Tourists and Tasters Take Up Wine in Chile

Chile is becoming a destination of choice for amateur wine enthusiasts. The size of the country's vineyards has doubled in the past 15 years. A California-like climate is ideal for making wine in Chile, which has a Pacific coastline stretching over 2,600 miles. In 2006, wine exports from Chile are expected to top $1 billion for the first time — with most of it bound for the United States.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Winemakers in Chile are headed for a milestone. This year, they're expected to export more than a billion dollars worth of wine, most of it headed for the United States. Chile has an ideal winemaking climate, with a Pacific coastline that stretches more than 2,600 miles.

NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the town of Curico, where the winemaking business is booming.

JULIE MCCARTHY reporting:

Ever since the conquistadors sent word back to the Spanish Crown that they'd discovered something as good as gold, Chile's fertile central valley, there've been harvests here.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: Festivals abound during this grape-picking season, as a 450-year-old wine-producing tradition catapults Chile into the new world economy. Exports of Chilean wine have more than doubled the past decade, so has the amount of land to grow wine grapes. Organic wine is on the rise and so are new wine routes to attract tourists. But original vines from France's Bordeaux region still grow here. And in this valley, two and a half hours south of Santiago, locals are reviving old customs.

(Soundbite of wine festival)

McCARTHY: At Curico's 20th Festival of the Grape Harvest, five teams of barefoot crushers pair off by vineyard for a grape-stomping contest. Two by two, they jump maniacally, clinging to each other. Teams lose points for leaning on the rim. Frenzied crews dump crates of grapes into the wooden vats, where the crushers stand knee deep in green mush. Whoever stomps out the most juice in seven minutes wins.

This year's victor, the venerable vineyard of Miguel Torres, the festival originator, whose fine wines have become synonymous with Chile. Torres brought his family's winemaking ways from Spain in 1979 and introduced stainless steel fermentation to Chile.

But competition is so stiff between vineyards that stomping contestant Carlos Perez, whose team finished second, stands with smashed grapes dripping from his arms and legs and says there's something fishy about the first-place finish for the Torres home team.

McCARTHY: Oh, see, the local team won.

Mr. CARLOS PEREZ (Wine maker): (Speaking foreign language)

McCARTHY: It's a local fix, he laughs. Sour grapes, perhaps?

The stage fit for grape stomping is also fit for a queen. The reigning harvest beauty is seated on a vast wooden balance and weighed for a reward, her weight in wine. Tall but trim, she weighs 50 bottles.

The minister of agriculture is on hand, along with the local priest, who's asked to pray for a good export market. He sticks to a thanksgiving for the mosto, the juice of the first grapes. Some 15 vintners from this small corner of the wine-growing region ring the central plaza, offering delicious tastings for a dollar a glass beneath the warm autumn sun.

This valley lies between the Andes Mountains and the humbled, current cool Pacific. The big difference between nighttime and daytime temperatures creates a thermic jump that's ideal for growing grapes. The absence in Chile of phylloxera, a vine-destroying aphid, is another natural advantage. Chile also managed to preserve a red wine grape, the carmener, that died out in France in the 1800s.

The celebrations turn rowdy when the fountain beside the stage starts flowing with red wine. Already tipsy locals jockey for position to catch the stream from the crimson geyser. A group of demonstrators who'd been standing silently by also lets loose as the show draws to a close.

(Soundbite of demonstrators)

Medium and small producers brandish signs protesting the low price of wine grapes and the large vineyards who they say control the market. An abundant supply of wine grapes is pushing down the price. And the strong peso, which weakens Chile's competitiveness, is hurting Chilean wine exports.

Felipe Denoso (ph), leader of the regional grape growers, predicts that some farmers will go under this year. He buttonholes the new agriculture minister, but admits to feeling like the skunk at the garden party.

Mr. FELIPE DENOSO (Wine maker): (Speaking foreign language)

McCARTHY: Yes, he says, but this was our chance.

Disputes aside, the appeal of Chilean wine has never been bigger. Thousands of tourists step off cruise ships into vineyards such as this 150-year-old winery on the outskirts of Santiago. In the cool, cavernous cellar, Americans opine on the virtues of screw caps. A Swiss couple admits to preferring Chilean wine over French. And Mexicans and Italians lean in to hear a 30-something guide tout the health secrets of red wine, Chilean and otherwise.

Unidentified Woman: The antioxidant that keeps us young and beautiful. Look at me, I'm 82.

McCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

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