Chile’s Colchagua Valley is aiming for the big time.

Close your eyes and imagine a verdant, sparsely populated valley less than an hour from the Pacific Ocean, one with fertile soils, ample water, abundant summer sunshine and farmers at the ready. In this valley, thousands of acres of grapevines (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but other varieties as well) carpet the landscape, while up in the hills newly planted vineyards struggle to establish themselves in the dry, rocky earth.

As you look around you notice that over there is a winery. Then you notice that over there is another, and another and another. And what’s that? A sign for a tourist-friendly wine route and a wine train? Surely this is Napa Valley. It must be; everything fits. But wait…this isn’t Napa Valley at all (even though it looks like it could be). The signs are all in Spanish: Los Lingues, Peralillo, Palmilla, Apalta. The wineries aren’t Mondavi, Beringer, Sterling and Beaulieu Vineyard; they’re Casa Lapostolle, Viu Manent, MontGras and Bisquertt. And the farmers? It might be the 21st century, but many of these guys are still getting around by horse-drawn cart. What is this place?

Welcome to Chile: the Colchagua Valley, to be exact.

The Colchagua Valley is still largely unknown outside of Chile, but with each year it is gaining more recognition in the wine world. An unspoiled stretch of mountain-rimmed land about 100 miles south and west of Santiago, it is part of the greater Rapel Valley. Colchagua, whose terroir is perfectly suited to producing full-bodied, lusty red wines, is one of the globe’s few remaining wine regions that, in terms of its evolution, is still much closer to its genesis than full maturity.

Catching Up with California
In so many ways, the Colchagua (pronounced coal-CHAH-gwah) of today is like the Napa Valley of 35 years ago—before it could lay claim to more than 200 wineries, a guidebook worth of fine restaurants, inns and spas, tour buses and traffic. Currently, there are just over a dozen Colchagua Valley wineries making premium wines from estate-grown grapes, while a handful of other wineries located elsewhere in Chile source Colchagua fruit for some of their best red wines.

Whether Colchagua ever blossoms to the point of boasting hundreds of wineries and $100,000-per-acre land prices is doubtful. But having visited the Colchagua Valley twice since 1999 (most recently in December), it’s clear that progress is being made in leaps and bounds, although the pace in terms of quality and focus is being set by a few. In some ways, these pacesetting wineries (such as Casa Lapostolle, Casa Silva and Viu Manent) are like the Robert Mondavi Winery of old; they have visions of greatness for Colchagua, they are sparing no expense, and they realize that it will take time for the region to reach its zenith.

The main reason Colchagua needs time is that the majority of its vineyards—excluding the renowned Apalta vineyard—are young, having been planted within the past five years. Besides Apalta, there are some other older vineyards with vines from the early part of the 20th century. For the most part, however, surrounding the cities of Santa Cruz and San Fernando (towns of about 50,000 that could be Colchagua’s Napa and St. Helena, but without the Victorian homes and fancy boutiques) the Colchagua Valley contains more than 50,000 acres of vineyards that, not too long ago, were sprawling fruit orchards and tree-covered hillsides.

Some hilltop vineyards, like MontGras’s Ninquén Hill, Viu Manent’s El Olivar estate and Bisquertt’s adjacent vineyard in Peralillo, are mere infants, having been planted within the past few years. Once these vineyards and others like them reach maturity, say, in about five more years, Colchagua will be awash in muscular, big-boned red wines that should be capable of swaying the high-end consumer.

Members of the Association
Colchagua also seems to want to establish itself as a haven for visitors. Its fledgling winery association, Viñas de Colchagua, has in just two short years of existence mapped out a wine route for tourists to follow. The association’s nine members are quickly renovating their wineries to incorporate visitor centers and tasting rooms, and the group also has grand plans to create a wine train that will bring people to Colchagua from Santiago and other points. (See “Waiting for the Train” sidebar.)

Although most of the significant Colchagua wineries are members of the association, one major producer is not. Los Vascos, which has roots in Colchagua dating back to 1750 and which has been 50 percent owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) of France since 1988, is yet another winery that is scoring style points with Colchagua Cabernet.

