SANTIAGO, CHILE – Golf is what brought me to this South American land, and my assignment was to cover the latest edition of the Latin America Amateur Championship, held at the Prince of Wales Country Club in this leafy metropolis. The play over four days was quite good, and the star of the tourney was a local named Joaquin Niemann. Just 19 years old, he accepted the Mark H. McCormack medal the night before the competition started for being the top-ranked amateur golfer in the world. Then he played like it, firing a final round 63 to win what is now one of the best amateur tournaments in the world by five shots. Almost as impressive was the collective performances of his countrymen, and of the 11 Chileans in the field, ten made the cut, with five finishing in the top 20.
With his win, Niemann became the third Chilean in the four years of the Latin America Amateur to come out on top – and earn the invite to play in the Masters that goes to the victor. And that was just one more indication that this long and languid land bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and Los Andes to the east is on its way to becoming a golf powerhouse. At least in the amateur game.
Good as Chile is at golf these days, its reputation as a producer of wines that are as reasonably priced as they are well made is even stronger. So I made time during the golf to take in some tastings.
My first one was at the Matetic Vineyard in the Rosario Valley about an hour’s drive west of Santiago, the country’s biggest city and its capital. Owned and operated by a family who came to Chile in 1892 from what is present-day Croatia, the winery is located amid rolling hills, brown blond meadows and hardwood forests. There was little traffic on the roads, minimal development between towns and vast stretches of open land between plots of grapes ripening in the summer (for Chile) sun. And I imagined this is what the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California looked like decades ago, before they became so popular, and populated.
After a tour of the facility, which included a stroll through a modern wine cellar in which some 1,800 oak barrels were stored, I settled into a sampling of Matetic’s EQ line (the letters standing for Equilibrio, which translates into “balance” in Spanish). As is the case with the vast majority of wines in Chile, these are made organically and in the most sustainable ways possible. We opened with a Sauvignon Blanc that featured hints of pineapples and peaches and just a touch of salt, which spoke to the vineyard being less than 20 miles from the Pacific, and then moved onto a crisp Chardonnay. Next, my guide Justin poured me a glass of Pinot Noir, and as he did so, he announced that the wine, which boasted surprising depth and tasted of berries, went well with good food, good friends and music. “Pink Floyd, in particular,” he added with a smile. Then we got into what turned out to be my favorite, a smooth and peppery Syrah that also featured traces of plum. I was so smitten with that particular potion that I immediately bought two bottles.
Two days later, I joined several colleagues for dinner at Ox, which is regarded as the finest steak house in Santiago. And as I perused its very extensive wine list, I was delighted to find that very same Syrah. Just as enticing was the cost, which was roughly $40 a bottle, and we ordered a couple to accompany a feast that included fairly typical and expertly prepared asado fare – such as mollejas (sweetbreads) and costeleta vetada (bone-in rib eye) – and such interesting creations as eggrolls de prieta (blood sausage eggrolls). The pairings, you can be sure, were perfect.
So was the scene at the end of our dinner when our waiter offered to take our photograph. But before he did so, he plunked down a magnum of wine from another producer on our table. What was unusual about this bottle was that Keith Richards, Chuck Leavell and other members of the Rolling Stones had signed its label when they had dined at Ox during their latest South American tour. Clearly, they, too, were fans of what is likely Chile’s most beloved export.
The following afternoon, I broke away for a late lunch at Bocanariz, a trendy Santiago eatery that features nearly 400 different wines, all of which are made in Chile. And as a single, I was thrilled to find that 36 of those are offered by the glass. So I dug right in, first savoring a Chardonnay from the Casablanca region as I suppered on a sea bass and shrimp ceviche, and then a Colchagua Valley Carmenere, a distant relative of merlot that once flourished in the Bordeaux region of France as a blending grape and today is regarded as the national grape Chile, with a plate of short ribs so tender I could cut them with a fork.
The golf is good here, to be sure. But the wine takes things to an entirely different level.