Chile's cold south makes wine in warming climate

Puelo (Chile) (AFP) - A decade ago, no one would have thought of making wine in Chile's windswept southern Patagonia region.

But now it is warming, and winemakers are seeking their fortune here while the country's production falls overall.

Traditionally cold and wet, the region now has enough sunshine to grow high-quality Pinot Noir grapes.

"We have managed to make the grape mature," says Sergio Subiabre, head of sales for Villasenor Wines.

"We can make a wine with the same characteristics, the same alcohol and sugar content, as one from central Chile."

- 'More flavors' -

Chile's central vineyards have for years been recognized as a source of decent wine. The country as a whole is the world's eighth biggest producer.

But its southern region was seen as too chilly and rainy -- until Subiabre and others planted their vines on the remote banks of the Puelo River in recent years.

"We are surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. All that volcanic earth adds lots of minerals to the wine," he says.

"That distinguishes it from wines from central Chile. Our wines have more flavors."

- Wine to China -

The company planted its first Pinot Noir vines six years ago.

It sold 1,500 bottles after its first harvest in 2014 -- all of them to China.

The vineyard continues to produce at that rate. The next batch has already been ordered in advance by Chinese and US buyers for $120 a bottle.

That is a lot for a Chilean wine.

"Chile has always had a weakness in that it is known as a producer of cheap wines," says Maximiliano Morales, a wine marketing consultant.

But drawing on the fame earned by Patagonia's stunning landscapes among tourists "generates added value," he says.

- Wine race -

Villasenor is now experimenting with Sauvignon Gris and Pinot Gris.

And other winemakers are following the trend.

"There has always been a race to produce wines in the south. That has prompted many producers to experiment," says Morales.

"Here we can see a genuine example of how more varieties of grape are adapting to the region," he adds.

"New economic activity is being generated, precisely because of the rise in temperature."

- Climate change -

Scientists say Patagonia's rivers have receded over the past three decades and it now has more sunshine.

They say average temperatures have risen by two degrees Celsius. Just a decade ago, there was 30 percent more rain.

"In the Puelo River the water level has fallen due to a decrease in rainfall and less snow," says Jose Luis Iriarte, a researcher at the IDEAL environmental institute at Chile's Southern University.

Subiabre says the temperature in the area swings from 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit) to as much as 32 degrees C in the summer, pushing grapes to quick maturity in the last few months of growth.

But climate change is not good for all winemakers.

Global warming is disrupting harvests in warmer climates than Patagonia -- such as neighboring Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere in Chile.

That caused world wine production in 2016 to reach its lowest level in two decades, the International Organization of Vine and Wine said last month.

Production in Chile fell by a fifth overall.