Facing climate change, Chile’s organic winemakers adapt

CASABLANCA, VALPARAÍSO – Chile, the world’s sixth-largest wine producer, is also a major producer of organic wine. Changing climate conditions present major challenges for growing grapes. Two organic winemakers showcase how their creativity and adaptability enable them to thrive.

Large swathes of Chile suffer prolonged drought, annual wildfires, and increasing temperatures due to climate change. Organic agriculture combats climate change by avoiding carbon-intensive processes and increasing ecosystem resilience, but raising crops without conventional tools is especially challenging. Chile’s grape-growing regions are diverse, and the organic wines and the methods used to produce them are equally varied.

Changing and coexisting in Casablanca

Along the fenceline bordering her small vineyard in the Casablanca valley’s Orrego Arriba subregion, Angela Mochi points out grapevines that have been picked clean by birds. These vines, planted deliberately away from the main rows of the vineyard, are there for precisely this purpose. “We have an agreement,” says Mochi. “The birds sing for us, and we feed them grapes.”

Mochi and her husband, Marcos Attilio, have been growing grapes on this land since moving from their homeland of Brazil in 2011. While not officially certified organic, they tend to their vines without using any fertilizers or pesticides. Overall, 95% of grapes grown in the cool, maritime climate of Casablanca are pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, or chardonnay, but the Attilio & Mochi vineyard features eight different varieties, including the region’s first grenache, and the other red grapes malbec, cabernet franc, and syrah. Published on their website is a simple explanation for this unorthodox approach: “We plant the varieties that we like to drink!”

But in addition to satisfying the winemakers’ personal tastes, this approach serves another purpose. As Chile’s climate becomes hotter and drier, Mochi predicts that regions like Casablanca will see more red grape production, given these varieties’ tolerance for higher temperatures and less water. In this way, Attilio & Mochi find themselves ahead of the curve, yet they remain flexible.

Environmental changes affect the grapes’ yield and quality, sometimes unpredictably. Almost as a rule in Casablanca, pinot noir is the first grape to be harvested, followed by sauvignon blanc. This year, though, producers across the region found the sauvignon blanc still too green to harvest when they’d finished with the pinot vines — Attilio & Mochi ended up harvesting the aromatic white variety viognier second, which had never happened before. Once their sauvignon was ready, though, these vines had yielded 40% more grapes than the previous year.

Mochi emphasized the couple’s philosophy as they strive to make fresh, elegant wines while adapting from year to year: “Play with what is there.”

Also read: 

Chile’s new law to combat the climate crisis

Problem-solving in Colchagua

Farther south, in the drier, Mediterranean climate of the Colchagua valley, a wooden sign emblazoned with “HAND MADE WINES” marks the entrance to Clos Santa Ana, a restored colonial estate with a tiny 1.3ha vineyard. The owners, Luiz Allegretti and Roberto Ibarra, lead a small team of mostly volunteer workers to produce a handful of different blends that live up to the sign on the front gate; from vine to bottle, the only powered machines they use are a grape destemmer and a pickup truck to tow the grapes 200m from the vineyard to the bodega.

These vines, interspersed with spiny wild shrubs and frequented by black vultures, striped woodpeckers, and some of the 40+ rescued dogs that live on the estate, are also farmed organically. Clos Santa Ana’s wines are considered “natural,” a distinction that has no official definition, but typically means that no sulfites, cultured yeasts, or any of the long list of legally-approved wine additives are used in production.

Allegretti, who comes from a family tradition of winemaking, defines the process of hand-made, natural wines in his own way: “Solving problems as they arise.” These problems range in scale, from the massive 2010 earthquake, Chile’s strongest in half a century, which caused tremendous damage to the property, to the smaller, day-to-day challenges of making wine. During this year’s vinification, a forceful turn of the manually-powered wine press knocked the contraption off its wooden risers. Domingo Castro, a talented winemaker and versatile handyman whose skills prove vital to Clos Santa Ana’s operation, welded a new set of iron feet to stabilize the press.

As existential problems loom, this solutions-minded outlook has never been more important. The warming climate has diminished the water supply, drying soils and hindering production. In an email response, Castro wrote that “with climate change, the pH levels (the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil or the grape) rise and acidity falls, affecting the structure, quality, and longevity of the wines.”

Conventional, large-market wine producers might combat this by using sulfites for stability and other additives, aiming for more consistent vintages. Conversely, Clos Santa Ana’s practices do not change along with the climate, instead reflecting what Ibarra calls “a philosophy of production” that allows them to remain flexible.

Allegretti tastes grapes on the vines to determine harvest timing, and makes weekly visits to the barrel room to adjust the blends of his wines based on their flavor profiles. With each vintage, the end product changes noticeably while maintaining a unique style and personality. He embraces these changes wholeheartedly, insisting that there is no single recipe for wine, nor for life: “You are the recipe.”

Back in Casablanca, Mochi prefers to think of herself not as a recipe, but more as a gourmet chef, assessing the available ingredients and making something tasty out of them. For Chile’s organic winemakers, adaptation is a perennial ingredient.

More about wine: 

Foundations of Chile: Vineyards and Valleys

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