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2017 Harvest Report: La Niña Delivers Frost and Flame to Argentina and Chile

A hot, dry year lowered yields in South America’s top wine regions, but quality looks good
Photo by: Courtesy Miguel Torres
Wildfires scorched more than 12 acres of the Escaleras de Empedrado vineyard in Chile.

Kim Marcus
Posted: July 7, 2017

After a series of very wet years, the 2017 growing season in Argentina and Chile brought extremely dry conditions. The weather was different, but one thing remained the same: smaller grape harvests.

Both sides of the Andes were affected to varying degrees by the shift from the wetter El Niño regime to the drier conditions associated with La Niña. The weather patterns are named for Pacific Ocean currents off the west coast of South America, which can have an impact on precipitation and weather worldwide.

For Argentine vintners, the drier conditions of 2017 came as a relief after multiple years of above-normal rainfall. But while quality appears to be high, spring frosts cut yields significantly in many vineyards.

“If 2016 wasn’t enough to be the shortest [growing season] in the last 60 years, 2017 has been the second-shortest harvest, considering the yields mainly in Uco Valley appellations,” said vintner Susana Balbo. “We registered a frost at the end of September that severely affected the Chardonnays because they were at the beginning of the budbreak. Malbecs were still in dormancy, but they were also affected.”

Overall, yields were down about 30 percent compared to normal in the Mendoza region, but many vintners saw that as good news, given that the rain-plagued 2016 vintage delivered just half normal yields.

Warm harvest weather in 2017 boosted quality. “Malbec benefited greatly from the dry and warm days after the summer, which allowed it to reach the typical expression of the high-altitude vineyards of Mendoza,” said Fernando Buscema, technical director of Bodegas Caro. “The grapes were characterized by their unique balance between sugar and acidity, along with the traditional softness of Malbec tannins.”

In neighboring Chile, it was heat rather than cold that cut yields. Harvest arrived as much as a month early in many regions because of soaring summer temperatures and drought conditions. Forest fires affected southern regions such as Maule and Itata, raising the specter of smoke taint in some wines. However, the damage was limited in scope.

“Both reds and whites show a level of ripeness that was not easy to find in previous years. The tannins in the red wines are silky, mouthfilling and well-balanced,” reported Aurelio Montes, whose namesake winery is based in the central Colchagua region.

“In terms of volume, our results are no exception to what has happened throughout Chile and also Argentina. Our yields were approximately 22 percent down [compared to] 2016, which itself was already a bit low,” he added.

“Because of an extremely hot January, the vines were stressed and veraison took almost a month to finish,” said Cristobal Undurraga of Viña Koyle. “The size of the berries was very small, speeding ripeness but decreasing yields.”

The fire damage was the most extreme in the Itata region. At the Escaleras de Empedrado source of Miguel Torres' top Pinot Noir, wildfires from the surrounding forests and brush destroyed more than 12 of the 62 acres of vines. As result, Torres has decided not to make a wine from that vineyard in 2017.

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