When you think sustainable wine, Chile might not exactly come to mind. Which is why we were fascinated when we first met Alice L’Estrange of Cultivar Wines, who brings drinkers “far-out-and-naked wines” from Old World Chile, all with the aim of supporting good agriculture and honest craftsmanship. More specifically, they support growers who practise non-interventionist viticulture.

We sat down to pick Alice’s brain on what that entails, why sustainable wine is about much more than words like “natural” or “organic” on the label, tasting notes, and how to navigate the BS.

What is non-interventionist viticulture and what are the main ways it differs from conventionally grown grapes? Or even “organic” or “biodynamic”?

There are still pockets of the world, like Southern Chile, where vines originally planted for religious (not commercial) purposes still exist and are still tended as they originally were: very very minimally. As productivity was not the main goal of viticulture, the vines were planted, in most cases around or over 200 years ago by the Jesuits, without trellising, without irrigation, and without any inputs and minimal pruning. The País and Moscatel de Alejandría grapes, like many old and now lost varietals, proved particularly apt for the new world. In Chile many families still tend vines ancestrally, zero-input except for a handful of mineral sulphur powder once a year to protect from oidium. These hardy southern varietals are very disease resistant, and thanks to sandy soils and geographic isolation, phylloxera has never destroyed this old rootstock. It is a very simple and humble way of farming, the vines are incredibly well adapted to the soils, pruning is minimal in most cases, non existent in others. The vines give the amount of fruit they feel comfortable to give. The wine is the result of the climate that year because canopy management doesn’t change much from one year to the next, nor does winemaking change to suit vintage.

Thousands of small traditional growers still eek out tiny amounts of money from selling grapes, and continue to vinify ancestrally for their family and friends. A culture that is quite quickly disappearing.

Zero-input viticulture is politically, socially, economically and environmentally at a polar extreme to conventional high-input and highly extractive industrial viticulture – which can and does happen on small and large scales.

The carbon footprint of these wines imported to Australia is less than consuming a bottle of Australian wine (the majority of the time, there are of course a bunch of great growers on Australia who farm regeneratively).

There is a socio-enviro and political imperative to work with these growers who are being pushed off their land by a multitude of factors.

  • Below cost-of-production prices for grapes. One company, Concha y Toro, makes the vast majority of wine for local consumption and export (box wine). They therefore have a monopoly over grape production and can set the price of grapes (the same way Coles and Woolies can effectively set the price of milk), which is often below cost of production for these small growers in the South.
  • A non-existent market for their wines domestically. Even if traditional vignerons can afford to bottle their wine (99% of the time they can’t), Chileans preference the more prestigious modern French varietals that grow in the desert central zone of the country – industrial scale and mechanised monoculture that relies on heavy irrigation and chemical inputs. But Chileans mostly drink coke anyway!
  • The most pressing issue is the government-backed multinational forestry industry that pressures them to rip out vines. With grape growing so economically unsustainable, this is happening at an alarming rate.

The recent fires in Southern Chile that swept across the almost 3 million hectares of pine and eucalypt plantations and burnt swaths of ancient vineyards seem to be another nail in the coffin. In all honesty, viticulture in Southern Chile that has existed for centuries will likely not be around for much longer. It is economically unviable and the powers that be are exerting too much pressure on small growers to leave their land. We feel incredibly proud to be able to represent growers and winemakers who are fighting to preserve these vines and who are making absolutely delicious wines with zero or minimal sulphur.

Cultivar Wines Sustainable wine

How did you meet the producers of the wines?

There are only a handful of winemakers crafting traditional Pipeño from ancestral grapes and bottling. Most old growers make pipeño and put it into flagons for the local market, or their neighbours come around with empty coke bottles, and they all know each other. We spent many many hours on buses visiting everyone! We did a vintage and made wine, got to know the landscape a little, talked to everyone we could, and it became obvious after long nights and deep conversations with growers that we knew who we wanted to represent. These are our friends and we share the same concepts. Small business is about relationships. As small business owners we need to enjoy our job because there certainly is no money in it, so the most important thing becomes working with people who share our particular vision (not better or worse than anyone else’s) and who we love spending time with.

We’ve got one shot at life. we as well as these growers see our ‘work’ as the way we choose to spend the precious days we are given.

Why do you think more winemakers don’t farm the way your farmers do?

