European Vitis vinifera vines were brought to Chile by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century around 1554. Local legend states that the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre himself planted the first vines. The vines most likely came from established Spanish vineyards planted in Peru which included the “common black grape”, as it was known, that Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico in 1520. This grape variety would become the ancestor of the widely planted Pais grape that would be the most widely planted Chilean grape till the 21st century.Jesuitpriests cultivated these early vineyards, using the wine for the celebration of the Eucharist. By the late 16th century, the early Chilean historian Alonso de Ovalle described widespread plantings of “the common black grape”, Muscatel, Torontel, Albilho and Mollar[disambiguation needed].
During the Spanish rule, vineyards were restricted in production with the stipulation that the Chilean should purchase the bulk of their wines directly from Spain itself. In 1641, wine imports from Chile and the Viceroyalty of Peru into Spain were banned, severely damaging the wine industry in the colony. The market loss caused the huge surplus of grapes to be made into pisco and aguardiente. The concentration solely on pisco production, nearly eliminated wine production in Peru. For the most part the Chileans ignored these restrictions, preferring their domestic production to the oxidized and vinegary wines that didn’t fare well during the long voyages from Spain. They were even so bold as to start exporting some of their wines to neighboring Peru with one such export shipment being captured at sea by the English privateerFrancis Drake. When Spain heard of the event rather than being outraged at Drake, an indictment was sent back to Chile with the order to uproot most of their vineyards. This order, too, was mostly ignored.
In the 18th century, Chile was known mostly for its sweet wines made from the Pais and Muscatel grapes. To achieve a high level of sweetness the wines were often boiled which concentrated the grape must. Following his shipwreck off the coast at Cape Horn, Admiral John Byron (Grandfather of the poet Lord Byron) traveled across Chile and came back to England with a glowing review of Chilean Muscatel comparing it favorably to Madeira. The 19th century wine writer André Jullien was not as impressed, comparing Chilean wines to a “potion of rhubarb and senna“.
Despite being politically linked to Spain, Chile’s wine history has been most profoundly influenced by French, particularly Bordeaux, winemaking. Prior to the phylloxera epidemic, wealthy Chilean landowners were influenced by their visits to France and began importing French vines to plant. Don Silvestre Errázuriz was the first, importing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Malbec, Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon. He hired a French oenologist to oversee his vineyard planting and to produce wine in the Bordeaux style. Errázuriz saw potential in Chile and even experimented with the German wine grape Riesling. In events that parallel those of the Rioja wine region, the entrance of phylloxera into the French wine world turned into a positive event for the Chilean wine industry. With vineyards in ruin, many French winemakers traveled to South America, bringing their experience and techniques with them. At the time, Don Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta founded Ochagavia Wines in 1851 and Don Maximiano Errázuriz founded Viña Errázuriz in 1870, bringing and using grapes from France.
Political instability in the 20th century, coupled with bureaucratic regulations and high taxes tempered the growth of the Chilean wine industry. Prior to the 1980s, the vast majority of Chilean wine was considered low quality and mostly consumed domestically. As awareness of Chile’s favorable growing conditions for viticulture increased so did foreign investment in Chilean wineries. This period saw many technical advances in winemaking as Chile earned a reputation for reasonably priced premium quality wines. Chile began to export extensively, becoming the third leading exporter, after France and Italy, into the United States by the turn of the 21st century. It has since dropped to fourth in the US, being surpassed by Australia, but focus has switched to developing exports in the world’s other major wine markets like the United Kingdom and Japan.