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Natural Wine’s New Dark Horse Darling

Old-vine país (a.k.a. mission) is the source of some of the Americas’ most intriguing new wines.

Were there such a thing as grape mysticism, it makes good sense that país would be the ideal path to higher understanding. It has all of the necessary trappings: ubiquity, longevity, humility—and a ridiculous number of names.

Most wine drinkers have never heard of país—a.k.a. listán prieto a.k.a. mission a.k.a. criolla chica—largely because the wine it produces has always been considered nothing more than middling table wine. But in the past decade, winemakers in both North and South America, as well as in Spain’s Canary Islands, have reassessed the fortune that exists in these vines, many of which have significant (60-plus years) age. In turn, the underappreciated regions they hail from—Chile’s Bío Bío and Itata, Mexico’s Baja California and California’s Amador County, to name a few—have found a bit of the spotlight’s glare.

While the grape long predates most of the varieties we hold in high esteem today, the story of país’s long journey from Old World to New is one we’re only becoming acquainted with now. History points to Spain’s central Castilla region, which surrounds Madrid, as the birthplace of listán prieto. In the 16th century, when the conquistadores sailed from Spain to South America, they took listán prieto vines to be planted for the production of sacramental wines. By the time it grape arrived in Chile, it was renamed vino de país, which means “wine of the country”; after it crossed the Andes into Argentina, it became known as criolla chica; and when it landed in Peru and Mexico it became known as misión or mission, so named for the (controversial) missionaries who planted the vines. When it finally made its way to the southwestern United States, and migrated to California in the mid-18th century, the mission name stuck.

In the late 1800s, listán prieto all but vanished from mainland Spain thanks to phylloxera, but Roberto Moreno, who is the president of a co-op winery in Madrid, is working to bring it back. Twenty years ago, in 1998, he found 50 vines on his property that were unlike all the rest. In collaboration with the El Encín research center, he identified them as old-vine listán prieto, and has been working to propagate the vines in collaboration with Comando G, a producer that’s resuscitated many old vines in the Gredos mountains outside Madrid. He now has more than 2,300 vines in the ground, and plans to make wine from them in the coming years.

While phylloxera ravaged mainland Spain, the disease never made it to the Canary Islands—an important pit stop for those making trips to the Americas. Today, there are a reported 120 acres of the listán prieto vines in the Canaries, specifically on Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma, planted at high altitudes. This number is hard to really trust, however, as most old vineyards in the Canaries are interplanted with numerous varieties, which are typically blended together.

In contrast, Chile has more país than any other country in the world—some 9,000 acres—the majority of which is planted in in the Maule, Bío-Bío and Itata regions. Here it has become the keystone grape of Chile’s growing natural wine movement—prized not only for its ability to produce excellent wines but for the age of the vines and the viticultural traditions they represent. For instance, in Maule, at the Bouchon winery, país vines grow wild in tree-like formations of their own choosing. Similarly, at González-Bastías fields of 300-year-old país vines with rootstocks the size of tree trunks form a scene that more closely resembles an apple orchard than any vineyard scape one might imagine.

These old-vine grapes can produce wines that range from dense and rich, if the grapes are left to fully ripen, to the juicy and ethereal wines made in the pipeño style. This method, in which the grapes are de-stemmed by rubbing the clusters over a reed mat, then foot-treaded and aged for a year in old barrels or concrete vats, is the way most país was historically made. It is generous and easy going, most often sold in liter bottles, and meant to be consumed with abandon, regardless of the history contained in each bottle. It’s perfect for our present wine moment.

In Mexico’s Baja region, where misión was once widely grown, a few producers have bucked the trend toward working with international varieties in favor of the grape. Bichi, the first Mexican winery to find a real following in the natural wine world, sources grapes for its Listan bottling from 100-year-old vines planted in the village of Tecate—not in the Valle de Guadelupe where most wine is produced these days. “It’s interesting to see how much mission was planted here in the 1920s and ’30s because of Prohibition,” says co-owner Noel Téllez. “Growers were making wine—and distilling some of the grapes—to smuggle over the border.” Noel and his brother, Jair, originally consulted with Louis-Antoine Luyt when starting their project. Luyt, a Frenchman, has been working with país in Chile for over a decade. In fact, he’s the one who initially put país on the international radar. Whereas Chilean país tends to be darker in flavor, in Bichi’s hands it tends more toward pop-y, strawberry soda profile.

