What’s Old Is New
Chile’s vineyards are best known for producing acclaimed cabernet sauvignon and carménère, but winemakers here are making waves with a new varietal—or, rather, a very old one. The Maule Valley, a region three hours south of Santiago, is leading an Old World grape renaissance by cultivating país, a varietal that long predates the mid-1800s arrival of French grapes but had gone mostly unharvested for decades.
“The país grape came to Chile in raisin form aboard Spanish galleons,” says Derek Mossman Knapp, the owner of the Maule Valley’s Garage Wine Co. and a founding member of the Movement of Independent Vintners, a consortium of boutique wineries in Chile. “As early as 1548, the grape was planted in the Maule Valley, more than two centuries before the world’s first documentation of cabernet sauvignon.”
Back in the 16th century, país was cultivated here as a wine for Catholic mass attendees. As production waned in favor of other varietals, the vines continued to grow wild, thriving in the granitic, crystalline soil amid the cracks and crags of the Chilean Coastal Range. The wine that results from this terroir, Knapp notes, is more complex and nuanced than the big, bold reds that grow elsewhere in the valley, with a fresher, brighter flavor profile.
Knapp believes that país “will be a pillar in the future of fine wine production in Chile.” Brian Pearson, the founder of Upscape, a company that delivers travelers to boutique wineries in the Maule Valley, agrees. “País is one of the fastest-growing wines in Chile,” he says. “Chileans are seeking smaller, more eclectic wineries to complement the changing local palette, which has moved away from heavy cabernet sauvignons to finer, lighter wines. País is certainly on this line.” Among the wineries in the valley that are producing the varietal are Knapp’s Garage Wine Co., Viña Gonzalez Bastías, and El Viejo Almacén, but for an introduction to the style, Pearson recommends one of his favorite bottles, the fresh and floral País Salvaje, an organic, dry-farmed, completely wild harvest from Bouchon Family Wines. “With notes of strawberry and sour cherry,” he says, “it pairs well with one of my favorite local foods: the pino empanada, stuffed with merkén-spiced beef.”