Chile has always been known for its affordable wines; more recently its top reds have challenged the best from California and France. And now the word is getting out about its gorgeous wine country, with dramatic swaths of vineyards in valleys tucked between the jagged Pacific coast and the foothills of the Andes. Almost every significant Chilean wine region boasts architecturally bold new wineries, excellent restaurants and its own wine route, from established valleys like Colchagua and Casablanca to up-and-comers like San Antonio—one of my favorites. And all can be seen on day trips from Chile's capital, Santiago.
This stretch of open coastal land ringed by forested hills has become Chile's top white wine region. In the 1980s, against pretty much everyone's advice, viticulturist Pablo Morandé decided to plant about 50 acres of Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc among the thornbushes. His instincts were right: The brisk Pacific breezes keep the summer heat in check, resulting in healthy vines with slow-ripening fruit. Now Casablanca has eight wineries and more than 10,000 acres of vines.
House of Morandé This glass-fronted restaurant in the middle of Morandé's vineyards recently lured chef Christopher Carpentier away from Santiago's celebrated Agua. His menu includes dishes to pair with Casablanca's best wines, like sautéed baby octopus with pisco-sour mayonnaise. DETAILS Ruta 68, km 61, Casablanca: 011-56-32-754-701 or morande.cl.
Veramonte This imposing, colonnaded winery pours samples of wines like its sumptuous Primus, a Carmenère-Merlot-Cabernet blend, in a giant tasting room with vineyard views. DETAILS Ruta 68, km 66, Casablanca; 011-56-32-329-999 or veramonte.cl.
Indómita A terrific cliff-top restaurant serving dishes like rabbit dumplings with mango-ginger chutney and shrimp with mushroom tapenade. DETAILS Ruta 68, km 64, Casablanca; 011-56-32-754-400 or indomita.cl.
Some of Chile's best reds come from Colchagua, 80 miles south of Santiago, where high summer temperatures help make for fantastic Carmenère. There are 32 wineries here, 14 of which can be visited via the Colchagua Wine Train (trendelvinochile.cl), a resurrected steam train that chugs through the valley between the cities of San Fernando and Santa Cruz.
Casa Silva One of the region's first wineries, with its own polo field and rodeo arena; last year the original farmhouse became a boutique hotel, with seven rustic-chic rooms furnished with native-wood beds. DETAILS Hijuela Norte, San Fernando; 011-56-72-716-519 or casasilva.cl.
Montes This producer, which recently debuted a high-end Carmenère named Purple Angel, opened a $6.5 million winery in December 2004 on their La Finca de Apalta estate, with its own moat and an enormous cedar angel in the lobby. Last summer, the winery introduced a hiking trail that winds its way through the Carmenère plantings up a 3,000-foot mountain with views of the estate and the Colchagua Valley as well. DETAILS Camino Millahue de Apalta, Santa Cruz; 011-56-72-825-417 or monteswines.com.
Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana Alvaro Espinoza, a trailblazer in organic and biodynamic winemaking, runs this eco-conscious winery made of stone, copper, adobe and wood, a part of parent company Viñedos Emiliana. It produces wines like the silky, black currantï¿½tinged Coyam. DETAILS Camino Lo Moscoso, Nancagua; 011-56-72-859-222 or voe.cl.
San Antonio Valley
Vines were first planted on the rolling coastal slopes of San Antonio Valley less than 10 years ago, which explains why the region still has only four small boutique wineries—but they're producing some of Chile's most exceptional Sauvignon Blancs, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs.
Matetic Visitors can taste high-caliber wines like the powerful 2003 EQ Syrah, take rides on cables running through the treetops on the property, milk sheep and learn how to make cheese (there's a small working ranch here as well). DETAILS Fundo Rosario, Lagunillas; 011-56-32-741-500 or mateticvineyards.com.
Casa Marín One of Chile's top innovators, this winery is less than three miles from the Pacific. Maria Luz Marín, among the first women to make headway in Chile's male-dominated wine industry, is producing unbelievably graceful Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. The winery will also soon have one of Chile's first vino spas, offering crushed-grape body wraps and warm grapeseed-oil massages in a cozy house overlooking the Pacific. DETAILS Camino Lo Abarca, Provincia de San Antonio; 011-56-2-334-2986 or casamarin.cl; by appointment only.
Connie McCabe is a freelance writer living in Santiago, Chile.