Sunday, 10 March 2013

A wine map? No – this is Chile!

Ah, no, this is Chile.

We heard this a lot, almost as much as ‘you’re brave.’  And it always came with a friendly laugh.  That’s what’s Chile’s like – people are willing to help and easy to laugh.  Like when we tried to find a windscreen wiper for our hire car.

It was the driver’s side that was missing.  ‘Don’t worry, it won’t rain,’ I said.  ‘This is a dry time of year.’  Hmm.

Well, it didn’t rain exactly.  But we had a heavy dew and the clouds were down when we woke up on our first morning.  When we tried to clear the windscreen, we created rivulets that weren’t touched by the wiper - because it wasn’t there.  As we drove, with Eddie peering out like on a foggy UK morning, the mist condensed on the windscreen – I could see, but Eddie couldn’t.

I’d had an urgent message, emailed and hand delivered (no internet access in the hotel) from my editor saying that my proofs were waiting in my inbox and could I do them immediately.  So, we had to find a windscreen wiper and an internet café.

So the word for windscreen wiper (which I’ve forgotten) was about the first Spanish word I used.  ‘Ah yes!’ came the reply.  And we were given a bottle of windscreen wash.  Luckily windscreen wipers are easy to mime – especially when you add the noise.  Like I said, Chileans laugh easily.

We tried three auto repair shops before we found one that came up with the goods.  They were all within about 100 m of each other, which made me wonder how they could compete.  Then I looked at the age of the average Chilean car . . .

They couldn’t have been more helpful.  Using sign language and Eddie’s loud but slow English, plus my phrasebook Spanish (by the way, they speak a different Spanish here), we had two lovely new windscreen wipers fitted.  For a cost of £4.  And we’d spotted an internet café on the way.

All we had to do was point at our laptop and say ‘WIFI?’  We were connected and left to get on with it.  It took about an hour to do what was needed and it cost 90p.  I was beginning to like Chile.

We managed the rest of the day without a call for help – although we did have a very interesting drive towards Valparaiso docks along with a lot of fast moving lorries who meant to be on that road.  So I navigated a right turn and we came into Valparaiso the interesting way.  We found a restaurant by the square and had a meal of fish and seafood salad – one of those surprises you get when you gesticulate for the recommendations from the menu and see what arrives.  Oh, and we got two large beers as well – we know how to ask for beer in Spanish.

The next time we had to use our broken Spanish was in a fine wine shop in Vina del Mar.  And we had a very helpful shop assistant who pointed us in the direction of Casablanca reds.  We picked out a bottle of Casas del Bosque reserve pinot noir, as that was the place recommended by our knight in shining armour who’d shown us the way when we were lost yesterday.

Wine tasting is different in Chile.  I’ve heard it described as like South Africa 20 years ago, before wine tasting went commercial.  But I’d go further than that.  South Africa already had a tourist industry then – Chile doesn’t.  There is a tiny amount of ‘wine tourism’ here in the shape of guided tours, but we’ve managed to avoid those so far and do our own thing – as you’ll know from the hundreds of blog posts you’ve been reading, we like to pop into wineries we fancy popping into.

The first we tried was deserted, tasting room and all – obviously not expecting a tour that day.  But the second was the recommended Casas del Bosque, which is very much set up for visitors.

We were handed over to the English speaking cellar door manager (how do they know we’re English when I speak Spanish?) and invited into the tasting room.  It was quite different to what we’re used to.

The tasting room in Casas del Bosque - geared up for tours
Tasting was expensive – just over £10 per person, to try four wines.  To be fair, they do fill your glass (before telling you there is zero tolerance of drink driving – you are not allowed any alcohol at all).  But we weren’t there to drain our glasses, but to taste.   There is no waiving of the fee if you buy a bottle either – even if you have lunch there as well (which we did, oysters and all – and it was lovely)

William Cole was more traditional, with a counter and person behind it to talk about the wines (in excellent English).

Over-the-counter tasting at William Cole
Then we tried Vina Mar.  An imposing building, lots of steps, grand entrance.  We were invited to seat on plush chairs overlooking the vineyard, given our four wines (plus two complementary glasses of sparkling wine, a rose and a white – we didn’t like either) and just left to get on with it.  Afterwards we had to find someone to pay.

tasting at Vina Mar - with the splendid background view
This was the Casablanca region, where wine tasting hasn’t quite taken off, which is a shame as they make some lovely sauvignon blancs - because this area is near the coast, cool winds blow in straight from Antarctica, making this the only area in Chile that can grow it.

In Calchagua, wine tasting is far more on the ball.  Santa Cruz, the centre of the area, is a thriving town with a wine festival (which we managed to miss by a day), a wine shop and hotel that will set you up with a tour (but we did our own thing).  They even sold winemaps for a couple of dollars, very pretty with pictures of vineyards, but not very easy to navigate by. 

Estampa Vineyard was our first stop, where we met a cellar manager who used to be a tour guide, spoke perfect English, loved his wines and very helpfully recommended us some other vineyards (as well as some great advice about our impending trip over the Andes - more of that later).

Estampa Vineyard - over the counter tasting - plus lots of advice and recommendations
He sent us to Montgras, a lovely vineyard close by, where the cellar manager sat us down in a beautiful courtyard and spoke at length about each wine – he was obviously passionate about his wines and we could see why.  They were all excellent, from the Sauvignon blanc (using grapes from their vineyard south of San Antonio on the cooler West coast), the cabernet sauvignon and the blend.

Personal attention in Montgras
We went to Santa Cruz winery, where tastings came with tours, so we ended up having a coffee on the terrace, admiring the spectacular view. 

The view from the impressive verandah at Santa Cruz winery
Our final stop was Lapostolle, which is owned by the granddaughter of the grand marnier family.  Production is entirely organic.  But tastings were only available with tours, so we bought a bottle of sauvignon blanc without tasting it – and tried it in the hot tub at Calchagua Camp.  But that’s another story  . . .

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