Wine from ancient roots

Friday, 19 July 2019 12:27

Southern Chile’s Maule, Itata, and Biobío Valleys are home to vines planted more than 300 years ago and make wines with a distinct character and identity of their own. These wines from rustic varieties such as País are making a comeback after suffering decades of scorn.

This article was originally published in Chilean Soul Wine Magazine, USA.

It’s a journey into the past, to the dawn of wine, to a time when the vines grew freely, almost wild and without training wires, back when those who tended them shared the cycles of nature, the temperament of the moon and stars, and used no greater technology than their axes, hoes, and horses.

In a vast but delimited territory of southern Chile that includes the Maule, Itata, and Biobío Valleys, this tradition has lasted more than four centuries, untouched by and indifferent to modern practices, with no possibility of irrigating the old vines, and at the mercy of the rains and unpredictable dictates of each season.

The territory that is now Chile received its first grape vines in the mid-16th century. The newly arrived Spanish needed to irrigate their souls as well as their palates, and the Catholic church’s Jesuit order, skilled in the art of wine production, made Chile’s first wines for use in their religious ceremonies.

They needed a rustic grape variety that could adapt to the mysterious New World conditions. And they also needed a wine that would hold up well throughout the entire year without any kind of preservative, such as sulfur, or other miracles of science. And that variety was País.

The grape is alternatively known as Chilena, mission in the United States, and Criolla in Argentina and other neighboring countries, although its true name is Listán Prieto. Originally from the Canary Islands, and after an extended journey through the former Spanish colonies, País finally found its New World home in Chile.

“We don’t know for sure how old the oldest plants are, but they could easily be more than 300 years old. In the Cancha Los Huevos sector, deep in the heart of Maule, one producer has a plant called the Seven Serpents because it’s so long and gnarly. It’s enormous! And its potential for resistance is truly impressive. It has a rusticity that I haven’t seen in other varieties,” says viticulturist Pedro Izquierdo, the man behind the Lomas Campesinas project that seeks to bring a new appreciation to the heritage of the region’s old vines.

There are no reliable records to show how many vines have been pulled up or grafted to more noble varieties or how much is still growing today, but it is estimated to be more than 34,600 acres (14,000 hectares), and País, along with Moscatel de Alejandría, are the oldest vines in Chile, a virtual living museum for new generations.

PORT OF ENTRY

Colonel José Miguel Neira, better known as Bandido Neira, was dark, bearded, and fierce, and he wore the uniform of the patriot army. Because of his skill with a deadly blade known as a corvo, he was recruited by Manuel Rodríguez and José San Martín to fight for independence in the 19th century.

“What do you think of my wine?” Yamil Neira, his direct descendent, asks me during a recent visit, holding up a bottle of País from 150-year-old vines growing in the hills of the Coastal Range in the Guarilihue zone of Itata.

“It has character,” I respond, not a little intimidated.

Legend has it that the Jesuit priest Francisco de Carabantes introduced the first vines here in what is now Talcahuano, in 1548. What is certain is that Itata and Biobío produced most of Chile’s wine until well into the 20th century. The wines— primarily the red País and the white Moscatel de Alejandría—were hefted onto heavy carts and trundled down dusty roads to the port of Tomé, where they were loaded onto barges and shipped to the rest of the country.

The wine business was thriving and profitable until 1938, when the government introduced prohibitions on alcohol. In an odd attempt to combat alcoholism, the that would hold up well throughout the entire year without any kind of preservative, such as sulfur, or other miracles of science. And that variety was País.

The grape is alternatively known as Chilena, mission in the United States, and Criolla in Argentina and other neighboring countries, although its true name is Listán Prieto. Originally from the Canary Islands, and after an extended journey through the former Spanish colonies, País finally found its New World home in Chile.

“We don’t know for sure how old the oldest plants are, but they could easily be more than 300 years old. In the Cancha Los Huevos sector, deep in the heart of Maule, one producer has a plant called the Seven Serpents because it’s so long and gnarly. It’s enormous! And its potential for resistance is truly impressive. It has a rusticity that I haven’t seen in other varieties,” says viticulturist Pedro Izquierdo, the man behind the Lomas Campesinas project that seeks to bring a new appreciation to the heritage of the region’s old vines.

government of the day instituted a policy to pull up vineyards in the south, which effectively shifted the focus of Chilean viticulture northward. Itata’s rustic wines lost ground to the more aristocratic Bordeaux varieties planted in Aconcagua, Maipo, and the rest of the Central Valley.

