One of the things I’ve come to appreciate this year, as far as wine is concerned, is the difference in each country’s wine regions, especially Maipo Valley. But, Carin, can you really tell the difference in region simply tasting the wine? I mean how many wine regions does one actually visit in the year. Five. I’ve been to five of the world’s most notable wine regions – and that has been this year alone. Call me crazy or call me a lush, but I call it experience, learning and accomplishment, thank you very much.
It’s fascinating to sample wines in the regions themselves versus a bottle at home. It’s much different experience, and there’s something special about hearing the story of the vineyard and its wine production from the winemaker first hand. More so, it’s a lovely thing to be able to ask questions and have a discussion about all that you experience during your tasting. As of recent, I’ve been focused on tasting the differences in altitude and lesser known grape varietals, especially in blends. What can I say? I’m a student of wine.
Having had a rockstar month sampling in local tasting rooms in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires to spending three days deepening my knowledge of Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda, among other types of wine, in Mendoza, I already knew I’d be in for a treat in Chile, too. I asked Argentinian locals how Chilean wines compare to theirs, to which they said they are excellent – in a different way. So, in an effort to explore exactly what that meant, I grabbed some girlfriends and, together, we delved into the vines of Chile’s Maipo Valley. It was an immaculate day.
Chile, like any other wine region, produces a number of different types of wine. However, within the region, there are always a few varietals that become the standout, flagship offerings. For Chile, those are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and, my new favorite, Carménère. Also produced across the country is Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and many Bourdeaux style blends. Maipo Valley is Chile’s most historic wine growing region, which is the main reason I chose Maipo (versus other nearby regions) for my visit. It doesn’t hurt that it is conveniently located 30-40 minutes southeast of Santiago, perfect for day tripping!
Getting to Maipo & How Long to Stay
Seeing as though Maipo Valley is so close to Santiago, most people plan it as a day trip. However, you can easily build in wine tasting as part of a larger trip since there is so much to do including hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. There are many modes of transportation including public buses, car rental (just going to say it, probably a poor idea) and taxi or Uber.
We chose the Uber route, which worked out quite nicely. The drive for each interval of our day was quite short (about 30 minutes) and ranged between $18-$25 for each segment. (Pro tip: splitting between friends makes it a steal of a deal.) Plan ahead for your appointments and be sure to build in time for an Uber to get to you at the vineyards once you’re out there. (We had one wait time that was close to 15 minutes, maybe a little more, for our pick up.) The wineries are also very good about calling you a local taxi if needed! Either way, I can think of worse places to wait or be stranded for a short bit of time.
Located roughly 60 miles north of Santiago and one of Chile’s top five wine regions, Aconcagua Valley is one of the primary winegrowing regions of Chile with high profile varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Syrah. This valley is comprised of other wine regions, including Casablanca, that have become equally, if not more, popular.
A subregion of Aconcagua Valley, Casablanca Valley is both young and up and coming in wine production, and nearby one of the most colorful towns in the country, Valparaiso. (It’s easy to plan a three day trip between Casablanca Valley and Valparaiso with enough to do to keep you entertained. Highly recommended.) This valley is most known for its Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc production but it also produces a wonderful Pinot Noir, mostly due to the mild climate. Also, according to The Expeditioner, “Chile’s unique geography and location is the reason it is one of the only places left in the world that can grow the elusive Carménère varietal.”
As I mentioned earlier, Maipo is the most historic, therefore widely visited, and also the most convenient. Much of this article details my day-long experience tasting in the Maipo vineyards. More below.
Most of the wine I drank in Chile unknowingly came from Colchagua Valley, approximately 80 miles south of Santiago, still a reasonable day trip in and of itself. According to wine-searcher, “Most of the region’s modern winemaking facilities have been constructed with wine tourism in mind, and as a result, Colchagua Valley is enjoying a growing reputation as Chile’s Napa Valley.” For sure come for the Carménère, but enjoy other well-produced varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Wine Tasting Protocol in Chile
Much of the same tasting protocol applied in Chile as it did in Mendoza. Tasting in Chile appeared to be a bit more relaxed and not as rushed. Perhaps that’s because Mendoza is flooded with tourists. Either way, I found my tasting experience in Chile’s wine valleys to be a bit more approachable, not to mention I learned a TON.
- Make appointments in advance and arrive on time. (Pro tip: Start your correspondence WAY earlier than when you plan to visit. Ideally, a week or two prior. Why? Response time is much slower than what we are used to in the US (hours and minutes) and it may take wineries up to 48 hours to respond to you – and then there are questions, scheduling and back and forth on all the logistics.
- Expect a full tour of the vineyard and its production methods before tasting. Tours here tend to run about an hour in length.
- I found there to be many tasting options to choose from. You can choose a standard, premium or combination tasting, depending on which varietals you’re looking to explore. Different tastings come at different price points, and I was able to pay by credit card as an alternative to local currency.
