Valle de Colchagua – Montes and Lapostolle

My second day in Santa Cruz started with a very reasonable complementary breakfast of bread, avocado, ham and cheese, coffee and a “tang-like” juice. Plus a few other Chilean staples that I passed on, like sweet cake, a very sweet jam and a cream cheese spread. Rather than the more expensive taxi option, I decided to be a little more adventurous and try the local forms of transport to arrive at the wineries I had planned for the day. I knew that Montes, my first stop and producer of a very nice Malbec I’d tried in Santiago, was close to a main road, and I would worry about how to get from there to my second stop, Lapostolle, when the time came. I made my way into town where I found a “colectivo” stop. Unlike in large cities, where the local buses are called “colectivos”, in many less busy areas of Chile, including areas of Santiago, marked cars operate as colectivos. Unlike taxis, colectivos follow a set route, making minor deviations at times for the convenience of their passengers, and take up to four or five unrelated locals at a time at a set price, waiting until the car is full before departing. It’s a great concept, particularly in a rural area like the Colchagua Valley where many people can’t afford cars and distances between towns can be vast.

20130212-123025.jpgI found my colectivo to Apalta with one person already waiting, and another arrived shortly after. Because the driver knew I had a reservation at the winery, he offered to leave immediately if I would pay the additional seat, doubling my fare from CLP700 to CLP 1400, a grand total of $3, which I thought was a fair deal. After dropping the two ladies off at their respective houses, the driver dropped me at the main entrance of the winery. I still had about 200 metres to walk to reach the winery, but the trip was already a lot cheaper than the previous day’s cab fare.

I was running a little late but, thankfully, the tour had waited for me when the guard at the gate had told them I was on my way. There were only two Brazilians on my tour, so it was a small and intimate group. We began with a tractor-pulled carriage ride up to the top of the property, passing the in-house llamas, and arriving at a magnificent viewpoint overlooking the vineyard and the valley beyond. The morning was overcast and surprisingly cool, but we were assured that it would fine up later in the day.

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The tractor returned us to the main building, where we continued the tour of the gravity-based wine making facilities, the feng shui inspired premises, and culminated in the barrel room of the gran reserva wines, where Gregorian chants were peacefully being played to the resting wines, a technique implemented by the head winemaker.

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Our tasting room overlooked the barrel room and we were treated to four wines from the large Montes selection, starting with a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc with a pineapple aroma and a citric, acidity flavour. We followed that with a 2010 Outerlimits Pinot Noir, the range thus named for the unique terroir in which they’re grown, in what is considered by the winemaker to be the “outerlimits” of where wine is usually grown. This wine exhibited notes of smoke with raspberry and strawberry flavours.

The third wine was my favourite, a 2010 Montes Alpha Cabernet Savignon with 10% Merlot, a very smooth wine full of black fruits and pepper. This was followed by another Montes Alpha, this time the 2010 Syrah, with light tannins and a smooth berry flavour.

That brought the tour to an end, and also brought the solution to my transport concerns since my Brazilian companions had a driver and were headed to the same winery.

Arriving at Lapostolle is impressive, with the unique winery looming majestically over the vineyards.

I was temporarily separated from my new Brazilian friends, who were shuttled off on the Spanish tour, while my first task was to finalise the menu for my post-tour lunch before I joined two New Yorkers for the English tour.

20130212-123123.jpgEvery element of this winery, owned by the French family behind Grand Marnier, is impressive. We started the tour on the roof, which is one level above the entrance and provides an amazing view over the valley, and our guide explained to us that the winery has been built in orientation with the Southern Cross. He then led us inside to a central staircase that unites all levels of the winery, blasted five levels into granite rock. The spiral staircase represents gravity, the premise on which the whole construction is based, with its clockwise spiral reflecting how water naturally flows in the southern hemisphere. The granite removed during blasting has been used to make the floors, and the exposed granite provides an appropriate wall for the wine library. The tour flows in the same downward spiral, from the initial french oak vats that receive the wine, to the barrel rooms below, and finally, ending in the cellar for the tasting.

