Here we have arranged to meet Grant Phelps, a NZ winemaker who has been in Chile for 14 years and is Chief Winemaker at Vina Casa del Bosque. It´s a great visit and Grant shows us all over the property and fills us in on Chilean viticulture, vineyard management, grape varietals and winemaking. This is one of the few places in Chile where the climate is suitable for Sauvignon Blanc, but Grant is at pains to point out he makes a Sauvignon that is not in the New Zealand style.
|Viña Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley|
From Casablanca we drive three hours south to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, a much bigger winegrowing area than Casablanca. It is here our visits become more typical and more formal. There's no rocking up when the mood or road takes you. You make an appointment. On arrival at the vineyard you stop at the imposing gates (closed). A self important man in a uniform struggles to understand your version of Spanglish (unless you have arrived with a guide), eventually checks your name against his list and grants entry. For this area we hire a driver and guide who arrange the appointments and smooth the way.
At each winery everything is already set up for your visit: shiny glassware at the ready, and a well schooled young man or woman to take you through a guided tasting. In all cases we are given personalised service - labour is cheaper here than in New Zeland! All of the hosts we meet speak excellent English, specialise in wine tourism, and are incredibly knowledgable about their winery´s vineyard and winemaking practises. Post tasting they relieve you of anything between $10 and $40 per person (that's not a misprint) and send you on your (slightly more) merry way. Well, we do use spitoons but some wine is bound to find its way down your throat!
The expensive tasting is at the most spectacular and interesting winery, Lapostelle, in the Colchagua Valley about two and a half hours south east of Santiago. The owners are the French family Marnier Lapostelle, as in Grand Marnier, and while the total production is massive, their top tier label, Clos Apalta, is totally (and you might think excessively) biodynamic. This is seriously over the top. The individual grapes are hand picked off each bunch by 60 virgins. Well maybe not virgins, but 60 local women. After this, every process is designed to minimise air contact and handling. There are no pumps - everything is moved by gravity and the winery, dug down into the hillside, is designed on seven levels to facilitate the process.
|The internal staircase at Lapostelle in the Colchagua Valley|
I find biodynamics all a bit woo-woo and I don't believe many people will pay the extra cost - the Apalta labels are well into the hundreds of dollars, but it was interesting to see how far people with strong beliefs - and the money to back them up - will go.
All of the wineries we visit seem to have money to spend both on the public buildings and on the infrastructure - equipment, tanks, barrel rooms. The number of wineries in Chile has grown from 12 in 1995 to over 70 in 2005, so it is still relatively young. Generally French varietals reign and for us the introduction to Carmenère was an eyeopener - an early drinking (early as in young, not so much early in the day, but suit yourself) lighter style red. If you see Chilean Carmenere on the shelf, give it a chance and see what you think.
Off over the Andes to Argentina now. Stay tuned.