With Sequitur securely on a float in the marina of the Club de Yates de Higuerillas, Edi and I decided to head into the vineyards to start replenishing our depleted wine cellar. On Monday morning, the 21st of February we took the blue bus into Vina del Mar and walked from mid-town up and over Cerro Castillo past Reloj de Flores, the floral clock to the beaches and along to Sheraton lobby, where our information told us there is a Europcar rental car office. We had attempted to book a car online, but we struck-out. A personal visit was needed.
There were barricades along the street for hundreds of metres on either side of the hotel, and we had to walk over half a kilometre past the hotel and beyond Castillo Wulff before it was possible to cross the street and make our way back. As we neared the hotel entrance there was horrible wailing music and there were throngs of noisy fanatics jammed against the barricades with dozens of officious security guards all puffed-up and wired for sound. We walked boldly through the gamut of guards, smiling inside as we watched them part and then refill in our wake. The pretend-you-belong-here ploy worked, and we were ushered into the hotel lobby.
At the Europcar desk Gaston greeted us in fluent English, and explained there was a music festival starting the next day, and the major TV network was airing its morning show in front of the hotel with many of the pop idols as guests. No wonder the fanatics! Thankfully the hotel lobby is insulated from street noise, and we were able to quietly reserve a car for Wednesday morning. Also, to satisfy our curiosity, we asked Gaston why we had always seen a crowd of people shooting photos of each other in front of the Reloj de Flores. It seems that it is one of very few attractions in the city.
On Tuesday we flagged-down a blue bus outside the Club de Yates, and I asked the driver if he went to the Reloj de Flores. To make sure he understood, I showed him the map and pointed to the pictorial representation of the floral clock. He confirmed that the bus would take us there.
We rode the twenty minutes or so along the coast and into the centre of Vina del Mar, but instead of getting off there as we had the previous day and walking westward the kilometre and a bit to the Sheraton, we stayed on the bus as it turned east, believing the driver's saying he would take us to Reloj de Flores across from the Sheraton. I kept waiting for the bus to make a right turn and commence its loop out to the coast, but we continued to wind up a valley into the hills to the east. I grew more and more concerned, and after way too long, I went forward and asked the driver about our Reloj de Flores. He then said he didn't go there; we were on the wrong bus. By this time we were several kilometres through slow traffic and up into the hills. We got off, walked across the street and caught the next bus back into the centre of Vina del Mar, got off and walked the kilometre and a bit to the Sheraton. We were an hour and a quarter late in picking-up the car, but it appeared no problem to Gaston.
We loaded our small daypack and shoulder bag into the car and drove off to the directions Gaston had given us to escape Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. The road and highway signs were great until we made our exit into Casablanca to look for our first wineries. Once we were off the main highway, we saw very few road signs, and our road map did not at all coincide with the winery maps in our Guia de Vinos de Chile. One of the very few signs we saw was directing us to the beaches southward along the coast.
After fruitlessly driving in several squared circles we gave-up on the Casablanca wine region and decided to head into the Maipo Valley. It was long past noon when we arrived in Melipilla, and we decided to have lunch there. The absolute lack of restaurants, or our inability to spot any, caused us to divert into the shaded underground parking lot of a large supermarket. While the sun roasted in the upper 30s outside, we relaxed in the cool cross-breeze with our fresh rolls, ham, cheese and a tregnum of sparkling water from upstairs.
The first concentration of vineyards and wineries eastward out of Melipilla is in the area called Isla de Maipo, so off we went. I had earmarked Terrapaca as one winery to visit, and we easily found it following a huge roadside tourist map and the winery's own ample signs. We arrived at the gate to be told by the guard that the winery was not receiving visitors today. Even after I had explained we had come all the way from Canada, he would not relent.
