We had been through Napa and the North Fork of the Long Island Wine Trail, so we thought we were prepared for the Colchagua Valley of Chile, especially in light of all the preparation we had done. We had booked a room at a posada 8 KM north of Santa Cruz, had free bicycles awaiting us & had mapped out the train and bus schedules. It was going to be great!

It all worked out without any issues until we arrived at the front door of the posada and the driver we had solicited in town was asking for $5000 Chilean pesos instead of the $500 I had heard initially. Perhaps it was a simple misunderstanding of Chilean Spanish. What was important was that we had arrived with no incidents and we were ready to try some of Chile’s well-known wines.

MontGras tasting room and store (Photo by Jack Zalium)

On our first full day in Colchagua, we biked our way north to MontGras vineyards for our first tasting. We met some nice people, tasted some good wines, bought a bottle (Quattro) and experienced out first Chilean tremor (also the first tremor of our trip). It occurred moments before we were to begin the tasting, distinguishable only by the clinking of the wine glasses. We all moved into the courtyard and awaited for the shaking to stop, not lasting more than 20 seconds.

The Wrath of Grapes (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Having survived our first tasting & tremor, not to mention having a slight buzz now and feeling the onset of alcohol-cockiness since we had not eaten anything but breakfast, we made our way to vineyard two: Estampa. This one was nearby, just across highway 50. It was more of a rural highway than an interstate, but there were numerous trucks on it. Sadly, the second vineyard was closed to tastings and tours, as it was still recuperating & rebuilding from the last major Chilean earthquake in 2010, which has severely affected the Colchagua region.

Back on our bikes we road back towards Santa Cruz, looking for a sister vineyard to MontGras that was recommended to us there : Laura Hartwig. What we didn’t realize is just how close it would be to Santa Cruz and that even on bicycles the distances were larger than we anticipated. We arrived at Laura Hartwig, where we met a nice young senorita at the tasting room who showed us a map of some of the other vineyards in the valley which included a listing of  provided tours and which provided just tastings, as well as some personal advice. Having secured our second tasting, some information and noticing that it was getting late, Molly went inside to ask for the directions that would get us to the other road and back to our accommodations faster.

I said right at the fork..... (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Bicycling through Laura Hartwig’s vineyards proved a bit more difficult than it seemed initially. The fields were rather large, mixed in with other fruit crops and the dirt roads were not clearly marked. The arrow in the photo below indicates where we should have gone right which would have saved us at least a kilometer. Nevertheless, about 20 kilometers of bumpy roads, dirt and gravel took a toll on our asses, muscles and psyche. By the end, Molly’s upbeat demeanor and contagious smile had given way to despair and the possible realization that we might never reach our posada.

Our bike path from MontGras to Laura Hartwig, the "shortcut" and back to the posada (total daily trek ~18 KM, conservative estimate)

Thankfully we arrived safely, were able to order delivery dinner and spent the rest of the night by our small, yet mighty wood burning stove inside our room, drinking our Quattro, thinking the worst had passed and day two would be a breeze. Then day two came….

Waking up still sore from day one (mostly our asses), we instead decided to go with alternative transportation : a collective taxi to the first vineyard, followed by some bus travel and a lot of walking. The taxi ride was uneventful, except for the price which continued to change upon each ride, even with trips of the same distance to the same locations. The first vineyard was Manent. This put us right back in the mood to explore and restored our confidence… or was that the wine talking. Nevertheless, we headed back to the road to take the bus to our next destination or walk it.

On the main road, we waited several minutes for a bus that didn’t come and then walked to the fork-in-the road to Apalta (the road that would take us to several more vineyards and tastings). Along the way, Molly’s traveling modus operandi to ask random strangers directions paid off when we discovered there was no direct bus that would take us to Apalta. As no buses passed, we had walked ~3 KM to the fork in the road but the sign said it would be another 6 more kilometers to Montes vineyard. What had seemed like an easy walk in retrospect, was becoming an endurance course in frustration & the plan to see the Colchagua Museum at the end of the tastings was quickly going up in smoke.

The path of travel for day 2. The white lines are all walking distances. Everything else was done via hitchhiking.

