Read only if you love wine!

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
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Trip End Mar 16, 2009


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Where I stayed
Hostal del Valle

Flag of Chile  ,
Thursday, February 5, 2009

It was great being back behind the wheel again, captain of my own ship with my beautiful co-pilot at my side. Even though our rental car was tiny and not quite a ship, it was great to be in control again, great to be able to pull over and stop wherever you like, great to be able to drive at any speed of my choice (till the co-pilot threatens to jump out) and great to be able to set your own pace for the day.


By now Inge-Marie had become an expert navigator, when she had a good map of course. But finding good maps in Chile is not as easy as it sounds, especially maps of the wine regions. We tried our luck at sourcing some good tourist maps of the wine regions in Santiago, but neither the tourist information bureaux nor any of the book stores we visited had anything detailed. We searched on line for wine tourism information and found nothing except astronomically expensive private wine tours that were way out of our budget. Bad maps weren't going to stop our wine adventure so we took what we had, and set sail.  
 
Chile wine region stretches almost the length of the long and narrow country.  Starting high up in the sunny northern deserts near La Sarena, where some good Cabernet and Syrah is produced, and ending almost a 1000 km south in Patagonia where the cool climate helps produce some great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In between these two extremes lies some of Chile's finest wine producing areas where their trademark Carmenere varietal thrives among other popular varietals.  The best wines however seem to be produced in the central areas just south of Santiago, most notably around  the Colchagua Valley, and that's where we were heading. 
 
We decided to base ourselves as close to the Colchagua Valley as possible and use this as a base to tour the neighbouring regions. We discovered a quaint little village called Santa Cruz which was 200 km south of Santiago which bordered the famous Colchagua Valley. The village was nothing special and its only noteworthy attraction was its Plaza de Armas. By now we had discover that almost every town in South America has a Plaza de Armas so this was no unique attraction. We later found out the town also had a fantastic museum but if they weren't serving wine this was of no interest to us ;-).
 
We also discovered that the town had a well equipped information centre were we managed to find a reasonably comprehensive set of maps of all Chile's wine regions. (This was the only dedicated map we found of Chile's wine regions, see tips for web address). The ladies at the information office were also very helpful with suggesting some wine estates and even offered to help with reserving tastings and tours. We weren't quite sure where we wanted to start yet, so decided to do a little research before returning to make some bookings. 
 
After we'd checked in to out hostel, or rather guesthouse, we started making a short list of the wineries we would like to visit. A few days earlier I downloaded the Wine Spectators 2008 Top 100 wines and was pleasantly surprised to find that their number one selection, was a Chilean wine from the Colchagua Valley, Clos Apalta by Casa Lapostolle - what a coincidence! So Casa Lapostolle instantly became our number one on the 'must taste list'.
 
After a little more investigation we soon discovered two very disheartening facts about the Chilean wine industry. Firstly, unlike many wineries in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada and the US that we'd visited, very few wineries in Chile are set up for walk-in tourism. Many of the wineries require you to make a reservation days or sometimes even a week in advance. Secondly we discovered that almost all the wineries charged for tastings which usually included a tour of the facilities. Chile's wineries seemed to have taken this paying for tastings to a whole new level, as most tastings prices ranged from a pricy but acceptable US$ 5 to a whopping US$ 25 per person!
 
My philosophy on paying for wine tastings is simple, if you are paying to taste the wine you should be refunded when if you purchase some wine. I understand that some ultra premium wines, as they call them out here, are only produced in small quantities at considerable cost but to charge $25 for a small sample and then still have to pay full price if you do happen to purchase some wines becomes a little pricy, especially so on a tight Vine Hooligan RTW budget.
 
So we were going to have to be quite selective about which wineries we would be able to visit. The amard winning Casa Lapostolle was not negotiable as we had to get a taste of what Wine Spectator though was the best wine of 2008. To start with we also made reservations at the highly awarded Casa Silva who'd won numerous awards and then finally a visit to the world famous Chilean winery, Montes.
 
The next morning we were so eager to get going after the long drought we arrived early at Casa Lapostolle and pulled up to the big gates 20 minutes before our appointment. Unlike many of the other wineries we'd visited where you simply drove up to the cellars and tasting room we were stopped at the gate by a serious looking security guard. With our best Spanish and biggest smiles we told him we had a reservation. We held our breath has he scanned the guest list like a bounce at a posh night club, till finally he nodded still with a serious face and clicked his remote to open the massive gates.
 
We drove through the gates and headed up to the impressive winery which we could see perched up on the hillside overlooking the vineyards. We were met by another security guard who showed us where to park and then escorted us to the waiting area which was a few leather couches in the corner of a very large room which we later found out was the sorting room during the harvest period.
 
After a short while we were met by a lovely lady who then proceeded to take us on a private tour (since the other couple who had made a reservation had not arrived) of the winery. We were told how the entire crop for their premium wines were all hand harvested, sorted and de-stemmed before being gravity fed to their giant French oak maturation tanks. Not surprisingly the winery was French owned by the same family that owned the world-renowned Grand Marnier and millions of dollars were invested in the state of art facilities.
 
