The Traveller's Guide To Chile's Wine Regions

Chile's unique geography has produced an equally fascinating range of world-class wines, as Aoife O'Riordain discovers
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO ALL THE WAY TO CHILE?

WHY GO ALL THE WAY TO CHILE?

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda may have described Chile as "gentle as the grape", but there is nothing gentle about the diversity of its landscape. Within this thin ribbon of land, 4,300km long and no more than 170km wide, the geographical and climactic differences are so great, it's the same as travelling from Norway to the Sahara. So, if you like your vineyards and wine tastings framed by spectacular backdrops, look no further.

HOW LONG HAS CHILE BEEN MAKING WINE?

It is widely believed that vines were first brought to Chile in 1548 by two Spanish friars - Bartholome de Terrazas and Francisco de Carabantes - to celebrate Mass, although others attribute it to Juan Bohon, the founder of La Serena.

By the end of the 1850s, the founding fathers of the Chilean wine industry, who included Silvestre Ochagavia Echazarreta, brought French winemakers and grape varieties to Chile. Chile's natural geographical barriers - the Pacific Ocean, the Andes and the Atacama Desert - create some excellent grape-growing conditions. Combine this with cold winters, long hot summers and cool nights with infrequent frosts, and you have what is often referred to as a New World wine-makers dream.

The majority of wines produced in Chile are red from grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Carmenère. A smaller percentage of white wine is produced using mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and increasingly there are plantings of aromatic varieties such as Riesling and Viognier.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN WINE REGIONS?

The highest concentration of vineyards are located in Chile's central plain, north and south of the capital Santiago. Many of the regions are located in the valleys that spread out from the main highway that runs the length of Chile, the Panamericana. From north to south the main wine-producing valleys are: Elqui, Limarí Valley, Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio, Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó, Maule, Itata, Bío Bío and the most southerly, Malleco Valley, located 700km from Santiago.

CAN I VISIT THE VINEYARDS?

Many of the vineyards are open to the public, although for some you will need to make an appointment. Several larger wineries have vineyards in more than one valley but usually welcome visitors in the main winery. An increasing number of valleys are also organising themselves into wine routes. These include the Ruta del Vino del Valle de Curicó (00 56 75 328 972; www.rvvc.cl), Ruta del Vino Colchagua (00 56 72 823 199; www.colchaguavalley.cl), Ruta del Vino Casablanca (00 56 32 743 933; www.casablancavalley.cl), Ruta del Vino Aconcagua (00 56 34 468 209; www.aconcaguavinos.cl), Ruta del Vino Cachapoal (00 56 72 553 684; www.cachapoalwineroute.com) and Maule Valley Wine (00 56 71 246 460; www.chilewineroute.cl). Contact details for the wineries can also be found at www.winesofchile.org.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

The closest vineyards to Chile's capital are those of the Maipo Valley. Maipo is home to some of the most historic vineyards in the country. It is perhaps best described as Chile's answer to the French Medoc, producing some of the country's best Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Here you can visit some of the big names in Chilean wine such as Concha y Toro (00 56 2 476 5269; www.conchaytoro.cl), Viña Santa Rita (00 56 2 362 2000; www.santarita.com) and Undurraga (00 56 2 372 2800; www.undurraga.com). The first offers tours and tastings of its historic Casona de Pirque, built in 1875, and adjoining cellars. English-language tours are offered Monday-Friday 11.30am-3.30pm and cost US$6 (£3.50) per adult.

WHERE TO NEXT?

Two-and-a-half hours south of Santiago, the Colchagua Valley is often referred to as the Napa Valley of South America. The Colchagua's main route, Route 72, lined with fruit stalls selling whatever is in season, is dotted with grand haciendas in varying architectural styles, peeking through lush gardens and approached by grand avenues. The Colchagua's wine route, the Ruta del Viño Colchagua (00 56 72 823 199; www.colchaguavalley.cl), is one of the most tourist-friendly wine routes: its guided tours combine visits to several vineyards including Casa Lapostolle (00 56 72 426 9960; www.casalapostolle.com), MontGras (00 56 72 82 32 42; www.montgras.cl), Viña Montes (00 56 72 825 471) and Viña Cono Sur (00 56 72 476 5090; www.conosur.com). A full-day tour costs 90,000 pesos (£80) per adult which includes three vineyards, lunch, a guide and transfers or 58,000 pesos (£52) for two.

