We’ve all heard about small businesses that have been hard-hit in one way or another by the Covid-19 pandemic. This week I was inspired by the positive attitude of the woman owner of one such company here in Chile: Andrea (Andi) Jure, who makes and sells sparkling wines through her business Mujer Andina based in Paine near to Santiago.
Prior to the pandemic, restaurants accounted for a significant share of Andi’s sales and, of course, those sales dried up when the restaurants were all closed in mid-March, meaning a major loss in income. The schools closed at that time too, so Andi’s three children, like so many others around the world, have been stuck at home 24/7 since then, needing extra attention. And, of course, the pandemic hit Chile right at the busiest period in the winemaking calendar, so not only did Andi have to contend with lost sales and the increased needs of her family, but also grapes arriving and fermentation vats to keep an eye on, so it was a busy time in the cellar too. It all added up to a stressful situation. Andi, however, refused to let it get her down.
“Once I’ve embarked on something, I don’t get off – unless the boat actually sinks, of course,” she laughs. “And you know, sometimes things don’t work out but you just have to keep going.”
So she launched a whole new social media strategy with home delivery to consumers across Chile with innovative ideas like hand-painting bottles to order. And it’s a strategy that has proved effective, making her products better-known. Plus a second order came in from a distributor in New York, so the future is looking a whole lot brighter for Andi and her wines.
There are currently two Mujer Andina wines on the market, both sparkling.
Ai! is a tank-method wine made with 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir grapes from Biobio and is intended to be a fun sparkling suitable for any occasion. Hence the playful label depicting a woman falling into a glass of sparkling wine and the name “Ai!”, which is a very Chilean word meaning “wow” or “mmm”, as in “¡Ai, qué rico!” (mmm, how delicious!).
Ai! is certainly a very quaffable and refreshing sparkling wine, hand’s down better than a lot of the industrialized sparkling wines in the same price bracket. The nose is lightly citrussy – think sherbet lemon – and it’s very fresh in the mouth, with the acidity and sugar well-balanced. A good choice for parties or a hot day on the terrace.
Levita is in a whole other category. It’s a beautiful salmon-coloured sparkling made from organic Syrah grapes. The wine spends a few months over its lees before the second, in-bottle fermentation and another period on the lees to enhance the complexity and mouthfeel. The nose is expressive with notes of red apples and pears, canned strawberries and cherries intermingled with delicious leesy notes like Danish pastries. This is a crisp, dry, creamy-textured wine that will pair with a wide range of food. Check it out with smoked salmon, prawn brochettes, creamy cheese or even Thai dishes.
Andi continues to be upbeat and is full of plans for the future. There are three non-sparkling wines under development – a rosé, a Pinot Noir and a Carmenère and she also has plans to expand her sparkling range down the line. Mujer Andina is definitely a brand worth keeping your eye on.
I asked Andi what advice she would give to another woman thinking about setting up her own business:
“Choose something that makes you happy. Believe in yourself. Be honest and honourable. And don’t wait for things to come to you; you have to work for them.”
Sage advice indeed.
Finally, I asked her to tell me about three wines she had enjoyed recently:
Grand Vin de Château Léoville Las Cases in Bordeaux
Marcela Chandia’s wines La Confundida Carmenère or El Consentido Cabernet Sauvignon, because they are elegant and fruity, with just the right level of oak.
This dish celebrates some of South America’s best and most emblematic flavours – beans, pumpkin, sweetcorn and tomatoes. It’s wholesome, warm, comforting, a fabulous healthy option that is vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free and it looks beautiful too.
Porotos granados is the name in Chile for the Borlotti beans so widely used in Italian dishes and they also go by the name of Cranberry beans in some places around the world. Mounds of these pretty pink beans can be found in Chilean fruit and vegetable markets from around January to May each year; then you can buy the shelled, dried beans during the rest of the year.
1kg porotos granados (weight in their pods; once podded, the uncooked weight is around 380-400g) , removed from their pods and cleaned (you can substitute around 450g of ready-cooked beans from cans or cartons if you prefer)
I medium onion, diced
Sunflower oil (or your choice of vegetable oil)
300g of diced, peeled pumpkin
250g of cooked sweetcorn kernels
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper
Basil (fresh or dried)
Oregano (fresh or dried)
Put the beans in a pan, cover them with water and cook until soft. Keep the water. If using ready-cooked beans, obviously skip this step.
