Long haul: Chile by bicycle (and a few glasses of wine)
Exploring the vineyards of Maipo Valley at the heart of Chile’s most important wine-producing region by bicycle
Vineyards in the Maipo Valley, Chile
Casa Real Hotel verandah, Santa Rita Vineyard near Santiago, Chile
Mac the Bike leads me through the vineyards, the early summer sun not yet so hot as to make movement uncomfortable. The roads between the vines are unpaved mud and gravel tracks, what we in Ireland would call boreens.
The magnificent Andes form the backdrop, a sort of barrel-chested overseer of the delicate nurturing that goes on down below in the vineyard. The mountains are huge, their massive, snow-capped peaks brilliant white against a clear blue sky. In the distant west is the Cordillera de la Costa, the coastal mountain range that separates the Maipo Valley from the full force of the Pacific Ocean.
The Maipo is at the heart of Chile’s most important wine-producing region. The valley includes the capital, Santiago de Chile, which is home to about six of the country’s 16 million people, with a high proportion of the remaining 10 million living not very far away, north, south and west of the city.
The country is the longest in the world at an astonishing 4,300km from north to south and with an average width of just 175km. Much of what is fertile and habitable is sandwiched between the spectacularly beautiful Andes mountains defining Chile’s eastern borders with Argentina and Bolivia, and to the west, a coastal mountain range, the other side of which lies the Pacific Ocean . . . and not a lot else until New Zealand and Australia.
The north of the country, where sits the Atacama Desert, is one of the driest places on the planet – land that is hostile, almost beyond imagination, to mass human habitation but which is also rich beyond dreams in copper and nitrates. In the extreme south is Patagonia – mountains, fjords and glaciers, a place harsh in another extreme but also not very conducive to mass human settlement. In between, however, Chile is blessed with two regions of rare beauty, temperate climate and fertility.
The lakes region, stretching north from Puerto Monti to Temuco has topography and natural resources that made it a home from home in the mid-19th century for several waves of German, Swiss and Austrian migrants. Their legacy includes Alpine architecture and lifestyles, and legions of people with surnames that seem more appropriate to Bavaria than Latin America.
Then there’s the central region, the wine-producing region and the famous Maipo. The foothills and mid slopes of the Andes appear mostly bare, at least from the vantage point of where I am, leaning against one of Mac’s bike as he and I survey the floor of the valley. He explains and I listen.
It all really started to happen for Chile in the 19th century, says Mac. That’s Mac (his Christian name) Mitchell, formerly of Tennessee and a onetime would-be master of the universe in the world of finance, but now director of operations of his own bike hire company in Santiago. Mac does regular business with the Santa Rita winery, of which I am a guest, showing people around the estate.
What really got Chile going was the industrial exploitation of its mineral wealth in the 19th century, he says. Previous generations, going back to the Huentelauquen people (who were mining Chilean gold 12,000 years ago), dug around a bit but nothing on the scale of what began in the 1800s, much of it fuelled by the California gold rush and the general opening up of the west of the United States.
“From the 1850s on, there was huge export of coal and saltpetre north to San Francisco,” he says. After the first World War, the development of man-made substitutes for mined saltpetre, plus better transport in the US allowed for the movement west of coal from Virginia. So the Americans were better able to provide for their own needs and the backside was knocked out of the Chilean economy.