A Guide To Chilean Red Wine
Complete guide to organic Chilean red wine
What is Chilean wine?
Although often bundled into what people like to call the “New World”, Chile has been home to vines since the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. The French brought classic varieties like Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the 1800s, with Carmenère also arriving from Bordeaux.
Today Chile is the fourth largest exporter of wine in the world and in 2020 the UK was the happy recipient of nearly 127 million litres of Chilean wine! Our favourite grape varieties to import are Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
For many, the arrival of Miguel Torres in Chile in the 1970s marks a significant moment in Chile’s modern winemaking story. It was he who brought stainless steel tanks to the country and who helped revolutionise winemaking.
What does organic Chilean wine taste like?
In recent years Chilean winemakers have explored new territories for vineyard planting and the limits of climate and altitude are explored, so red wine from Chile has become more exciting and cutting edge. Steely, mineral-driven whites are now found along with those that are altogether riper and more opulent. Red wine from Chile can be bold, broad and rich with impressive intensity, but you’ll also find nervy, coastal Pinot Noir wines too.
What makes Chilean wine great is that it offers great diversity. From Patagonia in the south to the Atacama Desert in the north vines, many varieties are planted, in varying soils and climates. The styles are as diverse as the country’s landscape, and it is impossible to generalise.
What is special about Chilean wine?
The innovation lies at the heart of Chilean winemaking and though we will talk in some detail about the most widely planted grape varieties, winemakers are experimenting. Just look at the Vintage Roots range of wines from Chile and you’ll see!
Characteristics of Chilean organic red wine
Chilean organic red wine is known for offering ripe, opulent and intense flavours, thanks to the growing conditions of the various vineyards in Chile.
Viña Emiliana is the world’s largest organic and biodynamic certified estate. As global pioneers, they have had a significant influence on the winemaking in Chile. Although exact figures about organically managed vineyards in the country are sadly not available, there are plenty of big names that have organic vineyards including Antiyal; Carmen; Cono Sur; Matetic and Odjfell.
What is the best Chilean organic red wine?
Some of the best Chilean organic red wines include Coyam and Viña Emiliana.
The very first vintage of the now-iconic Coyam came in 2001. Straight out of the block it won “Best in Show” and “Best Blend” in the Annual Wines of Chile Awards.
Can there be another Chilean red wine with such an impressive start in life?! Perhaps more impressively, Coyam has retained its winning prowess and with each new vintage comes yet more recognition.
Viña Emiliana has been organic and biodynamic since the beginning (1998), achieving organic certification in 2001. Emiliana is the world’s largest organic winery and in 2006 they were the first estate in Latin America to produce a wine with biodynamic certification. Since then, the use of biodynamic practices at its farm and cellars has been accredited and today all of its properties are certified. Furthermore, Emiliana is certified to use the Vegan Society trademark, confirming that its wines are produced without any animal-derived products.
For these reasons and the fact that Coyam is a supreme joy to drink, it is the Vintage Roots ‘Best’ Organic Chilean Red Wine.
Wine regions of Chile
Topped by the Atacama Desert in the north and with the glaciers of Patagonia in the south, Chile is a country of dramatic extremes. Just shy of 3000 miles in length, Chile is less than 100 miles from west to east. The snow-capped Andes create a natural border with Argentina with the cold Pacific Ocean to the west a crucial factor in the ever-developing vine-growing regions of the country. These four distinct boundaries serve to isolate the vineyards of Chile which are, as a result, impressively free from pests and disease.
The Pacific Ocean brings with it the Humboldt Current that begins life not far from Antarctica and flows up the western coast of South America. By the time it reaches Chile it brings cloud and fog but almost no rain. As a result, the Atacama Desert is the driest on earth.
The wine regions of Chile can be thought of in a three-by-three grid. Northern to south, it is divided into the north, the central region and the south. There are several defined areas from west to east. These are the coastal area vineyards, the vineyards between the mountains and the regions in the Andes.
Chile wine regions
There are three chile wine regions in the north: Huasco & Copiapó; Elqui and LImarí.
Huasco & Copiapó is the new kid to the winemaking block. Located in Atacama it’s about 340 miles north of Santiago and decidedly cool and coastal! The main varieties planted here are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Drive south and you will reach Elqui. Historically a great source of table grapes the region has been producing thrilling wines since 2005. Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc lead the vine plantings here with Carmenère, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling are also prevalent.
In keeping with many of Chile’s vineyards, snowmelt from the Andes is important for vineyard irrigation but you will also find fog catchers in use here. This is ingenious technology, developed by engineers at MIT which catches droplets of water in porous mesh structures. Inspired by small leaves in nature, which they had noted captured water droplets most efficiently, their work has not only provided safe drinking water but allowed new agricultural projects to thrive! It’s fascinating stuff, and you can learn more with this video.
