Thursday, November 12, 2015

Steph and Gio’s Definitive* Guide to Wine Tasting in Chile

First, we gave you a definitive guide to wine tasting in South Africa.  Up next: our equally definitive* guide to wine tasting in Chile, or at least the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys.

*By definitive, we mean our guide to vineyards we visited and wines that we happen to like, from the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys.  We have yet to explore several of Chile’s other key wine producing regions, such as the Casablanca and Aconcagua valleys.

Giorgio’s unexpected business trip to Santiago in October provided us with the perfect opportunity to explore some of the country’s wine regions.  (Once we arrived in Chile, we also realized it would have been a perfect opportunity for some spring skiing.)  Armed with a Wine Spectator guide to Chilean wines and a rental car, we set off to explore the Maipo and Colchagua valleys. 

Santa Rita:  Santa Rita is located in the Maipo Valley, essentially a suburb of Santiago.  You can even get there via subway!  However, Santa Rita was just a stop on our way farther south to the Colchagua Valley, so we navigated the capital city’s highway system in our rental car, arriving at the vineyard just 30 – 45 minutes outside of the financial district.

If you go to Santa Rita, whatever you do, don’t book the premium tour… book the ultra premium tour!  They will open hundreds of dollars of excellent wine for you.  (Also, if a large party shows up on the terrace where you are finishing all of that wine, do what we did and pretend you’re on the guest list -- you’ll get free empanadas and choripanes to accompany the wine.)

We also enjoyed a private horse drawn carriage ride through the vineyards to see the site of the rediscovery of carmenere (Chile’s flagship varietal) and the “humilde casa” of the vineyard’s original owner.  (In case it isn’t clear, the house is anything but humble and is now a beautiful boutique hotel set amidst meticulously landscaped grounds.)

Santa Rita is actually a conglomerate of producers, including a few from over the Andes in Mendoza, and they produce a wide range of wines for all tastes and budgets.  The high-end cabernets that we tasted would definitely be worth saving for several years and the flagship carmenere was exceptional.

Neyen We booked a tour and vertical tasting at Neyen, a boutique vineyard at the very end of the road in the Apalta portion of the Colchagua Valley.  When we arrived on Saturday morning, it appeared to be deserted.  However, after poking our nose into various buildings, we came across our guide for the morning, who gave us a private tour of the beautiful vineyards followed by a highly informative tasting.  Our tasting of three different vintages of the vineyard's Espíritu de Apalta (a blend of cabernet and carmenere, as well as essentially the only wine produced at Neyen) convinced us to buy a bottle.

Viu Manent:  According to our ever-handy Wine Spectator, Viu Manent produces various highly-rated wines.  However, it turns out that they don’t let you taste any of them, not even for an extra fee.  Overall, the tasting felt extremely corporate, and the wines on offer were anything by great.  We did enjoy our outdoor lunch with a view of the vineyard’s own equestrian ring, though.

Montes:  We were very excited for our tour of Montes, which produces a wide range of wines.  We used to buy their table wine at our local liquor store in the Lower East Side for just $10 and we had celebrated the first anniversary of Giorgio’s 30th birthday with their flagship wine, the Montes M, all the way in Thailand.  

However, they had seemingly lost our reservation for the “icon” tour and tasting, leaving us to try their lower-end wines with a large group of visitors from Peru and Brazil.  The wine was good, but it was all wine we had had before and were hoping to taste their more obscure or higher end bottles.  Our guide eventually set up a private tasting of two of the vineyard’s “icon” wines (the Montes M and Montes Folly, both highly recommended), but did not seem happy about staying late just for us.

Clos Apalta Our Sunday afternoon tour at Clos Apalta, part of the French-owned Casa Lapostolle, was perhaps the most professionally run of all of our vineyard visits in Chile.  We toured the winery where their highest end wine – Clos Apalta – is made.  Overall, the visit was very pleasant, the views gorgeous, the tour very informative, and the details about how meticulous they are crafting their flagship wine plentiful.

