Party Boat in Patagonia

Setting sail with Chilean wines

Setting sail with Chilean wines

Earlier this month, I joined a dozen or so other wine writers on a Wines of Chile cruise, which was, as it turned out, the wine cruise to end all wine cruises. Not only were we treated to Zodiac-led excursions to commune with glaciers, Antarctic forests, spectacular waterfalls where we saw colonies of elephant seals, cormorants and penguins, but we also spent four days with 45 winemakers from all parts of Chile, tasting and discussing nearly 100 wines they had made personally, most of which are available in the U.S.

On the Waterfront

Punta Arenas is the regional capital for Chile’s Terra del Fuego; its waterfront alive with fishing and other commercial vessels. Our home for the next three days was the adventure cruise ship Via Australis.

Writers’ Cramp

We checked in at the Australis’ downtown office, filling out forms, dropping off luggage, and wondering how large our cabins will be. One of our cruise leaders was legendary winemaker and Wines of Chile executive Aurelio Montes, who is in the gray jacket on the right.

Glasses for Classes

Onboard, the ship’s bar had been turned into a classroom for the first of six tastings to be conducted starting this evening and continuing over the next three days. Wines will include red blends, Mediterranean blends, pinots, cabs, and cool-climate whites.

Pinots Do Patagonia

Once on board, we immediately get to work tasting a flight of 11 pinot noirs, mostly from cool-weather coastal regions such as Casablanca and Leyda valleys. Winemaker Matías Ríos of Cono Sur winery leads the discussion.

Salmon and Ceviche

Where there’s wine, there must be food. We get the first-night dinner started off with an appetizer of smoked salmon with a vegetable ceviche. Patagonia lamb is also on the menu. Although not gourmet-class food, the Australis’ galley prepares a hearty cross-section of Chilean cuisine.

All Hands on Deck

The next morning, we assemble on deck in our life jackets for our first excursion, a short hop between the ship and the shore via fast-moving, inflatable Zodiacs. We land in Ainsworth Bay, where we come under the chilling stare of the two-headed Brookes Glacier. 

Shore Leave

We split into smaller groups to explore the beach and nearby forest while the Australis guides give us an overview of local flora, fauna, and glacier lore. Although the temperature is the 40s, constant winds and sudden rain squalls make layering of clothing a must.

Groaning Glaciers

While the Brookes Glacier in the background lets out thunderous groans as its ice constantly shifts under tremendous pressures, Viña Koyle winemaker Cristóbal Undurraga examines a size “petite” iceberg that has broken from the glacier and washed ashore.

Play Misty for Me

After a couple of hours, we are ready for the Zodiacs to return us to the mother ship, almost shrouded by shifting mists, for lunch and another wine tasting: reds from grapes also grown along the Mediterranean followed by a late-night party of beer, booze, and more wine.

Good Morning, Patagonia!

We wake up too early to find the rain is gone — at least temporarily — and with stunning views of mountains awash in sunlight looming just off the ship. But there is also an unusual, nervous bustle among the ship’s crew and the Wines of Chile folks. We must check this out.

Booze Cruise Rescue

It seems we left Punta Arenas before 36 cases of wine arrived. Not to worry. The resourceful Chileans arrange for an 18-hour, 4WD delivery over unpaved roads through the mountains to a remote naval communications center. Our Zodiac crew swoops in and stashes the cache.

The Natives Are Resting

Our wine cellar secure, we again go ashore to explore a sub-Antarctic forest, trying not to disturb a pod of elephant seals that has come ashore for primo beach time. Our guide says they can move quickly if angered, and we decide not to test his knowledge of seals.

If Water Falls in the Forest...

Eventually, we let sleeping seals lie and make our way through marsh and wood to arrive at a Yellowstone-style waterfall fed by the ice pack. Later in the afternoon, a Zodiac tour of several glaciers that surround the fjord will provide an up-close view of the big chill.

Walk this Way

Not that I counted, but the latest penguin census on uninhabited Magdalena Island reported more than 60,000 mating pairs. As we make our way up a path to an abandoned lighthouse, we see many burrows where solitary penguins keep their eggs warm while their mates forage for fish.

Icing on the Cake

About 100 great Chilean wines tasted, plenty of comfort food, great company, lots of information, breathtaking Patagonia scenery, a long holiday from WiFi — what more could we ask for? Anything else would just be icing on the cake.