Getting to Know Pipeño

The re-discovery of Chile's long ignored light bodied, fruity wine made from old vine país grapes.

The first time pipeño caught my attention was in Chile at the restaurant 99 in Santiago in 2015. It was paired with a slow cooked egg with rich potato foam, Chilean black truffles, and salicornia, a delicious dish without a doubt, but it was the pipeño – light bodied, fruity, and with a touch of bitterness, kind of like a gamay – that stuck in my mind.

The young wine is made from país grapes, aka mission, first discovered in the Canary Islands, where they are called listan prieto. In Chile, pipeño has traditionally been a rustic table wine that never left the countryside. What was it doing alongside truffles in one of Chile’s best restaurants and why did I like it so much? This was at a time when pipeño, a traditional method of winemaking in Chile that dates to the late sixteenth century, was just beginning its resurgence.

The name pipeño is a term for wine made by huasos, aka farmers. These campesinos, mostly in the cooler winemaking regions – like the Maule, Itata, and Bío-Bío valleys – would keep pipas, barrels made of the red wood raulí, to store wine from their most recent harvest and sell it to friends and neighbors, who would bring their own bottles to fill. It is usually made with país, the first grape planted in the Americas by the Spanish, along with muscatel, two grapes that were pushed aside when the more commercially viable cabernet sauvignon and carmenère were planted. Many of those long ignored older vines that date back a century or two, are what is helping fuel the pipeño renaissance. Pipeño’s low-intervention style – hand-harvested grapes pressed through a traditional zarande that also acts as de-stemmer, natural yeast fermentation in open wooden vats, etc – hasn’t changed much. It’s just that the wine world has finally come around to it.

While I usually pick a few bottles of pipeño every time I’m in Chile, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it is increasingly showing up in wine bars and bottle shops I frequent in New York. Here are a few pipeños, all of them around $20 a bottle and available in the U.S., that are worth seeking out:

Cacique Maravilla’s Pipeño País 2017

Cacique Maravilla is sourced from vines that were planted in 1766 on a plot of volcanic soil in the Bío-Bío Valley. Manuel Humberto Moraga Gutiérrez is the seventh generation family member to make wine at the 250-year old vineyard. It’s a light bright wine with notes of cherry, almond, and smoke. Sold in one liter bottles.

Louis-Antoine Luyt Portezuelo Pipeño 2017

If anyone can be credited with helping revive pipeño it is Burgundy born natural winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt, who not so coincidentally has also been instrumental in resurrecting wines from mission grapes in Mexico. Luyt has partnered with numerous Chilean farmers and is making lots of really great pipeños, like this wine from 150-year old país vines (plus 5 percent of cinsault) in the Bío Bío Valley that is aged in wooden tanks for 2 months and bottled with minimal sulfur. Sold in one-liter bottles.

Louis-Antoine Luyt Pipeño Blanco 2017

Pipeño isn’t just a red wine. There is a long tradition of using muscatel to create pipeño blanco, mostly using muscatel grapes. Luyt’s white pipeño comes from grapes (muscatel, torontel, semillon) from 75 to 150 year of vines from Itata and Maule. The resulting unfiltered wines were made separately with three weeks of skin contact and aged in stainless steel tanks before being blended together.

A Los Viñateros Bravos País Volcanico 2015

From winemaker Leonardo Erazo dry farms (without irrigation) and tills with a horse (to lower carbon emissions) on the steep, hillsides of the Itata valley. The volcanic soil adds a distinct mineral character that you don’t get in país wines in Maule. He uses only native yeast and cement tank for fermentation and aging. Erazo also makes a great pipeño blanco, Granitico Itata White, that’s a bit more difficult to find.

Aupa Pipeño 2017

Viña Maitia’s husband and wife team of French/Basque vigneron David Marcel and Chilean enologist Loreta Garau make this fruit forward pipeño, a blend of of país (70 percent) and Carignan (30 percent). Their a 10 hectare, 120-year-old, dry farmed vineyard in the Maule Valley sources from ancient, low-yielding bush vines that have some surprising fruit and floral flavors.

Garage Wine Co. 2017 País

Canadian born winemaker Derek Mossman Knapp makes a dozen or so different single vineyard wines that are fermented with native yeasts and raised in neutral barrels. This lively, spicy red was sourced from old vines in three organically farmed Maule Valley vineyards.

Header image courtesy Louis-Antonie Luyt. Photo credit: Thomas Parayre.