Even with heavy December rains, the Chilean grape crop early this season appears to be in much better shape than it was last year.

Karen Brux, managing director, North America, for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, San Carlos, Calif., said during the 2015-16 season, Chile exported a total of almost 85.5 million 18-pound (8.2-kilogram) equivalent boxes of table grapes.

"While there are no official estimates for 2016-17, table grape production is expected to be around 90 million boxes," she said.

Brux said the main variety out of Chile is globe, with global exports of more than 28 million boxes, followed by crimson with 18 million, thompson seedless with 16 million and flame seedless with 8.5 million boxes.

This year, the Chilean grape season started 10-12 days earlier than normal.

"By the week of Dec. 19, Chile had shipped nearly 47,000 tons of grapes to the U.S., compared with just 12,600 last year," Brux said.

As of Jan. 10, Chile had shipped 91% more than the same time last season -- 78,629 tons compared to 41,035 tons, she said.

Flame seedless, sugraone and thompson seedless were the main varieties shipped so far, Brux said.

Brux added that total volume will be similar to last year and possibly higher.

"The big difference will be in timing, with the season starting and ending sooner than last season," she said. "The demand in the U.S. is very healthy. Asia is also growing year-on-year, especially the markets of China and Korea."

Jared Lane, vice president of marketing for Stevco Inc., Los Angeles, said Chilean grape availability from the company will be condensed to about an eight to 10-week timeframe compared to the normal 10-12 week interval.

"We'll have a lot of volume in the next eight weeks starting in the southern region (of Chile)," he said.

In reference to the heavy December rains Chile experienced, Lane said the northern growing regions were the most affected, with some damage to flames and sugraones.

"However, we have 250% year-to-date volume over last year," he said. "There is lots of fruit to promote in February and March."

Lane said fruit is moving but at half the price of last year in January - red grapes have been $25 per 18-pound box based on volume compared to $50 last year.

Mark Greenberg, president and CEO for Capespan North America LLC, Montreal, Quebec, said this year, weather has actually been better than last, and the market has seen heavier early arrivals as well as a domestic crop that has remained available through the first two weeks of January.

"As a result, there is no scarcity of grapes and early season market prices have reacted accordingly, to the disappointment of many growers," he said. Greenberg said how this affects the mid- to late-season market remains to be seen.

Chris DeSana, grape commodity manager for Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., said Peruvian grape imports have fallen short of pre-season expectations while Chile is harvesting at a record rate, especially reds, creating downward pressure on the market that was not seen last season.

"This year, we've had 16.3 million cases combined between Peru and Chile season-to-date compared to 12.7 million last year," he said.

Nolan Quinn, commercial manager for Summit Produce, Fresno, Calif., said he thinks there will be a white seedless scarcity from late March onwards.

Quinn said he thinks sluggish demand is due to retailers not promoting aggressively enough early in the season.

"The volume (of red grapes in particular) has been more than the industry could handle without greater promotion support. But demand is starting to normalize," he said.

 
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