In recent years, Los Vascos launched its high-end Le Dix Cabernet to commemorate Rothschild’s 10th anniversary in Chile; for years, its reserve-level wines have spoken volumes about Colchagua’s ability to make quality red wines.

In total, Los Vascos owns about 1,200 acres of vines in the Colchagua Valley, most of which are located fairly close to the Pacific coastline (only about 30 miles inland). As would stand to reason in red-friendly Colchagua, about 80 percent of Los Vascos’ plantings are dedicated to Cabernet. The remainder is Chardonnay.

In addition to Los Vascos, other wineries based in Colchagua but not part of the association include Cono Sur and Selentia, both of which are near San Fernando; Lurton in Lolol; and La Estampa and Sutil near Santa Cruz. From outside the region, among the important wineries that purchase grapes and wine from Colchagua or have their own vineyards in the valley are San Pedro, Concha y Toro, Undurraga, Canepa, Dallas Conte, Santa Ines and Terranoble.

Over the long haul, is it possible that this stunning valley, once known mostly as a rural retreat for Chile’s pre-Allende business barons, could morph into a genuine wine mine and tourist destination? The model worked once in Napa. Maybe history will repeat itself, this time in South America.

Colchagua Terroir
Just by looking at a topographical map one sees that Colchagua is a different kind of place. For starters, its shape is unlike that of most valleys, including both Maipo and Curicó, two other prominent Chilean wine appellations. Colchagua is not Chile’s typical north-south valley formed by the majestic Andes and the Coastal Range. In fact, Colchagua is a horseshoe-shaped transverse valley that comes off the Andes and runs westward toward the Pacific.

With the hard-to-pronounce Tinguiririca River running through it to provide all the water for irrigation that a vineyard manager could want, the Colchagua Valley, at about 20 miles in width, does not open to the Andes. This allows vital cool ocean breezes to work their way up the valley, which greatly helps cool things down at night. And as everyone has learned by now, big swings between scorching daytime summer temperatures and chilly nighttime readings are a godsend for red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot, Carmenère and Malbec that thrive in Colchagua. Topping everything off, humidity is nonexistent, and frost is a nonentity.

“The potential here is great,” says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, who co-founded Casa Lapostolle in 1994 with the local Rabat family. “Being French as we are, Colchagua is easy to understand. The raw materials are tremendous.” While she may be talking as much about the famed Apalta vineyard, of which Lapostolle owns a portion, as the valley as a whole, her laudatory comments about Colchagua resonate and are echoed by others.

“I am absolutely convinced that the deep, loamy soil and warm, dry climate here are ideal for red wines. Within Chile, you can’t find a better place to grow grapes and make wines,” says Alejandro Hartwig, vineyard manager of MontGras and the general manager of his family’s “boutique” Santa Laura winery.

Even if you expect a touch of bias from the locals, foreign talent coming into a region is often a good indication of the regions potential. And Colchagua has its share of international consultants: Michel Rolland, Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year in 2000, has been at Lapostolle since the start. Although Michel Friou handles much of the daily winemaking work there, Rolland comes to Chile at least three times a year to work on blending, primarily of the winery’s prized Clos Apalta.

The list of outsiders working in Colchagua goes on: Mike Farmilo, formerly of Penfolds in Australia, is one of two Aussie consultants helping the Luis Felipe Edwards operation. Paul Hobbs, well known in Napa and Sonoma as well as in Argentina, has been with MontGras since 1999, while Aurelio Montes, one of Chile’s very best native winemakers (his eponymous winery is in Curicó), works with Leonardo Contreras at Viu Manent, with admirable results, especially with Malbec.

Visiting Colchagua Waiting For the Train.

