Glittering Santiago is embraced by the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range.
Adventurous indigenous cuisine, breathtaking valley vistas and glorious new world wines makes Chile a delicious destination for gastronomy lovers.
While some lovers are destined to spend their vacations on white sandy beaches, food and wine lovers are called to look towards South America’s richest country, Chile, for romantic holiday satisfaction. For it is in Chile – a long, slender country of contrasts spanning three continents – that a passionate affair with new world wines and regional cuisine can be woven into one gastronomic getaway.
We begin ours in the nation’s eclectic capital, Santiago, after a 12-hour direct flight from Sydney. Having collected our rental car from the airport depot, we drive 30 minutes to Solace Hotel Santiago, located in Providencia. The well positioned new hotel features contemporary rooms with king beds, chic amenities and a rather lovely rooftop bar – where we head immediately for a Chilean pisco sour.
We sip on our alcoholic introduction to Santiago before dipping into the narrow rooftop pool, taking rest at the edge to admire our sun-drenched metropolis view and the glorious Andes Mountain range enveloping it.
Soon enough, the warm evening hours fall upon us and so too does the culinary truth behind why we really decided to visit Santiago: to fulfil a bucket list dream and dine at number 42 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list: Boragó. The restaurant creatively showcases Chile’s lesser-known indigenous ingredients, sourced from over 200 small producers scattered across a range of climatic zones, from desert to icefield. Boragó’s still water is derived from Patagonian rain and the milk used for ice cream comes from cows milked by Boragó staff.
Our senses are aroused as soon as we step out of the taxi into the affluent suburb of Vitacura. Although, without the two chefs out front subtly fanning a whole lamb that’s been roasting on charcoal for 11 hours, you wouldn’t guess that inside this modest dwelling is culinary ingenuity. With the ring of a golden bell we are welcomed by four attentive staff and guided to our seat, positioned beside an open wall and edible garden.
Our 16-course meal with matching Chilean wines lasts four hours. We drink seafood soup from an animal horn, chow down on a succulent plant, taste wild apples the size of our thumbs, and sample loin from the lamb baking out front. Our unusual, innovative dinner at Boragó is immediately noted as the best dining adventure of our lives. We’re told it’s the vast expanse of country and range in terroir that gives Chilean food its unique flavours, treating visitors to remarkable food and wine experiences.
Eager to sample more national produce, the next day we drive three hours south – passing agricultural lands, roadhouses selling homemade empanadas, and countless trucks – to reach iconic wine region the Colchagua Valley. Colchagua produces some of the best carmenère and shiraz wines in Chile and is home to Apalta – a valley within a valley that was added as a new Denomination of Origin in 2018.
The rustic scenery here is the stuff of tourist brochures. The Tinguiririca River brings water from the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, making the valley lush and green all year round, and the verdant landscape is decorated with working farms kept by cowboys and vineyards scattered to the horizon.
And yet, despite the area’s natural beauty, nothing tops the image of our accommodation at Cava Colchagua Hotel Boutique. Situated in the valley’s main town, Santa Cruz, this family-owned hotel features guest rooms created from 100-year-old, 45,000-litre wine barrels. Set over five hectares in the middle of a vineyard, this unique hotel encompasses picturesque gardens, a pool, a lagoon complete with paddleboat, hot tubs and a beauty spa.
Our charmingly rustic wine barrel room is air-conditioned and spans two storeys to accommodate a bedroom on one level and bathroom on the other. We quickly soak up the wine-laden atmosphere on a canopy bed beside the pool as we take in the architecture, sip on a carmenère blend and devour a platter of valley cheeses bought at the hotel. Later in our stay, we visit five cellar doors on a private tour with local company Colchagua Wine Tours. Our tour guide, Francesco, explains that only 16 wineries in the area are open to the public and about half of the vineyards are gated – so booking in advance is highly recommended.
