In a leafy valley between the Andes and the coastal range, Chile’s ancient vines are producing the country’s freshest natural wines.
It was fully dark when we drove up to the home of winemaker Roberto Henríquez in the Bío Bío region of central Chile. I had pink granitic sand in my shoes from a day spent touring Roberto’s vineyards. I was jet-lagged, thirsty, starving, and grateful to find his chef friend grilling a fish that had been in the nearby ocean that morning. My travel buddy, a Brooklyn-based sommelier named Alex Alan, sat down and asked for a corkscrew. Wine was poured. I spooned chunky porotos granados, a traditional stew made with fresh cranberry beans, onto my plate. “What’s that spice?” I asked, marveling at an unfamiliar smokiness. “Merkén,” Roberto said. This was a spice used by Chileʼs indigenous Mapuche people, made with goat horn pepper, and it tasted like smoked paprika raised to the fifth power. Note to self: Bring some home.
Near midnight, as we sat in Roberto’s kitchen with our Chilean feast, he started to pour wine after wine. Down the hatch went wine after wine, electric, bursting with life. There were wines in different shades of amber and red, perfumed and vibrant, ethereal yet structured. And finally, the wine most closely associated with the country’s natural wine revolution, the easy-to-drink pipeño, a red farmer’s wine made from país, one of Chile’s oldest grapes.
For years, Chile and natural wines—additive-free wines made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes—were words I longed to stitch together. But I despaired that the country would ever cast off its reputation for making wine as predictable (and as unnatural) as Wonder Bread. Such a shame, because swaths of the skinny volcanic country, as long as the United States is wide, have brilliant sunshine, dry heat, nocturnal cooling, and iron-laced igneous soils. Bordered by the Pacific and the Andes, central Chile is as suited to the grape as a bear to a berry. Chile had everything going for it—except for a curious disregard for its wine history.
Two greater insults were yet to come. In the 1970s, the violent dictator Augusto Pinochet seized farmland, which was then replanted with nonnative, invasive trees that would be used for the paper industry. By the end of his reign, several thousand acres of vines—including país—had been uprooted. When the wine industry started to recover around the turn of the millennium, its stars were cookie-cutter wines made from French grapes grown in the central regions near Santiago. The remaining país was at worst, torn out, or at best, forgotten. Pockets of old, beautiful vines remained tucked into rolling hills and forests, as if waiting for a chance to make a comeback.
In 2010 I had my first pipeño at a winetasting in New York City. A natural wine, made by a Frenchman living in Chile, it sang. In 2012 I had another, made in clay pots called tinajas. Delicious. In 2017, intrigued by what I had been tasting, I visited Chile and discovered a sextet of winemakers working from organic grapes and intervening as little as possible, following the natural wine ethos. Most made their version of a pipeño. It made sense.
Pipeño relied on some of the oldest vines, and the way it was made was so completely hands-off—so deeply connected with traditional, preindustrial farming—it aligned with the interest in natural wines that was surging around the world. The wines gave me goose bumps of excitement. But would they gain any traction? Well, just recently, on that great information highway Instagram, I saw a fantastic array of new names and faces, all working naturally. Some winemakers came from France and Italy. Many were homegrown Chileans. Without a doubt, I needed to get back to see what had blossomed. Chilean natural wine had achieved liftoff.
I decided to head south to the forgotten wine regions of Itata, Bío Bío, and Maule, still rich in beautiful, century-old país vines. Because winemakers there are not conveniently clustered, and their wineries are located on roads often difficult to traverse, there would be many four-wheel-drive vehicles in my future. Wine friends gave advice: There are no good hotels. The food is better in homes than in restaurants. GPS doesn’t work. You’ll get lost all the time. Hire a driver. Fly direct. I ignored most of it. And while I usually like to go it alone, I gave in slightly and enlisted my friend Alex, who spoke Spanish (a necessity), and then hoped for the best. We would start in Concepción and slowly creep toward Santiago, visiting one or two winemakers a day.
Roberto was our first stop. Earlier that day, we had walked out of the airport clutching our bags to find him waiting, an ex-drummer rocking a Fu Manchu moustache—possibly the most recognizable face of the local natural wine movement. We piled into his truck, amused to see the words pipeño delivery traced into its dust, then set off on a mad dash to make the 90-minute drive to the vineyards and wineries in Itata and adjacent Bío Bío before the summer sun set. We were heading to the epicenter of pipeño’s rebirth.
