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Chile

Chile

The South American destination is now known more for its Pinot Noir than its politics.

?Waving a spoon above a bowl of lentil soup, the attractive winemaker turned to me and asked, ?What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'Chile'?? We were having lunch at Undurraga, some 20 miles south of Santiago in the Maipo Valley, and one of the oldest vineyards in the region. I didn?t have to give the question much thought. "Pinochet," I said. He nodded gravely. The dictator has been dead almost five years, and out of office for much longer, but the shadow left by his decades in office has been hard to shake.

At Undurraga, the hope is that Pinot Noir, not Pinochet, will soon come to epitomize this beautiful and diverse country. The vigorous wine industry is certainly one good reason to visit, but the proximity of mountains and ocean means you can pack in much more at the same time. In a five-day visit, I learned to snowboard in the Andes, went horseback riding in Casablanca Valley, and toured the maze of streets in the lovely coastal city of Valparaíso. (It was in Valparaíso, birthplace of Pinochet, that I also found a "Pinoshit" fridge magnet, characteristic of the city's irreverent spirit.)

One of the great things about arriving in Chile in mid-August is that you are in the same time zone as New York City, so one awakes in Santiago feeling refreshed and ready for a day of wine-tasting (an upgrade on my American Airlines flight didn?t hurt either). I began by checking into the Noi (Santiago), a new, elegantly designed hotel with a great play of space and light in the lobby, and a well-appointed spa that was blissfully deserted the day I was there. Santiago itself has something of Los Angles about it, sprawling at the foothills of the snow-capped Andes, glinting in the late-winter sun. And like L.A., the traffic jams, particularly in rush hour, can be fearsome. The Noi's great advantage is its quiet location, in the wealthy neighborhood of Alonso de Córdova, all discreet boutiques and leafy sidewalks. There are some great restaurants here, too, including the just-opened organic hot spot, La Estacion, where they serve bottles of strawberry juice flavored with cardamom and homemade bread rolls with a bowl of lemony yoghurt in place of butter.

Chile is long, long, long -- 2,700 miles of coastline long?but there?s a lot to keep you occupied in the narrow band of land connecting Santiago and Valparaíso, one of the continent?s busiest seaports until the opening of the Panama Canal, and a miscellany of architectural styles and influences that European immigrants brought with them at the turn of the 19th century. It was also one of several places where the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had a home. You can visit La Sebastiana, high above the harbor, where Neruda stayed when he was in town, and then follow it with a hot chocolate at Cafe con Letras, a teashop and bookstore on Almirante Montt in Cerro Concepción, where ramshackle Victorian houses and eclectic street art makes for an inspiring city walk. For gifts, take time to visit Hiperfocal gallery (Templeman, 602). The friendly artist and owner, Alberto Lagos, will explain how he uses gum bichromate, a 19th-century photographic printing process, to create his painterly photographs of Valpara?so street scenes. To enjoy more time in the city, book a room at Casa Higueras, a small boutique hotel overlooking the harbor, with 20 immaculate rooms (complete with pillow menu) and a terrific restaurant.

 Between Valparaíso and Santiago lie some of the country?s best vineyards. At the Viña San Estaban winery in the Aconcagua Valley, just north of Santiago, most of the wines are exported. A perfectly balanced 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, with hints of tobacco and cedar, retails in the U.S. for a bargain $15. It?s organic, too. For that matter, so are many of the wines coming out of Chile. Some of the brightest and crispest can be found in Casablanca Valley, a center for biodynamic methods. At Emiliana, a crack team of alpacas does the work of herbicides in keeping weeds at bay. A supporting troop of roosters and guinea hens take care of the insects. In keeping with biodynamic practices, the vineyard works the vines according to the lunar calendar. The air here is fresh and floral, and the wines seem to benefit. A Pinot Noir had notes of strawberry and chocolate. The Natura Carménère (a bargain $10.99) was peppery and lush.

At Matetic, an old colonial house built in the Spanish style accommodates overnight guests. There?s also a lap pool and a guest lounge with open fires, a pool table, and an honor bar. The temperatures here can be hot in the day but plummet at night, and the wines have a lovely concentrated flavor as a consequence. A bottle of 2009 Syrah was smoky and peppery; the 2009 Chardonnay EQ was oaky on the nose and bright and fruity on the tongue. Visitors here can ride horseback through the farm to the tasting center, a stunning example of contemporary architecture that seems to spring out of the surrounding vineyards. Nearby Indómita, by contrast, rises fortress-like on a hilltop, all white concrete and reflecting glass. Here, the prize wine is the ruby red Zardoz (named for a champion Chilean racehorse), thick with plums and backcurrants.

Wined, dined, and content, I rounded out my Chilean wine tour back in Santiago at the gay-owned hotel, The Aubrey. Situated in Bellavista, center of the city's nightlife scene, this 15-room converted mansion manages that rare trick of feeling simultaneously genteel and hip, with wood-paneled interiors and a series of illuminated stone arches that frame a cobbled courtyard. On the night I was there, an entire series of Absolutely Fabulous was playing on a loop in the bar. Australian owner, Mark Cigana, knows his guests well.
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