Chile: The charm of Chilean wine & why it's some of the best in the world
Honestly, I've never been much of a wine-drinker… Until I moved to Chile. Aka. the land of ever-flowing vino. It’s virtually impossible to not become a wine-drinker living here! With mild temperatures all year round, easy accessibility to delicious and affordable wines, and a red-meat heavy culture screaming for a solid red wine pairing, it makes sense why I very quickly also became a vino tinto aficionado and fell in love with wining-and-dining amongst my Chilean friends.
One of my favourite things about drinking wine here is that it’s actually quite difficult to pick up a bad bottle of wine in Chile - even the most basic and cheapest wine blends are decent and it is quite acceptable to turn up to an asado (BBQ) with a $2000 CLP/$3 USD bottle of red to share (Exportación & Carmen, I’m looking at you!). In saying that, upgrading to a mid-range drop ($5000-$10000 CLP/$7-$15 USD) is when you really start to realise how much Chilean wine has to offer. Damn delicious. And once I started to learn about the vineyards, varieties and history, that’s when the world of Chilean wine really opened up for me - and it blew my mind!
If you’re travelling to Chile, a wine tour is absolutely unmissable. We all know that the wine tasting is always the best part but learning about the history, varieties and processes will give you a deeper appreciation of the uniqueness of Chile’s wine culture (and of course, the wine itself!). Even with the tightest of schedules, there’s always time for a half day bike & wine tour (my favourite kind of tour!). Most of my Chilean wine knowledge has been acquired from taking bike & wine tours throughout the central valleys of Middle Chile (between Santiago and the coastal region of Valparaíso). There are a few different tour groups kicking around however I’ve found my favourite wine tours have been with the lively, fun and tourism sustainable group of La Bicicleta Verde https://labicicletaverde.com/ , who are renowned for their fantastic bike tours throughout Santiago city as well as their bike & wine tours in the valleys. If you like a more active, offbeat approach to tours with down-to-earth guides and a fun, relaxed atmosphere then these guys are right up your alley. I’ve biked-and-wined my way around a few different vineyards in the central region, with Casablanca Valley and Maipo Valley being my top picks. As Maipo Valley is the closest wine region to Santiago, as well as its most historic, I’d recommend kicking off your Chile trip with a half-day bike & tour through Maipo to introduce you to the world of Chilean wine https://labicicletaverde.com/tour/bike-and-wine-maipo-valley/ . My sister and I found the 1pm afternoon option perfect as the sun has warmed the valley a bit more, you have time to have lunch beforehand and you make it back into the city just in time for cocktail hour.
While Chile is predominantly renowned for its excellent reds, there are still a lot of fantastic white wine varieties produced here, in particular, sauvignon blancs and chardonnays. If you’re a white wine fan, the coastal vineyards of Casablanca Valley should definitely be on your radar. Dry, crisp and light is the name of the game here - the perfect accompaniment for a feast of fresh Chilean seafood (another must-do while in Chile!). For the red wine lover, Carmenere is your new best friend and is a common find in almost all of Chile’s vineyards. Only found in a handful of vineyards around the world, Carmenere is a mid-bodied people-pleaser that and the wine that Chile is most famous for. Perfectly paired with just about everything (particularly poultry, pork and pasta), bold enough for any red wine afficionado yet smooth enough for non-red drinkers, I’m yet to hear someone mutter the words ‘I don’t like Carmenere.’ Everyone loves Carmenere. This is your go-to for that airport-duty-free-leaving-the-country choice (along with a cheeky bottle of smoky pisco from Valle del Elqui!)
The history of Chilean wine is so interesting as there have been many influences on the varieties and wine production here, which helps to make the wine here that much more special. So, while the Spanish may have introduced wine to Chile originally back in the days of the conquistadors, it’s really the French that seemed to have had the biggest lasting influence. Carmenere, was originally a French grape that landed in Chile by accident and was misunderstood for a strange Merlot for hundreds of years until a visiting French wine expert noticed the Carmenere traits and stumbled upon the discovery only a few decades ago. Since then, the Carmenere variety has exploded in Chile and has brought a substantial amount of international recognition to the quality of Chilean wine. Even after two and half years of on-off living in Chile, it’s still my go-to bottle of red to buy. Every single time. So, to be able to take part in the Carmenere fermentation process during our bike and wine tour was pretty special. I always a enjoy partaking in a good hands-on role while travelling and learning new things!
While I love to visit some of the top-end and most well-known winemakers such as Concha y Toro & Casa Silva for a solid wine tasting, when it comes to actually touring vineyards I find the small-production, boutique vineyards are the best. The premises are smaller and easier to understand the step-by-step process and systems in place, the workers take the time to welcome you in and show you around and on our recent tour of the William Fèvre vineyard in Maipo Valley, we got to meet the owner who proceeded to invite us to get our hands dirty and help him in the fermentation process. We were also the only group of visitors there so after touring the premises, we had an entire alfresco dining area to ourselves which made the wine-tasting experience just that much better. Relaxed snacking and wine-tasting on a warm autumn’s afternoon is a pretty fantastic way to spend a Monday!
The charm of Chilean wine is hard to define. There are several factors that come into play (with taste being undoubtedly the number one factor), I think it comes down to three key components; the climate, the culture and affordability.
The Climate: Chile’s mild-cool climate makes for some fantastic wine-making as well as the perfect temperature in which to enjoy these delicious wines. A fresh, crisp Sauvignon Blanc with seafood and salad on a warm summer’s day and a deep, warming Carmenere the rest of the year round!
The Culture: While wine culture may be a thing a world-wide, Chilean wine culture is a little special. It is a country-wide phenomenal love that knows no boundaries when it comes to the young, the old, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between. Add in a passion for charcoal-fired barbecues and love for their coastline’s seafood, the wine culture is paired perfectly when it comes to meal time in Chile.
Affordability: I think the biggest difference with Chilean wine versus other countries, is that good wine is actually affordable for everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status. Of course, there are always going to be high-end brands that are out of reach for the common people but generally speaking, good wine is very affordable. In a country that has quite a significant gap between the rich and the poor, this is a crucial factor. Even retired grandmas and young families making minimum wage can afford a decent bottle of vino for a special occasion which contributes to a country-wide culture of wine love. And that tickles my heart.
Chile has spoilt me when it comes to wine. After indulging in many vino tinto cheap charmers and fresh, crisp whites on the cheap, I’m no longer satisfied with compromising decent taste in exchange for affordability. One of my biggest struggles after returning home to Australia last summer was longing for Chilean wine and having to settle for less-than-average affordable vino or accepting I would have to spend bigger to get the same satisfaction. So, I spent the summer craft beer tasting instead and saved my wine desires for my return to South America. Needless to say, one of the first things I did upon my return to Chile was pick up my fave bottle of Carmenere en route to an asado… Ah, Chilean charcoal-fired BBQs - another tale, another time!