March 23, 2018
Written by Don
Wanting to learn a little more about the important Chilean wine industry we decided on a tour of the Casablanca Valley. The valley lies about an hour west of Santiago on the way to Valparaiso and is notable for the marine air that both cools the valley and blankets it with fog most mornings.
Its development as a wine producer has been fairly recent – within the last 20 years – and complicated by pretty regular frosts during the spring and a lack of water. Nevertheless, it now produces some of Chile’s best white wines and a growing portfolio of cool weather reds.
The van from Uncorked Wine Tours arrived at our hotel within 30 seconds of the appointed 8:40 pick-up time. Our guide for the day, Andrea, greeted us and helped stow our luggage as they were going to drop us at the airport on the way back home at the end of the day. We introduced ourselves to the young American/French couple already in the van and headed for the Casablanca Valley.
Our first stop was Bodegas RE, a very small operation by Chilean standards that focuses on archaic production methods and unconventional wines. We were handed off to the enthusiastic Nicole, who works for the winery, and she led us on a 30 minute tour of their operations.
The winery makes extensive use of 80-140 year old clay amphorae such as were used in the earliest days of Chilean wine production, as well as modern day concrete versions of these same vessels made in a much larger scale. The grapes are crushed and left to macerate in these vessels for several weeks before being transferred to oak barrels for aging.
One supposed advantage of this approach is that it requires minimal intervention as the shape of the amphorae promotes a natural mixing action as the fermentation progresses. It isn’t necessary to punch down the “cap” or pump the juice over the must since nature takes care of all that.
Bodegas RE produces unusual blends, including a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir mix, designed to mimic champagne without the bubbles, and a Cabernet/Cinsault blend that supposedly expresses the terroir of the valley.
We also looked in on a storage area where they were aging various fruit liquors. This consisted of shelves stacked with large clear glass jars filled with fruit and grain alcohol. The fruit soaks for several years until maximum flavor has been extracted and then the liquor is slightly sweetened with a simple syrup. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to taste any of the result but the whole operation had a charming homemade feel.
In the tasting that followed the tour we sampled four of their wines along with a selection of local olives, cheese, bread and their house-pressed olive oil. The wines were all good but their production is very limited and they seem to be more of an experimental/novelty operation than a commercial winery.
Our next stop was Loma Larga which offered a very different experience. It is a medium scale, family owned winery that makes single variety wines and specializes in cool weather reds – somewhat an oddity for this valley.
Unlike Bodegas RE this is a thoroughly modern operation with a contemporary production facility filled with gleaming stainless steel vats and an atmospheric cellar stacked with French oak barrels.
Like most Chilean producers the bulk of their wine is exported and they produce and market their wines based on what sells in the US and other foreign markets.
Irene, the young French woman who led the tour, was very knowledgeable and had an obvious passion for the place. She also presided over the tasting of four of their wines. Again, the wines were good but it was also interesting to see how familiar varieties like Malbec can take on a very different character when grown in a different environment.
Our last visit was to House Casa del Vino where we had lunch with wine pairings in their spacious, open restaurant. While elegantly presented, portions were on the skimpy side and the quality was good but not outstanding. We started with a small Chilean sea bass empañada of sorts that lacked flavor. The tuna ceviche was nicely done with fresh salmon.
The squid ink risotto, one of Deb’s favorite dishes, was flavorful but a bit runny, again not extraordinary.
The lamb cutlets with a carrot puree was the most flavorful dish. A nicely done passion fruit crème brûlée for dessert.
A brief visit to their cellar followed lunch.
Over all the tour was very well thought out and professionally done. Each of the wineries was trying for a different result and each had their own spin on the Chilean wine making experience. The contrast between them was enlightening and we surprisingly saw and learned things we hadn’t encountered at any of the other wineries we’ve visited in the past.