Several reliable sources – including NASA – predict that 2020 will be the warmest year on record. One of the worst fire seasons in history has once again ravaged vineyards in Northern California and Oregon, drought is surging to extreme levels along much of the West Coast, and temperatures are growing more extreme around the world. It’s undeniable planet Earth is hurting. These unprecedented, often surreal times have inspired me to be even more conscious about all my decisions – including the wines I drink.
More than ever, when I choose a wine, it’s not only about variety. I think about growing practices, herbicides, pesticides … everything it took to get the wine into the bottle. For this reason, I was excited to discover St. Stephen Organic Vineyards – a small, organic, family-owned winery in the Colchagua Valley, Chile that donates 100% of its profits to global environmental causes.
Owner Tim Edwards and his Chilean wife Claudia spent a year traveling by Jeep from New Orleans through most of South America – including a boat trip down the Amazon River – before ultimately ending up in Chile where they purchased a home. They bought the land which would eventually become St. Stephen Vineyards in 2008 in the small town of San José de los Lingues, where they count many of the roughly 85 residents as relatives.
The vines at St. Stephen were planted in 2011 on a beautiful plot of land at the base of the Andes Mountains. “We’re about a half day’s ride by horse to an altitude of over 15,000 feet – 3 times higher than Denver” Tim shared with me. The land itself holds a deep history and could undoubtedly tell many stories of its own. One particularly interesting story I was told includes a large tree that sits on the property which was once used to hang murderers, horse thieves, and other people the townsfolk deemed undesirable.
When it came time to make wine, Tim and his wife knew they wanted to produce high quality wines using all organic practices. They gathered recommendations on the best winemakers in Chile, narrowed the group down to ten, and ultimately chose José Antonio Bravo von Bischoffshausen. After making wine in California (Napa and Monterey), Argentina and Chile, José Antonio brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to St. Stephen.
Currently St. Stephen is focused on three varieties: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmenere. All the grapes are 100% organically grown with zero pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or preservatives. Sustainable growing practices are used, including sheep for weed control, water from Andean mountain snow melt, and reduced tilling to preserve healthy soil structure. From cultivating and harvesting the grapes to processing the wine, every step is done by hand.
“In the crafting of organic and biodynamic wines, the winemaking becomes more “pure” which is to say it requires far fewer adjustments such as acidity corrections, pre-bottling procedures, and winemaker involvement in general. The use of native yeasts also works very well in organic wines. This approach has worked well for me at St. Stephen and other successful organic wines I have been associated with because it maximizes the expression of the terroir, the sun, the soil, the water, and is better for bringing out the complex, subtle flavors of the grapes and the unique place in the world from which each comes”– Jose Antonio Bravo von Bischoffshausen
Fortunately, Chile is perfectly suited for organic grape growing. As José Antonio told me, “in Chile, key growing regions such as Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, and Maule differ from each other primarily due to varying temperatures and climatic conditions, as well as key geographic differences and their soils.” The temperature and climate in Chile are widely varied over the 2700 mile distance from north to south with virtually no rainfall during the growing season (no mildew) and large diurnal swings which help the grapes develop in a more balanced manner. A large diurnal range in the vineyard basically means warm, sunny days that promote sugar development followed by cool nights that help preserve natural grape acidity, freshness, and aromas.
A long, narrow country sandwiched between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Chile has also been protected from many natural enemies – including the phylloxera louse that nearly decimated vineyards worldwide during the mid-late 1800’s. In fact Chile is one of the few remaining places where vineyards are planted on native rootstock (today the vast majority of vineyards around the world are grafted on American rootstock which is naturally immune to phylloxera).
“The poison used to control phylloxera is among the most aggressive pesticides used in vineyards. Knock on wood, but phylloxera does not yet exist in Chile. In other wine regions going organic involves putting the entire vineyard at risk”– Tim Edwards
In addition to being organic, sustainable, and (hopefully soon) biodynamic, St. Stephen Organic Vineyards is a cause-based organization, which means 100% of their profits are donated to environmental causes, chosen based on those believed to do the most good for the planet. Dedication to climate and environmental health are so paramount at St. Stephen, they were the first Chilean company ever to be invited to present a proposal in 2019 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Madrid.
In a nutshell, the proposal suggested that environmental organizations’ efforts to mitigate climate change could be subsidized through the establishment of a brand with its own recognizable logo. Consumer product and service companies could use the logo on their packaging and marketing materials if they committed a portion of their sales revenue to environmental causes, ultimately helping the planet while improving their own brand image. To put the potential impact into perspective, a contribution of just 1% of the revenue of the top 500 U.S. companies would generate roughly $140 billion that could be used to combat climate change and significantly reduce carbon emissions by funding the development of green technologies (solar, electric, wind and others).
I recently had an opportunity to taste the 2016 “Am” Malbec Reserve from the Curico Valley and the 2017 “Oda al Vino” Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from the neighboring Colchagua Valley – both of which are single varietal, single vineyard and 100% estate grown. The “Am” Malbec – which means “spirit” or “soul” in the native Mapuche language – was initially dominated by bright red fruit which eventually gave way to strawberry preserves, dark plum, earthiness and a hint of dark cocoa after the wine had time to breathe.
The “Oda al Vino” Cabernet Sauvignon – named after the Pablo Neruda poem titled “Ode To Wine” – had notes of cherry, red currant and cranberry that were complimented by hints of menthol, cedar, cigar box, and cola. There was also a little surprise on the cork that made a music-lover and fan of the Grateful Dead like myself extremely happy.
Tasting notes aside, what I loved about these wines was how elegant they are. These are not the concentrated, bold, often high alcohol varietal styles you’d find in California and elsewhere in the New World. They are lighter bodied, less tannic, and juicier – reminiscent of Bordeaux-style wines that could easily be paired with food or enjoyed on their own.
Currently, St. Stephen Organic Vineyards is proudly a small, family owned operation with no immediate plans to expand. Production is less than 1000 cases per year and they don’t have a winery of their own. They grow all of their own grapes on their land, use space at someone else’s winery for production, and focus all their energy on making the best hand- crafted organic wines possible.
Not having a winery also means no tasting room for visitors, however as Tim mentioned, they have hosted people in the vineyard. “We usually just open a bottle in the field. We keep glasses in the tool shed for just such occasions”. Hopefully once the world returns to a state of balance and travel can resume, there will be a glass in the shed waiting for me.
ST. STEPHEN ORGANIC VINEYARDS
San José de Los Lingues
Colchagua Valley, Chile
Phone: (408) 780-4769
* Wines can be ordered directly from the website.