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Santiago Chile Travel: Food, Wine

Wine Valleys of Chile

Middle Chile around Santiago is home to most of the country's agriculture. There are lots of tours to vineyards and wine valleys that are blessed with a unique climate that produces some of the world's best grapes. Bus service between Santiago and Valparaiso routes through the Casablanca Valley and is generally good. You can rent a car. See also Indomita Winery page for pictures.

Santiago Chile Travel -- Wine, Coffee, Great Food, Great People! Casablanca Chile vineyards in Spring

From northern Atacama Desert to the dramatic fiords of southern Patagonia, visitors to Chile are simply spoiled for choice!

With some 4,300 kms (2,700 miles) of appealingly scenic country to cover, and widely different climates that can have travelers toting both tropical garb and parkas, choose they must, except for those lucky enough to have unlimited time.

And so it was I had to choose where to go in Chile. Like most overseas visitors, I arrived in the capital, Santiago, where I planned a week's sightseeing before taking in Patagonia's clement November springtime weather and long daylight hours.

The Middle Chile region that's home to 3/4 of Chile's 16 million inhabitants and almost all of its agriculture, makes a natural starting point. Dating back to 1541, its many colonial buildings give it the feel of a European city, and long blocks of pedestrian shopping malls in the popular Centro downtown area make it an eminently walkable city.

And there's much to like about  . . .

Santiaguinos, as Santiago residents are known. How they greet one another with a handshake and kiss on the cheek, how they appreciate that visitors attempt to speak Spanish, and their unfailing courtesy that sets the bar for customer service. Many cultural similarities with Canadians -- conservatively well-dressed, polite -- make us feel at home, though a few differences, such as food and drink, offer some interesting quirks.

Food! Like the Chilean passion for ice cream. Yes, it's popular in Canada, too, but Santiaguinos take it to new heights, keeping dozens of vendors busy scooping cones. Even McDonald's joins in, with ice cream counters that open directly to the sidewalk.

Santiaguinos, too, like good coffee, with Cafe Caribe and Cafe Haiti outlets standing in for our Starbucks and Tim Hortons. (That some prefer coffee with 'spice' is evident at establishments euphemistically dubbed 'Coffee with Legs', the local name for coffee bars where the servers are scantily-clad women.)

Likewise the many sandwich bars . . .

. . . the local answer to fast food, where customers stand to eat hot dogs and sandwiches served with a dizzying variety of toppings from guacamole to spicy salsa. Be sure to try empanadas, those small baked or deep-fried pouches of pastry with savoury fillings, and a Pisco Sour, a citrus-y cocktail made from distilled wine.

Ironically, given the region's agricultural focus, vegetables and salads must be ordered a la carte, though fresh fruits and juices are widely available. For traditional Chilean foods, try El Hoyo, near the Metro Central subway station, and its specialty drink Terremoto, a mixture of the new wine called pipeno (pip-AIN-yo), and pineapple juice and vanilla ice cream that's served in a pitcher.

Seafood and fish lovers will delight . . .

. . . in the the wide availability and selection of all manner of fresh fish and seafood. Donde Augusto, in the Mercado Central market across from Plaza de Armas, the spacious town square, is a great spot for a seafood lunch.

To sample what's dubbed the world's largest Chilean wine menu, head to Santiago's trendy El Golf district, and Wine 365, a restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton Santiago, so named for the 365 Chilean wine labels on offer, one for each day of the year. Wine 365 also sells Wines of Chile, a guidebook to 90 Chilean wineries that winelovers will find invaluable.

Canadian visitors find that Chile's wine country evoke images of the Niagara Falls Ontario wine growing region.

And, oenophile or not, Chilean vineyard tours are well worth a day trip or more, with many now operating restaurants and tastings for wines and vintages that may not be offered for export.

A few, like Vina Santa Carolina, still operate within the city, but most are now relegated to the outlying valleys, as is Chile's largest winery, Vina Concha y Toro. The one nearest to Santiago (about an hour's drive south) and therefore most visited, is located in the Maipo Valley. [Note: a list of all Chile's wine valleys is posted below].

Since the Rio Maipo Canyon is also the main destination for weekending Santiaguinos, who come here for skiing, camping, hiking, cycling and whitewater rafting, tours can and do get fully booked.

Vina Undurraga, whose wines are also available in Ontario, Canada, offers tours and tastings, and is only 34 kms/21 miles southwest from Santiago.

Both Vina Concha y Toro and Vina Undurraga date back to the mid 1800s, when 'sourcing noble root stock from Bordeaux' became fashionable. Chile became known for its reds, notably cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenere.

