Log In / Join Now

Wildfires Devastate Chilean Wine Country

At least 10 people are dead and more than 100 vineyards are scorched as firefighters struggle to bring dozens of blazes under control
Photo by: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
Firefighters work to contain a fire in Pumanque, Colchagua. Dry conditions and high winds have spread blazes for two weeks.

Emma Balter
Posted: January 27, 2017

Wildfires have ravaged Chile's Central Valley for close to two weeks now, and at least 100 vineyards in the Maule and Colchagua regions have been damaged or destroyed in the blazes. President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency Jan. 20, calling the fires some of the worst in the nation's history. As of yesterday afternoon, 53 blazes were still being fought nationwide, with 48 under control and two extinguished, according to CONAF, Chile's National Forest Corporation. Its staff estimates that over 676,000 acres of land have been impacted so far.

"Since last week smoke has covered the sky every day, and ash is falling like snowflakes," Sven Bruchfeld of Viña Polkura in Marchigue in Colchagua, told Wine Spectator.

Evan Goldstein, a sommelier and president of wine education firm Full Circle Wine Solutions, was on a trip to Chile last week when he first noticed an odd fog in Santiago. It was drifting smoke. On a flight to Maule he saw multiple fires. "The sky was this eerie, apocalyptic, ochre color," he said.

The fires are scattered up and down the vast Central Valley, south of Santiago. The Maule and O'Higgins regions, which are home to Colchagua and several other wine areas, have been most impacted. Conditions have been exceptionally hot and dry in Chile this summer, and when fires start, strong winds can quickly spread the flames.

Firefighters and locals have been fighting to extinguish the fires for days. So far, Chilean news outlets are reporting 10 deaths—most of them firefighters—40 injuries, 800 to 1,000 houses burned and 4,000 people evacuated. The blazes seem to be spreading too rapidly to fully control.

The fires started in forested areas. Vine damage has been limited up until now but is growing. Concha y Toro staff members estimate that they have lost around 50 acres of a vineyard in Lourdes, Maule, but corporate communications manager Blanca Bustamante says they feel lucky considering the company has 22,000 acres planted across the country.

Some smaller vintners are not feeling so lucky. Daniela Lorenzo of Viña González Bastías told Wine Spectator that she has lost 2.5 acres of her small 12-acre vineyard in San Javier, Maule. It was a plot of 150-year-old País, which she regarded as her best parcel. The vines were damaged by fire five years ago, and this was going to be the first year she expected to harvest something. "Now it's all burnt," she said. "Hopefully in five, seven years we'll have it back. We're hoping the damage is not permanent."

Lorenzo said she is surrounded by hundreds of acres of burnt pine forest, most of which are owned by big lumber companies such as Arauco. Pine trees have an oil in them that makes them highly flammable, making it extremely difficult to completely extinguish the fires. "The pine trees are all over the roads, so when they catch on fire you cannot leave. We basically have no escape at this point," added Lorenzo, who hoped the fires, which are still raging mere miles away, would not come back.

Producers whose vineyards have not been affected so far are watching the situation very closely. They're also hoping to help those who have been less fortunate than them.

"As a winemaker, to witness the loss of those small vineyards, part of our local heritage that we strive to protect and pass over to the next generation is heartbreaking," said Andrea León Iriarte of Casa Lapostolle.

Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes told Wine Spectator his vines were also out of harm's way for now. "We hope to have more international help to put an end to this nightmare."

President Bachelet has put out a cry for aid, and multiple nations, including the United States, France, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Brazil have responded. On Wednesday, the U.S. sent the Evergreen 747 Supertanker, the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, to dump water on the blazes.

Concha y Toro has set up "an internal campaign to support firefighters and contribute with goods that are required," according to Bustamante, and wine community leaders are currently in talks with government agencies to see how they can best help.

In the period from July 2015 to June 2016, land acreage affected by fire incidents in Chile was up 2,912 percent compared to the annual average in the previous five years, according to CONAF. Experts point to high temperatures, as well as lumber companies' extensive plantings of highly flammable pine and eucalyptus trees. Arauco alone reported a 40 percent increase in volume of their forests between 1991 and 2001.

"I just hope this nightmare is over soon. One firefighter and two police officers died today," Bruchfeld said on Wednesday. Communities across the country have mobilized forces as they wait for more international aid, but the fire's status is still very uncertain. As Bustamante said, "We are seeing an ongoing situation, changing by the hour."

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.