The appearance of botrytis fungus in southern central Chile's vineyards is likely to affect the quality of wines from this year's harvest, winemakers said this week.

The fungus appeared after bouts of heavy rain last week were followed by hot, sunny weather. Vineyards were forced to destroy many grapes, while others grapes had to be harvested early to prevent infection. The rains came at the beginning of the harvest season.

Winemakers said the quality of some wine varieties could drop between 20 and 40%.

The rainfall damaged crops in the Rapel, Curico, Maule, Itata and Bio Bio valleys.  About 60% of Chile's vineyards are within the affected area.  The Caliterra, Gracia, Torreon de Paredes, Lapostolle, Santa Rita, Montes, Errazuriz, Miguel Torres and Concha y Toro wineries use area vineyards. Wineries in central Chile were unaffected.

Luis Mayol, director of the National Agriculture Service, said the early-harvested grapes will be of poorer quality, but most will be used in 2002 bulk wines.  He said white wines will suffer the most quality decreases.  Some red varietals and 2003 premium wines will be also affected.

"Many grapes were lost, and the rest had to be crushed without guaranteeing the ideal conditions to do so. This was done to lose as little as possible," Mayol said.

Carlos Andrade, of the Vina Casa Tamaya winery, explained that premium wines should experience a price increase. "The most immediate effect will be an increase in wine prices, especially in those wines produced with healthy grapes," the winemaker said.

Grape farmers said unaffected grapes could see price increases of up to 30%.