Chilean Miners and Organic Wines

It seems impossible to think about Chilean wines this week without wondering what those rescued miners are drinking now. Wine was among the things the men asked to have slipped down that narrow tube during their ordeal, and their rescue has inflated Chilean wine sales, as much as 325% in the UK, according to grocery chain Tesco.

One assertion I heard from the media circus was that the Chilean miners have become the country’s next best reason to forget the horrible Pinochet era. Until this month, it was Chilean wine that made the world believe that Chile was a happening place again, starting with the exportation of Santa Rita in the early 1990s. After the dictators were gone, Chile became wildly famous for producing good, cheap, quaffable juice made in a New World style. Now, that characterization is changing again.

At a seminar preceeding the Taste Chile wine tasting on October 7th at Vancouver’s W2 Storeyum, DJ Kearney moderated a panel of all-male, mostly Chilean winemakers who spoke about how Chile is going organic in a big way.

Chile has an easy time with sustainability, they said, because the country’s dry climate, cross ventilation and prolific water supply from the Andes makes it easy to forgo chemical imputs. Not only that, grape growers are hitting the hills, using drip irrigation on newly-stressed, topographically-inclined vines to increase their wine’s concentration and complexity.

Much was said about the reasons for going sustainable – better know a vineyard, getting close to the soil – and Kearney mentioned that organic red wines have been found to have higher levels of polyphenols, resveratrol and antioxidants.

All their talk about the ethical aspects of sustainable, organic and biodynamic winegrowing made me want to break into a chorus of Kumbaya until the conversation boiled down to whether organic wines taste better than conventially-grown wines. Then, I just got irritated.

As someone whom the editor of Wines & Vines once derogatively called a “tree hugger,” I totally agree that plants and the environment are better off without chemical help, and that a farmer’s good intentions probably do affect the vines. Even plants feel your love. But where I depart the harmonic convergence is with the contention that organically-grown grapes produce wines that, by their very organic nature, taste superior to their conventional counterparts.

This disconnect was demonstrated in our glasses at the very moment Marco Anotonio De Martino waxed about how “wines are a mirror of the vineyard.” Among some excellent examples of organically grown wines, we tasted a chardonnay that tasted more like a sauvignon blanc; a off-tasting pinot noir that failed to inspire; and a carmenere that tasted off-balance and just plain cheap. Ok, three out of thirteen is not bad, but it does prove to me that being organic does not guarantee a wine will taste superior.

sergio cuadra of caliterra
Sergio Cuadra, Caliterra Winemaker

What was not discussed in the Taste Chile Organics seminar was The National Sustainability Code, a cool new program instigated by Viñas Errazuriz-Caliterra, Viñas de Colchagua and the University of Talca, coordinated by Vinnova-TecnoVid, and promoted by Wines of Chile, sponsors of the seminar.

This sustainability code, “establishes an instrument for measuring the sustainability of different practices throughout the value chain of wine production.”

The industry’s practices are grouped into Vineyards, Winery and Community and they include all the progressive environmental buzzwords: Air Quality, Energy Efficiency, Ecosytem Management and even Human Resources.

General Pinochet must be panty twisting in his grave.

I got a better picture of the code from Caliterra winemaker Sergio Cuadra at a tasting of his wines at La Gavroche on October 21st. Over sips of his chewy 2008 Tributo Cabernet Sauvignon, he explained how Chilean wineries gain certification, and it’s all about scoring points.

Every time a manager tightens up the irrigation system in the vineyard, or reduces power usage in the winery, or establishes an outreach program with the local municipality, the winery earns points that lead to certification. Conversely, if they let the water tap drip or spray their vines excessively, they lose points. According to Cuadra, the point of the code is not just about image or marketing, “it’s about the way you see your whole business.”

Chile’s National Sustainability Code will conclude its validation and finalization period at the end of the year and implementation will last until October of 2011, so look for little symbols of it on wines bottled after that.

And cheers to the rescued Chilean miners who can now have all the wine they want. I can’t wait until their movie comes out.

Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.

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