Wine Region of the Year - Colchagua Valley

Chile's leading region for red wines finds its groove.


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Colchagua Valley

 

Wine Region of the Year Award

 

 

Chile has become a major player in the global wine market over the past decade, and within the country no region has distinguished itself as being more capable of producing world-class red wines than the Colchagua Valley, Wine Enthusiast's Wine Region of the Year for 2005.

Located about 90 miles south of the capital city of Santiago, Colchagua is a blessed land for red grapes. Warm and naturally dry, but with ample water provided by the Tinguiririca River, Colchagua is a narrow agricultural valley that starts at the foothills of the Andes and runs westward to the Pacific Ocean. In between, in an area spanning about 3,500 square miles, one encounters a number of different microclimates and soil types, rugged hillsides ideal for planting, and an increasing but hardly overwhelming number of wineries, most capable of making excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, as well as very good Carmenère and Malbec.

Long considered a domestic paradise by Santiago's aristocracy, the valley attracted land barons and mining magnates, who began building their getaway mansions there in the 19th century. Colchagua, which in the native language means "valley of small lagoons," developed along the lines of most of central Chile's other valleys: as a place to plant orchards, graze cattle and maybe tend a vineyard or two. The first vineyards incorporating varieties imported from France were planted in Colchagua in 1870.

The Transformation
When the wine industry in Chile began to take off about 15 years ago, Colchagua immediately started to transform itself. In many ways, what has happened in Colchagua since the early 1990s is a lot like what happened in Napa Valley starting in the 1960s. Out went the orchards, nut groves and floundering old vineyards, and in came serious vinifera with serious-minded people behind the vines. Foreigners like Eric de Rothschild at Los Vascos and Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland at Casa Lapostolle got the ball rolling, as did native Chileans such as Aurelio Montes, José Miguel Viu and the brothers Eduardo and Hernan Gras, among others.

And slowly but surely, alongside the grapevines came tourist-friendly trappings such as upscale lodging, restaurants, museums and, most recently, a wine train running from the town of San Fernando to the village of Peralillo.

To compare the Colchagua Valley of today to that of 15 years ago is almost a worthless exercise. You really need to measure present-day Colchagua against where it stood just five or six years ago to see how far the valley has come. For example, since 1999 there has been a 42 percent increase in grape plantings, to over 50,000 acres under vine. As might be expected, 90 percent of what grows in Colchagua's 10 wine communes is red, with Cabernet Sauvignon leading the way at 51 percent, followed by Merlot (16 percent), Carmenère (10 percent) and Syrah (4 percent).

Maximum Ripeness and Concentration
Colchagua's 20-odd wineries have in recent years invested heavily in their vineyards, with an eye toward achieving maximum ripeness and concentration. The results have been impressive, as Colchagua's bodegas have reeled in dozens of 90-plus scores and even more rock-solid, well-priced wines worthy of "Best Buy" classification.

Almost as a testament to its newfound status as a premier wine region, Colchagua even has a single vineyard that is recognized by name by wine enthusiasts around the world. It's called Apalta, and even if there's no Pinot Noir to be found, it ranks as Chile's version of Burgundy's Clos Vougeot. Casa Lapostolle, Montes and Maipo-based Santa Rita, three of Chile's undisputed quality leaders, all own portions of the Apalta Vineyard, and their respective wines from this horseshoe-shaped property—bottlings like Clos Apalta, Montes Folly and Floresta—regularly garner some of the highest scores awarded to Chilean wines.

Infrastructure is another area where Colchagua's wineries have spared no expense. Last year Montes poured more than $5 million into a state-of-the-art, feng shui-designed winery in the middle of Apalta; in January 2006 Casa Lapostolle will unveil its ultramodern, largely subterranean Apalta winery, where only its top wine, Clos Apalta, will be made. In 2004, MontGras completed work on a full-scale visitors' center that could have been lifted straight out of Yountville or St. Helena, and a couple of years ago Casa Silva opened its own hotel, probably the valley's most posh inn. And in 2005, Viu Manent, a relative old-timer with 70 years of family history in the Colchagua Valley, opened a restaurant and tasting room to accompany its already established equestrian school.

Coming of Age
No doubt Colchagua has come of age. We say that because back in 1996 all that existed to promote the region was a small, sparsely financed public-private trade group called the Ruta del Vino; it had but a handful of founding members and little more than a blueprint and high hopes for making it big. Fast-forward less than a decade and a full-blown winery association has blossomed. Today Viñas de Colchagua (www.colchaguavalley.cl) boasts 14 members (including the originals), a waiting list of other wineries hoping to join, and a full-time staff headed by executive director Thomas Wilkins Biggs, a gregarious, fun-loving guy who lives and breathes Colchagua wine as he travels the world spreading the gospel.

"Colchagua is the true heartland of huaso [local cowboy] country and it has a lot of charming traditions, for example, the Chilean rodeo," notes Ricardo Letelier, director of Wines of Chile, a trade group for the entire country. "There is a real sense of camaraderie in the valley. Team spirit is palpable, which makes working there more enjoyable for everyone. And Colchagua has become an important tourist destination. It's certainly the most popular place in the country among Chileans."

How things have changed. Prior to 1995 Colchagua was never a tourist destination, adds Viu, one of the founders of Ruta del Vino and a prime force in Colchagua's ascent. "The infrastructure available to the traveler was nonexistent. Without exception, the visitors that we received were put up in our own homes. There was nothing in the valley to offer, and the gastronomy options were limited and pretty bad."

Now one can sit on the patio of the three-star Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, which opened in 2000, or at the Silva family's Hotel Casa Silva, while sipping a glass of deeply hued red wine and plotting a visit that includes horseback riding, a local rodeo, or learning about Chile's battle for independence and Charles Darwin's expeditions at the Museo de Colchagua in Santa Cruz, and much more.

Clearly, this is not your father's Colchagua. Chances are Dad never even heard of Colchagua. But things change; in this case for the better.

See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.

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