Fog settles over the stables at Los Condores estate in Patagonia.
▲ Fog settles over the stables at Los Condores estate in Patagonia.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

A Winemaker’s 50-Year Bet on Surviving Climate Change

It starts right now, with sheep in Patagonia.

Sunrise comes early high up on the Patagonian steppe, bathing the cloud-covered shrublands and plateaus in a stunning hue of golden yellow. It is only later, when the fog releases its grip on the land, that Los Condores, a sprawling ranch just on the Chilean side of the border with Argentina, comes into full view.

It is quintessential Patagonia.

There are the vast, treeless expanses and, way out on the horizon, the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. There are the star-studded, bone-chilling nights — minus 15 Celsius or colder in the dead of winter — and the brilliant, wind-swept days that follow.

There are the gauchos, Navarrete, the foreman, and his assistants, the Solis brothers, all weathered and introverted and intense. There’s the livestock, Corriedale sheep, some 4,000 head worth, and the predators that stalk them: red foxes, southern caracaras and the massive condors that give the ranch its name.

A flock roams through the fields at Los Condores.
▲ A flock roams through the fields at Los Condores.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

But tucked away on one side of the main barn, just a few feet from where a batch of wool bakes in the late-spring sun, there is a little patch of land that reveals the truth about Los Condores. It is no ordinary Patagonia ranch, or not at least since Navarrete’s boss, a Spaniard by the name of Miguel Torres, bought it a couple years ago. Each morning, Navarrete — Nelson is his first name — comes to this spot and, per Torres’s instruction, checks on what appear to be nothing more than a bunch of scrawny, brown sticks jutting out of the ground.

They are, it turns out, grape vines. One row is all chardonnay, the next riesling and the next pinot noir — 150 vines in all. Navarrete, a life-long gaucho, may know essentially nothing about wine, but Torres knows plenty.

He is the patriarch of Miguel Torres SA, a winemaker that has grown from a small family business back in the late 19th century to one of the largest in all of Spain. And his bet is a bold, albeit ominous, one: that a world-class vineyard can flourish here. All that is needed, Torres surmises, is for the wicked effects of global warming to take hold.

Nelson Navarrete inspects drying sheepskins.
▲ Nelson Navarrete inspects drying sheepskins.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

It will take time, he knows, maybe as much as 50 years, for temperatures to climb enough to make those little sticks blossom into healthy vines. That’s where Navarrete and the Solis brothers come in. The sheep they raise and shear and slaughter are to pay the bills while Torres waits, patiently, for climate change to touch this remote corner of Patagonia.

Navarrete, for one, has come to embrace the plan. Initially, he had found it to be preposterous. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” he recalls. “I thought they were crazy.”

The more he thought about it, though, the more it made sense. The climate already has been changing around here, making certain vegetables viable for the first time. And so, he reasoned, if peppers, lettuce and tomatoes can now thrive in greenhouses and potatoes out in the open ground, why can’t wine grapes one day, too?

The Winemaking Regions of Chile

Vintners have, of course, been changing up techniques and moving around their vineyards for years to adapt to climbing temperatures. Many regions that had been too harsh to match the delicate flavors of vintages produced in the traditional wine capitals of the world are suddenly booming. Like in the valleys of Sussex on the southeastern edge of England. Or on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark. Or along the shores of Lake Michigan in the U.S.

In Chile, too. Concha y Toro SA, the country’s top producer, has radically overhauled its growing methods — implementing more efficient irrigation systems and using advanced biochemistry to create new varieties of grapes — and has started planting fields hundreds of miles south of its main installations near Santiago, the capital city. (In South America, it’s the opposite of northern climes: further south typically means colder, not warmer, temperatures.) Miguel Torres, which has been in Chile for four decades, had also snapped up new land in recent years, buying tracts in the town of Osorno, where it produces sauvignon blanc.

But this Patagonia gambit is on a whole different scale. Los Condores is almost another 500 miles further south of Osorno. Its average temperature another 5 degrees Celsius colder in winter. The audacity of the initiative underscores just how high the stakes are for the industry and how resigned some are to the inexorable climb in global temperatures.

