Change for Chilean wine

28 April, 2023

Women winemakers in Chile are working with a shi­fting climate and diversifying the country’s portfolio in the process.

A­fter wildfires devastated part of the agricultural industry in Chile, including razing a number of vineyards run by small grape producers in Itatá and La Araucanía in February (Drinks International, March 2023), winemakers across the country have moved forward with the 2023 grape harvest, bearing in mind these losses.

Climate change is a recurring phenomenon that Viviana Navarrete, chief winemaker at Viña Leyda, believes viñas (wineries) increasingly need to take into consideration. She says: “In addition to a long drought and abnormal weather, this year there were ‑ res in the south-central and southern parts of the country. Fortunately, Leyda didn’t suffer the consequences of these disasters, although we were on high alert because, over the past few years, climatic conditions in Chile have been getting more difficult.”

While the numbers are yet to be confirmed, it is estimated that a devastating 80% of vineyards have been touched in these regions. It’s a time for solidarity, says Cynthia Ortiz, oenologist at Viña La Rosa in Cachapoal Valley. “The fires might have been put out, but so many vineyards have been affected either directly or indirectly, and thousands of hectares have been burnt. Many friends have lost their vines, while others have had to deal with smoke in their wines; this has affected so many families.

“Various fundraisers have been held around the country, and I hope they continue because it will take at least three years for the vines to recover.  e consequences will be felt for a long time,” she adds.

While Maipo-based Viña Carmen – the first winery to be founded in Chile – mostly cultivates grapes in the valleys south of capital Santiago, including Colchagua, the wildfires have le­ an emotional mark on the industry, according to chief winemaker Emily Faulconer. “Although as a group, we pick relatively little in these regions and fortunately didn’t lose any vineyards, grapes have been affected by the presence of smoke,” she says. “I don’t think anyone in Chile can say they weren’t affected – at least emotionally – by the Itatá fires this year. Thousands of hectares were lost, people died, while families lost their homes and source of income. At Viña Carmen we make a wine called Loma Seca with the producer Froilan Aguilera in Checura, Guarilihue, and luckily his vineyard is still intact.”

The southern wildfires represent just one of numerous climatic challenges that face the Chilean wine industry, says Noelia Orts, winemaker at Bodega del Fundo los Robles. “I really hope it rains this winter because we need water for people, our ecosystems and agriculture. Winter is a period of introspection when we craft­ our wines, while blending starts in spring,” she says.

The 2023 vintage

Given Chile’s diverse terroir, many viñas hadn't quite finished picking at the time of writing in mid April, but the synopsis of the 2023 harvest is a positive one, albeit with challenges, according to leading female winemakers in the South American country.

Leyda’s Navarrete says: “This season started with a very rainy winter, meaning there was abundant water in the soil. That was expressed by vigorous vines, bulging foliage canopies and fruit with good acidity. The heavy precipitation also resulted in late budding and late veraison.

“Temperatures were low in January and February, so the harvest started 12-14 days later than the 2022 vintage. It was a challenging season, with botrytis pressure – as is always the case in this cold coastal region – so we had to pay attention to cultural management to control it.

“Overall, it has been a very good season for the whites, especially Sauvignon Blanc, which displays its citric, herbaceous, and mineral character as always, but with a marked acidity and lower alcohol compared to 2022, revealing 2023’s cooler weather.”

In Colchagua Valley, Orts says it was a concentrated and quick harvest with numerous geographical obstacles for her and her team to hurdle. “As a winemaker, one great challenge was getting to all the different valleys we work in to manage the harvest – in a single week I could be in Limarí, Maule and Maipo. Sound management of cellar space and getting in the total necessary maceration time has been a challenge – in fact, it was a real puzzle. Despite all this, I’m satisfied with the results. Fermentations are going very well and I like the expression and character of the wines from this vintage.”

From Bodega Volcanes de Chile in Maipo, head winemaker Pilar Díaz calls 2023 a challenging vintage. “It was intense for three particular weeks because ripening started slowly then suddenly sped up. We had to pick grapes with normal maturation at the same time as those that were brought forward, while others needed to be picked quickly because dry weather and high temperatures were affecting their condition.

“But, independent of the prolonged hot weather toward the end of the seasons, the fact we picked earlier than usual will result in crunchier and fresher wines. In others we have pleasant and elegant tannins, while others have lower alcohol and pH, despite it being a warm year,” she says. “I’m anxious to try the final wines, but it’s too early to define whether it was a great year or not.”

Trending now

Given Chile’s diverse terroir, winemakers are looking to push topographical boundaries, heading further north in Atacama or south of Itatá, looking beyond well-established valleys such as Casablanca and Maipo in the search to expand Chilean identity. That means diversifying away from the big, bold reds for which the country is known, in a bid to create fresh styles.

There’s also a drive to experiment with non-traditional varieties usually cultivated, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay, to Pinot Noir and País. The bid to unveil new terroir and varietal expressions – and new Chilean identities – is in full swing, according to Leyda’s Navarrete.

“In the past 10-20 years we have been discovering and developing new coastal valleys from north to south, giving rise to interesting wines from Chile, showing a new side of our country, with fresher styles of wine that are more aromatic, more delicate, elegant, juicy, and mineral.

“But it isn’t just the discovery of the coastline that has led to a leap in quality in Chile for Pinot Noir and white varieties. There’s also been great interest from the industry to push the vinegrowing frontiers.

“Vineyards have appeared in the north, vineyards at high altitudes in the Andes mountains, old vines have been recovered, and vineyards have appeared in more southern areas of our country, with colder climates and greater rainfall,” she adds.

While Chile has long produced high-quality vintages, boosting identity is key to creating the next wave of Chilean wine, says La Rosa’s Ortiz. “In order to stand out, we need to make a difference, and while we already make quality wine, the trend is to make wine with identity; to recognise a place and bottle that terroir.

“At La Rosa, we have undertaken soil studies on our land in order to find something different, and we are achieving that. We’ve tried out different fermentation and ageing recipients, such as oak barrels, plastic bins, foudres, clay vessels, concrete eggs and now we’re working with ceramic pots,” she says.

Meanwhile, at Colchagua-based Encierra, the founder and winemaker (as well as director of the Asociación de Viñas de Colchagua winery association) Maria Ignacia Eyzeguirre looks to terroir in a bid to create her own expression.

“Searching out new valleys and varieties that adapt well is an industry trend right now,” she says. “In my case, I search out plots on the coastal mountain range of Colchagua, where the winery is based, and study different Carménère parcels in order to work with the best possible potential.”

Post-harvest, as the year continues to unfold and 2023’s vintages are bottled, there’s plenty to look forward to, according to Chile’s leading women winemakers, including launches of new lines and planting vineyards in relatively undiscovered regions.

Carmen’s Faulconer says: “I hope to lock down a new Chardonnay project in Limarí which we have been working on and progress with our viticulture frontier at below 40º latitude.”

Viña Leyda’s Navarrete, meanwhile, is looking ahead to new releases that will continue enriching Chile’s viticultural map. She says: “One of the biggest challenges we have is with Pinot Noir, and this year we will launch a new wine in our portfolio’s highest category, a Pinot Noir called Origen.

“It comes from a small polygon, with calcareous soil, and is the purest and most honest expression that has come out of this coastal region.”

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