Wining and Dining Through Chile’s Wine Country

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Wednesday Apr 25, 2012

What dinner isn’t better with a bottle of wine? As Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote, "I like on the table, when we’re speaking, the light of a bottle of intelligent wine."

As with all true oenophiles, Neruda knew that good things come to those who wait. Whether storing a bottle in the wine cellar to increase its "intelligence" or merely letting a bottle breathe on the dinner table, wine benefits from the passage of time.

A similar lesson is revealed in the history of Chilean viticulture. The conquest of Chile by Spanish conquistadors brought the introduction of viticulture to the New World (Jesuit missionaries liked their wine), but the onerous restrictions imposed by Spanish rule kept the burgeoning Chilean wine industry from attaining its true potential.

Now, nearly 500 years after wine grapes arrived in the 16th century, Chile has become the world’s fifth largest exporter of wines and the world’s eighth largest producer. Currently, Chile’s annual harvest of wine grapes is nearly 300,000 acres - and the country’s numerous organic and biodynamic winemakers are establishing a template for the future of sustainable viticulture.

In short, now is the time to discover the country that has become the wine connoisseur’s destination for wine tourism.

A Coastline Nearly 3,000 Miles Long

A long, lovely brushstroke of a country along the western coast of South America, Chile resembles a chile pepper - or a fanciful addition to the continent by a child’s thick marker. With a coastline nearly 3,000 miles long (compare that to the 840-mile coastline of California), Chile’s geography is one of the world’s most diverse and includes the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, as well as the Andes Mountains, the Patagonian Ice Fields, Antarctica, and the Pacific Ocean.

You’ve got to give the Spaniards credit for recognizing Chile’s potential as a winemaker’s paradise. The Central Valley’s sunny days and cool nights evoke a Mediterranean climate and the diversity of terroir provides perfect conditions for the region’s five varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Carmenère - with enough room for Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.

The rediscovery in 1994 of Carmenère, a long-lost grape believed to have been destroyed in the Old World by the mid-19th century phylloxera attack, ushered in a renaissance of a wine now widely considered to be Chile’s emblematic variety. In the past fifteen years, wine exports from Chile have increased to nearly 700 million liters, no doubt helped by the famous Berlin Wine Tasting of 2004, where, much to the surprise of France and the US, Chilean wines took four of the top six prizes.

The Tallest Structure in Latin America

With its backdrop of snow-capped mountains, verdant forests, shimmering lakes, and a magnificent coastline, Chile possesses landscapes of breathtaking beauty, all basking in a climate that’s nearly an amalgam of the wine regions of California and France. Mountain air and cool breezes from the ocean mitigate the long, dry summers.

Santiago, the nation’s capital and largest city with nearly 7 million inhabitants, is, arguably, Latin America’s most cosmopolitan metropolitan area. Sister city to New York, Santiago is Chile’s financial and industrial center, producing nearly half of the country’s GDP. Currently under construction in the city’s "Sanhattan" financial district, Costanera Center is a vast hotel, retail, and office complex designed by Cesar Pelli that is already the tallest structure in Latin America.

For those who prefer shopping to viticulture, the tony neighborhood of Vitacura includes Santiago’s version of Rodeo Drive, a lovely tree-lined avenue called Alonso de Cordova that features boutiques such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Ferragamo, Armani, and Cartier, along with numerous high-end restaurants and lounges.

Most LGBT people congregate in Santiago’s bohemian neighborhood of Bellavista - and every year, a Gay Pride parade winds its way through downtown Santiago. A proposal for civil unions for same-sex couples was introduced in 2011 and the recent death of Daniel Zamudio at the hands of neo-Nazi murderers in a Santiago park hastened the passage of the country’s new anti-discrimination law.

"Grape vines should be treated like a work of art..."

For wine tourism, Santiago, in the midst of the Central Valley and slightly north of the Maipo Valley, serves as the perfect base camp. Many wineries and vineyards in the foothills of the Andes are only a couple hours’ drive from the city center. Tours at the wineries include vertical tastings (same wine, different vintage), range tastings (different varieties from the same year), and varietal tastings (one varietal from different vineyards), as well as activities such as hiking, picnicking, cooking classes, barbeques, and horseback riding.

According to Maximiano Errázuriz, the father of Chilean viticulture, "Grape vines should be treated like a work of art, since their life span runs parallel to that of humans." The recent development of Chile’s National Sustainability Code, with an official "Accredited Sustainable Wine of Chile" label, provides insight into the convergence of viticulture practices that are environmentally friendly, socially equitable, and economically viable. If you wander the vineyards and grounds of certain biodynamic wineries, it’s likely that you’ll see birds and animals roaming freely, including alpacas, llamas, egrets, chickens, roosters, peacocks, peahens, and quail.

"Chile is good for you."

As you drink your way through Chile’s wine regions, you’ll find yourself completely welcomed by the disarming friendliness and charm of the populace. One morning in the breakfast room, our waiter smiled as he poured our coffee and said, "I work in room service all night; you need anything, you let me know."

As the country’s slogan goes, "Chile is good for you." That’s right, not only is Chile good for wine, it’s good for you.

For as Neruda wrote about wine, "never has one goblet contained you, one song, one man, you are choral, gregarious, at the least, you must be shared." Share a glass of your life - and toast to Chile.


(Feature continues on next pages: Vineyards, Where to Eat, Where to Stay, Getting There...)


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