By Gabriel O’Rorke
For many people there are three top spots on a trip to Chile: Atacama, Patagonia and Easter Island. But for wine lovers the focus lies just outside Santiago in the wine valleys. Known as the "breadbasket" of Chile, this idyllic rural region also has rolling hills covered in lines of vines that stretch all the way from the Andes to the Pacific.
With several vineyards situated just a few hours from the capital, it's easy to make a day trip to one of several Chilean wine regions, but for a real insiders experience, Santiago Adventures creates the ultimate wine tours. Forget traipsing round the tourist trail visiting the same vineyards as every other tourist, these guys will craft a bespoke tour to suite your interests.
Before my trip I receive an email with the Santiago Adventures Wine Lovers Profile attached. Covering everything from level of interest in wine to level of Spanish and whether you belong to any wine clubs, these guys clearly wanted to glean as much information as possible.
"Before each tour we find out exactly what kind of wine people like," says Brian Pearson, Founder and Managing Director of Santiago Adventures. "The tours on the website are really just suggestive, we change them depending on your interests and how many days you have."
This is not something you can take for granted in any country let alone Chile where some of the best tour operators have rigid rules about how the number of nights you can stay. Explora, for example, allows either three or six night stays at Hotel Salto Chico in Patagonia.
The tour I've been diagnosed with spans three days and covers the following valleys: Casablanca, San Antonio, Cachapoal and Colchagua. My guide Manuel arrives bright and early in a private transfer and we head 75km northwest to the Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys, coastal wine country best known for producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and cool–climate Syrah.
Wine Tasting and Two Wheels
Our first stop is Kingston Family Vineyards for a private tour and tasting with winemaker Julie, one of just five employees. After exploring the cellar we sample the 2011 Syrah from the barrel and make for the shady quincho (open air terrace with views over the 140–hectare family estate) where we try the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Pinot Noir and 2008 Syrah.
Since producing its first vintage in 2003, Kingston Family Vineyards has carved a reputation for its top quality Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. Processed and bottled on site, coastal breezes and foggy mornings are the secret behind this vineyard, which has consistent 90+ point ratings and was named "Winery of the Year 2011" by Wine & Spirits magazine.
But there's no rest for the wicked, after touring and tasting Manuel unstraps bicycles from the back of the van and we pedal off down the sandy, palm tree–lined driveway to the next vineyard, Loma Larga.
Making our way up, over and around the small picturesque roads, through Eucalyptus avenues and past fields full of fruit and vegetables we finally reach the other side of Casablanca town.
A Little Wine, a Little Lunch, a Little Helicopter Transfer
Another small–scale, family–run vineyard, Loma Larga harvested its first wine in 2004 and has two labels: Loma Larga and Lomas del Valle. Sommelier Alejandra welcomes us, leading us over the vine–covered roof to the cool cellar below. These are vines with a double purpose: keeping the cellar cool and producing Pinot Noir grapes.
Indeed, one thing that sets Loma Larga's Pinot Noir apart is the fact it's made by foot pressing — "by very clean people I assure you" says Alejandra — and has a distinctive smell of strawberries. Another outstanding blend is the Rhapsodia Loma Larga which is made from Syrah, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.
"Loma Larga is for people who want to try something different and unique," says Alejandra. "We’re run by just one family over a small area. We own and use what we have here, and don't buy grapes from other places."
We emerge back into the sunlight to find lunch spread out on a picnic table. Cold meat, cheese and avocado go down very nicely with Loma Larga's Malbec, a unique wine which claims the title of Chile's only cool climate Malbec. It has a smoky aftertaste and is great paired with seafood, tuna and salmon.
Like a scene from a movie, the sound of a chopper grows closer and a helicopter lands in the field in front of the winery. No, not the wine–induced imaginings of an after lunch siesta, simply a Santiago Adventures transfer!
Feeling like movie stars, we board the small helicopter and soared over rows of grape vines stretching below us in perfect green lines. From Casablanca we speed over to San Antonio, our destination the neighboring winery Viña Matetic.
State–of–the–art organic winemaking facilities, hand–selected grapes, gravity used for grape production rather than pumps, and fertilizer provided by the resident chickens, geese and alpacas are just some of the things that set Matetic apart. Another interesting factor is the location which straddles two valleys meaning Matetic wines grown on both Casablanca and San Antonio soils.
The private tour is followed by tastings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. In total we sampled three different Syrahs, one from each label: EQ, Corralillo, Matetic. Of the 9,000–hectare estate, just 169 hectares are dedicated to grapes, the rest is crops and livestock.
After a fantastic full day, we head to the coast for a night at The Winery Hotel in Algarrobo. This area with its rugged coastline is best known as the spot chosen by Pablo Neruda for his summerhouse, Isla Negra. Decked out in black–and–white, with lots of velvet upholstery and glitzy chandeliers, this unexpectedly glam boutique hotel has friendly staff, sea views and an outdoor Jacuzzi on the balcony of Room 107.
A little hungry on arrival, two glasses of pink fizz arrive in our room along with a plate of clams covered in melted Parmesan cheese. After a walk along the beach we head down to dinner in the Grey Goose Vodka–sponsored dining room with its black tables, chairs and sparkly lamps. Enormous (truly enormous, you could quite easily share) plates of quinoa risotto with steak slow–cooked on the bone arrive, followed by white chocolate mousse.
The next morning starts in the glass–walled Pilates studio with an hour–long lesson which blows away the cobwebs and leaves me feeling limber and stretched out ready for another day on the wine trail. Again, somewhat unexpected that this 13–room hotel should have a high–tech Pilates studio!
Our next destination is the Cachapoal Valley (which charmingly translates as Very Green Valley) and more specifically Altair, a boutique winery of impressive proportions with sweeping views and private tours that last at least two hours.