As bucolic as it might appear to an outsider, the Colchagua Valley has long attracted its share of important visitors—Chilean as well as foreign. Among the area’s famous guests: the British naturalist and father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin. He passed through Colchagua during the mid-19th century as he toured South America. Before and after Darwin, a number of former Chilean presidents and other Santiago-based dignitaries have made the quaint towns of the Colchagua Valley their home away from home. For proof, old haciendas still well guarded by walls and gates can be seen from the roadsides.

Now, however, the attraction in Colchagua is wine. With the city of Santa Cruz as a hub, wine-related tourism in the valley is picking up. One of the big draws is the recently established Ruta del Vino (Wine Route), the brainchild of the Viñas de Colchagua trade association. This wine route purports to offer visitors a chance to see some of the prettiest vineyards and best-kept cellars in the country.

The Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza offers guests colonial as well as modern touches.

There are currently nine members of Viñas de Colchagua, and all have opened their doors to the public as part of their participation in the Ruta del Vino. They are: Santa Laura, Casa Silva, Casa Lapostolle, Luis Felipe Edwards, MontGras, Viu Manent, Bisquertt, Siegel/El Crucero and Caliterra. Visits to these wineries are usually by private or small-group tours, which can be arranged through the Ruta del Vino offices in Santa Cruz.

Next up for Thomas Wilkins Biggs, managing director of two-year-old Viñas de Colchagua, is getting his prized tourist-oriented project on track—literally. Wilkins says plans are under way to convert the old Colchagua Valley railway into a wine train similar to the one that runs parallel to Highway 29 in Napa Valley. Wilkins sees the train as the key to opening the valley up to those who live in or travel through Santiago. “If we can get this train going—and we are committed to doing it—people could leave Santiago and be here in Colchagua in less than two hours. Then they could go from town to town, seeing the beautiful country and enjoying the wines, which we expect will be served on the train.”

In a positive sign, just this past December, workers could be seen in various parts of the valley clearing overgrown areas of track and replacing old, rusted rails. When I said to Wilkins that for now he and the group appear to be “waiting for the train,” he laughed and said, “Hopefully the wait won’t be too much longer.”

Every wine region eager to attract visitors must offer decent lodging, and about 18 months ago, Colchagua got exactly that. The Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, built by Carlos Cardoen Cornejo, a controversial international business figure who also owns the Tarapacá winery in the Maipo region, is a classy hotel with modern as well as colonial touches. Situated in downtown Santa Cruz, on the city’s Spanish-style plaza, the hotel offers well-appointed rooms and suites, an outdoor swimming pool, a patio bar, the best restaurant in town and plenty of Old World charm—like flowers and wrought-iron balconies. The hotel also offers modern amenities such as valets, cable television and room service.

Adjacent to the hotel is the Museo de Colchagua. From the outside, one might expect this unassuming ranch-like museum to offer a little background on the history of the valley, but not much more. Once inside, however, one finds a treasure of information and countless artifacts spanning centuries. Just as he is the force behind the Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, Cardoen is the man behind the museum. A serious collector of pre-Columbian art and independence-related war memorabilia, among other things, Cardoen has donated or curated almost everything in the museum’s 11 halls and salons. From mastodon tusks and 45 million-year-old amber to cowboy spurs, guns and turn-of-the-century carriages, the Museo de Colchagua is a fascinating place to spend several hours. (Scholars and museum buffs could easily fill a day or two here soaking up the impressive array of exhibits.)

And since all wine lovers are serious about their food, in addition to a meal in the Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza dining room, consider taking a 45-minute drive south to Curicó, where you can dine at the Restaurante Viña Torres. This modern restaurant, visible from the Panamerican Highway, is run by the Miguel Torres winery, and its resident French and Chilean chefs do a terrific job of combining European and Chilean influences. For gourmands, it is worth the drive to Curicó for quiche with mussels, rabbit stew with ratatouille, chicken breast with saffron and almonds, and some of the finest fresh fruit in the world. —M.S.

