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


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.

But that was for another day. Before all that, the wealth generated by the 19th century trade with the emerging Big Brother to the north helped to created a class of people in Chile with a lot of money to spend. Among them was Don Domingo Fernández Concha, businessman, politician and wine lover.

In 1880 he founded Santa Rita and developed what was in effect a wine plantation, complete with a colonial-style villa, Casa Real, as a centrepiece.

It’s an exquisite building with beautiful rich-coloured timber flooring polished to a high gloss. Now a hotel run by the winery, it is perched on a hillock. The front elevation enjoys a commanding paa over beautifully-designed and maintainnoramed gardens while the land to the rear falls away allowing for two storeys overlooking a paved courtyard with fountain and gazebo.

Along the length of the front, on either side of the modest entrance door, rattan-style seating and low tables occupy a cloister-like veranda making a perfect setting for pre- or post-dinner drinks and for soaking in the view, which is only slightly interrupted by a giant bougainvillea, said to be the largest in Chile and which last month lent its name to the winery’s newest offering. The gardens have an idyllic, Arcadian feel to them.There are seas of pink roses, azaleas and agapanthus. There are also Chilean palms and mature cedar trees.

Water is everywhere, from the fast-flowing irrigation stream that skirts around the circular beds. The calmness of the setting is enhanced by the tinkling of many fountains that somehow have a cooling effect in the Chilean summer heat.

The ensemble is very soothing, despite claims that a female ghost stalks the grounds and is wont to tap the back of late night amblers through the shrubbery.

Mac breaks the silence.

“Most of the wine back then was what we call country wine. It was just OK, that’s all. It was used for Mass, but in the boom, the wealthy wanted better wine and so there were trips to Bordeaux and good grapes were brought back,” Mac explains.

The end result is everything one sees in the Maipo. Sections of the Santa Rita vineyard and the adjoining Carmen winery which it owns are devoted to various grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, most intriguing of all, Carménère, the grape it was thought was all but extinct as a result of a North American pest that crossed the Atlantic 150 years ago.

The phylloxera plague, which began in 1863, more or less destroyed the European wine industry. The phylloxera louse had come to Europe from north America, courtesy of some Victorian naturalists. The problem was that because it was native to North America, vines there had evolved to cope with it. European vines had not.

A solution after the devastation in Europe’s vineyards was to graft what was left of Europe’s vines onto American roots and start over. All but the Carménère vine, which had been grown widely in the Médoc, took the graft without trouble. After repeated failures the producers gave up.

In 1995, however, a visiting American vine leaf expert was looking at what Santa Rita insisted were Merlot vines but he had his doubts. Some testing later and it emerged that Chile had rediscovered Carménère thus giving it the chance to claim a grape variety as its own in the way Argentina had claimed Malbec.

Mac and I ride along the boreen to the adjoining Santa Rita-owned Carmen winery. It is quiet at this time of the year in the wine-growing regions of the southern hemisphere: the great stainless steel vats are empty; there are just a few oak barrels.

Outside, Carmen has a small organic vineyard, complete with llamas. The humorous-looking fellows oblige the vines with their droppings, the only fertiliser they get. Plants that help to combat pests harmful to vines are grown alongside them.

My first wine tasting is at a vineyard north and west of Santiago in the Casablanca Valley. The setting could hardly be dreamier. In the dappled sunlight of a nicely shaded copse set in the vineyard, a wooden table is dressed with a white damask cloth.

Julio Cornejo, the vigneron, watches as the fruits of his labour are opened. One bottle contains Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc made in 2012, the other some Santa Rita Chardonnay from 2011, both reserve, a better class of wine than mere table wine.

I watch as the others point their noses deep into the glasses and inhale, long and purposefully. Eyes closed. Deep concentration. The glasses are held up to the light, the contents inspected minutely. There’s then a modicum of glass twirling to get the liquid to swill gently. More sniffing ensues.

Eventually, wine enters the mouth. Eyes are either closed or focus on nothing in particular somewhere in the middle distance. Heads roll gently in a circular motion – concentration is all. And then they spit it out. Extraordinary! The only time I spit wine out is when I have had too much and involuntary spasms take over.

“Good minerality” declares Daenna Van Mulligan aka The Wine Diva of Vancouver, Canada, breaking the silence as she takes notes. “Hmmmm,” I respond, hoping to God no one asks me to elaborate. And so it went on through each wine. I can report that both wines were very, very drinkable.

In the evening, back at Santa Rita and sitting on that elegant veranda along the front of Casa Real, I hear about María Luisa Vial, a woman who comes to inspect the gardens every Wednesday. She walks through examining what has been done, what has not and commenting to the gardeners. The gardens clearly are a passion, albeit a slightly solitary one.

María Luisa Vial is one of the wealthiest women Chile. She is the widow of Ricardo Claro, the late owner of Santa Rita. Claro was a lawyer, academic, industrialist and entrepreneur who was passionately capitalist and a passionate conservative Roman Catholic . . . and strong supporter of general Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator.

The Claros had no children. The winery appears to have an importance in the life of Mrs Claro. She hosts regular musical evenings in the museum in the winery built by her husband to display ancient Andean artefacts and his map collection.

The most recent was a classical harp recital, attended by business people, diplomats and government people – a smattering of Chile’s elite. Afterwards, finger food was served along with the winery’s best claret, Santa Rita.Mrs Claro chatted with her guests and then slipped away. But she’ll be back to see the gardens on Wednesday.

The Santa Rita winery is open to the public, as is the Hotel Casa Real, a restaurant, the Doña Paula, the Café La Panaderia, a wine shop and the museum. Tours of the winery, estate and gardens, including a bike tour, range in price from €12 to €45. Further details from santarita.com

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