Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chilean Grapes (7-10 March 2011, Days 88-91 of 127)

Chilean wine is better than Argentinian wine and anything else I have tried in South America. So far, the Chileans are also the most organised and cosmopolitan as a country - I reckon this will change when we hit Buenos Aires.

The journey from our hotel in Mendoza Argentina to our hotel in Santiago Chile took 7.5 hrs, 6.5 of those in the bus and the rest passing through customs.

The trip itself was spectacular - one of the best, since you cross the Andes rising to 3,800m, pass Mt Aconcagua (Elev 6,972m) the highest mountain in Argentina and all of South America and second highest after Everest!

The pass is called "Las Libertadores" and comprises several canyons and valleys surrounded by massive peaks.

The descent into Chile is actually 18km of hairpin winding road very similiar to the "Trollingen Way" in Norway. The day was incredibly clear and this part of Chile, from the Andes to the Pacific (average of 200km wide) is hot and dry. It is very much like Southern California.

Santiago (Pop 4,946,300 Elev 520m. Est 1541) is hot, busy and choked with traffic and full of hazzy smog.

It has a compact centre and looks good. It is a sophisticated city with lots of suits, bars and outdoor restaurants.

In parts, it reminds you of parts of downtown London and Paris mixed together. Colonial apartments with large frontages, Juliette balconies and mini-markets or cafes on most corners.

One third of all Chileans live in Santiago, the largest city and capital. After we dropped our gear off at the hotel we went on an orientation walk of the city centre at around 2pm.

Santiago is also the capital of sandwiches and junk food. There are outlets everywhere and the people, well "they got arse!!!". All the western junk food chains are here as well as Chilean brands. You can get a Big Mac for $2AUD. Chileans also have the biggest empanadas! For some reason they are obsessed with huge sandwiches - they are everywhere, even in the fancier restaurants! Santiago is cleaner and better organised than what we saw in Argentina or any other country. People are better dressed and remind you of a more downmarket version of Spain.

On our Santiago orientation, I visited the Brazilian Consulate since I have to apply for a second 90-day VISA for the last part of my trip. My original 90-day VISA expired and I could not get two in Australia - only one at a time. It takes 7 days to get a VISA in Chile but only 2-3 days in Argentina so I will apply in Buenos Aires.

We also found out that wine tours only visit 1-2 wineries with 3-4 wines tasted in each and cost a whopping $145AUD - no thanks. I decided I would go alone tomorrow to get more wineries and tastings in.

Tonight it was off to a nice outdoor restaurant in the "French Quarter" called "Barrio Ballavista". This is at the base of 520m and is full of local business people dining after work. We had a great time. Before dinner we tried the local wine with camembert and salmon stuffed green olives - very civilised!

Today (Tue 8MAR) was the "other big day" for me. A visit to the newer Chilean wine growing region of "Casablanca Valley", only 60km west of Santiago.

The other main wine regions associated with Santiago are "Colchagua Valley" (170km south) and "Maipo Valley" (25km east). I chose to go to Casablanca Valley because it is only 1hr away by bus and the wineries are close enough to walk between. Colchagua is 4hrs away bus and wineries are too spread out for walking. Maipo is the closest but again all the wineries are spread out so you need a car and driver.

The other disappointing aspect to these great wine regions is that there is no offical map of the wineries. Even the tourist office in the centre of Santiago had no maps - a suggestion I left with them! Even the internet was very basic.

That did not stop me.

After my run I was on my way at 10am and caught the metro from "Universita Catolica" (15min walk from our hostel) to Santiago's "Alameda" bus station where I boarded the "Tur Bus" to the sea-side city of Valparaiso. After an hour you emerge from the "Zapata" tunnel and there it is.... Casablanca Wine Valley in all its glory! I got dropped off at the toll gates outside "Vina Emiliana", my first Chilean winery!

