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The Wine Regions of Chile Harvest Through COVID-19: From Casablanca to Itata

The Wine Regions of Chile Harvest Through COVID-19: From Casablanca to Itata

Sharon Nieuwenhuis
Photo Credit: Emiliana Organic Vineyards

In an average year, the wine harvest season in Chile can begin as early as February, and extend into May. But this year was far from an average year in Chile, due not only to COVID-19, but also excessive temperatures and drought in January and February. This would prove to be a blessing and a curse throughout the country.

During and post-harvest, I caught up with wine experts in Casablanca Valley (outside Santiago), in Central Valley’s Colchagua, and in southern Chile’s Precordillera de Ñuble, near Itata and Bio Bio to hear their stories of what their life was like at the wineries.

I first spoke with Fernando Pavon, Commercial Director at Emiliana Organic Vineyards in Casablanca Valley. Pavon has seen the Chilean wine region through other difficult times, including the 2010 earthquake that rocked the Chilean wine industry.

Emiliana Organic Vineyards is considered a top producer of certified organic and biodynamic wines, with vineyards all over Chile, in Colchagua, Maipo and the Casablanca Valley, covering nearly 3,000 acres of land. The wine ranges from classic Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

The Casablanca Valley originated as Chile’s first modern coastal wine region in the 1990s.

The valley is too far from the Andes for the cooling mountain air at night or to obtain meltwater for irrigation. Much of Casablanca is, in fact, so close to the water that cool breezes from the Pacific can significantly lower afternoon temperatures, which makes the region’s wine growing season up to a month longer than the Central Valley Vineyards. The answers here largely pertain to the winery’s vineyards in the Casablanca Valley region.

Photo Credit: Emiliana Organic Vineyards

Fernando Pavon, Emiliana Organic Vineyards, Casablanca: Today (April 21), is day 50 since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Chile. Currently, there are 10,832 cases and 147 individuals that have sadly deceased. We in Chile are proud to have the highest testing rate in Latin America—approximately 30,000 per day; we are optimistic that this has helped to slow the virus significantly.

The wine industry, as it is part of the agricultural industry—a large part of the Chilean economy—is considered essential, so all wineries are fully operating, although with some adjustments to allow for proper social distancing.

We are fortunate that the countryside in Chile hasn’t had a large number of cases, but unfortunately, “secondary” cities such as Temuco and Concepción have. The deep rural areas haven’t been substantially affected, and the large majority of people who drive agriculture in the Casablanca region—and the country—have been safe. Every winemaker with vineyards here that I have spoken to has been fortunate enough to complete their harvest successfully.

On March 3rd, COVID-19 reached the Santiago area. Fortunately, at that time, we were one month ahead of schedule with our harvest, having already harvested all of the white grapes. On April 16, Emiliana finished harvesting all our vineyards. All things considered, the harvest went extremely well, with healthy grapes that achieved great maturity and ideal acidity. We are very optimistic that these wines will have great balance and expression. In total we picked 22,700,000 pounds of grapes, two percent more than last year.

Throughout the harvest, we were able to keep all of our staff working, although at different times. Emiliana’s administrative employees worked (and continue to work) remotely. In the winery, we shortened the night shift to allow for more frequent shifts with fewer workers. In the vineyard and winery, we carefully enforced social distancing—keeping 1.5 meters (5 feet) between all staff. This is a bit contrary to Chilean nature as we are very affectionate people, so to keep this top of mind, we had a number of signs throughout the winery for reminders, and sanitizing stations for cleanliness. For our cellar staff in contact with the fruit and the wine, wearing masks and gloves was nothing new, as they have always worn these, particularly during harvest, so it wasn’t a strange feeling for them.

As Emiliana is a company focused on the environment, sustainability, and minimal intervention, the type of people who work for us are very caring of others and socially-conscious by nature. We encourage each other to take the proper precautions and to go straight home after work, because we are not only responsible for ourselves but for all of those in our communities.

Local government recently announced that they will soon begin to slow down quarantine restrictions for certain areas and cities, but at the moment, we continue to be on lockdown and remain very cautious. As elsewhere throughout the world, I believe personal changes and decisions are key to keep the virus propagation down, such as wearing a mask, washing our hands frequently and using hand sanitizer, and maintaining at least 3.5 feet between people. These practices will likely lead to long-term cultural changes in the end.

Photo Credit: Viña Luis Felipe Edwards

Nicolas Bizzarri, Director of Winemaking at Viña Luis Felipe Edwards (LFE) in Colchagua, within Chile’s Central Valley, had similar experiences to report.

