Chile first began making wine back in the mid-16th century, when Spanish conquistadors and Jesuit missionaries planted the first vines. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that local winemakers began to employ modern viticulture methods and state-of-the-art technology. Today, Chile's wine regions are considered major players in the global wine industry.
The country’s diverse landscapes, natural barriers – from the Pacific Ocean’s rollers to the barren Atacama Desert and the snow-capped Andes – and climatic conditions create the perfect grape-growing terroir. Many of its vineyards are easy to reach, set in fertile valleys across the country’s central plain, both north and south of the capital Santiago. The majority of the New World wines that Chile produces are red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and the country’s signature Carmenere. Whites include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Read on for our guide to five of Chile's wine regions where you can sample the country's finest vino.
You've most likely heard of the most famous of Chile’s wine regions, the Maipo Valley. It stretches east from Santiago all the way to the foothills of the majestic Andes. Some of the Maipo Valley’s most historic vineyards date back to the Spanish conquistadors, but the region really began to flourish in the 19th century. It was then that Bordeaux grapes were imported from France and began to thrive in its temperate climate. Today Maipo Valley is home to some of Chile’s finest Cabernet Sauvignons, and it's here that you can find world-class wines such as Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor and Viña Santa Rita’s Casa Real. It’s the closest wine region to Santiago and you can reach it in an easy half-day trip.
This contemporary Chilean wine-growing region is close to Pacific Ocean, between Santiago and the port city of Valparaiso. The Casablanca Valley was established in the 1980s, when Pablo Morandé – ‘The Pioneer’ – planted the country’s first cool-climate vineyards. It quickly became one of Chile's most important white wine producing regions. It focuses on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Veramonte is arguably the region’s best-known winery. Elsewhere, Matetic Vineyard produces tropical, citrus-scented Sauvignon Blancs and a flagship spicy Syrah. Like Maipo Valley, you can visit it on a day trip from the capital or tie it in with Valparaíso's maze of steep streets and brightly coloured houses.
Around 160km south of Santiago, the Colchagua Valley is often dubbed the Napa Valley of South America. If you're a red wine lover, it should be your first port of call. Home to around 1,700 vineyards, it’s a region known for its intense and aromatic Chilean speciality grape Carmenere. Colchagua Valley's Carmenere, along with its Syrah and Malbec, make regular appearances on the world’s best-of lists. It’s also one of the most visitor-friendly wine routes, with top wineries including Casa Lapostolle and Viña Montes. If you visit in March, you can celebrate all things vino related at the annual three-day Grape Harvest Festival that takes place around the colonial town of Santa Cruz. Away from the wine tastings, you'll find that the valley is great place for hiking, biking and horse riding.
Just 65km north of Santiago, the broad valley is best known for the soaring snow-capped peak of Aconcagua. At a breathtaking 6,960 metres above sea level, you might already know it as the highest point in the Western Hemisphere, but it’s also making a name for itself in wine production. The mountain may sit in Argentina but it supplies the pure meltwater needed by the valley’s vineyards. The region typically has hot summers and mild winters, with lower-altitude zones getting hardly any rain. It produces delicious reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Put Viña Errázuriz, one of the region's top wineries, on your bucket list. And while scaling Aconcagua mountain isn’t for the fainthearted – it requires months of training – there are plenty of less challenging hikes for you to try.
The most northerly of Chile’s wine growing regions, the Elqui Valley sits on the edge of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. This narrow canyon sees hot sunny days and cold nights with barely any rainfall. It's becoming renowned for its Syrahs at vineyards such as Elqui Valley, where they create organic wines using traditional methods. The valley’s more longstanding claim-to-fame is pisco. This high-proof spirit is made by distilling fermented grape juice and is the star of the cocktail the Pisco Sour. The drink's origin is the source of a long-standing feud between Chile and Peru, who both claim to have invented it.
There are plenty of hiking, biking and trekking opportunities around the valley, and you can round off the day with some amazing stargazing. The valley is home to the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Observatory, the world’s first International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Thinking of sampling Chile's wonderful produce for yourself? Visit Chile's wine regions on a Rough Guides tailor-made trip.
Top image: Vineyards in the spring at Chile's Elqui Valley © Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock