By Lee Foster
Touring wineries, traditionally a popular activity in California and elsewhere, is also very popular in Chile, which has become one of the more exciting wine regions in the world today.
Two of Chile’s quality producers, Vina Concha y Toro and Vina Undurraga, can be visited in separate half-day trips from Santiago. Both are in the Maipo River Valley just south of Santiago, but one is southeast and the other is southwest of the city. Each has a hospitable guided touring and tasting program for a modest fee at a handsome facility. Reservations for a visit must be made a day or two in advance. Tour operators in Santiago can arrange a guide and transportation, which is advisable. Lunch at an interesting nearby restaurant can be included as part of the outing.
The story of modern Chilean wine production is an exhilarating tale. Chile is like a South American mirror of the choice California coastal wine-producing regions, offering a similar cool but dry Mediterranean climate that creates optimal wine grapes. The actual wine area is longer than California, about 800 miles, with Santiago at the center. Catholic missionaries brought wine grapes to Chile centuries ago, but the vinifera varietal cuttings from Bordeaux arrived at the end of the 19th century. In the last decade Chilean wines have built an export reputation for quality and good value. Many new wine areas have been planted and are just coming into production, with outstanding results.
Hector Riquelme on Chilean Wine
Prior to my excursions to the wineries, I had an opportunity to talk wine and drink wine with Hector Riquelme, who is considered one of the great sommeliers of Chile. He is a wine buyer for the major wine store in Santiago, World of Wine.
“You have to understand our climate and our soils to appreciate our wines,” said Hector. “In Santiago we are at about the same latitude as Napa in California. We have a similar dry summer climate, so we irrigate the vineyards. We can harvest without risk of rain to cause rot. The Maipo Valley wineries near Santiago are already famous, but we have a dozen small growing regions, some totally new, that are producing outstanding wine. The future of Chilean wines is bright.”
As a sample, he poured for me three Gold Medal winners in recent Chilean competitions.
The first was a luscious, fruity Sauvignon Blanc from Vina Montes, their Montes Limited Selection SB, from the Leyda Valley.
“There are hundreds of small producers, such as this one, who are creating quality wine, but many never make it to export. Some new wineries are doing their first press. The future quality possible here is breathtaking, from Sauvignon and Chardonnay to Syrah, along with our main varietals, Cabernet and Merlot.”
Hector related the basic statistics. There are now about 89,000 hectares of planted red wine grapes and 29,000 hectares of whites. Cabernet and Merlot account for the major share. There is still a substantial amount of the Mission or Pais grape from the earlier sacramental wine era. One specialty Bordeaux grape, Carmenere, is widely planted and was confused with Merlot as a varietal until recently. Carmenere was wiped out in France by phylloxera and was not subsequently replanted because it is more difficult to get fully ripened. However, cuttings were taken to Chile prior to the phylloxera episode and do flourish in Chile, where the dry and sunny autumn is ideal for the varietal.
“Our growing conditions are so exceptional for good fruit,” noted Hector. “We have proximity to the moderating Pacific and the tempering influence of the Humboldt Current from the ocean. We have cool air coming into the valleys from the Andes. We have never had the root louse pest, phylloxera, which has been such a problem in France and in California. Watch for our specialties, such as cool-climate Syrah, which has a special freshness and intensity of taste and aroma.”
He then poured a smooth Merlot, medium-bodied, with a taste of plum and cherry. This was a bottle from Vina Bisquertt, Casa La Joya Merlot Reserve, from the Colchagua Valley.
“There are many nuances in our Chilean growing areas,” continued Hector. “We are a string bean of a country with a long and narrow set of wine valleys. The fast-running snow-melt rivers run east to west from the Andes. But there is also a coastal range of mountains the rivers run through. Every valley has its own soil structure and soil minerals, which affect the grape taste.”
His final wine for our conversation was a grand Cabernet, a bottle from Vina Hacienda Araucano, Gran Araucano Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Colchagua Valley. It was a classic Cabernet, with a concentration of taste, substantial tannins, deep color, and a huge balance of fruit and oak.
After talking with Hector Riquelme, I felt I was ready to venture into the field.
Vina Concha y Toro
I wanted to visit Concha Y Toro because it is the largest wine producer in Chile. This is a wine brand that North American consumers can actually experience.
It is worth noting that Concha Y Toro not only has quantity (about 300 million liters per year), but has a solid reputation for quality. Its Don Melchor Cabernet has ranked very high in international competitions. In 2002 Wine Spectactor named it to the Top Four of 100 World Wide Wines of the Year. The parallel in California is Mondavi. Both wineries have partnerships with the Rothchilds of Bordeaux to produce a wine for the ultra-premium market.
I engaged a tour company to provide a car with driver and guide for my excursions.
