It is customary for the Master of the Marketors to lead a trip somewhere during his year as it is with all Livery companies. Sometimes this may just be for a weekend in an historic city in the UK. Sometimes it may be overseas. Several of our overseas visits have been to wine regions in France, Spain and the USA. This year I have done both with a weekend in Oxford in September and in November a trip to Chile.
I met and married my wife Carmen when I was working for Mars Inc. in Santiago de Chile in the early 1980s. Carmen became only the second person in the UK to import Chilean wine in 1985 at which time Chilean wine was almost unknown here. It now accounts for one bottle in every twelve sold in the UK. On this trip we visited five of Chile’s best known wineries. We also visited two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and enjoyed some of the culture and cuisine of Chile. The idea was that I, with a lot of help from family and friends in Chile, organised a stay of four nights in Santiago and three nights in Viña del Mar on the Pacific coast. Travellers made their own flight arrangements and all of them bookended the core week with visits to other parts of Chile and the rest of South America.
For this blog I’ll revert to diary style as we packed a lot into the week and in Part One I’ll cover the first four days in Santiago and then next week in Part Two I’ll cover the trip to the coast and our activities there.
Day One. Monday 21st November.
The group of 34 members and their partners gathered in the Hotel Le Reve in Providencia, a district of Santiago characterised by a mixture of business and residential premises, close to the River Mapocho. As our first excursion we had planned to take the funicular up the Cerro San Cristobal and see the city from there but we discovered a new attraction. Sky Costanera is the tallest building in South America and is almost as tall as the Shard at 300 metres[i]. The 360˚ perspective shows the whole of Santiago with views reaching to the Andes.
We then toured the central part of the city seeing the famous Presidential Palace, the Cathedral and other historic buildings. We then had lunch in the Fish Market at the well -known restaurant Donde Augusto. For many in the party it was their first experience of the celebrated Chilean cocktail Pisco Sour with empanadas, sea food and a choice of fish, all of course washed down with excellent Chilean wine, thus setting the pattern for the week.
Then we went to the official Residence of the British Ambassador to Chile, H.E. Mrs Fiona Clowder for a reception. Ambassador Clouder addressed the group on the importance of the relationship between the UK and Chile and the opportunities for developing business relations hips. In this she was supported by Greg Holland, Chief Executive of the British Chilean Chamber of Commerce, who like me came to Chile on a business assignment and finished up marrying a Chilean.
The Residence is a beautiful house with gorgeous gardens unfortunately now over looked by high rise apartment blocks. I would not be surprised if the FCO sold it one day.
Day Two. Tuesday 22nd November
We visited our first winery and it seemed appropriate to start with Viña Undurraga[ii], the wine my wife imported back in the ‘80s. Undurraga dates back to 1885 and its cellars also date back to then. The winery boasts a beautiful garden featuring many varieties of tree, both indigenous and imported. Undurraga seeks to support the native Mapuche people with a grouping of their ancestral sculptures and a dedicated museum. The park was designed by the French landscape designer George-Henri Dubois. We saw their modern storage facilities as well as the ancient oak barrels from France and the US. We then had a splendid tasting laid out nicely in the garden with three wines and then our favourite Undurraga Brut, the wonderful sparkling wine whose UK stocks I cornered so I could serve at our Great Events this year. I rather cheekily suggested that if we had another glass each they could take a group photograph of us all toasting the vineyard.
Lunch was taken at a German restaurant, Kuchen Haus, just down the road. There was a large settlement of Germans in the nineteenth century, mainly from Bavaria who were given land to settle in the south of Chile. Their descendants still live there and they are a strong force in Chilean culture.
In the evening we had a barbecue at the Country Club where I was a member. Sport Frances lies further out in the suburbs and so is closer to the foothills of the Andes. My golf was never up to much but it’s a beautiful course and as someone who struggles to keep the ball straight I have seen more of it than my low handicap friends.
I invited another Ambassador H.E. Rafael Moreno to join us. Ambassador Moreno was Ambassador to London from 2006-10 and we became firm friends, largely because he asked me to explain cricket to him and I said to do that I had to show it to him. So I took him to Lords for a Test Match. Don Rafael gave a charming talk on the relative history of our two nations and demonstrated the warmth of the Chilean people.
Day Three. Wednesday 23rd November
This was our most ambitious expedition as we visited the giant Codelco owned copper mining site of El Teniente and the World Heritage Site of Sewell, a mining village that was built for the mining community, 2600 metres above sea level.[iii] These days the miners are bused in every day from Rancagua, an hour away. But when the mine was developed by the Americans over 100 years ago they built the village with all sorts of amenities for a permanent settlement. There was a hospital, school, chapel and, still standing, a club for the senior representatives and their wives. The mine is the largest underground mine of its kind in the world.
Unfortunately a sudden downpour brought our tour to a premature end but not before we had seen extraordinary sights. It brought home the constant dangers and challenges of deep cast mining and made me think we should appreciate more the efforts of those who excavate such vital minerals for us. Copper is still the principal export of Chile and the economic fate of Chile remains largely tied up with its relative price.
We had been due to lunch at the Copper Company’s Country Club but after recent industrial action by the staff the company had cut its losses and closed it. So we went a little further down the valley to a spa hotel that had seen much better days. [iv] Termas de Cauquenes are hot springs and a beautiful spa and gastronomic hotel was built there. Still after the rain a Pisco sour and a delicious hot soup did wonders.
After our adventures in the mines it was back to more familiar territory in the wineries. We started with Concha y Toro, the biggest in Chile and one of the biggest in the world.[v] Don Melchior Concha y Toro (yes, it’s a single surname) founded the winery in 1883 and his beautiful house still stands in the centre of grounds that have another superb garden as well as extensive fields of grapes.
The cellars are famous for the legend of Casillero del Diablo, literally the Devil’s Cellar. The legend goes that early on some wine was stolen from the cellar so Don Melchior let it be known that the Devil lived there and would deal with anyone who committed theft. There was no more theft. True or not it has created another brand as Casillero del Diablo is as well-known as Concha y Toro and is one of the sponsors of my favourite team Manchester United. United are traditionally known as the Red Devils so perhaps this sponsorship deal is a marriage made in ….!
Our next winery was Viñas Santa Rita, which was recently named the “2016 Winery of the Year” by Wines of Chile, and we could see why. [vi] In no hurry we started with a glass of wine and an empanada in the garden. Then a delicious lunch in a lovely restaurant featuring a dish of turkey which was appropriate as it was US Thanksgiving Day. After lunch some just wanted to go back to the garden while the rest of us went for another tour of as very modern winery and a delectable tasting. Well, someone has to do it. Santa Rita also features a fine museum with a superb collection of Pre-Columbian art, one of the best in the world.
In the evening we went to a night club called Bali Hai which features a full range of folkloric music and dancing. Easter Island is part of Chile so included with the Patagonian and Andean music is Polynesian, hence the name. It might sound a bit corny but it was very well presented with skilful and attractive dancers who would not have looked out of place on Strictly. It was a nice way to sign off in Santiago.