Meanwhile put the oil in a pan and cook the onion until it softens. Add the pumpkin and cook until soft. The original recipe I used suggested 4 tablespoons but I prefer to reduce the amount of oil so I just start with a little oil, then add a splash of water, stock or white wine whenever the vegetables start to stick.
Add the beans, sweetcorn, tomatoes and enough of the bean water to make the dish quite liquidy.
Add salt, pepper, oregano and basil to taste. You might want to give it a bit of pep with some merquén or other type of chilli powder or sauce.
Cook until the pumpkin has mushed into the water and you have a thick yellow bean stew.
This dish can be made a day ahead, in which case the flavours will meld together even more. You can also freeze it.
If you’re looking for a thirst-quenching wine, there’s really nothing to beat a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And there are some some cool, fresh, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines that can easily hold their own with those from New Zealand or the Loire.
A few of us got together recently to check out a few of the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines on the market. These are our tasting notes.
Leyda Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Leyda Valley. 13.5% ABV. Retails at around CLP6,000.
Pronounced, clean aromas of grass, elderflower and citrus fruit. Clean, sharp and lemon-fresh. A good afternoon thirst-quencher.
Santa Helena Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Central Valley. 14% ABV. Retails at around CLP3,600.
Light, fresh and easy-drinking. The value for money option in our tasting; great for by the pool.
Tabalí Pedregoso Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Coastal Limarí Valley. 14% ABV. Retails at around CLP9,000
A wine with complex layers of aromas: pyrazine notes of green peppers and chilli peppers, herbaceous notes of elderflower and fresh-cut grass and terpenic notes from the fermentation process of passionfruit with citrus notes. The mouth also has more body, suggestive of some time over the lees. An understated and sophisticated tipple for those looking for a wine with character.
Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Parredones, Coastal Colchagua Valley. 13.5% ABV. Retails at around CLP12,000.
The most aromatic wine in the tasting with prominent upfront notes of tropical fruit like tinned pineapple and passionfruit, followed by a herbaceous layer like an English hedgerow in spring and then those pyrazinic notes of peppers and chilli peppers. In the mouth, nice body and fairly long. This wine was the favourite of the tasting.
Amayna Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Leyda Valley. 14% ABV. Retails at around CLP11,000
Another subtle but intriguing tipple with fruit and earthy notes and some personality in the mouth.
How about you? Have you recently tried a Sauvignon Blanc that you would recommend?
In 2010, a group of wine producers in Chile set up an unprecedented association called Vigno dedicated to just one variety of wine from just one area of Chile. Why? Because they thought that some really special wines could be made from the old and largely unappreciated Carignan vines in a remote, dry area of Maule.
Fast forward nine years to an international Carignan seminar in the Chilean capital of Santiago. It was like the who’s who of Chilean wine: just about everybody who is anybody was there. I went along on behalf of South America Wine Guide to find out opinions about the future of Carignan in Chile.
In the quest to bring you the best of Chilean wine, a group of 7 people recently tasted our way through some lighter Chilean red wines. We were looking for wines that can be served slightly chilled in warm weather and that pair well with turkey and other dishes often served for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other festivities. Our tasting panel bravely tasted its way through 8 different Chilean wines made from 4 different grape varieties. Below are the full details of all the wines we tried and at the end I will reveal which two wines were the panel’s favourites.
For decades País was relegated to an underdog role by Chile’s biggest producers who bought the grapes at rock-bottom prices to bulk out other varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon when making Chile’s cheapest red wines. But lately Chile’s third most planted variety has been experiencing a renaissance, with producers experimenting with different wine styles with País in the starring role. País wines tend to be light, easy-drinking reds with some fruity aromas. We tried two brands.
Bouchon País Salvaje 2018. Maule Valley.
Retails around CLP$10,000. 12.5% ABV
Family firm based in Maule, making a range of wines from grapes grown in Maule. This particular wine is made from grapes from País vines that have self-seeded and run wild, climbing trees. The grapes are destemmed using a zaranda. Fermented in cement vats with native yeasts. 50% underwent carbonic maceration. This wine is unfiltered.
Tasting note: A fresh, fruity, pale-coloured wine; very easy-drinking.
