For vintners in any country, drought is a bad word. California’s water issues have dominated the news cycle recently, forcing painful discussions of water restrictions and whether vineyard acreage in the Central Valley will shrink dramatically. But in the Southern Hemisphere, northern Chile’s Limarí and Elqui valleys have been dealing with their own severe drought for several years now, and that has dramatically impacted vintners, with some forced to watch as their vines die from a lack of water.
Most grapes grown in Elqui and Limarí are destined for Pisco distillers, while some are table grapes. But as Chile’s wine market has grown, several producers with an eye to quality over quantity have set up shop. Situated between the largest ocean and the longest mountain range in the world, the northern half of Chile is arid in a good year. Grapegrowers rely on meager rainfall and reservoir-filling snow melt from the Andes to keep irrigation systems topped up.
But the last three years have brought an annual average rainfall of 1 inch with little to no snow. This has put vintners and other farmers in northern Chile in the unenviable position of having to decide which crops to water. Growers who are fortunate enough to have access to some water are able to irrigate their best parcels, saving the grapes destined for the more lucrative wine market, but letting table or Pisco grapes shrivel.
Diego Callejas, the commercial director for Viña Casa Tamaya in the Limarí Valley, says that drilling a deeper well has helped with this year’s growing season and may help next year, but probably not beyond that without some real overhauls as to how they manage their water, as a winery and as a region.
Winemaker Giorgio Flessati of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley, Chile’s northernmost appellation, reports that their situation is slightly better than Limarí’s. “In Elqui right now we don't have immediate problems and we have irrigated carefully,” he said. “But there are areas that have suffered much worse because the reservoirs are dry.”
Both wineries report that this year’s harvest has been difficult but good, with lower yields but not as drastically low as other regions. “It looks like the whites will be more affected than the reds, with a reduction of around 30 percent,” said Callejas.
In a cruel irony often seen in drought, heavy rains in late March and early April brought not relief, but more trouble for the region. Torrential rainfall, mostly to the north of Elqui Valley, flooded dry riverbeds and dusty city streets, killing at least 25 people and leaving thousands homeless with over 100 still missing. The water was simply too much, too fast. And it washed downhill to the Pacific, offering little help to farmers. Growers throughout the region agree that what they really need are heavy snows this winter.
But Callejas says that the problem is not simply about the reduced rainfall. “We’ve had no rain and no snow, this is true,” he said. “But many wineries and farmers have no effective system of collection, so 60 percent of the water we do get winds up in the ocean. This is going to take years to recover from, one good wet year will not be enough. In the long run we need to alter our practices, we need to be smarter about how we farm and how we collect and retain our water.”
With weather cycles becoming less predictable, it’s a challenge many regions may need to tackle in the coming years. “Since we cannot invent ‘artificial rain’ we have to address the need to improve every aspect of our water management,” said Flessati. “From efficiency in the vineyard, to collection and retention of rainwater and snowmelt."