The People and Lands of Chile’s Indigenous Wine Movement

Family of the Buchahueico Community / Photo courtesy of Viña San Pedro

Long shut off from land and resources, some Indigenous communities find a path in the wine industry.

Violence erupts in the streets of Santiago, Chile, as protesters march for the rights of the Mapuche population. A lone figure armed with a small Mapuche flag is driven to the ground when the national police—the Carabineros—fire a water cannon.

The disintegrating effects of marginalization have pushed the Mapuche, Chile’s largest Indigenous population, to the brink of despair.

Until now, Chile has been the only South American country to exclude Indigenous people from its constitution. As of press time, Dr. Elisa Loncón, a member of the Mapuche community, is presiding over a constitutional convention to create a plurinational document for all citizens.

For centuries, the disinherited have existed without official recognition, resulting in abject poverty, loss of language, culture, and family for nearly 9% of Chileans— approximately two million people—who self-identify as Indigenous.

Given this history, imagine how surprised residents of a small Mapuche village known as Buchahueico were when a group of enologists from Viña San Pedro, a prominent Chilean winery, showed up seeking a viticultural partnership in 2014.

The agricultural community in the Malleco Valley, south of the Bío Bío River, cultivated wheat, potatoes, some cattle, and orchards. While aware vineyards exist farther north, this remote community had never actually seen one.

Buchahueico Community vineyard located in Eastern slopes of the Nahuelbuta Mountain Range, Malleco Valley, Araucanía. Photo Credit: Viña San Pedro
Buchahueico Community vineyard on the Eastern slopes of the Nahuelbuta Mountain Range, Malleco Valley, Araucanía / Photo Courtesy of Viña San Pedro

Without viticultural knowledge, the Buchahueico initially rejected the idea of partnering with strangers to grow an unknown crop. María Loncomilla, a Buchahueico viticulturalist, says she was surprised and nervous because the community knew nothing about grape-growing.

But the town was in dire straits. Today, 24 families live there; once, there were 64. The struggle for economic survival had been tearing the community apart. Without a steady income source, the youth had been leaving for agricultural work in the Central Valley or forestry in the mountains. The elders knew something had to be done.

“The work we were doing before was difficult,” says Pedro Curín, now a Buchahueico viticulturist. “We had a bad time at the forestry companies and plantations.”

So, they took a chance, embracing the possibility that wine can raise awareness of their circumstances, educate on the richness of their heritage and, most importantly, provide the economic stability needed to restore their community.

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“This is a new line of business for us and we are really happy [to be] learning another area of business,” says Lucy Curín, Buchahueico leader and viticulturist. “We are also grateful Viña San Pedro chose our community.”

Representing about 85% of Chile’s Indigenous population, the Mapuche once populated the majority of southern Chile from the Itata River. Spanish conquistadors, epidemics, forced assimilation, and Chilean government neglect has shrunk their territory to an area south of the Bío Bío River in the Araucanía Region.

Historically, the majority of Chile’s viticulture has been concentrated in central Aconcagua and the Central Valley, around Santiago.

As the industry matures and the climate changes, the cool, wet regions of Malleco and Bío Bío Valleys have become viticulturally viable.

Indigenous Mapuche Indians attend a spiritual community gathering in Ercilla, Chile
The Mapuche attending a spiritual community gathering in Ercilla, Chile / Photo by Rodrigo Abd

The Buchahueico Project started with two families. Today, it includes nine, each with around six acres of grapes. The Mapuche own the land, and San Pedro provides vineyard financing, extensive viticultural training, and ongoing support.

Here, the Mapuche have become experts at growing site-expressive Pinot Noir. The result is Tayu 1865. The name translates to “ours” in the Mapudungun language.

“Something incredible has happened,” says Viviana Navarrete, winemaker of the Buchahueico Project. “Today, I will say they are the best producers of grapes I have.”

”Meaning “people of the land,” the Mapuche’s connection to earth and sky goes beyond oenological understanding. When the vineyards need water, they hold a ceremony asking for rain. When it’s rained too much, they hold another requesting the rain to stop.

Given that their vineyards are no bigger than Burgundian climats, the Mapuche have intimate knowledge of their vines, sensing each one’s health prior to indication.

This groundbreaking project brings the entire family into the vineyard—creating a viable and sustainable business model, replicable with future winery or other crop contracts, helping to end community and cultural disintegration.

“This is giving us another way to make a living here, a way to have a better life,” says Pedro Curín. “We are pleased and hope there will be even more of this work in our community.”

Navarrete feels working with the Mapuche has deeply impacted her.

“I have grown as a professional and as a person,” she says. “Although I always work with wine, I am in a rush. They have taught me to slow down, to better observe the terroir and the place. To be more connected.”

Indigenous statue at Vina Santa Cruz, Chile
Indigenous statue at Viña Santa Cruz / Photo courtesy of Viña Santa Cruz

A Matter of National Pride

Carlos Cardoen was once a notorious weapons manufacturer who, in the 1990s, shifted his attention to agriculture, and particularly, viticulture. Along the way, he has long held a passion for Chile’s Indigenous people. Over decades of travel, he collected art, history, documents, fossils, and artifacts of ancient cultures.

