The wine in South America can often be summarised to the famous Argentinian Malbec and the usual Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc & Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite Argentina being one of the world’s largest wine-producing countries and offering an opportunity to visit many world class wineries, we decided to skip the Mendoza region and instead focus on Chilean wine. Our first stop would be the town of Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, 2 hours south of Chile’s capital Santiago, where we would have the opportunity to cycle around the wineries but also to taste one of our favorite wines: Carménère.
The Colchagua Valley is not a main tourist destination for backpackers and can definitely be defined as off the beaten track of the Chilean gringo trail. This makes it a great place to spend a couple of days, relaxing and sampling the local wines. Here’s a secret…it is also much more affordable than Mendoza! In fact it seems to be such a secret that we only noticed 4 other tourists during our 3 days visit.
Getting to and staying in the Colchagua Valley
The Colchagua Valley is made up of several towns however, the main town to base yourself in is Santa Cruz which can be reached via a local bus from San Fernando, a town located just off the Pan-American road. We made our way up from Bariloche to San Fernando via Temuco by way of 2 night buses… It was a long journey, but since the Chilean lake district was still subject to a massive storm, we had to rush north to avoid the miserable rain and make sure we made it in time a flight one week later in Santiago.
Santa Cruz itself is a shy little town of only 35,000 inhabitants and the hospitality infrastructure is quite limited. For this reason we sent a couple of Couch Surfing requests and ended up staying with a great French/Venezuelan couple. Camille was an enologist and the couple of days we spent with her, her husband and friends were oriented around great international food and wine!
Cycling the Colchagua Valley
The Colchagua Valley is a large area which can easily be explored by car in a couple of days. However, for us, there is no better way to explore than on a saddle of a bike! We rented bikes and only cycled within a radius of 10 km, to find 4 to 5 high quality wineries offering wine tastings. There are other possibilities to cycle further out and visit other towns but we just didn’t have the time.
Day 1: Lunch at Las Niñas Winery
On the first day we left town around 11 am towards the East. After a short cycle along the National 90, we exited left to start a paved road taking us in the middle of many wineries and bumpy green hills. The short and easy 9 km cycle finally led onto our first and what ended up being the only winery visited that day: Las Niñas.
As we arrived, the enologist and his friendly dog welcomed us into the office-boutique made out of ship containers. Being on a budget, we couldn’t really afford their tasting menu but decided instead to buy two bottles of wine… One for our lunch and one for a special occasion. After a while chatting, the enologist decided to make us discover Las Niñas’ selection of wines, he filled up a couple of glasses of his wine vintage and continued the conversation.
While we slurped, sloshed and swilled the wines in our mouths (we intentionally didn’t spit the wine served) our host gave plenty of information about the winery, the region and the types of wine they grow. We quickly started discussing about Carménère and how it was rediscovered by surprise more than 20 years ago by a French ampelographer.
Caménère is a variety of Bordeaux which was believed to have disappeared due to infection. While unable to be grown in France without being grafted to a more resistant plant, Caménère had accidentally been introduced in Chile as Merlot and was since grown as if. Protected by the ocean to the West, the Andes to the East, the desert to the North and Patagonia to its South, Chilean Caménère is in perfect isolation and has a natural barrier to the diseases which wiped it out in Europe.
In 1994, on the occasion of a wine convention in Chile, Jean Michel Boursiquot, an eminent ampelographer, took the opportunity to visit the winery, Viña Carmen, where one of his old students was working. As his student asked him his thoughts about the Merlot plants, he noticed the leaves of the plants had turned red during autumn which couldn’t be possible if it was truly a Merlot. By analysing the plant, Jean Michel Boursiquot identified the wine as the previously though to be extinct Carménère. (pic : on the left a Caménère leaf, on the right a Merlot).
What we loved about Carménère is how easy it can be drank while chatting up with friends. It’s a social wine ! Fruity, it has also some smoky and earthy notes which can be married perfectly with an appetizer or after dinner, when you don’t feel like going home and open another bottle to continue discussing the world.
After our brief but friendly and informative conversation, we cycled through Las Niñas’ many lines of wine plants toward the back of the farm to find other visitors starting their lunch at the farm’s free picnic facilities (Las Ninas is one of only two farms in the entire region to offer this). We shared the space with 2 couples and had an improvised picnic and a couple of glasses of the Carménère we were looking forward to tasting.
As our picnic ended with reddened cheeks, we left our bikes at the picnic tables and decided to take a stroll up the hill to better look at the property and the landscape but also to sober up a bit before heading back to the road… The hour visit we were expecting soon turned into a 3 hour boozy lunch! We dropped off the wine glass provided by our host, said goodbye to the lazy dogs who stole some of Jenny’s sandwich and cycled back to Santa Cruz.
Day 2: The Isla de Yequil Loop
The next day, we again set off a bit before lunch. It’s wine we are talking about… as much as we like it, we still believe it is preferable to start tasting it a few hours after breakfast! We first cycled a couple of kilometres north of Santa Cruz to start our day at the Laura Hartwig winery before heading toward the Estampa and Montgras estancias.
At the first two vineyards we paid a couple of thousand pesos (€1) to taste their best offerings such as Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and of course more of the famous Caménère. At both sites we were welcomed by the enologists and commercial managers willing to discuss and share their knowledge with us. We really enjoyed these moments as it was really the reason for cycling this route. At our last stop, we entered a magnificent master house converted into a upmarket hotel & restaurant.
We were at Montgras, one of the most prestigious winery’s of the region. Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed despite being offered a free glass of Merlot. As we sat down in their beautiful patio, enjoying the shade and the fine breeze cooling us off, we regretted the lack of communication and presentation of the winery. Information seemed to be reserved to the visitors who pay the extravagant price of their 3 wine tasting and snack pairing menu… So we left and made our way back to Santa Cruz via the road leading to Isla de Yequil. It was a very nice but hot cycle across farms and wineries.
Cost and useful information
Currency (As of April 2017): €1 = 714.20 CLP
Bus San Martin de los Andes (Argentina) -> Temuco (Chile): 700 ARS (€22)
Bus Temuco -> San Fernando: 17,000 CLP (€23.80)
Bus San Fernando -> Santa Cruz: 1,500 CLP (€2.10)
Bus Santa Cruz -> Santiago: 10,000 CLP (€14)
We were hosted by our awesome CouchSurfing hosts. The husband worked in a nice budget hostal where they let us store our rented bikes overnight. It seems to be one of the best options in Santa Cruz for those on a budget. Otherwise, there are many hotel-boutique and wineries in the region that can be found on booking.com. Airbnb is an option but just expect to pay more.
Santa Cruz Rent a bike: 10,000 CLP pp (€14) for 48 hours
2 bottles of wine at Las Niñas: 10,000 CLP (€14)
Wine tasting at Laura Hartwig & Estampa: 1,500 CLP per glass (€1)
Wine tasting at Montgras: free glass offered – 15,000 CLP (€21) for 3 glasses + snack pairing + information about the winery
** note that all the links we add are FYI. We are not remunerated by either the companies/organisations nor per click.
*** Also, as much as we talk about the effect of the wine on us during these couple of days, we wanted to make clear, that we both drank responsibly, and never cycled under the effect of alcohol. This article only aims on sharing our experience cycling around the wineries of the Colchagua Valley and doesn’t not intend on promoting alcohol abuse.
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