From Santiago to Casablanca: Wine-tasting in Chile / by Joanna Snawder

Joanna Snawder is a contributor for Wine Tourist Magazine and writes regularly for her blog, Wine is my favorite snack. You can also find Joanna on Twitter and Facebook.

Why Casablanca?

Sign to the Veramonte Winery.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Sign to the Veramonte Winery. Credit Gabe Manzo

If you are traveling to Santiago, Chile and want to take in the famed Chilean wine country, consider a day trip to the picturesque Casablanca Valley. A mere 60 miles northwest of the city, Casablanca is along Route 68, which leads to the coastal town of Valparaiso, an UNESCO World Heritage site. If you’re driving yourself or your party from Santiago to Valparaiso you could  easily visit the wineries along the way. However, there are several companies that offer comprehensive day tours to the area and back to Santiago. Though pricey, the tours give you the peace of mind of not worrying about the drive while wine tasting, and they’re generally packaged with a meal and door-to-door service.

Vines in the Casablanca Valley.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Vines in the Casablanca Valley. Credit Gabe Manzo

Casablanca Valley is breathtaking. The vista of the miles and miles of grapevines with the mountains in the background is truly a sight to behold. A newer wine region, largely planted in the 1980s, with a mixture of clay and sandy soils, the terroir bodes well for winemaking. Situated just 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean at its furthest point, Casablanca Valley is considered a cool Mediterranean climate, averaging 20 inches of rain each year. As a result of the closeness to the sea, the whites of the region reflect a desirable “crispness.” The location also brings morning fog and more protective cloud cover than any other northern wine appellation in Chile. These geographic buffers enable a longer growing season, allowing the grapes more time to vine ripen and thereby develop depths of flavor. This climate is conducive to some specific varietals: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. 

All the wineries we visited encouraged us to pluck a grape from the vines and give it a taste (something unheard of and potentially a prosecutable act in the U.S.). So taste we did. The grapes, nearing their harvest, were succulent, sweet and juicy. It was warm as the sun was starting to heat up the land, still morning but edging into midday. This little nosh connected us to the terroir.

The Wineries

Kingston Family Vineyards is an award-winning boutique winery, boasting a small but high-quality production. Founded by Americans who re-located to Chile in the early 1900s, including the male patriarch who was originally from Michigan, this winery has a rich history. We arrived to a special treat that day. One of the owners, the husband of the granddaughter of the aforementioned patriarch, was there to serve as our host. This was special because he and his wife split their time between Chile and California and are often not in town when tours come through. His presence offered a personal connection to the business.

Wine selection at House, Casa Del Vino, prices in the Chilean Peso. Credit   Gabe Manzo

Wine selection at House, Casa Del Vino, prices in the Chilean Peso. Credit Gabe Manzo

Revelacion, Recreacion, Revolucion.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Revelacion, Recreacion, Revolucion. Credit Gabe Manzo

As the tour commenced, we were given a glass of chardonnay to sip on. This was a nice touch. We began inside near the equipment and were then led out into the expansive vineyards. We learned about their history as a winery, their current structure, what they produce, how and where. With their ties to California, where winemaking rules, they are able to import some innovative practices which are yielding a top quality product. They only make 2 whites and 2 reds: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah. They have the requisite stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, but they have another technique which may be new to some, but is actually an ancient way of aging wine. And it works. So what is this technique? Concrete eggs. Apparently the shape allows for optimal circulation of the juice. This method is being employed at the next two wineries discussed as well. Concrete creates a mostly impenetrable shell. The lack of corners in the egg makes an ideal cavity for consistent composition and temperature. Kingston is experimenting with batches composed of wine partially from the eggs and partially from oak barrels to find the right balance.

The benefit of a semi-private wine tour is that you are treated to a luxurious, seated and exclusive tasting. This is quite a departure from elbowing your way up to the "bar" at a tasting room on a high season Saturday anywhere in Napa. To be able to sit, anxiety free, and savor the wine, ask questions, discuss and bask in the moment is what personalizes the visit.

The moment also included a “soft-sell” on both their wine club and the option to order wine from them to be shipped to your home. It’s a business after all, and they are a boutique winery looking to evolve their clientele.

Wine is abundant in Chile and these are worth saving, aging and sharing. If you make it to Chile, consider giving Kingston a visit.

Bodegas RE

We departed from Kingston and headed over to Bodegas RE, (use the google page translate feature to see the page in English or use your Espanol), which is a short but scenic drive. We entered the grounds and were immediately led into their gift shop area, replete with vintage display items, including a cash register, a treadle sewing machine and floors made of railroad ties. Outdoors they have a grape press and some other non-functional equipment, just for show. Why should all of this matter? It's all part of their philosophy: revelation, recreation and revolution. They take the old ways and make them new again. If you are a vintage fan, you will love everything about it.

