« Back to News & Features Top

Long Reads

Shabby Chic | Chile’s Vino Pipeño

by Paticio Tapia  patricioatapia • posted on February 9, 2017

Centenarian país vines in Nacimiento, above the banks of the Bío Bío River in Chile’s south. Roberto Henríquez farms these vines for his pipeño.

Pipas are the barrels made of raulí, the redwood casks Chilean campesinos would keep in the cellars of their homes, to store the wine they’d made from their most recent harvest. These farmers would drink their pipeño, or cart their pipa from town to town, selling it to locals, who would bring their bottles to fill.

Louis-Antoine Luyt (left) with Tito Saavedra, a pipeño producer in Yumbel, in Bío Bío. Louis-Antoine Luyt (left) with Tito Saavedra, a pipeño producer in Yumbel, in Bío Bío.

“At first, what struck me was that nobody noticed país. Nobody wanted to take advantage of vines so old that they had managed to adapt and, especially, to survive.” —Louis-Antoine Luyt
Vino pipeño dates to the original Spanish settlers, who brought país and moscatel vines to plant at their missions. They are the original Chilean wines, part of a tradition that was pushed aside when the rich mining families of Santiago began to import French vines and winemakers in the mid-19th century. Cabernet sauvignon and carmenère became the basis of the commercial wine business in Chile, while país and moscatel fueled a healthy bulk wine industry, primarily in the wine-growing centers of the south—the Valle del Maule, Valle de Itata and Bío Bío—but today they are quickly losing ground as locals shift to growing eucalyptus and pine trees for the forestry industry. In recent vintages, Chile has been producing about 2.2 billion liters of wine annually, and país represents just 1.8 percent. “People today prefer beer,” says Tito Saavedra, a pipeño producer in the Yumbel area of Bío Bío. Saavedra organizes some costumbristas parties, where people congregate to celebrate the milling of the wheat or to compete in horse races. “This year, for the last parties, we sold about 20 liters of pipeño, but about 500 liters of beer.”

It took a few contemporary French settlers to recognize the value in the ancient-vine país and the vino pipeño locals produced from these pockets of talented vines. Suddenly, these fresh, rustic reds are showing up in chic bars in Santiago, not to mention natural-wine-centric restaurants like Terroir in San Francisco, Tannin Wine Bar and Kitchen in Kansas City, Missouri, and Rouge Tomate in New York City.

THE PIONEER

Born in Brittany, Louis-Antoine Luyt has been in Chile for 18 years and had discovered país and pipeño back in the early 1990s. “At first, what struck me was that nobody noticed this grape. Nobody wanted to take advantage of vines so old that they had managed to adapt and, especially, to survive.”

In 2007 he produced his first wine made from país, It was a revolutionary concept at the time, as it was the first release of país exported to foreign markets like the UK and France. In 2010, with the late Marcel Lapierre from Beaujolais, he produced El País de Quenehuao, from ancient vines of país in the granitic soils of coastal Maule. Lapierre, astounded by those old vines, and discussed with Luyt how best to approach them. They made a wine with carbonic maceration (“It was the technique we knew well,” Luyt says), presenting a fresh look at país, showing that it was capable of producing a radiant, delicious drink. The wine’s charm managed to seduce other producers, including wineries like Concha y Toro and San Pedro, whose winemakers began to see to this grape from a different perspective. In the timeline of país, this Quenehuao is something like the invention of writing.

Today, Luyt continues to make El País de Quenehuao while exploring other incarnations of these ancient vines. “I started with país believing that fine wine could be made with it, even though everyone told me that it was not worth anything. And then, while looking to make fine wines, I realized that the wines that people make in the countryside surpass what I do.” Luyt had started to bottle his own pipeño, but has since decided that he prefers to act as a négociant instead of a producer, bottling the wines made by small growers he has come to know from Maule to Bío Bío, where 18,728 of the total 18,098 acres of país in the whole of Chile grow.