The Colchagua wine trail, little known for many years, has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity thanks to an unexpected source: Carlos Cardoen, a former arms dealer who allegedly sold bombs to Saddam Hussein. In the 1990s, after the USA issued an international arrest warrant against him, Cardoen turned his attention to winemaking and put his beloved area on the global wine map. We note that Cardoen runs a casino and history museum in the Santa Cruz town centre. Francesco assures us the region is safe, which is how we feel throughout our stay.
Our tour also takes us to Lapostolle winery, owned by the Grand Marnier family, and Neyen, boasting cabernet sauvignon vines dating back to 1889. We visit Viña Apaltagua, a vineyard with a focus on sustainability, and Viña Ventisquero, a brand creating avant-garde blends including their malted wine, which tastes like beer.
Just in case we hadn’t yet experienced true culinary brilliance in Chile, Francesco takes us to lunch at Fuegos de Apalta. Enjoying a prime position among the vines at Montes Winery, and helmed by world-famous chef Francis Mallmann, the glass-walled restaurant is something truly special. The view is breathtaking and the seasonal menu, which is themed around cooking with fire, sweeps us off our feet.
Locally sourced meat, fish and vegetables are cooked on three types of open fires, heated by burning wood. The most visually impressive is the dome-shaped parilla fire-pit positioned at the centre of the restaurant, which smokes, bakes and grills ingredients before a captivated audience of diners.
We feast on an entrée plate of sweetbreads with a fresh tomato, peach and celery salad followed by a grilled rib-eye steak, served with hanging cabbage cooked in the fire-pit, chimichurri and domino potatoes for main course. The wine of the moment is a bottle of Montes’ Purple Angel Carmenère Petit Verdot.
As we breathe in the aroma of roasting wood and gaze at the vines (only metres away) that gave birth to the wine in our glasses, one question comes to mind. In fact, the only serious question a couple on a gourmet escape in Chile need ask each other: where to eat next?
Driving throughout the narrow expanse of Chile is quite easy. Locals drive on the right-hand side of the road and speed limits are in the metric system. Speed limits on the freeways we took were marked at 130km per hour. Rental cars are available in both automatic and manual transmissions.
Australian passport holders can holiday in Chile for up to 90 days without a visa. Just pay a one-off reciprocity fee upon arrival, which remains valid for multiple entries into Chile.
The fact that Chile spans three continents and has seven major climates means there is always a season to suit. However, to spend your days basking in Mediterranean-style sunshine on a vineyard estate or on a city rooftop, visit Santa Cruz or Santiago in summer (December to February).
Chile is a Spanish-speaking country and it’s estimated that less than 10 per cent of the population speaks English, so brush up on your Spanish before you go.
BEST TIME TO VISIT COLCHAGUA VALLEY
The warmer months of October to February are the most popular for tourists who want to see the vines (harvest is usually in March) while June through to August (winter) is best for ski-loving foodies.
WINE TOURS IN COLCHAGUA
High season in Colchagua Valley runs between November and April. So, it’s highly recommended you book wine tours well in advance for this time. Most wineries also have set wine tour hours so it’s essential for visitors to plan the day accordingly to make the most of the experience. Only a handful of wineries offer wine by the glass and it may be for a small fee.
BOOKING AT BORAGÓ
Reservations at Boragó are essential. If you’re planning to include the famous restaurant on your itinerary, be sure to reserve a table a few months in advance to be safe.
TAXIS IN CHILE
Pre-book your taxi where possible. Colchagua Wine Tours also advised us to have small bills on hand and ask the driver to turn on their light when you pay them. Apparently a small number of unscrupulous drivers will drop people off on busy streets and in the confusion, may exchange incorrect bills (the old switcheroo).
FOOD IN SANTA CRUZ
If you want to sample a range of international dishes created with local produce in Santa Cruz, there are several restaurants to choose from. Try La Casita de Barreales for Peruvian, Ristorante Vino Bello and La Famiglia de Santis for Italian, and Casa Colchagua and Rayuela Wine and Grill for traditional Chilean fare.
WEBSITES TO KNOW
solacehotel.cl; borago.cl; cavacolchagua.cl; colchaguawinetours.com; lapostollewines.com; neyen.cl; apaltagua.com; vinaventisquero.com; monteswines.com