A Taste Of Chile

Where: Santa Cruz, Chile

Aboard the train, riders lounge on Merlot-colored velvet seats and take in the Andean peaks rolling by as aproned stewards serve glasses of fine Chilean wine. This sleek set of restored rail carriages with polished brass fittings, elegant curtains, and white cloth-laid tables gently rattles through a valley populated by row upon row of vines puncuated with the odd farmyard and terra-cotta-topped house. This is undoubtedly the best way to arrive in the laid-back town of Santa Cruz, the Colchagua Valley's main port of call.

Santa Cruz is the jumping-off point to visit one of Chile's most beautiful wineries, Viu Manent. The heart of the winery is a 19th-century hacienda that exudes class and colonial grandeur. Your tour begins with a horse-and-carriage ride through the vineyards, where you learn that this is one of the few places on earth that evaded the vine disease phylloxera, which nearly wiped out the fine-wine industry at the turn of the 20th century. Because of Colchagua's relative isolation, its vines escaped the devastating root lice that caused havoc in the rest of the world. The vines you are looking at have venerable lineage indeed, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbecs, and Merlots that were among the area's first cultivated vines.

Back at the tasting center, you'll find white adobe buildings surrounding a picturesque garden with a central fountain. Pyramids of old oak barrels stand in a bright, stylish tasting room. There is also a charming restaurant, graced with a sweeping landscape painting of the valley that runs along an entire wall. Elsewhere, back-lit wooden vats sit amid easy chairs in a room of bare wooden rafters and beams. It is at once old and modern, quaint and stylish. The owners of this family-run winery still live close at hand, in a gorgeous Spanish-style villa, where they personally oversee the winemaking operations. It all harks back to an earlier era, except for the wines. You'll find no sleepy bottled throwbacks here -- just Colchagua Valley's finest, most up-to-date vintages.

Viu Manent, Av. Antonio Varas 2740, Santiago (tel. 56/2/379-0020; www.viumanent.cl).

Nearby Airport:
Santiago de Chile (152km/95 miles).

Where to Stay:
Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, Plaza de Armas 286, Santa Cruz (tel. 56/72/209-600; www.hotelsantacruzplaza.cl). Casa Silva, Hijuela Norte s/n, San Fernando (tel. 56/2/710-180; www.casasilva.cl).