Without a single recipe and much debate in between, there are already many wineries seeking to reinterpret the dry-farming tradition. País is the ‘hot’ variety these days, but there is still a series of questions yet to be answered: Will it be the starting point to add value to a tradition that has been neglected for decades or is it merely a marketing strategy to paint a picture of a more diversified and genuine wine industry?
In 2006, we published an article called “Go, País, go!!!” where we referred extensively to this variety we feel as our own. Back then we felt concerned about the future of this foundational variety, basically due to the uncertainty País producers had to face in a market of ups and downs that seemed to mock their four centuries of history or even more. In that article, I wrote:
“Something traps you in Cauquenes. A mysterious centripetal force that keeps its inhabitants planted in its soil. Just like the vines, the cauqueninos set firm roots and maintain their customs and traditions virtually unchanged. Most of them are small farmers, children of the sun and the rain. From their parents, and their parents’ parents, they inherited old plantations, vines with ligneous trunks and scarce yields, that today represent their main sustenance and a true viticultural heritage in the south of Chile that is underestimated by some, vinified and proudly sold by these stubborn countrymen.”
Back then I also met Cauquenes-born Iván Moraga, one of the heirs to the San Antonio estate, two hectares of ancient País grapevines managed organically. “I have no idea how old these vines may be. Maybe 150 years. Who knows, anyway. My parents bought the land as you see it today. I’m in love with nature. And I understand it, you know. I do not even kill birds. I believe that he who takes care of nature also takes care of women. I respect women but, truth be told, I do not take such good care of them,” he had told me.
Winemaker Claudio Barría from Cooperativa Lomas de Cauquenes concocted the mythical Mission Organic 1998 with the grapes from this vineyard of rustic and moving beauty. To meet the requirements of the winemaker, Mr Moraga had to apply himself and change the way he used to manage the vineyard to produce a wine of a nice color, some gentle rusticity, and sufficient structure to make it without adding sulfur dioxide. “When I throw away the fruit, my neighbors cannot believe their eyes. ‘Hey, mister, have you gone nuts?’ they ask me. ‘No, I’m only adjusting,’ I reply. Personally, I like something like 5,000 kg per hectare. That’s ideal. But some years we fall short and we have to put up with it. That is why people never have too much money around here. In good years –good productions at good prices– we need to save for whenever the season is less generous. We just swallow our tears, but we are used to this type of life,” he would affirm.
Today, Mr Moraga is no longer a Cooperative supplier and Mission Organic was discontinued after Claudio Barría left. That missionaries’ wine whose Caramayola bottles are now part of Chile’s wine museum ended up becoming a proclamation of sorts, a silent cry, a symbol of a despairing saga which is highly unlikely to have a happy ending. This year I went back Cauquenes and some vines left that had not been harvested already well into May caught my eye. “It’s not worth the effort,” they told me. The price of grapes was CLP 60 a kilo –CLP 39 unharvested– well below production costs. The País variety seems to be unable to shake off the bad luck it has always dogged it.
In 2007, just a year after I first went to see Iván Moraga, a new effort was being made to change País’ luck. “So, what do we do with this then?” Miguel Torres would wonder, referring to the thousands of hectares of País scattered throughout the Maule valley. Fernando Almeda, technical director at Miguel Torres Chile, only answered with a shoulder shrug. “I knew nothing about the País variety. I certainly knew the grapevines and that it was a rustic variety. Everybody said it was good for nothing. Just for bulk wine or to increase the volume of red or white wine. You’d take that for granted,” explained the winemaker.
“Let’s get to work, then,” Mr Torres said. And so his son Miguel jumped into the project with all his energy and heart.
That was how Miguel Torres’ Estelado was born; a País-based sparkling wine vinified using the traditional method that proudly states its Secano Interior (Dry-farmed Area) appellation on its label. The winery initiated an ambitious research and learning process with the support of FIA, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Foundation for Agricultural Innovation and the Technological Center for Vine and Wine of Universidad de Talca. “I didn’t have much hope when the project was launched. You know, you’ve been listening experts, people you respect, claim that the variety is a waste of time for the past 20 years, so…” Mr Almeda justified.
The truth is that the old generations of winemakers and even senior officials of SAG, the Chilean Agricultural and Livestock Agency, of the time were keeping the País variety in the shadows, virtually buried, as far as possible from the fine or French varieties that would consolidate the prestige of Chilean wine.
Doubts were heightened with the launching of the first prototypes of Estelado. Inside chef Guillermo Rodríguez’ workroom, Mr Torres himself, the FIA director and the past three ministers of agriculture of the Concertación political coalition would kick off the project, although you would say they were cheering for an unexpected outcome. Speeches went on and on about this being one of the greatest milestones of Chilean winemaking, along with the introduction of French varieties back in the 19th century and the landing of Torres in Curicó in 1978 with their new techniques and knowledge.
