The massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Chile on Feb. 27 and killed more than 800 people hit the country’s wineries hard. For the past week, dozens of winemakers have been tweeting tales of toppled and cracked tanks, crashed barrels, collapsed buildings, broken bottles and vast amounts of wine lost, streaming onto floors.
Yet among these sad tales were small triumphs.
“One tank standing on Saturday was about to collapse this morning. Racked off and wine saved. 12.000 liters of #Polkura 2008. Hurra!!” tweeted Sven Bruchfeld, co-owner of tiny boutique project Agricola la Vina, on the Monday after the quake. (You can access tweets from dozens of producers on the Twitter page of Wine Spectator writer James Molesworth at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.)
On Wednesday, March 3, Rene Merino, president of Wines of Chile issued an initial report, stating that about 125 million liters of wine had been lost (about 14 million cases), with a value of about $250 million. That’s about 12.5 percent of 2009′s 1.01 billion liters. He stressed that the wine situation was not as bad as originally feared.
But the report acknowledged that infrastructure damage at wineries varies greatly and still hasn’t been fully assessed. On Friday, Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations upped the damage figure to at least $280 million. I’ve noticed a disconnect between “official” releases and the many reports from individual producers, some of whom say they’ve lost a million or more liters of wine.
My friend Max Morales, CEO of Andeswine.cl, emailed Thursday from Concepcion — Chile’s second-largest city — in the Bio-Bio region, “It looks like a war zone.” The majority of vineyards in the coast and central valley, he said, seem to be unaffected by earthquake, luckily. Destruction at wineries varies widely from one valley to the other.
Complicating the situation have been continuing serious aftershocks and tsunamis that demolished shipping ports with 10- to 20-meter high waves.
The hardest hit wine regions — Colchagua Valley, Curico Valley, Bio-Bio and Maule — are far south of the capital city of Santiago.
Just how much damage was done isn’t completely known. Giant winery Concha y Toro set aside a week to assess. Phone and Internet services were out for days, so traveling winery owners couldn’t even reach employees.
The week before the quake, I was tasting wines in New York with Miguel Torres Maczassek, who has been in charge of his family’s Chilean Torres Winery in Curico since January. Getting home took him 40 hours, via Brazil, Argentina and a bus over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza. Hundreds of houses in Curico are now just rocks on the ground, he reported by email. At his winery, he found 100,000 liters of wine destroyed, 300 oak barrels smashed and structural damage to one old section — and Torres counts himself one of the luckier ones.
In Maule, 120 miles south of Santiago and close to the epicenter of the quake, the J. Bouchon winery lost 150,000 liters of wine and the old winery was leveled.
Once known primarily as a bulk region, Maule has been rediscovered in the last few years by ambitious winemakers for its 60- to 90-year-old vines of carignan grapes. On my visit last December, I was stunned by the dark, brooding quality of wines made from them. Among the top ones was the juicy, violet-scented 2006 Carignan Riserva from Gillmore Winery, one of the region’s tiny boutiques and part of an innovative group of small independent wineries called MOVI. It has suffered earthquake losses of 20 percent. One of the best of Torres’ new wines was the 2007 Cordillera Carinena, made from old vines there.
Winemakers themselves are raising money for others. In Maule, Torres donated 50,000 euros to the Curico council. Garage Wine Company is selling off remaining stocks of the winery’s 2008 carignan kept for samples. The proceeds will go to help the growers and the neighboring town of Sauzal, the zone where dry-farmed old-vine carignan grows, close to the quake’s epicenter.
Now, says Morales, the concern is the harvest, which ordinarily would have started. In many areas some white grapes are ready to be picked, but wineries have to clean up cellars and assess equipment losses to see how many grapes they can process. No electricity means no pumping and no temperature-controlled fermentation vats. Interviewed on radio program Stu the Wine Guru, Morales also worried about whether there will be enough harvest workers, many of whom are trying to rebuild their own homes.
Tonight, thinking of the many dedicated winemakers I visited last December, I’ll be pulling out a few great Chilean wines to toast their recovery. I urge every wine lover to do the same.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
Photo: Wines of Chile old vines in Maule. Credit: Matt Wilson, courtesy of Wines of Chile.