In this most arid landscape in the world, the tallest vines in Chile flourish, far from the largest wine-growing area in the center, 1,500 km further south, which allows this country to be among the top 10 exporters of world wines.
In addition to the altitude, in this area you have to deal with negative temperatures at night and extreme solar radiation during the day.
In his small estate in Toconao, about forty kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, Mr. Espindola cultivates Muscat and a “country grape variety” (criollo) at an altitude of 2,475 meters in the shade of quince, pear and fig trees, which it irrigates thanks to a nearby stream.
The flow makes it possible to water “every three or four days by flooding” during the night, he explains to AFP in the middle of his vines, which two months after the harvest, display their autumn leaves. and waiting to be pruned.
“I see that by watering this way, I produce a little more each year. But you have to be careful because here the heat, the climate is serious,” he insists.
The winegrower brings his harvest to the Ayllu cooperative, which since 2017 has brought together 18 small winegrowers from the area, mostly members of the Atacama indigenous people 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 highest vineyard in the country, at 3,600 meters above sea level, in Socaire. She produces Syrah and Pinot Noir under the shade of netting that shades her rows of vines.
“I feel special deep down, to have this vineyard here and to produce wine at this altitude”, she says in the middle of the plantations where a few dried out bunches still hang after the harvest. She hopes to further develop her production so that her three sons have “a future”.
– “Desert taste” –
In 2021, the cooperative received 16 tons of grapes allowing the production of 12,000 bottles. The harvest was better in 2022 with more than 20 tons which should give 15,000 bottles.
A drop of water (about 1%) in Chilean national production, but a unique terroir that the oenologist, Fabian Muñoz, 24, tries to enhance 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 are different. We want the consumer when he tastes a wine from Ayllu to say to themselves: Wahou I taste the Atacama desert “.
Chemist Carolina Vicencio, 32, who also works at 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 skin of the grapes 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 earth (…) which brings a touch of mineralization in mouth,” she says.
In his vineyard at the foot of the Andes, Samuel Varas, 43, finally planted Malbec, after testing different grape varieties.
With his fellow agronomist, he realized that the high amount of boron in the soil was killing his crops. “We realized two things: that there is a grape variety, Malbec, which has adapted, and that those which grew best were those which were under the carob trees”, he explains.
So they replaced everything with Malbec, shaded the entire vineyard and fitted it with a drip irrigation system to make the most of the meager 20 liters per second flow they get from melting snow in the Andes.
With these changes, they have doubled their annual production in the last three years to deliver at the last harvest 500 kg of grapes to the cooperative.