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Deadly Wildfires Devastate Vineyards in Chile’s Central and Southern Wine Regions

Winemakers and wine professionals are supporting one another in what is one of the worst catastrophes for Chile’s wine industry. Twenty-four people have died in the wildfires, which started at the end of January and have burned through thousands of acres of forest, crops, vineyards and houses. To date, the still-spreading flames have destroyed more than 400 hectares of vines in Itata Valley and a few in Maule and Bío Bío.  

According to Wines of Chile, about 650 producers have been impacted by the wildfires. “The most affected region is Ñuble, where 97% are in Itata Valley,” says Julio Alonso, head of Wines of Chile in the U.S. “There, many old vines were damaged. Some producers have lost everything.” The organization is still assessing the full extent of the damage.   

The Devastating Damage  

In Chile, wildfires have posed a constant threat in recent years. In 2017, a blaze in the Central Valley burned several vineyards, and many others were affected by the smoke. Sadly, this year it seems worse. 

“I have seen more burned vineyards than in 2017,” says Eduardo Jordan, head winemaker at Miguel Torres wines. “It’s still difficult to know exactly how much was lost.” The winery’s 150-year-old vines, of the grape variety País in Bío Bío Valley, were almost destroyed by flames that reached its neighbors. As of press time, flames only 100 meters away are still threatening the vines. 

Last week in Itata, after years of drought and during a heat wave that raised the temperature to 102°F, Leo Erazo, co-founder of Rogue Vines, lost over 90% of vines, some of which were planted in 1798. 

“Out of six hectares we were only able to save half of one,” laments Erazo, a winemaker influential in putting Itata Valley on the map. Deeply moved by what this catastrophe means for the region and the rest of the producers, he adds, “I lost the vineyards, but I didn’t lose the winery. There are people here that lost their winery and houses.” 

Chile Wildfire Guarilihue in Itata Valley
Image Courtey of Leo Erazo

The Impact of Dry Climate  

In the affected regions, many vines grow near eucalyptus and pine trees that easily transfer fire to the vines. “The vines that are close to the forest were the most affected because the flames in those trees can reach up to three meters,” Erazo explains. 

High temperatures are still expected in the following days. This situation could aggravate the damage. “There are trees that are still burning. In days like today, when it’s hot, the heat can fuel the fires again,” says Erazo. He points to a truck with a 1,000-litter water tank and hoses, which the locals used to put down the fire and protect what is left. 

Itata Valley is a community of small producers, many of whom own one hectare of vine or less. “The fires are like an earthquake for the local economy,” said Juan Ignacio Acuña, owner of Viña Zaranda.  

Concern for the Future 

Acuña is also worried about the future. The blaze didn’t reach his vines, however, he is uncertain whether the smoke damage will affect his grapes. “We are going to make wine anyways. It’s probably that the wines will have smoke taint, but we won’t know until we make them,” he says.

Erazo says all he can do is hope for the best. “Everything has been arranged already,” he tells Wine Enthusiast. “People are coming to work because the harvest starts in three weeks. We are going to make wine with what we have left.” 

Beyond the financial cost, as winemakers assess the damage, there is the emotional pain of knowing that every year wildfires threaten to destroy invaluable vines. “This is a loss for the wine world. I have worked and traveled for 20 years, and these old vines and this place are unique,” affirms Erazo.  

Further south, the fire has reached places in the Araucania region, where the Malleco Valley is found. For now, the blaze is contained far from the valley. However, there is uncertainty about the potential consequences of smoke. “With winds blowing high, the smoke hasn’t reached our vines yet. We hope that the wines won’t be affected, but we will only be 100% sure after harvest,” says Carlos de Carlos, co-founder at Vinos Baettig

Chile Wildfire Guarilihue in Itata Valley
Image Courtey of Leo Erazo

How You Can Help 

As these devastating fires put the livelihoods of small family-owned wineries and vineyards at risk, the wine industry has been responsive. Even those who were affected, like Erazo, are helping producers who are in a worse situation. 

“Producers who have lost some vines are helping their neighbors by raising money to support them,” affirmed Alonso. 

For those who would like to help, Wines of Chile has created a GoFundMe to support Itata’s wine region. Additionally, Hispanics in Wine has developed a centralized Chile Relief Resources page that lists all the available information on how to support those winemakers in need.