A retro look at the wines of Chile in America

Cool climate Casablanca (Rutadelvino Valle de Casablanca)

The wines of Chile may be viewed today as inexpensive, everyday wines but its export history to the U.S. suggests a more distinctive past.  My curiosity was piqued when browsing through an old book I picked up at an estate sale in Downtown Napa.  The book is The Gourmet Cookbook Volume II, published over half a century ago in 1957.

I love picking up these old food or wine books since it reveals what consumers liked back then and retro is back in.  The book contained a Wine Sampler that paired foods against the “best-known examples….of wines commonly obtainable in this country.”   As the editors of Gourmet Magazine were the epitome of good living, I was not surprised to see the classic wines of Europe in the headings:  Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Alsace, Loire, as well as Germany, Italy, even Switzerland.

No Napa, no Sonoma, they were all sadly clumped together anonymously in the footnotes as “American Equivalents” by varietal.  But wait, what was this?  Along with all the classic European wines on the Gourmet chart, one stood out as the sole New World wine:  Chile.


I quickly delved into the footnotes to the Wine Sampler to see what specific Chilean wines were well known in the U.S. at the time to merit such listing.  They were not the Bordeaux varieties we see today; instead, the white wines were riesling and Undurraga Rhin (currently a riesling/sauvignon blanc blend) and the red was described as Burgundy, most likely pinot noir.

Undurraga as it turns out is Vina Undurraga, a bodega west of Santiago established in the late 19th century by Don Francisco Undurraga.  He planted a variety of grapes from French and German cuttings including riesling from the Rheingau and was the first Chilean producer to export wines to the U.S. in 1903.

In Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits first published 1967 (another antique shop find from yesterday), he says “One of the best Chilean white wines is the Riesling, but its production is reduced, not because of the quality of wines but because the growers find the results too expensive.”

Things have changed since then.  From 1% of production in the 1960’s, Chilean exports now represent over 60% of production according to the USDA 2011.  The main exported wines are still by far the Bordeaux varietals, but there is renewed excitement for riesling and pinot noir wines being cultivated in cooler regions such as Bio Bio and Casablanca.

Here’s looking forward to the retro wines of Chile!