Chile has long been known as a producer of some of the world’s best wines. Those wines tend to come from Maipo Valley. The nickname of ‘Bordeaux of South America,’ is a bold claim, but it’s one the Maipo Valley can back up with absolute ease.
The Maipo Valley is located at the northernmost point of Chile’s Central Valley, which runs from a bit north of the Rapel Valley on up to where the countryside fades off into suburban Santiago. With the Coastal Range separating the area from the Pacific and the Andres Mountains rising up on the other side, it makes for interesting terrain and climate that make it a star for producing reds.
This was the birthplace of wine in Chile. Historic notations show that the first vines were planted near Santiago in the birth of the city itself, back in the 1540’s. Viticulture didn’t expand until the 1800’s though when a few enterprising Chileans decided to really start growing. Wealthy Chileans would travel to France and bring back the ultimate souvenir – vines that they would plant. With French-influence, Chilean wines cultivated a name for themselves in the process.
In the Maipo Valley, there are three regions known as Alto Maipo, Maipo Medio, and Maipo Bajo. Anyone with rudimentary Spanish-speaking skills can guess that Alto Maipo is at the top of the region. It runs on the east outskirts of the Andes, enjoying altitudes of 1,300 to 2,500 feet above sea level. With the warm sun during daylight hours and cold nights that slow ripening, this area gets a nice extension of a growing season, giving the grapes a nice balance of acidity and ripeness.
The soils of Alto Maipo are quite rocky and capable of free-draining, a very good quality for soil to possess. This makes the vines work harder to draw water from the ground, resulting in smaller berries with a more intense concentration of acids and sugars. For this reason, Alto Maipo is the most highly-regarded region in the Maipo Valley.
Maipo Medio, or Central Maipo, is closer to the ground and west of Alto Maipo. It enjoys a slightly warmer climate and more clay-based, fertile soils. The wines here are a little less refined, but it bodes well for Carmenère vines, a legendary Chilean grape that didn’t do quite so well in its original land of France. Meanwhile in Maipo Bajo, the focus is more on winemaking than the viticulture itself. Cool breezes near the river make it ideal for the few white varietals that are grown here, though Cabernet Sauvignon is indeed the star of the Maipo Valley overall.
Across the entire valley, annual rainfall is very low and the warm, dry climate is quite welcoming to the newfound advances in technology that were bestowed upon it in the 1980’s. With drip irrigation, growers were able to handle dry periods. The use of oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks allowed winemakers to take fermentation and aging to the next level.
In the Maipo Valley, reds dominate the scene with Cabernet Sauvignon in the lead followed by Merlot. Syrah and Carmenère are others that thrive in this prestigious wine region. Merlot and Carmenère are the varietals used to create those alluring Bordeaux-style blends that have made it so revered. As a whole, the entire valley is the place for some of the world’s most beautiful wines, though the most complex varieties tend to come from Alto Maipo, which might be due to the seven different micro-climates that the Association of Maipo Alto wineries has identified here.
Of all the wines produced in the entire Maipo Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is head and shoulders above the rest. Reds from the Maipo region come out with a full-bodied flavor and ripe tannins. They have a hint of minty flavor particularly the higher the altitude the vines are. These wines age wonderfully well, on to a decade or even longer.
The blessings of the terrain, soil, and climate are what makes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Carmenère shine with a uniqueness unlike other places in the world. It’s not that you’ll find bad choices outside of Chile, but if you’re a fan of wines crafted with these varietals, trying them from the Maipo Valley, particularly Alto Maipo, is strongly encouraged.
Discovering the reds of Maipo is a wonderful experience for red wine enthusiasts. Whites do come from here too, but they’re far less prevalent. It’s always best to go for what a region is known for and Maipo has truly earned all the attention it has received for its red wines.
Try reds from Maipo and compare them with French Bordeaux. There are many traditional wineries like Santa Rita and Concha y Toro as well as less traditional ones that are keen on exploring including El Principal and Portal del Alto, to name a few. Whichever you choose, don’t forget to raise your glass to Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded Santiago over 460 years ago where the vineyards to the south are a thriving tribute of the old country set into new land.