The ride out to Concha y Toro took me through urban Santiago to the southeast edge of the city and the town of Pirque in the open farmlands of the Maipo Valley, an area of sandy loam soil. The Maipo Valley near Santiago has plantings primarily of Cabernet.
At the handsome facilities of Concha y Toro, I met my guide, Mabel Riveros. Mabel walked me through the grand estate gardens, replete with ponds and pergolas and even a mature California redwood tree. I saw the sumptuous manor house that the Concha y Toro family built toward the end of the 19th century, when the vineyard plantings began. She explained how the family started with French vinifera varietals in the 1880s. Mabel indicated that Concha y Toro now has vineyards in many different Chilean wine regions. She enumerated for me several of the company’s brands and indicated that they export today to about 110 foreign markets.
Then we went into the cool, damp cellars to see the extensive range of French oak barrels and the stored bottles of the company’s finest wines.
For tasting, we started with their Castillero Del Diablo brand and the varietal Carmenere. Wine drinkers will enjoy comparing this to the Merlot, with which it was confused for a century. The Castillero Del Diablo brand resulted from an amusing legend. It was said that the family patron, Don Melchor, was disturbed that locals were slipping into the cellars at night and sampling his wine surreptitiously. So he perpetrated the notion that the cellars were the home of the devil. The superstitious locals never came back to quaff wine.
Then we moved on to a bottle of the Don Melchor 1998 Cabernet. This is one of their their top wines. It is a classic, full bodied Cabernet, smooth and yet luscious with fruit taste.
Both of the wineries I visited had sales shops, where you could buy bottles. I bought some bottles for drinking while in Chile. You can also take home three liters on the airplane, but, as of the time of my trip, you could not board an airplane within the U.S. with more than three ounces of liquid in a container. I learned it was not economical to buy at the winery and personally air ship wine to the U.S. It is better to work with a regional wine importer in your home area, who will have economical sea shipping arranged.
After Concha y Toro we drove for lunch in the Andes at a rustic wood-carved restaurant known as Casa Bosque. The dish of choice here is grilled, farm-raised salmon, for which Chile is second in worldwide production (after Norway). We then drove farther to see the craftsellers in the plaza of a small village, San Jose de Maipo. Views of the snow-covered Andes were stunning. The same poppies that I enjoy in California were bursting out in ubiquitous numbers during my spring visit (spring in Chile is October, with spring-summer October to February a good time to travel here.)
My ride out to Undurraga took me through urban Santiago to the southwest edge of the city and a flourishing farming countryside. Besides grapes, I could see plantings of onions, beans, walnuts, almonds, and pears. The setting was like the Central Valley of California, rich farmlands irrigated in an arid Mediterranean climate, with mountains in the background.
Like Concha y Toro, Undurraga is a handsome facility, formerly the home and winery of a great family. The patriarch was Francisco Undurraga. He and his wife Ana started the lavish operation in the 1880s. Gardens around the winery were laid out with grand architectural care. Family horse carriages from the early era decorate the front lawns of the estate.
My guide at Undurraga was Patricio Potal. As at Concha y Toro, the tour and tasting experience was thorough and not rushed. Allow an hour or two for the event to unfold.
Patricio took me through the lovely gardens and fountains and then into the grape fields. He said Undurraga produces about 1.5 million liters of wines annually from its various properties in Chile. Cabernet, Pinot, and Chardonnay are among their specialties. It is relatively easy to be organic here because pests are minimal (no phylloxera) and there is very little chance of powdery mildew on the fruit from rain during the harvest period. Elaborate drip irrigation hoses delivered the water at both the wineries I visited.
Patricio then took me past Undurraga’s crushing facilities and their modern stainless steel fermentation tanks. We ventured next into the cool and ornate underground cellars where, in French oak barrels, the winery stores their premium Cabernets and Chardonnays. As we left the cellar, we walked past a museum of old wine-making equipment from the early days. In the recent era the winery has passed into corporate hands, which has provided the capital required for modern, high-quality production. Stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels are among the capital intensive purchases required to be a modern winery.
Then we ventured to the tasting room and savored a Sauvignon Blanc, a Carmenere, and a Cabernet from the Undurraga production. All were sold under the same Undurraga label. All were tasty wines. As at Concha y Toro, each taster is given a wine glass with a logo as a memento.
For those who appreciate wine, visiting a wine country and touring/tasting at quality producers is a special treat. As the modern Chilean wine production matures, with an ever larger number of regions and wineries producing excellent wines, the pleasures available here for a wine traveler are immense.
If You Go: Chilean Wine Touring
The overall tourism site for Chile is www.visitchile.com.
A Wines of Chile website at www.winesofchile.org has helpful information.
Sommelier Hector Riquelme is associated with a major wine store in Santiago called World of Wine, www.elmundodelvino.cl.
Vina Concha Y Toro information is at www.conchaytoro.com.
Vina Undurraga information is at www.undurraga.cl.