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After Fires, Chile Rebuilds Devastated Wine Regions

Some producers were lucky, others less so. How will the blazes impact this year's harvest and the future?
Photo by: Courtesy Viña Casa Vergara
Scorched grapes hang from vines in Chile, a reminder of January's wildfires.

Emma Balter
Posted: May 30, 2017

Chile suffered some of the worst wildfires in the nation's history earlier this year, with dozens of blazes ripping across hundreds of thousands of acres in the country's Central Valley. Eleven people were killed, dozens injured and thousands displaced.

While the fires mostly burned pine forests, more than 100 vineyards were damaged or destroyed by the flames, mainly in the Maule and O'Higgins regions. Since then, the country's wine industry has harvested the 2017 crop. The fire's impact on this vintage and those to come is yet to be determined.

How is this year's crop?

In vineyards spared by the flames, smoke taint was the primary concern.

At Concha y Toro, smoke taint analysis was a priority. With the help of experts, they divided picked grapes into three categories: Grapes from vineyards very close to the fires were not vinified at all; those from vineyards within a 3-mile radius were vinified separately; grapes that showed no impact from the smoke went through the normal winemaking process.

Some smaller producers were also able to conduct analysis on the grapes. Daniela Lorenzo of Viña González Bastías, who lost almost a quarter of her vines, reports that she is happy with the quality of the remaining crop, which does not appear to have been affected by the smoke. She cautions, however, that smoky notes become more noticeable with time.

Felipe García, who owns Garcia & Schwaderer, also sees promising quality but will monitor the wine for smoke taint that may develop later.

What was lost?

Garcia & Schwaderer buys most of its fruit from grapegrowers in Casablanca Valley, which was not affected by the fires. However, the winery lost a quarter of its 100-acre Piedra Lisa vineyard in Itata Valley.

Originally planted to Pais 120 years ago, the winery started grafting Mediterranean varieties over those rootstocks in 2010. Of the 25 acres that burned, 15 were Pais vines and 10 were the grafted vines, mainly Mourvèdre and Grenache.

García expects 5 acres to grow grapes again as soon as next year, and another 5 to die. For the rest, time will tell.

Juan Pablo Vergara, of Viña Casa Vergara in the Cauquenes area of Maule Valley, used to own nearly 100 acres of vines. He now has 25. In recent vintages he has produced between 6,500 to 8,000 cases per year. This year he made less than 2,300. And he is unsure he'll have the resources to replant what was lost any time soon.

At Viña González Bastías, Lorenzo says she and some of her neighbors harvested 40 to 50 percent less grapes in 2017. Although she witnessed some encouraging sprouting from the vines a month after the fires, recovery will take time. She expects the most heavily damaged vines to resume normal production in five to seven years. Smoke and heat damage on other vines could delay their next growing cycle by two or three years.

"We're just going to keep working those vines and helping them as much as we can," she said. She tries to see the bigger picture—seven years lost is not much when the vines can live more than a century.

Who is helping and how?

"Forestry companies are just getting their insurance for everything that burned, but for small [farmers] like us, it's up to the government to remember us," said Lorenzo. Her estate has received some government assistance, but it's minimal compared to what she lost.

Over at Garcia & Schwaderer, García is in a similar boat. "Our property was one of the most damaged properties [by] the fires, but if you are not really, really poor, you don't receive a lot of help from the government," he said. Vergara has also received a small sum, but is grateful as this is the first time he has ever received money from the government after a natural disaster.


Chile's Damaged Vineyards

Photo Courtesy of Casa Viña Vergara Photo Courtesy of Casa Viña Vergara Photo Courtesy of Garcia & Schwarderer Photo Courtesy of Garcia & Schwarderer

With many producers clamoring for help and little money to go around, relying solely on government agencies is tricky. Luckily, funding can come from elsewhere. Miguel Torres lost around 12 acres of its own vineyards, but three of the producers that they buy fruit from lost their homes and facilities. Thanks to a fair trade program they are part of, they managed to help rebuild what their partners lost.

Technical manager Fernando Almeda says there is a culture of helping in Chile. "The first days after the fires, people from other parts of the country started to bring everything over there: water, food, clothes and all that," he said, also noting that government programs exist but tend to be slow.

Other charity efforts have emerged. Lorenzo mentions the "Barra Solidaria" campaign, which organized events across Chile to raise funds for wineries affected by the fires. Some workers in restaurants and wine shops worked for free to donate profits, while big wineries auctioned off their wine. "So help while you're drinking wine, which makes me happy," she said.

Will this affect Chilean wine prices?

It's hard to tell what the long-term economic impact will be. Alex Guarachi, owner and winemaker at Guarachi Family Wines and founder of Guarachi Wine Partners, believes that because most of the impacted vineyards grew grapes destined for bulk wine, there will be a ripple effect on the market. "People that make table wines [will] try to find other sources of fruit so they don't lose market share. They're going to have to pay more money. We'll probably have a spike in prices overall for fine wine," he explained.

Vergara of Viña Casa Vergara says he is fine now because he has some stock of older vintages in his cellar, but he will probably have to increase his prices in a couple years. Other producers express a larger concern: Fires aside, yields have been low in Chile due to an ongoing drought. Both Almeda of Miguel Torres and García of Garcia & Schwaderer reported between 20 and 30 percent reduced crop last year. Chile has enjoyed much of its recent success because of its relatively lower costs compared to other major wine nations, so higher prices could hurt business.

What's certain for now is that most winemakers express optimism and hope that they will eventually get the resources they need to rebuild. "We'll be fine," says García. "We have the passion and the force to keep going because we are really passionate about the wines."

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