Recently I sat down with Arturo Cousino, whose family (originally from Galicia in northwest Spain) has been making wines in Chile for more than 150 years. In the past 20 years or so, more Americans than ever before have come to understand that Chile’s combination of quality, value and grapes brought over from Bordeaux (before the phylloxeraepidemic) make Chilean wines a terrific discovery, as the conquistadores figured out in the first place.
As in California (and yes, also here in Texas), initial wine production in Chile followed the padres—the friars, mostly Franciscan, who followed close behind the invading Spanish armies and needed wine to celebrate Mass. For all this antiquity, wine remained basic into the mid-1800s, when a Frenchman convinced the Chilean government to start importing vines from Bordeaux. Little could he know that the world’s most famous wine region would soon lose all its crop, making Chile arguably the best place on earth for growing prephylloxera Bordeaux grapes. The super-dry summers are credited with keeping phylloxera at bay, along with sheer distance from—well, almost anywhere that isn’t Peru.
The most important (and simply the most) wines of Chile are red, not such a shock when you realize the most important grapes are those shared with Bordeaux. Cabernet sauvignon is king down there, along with merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. Still, there are a few delightful whites made, whether chardonnay or lost varieties that live on only there like sauvignon gris.
Today’s Chilean wine industry is a tale of foreign investment. Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild and Pernod Ricard of France are now making wine in Chile, as is Torres of Spain and even Kendall-Jackson of California. All these and more have read the long history, tested the soil, experienced the climate and tasted the wonderful wines that begin in this special place.