We drove off in search of other area wineries, including Santa Ema and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. We drove up and back many roads, but saw no more winery signs, nor could we find anyone to ask directions. On one road, we drove about eight kilometres of winding blacktop with no intersections or side roads, until it abruptly ended at a private gate. We retraced our route back the eight kilometres to its first intersection and there saw no Sin Salida sign; no mention of it being a cul de sac, a dead end. It was by this time late afternoon, and even had we found a winery, by then it would most likely have been closed for the day. We saw a sign indicating a way to Ruta 5 Sur, the Pan-American Highway, and we gave-up on the Maipo wine region.
We worked our way across a network of small roads to Route 5 and headed south on it. The superb condition of the roadway and its mostly 120 km/hr speed limits quickly took us past the exits to the Cachapoal Valley, the northern part of the Rapel wine region, and we continued on to San Fernando, where we exited and headed to Santa Cruz. We had decided that if we were going to keep striking-out, we may as well do it in the finest of the Chilean wine regions, the Rapel's Colchagua Valley.
We drove into the small city of Santa Cruz shortly before 1900 and stopped in the front of the Hotel Santa Cruz on Plaza de Armas and went in to see if we could have a room for the night. My online search had found the hotel highly recommended and I had decided the quoted rates of US$120 to US$150 (CA$117 to $146) worth the splurge. I had been unable to book online. When at the front desk we found that the least expensive room they had available was 175,000 Pesos or about CA$340, we decided to ask the clerk for alternatives.
She told us of Hotel Casa de Campo, and we had remembered seeing it on the road shortly before the outskirts of Santa Cruz. She phoned the hotel to confirm they had a room for us, we thanked her, and back we went.
We were greeted warmly by the owner in a luxuriously rustic lobby, and he insisted we look at the room before committing. We were shown to a very tastefully and comfortably appointed room with a king-size bed, cathedral ceiling and a loft. There was a huge walk-in shower in the ultra-modern bathroom and the entire setting had a marvellous tranquility about it.
A door led onto a broad, deep balcony overlooking a greensward and beyond it to vineyards, corn fields and gently rolling mountains. It was serene, we were delighted. We checked-in and unwound from our day's rather frustrating travels. The room including breakfast was 72,000 Pesos.
We asked the proprietor for his recommendation of a restaurant in the area with a great wine list and good food. He told us of El Candil, on the left across the bridge on the road to Lolol. We found the sign to Lolol, crossed the bridge and then spent a frustrating half hour and more on a maze of one-way streets, all of which seemed to go the wrong way. We decided to look for other restaurants, but noted we hadn't seen anything in our wanderings through Santa Cruz. Edi went into a pharmacy and asked, and came out as uninformed as before. We finally saw an appropriate-looking restaurant, but when we stopped to check it out, it was closed.
I suggested to Edi that Hotel Santa Cruz must have a good restaurant, so we went for a look. The menu looked good and I was delighted with the wine list. It is organized by producer, and is very well priced. We ordered a bottle of 2005 Hacienda Araucano Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva. For 9,000 Pesos (CA$17.50), it drank like a $75 bottle in a restaurant back home, and it went splendidly with our thick beef tenderloin. I had ordered it because of its connection to the Lurton family of Bordeaux, which I knew very well from my years as a wine importer. They make splendid wine and had shown me superb hospitality on several of my trips to Bordeaux.
After a restful sleep in Casa de Campo's luxurious bed, we had a huge and superb breakfast in the dining room. Then we went off in search of Hacienda Araucano, which our Guia showed to be in Lolol. The computer savvy will wonder if this place is for real, or is merely for laughs, lol! What isn't for laughs; though, is the evidence still of the huge destruction from last year's earthquake. We were told over 1600 of the houses in the commune were damaged, a very large percentage of them destroyed. As we drove through we saw the clean-up still in progress a year later.
The way to Araucano is well-marked, and we easily found the winery nestled in the foot of a ridge at the edge of its vineyards at the end of a few kilometres of gravel road.
