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‘Conventional farming is holding Chile back’

Conventional farming is hampering the progress of the Chilean wine industry and more producers should embrace organic and biodynamic methods to boost quality levels, according to Rodrigo Soto, winemaker at Veramonte.

Casona Veramonte in Casablanca (Photo: Veramonte)

According to Soto, a winemaker with extensive experience in biodynamics, gained predominantly with leading consultant Alan York at Fetzer and Benziger wineries in California, one of the big oversights the Chilean wine industry is guilty of is its failure to implement organic farming practices on a large scale.

“[Soil] fertility is one of the biggest issues that we have right now,” he said.

“Chile doesn’t have a lot of disease or pest pressure – it’s a very healthy country in those respects – but fertility is low in general terms. So you’ve got to interfere, you’ve got to fertilise. [But] when you fertilise with conventional fertilisers you add elements to the soil that activate the metabolism of the vines and makes them very ‘hyper’.

“Through the hyper process you create a lot of vigour and you create an increase in the growth of the canopy as well. So you start separating your curves of physiological ripening and accumulation of sugar. Sometimes you have 24-25 Brix and you still don’t pick because the grape still taste green.

“So you end up waiting for physiological ripeness. But obviously if you create a big canopy you have a lot of photosynthesis, you have a lot of sugars, and you create wines with a lot of alcohol which are at the same time astringent and dry. And I think that’s an issue with many Chilean wines.”

Soto took over wine management of the Veramonte multi-valley estate, which has properties in Colchagua and Casablanca, in 2012. Conversion to organic farming was one of his first moves.

The first Veramonte vintage to be certified organic at the estate will be 2017. Moreover, Soto revealed he plans to begin conversion to biodynamics as soon as organic certification has been confirmed.

The move, which typically takes three years following conversion to organic farming, would make the 600ha Veramonte one of the biggest certified biodynamic estates in the world.

Veramonte winemaker Rodrigo Soto (Photo: Veramonte)

Big on biodynamics

Soto has been working in biodynamic viticulture – in Chile and California – his whole career, however this would be the first time he has managed such a project on such a scale.

After university, Soto undertook his first internship with biodynamic convert Alvaro Spinoza at Viña Carmen. Subsequently, he worked at Fetzer in California, where he met Alan York, consultant for the Fetzer family and pre-eminent biodynamic expert, who died in 2014. He then undertook an internship with Wither Hills in New Zealand, subsequently joining Jimmy Fetzer’s own biodynamic project, Ceago Wines in Lake County, where he renewed his relationship with York.

Soto then took a job at Matetic in Chile where he was responsible for its conversion to biodynamic farming. After six years he moved back to California to become the winemaker at Benziger – then one of the leading proponents of biodynamic winemaking in the US – where he continued to work with York. Six years later, in 2012 he moved to Veramonte where he set about changing the farming culture and, as a result, the style of the estate’s wines.

“In my opinion it was extremely necessary to make a big change, which was in the farming techniques,” he told db.

“That has brought a lot of interesting aspects, not only to the plantations and to the quality of the grapes, but also we have been maing a lot of changes in the winery to mirror the efforts in the vineyards – in terms of hands-off winemaking, also utilising only native yeasts for all the wines…

“Basically, the flavour profile of our wines has been smoothing out. They are less extracted, more balanced, and I think we are starting to really show a very different face from the one that we had before – in a very positive way.”

Soto explained that organic methods were not only integral to the health and longevity of the vines, but also resulted in more consistent, fresher and more balanced wines.

“When you start tuning down the volume of the system, when you use compost, when you utilise cover cropping and the proper tillage, you see that there is a tremendous effect on slowing down the metabolism for the vines and you start seeing – and tasting – those ripening curves much closer to each other,” he said.

“I think that’s a phenomenal effect, because that’s when you start achieving much better balance in the wines, much better quality, much more consistency, and in the end you make wines that are much more enjoyable as well.”

The organic push in Chile

In recent years number of wine industry figures have identified Chile as having a huge marketing opportunity in becoming a 100% organic winemaking nation. As reported in db in 2014, Kiwi winemaker Grant Phelps, who makes wine for Casas del Bosques in Chile, said the nation benefitted from ideal conditions for organic viticulture and would enjoy a significant competitive advantage if all its vinous output was made with organically grown grapes.

However, as some commentators, including Cono Sur winemaker Adolfo Hurtado, have noted, cost is perceived as an obstacle. Hurtado noted that organic winemaking is up to 30% more expensive than conventional winemaking.

Soto believes that the cost of conversion is overstated, and that a much more fundamental problem is a lack of long-term vision among Chilean winemakers.

Veramonte will release its first certified organic wines from the 2017 vintage (Photo: Veramonte)

“As basic as it sounds, it’s difficult to execute in the field because it’s a long-term strategy – the composting, cover cropping and tillage – compared with a fertiliser that comes in a bag and in the third or fourth day you already have the effect on the vines,” he said.

“So you need to oversee this with a much longer-term vision that starts to show in the third or the fourth year in the vines, when they are completely ‘detoxed’ from what they have done before.

“You realise that the vines that go through this process read the environmental signs a lot better – meaning heat, rain, all the elements that can happen.

“They seem to be much better prepared, their immune systems seem to be stronger than conventionally farmed vines, which get so maxed out they don’t know what’s going on around them, so whenever the conditions are not the right ones, they get sick, they get rotten, they get a lot of issues.”

While Soto identified that some of the bigger players in Chile were setting the right example in terms of organic and biodynamic farming (Emiliana, De Martino and Cono Sur, for example), too many failed to see the benefits in terms of wine quality and business sustainability.

Controversially, he also raised the question of whether one could legitimately talk about terroir in connection with conventionally farmed vines which were so denatured by chemical fertilisers.

“Some people are doing this to find an image, some other people, like us, are doing it because it is totally related to quality, and also to longevity. I mean, vineyards are dying very young, not only in Chile but in the rest of the New World, they’re dying in their 16th or 17th year,” he said.

“And if you really want to talk about sense of place, terroir, how can you be talking about that when you are farming conventionally? When you farm conventionally you are disconnecting your vine from your place basically. You’re making your vine depend on you rather than on the place where they live.

“[The conversion] is very exciting for us because in between the three properties its around 600ha. For the size of the industry, it’s going to move the needle of the statistics of the organic certified wineries in Chile, which is a great thing. So hopefully it’s going to be contagious with a few other wineries as well.”

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