Chile’s grape es­capes

Wine and dine at chic de­signer digs near San­ti­ago

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - NATASHA DRAGUN

The mid­dle of Chile’s south­ern wine re­gion is, in the­ory, not the most ob­vi­ous lo­ca­tion for a build­ing de­signed to re­sem­ble Bil­bao’s Guggenheim Mu­seum. But when I glimpse the ti­ta­nium-roof struc­ture perched atop a hill of au­tum­nal grape vines, its waves bronzed in the af­ter­noon sun, the con­cept makes com­plete sense, and even more so when I learn the colour is in­tended as a tribute to Mil­lahue, this par­tic­u­lar neigh­bour­hood within the Cachapoal Val­ley, which trans­lates as “place of gold” in the lo­cal Ma­puche lan­guage.

The un­du­la­tions, I’m told, were in­spired by the sur­round­ing rolling fields. Dra­matic swaths of vine­yards tucked between the jagged Pa­cific coast and the foothills of the An­des, this part of the Chilean coun­try­side is easy to fall in love with. The slop­ing hills, val­leys, gorges and lakes; the Mediter­ranean cli­mate; plus the wind blow­ing off the ocean to the west in the morn­ing, hit­ting the An­des in the east, and then com­ing back to cool the re­gion in the evening — it all makes a par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive prospect for grape grow­ers.

Within a two-hour drive of San­ti­ago, one of South Amer­ica’s most vi­brant cap­i­tals, it’s hard to believe Cachapoal and neigh­bour­ing Colch­agua val­leys were a tourist desert as re­cently as a decade ago. Ho­tels and restau­rants were con­ve­nient at best and char­ac­ter­less at worst, and the con­cept of cel­lar doors and win­ery tours was nonex­is­tent. To­day, the re­gion has a wine trail, ap­par­ently the first of its kind in the coun­try, link­ing ar­chi­tec­turally bold new es­tates. There are ex­cel­lent restau­rants, horse rid­ing, hot-air bal­loons, spas and even a hand­ful of ec­cen­tric craft cen­tres and mu­se­ums. And while the area can be vis­ited on a day trip from San­ti­ago, it would be a shame not to stay at a beau­ti­ful bou­tique prop­erty in the area. And that in­cludes the Guggenheim-es­que build­ing at Vina Vik es­tate.

The brain­child of Nor­we­gian en­trepreneur and hote­lier Alexan­der Vik, Vina Vik es­tate cov­ers 4300ha, mostly planted with mal­bec, caber­net sauvi­gnon and carmenere, ar­guably Chile’s most fa­mous grape va­ri­ety. Ten years ago, there was noth­ing here but golden fields and plenty of po­ten­tial. With an am­bi­tious goal of pro­duc­ing South Amer­ica’s best wine, Vik set about cre­at­ing one of the con­ti­nent’s most note­wor­thy es­tates, with the ho­tel, its wines and its jaw-drop­ping semi-sub­ter­ranean cel­lar door all win­ning awards.

Opened in 2014, the ho­tel’s 22 gue­strooms were each con­ceived by a dif­fer­ent artist. Some are themed — think, For­nasetti and Her­mes — while others take in­spi­ra­tion from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, art styles and time pe­ri­ods. Takeo Hanazawa’s Shogun Suite comes with a low-slung bed, hi­noki wood tub in the bath­room and washi paper bed­side lights; the Valen­zuela Suite has huge red mu­rals by Chilean artist Se­bas­tian Valen­zuela and a Mon­dri­anstyle oak floor; and the Azulejo Suite nods to Por­tu­gal, its wall mu­rals crafted from hand­painted blue-and-white tiles.

Art also adorns pub­lic spa­ces, in­clud­ing the liv­ing area, dom­i­nated by a paint­ing by ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist Roberto Matta, one of Chile’s best-known artists. De­signed by lo­cal ar­chi­tect Smil­jan Radic, the cel­lar fea­tures an al­fresco gran­ite boul­der in­stal­la­tion by Radic and his wife Marcela Cor­rea; in­side, a wine-in­spired mu­ral by Ed­uardo Car­doso spans mul­ti­ple walls across myr­iad rooms.

Guests en­joy pri­vate tast­ings, ex­plor­ing the es­tate on horse­back or moun­tain bike, or sim­ply re­lax­ing on sun­lounges over­look­ing the strik­ing can­tilevered pool made of Ab­so­lute Nero gran­ite and ex­tend­ing out over the val­ley and lake be­low. There are also winethemed spa treat­ments, in­clud­ing a mas­sage us­ing house-made grape­seed oil or a body scrub with brown sugar and grape skin.

A 45-minute drive south­west in the Colch­agua Val­ley, other vine­yards have be­gun lur­ing tourists with more than just a flight of wine. A mem­ber of Re­lais & Chateaux, La­pos­tolle Res­i­dence fea­tures four in­di­vid­u­ally de­signed vil­las, each with a ter­race over­look­ing the bio­dy­namic vine­yard.

Meals in the in­ti­mate restau­rant are pre­pared us­ing prod­ucts plucked from an on-site or­ganic veg­etable and herb gar­den, while honey, olive oil and fruit are sourced from the or­chard. Time your visit right to see grapes be­ing har­vested or other­wise there are win­ery tours that end with a tast­ing in the cav­ernous bar­rel room.

The new wave of ac­com­mo­da­tion cap­tures the post­card-per­fect coun­try­side and em­pha­sises that vine­yard vis­its in Chile are not for those in a hurry. Aus­tralians will be fa­mil­iar with pay­ing a to­ken sum of money to taste a hand­ful of wines; there’s no tour, no talk on the wine­mak­ing process, and no reser­va­tions are needed. In Chile, you’re re­quired to ring ahead and then ded­i­cate a cou­ple of hours to each es­tab­lish­ment on your itin­er­ary. Ex­pect a tour of the vines, a visit to the fer­ment­ing fa­cil­i­ties and a full tast­ing of the es­tate’s suite of wines — cheese plat­ter op­tional.

There are se­ri­ously savvy pro­duc­ers here­abouts so each es­tate comes with a dif­fer­ent story and di­ver­sions other than what’s in the bot­tle. The car­bon-neu­tral win­ery at Montes was de­signed with feng shui prin­ci­ples in mind and fea­tures a freshly minted restau­rant, Fue­gos de Apalta (Fires of Apalta), by ap­plauded Ar­gen­tinian chef Fran­cis Mall­mann; the fo­cus is Patag­o­nian fare, cooked over an open fire. Nearby, Neyen is home to some of the old­est vines in Chile, with caber­net grapes planted in 1892; en­joy a glass of wine and plateada (beef stew) in the 1890 cel­lar, or have staff take you trekking in the moun­tains with a packed pic­nic lunch. Many visit the tra­di­tional Viu Ma­nent es­tate for its beau­ti­ful set­ting, but many more come for the horse and hot air bal­loon rides and new al­fresco restau­rant Rayuela, set un­der a canopy of vines.

Also on the Viu Ma­nent es­tate is chef Pi­lar Ro­driguez’s Food & Wine Stu­dio, by far the big­gest culi­nary draw­card in the Colch­agua Val­ley and ar­guably one of the hottest ta­bles in the coun­try. Hav­ing worked in fash­ion for most of her life, Ro­driguez re­trained as a chef

La­pos­tolle Res­i­dence re­sort and win­ery, left; Vina Vik Mil­lahue, above; tast­ing room at Vina Vik, be­low; oc­to­pus dish at Food & Wine Stu­dio, cen­tre be­low; bath with a view at Vina Vik, bot­tom

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