En route, Roberto pointed to the vast landscape, densely planted with eucalyptus and pine, those invasive Pinochet trees. “Here, at one time, there were only vines,” Roberto said. But as we drove, eventually the trees gave way to dirt roads, slapdash cantinas, and finally, vines gripping shimmering red soil.
There’s nothing slow about Roberto; he’s constantly beating his wings. And as he herded us from winery to vineyard, he shared bits of his own dynamic story. He’d known he wanted to make wine since he was a kid growing up in Bío Bío. Armed with an enology degree, he worked conventionally for years. An article he read in 2012 about a Frenchman named Louis-Antoine Luyt changed everything.
Louis-Antoine went to Chile to sharpen his Spanish but ended up being the first winemaker to look around, see old vines, and think, Are you locals nuts? There’s treasure here. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see the truth. Notably, he worked with the campesinos, the old farmers with their old vines who made simple wine—pipeño—and helped them bottle it. It was Louis-Antoine who made the wine I had tasted back in 2010. It was he who later taught me the preferable way to make pipeño: The vines are de-stemmed by hand with a panpipe-like bamboo contraption called a zaranda. Then the grapes are fermented and the wine popped into old raulí (beech-wood) barrels called pipas (hence the name pipeño) to age briefly before being drunk fresh.
Inspired, Roberto went to France to learn with some of the best natural winemakers, including René Mosse in the Loire Valley, before returning to Chile to work alongside Louis-Antoine. Roberto went out on his own in 2015. Louis-Antoine recently moved back to France. But not before he and Roberto had spread their influence throughout Chile.
At last, we pulled into Roberto’s first fully owned vineyard in Bío Bío, where vines dot the land in sweet, hilly clumps. The vines here—país, as well as French grapes such as merlot and carménère—are low to the ground, with twisted, weathered trunks and sprawling tops, interspersed with lily of the Incas, brilliant magenta blossoms that run wild in this part of the world. As we walked through the vineyard, Roberto explained that while some prominent enologists have accused país of producing a thin, brown wine, the secret of working with the grape is to prune it back dramatically. This means you often get less fruit, but the grapes have a richer, more concentrated flavor. “Give país even a little love,” Roberto said with tenderness, “and they love you back.” I picked up a vine leaf, petting its furry underside while marveling that the historic vine could have such an unsavory reputation.
Back at Roberto’s house, with me struggling to balance my need to sleep with the desire to drink whatever he was going to open next, Roberto shared that he doesn’t want the world to forget that Bío Bío is where the indigenous Mapuche battled the conquistadors in the 16th century. It was also where the resistance to Pinochet was strongest. In this context it makes sense that it is also the epicenter of the pipeño resurgence. “For some it’s a marketing term,” he said. “But for me, pipeño is a powerful word.”
Two days later, after visits with Roberto’s nearest like-minded comrades—such as Mauricio Gonzalez Carreño, who painstakingly farms old vines in black volcanic soils, and forester-turned-pipeño-wizard Manuel Moraga—Alex and I were jiggling up a mountain at dawn in a tomato-hued jeep. At the helm: winemakers Macarena (Maca) Del Río and Thomas Parayre, the couple responsible for one of Chile’s most talked-about natural wineries, Macatho. They’re filled with youthful enthusiasm, and they wanted to show me their most dramatic vineyard—one they rent, for now—where país flourishes. Eventually, we turned onto a road as dusty and broken as any I’ve been on. Magic was promised at its end.
We passed through the practically deserted village of Pilén, lined with dirt-floored log huts. Pilén may still be known for its women potters who cart their wares down to the colorful Cauquenes market (not to be missed), but I’m surprised it’s not known for its alpine-like vineyards. We were not even 1,000 feet above sea level, in the shadows of the Andes, but it felt like Switzerland.
We parked when we could go no further. Each of us schlepped elements for our picnic: the cooler of wines, glasses, quinoa. Then we continued on foot, huffing up an incline. I found myself in a foraging frenzy, chomping on leaves of lemony melissa, earthy thymes, and icy mints. There were taut pears and the squirtiest apricots. Like an agenda-less Eve, Maca handed me a tiny orange. “The tree is more than a hundred years old,” she told me. The flavor had an ancient and true depth, intense sweetness coupled with a beautiful puckering acidity. Eden had nothing on this place, I thought. We walked through a narrow clearing, and I filled my lungs with the purest of air. Looming over us to the east were the Andes, separating us from Argentina; to the west stood the Coastal Range, protecting us from the Pacific. Above us, birds soared. At our feet on the mountainside below: graceful, crawling vines, pressing their greenness onto the glittering red granitic soils. The jewels of the country, país.