- Pack snacks in your day bag. While some of the wineries offer small snacks and cheese plates, others I researched didn’t offer food menus or lunches. It could be touch and go. Just beware as you’re planning.
- There are many well-known, commercial wineries in these regions. Expect your sales-driven tour and more mass produced wines. While you can plan your tastings based on what is nearby, you might enjoy a better experience if you plan for the wines you enjoy or a winery’s portfolio you’d like to taste. If mass tasting is your thing, have at it. By no means let me hold you back.
Driver, Tour or Public Transportation?
While you do have the option to take public transportation to get out to Maipo Valley, I had a hard time figuring it out, and there were a lot of transfers involved. So, I let that option go for fear that I’d be left stranded on some unpaved gravel road in the middle of Vineyardville, not to mention Spanglish only gets you so far. There are many tours that cover each of these regions but what I found was that they either a) don’t confirm which vineyards you’ll be visiting until day of or b) take you to the most popular and commercialized vineyards, not the specialized and/or smaller production ones I wanted to visit.
Your best and quickest bet? Car. Try Uber or hire a private driver for the day, though the rates I found for a private driver were almost double than what we paid for a total day of Uber. You can also take local taxi’s, which are only slightly more expensive than Uber, still less than a private driver.
My Day in Maipo
The initial plan for the day was three wineries, though once we were on our way and enjoying the scenery, tastings, and conversation with the vineyard winemakers and sommeliers, time got away from us and we found that two plus drive time ended up being plenty, especially since pours were quite generous.
Here’s what my day in Maipo, one of the top three wine destinations in the world, looked like for me and my friends.
I put Undurraga on the day’s itinerary for two key reasons:
- Their portfolio of sparkling wines (though we didn’t taste any, they were still offered for purchase at a very reasonable price) and…
- The newly opened aroma experience available only to those doing a tour, and now I believe it to be open to the public for a small fee. (Spoiler alert: it was the coolest thing. It still gets brought up in conversation when we talk about the tasting day in Maipo.)
We arrived early for our 10:15 am tour and tasting and were able to walk around the store which included wonderful wines and other items for purchase. (In hindsight, my only regret was not purchasing more before leaving for our next stop, as I was unable to find some of these wines at the shops around Santiago.) We were greeted by our tour guide and whisked off to a beautiful outdoor tour and discussion about the grapes of the Maipo region. Some tours can be quite bland and leave you thinking, “Can we cut to the tasting already?!” Not this one – it was both informative and fascinating and held my attention the entire time.
My favorite part of the tasting was the newly opened aroma room, a first for Chile! Undurraga describes it as a unique experience with a room exhibiting 40 aromatic stations containing wine descriptions to match the scents. I’ve never seen anything like this, and it really allows you to tie your learning to a sensory experience.
Following the aroma room, we sampled four of the vineyard’s wines, with my favorite being Undurraga’s Sibaris Carménère:
I easily could have spent more time here, but we had a 12:30 pm appointment and were already cutting it close. Time to move on to stop number two, Vina Chocalán, and it was about a 30-minute drive.
Upon pulling up to Vina Chocalán, my jaw dropped. The scenery was beautiful, remote and peaceful, all things perfect for a relaxing wine tasting. The vineyard is surrounded by mountains and acres of vines, but it’s Chocalán’s tasting room that overlooks all of this greatness that made our tasting feel even more pristine.I chose Chocalán due to the breadth of their portfolio. Chocalán’s offering provided more options for white wines than many of the other wineries. Once we arrived, we were a bit hungry from our earlier sampling and ordered a cheese plate to tie us over. The cheese plate was large, not to mention delicious.
We were then escorted upstairs to the tasting room where we were presented with four different tastes, and one I asked to taste special, a primary reason for my visit: the Origen Gran Reserva Chardonnay.
- Reserva Chardonnay
- Vitrum Blend
- Origen Cabernet Sauvignon
(In case you were curious, I enjoyed the Vitrum Blend, a six varietal blend and the Origen Gran Reserva Chardonnay the best.)
And with that, our day was over, but it was a great day! With more time, I would have explored more of Chile’s wine country (perhaps an excuse to go back?!) as well as more of Maipo Valley. If there are two wineries to visit in 2018 while you’re in Santiago, make these your stops. Before I leave you, I will share with you my research and recommendations for other wineries I was considering, all wonderful in their own way.
Other Notable Maipo Valley Wineries
- Odfjell Winery – They offer a wide variety of tours and tastings, from horseback ride tours to picnics at the vineyards and lunch for larger group outings.
- Vina El Principal – Exquisite New World red wines
I hope you enjoy your day in Maipo as much as I did. Now, I just have to figure out how to get all my favorite bottles back to Minneapolis with me!
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