The brightness of the sunlight falling on the narrow valley looked severe, and it was. As he drove us up the dusty road, away from the Pacific coast, our host told us that, in Elqui, employers are required by law to provide sunscreen for outdoor workers.
We passed sprawling vineyards filled with grapes destined to be dried for raisins or used to make pisco, and on we went, further in and up, until we reached a winery that only a visionary could have built.
This was six years ago. The Elqui Valley was then Chile’s most northerly vineyard region, and also a magnet for stargazers.
Now, Chile’s vineyards stretch farther north still, as winemakers questing for territory have ended up in Atacama – home to the driest desert on earth – and planted vines under its clear skies. We think of Chile as a place that makes reds that are comfortable and sturdy, the sort you might think of drinking on the sofa during a boxset binge.
But stories like this show that the region has a spirit of adventure, too. Chilean winemakers are becoming better acquainted with the capabilities of the land, and as they do, the wine improves.
Chile produces good, aromatic whites as well. In addition to the new sauvignon blancs from Huasco in Atacama, there are piercing sauvignon blancs that smell of white currants, lemon sorbet and the gooseberries grown in the cooler regions close to the coast – look for wines marked ‘costa’ (coastal) to find one.
I like Errazuriz Costa Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Aconcagua Valley, Chile (£11.99, Waitrose & Partners). There are also excellent aromatic whites made from riesling and gewürztraminer – try Cono Sur Gewürztraminer 2018 Chile (£7.50, Tesco), which tastes of puréed lychees and rosewater. I like to drink this very cold, served with very hot homemade mac ‘n’ cheese.
Reds? I think we all know about the inky syrah, solid merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and the carménère that smells of tea and paprika. Perhaps you’re also hooked on the pinot noir, because Chile makes a surprisingly good drinking variety – the sort I want to order at a gastropub and eat with bavette frites or a Sunday roast, or drink at home with a lamb & redcurrant burger.
Try Co-op Irresistible Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2018, Chile (£7, in-store at Co-op). As well as those options, you can also find dry-farmed (that is, zero irrigation) carignan from the Maule region, and a heritage grape called pais that’s beginning to make waves. Pais was the first red-wine grape planted in Chile and, in the south of the country, it creates wine that is both earthy and fruity.
You could also consider Morande Reserva One to One Pais 2016 Chile (£7.99 in a mixed box of six or £8.99 per bottle, Majestic), which is quite light and juicy – it’s all red fruit like a beaujolais, with an undertone of earth.
This month I’m drinking
Taste the Difference Austrian Traisental Grüner Veltliner 2018 Austria (£8.25, Sainsbury’s)
Here’s a spry Austrian white for welcoming the early signs of spring – it is refreshing with hints of white grapefruit. On a cold day, it’s great with creamy, cheesy pasta.
Tenuta Rapitalà Nero d’Avola 2017 Sicily (£9.99, Vivino) Acidic, fruity damson and cherry notes pair well with this spaghetti with smoked anchovies, chilli breadcrumbs & fried egg.
Tasca Regaleali Bianco di Sicilia 2017 (£8.99 mixed six or £9.99 a bottle, Majestic) This white tastes of peach and citrus – ideal with feta-stuffed nut roast.
Read more articles by Victoria Moore
Best wines for under £5
Top sustainable wines for 2020
How wine has changed in 30 years
Why you should be drinking verdejo this summer
Swap your bottle for wine in a can
Why you should be drinking French malbec
Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her most recent book is the The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta).
This page was last updated in March 2020. If you have any questions or suggestions for future reviews, or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on alcohol guidelines, read our guide to drinking responsibly.