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Chilean wineries react to drought

Chilean wine producers are attempting novel measures to grow grapes with limited water after a prolonged dry period has threatened vines, particularly in the north of the country.

Elqui’s Puclaro dam was built in 2002 to contain 200 million cubic meters of liquid, but is now almost empty. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

Worst hit by drought over the past seven years has been Chile’s most northerly wine regions, Limarí and Elquí, although rains earlier this year have brought some relief to farmers in these areas, who were losing avocado and citrus trees, as well as vines due to the lack of precipitation.

“We have had seven years with very little rain, the dams are almost empty, and we don’t have enough water for the vineyards we have today,” Gonzalo Castro, winemaker and viticulturist for Viña San Pedro told the drinks business, referring to the 100 hectare Elquí-based estate planted by the company in the late 90s.

Last year, he explained that the producer preferentially watered its best-performing grapes in the region, choosing to save water for its Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc in place of Riesling, which received no irrigation, but yielded a “beautiful” sweet wine with the shrivelled berries.

This year, should the situation get worse, he said he would choose to leave some plots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay unirrigated too.

Other producers spoke of dead or dying vines in nearby Limari. “I think Limarí is the best place for Chardonnay in Chile, but the problem is water,” said Rafael Urrejola, winemaker for Undurraga.

As a result, he told db that he has reduced his suppliers in the region from five growers to just two today – “If they can’t irrigate, it affects the fruit quality,” he explained.

Such has been the severity of the drought, some are trying a range of techniques to prepare their vineyards for continued dry conditions.

Elqui’s Puclaro dam today. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

For example, Carolina Wine Brands is looking to Chile’s driest place, the Atacama Desert – which is just north of the aforementioned regions – because there are 80 year-old vines that manage to survive despite the extremely low rainfall.

The company’s chief winemaker Andrés Caballero explains, “We have gone to the Atacama Desert to look for plants that are adapted to the dryness and saltiness, which we will use to make our own rootstock for dry areas – we need a root that is adapted to dryness.”

Caballero said that Carolina Wine Brands was the sole company to be undertaking such a trial, which it is doing in partnership with the UC Davis (which is also researching ways to cope with drought in California), but warned that the problem will be to develop a rootstock that is both drought and Nematode resistant – Chile may not have Phylloxera, but Nematodes are common, and can kill vines.

Others are attempting to mimic Chile’s irregular rainfall patterns by leaving much longer periods between irrigating.

“We want to try to emulate the rains by doing one big irrigation and then leaving a big gap, especially with our Garnacha and Mouvedre, which are varieties that are better adapted to the lack of water,” said Noelia Orts, head winemaker at Emiliana, speaking about the producer’s plantings in Colchagua.

Taking a more extreme approach, Aurelio Montes has managed to produce grapes in the same region without any irrigation at all, although this has affected the producer’s yields significantly, with a 20% decline in annual production.

For others, however, the solution is to look further south to Chilean wine regions such as Itata or Bío Bío, where there is just enough annual rainfall to grow vines without irrigation, although summer precipitation in these areas can create other issues, such as bunch rot.

“We have to start recycling water and moving south as an industry,” stated Jaime Valderrama Larenas, managing director at Viña Miguel Torres Chile.

Elqui’s Puclaro dam 10 years ago. Photo credit: Giorgio Flessati

Of course, water isn’t just required to keep the vine alive, but to help boost production levels, as well as, importantly, slow ripening to create a berry with ripe phenolics and moderate sugars.

Meanwhile, Giorgio Flessati, managing director at Elquí’s pioneering table wine producer, Falernia, said that rainfall wasn’t the problem for the future of viticulture in the semi-desert region, but water use.

The region’s main store of water, the Puclaro dam, was built in 2002 to contain 200 million cubic meters of liquid, and filled up in eight months according to Flessati.

It remained full until 2008, when a turbines were fitted downstream of the dam to generate hydroelectric power. According to Flessati, due to the need to drive these turbines, water was drained from the reservoir behind the dam, and today, just 5% of the water remains.

Although there is a further dam high up in the Andes to help supply the water needs of Elquí farmers, Flessati recorded that the channel network is “very bad”, and commented, “We are losing at least 70% of the water due to leaks.”

Further exacerbating the issues in northern Chile is the needs of the mining industry, which is “by far the biggest user of water” in this part of the country.

Because the operators in this industry have been willing to pay large sums for water, Flessati said that some farmers had sold their water rights to the mining companies, “and now there is not enough for agriculture”.

However, looking ahead, Flessati is hopeful due to rains from late June onwards this year, which, importantly, have provided a thick layer of snow high in the Andes.

“We now have 1 metre of snow in the Andes,” he recorded, adding that should be enough to supply the needs for one more growing season.

Nevertheless, he also commented, “We need 3-4m of snow to fill one reservoir, so at the moment, we have 25% of what we want.”

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