Monday, April 12, 2010

Viva Emiliana! (Part 1)

Friday was an especially chilly day here in Ottawa. So it seemed appropriate to spend some time, over lunch, tasting wines from Chile (yes, I’m sorry) with Fernando Pavón from Emiliana Organic Vineyards and Liam Doody of Diamond Estates. (Thanks to Liam for introducing me to Fernando!) Fernando was in town on a short visit to showcase wines from Emiliana, a producer of biodynamic and organic wines in Chile. Emiliana has vineyards in five valleys, from north to south: Casablanca, Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, and Bio-Bio.

My conversation with Fernando started with what’s on everyone’s mind when we think of Chile these days: the earthquake and aftershocks in late February and into March. Fernando confirmed that damage was extensive and serious; repairs and recovery will take several years. Fortunately, the damage to wineries and wine supplies was not as catastrophic. Most severe was the damage to huge steel storage tanks that were full of wine. As the liquid inside sloshed violently back and forth during the tremor, the tanks could not withstand the force of the rocking liquid. The tanks collapsed, and rivers of wine rolled across winery floors and down the drain. Fernando described those collapsed tanks as if a giant had crushed them like aluminium pop cans. Tanks that were empty also rocked off their moorings, sometimes setting off a domino effect as one tank knocked over another and another. As unfortunate as losing some of the 2009 production was, the earthquake occurred just before the 2010 harvest, and these tanks are critical to the fermentation and storage of the new crop. Winemakers had to scramble to find alternate storage facilities, where possible.

Although Chileans build their infrastructure to withstand earthquakes, some damage also occurred to irrigation systems and traditional buildings made of adobe. But the fallout likely is not as great as first feared. Much of the 2009 wine that was lost was low-end wine. High-end, barrel-aged wine was not as affected. According to Fernando, exports should be relatively untouched. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be changes. An event like this means financial losses. Yes, insurance will cover the losses, if you have adequate coverage. And deep pockets certainly help. (Emiliana is owned by Concha y Toro, so it has access to deep pockets.) And, like winemakers everywhere, some of the inventory had become “excess” because of the global financial crisis, which saw a decline in wine consumption. But some smaller winemakers, and winemakers who don’t have enough of a financial cushion, will fail. We should see some consolidation in the Chilean wine industry as larger wineries gobble up smaller wineries whose cash flow dries up.

Fernando’s comments reflected the sang-froid that I found typical of the Chileans who I met when I visited there in 2007, “We are a tough people. We’ve had setbacks in the past and always overcame them. We’ll overcome this as well.” Gotta like that spirit!

Emiliana’s wines are all biodynamic or organic. I was curious about marketing organic and biodynamic wines. Can a winemaker who labels a wine as organic or biodynamic demand a higher price? Is it a good idea to segregate these wines in an “organic” section in a wine store (as is the case of the Vintages store where I shop)? Although Emiliana is obviously proud of being biodynamic producers, and they say so on their labels, they’re not convinced that consumers will pay a premium because a wine is biodynamic or organic. They do believe that biodynamic wines are better, and that this quality advantage will pay off with consumers over time. Emiliana does not want its wines tucked away into a special section in the store either. Again, they’re convinced that their wines are simply better and they expect their wines to share shelf-space with all the other wines from Chile. Fernando brought up an interesting point about showing biodynamic certification on the wine label. Emiliana produces all of its wines according to biodynamic principles and practices, but only two wines (at the top end) carry the third-party biodynamic certification on the label. Why? Because the independent body that certifies their wines charges for use of the certification logo on the label. Emiliana would have to charge more to recover those costs (or accept a lower profit). They’d rather forego certification and keep their wines’ prices lower, and more competitive. By the way, Emiliana is perhaps the leader of the biodynamic wine movement in Chile – they had the first certified biodynamic wine in Latin America – and isn’t hesitant about sharing its expertise with other winemakers that are curious about biodynamic practices. Just as Nicholas Joly helped Emiliana’s winemakers, so they help other newcomers.

Next Post:  Tasting Emiliana's wines.

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