Chile has a long viticultural history for a New World wine region dating to the 16th century. In the mid-19th century, French wine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Cabernet Franc were introduced. In the early 1980s, a renaissance began with the introduction of stainless steel fermentation tanks and the use of oak barrels for ageing. Wine exports grew very quickly as quality wine production increased.
The number of wineries has grown from 12 in 1995 to over 70 in 2005.
Chile is now the fifth largest exporter of wines in the world, and the ninth largest producer. The climate has been described as midway between that of California and France. The most common grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère.
Chile is a long, narrow country that is geographically and climatically dominated by the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Chile's vineyards are found along an 800-mile stretch of land from Atacama Region to the Bio-Bio Region in the south. The climate is varied with the northern regions being very hot and dry compared to the cooler, wetter regions in the south. In the Valle Central around Santiago, the climate is dry with an average of 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain and little risk of springtime frost. The proximity to the Dry Andes help create a wide diurnal temperature variation between day and nighttime temperatures. This cool drop in temperature is vital in maintaining the grapes' acidity levels.
The vineyards of Chile fall between the latitudes of 32 and 38° s which, in the Northern Hemisphere would be the equivalent of southern Spain and North Africa. However the climate in Chile's wine regions is much more temperate than those regions, comparing more closely to California and Bordeaux. Overall, it is classified as a Mediterranean climate with average summer temperatures of 59-64°F (15-18°C) and potential highs of 86 °F (30 °C).
There is not much vintage variation due to the reliability of favorable weather with little risk of summer time frost or harvest time rains.
Harvest typically begins at the end of February for varieties like Chardonnay with some red wine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon being picked in April and Carménère sometimes staying on the vine into May.
Over twenty grape varieties are grown in Chile, mainly a mixture of Spanish and French varieties, but many wineries are increasing experimentation in higher numbers.
For most of Chile's history, Pais was the most widely planted grape only recently getting passed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Other red wine varieties include Merlot, Carménère, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet franc, Pinot noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec, and Carignan. White wine varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon vert, Sémillon, Riesling, Viognier, Torontel, Pedro Ximénez, Gewürztraminer and Muscat of Alexandria.
Chilean winemakers have been developing a distinct style for their Cabernet Sauvignon, producing an easy drinking wine with soft tannins and flavors of mint, black currant, olives and smoke.