Pictured above, l-r: 2016 Cacique Maravilla Pipeño País; 2016 Roberto Henríquez Rivera del Notro Moscatel Corinto Sémillon; 2014 Huaso de Sauzal Chilena País.
Manuel Moraga Gutiérrez is a seventh-generation winemaker in the Bío Bío Valley in southern Chile. He harvests grapes from the vines his great-great-grandfather planted in 1776, and makes his wines in essentially the same way his ancestors did. The ancient, pre-phylloxera plantings of red país and white Moscatel vines grow big and strong in the rich volcanic soil, with no need for irrigation.
The país is wild fermented in simple fashion: the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed into a large, 120-year-old vat made from a local beechwood called raulí, and the fruit is foot-stomped daily to extract colour and flavour, then bottled soon after fermentation, with no filtration and no SO2 preservative.
The result is a light, bright, super-juicy red wine called pipeño, designed to be drunk young. The name refers to the pipas - huge old raulí barrels, traditionally used in Chile. It's honest, rustic wine of the people, drunk locally with gusto. Moraga is the first in his community to sell his pipeño commercially, in convivial one-litre bottles, under the Cacique Maravilla label.
I hadn't been aware that this very old winemaking culture still existed in Chile. I knew the country's wine history went back to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, but my perception of its wine scene today was one of relative modernity: well-known grapes such as cabernet sauvignon grown on large vineyards in the Maipo and Casablanca regions near Santiago and destined for export.
That was the experience of Australian winemaking mates Lucy Kendall and Alice L'Estrange when they travelled to Casablanca to work a vintage in 2015: big, modern wineries and irrigated vineyards producing large crops of chardonnay, merlot and shiraz.
"But every now and then we'd meet some old growers," says L'Estrange. "And they told us what sounded like strange, almost mystical stories of very, very old vineyards and traditional winemaking."
So, the next year, the duo went back and headed south, travelling through more remote regions such as Bío Bío and Itata, and discovered the stories of small producers maintaining their culture were true.
As well as generational farmers such as Moraga, they found newer arrivals such as Roberto Henríquez, an agronomist and winemaker who worked in big companies in Chile, South Africa and Canada before returning to his ancestral home in the south and embracing the pipeño tradition. And locals such as Renán Cancino, who worked as a consultant viticulturist before establishing his own label, Huaso de Sauzal, in his home village in the Maule Valley.
Since late last year, Kendall and L'Estrange have been shipping a selection of these wines to Australia through their import business, Cultivar, and tasting them has changed my perception of Chile's wine culture.
It helps that L'Estrange has worked as a green bean buyer for Small Batch coffee roasters in Melbourne for seven years, making regular trips to places such as Colombia and Guatemala.
The opportunity to import the traditional, minimal-intervention, small-scale wines of southern Chile isn't just about jumping on the natural-wine bandwagon. For L'Estrange, it's an opportunity to support sustainable local agriculture.
"This is something I've learnt from working in coffee," she says. "Hundreds of farmers depend on international trade for survival. By buying their coffee direct and paying them a fair price, we can make an impact on their lives and help them stay on their land."
It's a similar situation for the small southern-Chilean winegrowers who supply to Cultivar: for years the price they've been paid for their grapes by the big companies further north has been below the cost of production, so bottling their own wine and selling it commercially offers them a chance to be viable. In this sense, keeping old grape varieties and winemaking traditions alive becomes a fight for survival.
"Manuel is the most politically motivated person you could meet," says L'Estrange. "Promoting pipeño as a noble wine is important to him. For Renán, it's more about promoting the país variety itself and supporting his community by paying local growers sustainable prices. By shipping these wines to Australia, we're bringing two worlds that are far apart closer together."