Wildfires devastate Chile vines

23 February, 2023

Sorrel Moseley-Williams reports on how wine producers are coping following the recent disaster in their ancient vineyards.

Devastating wildfires wiped out around 1,000ha of land at the start of February in southern Chile, including many centenary vineyards and wineries, also leaving 25 people dead. Given their ferocious nature, 53 fires hadn’t been completely extinguished as of 17 February, and although the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, it’s already being called the worst such catastrophe to hit the region.

Winemakers in El Maule, Ñuble – known for pre-phylloxera vineyards planted on unique granite and volcanic soils in Itata, cultivated by around 2,000 tiny grape growers – Bío-Bío and Araucanía regions have been hit in various disastrous ways. Some have been left homeless, their land going up in smoke while many have lost previous year’s stock as well as the 2023 vintage’s grapes. History and winemaking heritage have also been lost: País and Moscatel de Alejandría were the first vines to be cultivated five centuries ago, meaning Chilean viticulture was born in the Bío Bío valley.

‘The worst catastrophe’

Winemaker Leonardo Erazo Lynch started making wine in Itata in 2010, his pride and joy a País vineyard planted in 1798. For him, it’s a dreamy place to make wine, given the traditional and low-intervention agricultural techniques that hundreds of tiny winegrowers still adhere to. But, after losing 90% of his 6ha of vines, he will bottle little, if any wine, under his A Los Viñateros Bravos and Rogue Vine lines.

“Itata is a treasure because the vines are ungrafted, so there’s a true connection between the vine and the soil – it’s one of the last places where the Old World really exists,” he says.

“This summer has been very dry, with barely any rain and that, combined with a heatwave, meant conditions came together for many simultaneous fires to start. We have 6ha of old vines and we have lost all of the plots, including the 1798 vineyard, except one. It’s the worst such catastrophe we’ve ever seen here.”

It’s not just the flames themselves but the cloying smoke that will leave its indelible mark and is creating additional anxiety for winemakers, says Angélica Valenzuela, commercial director of Wines of Chile. “What the smoke generates is brutal. What remains and can be saved will have to be evaluated and there are a lot of concerns about how the harvest will turn out, with what is saved as a result,” she says.

While family-run Viña Umpel in Yumbel, Bío Bío, lost 70% of its País and Malbec vines to the forest fires, its Carignan vines survived – but only time will tell if the fumes have wreaked havoc on them. Owner Ricardo Yañez says: “The smoke is a killer as it will affect our 2023 grapes. We’ll get to evaluate the future – trunks, leaves and so on – the next time we prune and see if the Carignan will recuperate its production potential.”

A bitter pill

Monoculture forestry crops are largely to blame for the wildfires spreading so fast. That’s a bitter pill for winegrowers to swallow given that, due to the very low price for grapes that big industry players pay, many have turned plots over to pine and eucalyptus plantations in order to make ends meet. Often paid 100 pesos (10p) a kilo for grapes destined for bulk wine, it’s a means to an end that has had devastating effects.

Given that many of his 95-year-old País vines were surrounded by forestry crops, fourth-generation winemaker Jorge Cotal of Vinos Cotal in Coelemu, Ñuble, has lost almost everything. “As grape prices have been low for a very long time, impoverishing local producers, unfortunately my dad planted pine and eucalyptus back in 2007. They are to blame for the fires raging through these monoculture forests – and that’s what happened to us,” he says.

Such decisions mean five centuries of heritage have gone up in smoke, according to Maximiliano Avendaño, sommelier and owner of Tintoleos wine shop. “It’s not just producers and the country that have lost part of their heritage, but the winemaking industry as a whole. You have to remember that Chile is home to some of the oldest vines in the world and 100-year-old plants were destroyed in under 100 minutes,” he says.

Decades of labour and love have been lost, according to Loreto Alarcón of Viña Mujeres Itata in Itata, who follows in her grandfather’s footsteps cultivating País and Moscatel. She says: “This valley preserves traditional winemaking and cultivation methods and in Itata alone there are 2,000 tiny vinegrowers who fight to conserve these traditions despite vineyards being ripped up to make way for pine plantations. Home to many vines older than 150 years old, this disaster means Chile and the world lose out on traditional varieties, old wineries and this incomparable cultural and historical value.”

Given that the fires are still being extinguished, there is no official information to date with regards to the total surface and economic damage. However, solidarity among the regions’ winemaking and grape-growing communities have led to an array of Go Fund Me initiatives being set up. Wines of Chile is also coordinating actions.

“This tragedy of enormous proportions certainly requires the support of all those who are in a position to do so,” says Aurelio Montes, president of the association. “As Wines of Chile, we have wanted to contribute through these specific actions which we are certain will help relieve, at least partly, the pain of those who are part of our industry and have lost a great part of their heritage and source of work”.

While the immediate outlook appears glum, Jorge Cotal of Vinos Cotal sees the ferocious blow as an opportunity. “While I don’t even have any wine to sell, I’m trying to be optimistic because we are resilient people and I love our countryside. But first, I need to see if the vines re-sprout and, while I’ll have to take a pause before starting over, I see this as a new opportunity to move forward and improve on what I was doing.”

For information on how to contribute with aid and to Go Fund Me initiatives, please email Wines of Chile oficina@winesofchile.org

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