Wine was first brought to Chile in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, most likely from vineyards in Peru, which at this time were already well established. As the legend goes, Francisco de Aguirre planted the first grape vines in Chile. Early vineyards in the country were cultivated by Jesuit priests, much as the Benedictines did in France, and the wine produced was used in Catholic masses.
While Chile was under Spanish rule, there was a stipulation in place in regards to viticulture that stated that Chilean vineyards were restricted in production, and that the majority of the wine in the country had to be imported from Spain. Both Chile and Peru were banned from exporting their wines to Spain, which handicapped the wine industries of both countries. Chile, for the most part, ignored these restrictions by exporting wine to Peru and preferring Chilean wines to the Spanish imports.
In the 1700s, Chile was known primarily for sweet wines. After a shipwreck off of Cape Horn, Admiral John Byron – the grandfather of Lord Byron – travelled throughout Chile, and, upon returning to England, sang the praises of Chilean sweet wines.
French winemaking techniques influenced the Chilean wine industry much more than the Spanish did, despite Chile’s strong political ties to Spain. Chile’s signature grape variety, the Carmenere, was once grown in Bordeaux, while its Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignon both make up a large part of the country’s exports. This originates with the Chilean landowners of the 1800s, who travelled to France, learned how the French produced their wines and brought the grapes and techniques back to Chile.
While Chile’s wineries never got hit with the phylloxera epidemic that decimated many of the world’s wineries, political instability in Chile in the 1900s destabilised the Chilean wine industry to a great extent.
However, in the late 1900s, investors began to once again see the opportunities that the region provided in wine making and helped Chile to produce premium quality wines. Chile soon began to heavily distribute its wines internationally and is now the fifth largest exporter in the world.
Even though Chile has had its difficulties, its wines are finally gaining the recognition they deserve on the world stage.