Chile’s Indigenous grape varieties
Chile is not anymore a newcomer on the international wine scene. The country’s top brands controlling 55% of the domestic wine output are very prestigious global conglomerates. These include Concha y Toro, San Pedro, Montes, Emiliana, Veramonte, Lapostolle and Santa Rita. The galvanizing success brought by the adoption of French wine varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot inspired a new generation of winemakers to develop their artisanal touch that making Chilean wines so special again. The answer was found in the redevelopment of Chile’s indigenous grapes such as Pais, Moscato de Alejandria, Torrontes, San Francisco, Moscatel Rosada, Blanca Ovoide and Pedro Jimenez. Drawing on the principles of Europe’s most talented winemakers, the new Chilean winemaker wave crafts indigenous wines from old vine fruit with minimal intervention, following organic practices and always with native yeasts and low sulfur.
Uvas Criollas-Heritage of Chile
Brought to Chile by the Spanish Conquistadores, indigenous varieties are the real patrimony of Chile’s wine industry. These grapes are also known as “uvas criollas”. The term “criollo” has been used historically to designate the progeny of European descendants in Latin America. In the same manner, it has been used to designate the wine grape varieties born in the New World but brought over by Europeans. According to Jorge Prieto, a researcher from INTA Mendoza, “uvas criollas” have been striving in South America for more than 400 years. In fact, it is not a rare sight to find in Chile Pais vineyards of 200 years and more. Scholars argue that the first European vine rootsocks arrived in Peru in 1545 and from there to Argentina by 1557. Pais is the base grape for the Chilean wine known as “pipeno”. This definition designate this wine made by ordinary farmers from Chile’s cooler winemaking regions such as Maule, Itata and Bio-Bio. Pipeno farmers would keep pipas( barrels made of redwood Rauli) to short-age the new harvest and sell it to friends and neighbors who would bottle it themselves.
These “criollas” wine varieties were the result of natural crossings with grapes brought by the Spanish conquistadores. For instance, Pais originated in the Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha where it was also known as Listan Prieto. Pais was brought by the Spanish Jesuit missionaries for the Catholic Eucharist religious practice and became the dominant grape throughout the colonial period. For many centuries, Pais was used to elaborate Pisco, the Eaux de vie par excellence of Chile and Peru. Scholars state that in the mid-XIX century, Pais accounted for 90% of the vineyard plantation in Chile and Argentina.
Pais, Torrontes and Pipeno wines in Chile
The most famous of the "uvas criollas”, Pais, can be found concentrated in the southern Chilean regions of Maule, Bio Bio, and Itata, in the custodianship of over 6,000 growers. Young País can yield rustic wines that are simple and slightly tannic. On the other hand, older vines yield elegant examples of the variety with complex floral and earth undertones. Pais is the foundation of the Pipeño wine but also for Chicha and Chacoli as well. Pais lost attention as the country's wine industry adopted the credo of Bordeaux vine varietals which reached its peak by the end of the XX century. As Chile was entering the 21st century, commercial wine producers were simply ripping up País and keeping just the minimum to make jug wines. Much of the revival of País can be attributed to the efforts of Frenchman Louis-Antoine Luyt. Inspired by the natural winemaking style of Philippe Pacalet, Louis Jadot, and the late Marcel Lapierre, Luyt is crafting some of the most exciting wines coming out of Chile today. Luyt reinstated País vines but also forgotten Chilean winemaking practices such as the use of a zaranda (a bamboo destemmer), foot-stomping and fermentation in raulí pipas (native beech casks). His wines were a success in Europe’s natural wine scene, opening up the export market and setting a benchmark for this little-known (but widely grown) variety.
Another indigenous variety with an extensive historical pedigree is Torrontes. Torrontes is best known to be indigenous to Argentina. Scholars contend that the variety is a crossing between Muscat of Alexandria and native Criollas Chica. For years, it was believed that the Torrontes of Argentina was the same Torrontes found in Galicia, Spain. It was taken for granted that the grape was simply brought to the new world along with the Spanish diaspora from Galicia into Argentina. However, recent DNA evidence has determined there is no correlation between the two grapes. The Torrontés of Galicia, found mainly in the DO of Ribeiro, is now proven to be identical to the Fernão Pires of Portugal. It also can be said that many different Spanish grape varieties go by the name “Torrontés” in Spain. To quote Jancis Robinson and her co-authors in Wine Grapes, “Confusion reigns supreme over Torrontés in the Iberian Peninsula.” Surprisingly, Chile grows a good deal of Torrontés, sometimes also known as “Moscatel de Austria.”It is known for certain that much of the Torrontés grown in Chile ends up distilled into Pisco. Wines labeled as Torrontés in Chile may also actually be Torontel, a relative but separate crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla which is grown in many regions in Chile. Torrontes is used in field blends with old vine Muscat and Semillon to create the white Pipeno, a skin contact white with three weeks of maceration and made completely in stainless steel.
In conclusion, Chilean wines have been a success in the global wine industry because of the adoption of international French varietals in the XIX century and their high-performance Chile’s favorable climate. This approach was needed for Chile to secure attention among its international peers. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg for an intricate indigenous wine culture that spans centuries. As historian Pablo Lacoste states: “ Pipeno is a symbol of half-breed Chile” and the “emblem of the people that love the earth, stewards of the environment, who tends the grape out of love, not business” The new wave of indigenous Chilean wine is light, fresh and elegant rooted in tradition but keeping abreast with contemporary wine tastes.
Recommended Chilean natural wine producers crafting Pipeno wines.
A Los Viñateros Bravos
1- “The Best Wines to Try from Chile.” Wine Folly, winefolly.com/deep-dive/the-best-wines-to-try-from-chile/
2- “Uvas Criollas: Patrimonio Vitivinícola de Chile.” Viniferal, https://www.vinifera.cl/editorial/ficha.php?cod=125#:~:text=Si%20hablamos%20de%20“uvas%20criollas
3- “Uvas criollas. el origen de un vino de calidad y con historia.” Research Gate. Sept. 2019.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335661613_Uvas_criollas_el_origen_de_un_vino_de_calidad_y_con_historia
4- Bley, Cristóbal. “No Es Puro Terremoto: Otros Tragos Y Maridajes Para Disfrutar Del Pipeño.” La Tercera, 14 Sept. 2022, https://www.latercera.com/practico/noticia/no-es-puro-terremoto-otros-tragos-y-maridajes-para-disfrutar-del-pipeno/OKFFEAGMOFEERAOVGNTA5ZSZLU/
5-“Ultimate Guide to País Wine, Pipeño & Criolla in Chile : Chilean Wine Guide.” South America Wine Guide, 18 Aug. 2021, https://southamericawineguide.com/ultimate-guide-to-pais-pipeno-criolla-wines-in-chile/
6-“Pipeno: Chile’s Answer to Natural Wine.” The San Francisco Wine Trading Company, https://www.sfwtc.com/newsletters/2019/02/19/Pipeno-Chile-s-Answer-to-Natural-Wine-n61356144y
7-The (Confusion of The) Torrontés Family Tree – Wine, Wit, and Wisdom. https://winewitandwisdomswe.com/2013/07/27/the-confusion-of-the-torrontes-family-tree/