Dabbling with Diablo
Words by Shalini Tewari, Pics by istockphoto & gallo images
The road seems as long and narrow as the country I am riding through, and I struggle to keep from swerving into the surrounding shrubs. I’m intoxicated by the stunning landscape and snow-covered peaks of the Andes in the distance. There’s a big game of fútbol being played somewhere, leaving me all alone on this adventure. Although I can imagine the fun it would be with others along for the ride, there is something rather amusing about flying solo on a bike and wine tour through Chile.
Chile is a unique country. Its slender shape makes it the longest and thinnest country in the world, and it measures more than 4 300 kilometres long – roughly equal to the distance from South Africa to Tanzania – and only about 175 kilometres wide – from about Cape Town to Montagu in the Western Cape.
With a small, but growing population of just over 17 million people, Chile has been and continues to be internationally recognised for various attractions. The country is a geographically self-contained unit with the South Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes separating it from Argentina in the east and an expansive desert parting it from Peru and Bolivia in the north. Chile’s geography sets it apart from the rest of Latin America and within it you can enjoy a variety of activities from skiing and trekking in rugged mountain terrain to kayaking and swimming along sandy beaches with turquoise water. You can walk through lush forests, along the edge of lakes, see fjords and steppes, and explore the subtropical and humid Easter Island.
It has one of the world’s longest coastlines and its climate range is influenced by the Atacama Desert in the north and the alpine tundra and Patagonian glaciers in the south. Between these extremes is a temperate Mediterranean climate where fruits and vegetables grow abundantly. Its fertile valleys are filled with flourishing vineyards and orchards.
The freedom of pedaling along country roads to visit vineyards and taste locally made wines is too good to miss. With the spine-like Andes as my backdrop, I take out my hand-drawn map and follow directions to the first vineyard. It’s autumn so the air is crisp and the grapevine leaves have turned crimson.
It is believed that missionaries introduced the first vines to Chile to make sacramental wines. Now Chile’s grapes are used to produce some of the world’s best wines, which compete with the fine wines of France, Italy, the USA and South Africa. Its soil and climate are ideal for winemaking and growing well-known grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as its own vintage grape, Carménère. Originally planted in Bordeaux, France, Carménère is now rarely found in France and instead covers more than 8 800 hectares in Chile’s Central Valley. The four geographic barriers isolated Chile from pests and diseases. While Carménère grapes fell prey to the phylloxera plague in 1867 in Bordeaux, they thrived in Chile and have become emblematic of Chilean wine.
I enter Concha y Toro, Latin America’s largest producer of wines. I join a group being led around the old cellars of this winery. We are given a brief history starting from when local politician and businessman, Don Melchor de Concha y Toro, first brought French grapevines from the Bordeaux region in 1883. The winery has been given many accolades since, including being voted as ‘The Winery of the Decade’ in 1999. In 2010, Concha y Toro became the official wine partner of Manchester United Football Club and was recognised by The Green Business Drinks Awards, winning an award for its reduced carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emission during export.
Led into the dimly lit cellar, we are told of the legend of Casillero Del Diablo. It is now one of the most recognised premium wine brands in the world, and home to some of the finest wines, but many are unaware of the story about how the emblem of the devil came to adorn the bottles. A local legend – that the devil lives in the depths of this cellar – has kept tales of sightings and disappearances alive and has long sent chills up the spines of any villagers even contemplating entering it. Don Melchor created the legend to prevent theft from his private reserve, and in 1963, Casillero Del Diablo – the Devil’s Cellar – was born.
Although only a legend, in the dark and silent cellar it was enough to raise the hair on the back of our necks, so we decide to head outside into the sunlight. We stroll through the vast grounds of the gardens and vineyards with its 26 grape varieties. Back inside, we finally taste the wines. We sip on Casillero del Diablo’s Chardonnay with its lively fruity bouquet, and then the noted Carménère – an elegant and delicious wine with redcurrant and chocolate bouquets.
The next winery is at least 18 kilometres away, so I bid farewell to my newfound friends and hop back on my bike to head to the next vineyard. The sun shines down on my skin and I feel as light as a soaring Andean condor. Using caution as I ride, I’m not sure the narrow road can still be blamed for my deviations. The ride takes me past the very vineyards where Carménère was rediscovered and I eventually arrive at my next destination.
