Chile’s Colchagua Valley Combines Deep-Rooted History With Viticultural Variety

Colchagua Valley Early morning harvest workers
Early morning harvest workers at Luis Felipe Edwards Vineyards. / Photo by Matt Wilson

A typical summer day unfolds in the Colchagua Valley as a powerful sun rises over the vineyards in the Andean foothills that form the region’s eastern edge. Hours later, that same sun will become a fireball in a cloudless azure sky. Below, on the valley floor and up the craggy hillsides that mark the southern and northern boundaries of Chile’s most textbook wine valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and other vines soak up potent solar rays on their way to eventual ripeness. A glowing sunset over the Pacific Ocean provides the day’s closing act; with it, temperatures plummet over coastal Sauvignon Blanc plantings. Finally, the stars come out en masse.

It sounds like a dream, but, from November to April, this scenario plays out regularly in the Colchagua Valley. Throughout the growing season, the Valley, which stretches 75 miles from the base of the Andes to the shores of the Pacific, about 100 miles south of Santiago, is blessed with consistently sunny days offset by refreshingly cool and crisp nights. By the time the harvest begins in March, Colchagua’s roughly 85,000 acres of grapevines are weighted with concentrated fruit ready to be converted into some of Chile’s finest wines.

And what a cornucopia of wines Colchagua offers. During a recent trip, I sampled a lengthy list of compelling Colchaguino wines, including the usual suspects as well as Syrah, Carignan, País, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, skin-contact orange wines, rosés and sparkling wines. Whereas 20 years ago the region was almost entirely committed to varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère, it now delivers so much more.

Colchagua Valle de Colchagua Map
Map of Colchagua Valley

From East to West

The Colchagua Valley begins at the base of the Andes near Los Lingues, where a small collection of wineries led by Casa Silva and Viña Koyle largely specialize in big-boned reds. The majority of the wines that hail from Colchagua’s eastern frontier feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah grown in west-facing vineyards. Petit Verdot and Garnacha are also on the rise in this mountainous subzone with decomposed granite and alluvial soils.

Because this is the warmest section of the Colchagua Valley, one that shares much in common with the interior Maipo and Cachapoal valleys to the north, cooler years often yield the most elegant wines.

“My favorite vintages are definitely the cold ones,” says Cristóbal “Toti” Undurraga, owner of Viña Koyle, adding that hot years accompanied by drought are occurring with more frequency throughout Chile (see 2017, 2019 and 2020 as recent examples). “I prefer wines from years like 2011, 2016 and 2021. I love the crisp, dry tannins and light herbal influences we get in these cooler years.”

Moving west by about 20 miles, Colchagua’s Entre Cordilleras zone, or “between the mountains,” accounts for the bulk of Colchagua’s wines. Roughly 75% of the valley’s total production hails from around the towns of Chépica, Nancagua, Santa Cruz, Palmilla, Peralillo and Marchigue. This is where Colchagua’s wine industry first took root in the 1800s.

Stylistic variety runs the gamut in the heart of the Colchagua Valley, which is hydrated by the waters of the Tinguiririca River. Some wineries adhere to the rules of organic farming, like Emiliana Organic Vineyards, while others such as Viña Neyen, one of the region’s original wine properties, are guided by the principles of biodynamics.

Colchagua’s midsection is home to several big-name wineries. For example, Luis Felipe Edwards started here in the 1970s and is now one of Chile’s largest producers. The winery has cleared thousands of acres of steep hillsides above the village of Chépica to create its own wine ecosystem in an area called Puquillay Alto, or “land of the strong winds.” High in these hills, the heat of the afternoon sun meets cooling gusts from the Pacific and warmer breezes from the interior mountains, creating dry and friendly conditions for various red grapes.

Colchagua Sven Bruchfeld of Polkura and Ricardo Rivadeneira of Viña Maquis
From left, Sven Bruchfeld of Polkura; Ricardo Rivadeneira of Viña Maquis / Photos by Matt Wilson

Not far from here, along the northern side of the interior valley, it’s impossible to miss the vine-covered hills of horseshoe shaped Apalta. This is where quality-minded wineries including Montes, Lapostolle, Ventisquero and Neyen maintain multi-exposure sloping vineyards that present as picture perfect.

First planted more than 100 years ago, Apalta ranks as Chile’s truest “grand cru” vineyard area, with wines that stand out as special. From Apalta come high-flyers like Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta and Petit Clos; Montes’s Folly Syrah and “M” Bordeaux style blend; Ventisquero’s Pangea Syrah; and Neyen’s eponymous Cabernet blend.

