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In the southeastern corner of the Maipo Valley, some 40 miles from Santiago, nameless roads pass almond trees and sleepy bungalows, crawling up into the foothills of the Andes. Nights here are cold. “Once the sun sets, there is a breeze from the mountains that cools the entire area,” says Álvaro Espinoza, the affable biodynamic winemaker behind Chile’s first garage winery, Antiyal. These sort of quick climatic shifts can increase the tannins that accumulate in the skin of red wine grapes; the results, explains Espinoza, are often fuller, richer wines. As such, Maipo is one of Chile’s oldest and most celebrated regions for red varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère — a French grape that’s become Chile’s signature. Locally, this reputation has even earned Maipo a nickname: the Bordeaux of South America.
At 53, Espinoza has long hair and a goatee, both accented gray. He’s laid back, a natural conversationalist who flexes humor between English, French and Spanish. But walking across the idyll that is Antiyal, blanketed by cherry blossoms in the spring, he carries a quiet sense of conviction when it comes to matters of wine. Born in Santiago, he grew up visiting nearby vineyards with his father, who made his living as a winemaking consultant and professor of enology in the capital city. The early exposure proved formative for the young Espinoza. “I never saw myself with an office job. I just loved to be in nature,” he says of his drive to pursue viticulture professionally. “It was in my blood.”
At the time, Chile’s wine industry was burdened by the economic crises of the 1980s. After studying at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Espinoza traveled to France, where he received the Diplôme national d’oenologue, or DNO, from the University of Bordeaux. But things turned around for the Chilean wine industry in what Espinoza calls the “boom of the ‘90s.” European investors like Miguel Torres and Éric de Rothschild arrived and began developing large-scale operations with modern technologies. The country was quickly on its way to becoming a major player in global wine production. (As of 2015, Chile is the fourth-largest exporter in the world, behind Italy, Spain and France, respectively.)
Espinoza decided to return home. With his experience abroad, he landed a position at Chile’s oldest winery, Carmen, which sits about six miles from the vineyards of present-day Antiyal. There he first met Jim Fetzer of Fetzer Wines in California, a pioneer of organic and biodynamic viticulture in the New World. When he visited Fetzer in the States, Espinoza was introduced to concepts of organics and biodynamics — but perhaps more importantly, to the limitations of conventional farming to produce unique wines. “I was impressed by the work I saw,” he says. “Here in Chile, nobody was talking about organic or biodynamic techniques.”
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Espinoza was excited. He wanted to bring these ideas back to Chile, but knew it would be difficult to develop them at an established operation like Carmen. Though Espinoza steered the winery to create Nativa, the first certified organic line in the country, he wasn’t satisfied. His craving to unearth the purest expression of the Maipo Valley, namely through biodynamics, drove him to his own side project: In 1996, he and his wife, Marina, started Antiyal in their garage. “We didn’t think of it as a business at the time,” he says. “It was something to teach our kids, like a hobby.” In 2000, he left Carmen entirely.
“My dream is that, if people want a beautiful, premium wine, they see Chile.”
Over the past two decades, Antiyal has grown to cover roughly 24 acres in the region — and in more than just rows of vines. The farm is home to 15 chickens, eight geese, five horses, three alpacas, one goat, one sheep, one cow and Espinoza’s beloved family of bullmastiff dogs. A large compost pile, about the size of his orange VW bus (parked nearby), sits a short walk from the house he shares with his wife. At face value, this could all appear to be just another vineyard in the Maipo Valley, albeit one with animals running around. But what’s happening in the soil and the grapes is very different from a conventional vineyard, says Espinoza. And to understand it is to know the name Rudolph Steiner.
Biodynamics has its roots in the early 1900s, when Steiner, an outspoken Austrian intellectual, advocated for a more holistic approach to agriculture than what was developing in Europe at the time. Its main tenet treats the farm as a “low-input” ecosystem where all, or most, of what is used for production is sourced from inside the farm itself. The logic is simple. “In conventional farming you can bring anything that the soil lacks from outside, changing its fertility, age and sometimes even its structure,” says Espinoza. Not so at Antiyal, where, for example, the farm’s llamas serve as one of the vineyard’s primary weed controls, eating unwanted growth to protect the grapes.
Closed-system production is Espinoza’s main draw to biodynamics, or what he calls its “most seductive difference” from conventional and even organic viticulture. It is often the terroir — or the expression of place through flavor — that distinguishes a specific wine from others. Importing foreign agents, which can also be sourced by other farms, tends to homogenize the yield, and grapes from different vineyards start to become uniform. “It’s a bit like Coca-Cola,” says Espinoza. “It doesn’t matter where it’s produced because it all tastes pretty much the same. This is the big critique of the new world of wines, that they are not unique expressions of where they come from.”
But Steiner’s ideas go two steps further — and for some, too far. Subscribers utilize a lunar calendar to organize their farms and processes. This is because the moon affects gravity, says Espinoza. “If I have low-vigor vines, and I don’t want to lose sap or nutrients, I will cut them while the moon is in descendant,” he says. “With high vigor vines, it’s the other way around.” But the most esoteric, and hotly debated, aspect of Steiner’s theories relates to six compost “preparations,” made with herbs and flowers that are fermented in the body parts of different animals. Espinoza, for example, places yarrow flowers in the bladder of a deer. “It’s weird,” he says. “But the deer is a nervous animal, and these nerves concentrate in the bladder.” Other preparations include camomile sausages and oak bark placed inside the skulls of cows, both of which are then added to the compost in small, specific doses. “These preparations are meant to bring back the vitality of animals to the fields,” says Espinoza. “There are conventional farms for vegetables with no animals, and farms for animals with no vegetables. These things need each other to survive. We’re just trying to tap the energy in between.”
