Oh, you guys. Chile is a lot more complicated than I initially thought it would be. Help me break it down a bit?
Chile’s winegrape growing region is a long skinny one, with vineyard plantings spanning over 900 kilometers from north to south, but just 100 kilometers from east to west. The four key geographical features that define the area are 1) the Pacific Ocean to the West along with the coastal ranges 2) the Andes to the east 3) two mountain ranges that merge just north of Santiago and 4) the great depression between the two ranges to the south of Santiago creating what is called the Central Valley.
Chile has a warm, Mediterranean climate. One major vineyard concern is drought, as the regions are dry and sunny and experience minimal annual rainfall. Although irrigation is utilized, water for irrigation is in short supply. The other concern comes with the weather: El Niño and La Niña. El Niño refers to periods of dramatically increased rainfall levels; La Niña refers to periods of excessive drought.
Chilean Wine Laws
In Chile, vineyard areas are divided into several Denominaciones de Origen, or DOs. The four main regions are: Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Valle Central, and Southern Region. These DOs are then sub-divided into 13 sub regions. These sub-regions are then broken up into zones. Apparently the DOs and sub-regions were created based more on politics than grape growing, so it’s not until you get to the zone level that you can see commonalities between vineyard sites regarding climate and terroir. However, in 2012, a new classification was put in place defining vineyard regions according to their distance from the coast: Costa, Entre Cordilleras, and Andes. These terms can now be found on labels in addition to the DO.
Also, a good thing to note is that Chile does utilize the terminology Reserva, Reserva Especial, Reserva Privada, and Gran Reserva—similar to what you’d read in Spain. However, these words are “loosely defined,” but are a good way to determine the quality levels within a producer’s portfolio.
1) List the four sub-regions of the Central Valley in Chile from north to south.
Alright, so a bit about the Central Valley: This is where the majority of Chilean vineyards lie. It is an expansive, flat and warm region, focused on inexpensive and fruity wines, the dominant grapes being Merlot and Chardonnay. The four sub-regions are:
- Maipo Valley: Maipo Valley is considered “the heartland of the Chilean wine industry,” simply because it is the closest to the country’s capital, Santiago. As it is almost completely surrounded by mountains, there is very little coastal influence that reaches the vineyards. However, the more prestigious vineyards lie on the foothills of the Andes, receive cooling influences from the mountain, and are known to produce a minty Cabernet Sauvignon. (Test Tip: Maipo Valley, Mountainous, Minty Cabernet 😉 )
- Rapel: This sub-region is quite diverse and contains two unique, defining zones. Cachapol Valley in the north is warm, cut off by oceanic influence. The valley floor is predominantly planted to Carmenére, whereas the foothills to the east of the zone are better suited to Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the more southern portion of Rapel, we find Colchagua Valley which is larger and more diverse than Cachapoal Valley. Again we have warmer valley floors, cooler valley hillsides. Also, the center portion of this zone is open to oceanic influence—to the west where that influence is strongest is where white winegrapes are planted. However, in general, Colchagua is noted for red wine production.
- Curico Valley: Along with Maule Valley, Curico Valley is a warm region filled with fertile soils—an excellent source for inexpensive, high-volumes of red and white blends.
- Maule Valley: It is noted that vineyards in Maule Valley are a bit cooler than those found in Curico, thus the wines here retain a higher level of acidity (awesome for blending). FUN FACT: The region is also home to dry-farmed, old-vines—notably Carignan, which can produce full-bodied, concentrated wines from these oldies.
2) In which region of Chile does the Elqui Valley reside?
Elqui Valley resides in the Coquimbo Region, so let’s talk a little bit about Coquimbo. This is the northern-most region of Chile’s grapegrowing areas. The three sub-regions in Coquimbo are:
- Elqui Valley
- Limari Valley
- Choapa Valley
All three regions are noted for sunlight and cooling influences from either the ocean or the mountains, depending on location, as well as (recently planted vineyards) altitude. The biggest vineyard challenge: drought. Grapes to know: Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah (Elqui) and Chardonnay (Limari).
3) What features influence the climate in the Casablanca and San Antonio Valley in Chile?
Ok, so first thing to know is that both Casablanca and San Antonio Valley are located in the Aconcagua Region of Chile, which, if you look at a map, is actually the smallest of the four grapegrowing regions. (See the purple stuff above.) Aconcagua is actually divided up into three sub-regions:
- Aconcagua Valley: This are a is a steep and narrow valley that receives cooling influence from both the Pacific and the Andes. However, it’s also noted that the valley floor of Aconcagua is actually home to some of the warmest vineyard conditions in Chile. Grapes to know: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carmenére. FUN FACT: As one would think, given the conditions on the valley floor, red wines produced in this region have typically been full, fruit forward, high in alcohol and tannins. However, as more plantings have been moved to either the coast or to the foothills, the style has changed to a more refined, lower alcohol, and fresher fruit expression.
- Casablanca Valley
- San Antonio Valley: These two are a bit lumped together, as they’re neighboring vineyard sites. The key thing that is true to both regions is that they are noted for being some of the coolest vineyard locations, due to the fact that they lie between the coastal mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Thus, they not only get cool ocean breezes in the afternoon, they also experience quite a bit of morning fog. So, as one would expect white wine is the name of the game here, namely Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. When it comes to red, Pinot Noir is king, although it’s noted that Syrah in Casablanca‘s warmest regions, does quite well.
4) What is the name of the current that flows up from Antarctica into Chile?
It is the Humboldt Current that flows from Antarctica into Chile providing cool winds into Chile. If I understand correctly, this is what provides the cool winds that come off the ocean and into the vineyards along the coast, reaching inland vineyards as well where the coastal range is lower and non-protective. Of course, for those areas even further inland, it is the cold air blowing down the Andes that will help moderate the temperature.
So that’s the Q&A I could find on Chile, but I want to touch on a few things that these questions didn’t. First things first, we totally left out a region:
The Southern Region
The Southern Region is broken up into three sub regions:
- Itata Valley: This, along with BÍo BÍo, is one of the larger two vineyard locations. The grapes to know are PaÍs and Muscat of Alexandria.
- BÍo BÍo: The second of the two largest vineyard locations. The grapes to know here are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Malleco: This is the smallest, most southerly sub-region in The Southern Region. It is noted for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well.
As one may suspect, this being the Southern Hemisphere, the sub-regions of The Southern Region get wetter and cooler the further south you go. (And, this is already the “southern region” of Chile). So it makes sense that the cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would be the name of the game. Just putting that out there.
Chilean Grapes to Know
I touched a bit on the grapes from the various regions, but a few other details about those…
Red Grapes to Know
- Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the most planted red wine grape variety, produced in a variety of styles. It is often blended with Merlot, Carmenére, and/or Syrah.
- Carmenére: This is a late ripening grape that is more successful in the warmer regions of Chile, such as Rapel in the Central Valley and Aconcagua Valley in the Aconcagua Region.
- Syrah: This is a widely planted grape and, thus, styles will vary. Those planted in cooler areas (like Elqui) will be lighter and peppery-er; those planted in warmer, flatter areas (like Colchagua) will be fuller-bodied with more intense fruit flavors.
- Pinot Noir: As mentioned, this grape thrives in the coolest vineyard locations, such as San Antonio and Casablanca, as well as The Southern Region.
White Grapes to Know
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Muscat of Alexandria: FUN FACT: is the third most-planted white wine grape variety, but is predominantly used to make a brandy called Pisco.
Oh my goodness that was long. Thank you so much for sticking with me. How’d I do? Did I cover most of the key Chilean wine points? Anything you want to add or correct?
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