Sun, dryness, altitude … The Atacama Desert in a glass of wine

In the middle of the Atacama Desert, in the northern part of Chile, Hector Espindola, 71, pampers his wine, which survives at almost 3,000 meters above sea level in a green oasis in Toconao, very close to a river. Andesnes snow.

In this driest landscape in the world, the tallest vines in Chile, far from the largest wine-growing area in the center, flourish 1,500 km further south, enabling this country to be among the top 10 exporters of world wines.

In addition to the altitude, in this area one has to deal with negative temperatures at night and extreme solar radiation during the day.

In his small estate in Toconao, about forty miles from San Pedro de Atacama, Mr. Espindola grows Muscat and a “rural grape variety” (criollo) at an altitude of 2,475 meters in the shade of quince, pear and fig trees, which it waters thanks to a nearby stream.

The current makes it possible to water “every three or four days in case of flooding” during the night, he explains to AFP in the middle of his vines, which two months after the harvest show their autumn leaves waiting to be pruned.

“I can see that by watering in this way I produce a little more every year. But one has to be careful, because here the heat, the climate is serious,” he insists.

The winemaker brings his harvest to the Ayllu cooperative, which since 2017 has gathered 18 small winegrowers from the area, mainly members of Atacama indigenous peoples, and who until then worked individually in their estates of a few hundred m2.

Among them Cecilia Cruz, 67, who is proud to have the country’s tallest vineyard, 3,600 meters above sea level, in Socaire. She produces Syrah and Pinot Noir under the shade of nets that shade her rows of vines.

“I feel special deep down, to have this vineyard here and to produce wine at this height,” she says in the middle of the plantations, where there are still a few dried-out clusters hanging after the harvest. She hopes to be able to further develop her production so that her three sons get “a future”.

– “Desert taste” –

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In 2021, the cooperative received 16 tons of grapes, which enabled the production of 12,000 bottles. The harvest was better in 2022 by more than 20 tons, which should yield 15,000 bottles.

A drop of water (about 1%) in Chilean national production, but a unique terroir that oenologist Fabian Muñoz, 24, is trying to improve by creating specific blends.

“We do not want to lose this know-how, this taste for desert, volcanic rock and of course the taste of the grapes, which is different. We want the consumer, when tasting an Ayllu wine, to say to himself: + Wow! I taste the Atacama Desert + “.

Chemist Carolina Vicencio, 32, who also works in the cooperative, explains that the altitude and the lower atmospheric pressure, as well as the very high thermal amplitude between day and night, make the grapes’ skins thicker.

“This generates more molecules of tannins in the skin of the grape, which gives a certain bitterness to the wine (…) There is also the higher salinity of the soil (…), which brings a touch of mineralization in the mouth.” she says.

In his vineyard at the foot of the Andes, Samuel Varas, 43, finally planted Malbec after testing different grape varieties.

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Together with his co-agronomist, he realized that the high amount of drilling in the ground killed his crops. “We realized two things: that there is a grape variety, Malbec, that has adapted, and that those that grew best were those that were under the carob trees,” he explains.

So they replaced everything with Malbec, shaded the entire vineyard and provided it with a drip irrigation system to get the most out of the meager 20 liters per second they get by melting snow in the Andes.

With these changes, they have doubled their annual production in the last three years to supply 500 kg of grapes to the cooperative last harvest.

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