Chile describes itself as a wine-growing paradise. But does it live up to its own billing?
In 2014 Chile had 3,571 hectares of organic wine grapes: 28% was Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Carmenere, 9.5% Syrah (Source: ‘Agricultura orgánica nacional a Junio de 2014′ by Pilar Macarena Eguillor Recabarren, based on data from the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero (SAG), Chile’s Agricultural and Livestock Service.). This equates to 2.77% of the national vineyard based on the Chilean wine grape vineyard area being 128,637 hectares (Source: Oxford Companion to Wine 2015, p.170). Compare this to Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and Austria–none of which explicitly market themselves as wine-growing paradises–all of which have 10% or more of their national vineyards certified organic or Biodynamic.
And if just one Chilean winery–Emiliana Orgánico in the Colchagua Valley, which has 850 hectares of organic or biodynamic estate vineyards (2015)–is removed then Chile’s numbers’ would be even worse, because Emiliana alone accounts of 23% of Chile’s total organic wine grape vineyard. Emiliana also has contracts for another 550 hectares (2015).
Adolfo Hurtado, winemaker for Cono Sur, said (“Cost still a ‘barrier’ to organic in Chile, says Cono Sur winemaker,” by Chris Mercer on decanter.com 5 June 2014) the reasons why organics had not really taken off in Chile are a 30% rise in costs with organics from both lower yields and the need for extra manual labour in the vines, and no guarantee that consumers will be prepared to pay an organic premium. This begs the question whether Chilean producers should see organics more as a pathway for premiumisation by enhancing quality, rather than as an end in itself.
Like every wine producing country, Chile has advantages and disadvantages re organics.
- Benign climate
- Highly skilled vineyard workers
- Low labour costs relative to almost every other major wine producing country
- Abundant irrigation from Andean snowmelt (although with climate change…)
- Few potential pests, apart from red spider mites (Brevipalpus chilensis) whose threat can be reduced/eliminated by reducing dust, reducing sulfur sprays (used for odium), and encouraging natural predator mites (like Noeseiulus californica)
- Phylloxera-free soils allowing vines to be grown without needing to be grafted onto rootstocks
- Low disease pressure – powdery mildew (oidium) is easily dealt with in organics, downy mildew (peronospera) is rare, and if grey rot (Botrytis cinerea) occurs it is usually a sign of bad vineyard management eg. excess irrigation to boost yields.
- The wine industry is dominated by conglomerates (both foreign-owned and local) who also own other pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap commodities such as fruit (kiwis, apples, table grapes), livestock (beef, chicken, eggs), managed forestry (paper, lumber), fish farms (salmon)
- A yield-first mindset has encouraged excess irrigation and fertigation (adding soluble fertilisers to irrigation water) which in turn increases the risk of damage from disease-carrying soil organisms like nematodes and margarodes. This then means vineyards have to be grafted onto rootstocks, negating a key Chile USP
- Conventional sprays used to treat the red spider mite pest (see above) also kill the mite’s natural predators
- It’s hard for Chile to premium-ize or add value to its wines via organics or Biodynamics when there is so much cheap (bulk) Chilean wine sloshing around international markets
Shortlist of organic & Biodynamic Chilean wineries:
Antiyal Hijos del Sol; Casa Lapostolle; Cono Sur; De Martino; Emiliana Orgánico: Erasmo (Caliboro); Hacienda Araucano; Odjfell; Seña; Viña Koyle