Out of the ashes: Derek Mossman on the Chilean fires

Drinks: Wines
Location: Chile
Other: People

Who, Why and What Next? The Garage Wine Co’s Derek Mossman looks at the questions arising from Chile’s recent fires

Which areas have been worst affected?

‘The fires are widespread from Colchagua through Curicó down to Maule Itata and Bio Bio. The number of hectares burned is atrocious, but these are almost all modern fast-rotation forest lands. Regarding vineyards, in Maule where we work people are speaking of as little as 45 hectares and some as many as 100. It is only in the last day or so that the smoke has cleared and one can really begin to see a broader picture.’

How many of these vineyards burned are lost for good?

‘The majority of the old-vines in Maule are not destroyed as some reports have stated. These vines have tremendous root systems after so many years (many are 100 even 150 years old and some older still). They will be coaxed back with tender loving care in a year or two. Their roots have been pushing life upwards from the soil for centuries and they are not going to stop any year soon.

Within Maule, there are hectares affected near Cauquenes, in Gonzalez Bastias in Huerto Maule and others. None of these areas have been so severely affected that you will not continue to see more bottlings of dry-farmed old-vines arriving on your shores. Many vines have been singed around the edges, but these vines will give fruit this harvest, and I’d be willing to wager that these vines that look so harried today will be producing wines 100 years from now.’

I am sure there are always summer fires, but what caused such large fires this year?

‘I have asked many people this question and perhaps the best answer came from Renan Cancino of Huaso de Sauzal: The avarice of the forestry firms has gone unchecked and unregulated. The most affected areas are those right next to forestry’s trees. How these firms were allowed to plant up until the lot line Lord only knows. Surely they should have had fire-breaks around the perimeters. And fire-breaks throughout their own farms to keep flames from spreading. The tracts are so large that they carried the fire from one valley over to the next.’

And why did they affect vineyards this year?

‘Generally speaking the vineyards in limbo and those that are not being cultivated have been more adversely affected than those vineyards where the soil is worked year on year,’ says Renan. ‘These vineyards had weeds and grasses growing between vineyard rows and this allows the flame to enter.’

What are the vignerons doing now?

‘I work closely with nine growers. I don’t see any of them wasting time pouting or putting up pictures of scorched vines on social media. They have gotten up and brushed themselves off and they are thinking about what needs doing like to get their animals back in fenced fields before harvest. With so little green available the animals need to be kept out of the vineyards!’

Who has been most affected?

‘The small traditional farmer. They did not have the resources to be hiring helicopters and fire brigades. The larger, modern, irrigated plantings in Maule have access to more water. And they have reservoirs they use for irrigation that helicopters can easily grab water from without even landing.’

Water rights sound like an issue…

‘The original farmers have age old rights to the run-off waters on their land, but these have diminished with the planting of forests all about.  If the water of these run-offs is being sucked into the forests, surely the local farmer should be compensated and given rights to dig a deeper well. Water rights in Chile require serious revision. These fires make this, and other things, abundantly clear.’

Will vineyards be affected by smoke taint?

‘I am not an expert in that, but I see research papers. Perhaps macerations will be shorter this year. Let us remember that on the heels of the earthquake in 2010 some terrific wines were made. Why would this be any different?’

So is the place a blackened, desolate desert?

‘The forests are black as black and some of the lands beyond are scorched. In some places the only green on the landscape after the fires have ravaged the forests and plains are the age-old dry-farmed vines of the smallest producers in Chile – the vignerons of the Secano. In many cases, the vineyards literally acted as fire-breaks.

It is telling that next to the green revolution´s fast-rotation forests in ruin that these twisted gnarly meek old vines without irrigation stand tall and green, testament to traditional agriculture.’

So will all the vineyards recover?

‘Some may be lost – not because they were completely burned, but because local small farmers are frustrated. They believe market prices for fruit have been manipulated in recent years; there is not much incentive that if they do all of the work to recover the old vines that they will ever be paid any better for their labours. Some serious questions must be asked about fruit pricing.’

Questions such as…?

‘The last time I was in the market in the UK I visited several on-trade accounts that practise a fixed mark-up on wine. The effect was that if people spent a little more they could drink something far better! Let’s apply similar thinking at the opposite end of the value chain with the fruit.

If I were to pay one pound for grapes instead of 50p it is does not mean that the wine should cost twice as much, but rather simply 50p more – plus the nominal extra tax. The old thinking is that once you pay more for fruit you have to pull the wine out of a category and put it into the category above it. The difference can be as little as 170 Chilean pesos (£0.21) 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 – not for the farmers, or for the wineries, or for the UK on-trade.

It is time to make more of the Pais and Cinsault of the Secano Interior of Maule and Itata into wines that a Somm in the UK can get behind with gusto. Enter Garage Wine Co Single Ferment Series wines!’

Garage Wine Co. works with Bibendum and Walker Wodehouse in UK. Other old-vine producers from the Secano Interior include Huaso de Sauzal (Enotria), Terroir Sonoro and Rogue Wines.

About Author

Chris Losh

After five years working on My Weekly magazine (during which time he learned how to write horoscopes and make things out of mince) in 1995 Chris Losh entered the world of drinks writing and, despite all advice from his doctor – and the wishes of most South African winemakers – has stayed there ever since. He began on Wine and Spirit International, editing it for several years before moving on to edit Wine Magazine. Both publications have since gone the way of the Dodo, but he claims to have nothing to do with their demise, and his alibi appears solid, since he was freelance writing for anyone who would pay him at the time. In 2007, he helped to set up both Imbibe magazine and the Sommelier Wine Awards, and has spent much of the last three years eating, drinking, and listening to French sommeliers talk about minerality. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer Feature Writer of the Year, but didn’t win. Perhaps he should have stuck to horoscopes. And mince.

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