Making wine the old way in Bío-Bío

Making wine the old way in Bío-Bío

It’s a misty morning on April 25 2019 and in Roberto's HiLux 4x4 we're slaloming past rogue chickens on potholed dirt roads to Millapoa. This backwater village on the bank of the Bio-Bio river was named after its historic gold mines ('Millapoa' means 'belly of gold' in Mapuche) and is home to some of the oldest vines in the world. We're here to see Don Pato. Pato's home, built by the man himself on the site of a 16th century fortification used by the conquistadors in bloody battles with the indigenous Mapuches, is surrounded by tree-like bushvines that Pato's family has farmed for eight generations. It’s from here that I’m sourcing fruit to make my TFWATH país...

200-year-old país vines at Roberto's property in Tanahuillin

The story of país is one of the triumphal underdog. It is a grape variety which sustained generation after generation of subsistence farming family in Chile’s southern valleys for more than 400 years. País started life as listán prieto, probably in the Gredos mountains of central Spain. Via the conquering Spanish, with their retinues of missionary monks carrying knowledge and tools for viticulture and winemaking, it made its way to the Canary lslands before arriving in the Americas some time during the mid-1500s. The missionaries would have used it, among other varieties, to make their sacramental wine.

Uva de país. Also known as mission in California and Mexico, criolla chica in Argentina and negra criolla in Peru

Almost half a millennium before the vast hectarages of cabernet and carmenère were planted further north, the campesinos of the southern valleys of Bío-Bío, Itata and Maule were making simple wines for the hearth, using vines originally planted by the Spanish. The wines they made came to be known as pipeños. These were rustic wines made without modern technology - destemming by zaranda (see below), natural fermentation and short maceration without temperature control - and stored in rauli pipas (barrels made from local beechwood) to be drunk between one harvest and the next.

Destemming my 2019 país by zaranda 

Thanks to its good yields and disease-resistance, país became a main grape variety of the campesinos. As the vines matured and farming knowledge increased, the wines made from them got better. Plots on particular hillsides with particular soils and expositions came to be known for producing superior grapes. Locally, everyone knew where the superior vineyards were and who made the best país - wines with what Chile's leading sommelier and wine ambassador, Hector Riquelme, describes as 'noble rusticity'.

Ploughing in Bio-Bio

Until very recently, this story didn’t even get a mention in the wine world. País was dismissed as a peasant variety not fit for ‘proper wine’. Itata and Bío-Bío were overlooked in textbooks. Instead, you’d read about the sun-soaked valleys further north and the agribusiness entrepreneurs planting vast monocultures of cabernet sauvignon, carmènere and merlot. Then a young Frenchman named Louis-Antoine Luyt came along. Luyt was the catalyst of país's Cindarella story. Having moved to Chile in his early 20s (he's now in his early 40s), he briefly returned to France to study winemaking in Beaune. There he met Mathieu Lapierre, son of the late Beaujolais natural wine icon Marcel Lapierre. Returning to Chile, Luyt realised he could make país in the ‘natural’ way which had been so successful for Lapierre in Beaujolais. These were the proto-wines of a ‘new’ Chile, which was really the old, authentic Chile.

The man with the master key

Roberto Henríquez worked with Louis-Antoine Luyt for a couple of years. Then, in 2013, Roberto struck out on his own. A trained agronomist, he had previously worked as a government-paid consultant to vinegrowers in Bío-Bío and Itata. This job gave him privileged access to the best growers and to the otherwise hidden treasures of this historic wine land. For about an 100km radius around the province of Nacimiento – mostly in Santa Juana, Nacimiento and Los Angeles – he would regularly visit scores of growers, discover their plots of centenarian país vines and taste their wines. In effect, he had a master key to the best país in Chile, which would enable him to make wines of the calibre of his Santa Cruz de Coya.

Roberto’s property in Tanahuillin just after he'd bought it. It was in this rickety hut that I made my país
This is the wine that persuaded me to try to work with Roberto, and that, on April 25 2019, had me rumbling down unsignposted dirtroads, along the south bank of the Bio-Bio river, to Millapoa. This is the source of the país grapes for Roberto's Santa Cruz de Coya (this is in fact the Spanish name for Millapoa) and the place where, from Don Pato's ancestral vineyards, surrounded by ancient peumo trees, and regaled by the occasional hummingbird (yes, really), I would find grapes for my wine. Bío-Bío. Millapoa. The belly of gold. If Chilean wine has a soul, it surely resides here. And there is one grape variety that defines it more than any other: that's país.

Don Pato at his home on the bank of the Bío-Bío river

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