Vines at Tinto de Rulo in the Bio Bio (Photo courtesy of Ripe Wine Imports)

The Very Obscure History of America's Oldest Grape

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Long before Cabernet appeared in California, or Malbec became the rage in Argentina, or Carménère was planted in Chile (or any other variety of Vitis Vinifera was found in the Western Hemisphere), there was one grape that was widely planted all the way from California to Chile. It goes by many different names, as any grape would which was distributed over such a wide area, but it was planted for one reason: Conquistadors brought priests with them as they conquered "New Spain" in the 15th-century, and priests needed wine for the sacrament. Called Mission in California, Listan in Mexico, and País in Chile, this is the story of the original vine planted for viticultural use in the Western Hemisphere.

As described in Jancis Robinson's excellent reference work, "Wine Grapes," recent ampelographic studies have found that it is an obscure grape known as Listan Prieta, that disappeared from its native Castilla-La Mancha when phylloxera swept through the Iberian peninsula in the late 19th-Century. It lives on in small quantities in the Canary Islands, and in various mutated forms throughout the Western Hemisphere. Anyone looking into the history of wine-production in the Americas will undoubtedly read about it, but generally textbooks disregard it as a grape that produces low-quality wines. I am here today to prove to you that this is absolutely not the case! Making light, refreshing wines that benefit from a slight chill and frequently have a wonderful herbal character, today we have on offer a single-vineyard Mission from California, a high-altitude Listan from Mexico, and four País from Chile, considered this grape's spiritual home.

First we have the Harrington Mission 2017 Somer Vineyard from Bryan Harrington, a maverick winemaker based out of San Francisco who is one of California's major proponents of obscure varieties and old vineyards. Bryan has another job finding obscure Italian varieties and bringing cuttings back to UC-Davis. His commitment to obscure grapes runs deep. This elegant wine from Lodi is a great old-vine example from California. Nice dark red fruit mixes with soft herbal tones. Drunk with a slight chill this is a perfect summer sipper.

Moving south to Tecate, a town on the US-Mexico border in the hills east of Tijuana, the Bichi 2016 Listan is an awesome wine from our favorite Mexican producer. The vineyard is situated over 2,400 feet in elevation, a necessity for viticulture in the hot and dry climate of Baja California. This is an excellent bright red-fruited example of this grape, with tons of acidity provided by cold winds blowing off the Pacific Ocean in the evenings. Drink with a slight chill.

Chile has much more acreage planted to País than any other country, due to the fact it has not yet been subjected to the scourge of phylloxera. Chile is protected by the high Andes to the east, the Pacific to the west, and one of the harshest deserts in the world, the Atacama, to the north. Here País bush vines are to be found that have lasted through the centuries, and winemakers have developed their own styles and viticultural methods. Our first Chilean offering is in the Pipeno style, a common, ancient, and regional style of quaffing wine that involves fermenting and aging País, and sometimes Cinsault, in huge old Rauli pipes ("pipas"), made from the endemic Rauli beech. The Tinto de Rulo 2017 Bio Bio Valley País Pipeno, sourced from the southernmost winemaking region in Chile, is a fine example of this style of wine: light, elegant, herbal, and refreshing. This wine is the brainchild of three friends who got together to try and make wines with organic vineyard practice and minimal intervention from vineyards at least 70 years old. The second Chilean wine, the Rogue 2015 Itata Valley Tinto, is a blend of Cinsault and Pais. In 1939 a massive earthquake hit Chile and in the aftermath some destroyed Pais vineyards were replanted with Cinsault. This is therefore a common blend in the Itata valley, with the youngest vineyards being Cinsault planted in 1939 or 1940! The Cinsault lends a little more structure and tannin to the wine. Our next offer, the Garage Wine Co. 2017 País from the Secano Interior DO in the Maule Valley, is made by maverick garagistes Derek Mossman and Pilar Miranda. Derek is the founder of M.O.V.I. (Movimiento di Vinateros Independientes), an organization championing small producers. This is important in a country where 80% of the volume of wine produced is controlled by four megaproducers. His País is a very expressive example from this newly-minted wine region. Lastly, we have the Gonzalez Bastias 2015 Maule Valley País Matorral, a fantastic wine from a producer whose family has been making and selling País wines for over two hundred years. The story of this winery, its Rauli casks, and its amphorae have been lost in time, as has the age of the vineyard, though we know it was already well established two hundred years ago. This is a beautiful wine, that expresses an amazing sense of place, and that truly shows how this grape, with such a long, varied, yet humble history, has perhaps not yet found its true place among the great wine styles of the Americas. Andrew Farquhar