I remember I tasted those first trials and I remember the bitter sensation they left me with. The exuberant excitement of the project sponsors, the political notes that seemed to conceal the flowers and the red fruit of País, plus the phenolic character of wines –back then País and Muscat of Alexandria– left me with the feeling that it was a purely symbolic attempt, a show for the media that would hardly change the fate if this variety.
As years went by, however, I had to swallow my words and I am now one of the most enthusiastic admirers of Estelado. A similar, yet hastier process is the one the very Fernando Almeda experienced: “I realized the potential it had the very first year. The largest challenges were dealing with the phenolic load and the stability of the foam. Another big challenge was to determine the right time to harvest. Tannins are too powerful in green or overripe fruit. By applying water stress at the end of the harvest season, color and tannins become less aggressive. I realized that harvesting earlier was not a bad idea at all. In addition, we press directly without much maceration. This helps reduce the phenolic load. I now think that País has the right physiological characteristics to produce any wine you want,” the winemaker explains.
Reality hasn’t changed much. Rural family farmers continue to struggle to keep their tradition alive; however, there are many traditional wineries that have grown interested in this variety either due to the character of its wines or as a way to stand out and add value to their portfolio. Critics have made their part by fostering this phenomenon. There are now true advocacy groups for País that encourage its production and consumption, as if it were the best-kept secret of Chilean winemaking.
Moreover, a myth has been revived with the return of Claudio Barría at Cooperativa Lomas de Cauquenes. Over the coming months, the winemaker will launch a new version of Mission Organic but this time like a true Chilean, he will strengthen the bonds with the terroir. This new Organic País features a live color with sparkling reflections, sweet red fruit, and remarkably gentle tannins. The secret, according to the winemaker, lies on a new fermentation technique. “For the 1998 País vintage we used natural fermentation, but with nutrients. Now, we use traditional fermentation but we increase temperatures to extract colors at the beginning, without working the skins,” he explains.
There’s no such thing as a basic recipe to make wines with the País variety. Modern interpretations of this grape vary depending on the objectives and winemaking philosophy. Some small-scale producers, like Tinto de Rulo, Cancha Alegre, Cacique Maravilla or González Bastías, prefer to respect the centennial tradition by making wines in the most rudimentary way, with no technology other than our own hands. Others have opted for techniques used in other wine regions to pursue more fruit and gentler tannins.
This is the case of Fernando Almeda, who seeks to make his Reserva de Pueblo a light, very aromatic País-based wine. “ We need to har vest a bit earlier in the season to avoid dry tannins . When the fruit is very ripe its natural acidity takes a sharp drop and tannins tend to take over. We also conduct carbonic macerations, just like in the Beaujolais appellations. Macerations take place at a higher temperature than average to make the resulting wine deeper and more intense. And we macerate the whole cluster because, despite the presence of stalks, this increases the fruity character and curbs tannin aggressiveness. So far we have utilized various vinifications techniques and have concluded that País grapes contribute something special to any blend. In the mouth, wines are pleasant and different, like the old wines that were not so powerful, and with a sort of classy rusticity,” he explains.
Claudio Barría is not a big fan of carbonic macerations, so his efforts go towards the obtainment of a personal style somewhat sleeker than his old and endeared País reds. “País Orgánico is free of carbonic maceration and other funny stuff. Indeed, what carbonic maceration does is hide the terroir and mislead consumers.You don’t feel any differences between two or more wines. We de-stem our grapes, crush them and ferment the juice with native yeasts. Our goal is to interpret the fruit and make a wine that reflects the land while offering lots of flavor. We leave the sieving to traditional producers,” he explains.
And Renán Cancino is one of those traditional producers who defends and advocates traditional techniques, sieving included. In his project El Viejo Almacén in Sauzal, he uses only traditional techniques developed over centuries of winemaking history. “País is a simple wine, with no makeup, wood, color or overly acidic texture. It is a wine of elegant structure, nice acidity and clean, floral aromas. You cannot mix it. País will always be in command,” he affirms.
Mr Cancino also criticizes carbonic maceration. “Who has conducted carbonic maceration in 200 years? No one. Ever! In Beaujolais they use it because the wines there are undrinkable. Our vinification is spontaneous . You punch down as grapes ferment. We punch down in the morning and in the evening, but not to extract color. Actually, no one cares about the color. That is why our are wines are so smooth and nicely structured,” he explains.
Gustavo Hörmann, winemaker at Montes, has also included País in his Outer Limits line of wines. In a hilly area between Colchagua and Curicó, his co-worker Jorge Gutiérrez discovered a very old sloping vineyard. So old that it does not even appear in the Agriculture and Livestock Service registers. “Many years ago, we claimed the freedom to get lost with Outer Limits in order to innovate and have a good time making it. At Montes, our attention is focused on selling, of course, but also on making new things to keep the spirit alive,” he points out.
