Chilean wines have become more and more popular over the past few years, with good reason. I’m a fan, and one of my favourite brands has always been Casillero del Diablo, made by Chile’s leading winemaker, Concha y Toro. I never thought that one day I’d actually be in the Casillero del Diablo — the cellar of the devil — itself.
On a trip to Chile a few years ago, I landed in Santiago and thought, why not see the wineries while I’m here? So I arranged to visit two of my favourites, Concha y Toro and Santa Rita, whose main properties are in the Maipo Valley, near the city.
The reservations were made: now, how do I get there? “Take the subway,” the hotel clerk said. But the wineries were way out in the country. “Yes,” she said. “Transfer to the number 4 line at Tobalaba and it will take you there.” And amazingly, she was right. Not long after boarding the second train on Santiago’s brilliant subway system (the biggest in South America), we emerged into the open, and there were the vines, whizzing by on both sides. And a few minutes later we were in the town of Puente Alto and I was on a bus to Concha y Toro.
I was expecting a hoary old hacienda, but the winery was a surprise — modern, clean and commercial-looking, like something from the Sonoma Valley. There was a gift shop and a restaurant with a tasting bar, and a theatre with a video explaining the winery’s history. A friendly young fellow led the assembled group of visitors around the grounds, starting with a walk to the original home of the founding family which, strangely enough, was actually called Concha y Toro — shell and bull.
There were tastings of Concha y Toro’s new wines, and then we descended into the half-light of the cellars, where row after row of barrels ran off into the distance. But these were the newer cellars — the old one was just ahead. And we entered through an ancient, arched doorway into a dark, gloomy stone chamber that gave me a tiny chill, and not just from the temperature. We were in the Casillero del Diablo — the cellar of the devil. It was a spooky place, as the picture below attests. And, it turned out, it had a story, which the guide recounted.
Don Melchor Concha y Toro, who founded the winery back in the 1880s, was also a politician, and spent a lot of time away in Santiago. And when he was gone, the employees would sneak into the cellar and help themselves to a few bottles — and a few more. So, annoyed at watching his inventory walking out the back door, Don Melchor came up with an idea. Knowing most of his workers were superstitious campesinos, he spread the rumour that the devil lived in the cellar. He even had someone make a few scary noises down there now and then to prove the point. There’s no word on whether the story is true, but the winery confides that the devil still lives in the cellar. And if you don’t believe it, just check out the photo at the top of this post.
Want to see a video version of the story? You can find it here. Oh, and another surprise: the wines called Casillero del Diablo aren’t aged in the cellar of the devil. It’s reserved for Don Melchor, the winery’s most expensive premium label.
After Concha y Toro, I continued on to Santa Rita for lunch and a tour of the winery and its even more famous cellar, from which the “120” line of wines gets its name. During Chile’s struggle for independence, the country’s liberator, Bernardo O’Higgins (yes, really) needed a place to hide himself and his 120 soldiers after a bloody battle, so they spent the night in the Santa Rita cellars (below).
It was a memorable day for a wine lover, and not that hard to arrange, even for one person. If you’re going to be in Santiago, you could easily do the same, or rent a car and do a real tour of the local wineries. There are also tour companies that offer winery tours, which can be a good way to go — that way, you do the drinking and they do the driving.