This is a very long-standing family vineyard that is proud to still be making wines from the old vines and using the traditional methods that have passed down through the family. This wine is made with 100% País grapes.
Tasting note: rather denser than the País Salvaje with rustic tannins, medium acidity and red fruit flavours.
Cinsault is light-skinned with soft, fruity aromas and is widely used in blends in southern France and a few other warm climate areas around the world. If the vines are allowed produce too many grapes, the wines can be boring. But when yields are low – for instance when the grapes come from old vines, like the ones in Itata – it can make deliciously fresh, tasty wines with lovely aromas of red fruit and wild herbs. We tried two different Cinsault wines.
Pedro Parra Imaginador 2017. Itata, Ñuble Region.
Retails around CLP$15,000. 14% ABV
Pedro Parra is a highly respected Chilean expert on terroir (finding the ideal place for growing wine grapes). This is his own family project in his home area. He has sourced grapes from 4 different local vineyards. These are all old vineyards with old vines, trained in a bush or gobelet form and dry-farmed (not irrigated). The wine has been fermented and aged in a mix of stainless steel and cement vats (no oak) to retain freshness and fruity aromas.
Tasting note: Fresh, crunchy red fruit profile with an intriguingly smoky note. Mineral and taut red fruit flavours with light tannins. Delicious!
Grenache is widely planted in Spain and France, where, like Cinsault, it has traditionally been used in blends. It is a tricky grape to get right but if you do, it can make an exciting and seductive red wines. There are just a few being made here in Chile and they can be hard to get hold of – the Perez Cruz we tried is probably the most widely available.
Retails around CLP$15,000. The bottle label says 14% ABV but online info suggests it’s actually 14.9%!!
85% Garnacha, 10% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre. 14 months’ ageing, 100% in French oak, half new and half second use, so this wine should have a notable oak influence (aromas of spices, toast) and a smoothness in the mouth.
Tasting note: Beautiful strawberry and chocolate nose and smooth palate with medium tannins and just enough acidity to keep it interesting. Very delicious and moreish.
Another fiddly variety that is difficult to get right. People seem to either absolutely adore it or else detest it. Given that the styles of wine it can make can vary hugely, as can the pricetag, then perhaps that is no surprise. In Chile, you can find everything from rich and mouthfilling Pinot Noirs with aromas like strawberry jam and toast through to subtle and lighter-bodied wines with a whole myriad of aromas ranging from mushrooms, through leather, damp leaves and game, through to a downright farmyardy manure-type odour. There are around 4,000 hectares of Pinot Noir in Chile but a lot more are being planted, mostly in coastal, mountainous or southerly regions, as Pinot Noir does best in cool climate conditions. We tasted three Chilean Pinot Noirs.
Aquitania Sol de Sol Pinot Noir 2012, Malleco, La Araucanía Region.
Retails around CLP$20,000. 13.5% ABV
This project was at one time one of Chile’s southernmost but now there are increasing numbers of wineries moving south as the climate gets warmer and drier and because cool-climate wines are fashionable around the world. This wine has had 12 months’ French oak ageing.
Tasting note: A supple, smooth wine with high acidity and a subtle red fruit profile.
Koyle is a small family winery led by Cristóbal Undurraga and based in Colchagua Alto, following biodynamic and sustainable principles. These grapes are brought from vineyards nearer the coast. The grapes are harvested in 2 different lots from 2 different plots with different solar exposure to get a different flavour profile. Ageing: 50% in barrels, 50% concrete eggs for 12 months.
Tasting note: Sophisticated nose of red fruit, mineral notes and a hint of toast. Slightly bitter note in the mouth but overall very pleasant, with fresh acidity and fine tannins.
Have you ever been so focussed on achieving something that when you actually succeeded, you didn’t know what to do next? I had such a moment back in 2003 when I finished walking the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. After 40 days and 770km, it felt amazing to totter, footsore and pink-faced, into the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela. But part of me also felt rather deflated because it meant I had to figure out my next destination without a map or yellow arrows to point the way. As Antonio Machado’s poem states:
“Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” (“Traveller, there is no road; you make your path as you walk”).
Just over a year later, I emigrated to Chile.
I’m having another “what now?” moment again, 16 years on (though I don’t imagine moving to another country this time!!). I’ve just completed another big challenge – this time studying alongside full-time work – and now I’ve finished I find I have free time on my hands and a head full of geeky knowledge and am wondering what to do about it. The course was the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, their top qualification. It took three years of blood, sweat, tears and more money than I care to think about. But I’ve done it; I’ve passed.
