In March of this year, I worked on my second harvest in southern Chile and made my second wine from the red grape variety país. The basic idea for my nomadic winemaking project is to work with a new grape variety, and in a new region, each harvest. But país drew me back for a second bite - partly because it's such a mercurial terroir grape, partly because of its quintessential underdog story.
My first encounter with país was through Roberto Henriquez. I collaborated with Roberto on my first southern-hemisphere wine in 2019, in the Bio-Bio Valley. This gave me the chance to work in one of the world's last untramelled winemaking territories, where you can find some of the oldest vine material in the world - bush vines often more than 200 years old. When the chance arose to work again with this emblematic grape, I couldn't turn it down.
Nacho hanging out in a pipa
Enter Ignacio Pino Román. Ignacio, or 'Nacho', shares a bodega with my mate Alice L'Estrange, an Aussie natural winemaker I worked with in Bio-Bio in 2019. Alice, who now has her own wine label, Strange Grapes, mentioned one day that Nacho was 'doing some cool stuff'. It turned out he was making some of the best país in Chile. The 2022 Descorchados wine guide, authored by Chile's top wine critic, Patricio Tapia (essentially the Man from Del Monte of Chilean wine), singled out Nacho as the 'Enológo Revelación del Año' - his winemaker discovery of the year. He also picked Nacho's 2020 País as the best in Chile (NB: I think his 2021 is substantially better).
Clones of early middle-aged men with dreams
Nacho and Alice are based in Guarilihue (pron: Gwa-ri-lee-way), the winemaking hub of the Itata Valley. Itata is a beautiful region. Fanning out from the Itata river, which flows east to west from the Cordillera de la Costa to the Pacific Ocean, it's a place steeped in winemaking tradition.
The native forest, and the flora and fauna here can be extraordinarily diverse. Unfortunately, these days the natural landscape has been usurped by pine and eucalyptus plantations, but it's still blessed with broad areas of native forest, bosky regions where pumas once roamed, heady with the scent of cypress, boldo (Chilean acorn), peumo (a species of laurel) and quillay (soapbark). Here you will also find raulí - the beechwood that the campesinos would traditionally use to make pipa wine casks.
These are the trees which moved the poet Pablo Neruda to write hymns of praise to the forest of southern Chile: “Mi bandera debe tener aroma de peumo al desplegarse” (“My flag should have the aroma of peumo when it unfurls”).
Guarilihue after heavy rain
Alice explained to me that the Spanish soldiers who settled in this region after the Arauco war with the indigenous Mapuches were the first to establish private property here. But they only did so on a small scale, and in fragmented areas, so the vineyards of Itata and Bio-Bio are very atomised. In Itata for example, there are about 4,000 growers, and 3,000 of these own plots of less than 3ha. And they sustain. As does the pre-industrial winemaking tradition of these subsistence farmers, who have lived from this land, cultivated its vines and drunk its wines for many generations. This is the heritage that winemakers like Roberto and Nacho and Alice are trying to protect.
Checking ripeness of país
Alice and Garrett (@chardonnyayyy) destemming by zaranda
Everyone makes wine in Chile's south. For more than four centuries - long before the vast monocultures of cabernet, malbec and carmènere were planted further north - the campesinos of the southern valleys were making simple wines for the hearth, mostly from país. To make these rustic wines, which came to be known as pipeños, they would destem the grapes using a zaranda (a simple filter made from bamboo shoots - see above). The grapes would then naturally ferment, originally in old ox hides, then in large raulí lagares. Then the wine would be stored in pipas made from the same wood to be drunk between one harvest and the next.
Don Pato (the seventh-generation grower I bought my 2019 grapes from) with a pipa full of fermenting país
This tradition is maintained all over southern Chile. Okay, you won't find many ox hides to ferment in these days, but the zarandas, the lagares, the pipas - they're all still used. Winemakers like Roberto and Nacho assimilate this tradition, introducing their own small adaptations and working with a better understanding of wine microbiology - all the technical stuff you learn at oenology school.
Their winemaking is in the same spirit. All the winemakers in the south work by hand, with minimal intervention: foot-treading the grapes, wild-yeast fermentation, no temperature control, no fining or filtration. This way of working is only possible with healthy grapes from healthy, living soils, which promote good strong fermentations. This is the pre-, or even anti-industrial way of making wine, which captures the essence of the land in a particular season. This is the age-old process which reveals país in all its delicious, nuanced glory.
Nacho, the new-generation of artisan winemaker in Itata, boldly foot-pressing corinto in a pristine Breton top
Nacho's país is pure, elegant and a world away from the rustic wines southern Chile has always been associated with (charming as they are). He makes similarly refined skin-macerated white wines - a subtle and floral corinto (chasselas), a richer, more intensely aromatic torontel, and a spicy, herbaceous semillon.
Nacho says "for me, the soul of the wine is acidity". To retain acidity, he likes to pick his grapes as early as possible. The low pH of their juice helps to prevent the spread of unhelpful bacteria (meaning Nacho is not reliant on sulphur dioxide), and promotes a healthy natural fermentation. Just watching Nacho work in the cellar was instructive. He is very measured, very economical in his actions, very chilled. His process is simple, 'hands-off', and his wines have an immediate, understated charm. He embodies an idea which guides me: that good wine is essentially about healthy vineyards, healthy grapes and time.
Some dilbert in the cellar racking whites into barrel
After talking and tasting with Nacho during harvest, I knew I wanted to make a país that had some of the elegance, the ethereal quality, of his own wines; possibly using a proportion of stems during fermentation for added spice and brightness, and maybe even the addition of one of the local white varieties - something aromatic, like moscatel or torontel. I've seen before how dramatically a dash of white can affect a red wine - in terms of colour (it can actually stabilise the red colour in a red wine, making it more intensely red), in terms of vibrancy and 'lift'.
Destemming país by zaranda
I decided on a país-dominant blend, with a small proportion of torontel (a crossing of moscatel and país). The grapes were fermented separately. After a few months of resting, the wine will be test-blended before deciding on the final ratio of red and white. The país was fermented in an open tank, and is now ageing in a stainless steel tank. The torontel was fermented with its skins in an old tinaja (amphora), and is now ageing the same way. It has been a simple process, following Nacho's lead. Far more important than process or technique for both of us is the quality of the grapes.
Los Pellines in all its splendour
After looking at several vineyard sites around Itata, we decided to use grapes from Los Pellines, the same coastal vineyard area that Nacho uses for his award-winning país. Los Pellines is an oasis of vines surrounded by pine and eucalyptus in the village of Trehuaco. It's the site of an old abandoned winery which used to make pipeño moscatel. Nacho is on his third year of sourcing grapes from this site. The 150-year-old vines grow on their own roots on a steep slope of decomposed granite soil. What Los Pellines gives is freshness. Its proximity to the ocean (18km away), and elevation (180-200m) allow the grapes to ripen slowly, developing the flavour and tannin structure needed to make fine wines.
This, then, is the story of my second harvest in southern Chile, and the birth of TFWATH País 2022. For more information on things like release date, stock levels, pre-arrival orders and so on, please email me at email@example.com.