Leo Erazo is a winemaker with a global perspective: after university he travelled for 10 years, studying biodynamic methods in California; soil types in South Africa; and geology in New Zealand before returning to South America. Rogue Vine was his first project in Itata, which he started with Justin Decker, while he was still working at Altos los Hormigas in Mendoza. I spoke to him over Zoom about the uniqueness of Itata, and why he’s committed to organic farming and making wine sustainably.
Four unique factors in Itata: dry farming, ungrafted vines, cool climate, old vines.
Leo explained that they were getting to know Itata at the start: “Which always takes time, you dig a soil pit but you won’t always find the holy grail straight away! It’s part of a learning process, and mapping.
“We’ve been lucky to work in Itata, it has a combination of factors, which can create very special wines. Dry farming, unlike anywhere else in Chile, there’s no irrigation used. This is something the old world and the new world always have a battle about. The second and most important thing, we don’t use rootstocks. All the vines are on their own roots. We all know that rootstocks influence the performance of the vine a lot. Here you get the true expression of the variety because it’s on it’s own roots. The place where we’re working is a fresh cold climate. We have a lot of influence from the Pacific. We don’t need to adjust the acidity, the natural acidity is good enough. The alcohol is moderate, we’re around 11% for the whites and 12.5% for the reds. The wines are very balanced”.
“We have so many old vines, I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world where you have such a high concentration of old vines all together, you probably have about 5,000ha. It’s unique”.
The old vine conundrum.
I asked Leo if there is a limit a vines lifespan.
“This challenges all that we’ve learned at university as viticulturalists. Looking at the differences between how we’ve managed vineyards in the last 30-40 years, where you have to replant because the yields become too low. Here the yields are still OK. It varies, in the lower altitude vineyards with higher soil fertility you have higher yields, and the higher vineyards with lower fertility you have lower yields.
“But we don’t have mechanisation here, the vineyards have been planted and worked in the same way, by hand, since the beginning, since 1551 when vines arrived here. The only change was when herbicides became popular, and some people started using them, to avoid doing it all by hand. So it’s either by hand or by foot, no tractors, no engines, nothing. I don’t know if that makes a difference. I’m working in a vineyard which we bought four years ago, that was planted in 1798. I’m the 6th generation, it’s been in the same family so we have records, normally you don’t know. You suspect they’re over 100 years old, but you don’t have it documented. It still produces a good amount of grapes and makes good quality wine”.
Rebalancing the system
I asked Leo what yields they are getting: There’s a short and a long answer!
“The short answer is that a balanced vineyard can produce 1-1.5kg (per plant). When we initially start to work organically the yields went down to 300-400g. But I’m adamant I want to farm organically/regeneratively”.
“You have the environmental component, we don’t want to keep screwing it up. But also the quality is completely different, the wines are much better”.
“All the vineyards that we’ve bought for the project, were using fertilizer, the fertility was artificially kept up by adding chemicals. When we took those things out, and when we took the herbicides out, the (eco)system is weak. We see a drop in yields for the first three-four years, but then it starts to increase, by the seventh year the yield is going up again to the normal yields. That’s the long answer”!
“When you take the vineyard from this intensive care system, try to recreate the ecosystem, and bring back the fertility of the system itself, it takes seven years”.
“During the process you get less grapes. But once you’re there the quality of the grapes is so much better, in balance, it makes sense. And seven years out of 100, the vines have a long way to go.
“Something nobody talks about is the flavour, like with vegetables, when you mass produce vegetable hydroponically without the trace minerals in soil. The tomato is the best example, intensively farmed tomatoes don’t even smell, unlike a tomato from your garden, you touch the plant and you smell tomato. It’s the same with wine, they might have colour, alcohol, acidity, but they’re tasteless”.
Leo is in this for the long term. In the next part of our conversation he explains about they steps he taking to make his winery more sustainable and reduce his carbon footprint. Leo Erazo’s journey towards sustainability. Part 2.