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We first tasted a 2012 Casa Sauvignon Blanc, with 8% Semillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris, producing a low acid wine with lemon and grassy notes. The second wine was made from 100% certified organic grapes, a 2011 Merlot with 15% Shiraz. It has had 14 months in oak, resulting in a nice bodied wine with a herbaceous and spicy nose. The last wine is the wine of the day, the only wine grown on site. the single vineyard 2010 Clos Apalta, a blend of 71% Carmenere, 18% Cabernet Savignon and 11% Merlot. Every care and luxury is afforded in the making of this wine, from the oak vats, to hand maceration, and 24 months in new french oak barrels. The result is an almost black wine with a delightfully peppery tongue and delicious flavours of blackberries, chocolate, licorice and tobacco. I could keep drinking this wine but, at CLP100,000 (>$200) per bottle, I’ll have to refrain and just enjoy the experience of having tasted it.

When the tour is over, I’m reunited with the Brazilians who, during the course of their tour, have decided to change their plans for lunch and also eat at Lapostolle. That also solves any concern about how to get to the remotely located restaurant which, whilst still on the property, is some distance from the actual winery. When we arrive at the restaurant, there are only two other people seated on the terrace, two other Brazilians from the other tour group, so we decide to all sit together.

20130212-123224.jpgI had chosen the Cuvee Alexander Menu which, with the exception of the appetiser, pairs each course with wines from the Cuvee Alexander range. The appetiser plate of three mini tastes was paired with the Casa Sauvignon Blanc that we tried in the tasting. The entrée of spiced shrimp (prawns to us) was served with a kind of risotto made from local grain, mote, and avocado, and paired with a creamy 2011 Chardonnay. Serves of the wine were generous, and bottles were left on the table to provide for discreet top-ups between courses.

The main was steak with carmenere sauce and a potato millefuelle, paired with a delicious 2011 Carmenere. The final course was an Orange “suspiro”, a Peruvean-inspired dessert, this time paired with a glass of Grand Marnier Louis Alexander, given the wineries ownership. I was guilty of talking and listening too much, and enjoying the food and wine far too much, to take more photos!

20130212-123217.jpgIt was a lovely afternoon, with conversation flowing in Portuguese, English and a little Spanish to fill in the gaps, and lots of laughter. Any transport concerns were completely abolished when the other Brazilians offered to drop me back into town after lunch. Even better, during the drive, I was invited to go and hang out by their hotel pool with them for the afternoon, a perfect way to “work” off the food and the wine. After a very relaxing few hours by the pool, I made my way back to the hostal where no dinner was required and an early night was in order. The next morning, my only plans were to sleep in, enjoy the complementary breakfast, and take my time getting the bus back to Santiago, which all went very smoothly. A great trip, some nice new people, and some fabulous food and wine. Now that I’ve decided to stay a little longer in Chile, I can see another trip to Colchagua slipping on to the agenda.


Valle de Colchagua – Viu Manent

20130212-122848.jpgValle de Colchagua lies about 3 hours south of Santiago, on the famous Ruta de Vino (wine trail). It hit my radar early on due to many recommendations and some great reds that I’d tasted that are coming out of this region. Early in February, I decided to take a few days out and explore the Valley.  A friendly neighbour from my apartment complex was travelling south, so I took advantage of a lift as far as San Fernando, then jumped on a bus to Santa Cruz, where I had booked a hostal for two nights.

 My hostal was close to town, very basic, but clean and with a lovely courtyard, and a free breakfast. Arriving mid-afternoon, I checked in, and immediately booked a wine tour at nearby Viu Manent, arranging for a taxi to pick me up, wait at the winery, and bring me back after the tour.

20130212-122854.jpgViu Manent is an historic winery set in beautiful Spanish ranch style buildings, some of which were damaged by the 2010 earthquake, and others which remained largely untouched and are beautifully retained and used today. I was given a one-on-one tour of the gallery, courtyard and events area, before being led across the grounds to see the restaurant and equestrian fields, and then boarding our very special form of transport for the rest of the tour, a horse-drawn carriage.