One vino pipeño he bottles as a negociant is Santa Juana, from ancient vines growing in granitic clay soils on the southern bank of the Bío Bío river. Sara Burgos, who owns the property, made this país using some non-traditional methods, such as a destemmer and stainless steel tanks. But the soul of país remains in the wine, intact: it’s light and refreshing, filled with spicy red fruit flavors as well as some funky earth tones.

Luyt does not think that the production techniques of pipeño needs to be regulated or defined. “Every campesino has his way. And everyone believes that the pipeño he makes is the best.” More important than rules, he thinks, is valuing a culture heritage. “Pipeño was the water and the food of the people. It’s the blood of Chile.” They produce with old vines, mainly país, in Itata and Bio-Bio. Getting money from ProChile, a government organization, to promote their wines.

THE PRODIGAL SON

Other producers of vino pipeño have since banded together to form the Asociación de Productores de Vino Campesino de Chile. All the members are growers in the dry-farmed vineyards of Maule, Itata and Bío-Bío, working together to promote and preserve the production of Chile’s artisanal wines. One of the members, Roberto Henríquez, explains that, “In the case of Pipeño, we believe in the diversity of production techniques. However, what we promote is, if it is red, it must be one-hundred-percent país, because it is the Chilean ancestral grape. And it should respect the light, refreshing style.”

Sara and Luis Burgos at their vineyard in Santa Juana, where they produce a pipeño that Louis-Antoine Luyt bottles for export. Sara and Luis Burgos at their vineyard in Santa Juana, where they produce a pipeño that Louis-Antoine Luyt bottles for export.
When it comes to his own winery, Henríquez tries to be as faithful as possible to the way in which the pipeño has historically been made. “If we want to be radically true to pipeño, then when it is red, it must be made of país because it is the oldest variety in Chile and is the one used by all the campesinos. It should also be destemmed with zarandas [a grate made of branches of coligües, a kind of Chilean bamboo], to ferment only the juice in lagares of raulí wood. It should also be kept in pipas to drink as a simple, refreshing wine of the year,” he says.

Before launching his own winery, Henríquez worked in large, commercial wineries such as Santa Ema and Santa Rita. Then he worked the harvest with Agnes and René Mosse, who farm
vines biodynamically and make vin naturel at their vineyard near Angers, in France’s Loire Valley. When he returned to home to the south of Chile, he had a new idea of what he wanted to do. “With the Mosses I learned not only to produce wines with minimal intervention, but also that I wanted to produce wine on my own property, with everything at hand, on a human scale.”

Henríquez has just built a house where he lives with his wife and daughter in Patagual, on the southern bank of the Bío Bío. He plans to build his winery, dug into the side of a mountain in the coastal range. “From here I’m six miles from the sea, so I can have very good fish. And the vineyards I work with are thirty miles away, ” he says. Henríquez produces one pipeño, from país vines growing in Nacimiento, upstream from his home, along the Bío Bío River. While the vineyard of Sara Burgos in Santa Juana is higher up in the coastal hills, this is right next to the river, the alluvial soil rich in clay and gravel. Over the last several harvests, Henríquez has concentrated on managing the vineyard to control production—learning to restrain país yields, which can be very generous.

Though he labels his wine as pipeño, he recognizes that he does not meet all of his own requirements. “This is one-hundred-percent país, destemmed in zaranda, fermented in cement and wood lagares, but it’s blended in stainless steel before bottling,” he says. “I´m working with an artisan to recover some old pipas, and hope to start using them in the next vintage.” Compared to Luyt’s Santa Juana Pipeño, Henríquez’s wine feels more tannic and astringent, with enough grip for arrollado de pernil, a pork sausage traditional in the south of Chile. And yet the wine is also deliciously refreshing.

