Making wine at the end of the world

NEW YORK Tue May 17, 2011 11:38am EDT

A general view of the leading edge of Perito Moreno glacier in the southern Patagonia region near El Calafate, January 3, 2009.REUTERS/Ernesto Fernandez

A general view of the leading edge of Perito Moreno glacier in the southern Patagonia region near El Calafate, January 3, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ernesto Fernandez

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Patagonia, the huge swath of land at the southern tip of South America, is known for its rugged mountains and glaciers but an innovative group of winemakers are hoping to add wine to the list.

Santiago Bernasconi, a 38-year-old winemaker at Bodega NQN in Neuquen, Argentina, and his colleagues are making wine on the edge of the earth.

"It makes you feel like you are the last boundary in the winemaking world," Bernasconi, said during a visit to the U.S. to introduce the wines from the newest area in Patagonia to host wineries.

"There are only like eight wineries in Patagonia and we all share our experience and work to improve the wines of the whole region."

NQN owns 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) on a wind-swept plateau. Two hundred hectares are planted with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. With cutting-edge irrigation and fertilization equipment NQN produces wines that are fruit driven and light in style from 11-year-old vines.

A couple of valleys to the east in Rio Negro, Augusto Ripoll, the 40-year-old owner of Patagonia Valley Bodegas, planted vines 12 years ago on 10 hectares (25 acres).

"I try not to be aggressive with the soil," he said of his organic vineyard. "It will last forever. Those plants that I planted have to last at least 100, 120 years. That's for my kids. How can I be destroying my soil by using some chemicals that will give me more of what I'm not looking for?"

Making wine in Patagonia poses particular problems. Ripoll described the poor soil of a dried riverbed created by glaciers where dinosaur bones are found. But one plus is the water from the Andes.

Without irrigation and depending only on the melting snow, the vines are forced to grow deep to reach the water, and as a result the white wines they produce have a special fresh fruit taste.

Ripoll and Bernasconi must also contend with the weather.

"It is cold in winter, but in summer it is hot - very, very hot. During the day it is 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) at night 20 degrees (68 F). So the plant has to work double to bring all this energy from the soil with it," he explained.

Harvesting with a small tractor and occasionally a horse, Ripoll produces reds that have a high alcohol content.

"The Pinot Noir has 14.8, 15 percent alcohol because that is what the sun gives to my grapes. I can't go against that. That is the terroir," he said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney)

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