So what now? First, I need to take a breath and get back into the routine of normal life. I need to get back on track with friends I’ve been neglecting, recoup my depleted finances and thank my translation clients for remaining loyal over the years, despite my periodic disappearances to sit exams in London.
Of course I also have a whole heap of wine-related ambitions. I’d love to go and visit all the wine regions I’ve learned about and taste wines with the Master of Wine candidates in Santiago. I really want to get some hands-on experience in a vineyard (or several) and sooner or later I’m going to make my own garage wine just for the hell of it.
But for now my biggest ambition is to share some of the wonderful things I have learned about wine. In addition to writing for my blog, I am very proud to be helping wine journalist Amanda Barnes with her publications: Around the World in 80 Harvests and South America Wine Guide, mostly as sub-editor, but also doing a little research and some writing. And I am also just developing a brand new service: wine events like tastings or presentations for small groups in English or Spanish. I’m completely open to ideas about this so please get in touch if you have any suggestions or want to find out more.
Here’s a handy bilingual guide to some of the sparkling wine jargon you might come across. Let me know if you come across more terms that need to be added.
Blanc de Blancs
A wine made only from white grapes, often 100% Chardonnay.
Blanc de Blancs
Un vino elaborado solo con uvas blancas, con frecuencia 100% Chardonnay.
Blanc de Noirs
A wine made only from black grapes, typically Pinot Noir. This is still a white wine, irrespective of the type of grapes used.
Blanc de Noirs
Un vino elaborado solo a partir de uvas negras, típicamente Pinot Noir. Este sigue siendo un vino blanco, independientemente del tipo de uvas utilizadas.
The process in in-bottle fermentation where the temporary cork is removed from the bottle and the frozen block of sediment is ejected from the bottle (along with some wine) because of the pressure of gas inside.
El proceso de fermentación en botella en que se retira el corcho temporal y el bloque congelado de sedimento es expulsado de la botella (junto con algo de vino) debido a la presión del gas en el interior.
A mechanized version of a pupitre.
Una versión mecanizada del pupitre.
Liqueur de tirage
A syrup of sugar, wine and yeast added to provoke the second fermentation.
Licor de tiraje
Un sirope de vino, vino y levadura que se añade para provocar la segunda fermentación.
This is a syrup added to the wine after the second fermentation is complete. Except in the case of Nature wines, this is a mix of sugar and wine, known as the dosage. The amount of sugar depends on the style of sparkling wine require.
Licor de expedición
Este es un sirope que se añade al vino después de completada la segunda fermentación. Excepto en el caso de los vinos naturales, esta es una mezcla de azúcar y vino conocida como la dosificación. La cantidad de azúcar depende del estilo de vino espumante requerido.
A vintage from one specific year which has been designated to be of a good enough standard. Not every year is good enough to qualify.
Un vintage de un año especifico que ha sido designado por ser de un estándar lo suficientemente bueno. No todos los años son los suficientemente buenos para calificar.
A blend of wines from different years. This term must also be used even if the wine is a blend of vintage years.
Una mezcla de vinos de distintos años. Este término también debe usarse incluso si el vino es una mezcla de años vintage.
A hinged rectangular block with holes into which the bottles are placed by the neck. The bottles start in a horizontal position and are gradually moved by hand until they are upside down, so that the sediment settles in the neck of the bottle.
Un bloque rectangular articulado con orificios en los que se colocan las botellas por el cuello. Las botellas empiezan en posición horizontal y son movidas gradualmente a mano hasta que quedan boca abajo, de forma que el sedimento se acumula en el cuello de la botella.
A wine made via either the saignée method (where the skins spend some time in contact with the juice) or where some red wine is added to the white to make a pink drink.
Rosé / rosado
Un vino elaborado a través del método por sangrado o saignée (en que los orujos pasan un tiempo en contacto con el jugo) o al añadir vino tinto al blanco para conseguir una bebida rosada.
Tank method / Charmat method
When the second fermentation takes place in a special, strong stainless steel tank.
Método tanque /método charmat
Cuando la segunda fermentación ocurre en un tanque especial fuerte de acero inoxidable.
