Early morning harvest workers at Luis Felipe Edwards Vineyards. / Photo by Matt Wilson
A typical summer day unfolds in the Colchagua Valley as a powerful sun rises over the vineyards in the Andean foothills that form the region’s eastern edge. Hours later, that same sun will become a fireball in a cloudless azure sky. Below, on the valley floor and up the craggy hillsides that mark the southern and northern boundaries of Chile’s most textbook wine valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and other vines soak up potent solar rays on their way to eventual ripeness. A glowing sunset over the Pacific Ocean provides the day’s closing act; with it, temperatures plummet over coastal Sauvignon Blanc plantings. Finally, the stars come out en masse.
It sounds like a dream, but, from November to April, this scenario plays out regularly in the Colchagua Valley. Throughout the growing season, the Valley, which stretches 75 miles from the base of the Andes to the shores of the Pacific, about 100 miles south of Santiago, is blessed with consistently sunny days offset by refreshingly cool and crisp nights. By the time the harvest begins in March, Colchagua’s roughly 85,000 acres of grapevines are weighted with concentrated fruit ready to be converted into some of Chile’s finest wines.
And what a cornucopia of wines Colchagua offers. During a recent trip, I sampled a lengthy list of compelling Colchaguino wines, including the usual suspects as well as Syrah, Carignan, País, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, skin-contact orange wines, rosés and sparkling wines. Whereas 20 years ago the region was almost entirely committed to varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère, it now delivers so much more.
From East to West
The Colchagua Valley begins at the base of the Andes near Los Lingues, where a small collection of wineries led by Casa Silva and Viña Koyle largely specialize in big-boned reds. The majority of the wines that hail from Colchagua’s eastern frontier feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah grown in west-facing vineyards. Petit Verdot and Garnacha are also on the rise in this mountainous subzone with decomposed granite and alluvial soils.
Because this is the warmest section of the Colchagua Valley, one that shares much in common with the interior Maipo and Cachapoal valleys to the north, cooler years often yield the most elegant wines.
“My favorite vintages are definitely the cold ones,” says Cristóbal “Toti” Undurraga, owner of Viña Koyle, adding that hot years accompanied by drought are occurring with more frequency throughout Chile (see 2017, 2019 and 2020 as recent examples). “I prefer wines from years like 2011, 2016 and 2021. I love the crisp, dry tannins and light herbal influences we get in these cooler years.”
Moving west by about 20 miles, Colchagua’s Entre Cordilleras zone, or “between the mountains,” accounts for the bulk of Colchagua’s wines. Roughly 75% of the valley’s total production hails from around the towns of Chépica, Nancagua, Santa Cruz, Palmilla, Peralillo and Marchigue. This is where Colchagua’s wine industry first took root in the 1800s.
Stylistic variety runs the gamut in the heart of the Colchagua Valley, which is hydrated by the waters of the Tinguiririca River. Some wineries adhere to the rules of organic farming, like Emiliana Organic Vineyards, while others such as Viña Neyen, one of the region’s original wine properties, are guided by the principles of biodynamics.
Colchagua’s midsection is home to several big-name wineries. For example, Luis Felipe Edwards started here in the 1970s and is now one of Chile’s largest producers. The winery has cleared thousands of acres of steep hillsides above the village of Chépica to create its own wine ecosystem in an area called Puquillay Alto, or “land of the strong winds.” High in these hills, the heat of the afternoon sun meets cooling gusts from the Pacific and warmer breezes from the interior mountains, creating dry and friendly conditions for various red grapes.
Not far from here, along the northern side of the interior valley, it’s impossible to miss the vine-covered hills of horseshoe shaped Apalta. This is where quality-minded wineries including Montes, Lapostolle, Ventisquero and Neyen maintain multi-exposure sloping vineyards that present as picture perfect.
First planted more than 100 years ago, Apalta ranks as Chile’s truest “grand cru” vineyard area, with wines that stand out as special. From Apalta come high-flyers like Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta and Petit Clos; Montes’s Folly Syrah and “M” Bordeaux style blend; Ventisquero’s Pangea Syrah; and Neyen’s eponymous Cabernet blend.
At the base of Apalta lies Viu Manent, whose century-old Malbec vines are some of the oldest in the valley and form the core of Viu 1, the winery’s signature wine. Farther west and approaching the town of Peralillo, Viu Manent grows Carmenère, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon on north-facing slopes.
Also found in this part of the valley are the vineyards of Laura Hartwig, Montgras and Los Vascos, the latter a long-standing joint venture between Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and Viña Santa Rita, another of Chile’s most historic and largescale wineries.
Rounding out the mid-valley roster are wineries like Estampa, Viña La Playa, Viña Siegel, Encierra and a collective of boutique bodegas that includes La Despensa. All make intriguing wines that demonstrate the valley’s variety and diversity.
A member of Colchagua’s old guard, Viña Maquis has been producing wines along the banks of the Tinguiririca since the early 20th century. Ricardo Rivadeneira, Maquis’s fourth-generation owner and executive director, takes me on a tour of the “biological corridors” he has been fastidiously creating amid the winery’s more than 250 acres of vines. We admire rows of olive trees, pluck and sniff the fragrant leaves of native Peumo and Boldo trees, and gaze at the pastel purple blossoms of mature jacarandas. At our feet, chickens cackle while a group of quails scatters before getting airborne.
“This is how we mix viticulture with biodiversity,” says Rivadeneira, beaming with pride. “Being near the river also moderates temperatures. We are probably two degrees cooler than most of our neighbors, something that helps moderate alcohol levels in the wines and guards acidity.”
Growing healthy grapes that offer the optimal balance among ripeness, richness, power and freshness has long been the challenge for Sven Bruchfeld, cofounder of Polkura, located on the western fringe of Colchagua’s midsection. Based in windy, sun-exposed Marchigue, Polkura specializes in dark and delicious Syrahs.
“Despite there not being much water, this is the right spot,” for Syrah, says Bruchfeld of the land named for its yellow granite. Drought conditions continue to vex Bruchfeld, to the point that he’s taken to dry farming a portion of his vines. “We have lost more than 90% of the water from our original wells. Experts say it takes 1,000 liters of water to produce a liter of wine; Polkura uses only 400 liters.”
The third and final delineated section of the Colchagua Valley is the Costa, or “coast.” This subzone includes a warm inland portion near the towns of Lolol and Pumanque, where wineries like Viña Santa Cruz, Hacienda Araucano and Marco Puyo’s Viña Dagaz (a Celtic rune that means “the beginning of a new path”) operate.