Chilean Wine Country: A Look at Forest Fires, History and Sustainability

Forest Fires: Knock on Wood
For those who didn’t see the international news in January and early February 2017, the summer months in the southern hemisphere, Chile was ravaged by some of the of the worst fires in its history. Those fires devastated almost 600,000 hectares, mostly forest, in the south-central part of the country, mainly in Maule, Itata and Bio-Bio. If you’re interested in more details, there’s plenty of background information on all the international news sites, because it was a real catastrophe.

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The conjunction of circumstances was a very dry, warm summer coupled with strong winds, which provided the perfect natural conditions for something like that to happen. That and the huge size of the forests dedicated to the production of timber, wood products, paper pulp and paper that have invaded the country since 1974. There are many theories about some being arson, because it’s difficult to have 135 ongoing fires in 300 kilometers. For sure, some must be due to negligence or accidents, and then pyromaniacs were possibly roused seeing the fires on television and wanted to contribute their part. There were rumors about all sorts of conspiracies, some crazier than others, even talks about terrorist attacks and vendettas with the Indians going back to the arrival of the Spanish. But as with all things this complex, I’m sure there’s not a single answer to the reason why, and it all comes down to a combination of factors. 

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Early on, I heard about 500,000 hectares of land burned down, including some vineyards in zones like Empedrado, Bio-Bio and Maipo, all south of Santiago. The final figure seems to be closer to 600,000 hectares. It all happened when I was already tasting the wines; Germán Lyon, winemaker from Pérez Cruz in Maipo, had to delay his trip to Europe because some of his vineyards wers literally on fire. And Ricardo Baetting from Morandé cancelled his visit altogether, as he went from firefighting at his in-laws’ vineyards to harvesting.

Looking back, I now understand why many people seemed to be so against those huge, intensive and extensive forestry operations. A monoculture certainly goes against biodiversity and that is pretty much the situation of many zones in the south, where the most voracious fires took place. The timber industry should take the opportunity to learn from what happened, but many fear the situation may get even worse. A general concern is whether the land can really take such extensive plantings. It’s mainly pine trees and eucalyptus, and it’s estimated that a single eucalyptus tree sucks up to 40 liters of water PER DAY from the soil. So hundreds of thousands of hectares of trees are literally sucking the country dry. And the paradox is that farmers have water restrictions and are often not allowed to dig wells, while powerful companies are given access to much more water and even receive subsidies. It all goes far beyond wine and it’s a real social problem.

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The pine trees keep advancing.

I now hear that in some places, water seems to have emerged back after the fires, that it is flowing again as if it had resurfaced from nowhere. And what’s also surprising is to see areas completely burned down, but the native forest is intact: it had actually stopped the fire. Similarly, cultivated vineyards, those worked by horse in the traditional way, nicely tended and clean of weeds, acted as a firewall. But those that had been abandoned and had dry weeds between the rows caught fire like a haystack.

As is so often the case, the natural disaster seemed to hit those with fewer resources the hardest. One of the major complaints I heard was about the time it took the authorities to take the fires seriously, aggravated by the lack of firefighting resources and emergency plans. Those with small operations saw their properties burn down, while the big air tankers seemed to show up almost immediately when fire hit the forest owned by powerful corporations. Bigger and bigger forests have been surrounding and cornering small vineyard patches in the regions of Maule, Itata and Bio-Bio for years. This has been a concern for some time, but nobody has really done anything. 

Some of the bigger fires even got names, like you see with hurricanes and tsunamis. The one called “Las Máquinas” fire was the largest ever in Chile, with some 185,000 hectares burned in the communes of Empedrado, Constitución and Cauquenes in Maule. That’s a surface larger than the canton of Zurich in Switzerland equivalent to 370,000 soccer fields!

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The zone of the tiny village of Sauzal in the province of Cauquenes (population 521 according to the last census of 2002) suffered severely during the summer. Seven families lost their homes, as it was one of the few villages where the fire reached the houses. Renán Cancino, owner of the small winery called Viejo Almacén de Sauzal, who produces some of the best País wine from Chile under his brand Huaso de Sauzal, lives there with his family. 

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Renan Cancino from El Viejo Almacén de Sauzal.

Not surprisingly, he was deeply concerned about what had happened. He had sent me a message early on before my trip to the country telling me how “it would be very important for you to see what has happened to the landscape of the Secano Interior and the whole area where Chilean viticulture was born. You should have an idea of the dimension of the damage to the landscape of this place.” He continued, “and you could at some point send a message of help for those people who love to live in the countryside and not in the city, who are completely on their own, without any help from the wine industry or the authorities.”

