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 eventually evolve to become a variety called País, the most widely planted grape varietal in Chile until the 21st century. Jesuit priests planted these early vineyards and used the wine to celebrate the Eucharist. By the late 16th century, documents from this period describe the plenty of plantings of “the common black grape”, Muscatel, Torontel, Albilho, and Mollar[1].

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 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. In Chile many residents just ignored the ban, and continued growing and making their own wine. They preferred the local wine to the wine imported from Spain, that often oxidized and turned vinegary during the long trip. A few Chileans even went so far as to begin exporting some of their wine to Peru. Although, the Spanish heard about this illegal trade when an English privateer, Francis Drake captured a shipment of this illegal wine. Spain issued an indictment back to Chile, ordering them to uproot the majority of their grapes, but the command was disregarded.

Argentina and Chile Wine History

Chile became famous in the 18th century for its sweet wines made from the grape varietals, País and Muscatel. Wines were frequently cooked to obtain a high level of sweetness, which condensed the grape must. One of the fans of this sweet wine was Admiral John Byron, grandfather of Lord Byron, the famous poet. He discovered this wine after his ship wrecked near Cape Horn and he made a journey through Chile. Upon his return to England, he told many of this delicious sweet wine, and said it tasted similar to the sweet wines of Madeira.

This Day in Wine History

Early 16th Century: Spanish conquistadors and their arrival from Spain and brought with them new varieties of grapes, which were planted by the indigenous people of South America in an attempt to resist Spanish colonization.

18th Century: The Spanish colonists also brought on increased demand for wine, as they had learned to appreciate it during their stay in Spain. The demand for wine continued to grow throughout the 18th century, as more and more vineyards were planted by both Spanish and Portuguese settler.

Want to read more? Try these books!

The South America Wine Guides Wines of South America- The Essential Guide


[1] Yeomans, Clorrie. 2019. “A journey through Argentine wine history: Guide to wine in Argentina.” South America Wine Guide.


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