After a tasting conducted in the dimly lit barrel room (and with an envy-inspiring view of the owners’ private wine cellar), we were treated to a multi-course lunch at the vineyard’s restaurant, complete with a view of the verdant vineyards and snow-capped peaks of the Andes in the distance. (If you want to have lunch at Clos Apalta, make sure to book well in advance – everyone else on our tour had tried to book lunch and had been unsuccessful in securing one of the restaurant's four tables.  It seems that no one else plans as far in advance as Stephanie.)

Concha y Toro Concha y Toro is Chile’s largest vineyard and a publicly traded company listed both on the Bolsa de Comercio de Santiago and the New York Stock Exchange.  We were worried we would miss the bodega’s turn off since we were coming from the opposite direction, but we shouldn’t have been concerned.  We just needed to follow the stream of tour buses full of Brazilian, Japanese, and Peruvian tourists.

Thankfully, we did not join the hordes since we had opted out of one of the standard tours -- we had plenty of Concha y Toro in our wine fridge back in Lima.  Instead, we pulled up a chair at one of the wine bar’s outdoor tables to order a vertical tasting of the vineyard’s flagship wine, Don Melchor, as well as their joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Almaviva.  As expected, both of these wines were excellent, but if you have the chance to try them without going to Concha y Toro headquarters, you're probably not missing out.

If you're interested in planning you're own visit to Chilean wine country, below are a few suggestions.

Where to Buy Wine: Anywhere other than Chile!  So much Chilean wine is exported (upwards of 95%), that it’s quite scarce in its country of origin.  Wine turns out to be more expensive in Chile than elsewhere after it is exported!

Where to Stay (Colchagua):  If you can afford it, we recommend the Lapostolle Residence However, if it’s out of your budget (like it was outside of ours), the Noi Blend where we stayed was pretty nice.  We aren’t sure if they speak much English, but they do have a hot tub in an old wine barrel.

Where to Eat:  We really have no idea – the food in Chile is just not very good. 




Santiago: A Modern Metropolis at the Foot of the Andes

When John Deere scheduled a week of trainings in Santiago right before a long weekend, Stephanie decided it was the perfect time for her to book tickets to Chile as well.  We ended up spending most of our trip touring Chile’s wine country, but had just enough time for a full day of explorations in the capital city.

If you only have one day to explore Santiago, we would certainly recommend our itinerary of sightseeing and wandering along the city streets.  We were also excited to check out the city’s well-organized metro system, which was at least as nice as Boston’s T (not that it would take much) and definitely nicer than the graffiti-filled subte in Argentina.

From our hotel in Bellavista, we took the metro to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos.  The museum is exactly what it sounds like – a memorial to the victims of Chile’s brutal dictatorship and a detailed history of the events leading up to, during, and following Augusto Pinochet’s decades-long rule.  We were particularly captivated by the multimedia exhibit detailing the events of September 11 (1973, not 2001) – the date of the military coup in Chile when Pinochet assumed power.  Although not directly addressed in any of the exhibits, we found ourselves pondering, as we had in Phnom Penh and Phonsavan, the role the U.S. has played in the domestic politics of foreign nations.

From the museum, we set off in a more somber mood in the general direction of Santiago’s Plaza de Armas.  While not as pretty as Lima’s own colonial central square, we enjoyed our stroll through the city’s diverse neighborhoods and parks.

Back in Bellavista, the next stop on our itinerary was a visit to one of Pablo Neruda’s homes, now a museum.  (We also wanted to take the funicular to the top of the Cerro San Cristobal, but were informed it was out of service.  We’ll have to save that for our next visit!)

Although Giorgio was absolutely convinced that he had previously been to the poet’s Santiago home, upon arrival, he determined that he had never before set foot on the premises.  During the course of the tour, he decided that all of Neruda’s homes look the same and that he had instead visited the writer’s seaside house in Valparaiso.  Regardless, our self-guided tour gave us insight into Neruda’s life and style; it turns out that Neruda had quite the unique sense of mid-century design.  (Unfortunately, photos of the premises were not allowed, so you’ll have to make your own trip to see what we mean.)

