Vinos De Chile / Wines Of Chile
Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are not native to the Americas; they arrived with the Spanish in the 1500s. Early attempts to form vineyards in more northerly climes, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru proved unsuccessful; in Chile, however, the vine found its first true New World home.
The Catholic missionaries who followed the Spanish Conquistadors lamented the lack of wine that was essential for celebrating religious rites, and they set about to resolve the problem. Fray Francisco de Carabantes is widely credited with bringing the first vines probably País (pronounced ” pah-EES” and known as “Mission” in California) into Chile through the port of Concepción round 1548. Such was the success that vineyards were quickly planted throughout the country from the Limarí Valley in the north to Bío-Báío Valley in the south precisely the areas that still delimit the vast majority of Chile’s wine production today.
Of course the desire for wine in Chile was not limited to the Church-there were plenty of secular uses for the traditional European beverage of choice. The thirsty residents of the burgeoning capital city of Santiago also clamored for wine, and the surrounding Maipo Valley proved to be a ready and abundant source of red wine.
Improvements in maritime transportation made cross-Atlantic travel much more viable by the early 19th century. Chile, freshly emancipated from Spain, yearned for knowledge of its European roots, and members of the country’s wealthiest families embarked upon an intercontinental pilgrimage that would change Chilean life and culture in many ways. France was a favorite destination, and soon French customs, from food to clothing to architecture, flourished among Chiles upper classes. It did not take long for the first French-style wineries to make an appearance as well.
By the mid-1800s, interest in European-style wine production was taking hold. Well-heeled families many with fortunes earned in the mining industry built extraordinary mansions beyond the city limits and surrounded them with vineyards.
Pioneering naturalist and scientist Claudio Gay brought some 30 Vitis vinifera varieties from France for experimental purposes in the nascent University of Chile’s Quinta Normal agricultural center.
Silvestre Ochagavia is generally credited with being the first to introduce French varieties for commercial purposes 20 years later in the Maipo Valley. Others quickly followed suit, and many of Chile’s now traditional wineries were formed, including Carmen, Concha y Toro, Cousiño Macul, Errá¡zuriz, San Pedro, Santa Rita, Undurraga, and Urmeneta.
New varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec (Cot), Carménère, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillón, and Riesling produced noble wines that quickly gained popularity and replaced the then-traditional País grape, which was relegated to the country’s winemaking extremes, where it is still used today for rustic wines destined for local consumption.
Chile had entered into a new phase of its winemaking history, again one of the first in the New World to make serious noble wines. This small South American country was also fortunate; the European wine industry was about to undergo a crisis that would never touch Chile.
Trans-Atlantic exchange brought with it tremendous benefits to both continents, but it also had its downside. European garden enthusiasts had unwittingly imported a devastating vineyard pest Phylloxera hidden in the roots of America’s native grape vines that were beautiful, despite being useless for wine production. Europe’s Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless against the tiny and voracious louse, which advanced unchecked, quickly decimating thousands of hectares of ancient Old World vineyards along the way. The pest was re-introduced to the Americas with the import of Vitis vinifera vines, yet for reasons that have never fully been understood, Chile remains Phylloxera-free to this day.