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Viu Manent has a big focus on horses, with their own equestrian club, providing horseriding and lessons, and regularly holding equestrian events and polo games. Two gorgeous chestnuts of their stable calmly pulled the carriage through the fields of vines whilst the guide explained the grapes, then delivered us to the production area. Here, I was handed a glass and had the opportunity to taste a Malbec directly from the stainless steel vats, experiencing the fruit pre-alcohol and pre-oak. The tour also gave us a view of the oenologists, both female, working away in their lab.

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Our trusty steeds then delivered us back to the main building, where I was taken into a beautifully appointed room for the tasting of five different wines, starting with a creamy 2011 Chardonnay with a toasty oak nose. Viu Manent has a range of wine called “Secreto”, where the main grape, being 85% of the blend, is listed on the bottle and the remaining 15% is a “secret”. Our next tastings were of the 2011 Secreto Pinot, which was light and full of plums and roses (as opposed to Guns n Roses!) on the nose, and the 2011 Secreto Carmenere, ruby in colour with a smoky nose and peppers and paprika in the mouth. A very smooth wine that had reportedly been award 90 points by wine magazine, Descorchado.

Next up was the 2011 San Carlos single vineyard Malbec, a purple velvet colour, with plum and red fruit notes followed by an acid finish. It was interesting to compare this wine with the wine we’d tasted from the vat, and be reminded of the original fruit notes, whilst noting the influence of its 16 months in oak and the fermentation process. This wine is still young and, with cellaring potential of up to 15 years, would certainly benefit from some more time in the bottle.

The final wine was the 2011 Viu Manent Gran Reserva Cabernet Savignon. Made from the best grapes selected across the vineyards, 80% of the wine has been treated to 12 months in french oak to produce a spicy nose and a plum jam taste with notes of vanilla. Again, a young wine with plenty of potential for those with patience.

After the tasting, I found my driver patiently waiting to drive me back to the hostal. After freshening up, I decided to take a walk around town and find somewhere for dinner. I headed to a restaurant called Motemei, located on the grounds of a small vineyard. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed, but I was able to look around the grounds and enjoy the changing light of the setting sun. I’ve since heard that the restaurant is relocating to Santiago in March so I will keep my eye out for them!

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I ended up eating a nice but unremarkable meal at Los Varietales restaurant in the ornate Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel, preceded by a “Chardonnay sour”, a local speciality based on the famous Pisco sour. Give me the original any day! After dinner, I walked the short two blocks back to my hostal and settled in for a good night’s sleep ahead of my second day in the valley.


Santiago – a new home and a new frontier

Well, I had an interesting and busy weekend recently.  I had a minor housing emergency, where I was advised on the Monday that I had lost an apartment that I thought I had secured and was due to move into on the Friday!  I was left frantically trying to find a new apartment before the weekend.  Thank God for good friends, and I was able to stay at Natacha’s place for the week while I hit the Internet, and pounded the pavement inspecting properties.  After viewing up to 10 apartments, on the Thursday, I finally decided on an apartment just outside the city centre, close to my favourite market, La Vega, close to the metro, and with a swimming pool.  It’s on the 22nd floor though so, although the view is good, I’m not looking forward to that first tremor!

I moved into the new apartment on Saturday, just in time to receive my first visitor!  Cheryl, who I met in Buenos Aires, was passing through on her way to Lima and my decision to stay put here meant we had a couple of days to catch up.

Cheryl arrived on Saturday afternoon and we spent the night sitting on my new balcony, enjoying the mild Santiago evening, the view of the city and surrounding mountains, a delicious cheese platter, and a nice bottle of Marques de Concha Pinot Noir.

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We decided to stay in for dinner and followed up with a salad of fresh La Vega produce, and some more Chilean red, this time a peppery Cabernet Franc from the Colchagua Valley, a housewarming gift from Natacha.

We caught up and hatched plans for the remainder of Cheryl’s time here.  It was good to have someone to explore with and, after a sleep-in and breakfast on Sunday morning, we set off to discover Casablanca.