After walking 20min through a sea of Cabernet Savignon vines only two weeks from harvest I arrived at the rather fancy cellar door complete with roof top restaurant overlooking the vineyards. I met the marketing manager, Lorrenzo, who promptly printed me a simple google map of all the wineries in the area and answered all my questions about the region. It was then down to tasting 4 wines with Phillipe, the restaurant sommelier. Vina Emiliana is Swiss and German certified bio-dynamic and organic which uses a lunar based calendar of rainfall and temperature to regulate water, insects and cultivation on purley natural means. It is the only one of its kind in all of Chile.

Bottom line: Chilean wine is definately better than Argentinian and "up-there" with the best Australian wine. It exceeded my expectations. Casablanca Valley is actually a premium wine growing area with small yields, concentrated fruit and boutique wine making. The bulk makers are in the Colchagua Valley, the oldest and more established. The Chilean wine industry is so advanced that I saw screwtop bottles here. I tasted a total of 15 wines over 3 wineries. Casablanca has 16 wineries with a total of 4,500 hectares under vine. It is the newest region, established in only 1981. The key grapes are Chardonnay and Malbec. There are many other varieties grown here also.

Annual rainfall is 350mm so irrigation is required. Soil is sandy with good drainage. The characteristic of this region is a focus on fruit with very clever use of French and American oak to add complexity but with very soft tannins. Here are some gems. White gem: 2-20% of the Sav Blanc crush is fermented on 50-50 French-American oak to remove the citrusy/lime flavours normally associated with this wine and introduce more of the fruit. Red gem: this area does "blends" that are the opposite to ours. Instead of "tailings" (the worst, leftover bits in the barrel) they collect what I call "headings" (the best bits of each grape and same vintage) and blend them to produce some of their finest reds. Blends contain 4 to 7 grapes. I also tasted a new red grape - Carignan, originally called "Carignegna" from Spain. For more details of my tasings and stats refer "CASABLANCA WINE TASTING NOTES" below.

At around 5pm I walked back to the toll gates in the middle of the freeway and stopped the next bus to Santiago. Tonight it was pizza night and we all sat in our nice open-air courtyard setting and drank some bottles I brought back along with others. What a fabulous day it was for me. I was especially pleased that I went to wineries alone, had all the tasting attention to myself and walked the wineries - it brought me so much closer to the area! Not to mention the many Chardonnay and Cab Sav grapes that I munched on along the way - simply Dewine!!!

Wed 9MAR was Valparaiso day! Valparaiso (Pop 276,000. On the Pacific. Est 1883) is 110km and a 2hr bus ride from Santiago and is where all the city slickers go to swim and relax. Not that you would swim. The Pacific here is cold-as and never exceeds 17C. I went alone after my morning run catching the same "Tur-Bus" line that I used for the Casablanca Valley (it is on the way). Once there I walked the entire town. Valparaiso is the home of the Chilean Navy and is UNESCO protected since it played a key role as the main merchant port back in the Spanish days and the Californian Gold Rush before Panama. A huge earthquake in 1906 and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 ended the glory days of Valaparaiso and it took a back seat as the sea-side destination of Santiagoans, especially retirees who play cards or chess in the main square...

It is not a great looking city with messy overhead wires, old decrepid buildings and a harbourside that has not been developed - navy and freight ships everywhere. Valparaiso is very hilly and houses creep up the steep hills with the use of "granny style elevators" to get the public up the very steep hills! It is weird and characteristic feature of this place. After almost 3hrs here I boarded my Tur-Bus and headed back to Santiago.

That night we had another classic Argentian BBQ cooked up by our hostel owner. It was simply delicious and very meaty - chorizo, chicken, beef sirloin, beef wagyu and YES all served with plenty of Malbec. Just before dinner we met our new fellow-travellers for tour No 4 from Santiago to Buenos Aires. We went from 10 to 10. My room mate Michael left ( I now have single rooms again!!!), Melaney from Sydney left and we welcomed two new people: Tamara from Perth and Sue from Stafordshire.

