Just over 6,400km in length, Chile is a country with a fascinating range of terroirs. This is fully reflected in the diversity of its wines.
Heavily influenced by air currents from the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east, all of Chile’s wine producing valleys have their own microclimates, as well as distinct complex soil composition. This variety means that individual vineyards experienced the harvest conditions of 2022 in different ways.
It was a year that saw the continuation of a historically severe drought that frayed the nerves of wine-growers across the country’s regions. Indeed, the spectre of further water scarcity in the future looms large.
‘In the Pacific Ocean, the water temperature has been cooler. When that happens we get less rain,’ said Marcelo Papa, winemaker and technical director at Concha y Toro. ‘The 2021/2022 drought is a result of the water temperature.’
Knowing this, Chilean producers were prepared for a difficult season, although few imagined the drought would be so severe. ‘This harvest was among the five driest recorded in the past 100 years,’ said Francisco Baettig, head winemaker at Errazuriz.
Nonetheless, now that the harvest is over, winemakers are pleased with the quality of the grapes they have obtained. What’s more, these favourable first impressions are being backed up by the early fermentations.
The growing cycle
The growing season began with low levels of existing water in the soils following a dry, icy winter. From Itata to the north, for example, precipitation was as much as 90% below average. There were only light rains in August, though some late snow showers helped to augment the snowmelt that became crucial for irrigation reserves during a similarly dry summer.
Temperatures were another factor that needed to be monitored closely. The cool, dry winter was followed by a relatively cool spring that delayed the beginning of the growth cycle. Spring also saw several late frosts hit the southern coast, Casablanca and Leyda, with the icy mornings affecting the development of the white varieties, resulting in low yields for white wines.
At least ‘blossoming and fruit setting occurred in perfect conditions, with steady temperatures’ according to Aurelio Montes at Viña Montes. However by December the number of accumulated degree days was still below average and only increasing slowly.
In January temperatures rose, accelerating ripening somewhat; although the summer was still cool, making for gradual development. Only by February did the temperatures help the grapes to achieve proper ripeness.
‘Oddly, January was cooler than in previous seasons, but February and March were warmer,’ commented Gerardo Leal, viticulture manager at Viña Santa Rita and Viña Carmen. ‘This meant that ripening was slow, mainly among the red grapes, while the white grapes achieved Brix more quickly.’
At the end of February, light rains provided some relief to thirsty vineyards but not to the extent that they posed a health risk. However, heavier rain at the end of March did present a logistical headache with plenty of red grapes still waiting to be picked.
Harvest and vinification
‘It was a warm, dry harvest season with low yields and early ripening. But because the warmth was steady we were able to keep it under control,’ said Rafael Urrejola, winemaker at Viña Undurraga. ‘We did see a drop in the number of kilos harvested, resulting in fewer litres of wine.’
Depending on the valley in question, the drop in yield ranged from between 7% and 22% – although the excellent quality of the grapes is a compensating factor for producers who were on tenterhooks throughout the year.
While the anxiety of winemakers, agricultural engineers and producers was palpable throughout the summer, there was also plenty of cautious enthusiasm. Now that the fruit is at the wineries, their relief at the quality they’re seeing is clear.
It was a ‘make or break harvest’ according to Leo Erazo, a leading winemaker in Itata – a region particularly affected by the drought this year. ‘We had a fantastic winter with plenty of rain. So we started out well,’ he explains.
‘The spring was good before the drought hit and then things got difficult. We saw plants losing their leaves from stress before the grapes were ripe. We had to work very hard and face enormous challenges. But thanks to the work we’ve been doing in regenerative viticulture since 2016 we achieved good results.’
Itata and Maule suffered the largest drops in yields but the resilience of the old vines of País and Carignan ensured good fruit overall.
The general consensus among producers is that the region that fared best in 2022 was Limarí, which, surprisingly, is generally at its coolest during dry years. ‘I’m thrilled with the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,’ said Papa at Concha y Toro. ‘We had a cooler year than in 2021, which wasn’t warm,’ he adds.
In Maipo, meanwhile: ‘It was cooler than in the inner valleys and the Cabernet Sauvignons are fantastic,’ said Baettig. ‘Having enough water for irrigation was essential.’
Colchagua and Cachapoal were the regions least affected by the drought, although Andrea León, head winemaker and viticulturist at Lapostolle and Clos Apalta, noted: ‘It was an unusual year in terms of temperatures but with plenty of solar radiation. It wasn’t an easy year to read, because all the indications were that it would be a warm, dry year. But it didn’t turn out like that.’
‘There was a large thermal range while low pHs suggest that the wines will have a rich colour, lively tannins and good concentration,’ he adds. This means excellent potential.
‘The harvest had plenty of good attributes, nature never ceases to surprise us,’ Montes summed up. ‘It’s an incredible year for reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère, while the whites are very good in spite of the low yields. In general we’re seeing joyful, exuberant and intense wines across the different regions. It was a challenging year in terms of climate but we came out of it full of energy after the two year pandemic.’