Once upon a time, you'd grab a so-so $9 Cabernet from Chile to bring to a housewarming, or sip a glass of just-okay Chilean Chardonnay at a wedding and not think twice about it. I have some good news: today's Chilean wine scene has gotten more quality-focused, and more and more of Chile's wines are unique, interesting, and delicious. Many producers—notably Veramonte and Emiliana—have made strong commitments to organic and biodynamic agriculture, and winemakers are busy exploring the country's old vines and unique terroir.
The best part? Even these new-wave Chilean wines offer a great bang for your buck. If you're shopping for value—good wines and good prices—Chile is still the place to look. It's just that the wines are better than ever before.
What's on the Label
Chilean law requires that that the stated grape, vintage, and geographical area (Denominación de Origen) make up 75% of what's in the bottle. That's right, up to a quarter of the bottle's contents doesn't need to be disclosed. But in practice, most Chilean wines will contain at least 85% of what's claimed on the label, so the bottles remain legal for distribution in Europe.
One heads up: some terms on Chilean wine labels aren't that helpful. For example, Reserva or Reserva Especial indicates that the wine is at least 12% alcohol. Reserva Privada and Gran Reserva bump that requirement up to 12.5%. Additionally, Reserva Especial and Gran Reserva can be used if the wine has seen at least a little oak. But none of these terms will actually give you any sense of quality: for example, you could buy great Sauvignon Blanc from a chilly vineyard that doesn't meet these requirements, and crummy Cabernet Sauvignon from a hot area that does.
The Lay of the Land
One glance at a map and you know that the geography of Chile is truly unique. While it would take you a week to drive north to south, you could explore the widest point from east to west in a single afternoon. The Andes divide the country from Argentina—whose famous wine region of Mendoza is just a couple hundred miles east of Chile's capital, Santiago.
Though the country is quite narrow from east to west, you may soon start to see some wine labels clarifying where the vineyards fall: Costa (near the coast), Andes (near the mountains), and Entre Cordilleras (in between).
Thirsty yet? Let's take a look at the major grapes you'll find in Chilean wine.
Bright, herbal, and tart: much of the best Chilean Sauvignon Blanc comes from the coastal Casablanca and Leyda valleys. These spots receive chilly ocean breezes, keeping the grapes fresh-tasting while they ripen in the warm sun.
If you enjoy zippy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, try the Anakena Enco 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($11) from the Leyda Valley. The aromas of parsley, jalapeño, and grapefruit burst from the glass. The vibrant acidity makes it a great pairing for anything you'd squeeze a lemon on—try it with seafood.
Much like coastal regions of California, like Sonoma and Santa Barbara, cooler climates around Chile allow Chardonnay to shine, retaining acid and avoiding overripeness. Look for wines from the sea-influenced Casablanca and Limarí Valleys or the southern, wind-blown Malleco Valley.
One bottle we love: Viña Aquitania's 2009 Sol de Sol Chardonnay ($28) is fermented in oak, yielding a rich texture (and hints of roasted hazelnuts) beautifully balanced by lots of acidity. Each sip offers a taste of crisp red apple, bright lemon, and sour cream.
Other Great Whites
The northernmost region of Coquimbo is more known for its pisco than fine wine. But some producers here are making great wine from grapes once considered only fit for distilling. Try Mayu's 2014 Pedro Ximenez ($13) from the Elquí Valley. It's perfect for a summer picnic, full of tart lime and white grapefruit flavors—nothing like the sweet, viscous Spanish wines made from this grape.
Up for more exploring? One of my favorite Chilean whites is Casa Silva's 2012 Sauvignon Gris ($16 ) from Colchagua. The vines for this bottling date back to 1912—it's a reminder that Chile is no newcomer when it comes to wine. The grape name may be unfamiliar, but the wine is delicious, with a rich texture and peachy-honeydew flavors that make it more comparable to an Oregon Pinot Gris than your average Sauvignon Blanc. It balances a creamy texture with tons of freshness; serve it with picnic charcuterie or a nice plate of seared scallops.
Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the sun-drenched Central Valley, a large area around Santiago that is made up of four other valleys: Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, and Maule.
