Cri­olla wines: South Amer­i­can re­vival

The old­est grape va­ri­eties in South Amer­ica have been side­lined for the past hun­dred years, but a new gen­er­a­tion is now re­claim­ing its lost wine­mak­ing her­itage as Cri­olla va­ri­eties re-emerge from the shad­ows. Amanda Barnes has the inside story

Decanter - - CONTENT -

A long her­itage al­most lost is now be­ing brought back by com­mit­ted wine­mak­ers, as Amanda Barnes dis­cov­ers

WHEN THE SPAN­ISH first con­quered the Amer­i­cas in the 1500s, they brought the holy trin­ity of cul­ti­vars – olive trees, wheat and grapevines. Whether planted as sticks or seeds, the first grapes to grow were known as the Cri­olla, or Mis­sion, va­ri­eties: a se­lect hand­ful of va­ri­eties picked for their high­yield­ing and re­silient na­ture, and des­tined to con­quer the New World.

Of these found­ing va­ri­eties, which in­cluded Mosca­tel, Pe­dro Ximénez and Toron­tel, the most im­por­tant was a red grape com­monly known as Listán Pri­eto in Spain, Mis­sion in the US, País in Chile, Cri­olla Chica in Ar­gentina and some 45 other syn­onyms in-be­tween.

The foun­da­tions of South Amer­ica’s wine in­dus­try were built on these early Cri­olla va­ri­eties as viti­cul­ture spread up­wards from Mex­ico to the US, and south­wards to Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ar­gentina and be­yond. Crosses spawned South Amer­ica’s first na­tive grape va­ri­eties – in­clud­ing Ar­gentina’s Tor­rontés – with more than 100 Cri­olla va­ri­eties iden­ti­fied in South Amer­ica to­day.

For­got­ten pat­ri­mony

In the mid-1800s the first French va­ri­eties ar­rived on the con­ti­nent and plan­ta­tions of Cri­olla va­ri­eties have been in de­cline ever since, re­placed by in­ter­na­tional va­ri­eties or rel­e­gated to bulk wine, juice and ta­ble grape pro­duc­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to a study by the Univer­sity of Santiago, in 1833 the finest Cri­olla va­ri­ety, Listán Pri­eto, ac­counted for more than 90% of Chile’s and Ar­gentina’s vine­yards. To­day it is just 7% and 1% re­spec­tively. It, and the other Cri­olla va­ri­eties, have sim­i­larly fallen into se­vere de­cline across the rest of the Amer­i­cas. (In­ci­den­tally, fol­low­ing phyl­lox­era, Listán Pri­eto has all but dis­ap­peared from its na­tive

Spain – with only a dozen hectares sur­viv­ing in the phyl­lox­era-free haven of the Ca­naries.)

The only re­main­ing strong­hold for Listán Pri­eto is in Chile, where 9,600ha of vines (lo­cally called País) can be found piece­meal in the prop­er­ties of some 6,000 grow­ers, mostly in the south­ern re­gions of Maule, Itata and Bío Bío. It is here, where grapes are cheap and land plen­ti­ful, that re­plant­ing didn’t hap­pen to the same ex­tent as in other re­gions, leav­ing a trea­sure trove of old vines. Most País vines are more than 100 years old (planted be­fore the land­slide of French va­ri­eties) and some vine­yards date back to the late-1500s – a fact that en­chanted a new wave of wine­mak­ers com­ing into Chile.

Pipeño re­vival

Grow­ers never stopped mak­ing their own wines – their Pipeño, made from País or white Cri­olla va­ri­eties. Named af­ter the large ‘pipes’ (lo­cal raulí wood bar­rels) they were vini­fied in, Pipeño is syn­ony­mous with ar­ti­sanal meth­ods and pro­por­tions and is usu­ally sold from a back door or road­side, and al­most al­ways by the jug.

Tra­di­tion here didn’t die, it just got side­lined. As the Bordeaux in­flu­ence took its grip over Chile dur­ing the lat­ter half of the 1900s, Pipeño was shunned as a poor man’s bev­er­age.

In­ter­est­ingly it is two for­eign­ers – two French men – who have been among the great­est ad­vo­cates for the revin­di­ca­tion of Pipeño and thrust it into the lime­light. Bur­gundy-bred Louis-An­toine Luyt started work­ing with the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated cen­te­nar­ian País vines in 2007. Men­tored by Mor­gon’s great Mar­cel Lapierre, Luyt made it his mis­sion to re­in­state not only the vines but also the tra­di­tional use of zarada (a bam­boo destem­mer), grape-stomp­ing and fer­men­ta­tion in raulí pipes. His wines were a hit in Europe’s nat­u­ral wine scene, open­ing the ex­port mar­ket and set­ting a bench­mark for this lit­tle-known (but widely grown) va­ri­ety.

An ele­ment of car­bonic mac­er­a­tion is com­mon in Luyt’s wines, and this light and juicy di­rec­tion is the same as that taken by another French ex­pat, David Mar­cel, for his Aupa Pipeño in 2012. Sold in beer bot­tles, Aupa em­pha­sised to the lo­cal mar­ket that this wine should be drunk young and chilled – cel­e­brat­ing Pipeño as Chile’s equiv­a­lent of Beau­jo­lais Nou­veau.

