Life in Chile has been chugging along at a leisurely pace, with me working during the week and thoroughly enjoying my weekends. Recently, I had a welcome bit of excitement in an otherwise mundane work week when I discovered my boss was in town. He knew I was working abroad, but didn’t know where, and it was through a random comment in an online meeting that I discovered he was in Chile. Naturally, if he was in Chile for any business-related reason, he’d be in Santiago, so I messaged him and we were able to connect over an evening of Carménère flights and charcuterie (if every meeting with one’s boss included such treats, there’d be a lot more job satisfaction in the world). It’s a rare and lovely occurrence to connect with someone you know in a foreign city, particularly when there was no planning or foresight involved.
As for my weekends, Fernanda and I have spent a lot of time together. A few weekends ago, we went to the town of Pomaire, which is a town known for its pottery artisans who used the clay from the surrounding hills to create a bustling pottery industry. (Pomaire is also home to the 1 kilo empanada, a massive monstrosity of stuffed pastry the size of your head…but I think they prefer to be known for the pottery.) This past weekend, we also went on a trip to the Maipo valley to enjoy a full day of wine tasting, an activity Fernanda had never done because of Chile’s strict drunk-driving laws (breathalyzers must register no more than 0.0), so trips to wineries require more planning and are best done with drivers.
This brings us to wine, which is a topic on which I promised to elaborate in my last post. It’s often said that there’s no better way to learn about a culture than through one’s palate. Typically, this idea applies to gastronomical pleasures, but sadly I’ve discovered Chilean cuisine to be a bit meat-heavy for my taste. (While I’m an omnivore, I prefer my meat in small discreet amounts, whereas in Chilean cuisine, there’s nothing discreet about meat. If Chile were a state in the U.S., it would be Texas.) Thankfully, food is not the only thing that can be used to whet one’s palate and in that regard, Chile—one of the top ten wine producers in the world—has far exceeded my expectations.
Vitis vinifera (the common grape vine) was first introduced into Chile by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, but the industry didn’t really begin to flourish until the 1800s, when a combination of wealthy Chileans and French immigrants began importing French varietals from the Bordeaux region, such as Merlot, Carménère, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes flourished in their new environment, which is mostly within an 800-mile stretch of land in the center of the country, where the climate is arid and sunny, the soil fertile, and there is little risk of frost.
Chile’s unique geography proved to be particularly beneficial in the survival of the imported vines. The country is only about 100 miles wide, but over 2600 miles long and geographically isolated by extremes: the Andes in the east, the Atacama desert in the north, the Pacific Ocean on the west, and Antarctica in the south. These conditions create a virtual island that protected the country’s grapes when a phylloxera epidemic decimated the world’s vineyards in the 1800s. In fact, it’s believed that Chile has the only living clones of the old-world vines that existed before the epidemic. For wine consumers, all of this translates in a few important ways: on one hand, the older the vine, the more complex the fruit, which means the wine has a deeper, more nuanced taste profile. On the other hand, the country remains phylloxera-free (and is the only country that is), which means they do not need to graft its vines to create resistance. This helps keep production costs down—you can buy a truly delicious, sophisticated bottle of Chilean wine for as low as $10-$15, whereas in California or France, wines of similar quality go for double or triple the price. As if all of this were not enough reason to enjoy Chilean wines, lovers of Carménère can also rejoice because the country is now the largest grower of these grapes after they virtually died out in France.
That’s the history of Chilean wine in a very tiny nutshell, as was shared with me over the span of several wine outings on this trip, some squeezed in between days of skiing or sightseeing, one while on a bike, and the most recent on a “little wine bus” (which is actually a Mercedes sprinter van) that took a small group of wine lovers on a tour of some of the best wineries in the Maipo Valley, all while keeping our glasses full. This trip to Chile has been an adventure in wine.
Speaking of adventures, in a few short days I fly to Punta Arenas to begin my trek in Torres del Paine, Patagonia. As is typical for these sorts of trips, I will be without Wi-Fi, so will be blissfully disconnected from the material world so that I may connect with another world altogether. I will see you all on the other side.