Opening the window after a night of half-sleep, crammed into a space several sizes too small for my well above average frame, I see the wide open, mostly barren Andes mountains interspersed with tiny towns and what I presumed to be vineyards. As our plane gradually neared the brown peaks, the ground beneath suddenly flattened moments before landing. As we lumbered along the asphalt to the gate, I continued to gaze through my tiny portal, vying to absorb my primary encounter with the world’s longest continental mountain range looming in the near distance.
As I gathered the various items I had employed in an attempt to soften the journey, I estimated that I may have slept a total of thirty-seven minutes, if I counted the time when I actively ignored the announcement that featured a lesson on how to fasten the world’s least complicated seatbelt. Given my past experience in overnight travel, that amount of time asleep actually raised my overall average, which had been hovering just above eight minutes.
After I rescued my bags, I hopped into the awaiting van, and we sped off to fetch the other journalists who had arrived on an earlier flight. Once the group was fully assembled, we immediately left the capital Santiago and headed northwest to the beach resort town of Zapallar in the Petorca Province of Valparaíso. Americans have described Zapallar as both a “Chilean Big Sur” and the “Hamptons of Chile”, but to me it was a quaint seaside town with few (if any) pretensions.
After a two-hour drive (of which I slept for precisely twelve minutes), we arrived at our lovely hotel, the Isla Seca, a delightful spot on the beach with views for which some might consider treason.
Even though there is not much time difference between Chile and Houston (Santiago is three hours ahead, which I found a bit surprising), I followed my European travel protocol: a quick lunch and then a two-hour (or was it three?) power nap. I awoke feeling refreshed (mostly) and I descended upon the reception, climbed into the van, and we were off to the Montes Zapallar Vineyard just a couple of handfuls of kilometers from our hotel.
At the vineyard we met Aurelio Montes Jr., son of the founder of the winery (and a very good-looking man), who explained the thought process behind planting a vineyard so close (about 7 kilometers) to the ocean. Originally, his father followed the conventional wisdom about growing grapes in the Southern Hemisphere: cool climate grapes should be grown in the south, while the heat-seeking varieties should be planted further north. He found, however, that there was not much difference in the quality of the grapes or wines.
He soon realized, however, that the orientation of thinking was slightly askew—in Chile, the big difference was not to be found in the traditional north/south paradigm, but rather in an east/west approach. Cool climate grapes needed to be planted as far west as possible, closer to the cooling properties of the ocean, while varieties requiring more heat needed to be planted further inland.
Montes is so far the only winery to plant in Zapallar, the “Outer Limit” of where grapes might actually grow, and the 45 hectare (109 acre) vineyard is mostly planted to Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah. We climbed to the top of the vineyard (which has some 45° slopes), where we were treated to a magnificent view and a glass of (just slightly) chilled Outer Limits Pinot Noir.
2014 Montes Outer Limits Pinot Noir Zapallar, Aconcagua Valley, Chile: Retail $22. Dark in color and buoyed by dark berry fruit and spice, this wine has heft but not in an obtrusive way. Plenty of spice and fruit on the palate with just a hint of tannin on the back end. Nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
After taking a few more pictures, we once again populated the van and drove off to a restaurant right on the beach where we ate seafood that had been pulled from the sea virtually minutes before, accompanied by several different Montes wines, and an amazing sunset.
NV Montes Sparkling Angel: Retail $25. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. A traditional method sparkler with grapes mostly from the Zapallar Vineyard. The wine spends three years (!) on the leas, which leads to a citrusy yet also yeasty wine with fine bubbles and a tart finish. Very nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
2016 Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc Zapallar, Aconcagua Valley, Chile: Retail $22. A pale yellow with a slight green tinge in the glass, tropical fruit (mostly grapefruit) dances over the rim, with minerality and a few vegetal notes. On the palate, this is quite nice: tart and refreshing with considerable depth. For me, this was the wine of the night—so much so that I bought a few bottles to bring home. One of the best Sauvignon Blancs I have tried. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2015 Montes Outer Limits Syrah Zapallar, Aconcagua Valley, Chile: Retail $22. Aurelio, Jr. described this as the “Wild black horse of the mountain” and a cold climate Syrah that “might not be for everyone.” And he characterized the Outer Limits line of wines as Montes’ “hippy side.” The first production of this wine was only 2000 bottles, but I hope they gradually increase production as this is truly a wine lover’s wine: fruity but not extreme, earthy with a touch of funk and plenty of spice. A wonderful quaff that gets even better on the second glass. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
As we headed back to the hotel, I realized that I had not been in Chile for even 24 hours and I was already in love with the country. The next morning, though, we would be heading east to Argentina—by driving over the Andes. Where is my bike when I need it?