This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Alamos Wine. At Alamos Wine, we craft flavorful, approachable, and authentically Argentine wines. Our flagship wine, the rich Argentinian Malbec, thrives in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, where our unique growing conditions give our Malbec incredibly concentrated notes of plum and blackberry. Here, in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, all our grapes reap the benefit of incredibly clean air, intense sunlight, frosty cold nights, and mineral-rich Andes snowmelt to provide water for the vine. Indulge in the adventurous spirit of Argentina: Alamos Wines.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the rich history of Chilean wine — particularly how the unique climate of Chile and the tenacity of its people contributed to the booming wine industry that was born there in the 16th century. Though there was a lull in Chilean wine production for much of the 20th century, it’s back with a vengeance — flooding the U.S. market with full-bodied, fruity wines that reflect the distinctive terroir of the region.
Follow along with Beavers as he tells the story of how Chile came to rival its European counterparts at their own game — winemaking — working in tandem with Argentina to transform South America into a hotbed of flourishing vineyards.
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My name is Keith Beavers. I don’t really want to start a fight here per se, but Skippy or Jif? I mean, I won’t even talk about Peter Pan, right? We don’t talk about that.
What’s going on, wine lovers, welcome to Episode 6 of VinePair’s Wine 101 podcast. Did I mention it’s Season 2? My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And I’m here to say hello. Hi. Hello.
Fly with me from Mendoza over the Andes into Santiago. We are now in Chile. Wow, do we have stuff to talk about! This is another interesting story about wine, because wine is so interesting. YES!
So how interesting is that Argentine story — the story of wine in Argentina? Actually, what’s even more interesting is the whole story of South America in general, and how wine got to South America.
We’re about to talk about Chile, which is a very significant wine-producing region, not only in South America, but in the New World (meaning everything but Europe). Because of that expansion, that exploration, that 16th-century craziness, it established wine in South America, and now wine is being made in Uruguay and Brazil. But Chile: This is a very interesting place in the world in wine and in general. The history of Chilean wine is just as deep and as fascinating as it is over the Andes in Argentina.
I want to talk a little bit about the history of Chilean wines. It’s really cool. But right now, what we’re seeing with Chile on our market is an explosion of wines from regions that we previously weren’t seeing wines coming from. That’s in addition to the places that we have been seeing wine come from for a long time. What’s interesting about this is that the wine that has been coming to America for a long time is great. A lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Carménère, and I want to talk about that. But there is this push, this new revival of some of the older varieties that were used back in the day (we’re talking back to the 16th century) that are being used now and are being made into a really good wine. So Chile is this very exciting place. It’s happening in real time. A lot of these new regions that are popping up only popped up like 10, 20 years ago. Let me get a little quick history out of the way. Let’s just talk about these regions, because we’re going to see wine on the American market from almost every region in Chile. It’s nuts, and it’s a lot to explore.
So obviously, during the 16th century, all that exploratory stuff we were talking about in the Argentina episode filtered down into Chile as well. Just like Mexico City, in Central America, and Peru, and Argentina, and South America, Chile was working with basically two varieties. There were a lot of other varieties, I’m sure. But these are the two that were really popular. You had the Moscatel de Alejandría, the white wine grape, and the red wine grape that Mexico City ended up calling Mission, that Argentina ended up calling Criolla Chica, and in Chile, they called País. As in Argentina and in Peru in the 17th century, things were popping off in wine in this area, and then as we talked about in the last episode, that edict came from the Spanish crown saying, “No more wine, because we’re mad over here in Spain. You’re not buying our wine.” The thing is, that edict was ignored by a lot of people. But in Chile, not only did they ignore it, but they doubled down. The authorities at the time were like, “Look, don’t just ignore this. I want you to plant as many vines, and create as many farms and as many haciendas as you can. We are going to take over this industry.”
It worked. By the 18th century, because of all of this planting, all of this winemaking, and all this competition, Chile was known as a country with a high quantity of wine that was very cheap because of that competition. But again, they were mainly working with two grapes, País and Moscatel de Alejandría. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a French botanist by the name of Claudio Gay came to Chile, fell in love with it, and worked with the government to help open up an experimental nursery called Quinta Normal, which would isolate exotic plants from other parts of the world so they could study them, and see if they would work in Chilean soil. Among those exotic plants were European vines.
So now we have these two moments in time. You have the “we’re ignoring the royal crown, we’re encouraging farming in haciendas and planting vines.” That was a way to position the future wine industry. Then you have Claudio Gay, a Frenchman, (and more Frenchmen would come later) coming in and saying, “Hey, let’s establish this experimental nursery and start figuring out what we can plant in Chile.”
