The Best of Chile: From Vino to Valparaiso
Hey guys! I'm Kate Laramie and I've joined Vino Vagabonds as a contributing wine-o and writer. My affinity for wine and travel began during a high school exchange year in the tiny wine region of Rutherglen, Australia. Now I live in San Francisco and work as a Marketing Manager for a wine importer in Napa Valley, CA. I'll be dishing on mainly Southern Hemisphere stuff and also what it's like to import wines from around the world. I love cheese, yoga, hiking with my pit bull Brawny, and I hope that Grenache is the next Pinot Noir. Oh and did I mention I love cheese?
I've been thinking a lot about my time in Chile and I feel this diverse country is often overlooked by travelers and definitely by wine-os. When my friend, Rita, told me she would be spending her final year of college at Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, it didn’t take much arm pulling for me to buy a plane ticket.
February came, I packed up shorts and bikinis, and fled our North American winter for summer in the southern hemisphere. I inhaled the local food and drink of Santiago, reveled in the addicting energy of vineyards just before harvest, and strolled wide-eyed through the funky, artists' hamlet of Valparaiso. While I did and saw a lot, two weeks in Chile wasn't enough and a return trip is definitely on the docket...
Overall vibe: City life, museums, urban food and drink. Lots of drink.
Rita’s apartment was just down the road from the famous hill, Cerro San Cristobal, so a hike to the top was obviously on the to-do list. Views from the top are breathtaking... I’m told. We huffed it up and unfortunately couldn't see a thing. Perhaps winter is less smoggy.
The following afternoon was spent perusing nearby art museums. Nineteenth Century artwork is great and all, but food and drink are more my scene. Rita, being of a similar persuasion, took me to El Hoyo, literally “The Pit”, for my first terremoto (“earthquake”). This peppy little concoction is a mix of Pipeño, a sweet fermented grape juice—yes, that would technically make it wine—topped with a mound of pineapple ice cream. It was sugary, refreshing, bizarre, and just what I needed. The brave ones chase it down with a smaller version of the same blend known as a replica, or “aftershock.” Brave as we are, we refrained since we had Chilean sea bass to find and ceviche to make!
Wine tasting in Colchagua Valley
Overall Vibe: posh, personal, a delight for your senses, not the place to diet
The next day, we hopped in a rental car and headed 130km south to the Colchagua Valley. This is Chile’s answer to the Napa Valley, with big red varieties like Cabernet, Carmenere and Syrah leading the charge.
We hit Casa Silva first to try some of the best Carmenere in Chile. Since being decimated by phylloxera (an insect that feeds on the roots of vines) in Bordeaux in the late 1800s, Carmenere has become the unofficial ‘official’ grape of Chile, and Casa Silva is doing its part to enhance and promote its growth throughout the Valley. 100 degree heat only allowed us a brief tour through the vineyards, but our Belgian tour guide pointed out one vineyard containing nearly 50 different clones of Carmenere. 50 clones. Of Carmenere. In one vineyard! We were amazed.
A *grueling* day of tasting wine and touring vineyards should always be followed by an outstanding meal, and at the Casa Silva Polo Club House, we had just that. In fact, this was the best meal I had in Chile. After a couple Pisco sours, four hefty courses of local veggies, steak and fish, and a decadent chocolate cake, we waddled our way back to the winery’s hotel where we donned the luxurious bathrobes and polished off a bottle of bubbles and box of chocolate. Naturally.
Blurry eyed, we collected ourselves the following morning and scurried off to our next appointment at Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta winery. The state-of-the-art, barrel-inspired winery and guest casitas tucked into a remote hillside was quite the juxtaposition to Casa Silva’s quaint, country feel. We weren’t lucky enough to stay in one of the casitas on the property, but we were insanely jealous of everyone who was.
The lovely and charming winemaker, Andrea León, met us for a personal tour and tasting. She took us through the gravity-fed production line and into the barrel room. At first glance, the barrel room appeared just like the dozens of barrel rooms I’d seen before, but with a glass table in the middle. After chatting with Andrea for minute around the table, she reached under and unlatched something. She then lifted half the table above her head, revealing a staircase and transforming the room into a scene straight out of James Bond. I knew this was where they hid the good stuff. ’82 Haut-Brion, Chevel Blanc, yep, it was all there.
Top growth Bordeaux aside, the wines of Casa Lapostolle are nothing to turn your nose up at either. Their top tier icon wine, Clos Apalta, is one of the most highly regarded wines in Chile.
Overall vibe: Artsy, local flavor, backpackers, beer and browsing the streets
We may have had our fill of wine, but we hadn’t finished our adventure. This time we opted for a bus ride north to the port city of Valparaiso. Bus tickets can be booked in advance at the local bus depot, and from there, it’s pretty straight forward.
Driving into the Valparaiso is a spectacular sight in itself. You feel the vibrant energy before getting off the bus. Colorful graffiti murals line the buildings and the streets themselves. The steep hills are a serious undertaking, even for an avid Stairmaster-er like myself, so the ascensors are the way to go. For just a few Chilean pesos, one of these rickety boxes on pulleys will take you up and down the steep climes. Trust me, it’s worth it.
We dropped our bags at Angel Hostel, a clean, friendly spot in a great location and after asking the hostel manager for a few recommendations, we decided to set out to find the city’s best chorillana. This Valparaiso-born dish is made with french-fries and onion topped with spicy sausage and a couple fried eggs. Paired with a local Escudo beer, this greasy meal was the exclamation mark on the end of our Chilean adventure.
So, let’s recap:
No doubt there’s more to this intricate culture and stunning country than I was able to cram into two weeks, but here are my takeaways in pill form.
- Chile can be experienced through food and drink. I’d say drink more so than food, but try everything!
- Carmenere may have a bad rap as a “green” wine, but you can find stunning examples throughout Chile, particularly in the Colchagua Valley.
- Those picturesque views of the Andes may be easier to find in the winter, when air quality is a little better. I couldn’t see much of the Andes at all in the smoggy Southern hemisphere summer.
- The best way to explore Santiago and Valparaiso is to walk. Explore the streets, bars, museums, rickety outdoor elevators, and anything else that entices you.
- Luxurious wineries and decadent meals are wonderful, but there’s something special about a plate of French fries and a local beer.