Travel, Etc. --> A Visit to Chile
A Visit to Chile and Argentina
Part I: Chile
I have to admit that while we sell thousands of cases of wine a year from Chile and Argentina, I have never really taken the time to learn much about their wine industries, or the countries themselves, for that matter. So, last month, when importer Vineyard Brands took a group of ten of us to visit their client wineries in Chile and Argentina, it was a real eye opener. Not that six days qualifies me as an expert, but it sure altered my perception of South America and changed a large number of misconceptions.
Case in point: I have always snickered at Chilean Pinot Noir... it's too hot for Pinot in Chile, right? Standing in Cono Sur's Tio Leo vineyard on a hilly slope in the Casablanca Valley shattered that one... their biggest problem is frost! Located seven miles from the ocean, up a traverse valley just like the Santa Ynez Valley, the Pinot Noir growing region near Santa Barbara in California, this is Pinot Noir country. In fact, if they hadn't been speaking Spanish, it could have been Santa Ynez, so similar was the terrain, vegetation and climate.
And that was not the only similarity to California. We also traveled 100 miles south of Santiago through the Central Valley to Cono Sur's primary winery in Chimbarongo in the Colchagua Valley. Flanked by the mighty Andes to the east and the Coastal mountain ranges to the West, with plenty of water for irrigation from the mountain runoff and a temperate Mediterranean climate, it more than resembles the Central Valley of California. Alongside the vineyards are abundant orchards filled with fruit trees of every kind, fields of tomatoes, avocados and other produce that make it the bread basket of South America, not to mention primary winter fruit supplier to the United States.
The wine industry has a long history in Chile. To put it in perspective, you need to understand that Santiago was founded and the Spanish were planting grapes 60 years before the English attempted the colony at Jamestown. Chile is the longest, narrowest country in the world spanning 2,653 miles, stretching from the Peruvian border 17 degrees south to Cape Horn at 56 degrees south, with mountains comprising 80 percent of its land area. Averaging only 110 miles wide, grapes are only grown between the 32nd and 38th latitudes.
The real history of wine in Chile did not begin until the 1850s when wealthy Chilean landowners imported French Bordeaux varietals and began to hire French winemakers to help with the production of wine. In the 1860s and 1870s, when the phylloxera epidemic left the French vineyards in ruins, many more French winemakers traveled to Chile and the wine industry there thrived, even exporting substantial quantities of wine back to Europe.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the French wine industry had recovered and political instability, high taxes and overregulation devastated the Chilean wine industry. It lay stagnant until the late 1980s when a fresh crop of French and California winemakers, along with local investors, helped create a new Chilean wine renaissance, earning a reputation for affordable, premium wines that made Chile the fourth leading wine exporter to the United States by 2003. Today Chile produces over 53 million cases of wine and exports over 70 percent of it.
We arrived at Chile's capital, Santiago, early on a Monday after a painful nine hour plus flight from Atlanta. Early arrivals must be common since our hosts had arranged for our hotel rooms to be ready at eight a.m. So, after a shower and a little breakfast they treated us to lunch and a tour of Santiago...a very large and apparently prosperous city of six million people.
Lunch was our first introduction to the culture and the timetable. We arrived at Restaurant Mestizo, a lovely open-air dining room overlooking the Bicentenario Park about one p.m. and emerged almost three hours later, after an introduction to Pisco Sours (very dangerous.. it's the national drink made from the local brandy), followed by appetizers, wonderful seafood entrees and decadent desserts, along with at least three wines. Luckily, we didn't have to worry about staying so late at lunch since no one eats dinner until at least ten. And, it wasn't just the tourists lingering...I noticed that many of the businessmen who were seated at about the same time as us were still seated when we left.
The lunches and dinners that followed were equally lavish and lengthy, and even after six days, it was tough getting used to the schedule of late dining,
and it was nice to come home and have a dinner that didn't end at midnight... and, wow, was I ready for just a simple pizza. However, if you're ever in Santiago, don't miss the seafood at the restaurants Puerto Fuy or La Mar, world class dining with a South American twist, that would draw crowds in Manhattan or San Francisco.
We spent our days in Chile visiting the Cono Sur winery and their vineyards that are scattered throughout Chile's many wine growing regions. Cono Sur is a young company. Only founded in 1993, they now produce over 800,000 cases of 25 different premium wines, own almost 1,400 acres of vineyards and lease or contract for many other vineyard sites throughout the region.
Cono Sur has also been on the forefront of cultivating and producing Pinot Noir in Chile. This year they completed a new state of the art winery dedicated to producing only Pinot Noir that is seeing its first harvest this year. They began their Pinot project in 1999, enlisting Burgundian winemaker and consultant Martin Prieur to show them how to handle the grape and to help select maritime-influenced vineyard sites like their two-year-old, 286-acre Campo Lindo Estate, just up the San Antonio Valley from the ocean.
Chile's highly varied microclimates and soil types make it perhaps the most versatile wine growing region in the world. And Chile's winemakers are just beginning to understand how to utilize them. Want great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Then the valleys in the costal mountains provide the cooling ocean air that the grapes demand. Want superripe Cabernets? Then the heat of the Maipo Valley is just perfect. I have never been anywhere, even California, where these kind of highly varied growing regions exist within such a tight geographic area. And they are just getting started... wine tourism is just beginning and and the serious winemaking has only been going on for twenty years. Imagine where they will be in another twenty! Next Week: Argentina... Malbec and Red Meat!