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Evolutionary Winemaking Comes to Patagonia
By Roger Morris
Mar 15, 2022
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If you ever couch ideas in terms of Darwinian evolution, then winegrowing in Patagonia makes a lot more sense today than it did just a few decades ago, a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

Most of us probably think of evolution with a big “E” – if we think of evolution much at all – as something that occurs excruciatingly slowly over eons, leaving in its wake glacier moraines, traces of exotic pollen from core samples drilled into the earth or dinosaur bones in Montana.  When the universe (big “U”) does dramatically intervene in evolution in the blink of a meteor, we discover millennia later a crater in the Caribbean floor off some resort area in Central America.  Bye, dinosaurs.

It was probably wistful thinking that humans, as the current animals in charge of the planet, wouldn’t eventually have a major impact on evolution in addition to ending the evolution of many species by making them extinct.  But now that there are 7.753 billions of us and Earth hasn’t gotten any larger, we are truly the bull in the china shop.  

No matter what we think about global warming – how it came about, whether it can be halted, and what we should do to at least try to alter its course – perhaps it’s useful to think of it in terms of a period where evolution is running on amphetamines.  If we can view global warming as just another slice of evolution, at minimum that provides us a context, a construct perhaps, for what is happening in the winegrowing world.  

Those of us old enough to remember when politicians could make deals with the opposition party without automatically being erased in the next primary grew up knowing many undeniable facts – that Champagne houses don’t buy vineyards in the English countryside.  Or that you can’t make fine vinifera wines in Virginia.   Or that Pinot Noir made in Burgundy will often need chaptalization to adjust for lack of ripeness, or that you don’t pick Chardonnay in mid-August, or that it’s not a “flaw” to have a little green, stemmy taste in your Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Or that godforsaken Patagonia isn’t where you want to grow wine grapes.  

Patagonia is particularly interesting because if you’re a winemaker wanting to move further away from the Equator in search of cooler terroir as the Earth continues to heat up, Patagonia is about all that is left in the Southern Hemisphere to explore.  Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, where England, Demark, Scandinavia, Siberia, Canada and maybe even Iceland all are beckoning the winemaker-cum-pioneer to come plant vines, the Southern Hemisphere has almost run out of new frontiers for farming.  The Cape is as far south as South Africa can go, Australia stops after Tasmania, and New Zealand has pretty much reached the limits of its South Island.   All these regions are already making commercial wines.  So that leaves Patagonia as a place where daring winegrowers can heed call of global warming and ecological evolution.   

Patagonia begins at about the 40th parallel of latitude and extends to past the 50th parallel before it encounters the Straits of Magellan.  It is more of a geographic region than a political one, shared by Argentina to the east, which has the larger portion, and Chile to the west, with the Andes separating the two.  The Chilean part is mainly rugged coastline like that of Norway, while Argentina has the drier, larger part that is composed largely of rolling grasslands.

Currently the southernmost vineyards in Argentina are in Chubut area south of the 45th parallel.  In Chile, the Osornos Valley at around the 40th parallel, claims that honor – at least for now.   So, if you think long term and with no slowdown in global warming, there is plenty of room for enological exploration in Patagonia, adapting to conditions just as the hardier vines will do.

*          *          *

It is the last day of March 2021, and Aurelio Montes is with me on Zoom.  “The beavers ate my Pinot Noir!” he is telling me, and somehow, coming from Montes, that does not sound strange.   Montes, who is to Chilean wine production and promotion what Robert Mondavi was to California, has always been known to think outside the wine box whether it was with his eponymous winery or with Chilean winemaking.  When I visited Montes’ first vineyard in Apalta 20 years ago, it was planted on a hillside, unlike all the other Chilean vineyards rooted to the valley floors.  Montes was among the first Chilean wineries to cross the Andes into Mendoza with the Kaiken label.  He was a pioneer in planting grapes on the coast in Zapallar Valley, an area considered too cold for viticulture.

So, it is not surprising that Montes is fascinated with Patagonia.  In fact, the last time I had seen him in person was in 2014 aboard a boatful of Chilean winemakers and American journalists plying the waters of the Straits of Magellan.  Montes, as head of Wines of Chile, figured that communing with penguins, watching glaciers calf, and bouncing across frigid waters in Zodiac boats was a way to catch the attention of us writers in between the many wine tastings.  Once luring us on his adventures, he easily kept are attention – the Straits plus are completely off the grid, so no internet access and no ringing cell phones for three days.

But back to the Zoom: In 2017, Montes returned to Patagonia, planting the country's southernmost vineyard on the small island Mechuque in the coastal Chiloé archipelago, somewhere around 42nd latitude south.   Montes says that in spite of cooler days and a shorter growing season – and the beavers rising out of the waters – he believes southern Patagonia has much promise as the world grows warmer.  “In the next year or two, we think we can make good low-alcohol wines and especially sparkling wines,” he says.  

He says he is trying nine different varieties.  “From our micro-vinifications, we can get about 10% potential alcohol,” Montes says, “and with a second fermentation we might get 11.5 to 12%.  So we’re thinking about trying sparkling wine.”  The area typically farms potatoes, cattle and sheep, all less weather-sensitive than grapes, and local farmers are intrigued by the grape idea, Montes adds.   No thoughts of a winery, he tells me.  “We’ll take the grapes to the Apalta Valley, which is about 12 hours away by truck.”

When I checked back about a month ago, the word was the 2022 vintage is looking good with hopes of making the first Montes expression of wine from Mechuque terroir.

Now, if you follow along on your Google map across the Andes into the rising sun and veering even further south, we come to Bodega Malma in the San Patricio del Chañar region where the Viola family has been making wine since 2004 and even exporting it, including to the U.S.  The Violas grow mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter a bit of a surprise given its reluctance to ripen.  

“The original decision to establish in northern Patagonia [Chobut is farther south] came as an eureka moment to my father,” says Ana Viola.  “He had a project to re-boost Patagonia as a fruit exporter, and, while he was planting the first hectares of cherry trees, he realized that the soil and climate where actually perfect for vitis vinifera.  That is how the whole region of San Patricio del Chañar was born.  It was a bold decision more than 20 years ago, but a handful of regional entrepreneurs found the idea interesting and decided to plant vineyards and start their winery projects as well.”

Viola and her family are big boosters of Patagonia.  “The conditions here are optimal,” she says.  “You have dry, windy climate to keep the vineyards healthy, plenty of water for irrigation and cool nights.  The quality of the grapes is exceptional, and that is not passing unnoticed.” And the family is intrigued with going even further south.

“We did some trials a few years ago in a location some 300 kilometers southwest but had several cold years in a row that made it difficult to obtain ripeness,” Viola says.  “Now we are looking to partner up with a vintner close to the Precordillera, an area of low hills just before the Andes.”

A part of evolution, of course, is adapting to protect your offspring, and the Violas are doing that.  “It is important to mention that the wineries from Patagonia are in a quest to protect the brand Patagonia from the intention of private companies from abroad to use it for wines that are not actually from Patagonia,” Ana Viola says.  “In the domestic market, we have achieved some progress in this matter, but we have the great task of protecting the brand abroad.”

So evolutionary winemaking is wending its way south in Patagonia, faster than glacial speed, but slower than the arc of a meteor.  

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