In order to get our wine country fix, we decided to veer away from the backpacker favourite of Mendoza (Argentina) and went for something a bit different. I’d been to Mendoza a few years back, and whilst a lot of fun (think cycling round vineyards, really pissed), I didn’t really learn much, and it was brimming full of tourists. So we decided to try Chilean wine country instead.
We headed a few hours South of Santiago to the Maule Valley region, which is famed for it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, and much of the country’s export wine.
Vina Gilmore, just outside of Talca
We stayed in a little town called Talca, which was really badly hit by the 2010 earthquake, and much of the city was destroyed – it’s historical plaza, markets and cathedral. You can still see signs of its destruction, like the shell of a building that sits in the town centre, previously a college, and numerous wreckages of buildings that used to be fancy hotels or shops. In a rather heartwarming turn, much of the city was rebuilt – partly due to government aid, but also due to local efforts, with building firms and volunteers all lending a hand to get the town back up and running.
Talca is a super untouristy town, and we got LOTS of stares and giggles from the older generation there. They must have thought we were weird blonde giants with backpacks that had got lost en route somewhere! However, we stayed in a really hospitable place – some ‘cabinas’ on the riverfront, which turned out to be pretty darn swank! A collection of wooden bungalows, complete with outdoor sofas for evening wine drinking, a little pool, and probably the tiniest and most ill equipped, kitchen I’ve ever seen. One night we might chorizo, mash and veg without a potato masher, fork, peeler or plates. It was a challenge!
We’d been drawn to Talca partly because of it’s off-piste appeal but also because there are some super accessible vineyards nearby. A lot bodegas in the region are a bit wanky and ask that you reserve days in advance for tours and tastings (mainly in the super tourismo Colchagua Valley), and many are only accessible on spenny day tours, whereas here you can just hop on a local bus and rock up.
We visited a couple of vineyards in our time there. The first one was absolutely amazing: Vina Gillmore. An organic, family owned vineyard, they use no pesticides and all grapes are picked by hand, by workers at the winery and also local kids during harvest season. We were taken on a one-on-one tour by a fantastic volunteer, who told us in detail about how the process works, from picking the grapes, through fermentation, maceration (colouring from the seeds and skin), and the ‘softening’ process that happens in the barrel. We learnt about cheap pressed wines, ‘free run’ wines, tannins, grape varieties, how white and red and rose differ, and why the kind of oak barrels you use can make a difference to the taste. Sam and I were a bit over-excited to be in such a small tour, and were constantly firing questions at the poor girl who was giving the tour!
Giant wine storage cyclinders at the Gilmore winery
Eating grapes right off the vine
We were allowed to eat grapes directly off the vines, and sampled a ton of different varieties – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, the famous ‘Carmenere’ that used to be a French wine that disappeared off the map then popped up in Chile and is now only produced here. We also tried some white wine grapes like Chardonnay which were surprisingly delicious! They also had a cute bird farm and spa/sanctuary that we checked out, before our tasting. At tasting we tried a ‘100% merlot’ with just one grape variety, that was amazingly rich and oaky (having matured in the barrel for nearly 3 years) and a delicious fruity rose.
Tasting session at Gilmore’s
We then drunkenly bussed it down to our second vineyard (you have to flag them on the side of the road, which is pretty fun after 2 large wines at 1pm!) The next vineyard was the total opposite. Basically Chile’s answer to Blossom Hill! A much smaller vineyard, Vina Balduzzi again produced mainly export wines, but whereas Gilmore produced high-end free run wines that mainly got exported to Europe and places where people KNOW their wines, Balduzzi specialised more in areas like Asia, and through hotel chains, bars etc. The tour was pretty interesting though – we saw the factory part of how wine is made, and got to peer into the lab as the wine was being quality tested. We also saw one of the huge wine cylinders where the wine is stored, that had been knocked over and crushed during the earthquake, which was pretty sad. They lost tons of their wine during the quake as they stored them in these old-school cylinders only supported on bricks (they’ve changed their storage methods since!) The tasting there was variable – a surprisingly nice citrussy Chardonnay (which I normally hate), but quite a rough Cab Sav and a CRAY sweet dessert wine. We politely gulped them down and then bussed it home!
Lab testing the quality of the plonk at Balduzzis
We’d bumped into a girl from our cabinas whilst touring the vineyards, so we hung out that evening discussing her previous travels in South East Asia, and exchanging S. America tips.
On our final day we were planning on doing a long day trek in a nearby National Park called Altas de Lircay where you can clamber up to a basalt plateau, but in the end we decided to bum around the hostel, sunbathing by the pool and watching bad films on our cable TV. At breakfast we had a pretty lol convo with a local Chilean dude about how lazy Argentines are, how they’re gonna end up like Greece, how they’re so in debt, their country’s in ruin, they have no industry, their politicians are corrupt idols, and vs. Chile they’re a disgrace and need a proper democracy and to get to work!! We smiled politely whilst nibbling away on our toast and were thankful for the excuse of checking out so we could leave. Jeez!
Next, back to another city, the bohemian Unesco site, Valparaiso…