The Andes

20140216-182224.jpgWhether you’re looking at them, drinking wine at the foot of them, flying over them, skiing on them, riding horses on them, or trekking in them (yeah, right!), there is no denying that The Andes are one of Chile’s most beautiful and majestic features.

For someone that comes from a relatively flat country, I am still often blown away by the sight of them.

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They are particularly beautiful in winter, when they are snow-capped and catch the most amazing light of the sunset.  But even in the heat of summer, it amazes me that there is still snow up there.

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I can be walking down a city street, and suddenly catch a glimpse between tall buildings, or running through the park, and glance up and see the glacial tops. We even had some fresh snowfall yesterday, along with some very unexpected February rain in the city.

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They are truly amazing, completely different to anything in my home country, and one of the things I love about living in Chile.

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wineries!

20140214-180853.jpgWineries!  La la la, sing a happy song!

Well, here I am, halfway through my challenge to write, every day during the month of February, about something that I love about living in Chile.

Who would have thought that I would wait SO long to write about wineries?  Well, I did say that my posts would be in no particular order, but it seems quite appropriate to use the halfway milestone AND Valentine’s Day to write about one of the things that I love the most.

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I’ve written about wineries in Chile before, and the fact that they are one of the big reasons that I decided to stay here.  You really can’t go very far outside of Santiago and you’ll hit a wine region but, go even further, and you hit even more wine regions.

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So far, I’ve visited many of the major valleys, such as Elqui, Casablanca, San Antonio, Maipo, Rapel, Colchagua, Curico, Maule; and have many more to explore.  I have a trip planned to Cachapoal in a week, and after that, the next on my hit list is Aconcagua because I’ve tried some very nice wines from Errazuriz and Von Siebenthal.

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Not only are the wineries great because of the wine, although that’s obviously a BIG drawcard.  The Chilean scenery is amazing, the wineries themselves are unique and beautiful, the people are lovely, and it’s sometimes just nice to get out of the city and explore.

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It’s even better to share the experience with other people and enjoy it together, which is what led me to start my new project, “Chile Wine Trails“.

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So today, a day centred around love, I am using the occasion to pay homage to one of the things I love most about living in Chile – it’s beautiful wineries!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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V for Vendimia

I won’t lie to you, one of the reasons I chose to stay longer in Santiago versus going back to Buenos Aires, is the wine, especially when harvest was fast approaching. BA has great food, but it is a long way from Argentina’s major wine regions, and also a little short on wine experiences. On the other hand, you really can’t drive an hour in any direction out of Santiago without hitting a wine region. Well, maybe if you drive due east but, eventually, you’ll hit the Andes and, if you keep going, you might just happen upon Mendoza, Argentina’s largest and most famous wine region.

So, I waited with anticipation as “vendimia”, or vintage, approached, researching and diarising the corresponding festivals that each region would hold.

The first on the calendar, and one of the largest and best known, was in Santa Cruz, in the heart of Colchagua Valley on the famous wine trail, and a bit over two hours south of Santiago.

I’d initially thought about going on the bus and staying overnight as I did when I visited Colchagua previously but, since the festival attracts people from all over the surrounding area, accommodation was booked up quickly. A day trip on the bus was possible, but would make for a very long day out. Luckily, a good friend, Camilo offered to accompany me and be the designated driver, and we invited a couple more friends, Fer and Gerla, to come along on the road trip.

20130402-133648.jpgThe drive took a little over two hours and, once we turned off the main highway, the traffic heading into Santa Cruz was noticeably heavier. We managed to find parking a few blocks from the main plaza, and set off to find the action. The main plaza was set up with many tents housing the attending wineries, and a main stage for entertainment. We bought our souvenir glass and “tickets” for wine tasting, at CLP 4,000 (about $8) for 4 tastings and the glass, and CLP 2,500 for a card of four extra tasting tickets. Fer and I planned ahead and bought the extra tickets upfront!

DSC_2018Having arrived around 2.30pm, we were all hungry and set off in search of food before the drinking started. One of the main streets leading off the plaza was closed off to traffic and set up with various artisan stalls selling their wares. At the end of the street, was another large stage area with folk dancing and, to the right, another whole street closed off, covered in a marquee, and filled with a variety of wonderful food. We were like kids in a candy store, buying large skewers of deliciously barbecued lamb, pork and chicken, empanadas and fresh juices.

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Once we had eaten our fill, it was time to hit the wine stalls. We started slowly and gently, with a refreshing and dry rosé from Casa Silva made from Cabernet Sauvignon, perfect for the warm day. I wished we’d taken more advantage of this winery early on as it was impossible to get near it later in the day, the line stretching out to the street!

20130402-134022.jpgWith our first wine in hand, we explored the set up, stopping to watch some of entertainment on stage which, at that time, was children dancing traditional folk dances in a competition. Very cute, particular in the traditional garb. We were hoping to see some of the candidates for the Harvest Queen, who was to be crowned that night, but they alluded us.

20130402-133655.jpgAfter a few more tastes, and with the heat of the day building, we found a little spot on the grass in the shade and relaxed, enjoying the music and the atmosphere, with everyone around us well behaved yet enjoying the fun. After a while, Fer and I went off to top up our glasses and check the proceedings on the stage. While we were watching the entertainment, a friendly local must have thought we looked thirsty, as he kindly gave us his remaining tickets since he was leaving for the day and wouldn’t use them anyway. That would mean we’d have to try a few more wines before the end of the day. A tough job, but one we were up for!

