Extreme Conditions and a Changing Climate on Patagonia’s Southern Winemaking Frontier

The Lake District of Northern Patagonia
The Lake District of Northern Patagonia / Photo courtesy Miguel Torres Chile

The Chiloé Archipelago in Chilean Patagonia is renowned for mysticism, natural beauty and fabulous oysters, while the windy flatlands of Chubut, in Argentine Patagonia, are known primarily for mining and sheep.

Now you can add wine to the list for both.

Located at 42.6 and 45.6 degrees latitude south of the equator, respectively (parallel to the middle of the southern island of New Zealand), fledgling wine projects have been undertaken by Montes in Chiloé and Alejandro Bulgheroni’s Grupo Avinea in Chubut. They mark a new southern frontier for grape growing and wine production in South America.

These projects, risky and experimental in nature, come on the heels of pioneering deep-south ventures in Chile from the likes of Viña Aquitania, Casa Silva, Viña San Pedro and Miguel Torres Chile, and others in Río Negro, Argentina.

What makes these austral wine projects stand out is that, given the likelihood of soaking rains, frost and strong winds, nothing grown that far south is guaranteed. Even as the impact of global warming and drought conditions have gripped both sides of the Andes over the past few years, we are talking about extreme winemaking country.

And the wines from these terroir hunters show it. Made mostly from proven cool-climate grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, generally, the wines from South America’s southern fringe are fresh to the point of prickly, with aromas and flavors that scream “cold conditions.”

Following are overviews of six projects that, taken collectively, are redefining what “south” means for South American wines.

The property that produces Viña Aquitania’s Sol de Sol wines, with the Llaima Volcano as backdrop
The property that produces Viña Aquitania’s Sol de Sol wines, with the Llaima Volcano as backdrop / Photo courtesy Viña Aquitania

Viña Aquitania

The property producing Viña Aquitania’s critically acclaimed Sol de Sol Chardonnay is called Malaco, and it’s located near Traiguén, part of the Malleco Valley in northern Araucania.

Originally, the space was used for growing grains, but Aquitania co-founder Felipe de Solminihac persuaded his father-in-law to use portions of the land for cool-climate grapes. This was in 1993, when no Chilean winery dared to plant this far south.

Having found success at Malaco (38 degrees south latitude), especially with fast-ripening Chardonnay, in 2009 Aquitania acquired a 100-acre adjacent plot and planted the La Esperanza vineyard with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Together, Malaco and La Esperanza have 55 acres of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

All Sol de Sol wines are made at Aquitania’s winery on the outskirts of Santiago. Grapes are trucked north at night, about a 10-hour trip, according to Felipe’s son, Eduardo de Solminihac. As with many southern Chilean wine projects, Indigenous people descended from the native Mapuches handle all the work in Traiguén.

Mario Pablo Silva, 2nd generation owner of Casa Silva at Lago Ranco / Photo courtesy Casa Silva
Mario Pablo Silva, 5th generation owner of Casa Silva at Lago Ranco / Photo courtesy Casa Silva

Casa Silva

When the Silva family bought the Futrono Estate on the banks of Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco) in Chile in 2004, the intent was to raise polo ponies and cattle.

“Northern Patagonia and the Lake District is a place full of native virgin forests and wild flora and fauna,” says Mario Pablo Silva, the fifth-generation owner of the Colchagua Valley-based winery known for its intense Carmenère. “We wanted to have a place to enjoy all that beauty. Once we were there, we began to think about planting vineyards to make the first wines ever from this area.”

In 2006, the Silvas planted about five acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They’ve since expanded their lakeside vineyard, which now includes Riesling, to about 35 acres. The wines carry the newly minted Austral Region denomination, and the range includes a traditional-method sparkling wine.

Futrono Estate, located at 40.3 degrees south latitude, is about eight hours by car from the Los Lingues section of Colchagua, where Casa Silva makes its wines. Silva says the large lake is key to the terroir.

“It works as a buffer and regulates temperatures,” says Silva. “[The] vines were planted on a hillside facing north-northwest. It offers the best sun exposure and creates a special microclimate that allows us to avoid frost problems. Also, the area’s windy conditions help to preserve the health of the vines during the ripening season.”

Tending the vineyards are Indigenous Huilliches, Mapuches from the southern Andes.

“Our vineyard manager is a young [Huilliche] guy who is the son of a couple that has been with us since we bought the property,” says Silva.

Members of the Mapuche Community of Buchahueico in their Pinot Noir vineyards, part of a joint-venture with Viña San Pedro / Photo courtesy Viña San Pedro
A member of the Mapuche Community of Buchahueico in their Pinot Noir vineyards, part of a joint-venture with Viña San Pedro / Photo courtesy Viña San Pedro

San Pedro

The Buchahueico Project, in the village of Purén in northern Araucania (38 degrees south latitude), is an unprecedented public-private Pinot Noir joint venture. It’s a shining example of collaboration between a major Chilean wine company, Viña San Pedro, and the Indigenous Mapuche community.

In 2015, San Pedro approached leaders of the Mapuche Community of Buchahueico to collaborate on a wine project. At first, the locals declined, not trusting the company’s intentions. They also had no experience planting and managing a vineyard. San Pedro persisted and explained that the concept would give the people new sources of income as well as pride.

After San Pedro finally obtained approval to proceed, it provided 10-year loans at 0% interest to finance every aspect of planting and maintaining Pinot Noir vines about 25 miles inland from the Pacific coastline. The area is known as the Cordillera de Nahuelbuta, part of Chile’s coastal mountain range.

