Imagine yourself on an old train that chugs past huge expanses of vineyards. You have a glass of fine wine in your hand and singers croon old melodies. This daydream can come true in the Colchagua Valley, one of Chile's most representative wine tourism destinations.
The Central Valley is nestled between two mountain ranges (the Andes and the Coastal Mountain Range) and crossed by the rivers that make their soil so fertile. These expanses of land have been used to grow wine grapes, which were originally brought over from Europe, since the Colonial period. In the late 1970's, Chilean wine producers began to use modern technology to take full advantage of the hilly topography, sea and mountain winds, and notable temperature variations that have made the country one of the New World's leading wine exporters.
Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grow beautifully in this region, and each selection presents subtle differences depending on the terroir in which the grapes are grown. Experts and sommeliers are on-hand at most local wineries to guide you through your experience of the bouquets, flavors and body of these fine wines.
The Aconcagua, Casablanca, Colchagua, San Antonio-Leyda, Maipo, Cachapoal, Curicó and Maule Valleys are key destinations on this journey. In addition to sampling some of Chile's best wines, you can discover boutique hotels, horseback riding routes, bicycle paths, museums and other points of interest that make traveling through these valleys quite an experience.
• Aconcagua: San Felipe (94 km north of Santiago on Route 57) is the closest town to the vineyards. Buses depart the Los Héroes terminal.
• Casablanca: Take Route 68 to Casablanca, 75 km east of Santiago. Buses depart the Pajaritos Terminal.
• San Antonio and Leyda: Take the Autopista del Sol to Leyda (Km 92). The port of San Antonio is 112 km from Santiago.
• Maipo: If you are interested in visiting the Upper Maipo Valley, head to the town of Pirque. From downtown Santiago, take Av. Vicuña Mackenna southeast until it turns into Av. Concha y Toro. Once you reach the municipality of Puente Alto, continue south onto Av. Concha y Toro to the bridge that crosses the Maipo River (Concha y Toro Bridge). Pirque's main square is just a little further down the road. There are also buses departing the Bellavista de la Florida Metro Station (Line 5)
• Cachapoal: This wine valley is located 14 km south of Rancagua. If you are leaving from Santiago, take Route 5 south for 84 km. There's a by-pass close to Rancagua, so keep a sharp eye out once you reach Graneros. Buses depart Santiago every 30 min and there are several daily Metrotren (rapid transit train) from Estación Central. The trip takes 90 minutes.
• Colchagua: The heart of this valley is the town of Santa Cruz (191 km southeast of Santiago). From Rancagua, follow Route 5 until you reach the northern entrance to San Fernando. Cross Av. O'Higgins and take Route I-50 (the Wine Highway) to the entrance of Santa Cruz by way of Paniahue. Bus service is available from the Santiago and Rancagua terminals.
• Curicó: This locality 194 km southeast of Santiago can be reached via Route 5 south. Buses depart Terminal Sur in Santiago (near the Universidad de Santiago Metro Station). The journey takes approximately two and a half hours.
• Maule: Take Route 5 south to the city of Talca (about 257 km from Santiago). Buses depart Terminal del Sur in Santiago (near the Universidad de Santiago Metro Station). The trip takes about three and a half hours.
The Wine Train departs San Fernando, 140 km south of Santiago, and takes passengers on an unforgettable 90-minute journey to Santa Cruz. During the tour, you'll have an opportunity to sample local wines and a variety of the region's finest cheeses. (Tours have been temporarily suspended due to the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake. Check www.trendelvino.cl for more information. Under normal circumstances, the train leaves San Fernando every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Reservations required.)
The valleys put their best foot forward each March and April as the harvest festivities begin. Enjoy food and wine tastings, handicrafts, traditional cuisine, cueca contests for young and old (Chile's traditional dance), rodeo tricks and pageants.
Some wineries pair their wines with dishes designed to bring out the flavors and aromas of both the food and the drink. Don't miss out on a chance to dine in one of the region's winery restaurants.
It may sound obvious, but don't even think of driving if you've been drinking. According to Chilean law, the legal limit is between 0.5 and 0.99 grams per 1000 ml. Driving under such conditions is considered a misdemeanor. "Intoxicated" is defined as having a concentration of over 1 gram per 1000ml, and this is considered a crime. Penalties for these offenses range from license suspension to fines starting at US$80.
Not all valleys have proper routes, but you can still visit the vineyards, as most offer individual guided tours or tastings. Please check their Websites first.
Travelers and their experience in the Central Valley Vineyards