Visit the MontGras vineyard, a 200-hectare estate tucked in the San Jose Valley. Its visitor centre is a colonial-style building with a tasting room, airy courtyards in the traditional Chilean hacienda style. Guided tours are available every day (phone for opening times) and cost 8,000 pesos (£7.20). A memorable afternoon or evening can be spent horse-riding through its prestigious organically managed Ninqúen vineyard situated on a high plateau facing the Andes. This costs 45,000 pesos (£40) per adult, including guide and lunch or dinner on the vineyard. Book in advance.

The colonial settlement of Santa Cruz is the principal town of the Colchagua valley. The area's wine harvest is celebrated on the first weekend in March at the annual Fiesta de la Vendima, held in the Plaza de Armas. For a sense of the region's history visit the Colchagua Museum (00 56 72 821 050; www.museocolchagua.cl). This has an extensive and impressive collection of pre-Colombian art from all over South America as well as extensive colonial exhibits and agricultural machinery from times gone by. It opens daily 10am-7pm and admission costs 2,500 pesos (£2.50).

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE?

The Casablanca wine region is located between Chile's capital Santiago and the coastal city of Valparaiso. Casablanca is one of Chile's main white wine producing areas and is home to vineyards such as Veramonte (00 56 32 742 421; www.veramonte.com). For more details contact the Wine route of Casablanca (00 56 32 743 933; www.casablancavalley.cl).

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Chile's best-loved poets, Pablo Neruda. Visit one of his homes, La Sebastiana, which has been converted into a small museum and also affords wonderful views of Valparaiso from Bellavista Hill. Ferrari 692, Cerro Bellavista (00 56 32 256 606; www.lasebastiana-neruda.cl). It opens daily except Monday 10.10am-6pm, admission 2,000 pesos (£1.80).

Valparaiso's beach resort, Viña del Mar, is 15 minutes north of the city; its 3.5km of golden sand is Chile's answer to Copacabana. The sparkling waters are deceptive however: the Pacific Humboldt current that flows up from the Antarctic along Chile's coast guarantees that when you dip your toes in, it's decidedly chillier than you might expect.

I THINK I'VE DRUNK ENOUGH, WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

The vineyards of the Cachapoal Valley huddle in the foothills of the Andes, to the north of the Colchagua Valley. For details of specific vineyards contact the Ruta del Vino Cachapoal (00 56 72 553 684; www.cachapoalwineroute.com). This part of the central plains is also prime cowboy, or huaso, territory. Spend a night at the Hacienda Los Lingues (00 56 2 235 5446; www.loslingues.cl). This is home the Aculeo Stable, established in 1760 and said to breed some of the finest horses in South America. The historic hacienda, which has been painstakingly renovated, accepts guests; rooms start from US$396 (£232) double, without breakfast. It also offers guests the chance to visit local rodeos and go fly-fishing.

ANY MORE OF THE GREAT OUTDOORS?

Chile is dotted with hundreds of hot springs and many are open to the public. Visit the Termas de Cauquenes (00 56 72 899 010; www.termasdecauquenes.cl) west of Raconcagua. Admission to baths costs 3,000 pesos (£2.70). Nearby you'll find the Reserva Nacional Rio de Los Cipreses (00 56 72 297 5050; www.conaf.cl) with its towering peaks of El India, Paloma Volcano and dozens of waterfalls. Its Los Peumos hiking trail takes visitors through some of the best scenery the park has to offer. Cascada Expediciones (00 56 2 217 5061; www.cascada-expediciones.com) offers one-day rafting trips down a 16km stretch of the Maipo River Gorge for US$79 (£46) per adult including transfers from Santiago.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The Chilean Tourism Promotion Corporation offers a limited amount of tourism advice from its Santiago headquarters (00 56 2 431 0530; www.visit-chile.org), though the Washington DC office (001 866 937 2445) may be more helpful if you do not speak Spanish. For specific information on wine, contact Wines of Chile on 01344 872229, visit www.winesofchile.org or email info@winesofchile.org.uk.

TASTING NOTES: WHITE

2003 Casillero del Diablo Viognier, Concha y Toro £5.99, Oddbins, Asda, Booths

Casillero del Diablo (The Devil's Cellar) is on its way to becoming a byword for one of the most innovative, best-value brands in the world. This opulently ripe, powerfully built dry white with the ripe peachiness of the viognier grape and balancing fresh acidity shows why.

