Wine Where the World Began


Where you drink wine can be important. An overheated or too noisy room or city stress can downgrade the pleasures of even a very good wine.  Conversely, tranquility that allows you to focus on what’s in your glass can upgrade even a so-so sipper. What if you could leave behind all aspects of external civilization, even connectivity to all signal receiving devices, and spend several days tasting wine in a realm that feels like the beginning of the world? With voices lowered all around, could even the whispers of a wine be easier to pick up?
Recently, I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get answers to those questions during a three- day cruise amidst the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the unpeopled extreme southern reaches of Patagonia. During that long weekend, I never saw any sign that humans yet existed on this planet, not even a distant light in the black of night. The only warm blooded natives were ungainly critters with flippers lolling amid rocks and an occasional seagull. Dominant were blue-glowing glaciers and massive walls of black granite plunging into dark waters filigreed with shards of floating ice. Except for the wind whistling and the occasional thunder of a glacier "calving" a chunk of itself, Tierra del Fuego was silent.
The voyage was hosted by Wines of Chile, which invited 20 journalists and twice that many Chilean winemakers aboard a small cruise ship called the Via Australis. It sailed from Punta Arenas, 1800 miles south of Santiago.  The purpose of the trip, as explained by its prime mover, Aurelio Montes of Montes Winery, was to explore both the variety of Chilean wines and the physical uniqueness of the country itself, ranging from earth's driest desert in the north to precipitation-rich Patagonia. In between, Chilean wine country stretches 750 miles from north to south. Each day, two shipboard tasting seminars showcased aspects of Chile’s wine culture. The tastings were held in an upper deck lounge. Often, a hatch door was left open, allowing a snappy spring breeze, Antarctic style, to freshen the proceedings.
In between seminars, journalists and winemakers alike piled into orange Zodiac rafts, each holding a dozen people, and headed off to explore the terrain of Tierra del Fuego.  Mostly, these were spots where glaciers had receded, allowing stunted trees to take hold amidst lichen-covered boulders. Disobeying instructions, I’d not packed waterproof footwear, an omission I quickly regretted on our first foray.  My canvas shoes sank into compressed vegetal muck with water seeping up from beneath. Our destination was a dramatic waterfall, but it was difficult to advance through a tangle of low bushes and fallen trees. The way became easier once we began to follow a stream bed. The waterfall, gushing down in a silvery ribbon from a cliff top, was worth the effort, even with cold wet feet.
Poking in the ship’s three-shelf library, I found a copy of “The Voyage of the Beagle” by Charles Darwin. It includes lively reportage on his visit to Tierra del Fuego, which he describes as a “mountainous land, partly submerged in the sea, so that deep inlets and bays occupy the place where valleys should exist.” Exactly as now. Venturing ashore on December 18, 1832, Darwin reports that the ground was “a mass of slowly putrefying vegetable matter, which, being soaked with water, yields to the foot.” Due to the “waterfalls and number of dead trees,” he “could hardly crawl along." But the bed of a stream became “a little more open,” and he followed along it. It gave me a shiver to read a 182 year-old report that seemed to predict my own steps a few hours earlier. Darwin, however, probably wasn't wearing Adidas. 
So what was the impact, deep in Tierra del Fuego, of tasting more than one hundred wines across six seminars? Would the wines have shown themselves differently back in civilization? To steal a one-word judgment from a colleague, California-based Julia Weinberg, the wines in the wilderness seemed more “present.” One of the winemakers, Noelia Orts from Emiliana (her Coyam red blend was superb), remembered attending a crowded reception in the city hosted by her uncle, a politician. “Very good wines were served, but under the conditions, I couldn’t enjoy them,” Orts said. My own take-away: With no emails to check, no calls to make, no shopping to do, or dog to walk, how could the wines, especially those which spoke softly, not be more present? Once, during dinner, I stepped out on deck carrying a glass of Casa Silva's Sauvignon Gris 2004, made from century old vines in the Colchagua Valley. Akin to sauvignon blanc, this sauvignon gris displayed an elegance not usually displayed by the more popular grape. It pulled off the trick of being creamy and lime-y at the same moment. Like the sound of a yodel between glacier and mountain, the wine seemed to carry its own echo. And then there was silence. 
I can't remember most wines, especially "unserious" whites that I've tasted in midtown Manhattan. On the other hand, I can't forget Casa Silva's ten year-old sauvignon gris, not just tasted but contemplated under a chill starry sky at the tail end of the Americas. 
Looking back, the experience of tasting in extensive flights was also beneficial. No surprise that Chile’s traditional reds, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenere, reliably strutted their stuff. The flight that caught me off guard was called “Cool Climate Whites.” From vineyards being planted ever closer to the Pacific Ocean, these wines aren’t a discovery to anyone with Chilean wines on their radar. The eye-opener was to taste eighteen cool climateers at one leisurely sitting, an exercise that confirmed the light-footed elegance of this cohort. Sauvignon blanc dominated, as expected. But a surprise was Valdivieso’s Single Vineyard Leyda Chardonnay 2006. Slip this eight-year old into a blind tasting of Chassagne-Montrachets of the same vintage, and I'd bet that it would fit right in. 
On the final leg of the cruise, we sailed back north through the Straits of Magellan, past Punta Arenas,  to bare Magdalena Island, where in a brutal wind we trudged among the massive local colony of Magellan penguins. During our return to Punta Arenas, a final seminar was devoted to "innovation and advances" on various Chilean winemaking fronts. Welcome respect was given to a pair of traditional but largely abandoned varieties: cinsault and pais.  These were fruity, foursquare wines with no complications. The cinsaults, notably Montes' Outer Limits bottling, had the most structure, the pais the most straight-ahead fruitiness. With at most a few hundred cases of most of these wines produced they are aren't likely to show up in your local wine shop. If they ever do, they’ll go great with pizza, especially one loaded up with pepperoni.
The moving force behind this wine journey to the end of the world, Aurelio Montes, has built a globally respected winery. But it bothers him no end that neither Chilean wines, which have quietly been moving up the quality ladder, nor Chile itself, still fail to get the respect they deserve. He told an illustrative story: “Not long ago, I was flying my airplane from Chile to San Diego, and stopped over in a small Central American country which shall go unnamed. The chief customs inspector came aboard, and asked where we were from. When I told him, he said, ‘Chile—is that in Africa?’”
It especially galls Montes to be in the shadow of adjacent Argentina and its wines, spearheaded by the huge commercial success of malbec.  Good thing Montes wasn’t on my flight home to New York. It departed from Santiago, less than an hour’s drive from an array of vineyards producing a wide range of ever improving white and red wines. Yet Delta’s otherwise varied business class wine list omitted any selection from Chile. But there was a Torrontes from Argentina.  

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