By Marilyn Diggs
May 19, 2009

Chilean wine has gained much notoriety and many awards over the last ten to fifteen years, and today Chile ranks fifth among the wine exporting countries. But for visitors to the Central Valley region, near Santiago, it offers something even better – a lazy ride through lush vineyards on a coal-burning locomotive from 1913. Tren del Vino (the Wine Train), a joint governmental and private sector venture, has been travelling the Cochagua Valley circuit since 1996. Its various programs combine wine-tasting, vineyard tours and cultural attractions.

I chose the all-day Santa Cruz Vineyard Program because it offers an outdoor museum visit as well as wine-tasting. We depart by bus from Galerias Hotel in the downtown Santiago at 8 am. Our guide shares the history and information about the region on the way to the San Fernando train station. We pass through the big city and travel past small homes to the rural Central Valley, nestled between the Cordillera de la Costa mountains and the Andes. Orchards with heavy-laden orange, apricot and apple trees, and fields of corn eventually give way to vineyards for as far as the eye can see. Thick leaf growth form kelly green canopies with grapes, which are harvested for young wines, while traditional vines in rows yield mature ones.

Wine-tasting Done Right
Once at the station, we board a vintage train and make ourselves comfortable in the burgundy velvet seats inside a charming wood-paneled car. Three passenger cars, one restaurant car where appetizers and wine are stored, and the coal-driven engine compose the Tren del Vino. No sooner do we sit down then a stout silver-haired singer with a guitar begins serenading the passengers as he wanders from car to car. Meanwhile, girls smartly dressed in slacks with red sashes distribute glasses and the tasting begins for ros, white and red wines. Although the degustation includes only three shallow servings, participants usually get extras of their favorite. To clean the palate and enhance the sampling, between wines we munch on cubes of cheese, fresh fruit and ham on skewers and empanadas (small fried pastries with cheese and meat inside). We learn that in 1851 French grape varieties – Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling, among others – began replacing the traditional Spanish vines and today provide the basis of Chilean Wine production. Chile’s secret is its Mediterranean climate with distinct seasons, plus the high temperatures during the day and low in the night – perfect for wine production.

Two hours later, the train groans to a stop at the Santa Cruz’s canary-yellow station where we watch a short performance: musicians accompany a young man in black with a straight-brimmed hat who courts a maiden in a swirling calico dress, dancing the typical Chilean cueca. After applause, we board a bus for the Santa Cruz Vineyard and lunch. Its glass-sided restaurant showcases a panoramic view of the vineyard as we dine on grilled meat accompanied by typical regional side dishes, many with beans.

Next, we tour a huge ochre mansion that houses the winery. After a brief explanation of how Chamn brand wine is made, we descend into the cool cellars to try two different reds: a light, young wine and a premium reserve Cabernet Sauvignon cured in oak barrels. A brief orientation helps us to compare the bouquet, body and taste. Then, we stroll by the Wine Gallery, which displays interesting artifacts including Roman vases and early bottling memorabilia for our perusal.

The Santa Cruz Vineyard owner, who promotes Chilean culture, built an open air museum on a hill inside his property. A cable lift takes us to replicas of three dwellings built by indigenous tribes: Mapuche from the south of Chile, Aymar from the north, and Easter Islanders. Domestic tools, jewelry, ceremonial objects, masks and clothing help one imagine the different lifestyles. Live llamas reside next to the Aymar stone house, while a grey moai statue guards the Easter Island lodging that resembles an upside-down canoe. (see photo)

The day has been full; the wine tasting, photo snapping and vineyard touring have taken their toll. A hush falls over the chattering group as we relax in the bus with newly-purchased bottles of wine safely tucked away. The trip back passes quickly; we pull up to the Santiago hotel at 8 pm. The tour is over, but it seems like I had gone back in time to the days of leisurely train travel, when not only the destination was important, but also how to get there.

Tips
Tren Del Vino – Tel: (56 -2) 470-7403/7407 info@trendelvino.com and www.lasebastiana.cl

Where to Eat
Akarana – Happy Hour, happy times, remarkable food. Dell, the friendly Kiwi owner, uses Chilean ingredients in creative international recipes. Modern decor. Garden bar. Casual chic. Reyes Lavalle 3310, Las Condes. Tel: 231-9667. www.vipstravel.cl
Freeway Brasil – Tour operator for travel arrangements. Works directly with VIPS. Tel: 5088-0999. www.mdiggs.com

Previous articles by Marilyn:

A Trip to Easter Island: Beyond the Obvious
Atacama Desert, Chile – I Came, I Saw, I Explored
Journey through the Fjords of Patagonia
Around Brazil: Jap Mountains, When Nature Calls
Around Brazil: Living the Amazon
Brazil: A Spa that Takes Care of Body and Soul
Around South America: Puyuhuapi – Chile’s Patagonian Secret
Around South America: Looking for Adventure in Chile’s Patagonia
Around South America: Road Trip through a Forgotten Land – Aisn, Chile
Conquering Cape Horn
Around Brazil: Hang-Gliding Over Rio
Around Brazil: Sailing in Paraty
Santiago: Gateway to the Chilean Experience
The Enchanting Easter Island
Nature and Nurturing in Chile’s Lake Region
Chilean Patagonia: Going to the Ends of the Earth
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 2
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 1
Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha

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