Chile, day 2: Altaïr

I’ve just settled in to a comfortable, faintly antiquated (do the ’40s count yet?) lounge chair at the Hotel Antumalal in Pucón, and it’s time to finish up my wine tourism-related blogging for this trip to Chile. After all, this may be a not-for-profit/just-for-fun endeavor on our part, but letting it infringe on my volcano-climbing, hot-springs-soaking vacation-having good times is probably not a good idea. (Then again, it did serve as an excuse for the lovely hotel staff to loan me two wine glasses without giving me grief for eating or drinking something that I hadn’t bought from the hotel – yay for that.)

Last Wednesday, the 23rd, we left Santiago behind for a day trip down to the best known Chilean wine producing region, the Colchagua valley. Although I had again written to a few wineries a week before, only two replied to E-mail, so only two winery visits were planned. Because my Dad is a big fan of Montes pinot noir, I decided I’d stop in there as well if possible, but other than that? Two would certainly suffice, especially if I somehow achieved my dream of finding the perfect wine country restaurant for a long, leisurely lunch outdoors.About an hour and a half after leaving the hotel in Santiago, we turned off for Altaïr winery, located a dozen or so miles east of Route 5, the national north-south highway – and in the Cachapoal valley, which is higher, cooler, and to the north of the Colchagua valley. Yes, their Web site suggested they were only 1 hour 15 minutes from Santiago, but I can’t for the life of me see how that would have been legal (or possible: the amazing infrastructure upgrades and improvements seem to have resulted in an amazing amount of commerce, of lumber trucks and apple trucks and, well, I’m sure you’ve seen Chilean produce: this is where it comes from).

Altaïr, as with Seña, is a joint venture gone wrong (as it were). Just as the Mondavi family imploded after going public and investing in not-so-great-in-retrospect ventures such as Disney California Adventure theme park wine attraction (no, really), Altaïr is what’s left over of a French-Chilean joint venture. The French have long since departed, but the Chileans are carrying on very well, thank you, paying careful attention to the land and upgrading things as they see fit (they’ve recently ripped out the merlot and sangiovese and are replanting with more appropriate grapes for the local climate). The winery itself is of course shockingly modern and appropriately expensive, presiding over a very dramatic view over the valley. Inside, it’s filled with artwork to rival any Napa boutique winery and packed to the gills with beautiful technology designed to make gravity do the work wherever possible: no pipes and pumps here, thank you very much. Yes, the lovely French oak upright fermentation tanks are a bit old and they aren’t quite able to replace them on the originally intended schedule, but you know what? I’ve had amazing wines from completely neutral concrete tanks, so I don’t think that’s going to bother anyone except the occasional luxury-minded tourist who’s there more for the experience than the wine.

Speaking of the experience, we paid $36 per person to visit. Was it worth it, you ask? Well… I’ll give a very, very cautious yes here. Upon arriving at the winery and negotiating the gate security (always a pleasure… hrm), we slowly made our way up the hill to the stunning winery building where we were greeted by a lovely young woman who spoke flawless English. She then guided us over to an outdoor patio where another woman was waiting with a spread of coffee, tea, cookies, and freshly squeeze orange juice, making sure that anything we could possibly want to eat or drink before the tour was ready for us. Sure, drinking coffee was probably a bad idea in terms of tasting wine later on, but who could resist a cup of freshly brewed coffee with homemade cookies with an amazing view like that over the valley? Yes, I know I’m not talking about wine for a minute here, but in terms of pure tourist satisfaction, that alone was worth the entrance fee. To sit there, in that place, with that view, with two friendly staffers making you feel welcome was a real pleasure.

After coffee, we began the tour in earnest. Just as with any luxury winery, they were keen to talk about their selection process (three tris, single berry selection, thank you very much) and to show off the gravity-fed winery, the fine French oak barrels, and so on. All very well and good, but more interesting was the notion that they vinify their two wines (they only make two!) entirely separately – unlike, say, Quilceda Creek, they don’t declassify lots and then sell it under a separate label. They keep ’em separate from the get-go and sell them that way.Production is about 1,000 cases for Altaïr, more than that for Sideral, the less expensive wine.

Here are my tasting notes:

Sideral: Milky, rich, thick looking wine, still fairly young with minimal hints of age (if any). Surprisingly green at first with capsicum notes. Much more of a French vibe going on here with slighty oaky notes, extremely subtle. Finish is pretty amazing, soft and also supply tannic with extremely good legnth. Very elegant ripe fruit – no green tastes at all – with hints of dark raspberry and damson. With some air, very much of a mocha, roasted-coffee note presumably from judicious use of good French wood. Remarkably delicious.

Altaïr: Obvious sediment in the glass, remarkably beautiful to look at. Much more perfumed than the Sideral, almost more Australian in intent: reminds me of Penfolds Bin 707 cabernet. Extremely fine tannins on the finish; again, an extremely faint green smell on the nose (don’t get me wrong, I found this to be elegant and absolutely correct in this context). At the edge, almost a homeopathic dose of white flowers existing as a halo above the wine. With further aeration, almost a bit of smoky Loire-esque bacon fat too. Definitely needs time for sure, but very, very good indeed right now.

To sum up: these are both excellent wines – and yet I found myself wondering what exactly about them makes them essential. There are plenty of extremely well made wines around the world, so why these two in particular? Do we really need another luxury red wine that tastes essentially the same as many other wines in its class? Yes, I’d love to drink some of this on my own time and yes, I’d probably fondly remember the place, but you could substitute a Napa or Mendoza or McLaren Vale wine here and I may not notice at first.

After tasting their two wines, we paid our bill (ouch) and were asked if we didn’t want to buy anything else – that’s always awkward, but I tried to explain that I was worried the wine would cook in the car, which seemed to do the trick – and then we left for the rest of the day’s driving to Santa Cruz, the town at the heart of the Colchagua valley wine region. I was kind of amused that the security guard insisted on inspecting the contents of our trunk upon leaving the winery – who knows, maybe they’ve had problems with Americans stealing wine after tours? – but soon after that we were back on Route 5 south and on our way to our next destination.

Next up: lunch at Mistela in Cunaco, near Santa Cruz, and then a visit to Lapostolle.

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample