Check out Condé Nast Traveler’s exploration of wine country through Santiago, Valparaíso and the Chilean Andes.
Drawn to Chile by its sustainable viticulture practices, one writer takes a trip through the wine regions surrounding Santiago.
It took just three days of drinking my way across Chile’s majestic Andes Mountains and foggy coastal plains to fall for the ingenuity and verve of the country’s winemakers. Nowhere do traditional techniques—Chile has been producing wine since the 16th century—take place at such a dynamic crossroads of ocean, mountain, desert, and glacier. While the Finger Lakes, in New York, and Sonoma, Northern California’s alt-Napa, get more attention as the emerging wine-world capitals, discerning drinkers worship Chile. Not only for its Merlots, Cabernets, and even Chardonnays that stand up to the best California has to offer, but also because of its widespread commitment to sustainability. A majority of its winemakers have adopted an ambitious code, with standards around planting vineyards, energy consumption, and labor safety, in the hopes that by 2025 Chile will be the world’s largest producer of sustainable wines.
Prior to this trip my exposure to Chilean wine had been limited to budget-friendly options—decent Cabernets like Gato Negro. To dig into the terroir and see the pioneering practices firsthand, I needed to drive through the land. So I headed down to Chile with three fellow oenophiles for a wine adventure to take in the spectacular natural beauty, the rich culinary tradition, and the charming country villas.
Chile’s wine regions are vast, but you can get a good snapshot by exploring the areas just north and south of the capital, between Valparaíso and the Millahue Valley. We started in the Casablanca Valley, 50 miles northwest of Santiago. It’s sandwiched between the rocky Pacific coast and the Andes, where cool maritime winds and sandy clay soils yield crisp whites and sparkling wines. Seeking bubbles, we visited Casa Valle Viñamar, an old-school country villa. After a bike tour we sat down for steak asado and white-fish ceviche, served picnic-style on the front patio. Our lunch views were of never-ending vineyards and a pool-size fountain that beckoned us to take a dip. Post-picnic we had a side-by-side tasting of Viñamar’s house sparkling and one from Leyda Winery, which sits just two and a half miles from the ocean in the newly designated Leyda Valley subregion. The latter had a distinct salinity and crispness.
In the afternoon we drove 30 minutes to reach Matetic, Chile’s first biodynamic winery, in the temperate Rosario Valley. The family-owned property has a small-plates restaurant, Equilibrio, where sea bass and reineta, a local white fish, pair beautifully with its standout EQ Granite Pinot Noir. When the Matetic family, originally from Croatia, opened the winery in 1999, they were sustainable-winemaking trailblazers. The practices they brought with them remain in place today: The winery composts restaurant waste with grape pomace, meticulously maintains the diverse ecosystem of the land, and hires mostly locals.
From Matetic, it’s less than an hour to the seaport city of Valparaíso, once home to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It has brightly hued clifftop houses overlooking surfing beaches and a neoclassical fort that’s now the headquarters of Chile’s naval forces. We stayed at the picturesque Hotel Casa Higueras, a 1920s mansion converted into a hotel. When we weren’t sipping spritzes on our terrace, we were at the pool.
I had some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon at Viña San Pedro Cachapoal Andes, in the eastern Cachapoal Valley. The area’s climate of intense summers and heavy winter rains, along with mineral-rich soils, yields lush, full-bodied reds. At San Pedro’s tasting room, we sipped on Altaïr—the pinnacle of bold Bordeaux-style red blends—alongside smoked and seared meats. I could see the edge of the snowcapped Andes towering over the valley and was captivated by the relationship between Chile’s wine and its topography. San Pedro is, rightly so, protective of its surroundings: In 2016 the winery became the first in the world to convert all of its organic harvest waste into energy using a biogas plant. That facility now generates enough power to cover 60 percent of San Pedro’s requirements—or the equivalent of the energy used by 3,200 Chilean homes in one month.
For a break after all the driving, there’s the Vik Chile spa hotel in the Millahue Valley, a Frank Gehry-inspired building with undulating metal roofs. It’s surrounded by the 19 glass bungalows of its sister retreat, Puro Vik. The property is home to an 11,000-acre sustainable winery that turns out some of the country’s most interesting reds, like Old World Cabernet Sauvignon blends and Carménère—a Bordeaux varietal that was wiped out by an insect infestation in Europe. Viticulture permeates everything here, from the creative pairings at the Milla Milla restaurant to the muscle-soothing wine baths at the holistic spa.
Our pilgrimage ended back in Santiago. For our final dinner we ditched the car and rode electric scooters to Mestizo, one of the city’s top contemporary Chilean restaurants, at the south edge of Bicentenario Park. I ordered all three ceviches, empanadas, and an unforgettable parrilla-seared octopus on a savory corn purée. As the sun set we raised a glass of Carménère in a salud. I couldn’t say whether the wine, the food, or the views were the best part. When it comes to Chile, the magic is in the mix.
There are direct flights from several major hubs in the United States to Santiago’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. Flight times from the U.S. are long (9 hours from Houston and 10 to 11 from New York City and Los Angeles), but Santiago is just one hour ahead of Eastern time, so adjusting to local time shouldn’t be too hard.
Where to stay
Start or end a road trip in Santiago, a city of more than 6 million where luxe high-rises tower over colonial-era markets. Stay at Hotel Bidasoa (doubles from $150; hotelbidasoa.cl), a boutique eco-hotel in the Vitacura neighborhood: The electricity comes from solar power, the air conditioners use aerothermal energy, and the hotel car (for airport pickups and drop-offs) is a hybrid.
Hit the road
To rent a car in Santiago, you’ll need a valid identity document or pass-port, a valid driver’s license from your country of origin, and a credit card. Rent from trusted companies—two of the best are Econorent and Europcar. By South American standards, driving in Chile is easy for North Americans: Drive on the right, pass on the left, and use your horn sparingly.