Global warming turns Chile's cold south into wine country

PUELO (Chile) • A decade ago, no one would have thought of making wine in Chile's windswept southern Patagonia region. But now, temperatures are rising and winemakers are seeking their fortune here as the country's overall production falls. Traditionally cold and wet, the area now has enough sunshine to grow high-grade Pinot Noir grapes.

"We've managed to make the grape mature," said Mr Sergio Subiabre, who heads sales for Villasenor Wines. "We can make a wine with the same characteristics, the same alcohol and sugar content as one from central Chile."

For years, Chile's central vineyards have been recognised for producing decent wine. The country as a whole is the world's eighth-largest producer. But its southern region was considered too chilly and rainy until recent years when Mr Subiabre and others planted their vines on the remote banks of the Puelo River.

"We are surrounded by volcanoes... All that volcanic earth adds lots of minerals to the wine," said Mr Subiabre. "That distinguishes it from wines in central Chile. Our wines have more flavour."

Villasenor planted its first Pinot Noir vines six years ago. It sold 1,500 bottles after its first harvest in 2014 - all of them to China.

The vineyard continues to produce at that rate. The next batch has already been ordered in advance by Chinese and United States buyers, for US$120 (S$170) a bottle.

"Chile has always had a weakness in that it is known as a producer of cheap wines," said Mr Maximiliano Morales, a wine marketing consultant. But drawing on the fame earned by Patagonia's stunning landscapes among tourists "generates added value", he said.

Villasenor is now experimenting with Sauvignon gris and Pinot Gris.

Scientists said Patagonia's rivers have receded over the past three decades and the region now has more sunshine. Average temperatures have risen by 2 deg C, and Patagonia gets 30 per cent less rain than it did just a decade ago.

Still, climate change is not good for all winemakers. Global warming is disrupting harvests in areas with warmer climates than Patagonia is now experiencing, including Argentina, Brazil and other regions of Chile. This year, world production fell to its lowest level in two decades, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine said last month.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Global warming turns Chile's cold south into wine country'. Print Edition | Subscribe