The rad­i­cal re-eval­u­a­tion of Pipeño ig­nited a spark in the in­dus­try and sev­eral wine­mak­ers are driv­ing a grass-roots move­ment to re­claim the pat­ri­mony of País in the small­hold­ings of the south. José Luis Gómez Bastías, Juan José Ledesma, Leo Erazo, Manuel Mor­aga Gu­tiér­rez, Mauricio González, Renán Can­cino and Roberto Hen­ríquez are at the fore­front of pro­duc­ing ar­ti­sanal, grower País and Cri­olla wines, from both red and white va­ri­eties.

The big­ger pic­ture

País has al­ways been a large-scale va­ri­ety in Chile, and there has si­mul­ta­ne­ously been a sig­nif­i­cant move­ment to read­opt País into the com­mer­cial main­stream. In 2006, Span­ish vi­gneron and Chile en­tre­pre­neur Miguel Tor­res was asked by Chile’s for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter to look into mak­ing qual­ity wine from the sur­plus of País vines in the south (see ‘Let­ter from Chile’, p18) that were be­ing re­placed by in­dus­trial forests. Tor­res’ propo­si­tion was to make sparkling País us­ing the tra­di­tional method, some­what akin to Cava, for which he had a deft wine­mak­ing team in place.

To­day Tor­res pro­duces 30,000 cases of sparkling País and its Fair­trade rosé is the big­gest sell­ing País in the world. But the team also came up with a light and juicy car­bonic mac­er­a­tion red (Reserva de Pue­blo) and other more com­plex blends. Find­ing a use for País, as it turns out, was not an is­sue.

‘País has noth­ing to do with the Bordeaux wine­mak­ing style – we have to re­spect the grape with low in­ter­ven­tion’ Julio Bou­chon Jr

‘The ma­jor chal­lenge is ac­tu­ally find­ing vines with qual­ity po­ten­tial,’ says wine­maker Fer­nando Almeda. ‘Slopes with granitic poor soil con­di­tions and ocean in­flu­ence are im­por­tant, in or­der to get bal­anced yield, main­tain fresh­ness and achieve ripe tan­nins.’

The re­dis­cov­ery of País also marks Chile’s de­par­ture from high-oc­tane red wines with ripe fruit con­cen­tra­tion and sig­nif­i­cant oak age­ing, to­wards a more sen­si­tive ap­proach. ‘País is a great grape to grow – su­per-low main­te­nance – but País is not an easy wine to make in the cel­lar,’ ex­plains Derek Moss­man Knapp of Garage Wine Co. ‘If you are too rough, it be­comes harsh and tan­nic; too much time on the skins and it tight­ens up very quickly.’

Julio Bou­chon Sr of Bou­chon Fam­ily Wines had been mak­ing País for more than 30 years with lit­tle sat­is­fac­tion: ‘I ad­mit I did it badly. I wanted to make a French wine – with colour, body and struc­ture. The re­sult was bit­ter. The new gen­er­a­tion have made the switch.’

That gen­er­a­tion in­cludes his son, Julio Bou­chon Jr, who says: ‘País has noth­ing to do with the Bordeaux wine­mak­ing style. We have to re­spect the grape with low in­ter­ven­tion.’ Bou­chon’s wine­maker Chris­tian Sepúlveda adds: ‘We try to be very gen­tle with the ex­trac­tion…to show that País doesn’t have rustic tan­nins – the struc­ture is el­e­gant.’

Wine­mak­ers to­day are treat­ing País less like Bordeaux and more like Pinot Noir.

Unit­ing South Amer­ica

There is a Cri­olla re­vival hap­pen­ing on the other side of the An­des too, but Ar­gentina’s Cri­olla gene pool is more di­verse, with a greater spread and quan­tity of white and red Cri­olla va­ri­eties. Some 75,000ha of vine­yards planted with Cri­olla va­ri­eties sur­vive to­day, ac­count­ing for more than a third of the na­tional to­tal – how­ever, the Cri­olla va­ri­eties ac­count for less than 5% of Ar­gentina’s va­ri­etal or pre­mium wine pro­duc­tion, mainly as Tor­rontés. Part of the prob­lem is that the finest red Cri­olla grape, Listán Pri­eto (aka Cri­olla Chica), has dwin­dled to less than 360ha to­day, su­per­seded by lower qual­ity va­ri­eties such as Cereza. Cri­olla va­ri­eties are rarely planted as sin­gle va­ri­eties, mean­ing they ei­ther have to be vini­fied as field blends or re­quire care­ful se­lec­tion in the vine­yards (to make a sin­gle-va­ri­ety Cri­olla wine).

Site se­lec­tion is, how­ever, what is driv­ing the cur­rent ex­cite­ment about Cri­olla in Ar­gentina. ‘Cri­olla Chica is a va­ri­ety ca­pa­ble of ex­press­ing places, cli­mates, soils and peo­ple, while main­tain­ing its per­son­al­ity in­tact,’ says Se­bastián Zuc­cardi, who has been pro­duc­ing Cara Sur Cri­olla Chica from high-alti­tude Bar­real since 2014. ‘It has great wine­mak­ing at­tributes, not only for the qual­ity of the wines you can make, but also for its high yield.’

