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How Chile’s 2020 vintage looks after year of extremes

Frost, drought and summer heatwaves left no shortage of challenges for Chile's winemakers, but there was optimism about the quality of surviving grapes following an extremely early harvest.

Chile’s 2020 vintage won’t only be remembered as the one harvested in the shadow of coronavirus; it was also an extremely early year, with contrasting weather sending overall yields down by almost a third.

‘This has been one of the most challenging vintages with unique characteristics unlike any before,’ said Eduardo Jordan, winemaker at Miguel Torres, which has vineyards all over Chile.

Frost

A warm and dry winter meant flowering was up to two weeks early in the spring of 2019.

‘As they say in the countryside here, “dry winters bring frost”, and we had three major periods of frost,’ said Jordan. The first came ‘in the middle of September, affecting our more precocious varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, especially in Curicó and Casablanca’, he said.

This was followed by three days of freezing temperatures across a large part of Chile in early October, and then another bout on 25 November, he said.

Some vineyards reported losing more than half their potential production during these frost episodes.

Early harvest

Chile 2020 harvest

Grapes are harvested in Apalta in the Colchagua Valley. Photo Credit: Andrea Leon.

‘This year the parameters for harvest dates completely changed,’ said Jordan. 

Ripening was accelerated by the general reduction in yield following frost. Combined with a hot summer and several heat waves, harvest dates were up to a month early in some valleys.

‘A hot year like this can be very challenging in terms of organisation as the window for harvest is much smaller and more complex, harvesting red and white varieties at the same time,’ said Emily Faulconer, winemaker at Viña Carmen told Decanter.com.

‘But in this case, it was a blessing in disguise! Even though we didn’t know at the time that we would be faced with the Coronavirus lockdown, it meant that most of our harvest was done by the time quarantine started at the end of March.’

Chile has faced a decade-long drought, considered one of the worst in living memory. This also impacted production alongside the frost, reducing the total harvest by almost a third, according to the Chilean Association of Winemakers.

Success stories

Some varieties, notably Merlot, suffered more from the lack of water, but many winemakers were still reporting a good balance between fresh acidity and ripe fruit for most grape varieties — including Chile’s most important variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Some winemakers said that varieties with more tolerance for dry conditions have performed particularly well this year.

‘I think this year is going to be a very good year for Mediterranean varieties including Syrah, Carignan and Monastrell,’ said Christian Sepúlveda, winemaker at Bouchon Family Wines in Maule.

‘These vigorous varieties do very well, despite the lack of water and the consistently high temperatures of this vintage. For some other varieties we have just needed to take good care of the harvest dates to avoid dehydration, and do delicate extraction in the winery.’

Amanda Barnes is based in South America where she writes about Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil in South America Wine Guide.


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