Making a Place for Pais

If I had to select the single most important and impactful trend in the world of wine, it would have to be the renewed focus on ancient and indigenous grape varieties around the world.

For millennia, cultures around the world have planted and selected wine grapes that matched their tastes, their climates, and their needs. These grape varieties not only represent an incredible living historical document of culture, but they also embody one of the most magical qualities of wine—its incredible diversity of flavors and textures.

The idea, postulated by some of the industry’s thought leaders, that the wine world should focus its attention on truly “noble” grapes that have been anointed by the (dominantly French) canon of “fine wine” has dominated the Western tradition of wine for far too long. Thousands of grape varieties have been lovingly bred or preserved by cultures around the world for reasons both delicious and practical, and thankfully the wine industry has begun to recognize anew how interesting, tasty, and useful these grapes can be.

The Explorer Grape

The sheer variety of wine grapes we have around the globe is a testament to two things: the movement of people and the fact that we like our booze. Throughout the course of human history, when people moved from place to place, they brought their families and their grapevines with them. This was true on journeys of migration, on journeys of exploration, and also on journeys of conquest.

When the Spanish sailed to the Canary Islands to colonize them in the 15th Century, they brought with them vine cuttings, among which was Listan Prieto, a hardy grape known to grow well in many different conditions and to produce enough sugar to easily be made into the sacramental wine so important to the Spaniards’ dominant Catholic faith.

After successful plantings in the Canaries, the grape continued to hitch a ride as Europeans “explored” the New World, landing first in the Dominican Republic and then Mexico.

“From there it sort of split,” says Master Sommelier Rebecca Fineman. “Some went north and some went south.”

“It was in the suitcases of all the missionaries,” Fineman explains. “They brought seeds with them to plant wherever they landed.”

Carried by padres and conquistadors south to Chile, Listan Prieto would become known as País, the humble grape whose name means at once “country,” “countryside,” “birthplace,” and simply “place.” In Argentina, they would name it Criolla Chica.

Other missionaries brought the grape north from Mexico into Baja California and up the west coast of North America as far north as Sonoma. Planted by the padres (or more likely their converted and/or conscripted laborers) at each established settlement, the grape became synonymous with these Missions to the point that it simply took on their name.

Regardless of whether it was called País or Mission or Criolla Chica or Listan Prieto, this grape’s ability to withstand varied climates and disease pressures while at the same time requiring low amounts of attention in order to thrive meant that it quickly became the dominant wine grape variety in North and South America.

The very first wines made in California were almost certainly made from Mission grapes, which continued to play an important role in the California wine industry into the 19th Century, when importation of the many “noble” grape varieties we know and love today signaled the end of the País era.

An Anniversary Tasting

Recently, the government of Chile decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the United States along with the 20th anniversary of the free trade agreement between the two countries. And what better way to celebrate than a wine-tasting event?

As part of this event, the organizers hired Rebecca Fineman to host a master class on the País grape. Fineman fell in love with País on a trip to Chile a…

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