“As Mr. Miguel Torres himself says, this is an experiment, a very long-term project,” Navarrete, 64, says. “Who knows where we’ll all be? I don’t think I’ll be here to drink wine made from this vineyard.”

Navarrete checks in on the experimental grape vines at Los Condores.
Navarrete checks in on the experimental grape vines at Los Condores.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

The rush south in Chile is made all the more urgent by the drought that has battered the country’s central growing regions for the past decade. It’s been relentless, scorching land that had long been arable and productive, if never quite lush green.

This section of Chile is, in many ways, like the California of South America: bound by soaring mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, arid to the point of being desert-like in stretches, and yet, with the right amount of fresh water for irrigation, incredibly fertile.

Beyond the cabernet sauvignons and the chardonnays, the region produces and sells all sorts of fruit to buyers in the U.S. and beyond: cherries, plums, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, blueberries, raspberries, apples, avocados, walnuts, almonds. Chile is the world’s No. 1 exporter of many of these items. It’s a $6 billion annual business and a labor-intensive industry that’s responsible for almost one in every 10 jobs in the country.

But, like California, Chile has been hard hit by climate change. The drought is Exhibit A. Its intensity and duration, scientists say, are telltale signs that this is no typical weather event. Over the past decade, the region has received a mere 30% of the annual rainfall it got in the previous century. Last year was the driest of them all.

“We had never seen a 10-year period as dry as this one,” says Rene Garreaud, a climatologist at the Universidad de Chile. “Climate change is playing a big part.”

The drought is also being felt in Patagonia. In the spring, this lake bed at Los Condores fills up a couple months later than it used to years ago.
▲ The drought is also being felt in Patagonia. In the spring, this lake bed at Los Condores fills up a couple months later than it used to years ago.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Perhaps nowhere has the drought been felt more than in the Aconcagua Valley, a slender stretch of picturesque farm country just north of Santiago. For decades, farmers here have gotten much of their water from the rivers and streams that rush down from the Aconcagua Mountain when the snow cap melts in the spring. But because almost no snow fell this past winter, the river beds are dry and the message to farmers, Victor Catan says, is clear: Water only your most fertile fields. “There won’t be enough water for everyone to irrigate everything,” says Catan, who heads a local farmers association.

Catan, 45, has farmed in the valley his whole life. His plot lies on the outer eastern edge, towards the foothills of the Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes. He grows peaches and table grapes and some plums, too.

Back at the start of the planting season in August, he decided to leave some 40 hectares (about 100 acres) fallow. That’s 20% of all his land. Still, it wasn’t enough. In November, he cut off the water supply to another 7 hectares. With less land to work, he’s dismissed five of his 30 full-time farm hands and plans to take on only 140 temporary workers during the harvest season that ends in April. In a normal year, he’d hire about 200 of them.

What scares Catan and other farmers the most is that if the rains don’t return in 2020 and the abandoned fields go without water for another year, they may be lost forever, victims of desertification.

“Things are really getting serious now,” he says.

The Concha y Toro research center vineyard is located in Maule in central Chile, the country’s top wine region.
The Concha y Toro research center vineyard is located in Maule in central Chile, the country’s top wine region.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Fruit farms are, of course, a big part of the problem themselves. They consume massive amounts of water, about 80% of all that is used throughout Chile. One way to alleviate the problem would be for them to shift away from today’s rudimentary irrigation techniques, which include the centuries-old practice of field flooding, to more sophisticated drip systems that use only a fraction of the water.

The problem is that this transformation requires lots of capital — figure about $3,000 per hectare — and while that is easily manageable for a Concha y Toro or Miguel Torres, it is a prohibitive sum of money for a small fruit farmer. Even Catan, one of the bigger farmers in the region, has managed to convert only part of his land to drip systems.

This underscores another cruel aspect of the drought: It is further accentuating inequality. Unable to afford the investments needed to stay in business, the poorer farmers sell their land to the wealthier ones who can meet those outlays. This in a country that is already one of the most unequal in all of the Americas, and one where that inequality helped spark a spasm of protests that rocked cities all across Chile late last year.

Then there is the migration south.