At the base of Apalta lies Viu Manent, whose century-old Malbec vines are some of the oldest in the valley and form the core of Viu 1, the winery’s signature wine. Farther west and approaching the town of Peralillo, Viu Manent grows Carmenère, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon on north-facing slopes.

Colchagua Vina Koyle Vineyards
Vineyards at Viña Koyle / Photo by Matt Wilson

Also found in this part of the valley are the vineyards of Laura Hartwig, Montgras and Los Vascos, the latter a long-standing joint venture between Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and Viña Santa Rita, another of Chile’s most historic and largescale wineries.

Rounding out the mid-valley roster are wineries like Estampa, Viña La Playa, Viña Siegel, Encierra and a collective of boutique bodegas that includes La Despensa. All make intriguing wines that demonstrate the valley’s variety and diversity.

A member of Colchagua’s old guard, Viña Maquis has been producing wines along the banks of the Tinguiririca since the early 20th century. Ricardo Rivadeneira, Maquis’s fourth-generation owner and executive director, takes me on a tour of the “biological corridors” he has been fastidiously creating amid the winery’s more than 250 acres of vines. We admire rows of olive trees, pluck and sniff the fragrant leaves of native Peumo and Boldo trees, and gaze at the pastel purple blossoms of mature jacarandas. At our feet, chickens cackle while a group of quails scatters before getting airborne.

Colchagua Tanks at Vina Maquis
Tanks at Viña Maquis / Photo by Matt Wilson

“This is how we mix viticulture with biodiversity,” says Rivadeneira, beaming with pride. “Being near the river also moderates temperatures. We are probably two degrees cooler than most of our neighbors, something that helps moderate alcohol levels in the wines and guards acidity.”

Growing healthy grapes that offer the optimal balance among ripeness, richness, power and freshness has long been the challenge for Sven Bruchfeld, cofounder of Polkura, located on the western fringe of Colchagua’s midsection. Based in windy, sun-exposed Marchigue, Polkura specializes in dark and delicious Syrahs.

“Despite there not being much water, this is the right spot,” for Syrah, says Bruchfeld of the land named for its yellow granite. Drought conditions continue to vex Bruchfeld, to the point that he’s taken to dry farming a portion of his vines. “We have lost more than 90% of the water from our original wells. Experts say it takes 1,000 liters of water to produce a liter of wine; Polkura uses only 400 liters.”

The third and final delineated section of the Colchagua Valley is the Costa, or “coast.” This subzone includes a warm inland portion near the towns of Lolol and Pumanque, where wineries like Viña Santa Cruz, Hacienda Araucano and Marco Puyo’s Viña Dagaz (a Celtic rune that means “the beginning of a new path”) operate.

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But much of the recent buzz in the Costa is coming out of the fledgling subzone of Paredones, where Casa Silva and Estampa maintain vineyards and where one pioneering grower, Max RodrĂ­guez, has been selling cool-climate grapes to a handful of wineries since first planting here some 20 years ago.

Located just south and about five miles inland from the renowned surf town of Pichilemu, the vineyards of Paredones sit atop a mix of clay and quartz called batolito costero. To date, Sauvignon Blanc has been the top-performing grape in Paredones, with rosés made from Syrah and Pinot Noir showing potential.

“This area usually sees only five or six hours of sunlight per day,” says René Vásquez, Casa Silva’s vineyard manager. “Fog is common in the morning and evening. We talk about minerality in the wines from Paredones, but that comes from the salt in the sea air, not the land itself.”

Regardless, Sauvignon Blanc from Paredones has been improving year by year as the region’s vines mature and yield fruit with lower levels of pyrazines and controlled acidic sharpness.

Colchagua Surfer standing on rock at Alia Hotel
Surfer near Hotel Alaia, Punta de Lobos / Photo by Matt Wilson

Visiting COOLchagua: Chile’s Napa Valley

When Wine Enthusiast boldly named Colchagua the Wine Star Award winner of Wine Region of the Year in 2005, the valley’s collective goal of becoming a world-class destination for enotourism was notable. Over the past 15 years, Colchagua hasn’t exactly transformed itself into a Napa Valley facsimile, but progress has been made in terms of improving lodging, dining and winery tourism options.

“We want to be known as COOLchagua, a place that’s fun and unique to visit,” says Aurelio Montes del Campo, a member of the board of Viñas de Colchagua, a 23-winery organization that aims to promote the valley mainly through tourism.

“You should be able to come to Colchagua, eat great food and drink in the wines as well as the valley’s spirit.”

Here are recommended spots for eating, drinking and relaxing in a charming place whose topography, weather conditions and a reliance on red wines more than hint at iconic California wine destinations.

Colchagua Clos Apalta
Clos Apalta Residence and fermentation room / Photo by Matt Wilson

Restaurants

Fuegos de Apalta is a Francis Mallmann-run grill that features open-fire cooking. It opened at Viña Montes in 2016 and has evolved into the valley’s prime destination restaurant. With a sleek open-air design and a location smack in the middle of Apalta’s vineyards, dining at Fuegos is a memorable treat.

Run by Chef Maira Ramos, formerly of Fuegos, Rayuela (“hopscotch”) at Viu Manent specializes in empanadas, steamed shellfish, salt-baked corvina (sea bass) and other local dishes cooked over coals or in clay ovens. Pergola covered tables offering views of the winery’s equestrian center round out the experience.

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Hotels

Clos Apalta Residence is part of Lapostolle’s signature winery property and offers stunning views of the valley. This Relais & Châteaux hotel has been using pandemic-driven downtime to renovate the luxury casitas that comprise Colchagua’s most luxurious lodge. Everything here is first class.

Alaia is a boutique design hotel in coastal Punta de Lobos, a magnet for Chile’s best surfers. Beachfront bungalows with cool trappings and unobstructed ocean views make a stay at Alaia well worth the drive from Colchagua’s warm and grapey interior.

Hotel Viña La Playa and La Despensa Boutique Winery are quiet retreats set amid the vineyards of central Colchagua. La Playa, owned by the Sutil family, is built on the same spot where the Chilean historian Francisco Antonio Encina maintained a country home. La Despensa is run by British expat Matt Ridgway and his wife, Ana, who designed the property’s two charming cottages.

Museums

The Museo Colchagua in Santa Cruz, Museo del Vino and Museo del Automóvil at Viña Santa Cruz in Lolol, are all courtesy of former weapons maker turned philanthropist Carlos Cardoen. Each is outstanding in terms of scope and contents, and no trip to Colchagua would be complete without stopping into this trio of educational and entertaining museums.

The Anything-But-Chardonnay movement was a direct response to the late-20th-century rise of flabby, over oaked, high-alcohol Chardonnays. Two decades later, the ABC sentiment is alive and well, even though the prevailing style today, at least for the wines I review from California’s Central Coast, is tight and racy, driven by fresh citrus flavors and chalky textures.

I spend a lot of my time educating the Anything-Butters about the zippy wonders of these “new” vibrant Chardonnays. Though many express doubt at first, my conversion rate is happily high.

All Chardonnay needn’t be made the same, and there remains a seat at my table for rich, oaky Chardonnay, which is still plentiful. To me, their butter scotch drizzled, seared marshmallow, honeysuckle-laden flavors are the embodiment of comfort in your cup. Few white wines go as well with a roaring fire as snow falls outside, or to complement both soft and hard cheeses before or after dinner, or as an accompaniment to roasted chicken—such succulent, herb-infused flesh never knew a better beverage buddy than nutty, caramelized Chardonnay.

Of course, these Chards must achieve balance amid their opulence to qualify for my cellar. That mandatory counterpoint usually arrives in the form of lemony acidity, but a chalky tension also works, as do savory hints of herb or sea salt.

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A combination of all of the above— richness at the core, fresh on the edges and minerally taut on the frame with an umami kick—is arguably the best formula for Chardonnay, no matter where it’s grown. In fact, some of the richest Chards I’ve ever had come from Burgundy, albeit with the region’s hallmark minerality and acidity in tow.

Part of this stylistic appreciation, at least for me, is memory. My family lived on buttery Chard when I was growing up, and that was the dominant style when I started drinking professionally two decades ago. To taste an unctuous Chardonnay is to recall past people and gatherings I’ve cherished.

There’s also something to say about the wisdom of the crowd. Even more common than Anything-But-Chardonnayers are those lifelong fans of opulently oaked Chardonnay, who proudly proclaim their affinity for benchmark brands such as Rombauer. Even Satellite SB, one of the Central Coast’s top natural wine bars, serves “Rom-Bomb,” as they call it.

So, as much as we wine “experts” thrive on discovering the next styles and under the-radar producers, there’s solace to be found in the stability of classic styles like oaky Chard. Nothing comes closer to sipping warm rays of sunshine.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!