Our last day in Santiago (10MAR) began with my morning run followed by plenty of time on the internet and my laptop to get my second Brazilian VISA application and all supporting docs ready for printing at a nearby internet cafe.

I then left at 11:30am for my grand tour of the city of Santiago. Lucky for me I saw a photography place on my way to the centre so I obtained the passport photos for my VISA.

My first stop was "Cerro Santa Lucia (Elev 629m, 109m above city)", a small hill in the middle of the city that contains the ruins of a small fortress at the top and affords great views of the city centre.

I then descended by lift to walk the entire length of the main pedestrian drag of "Paseo Huerfanos". This is a busy, modern city. Suits everywhere! The main drag (like Pitt St mall) was packed with people.

I then popped into LAN Chile to find out why my Bariloche to Buenos Aires ticket had not beed automatically emailed to me. I am flying with Maureen since I need the extra day in Buenos Aires to process my Brazilian VISA. Turns out that American Express put a security block on my card and my payment did not go through. I paid with my Mastercard instead and I was back on track to fly.

My next stop was "Plaza Del La Libertad" to view the giant Chilean flag flying outside the Presidential Palace, formerly the "Palaceo Del La Moneda (Mint)". I then walked to the "Tribunales De Justica (The Supreme Court)" via "Plaza De La Constitucion". Huge colonial Spanish sandstone building with flare.

The "Ex-Congreso Nacional (Former Parliament House)" building, next door to the Supreme Court looks just like the back of the White House, only better.

Massive Georgian style entry with Doric columns and hanging lantern and even some wooden "liberty" bells outside.


From here it was a hop-skip-jump to the central "Plaza De Armes" for a look inside the "Catedral Metropolitana" with paintings adorning the ceilings.

The 869m "Cerro San Cristobal" was only a 20min walk from the centre, rising 349m above the city, almost 3 times higher than Cerro Santa Lucia! I caught the Funicular up there and down again. Views were superlative with the massive Andes just visible through the hot afternoon haze. After a few photos it was back down and a 30min walk to the neighbourhood internet cafe where I printed out all of my Brazilian VISA paperwork. It was then back to the hostel via the supermarket for some hot gourmet pickings. Tonight we left the hostel at 10:30pm for our overnight pus to Pucon.

NEXT BLOG: covers the journey to the Chilean Fjords, due 16MAR.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Sincere thanks to Lorenzo, marketing manager of Emiliana wineries who printed me a map and inducted me into the next tasting in record time. 2) Thank you to Valesca of Veramonte who assisted me with the record 7 wine tasting.

Winery 1 - Vina Emiliana: Certified organic and bio-dynamic by the Swiss and Germans in 2001, Est 1986, 323 hectares under vine, 2.7m L/yr. Vines 12-18yrs old, Free tasting due to my charm. A) Adobe Sav Blanc Reserva 2010. No Oak. 13.6%. No malolactic fermentation. Pale yellow colour. Herbaceous nose. Palate was firm acid but with no citrus or lime, just a fruit. B) Novas Limited Selection Chardonnay 09. 14.5%. 60% on American Oak for 8mths. Rich yellow colour. Peach nutmeg nose. Lively fruit on back palate with creamy finish. Balance great. C) Novas Winemakers Selection Syrah (68%) Mouvedre 07. 14.5%. 1yr French oak. Ruby red colour. Low key berry nose. Very dry earthy palate. D) Coyam Blend 08 (Syrah 37%, Carmenere 25%, Cab Sav 24%, Merlot 9%, Malbec 2%, Mouvedre 2%, Petit Verdot 1%. 14.5%. 14mths French oak. Intense red colour. Lively plumb nose. Soft tannins. Delicious.

