Chile Day 12: Almost 1 Year Later

Amazing how time flies but almost one year has past since my fabulous visit to Chile. I feel nostalgic for that beautiful country, its vistas, its people and of course, its wines. I get more letters from people about my trip to Chile than I would have ever imagined. A couple of friends are on their way now and I must say, I am happy for them but a wee bit envious as well…

That said, I remember my trip perfectly so here are some thoughts about Valparaiso and the day I spent in the Colchagua Valley visiting wineries. Apparently Valparaiso is the place to be on New Year’s Eve. I was there after New Year’s and it was somewhat subdued up in the older part of the city where I was staying. I found it beautiful in an aging lady sort of way. I loved the multicolored houses, the ascensores from the last century and the sea gulls overhead. I found the port area of the city to be quite seedy and frankly a little scary. I would advise staying in the upper neighborhood in an old guest house which can be quite romantic.

This was the nicest hotel I saw up in my favorite part of the city. I stayed in a guest houses with a tin colored facade, all very characteristic but somewhat declasse.

I wished I had more time in Valparaiso. Instead I was off to the wine country in the Colchagua Valley. I planned my trip on the phone through the tourist office and I took a very long train ride to get there and spent too much money on a van and driver. Next time, renting a car would be much smarter.

Colchagua is one of the newer regions in Chilean viticulture. It has a Mediterranean climate which is cooled by ocean breezes. There are some low hills in the valley. The region is particularly well suited to making red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Carmenere. The Valley used to be in habited by Mapuches, a bellicose tribe and was once the southern tip of the Inca empire. The Valley has always been an agricultural area.

The Ruta del Vino of the Colchagua Valley has a very helpful office in Santa Cruz. This was the first area to develop a wine route and is at the forefront of wine tourism in Chile. They organize tours, wine tastings and the like for groups or for individuals. I decided to go to three wineries: Mont Gras, Montes and Viu Manent. The first stop was Mont Gras. The winery was very welcoming and the staff seemed quite used to giving tours to foreigners. They have an experimental vineyard where they try to grow many grapes.

I tasted the Montgras Riserva 2008 Sauvignon Blanc which I quite liked. Citrus and lemon abounded and it was nicely integrated. The grapes for that wine come from the Casablanca Valley. It is the red varieties that do particularly well in this area of Chile. I also tasted the Carmenere Riserva from 2007 which I liked very much. It had a wonderful bouquet of dried fruit, berries and tobacco, according to my notes, and spent 10 months aging in American oak. I am quite partial to Carmenere and this was one that I truly enjoyed. I actually drank the 2008 Montgras Riserva earlier this week with friends from graduate school. It didn’t disappoint but was full bodied, plummy and rich with spice and nuts.

Carmenere, a French grape, has truly found its home in Chile just as Malbec has found its soul mate in the soils of Argentina. Between the two, I find Carmenere sexier and more sensual, a little pepper and spice but not so much that it leaves nothing to the imagination…I also tasted their 2007 Montgras Merlot Riserva. Not bad. It was very plummy and had a lot of vanilla notes on the nose and palate from the 10 months it spent aging in American oak.

Visiting wineries in Chile is so interesting when compared with visiting wineries in Europe. The enormous amount of land and the vineyards surrounding the winery is quite striking as are the Andes in the distance, a very special experience and one I would highly recommend to all. Frankly, I can’t wait until my next visit.

The soils at this vineyard were incredibly interesting. Crusty and volcanic in origin, the Colchagua Valley has a variety of soils including loam clay, loam silt and those of volcanic origin. The vineyards can be irrigated as you can see from this picture. Chile, like Argentina, uses the ice melt from the Andes to irrigate its vineyards. Chile is largely immune to the phylloxera louse but does have a problem with root knot nematodes, Eileen Le Monda reminded me. Nematodes can do just as much damage to grape vines if not more because they penetrate the grape vine as opposed to chewing on the surface of the bark.

From Montgras I went on to visit Montes. Montes is almost a mythical name in Chilean viticulture. Aurelio Montes, the President and Chief winemaker is a true cult figure and the winery, done according to principals of Feng Shui, is a destination for wine lovers.

Who knows what the true impact of the Gregorian chants that are piped into the barrique room in the Montes winery is on the wines? Does it improve the quality of the wine while it ages? It’s hard to tell and to prove but the chants certainly create a lovely and appealing experience for the visitor and those who work in the winery.

The staff at Montes is very enthusiastic and takes you on a long tour of the different parts of the winery. The vineyards in Colchagua, one of four Montes estates in Chile go on for as far as the eye can see.

It is somewhat hard not to be dazzled by these wineries and their extensive holdings not to mention the wines. Montes has more than 1000 hecares in Chile and makes 12 million bottles of wine a year. Montes was the first winery in Chile to plant grapes on hills.

Montes makes a number of wines under the Montes Alpha label. They also make Montes Folly and Montes Purple Angel. Montes is quite famous for its Syrah. The one I tried, a 2006 was a blend of 90% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a beautiful ruby red with spice, strong tannins and cedar notes. Everyone loved it.

I also tried a Montes Alpha 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon 90%, Merlot 10% blend. I actually preferred this to the Syrah but that is just a matter of taste. They were both extremely well made and well integrated wines. I tried a Montes Limited Selection 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 70%, Carmenere 30% which was my favorite. The wine spends nine months aging in French and American oak. It was rich and full bodied with wonderful spice, vanilla, tobacco notes with dried fruit and nuts on the palate.

At a Wine of Chile tasting in New York earlier this year, I also tasted the Montes Limited Selection 2007 Cab/Carmenere blend. It was equally as good as the 2006 that I had tasted in Chile. The Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon from 2006 was bigger than its 2005 counterpart and even more full bodied.

After Montes, we headed towards Viu Manent which was a true scene. They have a beautiful restaurant apparently with great food. I ate in a local joint and had a strange specialty called Pastel de Choclo. Rather than taste any more wines, I wanted to take a nap. Of course, I persevered and went on to try some of the local wines at Viu Manent. Like Montes

Viu Manent was a very large winery as well with 270 hectares. They make two million bottles of wine a year. The winery itself it very large with big round epoxy resin tanks to hold the wines. The company began exporting after 2000. I tried a 2007 Merlot riserva which impressed me. It was a very big wine with 14.5% alcohol, ripe tannins and black and red fruit on the nose and palate. I thought it was one of the better Merlots I had tasted in Chile. I also tried the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva. It had more oak, smoke notes and fine tannins. I thought it was more elegant than the Merlot and very well balanced.

We went around the winery on a horse and buggy through the extensive vineyards. This is definitely a winery where you should have lunch and spend some time. It was quite crowded on the day I arrived and when I left, I wished I had had more time there as well as one of their juicy steaks on the grill. I look forward to my next trip. Day 12 was my perfect vacation day, hours in wineries with a beautiful landscape everywhere you look.

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