Pais is a red wine grape varietal which has played a prominent role in the Chilean wine industry. Pais has a lengthy viticultural history in Chile, believed to have been brought to the region by Spanish conquistadors from Peru during their colonization of the continent in the 16th century. The grape originates from Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, where it is called Listán Negro, and was taken to Mexico in 1520 by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
And along with Spanish missionaries and priests who founded several missions, may explain another synonym for this grape - being called 'Mission' in North America. Up until the turn of the 21st century, Pais was Chile's most planted wine grape varietal until it was overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon.
Today it is most commonly used in the production of carafe, jug-wine in the Bío-Bío, Maule and Itata River regions in the south of Chile. In these southern wine areas País is enjoying the regions granitic soils. The grape is sometimes known as 'Negra Peruana', and also ‘Mission’, and in Argentina it is known as Criolla Chica. For decades, Pais was considered as a minor grape varietal only suitable for producing inexpensive table wine - typically bottled in large glass jugs. But today a small number of passionate winemakers are taking Pais more seriously, producing more interesting and modern style expressions.
Pais as a single varietal produces a light bodied, rustic red wine that typically has a reddish brown colour with a thin edge. The grape naturally has a thin skin, which does not provide much colour, aroma and flavour character and vineyard owners typically harvest at much higher yields; than is required to produce higher quality wines. The grape is valued for its vigour and ease of cultivation, producing high yields even with limited amounts of irrigation. Traditionally it has been mostly consumed domestically but some sweet style dessert wines have been exported over the years.
In the 1980s there were approximately 30,000 hectares planted with Pais, but that has dropped substantially over the past few decades to around 7250 ha, from about 6000 growers - most of which are found in the southern wine regions of Chile. The varietal has adapted well to the semi-arid coastal region of San Javier and Cauquenes where there is a scarcity of water. Primarily the Pais grape is prized for its durability and tough growing conditions and ease of cultivation.
Pais grapes are known for their thin skins and some critics have likened the finished wines to French Beaujolais. Several local winemakers have described the grape as ideal for light, easy-drinking red wine styles. As with all varietals, the advances in viticulture and winemaking technology have helped to improve Pais quality. Several Chilean winemakers are working to revive the Pais grape as a serious wine option. People used to say that País made rustic, uninteresting wines, but now everyone is trying to buy grapes from growers. And now several wine critics and connoisseurs are talking about this varietal, which is the first step.