Traditional method or in-bottle fermentation
Where the second fermentation to make a wine fizzy takes place in a bottle.
Método tradicional o fermentación en botella
Cuando la segunda fermentación para hacer que el vino tenga burbujas se realiza en una botella.
Chile produces far more red wine than white, but it is well worth checking out those whites it does produce. Here’s a handy guide to the 5 most planted varieties.
Chile has developed its own style of this, one of the world’s favourite white varieties. Pronounced aromas of citrus fruit, like lemon and grapefruit, notes of pineapple and a hint of green chilli pepper are accompanied by refreshing zesty acidity in the mouth. A real thirst-quencher.
Are you a fan of steely Chablis, subtle white Burgundy or opulent Californian Chardonnay? If so, you may well find a Chilean Chardonnay to suit your tastes. Winemakers here make this chameleon grape into every style, from lean and unoaked through to much softer, creamier and fuller-bodied wines. A good option with fish, chicken and creamy dishes.
Muscat comes in many varieties, all of them beautifully aromatic (think flowers, grapes and spices like ginger). Chile has several varieties, with Muscat of Alexandria being the most planted. Muscat grapes are used to make Chile’s own grape brandy Pisco, as well as sweet or dry white wines, which tend to be medium to low in acidity but heady in aroma.
This elegant, fragrant grape makes very refreshing wines, which are usually dry in Chile. Riesling fans use words like “racy” and “steely” to describe their favourite tipple, which will often have citrus notes and maybe just a whiff of kerosene. Well-made Riesling ages well and can develop complex notes of honey and nuts over time. You can also find a few delicious Late Harvest and botrytized Riesling wines in Chile. The grape’s natural acidity balances out the sweetness making for a very seductive and sophisticated drink. These complex sweet wines pair well with cheese and desserts.
Once widely grown in Chile, most vines were removed in favour of trendier grapes, but if you look hard you may find a bottle. This is a versatile, refreshing variety that can make some very elegant wines in both lean and fuller-bodied styles.
It says a lot about Marcela Burgos and her ability to be concise and to the point, that we managed to shoehorn her interview into just 20 minutes before the other MW candidates arrived for a blind wine tasting. Marcela is one of those women who exude self-confidence and a sense of purpose, so in her presence I always feel like I need to pull my socks up and get on with things. No shilly-shallying about. A typical teacher vibe, actually, now I come to think about it.
No surprise then that Marcela is the owner of the Conservatorio de Vino school in Santiago offering Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses and occasional masterclasses. Marcela set up the school six years ago and is in the enviable position of having waiting lists for some courses, while others sell out soon after the dates are publicized.
What makes the Conservatorio de Vino so successful?
“Three things,” she says. “Firstly, I directly import the wines for the course tastings from the United States, so students can sample a really great range of wines. Secondly, unlike some wine schools, my courses have a gradual format – one or two evening classes a week. This means that students can review the material between classes and it also tends to fit better with their family and work commitments. Thirdly, I have a great team of teachers with first-hand knowledge of the wine industry, like Master of Wine candidates Marco de Martino (de Martino winery) and Fernando Almeda (former Technical Director of Miguel Torres Chile).”
So how did she get into this industry in the first place? She smiles, “I had just graduated with a business degree and was looking for a glamourous job, so I wrote to all the wineries on the Wines of Chile list.” Her first job at Los Boldos winery marked a key moment in her career. During the year she worked there, she had long conversations with the French winemaker, who told her about the world of wine outside of Chile.
Marcela’s next stop was a visit to the French white wine enclave of Alsace, followed by a year studying German in Munich, where she developed her ongoing love affair with German Riesling – especially from the Mosel.
“Riesling is a superlative variety,” she extols, “and Mosel Riesling evolves like a poem.”
Her career was set after a period living in Canada, where she worked her way through the WSET courses, completing WSET Level 4 (the Diploma) in London. Then, six years ago, after coming back to Chile and starting a family, she opened up the Conservatorio de Vino.
So what are her ambitions for the future?
“The Master of Wine programme, of course,” she says. Marcela is one of a very select handful of people in Chile on the extremely challenging MW programme who are seeking to join the 382 people around the world who currently hold this highly prestigious wine qualification.
