There are no easy vintages – and that was especially true in Chile this year. The widespread drought that has been affecting the country for several years – and the forecast of a dry and hot summer – indicated that 2023 would be a challenging year.
But in mid-January the situation dramatically worsened, with voracious fires in Maule, Ñuble, Itata and Bío Bío, where more than 50,000ha of forests were devastated. The fire took towns, vineyards, wineries and at least 24 human lives in its wake. A tragedy.
The final balance estimates that 600 small wine producers were affected, with losses of some 470ha of vines. Most of those vines were centenarian and an irreplaceable part of Chile’s ancestral wine heritage.
Meanwhile, what was left standing was overtaken by smoke and ash. Producers today are evaluating the effect of smoke taint on the wines they have made. They are also looking to the future, in hope of preserving the winemaking traditions of a region with five centuries of history.
The high summer temperatures made 2023 one of the hottest vintages of the last 70 years. This meant that viticultural teams had to work particularly hard to determine the right time to harvest the grapes. However, beyond the hard data and readings from the meteorological stations, this vintage is turning out to be more nuanced than expected, with each valley behaving differently.
‘I’ve never seen so many variations in the same year. The vineyards on the coast had a quite different year to those in the Andes and the Central Valley, which are a long way from the sea,’ said Marcelo Papa, winemaker and technical director at Concha y Toro.
‘While in Limarí we had fewer degree days and plenty of cloud, in Maipo we experienced higher temperatures for sustained periods and the harvest had to be brought forward 10 days,’ he added.
Best to start at the beginning, however, and Héctor Rojas, agricultural engineer at Tabalí, is a great help with that. ‘The 2022 winter was especially cold with more rainfall, as much as 140mm in Limari – the average is between 60 and 80mm – and 380mm in Maipo,’ he explained.
‘Then we had a cold spring that notably held back some of the phenological development, together with vigorous leaf growth thanks to the wet soils after the rainy winter. But, very abruptly, from the end of December onwards and throughout January, we saw a sustained rise in temperatures that shook the plants out of their lethargy and rapidly accelerated ripening. It was a year that kept you on your toes.’
Shrinking harvest windows
Because of the hot summer temperatures, the harvest windows shrunk. Some varieties were ripening at the same time, when generally this occurs weeks apart. Of course, this presented a logistical challenge and good coordination between the teams in the field and in the winery was crucial.
Viviana Navarrete, chief winemaker at Viña Leyda, explained: ‘In the Leyda Valley, the harvest began slowly, delayed by 12 to 14 days compared to the 2022 season. It was difficult to get the grapes to build up enough Brix. Sugar accumulation in the grapes was slow, accompanied by high acidity that remained until the end.’
‘The Sauvignon Blanc ripened late. There was a very short window, so we had to act fast in the final days of March when the temperatures were high and the Brix accumulation curve accelerated,’ she continued. ‘There was a lack of rainfall but the challenges in the vineyard remained because we had high humidity resulting in a bout of powdery mildew at the beginning of the season and then isolated pockets of Botrytis cinerea.’
Every producer seems to have their own account of how the season developed and its eventual results. But they all agree that it was a hot year in which harvests began and ended as much as three weeks earlier than normal in the inner valleys. By the end of April, most producers had brought their grapes into the winery and fermentation had begun.
In the Cachapoal Andes, Gabriel Mustakis, head winemaker at Viña San Pedro and the VSPT wine group, reported: ‘Although we expected the grapes and wines to be affected by the high temperatures, we were very pleasantly surprised. We managed to naturally get the grapes to ripen early, which allowed us to harvest earlier, resulting in good balance, mild alcohol, good acidity and elegant, vibrant tannins. In general, it was a very varied, interesting and attractive harvest.’
Francisco Baettig, winemaker at Errazuriz, shared his final verdict. ‘Nationally we’re seeing lower yields due to frosts in Casablanca and loss of fruit from dehydration in the warmer areas, as well as the forest fires in Itata and Bío Bío. Speaking for ourselves, we had a fairly early harvest with good volume and quality,’ he said. Some figures show that the 2023 harvest saw yields 15% lower than average.
Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes, meanwhile, shared his predictions for the kind of wines we can expect from 2023. ‘This year was quite unique as the reds have shown excellent colour but are also very mild. The aromatic profile can be described as rich ripeness with very few green flavours. Which is to say that so far it’s been a great year – something I didn’t expect, to be honest – but that’s the wonderful thing about oenology. One plus one doesn’t always have to equal two. For the whites, I’d say it was a year of low alcohol and very fruity expression.’
In all, a brief overview tells us that 2023 augurs well for whites from the coastal areas that enjoyed the cooler, cloudier climate. Expectations for the Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays are particularly high, although in some areas such as Limarí the Pinot Noirs are also promising great things.
In the interior and Andes regions, the heat forcibly brought the harvest forward for the most prominent red varieties in Chile – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Cabernet Franc – and this suggests rich, easy-going wines with good freshness and balance.