Chile’s largest wine region, the Maule Valley has a new wine route for independent travellers. The dozen wineries involved are keen to show that Maule is about more than bulk wine. ANTHONY ROSE pays a visit.

What is a wine route? Is it an all-in tour of a wine region in which you stop, look, taste and buy the T-shirt before moving on to the next event? Or should it be an adventure in which you’re given a map and a few dots and where the pleasure comes from the freedom to join up those dots in any manner you see fit? If it’s the former you’re after, there’s Napa or Champagne or any number of regions that specialise in molly-coddling their tourists. But for independent-minded travellers, who want more from wine tourism than cramming in as many wineries as possible in the shortest space of time, the Maule Valley wine route is a breath of bracing Andean and Pacific air with the chance to absorb plenty of local colour along the way.

The Region

Sitting on mostly volcanic and sandy soils between the Andes and coastal range, the Maule Valley is some 40–50km wide. While winters are wet, it has warm, dry summers and a temperature ranging from 32 degrees C during the day to 8 degrees C at night – a major quality factor in wine growing. With 42% of Chile’s vineyards, Maule Valley is by some distance the country’s biggest wine region both for red and white wines. It has a massive 34,500ha (hectares) of black grapes and 10,500ha of white, of a national total of 104,900ha.

Despite its importance to the wine industry, the region has surprisingly little identity and none of the cachet of the more fashionable regions such as Casablanca, Colchagua, Maipo and Aconcagua. This is partly because it takes a good four hours to drive the 260km down the Pan-American highway to Maule’s capital, Talca. But it’s also because of the structure of the wine industry itself. For one thing, Maule still has by far the biggest plantings of the old workhorse Pais grape. Also, wine giants such as Concha y Toro have huge swathes of vines planted in Maule, but the grapes tend to end up in anonymous, big company brands with the Maule Valley not getting a look-in on the label.

ABOUT A DOZEN

Because of this somewhat amorphous identity, a group of wineries in Maule recently decided to band together to raise the profile of the region under the Ruta del Vino banner.The 12 wineries involved are mainly family concerns, and are mostly insignificant in export terms, with little or no presence in the UK. But whereas in the past they were happy to potter along supplying their wines in bulk to the big companies, the Chilean wine boom has given them a much-needed kick up the proverbial. Marketeers and PRs have begun to appear, and while no one could accuse these firms of dynamism, they are going beyond merely striking new postures to do what it takes in the vineyard and the cellar to adjust to new markets. The Maule Valley wine route splits conveniently into four main areas. In San Clemente, immediately west of Talca, is a group of wineries that includes Viña Calina, Hugo Casanova, Terranoble and Domaine Oriental (Casa Donoso). Further south, Balduzzi and Cremaschi Furlotti (the latter a recent defector from the wine route group) are centred on the bustling rural town of San Javier. West of San Javier towards the Pacific Ocean side, you have Viños del Sur, Tabontinaja and J Bouchon; while further south in the area around Villa Alegre are Segú, El Aromo and Carta Vieja.

The 12 wineries belonging to the Maule Valley wine route group are set up to varying degrees to receive visitors for tastings, sales and, in some cases, accommodation. The Ruta del Vino office in San Javier organises group tours for 10 or more. According to Jorge Balduzzi, president of the Wine Route: ‘Ten years ago no one came to the Maule Valley, but in 2000, we had 6,000 visitors.’ As a result Viña Balduzzi, a traditional, neat winery that is already well equipped to receive visitors, is thinking about setting up a small guest house or hotel.Tabontinaja has a strikingly modern guest house with communal kitchen, whose rural setting allows visitors to do their own thing. Its eccentric owner, Francisco Gillmore, publishes a brochure which outlines a range of options depending on the amount of wine bought – buy 1,200 bottles and you can share in the blending for five days; buy 120,000 and you can move in with the Gillmore family.

TO THE CAPITAL

Talca, the regional capital founded in 1742, is not set up for tourism, but there is an adequate range of accommodation, from the delightful guest house Casa Chueca, whose owners Franz Schubert and Kati Splett organise a variety of excursions, to the mod cons of the Hotel Terrabella. The capital offers a chance too to visit museums like Huilquilemu, an art and craft museum with primitive art, figurines, statuary and crafts, worth a visit if only for the surreal Last Supper room. You can eat well in Talca. Ruben Tapia specialises in fresh delicacies such as sea urchins, abalone and frogs legs in batter, although the more conventional of stomach might prefer a plain chargrilled kingclip or corvina, a kind of bass. Local specialities include mote con huesillo (dried peaches with wheat in a cinnamon-based infusion) and sopai pillas con pebre (savoury, hot mini-doughnut rings dunked in fresh salsa), eaten preferably before dinner with an appetite-whetting pisco sour from freshly squeezed Peruvian pica lemons.
If it’s grilled meat you’re after, the best place to hunt down a chargrilled, meltingly tender steak of Argentinian proportions is Los Ganaderos. This glorified steak house is bisected by the main road, so you need to be on the side heading north to devour views of the snowcapped Andes. For a mere fiver, you won’t forget the gargantuan sirloin in a hurry, or do anything in a hurry for that matter.

