A couple of months ago I was just like you: I’d crafted what I thought at the time was the perfect route through South America, cruising merrily along the gringo trail, diverting occasionally for the miscellaneous hidden gems I’d heard about through the grapevine. But as it turned out there were several grapevines missing from the grapevine discussion. Enter Chile’s Colchagua Valley. My initial plan was to call it a day at the Mendozan Malbecs but, following several tastings in the area, my thirst was far from quenched: the time was clearly ripe to search for something new.
Colchagua extends across Chile’s central valley, a beautiful strip of epic proportions dedicated to traditional agriculture and winemaking. It is known for its full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and Malbecs, not to mention Carmenere, which was rediscovered in 1994 and is now mostly produced in Chile. That said, there’s a plethora of other excellent red and white varietals found throughout the region. Despite being much closer to the equator than Europe’s vineyards, the region has a solid Mediterranean climate, with the nearby Pacific Ocean bringing a consistent cooling effect to the valley. And, perhaps above all, the Andes help to maintain grape acidity levels through diurnal temperature variation, and deliver fresh melted water into the valley in the form of the Tinguiririca River.
But it’s obviously not just the solid science that gives Colchagua its appeal: aesthetically, the valley is nothing short of stunning. The gorgeous landscape is accented with endless picturesque vineyards, and the perfect summer days drastically descend into night skies that are a stargazer’s paradise. There are plenty of great hiking options along the mountain range, achieved either on horseback or on foot. Meanwhile sun and surf worshippers will be satisfied with Pichilemu, just under two hours from Santa Cruz and “widely considered the best surfing in South America year-round” by Fodor’s.
Colchagua is a destination that is gaining traction every year, and one that is well worth discovering while it is still within its prime.
Visiting a handful of wineries is clearly the main event in Colchagua. The area does continue to maintain an air of reserve – only a handful of wineries are currently open to the public – but I believe that this only adds to Colchagua’s charm and hidden gem status. The following wineries are an excellent starting point that will provide you with a solid grounding in what the region has to offer, including the essential grape varietals, as well as the contrast between industrial operations and smaller-scale outfits.
Montes Winery: This boutique winery is located in the heart of Apalta, an area synonymous with outstanding quality and prestige. They are also the outfit behind Chile’s first ultra-premium wine, Alpha M. Throughout the winery what stands out is the astounding attention to detail: the building has been oriented about the surrounding landscape according to the principles of feng shui, while one of Montes’ bottles features exclusive artwork from Gerald Scarfe, the revered illustrator behind the iconic cover of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The carbon neutral winery also has an attached conservation area dedicated to preserving local flora and fauna, meanwhile the barrels receive the soft whisper of round-the-clock Gregorian chant to give them – quite literally – non-stop good vibes.
Lapostolle Clos Apalta Winery: Also located in Apalta, just a stone’s throw from Montes, lies this modern, stunning, state-of-the-art architectural delight. The epic six-storey, gravitational, fully organic winery was crafted around the golden ratio, and was founded by Grand Marnier heiress Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle. In contrast to some other more modern operations in the region, Lapostolle’s vines were originally brought over from Europe last century, the descendants of a great French lineage. The south-facing vineyard receives two hours less sunlight per day than the area average, allowing for slower grape ripening and richer flavours. Rounding off the sophisticated estate in a crescendo is The Residence, the attached boutique lodgings (casitas), which come complete with an infinity pool and gorgeous private terraces overlooking the vineyards and surrounding mountains.
MontGras Winery: While some of the other wineries can sometimes feel dauntingly-large in scale, MontGras instead creates the impression of a classic, close-knit, family enterprise. Operated by the Gras brothers, the winery manages to strongly match its larger competitors, producing highest quality wines in what feels like a more exclusive setting. Their unique selling point for tours is ‘My Harvest’, an extremely fun programme that allows visitors to become a winemaker for the day, creating your own unique blend by selecting up to three grape varieties to be transformed into a premium wine. And the regular tastings come accompanied with quirky appetisers that effectively demonstrate the wines’ capabilities.
The Colchagua Museum
As I alluded to earlier, the activities in Colchagua don’t start and end with the wonderful wine. Located just off Santa Cruz’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, sits Museo Colchagua, one of the continent’s best private collections, boasting well-decked exhibition halls inside a huge colonial building with a stunning courtyard attached. The museum encompasses all one could wish to know about Chile and elsewhere on the continent, including palaeontology, pre-Columbian art, the colonial era, and subsequent liberation. It is well worth a few hours – if not a few days – of your time in Colchagua: everything is beautifully presented, and finding exactly what you want is made easy by following the guided circuit through the halls.
By far the most impressive collection is ‘The Big Rescue’, a series of rooms and tunnels dedicated to recounting the tale of ‘los 33’, the 33 Chilean men trapped in the San José mine in 2010, an event that captured the eyes and hearts of billions around the globe. The owners and curators have done a fantastic job of securing endless memorabilia from the mine itself, and presenting it in such a way that really captures the severity and scale of this iconic event. While there are endless attractions throughout Colchagua, the Museo certainly is a must-see.
Colchagua Wine Tours
Colchagua as a tourist destination is still somewhat in its infancy. As a result sourcing reliable information and professional tour guides is something of a challenge, particularly if you’re looking for a good level of spoken English. Thankfully the region is now served by a local tour operator, Colchagua Wine Tours. It would be difficult to reduce CWT to a single unique selling point: they offer completely-customisable tailored tour packages, knowledgeable native English-speaking guides, and a well thought-out pricing system that far surpasses that offered by rival tour operators in Santiago. It’s a rarity to find such a good level of service, and I have no doubts that CWT will contribute to Colchagua’s continuing rise to stardom.
I first ran into CWT’s co-founder Connie, a US expat, at a wine harvest festival in a small town in the heart of Colchagua, and found her to capture the spirit of CWT perfectly: enthusiastic, personable, and busy investigating up-and-coming trends in the area. Coupled with co-founder Francisco – the Chilean-born entrepreneur with a real passion for putting home-grown businesses on the map – CWT offer unparalleled knowledge and an unrivalled quality of service. Having spent a weekend with them in the area, I was extremely impressed with their incredible attention to deal, ability to seamlessly stitch together a complicated itinerary, and willingness to adapt the plans according to our preferences. For the perfect Colchagua experience, CWT is your go-to guide.
There are several ways to get to Colchagua Valley including by car, bus and private transportation. The trip is approximately 1-2 hours south of Santiago depending on the day and time that you leave. From Santiago, take Route 5 South. You’ll pass the cities of Rancagua and San Fernando. Take Route I-50 (Wine Road - Carretera del Vino) which leads to Santa Cruz. Once you are on Route I-50, Santa Cruz is approximately 41 km (25 miles) away. You can’t miss the entrance on the left hand side.
NOI Blend Hotel
Hotel Quinta Maria
Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel
Casa Colchagua Chilean Gourmet
Rayuela Wine and Grill at Viu Manent
La Famiglia Italian
Vino Bello Italian
The Clubhouse at Casa Silva Winery
Colchagua Wine Tours
Chile: (+56 9) 7529 7525
USA (+1) 301 637 5883