Chile, day 1: Undurraga

It’s been ten years since I was last in Chile. Ten years ago, I had hoped to see a few wineries, but in November 1999, all I found was that no wineries near Santiago were open as it was the off season: sure, Concha y Toro and a few other big names would be open, but only starting in November. This information was difficult enough to come by: the Internet didn’t have much information available, the local tourist offices weren’t particularly helpful, and guide books were stumped as well. I wound up visiting one winery only: Mumm had a production facility in the Casablanca Valley that looked open as we drove past, so I stopped in only to find absolutely no wine tasting available, a dusty glass display case filled with Passport scotch, Seagram gin, and Olmeca tequila (apparently these were other brands on offer from the same company that was producing sparkling wine under license from Mumm), and some Special Millennium Champaña-type sparkling wine on offer, which I bought and drank a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. (It wasn’t very good.) Otherwise, all I could do was buy stuff in local supermarkets – I never did find a wine shop – and see what I could see. Mostly, I remember that much of what was on offer wasn’t very good (especially in remote tourist areas), the prices were cheap, and nothing was particularly memorable.

Fast forward ten years: the airport’s been upgraded (finally, the domestic gates are next to the international ones), there are amazing infrastructure improvements (tunnels, highways, cash-free toll gates, you name it), English signs are everywhere, there appears to be a nascent wine tourism industry (right down to tacky tourist products like Maps Caminos de las Viñas / Winery Road Maps, produced by an Argentine firm and completely omitting any winery that hasn’t paid to be in it), wineries offer tours and tastings on their Web site, and there are even winery-specific restaurants in Las Condes and other trendy-slash-touristy areas in Santiago. Pretty awesome!

So: here’s what I did. I decided to set aside two days of my Christmas vacation to do some wine tourism things: wineries, restaurants, and anything else that I happened across. Dec. 22 was set aside for things near Santiago; Dec. 23 was set aside for things near Santa Cruz, in the Colchagua valley about two hours south of Santiago. My methodology was straightforward: E-mail or fill out Web reservation forms to book visits, ask about places to eat, and play it by ear. This post is about the first day.

Around Santiago, I wanted to visit four wineries: Viña Undurraga because it’s old and because some of its products are quintessentially old school Chilean (for example, they produce a wine called Pinot (ironically from Cabernet grapes) in a distinctive Bocksbeutel type bottle that every older Chilean knows very well), Viña Santa Rita (because their $7 wines were ubiquitous at Trader Joe’s when I first started drinking wine a decade ago), Concha y Toro (if only because they’re the biggest name in the industry), and Cousiño-Macul (because their Antiguas Reservas is a wine I’ve enjoyed before).

Of these four wineries, two of them never replied to tour reservation requests at all (Concha y Toro and Viña Santa Rita); Undurraga and Cousiño-Macul both replied quickly with written confirmations of tours. Well, I figured it was a start: I could probably fill up the time in between the two booked tours with stopping at the other two and having a look for myself.

We took off for our tour at 9am, arriving at the winery at 9:45am. A few miles before the freeway exit there was a giant Undurraga billboard advertising the winery… and then absolutely no signage after we got off the freeway! Thankfully, I’d printed out a decent map from the winery’s Web site.

Frustratingly, just as was the case in Mendoza a couple of years ago, the winery had no obvious entrance once we got there, so we eventually guessed at it and drove up to a locked gates. Again, just as in Mendoza, every winery in Chile seems to have a guard at a locked gate who speaks only Spanish (not a huge problem, thankfully, as being a Californian I picked up a little bit of Spanish growing up there) and doesn’t have a list of guests, which entailed the usual dance of me trying to explain that I wanted a tour and that I had a reservation. OK, no problem.

