Aconcagua Valley, Chile

Today we visit Chile, seen as a relative newcomer to the global wine scene, but with a surprisingly long history; vines were first planted here by Spanish migrants in 1550! It was the French influence in the first half of the 19th century however that had the most profound effect on the quality of Chilean wine, and today Chile enjoys a comfortable position on supermarket and wine store shelves all around the world (interesting fact; it is the biggest importer of wine to Sweden!), and is seen as a source of reliably good quality wines at affordable prices.

The Aconcagua Valley is one of the key wine growing areas of Chile. Only 100km north-west of Chile’s capital, Santiago, the Aconcagua Valley is a fantastic tourist spot. The name ‘Aconcagua’ means ‘Stone Sentinel’ in the ancient native language, and the valley is named after the mountain which makes up its eastern border, which at 6962m high, is not only the highest peak of the Andes, but the highest point in all of the Americas! This mountain has an important influence on growing grapes in the valley, seen as folly in the early 19th century, mostly due to the fact that at 32 degrees latitude, the region was considered far too hot for quality viticulture. As a comparison, the same 33 degrees in a European sense would place the vines in Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa! (As a side note I must add, these countries do grow wine, however they are not traditionally known for their high quality.) The mountain not only shades the region from hot winds from the dry central area of Argentina, but provides life giving fresh water and mineral-laden silt via rivers of snowmelt, both obviously key aspects of quality viticulture. The majority of vineyards in the region hug the shores of the rivers and their tributaries that flow down from the mountains on the way into the Pacific Ocean. The ocean also plays an important part in cooling the region; the Humbolt Current, which originates in Antarctica, runs along the entire west coast of Chile, meaning water temperatures are significantly lower than in other comparable regions on the same latitude such as Newcastle in NSW, or Perth, WA. Breeze off the cold water provides a cool afternoon change, which gives the vines a break from the heat overnight, and prevents the breakdown of all-important acid in the berry. CLICK MAP FOR LARGER VERSION

The soils of the Aconcagua Valley also play an important part in the viticulture of the region, although not in the same way as the limestone soils of Champagne or the blue slate of the Mosel. The soils of the Aconcagua region are predominantly sandy- a soil type that doesn’t really add much to the flavours of the grape, but here is more important for what it prevents. The Aconcagua is and always has been a phylloxera-free area; the tiny grapevine-root-eating louse cannot breed in the sand, meaning the area is immune to its ravages. Today phylloxera (for a brief history see; is manageable by grafting European vines onto American roots, which have a naturally evolved resistance to the louse, however these foreign roots can effect nutrient uptake of the vine, and many believe this effects final flavour of the wine. Before the discovery of root-grafting however, the European wine industry endured decades of decimation, where it is estimated between 65-90% of native European vines were destroyed. Chile, and most specifically the Aconcagua, was the only region of any quality and consequence on the planet not being affected by this disease, and as a result, many French winemakers immigrated to Chile to start a new life. This also coincided with a period of prosperity in Chile brought on by a mining boom, meaning local wealthy Chileans welcomed these winemakers with open arms to improve the quality of Chilean wine, a task they set to with gusto. These winemakers brought with them local vines they wanted to save from the decimation they faced back home in France, which is why today around 60% of production coming out of the Aconcagua is red Bordeaux blends. One of the lesser-known varietals brought across from Bordeaux, but lost during the phylloxera devastation, was Carmenere. This variety, thought extinct for almost a century, is now one of the most-grown and popular varietals of the Aconcagua. Wines made from this unique varietal are distinctly chocolate-flavoured with a hint of dusty roast coffee.

Today the quality of wines from this region is no secret, even to the point of the institution of a sub-region known for very high quality within Aconcagua known as the Casablanca Valley, which due to its proximity to the ocean is slightly cooler and can produce world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Vina Errázuriz was the first producer in the region, and today is the biggest and best known, with some world-class wines. There has been some interest from outside winemakers also; ‘Sena’, is wine produced as a joint venture between Vina Errázuriz and Napa Valley great Robert Mondavi, and John Duval, ex-head winemaker of cellar-staple Penfolds makes wine in Chile at Vina Ventisquero.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager