Exploring Chile's Maipo and Casablanca Valley Wine Regions

What would a short, three-day trip to Santiago Chile be without at least a short spin through wine country? To ensure that we would have at least a brief, high-level exposure to Chile’s wine regions, we retained Santiago Adventures to help us design day tours to explore two of these regions:

  • Maipo Valley, which was the birthplace of, and continues to be particularly known for its Cabernets and Carmeneres; and
  • Casablanca Valley, a cooler, maritime valley that is the primary home of the region’s Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.

As described in Joyce’s Trip Advisor review, Santiago Adventures (due largely to our guide Chris Whatmore), was one of the very few operations, much less tours,  to which we ever gave a five-star review.

Maipo Valley

This valley is divided into three appellations, Alto Maipo (near the Andes), Central Maipo, in the valley’s central plain and Coastal Maipo to the west. Our focus for the day was Alto Maipo, with four stops:

  • Almaviva is a super-modern, joint venture between Concha y Toro and Baron Philippe de Rothschild–the Chilean version of Opus One. It makes super-premium Bordeaux-style blends that are primarily Cabernet, combined with Carmenere and a little Cab Franc. The grounds, architecture and facilities are beautiful, and wines are extraordinarily. Although it has a second-label wine, Epu, made from second press juice and with second -year barrels, our focus was on the premier Almaviva brand. The 1998 is lovely, with black cherry, blackberry, coffee and tobacco. The only drawback is the price–$200, compare with $45 for Epu.
  • Antiyal is totally different, a small boutique winery (fewer than 3,000 cases), situated at the foot of the Andes and founded by a leading oenologist who practices strict organic and biodynamic viniculture. The owners are clearly passionate about and committed to organic and biodynamic (both of for which they are certified), using manure from their own animals, timing different functions in accordance with moon cycles and even plowing by horse. This passion is born primarily of a commitment to the planet and it’s future, and secondarily their impact on the wine. It currently produces two wines:
    • Antiyal which is primarily Carmenere, secondarily Cab and with roughly 20% Syrah is a very subtle wine, with the 2008 showing black cherry and tobacco. It is priced rather steeply, at about $60 in the U.S.
    • Kuyen, which Joyce prefers, is primarily Syrah (typically close to 50%), with Cabernet and a small percentage of Carmenere. The spice is much more subtle than most Syrah blends with which we are familiar. The U.S. price is about $30.
  • Aquatania is a mid-sized winery (about 15,000 cases) was created as a partnership among French (including from Chateau Margaux and Bollinger) and French-Chilean oenologists. They produce two Cabs, and one apiece of Syrah, Carmenere, and from vineyards that are about 650 km south of Maipo, Chardonnay, Pinot, and in the next couple years, Sauvignon Blanc. They produce these under three labels. One cab and the Syrah and Carmenere are marketed under the Aquatania label. The premium wines share two labels:
    • Sol de Sol for the Chardonnay and Pinot; and
    • Lazuli (as in Chilean Lapis Lazuli) for the premium Cabernet.

We tasted each of the winery’s three premium wines. The 2008 Chardonnay (about $27 in the U.S.), which spends 8 months in oak and goes through 5-7% malolactic fermentation, has nice citrus and apple with nice mineral, a touch of acid and just enough creaminess to balance the acidity. The light-bodied Burgundian-style 2008 Pinot has a bit of forest floor in the nose, bright red cherry and fresh acid. It is also about $27 in the U.S. The 2003 Lazuli cab, which is just being released, is beginning to show its age in its color, but it’s tannins still showed after being opened for more than an hour (an issue that was rectified by swilling in the glass). The reasonably priced ($29 in the U.S.) wine has soft, well integral black cherry and berry fruit with a touch of coffee.

  • Fundacion Origen was the restaurant to which we went for lunch. We ate outside, on the lawn surrounded by manicured gardens. The four-course meal began with a wonderfully fresh raspberry juice (we never had that before) and cheese course (a bloomy rind goat cheese a soft cow’s milk and a harder cow with herbs). Then came a wonderful tomato with mozzarella and basil and the main course–delicious rare tenderloin with julienned vegetables and a side of beautifully fresh tomato, arugula, spinach ad lettuce. We finished with a lemon sorbet, vanilla ice cream and fresh peach. The wine was less impressive, a 2011 Emaliana Carmenere Reserva.

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Casablanca Valley

While the hot (during the day) Maipo Valley is particularly well suited to Cabernet and Carmenere, the cooler Casablanca Alley, which is west of Santiago, and closer to the coast, is Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir country. Our stops were:

  • Veramonte, there we had time to buy a couple wines, but not formally taste. The company, which also owns California brands including Flowers (pinot), Prisoner (Zin) and Quintessa (ultra-premium Cabs), produces a full line of varietals. Although we found their Gran Reserva Pinot to be drinkable, the premium 2009 Ritual Pinot was much nicer. Although the wine was a bit lighter and more fruit forward than we (especially “I”) typically prefer, the raspberry was refreshing and well integrated.
  • Emiliana, the first and largest all organic winery in Latin America, applies all of the classic organic and biodynamic principles at scale, including animals for manure (especially their alpaca, which employees can shear to make and sell garments), bees for pollination, diverse gardens for biodiversity and for ingredients into their composts. Rey also have a number of admirable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs to benefit employees. Although the Casablanca Valley Novas Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (2011) Chardonnay (2010) and Pinot Noir (2010) were credible, none were our taste. On the other hand, the 2009 Cayam blend (roughly 40% Syrah, 30% Carmenere, 20% Merlot plus lesser amounts of Cab, Mouvedre and Petite Verdot) was more our taste. Subdued spice, blackberry did ready to drink for $27.
  • Loma Larga Is unusual in that it grows most major varietals in Casablanca Valley (although Cabs did not make it) by growing different varietals in different areas of the valley. They also grow all types of fruits and nuts (although not for sale). The winery offers two primary lines offering most varietals across each. The primary difference is that the volume brand wines, Loma Valle, spend no time in oak. The premium Loma Largo brand spends between 6 and 18 months, depending on varietal, our favorite, by far (in fact, the only one we really enjoyed), was the Loma Larga 2008 Malbec, with floral notes, bright red cherry and refreshing acid.
  • House of Morande is a winery with a restaurant where we had a pairing lunch. It is hard to think of one of the wines that we don’t want to highlight. First, it is important to note that Morande offers five brands of wine. We did not taste any of the no- or low-oak wines such as the Morande Pinero line, we has a wide range of six–primarily Morande Gran Reserva wines. The highlight, was the 2011 Terrarum Gran Reserve Sauvignon Blanc– incredible with well-balanced citrus and grass with mineral and acid. But we also really enjoyed the 2011 Sepia Reserva Pinot, 2009 Edicion Limited Sauvignon Blanc and the 2008 Morande Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

Lunch was another wonderful, multi-course pairing:

  • House of Morande is a very nice, winery restaurant that offers incredible painting lunches. After an amuse bouche of shrimp ceviche, we had a tuna ceviche that matched amazingly well with the Morande Pinot Gran Reserva, a black risotto with seafood and a surprisingly oaky Sauvignon Blanc and a Wagyu beef short rib with a Gran Reserve cab. We finished with a cheesecake with caramelized walnuts, served with a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Each dish, and the pairings that were served with each, were very good. Just as importantly, the sommelier was great in explaining exactly why he chose each wine and in pouring additional wines that he thought we would enjoy.

Although we certainly enjoyed a number of the Chilean wines we had a chance to taste, and will certainly buy some at home, our preferences for Bordeaux varietals still tend to be those from Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Still, it was an education and a treat to visit these wineries, learn about their terroir and techniques and see some of the sites that one seldom experiences in Napa and Sonoma, such as animal pens to supply manure, the painstaking work involved in hand-labeling bottles and of course, the use of horses for plowing fields.

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