In a square of shade, tiny and slim as a teenager, Maca, 34, cracked open one of her bottles, a 2017 Segundo Flores. It was made from país grapes grown in that very vineyard, named after the 80-year-old man who tended the vineyard up until his recent death. Born and raised in Chile, Maca had wanted to make wine since she was 16. “I had no idea what natural wine was,” she said as she poured the wines. That changed in 2010, soon after she had finished her enology degree in Bordeaux, when she drank her way through the wine list at a natural wine restaurant in southern France. She emerged a convert. “I didn’t know wine could be that way, so alive,” she said.
Thomas discovered natural wine when he moved to Santiago from France and, by happenstance, had a roommate obsessed with natural wine: Louis-Antoine Luyt. After many drunken nights, Thomas was a natural wine devotee. Then fate brought Maca—home on a visit from France—into his life. Soon after falling in love, they decided to seek vines in Chile.
“In France I would be just one of many people making natural wine. Here, in my home country,” she said looking at the vineyard she hoped to make hers, “I could have an impact.”
The way of the grandfather worked for me, too. The wine was silky, with a smoky mystery, a deep, fresh snappy plumminess, and plenty of bitter cherry. The acidity, like that apricot and the orange, was born of those soils. As I sipped, I wondered: Who were those bright lights who believed French grapes should have supremacy on this land?
My prejudice against those European grapes was so strong, I was tempted to cancel my last appointment at Viñedos Herrera Alvarado, a winery in the Marga Marga Valley, 300 miles north. There, in the Pinot country northwest of Santiago, it was rumored there wasn’t a país grape in sight. There was, however, a couple actively keeping old winemaking traditions alive in one of Chile’s newer wine regions. So my curiosity got the better of me.
The next morning, Alex and I left the gritty seaport city of Valparaíso early to drive to the winery, located 45 minutes inland. The plan was to taste the wines, then speed off to the capital, hit the wine bars, and buy that spice, merkén. Man plans and God laughs.
When we arrived, winemaker Arturo Herrera was waiting. He unlocked the winery gate, and we followed him down a long road, through dense forests, that eventually dead-ended into a vineyard. His wife and fellow winemaker, Carolina Alvarado, waved us over to a picnic table loaded up with bottles and her fresh-baked bread. She looked very Santa Fe, wearing a long dress and a broad hat, he looked much the gentleman farmer. Their hands told the story of their livelihood: rough and strong, hands as adept at pruning the vines as they were at slapping mud on their new adobe winery, which we could see in the distance. As the morning progressed, Arturo shared their story. They started the winery in 2003, before Louis-Antoine came to Chile and social media spread the gospel of natural wines through the world. As I listened, I chastised myself for thinking of canceling this meeting. Even if they did work with French grapes, here were elders of Chilean natural wine.
As if hearing my thoughts, they pointed to a circle of young vines and said the magic word: país! Then they poured a wine they called Oro Negro (“black gold”), all sultry and smoky. It seemed to me like old-vine país. And to my shock, it was. Arturo explained, “The grapes come from 200-year-old vines from the nearby mountainous valley of Colliguay.” I felt as if I had tasted the mythical unicorn. Not only were Carolina and Arturo doing their part to bring back a tradition by planting new país—there were also old país vines tucked away in the mountains as if hiding from the French. It’s just that no one outside the region knew about them—yet. Downtime in Santiago was forgotten. I had to go see those vines.
We took off through twisty rural roads, stopping along the way to pick up vineyard owner Livorio Ponce. First, he took us into his barn, where we tasted his syrupy chicha, wine used for sacraments as well as for pleasure. Tasting the one made from país, I thought of my long-gone, beloved grandfather. With his love for Manischewitz, Pop would have gone for that wine in a big way. Arturo bought a few bottles, and we drove on, finally stopping near a pine forest.
There they were: país vines. Unlike in the south, where the vines hug the ground, these beauties were like trees, proud and ancient, waiting patiently for the rest of the world to rediscover what has been there all along.