Thursday, October 14, 2010

Aconcagua Empanadas

So, if the Peruvian portion of our vacation seemed rushed, this next little leg is going to be a dog gone dash. We're really only passing through Santiago, Chile, because we couldn't find a workable flight from Peru to Buenos Aries when we originally booked the trip. I figured why not head down the coast to Santiago and take a bus through the Andes since it would end up in Mendoza and that was to be our next destination anyhow.

The thought of arriving in Santiago in the late afternoon, just to spend one night in the city and leave first thing in the morning didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. Accordingly, we decided to stay an extra day and work a fleeting tour to one of the wine valleys into the itinerary.

Aconcaugua Valley was the chosen journey. The smallest of Chile's wine valleys, Aconcaugua is generally lesser known and, perhaps, less celebrated than the country's other areas of production like Casablanca and Colchagua. However, we chose it because it is relatively close to Santiago, being about an hour out of town, and it's perhaps the best known area for Carmenere - a veritable signature grape for Chile.

The valley is semi-desert and enjoys both the hottest and longest growing season in the country. Accordingly, it is best known for its red wines and we'll take a "red valley" over a "white" one any day. Luckily, Aconcaugua's heat is tempered by downflows of cool mountain air in the evening, as well as seeing ocean breezes sweep up the valley from the Pacific. So, they don't need to worry about over-ripe fruit with no acidity.

The best known, and biggest gun, in the valley is Errazuriz and, as soon as we'd arrived at the winery, if felt like we were in for a special treat. The immediate vineyard was beautiful and we were greeted in an overwhelming, century-old, wooden building that reeked of history and the extraordinary.

Errazuriz was founded in 1870 and was the first winery in the then barren Aconcaugua Valley. It quickly expanded and, at one point, its 170 acres was believed to be the world's largest vineyard in the hands of a single owner. The Errazuriz family had played a significant role in Chilean political, cultural and economic life for years and, for six generations now, it has had a continued presence in the valley - even following a mass expropriation of their vineyards by the federal government during political upheaval in the 1900's.

The winery was the first in Chile to start planting vines on the sloping hills and we particularly enjoyed our tour up through the vineyards that were dotted with palms and cactus of all sorts. The view of the valley and of their brand new, state of the art, winery was one to just soak in.

The winery has been known for its innovation and the new building is yet another example. Compellingly designed, it will be used for Errazuriz's flagship wines and features cutting edge details that encompass sustainable practises like recycling water for incorporation into the cooling system. They have also experimented and introduced single vineyard designations, wild yeast ferments, reduced bottle weights and increased organic treatments.

We were at the winery for a couple of hours and could, easily, have stayed much longer. We'd barely started our tasting when our tour guide, Dario, advised us that we were already late for our next winery visit. The news elicited a big groan from me, but Frederico - our guide at Errazuriz - told us that we should just take our time, drink up and enjoy. "You're on wine country time now and being late means nothing." Besides he was willing to bring out a couple of their icon wines for us to try - not the most common of offers.

Trying the icons was a special treat, especially in light of the fact that we'd been told of the "Berling Tasting" of 2004 - where two of Errazuriz's top wines, the 2000 Vinedo Chadwick and the 2001 Sena, finished first and second at a blind tasting against French heavyweights the likes of Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour and Italian cult wines, Tignanello, Sassicaia and Guado al Tasso.

We decided to buy the icon Shiraz and were in the process of paying for it when our driver came in to check up on us. The bottle was over $100 and our driver was in complete shock that anyone would pay that much for a bottle. Boo has a bit of Spanish in his bag of tricks and he overheard the driver excitedly telling Dario that he'd never believe what their passengers just did. We didn't tell him that we don't normally buy such pricey wines and that we're only allowed to bring four bottles of wine home with us legally - accordingly, those four wines had to be special.

Our next stop was just next door. I'd never heard of Vina von Siebenthal prior to booking this tour. I'm certainly glad that it's on my radar now. Mauro von Siebenthal is a Swiss lawyer and long time wine aficionado. A boutique winery in the true sense, the winery's approximately 60 acres and limited production is a bit of a rarity in chile.

The winery has only been around since 1998 and it limits its production to only five wines. Those wines, however, are all made for structure and benefit from organic practices and reduced yields - to the extent that their 2004 Montelig (predominantly Cab Sauv with a bit of Petit Verdot and Carmenere) was named best red wine in the world at the Brussels Wine Expo.

