. It is here that the vineyards of Don Melchor, Almaviva and Vinedo Chadwick can be found.

Central Maipo

Central Maipo is the lower-lying ground just to the west of Alto Maipo, surrounding the towns of Buin and Paine. Cabernet Sauvignon is still the most-grown grape variety, but there are also substantial plantings of Carmenère vines, as the warmer climate is well suited to this iconic Chilean grape variety.

Maipo Bajo

Maipo Bajo centres on the towns of Isla de Maipo and Talagante. The wine industry here is more concerned with winemaking than viticulture, and while there are a few vineyards, there are many wineries. Undurraga and De Martino are just two of the names that can be found in this part of Chile, making wines with grapes from all over the country.

Along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, a wide range of grape varieties are planted in the Maipo Valley including Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Malleco Valley

Malleco Valley is a southern wine-growing region in Chile, some 540 km south of Santiago. Crisp, fresh wines are produced here including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

The wine industry in Malleco Valley is still in its infancy with less than 100 acres being grown here.

Maule Valley

Maule Valley is the largest wine-producing region in Chile other than the Central Valley, of which it is a part. It has 75,000 acres of vineyards, and has traditionally been associated with quantity rather than quality. But this is rapidly changing – the bulk-producing Pais vine is gradually being replaced with more international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, and careful winemaking practices are being employed to make some world-class red wines from old-vine Carignan.

It has only been in the past 20 years that Maule has made a move toward quality, pioneered by the Kendall-Jackson empire of California, which set up a winery here in the mid-1990s.

Rapel Valley

Rapel Valley is a large wine-producing region in Chile’s Central Valley. The area produces roughly a quarter of all Chilean wine. The warm, dry region makes a wide range of wine styles, ranging from everyday wines to some of Chile’s most expensive and prestigious offerings.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenère are the most important grape varieties planted here. In general terms, Rapel Valley wines are produced primarily from red varieties, but there are some Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Malbec production is also on the rise.

San Antonio Valley

This is a small wine region in Chile, located to the west of Santiago. A new addition to the Chilean national vineyard, the region stands out as being able to produce quality Pinot Noir along with internationally respected white wines including Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

The San Antonio Valley also produces quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay balanced in sugar and acids, as well as aromatic white varieties.

San Antonio valley is small when compared to the sprawling regions at the center of Chilean wine growing.  It is home to a limited number of producers.

Final Thoughts

Not taking anything away from the other varietals, but my personal preference is for the Malbec wines, which are found in Colchagua Valley and to a lesser extent in Rapel Valley.  I find them flavourful, but not overpowering.  Malbec , like many of the Chilean reds, is warm and comforting, particularly during the winter months when it is cold and blustery outside. 

Sláinte mhaith

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