Winery 2 - Vina Morande: Est 1979, 130 hectares under vine, 10AUD for 4 tastings. A) Terrarum Reserva Sav Blanc 2010. 13.5%. 2% in French Oak for 3mths. Pale yellow colour. Solid acid with weak citrus notes. Softer finish. B) Edicion Limitada Sav Blanc 09. 12.5%. 6mths on French oak. Rich yellow colour.Homey orange blossom nose. Palate is lightly toasted with generous fruit. Nothing like our Sav Blancs. C) Edicion Limitada Carmenere 08. 14.8%. 16mths French oak. Intense red-violet colour. Blackberry nose. Palate of earthy choc. Smooth tannins. Body there but not overpowering. D) Red Blend 06 (Cab Sav 73%, Cab Franc 19%, Carignan 8%). 14.1%. 18mths French oak. Cherry red colour. Cloves cinnamon nose. Honey fresh fruit plate - liquorish.Complex, rich and delicious. The best one here. E) Edicion Limitada Carignan 07. 14.5%. New red grape for me. Cherry red colour. Rhubarb nose. Rich fresh cherry and choc palate. Light but very tasty.

Winery 3 - Vina Veramonte. Est 1990. 450 hectares under vine. 5m L/yr. Record 7 wines tasted here for only 5AUD. A) Reserva Sav Blanc 2010. 13.5%. No oak. Pale straw colour. Vegemite nose. Citrus lime palate. This one was the only one like ours or NZs. B) Reserva Chardonnay 09. 13.5%. 8mths 50-50 French American oak. Light yellow colour. Buttery apricot nose. Melon palate. No hint of wood. C) Syrah Rosada (Rose) 2010. 13.5%. Pale strawberry colour. Fruit salad nose. Strawberry with slight cigar palate. Very dry finish. D) Reserva Pinot Noir 09. 14%. 10mths French oak. Brown tinged red colour. Cobweb earthy nose. Tobacco cinammon palate. Great fruit. Complex. The only Pinot I tried in South America and very good indeed. E) Reserva Carmenere 09. 13.5%. 8mths 50-50 French American oak. Deep red colour. Guava nose. Toasty blueberry palate. F) Reserva Merlot 09. 13.5%. 50-50 French American oak for 8mths. Violet red colour. Wood fire nose. Choc liquorish palate. Soft tannins. G) Reserva Cab Sav 08. 13.5%. 50-50 French American oak for 8mths. Red-brown tinge. Choc cigar-box nose. Intense berry with toast palate. Soft tannins. Excellent length and finish.

Total cost of visiting Casablanca Valley on my own was only 26AUD.

CHILE FACTS: 1) The longest coastline of any country in South America at 6,435km and at an average of 200km wide. Chile stretches North-South for HALF the entire South American continent. 2) 748,800 sq km. 3) Population is 16.8 million with 5 million in the capital Santiago. 85% of the pop lives in cities. Chile has the lowest proportion of Catholics at 71% with the rest new-wave Protestants and Indigenous. 4) The first inhabitants were here 12,500 yrs ago. The key indigenous were the "Mapuche" until the Spanish came and killed most of them off. Independence came in 1818, Easter Island was claimed in 1888 and a civil war broke out in 1890 with a death toll of 10,000. From 1930-1970 there were many reforms for farmers. Pinochet ruled from 1973 to 1989 and was almost convicted of crimes against humanity (Chilaeans) but died in 2006. 5) Even though the Chilean economy is now OK, most young people live at home till they get married (now 28-33). 6) Chile is also home to a large number of animals - Guanaco, Vicuna (Deer), llama, Alapca, Rhea (Ostrich), Chinchilla, Huemul (Andean Deer), Penguins (Humbolt & Magellanie), Sea Lions, Otters, Fur Seals and Whales (Minke).


  1. So John when are you releasing the "Wine Connoisseurs guide to Sth America" - you have so much valuable "tasting" under your belt now! Go AMEX - don't leave home without VISA or MasterCard!

  2. Hey John, lucky you made it back after all that wine tasting on your own! I am surprised that it would have been safe to wonder the vineyards by yourself. Well I am sure that you enjoyed yourself to the max.