Concerned that Chileans cared more about foreign cultural influence than their own history, he opened the Colchagua Museum in Santa Cruz in 1995, in an effort to illuminate and teach the rich history of Chile’s Indigenous people.

Today, the Cardoen Foundation curates three museums focused on Indigenous cultures, and Viña Santa Cruz, which gives visitors an interactive experience in honor of Chile’s Indigenous people.

“Each time a Lickan Antay drinks wine, before their first sip, they pour wine to the soil twice: The first is a thank-you gift for Mother Earth, the second a thank you gift for their ancestors.” —Sergio Jara, winemaker, Ayllu Winery

“Viña Santa Cruz’s culture is based on three main Indigenous Chilean cultures,” says Emilio Cardoen, director of Viña Santa Cruz. “First we take visitors into our cellar to show them our heart, then we head up the mountain to demonstrate our soul.”

Three structures reside at the top of the mountain—an Aymara (Lickan Antay) home from the Atacama Desert, a traditional Mapuche home, and a moai statue of the Rapa Nui of Easter Island. Through expert guides, guests learn about the history, culture, and practices of these Indigenous people through sight, smell, sound, and taste. Santa Cruz also produces wine inspired by each culture.

Yes, this is a tourist destination, created by settlers to celebrate Indigenous culture. But Emilio believes it brings visitors one step closer to understanding something they may have only read about in books. Furthermore, local schools utilize this experience as a means of furthering knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people.

“Visitors can take a picture of moai without going to Easter Island, or stand inside a house of the Aymara made of stone, mud, and cactus wood,” says Emilio. “We built it to be an experience. Guests leave with more respect and understanding of these cultures.”

Indigenous winemaker holding cluster of grapes at Ayllu Winery, Chile
Indigenous winemaker holding cluster of grapes at Ayllu Winery / Photo by Ayllu Winery

Imported Identity and Economic Survival

In contrast to lush southern and central Chile, the northern territory of the Atacama Desert is a land of conflict: Barrenness and desolation juxtapose beauty and life. This oldest and driest non-polar desert on earth is between 20 and 40 million years old and is 50 times drier than Death Valley, California.

Yet, for centuries, the Lickan Antay have been growing Vitis vinifera here.

The tribe is believed to be one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and it has called this land home for millennia. In ancient times, its members sought the mystical interconnectedness of earth and sky through hallucinogens. Upon their arrival in the mid-1500s, the Spanish opposed this worldview. By means of cross and sword, the Lickan Antay’s spiritual practices were condemned, and wine was introduced for sacramental purposes.

“Viticulture in the Atacama Desert arrived with the first Spanish settlers and Jesuits through the Inca Trail,” says Wilfredo Pablo Cruz Muraña, CEO of Cooperativa Campesina Lickan Antay. “Our ancestors were evangelized by priests with wine.”

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Relying on the rhythms of the sun and moon to guide viticultural practices, they have been producing wine from native Criolla grapes for personal consumption for centuries.

“I think the most amazing aspect for me is the Lickan Antay’s relationship with wine,” says Sergio Jara, winemaker of Ayllu Winery. “They use wine for their rites and to say ‘thank you’ to the earth. Each time a Lickan Antay drinks wine, before their first sip, they pour wine to the soil twice: The first is a thank-you gift for Mother Earth, the second a thank-you gift for their ancestors.”

Like the Mapuche, this marginalized community is among Chile’s poorest. Therefore, in 2017, 20 families banded together to form a cooperative, taking the community into commercial wine production for survival. Ayllu Winery was born.

Bottle of Vino Tayu Pinot Noir
Bottle of Vino Tayu Pinot Noir / Photo courtesy of Viña San Pedro

“We feel responsible for maintaining our culture, traditions, and respect for the environment,” says Cruz. “We have an identity and history here.”

Leaving  Maule Valley to join the Ayllu team, Jara was lured by the location. “The middle of the desert is an ecosystem unknown to most Chilean winemakers,” and people, he says.

After he arrived, Jara noticed the Criolla wine suffered from oxidation and spontaneous bottle refermentation. He has enjoyed collaborating with longstanding community members to incorporate modern methods into their local wine.

The Ayllu project is thriving. Twenty more winegrowers are poised to join the cooperative. Tourists are venturing out from San Pedro de Atacama to visit, shop, and attend harvest festivals in Toconao, boosting the local economy.

“Wine is a beacon that brings people to us,” says Jara.

Thankful the community’s winemaking heritage is providing economic sustainability, Cruz wishes the market sought to understand the Lickan Antay through their historic varieties—País and Muscat de Alexandria, vinified off-dry— rather than market-driven globalized grapes.

Some see wine as a marker of class, building cellars for aging coveted purchases, while others view it as an agricultural product bought and promptly consumed. Critics deconstruct it to determine its subjective worth. But for some Chilean Indigenous communities, this Western product, imposed by conquerors, provides a gateway for their survival.

Published on October 13, 2021
Topics: Chile