Chile 2010: The Earthquake Harvest

This past February, the Chilean wine industry survived one of its worst shakeups in history. The earthquake on the twenty-seventh of the month measured 8.8 on the Richter scale. In addition to the terrible losses suffered by Chileans throughout the Central Valley and along the coast, the quake and its aftershocks destroyed historic buildings, major infrastructure and 125 million liters—around $250 million dollars—in wine.
   According to Juan Somavía, general director of Wines of Chile, the industry losses in volume are equal to about 12.5 percent of inventory. But given the abundant 2009 harvest, which had brought in 1.010 million liters, the industry stocks can readily meet demand. “Chile has less bulk wine than expected, but the supply of bottled wine to export markets will not be affected,” he said. Most of the loss was in less-expensive varietal and bulk wine stored in steel tanks. Higher-level wines for export stored in oak barrels survived the quake.
   Carlos Halaby, the director-winemaker of Concha y Toro, says the area hardest hit was the center-south of the country, where the wine industry’s production is focused. Entire villages, from Colchagua to Bío-Bío, literally crumbled to the ground. There were losses in bulk wine stock, winery infrastructure and bottled wine in addition to significant damage to ancient adobe buildings, including historic mansions and wineries.
   Among Chile’s wine regions, Maule sustained the most damage. Andrés Sánchez, winemaker at Viña Gillmore, says the situation is challenging and believes the losses are much greater than the official figures suggest. Maule’s Melozal Canal, which growers rely on to irrigate more than 17,000 acres of vines, will require substantial repairs. Many of the elevated (parronal) trellises have collapsed; there are damaged irrigation systems and a lot of damaged equipment in wineries, which will surely affect some producers’ abilities to process grapes.
Sánchez says the damage in Maule reverses ten years or more of development in that region. Many small growers won’t harvest their grapes this year because they are preoccupied with getting in line for government help to solve their most basic problems.
   De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal related the plight of one of his best carignan growers in Cauquenes, a town near the coast noted for its dry-farmed vineyards: Currently, he is living under a blanket supported by four posts. Local schools are damaged and have been closed, so the women who traditionally harvest the grapes are staying at home to take care of their children. Some vineyards lost more than six feet of soil, and now have deep canyons running through them.
   Felipe Zúñiga, enologist of Cooperativa Lomas de Cauquenes, says that firemen marked most of the houses in town with red spray paint, including his own home, warning that they must be demolished. But he thinks they overreacted. Many of the cauqueninos are still living in their adobe homes and will not leave. “The people have a lot of pride in their homes,” he said. “They will repair them and start their lives over.”
   Meanwhile, the 2010 harvest has unfolded with relative calm. “The old people are happy to start harvesting grapes,” says Sanchez, “and they may begin to forget their suffering. The Chilean campesino has a lot of heart and courage to confront difficult moments like these.”
   The 2010 crop was reduced early on by heavy frost at the end of spring and the season, overall, has been much cooler than 2009. According to Claudio Barría, winemaker of La Fortuna and consultant to three other wineries, the cool season has turned out to be a blessing: It delayed the harvest and allowed time to repair the cellars.
Barría usually harvests sauvignon blanc in the Itata Valley at the beginning of March, but this year the grapes were still on the vine in the middle of April.
   In fact, the spring frosts may turn out to have a more significant impact on stocks than the earthquake. Bunch weights are 20 percent lighter than normal. “At first, we thought that damage to the cellars would prevent us from processing all the fruit,” Barría says. “Almost all the big wineries reserved space in other cellars.” But with the earliest ripening grapes already in the fermentation tanks, those cellars are still empty.
   The short harvest may be significant for stocks of bulk wine, according to Zúñiga, as the yields for país are down 40 percent. “For the first time in the history of the cooperative we are buying grapes in the market,” he says. “We’re having to compete on price with major players like Concha y Toro.”
   It has been a long and difficult season, but the grapes that are coming in have winemakers excited. Barría believes 2010 will be a great year for sauvignon blanc and other white varieties, perhaps one of the best in the last decade. Reds may be more of a challenge, especially for vineyards that carry higher yields and varieties that require more time to ripen. As long as it doesn’t rain before picking is complete, it will be an excellent harvest in terms of quality. Looking forward, Retamal says, “There will be a lot of pressure to bottle bulk wines, and it will be a difficult time for those producers who sell basic wines at $14 a case. But this should be a good year for those of us who offer wines in higher categories.”
—Eduardo Brethauer