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I went there and I saw it, but didn’t have the chance to meet with Cancino. Yes, it was a huge disaster. I knew what he was talking about, but my engineer mind wanted to know more and understand better, so our email dialogue continued. “I’ll provide some background information so you can understand the effect of the fire within the Chilean wine scene of 2017,” he started. “The Secano Interior was chosen by the Jesuits to cultivate wheat and vines when they arrived in Chile in 1550 to make bread and wine, and be able to spread their religion.” The zone called Secano Interior is a long strip of dry-farmed inland territory east of the Coastal Mountain Range: from the north of the fifth region (Aconcagua) to the south of the eighth (Bio-Bio), including the whole of Cachapoal, Colchagua and Maule. “They selected it for its Mediterranean climate.” It’s important to understand that the climatic conditions of this large piece of land allowed for dry farming, which is what the word ‘secano’ means. I didn’t realize Cancino was going to start right from the beginning, but his way of explaining things was quite eye opening, with lots of valuable information, so I think it’s worth sharing it with you below:

History: A Short History of Chilean Viticulture

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Cancino began, “Chilean viticulture developed for two centuries with only red País and white Moscatel de Alejandría grapes. Some Bordeaux and other European varieties were imported for projects lead by saltpeter merchants around the capital city, Santiago circa 1850. It wasn’t until after the 1939 earthquake,” the deadliest ever in the country, “when the countryside wineries were destroyed and the large cooperatives were created, that these Bordeaux and other Mediterranean grapes were widely planted. The so-called Plan Chillán looked to produce deeper colored, Bordeaux-styled wines that could potentially be sold for higher prices than the wines produced with País.”

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“Pine trees had already started replacing vineyards before the agrarian reform of 1960, but it was pushed by it and then maximized during Pinochet’s time, even being subsidized. Today, pine and eucalyptus invade the space that was previously occupied by sheep, wheat and vines. We are surrounded by forest owned by three families that are subsidized by the government of Chile. Only small patches of old vines resisted: the Carménères from Peumo (the source for Carmín); Almahue or Apalta (Clos Apalta); the Malbecs of Pichidegua, Apalta and Colchagua (like the ones from Viu Manent); and some modest plots of Carignan in Maule or Cinsault in Itata. Today, all of the great wines from Chile other than Cabernet Sauvignon from Alto Maipo come from this zone of old, non-irrigated vineyards—even if they are now known as Valle del Maipo, Casablanca, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Maule or whatever. All this was Secano Interior, a true appellation of origin with five centuries of history, culture and tradition,”  he furthered.

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Pine forests surrounding old vineyards in Sauzal (Maule).

Renán Cancino refers to the Decree Law 701 from 1974 that created a subsidy of 75% of the cost of planting pine tree and eucalyptus, which was used mostly by large companies in the hands of powerful families from Chile. This controversial law was extended until the end of 2012 and then revived again in 2015—but pending approval, including the exclusion of the two largest companies from the subsidies that was added in 2016. All these modifications are still ongoing, as they generated a lot of discussion and politicians could not agree. But to summarize, the government has been subsidizing these large companies since 1974, directly or indirectly, because even if the subsidies were given to smaller growers, they ended up selling their trees to the larger enterprises and the effect was that they were paid by the taxpayers to supply the large companies. It remains to be seen what will happen with the laws after the fatal fires of 2017.

Cancino continued, “the few remaining grape growers are at the mercy of wine businessmen who do not have old vineyards, because they did not seem important to them. They set abusive prices, which push for even more vineyards to be abandoned. And we have also been abandoned by their authorities and by the people who live in the cities. They all think that we who do not want to live in the city do not matter. We had the same with the 2017 fires as with the 2010 earthquake, when everything was back to normal in Santiago after two days. Even people who work in wine but live in Santiago don’t see that we were absolutely neglected. It’s a shame, because they are good people, but they are totally blinded by the system.”

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If you see wineries like this in the country it’s very likely that they have been rebuilt, as successive earthquakes had destroyed most of them.

“Chile has been selling wine at an average price of $2.25 a bottle since 1997,” he explained. “And also looking for its identity, first with Cabernet Sauvignon, then Carménère, Carignan, Malbec or whatever. Because we were told País was an ordinary variety that could not produce wines suitable for the international market. We were told País was only capable of producing wines that would never have a chance. Well, today Pipeño is sold throughout the world at an average price of $5 per bottle, and the industry is still denying that reality.”

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País can sometimes produce huge bunches of grapes.

Continuing my dialogue with Cancino, the topic of conversation veered into sustainability...

Sustainability: Save the South - A Plea for Sustainability through Identity and Origin
“Now, after the fire burned 600,000 hectares of forest and fields,” continued Cancino, “my fear is that those fields will probably be replanted with more trees, reducing the vineyards and increasing the forests even more. The children of those small producers that still own those fields will most likely end up selling them to forestry companies and the property of the land will again be modified.”