There is little history or culture of zero-input viticulture in the new world, and it has become lost in most of the old world too. Phylloxera did away with all the old and indigenous varietals in most of Eurpoe and they were replaced with modern and highly selected (bred) varietals for high input commercially driven vineyards.

Often there’s a bit of black-and-white “big ag” vs “small producers” rhetoric going on – but what’s something you find you CAN agree on?

That viticulture needs to be smarter about its resource use. There is a lot of research and investment going into making big vineyards more ‘sustainable’ – less water and inputs so they can keep growing grapes in an increasingly challenging environment. Water use (on the vineyard and in the winery) in particular is receiving a lot of attention. Conversely, one may say that if you need water to grow grapes you probably shouldn’t be growing grapes there. If grapes were only grown in climates that allowed for minimal-input viticulture, we would be drinking a lot less wine!

What are the biggest challenges of running your business that most people probably underestimate?

I don’t think anyone underestimates the challenges of running a small business, we were definitely advised against it by almost everyone we know (family and friends as well as many people in the industry). People are surprised we are still going and that we did well enough with the first shipment to justify the second. BUT the expenses of running a wholesale business are difficult, cash flow is very slow for small importers and our margins are tiny. These wines from Southern Chile have a positive environmental and social impact – it’s not simply about reducing damage, supporting the existence of these wines has actual positive impact in small communities. Most Australian winemakers price their wines based only on perceived quality of taste, not of provenance. It’s a pretty narrow perception of ‘quality’ and pretty labelling.

What should I know about wine that I probably don’t know?

That viticulture is a monoculture like any other in most parts of the world. It relies on unsustainable water use and over time heavily depletes soil nutrient levels.

Winemaking is normally a very resource intensive process. And 75% of the carbon-footprint of a commercial bottle of wine is in the glass itself. We need to REUSE, not recycle glass bottles, but that is commercially impossible for winemakers here.

What wine marketing BS would you like to call out?

‘Natural wine.’ Many winemakers buy commercial fruit, unsustainably grown, use minimal SO2 in the winemaking process (which is great) and call it natural. This is a massive distraction, focusing attention on the winemaker and winemaking, and on consumers’ intellectual stimulation and physical health. The worlds’ best and truest ‘natural’ (for want of a better term) winemakers don’t care nearly half as much about how a wine tastes if it comes from good and honest Ag.

There are way better things to talk about than tasting notes.

Commercially grown fruit often has many health issues and can be unbalanced in sugar/acid/water concentration, and the ‘natural’ wines that come from these grapes can be fraught with problems. Issues from the fruit that would normally be corrected in the winery with a tool bag of additives and preservatives and bacteria killing SO2. Things would be different if we cared a little more about how the grapes came to be, rather than how ‘good’ the resulting wine tastes, and is or isn’t ‘poisoning’ our bodies.

Maybe the biggest BS is that winemaking is a mysterious art/science that only the gifted few can do. In my ideal world everyone would be buying their own grapes, paying good farmers great prices, and making small batches at home for their family and friends. The same way many of us wish for more home cooking and less fast food.

For conscious wine drinkers – what should they really be looking out for on the label or the winemakers’ website?

It depends what consumers are personally conscious about. In an ideal world we’d all be drinking wine made of grapes grown in harmony with naturally occurring ecosystems, grown in non-extractive agriculture – whether that be input-intensive biodynamic viticulture, or the less intensive organic viticulture, or the type of minimal-input viticulture practice in Chile.

Unfortunately wine labels don’t tell you anything at all – beware of any words that appear on labels.

Doing some research on the web and asking winemakers themselves is the best way to assure you’re drinking well. You need to know about the type and scale of the vineyard, and you need to know how much So2 was used and at what point in the winemaking process. For consumers who want to experience the tastes of natural fermentation, make sure minimal So2 at bottling only is practiced. There is an argument that truly natural wine is zero So2. Thats another massive and often distracting debate in the natural wine industry.
Most winemakers over the world whack sulphur onto the grapes to kill all naturally occurring strains of yeast and bacteria and then inoculate with selected yeast strains to assure homogeneity of fermentation and resulting flavour.

Long story short – unirrigated organic/biodynamic/minimal-input viticulture, and minimal or zero So2. Below 20 ‘parts per million’ of So2 is considered very low for additions, 20-50 parts falls within what can be termed ‘natural wine’ and above 50 is getting towards being heavy handed.

Image credits: Cultivar Wines

Zo Zhou

Zo Zhou

Zo is the National Communications Manager and will basically never shut up about vegetables.