“We have been working hand-in-hand with the community, teaching them how to grow and harvest the vines,” says Carolina Gotuzzo, a spokesperson for VSPT, San Pedro’s parent company. “Local producers have received continuous training and technical assistance from San Pedro [as well as payment for their crops]. Today, [about 37 acres] have been planted, and early in 2020 we will release the first wine, called Tayu 1865 Pinot Noir Malleco Valley.”

Viviana Navarrete, chief winemaker for Viña Leyda, part of VSPT, heads up winemaking and makes the wines at Viña Tarapacá in the Maipo Valley, about 375 miles north of Purén.

Aurelio Montes Sr., planting Chardonnay in Chiloé, the first vines ever on the archipelago / Photo courtesy Montes Wines
Aurelio Montes Sr., planting Chardonnay in Chiloé, the first vines ever on the archipelago / Photo courtesy Montes Wines

Montes

Aurelio Montes, one of the driving forces behind Chile’s 30-year rise to prominence as a world-class producer of wine, is many things besides a winemaker. He’s a helicopter and small-plane pilot, an officer in the Chilean Navy as well as an avid sailor. For decades, his favorite place to captain his sailboat has been in and around Chiloé Island, the main land mass in the archipelago of the same name.

Known for its brightly colored houses and delicious seafood, oysters in particular, grapevines have never been planted on Chiloé because it was thought to be too wet and cold at 42.6 degrees south latitude.

Enter Montes and his son, Aurelio Montes del Campo. Together, they’re trying to produce the first wines on these mystic islands. And it’s proving to be a challenge.

The Transformation of Uco Valley's Wines

According to Montes del Campo, father and son planted five acres of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Albariño, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir on the tiny island of Mechuque in 2018.

“After one year, I can tell you that we have learned a lot,” he says. “Our big problem is not the rain or cold weather.” He says that due to the prevailing Humboldt Current, the temperature of the Pacific Ocean is warmer by 2 degrees Celsius in protected Chiloé than in Valparaiso 650 miles to the north. “Still, it seems like we need even hotter weather to ripen the grapes.”

With Mother Nature not fully complying, the Montes team invented some tricks to increase the temperature in the vineyard. Similar to how rounded galets (rocks) reflect heat onto the vines in places like Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France, the Aurelios piled seashells at the base of their vines to generate more warmth from the fickle sun.

“We are very excited for the 2020 harvest,” says Montes del Campo. “We want to get some wine from there.”

The vines providing Miguel Torres Chile's grapes in Osorno / Photo courtesy Miguel Torres Chile
The vines providing Miguel Torres Chile’s grapes in Osorno / Photo courtesy Miguel Torres Chile

Miguel Torres Chile

The 2018 Cordillera Sauvignon Blanc that Miguel Torres Chile (MTC) is making from a contracted vineyard in Osorno (40.6 degrees south latitude, about 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean) is striking in its lack of vegetal aromas and flavors. But Eduardo Jordan, appointed recently as MTC’s head winemaker, wasn’t surprised.

“Over the past few years, the rain in the central-south part of Chile has been decreasing, and we have also noticed a rise in temperatures during the prime ripening period,” he says. “Last season, we had 60% less rain than a normal year. This past winter, we were at the same minus-60% level. This shortage of water has created an opportunity in the southern regions.

“Where before it was unthinkable to have vineyards in a place like Osorno, the higher temperatures and reduced rain levels are allowing us to achieve good ripeness and mitigate the risk of fungus,” he says.

To make wine at the gateway to Patagonia constitutes a pioneering effort, and MTC is one of the very few producers attempting to harvest this terrain. Jordan noted that only Montes’s Chiloé project is located further south than Osorno.

“We have even bought land in Coyhaique (at 45 degrees south latitude),” he says. “We planted the first vines there to evaluate if they will be able to grow and develop. But this is a project for the future.”

As for the present, the Cordillera Sauvignon Blanc and a traditional-method sparkling wine that will be released in two years are MTC’s response to a changing wine world where what was once down—figuratively and literally—is on the rise.

Snow-packed rows in Otronia's vineyard / Photo courtesy Otronia
Snow-packed rows in Otronia’s vineyard / Photo courtesy Otronia

Otronia

The combination of baby buds that freeze after popping, winds that howl at 65 miles per hour and a location in the middle of nowhere would cause most wine producers to say, “this place isn’t for us.”

But when you are an oil magnate and global vintner like Alejandro Bulgheroni, and you own giant swaths of Patagonian land used primarily for petroleum exploration, you might be willing to push the boundaries of so-called “sane” winemaking.

Located about five miles from the town of Sarmiento, Argentina (45.6 degrees south latitude), and more than 100 miles from the closest airport, Bulgheroni’s Otronia project lies in the southern reaches of Chubut. Here, between a pair of lakes named Colhué Huapi and Musters (the latter called Otron in the native language), Bulgheroni’s wine team planted 125 acres of vines in 2012.

At a tasting last June, Otronia’s commercial director, Máximo Rocca, showcased the four Otronia wines he hopes will be available in the U.S. in 2020. First was Block Series Chardonnay, which is crisp and rather green in character, and it was followed by 45 Rugientes Corta de Blancas, a blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris that showed notes of celery, lime and pyrazines.

On the red side, it’s all Pinot Noir, both in the Block Series and the 45 Rugientes Corta de Tintas. If you’re wondering, the 45 refers to the latitude, and rugiente means “roaring” in Spanish. In Chubut, the winds roar more often than not.

Your Map to Patagonia’s Deep South Wine Regions

Published on December 13, 2019
Topics: South America


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