We were shortly led to the vineyard, where we were given an overview of this young winery, established in 2007 by Pablo Morande, who comes from a winemaking lineage. Our tour guide was kind enough to encourage the customary tasting of the grapes, right off the vine. Their vineyards have a tropical feel with huge palm trees dotting the perimeter.

We adjourned to a cool indoor area next, called the Balsameria. Aged balsamic vinegar. In oak. We got to smell the different varieties. There are none for sample or purchase, however. They are serious about aging, and the vinegar will not be ready for 10-20 years. One should plan a return trip in the given time frame to try this aged balsamic, because if their wine is any testament, it will be top-notch.  

Fruit liqueurs at Bodegas RE.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Fruit liqueurs at Bodegas RE. Credit Gabe Manzo

After the Balsameria, we saw a room with some other fruit liqueurs they are trying out. They have cherries or lemon rind. Apparently the technique to create these alcoholic beverages is also quite old, and many people make it at home, offering it to guests, just a tiny portion, as it is rather potent (read: boozy).

Tasting at Bodegas RE.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Tasting at Bodegas RE. Credit Gabe Manzo

At last we came to the cellar, where oak and concrete eggs are both being utilized. Bodegas RE is also considered a boutique winery, though their production is fairly sizable. They are doing some intriguing things with the wine, combining not only grapes, but re-naming their wines as such. For example, the Chardonnoir, a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. No skin contact, so it's not pink, just fun and delicious.  We tasted a few different things -- white, red and a tinge of pink. A standout was the 2009  Vigno by Vina Roja. It is 100 percent carignan and exquisite. We bought some other bottles, including the "Syranoir" (as it sounds, Syrah and Pinot Noir). There was also the Cabergnan -- 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent carignan. The grapes for that one are from Maule Valley, thus not all of the wine at Bodegas RE is made from grapes sourced from Casablanca Valley. For the tasting they also had a spread of edibles: cheese, breads with their olive oil (sold in gift shop), olives, veggie chips. The noshing was needed at that point in the day.

Bodegas RE is worth visiting and spending time at. As North Americans, we have such limited access to the amazing small production wine from Chile. These tours are a means to cultivating your knowledge and broadening your wine purchases. The tour is worth it's weight in….wine. Cheers!

Vineyards in the distance.  Credit   Gabe Manzo

Vineyards in the distance. Credit Gabe Manzo

House, Casa del Vino

Following a highly pleasurable visit to Bodegas RE, we re-boarded our passenger van, bound for House Casa del Vino. Lunch was the very next thing on the agenda and it was most welcome. We entered into House and were led through the indoor "tienda" area out to a massive covered patio looking out onto an olive orchard, with the vineyards just off in the distance. Even if you cannot taste here, this is a tremendous place to dine. Makes sense. We were told that it ranks as one of the top 100 restaurants of Chilé. 

After our scrumptious paired meal, included in the price of the tour, we walked right off the dining patio into the vineyards and thus began learning about this unique place: part restaurant, part wine shop and part winery. House makes some of their own wine, while selling for purchase many other wines from Chilé. The wines that were paired with our lunch were not all necessarily from their winery. The wine made at House is under the label Tiraziš and is a cold climate Syrah.We heard about their history in the vineyard and then headed inside to see where the wine is aged, and once again spotted the concrete eggs. They also have stainless steel tanks and casks.

It was very fun and a great way to experience one of Chile's most prominent wine regions. Before hopping back on the bus to head the hour or so back to Santiago, we stocked up on some great value wines from the "tienda" at House. The employees were not all that informed or helpful, as one even said to me, "I don't really drink wine." Oops. Kind of important to have people who can answer customer questions. Luckily, our guide was nearby and stepped in to assist. He gave us some excellent recommendations.  

Lodging in Santiago

If you are traveling on a budget, a decent option is Hostal Rio Amazonas. They are located in an area adjacent to the very hip and trendy Bellavista neighborhood. The hostel itself is clean, convenient and staffed with friendly people. Lodging includes a continental breakfast each morning. They have a range of affordable prices ($25-$65 per night) and accommodations, including triples with in-room bathrooms. Inquire within.

If you are able to spend a bit more, even just for a few nights, contemplate Lastarria Boutique Hotel. Located in the heart of the Lastarria neighborhood, this boutique hotel has charm spilling from every nook and cranny. It is walking distance to many superb restaurants, bars and shops. They offer a made-to-order breakfast with barista service in a lovely dining room overlooking the private pool area. An oasis in the city!

For wine in the city

Described as “a place to meet” for both tourists and local wine lovers alike, Bocanáriz is the spot. It is both a wine bar and restaurant and with a selection of over 400 bottles, you are bound to find one (or several) that you appreciate. They also sell bottles to go. Their food menu has been designed around flavors that enhance the wine. Boca, means mouth and nariz is nose, which reflects the palate and olfactory experience of this special place.