The Awakening of a Native
Looked down upon for generations by the winemaking and academic elites, the País grape is back to enchant wine lovers with its best attributes: Simplicity, identity and history. The most daring, interesting and romantic of all País initiatives is the so-called Route of the 25, a project that comprises 25 small producers who remain true to ancestral winemaking techniques and impervious to the whims of fashion or the market.
Instead of peacefully end their journey in the pacific ocean, the waters of the Maule river prefer to defy the laws of nature, running back from the sea towards the mountains. They go uphill, come to a standstill and begin again. The cadence, the reason, the feeling are both intense and contradictory, shaping not only the Maule dry-farmed landscape, but also the character of its wines and its inhabitants. This is where it all started and where it all crumbles down. Here, everything rises from the rubble time and again. Just like this crazy river that goes back on its path, we traveled to a distant past that mixes its waters with the future.
This particular wine bottle was found in a shabby grocery store in Peralillo, but I prefer to think it was brought back by the Maule currents. Mission Organic from Lomas de Cauquenes, the first Chilean organic wine produced by winemaker Claudio Barría, had already become sort of a myth, a lost treasure, one of the many (most of them failed) attempts to add value to the much despised País grape.
– And how much did you pay for it? I ask Barría.
– Just about US$ 2.50, he laughs.
In the late 1990s, the winemaker not only tried to emulate the winemaking tradition of colonial days by producing a natural wine without a single milligram of sulfur dioxide, but to rescue the biodiversity of the Maule rainfed areas, avoiding the use of new technologies that could alter its distinctive original attributes. Initially, the project had even envisioned the possibility of exporting the wine in sail ships in order to keep its carbon footprint to a minimum.
“The traditional País variety is rich in resveratrol, an antibacterial compound that prevents infections and wine oxidation. As a matter of fact, the cultivar did not arrive in Chile by accident, as many authors suggest. The Jesuits, who began propagating it in the 16th century, chose it among many others. They brought this variety to the New World because they needed to produce a wine that would retain
its properties during the whole year to celebrate the catholic mass,” Barría explains.
And so the inevitable came: We ended up uncorking this Mission Organic 1998 and, despite our initial apprehensions, it was nothing short of superb. Our noses were inundated by aromas of roses, camphor, sour cherries and bitter chocolate. The body was light, complex and flavorful, without any signs of oxidation. The winemaker’s theory had been confirmed, leading me, once again, to go back on my footsteps and revisit Cauquenes and its producers.
BEFORE AND AFTER
The fate of Cauquenes seems intimately linked to natural disasters. The earthquake of 1939 was, without doubt, the turning point for the city. Many historical buildings, silent witnesses of a splendorous past, disappeared forever and agriculture was left in ruins. In an unprecedented effort to revive the area, the government of the time created the National Development Agency (CORFO) and the Institute for Agricultural and Livestock Research (INIA). At the same time, the Lomas de Cauquenes Wine Cooperative (COVICA) was established.
The cooperative —the heart of Maule’s winemaking industry— has suffered severe hardship as a consequence of low common grape prices and the enormous debt inherited from a recent and disastrous management. But today it seems to be breathing fresh air and the future —despite the summer wildfires that have consumed over 10,000 hectares and a brutal drought that forced the government to declare a state of emergency— appears moderately bright but full of optimism.
– That’s the essence of the Cauquenino spirit. The inhabitants of this region always move on with their lives. They never go back, not even for a take-off run, says Felipe Zúñiga, winemaker and general manager of the cooperative, who works together with viticulturalist Lucho Mendoza in selecting and managing the grapes for the different wine lines.
Sitting in Cauquenes’ main square, we try to avoid the blazing midsummer noon sun. The local inhabitants who pass by greet us and some even take a minute or two to chat. The winemaker is like an authority in Cauquenes. The bond between the cooperative and the community is much more than purely economic. It is a personal relationship. For example, Alfonso Quiroz had to rent his farm because the low grape prices of some years ago made it impossible to make any profit on production. But he never sold his property title and now he plans to resume his active participation in COVICA with his grapes and his efforts. “The cooperative is the best system because it belongs to everyone,” he says.
