Chile emerges from ‘perfect storm’

Carlos Cousiño, director of Cousiño Macul is optimistic that a strong 2013 harvest marks a positive turning point in Chile’s recent fortunes, despite the challenge posed by ongoing trade union strikes.

Cousiño Macul, one of the few producers with vineyards inside the Santiago city boundary

Cousiño Macul, one of the few producers with vineyards inside the Santiago city boundary

“It’s getting better after the perfect storm,” he told the drinks business. “The last two or three years have been horrible.” By contrast, Cousiño welcomed a 2013 harvest that was “extremely good both in quality and quantity”, with his own crop 15% bigger than in 2012.

While recent years have seen Chile’s wine exporters struggle with a strong currency, buoyed by the country’s copper industry, Cousiño reported: “the Chilean peso is getting back to where it should be against the dollar – it has weakened by 10% in the last month.”

However, in a country with almost full employment, he highlighted the current problem of strikes by unions as part of an ongoing wage dispute. Although Concha y Toro has been the most prominent producer affected during the last two months, Cousiño acknowledged: “It’s a problem we’re all going to face.”

While describing the maintenance of a weaker exchange rate as “critical” for the profitability required to meet wage demands, Cousiño revealed that his own company is seeking to reduce its labour costs with a US$2 million investment in technology.

In particular he pointed to the shift away from “very labour intensive” manual sorting tables, describing the replacement machinery as “faster and more efficient than human labour.”

The investment has also covered a robotic bottling line and Cousiño Macul is currently trialling new picking machines, although Cousiño noted: “We’re not fully convinced yet so we’re still hand picking.”

In contrast to the many producers in Chile who are expanding into different valleys as the country’s viticultural map evolves, Cousiño insisted that his own company would remain firmly rooted in Maipo.

“We’re very proud of our Maipo identity and we still think that Maipo is the best region for red grape varieties,” he told db, highlighting the property’s use of its own massal clones and many vines of nearly 100 years old.

“Those vineyards have adapted to Maipo over 150 years and it would be a risk to move our clones to soils where they have never been planted before,” explained Cousiño.

Cousiño Macul's vineyards in Alta Maipo

Cousiño Macul’s vineyards in Alta Maipo

Nevertheless, he added, “It doesn’t mean we’re not looking for innovation.”

For Cousiño Macul, this innovation takes the form of a major vineyard programme, which has seen it move varieties around the estate as part of efforts to tackle disease and refine its irrigation system.

Started five years ago and due to finish next year, the programme has meant the estate putting 7% of its land out of production at any one time for a period of three years.

As a result of this “huge investment,” Cousiño highlighted its early signs of success, saying: “We harvested eight tonnes per hectare of Merlot this year compared to three or four tonnes a few years ago.”

The replanting programme has also presented an opportunity for the company to introduce around four hectares each of Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Explaining that these will initially be used “to increase the complexity of our blends”, Cousiño also revealed: “it will allow us to produce some marketing driven products.”

While the final plans are yet to be confirmed, Cousiño pointed to the pressure on wineries to offer new products. “It makes a lot of marketing sense,” he observed. “Nowadays, mainly due to journalists, wineries are constantly developing new products, but they’re very niche.”

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