By far the largest of the northern regions is Limarí. With over one thousand hectares of vineyard, you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah all planted here. Vines have been planted here since the 1500s and the region is known for its mineral-rich soils which impart distinctive characteristics to the wine.
Just north of Santiago, the Aconcagua chile wine region has granite and clay soils to the west and those with more sand to the east. A large area, with over 1,500 hectares of vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way. It’s the region where Syrah was first plated in Chile by the pioneering Errazuriz winery who are also enthusiastic proponents and adopters of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Though many of us most readily associate Aconcagua with red wines, there is an increasing number of quality white wines from vineyards planted in the coastal areas.
Casablanca was Chile’s first cool-climate region. First planted in the mid-1980s, Casablanca’s proximity to the Pacific allows the vineyards to refresh in the cool, foggy mornings. Compare Casablanca’s 542mm of annual rainfall to just 70 in Elqui!
Another coastal chile wine region, San Antonio / Leyda is marked by vineyards planted on rolling green hills in granitic and clay soils. Almost half of the vineyards (1,127 hectares) here are planted with Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir also embraces the Pacific climate here.
Often referred to as the Grande Dame of Chile’s wine regions, the Maipo Valley covers a whopping 11,584 hectares of vineyard. You will find a spot of everything planted here but red varieties lead the way. Stretching across the country’s width, Maipo Valley has a diverse range of soils and microclimates, and a host of wine styles are made here.
The Rapel Valley is located just south of Santiago and is home to two wine-growing areas. Cahcapoal and Colchagua. Colchagua is arguably the best-known to British wine drinkers and is also the largest of Chile’s wine regions, extending to well over 32,000 hectares.
Situated over one hundred miles south of Santiago, varieties dominate with Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir all widely planted in the region. Red wine from Chile is Rainfall is just under 600 mm a year and the soils range from clay to sand and decomposed granite.
For those that find variety to be the spice of life, the Curicó Valley is the Chilean wine region that produced the moe suited Chilean red wines they’d enjoy. It is one of Chile’s oldest wine-growing regions and it is home to over 30 grape varieties. This vast valley has a plethora of soil types and unique microclimates, which is why so many grapes have found a home here.
The most southerly of the central regions and the largest of all is Maule. Vines have been planted and wine made here for many centuries and the old bush vines that can be found here are finding increasing favour with winemakers and drinkers alike. Dry-farmed vineyards are to be found and field blends made up of the familiar (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carignan) and as yet unidentified varieties.
Where the arid conditions of the Atacama Desert mark the north of Chile, it is the wind-buffeted and rainfall that are the challenges for the winemakers in the southern regions. Winemakers need to be patient, but their efforts are being rewarded with thrilling, vivid wines.
Itata is a fairly new chile wine region, whilst Bío Bío & Malleco is much more established. Though tiny, with just 30-odd hectares of vine, Austral is an up-and-coming region that is creating much excitement. The virgin volcanic and clay soils have been planted with Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling and the early signs are very positive; the wines having impressive elegance and intensity.
As the climate changes and temperatures increase, some of the more forward-looking Chilean organic wine producers we have spoken with have already chosen to plant in the more southern, cooler regions.
Key grape varieties in Chile
The four most widely planted red wine grapes in Chile are:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
The four most widely planted white wine grapes in Chile are:
- Sauvignon Blanc
Best Chilean organic red wine to try
The Vintage Roots range of organic Chilean red wines is full of crackers … here are three ‘must-trys’…
From the cooler, Bío Bío Valley comes the Adobe Reserve Pinot Noir. It’s a bargain at the price and shows that Chile can make great Pinot in its cooler climates. Not to be missed.
Carmenère is something of a USP for Chile. Although originally from Bordeaux, the French rarely make it as a 100% varietal wine. The grape has made itself very much at home in Chilean soils and the wines can be as characterful as they are broad-shouldered. The Pura Fe Carmenère is a supreme example. One to savour!
When people talk about Syrah / Mourvèdre blends, they often have Australia or France’s Rhône Valley in mind … think Chile with this succulent, smooth and spicy Novas wine. One of our favourites!
Best Chilean organic white wine to try
Sauvignon Blanc is the wine that Chile exports the most to the UK. We just love it! So, if you’re still a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc virgin, the zesty Adobe Sauvignon Blanc will show you why these wines are such a hit.
Also, in the Adobe range is the Gewürztraminer. A grape that’s originally from Alsace, it’s still only very modestly planted in Chile. . Get ahead of the curve, be a trendsetter and order this wine! It’s wonderfully exotic and lightly spicy.
Signos de Origen is a thrilling, opulent blend of Chardonnay, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. Lavishly textured with vanilla-scented orchard fruit flavours and impressive length, it shows the excellent value for money that Chile offers.
Owner and winemaker at Antial & Pura Fe