Friday, March 9, 2012

Chile is a leader in responsible wine growing

Photo: Eduardo Chadwick

Some years ago, after my first visit to wineries in Chile, a friend said she would not buy Chilean wines because the wineries used too many herbicides and pesticides.

I have no idea where she got a notion that defies common sense. Chilean wine growers are blessed with ideal growing conditions. It would be a colossal waste of money to spray against pests and diseases that do not exist.

That was clearly obvious to me after spending 10 days visiting vineyards in 1989 and again in 2003. Even so, I was taken by surprise by Chilean wine industry’s presentations during the most recent Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.  Whether we speak of organic/biodynamic viticulture or integrated pest management, or carbon neutral winery operations, Chile’s wineries are leaders in responsible winemaking. If my friend wants to drink healthy wine, she should, in fact, stock up on Chilean vintages.

Chile’s winemaking advantage begins with the geographical isolation of the vineyards. Vine pests and diseases are kept at bay by the world’s driest desert in the north, by the towering Andes on the east, by Antarctica on the south and by the Pacific Ocean to the west. There surely is not an easier place in the world for the application of organic viticulture.

Chile is a real viticultural paradise,” says Eduardo Chadwick, the president of Viña Errázuriz. “We are taking advantage of that.”

Grape growing was brought to Chile in the 16th Century by the missionaries and expanded in the 19th Century when landowners imported classic vine varieties, primarily from France. The first large-scale vineyards were developed with vines that had not yet been infected with phyloxera. That was the American root louse that was brought to Europe around 1860 on the roots of American vines. The European varieties lack the ability to withstand the damage caused by the louse. By the time the Europeans figured out how to work around the pest in the late 1800s (grafting French vines onto American roots), the European wine industry was in dire straits.

But Chile had not imported any vines infected with the root louse – unlike Argentine on the other side of the Andes. To this day, Chile remains phyloxera-free. Healthy vines that grow on their own roots live much longer and, arguably, make better wine.

Chile’s isolation formerly was also negative for its wine quality. As recently as the 1980s, Chileans were drinking nearly all their own wine and the wineries were not competing on the world market.  The whole country had developed a cellar palate and the wine industry had become complacent.

Chilean consumers also had begun to turn to beer and soft drinks, forcing the industry to find new markets. Around 1990, Chilean wineries began to take on the world, initially with value-priced wines. The value wines are still being produced (and the quality steadily gets better); but the wineries also have begun to icon wines matching the best in the world.

I remember scoffing during a Vancouver tasting in the 1990s that consumers would never pay $25 for a Chilean Cabernet. Well, there were at least seven Chilean reds at the Wine Festival priced at $70 and up. The top: Rothschild’s Alma Viva at $133 a bottle. And there were plenty of $25-$45 wines.

“The future of Chile is quality,” Chadwick predicted.

He is right, but the future also will be defined by the responsible winemaking. I believe that the world’s consumers will reward Chile not just for making good wines but for its green and ethical vineyard practices.

For example, the industry there has a new accreditation, Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile, that has been won so far by about 20 wineries or 10% of those that applied.

Photo: Felipe Tosso
One of these is Viña Ventisquero, a winery established in 1998 by a businessman already successful in a range of other agricultural products. Felipe Tosso, the senior winemaker, rattled off the impressive range of green practices here – buying carbon offsets for transport; adopting lighter (“Ecoglass”) bottles; adopting integrated pest management practices, including natural weed control; using renewable energy at one of its estates; adopting strict water conservation practices.

Organic viticulture is now widespread and there is a big move among wineries toward the ultimate: using biodynamic practices. “The ultimate respect to your terroir is biodynamic agriculture,” Chadwick asserts. “If you use chemicals, you suppress terroir.”

Photo: Alvaro Espinoza
The biodynamic methods range from elaborate composting practices. Emiliana Vineyards has its own herd of beef on its property so that the manure used for compost is produced on the same land that it fertilizes. In other words, a closed loop on the terroir. “We try to be partners with nature,” winemaker Alvaro Espinoza says.

Emiliana began growing biodynamically in 2000. Today, the winery has 1,000 hectares, all under biodynamic practices. “I am convinced they make better wines,” Espinoza says.

Photo: Miguel Torres Another praiseworthy initiative is the “fair trade” wine growing practised by Miguel Torres M. at his family’s winery in Chile. All of the Torres vineyards are certified organic. All the growers are paid fairly and all the workers are treated with dignity.
If you want to reward these wineries for their good works, here are some wines to buy.

Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($14 in the LDB). This is a zesty refreshing white. At the festival, the winery also showed a sensational single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011(about $17) from its new coastal vineyard. It is a speculative wine that can now found in private wine stores.

Emiliana Coyam 2009 ($29.99 in the LDB). This is a big ripe wine, primarily a blend of Syrah, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a dash of Petit Verdot and Mourvedre. The wine has alluring aromas and flavours of figs, plums, coffee and chocolate. 91.

Ventisquero VerTice Syrah Carmenère 2007  ($33; check private wine stores). This is a wine made jointly by Tosso and Australian John Duval, formerly the maker of Penfolds’s Grange. This red has all the earthy plum flavours of Syrah with the lovely spice and red cherry of Carmenère. 90.

Torres Santa Digna Fair Trade Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($18; check private wine stores). This is a delicious, juicy red with fruit-forward flavours of black currants and plum. 90.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please see this earlier comment re pesticide use in Chile .. enlightening .. especially in light of your comments re non-requirement for pesticides in Chile's vineyards. Clearly, opposite sides of a very different coin