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In the southeastern corner of the Maipo Valley, some 40 miles from Santiago, nameless roads pass almond trees and sleepy bungalows, crawling up into the foothills of the Andes. Nights here are cold. “Once the sun sets, there is a breeze from the mountains that cools the entire area,” says Álvaro Espinoza, the affable biodynamic winemaker behind Chile’s first garage winery, Antiyal. These sort of quick climatic shifts can increase the tannins that accumulate in the skin of red wine grapes; the results, explains Espinoza, are often fuller, richer wines. As such, Maipo is one of Chile’s oldest and most celebrated regions for red varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère — a French grape that’s become Chile’s signature. Locally, this reputation has even earned Maipo a nickname: the Bordeaux of South America.
At 53, Espinoza has long hair and a goatee, both accented gray. He’s laid back, a natural conversationalist who flexes humor between English, French and Spanish. But walking across the idyll that is Antiyal, blanketed by cherry blossoms in the spring, he carries a quiet sense of conviction when it comes to matters of wine. Born in Santiago, he grew up visiting nearby vineyards with his father, who made his living as a winemaking consultant and professor of enology in the capital city. The early exposure proved formative for the young Espinoza. “I never saw myself with an office job. I just loved to be in nature,” he says of his drive to pursue viticulture professionally. “It was in my blood.”
At the time, Chile’s wine industry was burdened by the economic crises of the 1980s. After studying at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Espinoza traveled to France, where he received the Diplôme national d’oenologue, or DNO, from the University of Bordeaux. But things turned around for the Chilean wine industry in what Espinoza calls the “boom of the ‘90s.” European investors like Miguel Torres and Éric de Rothschild arrived and began developing large-scale operations with modern technologies. The country was quickly on its way to becoming a major player in global wine production. (As of 2015, Chile is the fourth-largest exporter in the world, behind Italy, Spain and France, respectively.)
Espinoza decided to return home. With his experience abroad, he landed a position at Chile’s oldest winery, Carmen, which sits about six miles from the vineyards of present-day Antiyal. There he first met Jim Fetzer of Fetzer Wines in California, a pioneer of organic and biodynamic viticulture in the New World. When he visited Fetzer in the States, Espinoza was introduced to concepts of organics and biodynamics — but perhaps more importantly, to the limitations of conventional farming to produce unique wines. “I was impressed by the work I saw,” he says. “Here in Chile, nobody was talking about organic or biodynamic techniques.”
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Espinoza was excited. He wanted to bring these ideas back to Chile, but knew it would be difficult to develop them at an established operation like Carmen. Though Espinoza steered the winery to create Nativa, the first certified organic line in the country, he wasn’t satisfied. His craving to unearth the purest expression of the Maipo Valley, namely through biodynamics, drove him to his own side project: In 1996, he and his wife, Marina, started Antiyal in their garage. “We didn’t think of it as a business at the time,” he says. “It was something to teach our kids, like a hobby.” In 2000, he left Carmen entirely.
“My dream is that, if people want a beautiful, premium wine, they see Chile.”
Over the past two decades, Antiyal has grown to cover roughly 24 acres in the region — and in more than just rows of vines. The farm is home to 15 chickens, eight geese, five horses, three alpacas, one goat, one sheep, one cow and Espinoza’s beloved family of bullmastiff dogs. A large compost pile, about the size of his orange VW bus (parked nearby), sits a short walk from the house he shares with his wife. At face value, this could all appear to be just another vineyard in the Maipo Valley, albeit one with animals running around. But what’s happening in the soil and the grapes is very different from a conventional vineyard, says Espinoza. And to understand it is to know the name Rudolph Steiner.
Biodynamics has its roots in the early 1900s, when Steiner, an outspoken Austrian intellectual, advocated for a more holistic approach to agriculture than what was developing in Europe at the time. Its main tenet treats the farm as a “low-input” ecosystem where all, or most, of what is used for production is sourced from inside the farm itself. The logic is simple. “In conventional farming you can bring anything that the soil lacks from outside, changing its fertility, age and sometimes even its structure,” says Espinoza. Not so at Antiyal, where, for example, the farm’s llamas serve as one of the vineyard’s primary weed controls, eating unwanted growth to protect the grapes.
Closed-system production is Espinoza’s main draw to biodynamics, or what he calls its “most seductive difference” from conventional and even organic viticulture. It is often the terroir — or the expression of place through flavor — that distinguishes a specific wine from others. Importing foreign agents, which can also be sourced by other farms, tends to homogenize the yield, and grapes from different vineyards start to become uniform. “It’s a bit like Coca-Cola,” says Espinoza. “It doesn’t matter where it’s produced because it all tastes pretty much the same. This is the big critique of the new world of wines, that they are not unique expressions of where they come from.”