The name “Atacama” is not normally associated with wine – most people think clay churches, geysers, and, of course, the driest desert in the world. But the fledgling wine industry of the Atacama’s Copiapó and Huasco valleys more than doubled production in 2011, raising the possibility of a whole new side to the Atacama experience.
As Chilean wine meets international acclaim and increasing worldwide demand, the traditional wine sectors are branching further into unknown territory, with vineyards stretching as far north as the Atacama Valley and all the way to Biobío in the south.
According to a study by the Office of Agrarian Studies and Policies (Odepa), the Atacama Region produced 338,000 liters of wine, which means an increase of 188 percent from 2010, when the valley produced 179,000 liters. In Biobío meanwhile, wine production increased 59 percent to 9,792,100 liters.
The Coquimbo Region also saw an expansion in wine production of nearly 47 percent, reaching some 45,528,300 liters this year.
At a national level, the 2011 season recorded a harvest of about 820 million liters, nearly half of which came from the Maule Region. Overall wine production increased 13 percent compared to 2010, and Odepa said that in most regions, the increase can be attributed to the reconstruction efforts after the devastating February 27, 2010 earthquake.
But in the case of the Atacama Valley and Biobío, Odepa said the increase can only be attributed to one, very exciting, new development: new plantations.
So what are the newest kids on the block growing? In Atacama, grapes are better known for their pisco than their wine, but new vineyards are creeping into cool nooks and crannies from the Pacific coastline to the Andes mountain range, with a wealth of good Cabernet Sauvignon and some surprisingly excellent Syrah.
Meanwhile, in Biobío, rainy skies and early winters have traditionally discouraged wine-growers, but an innovative group of vintners are investing in cool-climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Odepa figures also revealed another set of underdog statistics: the least valued grape varietals – Pais, for reds and Moscatel, for whites – were the grapes that saw the largest increases in price this year, each jumping more than 57 percent on the market.