“So give as much care to the end as the beginning.”
~Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The end of a journey can be a funny thing. Sightseeing is over, bags are packed, the home fires beckon. Like an afterthought, the last day often becomes a footnote to the trip instead of the final paragraph.
The end of this trip, however, refused to be relegated to a footnote, challenging us with late- evening-only departures from Santiago to the U.S. This last day wanted to be a full-fledged adventure, as special as when the trip had begun way back in Buenos Aires, and it was up to us to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity. We would have an entire day, but we would have to check out of our hotel many hours before it was time to leave.
Our solution was a delicious one…an all-day wine excursion with Uncorked Wine Tours to Chile’s Casablanca Valley. Our guide would pick us up at the hotel, keep our luggage safely locked in the van while we visited three wineries, and best of all, would drop us at the airport at the end of the day. Suddenly we had a plan and a wonderfully-sounding final paragraph.
We were told to expect between two and eight people on the tour, but when our guide and driver pulled up at the hotel, Herb and I were the only ones who had booked that day. Our small group excursion had turned into a private event. And even more appealing, our guide Andrea explained that the wineries we would be visiting were considered “boutique” vineyards, intimate, picturesque settings with tours and tastings limited to small groups.
The Casablanca Valley is about an hour’s drive northwest of Santiago and twenty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Its proximity to the Pacific brings cool morning fog, reminiscent of California’s coastal climate. As we drove, Andrea spoke passionately and enthusiastically about the area, the winemaking process and the wineries we would be visiting.
Our first stop was Bodegas RE, a small family vineyard created by Pablo Morandé, considered a pioneer of Casablanca Valley winemaking. The “RE” in the Bodegas name refers to “Revelación, Recreación and Revolución,” Morandé’s goal of merging old-world methods and modern winemaking. We began our tour in the vineyards, a tranquil setting among palm trees and distant hills.
Next, we visited the Licores and Balsameria rooms, two places where Recreación is in full swing. Wide glass bottles with narrow necks line walls of wooden shelves in the Licores room. Each is filled with various fruits and flowers mixed with spirits that will sit for two to four years, recreating an old tradition that produces artisanal fruit liquors such as limoncello. The Balsameria room, where balsamics and syrups for Italian desserts are created, requires an even longer process. Every four years, ingredients are moved between five Italian wood barrels, taking twenty years to complete. Bodegas RE is experimenting with shortening the process to ten years.
The most surprising part of the tour was the barrel cellar, where 100-year-old clay pots look more like an archeological find than a winery. Grapes are mixed in the pots by hand every day for three to four months. It’s a slower process than modern techniques, but it eliminates the step for transferring the grapes from stainless steel vats to oak barrels. The cellar also houses new barrels made from cement molds designed to re-create their clay predecessors.
Back upstairs, we tasted several Bodegas RE wines, which were served with bread, cheese and olives and the vineyard’s olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In addition to its wine label, Bodegas RE operates a small shop of locally-sourced products. And like the vineyard itself, the shop seamlessly blends old and new, evidence of the thought and care that have gone into the Morandé family’s Recreacíon.
Loma Larga Vineyards
Back in the van, we headed to the next winery, Loma Larga Vineyards, a short distance from Bodegas RE. We drove along a leafy country road lined with wooden fences, passing a lake and a horse farm before reaching the vineyard entrance. It was a breathtaking setting, with the vines growing among apple, avocado, almond and walnut trees and magnificent flowers, most especially, roses.
Our Loma Larga guide Karla explained that in addition to their beauty, the roses act as a protector of the vines, a sort of early warning system for problems. If the roses appear diseased or stressed, there’s a good chance the vines will soon follow.
We toured the production room, a modern facility with a steel walkway overlooking the tanks, and the barrel cellar. The vineyard produces two lines, Lomas de Valle and Loma Larga, which ages in French oak casks.
The tasting took place on the patio, creating the feeling that we had been invited to someone’s home. We sampled four different wines, snacked on cheese and crackers and enjoyed delightful conversation with Andrea and Karla. Between the glorious gardens, chirping birds and near-perfect weather, it was an unbelievably sublime moment. I would have been most content to have stayed until the plane picked us up at the end of the driveway!
Reality being reality, however, it was time to move on. Our final stop was Quintay Vineyards, ten minutes up the road from Loma Larga. Andrea had arranged a multi-course lunch at Quintay, pairing a different wine with each serving. It was so deliciously over-the-top that all I could do was laugh when I realized that the beautiful grilled salmon course wasn’t the entrée, but the appetizer! After the meal, we were given a brief tour, followed by cappuccino and dessert.
It was late afternoon when we left the Casablanca Valley. As we drove to the Santiago airport, I couldn’t help but think back on the past three weeks. Every day had been so rich and rewarding and completely different from anywhere we’d traveled. Antarctica was clearly the trip’s centerpiece, but the other destinations framed the experience, like the smooth outer edges of a jigsaw puzzle. I was especially grateful that flight schedules had made us dig deeper beyond our typical first-flight-of-the-morning routine, giving our last day of travel the proper attention it deserved.
It had been an extraordinary day in the Casablanca Valley, and now whenever I have a glass of Chilean wine, I will think of sitting on that patio in the garden of vines and roses.