Despite Frost and Fire, South American Vintners Are Happy with Harvest

Argentina weathered temperature plunges and hailstorms; Chile suffered forest fires, but vintners who did make wine like the results

Despite Frost and Fire, South American Vintners Are Happy with Harvest
A worker harvests Malbec in Altamira for Bodega Argento's wines; harvest came early there and other parts of Mendoza, Argentina. (Courtesy Bodega Argento)
May 18, 2023

The 2023 vintage will go down as one of the most tempestuous in Argentina and Chile's modern eras. For Argentina, the year brought widespread hailstorms, followed by a sweltering summer and then some frost near harvest time for good measure. In Chile, much of the country weathered the same summer heat, but a few regions also suffered devastating wildfires that burned historic vineyards and blanketed the region with smoke.

Across both countries, yields are low. But for winemakers who were able to harvest fruit, they report quality is very promising.

Argentina's roller coaster year

Frosts in late October and November set the stage for a year of ups and downs, affecting yields in the vast majority of the country's vineyards. Hailstorms in December and January added another layer of complication, and as harvest neared temperatures began to soar. In January, parts of Mendoza experienced a daily average temperature of 87°F—data shows 2023 was the warmest harvest since 1961. Then, a very unusual frost struck on February 18, affecting parts of Patagonia and southern Mendoza.

The result? The 1.58 million tons of harvested grapes is the lowest yield since 1960. But quantity aside, many winemakers are very happy with the quality of the results from their fermentations.

"The frost events forced us to do a lot of extra work to choose between the first and second bud crops," Matervini winemaker Santiago Achaval told Wine Spectator. "But once done, the quality of the remaining fruit was excellent."

Frigid Start

On Oct. 31, just as many vineyards were budding, a polar front swept through the country for two nights, plunging temperatures well below freezing for several hours. The National Viticultural Institute estimates yields are down approximately 25 percent across the country. Some areas saw nearly their entire crops destroyed.

Achaval is also one of the lucky vintners. The vineyards he sources are in Mendoza's higher elevations, which were less affected because budding was far less advanced. Central Mendoza areas like Luján de Cuyo experienced some decline in yields; however, few were devastated by the frost. The same goes for areas like Gualtallary and Los Chacayes in Uco Valley, with steep slopes and higher elevations. Lower sites, such as Paraje Altamira, El Cepillo and La Consulta, were hit the hardest.

Outside of Mendoza, Patagonia suffered the most, with losses averaging 50 to 70 percent. Juan Pablo Murgia, winemaker for Otronia, situated in the Chubut province said they're used to frost and were less dramatically affected. "We have frosts throughout the season, and our vineyards are specially designed to live with that," he said.

In the north of the country, frost reached Salta in some areas but wasn't as harsh because of its varying elevations. Achaval also makes wines from this region and said there were no heat waves like in Mendoza and quality was good, but there was some degree of loss due to frost.

Argentina’s Agrelo vineyard]
Bodega Argento’s Finca Agrelo vineyard in Mendoza weathered high temperatures. (Courtesy Bodega Argento)

A rapid season

But frost wasn't the only culprit in lowering yields. Secondary budding often leads to more vigor. The vines were producing more foliage than grapes and that, combined with summer heat, accelerated ripening. The vintage was early and rapid, with many picking well ahead of normal and finishing quickly. Murgia, who also makes the wines for Bodega Argento, said their vineyard in Agrelo was picked 24 days earlier than usual. "It was the fastest harvest I've ever seen. By late March, nobody was picking."

For Murgia, despite the heat and rushed harvest, the wines show a good concentration of polyphenols and flavors, with overall excellent quality. "When describing the season, it's not good to talk about the disasters, but it is good to talk about the low yields that directly affected quality," he said, adding, "When you talk about specific regions and showing their character, the 2023 wines are going to be emblematic of that."

Scorching Chile

Chile's 2023 vintage will be marked by fires that erupted in February, spurred by prolonged drought and abnormally high temperatures. The fires burned more than one million acres of land in southern Chile's Ñuble and Bío Bío regions within Itata Valley, Araucania and beyond.

"The fire burned centuries-old vineyards in the coastal Itata and Bío Bío area, many of which contained a great history of Chilean viticulture," said Eduardo Jordán, technical director for Miguel Torres.

But much of Chile's wine production comes from the central regions around Santiago, including Maipo and Colchagua Valleys, which were unscathed by fire and smoke. Winemakers did battle warmer-than-average temperatures but believe they still made excellent wines. "Initially, it was crazy!" said Sebastián Labbé, winemaker for Viña Santa Rita. "We thought it was going to be the hottest, richest and sweetest vintage, but tasting the wines now, we saw that we made some good decisions to pick early."

Chile's Limari parcels]
Miguel Torres' Limari vineyard sits near the Pacific and enjoys cool breezes even in warm years. (Courtesy Miguel Torres)

A lengthy harvest

For many, harvest commenced in early February, and for those with late-ripening varieties such as Carmenère, it lasted until the end of April. Labbé said they never pick Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon in February, but this year they started on February 28. And he says the results paid off, with wines showing good concentration and freshness.

"The changing climate is pushing us to be smarter in the vineyard and be more in sync about how to adapt," he explained. "Overall, it was a good year. We were a little worried about dehydration and overripeness. As the climate gets warmer, picking earlier adds another layer of complexity."

Jordán agreed. "In dry years like these, a significant challenge is reaching maturity as slowly as possible, losing minor acidity and avoiding dehydration. The great challenge is maintaining the balance."

Different varieties tolerate the heat better, and one of Chile's most important grapes, Carmenère, excelled in warmer areas, such as Apalta, within Colchagua Valley. "The quality of tannins is fantastic," said Labbé, adding, "with lots of black cherry, violet and spice notes." Chile's workhorse variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, also fared very well. Jordán noted that the heat blocked photosynthesis and the variety adapted well, producing wines with lower alcohol levels than expected and excellent quality.

Varied results

Miguel Torres produces wines from vineyards in multiple regions, spanning 800 miles and covering numerous climatic zones. Overall, Jordán said the results of the wines this year were better than expected, given the extreme weather conditions. Yields appeared to be down, as much as 30 percent where heat and lack of water stressed the vines, particularly with red grapes.

However, white varieties showed much promise in 2023, with good yields and vibrancy, especially among those planted near the Pacific Ocean, such as in Limarí. He said many wines produced from vineyards near the fire-affected regions further south show smoke taint, but he believes it isn't universal across all varieties and vineyards.

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News Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec Chile Argentina 2023

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