William Fèvre winery began when William Fèvre – best known for his Premier Cru Chablis produced in Burgundy, France partnered with Victor Pino Torche from Chile. Victor’s family owned a farm in San Juan de Pirque and William had come in search for mountain territory to produce Chardonnay. The winery followed a Burgundian-style operation of slowly crafting wines in small scales. This patience allowed roots to grow deep into the soils of the Maipo riverbanks, and soon the wines were being sold all over Europe. Today, Espino is enjoyed in over a dozen countries worldwide.
I am on a Carménère kick and so I order a glass of Espino Carménère 2010. My nose is filled with a spicy aroma, and my mouth with smoky, peppery candied goodness.
This is the final winery on the bike tour and my bike is picked up to be transported back to Santiago. My wobbly legs and tender backside are not sad to see it go. There’s a car heading to Viña Santa Rita, and I don’t want to miss out.
Viña Santa Rita is the second largest winery in Chile and has a unique story of its own. Its ‘120’ range is so-named in honour of the 120 men who fought to achieve independence from Spain in 1814. After losing a battle in Rancagua, the men were hidden in the basement of the Santa Rita house until they recovered before continuing with their mission.
Santa Rita enjoyed a great year in 2011 and 120 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best selling Chilean wines. It was named ‘Best Buy’ in 2010 by US-based Wine Enthusiast magazine. Tasting the Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon sent me into a wonderful world where the taste of berries, coffee and vanilla collided.
It is lunchtime so we try the winery’s Doña Paula restaurant. The ‘arduous’ journey has afforded me the excuse to indulge, so I pick and choose from the entradas calientes and settle on the Centolla al Whisky – king crab with whisky, and for my main I have the Fricassee de Criadillas – Rocky Mountain oysters, finishing off with a Torta de Frambuesa – raspberry cake. Chilean seafood is known as the world’s best and with its long coastline and cold Humboldt Current, the variety and quality of fish and seafood offered are hard to beat.
We all want to visit a couple more vineyards, but have trouble deciding which one to try next. We decide to visit the ones that offer something unique and make our way to the Odfjell Winery.
What makes this winery special, apart from its wines, are the Norwegian fjord horses. Dan Odfjell, founder of Odfjell wines, brought the breed to Chile out of interest. They are now used as therapy for children with disabilities. Known as Equine Psychotherapy or Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), the theory is that horses respond to clear and simple commands, and will cooperate with someone who takes charge and leads them calmly. Given the right direction,
a child’s self-esteem increases as they lead a horse through obstacles and groom it. Their abilities to concentrate, communicate and stay in control improve. They say horses react as a mirror to their handlers – I wonder why I always get the cheeky ones…
Odfjell wines’ 2008 Aliara blend is a full-bodied, spicy wine that earned 92 points in Robert Parker of Wine Advocate magazine’s rating system. A score between 90 and 95 is classified as an ‘outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character’.
The winery uses a unique gravity flow technique designed by Laurence Odfjell, the founder’s son. According to this design, grapes fall naturally into the fermentation tanks and the wine moves easily into the barrels. This avoids the need for pumps that could bruise the grapes in the process. More than 60 percent of this winery is underground, in rooms providing storage at low and stable temperatures with their 30-centimetre-thick walls.
We have time to visit one more winery so we decide on De Martino for its proximity and accomplishments. It is the first certified carbon-neutral vineyard in South America and produces carbon credits through its agricultural wastewater treatment plant, which traps carbon gases. It started as a family winery in 1934 and is now the second largest producer of organic wine in Chile. We try the 2008 Old Bush Vines Single Vineyard La Aguada and the Syrah Single Vineyard Altos Los Toros that were also both awarded 92 points by Robert Parker for ‘outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character’.
It is time to call it a day so we begin our journey back to Santiago. My senses filled to the brim, muscles sore, I drift into a deep sleep and wake in the bustling city of Santiago, ready to experience the next leg of my journey.
Source: Winestyle Magazine