Meet the Unexpected: This Winemaker Is Using Biodynamics to Elevate Chile’s Most Popular Grape

This article and the Meet the Unexpected series are brought to you by Wines of Chile. Taste the Unexpected.

“Being a winemaker is a kind of passport for me,” Noelia Orts, winemaker at Emiliana in Chile, says. “The connection with nature, being in the vineyard tasting, traveling, moving here and there and learning — it all inspired me.”

Orts, who originally hails from Spain, studied wine in Valencia and worked in New Zealand before landing in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, where she has been Emiliana’s winemaker since 2011. Though the winery is set amidst Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay country, Emiliana is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, which it grows biodynamically in the Colchagua and Maipo Valleys.

For Orts, it’s this chance to make Cabernet Sauvignon in Colchagua, and her pursuit of sustainable viticulture, that made her decide to call Chile her home. “This is where I spend most of my time because that is where I live,” she says of the vineyards where she biodynamically farms Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Syrah, Carménère, and other red grapes.

“The vineyard has beautiful oaks and it’s where Coyam was born, the first organic wine that Emiliana made back in 2001,” she says. Coyam, which means “Chilean oak” in Mapuche, the indigenous language of this area of Chile, is Emiliana’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wine.

Ge, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carménère, and Merlot, gets its moniker from the Greek word for “earth.” Orts does not filter the wine, but does let it rest in the bottle for a year before it’s released. Ge is more powerful than Coyam, Orts says, and showcases what a biodynamic vineyard can do. “This wine presents a very good representation of what is happening in Chile, the organic future that grows in the Chilean vineyards,” she says.

Emiliana is the largest grower of organic grapes in the country. An agricultural philosophy the team has employed for almost two decades, biodynamics is ingrained in how Emiliana’s winemakers approach their craft in the vineyards, and in how they describe their wines to customers.

Biodynamics is a method of farming, from vineyard to post-harvest, that focuses on the interconnectivity of everything in nature. While similar to organic farming, it takes a more holistic view of how everything interacts, including the soil, plant life, livestock, other organisms, and even the stars. Beyond steps like composting and avoiding artificial pesticides, biodynamic agriculture includes a strict planting and harvesting calendar based on moon cycles and guidelines for production in the winery. Proponents of the method believe that it keeps soils healthier, thereby increasing the quality of the crops, and leads to cleaner, superior wines.

Biodynamics came to Emiliana via consulting winemaker Alvaro Espinoza, who developed the winery’s first organic vineyard projects in 2000. Espinoza had previously worked at organic wineries in California, and so he had run in the same circles as Sonoma winemakers Alan York and Mike Benzinger, who were known for biodynamic advocacy.

Espinoza was drawn to the idea of biodynamics because of it reminded him of a functional family. To create a perfect family, you have everything you need organically, all the identities and personalities, without adding anything from the outside, Orts says. Similarly, in a biodynamic winery, everything has its place in the ecosystem. Each component works together without adding in foreign substances or materials.

Orts had not worked with biodynamics prior to joining the team at Emiliana. Biodynamics had not been discussed in her winemaking courses nor at her initial job making Cava in Spain. In fact, she says, it’s still not often discussed in agricultural schools.

For Orts, it’s this chance to make Cabernet Sauvignon in Colchagua, and her pursuit of sustainable viticulture, that made her decide to call Chile her home.

“When you work with biodynamics, you do much more than producing good, chemical-free grapes,” Orts says. “You learn to work with nature, to interpret nature, and to increase the biodiversity of nature. It’s about avoiding a monoculture and allowing natural conservation.”

Emiliana’s biodynamic processes are best exemplified in Orts’ premium red wines, which regularly see stellar points from top critics. All the grapes are grown biodynamically in the Los Robles vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, and offer a unique look at the terroir of the region. The vineyard, Los Robles, is not only farmed organically and biodynamically; it also sits along a mountain range that stretches from the coast inland to the Andes Mountains. It’s a fusion of the area’s general Mediterranean climate with high-altitude characteristics: various slopes, different soils among the hillsides, and higher elevations that tend to produce superior fruit. Emiliana employs high-density irrigation in the vineyards and natural fermentation in the cellar. It also doesn’t extract.

Emiliana’s success reflects a larger trend within Chilean wine. Increasingly wineries are practicing sustainable or organic practices. Chile’s natural barriers created by the Atacama Desert (north), Andes Mountains (east), Patagonian ice caps (south), and Pacific Ocean (west), create an isolated, viticultural paradise – free of phylloxera and difficult for certain bacteria and molds to grow; perfect for sustainable and organic winemaking. At present, 70 percent of wines exported from Chile are sustainably made, and by 2025, Chile aims to be the No. 1 producer of sustainable wines in the world. For Emiliana, the biodynamic aspect of its production is very relevant to its brand DNA. “I travel a lot, and I’m seeing a very high interest in learning about biodynamics from consumers,” Orts says. “We don’t always use it as a tool because it’s difficult to explain. But the younger people, they are all familiar with organic. They are bringing organic into their lives. It’s not as difficult for them to understand.” It is clear that sustainability practices is the direction of the Chilean wine industry in general. As Orts explains, it is not a marketing tool; sustainability is important to the earth and the vines with which winemakers farm every day.

“There are a few other wineries becoming biodynamic, and I hope there are more because it’s something good for the earth, good for the wines, and it’s going to be good for Chile,” Orts adds. “It’s going to be better for the image and quality of wines in Chile.”

This article is sponsored by Wines of Chile. Taste the Unexpected.