My wife, Rosemarie, and I were riding in a horse-drawn wagon through one of the oldest vineyards in Chile. It was March, late summer here in the Maipo Valley south of Santiago. Snow was melting in the Andes, and in the fields of Viña Santa Rita, the vines were heavy with clusters of grapes.
Our driver sang softly in Spanish to his two white horses, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. We were on our way to see Santa Rita's state-of-the-art winery and 200-year-old wine cellar, a national landmark.
We were on a wine tour, Chilean-style, where tourists can get an intimate look at the modern process of winemaking as well as a taste of the romance of an era more than 200 years gone, when wealthy landowners first began to raise European wine grapes as a hobby.
My fascination with winemaking has family roots. It began in Waterbury, Conn., where every fall my grandfather and other Italian immigrants went out to their backyards and ran a couple of tons of grapes through hand-cranked wooden crushers. My grandfather's unfiltered Zinfandel was aged in old whiskey barrels and served in shot glasses alongside my grandmother's homemade macaroni and sauce.
Three decades later, in the 1990s, I wrote about home winemakers in south Philadelphia who showed me how they made their row-house reds from California grapes. I decided I had to give it a try.
I got hooked. It's all so earthy: the cold, sweet grapes, the crystal-clear juice flowing from the wine press, the oak barrels stained purple.
For the last dozen years, I've made my own wine. I've also become fascinated with vineyards. Chile was alluring because it has been described as the Garden of Eden for wine grapes.
Tours and tastes
We had been touring Chilean wineries for two weeks, enjoying an impressive run of Cabernet Sauvignons that began on the plane ride from Miami. Our first winery was Viña Cousiño-Macul, in the capital of Santiago. Cousiño was founded in the mid-1800s and became one of Chile's first wine exporters.
We descended a dark stairway lighted with candles and walked through a meandering tunnel lined with barrels. French architects built the cellar in 1872. At the end, a padlocked, 10-foot-high iron gate was covered with dust and spider webs. Ancient wood shelves and racks held the founding family's private reserve. The bottles, dating from 1927, tilted downward, and the fluted bottoms were almost completely filled with dust. "I don't have the key," the tour guide said.
In the fields of Concha y Toro, another giant winery in Pirque, just south of Santiago, we tasted tiny, blushing-blue Cabernet Sauvignon grapes with thick, chewy skins and sweet squirts of juice. Each row of grapes was lined with dripping rubber irrigation hoses that carried snowmelt from the Andes.
Central Chile's Mediterranean climate, the tour guide explained, is ideal for growing wine grapes. Throughout spring, summer and fall, there's little rain, so winemakers can better control growth. And there's little need for pesticides because the region has few diseases or pests, such as phylloxera, the aphid that in the 19th century devastated much of the world's vineyards. Only Argentina and Chile escaped the plague.
At Concha y Toro, we tasted a peppery 2001 Don Melchor Cabernet served on a barrel top, then descended to the Cellar of the Devil. It was surprisingly cool, thanks to a sand floor and automatic misters. The cellar was given its name by the winery's founder, Don Melchor, who was trying to discourage thieves.
About 45 minutes south of Santiago is Viña Santa Rita, a living museum for the Chilean wine industry. The house that once belonged to the vineyard's 19th century owner, Domingo Fernández Concha, has been converted into the 16-room Hotel Casa Real, a coral-colored Pompeii-style estate built in a U shape around inner gardens, with giant trees and flowering vines cascading over a Spanish tile roof.
The estate was built in 1882 as a summer home. French windows were added, and Domingo brought in a French architect in 1885 to finish a neo-Gothic chapel next door to the big house.
A staff of 15 gardeners tends to the 98-acre estate, which has two swimming pools, three ponds, plus tennis courts, a sauna and a gym. Towering hundred-year-old native trees include chestnut, cedar and almond.
The afternoon we arrived, the staff served chilled Sauvignon Blanc on the veranda, accompanied by delicious club sandwiches, stuffed with ham, turkey breast and eggs.
Dinner in the hotel's restaurant was expertly grilled lamb served in a private dining room. The waiters poured Cabernet Sauvignon, the pride of Chile, and Carmenere, a native grape frequently mistaken by the locals for Merlot. After dinner, we were free to wander the big house and shoot a few rounds on Domingo's English billiard table.
Gonzalo, the hotel manager who also hosts wine tours, told us about Santa Rita's legendary wine cellar, where its 18th century owner, Doña Paula, once hid 120 soldiers — including Bernardo O'Higgins, the general who helped liberate Chile from Spain during Chile's war for independence. The vineyard's modern owners were quick to spot a good marketing concept; Santa Rita's 120 brands have been bestsellers in Chile for decades. "All the people wanted to drink the wine of the heroes," Gonzalo said.
The oldest cellar on the Santa Rita estate was built in 1750. The sepia-toned cavern was made of brick and cal y canto, a native mixture of limestone, sand and egg whites. "We have a lot of chickens," Gonzalo explained. Over the centuries, the mortar recipe has proved flexible and resistant to earthquakes.
In dim lantern light, I saw double stacks of grape-stained French and American oak barrels, each holding 59 gallons; it's the same size barrel I use at home in Philadelphia.
Once, Gonzalo explained, the country's wineries aged their wines in giant holding tanks made of tasteless Chilean oak. Today, big wineries such as Santa Rita make wine the way home winemakers do, aging it in small, more flavorful French and American oak barrels. Next door to the cellar is a modern plant that fills 18,000 bottles an hour. The winery annually exports 1.3 million cases to the U.S. and elsewhere.
