Chile’s grape escapes
Wine and dine at chic designer digs near Santiago
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