Before heading out to Santa Cruz the next morning, Tim, Melissa and I hovered upon one of the culinary treasures of the Valparaiso region north of Santiago. Sitting high above the coastal road, Delicias del Mar Reñaca is one of two restaurants serving Basque-style seafood. We chose to dine at the Reñaca restaurant which offers on the second floor a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and a wine cellar complete with a mini-wine museum. Not that it’s important, but this restaurant is very proud to have served a number of top Latin celebrities and even most recently Leonardo DiCaprio.
The evening ended with a number of empty bottles on our table and the Maitre’de showering Melissa with gifts to remember her evening there. Tim chose the Congria, a sea eel that is a specialty in Chile, while I opted for the Sea Bass – though for some reason they didn’t offer the Chilean Sea Bass — go figure. Melissa took the suggestion of the chef and so the evening was a seafood and wine fest.
Our plans to get an early start the following morning were slightly hampered by our late restaurant closing evening, but by the time we showed up at the Tom Dowling, Ralph, who know has earned an incredibly well-apt nickname, Curly, and Melissa were packed and ready for the adventure south to perhaps Chile’s top wine region, the Colchagua Valley sits about 150km south of Santiago, following the course of the Tinguiririca River down from the mighty Andes. From the foothills east of the Pan-American Highway, the valley runs westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. The river provides a ready source of irrigation water, essential in this dry area. The regular, warm climate combined with extremely fertile soil, the valley floor, the valley was long considered as an ideal location for massive production of bulk wines. But fortunately the past decade has seen Chile’s wine industry “grow up” with a stronger emphasis on quality rather than quantity.
From a wine growing perspective what makes Chile interesting and perhaps controversial is that the Pacific Ocean is rarely more than 80km away from any of the top wine appellations. This allows the coastal winds to funnel up the valleys cooling the vineyards, especially at night. providing dramatic daily temperature differences, — read: cold summer nights essential to help grapes maintain acidity and to improve color and flavor red varietals. Recent plantings by several wineries including Montes and Canepa has extended the valley ever closer to the ocean where temperature differences are even more extreme.
What’s this all mean? Quite simply, a perfect reason to go see how Chile is progressing in the quality of wines. To be sure, I’ve always been a bit jaded by the Chilean wines. In many years of tasting wines from Chile I almost always found them to be a tad green. While the microclimates allow for intense daytime temperatures the confluence of the cold evenings with varying levels of humidity seemed to me to hinder the fully ripening of the grapes. Hence, the wines would tend to have a vegetal, green bell pepper/olive characteristic in the nose — a characteristic I find unappealing.
So our clan spent 3 days exploring the Colchagua Valley. Holed up at the Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel we took advantage of the strategic location to take in tours and tastings at Casa Lapostolle, Viu Manent, Montes, Emiliana and Viña Nuevo Mundo (Las Niñas). We also sampled wines from some of the wineries tucked further away from the town center during our dinners. And without getting into a lengthy discourse on the wines, I’m happy to report that Chile surprised me. They have grown up. And select wines from all of these producers could easily find their way into my cellar or onto my dinner table. I was most impressed with the cabernet sauvignon from Casa Lapostolle, the Cuvee Alexandria Chardonnay from Casa Lopostelle, “G” from Emiliana and the Montes Syrah from Alpalta Vineyard — all of these from the 2005 vintage.
Now you may remember that we hustled the 2-3 hour drive south of Santiago to get to Santa Cruz, the tiny settlement tucked into the Colchagua Valley for the annual event extraordinaire – Vendimia – the annual harvest festival. Yes. This is the festival where the local beautieds complete for Miss Vendimia crown and the winner has her weight measured on a huge scale of grapes. Yes. Vendimia. Originally Tim and I hoped to participate in the event in Mendoza, Argentina whihc has a heritage and history the extends beyond the event here in Chile. Unfortrunately, all hotels were booked and the town was looking to be a bit crazy. So we opted for the Chilean version.
When we rolled into town we discovered we were a week early. The Vendimia event was due to take place NEXT weekend. Not to worry. We created our own event and the following photographs will attest to our taking the twon and the local flavors by storm. Hope you don’t mind the endless barrage of having fun with cameras while drinking tasty vino. But it certainly keeps the creative as well as the wine juices flowing.
At the end of the first night Curly (Captain Ralph) turned to Tim and me and asked, “Now I feel real bad for pouring you that wine from the box the other day.” But Ralph was a converter. Sadly, on the Tom Dowling there’s not really enough room to include bottles of wine in the ship’s stores, but I’m sure there’s at least room for a bottle to celebrate the ship’s launch.
The modern architecture of Viña Casa Lapostolle is shaped like a wine barrel.
Outside Lapostolle Captain Ralph begins to think about his 9 month journey across oceans. He’s miles from his boat now, but the water still draws him in.
Fun with cameras, Tim Amos takes a daredevil shot while traversing the hillside vineyards high above Colchagua Valley at Viña Montes.