A Q&A with Alvaro Espinoza
This piece first appeared on the website of Harpers Wine & Spirit:
Alvaro Espinoza in the shadows, London
In a country where the majority of wines are made industrially and conventionally, Alvaro Espinoza is something of an oddity in Chile–albeit an extremely successful one. Single-handedly responsible for introducing biodynamics to Chile, Espinoza is still looked upon as an eccentric by his peers. Despite this, he is one of the country’s most sought after consultants, lending his skills to a host of wineries as well as making his own wines under the Antiyal label. But it’s the sprawling Emiliana winery, spanning 5 valleys, which receives the bulk of his attention.
What interested you about working biodynamically?
Biodynamic agriculture interested me very much because of this idea of organising the farm like a self-sustaining system and respecting its individuality like a living organism. So you have to work to produce, in our case grapes, with minimum input to the farm. This idea is closely related to ‘terroir’ expression in viticulture. Conventional farming is a high input system. Everything the soil is lacking you can provide from outside. So you have standards set by science, therefore you have more standardisation in your end product. If you organise your vineyards with respect to their individuality, you have more individual wines. With biodynamics the wines are a more pure expression of their place.
What were the challenges of being the first to work biodynamically in Chile?
When I started doing biodynamic agriculture in Chile, it was difficult because it was only associated with the Anthroposophy community and the Waldorf schools in Santiago. There were no preparations available to purchase, and when I started making them it was difficult to find some necessary components, for example deer bladders and some herbs, which were available in the south of Chile, but not in our valley. In the end, we grew everything ourselves.
Additionally, it was not easy to educate and train the people who worked with us. It took time and a lot of effort to get results.
What do you say to your adversaries who question the legitimacy of biodynamics?
For me the wines speak for themselves in showing the benefits of biodynamic farming.
I think it’s crazier to contaminate the water and soil of your land—to take it away from your grandson. A lot of guys laugh when we talk about biodynamics. I do understand that for some people it’s difficult to understand biodynamics, especially those who have little contact with nature or agriculture. Those trained in conventionl science are usually very critical.
But there is a lot of knowledge on farms, in rural places where they are more connected to the earth. Farmers sow seeds during the waning moon for example. For them it’s basic knowledge. Steiner just drew from this knowledge.
There are farmers in Siberia working biodynamically without knowing it. They’re burying cow horns, making teas, etc. This lost knowledge is now being restored.
What about all this moon cycle/cosmic rhythm stuff?
The cosmos affect all life processes, but today we humans are emancipated from them. We no longer care about rhythms and moon cycles; we have technology to replace that. We can turn on the light at night and heat our houses during winter. But animals and plants need these rhythms to survive. For example, coral reproduce one night a year on the full moon after the summer solstice so the spores can survive. Plants are connected physiologically to cosmic rhythms and are in symbiosis with animals. It is important to pay attention to this.
I think that plants feel our energy. I talk to mine. If you love a plant, it knows it. I believe in these things.
What varieties do you enjoy working with the most?
Cabernet Sauvignon is the variety that performs best in Chile, particularly in the Maipo/upper Maipo. But I enjoy blending. For our top label [Emiliana’s Gê], I didn’t want to make another Syrah or Carmenere in Chile, I wanted to make a blend. The same for Coyam, the label which helped us build the company and assure people of what we were doing. We work with many different varieties and we’re planting more.
What’re your plans for the future?
For Emiliana we’re looking to plant more in coastal regions with grapes like Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and maybe Syrah. We have vineyards 25-30 kilometres from the coast now, but we want to get 6 kilometres closer than that. We’re chasing cooler climates and lower alcohol, although water is a problem. We have to irrigate 6 months a year; we have no rain.
We’re also looking to plant near Concepción (the epicentre of the earthquake) in Bio Bio. The climate is similar to Oregon so we’re looking to plant Pinot Noir.
For myself, I would like to spend more time at Antiyal and to continue learning more each year about my vineyards and grapes so I can become a good ‘vigneron’.