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Chile

In the long, narrow South American country of Chile, the history of wine divides neatly into past, present and future in a way unparalleled in any other wine-producing country. While wine has been produced here for over four hundred years, exposure to the sophistication of a worldwide wine market has caused Chile's industry to change course almost overnight. It has gone from producing the most generic red and white table wines to the lofty ambition of mastering refined French varietals. This new version of the industry is still very young, and a Chilean national wine style, like the country's place among the world's wines, is still being determined. History The first vines planted in Chile were brought in the mid-1550's by Spanish missionaries who wanted table and sacramental wines. These Spanish varietals, particularly Pais and Moscatel (still produced today), supplied Chileans plentifully for several hundred years. Winemakers used primitive techniques (wines were often sweetened and stabilized with boiled must, for example) to produce rustic wines for basic appetites. In the nineteenth century Chile became independent of Spanish rule, and a newly prosperous upper class (often funded largely by mineral wealth) began to travel to Europe, where they came to appreciate French wines. In a scenario familiar in wine regions worldwide, some of these gentleman farmers conceived a fashion for proprietary vineyards, complete with imported French vines and winemakers. In the nineteenth century Chile became independent of Spanish rule, and a newly prosperous upper class (often funded largely by mineral wealth) began to travel to Europe, where they came to appreciate French wines. In a scenario familiar in wine regions worldwide, some of these gentleman farmers conceived a fashion for proprietary vineyards, complete with imported French vines and winemakers. By importing cuttings of the great Bordeaux varietals, Chileans discovered they were able to produce a superior class of wines, and the modern era of winemaking began. In 1830, Claudio Gay, a Frenchman, persuaded the government to establish an official plant nursery called the Quinta Normal for botanical studies. A number of its first specimens were healthy French vinifera vines, which geographical isolation shielded from phylloxera and other European ailments. In the second half of the nineteenth century, while their vineyards of origin were being devastated, Chile's vines remained untouched by phylloxera and downy mildew - a situation which continues to the present. A receptive public and healthy, prolific vines made wine profitable, and the gentrified wine industry came to be controlled by only ten wealthy families. By 1900, Chile vinified generous yields of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmen're (a lesser Bordeaux varietal) as well as the old Spanish varietals for the domestic market. With Allende's death in 1973, political power passed to the repressive military government of Augusto Pinochet, which stopped the process of nationalization and restored vineyards to historic families but did not remedy the wine industry's woes. The ensuing seventeen years brought civil war and social instability, further weakening wine production. Nearly half the country's vineyards were pulled or out of production by the early 1980's, and the industry was moribund. When democracy and stability were restored in the1980's, however, large international producers were eager to invest in Chile's great agricultural potential. The wine world was ready for an economical source of value-priced varietals, and Chile was uniquely prepared to satisfy this niche. Its stable work force, tested climate, and proven record as a wine-producing nation attracted corporations from France, the United States, Spain, Australia and Japan. The new companies invested heavily in modern technology and revitalized and replanted vineyards. Twenty-five thousand acres of premium plantings, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, were installed between 1987-1993. In a great burst of modernization, the new investors upgraded older wineries, installed state of the art production facilities, and brought in a new generation of university-educated winemakers. Many of the new Chilean winemakers came from the University of Santiago, but a notable minority of experts from France and the United States also brought their names and expertise to the new operations. Results were startling: Chile became known almost overnight as the value wine capital of the world, and by 1999 exports of over $500 million surpassed the 1990 figure by nearly ten times. Millions of consumers now associate the country's name with cheap and cheerful varietal wines delicious for immediate drinking. Now the same international producers who have pulled Chilean wines up by their bootstraps with modern technology are poised to attack the fine wines category. As the Bordeaux of the Southern Hemisphere, Chile hopes to move beyond the everyday category to produce distinctive reserve