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Just Back from the Chilean Wine Country

080304_adam_taplin_chile_horse_F.jpgFodor’s Adam Taplin recently spent seven days in Chile’s Wine Country, a 450-square-mile region between Santiago and Chillán at the base of the Andes. What he found were abundant land, high-quality wines, and a winemaking community working anxiously and eagerly to define itself.

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What surprised you?

I don’t think it’s possible to truly appreciate just how huge the Andes are until you’ve been in Santiago. They loom over everything, dwarfing office buildings and reminding you just how close to the end of the world you are. They also happen to be one of the main reasons Chilean wines are so successful — the foothills of the region create perfect little valleys of rich soil through which Pacific Ocean breezes blow, regulating temperature and keeping the vines healthy.

What were your most memorable experiences?

One of the wineries I visited in the Maule Valley had a power failure throughout the entire hacienda just before we were set to do a tasting and dinner. Instead of postponing, my hosts went ahead as planned — by candlelight. The winemaker sat opposite me, enthusiastically declaiming the wines and terroir (the unique combination of soil and weather that results in a wine’s particular flavor) of Chile across the semi-darkness while I struggled to take notes. 080304_adam_taplin_chile_wine_tasting_darFk.jpg

Back in Santiago, I had a memorable meal at Liguria. We had pinzas de jaiba (barbecued crab claws) and chuletillas de cordero (marinated lamb chops), among other things. Tables were filling up when we left at about 10 p.m. I wish I could have stayed longer to people-watch the Santiaguinos who were arriving in droves.

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What was your favorite glass of wine?

On my first day I had a Sauvignon Blanc at Matetic Winery in San Antonio Valley. The San Antonio Valley is up-and-coming for Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was clean and crisp with lemon and pear notes.

Can I buy wine at the wineries?

You can, yes. It won’t necessarily be cheaper though. Instead, you’re buying a unique wine that probably wouldn’t find on shelves in U.S. wine shops. We still import far less Chilean wine than Argentine wine, so if you see something you like in Chile you should definitely grab it.

Where did you stay?

I recommend staying at the wineries themselves, if possible. Since they are often fairly isolated, they’ve realized that they can create an entire afternoon and evening experience for you that will be much more rewarding than long drives between far-off wineries. I spent one night at Casa Silva, where they have an arena for Chilean rodeo, a polo field, a beautifully decorated hotel, and a restaurant. Plus they make wine. The price of a night’s stay is U.S.$260 for a king-size room with breakfast buffet, or U.S.$205 for a double room (2 twin beds) also with breakfast buffet.

Matetic also had great overnight facilities. You can stay with them for a night or two, ride around the vineyard on a bicycle they’ll lend you, check out the winery, and visit their restaurant before retiring to the 100-year-old building they’ve restored into guest rooms. Expect to pay U.S.$380 per night. If you prefer to stay in a real town, try the Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza in Colchaugua Valley. Nearby, in the same town, is D’VID, a nice new designer hostel that will suit budget travelers.

080304_adam_taplin_montes_chileF.jpgAny advice for people visiting the region?

Tourism in Chilean wineries is far different from the public tasting rooms and hop-in-hop-out of Route 29 in Napa Valley and other wine country destinations. You need to call ahead, make an appointment, and plan your route. You should also consider hiring a driver. The local office of Ruta del Vino in each valley can help you set up your trip. The payoff for this extra effort is that you’ll often taste with the winemakers and viticulturalists themselves in a private setting, and they’ll be glad to spend some time with you and make you feel like a distinguished guest.

A day trip with a tour and/or driver from Santiago to wine country could cost anywhere from about US$65 (for a taxi/minivan arranged by your hotel) to $150 and up (for a professional tour guide). You have a choice to make: Do you want to hire a person who will simply take you from place to place, or do you want to hire a true tour operator, who has relationships with the wineries and will be able to help you gain better access to them? Either option has its benefits.

080304_adam_taplin_chile_hike_volcanoF.jpgWhat quick day trips can visitors to this region take?

I was able to visit Pucón, in the Lake District south of Santiago, for a night. Though the weather wasn’t great during my visit, I had enough time to hike up to some volcanic caves at Volcán Villarica. If I went back I would do the Termas Geometricas — a natural hot spring illuminated by candles — on the first day and some sort of adventure sport on day two. Hiking the volcano was great, but there are plenty of other options in better weather, including rafting, climbing, horseback riding, and kayaking.

How do people get here from the U.S.?

All flights from the U.S. go through Santiago. American Airlines and LAN Chile are the main carriers; they have flights out of Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. I took the New York flight on LAN, which has a stopover in Lima. It’s a long red-eye flight (about 24 hours including the layover) but they do feed you well. Once you’re on the ground in Santiago, you’ll definitely want to rent a car or even hire a driver, depending on how you plan to do your touring. You’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour driving to the Chilean Wine Country.

Adam Taplin

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