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.

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