Viña San Pedro’s Tayu: A Good Wine with an Even Better Back Story

Collaboration between one of Chile’s largest wine companies and a tiny indigenous Mapuche community leads to learning on both sides and winning results.

By John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by VSPT Wine Group

“My annual harvest is 2.2million kilos”, Viviana Navarrete tells me. That’s an enormous number. But then again, Viviana is one of the chief winemakers for Viña Leyda, part of VSPT Wine Group, one of Chile’s largest wine companies, so the figure isn’t so shocking. It’s what she says next that is genuinely surprising: “And out of all the grapes that I grow and process, I think the best fruit comes from Buchahueico. It’s incredible.”

Navarrete is referring to the company’s new vineyard project in the deep south of Chile, 600 kilometers from Santiago in the Buchahueico community, whose physical scale – 15 hectares –  in San Pedro terms, can only be described as insignificant. But on the human scale, it has become one of the country’s most significant and meaningful new ventures, and on the vinous scale, one of Chile’s most exciting. For all of VSPT’s impression collection of vineyards, these vines produce something special.

Viviana Navarrete, Malleco Valley

The project, called Tayu 1865, brings together the suitably cool climate of the Malleco Valley and pinot noir, a variety with a patchy past in Chile. And most importantly, for the first time in any consequential way, a mutually beneficial collaboration between a major wine company and an indigenous community, the Mapuche of Buchahueico.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about the project when I first learned about it; another big corporation looking to sharpen its image and generate some feel-good press. And the timing couldn’t have been more schemed to launch the first wine from the collaboration, when countries around the world are reckoning with race, indigenous peoples, minorities and social inequalities.

But the more I listened and watched the animated face of Navarrete and colleagues light up over our recent Zoom conversation, the more convinced I became of the genuine substance of the endeavor, and the lucky coincidence of timing.

Malleco Valley

The story starts off unremarkably enough. About five years ago, Viña San Pedro’s well-known brand, 1865, named for the year of the company’s founding, was looking to add a new product to the line. The brand is recognized for delivering classically styled wines from the established regions for Chile’s most popular varieties: cabernet sauvignon from the Maipo Valley; carmenere from Maule; sauvignon blanc from the Leyda Valley, for example.

But when the company’s agricultural consultant, Pedro Izquierdo, suggested the relatively unknown Malleco Valley for the new venture, far from the main viticultural action at south 38º latitude, the standard brand extension took an uncommon deviation into uncharted territory.

“It all happened at the same time”, says Barbara Wolff chief of Sustainability, also on the call. When Malleco was considered, pinot noir immediately came to mind as a logical variety to plant in the region’s cool, misty climate. And then the Agricultural Development Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture of Chile (Indap) became involved as a source of support. They in turn introduced the San Pedro team to the Mapuche of Buchahueico, a small coastal community of 16 families in the Purén zone of the Malleco Valley some 40 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, with an eye to developing the local economy.

The Mapuche of Buchahueico

Suddenly everything was aligned: a project with the potential to not only make good wine, but also have a strong social component, supporting and providing employment for the local community, and stemming the flow of the younger generation of indigenous people away from ancestral lands to urban centers or multinational forestry corporations to find a living. It fit well with the Chilean wine industry’s push towards sustainability in the full sense of the word, and with the winery’s commitment to that cause, one the company’s core values.

Things moved quickly from there, if on a tiny scale. San Pedro initially planted 5 hectares of pinot on the community’s land, working with two of the families and teaching them how to plant and manage a vineyard. “Five hectares is a garden for San Pedro”, Navarrete laughs, but caution was sensible. “You have to understand that not only did these people not know how to farm a vineyard, but they had also never even been in a vineyard”. The project was so small that the board of directors was not even apprised of it until a couple of years later, when it was clear that it was working out. “We had to be sure that we could do this”, Wolff says candidly.

Confidence grew on both sides. Unlike many government-sponsored initiatives, which are often the equivalent of handing out fish, in this case, San Pedro arrived in the community with fishing rods to teach the Mapuche how to fish for themselves. It became clear to the Buchahueico people that the big company from Santiago was there to stay, and would continue to support and guide the endeavor, while for San Pedro, the results on the winemaking side were highly promising, as Navarrete revealed enthusiastically at the start of our conversation. This was going to be a project of real, long-term benefit for all parties.

The plantings have since been expanded to 15 hectares, and four more families joined the collaborative effort. This year there are plans for an additional seven hectares and three more families, bringing the total to nine out of the 16 families living in Buchahueico. The San Pedro agricultural team continues to visit the community and the vineyards a couple of times a month, but the son of one of the first families has been appointed supervisor for the vineyard, now with several years of experience and a harvest with the San Pedro team in the Maipo Valley under his belt.

The project has attracted the attention of other wine companies in Chile, and other Mapuche communities. “We have already had inquiries about launching something similar with others”, Wolff says with measurable gratification. It’s also a source of pride for many within the industry that the wine business is making a positive contribution to Chile’s social fabric, not an aggressive integration, but a mutually beneficial collaboration. And more importantly, it’s a proven model that could work for other wine companies, replicable and scalable, and which could also spill over into other agricultural crops.

Tayu means “ours’ in Mapudungun. And with each year, the community’s independence grows. Yet the San Pedro team has also become part of the community, joining in Mapuche ceremonies and celebrations on their regular visits.

“In the end it has been wonderful, Viviana smiles. “We thought that we are going to teach them everything, but they are so detailed and have learned so well, that now they teach us. And we have learned so much about their way of living, the way that they think about nature, the way they observe. We have learned again how to observe nature.”

There is still much to learn, reckon with, and improve in the wine industry, and in society. This is laudable model to follow.

The Wine: Tayu 1865 Pinot Noir 2018, Malleco Valley, Chile, $19.95

This story wouldn’t have as much impact if the wine itself weren’t worth reporting about. But it is. A mix of Burgundy clones is farmed with minimal treatments, not certified organic, but not far from it. The wine is spontaneously fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete, and then aged 40% in 2000-litre untoasted French oak foudres, 45% in used French oak barrels and the rest in concrete eggs for just under a year. 2018 marks the first vintage and is currently on shelves at the LCBO. I like the leafy, herbal freshness, the light alcohol and crunchy acids, the subtle but vibrant red fruit, all best appreciated with a light chill. It’s quite a departure from the Chilean pinot paradigm, often much heavier and fruitier, and while complexity is modest, depth will surely come as the vines mature. In the words of Navarrete, the pinot of Malleco is “not as creamy and fruity as the pinot noir from Leyda [Valley]”, where she also makes wine for VSPT’s Viña Leyda estate, “and has less sucrosity than pinot from Casablanca. It has this wonderful earthy-herbal character.”

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the VSPT Wine Group.