The country then goes through a revolution, separating itself from the Spanish crown. After it gained its independence, well-to-do Chileans with the means to travel (these are usually men that were in industrial industries like mining) had money to travel the world. They start traveling the world, especially Europe. They start experiencing the fine wines of Europe. They start bringing these ideas back with them to Chile. This is the third moment to really solidify what we know in Chile today. In 1851, one of those industrialists, Silvestre Ochagavia Echazarreta, decided when he got back to Chile he wanted to get into the wine industry. So he imports Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Riesling into Chile, along with a winemaker from France.
So between this moment and the nursery, Quinta Normal (which is actually where Michel Pouget would eventually work and meet the future president of Argentina in order to start the Malbec thing going on in Argentina), this activity and these cuttings would establish the Chilean wine industry going forward. All of that is really cool, but here’s the capper. Around this time — and we will have an entire episode dedicated to it — there was a louse called phylloxera. It ravaged and destroyed so many vineyards across the wine world. But the thing is, all this activity in Chile that I’m just talking about, all this happened before the phylloxera outbreak. Chile was able to bank and isolate their vines so that when the entire world was dealing with this bug, and trying to save their careers and their family businesses, Chile had no problem. Phylloxera never came to Chile. So as everybody got crazy, Chile flourished domestically with wine.
Because of the phylloxera outbreak, a lot of winemakers from France left France like, “I cannot do this. Everything’s dying. I’m leaving.” A lot of them came to Chile. Around this time, as the Chilean wine industry is thriving, a lot of these wealthy former industrialists (they called them gentleman farmers), it was thought that if you had a piece of land, and you had some vines in the hacienda and you actually had a winemaker in house, preferably a refugee from the phylloxera thing happening in France, you were considered a success. This happened a lot around the outskirts of Santiago, the capital of Chile, and it created this competition among wealthy industrialists or former miners or whatever, and that consolidated the domestic industry into a group of families that basically ran the whole thing.
Unfortunately, because of that, this sort of capitalism started. They started taxing to the point where wine was too expensive for people to buy. By the 1970s and 1980s, there was also some political unrest and economic unrest at the time. Domestic wine demand fell off dramatically. In the early ‘80s, Chile had to pull up a ton of vines, called a vine pull scheme. They had to pull up a lot of stuff because these vines weren’t making money. In 1980, democracy came back to Chile, and from 1987 to about 1993, 250,000 acres of vine were planted back in Chile. This begins to encourage foreign investment, and with foreign investment and local Chilean skill, we now have the Chile that we know today.
It’s exciting because for a long time there are few regions in Chile that we would see on the American market pretty consistently. But over the past 20 years or so, there has been such a development in Chile that we’re starting to see wines just now on the American market from new wine regions that are kind of cutting their teeth as we speak in Chile. They’re very exciting. There are like 30 wine regions in Chile. I’m not going to go through all of them, of course. I’m going to go through the ones that I think — I’m going to generalize a little bit — you’re going to see on the American market. So when you go out there looking for Chilean wine, you’re not confused. Let’s do this.
Just like a lot of these New World wine regions, there’s not a very strict controlled appellation system in Chile, but they’re making moves now to try to define the terroir of this place, which is pretty plentiful. OK, let me see if I can do a quick overview before we get to the regions you have. Chile is a long, skinny country, and on the west border of the country is the Pacific Ocean. And just inland from that is a coastal range.
From the coastal range going inland, we get into a bunch of valleys — the middle part of the country is basically all valleys, especially when it comes to wine. That valley, as we go west, goes into what’s called the Andean Piedmont, or the foothills of the Andes Mountains, and then up into the Andes Mountains. The thing is, for wine — most of the wines are grown in valleys, and the coastal range is either solid or breaks apart. If it’s solid, it protects the valley from the ocean influence. If it breaks apart, the ocean influence gets in. Does that sound familiar to you?
Yeah, that’s California. California and Chile have very similar climatic patterns. Actually, the Humboldt Current, which is responsible for a lot of the air currents in California, also affects Chile. There’s a lot of rain in some of these areas, which will give you a little Sonoma vibe, if you will. Also, what’s very interesting is a lot of the valleys in Chile are called transversal valleys, meaning they go east to west. So the valley has a very different climatic norm in the western part of the valley than it does in the eastern part of the valley because of its proximity to either the Andes or the ocean and the coastal range, whether it protects from rain or not. There’s actually a push right now to focus more on that and to define Chilean wine more of an east to west than a north to south, which is the way it is defined now, generally.
The varieties of grapes that are used in Chile are basically the same varieties they’ve been working with since the 16th through 19th century. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular right now. There’s also Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, a little bit of Syrah, some Riesling, which is crazy. And, of course, the revival of País and Moscatel del Alejandría. Carignan is also kind of a big deal now in Chile. So as I run through these regions, just know that a lot of these grapes are being worked with in each region, and I’ll single out one variety that’s shining in one region if it’s popular.
