Give país a chance

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

08 May 2017

Surely for its punworthiness alone país ought to be more successful as a grape variety than it is. Give país a chance, país by país, blessed are the paísmakers – it’s a slogan writer’s summer holiday. So why are we still not giving país a chance? Or, more to the point, why aren’t we being given the chance to give país a chance?

It’s six years now since Torres launched its Santa Digna Champagne-method país – the product of a four-year collaboration between the company and the University of Talca designed to explore ways of making better, more commercially appealing wine from Chile’s second most widely planted variety.

Since then there have been one or two enthusiastic articles, and a couple of wine industry personalities have made it clear they like the grape, but it still barely even registers in this country. There are only nine or 10 varietal país wines available here, and not many of them express anything like the charm this grape is capable of.

I’ll admit, I love an underdog story, but país represents more than that. In this grape, I think Chile has an opportunity to show the wine-consuming world a more authentic side of itself. Its light, quaffable, traditionally made old-vine país is the antithesis of the industrial-scale, in-your-face, international variety-focused wine with which the country has become synonymous. Frankly I don’t like those wines. Their too often unsubtle, over-concentrated and too high in alcohol.

País shows Chile in a completely different light. A light, almost rosé-pale, earthy, low-alcohol red that is sometimes likened to Beaujolais – Chile is not the first region you would think of as the source of such a wine. Yet in the cooler southern regions of Maule, Itata and (to a lesser extent) Bío-Bío, this is what they produce more than anything else. In these regions, a combination of mindblowing old-vine heritage (país came over with the conquistadors in the mid-16th century, so can be seen as Chile’s archetypal red grape) and traditional, low-intervention winemaking gives rise to wines that a growing number of wine consumers really want to drink.

'These wines are so easy to enjoy,' enthuses Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, wine director at Enotria. 'I remember having lunch with a Chilean producer in London and we enjoyed a bottle of país with white fish and lamb. It worked beautifully with both dishes. What other grape variety can offer such versatility? That’s special and unique.'

'I don’t expect país to take the world by storm but wines that are well made, show a sense of place and are light, refreshing and fun to drink deserve to gain more exposure. There is so much boring wine on sale. These wines have soul.'

Chile needs to show us UK wine lovers these soulful wines, wines that tell the story of the Chile’s old vines and winemaking heritage. I came across several of them at the Raw wine fair in April which do the job – foremost among them, Huaso de Sauzal País, an extraordinary, rustic wine imported by Enotria.

Winemaker Renán Cancino
Winemaker Renán Cancino

The owner and winemaker at Huaso de Sauzal is Renán Cancino, who is also viticulturist for the organic estate DeMartino. Sauzal, named after the rural town south of Maule where the winery is located, is his personal project.

I met Cancino the last time he was in the UK and he showed me pictures to indicate just how basic and unmechanised the winery set-up is. Everything is done by hand, right down to the labelling and corking of the bottles. Dry-farmed grapes are hand-harvested and pressed through a traditional bamboo zarande. Fermentation takes place in open wooden vats, with very limited plunging of the cap, so very gentle extraction, and the wine is aged in used Italian and French 225l barrels.

Tasting his 2014 país made a big impression – it was so charmingly rustic, juicy, earthy, textured, peppery, with so much evolution in the glass. I could have easily drunk the whole bottle there and then.

So why do we see so little of this wine? Chilean wine expert Ali Cooper has just started working with the Chilean government on strategy for breaking these wines into key markets like the UK. He points out that winemaking operations in regions like Itata and Maule that produce país are so small, poor and fragmented that it’s extremely hard to bring them together as a marketable proposition.

'There’s a lot more smaller producers in Maule and Itata,' he explains, 'who have one, two, three hectares, with old vines [figures of 350 to 400 years old were mentioned on his last visit to Itata], but a lot of them are struggling to commercialise their wines or even make the wines any more because they haven’t got the right equipment.

'I think what they need to do is to create a group of them that can work and market themselves together. That’s one of the things that I’m saying to them.

'One of the problems is that they’re not particularly good, historically, at working together, but it’s beginning to change. They’re beginning to realise that they need to.'

Cooper feels optimistic that progress will be made, largely thanks to a movement of artisanal producers – winemakers like Louis-Antoine Luyt, Leo Erazo, Roberto Henriquez, Gustavo Rutio Martinez, Mauricio Gonzalez Carreño and Gonzalez Bastias - and the work of influential Chilean wine industry figures such as Pedro Parras, who is pushing Itata quite heavily.

'I think we will see more of them,' he says. 'I don’t think it will be long before Roberto Henriquez gets his wines over here. There’s also other people making pipeño wines [natural jug styles made in a 500l pipe barrel, or pipeño, and bottled unfined and unfiltered – as rustic as they come). These developed a bad reputation with Chileans because of quality issues, but that’s changed and the trendies in Chile have started to embrace it.'

There are other grape varieties in Chile from which vibrant, deliciously drinkable wine is being produced. Carmènere often gets hyped as a potential Chilean flagship, though Cooper believes that it’s grown in completely the wrong places. Cinsault is also touted as a potential Chilean signature grape, particularly in the context of Itata and Maule. But país has something extra – that sense of heritage, which is something Chile needs to really harness as wine consumers around the world clamour for a sense of origin and authenticity in what they drink.

If there’s going to be a Chilean 'new wave', it surely has to offer a more prominent role to this underdog grape. One hopes it’s only a matter of time before we do give país a chance.

Huaso de Sauzal País 2014 (Enotria)

Made from 300-year-old vineyards in Sauzal. Red cherry, rosehip, that earthy, peppery thing I’ve noticed in Listan Negro from Tenerife. Mouthwatering acidity. Juicy, earthy and peppery; more complex and grippy than just a throwaway light red. Intensely quaffable.

A Los Viñateros Bravos Volcanico País 2015 (Les Caves de Pyrene) 12.5%

Leo Erazo’s natural, volcanic país from Guarilihue in Itata. Herby aromas with red fruits and a bit of cassis. Fresh and delicate with fine-grained tannins that give a very definite structure. Has a distinct mineral character, owing to the volcanic soils where the old unirrigated bush vines thrive.

Bouchon Family Wines, País Salvaje 2016 (Bancroft Wines)
A natural wine made from wild vines growing among the wild vegetation on the Bouchon Vineyard’s Mingre estate in the coastal dry lands of Maule. This red (there’s also a white – made from país!) definitely falls into that Bojo category (50% carbonic maceration). Totally natural – and clean besides. Juicy with crunchy cherry and strawberry fruit.

Louis-Antoine Luyt País de Quenehuao 2014 (Dynamic Vines)

Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt has become a champion of país and makes several single vineyard wines with it – this one being one of them. Some carbonic maceration giving bright fruit. Rich and lively with wild berry and herb notes and tannic grip.

Agricola Yumbel Estaçion Pipeño País 2016 (Not currently imported)

Grapes from 200-year-old país vines in Yumbel, Bío-Bío were fermented and aged in barrels made from rauli, a tree native to Chile. No intervention and no sulphur added. Such a juicy, red-berried savour to this wine, with subtle herbal notes and a lively acidity.

País is the second most-planted grape variety in Chile. DNA tests have traced its roots to Listan Prieto, a grape indigenous to the Canary Islands, which was brought over to the Americas by Spanish missionaries in the mid-16th century. It is also known as mission in California.

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