Despite dangerous freezes during the Chilean growing season, importers of grapes anticipate excellent quality and promotable volumes this season.

The first shipments of Chilean grapes arrived at U.S. ports in mid-December, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America with the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.

“We’re slowly ramping up,” Tjerandsen said Dec. 20.

Volumes at the start of the Chilean deal would have been greater had the Atacama growing region not been hit with a freeze that “really wreaked havoc” on shipments from the region, he said.

That said, because Atacama is a relatively new player on the export scene, the loss of early fruit from the region did not wreak similar havoc on weekly Chilean shipments to the U.S., Tjerandsen said.

“It’s kind of a normal transition, which is just as well,” he said.

That’s because Brazil and Argentina were still shipping significant volumes in December, Tjerandsen said, and California was still shipping normal volumes for that time of year out of storage.

Chilean volumes will pick up steam in January, Tjerandsen said, with promotable volumes of red, green and black varieties from late January through March expected.

Despite the slow start out of Atacama, shippers were expecting to make up ground later in the deal, Tjerandsen said.

In positive weather news, growers are reaping the benefits this season of the end to a three-year drought in Chile. The country had substantial winter rains this year, he said.

Tjerandsen expects Chilean grape volumes to top last season’s 416,000-ton total.

Delays in Copiapo slowed the beginning of the Chilean export deal to the U.S., said Mark Greenberg, senior vice president of procurement and chief operating officer of Fisher Capespan, St. Laurent, Quebec.

“It’s hard to know when the crop will get up to peak volumes,” he said.

Chile is expected to start to take over the deal for good in mid-January, when California, Brazil and other regions wind down for the year.

Fisher Capespan expects its volumes to be similar, possibly slightly down, from 2010-11, Greenberg said. Industrywide, Chilean shipments to the U.S. could be 5% lower than last season’s total of 51 million cases.

The first vessel carrying Chilean grapes bound for the U.S. left Chile four days later than usual because of freeze-related delays, but as of Dec. 18, Chilean shippers had actually loaded more volumes season to date than in 2010-11, said Francisco Chacon, marketing director for Santiago-based Dole Chile SA.

After the cold start to the season, Chacon said, Mother Nature has been more cooperative.

“After spring freezes in north areas, the weather has been gentle,” he said.

The first vessel of the season carried flames, sugraones and perlettes, Chacon said.

Thompson volumes started ramping up in subsequent shipments, he said.

Chacon reported normal quality on early-season fruit, and he expected similar volumes as last season.

Dole Chile expects to pack more U.S.-bound grapes in 1-, 2- and 4-pound clamshells this season, Chacon said.

Volumes should rise as much as 20% this season for the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group, said Josh Leichter, the company’s East Coast vice president and grape category director.

Industrywide, Chilean shippers expect a full crop, with volumes similar to last season, Leichter said.

“We’ve seen good quality out of Chile so far, and are looking forward to a good year,” he said.