At the winery itself, there was a lovely tasting room set up on the edge of a beautiful green lawn, complete with wine tourism tchotchkes, bathrooms, and a friendly receptionist who took our money ($14 a person) and asked us to wait for our guide. Our guide turned out to be a young Chilean who seemed to stick more or less carefully to a script designed for tourists who had never visited a winery before, beginning with some history about the family that had founded the winery (as with many New World wineries, this was a local wealthy family with a country estate producing wine for the capital city nearby, although the winery has since passed on to different owners recently) and continuing to basic information about how wine is produced (frankly boring for anyone who’s even somewhat of a wine drinker, so I began the subtle dance of telegraphing that I knew this stuff already). Interestingly, though, the guide picked up on this quickly and began talking instead about local Chilean customs (“blend” refers to a wine with two varietal components, and “assemblage” generally to any wine with more than two varietal components) instead, which was interesting. He also took the opportunity to compare grape leaves, picking some carménère and pinot noir grapes and showing the differences between the two (which was interesting; I’ve never been good at ampelography). We then ambled through the wine production facilities, having a look at the equipment (mostly big food-grade plastic bins used for collecting grapes, plus huge destemmer-crusher and bladder press machines and some gigantic filtration devices) and the fermentation areas (humongous steel tanks and slightly less humongous steel tanks) – this was definitely industrial scale winemaking, but interesting nevertheless. We then descended into the barrel rooms, which included the occasional tourist display (the one for their Sybaris brand wines was especially lovely) as well as an entire section of the original building filled with original equipment such as ancient French presses and uprights made from raulí wood, neither of which had been used for a hundred years). They did a fine job of communicating the history of the winery and concentrated on their entry and mid-range wines with zero talk of Altazor, their tête de cuvée wine: this seemed appropriate given the targeting of the tour towards casual wine drinkers looking for somewhere beautiful to visit near Santiago; certainly, the extensive gardens and wide open green spaces were a welcome diversion from the crowded, smoggy, modern city of Santiago (and yes, they did mention that you could book in for a wedding complete with horse and buggy rides if you desired).

Upon exiting the winery itself, we were then on another corner of the same green square where the tasting room was – and the staff had set up an old wooden table under a tree with a few bottles of wine, glasses, and spittoons. The location couldn’t have been more lovely on an early summer day. Four wines were on offer.

1. T.H. Sauvignon Blanc Leyda, 2008. This was the most expensive wine of the tasting; it retails for around $15 and is a new label for the winery. T.H. stands for “Terroir Hunter” – the idea is that these are wines from distinct geographic locations and are therefore more interesting than their more traditional product lines; this one was from the Leyda valley, to the west of the winery itself. The Leyda valley is nearly at the coast (like the Casablanca valley) and has a similar maritime climate. My notes follow:

Definitely more of a peppery nose (tomato leaf?). Not sweet, good typicité. Not very much like Sancerre, not Kiwi passionfruit salad wine either. Not particularly mineral. Savory on the finish, moderately tasty.

This wine was well made and (to me) a bit on the boring side, not offering much in the way of distinction. Still, it was nice to see the new owners attempting this kind of course change for an old, somewhat fusty family winery.

2. Aliwen Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon / Carménère 2007. This would appear to be two levels down from the T.H. wines, going for about $6 locally; this was produced from the Rapel valley, which is the next major wine producing region to the south (Cachapoal and Colchagua valleys are contained within the larger Rapel valley denomination); this is an inland, often mostly warmer region. My notes follow:

American oak on this one. Fairly light in color, ruby red. 30% carménère, therefore less color here according to the guide. Very fruity on the nose, red simple fruit and perhaps some vanilla. Moderately complex with a dark, tannic finish. Not particularly interesting; obvious wood; a little thin.Frankly not bad for six bucks, but not something I’d really want to drink either. At this point, the guide went off script and talked about the Chilean national preference for strong wood flavors, singling out Misiones de Rengo winery for being especially popular – it’s got a Catholic cross on the label, they use new barrels AND wood chips, he said, so it’s the most popular wine for Chileans who want a good wine. Interesting!

3. Sybaris Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. This would be their mainstream “reserve” line, selling for around $10 locally. This is an estate wine, produced near the original winery in the Maipo valley near Santiago. My notes follow:

Lovely softer/floral typical nose, very attractive. Extremely small green note which is good, all very much in balance here.  Firm, tannic finish; very good value. The finish lasts for some time. Seems a prime example of good value Chilean wine.

4. Finally, a bottle of some God-awful way-too-sweet sparkling confection (Charmat, I believe) was offered in a hot-pink, “women like this, right” bottle obviously focus-grouped to death to appeal to the Brazilian wine market was offered. It smelled like gummi bears and tasted like children’s toothpaste. I didn’t write down what it was called and I don’t see it on their Web site; my best guess is that they’re now looking towards the Brazilian market as well. This (as it turns out) would be the first sign that Brazilians matter very much to the local tourist industry and to the wine industry as well.

We were offered the tasting glasses as a souvenir – lovely, but I don’t want to carry them around for two weeks and probably clean the broken glass out of my luggage after a few days – and then were wished safe travels home by our guide. What did I learn? Well, you’re not going to taste the good stuff at places like this, the cheap stuff is okay, the mid-range stuff is absolutely fine and very good value, and – well, Brazilians like sweet sparkling wine. All in all, this was a successful visit and I very much enjoyed the hospitality. I’d be curious to see what their traditional method sparkling wines taste like – they had some riddling racks on the property and may or may not use gyropalettes (something was lost in translation there) – and to see where the T.H. line is going (the sauvignon blanc was perhaps not the best representation of that line, I suppose).

Next up: Chile, day 1: Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and Cousiño-Macul.

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