“Start your day with coffee and end your day with wine”. – Saying on a coffee cup my husband got me as a gift.
I have a confession to make. I absolutely love wine. I have loved wine ever since I studied abroad in France at the ripe age of 21 and spent nine months studying French and sampling as many varieties as my budget could afford. In those days, the cheaper the better and anything under $8 was a steal.
Over the years, my taste buds have matured and in some ways have followed my travels around the world. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with Malbac after a visit to Argentina in 2009. Its rich, deep and smooth flavor warms my soul, and it is easy to find a good bottle for under $15. Little did I know, it would take a trip to Chile’s wine region to discover a new, incredible variety that I had never heard of before, Carménère.
Chile is the fourth largest exporter of wine in the world so it is without a question that many tourists plan a day or two visiting some of Chile’s premier wine regions. The heart of Chile’s wine region is in Central Chile which surrounds Santiago. Central Chile produces the most wine in the country and has six distinct wine regions to explore: The Casablanca Valley, San Antonio Valley, Maipo Valley, Cachapoal Valley, Colchagua Valley, and Curico Valley. The Maipo Valley is the closest region to Santiago and also is known for its production of Carménère, my new favorite red variety.
Carménère is to Chile as Malbac is to Argentina yet its history is much more mysterious. The grape originated in the Bordeaux region of France yet was believed to be wiped out after a terrible Phylloxera plague destroyed many of the vines throughout Europe in 1857. Somehow the vine was brought to Chile where it not only survived but thrived. For years, people believed the grape was a very distinctive tasting Merlot yet after DNA testing in 1999 wine experts ruled it was in fact the Carménère grape. Chile’s perfect growing conditions allowed Carménère to become Chile’s leading grape and it is absolutely delicious.
On our second day in Santiago, we arranged to go on a wine tour of the Maipo Valley with the lovely, highly-knowledgeable Patricia Garabito Valdes, founder of Wine Wein Tours. Patricia was born and raised in Santiago and began her career as a translator yet soon discovered she was not meant to be inside an office all day. She promptly changed gears and began working as a tour guide in Santiago.
In 2010, Patricia’s career path changed once again. She got a position working as a tour guide at a high-end Chilean winery and discovered her deep passion for wine production. While she worked there, she learned as much as she possibly could and her immense knowledge of wine and the entire process of making wine, is incredible. In 2015, Patricia began her own wine tour company, Wine Wein Tours and she has been dazzling her customers ever since.
On the morning of our tour, Patricia met us at our hotel around 9 am and we set off for the hour and a half drive south of the city to the rural town of Pirque in the foothills. The Maipo Valley is nestled between two mountain ranges, the Andes and the Coastal Mountains and Chile’s capital, Santiago sits smack in the middle. It is the largest valley in Central Chile and the geography, climate and rich, fertile soil create the ideal environment for the production of different types of vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. Today, the Maipo Valley is one of Chile’s most prestigious wine-producing regions producing the second largest amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world after France.
Chile’s wine industry was born 150 years ago in the Maipo Valley. The very first vineyard, Cousiño-Macul, was founded in 1856 and is the only winery in Chile amongst those established in the 19th century that is still in the hands of the original founding family. We passed it along the highway and I was stunned to see it in the midst of Santiago’s urban sprawl. Patricia told us that back in 1960 it was still considered farmland.
We arrived at our first destination, Viña El Principal, around 11 am and were greeted by Constanza, who is working on her master’s degree in wine-making and is interning side by side with Viña El Principal’s chief wine-maker, Gonzalo Guzmán.
Viña El Principal is located in the Alto Maipo, and is recognized for the quality of their red wines and wine-making tradition. The winery was founded in 1992 as a partnership between Jorge Fontaine, owner of the Hacienda El Principal, and the French winemaker Jean Paul Valette, former owner of the famous Premier Grand Cru Classé Château Pavie in Saint-Émilion. Given its special location at the foot of the Andes, it was named after the Picunche Chief Andetelmo, known as ‘El Principal’ who ruled this territory. (2)
After a short, bumpy ride in the vineyard’s jeep we arrived upon the foothills with a stunning view of the vineyard and valley below. I was excited to see the actual vineyard as not all wineries bring you right to the source.
El Principal has over 90 hectares of vines based in two distinct locations: The hillside and the flatland below. Although they plant the same varieties in both locations, the grapes taste different due to the difference in attitude and conditions of sun, rain, wind and soil. They also harvest the grapes at different times and age some wines longer which also influences the flavor, aroma and complexity.
El Principal only makes red blends and produces three varieties (2):
- El Principal – Their iconic wine, the first wine to be produced in 1999. It is the most complex and elegant wine and spends 20 months aging in first use French Oak barrel and 2 years in the bottle before going to market. It even has its own special cellar. At $125/bottle, it is there most expensive wine.
- Memorias: Middle of the line. $40 market price and is first to harvest because the grapes are grown on the hills and get more sun exposure than Calicanto. 16 months aging.
- Calicanto: Aged 12 months in barrel (2-3rd use) and one year in bottle before it goes to market. It is meant to be a daily consumption wine thus priced at $20/bottle.
El Principal takes pride in their traditional wine-making process and harvests all of their grapes by hand. The wine-maker decides when it is time to harvest and once the harvest begins, it takes 3 months. Each variety is harvested at a different time and Carménère is always last to get rid of its strong green pepper flavor.
Each wine is a made from a blend of up to five varieties. This is where the wine-maker works his or her magic in creating the perfect blend of flavor and aroma of the grapes. Over half of the production goes to Calicanto, 30% to Memorias and 20% is for El Principal.
I was surprised to learn that only 5% of their wines is sold in Chile because it is too expensive for the local market. Patricia told us that it is very cheap to produce wine in Chile and you can easily buy a good bottle of wine for $10. Thus there is no market for $20-30 bottle of wine which is why the majority of vineyards export 90-95% of their wine.
Finally, we reached the highlight of the tour: The tasting room. Here we got to sit down and sample some of El Principal’s wine. We were not disappointed. It was amazing!
Given my love of wine, there was no way I could simply taste the wine without drinking it. I am not one who likes to drink alcohol during the day yet given how good the wine was I had to make an exception. We left a little after noon feeling giddy and lightheaded. Thankfully we were off to lunch at another vineyard and then we would be doing another tour later on that afternoon. It was going to be a sleepy ride back to the hotel!
Want to learn more? Check out these fantastic websites on Chilean Wine
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