2003 Errazuriz Estate Chardonnay, Casablanca £5.99, Tesco, Sainsbury's

Aconcagua-based Errazuriz is one of the most consistent performers in Chile for reds and whites. Here, the cool air-conditioning effect of the Pacific in Casablanca Valley has helped fashion a refreshingly crisp, Chablis-style Chilean Chardonnay with a grapefruit-zesty tropical fruit tang.

2002 Cono Sur Vision Riesling, Bío-Bío Valley £7.99, Sainsbury's, Threshers How refreshing it is to see such excellent lime-zesty fruitiness emerging from Chile in the shape of the Riesling grape planted in the extreme southerly latitude of the Bío-Bío Valley. This aromatic dry white won a gold medal at this year's Decanter World Wine Awards, so it's unlikely to be hanging around for too long.

2003 Carmen Winemakers Reserve Chardonnay, Casablanca, Chile £8.99, Waitrose

The Casablanca Valley quickly has become Chile's most important white wine producing region. This gloriously peachy dry Casablanca white has been crafted using oak fermentation and less stirring in the barrel to create a full-flavoured, Burgundy style with a delicate touch of vanilla.

2002 Gran Araucano Chardonnay, Colchagua Valley £12.46, Corney & Barrow

With his brother François, Bordeaux winemaker Jacques Lurton has established himself as one of the foremost European exponents of the New World style, in this case in a grand, burgundy-style chardonnay from Colchagua Valley made with an opulence that Burgundy can only dream of.

2003 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard, San Antonio Valley £14.45, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0840 330 1855)

Casa Marin is a new galactico in the Chilean firmament, and this aromatic sauvignon, an intensely-flavoured blend of tropical and gooseberry fruitiness from the emerging San Antonio Valley with a firm backbone of steely acidity, is a forerunner of good things to come.

TASTING NOTES: RED

2003 Viña San Pedro, 35º South Cabernet Sauvignon, Lontué Valley £4.49-£4.99, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Somerfield, Spar, Roberson (020-8969 8444)

For claret lovers in search of excellent value-for-money New World cabernet sauvignon, this youthful red from San Pedro with its chunky tannins and juicy berry fruit flavours, lightly tinged with oak, does what it says on the back label.

2002 Trio Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz / Cabernet Franc £5.99, Oddbins, Thresher, Tesco

From the Chilean blendmeister Ignacio Recabarren, this is a new-wave Chilean blend whose vivid colour and powerfully spicy, oaky aromas are supported by plenty of sweetly succulent mulberry fruit flavours and enhanced by fresh acidity. Another excellent red at an affordable price.

2002 Errazuriz Max Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002 £8.99 or 2 for £15, Thresher, Wine Rack (to 27 September)

Erruzuriz may sound like a swarm of approaching bees, but the special offer price takes the sting out of this stylish Chilean red, whose opulent fruit, with its minty undertones and classic blackcurrant flavours has plenty of fresh acidity and juicy-textured fruitiness for balance.

2002 Viña Casa Silva, Doña Dominga Reserva Carmenère £6.99, Sainsbury's, Waitrose (from 22 September)

Carmenère has become one of Chile's specialities and this appealing red shows why. With its perfumed, cherry and plum fruitiness tinged and light, herbaceous character, it's richly concentrated and well-proportioned with a clean and refreshingly bitter twist on the aftertaste.

2001 Coyam, Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana £8.94, Asda (40 stores)

Bully for Asda for getting hold of this superb, trophy-winning blend from Alvaro Espinoza, arguably Chile's best winemaker. Fresh, perfumed aromas lead into a classic Chilean five-grape blend of smooth black cherry fruitiness, a light touch of oak and a poised, pure quality which sets it apart. Imagine a super-opulent claret at half the price.

1999 Santa Rita Triple C £19.99, Majestic, Berkmann Wine Cellars (020-7609 4711)

Vintage and price neatly match each other in this classy Bordeaux-style blend from Santa Rita, whose well-infused vanilla oak, supple-textured fruit richness and layers of intense cassis flavour give this still youthful red from Chile's Maipo Valley considerable potential for continued improvement in bottle.

Anthony Rose

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