Keys To Colchagua
Viñas de Colchagua/Ruta del Vino: Plaza de Armas 140, office 6, Santa Cruz, Valle de Colchagua, Chile. Tel. (56-72) 824-339; fax: (56-72) 823-199.
Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza: Plaza de Armas 286, Santa Cruz, Valle de Colchagua, Chile. Tel.(56-72) 821-010; fax: (56-72) 823-445. Web: Rates: $80-$120; breakfast included.
Museo de Colchagua: Av. Errázuriz 145, Santa Cruz, Valle de Colchagua, Chile. Tel./fax: (56-72) 821-050. E-mail: Admission: 2,000 pesos (less than $3).
Restaurante Viña Torres: Panamerican Highway South, Km. 195, Curicó, Chile. Tel./fax:(56-75) 327-949. Three-course prix fixe menu without wine: 12,000 pesos (about $18). Only Torres wines are sold here.

“Valleys like Colchagua are not common,” says Jose Miguel Viu, the third generation of the Viu family to run the winery, as we hike through the knee-high year-old vines at El Olivar. “Look around and you see how special this is. We think we are making the best wines in Chile.”

“Special” is probably the most overused word you’ll hear to describe a wine region, but one of the truly special things about Colchagua, something that Viu and others mention repeatedly, is the clarity of the air and the luminosity of the sunshine. Situated far enough away from Santiago’s industry and pollution, from November through April (the Chilean growing season) Colchagua is blessed by radiant, unmitigated sunshine, something the grapevines seem all too willing to drink in. In fact, the combination of sunshine, dryness and a high water table from the Tinguiririca makes Colchagua almost too perfect.

If Colchagua (and Chile as a whole) has one pitfall to overcome, it’s overcropping, especially with the naturally vigorous Carmenère, a Bordeaux variety once thought to be Merlot. Oversized, bloated yields have been a problem in the past, most recently in 2000. And although 2000 wasn’t a bad vintage per se, to correct things in 2001, a lot of green harvesting took place. “The concept of dropping fruit is new for us,” says Mario Geisse Garcia, director of winemaking at Casa Silva in Angostura and a consultant to Bisquertt. “We can harvest in late April, even May, if we control the crop. This is what gives wines of reserve quality and higher. Reduced vigor and vine stress is becoming more important.”

Colchagua’s Finest
Virtually all the major grape varieties exist in Colchagua; however, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape, primarily around Santa Cruz, Peralillo and Palmilla. Cabernet from Colchagua is good, sturdy wine, but not necessarily as deep and luscious as the best Cabernets from Maipo. Maybe it’s those younger vines, but Maipo Cabs, especially those made by Santa Rita and Concha y Toro, among others, have a depth and richness that Colchagua has not yet reached.

Cabernet is followed in the hierarchy by Merlot, but close behind are Carmenère and Syrah. Carmenère, which at its best tastes of ripe red fruit, pepper and chocolate, seems to be doing better in Colchagua than anyplace else in Chile. A notoriously uneven and late ripener, the fickle Carmenère seems to have found a home in Colchagua’s perfect weather. In time, the grape has the potential to distinguish itself in the wide world of red wines.

Among those wineries working with the grape, Casa Silva makes particularly good Carmenère, much of it harvested from its Los Lingues site at the base of the Andes. Caliterra also has fine Carmenère at its Arboleda estate near El Huique.

Syrah, meanwhile, is just beginning to make a name for itself, but as hillside plantings mature, it may develop into a Colchagua natural. Already Aurelio Montes and his partners at Discover Wine have put together a high-end Syrah called Montes Folly. Hailing from the highest slopes of the Apalta property, it made its United States debut in January. The wine, from 2000, is thick, rich and intense, with herb, bacon and spice-box notes. It’s an ode to Hermitage and Australia’s Barossa Valley at $70 a bottle.

And don’t forget Colchagua’s white wines. Surprisingly, a number of fine, floral Sauvignon Blancs are coming out of Colchagua, in particular Viu Manent’s 2001 vintage. There are some worthy Chardonnays, too, such as those from Santa Laura (called Laura Hartwig), Casa Silva and Luis Felipe Edwards.

