Chile’s Dark Side of the Moon

The people writing the histories of Chilean wine usually start the clock in the 19th century, in the Central Valley south of Santiago, where titled families who got rich through crown concessions for silver and copper mining went into politics and then retired as gentlemen farmers, on big irrigated haciendas where they planted Bordeaux varieties and made versions of the kind of French wine they already collected.

But there is another birthplace for wine in the Americas, three hundred years earlier, in the lush red granite hills inland of the port of Concepción, where the first vines on the west coast of the Americas were planted, cuttings brought from the recently colonized Islas Canarías and planted by missionaries, and where an indigenous winemaking tradition would develop, basically written off as jug wine for campesinos, from moscatel and big-berried listán prieto, here going by the name pais, called mission in California and criolla chica in Argentina, foot-trod in lagares, often hand-destemmed with a lattice of sticks called a zaranda, aged in big wood tanks called pipas made from local pinkish hardwood, and so drunk, a fresh, easy-going wine, as pipeño, the wine from the pipa.

Pais and moscatel vines that had been growing for hundreds of years would later be joined by sémillon and cinsault in the river valleys of Itata and Bío Bío, and their biggest competition were the pine and eucalyptus plantations encouraged by Pinochet. It’s only been in the last decade that the wines from what Pedro Parra (who was born in Concepción) calls Chile’s ‘dark side of the moon’ have found champions who see in them an alternate history of Chilean wine, and one path for its future.

Class was on Wednesday, February 10th. These were the wines:

How it would look on a wine list
A Los Viñateros Bravos, pais, “Volcanico”, Itata, Chile 2019

Who made it? Leonardo Erazo (went full-time in 2016 after working as the winemaker for Altas Las Hormigas in Mendoza — he moved them to organics — and another Itata collaboration, Rogue Vine. He’s currently planting riesling, chenin, and albariño in the coastal hills outside Coelemu).
Out of what? Bush-trained, dry-farmed pais vines (aka mission, aka listan prieto, aka criolla chica) averaging 150 years old, various parcels lower on the hillsides around Guaralihue, on basalt and volcanic sand.
Made how? Destemmed, native yeast fermentation on the skins for 2-3 weeks in concrete, pressed and moved to large, old rauli (local pinkish hardwood) barrels for a year or so before bottling with a coarse filtration and minimal SO2.

How it would look on a wine list
Roberto Henríquez, semillón/moscatel/corinto, “Rivera del Notro”, Itata, Chile 2019

Who made it? Roberto Henríquez (first vintage 2015 returning home to Bío Bío after working internationally for 6 years)
Out of what? Bush-trained, dry-farmed blend of moscatel, corinto (aka chasselas), and sémillon from around Coelemu, on the granite of the coastal range, planted between 1900 and 1960.
Made how? Picked at different times and fermented separately on the skins with native yeasts for 1-3 weeks in a variety of oak and steel containers before being pressed, blended, and bottled.

How it would look on a wine list
Macatho, cinsault/carignan, “Tinajacura”, Itata, Chile 2018

Who made it? 
Macarena del Río and Thomas Parayre, José Antoine Luyt’s old roommate, first vintage 2016. (She’s Chilean but studied oenology in Bordeaux and worked harvest with Yvon Métras, he’s a French graphic designer who moved to Chile and worked harvest with Luyt, one of the first guys to put pais on the map internationally. Luyt arrived in Chile in 1998 and began working as a sommelier; his first vintage was 2007.)
Out of what? Bush-trained, old vine cinsault co-planted with young carignan that had been grafted onto old país vines, on granite.
Made how? De-stemmed, native yeast fermentation in stainless steel for 15 days, juice removed then put back in, kept there until the following March and bottled.

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