“He changed the perception of how you can make premium wines,” says Avila. “If you study in sommelier school, there is a class on Antiyal and biodynamics.”
Today, Antiyal cultivates five grape varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Garnacha — which all play their part in the composition of its different wines. Espinoza is most celebrated for his flagship blend, known simply as Antiyal, which reflects his bright style. “I think it’s more fun to mix grapes,” he says. “The wines are more unique. It’s harder to tell what it is.”
Despite the general demur of biodynamics, Espinoza has won the attention and admiration of Chile’s top hotels and restaurants, including Boragó in Santiago, which many consider the top eating destination in the country. The restaurant’s head sommelier, Danilo Avila, is a candid fan. “He changed the perception of how you can make premium wines,” says Avila. “If you study in sommelier school, there is a class on Antiyal and biodynamics.” Though Avila admits it’s near impossible to distinguish a biodynamic wine from a conventional counterpart by taste alone, it’s the passion in the process that comes through for him. “If you are happy making wine, and you care about your grapes, you can taste it,” he says, playing into Steiner’s idea of vitality. “There’s a velvety tannic [character] that develops.”
Chilean wine critic Patricio Tapia, who founded the reputable wine guide Descorchados, echoes Avila’s sentiment. “There are many things happening now with Chilean wines — people discovering new grapes, new vines, new regions — that would not have happened without Álvaro. Not only because he was the only biodynamic winemaker in Chile. He was the first winemaker who broke off to start his own project. He is a pioneer, one of the most important winemakers in Chile, by far — actually in South America.”
Today there are roughly half a dozen certified biodynamic wineries in Chile, most of which are small-scale producers. But in 2000, a winery named Emiliana hired Espinoza as a consultant to develop its biodynamic initiative. With over 2,700 acres now devoted to the project in nearby regions Casablanca and Colchagua, Emiliana is the largest biodynamic winery in the world.
Internationally, Antiyal is extending its own reach. 2014 proved a milestone for the winery, which, despite its continued growth, still only produces 2,500 cases of wine annually. Though its exports go to 16 different countries (including big buyers like China and the Unites States), 2014 was the first year that its largest annual export went to France — a notoriously tough market to break into. For Espinoza, however, the numbers were indicative of something hopeful on the horizon, not just for Antiyal, but Chile as a whole.
“Around the world, Chilean wines are mostly recognized for their value,” he says. But for small-scale winemakers who focus their energy on the production of top-shelf wines, this reputation can be a hurdle. “When a consumer in the United States wants to have a $50 or $80 bottle, they see Italy, France or Spain,” says Espinoza, “They don’t see Chile.”
“It might take 200 years for that to change,” he adds, “but the quality is here. My dream is that, if people want a beautiful, premium wine, they see Chile.”
Today, there are roughly 3,000 Demeter-certified acres devoted to biodynamic viticulture in Chile. It’s important to note, however, that winemakers can choose to certify any or all of their fields, vines, grapes or wine itself — though few choose to run the gamut. Instead, many Chilean winemakers are foregoing annual certification, simply producing wines to biodynamic standards; together, they represent a trend in the way the country’s perception and belief are shifting around the processes and techniques of premium winemaking. Below you’ll find a list of those biodynamic winemakers that stand out.
Founded in 1994 by Cyril de Bournet and Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the latter a descendent of the family behind Grand Marnier, Lapostolle owns nearly 900 acres across three regions in Chile, including Casablanca, Colchagua and Cachapoal. The winery’s proprietary vineyard, Fundo Apalta, is certified under Demeter classification.
Matetic Vineyards was founded in 1999 with the intention of planting Syrah in a cool-climate region near the Chilean coast. Now with 370 acres to its estate, which includes an idyllic bed and breakfast overlooking rolling hills, the winery has risen as a global player in biodynamic winemaking, bottling Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Noir varietals, among others. But it’s the 2012 Syrah, from Matetic’s EQ line of premium wines, that won the IWC Biodynamic Award 2015.
In 2000, François Lurton, then working as a consultant for San Pedro vineyards, bought nearly 500 acres of land in the Colchagua Valley and began cultivating biodynamic vines at the Hacienda Araucano vineyard. Though the Sauvignon Blanc traditionally requires cooler-climate regions, the high altitude of the nearby Andes allows the winery to experiment with such varietals. The Hacienda Araucano vineyard obtained its organic certification in 2012, and also operates with biodynamic practices. It was also the first in South America to run completely on solar energy.
Founded in the late 1990s, Antiyal is considered to be the first “garage winery” in Chile. Though the winery has a number of biodynamic wines in its growing repertoire, including the Pure Fe line of single varietals, it’s Álvaro Espinoza’s blends that have won him acclaim worldwide, including Kuyen and Antiyal, the namesake blend of 49 percent Carménère, 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 16 percent Syrah.
Under the consultation of Álvaro Espinoza, Emiliana, founded in 1986, has quietly become the largest biodynamic winemaker in the world, with over 2,700 acres dedicated to biodynamic viticulture across the Casablanca and Colchagua regions of Chile. With several lines to its name, it’s the premium Gê blend (with majority Carménère) that merits special distinction, regarded by critics to be one of the best bottles coming out of the Colchagua Valley — though also one of its most expensive at around $50.