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Friday, Jan. 14, 2011
BY THE GLASS
Quality is key at Chilean organic winery
When two representatives from Chilean winery Emiliana came to town in October, it coincided with fantastic news. Images of the rescue of the last miner who'd been trapped underground since the Aug. 5 Copiapo mining accident were played out over the giant screens in front of Tokyo Station and, in a nearby hotel, we toasted the occasion with some very special wine.
Coyam 2001 was Emiliana's very first organic vintage; its release marked the start of a process of embracing environmentally friendly practices in the winery that has resulted in it becoming the Republic of Chile's largest organic producer.
"At that time, we were very shy; we decided to put it on the market and we priced it for $10," says Cristian Rodrguez, commercial manager at Emiliana, speaking about the first Coyam vintage. "We entered it in a competition (in 2003) with all the great wines of Chile: It was the first Wines of Chile Awards. We have it now every year but at that time it was the first one.
"Tim Atkin was there (as a judge), Jancis Robinson was there, you know," he says, referring to two certified Masters of Wine. "And Coyam competing with all the big boys, (and as) the only organic wine from Chile, was (voted) the best (wine) in a blind tasting."
This was an impressive feat considering the fact that Coyam was Emiliana's first certified organic vintage. The impetus for creating this wine had come from Emiliana's agricultural manager, Jose Guilisasti Gana, a viticulturist (specialist in growing grapes) who was keen to create organic wine. He hired Alvaro Espinoza, a winemaker who at that time was a recent convert to biodynamic practices (an environmentally friendly philosophy of farming developed by Rudolf Steiner) due to a stint working for the organic Bonterra project with Fetzer in California.
"We were playing with the varieties we had at a farm that we named Los Robles in Colchagua Valley. (The farm) has a lot of varieties: It has Carmenere, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mouvedre, Petit Verdot and now (we're) planting Grenache. It has more than 10 varieties; the idea was to play around and to (create) Coyam. So one year, one variety can perform better than the other one," says Rodrguez on how the Coyam style developed.
The idea of using organic and biodynamic techniques was not just a greenwash to make the company look good. Both Espinoza and Guilisasti Gana believed that this was the path to improving the quality of their product, and when Coyam won at the Chilean show, their theory gained credence.
"The philosophy of the company is first of all quality, and by the way, it happens to be organic," insists Nicolas Pollman, Export Manager of Emiliana.
Now Emiliana is in the process of shifting its total output to organic: Its Natura range is fully certified organic and its Eco Balance range is in the process of gaining certification.
It isn't such a monumental task to go organic in Chile, since the country is blessed with a dry growing season and the low humidity of its summers keeps down molds that can damage a vine. The country's isolated location — with Antarctica to the south, the steeps of the Andes to the east, the South Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atacama desert occupying its north — has kept out any number of pests, including, most importantly, the phylloxera that has destroyed vines around the world.
Of course, no vineyard is completely free of pests, but the company has some inventive ways of dealing with unwanted guests in the vineyard. Chickens, who enjoy gobbling up vine weevils, are allowed to run free in the vineyard, performing the dual purpose of protecting the vines and providing a source of food for the workers.
"In the beginning, when Emiliana started putting chickens in the vineyard, a lot of (them) died or disappeared or whatever. So now the chickens are not for Emiliana; they are for the workers. They live much longer (and) they are a source of food and eggs," says Rodrguez.
Pests are also kept away by the colorful cover crops that grow between the vines. "(The crops are) not just beautiful," says Pollman. "We investigate each color of flower, (how) they can attract different kinds of insects. So the insects are not going to fly to the vine, they are going to go directly to the flower."
The philosophy is that for every natural threat, there is a natural solution. For instance, it used to be necessary, when pruning vines in winter, to treat the stumps with fungicide to prevent a mold called botrytis from getting in through exposed wounds and damaging the vines. Emiliana did some research and now, instead of using fungicide, it has introduced a harmless fungus called trichoderma to the cut parts of the vine instead.
While its organic practices are forward-thinking, the winemaking philosophy of Emiliana is in some ways very traditional, with an emphasis on French techniques: Espinoza trained at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux before moving to America and becoming a convert to biodynamics.
"In Chile, we have more influence from the French, but it depends on the wine," says Rodrguez. "For Sauvignon Blancs, we are in (between) the New Zealand style and the American style and the French style. Especially in reds, we have more influence from France."
As Rodrguez indicates, Emiliana does not blindly follow French technique to the letter. It is a large company with vineyards all over Chile, from the dry, flat terrain in the Central Valley region to the cooler climate of the Casablanca area of Valparaso Province, and each area is suited to a particular grape style and vinification process.
The company has had time to experiment with different grapes and techniques over the years and now, while still experimenting with new grapes at the fringes of its business, it tends to stick with what works. After tasting Emiliana's wines, I'd have to agree that this formula is worth sticking to.