Viña González Bastías 2015 Maule Valley País

This Pais from the Maule valley south of Santiago is from a single vineyard planted over 200 years ago by the ancestors of the current winemaker Jose Luis Bastias. The grapes are pressed by hand over a "Zaranda," a traditional bamboo sieve, and then fermented in cement and aged in the family's old casks made from Rauli beech, a species native to Chile and the traditional method of aging. This wine has an incredible herbal nose. "Matorral" is the name for the main ecoregion in temperate Chile, a low, xeric shrubland of herbs and hardy bushes most of which are not found outside Chile. Thus, this wine has it's own, Chilean style of "garrigue", a sweet and sour, heady, intense, and pleasantly alien herbal character that comes from the native plants surrounding the vineyard. Wed to a dense dried plum character, this is a truly original style of wine from the of the oldest ungrafted vines in the world. Andrew Farquhar

  • red
  • 12 in stock
  • $22.99

  • Low Sulfur
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Harrington Mission 2017 Lodi Somers Vineyard

Bryan Harrington is an amazing winemaker who is interested in very obscure grapes from California. His Mission is a fantastic example of the variety. The classic russet color of the grape, the very light tannin and silky, extraordinarily soft mouthfeel are evident with this great example of California's oldest wine grape. Notes of cedar and plum, with just a whiff of tobacco, are welcome on the nose, slightly redolent of more powerfully tannic wines. This wine has darker fruit character but is very light in body and tannin. Perfect with intensely flavored barbecues. Andrew Farquhar

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $26.99

Bichi 2016 Bichi Listan

From a vineyard with vines over a century old in Tecate, on the border with the US, that sits at over 2,400 feet of elevation. Planted on sandy loam and graite soils, these old Mision (Listan Prieta) grapes produce a light but dazzlingly fresh wine. Pale ruby in the glass, this is a great thirst-quenching classic example of the Mission grape, with bright red fruit and an elegant floral character on the nose. The nearby Pacific lends some refreshing acidity to this gem. Only 10ppm sulfur at bottling. Andrew Farquhar

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $23.99

Tinto de Rulo 2017 Bio Bio Valley Pais Pipeño

Tinto de Rulo is a winemaking project that brings three friends together to attempt to support the local agricultural economy of south-central Chile. Using only organic grapes from vineyards at least 70 years old, they make wines in the old, traditional style: big neutral vessels made from the native Rauli beech, hand-pressing, and spontaneous fermentation. This is a wonderful, simple, rustic, light wine, with nice notes of wild strawberries and raspberries mixing with a nice undercurrent of forest floor earthiness. Light, delicate, and fresh, this wine should be drunk with a slight chill. Just a touch of sulfur at bottling. Only 4,000 bottles produced. Andrew Farquhar

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $16.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Rogue 2015 Itata Valley Tinto

This wine is a blend of Cinsault and Pais, a common cepage in the Itata Valley in Chile. Cinsault became planted widely after an earthquake in 1939 destroyed a lot of the old Pais vines. These grapes are sourced from ungrafted bush vines with a minimum of 60 years vine age. The soils are primarily granite with a mix of clay and quartz. The granite really comes through, as this is tighter and funkier than other wines from Chile. The finely-grained tannins are gorgeously etched, and mix with an elegant red fruit and rosewater character on the palate. Native yeast whole berry fermentation, with minimal intervention and only a touch of sulfur at bottling. 400 cases produced. Andrew Farquhar

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $19.99

  • Low Sulfur

Garage Wine Co. 2017 Secano Interior Portezuelo País

A beautiful expression from winemakers Derek Mossman and his wife Pilar Miranda. This wine is sourced from the Secano Interior D.O. in the Maule valley. Denser and more structured than most Pais, this is still not a heavy wine, it has nice raspberry fruit intermingling with a darker balsamic and herbal character. A bright, lambent, lingering acidity infuses the whole with an ethereal energy. The tannins are velvety soft and delicate. Spontaneous fermentation in huge 1,500-2,000L vats, punch-down and pressing are done strictly by hand. Only a little sulfur at bottling. In addition, these wines are bottled in recycled glass! Andrew Farquhar

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $21.99

  • Low Sulfur