Together with a Muscat Rosé from Curtiduría, this País awaits its evaluation to determine whether it will be released for sale or not. The wine was fermented with native yeasts in a couple of bins and barrels. “We destemmed the grapes to bring out the fruit, not the tannins. País tannins are quire rustic, you know. You would not expect such bitterness in such a light wine. It must be left to rest for 3 to 4 days with just some punching down. You do not get great color, but that is completely irrelevant. There is a lot of fruit and just a dash of that characteristic bitterness. The wine will make itself,” he explains.
De Martino’s winemaker Marcelo Retamal also set his sight on these old grapevines. His work has been instrumental in promoting the dry-farmed terroir, especially Carignan vineyards. Today, he also vinifies a blend of País and Cinsault under the Gallardía del Itata label. In his opinion, we must “look back and understand that Chile is a wine country. And definitely do away with the term ‘industry’! All wine companies live side by side, from the largest to the small producer who makes his wine at home.”
However, he explains, you cannot base your entire portfolio on País or artisanal wines only. “We must have a diversity of products. These are niche wines. If you manage to sell a wine for CLP 20,000 good for you. Our País/Cinsault belongs in a category of lighter wines, without wood and with low alcohol levels. These are the kinds of wines that as soon as you finish a bottle you want another one,” he adds.
“Like Retamal says, at the end of the day everything adds up. It is a good thing that other wineries strive to recover País. But you and I know they are using the variety without any connection with its long history of oblivion. Today, many wines taste just the same. But the true País is quite different. It you just follow a fashion you will never make a true wine,” Mr Cancino sentences.
He says that today País wines are in the spotlight, but he wonders how many of those wines have a true identity. “Only when you put them side by side can you truly judge their worth. Brands are not everything. I wonder how much fruit each one of these wineries buys. Even less than Carignan, I am sure, and that is almost nothing. The only winner here is the one who makes the wine. In Sauzal there are just 10 small producers and this year the kilogram sold for just CLP 50, with yields generally under 2 tons per hectare. I find this so unfair! It is an outrage and a complete lack of understanding! For these producers, bottling themselves is way better than giving their fruit away for nothing,” he sentences.
Mr Retamal believes these wines should occupy a niche that is unfortunately taken by good Beaujolais. He thinks that if we could sell for USD 6.99 per bottle we could make a great difference, because the quality of our wines is much higher. “I wish there would be a bit of everything, so that everybody could do whatever pleases them, but unfortunately we need to sell between USD 40 and 45 per case, such as Gallardía,” he adds.
Mr Almeda thinks too much has already been said about diversity and quality, but there is an aspect no one has mentioned yet. “We have the tools and the wines, but we do not know how to sell them profitably. In France, Italy and Portugal you find different things everywhere. And here we have never used them to our advantage. And we have to because if we do we will be dignifying the work of many producers over many years,” he says.
And he adds you can see the glass either half full or half empty. “This year I decided to see the full side of things. I now believe we can sell País at a price that rewards the entire value chain. We have a powerful story and a long history. Now it is a question of promoting the category and adding value to our products. That is the starting point. It will not be easy, but it is perfectly possible. For example, we began with just one producer and now we work with more than 30. We have grown a lot,” he explains.
Claudio Barría celebrates that other wineries begin to value our traditions, our roots, our history, but he warns that the solution for those thousands of País producers is still far, far away. Wineries’ purchasing power is still weak and many continue to sell their grapes at ridiculously low prices.
One of the possible solutions he proposes is to provide producers with technical advice and assistance. For example, micro–vinifications at 60oC can greatly enhance the wine’s color and overall quality. “Just in Cauquenes there are approximately 2,000 hectares of País, which sold this year for CLP 6,000 an arroba. That’s nothing! Producers could then organize themselves and sell their bulk wine at USD 0.50.That would give them enough to make ends meet,” he explains.
Gustavo Hörmann adds it is very difficult to convince wineries to bottle wines made from País or other native varieties. “But making this type of wine has brought us together as a team. We have a sense of ownership, it’s like these are our wines . Now, trying to sell them, that is another story. The gauge does not move a bit. They will never be massively sold. So I do not see them as a solution to their producers’ poverty. We have to wait and see how long this fad will last. But in the meantime, it has had very positive effects on the image of Chile. Today, most producers are willing to recover old varieties and produce at a human scale,” he concludes.
I remember asking Iván Moraga whether he liked Mission Organic, the result of so much dedication, so many efforts, headaches and difficulties. “All women are hot, but some are hotter than others, right?,” he explains. “I won’t be lying to you, then. For me, the wine couldn’t be worse. Dry, dry. No offense, brother –he tells Mr Barría–, but your memory seems to be a bit lost. Remember what I told you then. He who is not a wine drinker likes sweet wine. For me, white is no wine. It is only for some special occasions, more for the summertime. But a red wine is always welcome,” was his plain answer.
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