We’ve been driving for less than an hour when we pull off the highway. Though the landscape’s dramatic as we skirt the Cordillera de la Costa, with its sand-coloured hills and distant ocean mist, when we turn into the San Antonio Valley, it’s obviously charmed. Sun drenches the neat green mountains, and fields of yolk-coloured flowers billow out over its floor. And then, rounding the corner, we spot what we’ve come for: the vines.
Chile, as most people know, is a leading light in new world wine. Along with South Africa, New Zealand, California and, obviously, Australia, the country’s fruit-forward and zesty sauvignon blanc is popping corks all over the planet. Beginning sometime in the 16th century, Chile’s first vignerons were Spanish missionaries, who had the convenient excuse of needing wine for church rituals. By the 1800s, Chilean wines were competing internationally with wines from back home in Europe and by the late 20th century they were praised for their unique flavour.
Chile’s only master sommelier, Hector Vergara, believes that the country’s flourishing wine industry is a result of its landscape. “When you taste our wines, having the majestic Andes mountains in front of you and the great and cool Pacific Ocean on your back, you will understand that the place has rightly been called a viticultural paradise,” he enthuses. “With the huge amount of mountains and hillsides facing different exposures, to north, east, west and south, it gives the chance to plant a great diversity of grape varieties.”
Here in San Antonio Valley, about 50 kilometres outside of the capital Santiago, the Matetic vineyard is growing sauvignon blanc, syrah, chardonnay and pinot noir, along with less familiar varieties like the funky aromatic gewürztraminer. Established in 1984 by a successful sheep farmer, the Matetic vineyard creeps from the hollow of the nutrient-rich valley up into the mineral hills, taking advantage of the warm days and cool nights, with the mountains protecting the grapes from the sea. In its centre is a world-class production facility, with barrels ageing in an underground cellar while guests taste matched wines in the specialty cellar door above.
Matetic is also one of the country’s two certified organic and biodynamic wineries. The decision to go organic was as much about taste as it was about ideology. “The first concern was to have quality wines, not organic wines,” explained winemaker Joseline Plaza. “Everything is by hand – we don’t use machines. We select the best bunches and place them in small baskets.”
No pesticides or synthetic fertilisers are used during the production of the wines, with the winemakers preferring the time-honoured traditions of pest control. “Here on the farm we have alpacas, sheep, chicken and geese to control weeds and insects, and we use all the animal manure for fertilisation,” says Plaza. “We prepare eight composts and work with the moon calendar. Like homeopathic medicine, we use chamomile, stinging nettle and dandelion and introduce quartz. To control the insects, we introduce ladybugs!”
Whatever the method, the results are pretty difficult to take issue with. Sitting under a vine-covered portico, the midday sun filtering in, Plaza uncorks a few of her best bottles. The 2012 Corralillo riesling is refreshingly dry, with subtle minerality and perfumed fruit. The EQ Pinot Noir, whose grapes are grown in the Rosario Valley nearby, is both delicate and a little animal, with enough tannins to prevent it from tasting like rosewater. The standout, however, is the shiraz (or syrah). If you’re thinking Barossa, think again. “The difference is that in Australia, you have the production of syrah in the warmer regions. You taste it here, and it’s smooth and velvety and spicy,” Plaza explains. “The colour, for example, is very deep. You think that when you drink it, it’s going to be a very strong wine. But when you taste it, the aromas are spice in the nose, and in the aftertaste, but it’s very smooth.”
It’s worth crossing the Pacific for – and more and more Australians are doing just that. In between the vines is a seven-room boutique hotel and restaurant, fit out in an elegant, modern hacienda style. Guests can ride horseback through the estate, or sit down to a paired lunch.
Tourism is an increasingly important part of the winery’s business, providing around 40 per cent of its overall takings. “Tourism’s very important to the wine industry,” says Matetic tourism director, Felipe Wilson. “For us, since the beginning of the project, it was done with tourism in mind. Even the winery, with all the glass panes and the hotel, it’s all to encourage visits. Now, about 30 percent of the total business of the winery is tourism. And it’s growing very, very fast for us.”
Certainly, it’s not just the San Antonio Valley that’s receiving all the visitors. Wine-lovers are flocking to the Maule and Itata Valley in the South, where some of the most exciting developments in Chilean wines are happening. These regions feature centennial vineyards that only practice dry farming (non-irrigated vineyards), and are producing here outstanding carignan, país, cinsault and muscat grapes. Meanwhile, at vineyards like Viú Manent in the Colchagua Valley, the heartland of Chilean wines, international tourists are taking guided tastings (and enjoying the excellent local cuisine).
You don’t even have to be in Chile to experience some of the best in Chilean wine; master sommelier Vergara has curated a virtual tour of the country’s wine-growing regions for LATAM flights, with 18 varieties including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and the local specialty, carménère, traditionally used for Pisco but is enjoying a new life as a wine in its own right. “We selected wines that best reflect the features of their vines, keeping in mind that the wines will be consumed on board an airplane, where cabin pressure at high altitude affects and changes sensory perceptions,” explains Vergara. “They’re expressive and fruity and are without a doubt very much enjoyed by the passengers.”
And so, as we wind our way out of the valley on dusk, our luggage stuffed with pinot noir (and a little more already in our skin), there is at least something to look forward to on the flight home.