Whenever I hear people say that a bottle of wine “tells a story” or shares some sort of “message,” it sounds to me like a pretentious cliché. It’s not like you pop the cork and out pours some rhapsodic treatise on the rolling hillsides of Tuscany. And yet, after all that sipping and swirling, what I ultimately hope to find in wine is something more than just “a medium-bodied effort with subtle notes of blackberry and leather.” Of course, how a wine tastes is obviously a huge part of the equation. But what’s in the glass is also a question of context (geographical, cultural, historical), and I’m most engaged when a bottle speaks of the place from which it came.
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For that reason, I don’t drink a lot of South American wine. I tend to view most bottles from this part of the world as conforming to a certain oversaturated modern style, weighed down with alcohol, oak, and extraction. So I did a double take when I learned that Louis/Dressner Selections — the iconic importer of handcrafted wines from Europe — recently had made its first foray south of the equator, adding a Chilean winery to its portfolio. Even more curiously, the young winemaker in question, Louis-Antoine Luyt, is a native Burgundian trained in the “natural” style of winemaking.
But although he uses grapes from local Chilean farmers, Luyt’s wines are reminiscent of many French natural wines, raising interesting questions about the relationship between terroir and technique.
Having arrived in Chile at age 22, Luyt first found work washing dishes at a local restaurant, climbed his way up to beverage director, and eventually enrolled in sommelier school in Santiago. This exposed him to a wide selection of Chilean wine, most of which, he admits in an interview on the Louis/Dressner website, he found too homogenous and industrial. So he decided to do what any self-respecting Frenchman would do: Make his own.
Luyt returned to France to study enology in Beaune. He soon befriended Matthieu Lapierre, son of the late Beaujolais legend Marcel, whose family domaine in the town of Villié-Morgon invokes a religious reverence among natural wine acolytes. The five harvests Luyt worked Chez Lapierre amounted to an exhaustive apprenticeship in the art of natural viticulture: organic farming; no chemicals, sprays, commercial yeasts or additives of any kind; and a minimalist aproach in the cellar.
Luyt took this philosophy back to Chile, where he sources organic fruit from several parcels of extremely old vines rented from independent growers throughout the Maule Valley. Although he crafts fascinating examples using southern French grapes such as Carignan and Cinsault, to my mind his most compelling wines result from his efforts to reclaim the humble, light-skinned Pais variety, historically a ubiquitious ingredient in Chilean jug wine. Luyt currently produces three separate bottlings of Pais, each highlighting a specific parcel of vines. His “Huasa de Trequilemu” and “El Paìs de Quenehuao,” for example, are bright, slightly spicy, Beaujolais-inspired wines that taste unlike anything I’ve encountered from Chile.
In fact, as much as I enjoyed both efforts, they reminded me of some natural wines I’ve had from France. As critics have started to point out, many natural wines — even those from completely different regions — can taste quite similar to one another.
Natural wine’s signature style
The culprit is a technique called carbonic maceration, which involves fermenting whole bunches of grapes before crushing. Traditionally used in Beaujolais, it has since spread throughout France as a common feature of natural winemaking. If you’ve ever had a wine made this way, you’ll immediately recognize its signature, almost trademark style: Bright and effortlessly fresh, with low alcohol, glug-able berry-ish fruit and occasionally a light prick of spritz.
Writer Alice Feiring deftly sums up this paradox: “These wines are often just what I want. But terroir? No, it’s a style. It’s a beverage, but a great one.”
It’s worth clarifying that not all natural wines use carbonic maceration, and many that do utterly transcend the category. The practice is best understood as one of many options available to a winemaker, like the use of oak, which can either sharpen or dilute a wine’s message.
So do Luyt’s efforts meticulously articulate their respective Maule Valley terroirs? Or do they simply export a style originally developed in France? It’s hard to say. For one, it’s difficult to find Pais bottled as a single varietal, so a standard of comparison is elusive. That said, having recently tried one of Luyt’s zesty carbonic Carignans, I’m not entirely convinced I’d be able to distinguish it from an identically made example from the South of France, although I did find myself detecting a bit more bold Southern Hemisphere fruit, as well as some peppery herbs.
It’s far too easy to let these big, abstract questions distract from what’s in the glass. This is a shame, because the wines are truly tasty — after all, I happen to like that whole natural carbonic thing, certainly more than the oaky, overripe alternatives. So even if Luyt’s lineup might seem fashioned after many of the familiar natural-styled bottles you’d find in any hip Parisian (or Brooklyn) wine bar, his work represents a bold development for Chile. That should be enough for anyone, even curmudgeons like me.
Top photo composite:
Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt. Credit: Courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt
One of Louis-Antoine Luyt’s Carignan wines. Credit: Zachary Sussman