Wines around the capital since the conquistadors
Wine grapes have grown in Chile since they arrived with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, but few people abroad had heard of Chilean wines until the 1980s. Early wines were produced for immediate consumption, so the first vineyards cropped up around population centers, particularly the colonial capital of Santiago.
Just outside central Santiago are two of Chile’s most historic vineyards. Visitors can reach these estates in as little as 40 minutes by using the city’s efficient, easily-navigated public transit. For those with limited time in Santiago but still eager to see Chile’s world-renowned vineyards, the estates of the Maipo Valley offer a quick and convenient taste of Chilean wines and their history.
Chilean wine has been through several small revolutions, notably around the turn of the 20th century when European grapes were imported for the first time. Liberalization of trade policies began in the 1970s, but it was not until Chile’s emergence from financial and economic crisis in the early 1980s that Chile’s wine industry gained international attention.
In 1994, a French botanist discovered that what had been grown in Chile as Merlot was in fact the ancient French grape Carménère, long since thought extinct. The appearance of this grape and increasing numbers of small, artisanal producers inspired worldwide interest. In the past decade, Chilean wines have won major awards at tastings around the world. In a 2004 tasting in Berlin comparing wines from France, Italy and Chile, a board of 36 judges awarded first and third places to Chilean Cabernet blends.
Acres of vines within easy reach of Downtown Santiago
The first Chilean wine revolution happened on Santiago’s doorstep. At the turn of the 20th century, two of the country’s most historic vineyards were planted in the Maipo Valley, just outside Santiago. Matias Cousiño purchased 1100 hectares along the fringe of the Andes in 1856, and Don Melchor Concha y Toro purchased his estate in the town Pirque in 1883. In the last decades of the century, Cousiño’s son and daughter-in-law, Luis and Isidora, and Don Melchor brought clippings of old growth vines from Bordeaux to cultivate on their estates. These vines have continued to thrive as Santiago has expanded.
Despite early similarities, the two estates have followed different courses into the 21st century. Concha y Toro is now the largest wine producer in Latin America, and one of the ten largest producers in the world. Concha y Toro’s high-end wines consistently receive high marks in the wine press and competitions over seas, while entry level bottles are readily available in 90 countries.
Cousiño-Macul has maintained smaller operations, producing about 250,000 cases of wine annually. Now under the stewardship of the seventh generation of Cousiño’s, the company is the oldest in Chile continuously owned by one family. In 1996, 80% of the company’s production was moved to a new estate south of Santiago, but some of the labels finest wines are still produced at the century-old grounds in Santiago.
Both historic estates host visitors throughout the year for tours and tastings. Concha y Toro’s estate at Pirque hosts Spanish and English tours by reservation only. Cousiño-Macul offers public tours Monday through Saturday in English and Spanish throughout the day including a walk through the century-old bodega and its cellars. A new gastronomic tour program will include a tour as a well as a seasonal gourmet lunch served on site. Chef Guillermo Rodriquez, who specializes in contemporary approaches to Chilean cuisine, will design his menus to pair with Cousiño-Macul’s wines.
Both estates can be reached from Central Santiago using Metro Line 4 and a short taxi ride.
Some smaller, younger vineyards are easily reached from downtown Santiago as well. Aquitania offers in depth tours of its estate and grounds only a few minutes beyond Cousiño-Macul. The vineyards of the Ruta Maipo Alto farther south include beautiful contemporary architecture and some of Chile’s primary biodynamic winemakers. Between Santiago and Valparaiso, the Ruta Casablanca produces Chile’s best white wines. Day trips along both routes can be arranged easily through tour operators in Santiago.