San Clemente

East of Talca, the four wineries in San Clemente provide a range of contrasts. Hugo Casanova is the classic father-and-son set-up, so much so that both father and son obligingly bear the company name. Typically, it didn’t start bottling its own wines until the mid-1990s, but is making up for lost time. The traditional Spanish ranch-style building with its wooden pillars, tiled roof, lawns and gardens, has its own little restaurant that caters for small groups. Nearby, Casa Donoso, the brand name of Domaine Oriental, is a charming estate with cellar-door sales, currently undergoing restoration for a restaurant and guest house. Terranoble is interesting mainly for the quality of its Carmenère, one of the best in the region. Carmenère is also dear to Andrés Sánchez, the talented young winemaker at Viña Calina, whose Napa-style winery, founded by Kendall-Jackson in 1994, sits in striking contrast to the rest of Maule. With 100ha of vineyard planted on drip irrigation for maximum yield control, Calina is sited strategically for its proximity to two of its sources of grapes, Colchagua to the north and Cauquenes in the southeast.

Villa Alegre

The old colonial town of Villa Alegre, like Yerbas Buenas further east, offers a respite from the bustling palm-lined streets of San Javier and gives genuine meaning to the term one-horse town. Here you’ll find Segú and also Carta Vieja, where the Pedregal family runs one of the most established family wine companies in the region, tracing its history back through seven generations to 1825. West of San Javier, a visit to Viños del Sur and Viña J Bouchon gives you something of the flavour of the traditional winery undergoing modernisation and at the same time the most enchanting rural landscape imaginable. The track is lined with wild flowers, eucalyptus, pine, poplar trees and cacti. The surrounding hills are dotted with acacia and covered in a green and gold tapestry of daisies and buttercups. The vineyards themselves nestle between the high, acacia-clad hills, home to a population of rabbit, hare and partridge. Inevitably, birds of prey hover optimistically overhead. I was convinced I spotted a condor here until I was disabused by a twitcher who told me we weren’t close enough to the Andes.

The Ocean Road

Just before Tabontinaja and Bouchon, the road to the port of Constitución and the coast takes you past Cow Market Ice Creams (best in the region), then through pine forests and across the cordillera to the mouth of the Maule River. Sadly, the Twin Peaks-like beauty of this rugged coastline is blighted here by the stomach-churning stench of a cellulose plant. It’s best to take the ocean road south to Chanco where you can stop at Prochanco to pick up a hunk of superb sheep’s cheese and make your own sandwich to munch on as you amble through the Federico Albert National Park before driving on to the resort of Curanipe.

Saddle up in the Andes

The road south of San Javier leads to Linares, from which a two-hour, bone-crunching transit van ride doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But in fact a drive up the boulder-strewn, precipitous track over the foaming white waters of the Maule up to Melado in the Andean foothills is a must. Any discomfort is compensated for by the wild, Alpine-like beauty and clear light of the pre-cordillera. Colours here are strikingly vivid, lush green hills and dazzling pure white snow of mountain peaks set against clear blue skies. Melado is a remote spot whose focal point is a giant log construction that houses a restaurant, café and bar on three levels. Once you’re there, you can walk, raft, cycle, swim in the pool or ride sure-footed horses that are equally at home on rocky tracks or crossing the streams that filter into the Maule further downstream.

Water Sports and water features

Fed by various rivers and streams running off the Andes, the lakes in this part of the Maule Valley are ideal for watersports in spring, in particular Colbún, Machicura and Invernada. You can take a two-day excursion to Teno Lake, from where an eight-hour walk brings you to the rim of the crater of active volcano Peteroa and back down. Close by, Vilches, on the edge of the Lircay nature reserve, is an ideal spot for hiking, horseriding and mountaineering.

Taking the Waters

Back on the road to Linares, the spa at Quinamavida, with baths, massage, swimming pool and sports activities, is being modernised to give it less of a sanatorium, more of a hotel and holiday camp feel. Passing through the village of Rari on the way, you can stop off and admire – or buy – the artesiana en crini, the traditional intricate, coloured craftwork woven from horsehair by the elderly women of the village. It’s just another of the many unique attractions that show Maule Valley is not just another wine route. Not the obvious tourist destination for Chile-bound wine lovers, it will reward the adventurous.

Anthony Rose writes a wine column for The Independent.

Written by ANTHONY ROSE