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Just outside the city limits of Santiago, the scenery opens into a patchwork of poplar-lined agricultural fields and grapevines, and tiny towns hearken back to a quieter, colonial era where it is common to see weathered adobe homes, horse-driven carts, and dirt roads. This is Chile's breadbasket, a region that boasts a mild, Mediterranean climate, fertile soil, and plenty of irrigation thanks to the Andes, and testament of this natural bounty can be seen at the myriad of roadside stands hawking fresh fruit and vegetables and unbelievably cheap prices.

There is much to see and do here, but what travelers really come to do is tour vineyards, the reason why this section is divided into the main wine regions, and encompassing hotels, spas, and rural and colonial historical highlights found within each area.

Wine in Chile: The Facts

The international popularity of Chilean wine has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and because Chilean wine has moved slowly up the ladder into the premium and ultrapremium bracket, it is now capturing the attention of wine enthusiasts and collectors worldwide. Chile's wine tradition dates back to the days of the Spanish conquest, although modern winemaking techniques and technology were only introduced in the late 1970s, when the Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres imported the first stainless-steel wine tanks. Yet given this long tradition of winemaking, the Chileans themselves have been slow to appreciate their wines, and consequently many winegrowers export the bulk of their product to Europe, the United States, Canada, and Asia.

Chile is a winemaking paradise. Mother Nature has blessed the country with a natural geography that creates the perfect terroir -- that is, a combination of local climate and geology. Central Chile's Mediterranean-like climate produces lots of luminosity and minimal but sufficient rainfall outside the winter months. During the past few years winemakers have learned which grapes grow better and produce better wines in which valleys. For example, white grape production has been moved from the Colchagua Valley to the Casablanca Valley, a cooler region that has produced far superior sauvignon blancs and chardonnays, and vintners have identified which micro-regions are ideal for producing premium wines, such as Apalta.

What is unique about Chilean wine is that vintners imported their rootstock from Europe more than a century ago, long before European roots were affected with phylloxera, a pest that nearly wiped out the whole of the European wine industry. Chilean rootstock, having not been affected by this plague, is therefore the oldest original European rootstock in the world. Another unique fact is that Chileans only discovered the carmenère grape in 1994, intermingled with its merlot vines. Outside Chile there are very few hectares of carmenère planted in the world due to the difficulty in growing the grape and its late harvest. Carmenère is now Chile's flagship grape variety, even though it is more commonly used in blends.

What you're now seeing in Chile is direct foreign investment and partnerships with American and European companies, such as Gran Marnier, Château Lafite, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and Kendall Jackson, who have recognized Chile's ideal growing conditions and cheaper land and labor costs as a potential to produce world-class wines.