Wine history in Chile

Chile is a unique country with a profound history and culture of winemaking. The country is situated in one of the world’s most diverse and dynamic New World wine regions. The historic wine roots go deep in time. The Maipo Valley is arguably Chile’s most historic

and famous wine region. It is the region where wine first gained a foothold during the 1550s. Hence, the history of Chilean winemaking traditions can be traced back to the 16th century and the Spanish conquest. During the conquests, vines were introduced to Chile by Spanish conquistadors, and missionaries began planting vines in the country in the 16th century around 1554.

According to the local legends, the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre planted the first vines. The vines most likely came from the established Spanish vineyards planted in Peru, including the famous “common black grape,” which Hernán Cortés had brought to Mexico in 1520. Eventually, this grape variety would become the ancestor of the widespread Pais grapes that would be the most widely planted Chilean grape varieties until the 21st century. Later, Jesuit priests cultivated these early vineyards and consumed the wine during the celebrations of the Eucharist.

Spanish Rule in Chile

During the Spanish rule, the vineyards were limited in production with the stipulation that Chileans had to buy most of their wines directly from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1641, the import of wine from Chile and the Viceroyalty of Peru into Spain were banned, causing severe damage to the wine industry in the Chilean colony. Due to the market loss, an enormous surplus of grapes was processed into Pisco and aguardiente.

Consequently, Pisco production almost eliminated wine production in Peru. For the most part, the Chileans ignored these restrictions, preferring their domestic production to the oxidized and vinegary wines that did not fare well during the long sea journeys from Spain. Furthermore, the Chilean winemakers had gradually become bold enough to export some of their wines to neighboring Peru.

One such export shipment was caught at sea by English privateer Francis Drake. When Spain learned of the event, instead of being outraged by Drake, a charge was sent back to Chile with orders to uproot most of their vineyards. Nonetheless, this order was also ignored – indeed, a blessing in disguise for the winemaking industry in Chile.

Did you know? In the 18th century, Chile was best known for its sweet wines produced from the Pais and Muscatel grapes. 

French Winemaking Traditions in Chile

Despite being politically linked to Spain, Chile’s wine history has been most heavily influenced by French winemaking traditions, especially Bordeaux. Before the Phylloxera epidemic, wealthy Chilean landowners were influenced by their visits to France.

As a result, they began importing French vines for planting. Don Silvestre Errázuriz was the first businessman to import Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. He hired a French oenologist to supervise his vineyard plantings and produce wine in the Bordeaux style. During his early days of production, Errázuriz saw the potential in Chile and experimented with the German wine grape Riesling.

Phylloxera Arrives in Chile

In events parallel to those of the Rioja wine region, the entry of Phylloxera into the French wine regions became a blessing for the Chilean wine industry. With their vineyards in ruins in France, many French winemakers traveled to South America, bringing their experience and techniques. For instance, Don Silvestre founded Ochagavía Echazarreta Ochagavia Wines in 1851, and Don Maximiano Errázuriz founded Viña Errázuriz in 1870, bringing utilizing winegrapes brought from France.

During the early 1850s, the Chilean wine industry took on a more international twist when Silvestre Ochagavía planted French wine grapes in his vineyard. His winery, Viña Ochagavía—now owned by Carolina Wine Brands—was the first in Chile to sell French varietal wines. Neighboring growers followed suit, and the Chilean wine industry continued to flourish.

Many French people immigrated to Chile at the end of the 20th century, which imparted more wine-growing expertise to the Chilean winemaking industry. Currently, Chile is the 5th largest exporter of wines in the world and the seventh-largest producer.

While France would later be devastated by the aphid, the Andes and subsequent geographic isolation helped remote Chilean vines during the Phylloxera attack. Until now, Chile has remained free of the Phylloxera louse, eliminating the need to graft the country’s vines with Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

Unfortunately, the Chilean winemakers had to witness their burgeoning industry dwindle to almost nothing as the world was torn apart by many global issues, such as World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. As a result, the post-war isolationism, a product of the country’s political struggle, continued until the early 1980s when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet reversed the country’s commitment to isolationism and state property ownership.

At that time, wine producers began upgrading and modernizing their equipment and expanding their wine production for export. Due to these efforts, Chilean wines are now regarded as the best in South America – with more than 60% exports. They are known for their fine quality and value in global wine markets.

More read: The History of Chilean Wine

On this Day

In 1641, the import of wine from Chile and the Viceroyalty of Peru into Spain were banned, causing severe damage to the wine industry in the Chilean colony.

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Wine history in Chile
Agne27, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons