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part 6: Alvaro Espinoza—biodynamics in the new world 


For a Chilean winery, Viñedos Organicos Emiliana is unusual. It is dedicated to producing environmentally responsible wines, initially organically, but then the goal is for it to adopt biodynamics. The man at the helm of the project, which started in 2000 with the backing of parent company Vina Santa Emiliana, is Alvaro Espinoza, formely winemaker with Carmen. Alvaro is a true pioneer, and has been single-handedly responsible for introducing biodynamic viticulture into South America. Santa Emiliana selected three farms in the regions of Maipo, Casablanca and Colchagua, totalling a substantial 240 ha, to form the basis of this project, so it is a serious commercial operation and not just a token green-friendly PR gesture. I met with Alvaro at Ransome’s Dock restaurant in London to hear about this new project, listen to his views on biodynamics, and to taste the wines.

It’s clear from the outset that Alvaro Espinoza isn’t your average Chilean winemaker. ‘Traditional viticulture artificializes the vineyards, creating an artificial medium’, says Alvaro. ‘the result is that the wines are similar to those from other places’. His view is very much that organics and biodynamics facilitates the expression of ‘terroir’ (site-specific flavours in wine), which isn’t a word you hear very often in Chile.

He also eschews the besetting varietalism that has become an enduring facet of new world winemaking. ‘I am not aiming to make another Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. Blending can add character; that is why we are planting a whole range of varieties.’ This sounds promising.

So what is the story behind VOE? Initially, one of the owners of Santa Emiliana was interested in integrated pest management (IPM), a scientific approach to reducing chemical inputs by targeting interventions just where they are needed. From here, they progressed to organics in 1998 when plots from three farms were selected as an experiment. Then, in 2000 Alvaro Espinoza was hired to be responsible for this project.

Alvaro had previously worked for 8 years at Carmen. He first became interested in organic viticulture in the mid 1990s through links with Fetzer – a Californian winery who pioneered organics in the USA. He decided that conventional viticulture had some severe limitations. ‘I’d lost my idealism and my connection with the vineyards’, he explained. Through 1995 he had lots of contact with the Fetzer and Bonterra team, and started to do some work with Carmen later that year, putting some of their Maipo plots into organics.

In 1998 Alvaro had a sabbatical that proved to be very significant: he went to Mendocino in California and spent 6 months working on viticulture with the Mexican vineyard workers at Bonterra. While he was there he had lots of contact with the Fetzers and Alan York, a well known Californian biodynamic consultant. Alan York gave him Rudolf Steiner’s book, which ‘changed my views about nature’, he says. ‘Steiner’s views seemed very logical’, and Alvaro’s return to Chile, with its environmentally unfriendly industrial-scale viticulture, proved to be a big shock. 

He left Carmen in 2000 to work for VOE. At VOE, three farms were put completely into organics and biodynamics, and they are being treated as closed units of production. There are three main pillars to the vineyard work. First, they aim to increase the biodiversity of the farms, with cover cropping and biological corridors. ‘Monoculture helps to develop pests’, says Alvaro. Second, there is composting: adding fertility to soil and preserving healthy plants with natural nutrients. Finally, there is alternative pest management work with compost teas, and biological products such as Bacillus subtilis and Trichoderma (a fungus that has antibotrytis and antioidium action). Alvaro is leaving an increasing amount of flowers in the vineyards to encourage insects. This has the side-effect of making the vineyards look pretty!

Currently VOE are just using selected plots from their farms for their wines. They have lots of new plantings, and they sell off many of the grapes from the youngest vines. The whites aren’t ready yet.

The move to biodynamics has proven to be a complicated process. ‘In 2000 we started to be in contact with Demeter’, says Alvaro. In Chile there is no biodynamic association, so Alvaro has had to make all the biodynamic preparations preparations himself, a challenging task. Initially, he had a problem getting yarrow, which isn’t native to the wine growing regions of Chile. More complicated was getting the bladders of red deer, used to ferment some preparations: there aren’t any red deer in Chile. ‘Now we have enough to sell to others’, Alvaro says. ‘For me the main view is the sustainable view of the farm, seeing it as an organism’. With this goal in mind, he’s bringing animals to the farms to close the cycle of nutrients, so he can producing his own manure and compost. Recycling is important and for their cover crops, VOE collect the seed and re-use it.  

Currently the wines of VOE are classified as organic, but the plan is to proceed with biodynamic certification.

This natural philosophy extends to the winery, which aims to respect the landscape using raw materials such as wood, stone, copper and adobe. Everything is gravity fed, and the small fermenting tanks mean that Alvaro can work with small blocks. He doesn’t use natural yeasts yet because this is too risky, but he’d like to – at the moment he’s afraid of stuck fermentations because of high potential alcohol levels.

The wines? They’re pretty good. While I might have expected them to show more ‘terroir’ characters, the structure and concentration set them apart from many of their peers. Impressive work, and I look forward to seeing what happens here as the vineyards develop and come on line. UK availabilty: Vintage Roots (www.vintageroots.co.uk; info@vintageroots.co.uk; tel. 0118 976 1999)   

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