Will Travel for Wine

Chile and Argentina

Tango dancers at Familia Zuccardi
Tango dancers at Familia Zuccardi

It might seem like a long way to travel for wine – almost 5,000 miles. But Chile and Argentina are producing stellar wines at affordable prices. Chile is also a country of incredible beauty, from the world's driest desert in the north to fjords that would put Norway to shame in the south, all surrounded by the majestic Andes mountains in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the west. Plus, my wife and I wanted to try the great local foods, get up close to the Humboldt and Magellan penguins in Patagonia, and most importantly, go to the Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia in Mendoza, Argentina.

We started in Chile, driving from Santiago to the very end of the Pan-American Highway on the island of Chiloe in the northern part of Patagonia. The 1,200-kilometer drive took place on the wide open toll highway. Along the way, we traveled through beautiful vineyards as well as verdant farmlands. The Andes, on our left, were never far from view, especially as we came through Central Chile, with the famous Tupungato Volcano. Chile has the most active volcanoes in our hemisphere, and you'll never have to travel far without seeing a huge, looming mountain spewing smoke.

The island of Chiloe is beautifully scenic and almost completely unspoiled. We were on a mission to see the Penguinaria at the Mar Brava beach, where the Humboldt and Magellan penguins live much of the year. Seeing the penguins up close from a rubber raft was a thrill. Watching the otters swimming belly-up or seeing the huge Andean condors (the largest bird of prey on Earth) sweep the area looking for food was a nice addition. Our guide was a charming woman who had escaped life as an economist in Germany to work at the Otway Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to look after the penguins. Like everyone else we met in Chile, she was warm and congenial.

With its huge 4,300-kilometer coastline, Chile is a seafood lover's extravaganza, with incredible sea bass, abalone, and sea urchin, all at rock bottom prices. We had a delightful day sitting right on Lago Llanquihue in the small town of Puerto Varas at the Restaurant Mediterráneo eating bowls of steaming abalone stew. On the other side of the lake, snow-capped Volcán Osorno puffed little clouds. We spent four happy and content hours just talking about life. A few days later, while dining at El Cuento del Mar restaurant in Puerto Mont, at the north end of Patagonia, I had a plate of sea urchin roe (uni to you sushi lovers) with about 50 pieces for $4!

Finally, we headed back to Santiago. Most of the wineries in Chile are located within a few hours' drive of Santiago, so we stayed at the lovely San Cristobal Towers in Santiago, which is located in a good spot for quick trips out of the city. It also has a staff that would do anything on Earth to make sure you are satisfied. During the next four days, we visited six of the best wineries in Chile, tasting every single wine they make, searching for their best wines.

I won't go into each individual wine, but I would like to recommend a gorgeous winery open to the public. Viña Santa Rita is in a beautiful old building with an 80-foot-tall bougainvillea out front and classic European château styling on the inside. They even have accommodations for a nice vineyard stay.

I'm almost ashamed to tell you about the most beautiful winery we visited. It's not open to the public and will soon be converted to luxury housing while relocating its vineyards to another part of Chile. Arturo Cousiño, head of the wealthy family that owns Cousiño Macul Winery, showed us through his family's private 250-acre park in the middle of Santiago, a stunning place with more than two centuries of refinement and exotic plants from all over the world. It was breathtaking at every turn. As I said, unfortunately, it will be converted soon.

As wonderful a time as we were having, it was time to press on to Argentina. After a short plane ride over the Andes, we arrived in Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is a delightful town just a bit larger than Austin. We stayed downtown to be in the middle of the Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia, the harvest festival for the area's vineyards. I was expecting something along the lines of a county fair until I walked out on the terrace at the hotel. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets to watch intricate floats carrying each district's queen. Red velvet ropes held us to the sides of the terrace as the various queens stepped off the floats and glided into the hotel atrium. Young gauchos serenaded the queens while the city's beautiful people laughed, flirted, and drank the local wines.

The following day, about 7pm, we boarded a bus and cruised up the mountain to see the main show of the fiesta. As we walked down a steep staircase, we rounded a corner and were shocked to see 50,000 partying fans, shouting for their favorite queen. The lights went low, and all 17 of the queens were escorted on stage. Then, more than 500 dancers and actors performed the bittersweet story of the harvest. A choir of hundreds began singing, and the 50,000 fans sang along. The queens came down from their seats, and each stepped forward as the crowds screamed for their favorites. Shortly after the queen was finally chosen, the lights went out and a recording of Pavarotti singing "Nessun Dorma" filled the stadium, followed by a spectacular fireworks display. It was a stunning experience, one I'll always remember.

Mendoza is home to at least a dozen gorgeous wineries and many more humble abodes making delicious wines. We fell in love with the Mayan-European fusion architecture of Nicolás Catena's winery. One night, while sipping his delicious Catena Alta Malbec, we stood outside on the third-floor balcony and watched the fiery red sunset over the Tupungato Volcano. Familia Zuccardi offered us one of our most delightful experiences: The owners arranged a parrilla (grilled meats) and a pair of passionate tango dancers. Finally, for architecture lovers, the Salentine winery offers an amazing tour de force in winery design.

The town of Mendoza is full of fun restaurants, many very reasonably priced. After doing some searching, we found several along the Avenida Sarmiento, our favorite being Estancia la Florencia. If you are feeling flush, Bistro M offers some of the best steaks we've ever tried, along with the best wine list in town.

We are in love with Chile and Argentina – the gorgeous countryside, delicious wines, nice people, and especially the Vendimia. We're already planning our next trip.

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