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It seemed like it was a reasonable time to eat again, so we headed back to the food stalls.  We realised there was a whole other row of food stalls, with whole animals roasted on the spit, dishes served on roof tiles, and many more options.  We ate some beautifully barbecued lamb ribs, and choripan, though I was most disappointed that they’d run out of “pebre”, a delicious, fresh tomato sauce that is often served with any kind of asado (BBQ).

DSC_2202 We then checked out the second stage, where some of the “challenges” set for the Queen candidates were in progress, first some dancing and then, of course, the crushing of the grapes, a challenge that looked far more difficult and less fun than you may think. Although we were barracking hard for our favourite, and she had the help and support of her dance partner, she unfortunately lost the challenge and looked extremely disheartened.

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We headed back to, of course, try some more wine. Some of the favourites of the day were Santa Rita, who were one of the few wineries to have a “reserva” and a “special edition” wine available for tasting, Viu Manent and Cono Sur.

20130402-133751.jpgWe had planned to stay until the crowning of the Queen, which was scheduled for 9pm, before heading back to Santiago but, as we were sitting near the main stage, an announcement was made to say the votes were still being counted and the crowning would be delayed. We decided not to wait, but still stayed a little longer, enjoying the entertainment and the beautiful night, before jumping back in the car and, after a small car park gridlock, making our way back to Santiago. With “Queen” cranking out of Gerla’s ipod, the trip seemed to go quickly and Fer somehow even managed to fall asleep. In the hands of our capable pilot, we arrived around midnight after a fun-filled and enjoyable day.

vendi buinThe following week’s festivities were in Buin, a town only 35 kms out of Santiago and easily accessible by bus. A group of 7 of us gathered at a local coffee shop, then made our way on the metro to Estacion Central to find our bus at San Borja bus terminal. We located the small bus marked “Buin” and paid our fare of a whole CLP 1,300. Once the bus was full, we took off down the highway, arriving in Buin in less than an hour and being dropped off directly opposite all the action.

20130403-230137.jpgThe Buin festival is a fair bit smaller than Santa Cruz, and the layout was somewhat simpler. Everything was laid out along one big straight stretch, with a stage and chairs set up at one end of the main street, and all the food stalls at the other end, with artisan stalls and, of course, the wine marquee, in between. There were less people than Santa Cruz, and we quickly ran into another group of friends who had come down on an earlier bus.

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20130402-133744.jpgWith our first wine in hand, this time a delicious Tannat-Malbec sparkling rose from a Mendoza-based winery, Familia Perulan, we went in search of food, checking out some of the artisan stalls along the way. To be fair, we didn’t spend much time looking at the stalls in Santa Cruz but, in Buin, with the smaller crowd and more simple layout, it was a lot easier to do so and the offerings of tea, cheeses, local honey, clothes, chocolate, etc were quite good. There was also a large offering of different food, from the standard empanadas and barbecue, to specialities like pastel de choclo (corn pie) and arrollada, a selection of pork rolled in pig skin.

Once fed, we sampled a few more wines, including an unwooded chardonnay from Doña Javiera that I had previously had in Santiago and loved.  I ended up buying a bottle, then tasting their Cabernet Sauvignon reserva, and buying that too!  The range of wineries represented was fantasic, from the big, like Concha y Toro, to the very small, like a guy who buys used barrels and leaves his wine in the barrel for a very long time, producing a wine that he says is more like the old-style Chilean wines (before the introduction of quality wine making techniques?).  The wine appealed to some and his outgoing personality and generous pours appealed ever more!

We managed to find a patch of grass to sit on outside one of the artists’ stalls. It was a profitable arrangement for him because three of our group bought a painting from him!

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20130403-230029.jpgOnce we’d run out of tasting tickets, we pooled some money and bought a bottle of Malbec from the same Familia Perulan winery and shared it around the group. We were not far from the stage and could hear the music and entertainment. This was the highlight of the day, enjoying the atmosphere and the wine with a relaxed group of friends from all over the world – Chile, Portugal, The Netherlands, USA, Mexico, Colombia, and of course, Australia. Soon, they were calling for participants in the grape stomping competition and, before we knew it, two of our Chilean friends were on the stage, feet in barrels, competing against each other. Carla and her partner were pipped at the post by Angelica and her partner, who filled their jug first and took wine pressing glory! Complete with red wine splattered clothes of course.

We spent the rest of the day talking and drinking more wine and, at some stage, thinking more food was a good idea.  We selected some bottles to take home with us and, finally, had a final dance with a few old locals before catching the bus back to Santiago.

We arrived just in time to get the last metro train from Central Station. The fun could, and probably should, have finished then and there but, for some reason we thought it was a good idea to drink more wine, especially when Daniel offered to open a bottle of Perez Cruz, widely recognized as one of Chile’s best wines. The last remaining five of us retired to Daniel’s apartment where, despite the small living area, we managed to dance salsa and drink wine for a number of hours! I pity the poor neighbours below but, it was a fun end to a great day out, even if it meant a day of recovery the next day!

There’s more vendimia festivals to come, with plans to visit nearby Isla de Maipo this weekend for more harvest fun.

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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.