I had flown in a plane for over 20 hours and then, a few days after landing, had driven for seven. Motorway driving too which is the least interesting kind although the place we stopped for lunch, squatting on the highway, was surprisingly good.
The afternoon was late by the time we drove into the main square in Cauquenes. All we knew was that we were to meet a man called Carlos. A mix up with dates meant that wine maker Louis Antoine Luyt was thousands of miles away, in France, and Carlos had been scrambled at the last minute to take us to the vineyard.
Journeying that far for a vineyard may be considered extreme but this is how far I will travel for extraordinary vines and what was to come the very next day but I am getting ahead of myself.
This afternoon was about Pais. a grape which, right up until the 21st century was the most widely planted in Chile. It came with the conquistadors from Peru in the 16th century and was probably originally bought to South America in the 1520’s.
The dominance of Pais remained unchallenged until the demand of the export market for international varietals took over late last century. Until then, Chile was awash in cheap Pais, sold without ceremony as rough local wine and so it was that it came to be considered a grape of little value. For the modern palate attune to big, bold fruit and sleek edges; this pale coloured, rustic wine which has a hauntingly earthy delicacy in the best examples was of no interest.
Therein lies one of the rubs. Very few examples are ‘best’. In fact, we have tasted only one –the wine made by Louis Antoine. I wanted to ask him why he had bothered with this deeply unfashionable variety but as he was in France and Carlos spoke no English, I couldn’t. I suspect though, it was more to do with finding this vineyard than any specific desire to transform Pais into something deliciously drinkable. Chile though has loved it, for how easy it is to grow, how highly it yields and how little irrigation, if any, it needs.
Carlos could not tell us exactly how Louis Antoine found this vineyard but we pulled up to it as dusk drew in; the crisp day growing even colder around us as the blue of the sky darkened to navy. The age of it is not entirely clear but apparently, it is suspected to be in the region of 180 years old. It is ploughed only once a year, with a horse, and fed every August; on a diet of Chicken manure. Here, the soils are mainly clay with chunks of quartz; some of which were still discernable in the gloom, jutting through the sandy top soil.
Vineyards full of very old vines always make me think of the Dr Suess story ‘What Was I scared Of?’. The protagonist runs from a pair of alarming green pants without no-one in side them until he comes face to crotch with them inside a fantastic Dr Suess invention called a Snide bush. I don’t know why but for me, these are plots of Snide bushes. Otherwordly entities that surely bear only the strangest and most wonderful of fruit. If a pair of green pants with no-one inside them had cantered through this vineyard in the dusk I would have been entirely unsurprised.
In the most commercial vineyards of the world where the plants are kept alive on a diet of the equivalent of amphetamine and the vineyard kept sterile by a cocktail of chemicals; the vines are considered over the hill at 25 – 30; worn down junkies no longer capable of producing the unfeasibly high yields required of them.
In our world, older is almost always better. There is the well documented phenomenon of tiny, baby vines – particularly in the new world – producing stunning good vintages because yields are naturally low at their tender age but still, these bouncily fruity examples never manage to trounce the layers of experienced complexity achieved by the fruit of their elders.
It takes 7 – 10 years (and sometimes longer in very poor, hard soils) for the vine to colonize most of its available root space . However, we do know that the older they get the further their subterranean reach extends, to all the dark, covert places away from the light where part of the hormonal alchemy of how they do what they do happens.
I will travel thousands of miles for vines like this. A plant that came into being long before even my grandparents and which has, over decades, contorted itself into an entity which is part producer of fruit and part sculpture; surely the apex of achievement for any life form. The practical and the beautiful in one.
And what of the wine? In common with all great wines that we have tasted from ancient vineyards, it has above all, silky finesse. This is made all the more fascinating by the fact that the rusticity of the Pais is much in evidence in a slightly rougher edge and a feral quality to the fruit. I am loathe to call it farmyard as there is nothing even slightly fusty or unclean but there is a wild earth quality that is as much in evidence as the sun ripened fruit.
We reluctantly left the vines when it finally was far too dark to see and drove a short distance to a shambolic barn where Louis Antoine's wines were stacked in pallets in the cold gloaming. There, we tasted it, looking out over Chile.
And you know what, it was worth the journey. Absolutely.