Wines of Chile


For the 19th and much of the 20th century, most Chilean wine was cheap and consumed domestically. It had been initially brought to the country by the first European settlers to make sacramental wine. With the rise of cross-Atlantic trade in the 19th century, some Chileans made fortunes in the mining industry. They returned from Europe and many began building their own châteaux, particularly on the outskirts of Santiago. French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Carmenère thrived in the Central Valley's rich soils and near-perfect climate.

Chilean wineries stagnated through much of the 20th century. The introduction of modern equipment such as stainless steel tanks and national and international investment in the industry made Chilean wine a tasty and affordable option in the 1980s. Continued advances in growing techniques and wine-making methods throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century have resulted in the production of excellent wines.

What to Taste

Cabernet Sauvignon. The king of reds grows well almost anywhere it’s planted, but Cabernets from the Alto Maipo are particularly well balanced, displaying elegance and structure with a distinctive freshness.

Carmenère. Chile’s signature red wine grape arrived in Chile during the mid-19th century from France, where it was usually a blending grape in Bordeaux. At the time, it could be found throughout Europe, but became nearly extinct in the late 19th century due to a continent-wide infestation of phylloxera, aphidlike insects. Over time Chileans forgot about it, mistaking it for a cousin of the Merlot vine.

It wasn’t until the Chilean boom times of the 1990s that they realized they had a unique grape hidden among the other vines in their vineyards. It had thrived thanks to the country’s unique topography, which provides natural barriers to the aphids. Today, Chile is the world's largest exporter of Carmenère wine.

Malbec. True, this is Argentina’s grape, but Chile produces award-winning bottles of this red wine that have appealing elegance and balance.

Sauvignon Blanc. Due to cooler coastal climates, the region of Valparaíso is most notable for its Sauvignon Blanc, Chile’s second-biggest varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyards from Elqui to Bío Bío also produce this exciting white with fresh green fruit, crisp acidity, and often an enticing mineral edge.

Syrah. Chile produces two distinct styles of this red variety. Be sure to try both: luscious and juicy from Colchagua or enticingly spicy from coastal areas, such as Elqui or San Antonio.

Where to Go

Chile’s appellation system names its valleys from north to south, but today’s winegrowers stress that the climatic and geological differences between east and west are more significant. The easternmost valleys closest to the Andes tend to have less fog, more hours of sunlight, and greater daily temperature variations, which help red grapes develop deep color and rich tannins while maintaining bright acidity and fresh fruit characteristics.

On the other hand, if you’re after crisp whites and bright Pinots, head to the coast, where cool fog creeps inland from the sea each morning and Pacific breezes keep the vines cool all day. Interior areas in the Central Valley are less prone to extremes and favor varieties that require more balanced conditions, such as Merlot and Carmenère. Syrah, a relatively new grape in Chile, does well in both cold and warm climates.

Casablanca Valley. The name of this cool-climate coastal region, located 75 km (47 miles) northwest of Santiago, translates appropriately to "white house." Unsurprisingly, it turns out excellent, crisp white wines, including aromatics such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Several wineries in this area can be visited as day-trips from either Santiago or Valparaíso.

Central Maipo and Alto Maipo. This is the cradle of Chile’s Cabernets, with more than half of its 32,000 acres of vineyards dedicated to what many believe is the country’s best grape. In part due to its proximity to the capital of Santiago, this region is the most productive and the easiest to visit for most visitors.

While Alto Maipo extends into the foothills, boasting a microclimate ideal for viticulture, Central Maipo borders the Maipo River and is much warmer with less rainfall, allowing for the growth of highly praised Carmenère wines as well as Cabernet.

Colchagua Valley. The wines of this well-known Chilean region are regular headliners on the world’s top lists, including robust red varietals such as Malbec, Carmenère, Syrah, and Cabernet, but also white Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc varietals as well. The Colchagua Valley is roughly 180 km (110 miles) to the south of Santiago, and the vineyards stretch from the western Coastal Range to the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains. The best town to stay when exploring this area is the picturesque Santa Cruz.

Curicó Wine Valley. Thanks to its varied climate and fertile, high-yielding soil, more than 30 varieties of grapes—more than anywhere else in the country—can be found in Curicó's vineyards. The dominant grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in this region, which is located approximately 200 km (124 miles) south of Santiago.

Maule Valley. Chile’s largest wine-growing region is also one of its oldest and most diverse. Roughly 250 km (155 miles) south of Santiago, the Maule Valley is home to both traditional, family-run vineyards and innovative, modern wineries, with an increasing focus on sustainable, organic wine-making techniques.

Tips for Visiting Chilean Wineries

1. The number one wine travel rule in Chile? Make reservations. Unlike wineries in the United States, many wineries are not equipped to receive drop-in visitors.

2. Don’t expect wineries to be open on Sunday or holidays.

3. The distances between wineries can be longer than they look on the map. Allot plenty of travel time, and plan on no more than three or four wineries per day.

4. Contact the wine route offices in the region you’re visiting. They can be helpful in coordinating visits to wineries.

5. Hire a driver, or choose a designated driver.

6. Keep in mind there are not only many different types of wineries available to visit, from family-run small businesses to large, mechanized operations, but also different ways to see them. Some wineries offer everything from thrill-seeking zip line courses to leisurely bike tours.

Previous Experience

The Ultimate Chilean Wine Trip in 6 Days

Next Experience

Chilean History

Find a Hotel


Fodor's Essential Chile (Fodor's Travel Guide)

View Details