With time, the Itata and parts of the Maule Valleys were relegated to the backseat of Chilean viticulture. And in recent decades, many small producers have seen their efforts threatened by the unrelenting advance of the forestry companies and have finally given in to the pressure to sell their land and move away. More obstinate others, however, have continued to tend their vines, just as their ancestors did, weathering the ups and downs of the market and confronting new times that show little respect for gray hair and tradition.

“All of the vines are so low that the grapes touch the ground. They are planted on high hills and receive no other irrigation than rainwater,” wrote Jesuit priest Felipe Gómez de Vidaurre in the mid-18th century, when the religious order owned numerous very large haciendas in the area.

Time seems to have come to a standstill in certain parts of the Itata Valley, as if it were a museum for the younger generations. Yet diehard traditionalists continue to work in old adobe buildings scattered across its rugged landscape, making their wines much in the way the early Spaniards did nearly 500 years ago—in local raulí beech casks called pipas, in large clay amphora- shaped tinajas, and even in animal skins.

MAULE HERITAGE

During colonial times, the Itata River was the border between the Spanish and the Mapuche worlds. This indigenous group from south-central Chile, which was never defeated by the colonizers, fiercely defended their territory and forced the viticultural frontier northward.

In the more peaceful Maule Valley, País vines were settling in on the dry secano sector beside the Coastal Range in the zones now known as Cauquenes, Sauzal, Empedrado, Coronel de Maule, and Pocillas. This zone may well have the largest reserve of old vines in the world, and its genetic material has survived from long, long before the phylloxera outbreak wreaked havoc on vineyards throughout much of Europe.

“Grape vines, Vitis vinifera, are not native to the Americas,” explains Felipe Zúñiga, owner of Viña San Clemente and president of VidSeca, an association of 30 small producers who are bottling País and beginning to get the word out about these wines. “But in Chile we have been able to conserve a tremendous heritage of old vines. Surely in other regions, such as Georgia or Armenia, we could find plants that are much older, but here in southern Chile, we have some of the oldest vines in the world. There are areas here where we adhere to the old traditions, where we still prune with an axe and plow with a horse,” he says.

“These old vineyards have remained to our times because there has never been any possibility of reconversion, of planting anything else. The local producers have inherited their vineyards and these traditions, and it’s all they know. They are not farmers, they are viticulturists!” he adds.

Old vines produce low yields and don’t exceed 5,500 kilograms per hectare, and the wines they make are anything but commercial—historically, they sold fo about US$2.50 per liter. But they deserve more attention and appreciation. Not only are they juicy and lively, but they are steeped in local identity and history as well.

Prices have risen in recent times, but they are still far from being able to sustain a viticultural tradition with a certain dignity. In some seasons they don’t even command enough to cover production costs, so the grapes are left hanging on the vines.

And that’s why Felipe Zúñiga doesn’t want to talk about the old-timers of the secano. He’d rather talk about those of the ‘younger generation who fall in love with the tradition of their grandparents’—and their grandparents’ grandparents—generations.

According to viticulturist Renán Cancino, owner of El Viejo Almacen in Sauzal and one of the fiercest defenders of the tradition of País, these vines represent a reservoir of heritage in danger of extinction. “They’re never going to sell like Cabernet Sauvignon does, but this is a unique wine in an industry in which everyone makes the same thing. If we can’t recognize that this represents a tremendous opportunity, then we’re all out of our minds,” he exclaims.

Originally from Sauzal, Cancino maintains that País was always an embarrassment for modern winemakers, a variety that had no legal recognition as a denomination of origin, and that many hid away and swept under the carpet when the Chilean export boom began in the 1990s. “Chile did sell País, but it wanted to sell Bordeaux,” he explains.

But that has all changed—a lot—in recent years. Now it’s not just the local campesinos who are producing these wines. Many emerging and traditional wineries alike have hopped onto the País bandwagon—or at least have developed some experimental lines that contribute great value in terms of image. (See the article “Big Bang” for more detail)

Chilean wines have always been recognized for their tremendous value for money but have lacked a fundamental element—identity! Until now. Here it is, right where it has been all along, but that no one wanted to touch.