We may have just emerged from winter here in North America, but summer's winding to a close down in Chile—and with fall, comes the grape harvest in wine country. Thanks to US importer Winebow, I was able to visit four Chilean wineries this month to get a sense of the region and where Chilean wine is headed.
It wasn't that long ago that we didn't see a ton of Chilean wine on the US market. But the wine industry in Chile is far from new—Spanish explorers brought grapevines to the country as early as 1523, and wine has been made there for centuries.
In fact, many of the vines you find in Chile are twice as old as those you'd see in France, since they didn't suffer from the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed most of Europe's vineyards in the late 19th century. (The sandy soils and looming mountains of Chile are unfriendly to phylloxera, so most Chilean vines grow on their own roots, not grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.) The European epidemic brought many European winemakers to Chile, too, who brought techniques and winemaking traditions with them.
Though wine in Chile goes back for generations, what I found most exciting during my visit was what's new in Chilean wine—most importantly, the new vineyards planted in cooler-climate areas.
From our vantage point in North America, it's easy to think of Chile as a long, skinny country hugging the Pacific Ocean. It's all coast, right? Not exactly. When you're tasting the wines of Chile, how far east or west you are—how close or far from the influence of the sea—may make a bigger difference than the latitude, and more and more wineries are starting to plant vines within spitting distance of the ocean. The cool nights as you get closer to the sea preserve acidity in the grapes, yielding wines that are remarkably fresh tasting, marked more with minerality and herbal character than the ripeness you see in warmer areas.
Chilean Wine and Food
For me, the most important part of visiting a wine region is seeing the wine in context with food—tasting how the wines fit into a meal. Chilean Carmenérè can have a range of flavors, depending where it's it grown and how it's handled, but at it's best it has a delicious herbal side, spicy and deep with a bit of cinnamon—it's perfect for barbecue and really awesome with lamb in any form, picking up the gamey flavors and wrapping them in leathery spice. Seek out the Carmenérè Gran Reserva from Terranoble, and the Grey Carmenérè from Viña Ventisquero.
Smooth Cabernet, peppery Syrah, and red blends from Chile should also not be ignored—these wines offer great flavor and value. We particularly liked the eucalpytus-spiced Syrah from Leyda near the coast, and Cousiño Macul's Finis Terrae Cab/Merlot blend is concentrated and luxurious for around $25. (Though for around $12, it's hard to beat Root: 1 Cabernet.)
As cool-climate plantings increase, Chilean white wine may be the category to watch. There's a ton of Sauvignon Blanc, but also look for herbal Sauvignon Gris and Chardonnay that isn't covered over with heavy oak. These wines are perfect with Chile's exceptional seafood, from sweet razor clams to luscious salmon—or the freshest seafood you can find at home.
Even if you can't book a plane ticket, you can still see the vineyards and cellars of Chile. Check out my snapshots in the slideshow, and let us know—have you been drinking Chilean wine? Any favorites to recommend?