11.23.2012 - 11.23.2012 80 °F
We wake up early to have a quick continental breakfast before our private tour of Chile's wine country. Our tour guide from Santiago Adventures—Chris—picks us up promptly at 9 and takes us an hour northeast of Santiago to the Aconcagua Valley.
Chris is an interesting guy. He has an accent unlike any other we've ever heard, and we find out that it's a mix of the typical sloppy Spanish of Chile and a London accent. So imagine how interesting a Spanish speaker would sound with an English accent. He talks to us not only about Chilean wine but also about their culture and values. Like many, many other Chileans, he asks us about what we think about Obama's reelection and gives us some insight into how Chileans felt about it. He also tells us about the American music that is popular in Chile and how ingrained American pop culture is in Chilean culture. I'm surprised, that this far away from the United States in a country where only 20% of residents speak English, America is still supremely influential in their everyday lives.
The drive out of the city takes us away from the smoggy haze and into a semi-arid region with dry rolling hills blanketed in vineyards and avocado trees. Mt. Aconcagua lies at the eastern edge of the Aconcagua Valley and plays a major role in the production of the wine. Its snow melt in the summer helps to irrigate the vineyards below, which would be bone-dry otherwise. The topography of the valley varies dramatically, from 160 feet in the west to 3,300 feet in the east. The winds from the Humboldt Current sweep across the valley and cool the vines to the perfect temperature for producing syrahs, cabernet sauvignons, and carmeneres—which are pretty much the three main wines that we taste at each of the three wineries.
Our first stop on our tour is a small boutique winery, Vina San Esteban, where a young woman walks us through the picturesque vineyard, the bottling room, and the cask room where the wine ages before bottling and distribution. After the tour, we have generous tastes of four different wines (during which I realize that I simply cannot drink all the wine I am poured, even though I hate to waste the delicious wine! Matt, on the other hand, resolves to drink all of his pours). We munch on nuts and homemade dried fruit in between tastings to bring out flavors and aromas.
We meet up with Chris and drive about an hour to the next vineyard, another boutique winery called Vina Von Siebenthal. This winery was founded by a Swiss lawyer who aims to produce wines in the likeness of smooth French wines, and of the winery's six labels, four have scored over 90 points. A kindly middle-aged woman walks us through the vineyards and the production process, translated by Chris since she only speaks Spanish. After our tour we sit in the main tasting room for tastes of two of Von Siebenthal's reds, and we end up buying a bottle of carmenere to take home with us.
Right next door is Errazuriz Winery, where we sit on a shaded veranda overlooking beautiful landscaping, fountains and the rolling green vineyards on the hills. We are served one of the most delicious meals we've ever had—an appetizer of shrimp ceviche with a cilantro and citrus sauce; smoked salmon and shrimp served with a small dome of avocado-quinoa-onion-citrus salad; a tender cut of beef with a side of mashed potatoes; and a chilled sliver of cheesecake with fruit. And, of course, with every dish that comes out, we are served a different kind of wine to pair with the flavors of the dish. It is truly heaven, sitting outside on the most gorgeous day, looking out at a beautiful vineyard, tasting delicious wines and gourmet food.
Our Errazuriz guide, Pedro, meets us after our lunch and takes us on an in-depth tour of the winery, giving us a great overview of the planning and engineering that goes into making wine. Every detail, from the amount of sun the grapes receive and what kind of wood is used for the cask to how many bushels are permitted to grow in one area, will affect the ultimate product. We walk a pathway up one of the hills that overlooks the entire winery, taking in the views of the rows upon rows of green vines that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Errazuriz is one of the oldest wineries in all of Chile and was founded by a family that is sort of the Chilean equivalent of the Kennedy's. It has been passed down through the generations and has become one of the largest and most renowned in the entire country. The winery boasts numerous awards and has the top two wines in Chile, according to a respected wine publication.
Pedro explains everything from the differences in leaves between the various grapes to how the geography of the valley has produced flavorful, high-quality grapes. Like Chris, Pedro has an interesting accent that I can't quite place. We find out that it's mostly an Australian accent with just a touch of Chilean—pretty interesting mix!
We return to the historic main building of the property, which once was a bottling room and has been converted to a beautifully decorated tasting room and restaurant. Heavy wood beams and original wood floors maintain the rustic character of the building, but modern lighting and tasteful décor give the room some warmth. There Pedro, pours us four tastes and, as a special treat, throws in additional tastes of two of Errazuriz's premium wines, which are priced at about $80 per bottle. He also gives us a set of Errazuriz tasting glasses to take home with us.
When we hop into the car to head back to Santiago, we are relaxed and pretty tipsy from the wine. What a great way to conclude an exciting, adventure-filled vacation. After driving through Patagonia, sleeping in airports, fixing flat tires and walking until our legs refuse to walk anymore, it is a treat to be taken care of and to not worry about figuring out directions and road signs. The vineyards are a perfect place to unwind and experience the more refined side of Chile.
Our tour ends at about 6 p.m. and we relax in our hotel lobby until our flight back to the United States at 2 a.m. We have been away from home for 16 days. Although we are looking forward to relaxing at home, we are also sad to leave Chile and its surreal landscapes behind.
It seems like just yesterday—yet also like a lifetime ago—that we were exploring Easter Island and the iconic moai. Though we didn't crack all of its mysteries, we found answers to many—the way of life of the local people, the purpose of the moai, and why the high civilization fell. No place on Earth, I believe, is as magical and fairytale-like as Easter Island. It is a place that we all hear about or come across at some point in pop culture, but most are never able to experience it for themselves. I can't adequately describe how small you feel while on that tiny island in the middle of a big, endless ocean, so far away from the rest of civilization and so unsure of the civilization that once lived there. The feeling of standing on the shore, watching a rain storm wash toward you across the ocean; the sense of awe as you gaze at the brightest stars in the darkest sky in the world—these are the simple, less talked about sentiments of Easter Island that make a lasting impact on anyone who is fortunate enough to visit.
And Patagonia—the region of big sky and dramatic landscapes. It will always hold a place in our hearts. It was here that we pushed our bodies to the limit and saw some of the most extreme landscapes and wildlife all in one place. Snow-capped mountains, rocky hills, woodlands, icebergs, waterfalls, steppe, and the big, inspiring trio of granite towers—put this together with the guanacos, emus, flamingos and sheep. This is a tough windblown landscape filled with resilient people who love their little tip of the country and are eager to share it with you. Our adventures in Patagonia ran the gamut, from riding horses with gauchos and driving on a gimpy spare tire with our new friends, to tasting icebergs and nearly being blown over by the Patagonian wind. And I know that for years to come, I will miss falling asleep to the crackling of a wood fire.
This is a country that is not to be missed by adventurers-at-heart. If you yearn for the new and unexpected, or if you want your eyes to tear up at breathtaking, indescribable beauty, perhaps you will find what you are looking for in Chile.
I know we did.