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  ABC Wine Issue 7, April 2003   
ChileChile  Contents 
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Chile

Getting the benefits of a climate that is practically Mediterranean, the country is mainly oriented to the production of varietal wines produced with international grapes

 Chile, besides being considered the most important wine producing country of South America, is also historically considered among the countries of the south hemisphere where the cultivation of grapes was started first. After a long period of decaying, Chile has oriented its wine production towards the so called international grapes and producing wines made of these grapes which denote particular characteristics as to be considered typical. A curious fact of Chile is the absolute absence of some vine diseases, that in other part of the world were responsible for huge damages, such as the feared phylloxera and downy mildew. The reason of this “immunity” seems to be because of the excellent and natural barrier offered by the Andes mountains as well as by the Pacific Ocean, conditions that did not allow these “flagella” to enter the country.


Chile
Chile

 Cultivation of vine and the production of wine in Chile were introduced by Spaniard missionaries around 1550. It is believed that plants or seeds of vine came from Peru or Mexico, however it was a species of grape previously introduced by Spaniards in those countries. The reason why vine and wine were introduced in the countries of Latin America is practically the same that allowed vine to spread all over Europe. Wine was an essential element for celebrating Christian liturgies and therefore missionaries usually brought vines with them in order to make wine. It seems to be likely that the grape introduced by Spaniard missionaries in Chile was Pais, a red berried grape still common in the country which is used to make pretty ordinary red wines, and this grape is probably related to Mission, the grape introduced by missionaries in California as well as in other countries of South America.

 The cultivation of vine in Chile was not easy, in the beginning vineyards were completely destroyed by local people, however it was possible to start a solid viticultural activity in the Santiago area and for more than four centuries up to nowadays, this area is still considered as the most important one of Chile. In the seventeenth century Spaniards, in order to safeguard the commercial interests about wine export in Latin America, forbade the planting of new vineyards, however this action did not have any significant effect for the development of the local enology. Indeed, this prohibition encouraged the local authorities to promote the cultivation of vine, and therefore the production of wine, and by doing so they got the result of starting many activities having the explicit goal of producing wine. Despite the presence of many estancias, that is farms, the fame of Chilean wine was mainly known for quantity and for the cheap price instead of quality.

 The impulse towards quality production was started by the French Claudio Gay who convinced the Chilean government to build Quinta Normal, an experimental greenhouse to be used for the cultivation of exotic plants and of Vitis Vinifera, the European vine used to make wine. It was 1830. This event represented an exceptional fact of historical importance, because proves in Chile were introduced European species before powdery mildew and phylloxera appeared in Europe and, as it is commonly known, they made huge and terrible damages all over the “old world”. This fact is exceptional because Chile is the only country of the world where both powdery mildew and phylloxera never appeared, therefore the Chilean exemplars, which do not need any American rootstock immune to phylloxera, as opposed to Europe as this is an essential practice, are to be considered as rare and genuine exemplars of the original European vines.


 

 The real impulse towards the change of Chilean enology took place after the independence from Spain, when in Chile were introduced wines from Europe, which were drastically different from the ones produced in the country, and they aroused a vivid interest among producers and they tried to make similar wines. In particular it was Ochagavía Echazarreta who in 1851 personally imported in Chile many exemplars of French vines and he also convinced a French wine maker to follow him in his country in order to help him to make wine produced with those grapes. It was a fundamental event because represented the beginning of modern enology in Chile which is still and strongly based on “international” grapes. The florid and lucky period of Chilean enology started with the decay and the disgrace of wine producers in Europe, devastated by phylloxera and therefore incapable of making any wine, Chile practically was the only country of the world that could make wine also thanks to the total absence of this parasite. The “lucky” period ended when in Europe they finally adopted preemptive measures against phylloxera and therefore quality wine production was resumed. A period of decay which lasted up to the eighties of the last century also because of the political regime in the country.

 The return of democracy in Chile finally allowed the strategic economic and commercial importance of wine to develop and in the years following 1987 the county had a real and proper impulse for its enology; new vineyards were started with the explicit goal of making quality wines, a goal that seems to be more and more concretely pursued by Chile and brilliantly witnessed by its wines which are now exported everywhere in the world.

 

The Chilean Quality System

 Talking about Chilean quality system, to be truth, there are not many things to say, in the sense that, just like United States of America, Chile does not have a strict system of laws that determine, for example, what grape varieties can be cultivated in specific areas or harvesting and wine making practices. However in 1995 were introduced new laws that mainly were about the definition of viticultural areas and their sub areas, as well as norms to be followed in the labeling of bottles. The “system” was developed by the Agricultural Ministry in collaboration with wine producers.

 The system particularly defines the following:

 

  • In case a wine has the area of origin cited in the label, at least 75% of grapes must come from the cited region
  • In case a wine has the name of the grape cited in the label, the wine must be produced with at least 75% of the mentioned grape
  • In case a wine mentions the vintage in its label, at least 75% of the wine must come from the mentioned vintage

 

Production Areas

 Wine production in Chile is essentially based on the so called “international” grapes and the cultivation is mainly done in the valleys that go from Valparaiso to Bío-Bío. Thanks to the effects of Pacific Ocean and of Andes mountains, the Chilean climate is rather mild and temperatures rarely raise over 32° C (90° F) and summer nights are cool. The most cultivated white berried grapes in the country are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Vert, also known here as Sauvignonnasse, whereas red berried grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot and Pais, the first grape to be cultivated in Chile and used for the production of ordinary wines.

 The main production areas are located to the northern side of the country, in the valleys of Aconcagua and Casablanca, whereas in the center there are the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule Valleys which together form the so called “Central Valley”. To the south there are two valleys, Bío-Bío and Itata, of lesser importance in regard to the previous ones, where ordinary wines destined for mass market are being produced. The most famous and important area of Chile is certainly Maipo, near the city of Santiago, one of the most ancient wine regions of the country. An area which is recently showing good quality is the Casablanca Valley, in the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean, this area seems to have excellent qualities as to be considered as one of the areas that will become in future the reference area of Chile, particularly for its white wines made of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

 North from Casablanca Valley there is the Aconcagua Valley, characterized by a hot climate, which is getting more and more interesting for the production of wines made of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the positive aspects of Chilean viticulture is the huge amount and availability of water, in practice it is melting snow from the peaks of Andes mountains flowing down until reaching the Pacific Ocean, and represents a precious resource for the irrigation of vineyards. However this huge amount of water, which surely allow to obtain rich and huge harvests, and therefore grapes of mediocre quality, needs of a systematic and concrete channelization in order to avoid excessive irrigations that would promote an over production of vines. For this reason many producers of quality wines have installed in their vineyards drip irrigation systems in order to avoid risks of getting harvests of considerable quantity but of scarce quality.

 The best wines produced in Chile are probably the ones based on Cabernet Sauvignon, available in many prices, from cheapest to very expensive, from the most ordinary ones to the most refined and elegant ones and having higher prices. Among white wines Chardonnay surely excels, mainly because it is produced in higher quantities as opposed to the other white wines, and however there are good wines made with this grape. Recently are emerging good white wines made of Sauvignon Blanc, even though, to tell the truth, not all the Sauvignon Blancs produced in Chile are made with this grape. Often they are Sauvignon Vert, or Sauvignonnasse, and this fact is, unfortunately, rarely or never mentioned in the label. Even wines produced with Merlot grape, getting more and more better in their quality, hide the same “trick” because sometimes it is Carmnenère grape and, just like Sauvignon Blanc, this is not mentioned in the label. However it should be noticed that many producers are trying to make things clearer about this aspect and they are investigating on their own grape's DNA in order to properly identifying the exact species and to clearly mention it in the label.

 




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  ABC Wine Issue 7, April 2003   
ChileChile  Contents 
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