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Climate Change Challenges Chile's Vineyards


Picture a map of North and South America. The two continents, together, have one incredibly long Pacific coast. So they share an ocean and an interconnected chain of mountains - similar landscapes, similar climates in some places - and similar news stories. Last month, wildfires spread across California wine country. NPR's Philip Reeves found a strikingly similar tale far down the coast.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: If you think there's nowhere on earth like California, you might want to reconsider. There is a place 5,000 miles due south.


REEVES: This is it. Chile sits on South America's western edge. Like California, it's a long, thin sliver of land between the mountains and the sea. Like California, that quirk of geography allows Chile to produce world-class wines. Add to the list earthquakes, deserts and a couple of gold rushes and these two places seem similar. There's something else.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: We're in the hills of Petorca in central Chile. This is part of a big chunk of Chile that recently suffered a severe seven-year drought. Anna Varas lives here with three young kids in one of a cluster of ramshackle homes near a river. The river provided water for a local gold mine where her husband worked. The drought reduced the river to a trickle. The mine closed. Her husband's moved away to find a job, returning home only at weekends. Varas plans to move the family out.

ANNA VARAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "A place without water has no future," she says.

In January, Chile was hit by an extreme heatwave followed by the worst wildfires in the country's history.

MAISA ROJAS: The sunsets were like purple, you know, with all the smog.

REEVES: Maisa Rojas is a climatologist at the University of Chile.

ROJAS: I remember taking a plane from the south of Santiago and I would look out of the window, and it was just smoke and smoke and smoke - really terrifying (laughter).

REEVES: The fires destroyed forests and farmland and even small towns - 2,300 square miles were burnt. Like California, it happened in wine country.

GERALDO LEAL: We got, you know, some fires there between these mountains. This mountain totally burned, you know.

REEVES: The mountain right there in front of us - the hill right there was burned?

LEAL: Yes, exactly. Just in front of us, just in front of us.

REEVES: Geraldo Leal is viticulture manager for the Santa Rita Estates, one of Chile's top winemakers. The fires reached the edge of this Santa Rita vineyard near Chile's capital, Santiago. Leal also saw them from the air.

LEAL: I was flying by helicopters, you know, and controlling with water, you know. I was in one helicopter but not controlling, you know. And - just looking for the tragedy, just looking for the specific points to control, you know, in the best way.

REEVES: The fires were a huge shock to Chileans, who wanted to know why they happened. Maisa Rojas, the climatologist, says the wildfires can't be blamed on one single factor.

ROJAS: Lots of things explain why these fires occur. But the drought and high temperatures is of course the fuel for this to happen.

REEVES: Rojas says Chile has been going through some extreme climatic conditions recently. Chile's government directly attributes these to climate change.

LEAL: We are using here - you can see here we are using this kind of metal post.

REEVES: The effects of that are felt here in the vineyards, says Geraldo Leal. New vines are being grown in different positions to give grapes more shade 'cause in this part of Chile these days, the ripening season's hotter and sunlight's more intense.

Do you believe that is because of climate change?

LEAL: Absolutely.

REEVES: No doubt in your mind...

LEAL: No doubt. No doubt.

REEVES: But some people do doubt.

LEAL: (Laughter) Yes, I know. (Laughter).

REEVES: Santa Rita and other Chilean winemakers have begun establishing vineyards in the cooler, wetter south of Chile.

In the end, this vineyard was saved from the January fires. Just a few vines were burned, says Leal - though lots of grapes were damaged by smoke.

LEAL: We were lucky. We were lucky.

REEVES: That's the kind of luck many Californians could have done with.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.