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The Montes vineyard near Santa Cruz, in the heart of Colchagua Valley, and its familiar label have become part of Chile's reputation among oenophiles.
The Montes vineyard near Santa Cruz, in the heart of Colchagua Valley, and its familiar label have become part of Chile's reputation among oenophiles. (Photo by Enrique Siques/Getty Images for the Boston Globe)

From these hills and valleys, adventurous wine makers reach the world's top shelf

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 2, 2006

SAN FERNANDO, Chile -- There came a point on Friday evening, there in the stone courtyard in the center of Viña Casa Silva, when the wine and the people met, and that is why we were there.

Juan Dvoskin, one of three sons with their father, Victor, and me -- all of us friends -- were sitting at a round table. A waitress arrived with nuts and olives, then a plate of cheese. Each of us had a tall glass full at the bottom with a thick, dark carmenere, wine made from a grape once favored in Bordeaux but now common only in Chile.

This particular carmenere came not from Casa Silva, a stately hacienda that makes plenty of its own, but from Montes, farther down the Colchagua Valley.

Juan sat quietly as his brother Nico talked. Juan's hand gently touched the base of his glass, and he lifted it and stared as he tilted it in an easy circle. He smelled the wine and listened to Nico and sipped.

The third brother, Gabriel, sat, arms crossed, his glass standing before him on the table. Victor took a sip of his carmenere, his mouth working the wine back, slowly, as Nico told about a friend who had died.

I followed a bit, not all, of the Spanish dialogue, watching instead each person's time with Nico's voice and the glass and the wine within. I wrote in my notebook:

''Is this why we love wine -- the nuance, the personality, the intimacy of a gift, of a story well told, shared."

We had come to have fun in the hot-day, cold-night solitude of the Colchagua Valley, a rustic wine region two hours south of the capital, Santiago, that is working hard

DOWN IN THE VALLEYSee a photo gallery of the wine-industrious Colchagua Valley at boston.com/travel.

to parlay international wine sales into tourism. More, though, we had come to share among friends those gifts of grapes, whether carefully crafted and slickly marketed, or simply grown and bottled well.

''When you open a good wine," Victor told me, ''it should be a surprise."

That afternoon, in the cotton cool of the sitting room in Casa Silva's small hotel, I had stood with Victor and listened to another story. Victor, visiting from neighboring Argentina, was talking about the vines that thicken the flats and perfectly pitched hills in the center of this long, thin country that lies between the Andes and the ocean.

Carmenere had largely disappeared from the world's vineyards after disease wiped out the grapes from Bordeaux more than a century ago. Then in 1994 a French specialist came to examine grapes in Chile that were thought to be merlot.

''And he says, 'This is not merlot, this is carmenere,' " Victor told me. ''And the Chileans said, 'Boom! Boom! Carmenere!' Because the Chilean wine industry needs something."

Victor then talked about another grape, malbec, which thrives in Argentina. He and some Argentine friends had held a blind tasting of more than a dozen red wines from around the world. Their favorite was a malbec, but from Chile, from the Viu Manent winery only 30 minutes west through the Colchagua Valley.

''This is our grape!" Victor said, pouring out a laugh.

So we turned toward the sun and shade of the gravel parking lot, Victor and me and his three sons, and we piled into a red car for a drive deeper into Colchagua to meet the celebrated makers of malbec.

If we had been seeking just any good wine, we could have gone many places in Chile, a land extreme on the ends -- with dry desert north, frozen Patagonia south -- but fertile through the center. For centuries, grapes have been grown in valleys north and south of Santiago; for decades, the wines made from them have been shipped around the world and set on shelves from Bangkok to Boston, many known for decent quality at a good price.

We could have chosen the Casablanca Valley, where several vineyards produce excellent sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, or we could have stopped in the Maipo Valley, closer to Santiago, at Concha y Toro, one of Chile's largest winemakers.

But Colchagua, known for its cabernet sauvignon and now carmenere, has some of the oldest haciendas and it has done the most in recent years to develop hotels, restaurants, and other facilities to welcome visitors. In Colchagua, as elsewhere, many wineries are angling to make unique, crafted wines that compete for quality, and a higher price, on the international market.

We rolled first through San Fernando, a city by the interstate with straight streets lined with banks and shops selling radios and brooms to families. Quickly, the route abandoned urban order and twisted westward along the Rio Tinguiririca, dropping and straightening as the valley lowered from 1,200 feet (a reminder of the Andes looming east) to flat fields full of corn, tomatoes, and lettuce. Mostly, though, rows of vines, green-leafed and heavy with fruit in the late February afternoon, raked soft and straight across the landscape.

Gabriel turned into a gravel parking lot outside Viu Manent and pulled the car into the shade of shoulder-high vines. In a tasting room and wine shop finished with blond wood and Scandinavian edges, Cesar Juarez, a wine maker, poured a mini-tour of Viu Manent's products: a fruity and acidic sauvignon blanc; a smooth malbec; and a too-sweet glass made from late-harvest grapes.

''Part of what we are trying to do is reach new markets, to break away from Chilean wine as cabernet sauvignon, to go in a new direction, with new grapes," Juarez told us.

Of the malbec reserve, a lower level of several malbecs the winery produces (Viu Manent's ''1" had been judged best in South America), Juarez said:

''It's not the top of the list, but this is a good wine, well made. This is not easy for us, to have malbec, with our wine culture."

We agreed that the malbec was a decent wine, good to drink with friends and a steak. But we also agreed, the five of us in that fancy room, that we had found no surprises in the glasses we had tried.

This is the catch; the more that is done to design and produce and promote wine, the harder it can be to feel the wine, to taste it for what it is, a product of a place. Even inside the Viu Manent wine shop, only a few steps from the strong afternoon sun and the flat, fresh fields, the wine had seemed too intentional, set in thick, heavy bottles with formal labels and, in the case of the award-winning ''1," at a price of $62.

We motored to more wineries, first down a soon-to-be-paved dirt road to the stone, glass, and steel bunker of Montes, which is set beneath slopes opening to empty sky. We sat and talked about markets and pricing and soil with Mario Geisse, the veteran wine maker at Casa Silva. We noted the mounting quality while sipping our way through the offerings of Viña Siegel, ending with the hearty Gran Crucero Syrah.

But the connection to the place was strongest during a detour, a lazy evening stop in Santa Cruz, a dustier, grittier cousin to San Fernando in the center of the Colchagua Valley.

We drove past several city blocks common in South America: tire vendors, mechanics, small markets, and homes set behind walls. Then, in the city center, a plaza framed by shops on four sides opened beneath tall trees. On one edge, tourists checked into the upscale Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza. We strolled through its empty restaurant and turned again to the plaza, where a stage had been set up for a small play.

Juan and Nico went off in search of batteries for a camera. Victor, Gabriel, and I stopped at a booth, where a father and his young son were selling wine. The wine maker had set out a simple sign that said his wines, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and carmenere, with the label Familia Urzua & Izquierdo, sold for $4 a bottle. A small glass, to taste, cost $1.

An outgoing man we had seen working that afternoon at Viu Manent had stopped to chat with the wine maker, whose pudgy son stood with him behind the counter, shifting quietly. A mother and her daughter lingered at a booth behind us, browsing a display of simple jewelry and leather purses, and families strolled by.

We asked for a few glasses of carmenere. Victor smiled and raised his glass. I joined him and we stood in the plaza, surrounded by dying sunlight and laughter, ready for a surprise.

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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