Winemaking in the driest desert on earth: Chile’s Atacama region

When one considers wine in Chile, lush coastal vineyards and pastoral Andean wine valleys spring to mind, but adventurous winemakers are now planting vines and making wine in one of Chile’s most wild and challenging terrain: the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama is considered to be the driest desert on earth – so dry that its barren landscape is often compared to Mars. Astronomers build telescopes here because of the crisp, clear skies and arid conditions. Even a few tenacious indigenous tribes learned to coexist with the inhospitable environment throughout history.

But wine?

Winemakers are generally unable to resist the opportunity to produce wine from interesting and untested soils, and the Atacama provides a truly daring experiment. Now, with minimum water and maximum innovation, the experiment is succeeding.

“Terroirs” of the Atacama

Wine aficionados endlessly seek exceptional “terroirs” – characteristics of soil and its environment that can be tasted in grapes and the wine they produce. The terroirs of the Atacama are notably earthy and rugged, a unique experience for a wine lover’s insatiable palate.

Most vineyards in Atacama are located near the Pacific coast, taking advantage of the sea’s nourishing resources. Others, however, are being planted in more barren areas like Toconao and San Pedro de Atacama. Wine production throughout the area is primarily artisanal.

Pour a glass of Chilean wine, and imagine the rustic flavors produced by the following regions, or consider visiting Atacama and terroir-hunting yourself.

Copiapó Valley

Emerald vineyards stand out like jewels against the auburn earth surrounding the town of Copiapó. Grape production augments the town’s mining-based economy where table grapes from Copiapó are predominantly exported to United States.

Follow Copayapu street southeast out of Copiapó to the quaint agricultural village of San Fernando, home of delicious locally-made wines and a viticulture that has been integral to this community since the 1940s.

How to arrive: Copiapó has a small airport with flights to and from Santiago, or one can choose to arrive by bus or car.

The Huasco Valley

The Huasco Valley is often called the “Garden of Atacama.” Although it primarily produces pisco grapes, some fantastic wines from Huasco are gaining fame.

Huasco vineyards enjoy plentiful sun due to the lower elevation of the coastal mountain range. Warm winds carry the subtle salty essence of the adjacent Pacific Ocean, and the surrounding Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe (Llanos de Challe National Park), filled with desert flowers and wildlife, is a fertile haven for viticulture.

How to arrive: It is best to visit by bus or car from Santiago to Huasco (via Vallenar) or from Copiapó to Huasco (also via Vallenar).

Toconao and San Pedro de Atacama

1,000 kilometers north of Huasco across the massive Atacama, an organization known as Atacama Tierra Fertíl has been working with local winemakers and professional enologists (wine scientists) to develop vineyards in Toconao, near the village of San Pedro de Atacama.

3 vintages of the new wine label Ayllu have been produced so far, with promising results, and the fourth year’s harvest will be opened in December 2012 amidst great expectations and fanfare.

Vineyards that could be considered the highest in the world have also been planted 30 kilometers southeast of Toconao in Talabre, at an astounding elevation of 3,500 m.

How to arrive: An airport is located in nearby Calama with flights to and from Santiago, and buses travel throughout the region, stopping in Toconao and San Pedro de Atacama.

Wine with a Future

As harvests continue and aging wine barrels are opened for the first time, keep an eye out for more delicious wines born in the Atacama’s extreme conditions.

Atacama Desert (Photo by Gretchen Stahlman)
By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel

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