Nearly two weeks ago, on January 14, I was stunned to find pipeño from Yumbel, Chile for sale in Whole Foods in Tucson, Arizona, United States. Nearly trembling with unexpected anticipation for the taste of the País grape that I’d missed these past four years since leaving Chile, I bought several 1-liter bottles. The pipeño was imported by Louis/Dressner under the label of Louis-Antoine Luyt. While Louis-Antoine makes his own singular wines, he also works with small producers, and I was curious about this particular wine’s vintner and vineyard in Yumbel, a place that once cultivated some very special memories for me. I knew the vines would be old and the wine made naturally.
But I did not expect to read on the Louis/Dressner website that this vineyard may have been planted in 1580! By any standard, incredibly rare, and while the precise age should be substantiated, this pipeño undoubtedly originated from particularly old vines.
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That evening after returning from Whole Foods, I dove into the frothy pipeño and swam through recollections of Chile with sensations of both gratitude and longing. Life is much more austere now, constrained by the structure of the university and working towards a different future than I’d imagined during those crisp and tipsy campesino days in Yumbel, with Cacique Maravilla at Viña 33, where I scribbled in my journal, “I am in all the places I ever loved and all the places I want to be, in one moment”.
But here in Tucson, sentimentally sipping from my Pomaire caña de greda acquired in Yumbel, I looked at my photos and read through old musings, including something I’d written at the house of Raúl Pérez in Coronel de Maule after he tearfully recited Neruda to me following a meal at his table and plenty of wine (“Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche …”).
I am rarely as happy as when I
tasted wine directly from the barrel,
a sweet exclamation of País,
followed by a long pause,
then the hesitant succession of Sauvignon.
And the sediment at the bottom of my
blue plastic cup read like tea leaves.
Now, as information about rampant forest fires across Chile seeps through Facebook and various news sites, I mourn for old friends and the venerable, contorted vines that have been damaged and lost, irreplaceable heritage and livelihoods, and so close to harvest time.
González Bastías, a stoic artisan with an idyllic vineyard overlooking the Maule, producing rustic wines in perennial clay barrels, rich and spirited as brandy but with flavor rooted deeply in the river valley. Villalobos, from Valle de los Artistas in Colchagua, an inspired production, bottling symphonies of sagacious Carignan.
I don’t know yet the extent of what has occurred in Cauquenes and Villa Alegre, if Don Raúl’s vineyard is among the casualties, or those of other friends.
It is a nauseating and helpless grief, to consider the world without these treasures, and I can’t truly imagine how the individuals and families affected by the wildfires across Chile must feel about this loss of land and homes and lives.
Recounting a recent tour of Chile, Louis/Dressner prophetically quotes Louis-Antoine on the wood industry’s planting of non-native trees:
“It’s green everywhere and blends into the scenery so you don’t notice as much, but these are NOT the native trees of Chile! To me, this is the biggest environmental disaster this country faces.”
It was an especially hot summer this year, violent infernos ensued in the forests, and Chile’s small wine producers are among the vulnerable populations that fell victim to the economic priorities of the nation, perhaps even to deliberate intent and/or negligence, and then to nature itself.
To be fair, vitis vinifera isn’t native to Chile, either, but across cultures and continents and epochs, grapevines are symbols of life, of renewal, of ecstasy. The marriages of grape and place and people are distinct in Chile. These ancient vines that have survived centuries are special, and so are the generations of humans that have conscientiously cared for and elaborated them into wine.