Like many parts of the New World, it was Christianity that originally brought the grapevine to Chile. European vines were brought here by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century, with the first recorded plantings in the country made in 1548 by a catholic priest, who brought a selection of vines from Spain. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that quality wine production began in earnest, when Phylloxera destroyed numerous vineyards in France, and French winemakers moved en masse to South America. With its dry climate and sunny days (and its freedom from all those nasty grapevine pests and diseases), Chile is now one of the world’s most famous wine-growing countries. And, like the coffee and chocolate tours of Central America, one can now spend a few hours touring the vineyards, learning the oenological facts, speaking the (slightly pretentious) lingo, and (most importantly of all) drinking.
The most famous wine-growing areas are in the centre of the country (close to the capital Santiago, and the country’s second city Valparaíso); and are all located in valleys (created by rivers running down from the Andes to the Pacific). Spread over numerous hills, with steep streets, winding alleys, and ancient funiculars, the port town of Valparaíso is Chile’s (and maybe South America’s) coolest city. A colourful jumble of buildings tumbles down the hills to the sea, connected by their antiquated ascensores, that haul the locals (and now tourists) up and down. And midway between Valpo and Santi is the Casablanca Valley, famous for its white wines.
The wine tours offered by various agencies in Valpo are ridiculously expensive (but very convenient) – and they’re probably the only way to see a bunch of wineries in one day and not have to worry about transportation. But there are buses from Valpo to Casablanca town. And although many of the region’s wineries are strung out along the highway, some of them are close(ish) to the town centre. So, having travelled through the Californian-esque countryside (with its rolling hills, endless rows of grapevines, and bright sunshine) to Casablanca’s town square, it’s a short walk to the Bodegas Re winery.
Seeing as most of the tourists who do these tours are of the higher-end variety, and arrive in buses or rental cars, it might seem a little odd to the local staff to have some random, scruffy-looking herbert turn up at the front gate, on foot. But if they’re surprised, they don’t show it, and I’m politely ushered in and invited to join the next tour.
The winery makes up for its small size with some unusual wine combinations (Fancy a Pinotel? Chardonnoir anyone?). There’s a quick look round the vineyard (it’s not harvesting season right now, so there’s not really anything to see) and the winery (with its enormous vats that I could happily drown in), accompanied by the usual talk about cooling ocean breezes and longer ripening periods and sandy soils and intense flavour complexity and blah blah blah; and then we get to the important bit of tasting. Casablanca’s location near the Pacific (and its concomitant cooler climate – try saying that after a few Gewürztraminers; or just try saying Gewürztraminers) favours white wines. Even a beer-drinking oik like me can appreciate the fruity Chardonnays and crisp Sauvignon Blancs. And with the generous servings (not to mention the couple of glasses that I have with my lunch), maybe walking is the best way to go…
South of modern, bustling Santiago is the Maipo Valley, carved out by the Maipo River, and one of Chile’s major wine regions. Several wineries are based in the valley, and with their green vines framed by white-topped mountains behind and blue skies above, it’s a lovely location. Viña Concha y Toro is the biggest of the lot (the biggest in South America, in fact), owning brands like Frontera and Casillero del Diablo.
Despite being based in rural countryside, the enormous winery is only 20km from the centre of Santiago, and I get there by a combination of metro and bus. And as it’s the biggest one of all, the tours are available throughout the day, and in several languages. You even get a monogrammed glass in a fancy bag to take home. The ‘highlight’ of the tour is a visit down into the cellar (el Casillero del Diablo, the Devil’s cellar), which holds some of South America’s most expensive wines. And where the guide turns all the lights off (ooh, spooky), and we receive an unintentionally-amusing retelling of the cellar’s legends, courtesy of a husky voice-over from American tough-guy actor Michael Madsen (maybe the residual cheques from Reservoir Dogs are drying up?).
It’s all a bit Disneyland and ‘Wine for Dummies’; but the guides are friendly and knowledgeable (I now know my aroma from my body and my oaky tannins from my tart finish). And the enormous gift shop (which is only slightly smaller than an aircraft hangar) has hundreds of bottles of tasty Chilean Carménère (a grape originally from Bordeaux, which is now extinct in France, but which is now Chile’s signature tipple, having been discovered by accident here in the late 1990s – scientists actually had to perform DNA testing on the grapes to ascertain its lineage!).