The door to the winery was open, but we could see no reception office or tasting room, only a working winery with crates of white grapes being unloaded and dumped into the crusher/de-stemmer. It appeared that the harvest had begun. We watched for a while, and then walked around the exterior of the building looking for an entrance for visitors. We saw none and when we arrived back at the working entrance, we walked in and through the winery to a likely-looking staircase on the back wall.
We were greeted at the small tasting bar, just outside the offices at the top of the stairs. I explained I knew personally the Lurton family in France, and had stayed at their Chateau Bonnet in Entre-Deux-Mers and toured and tasted at their several chateaux in Bordeaux. We wanted to taste and select some wines to add to our boat's cellar. She said that, unfortunately Francois Lurton had just left for their winery in Argentina's Mendoz, and that Gabriela Escobar, the person in charge of tastings and visitors was in an important meeting. Realizing however our seriousness and my family connection, she phoned Gabriela, explained the situation and passed the phone to me. She said she was tied-up until 1600, when she could see us. We talked further and she agreed she would receive us for a tasting at 1500.
It was just shy 1130, so we had some time to fill. We drove back toward Santa Cruz a few kilometres and turned in at the road to Vina Santa Cruz, which we had seen earlier on our way past. It is one of only two wineries in the small Lolol Valley, which has a microclimate with cooling marine influences, morning mists and a large daily temperature range, all superbly suited to bringing-out intense varietal characteristics in the grapes.
We were received by a rather smarmy and obsequious fellow who fawned over us with his obviously memorized and well-practiced lines, jokes and animations. The Santa Cruz winery is built on the California model of attracting tourists, with reception and tasting rooms capable of swallowing several bus loads at a bite. The sales room is filled with a broad selection of wine-related trinkets and winery-branded goods.
They have a funicular running up to the peak next to the winery, and on the peak are three indigenous "villages", representing the three most important ethnicities of Chile: the Mapuche and the Aymara of the mainland and the Rapa Nui of Easter Island. I mentioned to our host that this is only the second winery cable car I had seen, and he said there are only three in the world, but he could not name them. I told him that I had several times been up the cable-car to Sterling in Napa, but that I did not know the third. Their price is 20,000 Pesos per person for tour, tasting and cable car ride to the native cultural dioramas.
The winery has 140 hectares of vineyards, 20 hectares of which are on terraced slopes. Carmenere makes-up 41% of their plantation, Cabernet Sauvignon 33%, Syrah 19% and Merlot 14%. The remainder are in Malbec and Petit Verdot. Santa Cruz is in the enviable position of being able to select only the finest of their harvest and sell-off the remainder of the grapes. Then from the wines made with grapes that they keep, they select only the finest to put under their own label, selling the lesser quality to other wineries.
They mature their wines in French oak and it was fun to see again the familiar tonnelerie names branded into the butt ends. Santa Cruz makes three ranges of quality: Reserva and Gran Reserva, both of which they bottle under the Chaman label, and their Edicion Limitada bottled as TuPu. These wines spend up to two years in new oak.
After he realized he could not sell us a tour or tasting, nor a T-shirt or hat, he shushed his lips and quietly snuck us down a flight of stairs to a small tasting set-up. He poured us a range of wines, and from our tasting, we bought a case of the 2007 Syrah Gran Reserva and two bottles of the 2007 TuPu, which is a blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Syrah.
With more time in hand before our rendezvous at Araucano, we drove back through the city of Santa Cruz and took the road toward Apalta. I wanted to see Casa Lapostolle, which is the property of the French company that, among other things, owns Grand Marnier. They had shown me superb hospitality in Paris in 1989, when I had organized a small-group wine and food tour of the Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy and Paris. They took the sixteen of us to a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner and then to the Crazy Horse for a show and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot per couple.