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Pines started replacing vineyards a long time ago and many fear it has gone too far.

“Those of us who didn’t leave the countryside will probably never again see the same landscape where we grew up. But we dream that our children and their children will,” he expressed. “But for that we need to push for the Secano Interior wine category, wines from all varieties, but especially País, with its ancestral culture of countrymen, with peasant farmers behind the wines that could make a decent living out of their vineyards. Young people should be able to live in the countryside as a real option that today does not exist. When I left school here, there were 240 students; today there are only 58. Nobody is going to help us, neither the government nor the wine industry, so we need to promote and grow this category of peasant wines to increase the number of people who can make a living out of them. Selling grapes is not good; the price paid is not enough. Furthermore, Chile doesn’t seem to appreciate the only things that can add value to wine in the world: its origin and identity.”

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He concluded, “the only way I can think of preserving this live patrimony of people, vineyards and their culture of winemaking, is to help develop this category of peasant wines produced by farmers and small wineries who embrace this way of living. I have thought long and hard about how to get rid of this selfish model during the fires of this summer, and I cannot think of any other way.” Of course, it all makes very much sense with the Asociación de Productores de Vinos Tradicionales Campesinos de Chile (PVCh) that I mention in my official Wine Advocate Chile report that will be published on April 28th in Issue 230.

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I've seen how these people live.

Well, I’ve visited these regions. I have seen the small plots of old gnarled vines; I’ve seen how the forest surrounds them, almost asphyxiates them. I’ve walked the fields. I’ve met many of these people. I’ve seen how they work the vineyards. I have seen their houses. I have seen how they live. I have seen how their adobe houses and wineries weren’t able to resist earthquake after earthquake. I’ve seen how they work and love the land. I’ve seen how they make their wines with zero technology. Some are not perfect, but most are more than sound. Some are very good indeed. I’ve seen some great terroirs with great potential. And I’ve seen some wines that are full of character that speak about the place where they come from, their traditions, their origin and their identity—like the ones Cancino talks about. I’ve seen some wines that couldn’t be produced anywhere else in the world. And I believe it’s something that should be protected. 

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Left to right: Don Juan Hinojosa from Batuco in Itata, Don Lionel Ruiz from Guarilihue in Itata and Don Nivaldo Morales from Sauzal in Maule

Once again, Torres were pioneers and started working with País grapes in a fair trade operation. They have now committed to Itata with a whole new project called La Causa. I’ve met Don Juan Hinojosa in Batuco, Don Lionel Ruiz in Guarilihue, Don Nivaldo Morales in Sauzal and many others, some of who have been lucky enough to work in partnership with the likes of Derek Mossman from Garage Wine Co, Pedro Parra and François Massoc from Clos des Fous or Attilio Pagli from Estampa. I’ve tasted a wine produced by Cristian Lagos in Guarilihue that Sergio Avendaño from Trabun, Daniela Rojas from Lagar de Bezana and Felipe García from Garcia & Schwaderer have bottled and put his name on the label. Many other projects are moving in this same direction: A los Viñateros Bravos, the Growers program from Garage Wine…. even large wineries like Carmen with their exciting D.O. range are working more and more with small growers and giving them credit for the wines. 

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I hope this will be a new beginning so their children won’t give up, that they won’t sell their land and get rid of their old vines to plant trees. What I heard from Cancino is only a summary of what I’ve been gathering from my conversations with all these people and my travels through the southern vineyards. These people have been preserving a patrimony of old vines that is part of the heritage of the country and they hardly make enough money to live. A special effort should be made to keep these vineyards alive.

I’m not saying these should be the only wines or that the Secano Interior is the only place to produce great wines, as I do love many other styles from many other places and I always say the most boring thing is when all wines feel the same. I’m all for diversity and what I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been following Chilean wines is that their reality is becoming more and more diverse—and how the south is emerging to become an important place in Chile’s wines. I hope this trend continues and increases further, and that people stay in the countryside. And that Cancino’s children and their children see the landscape going back to what it was before. There should be room for everything. There should be room for forestry, there should be room for mining, there should be room for larger wineries and there should be room for small enterprises. There should be room for peasant wines, there should be room for Chanchos Deslenguados, MOVI and Vigno, and many other associations that push for wines with character. There should be small and large producers, icons, peasant wines and also everyday wines at affordable prices that bring pleasure to people in the UK, the US, Japan, Spain, Chile and wherever. There’s room for diversity and there’s room for everyone. But every day, I’m more and more convinced that the future is the past. And that’s not limited to Chile.

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To view my full Chile report, complete with an introduction, tasting notes and scores, please go to: Chile: Earth, Air, Fire and Water


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