Is it the water? The ocean? Or the mountains? Maybe one can say it is all of the above. Let us start to unpack by first looking at the weather.
Chile covers 38 degrees of latitude and 7 climate zones. That is 2,653 miles+ (4,270 kilometers). This is equal to the distance between Ketchikan Alaska and the southern tip of Baja California!
Let us start by looking at the weather in the northern part. We find the unique Atacama Desert, which is so dry that some weather station locations have not received rainfall for many years. It is often referred to as “The driest nonpolar desert in the world” with average rainfall at 0.6 inches (15 mm). Why so dry? There are several weather features going on.
The map below shows prevailing trade winds blowing from the southeast which brings clouds and rain on the east slopes of the Andes. Then (# 1 on image below) the air sinks on the west side of the Andes and we find the air mass dries out creating a rain shadow, which is The Atacama Desert. The second weather feature is the Pacific High Pressure (#2 on map). The air sinks with this pattern and as air sinks the air mass in the area becomes dry. The third factor that keeps things dry is the cold Humboldt Current (#3 on the map). When we have winds that blow from the Pacific Ocean towards the land, rainfall tends to be limited given the cool ocean air and stable weather conditions with minimal rainfall
The water temperatures off the coast of Chile average 61 F (16 C) while many other tropical areas are closer to 86 F (30 C). By the way, it is these cool ocean breezes and associated fog that tends to cool the wine growing regions, which really enhances the growing of Sauvignon Blanc.
Photo credit Beautiful World
Rain is certainly a key element and it is interesting that even in the dry northern parts there are several smaller wine regions. However, we find the more popular wine regions to the south, near Santiago. One reason is that there is more rainfall as one goes from north to south. The map below reflects that with the arid regions to the north and semi-arid regions near the central where many wineries are located. Then humid and more rainfall to the south.
Why is there more rain towards the south? The northern part of Chile is dominated by a ridge of high pressure which tends to bring dry conditions. However the further south we go the influence of the high pressure is then reduced. Once you approach the Zona Austral (Southernmost Zone) there tends to be a more active rainfall pattern, as this area is more influenced by the proximity of the storms brought in by the jet stream.
Some Highlights of Chilean Wine
There are many ways to discuss the wine regions of Chile but I find this map a good reference point to highlight the three general regions. The Costa which is closest to the ocean and is, of course, influenced by the cool ocean breezes and fog. Further inland there is the Entre Cordilleras, which are the central valleys surround by the ocean on the east and the Andes and associated foothills to the east. The Entre Cordilleras tends to be the warmest of the three regions. The Andes region, which is furthest east and at higher elevation, tends to enjoy the cooling of the higher terrain.
We sampled many wines and I will just mention a few. The first wine sampled was Montes Alpha Special Cuvée from the Costa region of the Leyda Valley which is a sub region of the San Antonio Valley. This vineyard is about 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the ocean, so cool ocean breezes help bring out the crisp tasting notes with light tropical fruits that are the signature of Sauvignon Blanc. The clay and loam soil over a granite base creates a great wine structure
Another wine sampled was from vineyard also in the Leyda Valley is Viña Garces Silva – Family Vineyards. The signature grapes are indeed Sauvignon Blanc (45%) planted in this region 6.8 miles (11 km) from the ocean and the cool Humboldt Current. This wine paired beautifully with a salmon burger. I found the wine refreshing before and during dinner.
Then we sampled wine from the Central Valley which is part of “Entre Cordillears “ This was Las Mulas Reserva Sauvignon Blanc of Miguel Torres. The wine has a pale yellow color and the typical acid with light tart flavor and refreshing peach notes. It is vegan and organic, which is in line with their sustainability philosophy.
Climate Change Wine and Drought
Water is a major concern in this semi-arid region. From 2010 to 2021 weather stations in Central Chile have been receiving 63% of normal rainfall with some years much lower. In fact, most climate experts have defined the period from 2010 to 2020 as a Mega Drought for Chile. Dry conditions are found even prior to 2010. During last 55 years 67% of the time rainfall has been below normal for parts of central Chile. Many climate experts suggest the lower rainfall will be the pattern moving forward.
Along with decreasing rainfall we have, of course, seen an increase in temperatures. Yearly maximum temperatures over the last 12 years are 1.5 C above normal. The combination of warmer temperatures and less precipitation has impacted the very critical mountain snowpack. The associated snowmelt from the Andes is the main water source for many of the key rivers in Central Chile. Thus, it is not surprising that several technical studies show that the snowpack in the Andes and regions that feed the river basins in Central Chile have lost 16% of the snowpack in the last 50 years. Many are concerned that this pattern will continue.
Can the wine industry do anything to combat the water issues? Yes!
Wineries Solutions to Climate Change
It is interesting that there are parallels between Chile and California wine industries in terms of reduced water. They are both in semi-arid locations and have seen reduced snowpack that feeds their key river basins. Also they have recently been in periods of Mega Droughts. Here are some solutions that both regions are looking at.
While California is looking at cooler regions to the north, Chile is exploring expanding to regions in the south, the Zona Austral (Southernmost Zone). This study indicates wineries are experimenting with this region near Patagonia. This region, 600 miles (960 kilometers) from Santiago, is cooler and has more rainfall regions.
Many wineries are looking at the great success that the wine industry is having in the hot and arid climate of Israel. Israel is looking at drought resistant varieties and their plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in higher elevations. Canopy management and shading of the grapes from the sun is another method. Water management and desalination are other solutions.
One thing Chile has going for it is the aforementioned cold Humboldt Ocean Current and associated fog and cool ocean breezes. All forecast models on climate change do not indicate any major changes occurring with this. That is certainly very good news.
Wine is a big industry and there are many resources and effort currently being utilized to deal with climate change. Thus I’m very optimistic that the Chilean wine industry will continue with their successful growth.