The Casablanca Valley is west of Santiago, on the road to Valparaiso, towards the ocean.  Like a lot of wine regions in Chile, instructions on how to arrive are usually based on the assumption that you have access to a vehicle, which isn’t always convenient when you plan to sample their product.  Still, I figured we could get to Casablanca on the bus that goes to Valparaiso, then find our way from there.  I called the winery to make a reservation for lunch and a tour, and they gave me clear instructions on where to get off the bus and assured me we’d be able to find a taxi there.

We took the metro to the main bus station, and bought a ticket for the next bus, leaving at 12.30pm.  Buses to Valpo are leaving all the time so we had no problems getting tickets.  We had been told the trip was 45-50 minutes, but the driver told us it would be just over an hour.  When I asked him about the difference, he shrugged and laughed and explained that the theory and the practice were two different things!  He had a fool-proof system for making sure he remembered to let us off in Casablanca – he wrote it on his hand!  He also told us the landmarks to look out for so that we knew when to get off, and we hoped he would actually stop, or at least slow down.

True to word, a little over an hour later, he stopped (bonus) and let us off the bus at a tiny bus stop on the side of the highway.  There was an overpass that obviously led into town but we’d been told we’d find a taxi at the stop.  We just didn’t see how!

Thankfully, another bus stopped and let some bus company staff off the bus, and we were able to ask them how we could get a cab.  One of them walked over to an old dilapidated car parked under a tree and, sure enough, it had a taxi sign in the window!  It was driven by an equally old dilapidated man not a day less than 80 who said he could take us to the winery for CLP2,500, a little over 5 bucks.

For a few minutes there, I didn’t think we were going anywhere as the car didn’t seem to want to start.  When it did start, we “took off” in a cloud of burning oil, down the emergency lane of the highway at about 30 kms per hour.  We turned into the town of Casablanca, and the driver pulled into a service station to put fuel in the car.  What?  We thought we’d never get there and were already late for our lunch reservation.

About 5 minutes later, we finally chugged up to the winery gates where we assured the driver we would happily walk the last hundred metres to the restaurant.

20130304-154029.jpgWe had chosen Casas del Bosque, and the setting was beautiful.  The restaurant has an outdoor, sand-floored, undercover terrace looking over green lawn towards umbrella-shaded beach chairs and, beyond, the vines.  We sat outside, and barely looked at the a la carte menu, deciding to go straight for the five-course degustation menu, each course accompanied by a taste of a different wine from their premium Gran Reserva range.

We started with prawns marinated in ginger and garlic, paired with a crisp sauvignon blanc with a punch of passionfruit on the nose.  You can tell the winemaker is a Kiwi!

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The next course was kingcrab with a mango salad, served with little melba toasts and paired with a buttery chardonnay.

The first of the main courses was a lovely tender piece of beef, resting on a bed of corn mash, a Chilean staple but a little sweet and overpowering for my liking.  It was paired with our favourite wine of the day, a Pinot Noir with a decent body which reminded me of the Mornington Peninsula.

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We had mutual agreement on the second main course too, which we both agreed was our favourite.  A risotto of lamb ragu served with a parmesan crisp and some merken spice, and paired with a deep and fruity shiraz, also a very nice wine.  Feed the Aussie girls lamb any day!

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We both nearly had a heart attack when the waiter told us that the dessert was dulce de leche!  After each having spent so much time in Argentina, we thought we’d put it behind us.  Thankfully, our waiter had made a mistake and the dessert was a chocolate brownie with dark chocolate icrecream, and a white chocolate mousse with a berry coulis, served with a late-harvest riesling.  I was too busy being relieved that it wasn’t dulce de leche, and didn’t think to ask for a non-chocolate option, so the dessert, though presented beautifully and probably a chocolate-lovers dream, went mostly uneaten.

20130304-154154.jpgAs we’d arrived late for lunch, we had missed our 3.30pm tour but neither us was at all bothered.  We decided on an additional glass of our favourite Pinot, and a relaxing spot on a shaded sofa to relax away the afternoon.  A complementary tractor tour of the vineyard came and went while we enjoyed each others company, the lovely wine and the beautiful location.

