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The first thing one notices about Chile is how much it resembles Southern California. The sandy clay soil and dry, desert foliage is so familiar and as one leaves Santiago headed south on the Ruta Cinco it feels much like driving north on the I-5 through the central valley of California. The city quickly gives way to agriculture and one quickly understands how Chile exports over 1 billion pounds of fresh fruit yearly to North America alone, and ships over 200 varieties of fresh fruit to over 70 countries.
We were excited and somewhat apprehensive given that my host at the conference here in Chile was dubious about us taking a car outside of the city. People were vague about why we might not want to drive ourselves so we forged ahead.
Trekking along the valley there is ample evidence of agriculture visible from the highway including grapes, citrus, corn, soybeans, stone fruits - the list goes on and on. Both sides of the expressway have large fruit companies - Primivera Southern Fruits, Dole, Frusan, etc. - along with everything to support the industry, including farm equipment suppliers, fertilizer companies, transportation and even agronomic instruments. The highway traveling south are thick with trucks transporting produce on a road with partially limited access alongside small restaurants and produce stands that are just off the shoulder where cars and trucks whiz by at 70 miles per hour.
With only a short drive outside of Santiago one begins seeing billboards for wineries. Vina Santa Cruz, Missionnes, Escova, San Jose de Apalta… There are far too many to list but our destination with much further south deep in the Colchanga Valley at Montes Vineyards.
Montes is a relative young winery by the standards of some Chilean vineyards. They have been producing wine since 1994 but have grown rapidly to become the 6th largest exporter of wine in the country. A colleague had graciously arranged for a tour of the winery and lunch.
Vineyards generally offer beautiful vistas and this is one of the prettiest farms that I have seen, with over 100 acres spreading out from the winery and sloping up the foot of the mountain.
The tour began with horse drawn surrey winding us through the vineyards. In spite of being the end of summer, the temperature was comfortable, with a constant dry breeze through the vines. Being the week before harvest the vines were laden with mature grapes and we stopped at each section, tasting the grapes near their full ripeness, including cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and carmenére.
The winery architecture is unique with the north face bermed into a hill. It is a long building with a low profile that doesn't hit at the height of the fermentation rooms. These sit below the rooftop sorting area where grapes are picked thorugh to separate stems and leaves before being gravity fed through the crushers into the fermentation tanks below. Their icon wines are fermented in oak tanks and then 18 months in French oak barrels.
We tasted a good spectrum across their wines. Their new line, Outer Limits, are vinted from grapes outside the Colhaunga Valley and the sauvignon blanc is good with flavors of pear and citrus but a tangy, grassy flavor that would not likely appeal to a lot of wine drinkers. Of the two middle-range wines, the Montes Alpha line, the malbec was the better. It has a great plummy flavor with some green pepper overtones and slight spiciness. It doesn't have the tannic astringency that the Argentinian malbecs have and is a quite drinkable wine. The Montes Alpha pinot noir (from the Casablanca Valley) was good and would very much appeal to American tastes, having the very fruit forward flavor of U.S. pinot noir.
Their Purple Angel wine is one of their icons and is 90% carmeniere and 10% petit verdot. This is a red wine that will appeal to cabernet drinker,s with a big bold flavor of Bordeaux wine but very soft on the finish.
These are delightful wines and real bargains in the U.S..
Lunch on the patio at the vineyard with the breeze blowing is delightful. A light salad and some sun-dried tomato pesto were very good. We limited ourselves to a small glass of the Montes Alpha carmenére. After tasting and spitting wine it made a fantastic choice for our meal.
A lovely first experience here in Chile getting to see the countryside and taste great wine. More to come as the week progresses.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.