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Chilean vintners experienced a challenging growing season and harvest in 2004, continuing the country's recent trend of erratic conditions in even-numbered years.
"This vintage has been quite strange and varied regarding the weather conditions," said Arnaud Hereau, winemaker for Odfjell Vineyards in the Maipo Valley.
The winter was wetter than usual, and the spring was cooler than usual. A severe frost reduced yields by up to 25 percent in Casablanca Valley, in the north, and affected vines down through Maipo.
But a warm growing season quickly followed, with above-average temperatures in the Maipo and Rapel valleys, which are the heart of Chile's red-wine production. There, budbreak and flowering were reported seven to 10 days earlier than usual.
The heat continued through March, when it usually abates, and growers began to worry about rapidly rising sugar levels in grapes that had yet to see sufficient development in their polyphenols (such as tannins and color components).
But early April brought some needed rain and cooler temperatures, which helped the grapes' maturity to catch up with their sugar levels.
"Temperatures came back to the standard, so ripening was normal," said Aurelio Montes, winemaker for Viña Montes. "Sugar levels this year were high, but pH and acidity were normal to high, which is good for Chile."
Growers reported excellent results with white varieties, particularly in Casablanca. Among red varieties, the heat affected Merlot, but Cabernet Sauvignon had a strong performance, particularly in Maipo.
"2004 is a very good year," said Bruno Prats, co-owner of Viña Aquitania, located in Maipo.
In contrast to Cabernet's strong showing, the late-ripening Carmenère, a grape that has emerged as an important player in Chilean red wines, was variable in quality. Rain began to fall in mid-April and intensified later in the month. The southern valleys of Curicó and Itata were hit hardest, while the rains in Rapel and Maipo were lighter.
"Most of the Carmenère was exposed to rainfall," Montes said. "We were forced to pick it earlier than we expected."
But the northern Chilean wine regions were not hit by the late rains. There, "I think it will be an excellent year," said Ed Flaherty, head winemaker for Seña in the Aconcagua Valley.
Overall, winemakers remained optimistic about the vintage. "Although not as concentrated as 2003, 2004 should give very good and interesting wines, with good color [and] great fruit," said Michel Friou, winemaker for Casa Lapostolle.
Read James Molesworth's recent harvest and tasting reports on Chile:
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