Many Argentines who visit Chile head straight to the beach resort of Viña del Mar where, dipping their toes into the Pacific, they find it’s not Pinamar – and instead of swimming out to sea, they swiftly withdraw from the frigid surf. The nippy seas, though, offer some benefits – just a short distance inland, the foggy weather, receding in the afternoon, is ideal for the Casablanca valley’s cool-climate wines.
I’ve been to Casablanca several times over the years but – like those Argentines – usually just passing through, pausing at high-profile wineries on or near the highway, like Veramonte, Indómita and Casas del Bosque. Most recently, though, I stayed in Casablanca and visited several smaller wineries – affiliated with the small-scale Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI) – and one other attraction that I’d missed before.
Founded in 1753 by Domingo Ortiz de Rozas, its palm-studded Plaza de Armas bordered by low-slung adobes, Casablanca has a colonial ambience but a newer concentration of restaurants and cafés that, of course, stress local wines. My own accommodations, though, were just out of town, where the Casavino Hotel consists of three scattered cabañas and one almost literal cave excavated into the hillside.
Shortly after I settle into my subterranean space, Casavino’s Alfonso Barros arrives with a horse carriage to clatter back down the road to Bodegas Re, just off the Valparaíso highway. Here, Pablo Morandé and family – a pioneering producer here with roots in the southerly Maule valley – turn out quality varietals, but also innovative blends, that go by names such as Chardonnoir, Cabergnan, and Syranoir. There are also fruit liqueurs, olive oil, and balsamic vinegars in a designer winery whose cellars nevertheless include classic clay tinajas from Maule.
Here, Brazilian winemaker Angela Mochi meets me with her car and, after a quick lunch in town, drops me at Viña La Recova, where grapes gathered from a small vineyard, on sloping terrain, enter a couple of recycled shipping containers for processing. That contrasts with Bodega Re’s stylish presentation, but La Recova also has a canvas-shaded deck and patios for sampling the area’s typical whites – most notably Sauvignon Blanc – and also the sparkling Tarsila Brut. It’s so informal that, when my host Judith Ramírez invites me into winemaker David Giacomini’s house, he’s stacked boxes of wine in the living room. That night, Alfonso Barros prepares dinner for me and his other Casavino guests (though I almost get lost climbing wandering through the brush to his hillside house).
The next morning, we meet up in town for a walking tour with local historian Alfonso Cangas to include, coincidentally, a Swiss friend from Valparaíso whom I haven’t seen in years. In this earthquake-prone area, the sights include the Parroquía Santa Bárbara, which has survived massive quakes – most recently in 1985 and 2010, though its bell tower is a more recent construction – and the municipal cemetery (more Chacarita than Recoleta).
That’s a prelude to Attilio y Mochi’s own “cool coastal vineyards,” where they’ve hired a chef to prepare lunch for a gaggle of other Brazilians. Except for that, it’s as unpretentious as La Recova, as all the facilities and even their small house consist of recycled shipping containers. After lunch, it’s off to the last vineyard, the Villard Estate, where the cosmopolitan Thierry Villard – Frenchborn, Swiss-raised, he’s worked in Australia and Chile – treats me to his Pinot Noir on the terrace of his hilltop winery.
It’s not quite the end of the trip, though. The following morning, Angela and I drive to the cove of Quintay where, between 1943 and 1961, the Compañía Industrial SA (INDUS) employed up to 1,000 people year-round at Chile’s largest whaling station, rendering products including meat, ambergris, soap, wax candles and glycerine. From 1964 to 1967, it reopened under Japanese administration before being abandoned.
Today this tiny cove has become a whaling museum and national monument, partly staffed by elderly employees who once hauled the carcasses out of the sea and – with help from railcars –onto the massive platform where they butchered them. Several of the restored buildings hold permanent and exhibitions on whaling-related history, art and natural history topics – a reminder of the impact of this nearly archaic industry.
Quintay has a couple of restaurants and diving outlets, but we choose to return via the beach resort of Algarrobo, where chef Igor Caramori prepares outstanding seafood at Macerado – a restaurant that also grows its own fruit, veg and herbs on site. And, of course, there are wines from the local vintners, including Attilio and Mochi.
Casablanca’s annual wine harvest festival takes place at the end of March.
WHERE TO STAY AND VISIT
The valley’s larger wineries have a dedicated Spanish-language website (www.casablancavalley.cl). The smaller wineries, on which this article focuses, are due to open a page with the next couple of months.
Cut into a hillside overlooking vineyards, my room at Casavino (Camino Lo Ovalle Km 7, Tel: +56 9 62088950, www.hotelcasavino. com) was part of a dispersed set of accommodations that includes three other cabañas. While my own accommodations proper were dark, they were also spacious and did enjoy a large terrace with expansive views of vineyards and mountains. Loaner bicycles are available for visiting nearby bodegas.
Just off the highway to Viña and Valparaíso, Bodegas Re (Camino Lo Ovalle, Km 1, Tel: +56 9 93459114, www.bodegasre.cl) is open 10am to 6pm daily, except for some holidays, for tours and tastings.
Viña La Recova (El Estero s/n Las Dichas, Casablanca, Tel: + 56 9 97462727, www.rutadelvinodecasablanca.cl) is open for tours and tastings Thursday through Sunday, 10.30am to 5pm in summer. The rest of the year, it’s open by appointment only.
Attilio y Mochi (Ruta F-90 Casablanca, Tel: +56 9 73882671, www. attiliomochi.com) offers tours and tastings by reservation only.
The most isolated of the Casablanca wineries, Villard Fine Wines (Ruta F864G Km 14.5 Camino Tapihue, Casablanca, tel. +56 2 22357715, www.villard.cl) is a cosmopolitan family-run winery. Family-led tours can include lunch with the founder but reservations, three days in advance, are essential. It’s open 10am to 7pm daily in harvest season (March 1 to May 15), 10am to 5pm, weekdays only the rest of the year.
Macerado (Las Tinajas 2678, Algarrobo, Tel: +56 9 5869 7542, www. macerado.cl) also has branches in Casablanca proper and at the Viñamar winery.
Conspicuous in its namesake town, the Fundación Quintay (Tel: +56 32 2362511, www.fundacionquintay.cl) is open 11am to 6pm daily.