The gnarly old trunk seemingly buckles under its own weight, flashing its voluptuous, knobby bare curves. “This vineyard was planted in 1798, these vines are over 220 years old,” says winemaker Leo Erazo, who makes his A los Viñateros Bravos País Granitico from this ancient vineyard in Itata. “Most of Chile’s País vines are well over 100 years old, and [with age] they give a truer reflection of their place.”
País, Chile’s oldest variety, is seeing a resurgence and bringing a new wave of fresh and juicy red wines to the forefront of its innovative wine scene. What’s exciting about the País movement taking place in Chile today is not only how it reflects the latest tendencies in Chilean wine, but how it also comes full circle back to the first wines of the New World.
A vine well-traveled
When Columbus made his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, he brought with him a handful of cultivars to make life a little easier for European settlers. Between wheat and olive trees came grapevines, most notably Listán Prieto. The first colonizers hinged their hopes on this hardy red Spanish variety to survive in the New World. Not only did it survive, it thrived and soon became the most-planted variety in the Americas — known as Mission in North America, and País or Criolla Chica in South America. By the mid-1800s, País accounted for 90% of the vines in Chile and Argentina.
Although it was widely planted historically, the variety has virtually disappeared elsewhere, only retaining its stronghold in Chile. Its highly productive nature made it popular for plentiful table wines that kept the nation well-watered during their wine consumption heyday. But as local consumption declined, from around 14 gallons per capita in the 1960s to just four gallons by the mid-1990s, and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc exports boomed, País’ plantings dwindled — from over 74,000 acres in 1985 to some 25,000 today. But the País story doesn’t end there.
A uniquely Chilean identity
As Chile’s sixth most-planted variety, some winemakers have turned their focus onto reigniting the fortunes of País and connecting it with several trends taking form in Chile. País’ comeback embodies Chile’s search for their own unique identity in the wine world, and País is undeniably Chilean. With less than 850 acres in Argentina, 400 in the U.S., 25 in Mexico, and barely 75 left in Spain, and most plantings in Peru and Bolivia going toward brandy production, Chile can claim País as its own.
And Chile can not only claim some of the oldest País vines in the world, but some of the oldest productive vines in the world of any variety. In South America’s Old Vine Register, the oldest vines registered date back to the aforementioned gnarly vines of Itata planted in 1798. Which beats Barossa’s oldest vines by 45 years. But there are also dozens of vineyards registered from the 1800s too.
“País not only has a really authentic Chilean story but these are also some of the oldest vines on the planet,” explains Elizabeth Butler, Director of Wine at Vine Connections, a specialist Chilean wine importer. “País has been the variety from Chile that has caught the most trade attention in the U.S., because it is uniquely Chilean, and yet tells a global wine story. These vines are part of the viticultural museum for the world that needs to be saved.”
”País has been the variety from Chile that has caught the most trade attention in the U.S., because it is uniquely Chilean, and yet tells a global wine story. These vines are part of the viticultural museum for the world that needs to be saved.Elizabeth ButlerDirector of Wine at Vine Connections, a specialist Chilean wine importer
It’s a survivor
País’ impressive story of survival is a testimony to the growers but also its strength as a vine. Not only can País remain productive and healthy for centuries, but it has weathered climate change and drought, and is resistant to nematodes — Chile’s old vine nemesis. “We have been planting new Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Maipo with País rootstocks in fact,” says Santa Rita winemaker Sebastián Labbé. “There’s something about País that can resist nematodes and drought.”
Being dry-farmed and impervious to climate change and nematodes means it is not only sustainable ecologically but it sustains thousands of vine-growing families economically. And yet, under-appreciation of País wines has led to severe underpayment for its fruit for decades — often claiming just $0.22 a pound, versus Cabernet Sauvignon at $2 per pound). With the precious old vines at risk, Chile’s new generation of winemakers are out to tip the balance in its favor.
“The objective is adding value, through making wines, to these old vineyards, and enable these growers to keep owning them and managing them as they have for generations,” explains Emily Faulconer, who makes an acclaimed old vine País field blend, Matarrol Chileno, in her D.O. range at Carmen. “These amazing old, dry-farmed vines had very little value ten years ago,” but as the vines become more appreciated, “these growers are now being offered to sell their grapes at a much better price.”
The impetus of this generation of winemakers seems to be working, and the economic impact is the best way to keep old País vines in the ground. “It’s the preservation of these old vines and that culture that surrounds them that resonates with the consumer,” adds Butler, “as well as the affordability of it and the style of the wine itself.”
Even with paying decent grape prices, País wines are fantastically affordable, usually under $25, and new wave País wines deliver a vibrant, fresh style. “For many years, we were making País with a Bordeaux approach, but then we started taking a more gentle, Burgundian approach — making it as we would Pinot Noir,” says fourth-generation vigneron Julio Bouchon, who makes several País wines with Bouchon Family Wines. “País should be fresh with fruity and earthy aromas, but with tension and some tannin.”
As a lighter-colored red with cherry and floral aromas, it’s being pegged as Chile’s answer to Gamay or Beaujolais, compounded by the tendency toward using whole bunch or carbonic maceration. But, in fact, the revival of this style is a nod toward its history in Chile. Producers are bringing back the use of old clay tinajas and native rauli wood vats, pipas, used for traditional Pipeño wines. Using a zaranda, or bamboo hand de-stemmer, is also coming back into fashion.
“País is a very versatile variety,” says Eduardo Jordán, winemaker at Miguel Torrés, who produce several País wines, ranging from their award-winning La Causa reds to Chile’s most-exported País, a sparkling rosé. “You can do wines with lots of carbonic maceration for a very fruity wine, or you can use a zaranda to give a greater structure, or you can make a sparkling wine. Ultimately though, País should always be easy and enjoyable to drink!”
Whether it is for its pure pleasure, drinkability, capacity to withstand climate change, or for its link to the past, there’s little doubt that País still has an important role in Chile’s future. As Leo Erazo’s stalwart 1798 vines prove, Chilean País is here to stay.
3 Chilean País to try:
Miguel Torres Santa Digna Estelado Sparkling Rose Central Valley Chile 2018 ($12)
This fair trade, traditional-method Cava-esque delicate sparkling rosé is filled with fresh red fruit and citrus notes. Ideal aperitivo wine that helped put País back on the map in 2013.
Vina Maitia Aupa Pipeño 2020 ($14)
Aupa is the fresh, vibrant, and forest berry-scented brainchild of French winemaker David Marcel, bringing back the Pipeño tradition of País wines that should be drunk chilled. Sold by the liter, 750 mL bottle, or can.
Note: this bottle is currently sold out
J Bouchon Pais Salvaje Maule Valley Mission 2019 ($19)
The Bouchon family makes a handful of fragrant and fresh País wines, but this floral and crunchy wine is on a different level — handpicked using ladders from wild País vines that grow around trees!