(Drinks International) 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.