In California, there is a growing interest amongst the state’s alt new school to find the best old mission vines they can—no matter how far flung they may be. As of 2018, there were only 409 acres of mission planted in the state, the majority of which are grown in the Central Valley, an area still known more for the production of raisins than wine. Winemakers, like Tegan Passalacqua of Sandlands, have found tiny but promising pockets in Lodi, and further east in Amador County and further south in Santa Barbara County. Wines from Passalacqua Winery, Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Co. and Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars have helped bring California’s most native grape back into the conversation.

“Mission is big-berried, thin-skinned, pale red color, low-acidity, great for dry-farming and big yields; very analogous to grenache,” says Stirm. He is currently working with mission grapes from three different sites along the Central Coast, planted as far back as 1895. As is the case with the grape’s renaissance in other parts of the world, winemakers in California are driven by a preservationist urge to protect forgotten vines that have survived decades despite having very little clout in the larger wine conversation. That these vines also speak so clearly of the state’s wine heritage makes them all the more compelling.

“I think because of its obscurity and history, it’s having a moment,” says Stirm, “especially with so many glou-glou wines being quite popular.”

Five Wines to Try

Bichi Listan

“We were very lucky that friends own a vineyard that’s 100 years old. That’s not very normal here in Tecate,” says Noel Téllez, a former lawyer, who started Bichi with his brother, Jair, a chef, in 2014. Noel says that while many producers in Chile leave their grapes to fully ripen, resulting in higher alcohol wines, that’s not the approach he and he brother take. “We harvest early to get more freshness, so that the wine is more of Beaujolais style, low in alcohol.” The slightly hazy, light-bodied wine sits on the red fruit spectrum (cranberry, hibiscus) with a juicy, slinky texture.

See also: La Casa Vieja

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2017

Envínate Vidueño de Santiago del Teide

Few producers on the Canary Islands’ Tenerife make a single-variety bottling of listán prieto, as most of the wines are bottled from field blends. This wine is made from a single, one-third-acre parcel, at 950 meters in elevation that’s planted to both listán prieto and listán blanc in equal measure. The grapes from the vineyard used to go into Envínate’s Benje Tinto bottling, but its winemakers were convinced to bottle it on its own after a visit from Bichi’s Noel Téllez, who thought that it was singular in its character. Indeed, the wine is more powerful than the Benje, with more red cherry flavor, a cool crunchy raspberry seed quality and volcanic acidity that recalls nerello mascalese from Sicily’s Mount Etna.

See also: Matías i Torres

  • Price: $37
  • Vintage: 2017

Broc Cellars Mission Esencia

This super pale red wine smells exactly like strawberry jam in-process: warm sweet berries, lithe floral notes, a couple of stems that didn’t get plucked. Winemaker Chris Brockway sources his grapes from a 60-year-old vineyard in California’s Lodi region. “I like how this grape has the longest history out of any grape planted for wine in California,” says Brockway. Aside from this dry version, since 2016, Brockway has made two vintages of Angelica, too, an old-school sweet, fortified-style of wine made from mission that was popularized in California in the late 19th century.

See also: Sandlands, Stirm Wine Co.

  • Price: $33
  • Vintage: 2017

Roberto Henríquez Rivera del Notro

Roberto Henríquez works with 200-year-old vines in the town of Nacimiento in Chile’s Bio-Bio region for this wine. Whereas his other país, Santa Cruz de Coya, is on the red cherry, orange oil end of the país spectrum, this bottling has a brooding, but welcome, shoe polish aroma that’s trailed by sweet red berry fruit.

  • Price: $27
  • Vintage: 2017

A Los Viñateros Bravos Pipeño Tinto

This pipeño is sold in a liter-sized bottle, as if to remind us that these wines are meant for drinking more than anything else. Leonardo Erazo is one of the best producers in Chile’s forested Itata region, and for this, his more humble wine, he’s working with 100-year-old país vines to make a spritzy, tangy cranberry rendition of pipeño.

See also: Viña Maitia, Tinto de Rulo

  • Price: $17
  • Vintage: 2018

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