She also writes features about Chile’s wine industry for Meininger’s Wine Business International, something she really enjoys. And she is confident that the Conservatorio de Vino will continue to grow over the coming years, offering the WSET Diploma, which is not currently available anywhere in South America, and increasing the number of WSET courses she runs each year.“Also I’ve just added the new WSET spirits qualifications and the demand is very strong, so I expect to see lots of growth there.”
And the final question: what are her favourite wines? Other than Mosel Riesling, red Burgundy tops her list, especially Chambolle-Musigny because it is so fragrant and evolves in the glass. And in terms of Chilean wine, aside from the Riesling wines from Chile’s coolest climate areas like the far south, she highlights Carignan from Maule because of its concentration and fresh, nicely balanced acidity. What an excellent choice!
People often ask me why they should pay more for a bottle of wine. I understand their point; we all have a limited budget that we need to cover all of life’s necessities and hopefully a few little extras, like wine. And if your tipple of choice is a highly affordable Shiraz from South Australia, Zinfandel from California or Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Central Valley which is consistently on sale at your local supermarket, what’s wrong with that?
Nothing of course, but it is worth knowing that to be able to put a product on the shelves of hundreds of supermarkets at a retail price of say £5 or £6 in the UK (where the first £2 or so goes in tax) or 3,000 pesos in Chile, the producer has to have a very large-scale operation so as to achieve extremely low costs. Why does this matter?
Scientific research points to a dramatic decline in insects worldwide – one report quoted widely in the press, such as this article in the Guardian, estimates that in a 27-year period the number of insects in protected areas declined by 75% and it may be even higher in non-protected areas. Another widely report (as in this article published by the BBC) indicates that “40% of species are undergoing dramatic rates of decline“.
The reasons for this decline are most likely:
loss of habitat (urban sprawl and the extension of largescale monoculture farming),
the use of pesticides
and global warming.
Why does it matter?
But why should we care about the loss of insects? Well, some of them, like bees, are needed to pollinate fruit, such as grapes. And we’ve all heard the alarming reports about the worldwide decline in bees – here is just one article on the subject. Other insects perform lowly but essential roles, like processing manure. And some are an essential part of the food chain – small bugs are eaten by larger bugs, which are eaten by birds, for instance. If the small bugs disappear, the larger bugs that eat them and the birds that eat them can also die out.
Meanwhile, those insects that really love eating certain kinds of plants, such as vines, are doing really well, because in a world of huge farms growing just that one kind of plant, they can easily zone in on great expanses of their favourite crop and feed and reproduce to their heart’s content and, because little else thrives in a monoculture, there may not be a predator around to interrupt them. Also, as the BBC report highlighted,
“Fast-breeding pest insects will probably thrive because of the warmer conditions, because many of their natural enemies, which breed more slowly, will disappear.”
What’s the link between the production of (budget) wine and bugs dying?
So to go back to our large-scale wineries. Many of them have miles of beautiful, orderly rows of vineyards, stretching as far as the eye can see, all the vines uniformly trained along trellis and all carefully linked to a drip watering system. When you see mile after mile of uninterrupted vineyards (or indeed mile after mile of any crop – wheat, rapeseed, cotton, soya), you can be sure that they have very low biodiversity, especially if they are very neat and tidy, without a single weed or flower between the rows and no trees in sight. That’s because there is no habitat there for the majority of bugs and birds – other than those that like to feed on that particular crop, in this case vines.
If those vineyards are growing grapes for low-price wines, they need to get the maximum amount of grapes out of those vines for the lowest possible cost. So that means using fertilizers and water to make sure they get a lot of big, juicy grapes. And to keep labour costs down, they will mechanize whatever they can. The Australians are said to have got this down to a fine art, but you can find this sort of operation in Argentina, Chile, California, Spain and elsewhere. The distance between the rows of vines is just enough for the machinery to pass through. The drip irrigation systems are often controlled centrally. All they need is a couple of people driving very sophisticated machines along the rows at different times of the year to mechanically plough the soil, prune the excess growth, spray with chemicals and harvest the grapes.
Trellising vines, drip irrigation and the use of machinery in vineyards aren’t bad things – please don’t misunderstand me. Trellising ensures the grapes are positioned well for ripening and they can be manually or mechanically managed. Drip irrigation is a water-efficient way of irrigating vines. Mechanization – particularly in areas where there is a shortage of people willing to pick fruit or where labour costs are very high – can sometimes be the only sensible solution. It’s a highly efficient way of managing vines and, in the case of harvesting, means the grapes are picked and processed faster, which makes them less likely to oxidize or start to ferment before getting to the winery.
