Taste the best of Chile

At the northern end of the country’s 4,300-kilometre length lies the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. At the southern end, the land runs out and the first icy patches of the Antarctic begin. Connecting the two is a thin ribbon of land, which at its narrowest point is a mere 90 kilometres wide and dominated by the high peaks of the Andes Mountains and by the Pacific Ocean. And at its core lies a paradise — paraiso to Chileans — that blankets the countryside of the lush Central Valley, a depression nearly 1,000 kilometres long between the Andes on the east and the Cordillera de la Costa on the west. This is Chile’s viticultural heartland, home to some of the world’s finest vineyards and award-winning wines, which is attracting international visitors, prompting an economic boom and the beginning of a promising future in wine tourism.

It was only recently that the world took notice of Chile’s wines. A well-kept secret for years, Chilean wine finally stormed onto the scene around 1998, when the country exported $502 million in wines to some 85 countries – and third in total imports to the United States after Franceand Italy. Still more telling are the results of VinExpo 99, in which some 40 countries presented their finest export wines. With a total of 67 medals and three out of 23 double gold medals, Chilean wines as a group ranked second only to France, the host country. Since then, grape production has skyrocketed producing some of the finest, most affordable wines in all of South America.

This recent success caps more than 400 years of winemaking in Chile, but it is because of the unique and diverse natural conditions – climate, soils and rootstock – that it has such a distinct advantage worldwide. Virtually bug-free, Chile is the only country in the world free of phylloxera, which means the country spends a lot less on fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the variation of temperature between night and day coupled with the lack of rain in the dry season means the grapes have a much higher concentration of sugar and tannins. Simply put, Chile’s Central Valley is an isolated haven for ideal wine-growing.

One such regional haven is the tourist-friendly Valle de Colchagua, Chile’s equivalent to California’s Napa Valley. There are more than 25 vinas in the valley, including the Montes Vineyard and the Vina Bisquertt Family Vineyards, which are leading the region with highly successful wine tours. Montes has come to be known as an Ultra Chilean, as this vintner produces some of Chile’s top wines, wines that are consistently among the best of South America and often show favourably against the finest wines the world has to offer. Similarly, Vina Bisquertt is rated in the top 50 of the 200 vineyards in all of South America and boasts the 2000 gold medal-winning wine, Casa La Joya Reserve Merlot, which was rated best merlot worldwide by the London Wines and Spirits Competition.

Up until a few years ago, though, neither Montes nor Vina Bisquertt offered any kind of wine tour. In fact, most visitors would have been hard-pressed to find a bathroom. But today, regular day tours run from Santiago, and visitors are given the royal treatment – bathrooms included. In fact, competition has become so fierce among vineyards that some now offer tours by bus, helicopter, train and vintage motorcycles – even scuba diving for wine bottles on the bottom of the ocean. It is a drastic change in vision for most vineyards, which now regard wine tourism as the single most important business in the valley.

Backdropped by the Andes Mountains, the Montes vineyards are predominantly sloped along the Apalta Valley with picturesque views and beautiful breezes behind rows upon rows of grapes. After a relatively modest tour of the property by truck, we visited the winery, where we were guided through the intricate process of making, bottling and storing the wine. But in the end, of course, everyone has only one thing on their mind: the tasting. “Deep colour and concentration. Delicious aromas that escape the glass as soon as you pour it. Wet leather, red ripe fruit. Then, as you swirl, it evolves to even more delicious flavours of red peppers, black cherries and blueberries.” This vivid description went on from our hosts, though I could only make out the distinct taste of wine – mind you, easily one of the best I had ever tasted.

Up until now, only a few of Montes wines have made it to Canada, which is true of many Chilean wines. And though many more are sure to come, it only serves as proof that the only way you’ll taste the best of Chile is to come and grab it for yourself.