But at betting time, the money here and in Colchagua would be on the valley’s reds. Someday, if all goes according to plan, they could be as well known as the wines from Napa.

A Mixed Case of Top Colchagua Valley Wines

White Wines
87 Casa Silva 2001 Classic Chardonnay (Colchagua); $10. A lot of people who prefer a Mâcon-style Chard might like this. It’s lighter in color, with mild amounts of stone, petrol and char on the nose. Solid pear and apple flavors get some bump from the barreling the wine received. The tail end is smoky, with more apple showing through.
87 Laura Hartwig 2000 Chardonnay (Colchagua); $11. Soft, almost plush apple and pear aromas invite you in, and once there, you’ll find round tropical fruit flavors dancing on a clean, smooth palate. If you prefer a polished Chardonnay with depth of fruit as opposed to loads of buttery oak, this one is firmly in that style.
87 Viu Manent 2001 Sauvignon Blanc (Colchagua); $8. This is Viu Manent’s highest-production wine, yet it has the qualities of something made on a far smaller scale. It’s grapefruity, with subtle undertones of passion fruit. The palate is crisp and clean, and there’s a just-right sweetness to the finish that provides offsetting balance to the pungency of the fruit.

Red Wines
94 Casa Lapostolle 1999 Clos Apalta (Apalta/Colchagua); $60. Arguably the best wine in Chile is this Merlot-based beauty from the dry-farmed, old-vines Apalta vineyard. Fermentation involving big wood vats and the utmost in human attention yields a pure, stately wine that’s equal parts power and finesse.
93 Viu Manent 1999 Viu 1 (Colchagua); $39. This old-vines Malbec (with 10% Cabernet thrown in) is full of clove, licorice and marzipan, with berries, sweetmeat pie and maple syrup at the core. The finish is huge but soft. The body is massive and concentrated, but entirely friendly.
92 Santa Rita 1999 Floresta Apalta Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Apalta/Colchagua); $30. This gorgeous new wine under the Floresta label shows all the pedigree of the famed Apalta vineyard and lots of style from 17 months in French oak. It’s deep and purple, with tons of sweet extract. With jammy black fruit, cassis, toasty wood nuances and soft tannins, what more could you ask for?
90 Montes 1999 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua); $22. Deep, ripe and plummy up front, with a firm mouthfeel and pronounced tannins. In other words, it’s structured for the long haul. The fruit is tight and lively, running toward plum and cherry. The berries and coffee on the finish make a statement.
89 Casa Lapostolle 1999 Cuvée Alexandre Merlot (Colchagua); $25. This rugged youngster is purple in color, a sure sign of the extract and power to come. The structure is tight, maybe even harder than one might expect from Merlot. But if given a little time (or simply some airing in a decanter), all the plum, oak and other nuances should emerge.
89 Casa Silva 2000 Reserve Carmenère (Colchagua); $15. Dig in and there is grip, tannins and acids, sure signs of a real wine. Very pure Carmenère flavors are on display here: earthiness and smoked meat along with pulsating fruit. It’s big and burly for sure, but not at all clumsy.
89 Montes 2000 Malbec (Colchagua); $10. This is from 65-year-old vines and it’s perfectly floral and rich, as good Malbec should be. In the mouth, there’s blackberry, licorice, nutmeg and cinnamon. A little acidity on the palate keeps it fresh and focused. While fine now, aging this wine for a short time will probably do it some good.
89 Viu Manent 2000 Special Selection Malbec (Colchagua); $16. This serious Malbec comes with 15% Cabernet in the mix, and that bit of Cab offers just the boost the wine needs. It’s sincerely jammy and grapey, but there’s also depth and layers to the black fruit. Tannins, licorice and vanilla all come on late.
88 Arboleda 2000 Carmenère (Colchagua); $20. Very dark colors and meaty, road-tar notes in the nose put you on notice that the wine is big. But more than big, it’s pure, with layers of plum and berry fruit mixed with a peppery, bacon quality. It has an almost late-harvest depth and softness throughout, so drink it soon.

Published on March 1, 2002

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