Grape cultivation in the driest desert of the world

'Unexpected': Grape cultivation in the driest desert in the world

Hector Espindola, 71, farms in an oasis in the Tokonao region of northern Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama:

In the middle of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, Hector Espindola has an unexpected job: he runs a vineyard.

About 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level, his small Basque Vizo farm produces muscat grapes – and a unique “creolo” or local, variety – in the shade of a stream-irrigated quince, pear and fig trees. Andian snow melt.

Espindola, 71, farms in an oasis in the Tokonao region in the far north of Chile – about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away from the vineyard in the center of the world’s longest country, making it one of the world’s top 10 wine exporters.

But growing grapes in the desert is not an easy task.

Espindola fights extreme day-night temperature fluctuations and extreme solar radiation over wind and frost.

“You have to be dedicated. I water here at night … at three in the morning, at eleven at night,” he told AFP while tending to dry and brown vines two months after harvest.

“You have to be careful because the heat, the climate here is not a joke,” he said.

“Sometimes there is wind and production is lost, sometimes frost comes quickly. It’s kind of complicated.”

For her sons

Espindola sends its crop to the Ayllu Cooperative which has received grapes from 18 small vineyards in the vicinity of Toconao since 2017.

In 2021, the cooperative received 16 tons of grapes for a yield of 12,000 bottles.

It was good to harvest more than 20 tons of grapes in 2022 – enough for 15,000 bottles but still only one drop in about one percent of Chile’s annual production.

Most of the contributors to the cooperative are members of the indigenous community who were previously independent, small-scale producers.

One of them, Cecilia Cruz, 67, grows Sirah and Pinot Noir grapes at an altitude of about 3,600 meters outside the village of Sokeya, Chile’s highest vineyard.

“I feel special … to have this vineyard here and to make wine at this height,” he said.

But she has one big goal: “a future” for her three sons.

Taste Atacama

For Ayllu oenologist Fabian Munoz, 24, the mission is to create a unique wine that captures the properties of the volcanic rock where the grapes grow.

“When consumers should think of an ailu wine (them): ‘Wow! I’m tasting the Atacama Desert’,” he said.

Wine chemistry expert Carolina Vicencio said the height, low atmospheric pressure and extreme temperature fluctuations make a thick-skinned grape.

“It makes more tannin molecules on the skin of the grapes which gives the wine a certain bitterness,” he said.

“Also the salinity of the soil is high … which gives a touch of mineralization to the mouth” which makes Atacama Desert Wine a kind.

(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)

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