Santiago & Central Valleys
Although some travelers arrive by land from neighboring Peru, Bolivia or Argentina, most trips to Chile start with an international arrival flight into the capital city, Santiago (airport code SCL). If you’re visiting more for landscapes and countryside than city, consider heading straight into the outer central valley region itself. This is where you will find the country’s best vineyards and wine lodges. It can also be directly accessed from the airport or Chile’s top cruise port at San Antonio – without having to brave big city traffic. Although nearby Valparaiso is still definitely worth a visit, and should be part of your itinerary (it fits-in well with the wine tours), cruise traffic has been shifting more to the newer port facilities at San Antonio.
Weather & Climate – When to Go
Chile’s central valley is often described as having a Mediterranean climate, i.e., relatively mild. And for the most part, this is true. It doesn’t typically get to freezing … nor boiling hot. During the austral (southern hemisphere) winter months of June and July, in Santiago, temperatures average 50F (10C), whereas in those summer months (Dec.-Feb.), they average a comfortable and pleasant 71F (22C).
That said, especially in Santiago, maximum summer temperatures can reach in the high 90s F (30s C). Combined with poor air circulation and pollution, this can make the capital city unpleasant that time of year. Valparaiso, with its proximity to the ocean, keeps cooler during these months – all-the-more reason to concentrate your time closer to the coast during the austral summer.
There is also very little to no rain and lots of sunshine in the central valley from October to March, with most of the annual precipitation coming during their winter months. If you wanted to visit Chile that time of year (austral winter), you might consider the more northern regions and amazing attractions surrounding the Atacama Desert – considered the driest place on the planet. But if wine tours are on the agenda, then their summer is ideal – and all the more pleasant if it co-incides with an escape from the North American winter!
Casablanca, Maipo, Colchagua
No, these are not movie titles! Nor are they types of wines or grapes! Casablanca, Maipo and Colchagua are valleys and the names given to three of the country’s most important wine producing regions – all located in the greater central Chile area.
Colchagua is the furthest away from the capital – over two hours south driving – and is known for its fuller bodied hearty red wines. As with the Maipo Valley, there is more sun and higher temperatures than along coast, therefore the grape varietals must be more robust. Here you can visit fantastic wineries such as Montes, Montgras, Lapostolle and Laura Hartwig, producing Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabs), along with Syrahs, Malbecs and the unique and fantastic, Carmenere.
In all these regions you will also find wines produced from the lesser-known Carmenere grape. After having been wiped out in France by Europe’s 19th century vine blight, it was resurrected in Chile, when people originally mistook it for Merlot. This region is the near exclusive producer of this fantastically delicious red gem, although some minor production exists in Argentina, Italy and the US.
Less than an hour from the capital, wineries in the world-famous Maipo Valley are the most often visited. And for good reason – here you can tour world-famous Concha y Toro (wines found at a supermarket near you), along with lesser-known Errazuriz, Aquitana and Santa Rita. These are all of fantastic quality as well and like others in the region, boast production of mostly full bodied red wines – especially Cabernet Sauvignon. They are perhaps a bit lighter than those in Colchagua, with slightly cooler nights in this valley.
Casa Real – Santa Rita Winery
In the Maipo region, you can even stay overnight right next to the Santa Rita winery itself, at Hotel Casa Real – a fabulous colonial property, with spacious rooms and ample grounds to enjoy and explore. They’ll even do a barbeque for you! Don’t forget to check-out the Andean Museum, right there next to the winery – a pleasant cultural surprise.
The Casablanca Valley is closer to the Pacific coast, giving it a cooler climate, more suited to the production of lighter reds and white wines – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is home to such quality wineries as Matetic, Casas del Bosque, Villard and Kingston. These are smaller, more boutique producers, whose wines you are less likely to find abroad. Or they’ll simply cost a lot more! Due to its coastal proximity, wine tours here fit well with a visit to Valparaiso, including convenient relatively short transfers to and from the ports (air and cruise).
What is so special about Chilean Wines?
Geography, of course! As with all places, the tasty results of wine production or viticulture, is influenced not only by the more obvious climactic factors, but also geological ones – the soil and rocks where the grapes grow. Naturally this will differ from place to place, therefore each region in the world contributes its own special qualities. Chile’s wine producing valleys are much closer to the Equator than their counterparts in Europe, so they benefit from receiving more sun and light. They are able to exist as such, survive this relatively higher solar exposure, due to their proximity to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean’s nearby wind and currents. This, combined with a variety of granite and relatively porous clay and sandy soils, contributes to the unique taste and character of its wines.
One of the best vineyards and wine lodges in the Casablanca Valley belongs to the Matetic family, one of the richest in Chile, of Croatian origins. The quality of their guides, tour, food and tastings is world-class. And you can even stay in their lodge, with two fabulous restaurants, and sun-bathing Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes as your neighbors!
Are wine tours in Chile different than in Europe and the US?
Not really! They might not have the same level of English or sophistication, but the basics are the same. An advantage here: you’re likely to have smaller groups on the tour. A local expert – usually a guide from the winery itself – will walk you through the grounds and production area, before settling-in for a “flight” – tasting of 3-4 different wines. To spit or not to spit – it depends on you! Fortunately some wineries serve snacks or nibbles along-side, such as crackers, cheese and olives. This brings out even more flavors and can lessen the effects of the alcohol.
Casas del Bosque
Not to be outdone in the Casablanca Valley, Casas del Bosque has amazing grounds to explore and the tours do just that, before bringing to you a well-prepared room for the pre-organized tasting. This is a popular stop on the tourist trail, especially with an amazing lunch included!
Apologies to the other many fantastic wine regions, wineries and vineyards not mentioned. There simply was not enough time or space to cover them all. Hopefully they find space in other, more expansive coverage, from a writer with more personal and intimate experience of them.