Numerous other cooperative members have been tempted by the offers of the large wineries, especially Carignan producers. Unlike País, which last summer reached an unprecedented price of US$ 0.4 per kilogram (until not so long ago it sold for less than a kilogram of vegetable coal), some producers like Jaime Benavente manage to sell their Carignans for no less than US$ 1.6 per kilogram. Although this sounds like a perfect deal, unfortunately it is not the same for all Cauquenes producers, who year after year have no say on how prices are set.
– We live on Carignan grapes. today, you can’t do anything without a calculator in your hand. Money talks around here. But under equal conditions, I choose friendship, I choose the cooperative,” Benavente says.
The producer is convinced that all grape varieties can be profitable here, but that the great problem today is the lack of hand labor. there are no workers. They’ve all gone north, tempted by more lucrative activities like berry cropping. When his father and grandfather were alive, he recalls, workers poured in from everywhere. They came from the mountains for pruning and picking. “But the new generations, fed with canned powder milk, have other interests. they don’t care about the vineyard,” he complains.
THE FACES OF THE DRY-FARMED LAND
The Cauquenes Social Club used to host the cream of the crop of Cauquenes social life. The extensive structural damage it suffered during the 2010 earthquake forced its members to find a new venue in the same neighborhood. Now, major decisions are made in the seat of the Arturo Prat Society for Mutual Assistance, where we had the chance to attend the latest meeting of the Technological Transfer Group (GTT).
Most attendees are cooperative directors and prominent actors of the Cauquenes wine industry. People like Francisco Villanueva, Guillermo Molina, Rodrigo de Toro and Ignacio Eulufi have successfully diversified their investments and plan their long-term businesses. But, as always, the Maule dry-farmed country never ceases to put its inhabitants to the test.
– Isn’t it ironic: I invested in pine trees to make my field more profitable and the wildfires burned most of them. Now we’ll see how the local authorities respond. This has been the worst managed wildfire in history – complains Guillermo Molina, who now only has 35 hectares of vineyards after he prioritized cattle breeding and forestry.
In the Society for Mutual Assistance, we are treated to sumptuous filets of beef and wines made from ‘noble’ varieties. The conversation flows as the afternoon passes, and the future of Cauquenes takes on a clearer, sharper look. “Which varieties do you think are the most suitable for this region?”, Rodrigo de Toro suddenly asks me as he uncorks a ripe Carmenère from his own estate.
– Without doubt, and given the climate, I’d say that Mediterranean varieties, as demonstrated by Carignan. But I would not discard any other varieties beforehand. The Maule dry-farmed land is a world in itself and efforts must be made to find the right spot for each variety. For example, count Marone Cinzano produces a magnificent Cabernet sauvignon in Caliboro. The problem here is that you need to grow a bit of everything to shield yourselves from price variations, and that, quite obviously, affects quality. Finally, I would not disregard País. The world is asking for wines with identity, and, clearly, no other variety has a longer history than País. When grown right, País can produce extremely interesting wines – I answer, sensing some skepticism in the air.
The País variety —or Chilena, as it is also called— has been looked down upon by generations of winemakers and academicians from the most renowned universities. Even agricultural authorities have refused to grant it appellation of origin status. It is the mother of the Chilean wine industry yet, unintentionally, it became a pebble in the shoe for the renewed image of the industry and a terrible social and economic headache. Today, there are still thousands of
small producers who make or try to make a living of this variety, like Aldo Opazo, a proud farmer who holds on to the tradition inherited from his ancestors.
– I wish someone would keep the tradition and continue working the field. But the winery will die with me. Today’s youth want to make money without working. The last Chileans at heart died with the earthquake—says Opazo, who owns one of the few País vineyards trained in vertical trellises, which was planted by his father to obtain better yields per hectare.
