Chile's firefighting efforts continue, nearly three weeks after hundreds of fires erupted in several Southern provinces, burning more than one million acres, destroying more than 2,100 homes and businesses, and killing at least 25 people. According to officials, dozens of uncontrolled fires are still burning in and around Concepicon province, which lies 350 miles south of Santiago. The majority are ablaze in the Ñuble and Bío Bío regions within the Itata Valley, home to some of the country's oldest vineyards. Additional fires are spreading north into parts of Maule and south into Araucanía.
"The consequences of the fires have been terrible," Eduardo Jordán Villalobos, technical director for Miguel Torres, told Wine Spectator. "Many acres of forests burned, and this time, unlike the 2017 fire, I have seen a greater number of vineyards, houses and even wine cellars [burn]."
Vineyards often act as buffers against fires, but these intense blazes have left many vines with significant damage. Many of the grapes slated for the 2023 vintage are all but ruined by smoke exposure or heat damage.
Villalobos said fires reached one of Torres' estate vineyards in Bío Bío Valley, near the city of Nacimiento. "We have 10 acres of País vineyards over 150 years old that we managed to save an important portion of, thanks to the fire walls we had made." Villalobos added that during the fire period, several vineyards that Torres works with in the affected valleys had endured fire and intense smoke damage. Yet, only one of its growers, Ernestorina Gonzales, suffered the loss of vines.
The 2022 to 2023 growing season in southern Chile, especially from December onward, has been marked by intense heat and gusty winds that help spark and spread wildfires. The absence of summer rains this year has increased the risk of wildfires. Villalobos said rainfall totals are the lowest southern Chile has seen over the last four years.
In the hills of the Chilean Coast Range, Andrés Sánchez, winemaker for both the Gillmore and Dakél wineries, had a close call at Dakél's Maricerro Vineyard. "When we saw the cloud created by the fire, we dedicated ourselves for two intense days to prevent the fire from reaching the vineyards, house and bodega," he said. Dakél is made in partnership with Kendall-Jackson's Don Hartford and Randy Ullom. Sánchez and his small, dedicated team managed to prevent the fire from reaching any of the property's assets: "We slept in the cars, so as not to leave the place."
In Guarilihue, Sebastián De Martino of De Martino has been assessing the damage to his estate vineyard. "It's been quite shocking. I never experienced something like this," he said. But like Sánchez, De Martino considers himself among the lucky: "The soils were horse-plowed and acted like fire stoppers. We estimate that 3,000 vines burned around the edges of the property. Other friends' vineyards, wineries and houses burned." De Martino noted that while the fire risk has diminished near his vineyard, there is still significant smoke in the air.
Chilean vineyards such as Torres', De Martino's and those in the surrounding Itata Valley have become pillars of the country’s identity—a way to preserve and rejuvenate ancient vines and old winemaking traditions. In Itata, grapegrowing dates back to 1551, when Spanish missionaries planted the first vines of Moscatel and País, also known as Listán Prieto or Mission. The area is home to dense concentrations of old vines, including 100-plus-year-old Carignan and País that are planted on their own roots. These head-trained, or goblet, vineyards are often tended by hand and dry-farmed.
While Chile's wine production in and around its capital of Santiago swelled during the 1970s and ’80s, many of Itata's vineyards were demoted for use in bulk wine and overlooked. Any new plantings favored fine wine grapes. But a small fraction of vintners never abandoned their prized heritage vines. Within the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in these vineyards and the wines made here, as well as a sustained effort to preserve its winemaking traditions.
For De Martino, Torres and others, terroir isn’t just about farming. They not only revived old vineyards but also embraced local winemaking customs. De Martino naturally ferments some wines in amphora (viejas tinajas). This tradition began in Chile when the first vineyards were planted in the 15th century, using indigenous clay. Torres destems grapes from these old vineyards using a bamboo mat called a zaranda and ferments in open wood containers made from raulí, a tree native to southern Chile.
Perhaps more devastating than the sheer destruction of vineyards is how these wildfires have affected the livelihoods of locals. As for the wineries, it’s unclear whether any of the affected wines will reach the market.
"Undoubtedly, a year of great challenge for our technical team," said Villalobos, noting that going through the 2017 fires helped prepare his team for this harvest, which began last week. "Another thing we experienced this season, and in 2017, is the importance of the design of forest plantations that allow greater security, the use of firebreaks and the earlier reaction of the government entities responsible for attacking the fires."
The loss of the vintage and the damage done to vineyards and facilities could be financially catastrophic for small wineries and growers, perhaps handicapping them for years. They face an uncertain future, but many Chileans are united in the idea of protecting and aiding their neighbors. The extreme heat and winds have subsided for now, but as De Martino noted, there are still fires burning throughout Itata and beyond: "It's not over yet. We are now figuring out ways to help."
Local donations and fundraisers are underway. Julio Alonso, executive director of Wines of Chile's USA office, says the organization has started a GoFundMe effort to raise money to support winemaking families in Itata and preserve the region's vines.
"We are organizing various areas of help," said Alonso, noting a collaboration with Chile's Talca University to provide advice and resources to rescue the impacted vineyards. "We know that old vines are the key asset of these small producers, so we are focusing on helping on that aspect."
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