Cool Climate Viticulture in Chile’s Southern Reaches
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 05 Mar 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 301
The Región Vitícola del Sur, in southern Chile, was once the heartland of Chilean wine production. Spanish missionaries planted the area’s first País and Moscatel vines in the mid 1550s. By the mid 1800s over 80% of Chile’s wine hailed from the Itata and Bío-Bío regions.
As irrigation became more commonplace, French cultivars grew in popularity, and the country became more centralized, with production migrating towards Santiago. The south grew increasingly isolated and fragmented in terms of its production. So much so that, by 2015, less than 5% of Chilean wine was being made in these southerly vineyards.
The Southern Renaissance
Renewed interest in Chile’s South Region came just a decade ago. Major producers like De Martino, Miguel Torres, San Pedro, and Montes began trading in the area, either acquiring vineyards or buying grapes. A new generation of smaller, locally-based growers also started rising in prominence.
What drew them to Itata, to Bío-Bío, and, more recently, to even cooler, more-southerly areas like Malleco and the Austral region?
One of the most significant factors is undoubtedly climate change. Research by Torres indicates that Chile’s Central Valley may see temperature’s rise by over 5°C on average by 2100. The increased frequency, duration, and severity of droughts and wildfire activities in Chile’s northern and central vineyards is a growing concern.
In certain areas, these issues are compounded by rising levels of salinity in irrigation basins. Greater concentrations of salts in the soils can impair plant growth and affect soil health, stressing the vine and reducing its productivity.
Rainfall in the Itata Valley is well over double that of major growing areas like the Maipo, allowing for the cultivation of non-irrigated vineyards. Historically, humidity levels in the far south were considered too high for quality wine production. However, meteorologists affirm a 20 to 30% decrease in precipitation over the past 50 years.
The Subzones Of The South Region
The Chilean Coastal Range runs north to south, parallel to the Andes. This natural barrier shelters Chile’s interior vineyards from cooling breezes off the Pacific Ocean. Itata lies to the south of these mountains and therefore lacks this climate shield, thus explaining the increased cloud cover and rainfall in the area.
Some of Chile’s oldest vines are found here, mainly Moscatel, País, and Cinsault. Their high-quality potential, in the right winemaker’s hands, has led to revived interest for Chile’s heritage varieties both at home and abroad.
Itata accounts for just under 7% of Chile’s total wine grape plantings, with approximately 9,600 ha planted. Over three-quarters of these vineyards are dry-farmed. While larger producers continue to invest in the area, average vineyard holdings remain small, at well under five hectares.
Bío-Bío lies directly south of Itata. The climate is cold, wet, and windy with over 1,000mm of rainfall most years. These marginal conditions equate to a production centred around aromatic white varieties, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir makes up 40% of the plantings here. Acclaim for these lively, delicate, silky textured red wines is growing, however production levels remain low at present.
Malleco is the southernmost and smallest vineyard area of Chile’s South Region, extending down to the 40th parallel south. Wine production is still in its earliest stages here. Indeed, the total vineyard size is less than 50 ha. The focus is on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other cool climate grapes.
While Malleco’s short growing season provides challenges, the valley benefits from long, sunny days during the summer. The combination of sunny days and very cool nights allows for excellent acid retention and slow ripening, heightening complexity.
The Austral Region
Osorno is part of the Austral Region in Chile’s deep south. This area was long considered unsuitable for viticulture due to its cold climate and high, year-round rainfall. The first, experimental vineyards were planted in 2001. Interest in the region’s terroir is growing, notably due the deep, stratified volcanic soils, unsullied by past cultures.
Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling are the main cultivars. Wines from Osorno are prized for their aromatic purity, minerality, and overall elegance. High-quality sparkling wines are also being developed in the valley.