20130304-154200.jpgEventually, we thought it was about time that we made our way back to Santiago, and we had our lovely waiter call for a taxi.  We had time to buy a bottle of Pinot each in the wine store before a “normal” taxi pulled up to take us back to our highway-side bus stop where we were assured a bus would pull up for us on its way back from Valpo.

Over the next 15 minutes, about 10 buses flew past us, either waving to indicate they were full, or ignoring us altogether.  Some local girls turned up at the bus stop, and we checked our technique with them, and they confirmed we were doing the right thing and just had to wait for a bus to stop.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, a bus stopped, only to tell us that he had one seat, and one of us would have to sit up front on the stairs next to him.  We didn’t think twice, not wanting to be stranded on the side of the highway for any longer.

We paid the fare and I moved through the bus to the one spare seat, promising Cheryl I’d be back at the halfway mark to swap places with her.  That was before I fell asleep!  I woke up about 45 minutes into the trip, as we were entering the outskirts of Santiago!  I went to swap with Cheryl who, thankfully, had kept herself entertained practicing her spanish with our driver, Manuel.  Turns out, we were lucky to get the bus when we did because it was the last Sunday in February and the buses were full with everyone returning from their vacations on the coast!

It was a great day out, not short on adventure, and it was nice that I was able to discover this new frontier with a friend.  Now that I know the tips and the tricks for getting to Casablanca, and when NOT to try to get back, there are many more wineries down there that I would like to discover.

We had a quiet night in, nibbling at a little cheese platter and enjoying one of the beautiful bottles of Pinot we’d bought at the winery.

The next morning, we had a lie in until the bright morning sun drove us out of our beds, then I had the chance to show Cheryl some of my favourite Santiago places.  First, a tour through La Vega, Vega Chica, and Mercado Central.  Then I took her to a favourite coffee spot at Cafeteria Santiago, and a stroll through the centre of town.  We had lunch at BocaNariz, sharing some jamon bruschetta, and a main of peppers stuffed with lamb and served over amaranth.  Delicious as always!

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We had a bit more of a stroll through the beautiful Lastarria area, then bought an icecream from the best icecream store, Emporio La Rosa, and headed for Parque Forestal, where we sat on a bench and watched the world go by.

It wasn’t long before it was time to head home and for Cheryl to get ready for her trip to the airport.  An eventful weekend, but great to have the opportunity to explore new places with someone, and to share some of my favourites.  I look forward to more visitors and, besides, I still have that other lovely bottle of Pinot to share with someone!


Santiago – devils, shaman, and old clay pots

20130212-124022.jpgMy next wine adventure was a return to a winery that I visited when I was here four years ago.  Concha y Toro is probably the most well-known Chilean wine in Australia, particularly its Casillero del Diablo label.  Being the third-largest producer of wine worldwide (behind yours truly Treasury Wine Estates (TWE), formerly Foster’s), it’s probably the most famous Chilean wine in the world.

The winery is accessible by metro to the end of the line, then a short CLP3,000 ($6) cab fare or a 10 minute walk to the door.  I chose the cab fare.

Tours can be purchased at the gate, and I booked the traditional tour, which takes you for a walk around the beautiful grounds, seeing the old house and manicured gardens, before arriving at the vines where there is a small “garden” featuring all the different varietals grown by Concha y Toro in all their vineyards.

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At this stage, we were taken to a shaded verandah for our first wine tasting, a crisp and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.

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Our guide then led the way to the next leg of the tour, a visit to the Casillero del Diablo, the “locker” of the devil, where we learned the story behind the name in an interesting (and mildly amusing) way.  Legend has it that, after having the cellar robbed of some of its precious cargo, the owner created a rumour that the devil lived in the cellar, which was enough to keep the superstitious locals away for good.

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At the end of the cellar tour, we were given an additional tasting, this time a distinctly Chilean Carmenere.  Concha y Toro also have a very nice wine bar/restaurant and I decided to sit outside under the shade of an umbrella and enjoy an additional glass of wine and a little cheese plate.  They have a range of their wines available by the glass or by the “taste”, including their top of the range Don Melchor at $60 a glass.  Yes, Aussie dollars.  I tried the Marques de Casa Concha Pinot Noir, and decided to take a bottle home.  It’s well worth considering the higher priced Marques de Casa Concha tour since it includes a cheese plate with the tasting of four wines from this premium label, and a 15% discount off the purchase of any of the range.