wines suitable for aging -- and refined enough to impress connoisseurs. Though resources and determination are certainly at hand, the modern Chilean wine industry is too young to have developed distinctive regional styles. It remains to be seen whether Chile can take advantage of its distinctive terroir to produce Bordeaux varietals as distinguished as their French forbears, and whether the world market will be open to an expansion of the Chilean identity. Climate/Cultivation Chile's grapes come from the 600 mile long Central Valley. Situated in the middle third of the country (north to south), this is one of the world's most fertile agricultural zones, supplying enormous yields of fruits and vegetables as well as wine and table grapes. The valley is a long plateau between two mountain ranges: the majestic Andes, which rise to 23,000 feet to the east, and the lower coastal range, whose elevation varies from 7,000 feet (west of the capital Santiago, at the northern end of the valley) to around 1,000 feet (at the southern end near Concepci'n). Climate within the central valley is Mediterranean, with maximum summer temperatures between 59 and 86 degrees F (15 to 30 degrees C). Though breaks in the coastal range allow for variations and cooler sub-regions (such as northerly Casablanca, where marine influence reaches inland), northern areas are usually warmer and southern areas cooler. The eastern side of the central valley near the base of the Andes has higher humidity and cooler nighttime temperatures. The coastal mountains intercept most of the precipitation coming from the Pacific, causing it to fall on their western slopes. In the dry valley, rain is a moderate 14-31" per year, with the higher numbers occurring to the south and west, the rain shadow of the coastal range. As it rains only in winter, about one-half of Chilean vineyards require irrigation; but water is plentiful in the many rivers which drain the Andes snowpack. Though areas such as Colchagua have begun to investigate the possibilities of hillside vineyards and lower yields, most Chilean vines are planted on flat, fertile land, where soils may be alluvial, loam, clay and mud in the north and gradually give way to tuffeau, volcanic, sand and sandy loam toward the south. Poorly drained areas, mostly in the south, can be swampy. The long, isolated history of the Chilean wine industry has led to questions about the identity of vines propagated there, particularly "Sauvignon," "Semillon" and "Riesling." These have tended to produce watery, dilute wines without much character and have probably been incorrectly identified lesser varietals; they may also suffer from dilution due to overly generous irrigation or fertile soils. New plantings coming from European cuttings will obviate these questions of identity, and better controls should allow winemakers to determine the true prospects for fine wine varietals in various terroirs. The Chardonnay-based sparkling wines of the cool Casablanca Valley in particular indicate that with proper management, Chilean vineyards can produce fine white wines as well as the more familiar reds. Varietal Information As long as the country produced wines only for an isolated domestic market, Chilean winemakers relied on hardy varietals that provided large volumes of bulk wine. Many of these vineyards are still in production, with the red grape Pais the best example, representing nearly half the vineyard acreage as recently as 1992. Moscatel Alejandria, Sauvignon (mostly Sauvignon Vert or Sauvigon Gris), Sauvignonasse, and Torontel, all still produced, fall into the same category. The modern Chilean wine industry has invested heavily in high quality red varietals for export, currently producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Syrah. The French Carmen're, first brought to Chile in the 1800's, has become a flagship varietal. Prestige white grapes include Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling. Most new vineyards with advanced technological resources are planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Ironically, Chilean consumers can find it difficult to locate these new wines in their own country, as producers have concentrated on shipping the status varietals abroad. Classifications In 1995 Chile established a 75 percent rule in a new wine appellation system. This law governs variety, vintage and exact origin, allowing only 25 percent of a bottle's contents to vary from the specifications on its label. There is no particular requirement regarding the production of Reserva wines, but all wines displaying the special designation of Reserva, Gran Reserva and Reserva Especial must indicate place of origin. From north to south, the wine regions designated by the 1995 law are Aconcagua (incorporating Casablanca), the Central Valley (including Maipo, Rapel, Curic', and Maule), and the Southern Region (including Itata and B'o-B'o). The Atacama and Coquimbo regions in the very hot area north of the central valley are also identified, but the grapes they produce are primarily for spirits (Pisco) and table use.