For those energetic souls waking up early after an overnight flight to Santiago, the view from the Boeing 767's window reveals the brown-red Andes, slashed by deep green valleys. It is from muscatel grapes vines grown in one of those defiles, the Elqui Valley, that Chile’s national cocktail, the pisco sour, flows. Pisco’s derives its uniqueness from the valley’s special climate and geography. Accessible from Santiago by air, bus or private car, it is a popular resort destination for Chileans.
A recently upgraded highway system makes the drive north from Santiago a pleasant five or six hours. Along Ruta 5, Chile’s main street, never-ending vistas of the sparkling Pacific clash with a harsh pre-Andes landscape. The town of La Serena is the gateway to the Elqui valley, and a regional center with well preserved classic Spanish architecture.
Turning east, the highway is soon lined with papaya plantations and vineyards. This region is blessed with some of the clearest air in the world, making it a wonderful place for an astronomical observatory. A small sign marks the turn-off to Tololo, an accessible and interesting collection of stellar and planetary telescopes operated by an international consortium. Visitors are welcome and the view is breathtaking.
A little further up the valley is Vicuna, the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral. This Nobel Prize winning poet is beloved by Chileans, and honored by an intimate and friendly museum. Vicuna is a typical “Norte Chico” village, with narrow streets, colorful houses and a central plaza. The deep green of village trees contrasts with brown mountains spiraling above the village.
From here to road’s end, every square inch of tillable soil is covered with vines, climbing impossibly steep hills until the irrigation water can be pushed no higher. As the valley narrows, vineyards are broken with rows of swaying poplar trees, and more recently, towering fabric curtains. In this arid land, mid-summer temperatures at three in the morning can be 40 degrees F, and at three in the afternoon, 100 degrees. Daytime heating pushes air up the valleys and by mid-afternoon surface winds can reach 40 miles per hour. Vines and grapes are beaten up and moisture is sucked out of porous soils, except for those protected behind the walls of poplars or curtains.
Elqui Valley’s jewels are Monte Grande and Pisco Elqui. At Monte Grande, a dirt road forks off to Cochiguas. But, before we go there, let’s visit Monte Grande’s Pisco Los Artesanos, which began as a cooperative, but is now owned by one of Chile’s largest pisco producers. The original cooperative members are still very much involved in the enterprise. The site is delightful; there are picnic tables in the shade, and the tasting room features a wide variety of brandies.
Climbing ever higher through the vineyards, we arrive at Pisco Elqui. Pisco Elqui received its new name in 1939 to prevent Peru, Chile’s only competitor in pisco production, from claiming exclusive international rights to the label. This village of 452 inhabitants is the home of RRR Pisco. The name comes from the founder, Roberto Rodriguez Rodriguez, who left his distillery to heirs with instructions to never increase production. The distillery is now owned by another conglomerate, but it has stayed true to Roberto Rodriguez Rodriguez’ wish. A small restaurant, samples of RRR pisco and a shady place to escape the afternoon head make this a must visit.
A narrow, but well maintained dirt road from Monte Grande to Cochiguas is seven, eight or nine miles, depending on which sign you believe. At the end are a few campsites, some private homes and a small resort. My days here were complete with early morning walks on mountainside trails accompanied by my golden retriever, lunch in the resort dining room accompanied by some Echeverria cabernet sauvignon, a soak in one of the Cochiguas river’s natural pools, a siesta, and finally, a most elegant pisco sour as I watched the evening shadows jet up the valley.
What is pisco? Five different types of muscatel grapes are blended and fermented to 13 percent alcohol, and again to 16 percent. Only the intense grape sugar concentration (remember the daytime/nighttime temperature extremes?) makes such high alcohol possible. The resulting “wine” is then distilled to 89 percent alcohol, and aged in American oak for six months. At bottling, this is diluted to 30, 35, 40, 45 or 50 percent, depending on the market.
Perhaps the pisco sour epitomizes Chile more than any other “food.” The secret is three to four parts pisco (depending on the alcoholic content), one part limon de pico (perhaps key limes are the closest we have in the U.S.), sugar to taste, and vigorous shaking with ice. Each connoisseur adds or deletes to make his pisco sour more personal, or better.