Although this winery is part of “big business”, it really is a pretty location, is easy to access, and provides a nice opportunity to sit and try the wines in the wine bar, so it’s well worth the visit.

A few days later, I took off on a slightly more difficult adventure to visit Viña Undurraga. If I was to believe GoogleMaps, it was 5 kilometres from the end of the metro line at Plaza de Maipu. I set off on the train and then, eventually, found a taxi to take me the rest of the way. Moral of the story, don’t always believe GoogleMaps! It was more like 30 kilometres away and cost almost $30 for the cab fare! To rub salt into my wounds, when I arrived, my tour guide said “oh, there’s a bus from Santiago that will drop you right at the door.” Unfortunately, the winery websites often don’t contain this pertinent information and, not having had access to a phone, I hadn’t been able to ring to ask. Oh well, lesson learnt.

20130212-124157.jpgAlthough a few minutes late, I managed to catch up with the tour in the gardens where the guide was explaining some wooden chemamules, or totems, of the indigenous Mapuche people. The first two represented a man and a woman who are custodians who watch over and protect the land. A third one is the site of a Shaman ceremony, held twice a year, where the Shaman climbs to the top of the totem and holds a ceremony to bless the land and the grapes.

20130212-124213.jpgThe tour then continued through the vines, where we were able to descend into a cut-out below the ground and see first-hand the soil structure and the strength of the roots of the vines. We then visited the production facilities and the cool cellars, made from Chilean “cal y canto”, a type of mortar made from locally quarried stone and egg whites. We finished the tour on the verandah with a view of the surrounding colonial buildings and the gardens, the perfect spot to taste a selection of their different wines.

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My tour group consisted of me, and two American couples travelling together who all work in the wine industry in California. As they had a van and driver for the day, they invited me to join them for their next winery which was an offer too good to refuse. They thought they were going to Santa Rita, which I had already visited and which is on the other side of the valley, but the driver informed us that he hadn’t been able to make the booking as the winery was closed that day. Between the helpful Undurraga staff and the driver, we were able to come up with a couple of other local options and, although we couldn’t reach them on the phone, decided to visit nearby De Martino.

About 30 minutes later, we managed to find the winery, only to find out that they were booked out with tour groups all afternoon. After some gentle persuasion, a couple of calls were made, and we were told we could have a special tasting in half an hour. Perfect! In the meantime, we had time to go and seek out the local empanadas for a late lunch. Armed with a bottle of wine from De Martino’s wineshop, and our complementary glasses from Undurraga, we sat at plastic tables on the main street of Isla de Maipo and enjoyed delicious meat empanadas with spring onion. Yum!

We were running a little behind time getting back to De Martino, where they had a special tasting room set up for us in the cellar. It was beautiful and cool, and we were given 5 different wines to taste. The wines included a “field blend”, where the grape varietals are mixed up and grown together in the field, then the whole plot harvested and treated together to produce a mystery blend.  We also tasted a unique wine that had been aged in 100+ year-old clay pots that had been transported from the south of Chile. With no oak treatment whatsoever, the intention is to intervene with the fermentation process as little as possible and produce a wine true to the original fruit.

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We were invited to try more of any of the wines we had enjoyed, and to finish the bottles if we desired, an offer unlike any wine tasting I’ve attended so far. We were then given the opportunity to see the clay pots, which we all jumped at. While we were watching the sleeping wine in its clay beds, the winemaker joined us and explained his vision of trying to eliminate the tradition of expensive french barrels, to return to an even more ancient form of wine making, and his efforts to convince the owners to allow him to make the brave change. The opportunity to chat to the winemaker, especially for the Californian winemakers, was a great way to end a unique and interesting visit.

We said our goodbyes to the helpful and accommodating staff, and headed back to Santiago, having enjoyed a largely unplanned yet fantastic wine experience.