Exploring Chile’s burgeoning wine country
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles chronicling Breckenridge resident Brandon Spence’s time in Chile.
“I am NOT drinking any f#*!ing merlot!” A classic line delivered by Paul Giamatti’s winetastic character, Miles Raymond in the film Sideways, a movie that helped energize the global wine boom of the last decade.
Miles would surely feel at home with a visit to South America’s burgeoning wine country – where there are plenty of selections to choose from, including merlot.
Leading the way in wine production and exportation is South America’s western coastal nation of Chile.
Surprisingly, this country of 16 million people has become the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wine in a very short period of time.
Over a ten-year span, the number of wineries in Chile exploded from just 12 in 1995 to over 70 in 2005.
This is not to say that Chile or its eastern-neighbor Argentina, the fifth-largest producer of wine in the world, are new to the art of wine making. In fact the production of wine in South America has a deep history that dates back to the 1500s when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought wine from Europe to the region.
Before arriving in Chile, I had made a list that contained three points of interest:
1) Relaxing on the beaches,
2) Snowboarding in the Andes, and
3) Drinking as much wine as I could get my hands on.
Fortunately, the latter is far easier to accomplish and at a fraction of the cost.
Seriously, here it is a wino’s dream come true. Bottles of wine start at around $1,000 CLP or $2 U.S., and these are no Two Buck Chuck.
Quality wines ranging from $2-12 U.S. can be found everywhere wine is sold.
The same can be said of the many wineries scattered throughout Chile, easy access and affordable.
On the outskirts of the nation’s Capital of Santiago, a half dozen vineyards are within an hours drive. The closest, Coucino-Macul, is just nine miles from the heart of downtown Santiago.
The country’s largest wine producer, Concha y Toro, is located 35 minutes outside the city and is open to the public for guided tours.
So what makes this region an ideal place for happy, healthy grapes?
Geographically, Chile aligns itself with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east, producing an area of 800 miles from north to south with varying temperatures and climates, which in turn allows for different grapes to flourish.
The most common of these include cabernet, yes merlot and Chile’s most interesting grape, carmenere.
This grape, of the cab family, was thought to have nearly vanished altogether before its rediscovery and re-growth in Chile.
The first winery I visited is also the closest to Santiago and one of the oldest.
Coucino-Macul is a small family run winery that opened in the mid-1850s and still maintains its roots to the past.
I asked my friend Matt to accompany me on the tour. Matt fancies himself a beer connoisseur and I thought he might enjoy an afternoon tasting.
We arrived 30 minutes before the tour began, which allowed us a chance to see the grounds on our own.
The vineyard has a main gated entrance that you can access by foot or by car. As you proceed through the entrance you can immediately see the endless rows of vines roughly 100 yards ahead.
Off to the right is where the magic happens, or at least where it used to happen. There are three enormous long-houses.
One serves as the gift shop with selections of wine and photographs chronicling the decades. Another is an administration building, while the distant structure is where the tour begins.
Our guide led us into a room with giant oak aging barrels standing around 15-20 feet in height.
No longer in use since being replaced by stainless steel barrels in the 1980s, these barrels line the way into the next room where we were shown early gathering tools used during the harvest of the grapes.
It should be noted, with your admission fee you are given a souvenir wine glass. At this point in the tour, my glass was still empty.
The history lesson is nice but you really visit a winery with one goal in mind, TASTING THE WINE!
The tour continued to the bottling room, revealing an antique corker that demanded the tedious task of inserting a single cork into a single bottle, one at a time.
The highlight of the tour led us underground and into the gothic-looking cellar where stone archways led from one room to the next.
Operations have long since relocated to a more modern production facility, but barrels remain as a display and line the underground tunnels that were once used to transport the barrels via a simple rail track.
It is here where, finally, we were treated to our first sampling – a glass of sauvignon blanc, followed by the reserve cabernet sauvignon. This bold cab has aged for 12 months in oak and shows a hint of spices, cherries and … “blah blah blah … Just pour it into my glass!” The tour ended a few minutes later leaving everyone with smiles and a nice afternoon buzz.
If a wine adventure is what you’re looking for, be sure to book a vacation south of the equator and explore the vastness of Chile and Argentina. Whether you are novice, or a “Miles Raymond” connoisseur you are sure to find a wine just for you. And who knows it may even be a f#*!ing merlot!
Brandon Spence is a former station manager and afternoon host of KCMV in Breckenridge. He left the station this past summer with the idea of traveling abroad and plans to spend at least six months in Chile.
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