Just as the big winemakers did, wealthier farmers are now scooping up tracts of land hundreds of miles south of the Aconcagua Valley. Two neighboring regions in particular have become red-hot plays: Biobio and Nuble. Farm prices have soared 100% over the past five years, according to GPS Property, a Santiago-based consultancy. An acre around there today fetches more than $5,000. That’s almost double the $3,000-per-acre average cost for farmland in the U.S.

Antonio and Patricio Solis take a rest at Los Condores.
▲ Antonio and Patricio Solis take a rest at Los Condores.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Katherine Rachel, a real-estate agent in Temuco, a city just to the south of Biobio and Nuble, has watched the run-up in prices with astonishment.

Northern Chileans have been buying land at such a frantic pace that she wonders if the whole thing is just some big bubble that will burst one day. A few years ago, she says, 13 million pesos (about $17,000) would buy five hectares or so of land. “Now, you get one and not a very good one.” She knows it’s bad for her business, but she struggles to recommend plots of lands for farmers to buy in the area nowadays. Better, she says, to head further south, like Miguel Torres did, where land prices so far remain largely unaffected by the boom.

Betting on climate change is a bit of an awkward endeavor, really. It can weigh on the conscience. Which helps explain why executives at Miguel Torres are quick to point out how they’ve planted 1,800 pine trees at Los Condores to offset some of the carbon emissions produced by the dozens of vineyards they own in Spain, the U.S. and Chile.

The vineyard at Los Condores is, for now, a pathetic little thing.

Each of the vines is dwarfed by a green, protective plastic cover. For further safeguarding, a tall, covered fence rings the whole area. This both keeps the wild hares at bay and blocks the wind, which can gust so strong around here that the locals like to say, only somewhat in jest, that it makes rocks fly.

None of this pampering seems to matter much. The only real life detected inside the fence one recent morning was from the dandelions that were growing wildly all around the brown vines.

Navarrete is undaunted. He knows that progress, if it comes, will be tediously gradual, and he derives pleasure from the smallest of developments — the sighting of a tiny little brown bud or of a root that has taken a firm hold in the ground.

Dandelions grow alongside a vine inside the experimental vineyard at Los Condores.
Dandelions grow alongside a vine inside the experimental vineyard at Los Condores.
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

No one at Miguel Torres was willing to provide an estimate of how much temperatures will have to climb for the vines to thrive, but a French scientist by the name of Herve Quenol figures they are still several degrees Celsius away. Quenol, a member of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, has been studying for years how climate change has made wine-making viable on the Argentine side of the Patagonia, which juts much further north than on the Chilean side and as a result is a lot warmer in spots.

For a vineyard to be considered viable in Patagonia, Quenol says that average temperatures need to hover between 12 and 20 degrees Celsius (54 and 68 Fahrenheit) during the growing season. In Coyhaique, the closest town to Los Condores, they are normally in a 8-to-14 degree range in those months.

Predictions for temperature increases specifically around Coyhaique are hard to come by. The Universidad de Chile provides the closest thing, offering a forecast for Patagonia as a whole: Temperatures will rise as much as 1.6 degrees by 2069, right around the time Miguel Torres’s 50-year horizon ends. Will that be enough? Quenol says very possibly. “The potential for small vineyards to succeed on the Chilean side is enormous.’’

Miguel Torres hopes the hills and valleys of Los Condores will one day be covered with grape vines
▲ Miguel Torres hopes the hills and valleys of Los Condores will one day be covered with grape vines
Photographer: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

In the meantime, Navarrete is content to live the gaucho life, saddling up his horse each morning, as he has for decades, and riding herd on the flock of sheep.

He had traveled down to Tierra del Fuego, on the southernmost tip of South America, to pick out the sheep himself and had been nervous that they wouldn’t adapt to their new climes. Now, he delighted at the non-stop cacophony of noise that the newborn, white-faced lambs made and at the sight of the wool piled high and ready for sale to a British buyer, and he marveled at how beautiful and yet also how odd it all was.

“Here is Mr. Miguel Torres’s first batch of Patagonian wool,” he says, his face breaking into a broad smile. “Unbelievable, right?”