Importers of Chilean grapes are reporting strong demand for high-quality fruit at the beginning of the season.

Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International received its first load of Chilean grapes at its warehouse Jan. 6, said Chris DeSana, grape commodity manager.

That’s early for Seald Sweet, DeSana said, given the company’s focus elsewhere during early winter.

“We concentrate on Peru during December and early January,” he said.

Seald Sweet expects to import significantly more grapes from Chile this season, DeSana said.

“Our volumes are expected to be up 20-25% against last year as we are growing our business there.”

Seald Sweet expects to have promotional volumes of large and extra-large fruit packed in stand-up handle or pouch bags from mid-February to the first of May, DeSana said.

The company reported a similar Chilean grape varietal mix as in 2012-13.

Fresno, Calif.-based Pacific Trellis Fruit LLC began receiving Chilean grapes in late December, slightly later than usual, said Josh Leichter, general manager.

Leichter said Chilean shippers were waiting for late-season California grapes to get out of the system before kicking off the Chilean deal.

“It’s been a little bit of a slow start,” he said. “People down there were not in a rush to get started.”

By the first half of January, however, the Chilean season was in full swing, with high-quality fruit driving robust demand in North America, Leichter said.

The only slight hiccup was the polar vortex in the first week of the month that chilled the weather and slowed movement.

“We’re seeing good demand, movement and quality,” he said Jan. 8. “Everything looks good. The weather affected demand last week, but it’s picking up.”

By the week of Jan. 6, Pacific Trellis had wrapped up its Chilean perlette deal for the season, Leichter said.

The company was importing sugraones and some thompsons from northern regions not hit nearly as hard by a series of September freezes.

That predominance of green grape varieties wouldn’t last, however, Leichter said.

“Green varieties will be a little lighter the next couple of weeks,” he said, as flames from the north and other regions begin arriving in greater numbers.

Like Seald Sweet, Pacific Trellis does not expect major changes to its Chilean varietal mix this season, Leichter said.

Karen Brux, North American managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, San Carlos, Calif., said U.S. retailers began running Chilean grapes on ad in early January.

“Retail demand is strong,” Brux said. “We have strong promotional programs for grapes, so we expect healthy volume movement throughout our season. Our strongest promotion push will be in March and April.”

As was true last year, thompson seedless, flame seedless, crimson seedless and sugraones will be among the top Chilean varieties shipped to the U.S. in 2014, Brux said.

Retailers also are finding space on their shelves for less well-known varieties, she said.

“There has been growing interest in what one might consider ‘niche’ varieties, like the pink seedless muscat,” Brux said. “In addition to promoting the overall Chilean grape category, we’ll work with retailers on promotions for specific varieties that can raise the profile of the entire category and generate additional consumer demand.”

Mark Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of Capespan North America LLC, St. Laurent, Quebec, said Capespan’s Chilean grape deal was running about on time compared with a typical year — but ahead of last year.

The 2014 season could be characterized by some supply hiccups, Greenberg said.

“It’s going to be the rhythm of arrivals that will be harder to predict,” he said. “The drought in Ovalle and the freeze that impacted many early varieties in the various regions could result in more irregular volumes over the course of the season.”

One thing the drought and freezes shouldn’t affect, however, is quality, which should translate into brisk movement of Chilean fruit.

“We are anticipating excellent demand,” Greenberg said. “We believe that fruit quality and condition will be superior to last season.”

Capespan’s Chilean grape volumes in 2014 should be similar to last season, he said.

Capespan expects a similar varietal mix, shipping in the typical region-by-region order of flames, sugraone, thompson, autumn royal, crimson and red globe.