Anyone browsing the wine section of markets from Manhattan to Melbourne these days will be tempted by a wide array of fancy-labeled cabernet, pinot, merlot, sauvignon blanc, fumé, chardonnay, or syrah from Chile. Until just a few years ago, most of us, if we could find them in this country, had to settle for one of the delightful and inexpensive warm-hearted reds or crisp whites from two or three of the conventional vineyards. But now, following the pattern of other commodities such as coffee, mustard, and even burgers, we have available not just the original standard product but a baroque proliferation of “gourmet” and “boutique” refinements designed to fit into specific market niches, one more benefit, no doubt, of the “new world order” and its global market. Professor José del Pozo, another valuable export from Chile and currently at the Université du Québec in Montreal, has given us a fine account of the long development of Chilean viticulture and wine production, which he places not only in Chile’s social and economic context but, because of his command of English and French sources, alongside parallel developments in America and Europe as well.
From the very beginning, European settlers brought cuttings of vitis vinifera to America in order to slake their Mediterranean thirst, establish a “civilized” identity among native pulque and chicha drinkers and, of course, to create a local source of wine for the Mass. Uva misión, uva criolla, and uva país are three of the names given to the hardy vine that spread rapidly over an American landscape rarely suitable for viticulture. Only a few hundred acres near colonial Querétaro, in Baja California, or on the Peruvian coast, along with the more extensive plantings in Argentina and Chile, yielded a (barely) drinkable wine. Introduced into Chile in the 1540s, the first uvas del país, trounced in animal hides and their juice pressed out to ferment in large, pitch-lined clay jars, must have provided scant pleasure apart from the alcoholic jolt. Drake managed to liberate a few jugs during his assault on Valparaíso in 1578, where his coarse-palated crewmen naturally found the oily, oxidized, smelly stew perfectly acceptable. No wonder common Chileans through the rest of the colonial epoch found the fresh, partly fermented, and spritzy chichas and chacolíes more agreeable, while those few who could afford it bought imported wine.
By the 1850s a number of Chileans, ever attracted by French fashion and ideas, found in the new Bordelais “chateaux” —the pretentious name given by Baron Rothschild and others to vineyards such as Margaux, Lafite, Haut-Brion, and Latour—an appealing model for their own emerging patrician society. Just before the phylloxera root louse devastated French vineyards, the Chilean elite—merchants, landowners, miners—imported not only cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the Sauternes but also the technicians, architects, and landscape architects to produce at home a “French” wine that soon appeared on the menus of the fanciest restaurants and banquets. The best viñedos franceses were owned by such local “aristocratic” families as the Errázuriz, Subercaseaux, Undurraga, and Cousiño — “apellidos vinosos” as someone called them—who built their own “palaces” amid the vineyards outside Santiago. Fine wine drinking became associated with the French tastes so cherished by the American, belle epoque elite and part of the Chileans’ effort to construct themselves as European.
At the same time, cheaper wine made from innumerable small viñedos del país spread down the social scale, gradually replacing the chichas and chacolíes drunk for centuries by “el pueblo.” Alcoholism, however, soon came to be seen as a grave social problem, and in 1938 a law so limited the acreage devoted to vineyards that despite a doubling of population, by 1973 vineyard area had only increased from 91,000 to 103,000 hectares. Chileans continued, of course, to be wine drinkers. Their 1976 per capita consumption of 45 liters was less than France or Spain (101 and 71 liters respectively) but much more than the United States (6 liters) or Germany (24). We also notice that apart from the Errázuriz Panquehue winery, taken by the Popular Unity in early 1971, both the Christian Democrats and the Socialist agrarian reformers kept their hands off the main wineries.
With the turn to neoliberalism after 1974 and a renewed emphasis on exports, new investors entered the wine business and developed new vineyards in regions outside the traditional Central Valley, often with new grape varieties. At the same time, they employed new techniques, such as stainless steel cold fermenters technology and better quality control. Even so, wine exports as a percentage of total production never exceeded some 3 percent until a decade ago, when the present boom got underway.
Del Pozo leads us through all this, from the colonial antecedents to the subsequent cultural and social consequences in Chile, with a sure hand and plain prose. Apart from wide reading in three languages and the mastery of statistical series, he managed to gain access to the records of several modern Chilean wineries. Moreover, he has clearly benefited from the sage advice and gustatory experiences of the polymath Rafael Baraona, curator of the José María Arguedas Library and one of the intellectual treasures of Chile. Fifty-three illustrations and thirty-seven tables supplement the text.