Chile's wine future burned by wild fires - Comment

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Wild fires hit the Chilean - and then global - headlines earlier this month. The subsequent damage to some of the country's vineyards may have affected just a few, but, as Chris Losh observes, that damage could have catastrophic consequences for Chile's flag-bearing wine makers.

Around 100 hectares of Chiles vines were destroyed by fire earlier this year

Around 100 hectares of Chile's vines were destroyed by fire earlier this year

The pictures were shocking. Walls of flame, burned out villages, blackened vineyards. Anyone who's seen images of the Chilean wildfires can't fail but be moved by their devastation. It's a poignant reminder, in these days of Powerpoint marketing strategies, drip irrigation and concrete eggs, that nature is a powerful force – and one that's not always tame-able by man.

Like many New World wine countries with a hot, dry climate, Chile is no stranger to summer fires. But, seasoned observers have described these as being the worst in over 50 years. Over 300,000 hectares of land have been wiped out, the Government has declared a state of emergency, and international assistance has been requested.

But, what caused it? And, why, this time, was it so devastating?

Three years of atypical drought have left the countryside exceptionally dry and vulnerable to conflagration, even by Chilean standards. But, the biggest issue seems to have been agricultural rather than climatic, man-made rather than natural: the aggressive campaign of tree-planting throughout most of the regions affected.

Forestry has become big business in Chile, gobbling up vast swathes of land. Small farmers have been unhappy about the impact that the new plantings have had on their (limited) access to water - a precious resource, even in the damper southern valleys.

Several people I've spoken to who are connected with wine in the country have raised concerns about the apparently-unregulated way in which the plantings have been allowed to go ahead.

Forests, for instance, have regularly been planted right up to the edge of vineyards, without any form of fire break to protect other agricultural land, in case of fire. The sheer scale of plantings, too, seems to have allowed the flames of last month to skip from valley to valley in a way that was all-but unstoppable, taking out vineyards and villages on the way.

It's estimated that just under 100 hectares of vineyard have been lost – the majority in the Maule region.

Of course, 100ha is not, in itself, a huge amount of land – Chile's vineyard area, after all, is around 130,000ha. But, what is significant is who has been affected and what has been lost.

There are wine regions of Chile that could grub up 100ha and nobody would bat an eye. Equally, there are organisations and companies that could lose that amount of fruit from their annual production and - barring a few choice phrases in Chileno - would probably carry on largely unscathed.

In this case, however, neither of these is true. The brunt of the damage has been borne by small growers, often 'peasant farmers' who, frequently, have lost their entire livelihood, and sometimes their house as well.

Wine organisations and the Government have been hearteningly quick to make all the right noises – and the Miguel Torres Foundation has laudably donated EUR200,000 to help its affected suppliers.

"We are concerned and distressed by what is happening in Chile, a country that welcomed us many years ago," said the company. "We feel for the victims and the many families who have lost so much as a result of this catastrophe. We will continue to support them in whatever they need."

Torres, of course, was one of the first wineries of any description (and certainly the first foreign company) to see the potential of the old vines in these southern valleys. Having worked with farmers there for over 20 years, the company's distress is understandable. The damage to its Empedrado vineyard of old Pais vines must have been particularly tough to take.

This is the other big loss: Old vines. To paraphrase Mark Twain's observation about the wisdom of buying land, these vineyards are special because they just don't make them anymore. The country has vast swathes of immaculately-sourced, trellis-trained Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. But, 100-year-old bush vines of Carignan or Pais? Not so much.

This land is a major part of Chile's vineyard heritage – albeit one that had been largely passed over until very recently. The sad irony is that some of these neglected vineyards have been destroyed just as they were starting to be appreciated once more.

And yet, despite the apocalyptic pictures of scorched earth and blackened vines, it's possible that the situation is not irredeemable. The Canadian Derek Mossman has been making wines from old vineyards in the southern valleys via his Garage Wine Co for a while, and it's his contention that these wines can be coaxed back to life.

'Can', however, is not the same as 'will'.

The growers in the south mostly don't receive big bucks for their fruit – and low-density, low-yielding wines are nobody's idea of a Golden Ticket. Many growers may well decide that it's simply not worth their while trying to resurrect these old, low-yielding vineyards.

Indeed, it's significant that the worst-affected vineyards were often ones that were already not being worked, and had a lot of grass in between the rows. The reason they were sitting neglected in the first place is because, old vines or not, the price for fruit is so low that the owners couldn't justify the time and effort required to work them.

While press and buyers have been cooing over the competitive prices of some of the extraordinary old-vine wines from Maule that have re-energised Chile's wine offering over the last few years, we need to recognise that this 'high quality to low price' ratio has come at a cost.

Mossman points out that the way in which wineries price up their wines is inherently keeping the price of grapes low. "If I were to pay GBP1 (US$1.25) for grapes instead of GBP0.50, it does not mean that the wine should cost twice as much but, rather simply, GBP0.50 more," he says.

"The difference can be as little as CHP170 (US$0.26) and the price of the bottle has to double! With this old thinking, companies are applying a commodity pricing model to rare old fruit. It simply doesn't work."

The fires are a human tragedy. But, they could also be cathartic. Having laid bare the problems of big-business planting, water rights and fruit prices – issues that seem to make life disproportionately difficult for the small farmer – then maybe they won't have been entirely in vain.

Whether the Government or industry will act on them once press attention shifts elsewhere, however, is another question.

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