Pirque is right in the middle of wine country and driving about the area looks a lot like California. Driving around the big houses outside Santiago, you could believe you were in Santa Barbara, while the route out to the vineyards is supposedly reminiscent of Napa. I’ve never been to Napa, but the climate and combination of desert, vineyards, and amazing vegetables certainly looks a lot like the parts of California I have visited. One difference is the mixture of social classes – whereas American neighbourhoods tend to be more stratified and segregated, around here splendid estates rub shoulders with much more proletarian houses and you’re never far from really impoverished neighbourhoods. Whatever the history of real estate development out here, the traveller gets a broad picture of Chilean society just by driving around the vineyard trail.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop off at any of the villages en route to try the empanadas or pastel de choclo advertised on signs that seemed to point into people’s houses, as we had an appointment to tour the Santa Rita vineyard at 4pm. On arrival, we were met by a jovial employee and, along with a handful of other tourists, handed over to our tour guide, Soledad. I have to say that Soledad, while quite charming, was not the world’s most informative guide. She tended to rattle through her information and then hare off to the next point of the tour at a speed that was impressive given her 4-inch wedges.

But the winery itself was fascinating even without a lot of facts and figures. Chile’s third biggest wine producer, Santa Rita is a combination of traditional processes and modern mechanisation sufficient to satisfy the how-things-work geek in any of us. Here are the barrels used for the reserva aged wines. They’re made from French and American oak, and only used three times before being sold. Lemur-in-law has several that she uses for her plants.

Apparently after the earthquake last year, lots of these barrels fell down and the floor was swimming in wine. However, the vineyards plan for seismic activity in the way they stack the barrels and bottles, so much less was lost than you might expect. These are bottles of the same high end wine, dusty with age, stacked in some special way to prevent them from breaking in an earthquake.

After seeing how the reserva wines are nurtured in traditional ways, we went back to the twenty-first century to see the all-mechanised bottling facility. There’s something really compelling about watching an assembly line, following the bottles from washing to filling with wine to corking and labelling. It makes me think of Chaplin in Modern Times.

After watching the bottling, the next step was back to the main building for a tasting. We chatted to two American executives who had carved out a day off in their busy week of acquiring a major Chilean company to spend some time touristing, and a Brazilian tourist who seemed to be getting on very well with Soledad, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Sadly, I have no photos of this stage, as I was too busy actually drinking the wine to document it. Sorry! However, we did stop off on the way out to take a walk in among the vines themselves, loaded with grapes for this season’s reds.

Tonight, we’re heading down south to Puerto Varas and Chiloe. Blogging may be sporadic, but stay tuned as I’m sure there will be much culinary adventuring…