If you regularly find yourself drinking Cabernets from Napa or Washington State and you're looking for something a little more affordable, start with Maipo. This is where you'll find many masters of the grape, including familiar brands like Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and Cousiño Macul. The area's warm sunshine yields ripe grapes that produce powerful, concentrated wines filled with ripe blackberry, chocolate, and tobacco flavors. For $15, pick up Veramonte's 2011 Primus Cabernet Sauvignon to serve with roasted chicken (or pour at a party.)
If you are a looking for the best of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (and you have deep pockets), seek out bottles from the renowned district of Puente Alto, known for gravel soils that some compare to the vineyards of Bordeaux. Famous bottlings from this region include Concha y Toro's Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon blend ($75) and Errazuriz's Viñedo Chadwick Cabernet Sauvignon ($160).
Chileans have grown Carmenère for over a hundred years, but it was long mistaken for a type of Merlot. It wasn't until 1994 that the grape was correctly identified. You can also find it in southwest France and Italy, but Chile has been flying the Carmenère flag the highest of all.
Carmenère has a lot of 'green' flavors—think tomato leaves and green bell peppers. Some might call them a turnoff, but when these traits are balanced with acid and freshness, an herbal, vegetal wine can pair quite well with food, especially—you guessed it—herbs and vegetables.
If you're a fan of, say, Cabernet Franc from Chinon in France, these are wines you should seek out. And if you love IPA, these herbal, green aromas might not be new to you: "It's like hoppy wine," Chris Raftery, a sommelier in New York observes.
If you're just getting started with Carmenère, you might as well go to the source: De Martino was the first to bottle the grape on its own, back in 1996. The De Martino Legado Reserva Carmenère 2012 ($12) from Maipo has the grape's characteristic tobacco and bell pepper flavors, but they're well balanced with black cherry and a hint of smoke.
Syrah lovers will find that Chile has a bunch of great wines to discover: wines that highlight ripe, supple fruit flavors while letting Syrah's classic peppery, bacony flavors shine through. High altitude and coastal breezes help moderate the heat of the northern valleys of the Elquí and Limarí, where Syrah thrives. I love the combination of ripe plum and savory black olive flavors in Merino's 2012 Syrah ($16) from the Limarí Valley, which is made with a splash of Viognier, just like they do it in the Rhône.
Growers in the Maule Valley have a treasure-trove of old-vine Carignan that is just coming into the spotlight today. Carignan vines were planted after a devastating earthquake in 1939 that left growers with scant crops. The grape thrives on the dry, hot climate of the Maule Valley—a climate not too different from that of Southern France or Spain, where the grape is called Mazuelo and Carineña. These old vines produce tannic, high acid wines that mingle fresh raspberry and black cherry flavors with an earthy, cedar-wood edge.
You may spot bottles with 'Vigno' on the label: this stands for Vignadores de Carignan, a group of growers in the Maule offering wine from vines that are at least 30 years old and dry farmed (that is, grown without irrigation.) One favorite: Garcia + Schwaderer's 2010 Maule Valley Vigno Carignan($40). Brambly blackberry and white pepper flavors, significant tannins, and lots of acidity make this a fantastic match for a fatty steak. Other producers to seek out include Gillmore and Garage Wine Co.
Drive toward Antarctica and you'll hit the the valleys of Itata, Bío Bío, and Malleco. Thanks to the cooler temperatures in these regions, Pinot Noir can ripen slower over the growing season, which helps the grape keep its nuanced aromas and fresh acidity.
Up for an adventure? The Clos de Fous Latuffa 2012 Pinot Noir ($30) from Traiguén in Malleco is unlike any wine I've tasted. One of the partners in the project is Pedro Parra, a wine terroir consultant who is really pushing for the discovery and appreciation of Chile's soils. There are classic pinot flavors of black cherry and rose petals, but it's all wrapped in an intriguing combination of gentian, sage, and pine that'll have you thinking of your favorite amaro.
Note: Casa Silva, Clos de Fous, Merino, Sol de Sol, Garcia + Schwaderer, and Mayu were provided as tasting samples for review consideration.
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