The Conquistador’s Impact on Wine in South America
In 1554, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries transported European Viti’s vinifera vines to Chile. According to mythology, the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre planted the first vines. The vines were most likely sourced from well-known Spanish vineyards. The “common black grape,” as it was known, was brought to Mexico by Hernán Cortés in 1520, and the plants most likely came from existing Spanish vineyards in Peru.
This grape variety would become the ancestor of the País grape, eventually, the most extensively planted Chilean grape until the 21st century. Jesuit priests planted these early vineyards and used the wine to celebrate the Eucharist. Alonso de Ovalle, an early Chilean historian, documented extensive plantings of “the common black grape,” Muscatel, Torontel, Albilho, and Mollar by the late 16th century.
Vineyards were prohibited during the Spanish administration, with the condition that Chileans purchase the majority of their wines straight from Spain. Wine imports from Chile and the Viceroyalty of Peru into Spain were forbidden in 1641, severely affecting the colony’s wine economy.
The massive glut of grapes was turned into Aguardiente de Pisco because of the market loss. The entire focus on pisco manufacturing had practically wiped-out wine production in Peru. For the most part, Chileans ignored these prohibitions, preferring their homegrown wines to the oxidized and vinegary wines that didn’t survive well on long travels from Spain. They were bold enough to begin exporting some of their wines to Peru, with one shipment intercepted at sea by the English privateer Francis Drake. Spain issued an indictment back to Chile, ordering them to uproot the majority of their grapes, but the command was disregarded.
Chile was famous in the 18th century for its sweet wines made from the País and Muscatel grapes. Wines were frequently cooked to obtain a high level of sweetness, which condensed the grape must. Admiral John Byron, who was the Grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, journeyed across Chile after his shipwreck off the coast of Cape Horn and returned to England with a positive evaluation of Chilean Muscatel, comparing it favorably to Madeira.