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Wildfires Devastate Spanish and Portuguese Wine Regions

Dry conditions and high winds spread flames quickly in parts of Galicia and Dão last week, scorching wineries and vineyards
Flames burn hillside forests near the Portuguese town of Braga.
Photo by: Goncalo Delgado/Global Images/Sipa USA/AP images
Flames burn hillside forests near the Portuguese town of Braga.

Mitch Frank
Posted: October 23, 2017

Thousands of people in Portugal and Spain are returning to burned homes and farms after dozens of wildfires raged across northwestern Spain and central Portugal last week. At least 45 people died, 41 in Portugal and four in Spain, and dozens more were injured. Vintners in the Dão region of Portugal and in the Rías Baixas area of Spain have lost wineries and homes, and the smoke covered a large portion of the region for days.

“The smoke was crazy,” said Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto in Portugal’s Douro Valley. “You couldn’t see the vines—anything. You needed your lights on to drive at mid-day.”

The fires began Oct. 15 and spread quickly, aided by dry conditions and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia. Locals describe gusts of more than 60 miles per hour. By the afternoon of Oct. 16, some 6,000 firefighters were deployed to battle the flames, and a state of emergency was declared over the entire northern half of Portugal.

In Dão and Rías Baixas, conditions have been so dry this year that some vines burned, as well as the pine forests that line the region. Local media reports that grapegrowers personally defended their houses and land with hoses in some cases.

In Galicia, the fires raged hardest in the subregion of Condado do Tea, an area known for its high-quality Albariño wines. “We can confirm that some damage has been sustained by vineyards and wineries over a limited area, including the municipalities of As Neves and Salvaterra de Miño in the subregion of Condado do Tea,” said a spokesperson for the Rías Baixas Consejo Regulador, a trade group for the region’s wineries. “Weather conditions have thankfully become more favorable to the recovery effort, bringing some relief to this beautiful region.”

The severity of the fires has many angry and confused. In Portugal, the interior minister has resigned over allegations of incompetence in fighting both the recent blazes and ones this summer. In both countries, rumors of arson are widespread, but investigations are still ongoing and no cause has been determined. Local media reported that one man in Spain was arrested for starting a fire, but authorities say they believe it was a misguided attempt to burn brush, nothing more.

“I told my workers to patrol our vineyards,” said Roquette. “If they caught anyone trying to start a fire, tie them to a tree and wait for the authorities to arrive.”

Rain began to fall steadily 48 hours after the blazes started, putting out most of the flames. Now vintners are returning home to assess the damage. Local media reported that the owners of Rías Baixas estate Pazo de Señorans had to evacuate. Thankfully they returned to find that the fires stayed away from the historic property. Several neighbors were not as lucky.

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