Thursday, July 5, 2018

Unique wine made from grapes growing wild in a riverbed

Winemaker Christian Sepulveda checks out the nearly ripe wild grapes he'll use for País Salvaje
One of the most interesting wines I've had this year comes from wild grapevines climbing up tree trunks over a river. And that's just part of its appeal.

The wine is Bouchon País Salvaje 2017 from Maule Valley in Chile. It's available in the U.S. for under $25, and I guarantee you will find no wine in this price range with a more compelling history. Plus it's complex and delicious.

The winery owner is progressive-thinking, and hired one of the best young winemakers in Chile. Many of Bouchon's wines are worth checking out, especially their series of "Granito" wines designed to highlight the effect of granite soils.

But the País Salvaje is unique in the world: a commercial wine (albeit only 5000 bottles per year) from wild grapes. Probably the wine shouldn't exist, because the grapevines shouldn't exist.

"We had this patrimonial variety there for many years," says Julio Bouchon. "We didn't give it the attention it deserves."

Nobody did.

In the 1500s, warm regions of Chile were planted haphazardly with a grape brought by Spanish conquistadores that they simply called "Uva Negra." ("Black grape.") The grape comes from the hot Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, and the Spanish carried it everywhere because it's hardy and productive. In North America, they called it "Mission." Chileans eventually called it "País," which means "country."

A problem with País: red and white grapes in the same cluster
Nobody respected the grape variety. It was there to do a job: to make a lot of wine. Phylloxera basically wiped it out in Spain in the 1800s, and Spanish replanted with other varieties. Some Mission still exists in California, mostly in the hot San Joaquin Valley and it's mostly used for cheap dessert wines. The only places in the world where it's taken seriously are the Canary Islands, where it goes by its original name Listán Prieto, and, very recently, a few wineries in Chile.

There's still a lot of País in Chile, mostly in small vineyards of old dry-farmed bush vines that owners didn't have the money to replant.

"What the wineries did for many years is, they used it as a red table wine to blend for the (domestic market)," Bouchon says. "You didn't find Pais on the label. In terms of winemaking, everybody was following the modern style: making big structure, deep color, heavy wines, oak aging, etc etc. We were making the Pais under that philosophy. It was impossible to make a nice Pais under that winemaking style."

As recently as five years ago, farmers were being offered just US $0.10 per ton for País, which doesn't make harvesting the grapes worthwhile. A lot of País was either left unharvested or made at home for the farmers themselves to drink.

I'm not going to tell you that the wine industry was wrong, in the long view, about País. If I have a choice of Cabernet Sauvignon from 15 year old vines or País from 15 year old vines, I'll take the Cab every time.

However, that's not the choice. If you see a bottle of Chilean wine in the U.S. with País on the label, odds are the grapes come from 150-year-old dry-farmed bush vines, or even older, and that makes a huge difference.

The first revival of País came from Beaujolais experts, but Bouchon is not a fan of the concept.

"In my previous years, the abuse was of oak," he said. "These days, the abuse of Pais is the carbonic maceration. You can get a really nice wine, but you can lose the identity of the Pais at the same time. I don't want people telling me this Pais tastes like a Beaujolais." It should not: País is light-bodied and so is Gamay, but that's where the similarity ends, or should end.

Christian Sepulveda, Bouchon's winemaker, is a fan of País, so much that he has traveled to the Canary Islands to see the last living reservoir of it in Europe. Sepulveda is a wine lover in general, as befits a man in charge of an 80,000-case winery.

"Bouchon as a winery cannot survive only on País," he says. "We have to make the French varieties. We try to improve the classics. We grow on granite soils." In fact, Bouchon's granite-soil Cabernet has a pretty aroma, noticeably more so than Cab grown on clay.

But Bouchon is also making more País every year because by taking it seriously -- they are not alone in this, buy some País from Garage Wine Co. if you can (you can here) -- they're doing something special. Bouchon is buying País from its neighbors' very old vines for its País Viejo, a light-bodied red that's worth checking out.

The País Salvaje, though, comes from vines growing wild on Bouchon's property, which Julio's father bought in the 1970s. Most of the existing País vines he grafted over immediately. He left one País vineyard untouched "because it was inconvenient -- bad for the tractor," Sepulveda says.

On the right, a modern Syrah vineyard. On the left, haphazardly planted old País bush vines
In 2014, Julio Bouchon and his brother took over the winery from their father, who retired. They immediately started making the lighter, no-oak, País Viejo.

"At the beginning (my father) was kind of afraid looking, 'What are these guys doing'? " Bouchon said. "He used to make País before but he used to make it under the old Bordeaux winemaking philosophy. He didn't get the real País. He was afraid of the feedback from the market, from the consumer. OK, you are making a nice wine, but at the end of the day, will you be able to sell it? Then when we were sold out at the end of 2 or 3 months, he was happy."

As for the wild vines, they're not far from the vineyard proper, and they're absolutely thriving in a river bed in a country that has been experiencing severe water shortages. Probably they grew from seeds dropped by birds, as grapes are supposed to grow in the wild. For years, Bouchon had no reason to do anything with or to them. They didn't need to clear out the riverbed, and the price for País was so low that there was no reason to try to make wine from them. They were just left alone.

But Sepulveda was curious. Unlike most wild vines, these were thriving so much that they produced good-sized clusters. So he made wine from them, and he liked what he got. Now he makes it every year, adding no yeast, which is also interesting because the vines are just far enough from the vineyard that they may have their own microflora environment.

Bouchon Valle de Maule País Salvaje 2017 (12.5% alcohol) has a delightful aroma of flowers, spices, and red plum fruit. You will smell things in this wine, pretty things, that you don't usually encounter in red wine. It's very light in color, which is why País has always been difficult to sell, and it's also very light-bodied, but full of character with spicy, floral and red plum fruit notes. I don't know if you can taste the wildness, but it's certainly not tame. Order it here.

"For me, País is the real Chilean wine," Bouchon says. "Like it or not. Some people say País is not a fine wine. My question is, what is a fine wine? Why Grand Cru is a fine wine and País is not a fine wine? We are used to a certain style of wine: Super Tuscans, the Grand Cru.

"For us, an elegant person is the guy who is in the black tie. The Wall Street guy, that's elegant. But a gypsy in a party, is not elegant? We are used to as a culture, thinking of stereotypes."

"The history of Pais is much longer. There is a history written, but there is also a history in the soil, with the old vines. We cannot be blind. The vines are there. People from outside the country are coming and discovering this treasure."

You should too. Buy it here.

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Paul Franson said...

I've had some pink Mission wines in Valle de Guadelupe in Baja California that were quite nice. Especially with the interest in rosés, I think our missions might consider planting it and making wine to raise money. I believe a few still have old vines growing, in fact. BTW, we had missions in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas (remember the Alamo) and Florida, too.

I wasn't impressed with the reds, however.

Zzzz said...

In West Georgia they traditionally grow the vines up trees and you can still find some here and there whereas in South Central (much different than the L.A.) Georgia that's all you find and they're working to bring back old varieties there as well. While rare, it's not uncommon, just wish I'd have had the chance to try these from Chile. Will just have to make due with the rare Listán Prieto we have here.

Nice story.


Isaac James Baker said...

Very cool stuff, and a good read.

Earl Jones said...

There is a pioneer orchard and vineyard on our property here in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon that was planted to several grape varieties. The vines were planted by the homesteader in the 1849-1870 era and teh most interesting variety is Listan Prieto (Microsatellite genotyped). We have resurrected the old vines and extended the planting and will make our first Listan Prieto wine this vintage. This report is of great interest to us as we approach harvest. Thanks