The winery is carved six stories high into the side of a hill, and is an architectural masterpiece, though this is visible only from the inside. On the slopes and plain beneath the winery are their "organic and biodynamic" vineyards. The price for a tour and tasting is 20,000 Pesos per person, but since we had neither the time for the tour nor the desire to spend near $80 to see yet another tank room and barrel cellar, no matter the grandeur of the setting, we declined.
The person who received us in the small office appeared to be more a bean counter than an oenophile, and anyone who may have been sympathetic to our case was elsewhere and busy preparing for harvest. No matter my story, no matter our desire to buy wine, the clerk could not be induced to give us a tasting without the fees.
Knowing the wonderful reputation for quality that their wines enjoy, I asked for a half case of the Casa 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and a half of the Casa 2008 Carmenere. Casa is their bottom-of-the-line label, and had we been allowed to taste, we would most likely have bought more, and probably up-label.
We still had time in hand, so we drove onward a bit further to the Montes winery. This winery's bottles consistently place among the top ten Chilean wines in tastings, and they have a well-deserved international following.
We were received by a young man rather fluent in English, and he offered us a nice range of wines to taste. We were impressed with the quality of the 2010 Limited Selection Leyda Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. It was the first example of that grape in a long while in which we had found the typical Sancerre gooseberry and hints of cat pee characteristics with a tropical finish. We were tired of the grapefruit and hard acid we were finding in so many Chilean Sauvignon Blancs. At only $8.25 the bottle, we asked for two cases.
While the chap was getting the wine from the cellar for us, we did a short self-tour of the barrel cellar. Softly playing in the background was a marvellous recording of Gregorian chants giving the place a mystical atmosphere, which we will fondly remember with every bottle of Montes we drink.
We drove back through Santa Cruz to Lolol and back in the dusty road to Hacienda Araucano. We were warmly received by Gabriela and we sat with her at a tasting bar on the loft overlooking the winery floor, where the Sauvignon Blanc was being crushed and de-stemmed and pumped into fermenting tanks. Gabriela told us the harvest had begun that morning and this was the first of their Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca.
She told us the reason she couldn't receive us earlier was that she was in meetings arranging the reception of a large group of their importing agents from around the world the next week, during the annual Harvest Festival. She was with the catering chef, tasting him the wines so he could cook to them.
We were poured a wonderful range of wines, including library wine that she had earlier opened for the chef. These were long-since sold out, so we concentrated on the current offerings. We were most impressed with the 2008 Humo Blanco Pinot Noir. I have had a great love affair with Pinot Noir since I first tasted it in a 1964 Clos de la Roche in Morey-St-Denis while travelling in the Burgundy in 1966. The grape is extremely fickle, and while it often makes a good wine, it rarely reaches the sublime quality I was first introduced to so many years ago.
I am not saying that the 2008 Humo Blanco Pinot Noir was a match for the Clos de la Roche, but it does have a wonderful Burgundian quality so rarely found outside that region. The morning mists of the Lolol Valley and the cooling effect from the Pacific less than 40 kilometres away, plus the intense heat and sun during the middle parts of the day provide an environment that seems to favour the Hacienda's Pinot Noir. The complexity of the deep, post-glacial alluvial soils add to the mix. We bought two cases of it.
We were also impressed by the 2009 Humo Blanco Sauvignon Blanc, and its marvellous Sancerre qualities induced us to buy a case of it. Our tasting with Gabriela at Hacienda Araucano wonderfully capped-off our experiences in the Chilean wine country. They had begun with a series of bumbles and had finished on a high note.
We drove back toward Sequitur, using signs to the coastal city of San Antonio as our guide through the maze of roads, but once in San Antonio, we could find no signs at all to Valparaiso, a city with a population of over 300,000 only 70 or so kilometres further northward along the coast. Eventually I remembered my driving in France in the 60s and 70s, in the days when all roads from a town led to Paris, and to nowhere else. We turned east to follow the signs to Santiago, and we were shortly rewarded with signs to a freeway back north-westward to Valparaiso. We arrived back onboard with our booty at 2130.