Written for The Guardian newspaper, April 2016.
Part 2 of 4 part feature
When you walk through the Cono Sur vineyard in the morning, it feels like you might have stumbled across a movie set. A low-lying fog slowly fades away to reveal dozens of abandoned bicycles: resting on the vine rows; leaning against the walls of the winery; stacked up at the gate. But this is no zombie apocalypse. These bikes belong to the hundred workers who travel in each morning from the neighbouring town, Chimbarongo, less than a kilometre away. They all ride to work, just as they have since the vines were first planted here in the 70s.
At first sight, the workers aren’t immediately visible. Today they are buried deep in the vines, harvesting the pinot noir grapes in the cool of the morning. The grapes here are all hand-harvested and a big tractor follows the workers as they load the back with small, heavy boxes. As the sun comes through and the tractor fills up, the grapes are taken into the winery, where they’ll start their journey to becoming Cono Sur Organic Pinot Noir – and some might go to the Bicicleta range.
Both labels are an important symbol of what Cono Sur represents: it is one of the biggest organic wine producers in South America, and its Bicicleta range (which is a homage to its workers) reflects its commitment to sustainability. As well as organic practices in the vineyard, its wines are carbon neutral, the glass bottles and water are recycled, and it has Fairtrade certification among a long list of other eco-friendly accreditations.
While the vines leaves rustle with activity, I can hear an excited babble coming from a large gaggle of geese. The birds are in a pen right now, but they are usually out in the fields – another loyal troupe of workers with an important role in the vineyard. The main job of the geese is to eat all the burritos – and not the sort you get in a Mexican restaurant. Burritos are a local pest: small weevils that eat away at the vine, destroying the bud and the grapes, if there are any. Conventional farmers might spray pesticides to kill them off, but Cono Sur employs the help of geese and garlic.
Each vine has a ring of cardboard with a sticky and stinky garlic mixture to deter the burritos from climbing further up the vine, making them easier prey for the geese to gobble up from the floor.
The reason they aren’t out in the vines today though is because, as well as liking the taste of burritos, geese love the taste of grapes. Bug-eating geese might not be
the greatest testimony to the quality of the grapes, but Cono Sur’s wines are.
“Having great grapes is really important,” says Matías Rios, winemaker in the Colchagua vineyards. According to Rios, with organic production “you have a really honest balance in terms of yield and production. The moment you pick the grapes is also really important, and you need to have the vines in the right places.”
Cono Sur started picking their grapes a couple of weeks ago, but the harvest will be coming in for well over two months around all their different vineyards. With over 14 vineyards across Chile – from Limarí on the coast in the north, down to Bío Bío 880km south – the Cono Sur winemaking team have plenty of places to pick from. And this is only the beginning of how they make those quality grapes into quality wine …