Formal Chilean winemaking dates back to the 1500s, when European missionaries first introduced vines to Chile for the purpose of making sacramental wine. It was three centuries before any significant change took place in Chilean wine production. In the 1850s, Chilean growers improved production and quality by importing viniferous vine stocks from France and other European countries. At the same time, phylloxera affected European and North American vineyards, but did not affect plantings in Chile. Remarkably, to this day Chile is the only country in the New World where pure, ungrafted European vines grow. This plague has never affected Chilean wines because of the sandy soil base and Andean mountain range that acts as a natural protective barrier.
Today the focus in Chile has shifted to quality. Premium vineyards are located in cooler areas with challenging soil conditions and reduced water supplies that stress the vines. A sunny climate produces sweet fruit with ripe tannins without sacrificing structure and ageability. Aggressive pruning and longer hang times further reduce the yield while magnifying and concentrating the flavors. Ancient redwood aging vats have been replaced by smaller, top-quality French and American oak barrels. Computerized stainless-steel fermenting tanks control temperature to preserve the intense natural character of the grapes. And refrigerated containers are now used to introduce fine Chilean wines to markets around the world.
Among the best varietals grown in Chile are Cabernet Sauvignon (ideally suited to Chile’s sandy soil), Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and the indigenous Carmenére. Having both Spanish and French influences, Chilean wines tend to be ripe and fruit-forward in flavor, similar to their Californian counterparts.