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In the early hours of 27 February, a huge earthquake ripped through central Chile causing massive damage and killing more than 500.
One of the worst hit areas was the Colchagua Valley, the heart of the country’s wine industry. Evidence of the quake remains a year and a half later, but the wineries are largely back on their feet.
At Casa Lapostolle’s Apalta winery, where they produce Clos Apalta, one of Chile’s most expensive wines, the damage from the earthquake was minimal.
The building where they press, mix and store the wine reaches seven stories into the bedrock of the Apalta mountain. At its base, dozens of barrels are stored for two years before the wine is bottled, and visitors can touch the cold dampness oozing from the granite that helps maintain the cellar’s temperature and humidity.
A flight of stairs leads down even farther to the personnel cellar of the winery’s founder, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle. She is the great-granddaughter of the founder of the Grand Marnier drinks company and is currently its deputy chairwoman.
“We hardly lost a drop here,” said Julien Berthelot, a Frenchman who manages the company’s Asian sales, pointing to the collection of French and Chilean vintages.
Others were not so lucky. In total, the wine industry estimates that it lost around 30% of the wine in production as a result of damage caused by the earthquake. It could have been worse. The earthquake struck just as the harvest was about to be picked – a few weeks later and a whole year’s production could have been lost.
Down the road at Viña Casa Silva, one of the oldest wineries in Colchagua, the destruction was almost complete. The large stainless steel wine tanks buckled and cracked as thousands of litres sloshed around in the quake. As the macerating grape juice rushed out, the ensuing vacuum crushed the tanks from within, leaving them looking like crumpled drinks cans.
“The place was running with wine,” recalls Arnaud, Casa Silva’s Belgium-born sales head. Today there is a barely bottle out of place, but the wooden beams overhead are still stained purple where the wine leaked through.
Casa Silva’s elegant hotel is open for business again, housing guests in large, elegant rooms, complete with four poster beds, in the winery’s 19th-century manor house. Meanwhile, its smart restaurant, which mixes grilled meats and traditional Chileans dishes with some Oriental touches (do not miss the wagyu skirt steak) has been moved to the horse-mad Silva family’s clubhouse, so you may be able to take in a chukka or two of polo over lunch.
With demand for Chilean wine booming – the country is the world’s fifth largest exporter of wine, snapping at the heels of Australia – it is little surprise that the industry recovered so quickly. Most of the hotels and restaurants in the area that depend on wine tourism are also back in business.
Elsewhere the Colchagua Valley, evidence of the disaster can still too plainly be seen. At Lolol, a tiny village 12km east of Santa Cruz, the white church, one of Chile’s oldest, appears to be grinning from cheek to cheek, a gaping crack left by the earthquake. The adobe houses that did not collapse are propped up with wooden scaffolding. Some families are preparing to spend their second winter in temporary accommodation, noted Fredy Leon from Lolol town hall.
Reconstruction is taking longer here than elsewhere because of laws to protect historic buildings. Some would prefer that the old buildings be pulled down, but after the earthquake, Lolol is home to one of the last examples of colonial one-storey adobe construction left standing, making preservation all the more important.
The Museum of Colchagua, one of Chile’s most important collections, had to be pulled down and rebuilt before it could reopen. But the new building, replacing an irretrievable 19th-century construction, gives more room for the displays. The collection includes the skeleton of a giant sloth, a large amount of amber and the founding document of Chile’s first independent government.
The staff is currently working on a new hall which will commemorate last year’s rescue of 33 miners from the San Jose copper mine, 1,000km away in Chile’s arid north. The display will include recreations of the refuge where the men huddled on meagre supplies for more than two months and the Phoenix capsule in which they were hauled to freedom. Like the earthquake, almost every Chilean remembers when they heard that all 33 had been found alive. Another reason they will never forget 2010.