Of course, no explorations of a foreign country would be complete without trying the local cuisine.  When we first started reading about Santiago, we were perplexed that so many articles recommended meals at Peruvian restaurants.  Did we really need to fly all the way to Santiago to eat at Astrid & Gaston or Osaka?  It turns out those reviewers must have known something that we didn’t – Chilean food is not great.  We’re starting to think that we should have just followed the recommendations for Peruvian restaurants, which were bound to have served better food than most of the fare we encountered.

However, we were quite entertained by our theatrical meal at Boragó, allegedly the best restaurant in Chile (at least according to the San Pellegrino list).  We aren’t precisely sure what many of the items we ate were, but they were presented with flair and enthusiasm by the restaurant’s many sous chefs.  Plus, we got to drink wine out of a horn.

During our strolls through the capital, we also noticed several bars advertising Chile’s “signature” alcohol – pisco – and a “signature” drink – pisco sours.  However, as previously discussedChilean “pisco” is most certainly NOT pisco.  Giorgio banned any taste tests of the Chilean imposters and we contented ourselves with the local wines, which we concede are definitely better than their Peruvian counterparts.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ica, Paracas, Nazca, and San Clemente: Pisco, Ocean Views, Ancient Mysteries, and the Police Station

Here in Lima, June 29 was a national holiday in honor of San Pedro and San Pablo.  Although we aren’t quite sure why they are important enough for us to take a day off work in their honor (we suggest contacting "Father" Zaleski for details on that front).  We were, however, sure that the three day weekend was the perfect amount of time to explore a new part of the country. 

On Saturday, we headed south on the Panamerican highway, fueled by the requisite empanadas from the neighborhood Panadería San Antonio.  The closely packed buildings of Lima gradually gave way to the barren desert outside the city, with the occasional view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. 

Our first stop was the small city of Ica, located three hours south of Lima and home to the majority of the country’s pisco production.  Pisco is a type of brandy distilled from grapes and Gio would like to make sure that everyone knows that  pisco is originally from Peru and most certainly NOT from Chile (contrary to what you may have heard).  The strong beverage dates back to the 16th century in the Viceroyalty of Peru.  By the 17th century, commercial production was already underway in the town of Pisco (also in Peru).  And various sources site the oldest use of the word pisco to denote a Peruvian aguardiente.  Today, Chile's claim to pisco mostly revolves around good Chilean marketing and a Wikipedia entry where almost every sentence ends with a note reading "[citation needed]."

Following the signs for one of the region’s oldest bodegas, we exited the Panamerican and made our way down the increasingly bumpy dirt roads until we arrived at Bodega Tacama.   At Tacama, the fields were full of grapes that are harvested not only to distill pisco, but also to make wine.  After a cursory tour of the facilities and a brief marinera and paso horse performance, we had the chance to sample both the famous pisco and the not so famous wine.

Would Peruvian wine be better than the offerings in Madagascar and Myanmar?  At least the aging is done in oak and not plastic barrels.  We were not as lucky once the tasting started, however.  The samples, provided in tiny plastic cups during our cata, may not have been of the highest caliber.  That being said, it was somewhat hard to evaluate since a group of older ladies from Lima peer-pressured Steph into chugging all her pisco samples.  Even Malagasy wine probably tastes better after a shot of pisco.  (We brought home a bottle, so perhaps we can update our tasting notes whenever we drink it.)

After our stop at Bodega Tacama, we considered further explorations of la ruta del pisco, but opted instead for the short drive to the luxury of our seaside hotel in nearby Paracas.  (We have plenty of time for further pisco tastings!)  We had been to Paracas during Stephanie’s first ever trip to Peru –  August 2005.  Back then, we had taken one of the boats out to see the seals and penguins on the islas ballestas and the Candelabro de Paracas etched on the Paracas Peninsula.  A trip to the islas ballestas is a complete sensory experience - the herds of seals are raucously loud and the guano deposited by the flocks of birds is pungent.  Harvesting and selling the guano actually used to be quite  a profitable industry in Peru.  (Giorgio kindly requests that you don't judge his inferior photography skills from 2005.)