Carmenere stock was imported just ahead of the phylloxera plague that decimated the European stock in 1860, though for years it was thought to be merlot. Some wineries produce carmenere only in blends.

That carmenere survived in Chile . . .

. . . is not surprising. The wine growing area, which runs 1,300 km (800 miles) south from the 30th parallel to the 40th parallel (Santiago is at 33 S), enjoys dry, sunny days and cool nights, which make it a comfortable climate for people and ideal for wine growing.

This area of Chile is isolated from invading diseases, thanks to its natural boundaries -- the Andes to the east, the Coast Mountain Range and Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atacama desert to the north and too-cool Patagonia in the south. More than that, mountains and rivers subdivide this growing region into nine main wine growing valleys with their own microclimates, most within a few hours' drive from Santiago.

As is the Casablanca Valley, just 80 kms northwest of Santiago and 43 kms inland from much-visited coastal Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, a cruise ship port of call. The Casablanca Valley's cool, misty nights and hot, sunny days especially favour white wines, like sauvignon blanc and chardonnay (see Vina Indomita tour), while reds -- notably pinot noir, merlot, cabernet, syrah and carmenere -- do well in the higher temperatures of the surrounding hills.

One of the newer Casablanca wineries is Veramonte, with its first root stock planted in 1992. The winery opened in 1998, and offers both plant tours and vineyard tours, except for harvest time; from March to May, there are plant tours only, a common practice for many wineries.

Another Casablanca Valley newcomer, William Cole Vineyards, established in 1998, exports 90 percent of production, and tours are by reservation only. An onsite restaurant caters to large tour groups and wedding parties, and its well-stocked wine shop is open most days.

With the growing number wineries and the increasing popularity of Chilean wines, the tourism industry has responded with a wide variety of tours of various wine routes, with guided and self-drive tours. Wine lovers will need more than a week to visit them all, and have a wonderful time in the process. But what about Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego, or the Valley of the Moon? That's for another trip. And that is how Chile keeps us coming back for more.


Major Wine Valleys in Chile, Traveling From the North to the South

  • Elqui Valley lies about 470 km (292 miles) northwest of Santiago and inland from La Serena, and is the main vineyards for pisco, the Chilean liquor made from distilled grapes.
  • Limari (Valle de Limari) is about 450 km (280 miles) north of Santiago, south of La Serena near Ovalle, and has about four wineries.
  • Aconcagua (Valle de Aconcagua) is about 70 km (44 miles) north of Santiago (near Los Andes and the Argentina border) west to Concon, on the coast, and has about seven wineries.
  • Casablanca (Valle de Casablanca) lies about 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Santiago and 40 km (25 miles) inland (east) from Valparaiso, on Rte 68, with about 14 wineries.
  • San Antonio (Valle de San Antonio) is about 90 km (56 miles) west of Santiago on Rte 78 (roughly parallels Rte 68), with about four wineries.
  • Maipo (Valle del Maipo) is the easiest to accesss for tours from Santiago, as it's only an hour by road southeast. Maipo extends from the Andes to the Coastal Range, with about 20 wineries, including Chile's largest, Concha y Toro.
  • Cachapoal (Valle del Cachapoal) near Rancagua, is about 80 km (50 miles) south of Santiago, with about 14 wineries.
  • Colchagua (Valle de Colchagua; also called Rapel Valley is about 130 km (81 miles) south of Santiago, near Santa Cruz (with its annual grape harvest festival in March), with about 21 wineries, nine of which operate their own wine route tours.
  • Curico (Valle de Curico) is about 200 km (124 miles) south of Santiago near the town of Curico, a noted red wine producing valley, with a 3-day wine harvest festival in March, about nine wineries, including Miguel Torres.
  • Maule (Valle del Maule) about 240 km (150 miles) south of Santiago near Talca, the largest wine producing valley, responsible for half the country's exports, comprising the Rio Clara valley and the Rio Loncamilla valley, with its own wine route, and about seven wineries.
  • Southern Valleys (Valles del Sur) ~ Itata, Biobio, Malleco are about 300 km (186 miles) south of Santiago, near Nacimiente and Los Angeles, with two wineries. Itata Valley produces red wines with intense hues and fruit flavours, Biobio Valley is known for whites, Melleco Valley, where grapes mature 60 days later than Maipo Valley, is famous for chardonnays.


Traveling from Santiago to see all the Chile wine valleys and vineyards could take several weeks, so if you can, plan to stay a while. See  travel outfits for South America.