Wine tourism in Chile is, as the concept suggests, about two things: wine and tourism. While there's no shortage of phenomenal Chilean wines waiting to be discovered, my recent tour of Chilean wineries was a success not because of the standout bottles of wine I sampled, but my holistic experience of visiting Chile to explore their wine regions. I wanted to share my favorite experiences from my tour of Chile, particularly my memories of drinking, eating and relaxing in some of the nicest places I've ever visited.
My girlfriend Lori and I flew into Santiago, but immediately transferred to La Serena, three hundred miles north. After a slight problem with our luggage, we went east from La Serena, towards the Andes and the Elqui Valley. While Elqui has been a producer of grapes used in pisco for a long time, it's a relatively new front in Chilean wine making. Going to Elqui Valley was a great decision - people in the valley were surprised that American wine tourists had thought to come so far beyond the traditional valleys and people everywhere else were impressed that we had broken the mold with a stop in Elqui Valley.
Beyond improving our reputations, the experience in Elqui Valley set the tone for our entire trip. The very first winery we visited was also the smallest: Cavas del Valle. An organic winery, Cavas del Valle produces all of their wines in a single room and ages them in a small cellar in the next door. Our 9 a.m. tour was quick, but included some really interesting wines. Unfortunately they don't export to the US, but their Syrah Gran Reserva and Cosecha Otoñal, a late harvest wine made with pink muscatel grapes, are almost worth the trip to Chile on their own.
The real reason I wanted to go Elqui Valley, though, wasn't wineries like Cavas del Valle or Falernia. No, the real reason was I wanted to see some stars. No, I don't mean Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, though we did visit her museum in Vicuña. I mean the incredible night sky. The Elqui Valley's elevation and lack of light pollution make it one of the best spots on the globe to see constellations. In fact, some of the most important research telescopes in the world line the ridges of the Elqui Valley. We visited Mamalluca Observatory, which is geared for tourists, and got to see the wonder of our universe first hand. To take further advantage of the beautiful night sky, while we were in the valley we stayed at a hotel, Elqui Domos, whose unique geodesic domes opened in the top and allowed us to view the night sky from the warmth of our bed.
My favorite winery tour came the day we left the Elqui Valley, flew back to Santiago, and drove north again to the Aconcagua Valley to Errazuriz. Sure, this was because four of my ten favorite wines from the trip were made by Errazuriz. But the wine was just part of the winery tour - their history, their design, their food, and their staff made it a success. We started with a four-course meal on the patio outside the main building, which includes their bottle storage, blending, facility, and some cellar space. The food was typically phenomenal and each course was paired with a new wine. What made the lunch memorable, though, was the view. From our seats we could see the vineyard, which stopped only a few feet away from our table. The view was spotted with palm trees and the slopes of the vineyard alternated between grapes and Haas avocados. The meal was only the start - when we finished our lunch, our guide Rene lead us down the sloping ramp into their old wine cellars. Tradition practically oozed from the walls; the Errazuriz family has produced ton of wine over the last 140 years, not to mention multiple Chilean presidents. Things got really cool when we moved on to their new, state of the art cellar, which really belongs in Architecture Digest. A stunning glass, steel and stone building surrounded by a moat that served to cool the interior, it is a purpose-driven work of art.
Being a winery, the tour really reached its peak when we sat at the large bar in the main house and tasted Errazuriz's wine with Rene. Lori and I had hit it off with Rene and before long he was breaking out some of their Icon wines: Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve 2006 and Seña 2007, the former a 94 point wine according to Robert Parker, the latter a 96 point wine. I'm not an expert on scoring wines, but there's no doubt in my mind that these two are simply brilliant, among the best I have ever tasted. To cap our visit off, Rene gave Lori and I a bottle of their Estate Sauvignon Blanc and a couple of glasses for us to enjoy from the top of the vineyard with a view of Aconcagua Valley. It's hard to imagine a more perfect visit to a winery anywhere in the world.
While the service we received from our guide at Errazuriz was phenomenal, one thing that impressed us throughout the trip was the quality of service offered by staff at restaurants, hotels, and wineries. One night at Termas de Jahuel, a hotel with a hot spring and spa in Aconcagua Valley, we were watching the sunset on a secluded patio when I turned to Lori and said, "The only thing that could make this sunset better is if we had Pisco Sours." An instant later one of the hotel staff came upon us and asked if we'd like Pisco Sours while we watched the sunset! The timing was almost as good as the cocktails, which, incidentally, are a must-have while in Chile.
Great hotels were a theme throughout the trip. One of our favorites was Hotel Casa Real, which is located on the grounds of Viña Santa Rita in the Maipo Valley. It only has sixteen rooms and has the feel of an intimate bed and breakfast, despite the fact that it's a massive mansion dating from the 19th century. The grounds have a regal quality to them and the food was some of the best that we ate on the trip. Toss in a stately game room with a giant billiards table and Hotel Casa Real succeeded in making me happy.
Our other favorite hotel was The Aubreyin Santiago. Located in the popular Bellavista neighborhood, The Aubrey is a new hotel at the foot of Cerro San Cristobal Hill, adjacent to the entrance to the park's funicular. This place has tremendous character - each room is different - and a remarkably helpful staff. Our room was on the top floor of the hotel, with a great view of The Aubrey's sleek and sexy swimming pool.
Bellavista is my kind of neighborhood. It's young, hip, and casual, with scores of great restaurants and bars. After dropping our stuff off at The Aubrey, we went to eat lunch at a very authentic Chilean restaurant, Galindo. The food was memorable, though I had a bit of language miscommunication: I'd thought I was ordering a Pernil sandwich, but ended up with a regular order of Pernil, which was a huge order of roasted pork leg. Fortunately, the pork was delicious and I had no reason to complain. Another food I fell in love with at Galindo was Pure Picante, which are basically spicy mashed potatoes. We had them in a lot of restaurants around Chile, but the Pure Picante at Galindo was the best we found in Chile.
When we arrived in the early afternoon, many dive bars around Bellavista had set out tables and chairs on the sidewalk. While there were already plenty of people enjoying a few beers on a sunny Saturday afternoon, by Saturday night the whole neighborhood was jumping. Since it was our last night in Chile, Lori and I did some bar hopping, visited an art gallery, and made friends with a stray puppy or two. The raucous nightlife of Santiago moved at a much faster pace than the stops in wineries and luxurious hotels that we'd made over the last week and before we knew it, we were ready to head back to The Aubrey and call it a night...and a trip.