When in Chile: How Wine Consumption Differs South of the Equator

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/12/17

It’s been two years since I saw my younger brother, Luis. So with his quick California visit this week, we’ve done plenty of reminiscing, catching up and chatting life, all while going through several bottles of wine. Discussions about how wine is enjoyed in our native Chile, and how it differs from wine consumption in the U.S., have been especially interesting to me.

The winegrowing scene in Chile is actually not all that different from how it’s done in Santa Barbara: coincidentally, the heart of viticulture in both regions is equidistant from the equator – about 34.5 degrees – so things like topography and climate are similar. But a major portion of the wines produced in Chile are earmarked solely for domestic consumption, and wine drinking habits revolve around distinct nuances. Here are a few observations I made this week, between sips.

The Saglie Brothers, from left: Christian, me and Luis
Carmenère is generally considered the national grape of Chile,” Luis tells me. “And carignan has become really popular, too.” You’d be hard-pressed to find either of these grape varieties bottled on their own in California. Carmenère, for example, lives in the shadows of its more famous Bordeaux sisters, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and is used primarily in blends. It makes a dense wine: the 2011 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenère we shared this week was dark, deep and earthy. But in a country where red meat cuisine reigns supreme, carmenère, which thrives in many Chilean vineyards, fits. Carignan is a Mediterranean red grape that exhibits red fruit character and that’s made a few inroads locally; it grows at Camp 4 Vineyard in Santa Ynez and is used in blends by winemakers like Tercero’s Larry Schaffer.
Bang for Your Buck
“You can get a really good bottle of wine for about 4000 or 5000 pesos,” my brother says. That’s less than $8, making dependably good wine particularly affordable in Chile. Here at home, I’d put the comparable price point sweet spot at $15 to $20. Twice as much, and the quality you’re getting is often iffy, while $30-plus should always land you a great bottle. The affordability of good wine in Chile makes it pervasive. “Everyone buys wine, everyone has it at home waiting to pour for guests,” Luis says, “even people who know nothing about wine or who are happy to drink everyday wine out of just a water glass.” In the U.S., he continues, “the everyday wine experience is usually limited to actual wine aficionados,” who are simply more willing to pay more for good wine.
The Experience
Tasting at SB's Municipal Winemakers (I only look shorter because I'm standing further back)
When I last visited Luis in Chile several years ago, we visited Concha y Toro. The world-famous winery is set on a sprawling vineyard estate about an hour outside of Chile, and the visitor experience – from the one-on-one tour with the winemaker to a tour of the estate’s manor house to the sit-down wine lunch – was fantastic. Visiting wineries is common in Chile, although “it’s best to make an appointment and prepare for a full-on wine country experience,” says Luis. He contrasts the hospitality aspect of the Chilean wine experience with the tasting room-driven model in Santa Barbara. In truth, wine tasting in Chile is more immersive -- much more akin to what wine travelers find in Paso Robles and Temecula, where looser restrictions (compared to Santa Barbara) actually allow wineries to build restaurants and even hotels onsite to create an experience.  Many of us who are involved in the Santa Barbara wine industry have long been aware of this – that our county’s constraints may well have put our local wine industry at a competitive disadvantage. It’s interesting that someone visiting from the other side of the world notices this, too.
If you want to experience the wine harvest in Chile, just keep the seasons in mind: they’re flipped on that side of the equator, which means grapes come off the vine February through April.
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