THE FUTURE OF PAÍS
But a new day is dawning for País. During his last visit, the influential British wine writer Tim Atkin forecast in one of his controversial statements that the future of Chile lies in País wine. Miguel Torres, though still a bit shyly, began to buy (at a good price) País grapes to produce its innovative Estelado sparkler. And Louis-Antoine Luyt, a crazy Frenchman who fell in love with Cauquenes, restored the variety’s dignity by working side by side with small producers to bottle some of the most interesting wines of the national winemaking scene: Huasa de Trequilemu, Huasa de Pilén Alto and País de Quenehuao.
Today, Luyt also advises Felipe Zúñiga in Lomas de Cauquenes in a project that sounds a bit vindicatory: Vinify País from different growing areas to rescue its unique character. We had the chance to taste a few samples made with carbonic maceration and each one presented distinctive features, from the warm and jammy Quella to the wild and deep Quenehuao.
But without doubt, the most radical, interesting and romantic of all recent País-related initiatives is the so-called Route of the 25. Led by Gastón Luna, the project has rallied 25 small, mostly País producers, who work in their vineyards and wineries following the ancestral winemaking tradition, impervious to fashion trends or market whims. Representing different growing areas like Pocillas, Tequel, Rucachoro, Huedque, Tobolguén, Cancha de Maqui, Coronel de Maule, Name and others, they have joined forces to make their traditions, cuisine and wines known to the world.
– The idea is to restore the past but without crying, without affecting our own identity, always happy, always calm, putting our heart at it—says Luna, a tireless defender of the dry-farmed land, who has earned the trust of old producers and the Technical Cooperation Service (SERCOTEC) alike to finance the construction of small facilities to enhance the quality of the wines.
Felipe Zúñiga himself has joined the association with his Alomín vineyards (thus called in honor of his sons Alonso and Benjamín) and expects to harvest his first País and Carignan grapes next year in Tobolguén. Luna contributes his wines fermented in clay amphorae and supervises, marvels at and hopes that this common project will not only rescue a valuable heritage, but also open new roads to make profitable a tradition that should never have been left to its own devices.
The heirs of centuries of farming knowledge, these producers manage their vineyards as they please. No scholander pumps or other fancy gadgets. They use their hands to feel the leaves and, based on their temperature, they decide the best management techniques and time of harvest. A cold leaf means that the plant is still working and that the time has still not come to pick the fruit. Neither do they apply sulfur to the vineyard if the sun ‘is looking back’, for this is a sign of rain and they would waste the product.
These vintners from the past and the future follow nature’s cycles and are fervent defenders of their vineyards’ biodiversity. Their vines grow side by side with chamomile, pennyroyal, mardones and California poppies. Their spores flirt with grape skins, successfully entering fermentations and adding very interesting and unique notes to the resulting wines. In his field of Rucachoro, which once belonged to a colonial judge, Rogelio Hernández even looks after the frogs that live in the pond, protecting them from hungry hunters. “If the frogs disappear, the pond will dry out,” he sentences. And nobody dares to question him.
– These producers are very distrustful, and they have been so since colonial days. If you dared to make wine back then, Spain would levy it with high taxes, send you to jail or even make you pay with your life. That is why the Picunche Indians consumed chicha. For generations they found a way to survive and bypass the law. Modern growers don’t want anything to do with accountants, lawyers or winemakers. They like to do things their way and that is how they have survived—Luna explains.
The goal of the Route of the 25 is to preserve these traditions intact while adding value, making them known and conserving them beyond this generation. “Who will maintain these traditions once these old men and women are gone?” Luna wonders. “Youths will simply leave because their culture is not valued. people are selling their land. Forest companies are now surrounding the vineyards, the cellars and the small chapels that still remain. The lord of the forests has arrived and is blowing it all up.”
But the Maule dry-farmed land refuses to give up. These farmers of work-beaten hands and green eyes know that life will always give them a rematch. They are used to standing up time and again, to losing in order to be able to win. “The next year will be better,” they repeat as if to keep themselves going, while País is living decisive moments for its future.
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