Sustainable Winemaking in the Southern Hemisphere

This week on All the Swirl, Charles Communications sits down with long time collaborator and friend Rodrigo Soto, Chilean winemaker and trailblazer in sustainable winemaking in the Southern Hemisphere. As summer comes to a close, bringing high temperatures and more early harvests, Soto reflects on Chile's distinct terroirs, his winemaking philosophy, and the impacts of climate change on the world of wine. 


Chile is blessed with a unique geography and climate, both of which have shaped a mosaic of distinct regional terroirs. The tempering effect of the ocean to the West coupled with the high coastal mountain range produces a diurnal temperature flux in the inland valleys that is ideal for winemaking, while the low humidity and high heat strains vines and forces roots to push deep into the soil. All of these factors harmonize to yield white wines with fresh fruit flavors, and crisp acidity, and reds ‘with ripe tannins, rich color, and high levels of antioxidants and flavonols.’ 

For far too long, Chilean wines have been flippantly relegated to the category of affordable but forgettable wines. But particularly in the past decade Chile has undergone an oenological renaissance. One pioneer in the field of Chilean wine is Rodrigo Soto,whose Chilean labels include Neyen, Ritual, and Veramonte.

 Rodrigo Soto.

Rodrigo Soto.

Soto began working in wine at the age of fourteen, when he took a summer job as a self-taught sommelier at a time when the profession was uncommon in Chile. Soto soon fell in love with the world of wine, and pursued this passion in college at Catholic University in Santiago, where he studied organic agriculture. 

 Old vines from the Neyen vineyards in the Apalta Valley of central Chile.

Old vines from the Neyen vineyards in the Apalta Valley of central Chile.

From the very beginning of his career, Soto was drawn to organic practices. Under the tutelage of iconic figures in sustainable winemaking such as Jim Fetzer, Alan York, and David Ramey, Soto learned to appreciate that in order to make great wine, he had to cultivate great vineyards. “Quality is a matter that you deal with at the source, not in the tank or the bottling line with additives and chemicals,” says Soto. In other words, the old adage “you are what you eat” applies just as much to vines as to humans. As he puts it, “Plants are very much like people: they are very receptive to their environments. If you feed them steroids you push their metabolism into overdrive, they don’t know how to react – that’s why you get rot, diseases, and low quality grapes: because they are completely out of whack with nature.”

All of Soto’s vineyards are farmed using organic practices, with Ritual and Veramonte both well on their way to organic certification with the internationally recognized Institute for Marketecology. Some of these practices include composting, cover cropping, preserving native forests and wildlife, and grazing sheep in the vineyards. Ever pushing the limits of sustainability, Soto is also working closely with Universidad Austral de Chile to identify bacteria and yeast indigenous to his vineyards to better understand how these unique species affect the vineyards and the wine. It is these indigenous yeasts that Soto believes bring a distinct softness and longevity to his wines.

 Ritual Vineyards. Casablanca Valley Chile.

Ritual Vineyards. Casablanca Valley Chile.

However, in Soto’s opinion, winemaking cannot be reduced to an objective science. Soto strives to achieve a natural balance through a combination of research and intuition. “Intuition plays a very important winemaking style,” he says. “No matter how much planning you put into a vintage, you have to be spontaneous and responsive to the land. Ultimately man is only the interpreter, the conduit of the land.”

As Soto describes, this approach to organic winemaking that highlights Chiles’ diverse regional terroirs marks a paradigm shift in the South American wine industry. “Where we failed in the past was due to conventional farming, which discourages farmers from paying attention to the land, or by replicating Old World systems that simply can’t work on our soil.” Beyond mere concern over quality or ethics, Soto believes this shift toward sustainability is inevitable if South America is to face the impacts of climate change.

 Neyen's dry-farmed vineyards. Apalta Chile.

Neyen's dry-farmed vineyards. Apalta Chile.

The progression of climate change is felt especially strongly in South America, where a hole in the ozone layer exposes plants and people alike to high levels of solar radiation. Coupled with the low humidity and high heat, this radiation is extremely tough on grapes. “Climate change affects all winemakers,” Soto says, “but those who grow conventionally will face much bigger problems because their vines are dependent on the farmer and unnatural inputs. Organically cultivated vines adapt to their terroir, and even climactic shifts because they are independent."

So what is the next step for Chilean wine? As people begin to appreciate Chile as a winemaking region with distinct regionality and exceptional, environmentally progressive winemakers, rather than just another bulk wine market, Soto believes that Chile’s diverse terroirs will become common knowledge in the same way that California’s sub-appellations have made names for themselves. However none of this is possible without proper land management.

 Veramonte vineyards.

Veramonte vineyards.

To summarize Soto’s philosophy: “Taking care of the land is essential to producing great wines. There is an immense base of traditional knowledge from which to build upon and it is the job of the winemaker to bridge this tradition with modern innovations. But above all else, the ancient practice of holistic land management needs to resurface in order to build a sustainable, viable future for the wine industry, here in South America, but also the world over.”


All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California.  We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.