After visiting three giant corporate wineries, we drove three hours south of Santiago to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, where many small wineries are still family-run.
In Santa Cruz, we stayed at the beautiful Spanish colonial-style Santa Rita Plaza Hotel, where guests can catch a daily bus on the wine route and tour many of the valley's 15 vineyards.
Our first stop was the Viña Bisquertt Family Vineyards, where we were greeted by a sweet, tart perfume emanating from a truckload of just-crushed Chardonnay grapes. Dieter, our tour guide, lifted his expert nose and called out a cascade of scents: "Citrus, bananas, peaches, lots of flowers."
The wet concrete floor was covered with sticky green pulp. Our group — Europeans and a few Americans — tried to keep its balance as we followed Dieter through a maze of giant stainless-steel holding tanks. We passed a worker in denim overalls and rubber hip boots who was hosing down a grape-splattered crusher and de-stemmer.
In the tasting room, we raised glasses of a late-harvest Casa La Joya 2003 Sauvignon Blanc that Dieter said smelled of apples and citrus. "Now, we will taste the wine," he said, rolling the pale liquid around in his glass. "We don't drink it; we taste it."
Our next stop was Viu Manent, where we watched workers load a conveyer belt with just-picked Chardonnay grapes. Inside the winery, we rubbed shoulders with staff in white lab coats who were testing sugar and acid levels.
At Viña Laura Hartwig, another Colchagua vineyard, the owner's son talked about his unusual wine label, a 40-year-old pencil drawing of the family matriarch as a young woman, done by Claudio Bravo, one of Chile's renowned contemporary artists. "We wanted to keep a strong family image," Alejandro Hartwig said.
Family is big in the Colchagua Valley. Alejandro, a graduate of Chile's school of viniculture, has an uncle and a brother who own neighboring wineries.
The Hartwig wine cellar has only 400 barrels, and Alejandro doesn't filter most of his wines. I lifted a barrel plug to sniff a maturing Cabernet. It was almost like puttering around my own wine cellar. Winemaking is simpler than most people realize, Alejandro said. "It's like cooking in your kitchen."
After drinking up the family traditions of Colchagua, one of our last trips was to Chile's newest, trendiest wine region: the Casablanca Valley, 36 miles west of Santiago, home to the country's best white wine grapes.
Casablanca's hottest new draw, we learned from a woman in a Santiago art gallery, is Viña Indomita, a contemporary white palace with arches and mirrored glass built atop a hill overlooking a vineyard and pastures of grazing horses and sheep. The only way to get there is to drive slowly up a winding dirt road.
Viña Indomita's restaurant featured a wailing techno beat and a menu so nouveau that the chef had added papaya to the Chilean national appetizer of pebre, a fresh tomato salsa eaten with bread. Our waiter served us salmon on grilled polenta and fillet of beef with a pistachio crust and a blackberry and Merlot reduction sauce. We sampled a heavy, grapey 2003 Sauvignon Blanc and a soft 2003 Cabernet.
Then we got lucky. Our waiter told us the tour guide was off, so we should feel free to wander through the place.
No guard was on duty, and we had the winery to ourselves as we strolled the two-story steel plant. We stood on the catwalk and gazed up at the steel infrastructure and down on the massive holding tanks. We wandered through the cellars — lined with French oak barrels — before we let ourselves out.
We then drove slowly down the dirt road, past a crowing rooster and three workers riding a tractor.
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Chile by the bottle
From LAX, LanChile offers direct (stop, no change of plane) and connecting (stop, change of planes) service, and American, Varig, Copa, United and Mexicana offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $798.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 56 (country code for Chile) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
In Chile's wine regions, restaurants are scarce, butmost hotels have restaurants on the premises.
Hotel Montebianco, Isidora Goyenechea, Las Condes, Santiago; 2-233-0427, fax 2-233-0420, http://www.hotelmontebianco.cl . The 33-room hotel is a small, quiet, charming place owned by an Italian, which may be why it feels like an Italian pensione. We were served authentic spaghetti Bolognese. Doubles $88, including breakfast.
Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel, 286 Plaza de Armas, Santa Cruz; 72-821-010, fax 72-823-445, http://www.hotelsantacruzplaza.cl . A tasteful, elegant Spanish colonial-style hotel. Doubles $150. The restaurant serves traditional Chilean dishes such as grilled sea bass and lomo a lo pobre, a steak topped with two fried eggs covered with French fries.
Hotel Casa Real, 0695 Avenida Padre Hurtado, Buin; 2-362-2100, fax 2-821-9767, http://www.santarita.com . On the grounds of the Santa Rita winery. Doubles $220, with breakfast.
WINERIES & TOURS:
Tours of Santiago-area wineries can be arranged through most hotels.
Tours of Colchagua Valley wineries can be arranged through the Santa Cruz Plaza.
Ruta del Viño, Santa Cruz; 72-823-199, http://www.rutadelvino.cl . Works with 14 wineries, including Viña Bisquertt, Viña Laura Hartwig and Viu Manent, and can arrange tours.
GotoLatin Travel S.A., 1954 Alfredo Barros Errazurz, Officina 810 Providencia, Santiago; 2-940-2925, http://www.gotolatin.com . This agency can arrange day trips as well as winery tours. (Ask for Marta.)