We were lead down to the fermentation cellar which was temperature and humidity controlled where the great big French oak fermentation barrels were kept and told about the technology used in the fermentation process. It was an impressive room with a spectacular view over the vineyard through its massive windows.  The most spectacular part of the tour however was the barrel storage room which was two floors down. With its curved wooded ceiling and its barrels stacked to contours of the room it was almost magical. In the middle of the room was a glass structure where tasting conducted but which also doubled up as the entrance to the underground private family cellar. Clearly no costs were spared here!
 
We got to try three of their premium wines including a deliciously wooded chardonnay, their mouth-watering Cruvee Alexandre merlot and then award winning blend, Clos Apalta. Sadly the 2005 Clos Apalta which as awarded Wine Spectator's number 1 wine had sold out even before the award was given but regardless the 2006 was still very impressive with its complex nose and berry aromas. Predominantly a carmenere blend it clearly was a wine that would improve with a few years of careful cellaring and we though long and hard if we should invest in a bottle.
 
At the end of the day we decided that the $88 was a little too steep for our budget and settled for a bottle of the merlot which in our opinion was almost as good but much better value for money at a mere $40. It really was an impressive tour of their amazing cellar and architectural master piece and we were sad to leave but we had to get moving to make our next appointment in just over an hour at Casa Silva, who were just as renowned with their string of international awards.
 
Shortly after we set off, we learnt lesson number three about touring the Chilean wine regions. Distance between the wine estates and wine regions are vast, and to make it a little more complicated there are few road signs and the few that do exist are often not very helpful. I know you are probably thinking we should have had a GPS and we realised the same thing when we got hopelessly lost trying to find Casa Silva. We drove around for an hour and a half till we threw in the towel and headed back to Santa Cruz.
 
On our way back into town we spotted a nice looking restaurant with what seemed like an impressive wine selection. We decided it was a good place to stop for lunch and realised that for the same price of the tour and tasting we could buy a bottle of premium Santa Cruz carmenere to enjoy with lunch. Surprisingly that actually had a bottle of the 2005 Clos Apalta on their wine rack at a much inflated price but we were happy to settle for the Santa Cruz carmenere. The food was a little disappointing but the wine was fantastic with its deep ruby colour and soft, rounded palette. We were beginning to realise that instead of paying for expensive tastings we could just buy a bottle or two and have our own little wine tasting.
 
After the lunch and a great wine we had a few hours before our next appointment so we headed back to the guesthouse for a little siesta. Our next visit was to Montes which was co-incidentally a neighbour to Casa Lapostolle. The procedure was the same for getting into the premises and this time we were joined by a much larger group for the tour and tasting. The Montes winery had been built according to the feng shui principle and water and light were masterfully incorporated into the spectacular building.
 
We started with a tasting in their tasting room overlooking their maturation and storage tanks and tried a range of their wines form their Purple Angle range, to their limited Alpha series and even got a taste of their Montes Folly in the ultra premium range. We were impressed with all the wines we tasted but left the purchases till after the tour to give ourselves a little time to ponder on our choices.
 
At this point I must add that we have visited countless wineries all over the world, seen some impressive hand dug caves lined with thousands of maturing bottles and barrels filled with wine, but none will be remembered as well as the maturation cellar at Montes. I also have to apologise for not having any photographs to back up my story as I left my camera at the guesthouse! I won't begin to explain how disappointed I was, as I never leave home without the camera but that's what comes from sleeping in the afternoon. So I'll do my best to try and explain the experience.
 
The maturation cellar was situated at the far end of the building and was reached via a long corridor flanked by two tastefully decorated private tasting rooms behind glass partitions. The tasting rooms each had long dark wooden tables in their centre and a few chairs around them and looked out into the maturation cellar. We entered the darkened cellar through two long glass sliding doors which seemed to magically open as we approached with a swoosh that would not have been out of place in a space ship.
 
As we stepped into the cellar the dimly lit room started to slowly brighten and the next few seconds would be sensory overload for any true wine lover. Almost all our senses were stimulated simultaneously as we felt the chill of the cool humid air hit us, our nostrils were filled with the sweet and toasty aromas of the new French barrels, we witnessed the delightful sight of perfectly placed barrels gradually rising up in rows to the back of the cellar as if they were an audience in a grand theatre. Each barrel had its centre partition painstakingly painted red using only red wine, so between the two steel bands holding the barrel together the barrel was a light red while the outsides bands were the original pale oak giving them a beautiful contrast. And lastly, the sound, that wonderful sound!
 
Most cellars are dead quite, dark, damp and mouldy but the founders of Montes felt that their best wines deserved a little more to make them a little more special. The sounds seem to come from everywhere in the room as we were surrounded by the soothing sounds of Gregorian chants. It was believed that by continuously playing the ancient monastic chants to the wines, released tiny vibrations that improved the quality of their best wine, the Alpha M.
 
