South America Guided Tours

Chile: How Chilean Wine Saved the World

Raise a glass to South America next time you enjoy a European vintage.

Wine-lovers should raise a glass to Chile’s freakish geography: Thanks to the country’s isolation on the fringe of South America, its vineyards played an unexpected part in saving the wine industries of Europe. Production first began here with the Spanish conquistadors, who planted the first vines from the pips of raisins they’d carried in their pockets from home. The fertile valleys around Santiago proved ideal for agriculture, and soon immigrants from Germany and Switzerland were bottling wines for the local market. Then, in the 1880s, a visionary landowner named Don Silvester Ochagavía decided to improve the standard by traveling to Bordeaux in France and bringing back vine cuttings. It was a fortuitous move. Not long afterwards, the vineyards of Europe were struck by a plague of the insidious phylloxera insect, which chews away at the roots of the parent stock. The invasion wiped out production in much of France, Italy and Germany. But Chilean vineyards were protected by nature. The central valleys of this spaghetti-like strip of land, nearly 3,000 miles long but only around 100 miles wide, are shielded from vermin and disease. They are protected by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Andes mountains on the east and the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, in the north. Soon the European producers began importing vine cuttings back from Chile to graft them back onto their own depleted stock. It was a close call for wine lovers, who might have lost some of their most beloved varietals. Today, Chile boasts many of the world’s oldest continually growing vines, some over a century old. They are now being hand-crafted into succulent wines that rival anything from the finest producers of Europe.