THE LAVA FLOW

“With Agnes and René Mosse, I learned not only to produce wines with minimal intervention, but also that I wanted to produce wine on my own property, with everything at hand, on a human scale.” —Roberto Henríquez
In 2009, Manuel Moraga inherited a vineyard of old país in Yumbel—about 62 miles north of Nacimiento and directly east of Concepción—where his father had taught him to make wine. When he left for school, he decided to study forestry, but as he built his career, he missed the family’s vines. “I always wanted to live on my father’s farm in Yumbel, and wine has allowed me to do that,” he says.

Moraga, with his long Prussian officer mustache, tends the old país vines, planted on soils the locals called “de trumao,” which looks like very fine sand and derives from volcanic rock. The 2010 earthquake, which devastated the area, destroyed most of his old winemaking equipment. Using fiberglass containers and destemmer machines, he began to produce vino pipeño in 2011 under the brand Cacique Maravilla, focusing on his inheritance of old vines. “I think they must be about two hundred and fifty years old, maybe more,” says Moraga.

His pipeño is an energetic red, intense in ripeness and also in herbal and earthy notes. “I believe that pipeño is made from longanizas,” Moraga jokes, referring to a local sausage similar to Spanish chorizo. And, in fact, longanizas would be the perfect companion to calm this intense país.

THE BASQUE IN MAULE

The Maule landscape is very different from that of Bío Bío: Some 100 miles north, it’s less green, since it rains less, and it’s farther east from the Coastal Range, in the plain between those hills and the Andes. This is where David Marcel, a vintner from France’s Basque country, and his wife, Loreto, created Maitía in 2012. “If there is something I feel with pipeño, it’s a connection to my homeland, to the artisan way of making wines with which I grew up. It’s an emotional connection,” he says.

For Maitía, Marcel buys grapes from different areas of Maule and leases space in wineries to make his wines. During his first harvest, he met a worker in one of those wineries. “Don Jorge was his name,” Marcel recalls. “One day he showed me the wine he made for his friends, a pipeño.” Marcel was delighted by the wine, so simple and fruity, and showed it to his wife. They both decided they needed to make their own, so they began asking the locals for advice. They now produce Aupa Pipeño, a crisp, refreshing red made with 70 percent país in a blend with carignan.

“Here in Maule there is much país, but for more than sixty years there has also been quite a good amount of carignan, which was imported to bring more color and acidity to the país. It’s that mix that often campesinos will sell you here as pipeño.” —David Marcel
“Each zone has its way of making pipeño,” Marcel says. “Here in Maule there is much país, but for more than sixty years there has also been quite a good amount of carignan, which was imported to Chile to bring more color and acidity to the wines, especially to the país. It’s that mix that often peasants will sell you here as pipeño.” For his first vintage, Marcel made only 400 magnum bottles, all sold locally. In 2016, Maitía will produce 2,000 magnums plus 50,000 750-mililiter bottles, exporting some to the US. He left this latest vintage in contact with the skins for only one week, until the fermentation was finished, intending to keep its color light color and its texture soft. “Besides,” Maitía adds, “pipeños in this area do not have much alcohol because the old vines can easily reach the groundwater in these flat soils,” allowing growers to harvest ripe grapes without extended hang time. Tasted directly from the cement tank, it’s extremely fruity, the kind of light, tight wine that would refresh prietas, Chilean blood sausages. The first time he produced the wine, he sold it locally, but then his importer tasted it and decided that they wanted to sell it, so he made more in the next vintage.

Spurred on by the success of small producers like these, vino pipeño is beginning to attract notice from the Chile’s oenological mainstream. In the last three years, wineries such as Concha y Toro (under Marqués de Casa Concha), San Pedro (Los Despedidos) and J. Bouchon (País Salvaje) have all bottled pipeño. Compared to a traditional pipeño, even if made with more contemporary tools and methods, these reds are similar in their light colors, earthy flavors and refreshing flavors. Vino pipeño offers a completely different face of Chile, a style of wines that gives the country a way into the conversation about natural wines and joins in the eternal search for wines of authenticity. Pipeño is Chile.

This story was featured in W&S February 2017.