Inside the Colchagua Valley in Chile

The Colchagua Valley in Chile is the home of some of Chile’s most iconic wineries. Marcela Burgos explores the region.

Sierras de Bellavista, Chile
Sierras de Bellavista, Chile

While the international trade defines Colchagua as the source of Chile’s most classic wines, local producers prefer to talk about its diversity. The Colchagua Valley, with the second-largest vineyard surface in the country, is where some of the wine industry’s best-known figures are based, but is also home to small and diverse producers that are beginning to be recognised in their own right.

The region at a glance

Writings by Claudio Gay (1800-1873), a French geographer who became Chilean, indicate that by the mid-19th century, some 1,240ha of Colchagua had already been planted with Vitis vinifera, and it was producing wines for domestic consumption and religious purposes. By the end of the 19th century, wealthy families, generally from mining, opted to own a vineyard because it was seen as prestigious. At the time, and for some decades after, the grapes were mostly used in multi-regional blends. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that mono-varietals and bottled wine began to appear.

The contemporary period of winemaking in the valley began with the golden era of the 1990s, during which projects of all sizes first brought the valley recognition. In 1988, Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) acquired Viña Los Vascos, located on an old hacienda in Peralillo. A few years later, Aurelio Montes founded Viña Montes and Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle set up Casa Lapostolle . 

The region’s production initially lacked variety but was well-regarded abroad, and it won recognition for specialising in bold red wines made from international varieties in a style inspired by the success of Napa reds and the Super Tuscans. 

In 1998, renowned businessman Carlos Cardoen gave travellers a reason to tour Colchagua, despite the many locals who mocked his venture. His not-for-profit organisation, Fundación Cardoen, opened the Colchagua Museum, which was a first step towards having the region’s history of winemaking recognised. A year later, the Asociación Gremial Viñas de Colchagua, Chile’s first regional association of wineries, was founded. Its purpose was to bring together producers with a similar vision of promoting wine tourism and protecting the Colchagua denomination of origin. Maite Rodríguez, the general manager of Viñas de Colchagua, explains that it has 21 members, representing more than 70% of all the wineries in the valley. This level of representation enables them to meet with government authorities to discuss specific issues and request support, such as the recent recognition of Apalta and Los Lingues as two of the current total of four denominations of origin in Chile.

Terroir expression

Located some 150km south of the capital Santiago, Colchagua has more than 33,000ha  of vineyards that run from the Andes Mountain Range past the Coastal Mountain Range to the Pacific Ocean. Chile’s three zones – Andes, Entre Cordilleras (between the mountains) and Costa (the coast) – have very different geography and also showcase an exciting diversity of wine styles.

The development of viticultural projects in the Andean foothills is concentrated around the Los Lingues subzone, which benefits from a cooling influence from the mountains along with great soil diversity that has resulted in fascinating micro-terroir wines. Viñas Sierras de Bellavista, the highest vineyard in Colchagua (1,200m above sea level), has shown itself to be unconventional: it planted 1.5ha of Riesling in 2011 that is already counted as one of the best examples of this variety in Chilean soil. 

The Entre Cordilleras area of Colchagua has fertile soils which provide a lot of fruit character for varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Syrah. The most recognised of its subzones is Apalta, which has south-facing slopes with soils of granitic origin. Here is where two iconic regional blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère originate, the Clos Apalta 2015 and Neyen 2016, both of which have earned scores of 100 points from wine critic James Suckling.

Casa Silva, founded in 1997, pioneered planting in Colchagua’s coast in 2008, and ever since there has been a trend to exploit coastal subzones. The Paredones commune now has plantings of more than 170ha of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Gris and Pinot Noir, among other cool-climate varieties. However, notable wine consultant Fernando Almeda, who was the technical director for Miguel Torres Chile for more than 20 years, explains that the potential for development in coastal areas such as Marchigüe, Lolol and Paredones is limited; underground water supplies are scarce, most of the rain falls in the winter months and there is limited infrastructure for water storage. “As a result, the Chilean General Water Directorate (Dirección General de Agua, DGA) has banned any further prospecting of the water basin in the area,” he says, adding that the decision has led to the choice of drought-resistant rootstocks for new plantings and “even established vineyards being converted to dry farming”.

Small producers are also developing coastal micro-terroirs. For instance Marco Puyó, the former technical director of VSPT, has set up Viña Dagaz, which is focused on the area of Pumanque, another sparsely populated coastal area. Other examples include Maturana Wines in San Fernando, Viña Fanoa near Santa Cruz and Clos Santa Ana and La Despensa Boutique, both funded by foreigners and located near the town of Población.

With vineyards spread throughout the valley, rather than just around the Santa Cruz area, as was the case 15 years ago, there is also a proliferation of non-traditional red varieties such as Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

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Wine tourism

In 1996, six wineries set up the Colchagua Valley Wine Route with funding from Chile’s Economic Development Agency (CORFO). Their goal was to promote the development of wine tourism as an economic activity, while raising awareness of the region’s cultural heritage and providing education about wine production.

Official figures from Viñas de Colchagua estimate that 80% of visitors to member wineries are foreigners, mostly from Brazil, the US and Canada. The tourist accommodation available (700 beds) ranges from boutique châteaux to rural hotels, and from feng shui-designed wineries to traditional Chilean architecture.

The harvest festival was held this year for the 20th time and had a total of 150,000 visitors in one single day, which is 20% more than the wineries receive during the rest of the year. “Originally the harvest festival was designed and focused on tourists,” explains Maite Rodríguez of Viñas de Colchagua. “But now in association with the municipality, we have been able to develop a more popular version to focus on the local people, so they can really feel part of the wine industry.” 

The main town in the Colchagua Valley is Santa Cruz, which since 2001 has had a major, 150-room hotel, Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, in the centre of town. Hotel director Emilio Cardoen says it can be hard for the area to compete with the wine regions of Maipo and Casablanca because they are much closer to Santiago, where Chile’s international airport is located. “However, we believe we don’t compete directly because Colchagua is a destination, not a spontaneous stopover,” he notes.

There is plenty of new investment going into wine tourism, and the Fundación Cardoen, of which Emilio Cardoen is also director, is a major player. The region’s biggest wine tourism attraction is still the Colchagua Museum, one of the best in the country, and the Cardoen family which owns the Viña Santa Cruz, will inaugurate a brand new Wine Museum –  an investment of $2m – later this year. The family opened an observatory in 2006 that offers stargazing to tourists and in 2013 also opened a car museum. Moreover, the gastronomic scene is flourishing, with Fuegos de Apalta, the Viña Montes restaurant run by recognised Patagonian-style chef Francis Mallmann, being a huge success. 

A key goal for the next government is to rebuild the railway track, an iconic mode of wine tourism transport, that was destroyed by a 2010 earthquake. Another project is the I-90 bypass, due to be finished in 2020, which is expected to reduce traffic on the road that connects the main Chilean highway with Santa Cruz; it should reduce driving time to Santiago by at least 30 minutes.

These are exciting times for Colchagua. New wine projects and associated developments are increasing oenotourism and proving beneficial for the whole region. And having produced some of Chile’s most celebrated wines, Colchagua is now becoming more diverse as coastal and Andean areas are developed. 

Marcela Burgos

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This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription

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