Both the mountains and the ocean have played an important role in shaping the history and fortunes of Chilean wine. The Andes provided a crucial source of irrigation for the first vineyards, which were planted by Jesuit priests in the 16th century with grapes brought from the established Spanish vineyards in Peru. Later in the 19th century, the mountains, which isolate Chile geographically, helped protect the country’s vineyards from the Phylloxera louse which laid waste to most of the world’s other the wine regions.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Ocean has been both a help and a hindrance to Chilean wine. On the one hand, cooling Pacific breezes help Chile’s winemakers produce successful Sav Blancs, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in vineyards close to the coast. On the other hand, it was Spanish and English control over early ocean shipping routes which almost eliminated Chile’s wine industry in the 16th century. During Spanish rule in South America, Spain banned wine imports from Chile and Peru, while both countries were forced to import wine from Spain.
Some readers of the Drake Vine will remember that Sir Francis Drake, a famous ancestor of the Drake Vine, had a penchant for wine, having previous raided Spanish ports for their wine stocks. In 1578 Drake intercepted a shipment of Chilean wine destined for Peru (I’m not sure what it was, but my bet is on wine made from País, one of the oldest grapes to be cultivated in Chile and still the second most planted variety in the country). On hearing the news of Drake’s wine haul, the Spanish reportedly ordered Chile to uproot most of their vineyards. Fortunately for Chilean Sav Blanc enthusiasts this edict was ignored.
Chile has also discovered a point of difference in the production and export of Carménère, a grape which is originally from France’s Bordeaux region and which appears to have been brought to Chile by accident, mixed with a bunch of Merlot cuttings. Carménère gets its name from the French word for crimson (“carmin”) which refers to the brilliant crimson colour of the vine’s autumn foliage prior to leaf-fall.
This week’s Drinking and Pairing sections of the Drake Vine focus on the characteristics of, and best foods to pair with, Carménère, one of the classic “Bordeaux six” red grape varieties. The Growing and Making sections of the website explore the country's main wine production regions, grape varieties and wine styles (remember to scroll to the top of the page and click on the links).
The Drake Vine will be back in two weeks time, with a trip back to the northern hemisphere to look at the wines of the USA.