Chile may be a half-world away from Northern California but they share winemaking traditions that go back centuries, as well as one enterprising winemaker. Sebastián Rodríguez, the winemaker at Casillero del Diablo near Santiago, Chile, once worked at DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley.
“For me, wine begins in nature. Without quality grapes we cannot make a quality wine, so the vineyard is still the most important part of the winemaking journey,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez grew up in San Antonio, a coastal city to the north of Chile’s Maipo River region. He studied agronomy at Universidad Mayor in Santiago and earned a technical diploma in winemaking from Universidad de Chile, before joining the Casillero del Diablo winery in 2007. Rodríguez’s journeyman days took him to the boutique winery Casa Marín in San Antonio—in addition to his time in Sonoma County.
“Chile shares some similarities with California, in terms of coastal influence, warm days and cool nights, and rugged topography,” said Kaitlin Wallace, senior brand manager at Casillero del Diablo.
And due to Chile’s location on the opposite side of the equator, its harvest season runs precisely opposite to Northern California’s. “While California vintners are picking grapes, Chile’s vines are dormant. Likewise, when cold winter rains hit California in February, Chile’s harvest gets underway,” Wallace said.
Casillero del Diablo sources grapes from the Maipo and Rapel valleys, located a few hours’ drive from Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city. Rodríguez said that Chile’s extensive central valley—the slim country’s latitude runs for over 2,000 miles from its border with Peru and Bolivia in the north to its southern terminus at the chilly region of Patagonia—is as ideal for growing grapes as Sonoma or Napa counties.
The “Valle Central,” nestled between the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, offers a Mediterranean climate and mineral-rich soils ideal for growing several varietals.
“Maipo Valley is well-suited for Bordeaux varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks to mineral-focused soils irrigated by snowmelt from the Andes Mountains,” Rodríguez said. “To the south of Maipo, Rapel Valley offers a warm, dry climate, ideal for growing premium Carménère .”
Winemaking in Chile goes back to the days of the conquistadors, who brought over vines from Spain for communion wine—part and parcel of their mission to convert the native populations. The Carménère grape became especially popular in Chile in the 19th century following the phylloxera blight that damaged the same crop in Bordeaux, France. Had it not been for the vine’s transfer to the New World, the variety likely would have died out entirely, according to The New York Times.
Carménère has since become a staple grape for Chilean merlots, with its genome traceable back to those 19th century imports.
Casillero del Diablo was founded in the 1880s by Don Melchor de Concha y Toro, an importer of those Bordeaux grapes to the Valle Central. The legend goes that in order to fend off thirsty would-be thieves, Concha y Toro spread a rumor that Satan himself watched over his wines; indeed, Casillero del Diablo translates to “the Devil’s Cellar.” (The brand embraces that history today in a premium wine line called the Devil’s Collection.)
Today, the winery produces 10 labels, including a coastal Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced mainly from Maipo Valley, a rosé made in the traditional French style, and, of course, a Chilean Carménère.
“In San Antonio, the marine influence of the icy Humboldt Current creates harsh conditions that can stress our coastal fruit; however, those same conditions give us bright, vibrant whites with excellent acidity,” Rodríguez said, adding this same atmospheric phenomenon makes for “vibrant” Sauvignon Blanc as well as what Rodríguez called “cool-climate” Chardonnay.
“In the Maipo Valley, warm, arid days and cool nights give us rich, flavorful reds,” he said. “It comes down to understanding the terroir of the region and working with nature to get the finest expression from the grapes.”
Casillero del Diablo is the highest-selling Chilean wine label in the United States in terms of sales volume, and is imported through Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County. It was twice named the second-most-powerful wine brand in the world in the Global Wine Brand Power Index survey.
Wallace, the winery’s senior brand ambassador, said that international wines appeal especially to “adventure-seeking millennials” in America, with that age group fast becoming the most important to the wine-purchasing market.
“The 2018 vintage, unequalled by any vintage in Chile’s recent memory, brought a wet winter that filled reservoirs, a warm spring free of significant frost, a temperate summer that balanced warm weather with cooling fog, and a long growing season characterized by slow and even ripening,” Wallace said. “The results are some of the most extraordinary red wines ever seen from Chile’s idyllic winemaking terroir, [and are] now in markets throughout the U.S.”
Chile’s mountainous climate allows for winegrowing at elevation as well as in the valleys closer to sea level. Grape husbandry techniques are shared on the eastern side of the Andes by neighboring Argentina, famous for its cabernet sauvignons and Malbecs.
Rodriguez, who studied under winemaker Marcelo Papa—who was also the technical director for Viña Concho y Toro (named after the vintner of the 1880s)—said that Chilean wines are finding their way rather than simply copying the methods of old.
“In the earliest days of winemaking in Chile, the focus was on emulating an Old World style of wines,” he said. “Today, we understand where each variety thrives best in Chile, and we craft our wines to showcase the site-specific characteristics of our many exceptional terroirs.”
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