Vina von Siebenthal is also noted as produced Chile's most expensive wine. Their Tatay de Cristobal - a 90% Carmenere - sells for approximately $250US. Too bad for the winery that they only produce 1500 bottles on average. Luckily for us, we didn't have to make a decision about spending that sort of money - the wine has been sold out for months.

Their other wines were much more reasonably priced and were all quite tasty. Had we been at home, I'm sure we'd have left with the better part of a case. Our tour was a little more truncated here than at Errazuriz. I don't know if it was because we were late arriving or because our host, Soledad, spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish. I'm sure there were a great many more stories to be told though.

This was the one wine tour we'd booked where a planned lunch wasn't included. Once we'd finished our tasting, it was definitely time to find something to eat. There wasn't much spitting with the wines so far and we were now well past noon. Dario assumed we'd want to try one of the touristic restaurants in the area, but we told him to just find us a hot spot for empanadas amongst the locals.

After asking some construction workers in town, we grabbed a batch of empanadas from a storefront that I'm sure I'd have never given a second look had we'd not been specifically directed there. Armed with the empanadas, a bottle of wine and a shady spot in a local park, we surprised the heck out of our guides. But what a great way to see what the country is really like.

615. 2008 Vina von Siebenthal Carmenere (Aconcaugua Valley - Chile)

Although this is more of an "entry level" wine for the winery, there are still only about 3200 cases produced. My guess is, that at those numbers, we're not likely to see much of it in Vancouver. Too bad, because for the price, about $10 at the winery, it's a wine I'd return to on more than one occasion. It was my favourite of the wines we tried at the winery. It was an easy drink, even in the heat of the mid-day sun.

I'll look forward to trying the higher end Petit Verdot that we brought home with us.

Our final stop for the day was Vina San Esteben. I'd never heard of this winery before either - despite the fact that they produce three brands, Vina San Esteban, In Situ and Rio Alto, and apparently have some presence in Canada. Located in the most easterly - and warmest - part of the valley, you might think that they would have an even stronger production of red varietals than the other wineries we visited. On the contrary, it produces a wide range of wines, both red and white.

They were actually in the process of bottling their most recent vintage of Sauvignon Blanc while we were visiting. There was no doubt that the winery was fully modernized in its production - and marketing. Just around the corner from the bottling machine, there was a show case of all the private labels they had produced for clients. The labels included Sweet Dreams, Royal Bitch, Sweet Papa and Alma de Chile. It was an interesting exhibit.

The winery is largely export oriented and it is fully connected to other farm production as well. From table grapes to vegetables to avocado and olive oil, there was a whole agricultural conglomerate. The founding family started out in the valley as grape growers in 1974. They then began producing bulk wine in 1992 and ended up selling wine under their own label in 2000. In addition to the In Situ wines that we were offered, we were provided with oils, fruit and nuts to taste. Having to serve up their wines following our visits to Errazuriz and von Siebenthal may have been a bit of a rough task though. San Esteban's market seems to be definitely oriented more to the entry level and general masses. Since we've visited the winery, I'd give In Situ another try but I can't say that anything stood out for me this day.

It was time to head back into Santiago now though. We decided to stick pretty close to the hotel since we had an early wake-up call planned for the next morning. So, we just hiked it a whole half a block down the street to De la Ostia, a Spanish tapas and wine bar. It was one of the best dinner decisions we made this trip. We loved the shrimp in piping hot olive oil. Boo got more squid; we tried a number of piscos and wines by the glass (so, no additional bottle to add to The List) and the cute bartender even signed the postcard I was writing to my sister. He left her his number and told her to call.

We spent a good couple of hours here and I would definitely make it a regular haunt if I lived here. Ultimately, it had been a full day and we did have to be at the bus station first thing in the morning; so, we had to call it a night. Problem was that when we arrived back at the hotel and readied ourselves for bed - past midnight or not - CNN advised us that the first of the Chilean miners was just about to get into the rescue capsule and that he would, hopefully, make it to the surface within half an hour. How could we not stay up for such an event?

We may have only been spending one full day in Chile, but what a day. We certainly hadn't expected to be in the capital city as virtually the whole country was glued to the TV to see the miraculous rescue of their miners. It will be one of those moments in history that we'll remember exactly where we were when it happened. If we didn't have a bus to catch in short time, we'd have popped a cork and toasted the event.

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