by Tim Atkin

Beware of floods, fires and locusts

If “Sex change bishop in mercy dash to Palace” is the funniest fictitious headline ever written, then “Small earthquake in Chile: not many dead” is surely the dullest. Claud Cockburn’s winning entry for an in-house competition on this very newspaper in the 1930s was turned on its head two weeks ago when Chile suffered one of the worst quakes in history. With the estimated death toll approaching 1,000, the joke isn’t funny any more.

It might seem misguided to focus on Chile’s wine industry at such a time — like asking Abraham Lincoln’s wife what she thought of the play — but the disaster has had a profound effect on producers in South America. One friend of mine, who advises wineries on where to plant vineyards and lives close to the epicentre in Concepción, says the past fortnight was a “glimpse of hell”. Fortunately for the country’s wineries, the losses appear to be exclusively material, with some damage to buildings and the equivalent of 166 million bottles spilt.

The Chilean earthquake isn’t the only natural disaster to hit the wine business in the past year. Madeira, the tiny volcanic island that produces some of the best fortified wines on the planet, was pounded by floods last month, with many of its vineyards washed away, while in Australia, the bushfires that killed 173 people in the summer of 2009 also torched a significant part of the Yarra Valley’s vineyards.

The Yarra blaze wasn’t an isolated incident. In the past decade, fires have hit wine regions in California (2008), Greece (2007) and the Cape (2005 and 2009), as well as other parts of Australia (2003 and 2007). Even the grapes that aren’t consumed by the flames often suffer from smoke taint, which can leave a bonfire-like note in the wine. Not what you’d wish for in a bottle of red.

Australia seems to suffer more than most from bad luck. In one growing season in 2007, growers in the Hunter Valley near Sydney had to put up with drought, frost, hail, bushfires (again), heavy rain and a plague of locusts. Add the continuing water shortage, which has forced some producers to abandon their vineyards, and you can understand why the Aussies aren’t as chipper as they once were.

Locusts aren’t the only wild things that damage vines. I’ve seen vineyards that have been stripped by birds, wild boars and even baboons. Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards in South Africa had such a bad problem with primates that it resorted to increasingly drastic remedies. It tried lion dung from the local zoo, it tried electric fencing and finally it tried a shotgun, leaving a baboon’s carcass near the vines, “pour encourager les autres” as it were. None worked. The baboons returned in a fighting mood. One morning the vineyard manager was greeted by a shower of stones from a nearby hill.

All of these are insignificant when compared with phylloxera, the tiny aphid that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century. After numerous botched attempts to stop the spread of the disease, the eventual remedy, still used to this day, was to graft European vines onto native American roots, which are phylloxera-resistant. If you want to read about this, the darkest period in the history of wine, Christy Campbell’s book Phylloxera tells the tale with humour and insight.

Some parts of the New World are still phylloxera free. But the threat of an infestation is so huge (and potentially devastating) that quarantine regulations are very stringent. I was once berated by an immigration official at Adelaide airport for bringing a pair of golf shoes into South Australia without washing them first.

The only country in the southern hemisphere where phylloxera has never chomped on a vine root is Chile, which is why most of its vineyards are ungrafted and unprotected. Sheltered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east, it has two formidable barriers to keep the aphid out. But as more and more wine producers set up businesses in neighbouring, infected Argentina, moving equipment back and forth across the border, how much longer will this last? If phylloxera hits Chile, the loss of 166 million bottles in an earthquake might look very small indeed.

2009 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc Taste the Difference, Casablanca Valley (£5.99, 13.5 per cent, Sainsbury’s) Sourced from a coastal area that makes some of the country’s best white wines, this should scare Sancerre producers.Tangy and ocean-crisp with grapefruit and gooseberry flavours.

2009 Costero Riesling, Viña Leyda San Antonio (£6.99 each for two, 13.5 per cent, Majestic) Riesling is a comparatively minor grape in Chile but in the right cool-climate sites it can produce thrilling wines such as this one. There are notes of minerals and fresh limes here, with taut acidity and a bracingly dry finish.

2009 Cascara Limarí Valley Chardonnay De Martino (£6.99, 14 per cent, Marks & Spencer) Limarí to the north of Santiago is emerging as Chile’s most exciting chardonnay region. This is dominated by fruit, rather than barrels, with melon and citrus to the fore, but there’s a hint of smoky, vanilla oak for added complexity.

2007 Peñalolen Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley (£9.99, or £7.99 by the mixed case, 14 per cent, Oddbins) The aromas and flavours of mint and blackcurrant pastille are typical of cabernet sauvignon from the Maipo Valley. There’s a little merlot and cabernet franc woven into the blend here, along with some firm tannins.

2006 Coyam, Colchagua Valley (£12.50, 14.5 per cent, The Wine Society, ) This organic blend of mostly syrah with lesser amounts of cabernet, merlot and carménère is a stunning red at the price. It’s svelte and smooth, with textured tannins, sweet oak and plush blackberry fruit.

2007 O Fournier Centauri Red Blend, Maule Valley (£12.99, 14.5 per cent, D. Byrne & Co, 01200 423152) If you want something wilder and funky, this blend of carignan, cabernet and merlot from the warm Maule region is rich, spicy and profound, with super-ripe, sun-baked flavours, firm tannins and refreshing acidity.

Originally published in The Times

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