However, a very large vineyard is easy for marauding pests to find, presenting a lovely big juicy target for moths, wasps, tiny spiders, sharpshooters and a host of other nasty bugs to come and feed. And, whereas the owner or the viticulturist at a small-scale winery probably walks along his/her vines regularly and is therefore likely to be able to detect and deal with a problem early, those people driving up and down on their tractors all day long may not notice the problem until it has grown to major proportions. What some wineries therefore do is preventive spraying to make sure no problems arise. After all, if they have contracts with a large supermarket chain to deliver a certain amount of wine at a certain price point and they fail to deliver, they can be subject to major penalty clauses.
And where the vineyards are uninterrupted by any other vegetation and are managed with lots of agrochemicals, they are contributing towards the decline in insect life and other species.
We need to remember too that the biodiversity isn’t all above ground – there is a lot going on in the soil beneath our feet – or at least there is in healthy soil. The state of the soil is a hot issue for many people in wine, who argue that healthy soil should be teeming with life (such as worms which help aerate the soil, and microorganisms that process waste and produce hummus). Compaction by heavy machinery and sustained use of chemicals can make the soil an unfriendly or even toxic place for these creatures.
There are wineries of all sizes that are concerned about these issues and who take measures to mitigate their impact, for instance by installing wildlife corridors or leaving some parts of the vineyard with native vegetation. Some even use animals in preference to machinery in the vineyards – hens and other birds scratch around for pests, alpacas or sheep munch on weeds, horses are used for heavier jobs like ploughing and all of them contribute manure, which can be rotted down and used to add fertility to the soil.
Some wineries have joined voluntary sustainability schemes where they pledge to be careful in their use of chemicals, recycle waste and water and use a range of techniques to increase biodiversity, such as encouraging weeds to grow between the rows of vines.
Other wineries have gone a step further and become certified organic or biodynamic. What this gives you, as a consumer, is a much clearer idea of exactly what standards have been used to make that bottle of wine, because to be labelled as “organic”, “biodynamic” or “made with organic grapes”, the winery has to prove to an independent body that they have followed a specific set of rules.
So what does it mean for a wine to be labelled organic or biodynamic? This is complex and could be an article in itself. To put it briefly, organic producers need to have a plan that limits their use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and looks for other ways to encourage plant health, while taking care of the environment. One of the world’s major certifying bodies for organic produce, the Soil Association states:
“Organic wine is as natural as possible, made using organically grown grapes or other fruit from a vineyard or farm that supports biodiversity and enhances soil health. (…) Organic wine makers use the minimum amount of additives and processing aids required to produce an optimum quality wine.”
Biodynamic wine producers have to meet the standards for organic production and then have a whole heap of additional rules. The following quote comes from a very informative page by Demeter, the certifying body for biodynamic production.
“In practice, Biodynamic farming meets the organic standard including the prohibition of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but goes much further. The integration of animals and animal feeds, perennial plants, flowers and trees, water features, and composting is emphasized. Dependence on imported materials for fertility and pest control is reduced. Water conservation is considered. Farms are required to maintain at least 10% of total acreage as a biodiversity set-aside.”
The bottom line is this: we are living in a world that is changing fast, with climate change and large scale extinctions, including insects and nobody is quite sure what the impact of all this is going to be, but it is likely to be considerable. Organic and biodynamic wines cost more than the most economical wines in the supermarket because there is more manual labour involved in their process (manual weeding, natural pest control) and the amount of grapes produced from each hectare is lower (especially where land is set aside for wildlife). What is more, even large organic producers like Emiliana in Chile have not reached the scale of the real giants of the viticultural world and so they cannot leverage the same economies of scale. So if you want to buy this type of wine, it is going to cost a bit more.
Each of us makes our own purchasing decisions based on what we feel is important and what we can afford. My suggestion is that you just take a moment to check out the products before you buy by looking at the producer’s website so you can make an informed decision. Organic, biodynamic or otherwise, if a winery is taking steps to encourage biodiversity or to be careful with the environment, they will say so.
Alpacas at Emiliana, who help keep weeds down without compacting the soil
More information about insect and bee loss and what you can do about it