Colchagua sits at the center of Chile’s Central Valley. Arguably, some of Chile’s best red wines are produced here, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah. The success of the region can be tied to its climate coupled with its terroir; it’s warm, but the nearby ocean and rivers create a necessary cooling effect.

LFE has almost 5,000 acres of vineyards across Chile, and pairs the distinct microclimate of each specific region with the grapes that grow there. These regions include Leyda, Colchagua Entre Cordilleras, Colchagua Mountains, the Colchagua Coast, and Maule. Nicolas’s answers here speak overall to his experience in Colchagua.

Bizzarri: As agriculture is a significant economic driver in Chile, it is considered essential, and we are allowed to travel to and work in the winery. Outside of essentials, the rest of the Colchagua region remains on lockdown at this time to ensure safety and minimize the spread. We are fortunate that only 57 people of the 10,832 infected in the country are located in the vicinity.

Photo Credit: Viña Luis Felipe Edwards

By the time COVID-19 arrived in the Colchagua Valley, 40 percent of our grapes at Viña Luis Felipe Edwards were harvested and undergoing crush. It is worth noting that this is very unusual—normally only 10 to 15 percent of the harvest would be complete at this stage, but our season was early due to the extraordinarily hot and dry weather in January and February. COVID-19 further intensified our harvest period and we needed to accelerate all our processes. Although stressful, we were fortunate to have ripe fruit ready to harvest. Although the yield was 15 to 20 percent lower than last year, we had good, consistent quality. We completed our harvest on April 17th.

Throughout the entire process, the team took extensive safety precautions. For example, all of our staff worked until the last week of March, and practiced social distancing. Then, we reduced the number of our older employees, in order to protect and take care of them. We also prioritized the harvest of crops that use machines in order to avoid having groups of employees working together.

We are also educating our workers daily. We are the type of people who are accustomed to being close, so frequent reminders are important. We also take the temperature of all our workers when they arrive to and leave the winery, sanitize all vehicles used for transportation, as well as the dining areas in our wineries. We have increased the number of hand washing stations, and outfitted all stations with hand sanitizer. All of our office employees are working from home or are spread out to ensure appropriate social distancing. These are small details, but they’re important.

Every day we are learning and implementing new safety and health measures—education is key in this dangerous situation. It’s critical that we all come together in order to help each other.

The three subregions of southern Chile are Itata, Bio Bio, and Malleco. The conditions of these regions are traditionally cool and wet. Older vineyards include grapes such as País and Moscatel. In contrast with Casablanca, Itata was the first Chilean coastal region to be planted with vines when the conquistadors landed in the region.

Photo Credit: Viñas Inéditas Winery

Juan Ledesma, Winemaker at Viñas Inéditas Winery & Terroir Sonoro, in Chile’s southern and original winemaking region has a different experience of these times, while equally as poetic as Fernando and Nicolas. This is understandable as his wine production is deliberately of a much smaller scale—and a result of his artistic nature. A jazz musician who places speakers in fermenting oak barrels to measure impact on the wine, he has been making wine since 2013, ever since he discovered 300-year-old vines in Itata and Bio Bio.

Ledesma: I live in Chillán, but my wine cellar its more than 20 miles away in Precordillera de Ñuble. During harvest, the city was locked down and we weren’t allowed to leave our homes, but as in other regions, I was permitted to go to the winery.

The first case of COVID-19 in the area was on March 12th. At that point, 80 percent of the white and rosé musts had already been crushed, and by March 20th, we were able to completely finish harvest of our small parcels of País and Malbec.

As we are a very small project, we worked strictly with local harvesters from Chile this year, in order to minimize risk. There were only two of us managing the crush—the cellar master and myself—who rotated shifts of crushing and pressing, so social distancing in the winery was not a concern.

That is not to say the situation was without challenges. It was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult harvests I have ever encountered. The field work was complicated with so few people gathering, but we still needed to harvest everything quickly due to the high temperatures and prolonged drought—in addition to COVID-19. All of our vineyards are dry farmed, so the ripening of the grapes happens very quickly, and the conditions this year were intensified.

Despite the challenge, working alone for a long time in the winery was a great reminder for me of my passion to make wine. In this way, making wine has never made so much sense to me. I was in the cellar destemming by hand, only accompanied by music, pressing in complete solitude, in the natural rhythm to get the job done. It was undoubtedly one of my most reflective harvests.

Editor’s Note: When we first spoke with the winemakers in the first week of April, the number of reported cases in Chile was roughly 3,030. Since that time the numbers in the country have increased dramatically to over 49,500, with the majority of cases remaining near major cities. Santiago was placed on a strict quarantine on Saturday evening, May 16, and city residents are only now permitted to leave home for essential food, medicine and exercise.