Chilean wine may yet rise of the ashes of wildfire

Following the devastation of January's wildfires, there is still hope for Chilean wine
Following the devastation of January's wildfires, there is still hope for Chilean wine

Footage of Chile’s recent forest fires depict an infernal landscape: vistas of burning orange, foregrounded by black embers and the charcoal skeletons of trees, all that remains of houses and forests where the fire has swept through. What film can never capture is the roasting heat, or the terrifying pace of a blaze – according to a 2012 publication called Essential Bushfire Safety Tips, the fastest known grass fire flame front swept forward at 17mph, while the flame front of a forest fire can surge at 9.3mph. Or the exhaustive recovery work that must be done in the aftermath.

Farmers and other inhabitants of rural areas in warmer climates are all too familiar with the threat of forest fires. It’s a risk that many wine growers have to live with. In Chile this year, more than 100 fires have damaged over 695 sq miles of land and destroyed hundreds of homes in the south-central regions. Anita Jackson from Wines of Chile says, “The damage to vineyards, mostly in Maule, with some damage also in Colchagua and the Pirque area of Maipo, has still to be assessed.”

In Chile this year, more than 100 fires have damaged over 695 sq miles of land Credit: Esteban Felix

A sudden blaze can do untold damage to a winery and its vineyards. Not to mention its wine archive. When fires raged in Madeira last August, near to the capital Funchal, Chris Blandy, CEO of the eponymous madeira company, camped down at the historic Blandy’s lodges for the night, on guard because a fire was burning two blocks down. The lodge is not just a building but a living piece of history. It houses bottles dating from the 19th century that would have gone off like Molotov cocktails at the approach of a flame. Happily, it remained unscathed.

Damage to the landscape – and vineyards – is more common. South African Paul Cluver had very bad burns to his face and neck after being caught in a blaze when the wind changed direction. A fire was threatening to destroy an area of fynbos (natural heathland) in which there was a type of protea unique to that area, and conservation-minded Cluver had gone to help put it out.

As vignerons struggled to save their homes, precious vineyards, some up to 150 years old, became blackened stumps Credit:  STRINGER

Chile’s Maule region, which has sustained most of the recent fire damage, has some of the country’s most prized vines; recently re-discovered, ancient, dry-farmed carignan and pais, planted more than a century ago. Such vines yield grapes rich in detail and flavour. Some had been bought by growers keen to save them from being ripped out and replaced with forest and – being surrounded by dense plantations – they scarcely stood a chance when the fires came. As vignerons struggled to save their homes, precious vineyards, some up to 150 years old, became blackened stumps. Some fear the vines have been lost forever but there is also talk of them rising, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

Derek Mossman Knapp of Garage Wine Company is a Canadian and a wine grower who has made Chile his home. He says: “The great majority of the vines will come back. The value of old vines for a winemaker are the old roots beneath the ground . “I learnt when grafting different varieties on to old roots that you can think you’ve made a mistake – you see people throwing up their hands, thinking, 'I just killed a 200-year-old vine with a chain saw – what have I done?’ But the following year the pais comes billowing out from below the dead wood. And the following year these new energetic shoots from beneath the soil are thick enough to graft the new variety again. The year after these plants are producing just like the rest of the vineyard. This is what will happen with the burnt plants if they are taken care of. ”

Even if a vineyard escapes fire damage, the wine often tastes of ashes and cannot be drunk Credit: RODRIGO GARRIDO

A further problem is for growers whose vineyards escape apparently unscathed from nearby fires. I learnt, while in Australia after a season of bad bushfires, that winemakers had been forced to throw away vat upon vat of wine because the grapes absorb the scent of the air, and you end up with wine that tastes of an ashtray. That can mean losing income from a whole year. 

Help for growers is at hand. The wine company Bibendum, which imports Mossman Knapp’s own wine, is seeking to finance and assist the recovery of two or three fire-damaged vineyards. In the meantime, Mossman Knapp says the best thing we can do for those who have suffered in Chile is to continue to buy bottles . “Seek out the little people. Perhaps Huaso de Sauzal or Terroir Sonoro.” Drinking is a form of support I happen to be very good at. I suspect you might be too.

Wines of the w  eek

Old Vines Carignan Single VineyarD 2012 Maule, Chile (14%, M&S, £12)

Old Vines Carignan Single VineyarD 2012 Maule

<br> The emergence of wines made from the fruit of old (80-100+ year old) dry-farmed vines in Maule is one of the bright spots in the new Chilean wine landscape. A figgy, dried-thyme-and-olive-scented, juicy red.  

Matetic Corralillo San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Chile (13.5%, The Wine Society, £7.95)


Love the quiver of white grapefruit, grass and fresh peas you find in this crisp sauvignon blanc (pictured: 2014). Gives Marlborough sauv a run for its money on value, too.

Joss Bay Barrel Aged Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand (13%, Oddbins, £15)

Joss Bay Barrel Aged Sauvignon Blanc 2015

We know this region for its bright, unoaked sauvignon blanc but here’s a barrel-aged one. The wood is very gentle, the wine luminous with passion fruit and pink grapefruit. Delicious.