We were resolved and started walking there, in the hope that a  “miracle bus” would pass and we could “communicate passage” to Montes. About a kilometer into our walk, a small orange company propane/gas truck stopped in the middle of the 2-lane country road. Initially I had assumed he was offering us a ride & I was prepared to tell the driver thanks, but no thanks as I passed by the truck. When I arrived at the passenger window, I noticed the driver was simply checking his phone and was paying no attention to us. I continued to walk, with Molly bringing up the rear, when I heard her calling to me. I turn around and see her getting into the truck while telling me that he is giving us a ride. This all happened so fast mind you. This is by no means an endorsement of hitchhiking, but sometimes and in certain situations, it does pay off. In this case it was just a bit odd and quiet as the driver was quite young and did not speak English. Five minutes later we were at Montes and I had left 500 pesos with the driver, which seemed to further confuse him. It seemed that he was more shell-shocked than we were.

Montes main building and cafe

We confused the locals further when we arrived at the security gate and asked for a tasting, at which point the guard radioed for help. After a few minutes, we were told we could have a tasting but it would be about an hour to an hour and a half & we would have to wait in at the cafe. Perfect timing we thought; we could take some photos and grab something to eat while we wait. The food hit the spot and we got some great photos including this one of an owl prowling the vineyard :

An owl in a vineyard?

We saw the chanting room for the casks (Gregorian chants pumped into the barrel room to soothe the wines) and tasted some really good wines. It was in the tasting room that I noticed some familiar labeling. Apparently well-known graphic artist Ralph Steadman not only has worked on everything Thompson and Flying Dog, but has done several labels, over several years for Montes wine : Montes Folly & Montes Cherub. This should not have been a surprise since I discovered Cardinal Zin while back in the states, but I guess I wasn’t expecting anything so familiar in such a distant and unfamiliar place.

Satiated and buzzed again, we eagerly walked our way to the next vineyard, about a kilometer away : Las Niñas (“The Girls”). This is a vineyard owned by all women, with their white wines being their best/best-known (chardonnay). We walked through the gates and into the facility, looking for some signs or idea of where the tasting room might be. We asked some of the workers there but received blank stares. After several minutes of wandering around the property, asking several people and playing with a pack of about a dozen friendly dogs (the signs said to beware of attack dogs), we were told no tastings were happening. Dejected by the lack of any response or attempt to console perspective buyers/tasters, we angrily stormed off to our last vineyard a few kilometers away : Lapostolle.

Lapostolle was already recommend by a friend in Santiago, but we had initially resolved to skip it because it seemed pricey and the map the lady had shown us at Vina Laura Hartwig the day before showed that they did not offer tastings. We had nothing to lose as it was on the route back to the main road. We arrived at the gate and was greeted by a security guard who spoke English reasonably well. They were offering tastings and we were in time, however, we would have to walk about 5 kilometers up the mountain to the tasting room (a 10 minute car ride, he explained).

Tired and dejected we continued walking towards the main road, about half of the way there (this did not include a remaining several kilometers back into town to get the collective taxi for the 8 kilometer ride back to our posada). It was late into the afternoon, we were getting tired and we had not tasted any wine for about an hours. The museum visit has long past and we were struggling just to make it back into town for the 20:00 (8 PM) collective cut off. This was definitively the lowest point morally for us. Just when things were at their worst, a blue (Molly described it as gray) pickup pulled up and offered us a ride. Neither of us blinked at the offer, though Molly insisted I sit in the back with her (I thought flanking him on both sides would have been strategically better). Whether he just saw us on the road and felt bad for us or worked at one of the vineyards and thought we were crazy, we’ll never know. We chatted briefly, exchanging pleasantries and were dropped off at our request in front of the Colchagua Casino. He refused any sort of payment even when we insisted several times. We don’t even know his name, but without him we would have definitely missed seeing the Colchagua Museum and might have even ended up walking the whole way or worse.

Inkan Kipu

The Colchagua Museum was quite large and definitely worth seeing if you are in Santa Cruz. It is supposedly the largest privately owned collection in South American and the recommended viewing time is three hours & forty five minutes. We did it in 2 hours as the museum has very little continuity. It seems to be a random collection of natural wonders (bones, minerals, etc), historical items (pre-Colombian artifacts, Chilean historical items, etc) and various nick-knacks that seem to have be lost in terrible wages made at the Casino next door (automobiles, machinery and an oddly extensive collection of all things Nazi). It was the punctuation to the end of our day and the end of the wine tour.

If you would like to do the tour of Colchagua, definetely rent a car and possible read this for more info on the vineyards. We survived it and thought all the walking and cycling (along with all the walking we had done in South America) would properly prepare us for the Camino Inka to come. It did not, but that is another story….

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