Apparently studies were commissions by one of the founder Aurelio Montes to find out if playing different types of music had any impact on the wines taste. The results were very positive and found that certain types of music enhanced the taste perception when drinking certain wines. For example when a powerful, heavy music such as Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns 'N' Roses was played, people drinking a cabernet sauvignon thought it was 60 per cent more robust than when no music was played. Brining a whole new dimension to wine, food and now music pairing.
 
Just seeing the love and care Montes put into their Alpha M range convinced us to buy a bottle to truly see it music makes wine taste better. Sadly we will have to wait a good few years before we know the answer as it is recommend, to cellar the wine for up to 20 years for best results. So if anyone is interested, let us know if you will be around in about 20 years, so we can put you on the invite list for the Alpha M tasting...
 
After a fantastic, and expensive first day of wine tasting we realised we would have to reassess our budget and the tastings for the next few days. We found that the local supermarket in town stocked many of the wines produces by the wineries we planned to visit so decided to spend the equivalent of the tours and tasting on a variety of different wines. But before we had our own tasting we decided to visit one more winery.
 
Miguel Torres Chile the sister of the Spanish winery was situated a little under an hour from Santa Cruz in the Curico Valley and apparently had a wonderful restaurant that offered a food and wine pairing. This was too god an opportunity to miss so we hit the road once again with our sketch maps but a keen sense of direction and managed to find the winery without too much difficulty.
 
For a change we didn't need a reservation and seemed to be the first patrons at the restaurant for lunch. In this part of the world lunch is usually taken much later than back home and restaurants usually only fill for lunch between 2pm and 3pm. The restaurant was bright and airy and we had a pick of any table. We scanned through the menu quickly but knew once we saw the wine and food pairing list what we'd be ordering.
 
The four course lunch started with fresh freshly baked bread, imported Spanish Torres virgin olive oil and tangy balsamic vinegar.  The first wine that was served was a delightfully bubble brut and this was paired with succulent chicken skewers prepared in a teriyaki emulsion. This was followed by an enormous fresh mixed salad served with a Santa Digna rosé before the mains arrived. To accompany the pork loin roll we were served a bold and fruity shiraz which perfectly matched the juicy pork loin. And as if that weren't enough food we ended the meal with a slice of lemon pie, tiramisu and vanilla ice-cream paired with a gorgeous gewürztraminer.
 
We rolled out of the restaurant, well satisfied, almost two hours after we'd arrived. We had just enough energy left in us to make a quick trip to the wine store where we browsed through the large selection of wines for sale. It must have been as a result of all the wine over lunch, as we chose to purchase one of their pricy flagship cabernet sauvignon's, which we were promised by the salesman, would not disappoint.
 
After our great lunch we cautiously headed back to Sant Cruz where we, together with other guests at the guesthouse we had arranged to have a BBQ with the private wine tasting we were planning. A quick stop at the supermarket had us stocked up with a good selection of carmenere from various regions in Chile and some prime, 'grade A' Chilean beef steak.
 
I wasted no time getting the BBQ fired up, and similar to the feeling I experienced when getting behind the wheel again it was great to be back behind the grill, with a tong in one hand a good red in the other! Besides the beautiful red glow of my roaring fire we were treated to a spectacular sunset, almost as impressive as an African sunset, which set the mood for a wonderful evening. The girls built themselves a makeshift table and whipped up a salad and some vegetables and soon the meat was sizzling on the grill. The wines we selected were fantastic and complimented the steak perfectly and we had a great evening with chatting away till late in the evening.
 
Our original plan was to spend five nights in Santa Cruz to visit as many wineries as possible but due to the exorbitant costs involved and the fact that many of the wineries were closed on the weekends we decided to check-out early and head to the coast. We'd heard to a great little beach town a few hours away, which was famous for its great beaches and waves and though this would be the perfect end to our visit to Chile. It would also be our last glimpse of the Pacific before we crossed the mighty Andes into Argentina.
 

Our top tips for planning a wine tasting tour in Chile:
1. Unless you're rolling in cash and can afford a private tour offered by specialised tourist agencies you'll need a car to visit any of the Chilean wine regions.
2. If you are going to be doing a self drive you'll need a good map or GPS. The best and only winery road map we found was from Premium Map Chile, their web site; www.winemapchile.cl provides more details.
3. Book in advance. Many of the winery details are listed in the above set of maps and we found it best to call rather than e-mail especially if it was short notice. Only problem was that not all staff spoke English.
4. Make sure you have enough time between tastings to get to your next appointment as distance are often long and road signs often inadequate. Realistically aim to visit no more than three wineries a day so you are not rushed and can make the most of each experience.
5. If your budget is limited do a little research and select a few choice wineries as tasting fees will drain your resources quicker than a Chardonnay at a book club!
6. Hit the supermarket and plan your own tasting, download tasting notes and pictures off  the net and it will be almost as good as the real thing. Not really but you'll save loads and still get to taste a few of Chile's great wines.
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