Drinking elsewhere: A visit to a small winery in Chile's Maipo Valley

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Mario Ravenna, tasting wine from the barrel
In the mid-aughts I lived in Santiago, Chile, for a couple years, and despite the city's proximity to the wine-producing Maipo Valley, I never went to any of the vineyards there. But when I visited the city recently, on the plane ride from Miami to Santiago I sat next to a race-car driver named Carlo who had just been to Disney World with his extended family (I'd noticed the group in the airport—the half-dozen kids clutching enormous stuffed dolphins made them stand out). Carlo asked if I was interested in wine; he had a friend who owned an organic winery just south of the city and he'd be happy to put us in touch.

I was, and he did. I got an e-mail from Mario Ravenna, owner of Huelquen Winery, within a few hours of my flight's arrival. We arranged a tour, and a week or so later, two friends and I drove out to the vineyard. Mario was waiting outside with his friend Carola, her son, and her niece.

The vineyard, view from a hill
  • Julia Thiel
  • The vineyard
As he showed us the vineyard, Mario gave us a brief history. His ancestors had grown grapes in Italy, and his grandfather, who emigrated to Chile as a child, started a small winery there in the 1980s. It didn't survive (the website refers to a tragic accident but doesn't elaborate further, and neither did Mario), but in 1992, Mario's father Francisco started planting cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Huelquen region of the Maipo Valley. In 1995 they built a winery, and in 1999 they began bottling wine. The vineyards cover more than 200 acres, but Mario sells most of the grapes to other wineries, making a relatively small amount of wine himself.

Wine aging in barrels

The friend with her son and niece. Thats grape juice in the glass, not wine.
  • Julia Thiel
  • Carola with her son and niece. (That's grape juice in the glass, not wine.)

Discussing wine among the tanks

Mario showed us the winery and its equipment, explaining how the wine was made and offering us tastes of it at various stages in the aging process (including the juice stage, for the kids in the group). Most of what we tried still had some aging left to do, but a sweet wine we tasted out of the barrel—named Mario Ravenna Seduction Wine, after Mario himself—was pretty much fully developed. Inspired by the Italian amarone style of wine, which uses partially dried grapes, its sweetness was balanced by a pronounced sourness that was much more pleasant than it sounds.

Mario Ravenna, serving Mario Ravenna wine to my friend Francisca
  • Julia Thiel
  • Mario Ravenna, serving Mario Ravenna wine to my friend Francisca

Pouring the Q cabernet sauvignon
After we toured the winery, our group sat at a picnic table in the shade and Mario opened a bottle of his "Q" cabernet sauvignon, rich and complex. He mentioned that Carlo lived nearby in the valley and at some point his last name came up—causing my friend Francisca to nearly choke on her wine. "The guy you met on the plane was Carlo de Gavardo?" she demanded. "He's superfamous in Chile! It's because of him that this area became well-known. They call him the Condor of Huelquen." (Quotes are approximate because the conversation took place several weeks ago, in Spanish.)

Carlo de Gavardo turns out to be a world champion motorcyclist who retired from motorcycle racing several years ago (he told me on the plane that he had stopped because several of his friends were killed in a short period of time, but he was still racing cars). And Francisca was right—all Chileans appear to know who he is, from a mutual friend of ours whom she called after the winery tour to a different friend I met up with later that evening.

The wine that Mario makes is, unfortunately, available only at the vineyard. He used to export it to other countries—in fact, the winery's website still says it exports, but Mario says that information's outdated. In an e-mail, though, he told me that he's "always hoping for the miracle of finding a good importer who sees the potential of our wines." (Again, this is an approximate quote translated from Spanish.)

Another view of the winery

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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