Chile Takes Its Wine to Extremes

I'm standing in a vast cellar deep underground. The lights are out and the door locked. All of a sudden, the cellar is flooded with blood-red light and flames lick the walls. It feels like I've entered the inferno. Then a voice comes over the speakers telling the story of Don Melchor and the devil's wine cellar.

One day in the late 19th century, Melchor, founder of wine company Concha y Toro, noticed some of the best wines had been swiped from his estate. To keep the thieves at bay, he spread the rumour that his cellar was haunted by the devil, hence the diabolical vision before me and the wine's label: Casillero del Diablo.

Mercifully, the lights soon come on, the door is opened and I'm invited to taste various vintages of the winery's top drop, Don Melchor. Crafted from seven parcels of cabernet sauvignon grown in the Maipo Valley, the wine offers a kaleidoscope of flavours, from eucalyptus, blackcurrant and tobacco leaf to liquorice and coffee. The Maipo Valley is home to many of Chile's historic estates, established there in the early 19th century because it is close to Santiago, and the soil responds well to French grape varieties.

The region has produced most of the wines we've tasted in Europe since Chilean wine started turning heads in the 1990s. A number of cabernet sauvignon-based "icon" wines have recently emerged, including Don Melchor itself, Clos Apalta and Seña.

After an idyllic lunch of fresh ceviche on the balcony of Don Melchor's former home, I'm taken to neighbouring Almaviva, a joint venture between Concha y Toro and Château Lafite owners Domaines Barons de Rothschild. The estate was founded in 1996 with the aim of producing the Chilean equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth. During a tour of the 85-hectare estate, French winemaker Michel Friou treats me to a tasting of the first vintage of Almaviva, 1996, made from cabernet sauvignon with a dash of cabernet franc and petit verdot. Friou says: "It frustrates me that most of the wine on the market is made to be drunk within two years – I'm building wines to age for at least 20."

But there is more to Chilean wine these days than the Maipo Valley. Adventurous producers are planting vines close to the Pacific Ocean and up the Andean hillsides, stretching winemaking to its limits.

One of the most exciting wine regions to emerge is Elqui, up north near the lunar landscape of the Atacama, the world's driest desert. It's a magical place, one of the planet's purest atmospheres. Surfaces glisten and the stargazing is so good there are eight observatories.

However, an ongoing drought is forcing winemakers to turn their focus to the south, with plantings edging closer to the blue waters and savage beauty of the Patagonian ice field. But the southern regions of Bío Bío and Malleco have their own weather issues – gale-force winds and torrential rain.

From my Santiago base, home to llamas, eye-poppingly bright street art and some of the finest seafood I've ever tasted, I venture 100 miles south to the village of Chimbarongo in Colchagua, home to pinot noir king Adolfo Hurtado, who is so passionate about the grape that he makes eight different expressions at his estate, Cono Sur. I saddle up on one of the vintage bicycles his staff use and glide through the vines. After various pinot pit stops, I watch the sun set with Adolfo and his team.

By dinner the sky is awash with stars. We feast on a barbecue of silky salmon, salty pork, tender chicken and juicy beef washed down with a bottle of Adolfo's finest Pinot, Ocio.