Toasting To A More Meaningful Wine

Why wineries in Chile are increasingly embracing sustainable practices, most notably organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Toasting To A More Meaningful Wine

Flanked by the cool Pacific Ocean to the west, the snow-capped Andes mountains to the east, Atacama desert to the north and Patagonia to the south, Chile’s topographical seclusion, abundant sunshine and dry climate make it a natural hub for organic, biodynamic and sustainable wine production.

While such dry conditions prevent rot and help combat disease, its unique topography also means Chile is less burdened by nematodes and other pests. Crucially, it has remained free of phylloxera — the aphid that decimated most of the world’s vineyards in the 1800s — leaving it with some of the world’s oldest vines that produce wines with enhanced concentration and complexity.

Buoyed by its favourable environment and responding to the growing consumer demand for sustainably-made wines, Chilean wine producers are increasingly switching to organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Emiliana Vineyards is noted for the abundance of flora and fauna – even alpacas help weed and deter pests. (Image: Emiliana Vineyards)

This movement has received a further push by industry body Wines of Chile, whose Sustainability Code outlines standards for measuring sustainable practices throughout the entire winemaking value chain, as well as a set of initiatives to guide the industry towards production processes that are environmentally friendly, socially equitable and economically viable. When it was introduced in 2011, the Sustainability Code had only 14 accredited wine producers but is now adopted by over 70 percent of Chile’s bottled wine industry. By 2025, the country is expected to become the number one producer of sustainable wines in the world.

To ascertain the effectiveness of adopting more sustainable practices, one only has to consider the success of two of the leading proponents of organic and biodynamic wines in Chile: Cono Sur and Emiliana Vineyards.

Since the early 2000s, Cono Sur has converted a large portion of its vineyards to organic status, using integrated vineyard management and avoiding the use of synthetic products. Even though organic production costs about 30 percent more than standard agriculture, winemaker Matias Rios believes the benefits far outweigh the extra cost.

Sustainable practices are gaining traction in Chile. (Image: Cono Sur)

“The objective of Cono Sur is to show the potential of New World wine, and there are three pillars which hold up the company’s vision: innovation, quality and sustainability, a commitment to the environment. To us, an innovative high- quality wine is of no point if we are not committed to organics and sustainability.”

Visiting its estate in Colchagua Valley, you’ll find yourself greeted by a huge flock of geese. This army of workers is the first indication of Cono Sur’s system of integrated vineyard management: Instead of using pesticides, geese are let into the vineyards at specific times of the year to feed on pests like the vine weevil, a native beetle that attacks a vine’s green shoots. Similarly, to combat red spiders, which can devour leaves and halt photosynthesis, Cono Sur maintains a healthy population of its natural predator, the white spider.

Rios notes: “The definition of a pest is that of a sizeable population of insect that causes economical damage. For pest control, we plant various flowers around the vineyard, creating a natural corridor or highway to invite more biodiversity, creating competition among the insects such that there is no one dominant species. This is organic management: when you use natural elements to create balance in the ecosystem.”

Pest control at Cono Sur. (Image: Cono Sur)

To avoid nutrient deficiencies in the soil, which impacts vine health, Cono Sur has a novel way of brewing “compost tea”. Stems, seeds and skins (leftover from harvest) are made into a compost and put in 15kg bags that are placed in small ponds to macerate. Packed with nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and micro-life like bacteria and yeast, the resulting “tea” is then fed through the regular drip irrigation system, enhancing the expression of terroir in the grapes, and eventually wines. The organic material left in the bags are also emptied out and distributed in the vineyards to improve the structure of the soil.

Simultaneously, the natural control of insects and biodiversity creates a balanced ecosystem in the vineyards. The vines start to self-regulate, triggering a natural self-defence mechanism that leads to thicker grape skins, which is where the concentration of tannins, flavours, aromas and colours are found.

“For me, this is a win-win situation: not only do we create a better and more sustainable environment for us and the next generation, we also get better quality wine, with more expression of terroir,” Rios explains.

Over at Emiliana Vineyards, biodiversity is just as much a priority. Established in the 1990s, Emiliana transitioned to organic practices under lauded consulting winemaker Alvaro Espinoza. Today, it is the world’s largest organic winery, with more than 80 percent of the 11.4-sq km vineyard certified organic, of which 60 percent are further certified as biodynamic.

Emiliana’s vineyards are noted for its abundance of flora and fauna, and this biodiversity changes according to the needs of the season. Cover crops in between vines introduce nutrients into the soil, while birds, bees and insects are used for pest control. A menagerie of chicken, geese, guinea fowl and even alpacas also help weed and deter pests. Medicinal and homeopathic plants such as chamomile, stinging nettle, valerian and dandelion are also planted throughout the vineyard to be used in biodynamic compost preparations that aid in the healthy development of the vines and in elevating the energy of the entire vineyard. Quartz and silica are also deployed to prevent diseases like mildew.

The effectiveness of Emiliana’s biodynamic processes is deliciously evident in its premium red wines: the luscious Chateauneuf-du-Pape-like red blend Coyam and powerful Ge, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenere that gets its moniker from the Greek word for “earth”. Since 2014, Emiliana has also gone beyond organic and biodynamic farming to produce a 100-percent natural wine, without additional sulphites or preservatives: Salvaje, a Syrah and Roussane blend using organic grapes from Casablanca Valley.

But more than just adopting organic and biodynamic principles in vineyard management, the Sustainability Code also pushes for sustainable practices in the winery and community.

Set against mountains and sweeping valleys, Vik winery is thoughtfully designed to create minimal impact on the landscape. (Image: Vina Vik)

Vina Vik, a winery and retreat in Millahue, minimises carbon cost and energy consumption during wine production by combining mindful architecture, top-of-the-line technology, and science. Greeting visitors at the winery’s entrance is a shallow pool of running water, which acts as both a soothing design aesthetic and a practical cooling element for the barrel room below. Huge glass windows allow for natural sunlight to permeate the winery, decreasing the need for artificial lights, while a white fabric roof shields the production room from external weather conditions, ensuring an ideal temperature year-round. Additionally, solar panels supplement energy usage and a water treatment plant recycles water for vineyard irrigation.

But for a business to truly be deemed sustainable, human beings too, must
be considered a vital natural resource. Emiliana Vineyards, for one, has instituted a social responsibility programme that gives back to staff and the local community. Initiatives include professional development, bursaries for higher education and schemes that teach the young organic and biodynamic practices. The winery also allocates garden plots to employees so they can supplement their family’s food supply, and even helps workers set up their own micro-companies to market produce such as vegetable greens, herbs and honey.

It hardly needs saying that well- looked-after employees will be more motivated and passionate in their work. And the wines produced by these forward- thinking wineries is validation enough that wines grown and made with sustainable philosophies can be both meaningful and emblems of quality.

This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.

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