The World’s Southernmost Wine Is Also Deliciously Sustainable
In a small town in southern Argentina, people are using grapes first brought to the region by their grandparents to produce unique wine in one of the world's southernmost wine regions — creating a sustainable production model and strengthening their community.
SANTA CRUZ — Low houses stretch over the windy Estepa coast, with the deep blue sea as a backdrop. The desert of stone and dust is now dotted with green vineyards. Two years ago, a group of dreamers began to intertwine each of the yards and farms where they had vines and grapes, creating a new community project.
The town of Caleta Olivia, in the department of Deseado in the San Jorge Gulf region of southern Argentina, has stories of the B&R (born and raised in the area) and C&S (come and stay), as they are called here. Among the latter, there is a mixture of those who arrived in the early 1900s and many others who, arrived from the northern provinces of Argentina after the discovery of oil in the regio, with suitcases and hopes of better jobs with the YPF company, currently the largest oil company in Argentina.
According to the 2021 census, Caleta Olivia has 75,000 inhabitants. Today, this town has developed new economic activities: a mainstay of tourism, connected to the Municipal Natural Reserve, home to sea lions, seagulls and cormorants. And recently, the city has launched an unusual production for the region: the southernmost wine in the world.
Collection of urban vineyards
Many of Caleta’s vineyards have hybrid vines that were assembled with vine shoots and stakes brought by those who came to populate the town. Many of the plants are now between 70 and 90 years old and produce between 80 and 110 kg (175 to 250 lbs) of grapes per year.
Silvia Pérez, a C&S who arrived from her native Salta, Argentina when she was 21, tells her story. Today she is 62, has been a teacher for 30 years and is waiting for her retirement. She lives with her husband, who is a municipal employee, and has two children and three grandchildren. She discovered that her vines, which her grandparents brought from Salta as small seedlings, could revive their family legacy with new opportunities.
Caleta Olivia is mainly dedicated to oil and commerce. But after the municipality took a census of the vines on 80 farms and revived 70 urban vineyards, some 150 families discovered that they could come together to take advantage of the fruits of their plants. The first community harvest was in April of this year, and 53 neighbors harvested 2,500 kg (5,500 lbs) of grapes.
Chubut wines in the stores of La Anónima, an Argentinian supermarket chain operating in Patagonia
Training to grow
Carmen Almendra, the local Forestry Undersecretary, says that "everything started with training and grew thanks to the gradual enthusiasm of the neighbors who have grapevines and who came to see if they could add value to this raw material."
The municipality offered free monthly training sessions given by agricultural engineer and oenologist Darío González Maldonado, a San Juan native who lives in Patagonia. Since then, everything went forward: in mid-2021, they set up a vine nursery in the municipal farm, where they obtained about 2,500 new grapevine plants.
They used a treatment of cuttings or shoots in a fallow system, which is a bare root multiplication method, Maldonado explains. After a year, the plants grew and were entrusted to farmers or urban producers; they were given between 50 and 90 plants per family, according to the physical space they had.
The proposal was promising. The plan aimed to include grape vines that, until then, had only stained patios and attracted gluttonous birds, as well as plants that contributed to many families' food independence, imbued with emotional memories. And, at the same time, the proposal aimed to encourage the planting of vines from cold areas, which emerged from the municipal farm, to produce a special wine.
Undersecretary Almendra proudly described the process. "The recovery of the municipal farm began in the middle of the pandemic, back in June 2020. After the cleaning, the first two greenhouses were set up, where vegetables were planted," she said. In 2021, the third greenhouse was assembled and, in mid-2022, the fourth.
They brought [the vines] over so as not to forget their homeland.
A municipal vineyard was also created with a total of 500 plants of five varieties that grow very well in southern areas, including Merlot, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyard is trellised and drip-irrigated. A plot of seed and stone fruit trees and another with strawberries, blackcurrant and red currant, was also created.
When in 2021 the Undersecretariat of Forestry took a census of the neighborhoods and farms, there was resistance and little faith in the proposal. But the neighbors, little by little, signed up. Once a month, the trainer González Maldonado visited their farms, setting up an agenda to monitor and examine the space they had the space they had, to determine what variety could be planted in each place. In return, the neighbors undertook soil preparations, fenced the area, set up trellises and established irrigation systems in their farms.
Silvia Pérez is grateful for the project: "I currently have 70 grape plants. There are 30 red and white grape plants that I have had for many years — some of them brought by my grandparents from Salta and others brought by my husband's uncles from La Rioja. To these are now added 25 Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer vines, both of which are two years old."
In the vineyard area of Caleta Olivia, Pérez says that producing and being part of a project changed her perspective on many things. "Mainly, it helped me value the plants that our grandparents and uncles brought here so many years ago. And to give those fruits value, not only economically, but also in terms of heritage and culture. They brought them over so as not to forget their homeland," she says.
Those grapes that used to end up in friends' houses as fresh food, soon became the raw material, giving them a new importance. "It was valuing the care we had given those plants for so many years," she says.
A part of the grape harvest in May 2022 for El Hoyo-Chubut
Oceanfront winery dreams
Although the raw material is available, the project is moving forward as the municipality has committed to setting up a winery. The provincial government has also promised to provide the necessary equipment for its assembly.
In regard to this plan, González Maldonado shows similar enthusiasm to that of the producers: "The program was launched in May 2021 to promote the cultivation of fine varieties on a very small scale with modules ranging from 50 to 300 plants per producer," he recalls.
In the meantime, with some 1,200 vines of hybrid grapes – which the farmers already had and which are in very good conditions to make wines – plus some international varieties, they made a pilot test of a sparkling blend in a winery in Chubut, in the area of Lago Puelo. Today they already have a joint brand called Del Golfo, in which smallholder producers are linked.
This year, they ran out of bottles to sell.
The product of that first attempt was a brut sparkling wine made the traditional way — a highly artisanal method prized among wine lovers, and used in the production of Champagne.
Around 300 bottles were delivered to a total of 20 vine owners, who provided the grapes for the production of the first sparkling wine in the city. The next edition of Del Golfo's sparkling wine, which will be sold at the end of the year, will be based on hybrid grapes harvested in Caleta Olivia's vineyards in April 2023. Today, members of the community are the protagonists of a dream come true.
Lidia Mendoza was a part of the initiative: "For now, I have a production of 110 Malbec plants that we planted last year and that will grow with other Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes. I am very happy with this project because it has opened up possibilities for me to do more things on the farm."
Both she and others maintain that this experience places them at the center of a community dream: to have their own winery. This year, they ran out of bottles to sell. And for the next batch, which will be ready by the end of the year, there are already people lining up.
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