The northern part of Chile used to be what’s called Pisco country, which is a great base spirit. But there are two valleys there now, the Limari Valley and the Elqui Valley, that are starting to emerge in the American market. So keep an eye out for that. I’ve had good Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays from them. Going south, you have the huge Aconcagua Valley, which is named after the river that bisects it. It’s one of those transversal valleys, where the weather changes from the east to the west. It’s huge. Just south of that, you have Casablanca and San Antonio, which are considered subregions of the Aconcagua Valley. Then San Antonio also has its own subregion called Leyda Valley. This is one of those transversal valleys that changes dramatically from east to west, so much so that there can be a month’s difference in harvest in just this one valley — that’s crazy. South of that, we have the Maipo Valley, the Rapel Valley, Curico, and Maule, and each of those regions has regions within them. Some have six, some have two, some have three. This is the Central Valley. This is the most well-known area of Chile, where a lot of Chilean wine that we know is made.
Maipo, just south of Santiago, one of the most famous wine regions in the country, is known for its red wine mainly, and this is where Cabernet Sauvignon shines. There’s also a good Chardonnay and Merlot coming from here. Maipo has six subregions within it. But this is where big, full-bodied Cabs are known. There’s always more coming from Chile. So we’re going to see more. South of that is another one of those transversal valleys where weather changes dramatically from east to west. It’s called the Rapel Valley. It still has a northern and southern zone, even though it goes east to west. I know, it’s crazy. You have the Cachapoal and Colchagua, very well-known valleys that are on the American market. This is another one of those areas that’s known very much for its Cabernet Sauvignon, especially as the vines get towards the foothills of the Andes and you start seeing some cool weather. And toward the coast, I’ve actually had some really good Pinot Noir from there. South of that is Curico. You’re not going to see a lot of it on the American market. But again, look for it at some point. They’re experimenting with a bunch of different varieties there, so something’s going to come out of there.
South of Curico, things get pretty interesting in the wine-growing region of Maule, which is known mostly for Cabernet Sauvignon, but it was also known as a bulk wine region for a long time. The Carignan grape, which is always associated with bulk wine, unfortunately, is still there. But there’s a revival for Carignan, and from what I understand, there is great wine from that grape coming out of Maule. So hopefully we’ll get some more of that on the American market.
Then there’s the southern region. We have three of these fairly new, up-and-coming, somewhat established wine regions. Biobío is one of them, Itata is one of them, and Maiaco is one of them. Biobío and Itata are in our market. We’re seeing wines from them right now. Maiaco just needs a minute, and it’s happening, but we’re not seeing a lot of those wines in the market. The thing about Biobío and Itata is, you’re not getting the typical Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay wines from here. This is an area where they still cultivate the País variety and the Moscatel de Alejandría variety — the two varieties that really made Chile a wine-growing region. These vines have been here forever. I just think it’s really awesome that there’s a wine region in Chile reviving and celebrating the two varieties that actually started the whole thing. It’s great. These wines are awesome. They’re bright, they’re fun. It’s just a really cool wine region. They’re trying all different kinds of stuff. They have Cinsault there, which is another light red wine. I’ve heard they’re actually doing really good Riesling there. Yeah, Riesling in Chile, in Itata and Biobío. It’s crazy, but we’re going to start seeing that a lot on the American market. This is sort of like the new cool wine region from Chile.
So those are basically the Chilean wine regions. Again, it’s all kind of happening in front of our faces right now. There’s a lot of history there, and a lot of progress has been made in the Chilean wine system. There’s just so much new stuff coming on the horizon. One thing that I want to mention is the grape Carménère. Carménère for a while in the ‘90s defined what Chile was. It’s a very peppery red wine that is from the Bordeaux region, often blended, of course. But when it made its way to Chile, it was planted among Merlot vines. For a long time it was thought that Merlot and Carménère were the same thing. The wines that were coming on our market were these lean fruit, peppery red wines. The Carménère grape is not really being used as much anymore. It is mainly being used as a blending varietal. They were able to separate Merlot and Carménère, so it’s no longer all in one vineyard. But there are people that are still making these field blends of Merlot and Carménère.
I’m saying this because this is a big part of what Chile was at one point. Some of us that are listening might remember that. But Carménère is going to come back into fashion in Chile in a different way than it was before. It’s going to be coming in as a supporting actor instead of the main stager, because as a main stager, it was kind of crazy. Now, there are people making great Carménère. If you see Carménère from Chile on the market today, it’s different than it was back then. So if you see Carménère today, give it a try. It’s going to have a little more depth and a little more fruit, because people are taking care of the vines a little bit more.
Chile has so much to offer, guys. I can’t get into it all. I mean, of course, there’s always more. But this should give you a good overview of Chile as more and more wines come on the American market.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
Wine 101 was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.