In the driest place on earth, at 3,600 meters above sea level, a vineyard breaks through the Atacama desert landscape. The half hectare of vines sprout in the remote village of Sociare, nestled between ravines overlooking the salt flats. Farmer Cecilia Cruz, 67, a local native, walks through the volcanic sandy soil covered with dry leaves. With her hands shaped by tillage, she picks one of the few fruits hanging on the vine after the harvest season: “I’ve never seen a grape being produced here in the heights in my life,” says the owner Viña Caracoles, the highest in Chile. “My neighbors didn’t think I was capable of removing the fruit. Now they ask me to come and see the grapes, taste the grapes, they can’t believe it,” she adds, proud of her viticultural masterpiece. As he speaks, a fox roams the vineyard. “If the fox eats the grape, it’s good,” says a local.
A detail of the grapes from the Los Caracoles vineyard, the highest vineyard in Chile’s Cristóbal Venegas
Like most of her neighbors, Cecilia devoted herself to harvesting and selling corn, broad beans, and alfalfa. In 2010, a man invited her to occupy his land in the highlands to grow wine. After talking about it with his three children, he agreed to become part of the SQM (Chilean Chemical and Mining Society) Atacama Tierra Fértil program. They gave her the plants and the vines and she was advised by engineers and oenologists. Irrigation? The village is powered by the melted snow in the Andes, flowing down a natural channel. In the neighboring towns, the incoming water contains so much mineral and salt that it is not suitable for viticulture. But in Viña Caracoles, after four years of failed attempts and the use of the flooding system once a week, the grapes bore fruit.
In 2017, Cecilia joined the Viñateros de Altura Lickanantay cooperative, made up only of producers descended from the native Atacameños of Socaire, Toconao, Celeste and San Pedro de Atacama. Of the 50 producers who started, 18 resist. The rest left because they could not harvest the fruit due to the extreme weather conditions or because they did not give them the time and care they needed, says Fabián Muñoz, winemaker at the Ayllú winery. that brings all employees together.
“The vine has its optimal growth conditions in the central valley. Here it is the other way around, the plant is naturally stressed. The fact that the vines grow on rocky soils, at altitude, with less oxygen, sudden temperature changes and high exposure to the sun means that this stress creates quality control of its own accord, the skin of the grape is thicker and its flavor is more intense . But we have to be much more conscious of creating the necessary conditions so that we don’t lose it,” explains Muñoz.
Héctor Espínola, owner of the Bosque Viejo vineyard, shows his cultivation of grapes for winemaking in the town of Toconao Cristóbal Venegas
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In each bottle of the seven Ayllú lines, an assembly of the product is carried out by the 18 employees. Two of his wines (Ayllu Moscatel Dulce 2020 and Ayllu Naranja 2020) received gold medals at last year’s World Cup of Extreme Wines in Italy. This year they set a goal of harvesting 18,000 kilos of grapes and they achieved 22,000. The goal is to raise another 2,000 in the next harvest. “When the cooperative started, we dedicated ourselves to agronomic work, then to oenology. In 2020 we changed our image to focus on marketing. We have received medals and are now in the process of expanding nationally and internationally,” says the winemaker. Chile is the fourth largest wine exporter in the world.
Chemical engineer Samuel Varas, 43, built the Chajnantor winery in Zapar between Pucarás (indigenous fortresses) and cemeteries of the old Atacameños. It is one of the most innovative wineries in the cooperative. “Between trial and error, we managed to achieve grape production with more technology,” he explains. “For ecological reasons, we didn’t want to accumulate water batteries, so we work with solar panels. These catch the sunlight and convert it into alternating current. This electricity works like conventional batteries,” he claims between his 2,000 vines, which are fed by an automatic irrigation system. Some of the funding was raised from a government program that subsidizes indigenous agricultural projects. The first year of production lasted 150 kilos. The third 500 and the next aim for the ton.
In some areas of the desert there are records of vine plantations dating back to colonial times. From the cooperative they explain that they have always worked with ordinary black grapes. The innovation consists in planting top quality vines such as Syrah, Cabernet, Petit Verdot, among others. Héctor Espinola, 71, has been involved in viticulture for almost half a century. It commercialized Creole wine. Also pears and quinces, but in recent years competition from other areas has lowered the prices and it’s no longer worth it. Therefore, when invited to join the cooperative, he uprooted all his orchards and harvested an acre of Malbec. Today he owns the San Juan winery in Bosque Viejo, 2,500 meters above sea level. “We pass on the grape and the winemakers turn it into wine. Each bottle sells for $12 and they give me 60% of the profits. This year I took out 500 bottles,” he says. “I’m much better off than when I was selling pears and quinces.”
Landscape of Atacama desert near Chanjnantor vineyard in Zapar sector Sofia Yanjari
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