There’s no starker image of Chile’s water crisis than Laguna de Aculeo – or what’s left of it. Six years ago it was a scenic 12-square-kilometre lake close to Maipo Valley wine country, on which weekenders from Santiago sailed and jet skied. Now it’s empty. The water receded until it vanished completely last year, leaving nothing but mud and haunting images of disappearance.
No-one knows the precise causes of Aculeo’s demise, but it resonates as a powerful symbol of Chile’s ‘Mega Drought’. Climate change is blamed for halving rainfall in the region since the 1980s. Increasing water use by agribusiness, mining and property development are likely contributing factors that have caused the country’s worst drought in 60 years. Dire warnings of desertification rather than temporary drought have been heard. In August, states of agricultural emergency were declared in regions around Santiago, with government help offered to small farmers.
Yet summers in Chile’s Central Valley vineyards have always been dry. The total absence of rain and intense luminosity are virtues that reduce the likelihood of bunch rot to nil and almost guarantee Chile’s trademark ripeness. Snow-melt from the illimitable frozen reserves of the Andean Cordillera (the majority of South America’s glaciers belong to Chile) provides water for summer irrigation, captured by those with the expensive – and now greatly limited – right to do so. But it is estimated that 80% of the water flowing through Chile’s east-west river valleys runs straight out to sea. Chile is already awash, many say; if only the government would invest in reservoirs and irrigation technology, the water problem would be solved. One private initiative under consideration is a carretera hídrica, a giant ‘highway’ to pipe water from the southern Bío Bío River northwards for more than 2,000km. Proponents argue it would cost less than desalination or reservoirs; environmentalists and indigenous peoples are opposed.
A critical time for affected grape growers is spring, from November to January, when the winter rain deficit starts to hit, but temperatures have not risen high enough to melt the hard snow of the Cordillera. The risk to flowering, fruit set and grape growth is significant, with knock-on consequences for yields. Over the season growers green harvest, fertilize more precisely, and control weeds and pests, so the vines are healthy and strong, able to withstand any water stress.
The prospects for Chile’s wineries vary according their region, size and preparedness. From Colchagua to the damper south, the picture appears less worrisome. Fortunate estates in the already semi-desert Elqui Valley bordering the Atacama are plentifully supplied by large reservoirs; elsewhere, those who have planned ahead, and can afford it, have dug their own.
On the back of a large crop in 2018 and a regular 2019, the immediate future seems secure. But predictions for the size of the 2020 harvest are down by more than a quarter, and with reports of growers grubbing up their vines, no-one wants to contemplate any more lakes drying up.
Jamie Ross’ introduction to wine was as a graduate trainee in Chile in the late 1980s. He is an editor and writer, and founder of a micro-winery based in the Cachapoal Valley.
Geography: Located between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. Over the years the vineyard area has expended from the fertile Central to the North and the South. Chile has Mediterranean climate with warm summers, rainfall mainly in the winter. Temperatures are regulated by the cold Humboldt current.
Grape varieties: País, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Viticulture: The country is Phylloxera free, grafting isn’t necessary. Irrigation is common especially in the north of the Central Valley.
Winemaking: Chile has attracted large amount of foreign investment, wineries are equipped with modern technology. Winemaking used to belong to a handful of wine families, but a new generation of winemakers is emerging especially in the Southern Region.
Regions: Coquimbo (Elqui, Limarí), Aconcagua (Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio), Central Valley (Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, Maule), Southern Region (Itata, Bío-Bío, Malleco)