Back Forty: A forgotten wine grape

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. You can subscribe here or below.

For more than two decades, Alice Feiring has been a fierce champion of natural wines — the type of wines made primarily by small producers who seek to express the place where the grapes were grown. They avoid the 70-plus industrial additives currently allowed in wine and the technical manipulations that abound. Although natural wine began as a reaction against the direction of the modern wine industry, it has since grown, attracting a new generation. Feiring, in her books and newsletter, The Feiring Line, writes about these vintners not only in winemaking centers in Europe and the United States, but also in countries like Georgia — an ancient center of winemaking — and Chile. (She will be talking at a FERN event in Brooklyn, New York, on Oct. 24).

These producers often look backward to cultivars that were once widely planted but then discarded in favor of now prevalent varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, there are thousands of native grape varieties the world over, but only a handful that produce the bulk of the wine sold today. It’s evidence of how variety and diversity have declined — which mirrors the story in food as well.

In her latest bookTo Fall in Love, Drink This, Feiring melds memoir and wine, recounting stories from her life growing up near New York, her explorations of wine, and her experiences meeting with vintners. She also discusses specific wines and the stories behind them, as in this book excerpt about país, a forgotten Chilean grape now staging a comeback.

By Alice Feiring

I was trailing winemakers Macarena and Thomas up a steep hill. Maca was a skilled forager. She kept on shoving leaves at me to chomp on—furry melissa, earthy thymes, and icy mints. She snapped off a mandarin orange from a century-old tree, and its flavor popped so that I actually saw colors. All around us, wild vines raced up the trees. This was early summer in mideastern Chile. I had come here to do a story on the revival of the old grape, país in the remote mountain village Pilen and a wine named after its recently deceased farmer, Segundo Flores. We had just left the blood-rose-red geranium-festooned adobe hut of Segundo’s 90-year-old widow, an abode where the chickens had free range.

Pilen was said to be a once-thriving village known for its women potters and its spectacular vineyards. Today its population is practically vanishing. In 1973 Segundo’s daughter, a teacher, had 160 students in the school. Today there are none. The men and the young either moved away to get jobs or died off, like Segundo. While Maca and Thomas long to farm, they are blessed to be able to buy the fruit for now, and it is that lone man on the mountain, Segundo’s cousin, who is in charge of the vineyard.

A país vineyard in the mountain village of Pilen, Chile. Photo by Alice Feiring

The vineyard has three beautiful chambers with graceful, crawling vines of país, pressing their roots deeply into the red granitic soils of this biodiverse environment. The bees were so contented that I never once worried about stings. Now, I thought, this, this was a place.

Nature offers up some undeniable truths. One of them is that with two adjacent pieces of land, farmed using the same practices, one can prove better than the other. Each location hosts its own microclimate shaped by local patterns of wind and weather. This is terroir, the taste that expresses a particular place, and the ultimate compliment you can give to a wine.

Before I visited this part of Chile, I was struck by wines that came from the mysterious place called Pilen. True, I had tasted only two of them, but they spoke to me. I felt I had to go there and seek the truth. It was as if the wines had lassoed my waist and pulled me to the slopes among the país that grew there.

País arrived in South America from the Canary Islands in the 1500s and from there spread out to North America, where at one time it was the most wildly planted grape in California. But the grape, used mostly for sacramental wine, developed a bad reputation, and cabernet took over. Today only a few acres remain. The unfairly maligned grape seems to have maintained its fine reputation only in Spain, on the island of Tenerife. Yet it was beloved in Chile for centuries and made an easy-to-drink country wine called Pipeño.

The grape’s stature was diminished in the 1800s when Chile fell in love with varieties from France and rejected the Spanish ones. When the military dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power in 1973, he modernized Chile’s wine world. The shift made a lot of people rich but decimated the historical winemaking in the country. He encouraged ripping out old and beautiful vines and offered farmers money to plant non-native trees for the paper industry. As a result, much of the beautiful muscat and país vines were ripped out.

Some Pinochet-era enologists claimed that the grape responsible for Pipeño produced a “brown and thin wine.” Others called Pipeño a raw wine that “has all the impurities, called borras or feces.”

The grape and the wine, what was left of it, were reduced to a sentimental choice. It was a wine that grandfathers might remember from their grandfather. A wine that brought someone back to the romance of the country, when life was simpler, but not something to show the guests. This was a viticultural tragedy. As one winemaker had told me, “Give país even a little love and it loves you back.”

We stood on top of the mountain, looking down at the vines. This was not my first time at a vineyard rodeo, so I always try to palpate its story from the field or drink the fruit of its labors. The vineyards don’t have to be beautiful. Well, they’re never ugly unless they’ve been abused. The wine from that spot told a story of struggle, and yet the wines were a marvel. No matter where I am, when I taste a wine that moves me, I feel the imperative to follow the thread to its origin, and that’s when I know I’ve got something special. I knew it as I stood on the mount, dwarfed in the shadows of the Andes.

We sat in the vines and looked down on the Maule. We talked about the decades wasted using technology to produce too many impersonal wines while doing everything possible to irradicate país and any sense of the wine’s place.

Now país was back. Maca brought out wine glasses and two vintages of the Segundo. One from 2017. That year the wildfires came through on the taste and smell, yet underneath the char was the subtle cherry. So lovely. The 2018, not yet ready, was still smoky but just from the fruit and brighter. Sitting there in the middle of the vines and sipping wine in that paradise, with the biodiversity all around us, I thought of Segundo and how he must have held on to his land while Pinochet was handing out money to peasant farmers. I imagine that Segundo said no. No one was going to mess with his país and his Pilen.

The fruits of that vineyard resulted from someone who stitched a royal diamond into his farmer’s rags. Even in death, Segundo, a man I had never met, had put his soul into the earth and what it gave.