His­tor­i­cally Cri­olla va­ri­eties were favoured for their gen­er­ous yield and to­day wine­mak­ers are fall­ing for their sen­so­rial charms too. ‘Cri­olla grapes yield four times more than a fine grape would,’ ex­plains Cadus wine­maker Santiago May­orga. ‘They were a boon in the 1970s when peo­ple were drink­ing 90 litres per capita. To­day peo­ple are look­ing for qual­ity and ter­roir-driven wines. With pre­cise vini­fi­ca­tion we can achieve an in­ter­est­ing wine – pure, sub­tle and fresh with some earth­i­ness.’

Ar­gentina’s wine­mak­ers are em­brac­ing the dif­fer­ent di­men­sion Cri­olla va­ri­eties of­fer – as white, red and or­ange wines – adoptees across the coun­try in­clud­ing Cadus, Cara Sur, Durigutti, El Esteco, Ernesto Catena, Paso a Paso, Pas­sion­ate Wines, Trivento and Val­listo.

Cri­olla is also tak­ing wine­mak­ers fur­ther

‘País is a great grape to grow, but not an easy wine to make in the cel­lar’ Derek Moss­man Knapp, Garage Wine Co (above)

afield. Chile’s Luyt is vini­fy­ing Cri­olla va­ri­eties in Mex­ico (Bichi) and in Ar­gentina, Matías Miche­lini is mak­ing a Cri­olla Grande wine in Uco Val­ley and work­ing with Cri­olla va­ri­eties in Peru (Mimo). ‘Cri­olla [Grande] is a noble va­ri­ety which makes juicy and fresh wines,’ en­thuses Miche­lini. ‘It’s a va­ri­ety we need to de­velop – it could be­come im­por­tant for the true char­ac­ter of Latin Amer­i­can wine.’

Test of time

As con­sumers look for wines with iden­tity, the Cri­olla va­ri­eties of­fer the most au­then­tic in­sight into the his­tory of South Amer­i­can viti­cul­ture. They could also hold the key to the fu­ture, not only in the glass but in the ground too.

In­vest­ment is hap­pen­ing in both pri­vate and pub­lic re­search in­sti­tutes in Chile and Ar­gentina, map­ping out the DNA of some Cri­olla va­ri­eties and us­ing sen­so­rial anal­y­sis to iden­tify the re­gional ex­pres­sions – which have long been recog­nised by the grow­ers and hum­ble drinkers of Pipeño wines.

These old vines have stood the test of time be­cause they are so well adapted – the skins are re­sis­tant, the wood is hardy and the vine

can sur­vive in drought. País root­stocks are be­ing in­creas­ingly cho­sen in Chile for their re­sis­tance to the mar­gar­o­des scale in­sect, and suit­abil­ity for dry farm­ing. Go­ing back to its

‘Cri­olla Grande is a va­ri­ety we need to de­velop – it could be­come im­por­tant for the true char­ac­ter of Latin Amer­i­can wine’ Mat’as Miche­lini, Pas­sion­ate Wines (above)

Cri­olla roots could well be South Amer­ica’s best op­tion to face the chal­lenges of cli­mate change.

The move­ment is un­der­way, but there is a long way to go. Cen­te­nar­ian vines are be­ing torn out as small grow­ers strug­gle to make ends meet and have to sell grapes for bulk – in Maule, País can sell for as lit­tle as £0.05/kg, com­pared to £0.40 for Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon.

‘País is a so­cial is­sue – it only ex­ists liv­ing along­side lo­cal peo­ple in the coun­try­side,’ says wine­maker Roberto Hen­ríquez. ‘A new wine can be­come a niche, but there’s a lot of País planted and I’m not sure the world is ready to drink that much País! That’s the chal­lenge, and mak­ing sure it re­ally does im­prove the qual­ity of life for lo­cal farm­ers.’

A grow­ing le­gion of wine­mak­ers in South Amer­ica are join­ing the cause, con­vinced that Cri­olla wines are not only the true her­itage of South Amer­ica, but wor­thy cham­pi­ons of its fu­ture. Only time will tell if the mar­ket catches on in the same way – be­fore it’s too late.

Amanda Barnes is edi­tor of www. southamer­i­caw­ineguide.com, a guide to travel and wine in Ar­gentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay

Above: man­ual har­vest of old País vines that grow wild among the trees at Bou­chon’s vine­yards at Min­gre in Chile’s Maule Val­ley

Left: Bou­chon’s País Sal­vaje Blanco (seep88) is sourced from old, un­tended wild País vines av­er­ag­ing 120 years in age Above: har­vest at Miguel Tor­res Chile’s Cauquenes es­tate, where old-vine País grapes are grownLeft: Manuel Mor­aga of Cacique Mar­avilla, one of the wine­mak­ers lead­ing the re­vival of the Pipeño wine style

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