Having already seen the main sites of the beach-side town, on this trip we simply kicked back and relaxed – enjoying sundowners at the poolside bar and plenty of fresh ceviche on the hotel’s pier.

For Stephanie, the much-anticipated highlight of the trip was our flight over the enigmatic Nazca lines.  For years, Giorgio had been refusing to participate in this adventure, claiming that the plane ride was too dangerous.  Stephanie was pretty sure that he was just afraid of heights, as usual.  His parents also constantly warned us about other passengers getting sick on the plane.  But Grandma Carol and Grandpa Ed had flown over the Nazca lines on their Peruvian trip back in the '90s – how dangerous could it be?

Finally, Steph decided to simply ignore Giorgio and book a non-refundable flight to see the Nazca lines.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this archaeological mystery, the Nazca lines are ancient geoglyphs (some over 200 meters, or 660 feet, across) located in the desert of Nazca and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.  Scholars believe the lines were made by the Nazca culture between 500 BC and 500 AD; the geoglyphs range in complexity from simple lines and geometric shapes to complex images depicting monkeys, spiders, hummingbirds, and other animals.  The purpose of the lines remains a matter of speculation.

Despite Giorgio’s (and his family's) warnings about possible plane crashes and extreme motion sickness, we boarded a 12-seat Cessna at the Pisco airport on Sunday morning.  (If anyone is looking to plan their own trip, most of the flights to see the Nazca lines depart from Nazca itself – however, there are a few flights from Pisco and Ica if you’re looking to avoid an additional two-hour trip down the Panamerican.) 

Giorgio was the only Peruvian on our flight and was eagerly greeted by the pilot.  It seems that most Peruvians share Giorgio's fears about these flights (or would simply rather relax at the beach while on vacation).  The other passengers were primarily Japanese tourists.  This seems to be relatively common as the pilot impressed us all as he repeated all his warnings and descriptions of the lines in Japanese.  (It's also possible that he had just memorized the Japanese words for the Nazca lines - we aren't quite sure.)

Seeing the lines was a once in a lifetime experience, particularly since the warnings about motion sickness turned out to be somewhat correct and the dips to get close-up views of the lines are, in fact, stomach-churning.  (Lucky for us, no one on our small flight became ill.)  The constant turning also makes it somewhat difficult to get good pictures - but we think we can all agree Giorgio did an amazing job!  (From the top left: the astronaut, the spider, the whale, the monkey, and the hummingbird.)  In all seriousness, though, the Nazca lines were pretty amazing – we heartily recommend taking the flight.  

On Monday, we packed up for the short road trip back to Lima.  We joined the hordes of limeños returning to the city and quickly found ourselves sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.  As we approached kilometer 221, we narrowly avoided a collision with the car in front of us when the driver unexpectedly slammed on the brakes.  We recovered from the near-miss only to be rear-ended by a Kia (apparently the driver didn’t have Giorgio’s quick reflexes). 

When we pulled over onto the Panamerican’s dusty shoulder, Stephanie expected us to quickly exchange insurance information and be on our way to Lima.  (Other than a dented bumper, our car was none the worse for wear.)  However, that would be too efficient for Peru.  Instead, we embarked on an hours-long odyssey that included several calls to our insurance company, an aborted trip north to the police station in Chincha, a longer trip south to the police station in San Clemente, several wrong turns in the tiny but busy town of San Clemente during our futile search for said police station, lengthy meetings with various police officers, and a trip to the local clinic for a blood test to ensure that neither Giorgio or the other driver were drunk at noon.  (Someone should start a business selling breathalyzers in Peru so expensive blood tests aren’t necessary.)

When all was said and done, we had only made it 30 kilometers from Paracas, we had missed the kick-off for the Copa America semi-finals (a big deal since Peru was playing Chile), and it was dark.  Instead of proceeding on to Lima, we rebooked ourselves at the hotel in Paracas and returned for a much-needed pisco sour.  The drive back to Lima could wait until Tuesday morning.

The following morning we woke up bright and early and headed back to Lima.  This time around, there was practically no traffic and we were lucky enough to have an uneventful trip home.