WINE COUNTRY, CHILE
By Keith Edwards
Carlos Vera’s hand trembles nervously as he pours his 2017 Magenta Pais wine for a select few sommeliers to taste. For me, this was a Damascene moment on my wine journey through Chile.
In the glass: The essence of a Chilean wine renaissance that’s brought fresher, more authentic wines, driven by their soils and climate. With about 2.5 acres of dry-farmed vineyard in the Itata Valley, about the size of an urban estate on Bridle Path in Toronto, Carlos and his wife Jennifer Saavedro produce astonishing wines from vines up to 90 years old.
Carlos’ Magenta 2017 Cinsault is a wonderfully aromatic, well-balanced red. Those who know to tell me it’s recognized as one of the best in the Itata Valley. It’s followed by a 2017 Syrah, which has a spicy nose, lovely texture and soft tannins. Yum. But for me, the 2018 Late Harvest Moscatel tops them both—an almost erotic floral nose, with apricot fruit and fine acidity.
Not just a wine renaissance
It’s not just wine that’s undergoing a renaissance in Chile. Santiago, my base for much of the wine tour, has acquired its own authentic vibrancy. New hotels, first-rate restaurants, pisco bars and (of course) great wine bars have made it more than just a stopping-off point to Patagonia or the Atacama Desert. This is a city that demands a longer visit. And with its usually cloudless summer weather and urbane European sensibility, it’s not most people’s idea of South America.
My boutique hotel Le Reve (“The Dream”), whose Wi-Fi password “charming” says it all, sits on a quiet side street in a very safe, well-connected Providencia neighbourhood. An ivy-covered façade and white-painted shutters telegraph Le Reve’s French country-hotel style. Inside, I sink into a mood that is the epitome of relaxed elegance.
My accommodation, one of 30 modestly sized rooms, is well appointed. The honour bar just off the lobby holds five bottles of wine, beer, assorted liquor, and soft drinks. Pour, fill in a chit and hand it in. Complimentary snacks, tea, and coffee are also available from the kitchen—“Help yourself,” they tell me. In the fading light of the secluded courtyard, I sip my wine and listen to bird song and the gentle tinkle of a fountain.
Time to tour
Winery visits present some obstacles. Not all are open to the public, and those that are may require prior appointments. And although there are many sites to visit in the Central Valley an easy drive from Santiago, some area—such as the Limari Valley to the north and the Colchagua Valley, Maule and particularly the Itata Valley to the south—involve significant road trips.
Our host Upscape Travel has this covered. A boutique travel operator, Upscape provides us with a guide and a small Mercedes, but we could have asked for a luxury sedan, helicopter or small plane. Many of the wineries have their own airstrips.
A few wineries offer accommodation. The ultra-luxury Hotel Viña Vik looks like a shiny serpentine UFO plonked in a lush vineyard in the Millahue Valley south of Santiago. The Norwegian–Uruguayan entrepreneur Alexander Vik commissioned architect Marcelo Daglio to create something that would push the limits. And it does.
Hotel Casa Real in the Maipo Valley, just an hour from Santiago, is the former summer home of the founder of the Santa Rita winery. You would swear the family had moved out only last week, leaving behind all their ancestral portraits, furniture, and rugs. It’s exclusive and private, with only 16 rooms and suites. The suites are airy and spacious, with first-rate bathrooms. To sip a lovely Santa Rita wine on the patio at sunset, gazing over 100 acres of lush gardens—including the tallest bougainvillea in South America—is to experience a particular corner of heaven.
North-west of Santiago, toward the coast in the Casablanca Valley, is the Casas del Bosque vineyard. I was particularly taken with its VIP restaurant, Casa Mirador. Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, this striking modern building is set high on a hill with spectacular views over the vineyards and mountains beyond. It offers a fixed gourmet menu alongside selections of the vineyard’s excellent premium wines. Patrons share communal tables. Book ahead. Another option for lunch is the restaurant Tanino, which is open daily.
For a more traditional dining ambiance, you can’t beat Casa Silva on the Angostura estate in the Colchagua Valley. Dining on the covered veranda, sampling the estate’s finest premium wines and country-style cuisine of Chef Soledad Correa while gazing over the polo fields is to fleetingly experience the life of a Chilean grandee.
If travel to all of these vineyards is beyond you then there are excellent wine bars/restaurants in Santiago. Boca Nariz (“Mouth Nose”) in the Lastarria neighbourhood has an astonishing 300 wines but, most interestingly, it also offers an excellent selection of 50 cc tasting glasses. I was able to try a 2017 Loma Larga white wine blend from the Casablanca Valley, a De Martino 2018 white blend from the Itata Valley and a 2017 Arboleda Pinot Noir from Aconcagua all in one sitting, without the hours of travel.
And, if you are looking for an informed discussion about wines with a sommelier, Homefront recommends you head to Polvo Bar de Vinos in Providencia.