Editor’s Note: As you know, Bill is currently in lockdown at his ranch in Argentina. And he’s been writing to us about the challenges of running a ranch in remote Northwestern Argentina – floods, impassable roads, the lockdown restrictions…
Recently, he has been filling us in on the war with the originarios in the Calchaquí Valley.
Today, we hear about how that puts the grape harvest at the ranch’s vineyard in further jeopardy… and how you can secure your own supply of some of the Calchaquí Valley’s greatest malbecs.
On a cold night on the high plains… 12,000 feet above the world… a fire raged.
The flames lit shadowy figures, currently at work ripping up a water line that ran along the desert floor.
Suddenly – a loud crack. The figures froze.
The ceiling beams of the small cottage were beginning to give way.
The men turned for a moment to watch the cottage surrender to the flames, then got back to work. Finished with the water line, they then turned their attention to a nearby cattle corral.
By the time ranch hand Natalio arrived to investigate, the cattle chute and gate had vanished. Nothing remained of the small cottage but three tumbled-down stone walls and a heap of smoldering charcoal.
He didn’t say it. There was no one around for miles to hear it, anyway. Still, one thought echoed around in his mind: Out in the Calchaquí Valley, in the hills surrounding the world’s highest vineyards… a war was brewing.
A War at the Edge of the World
As longtime readers know, Argentina’s Calchaquí Valley is home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world. The extreme-altitude malbec made there is not your typical wine.
Yet making it is, at best, a marginal enterprise.
The vineyards are too far from the ports. The roads are often impassable to anything beyond a tractor (at our Gualfin ranch, the highest vineyard is only accessible on horseback). And due to the extreme conditions (high UV, no water, sudden temperature swings), the yield is about a third of what lower-altitude vineyards produce.
Over 200 years, the winemakers of Calchaquí have adapted to their existence at the edge of the world.
Yet recently, a new threat has emerged: Originarios.
Made up mostly of local goat herders and cattle rustlers living out at the most remote haciendas, their attacks rarely result in bodily harm to anyone. Their aim is political, not personal – a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla warfare, in the hopes of forcing weary landowners, like ourselves, to sign over their lands.
The campaign began in 2005, 230 miles south of the Calchaquí, with the seizure of 196,000 acres of ranch land, egged on by the Argentine president and local politicians. The originarios, not the landowner, had the government on their side.
“…like if you put Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk in charge of Enron… then lit him on fire”
Legally speaking, an originario is a descendant of one of the “original” tribes that populated Argentina before a series of bloody conquistas in the 19th century. Out of contrition, the Argentine constitución affords these descendants certain privileges – among them, the rights to their “ancestral” lands.
Notice our liberal use of quotation marks. Argentina’s approach to indigenous rights is kind of like its approach to fiscal policy. Which is to say, kind of like if you put Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk in charge of Enron… and then lit him on fire.
Down around Buenos Aires, and even further south in Patagonia, the question of identity and ownership is easier to determine. The Mapuche Indians built a vast civilization in those parts. They were fighting the Argentine government nearly up until the 20th century.
Up north, however, originarios don’t claim to be Mapuche. They claim to be Diaguita. Too bad the Diaguita disappeared so long ago that historians can’t even reach a consensus on what language they spoke… or if they were even one tribe (evidence suggests they weren’t).
Who Killed the Diaguita People?
By the time of the first conquests against the Mapuche, the Diaguita had already met their fate, first at the hands of invading Incas in the 15th century, then at the hands of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th.
Still, the law allows anyone to self-identify as a descendant of the Diaguita; a fact many a local politician has exploited to rally constituents to a cause.
At our own Gualfin, originarios recently burned down two buildings, stole our cattle chute, and ripped up a water line (with rain so scarce, water lines here are literally life lines).
Meanwhile, at least one of our neighbors has already given in. Realizing that he had effectively lost control of the high plains and mountains that surround his vines, he simply made a deal: His tormenters could keep the plains and peaks, so long as they stayed away from the vines.
So far, both sides appear to be honoring the pact. But what happens when the originarios realize that the true wealth of the Calchaquí lies not in its high plains, but in its vines?
Unlike cattle, the vines of Calchaquí – an ancient type of malbec that died out in Europe about 150 years ago – thrive in its extreme conditions.
The Last Vintage?
The stress of the environment causes what’s known as “sirtuin activation” in the grape, resulting in a wine with an inky, near-black coloring.
The coloring is due to high levels of polyphenols such as resveratrol, which protect the grape from the elements.
Interestingly, scientists such as Harvard professor David Sinclair, Ph.D, now believe that when resveratrol passes into your body, it activates your sirtuin pathway as well. Effectively, the resilience of the plant – hard won after years in the wilderness – is passed on to you.
But the true beauty of this wine is the remarkable flavor.
It is said that when you open your first bottle of Calchaquí wine, you catch a whiff of campfires burning out on the high plains as cowboys break camp for the night.
With the threat of the originarios hanging over us all, each vintage becomes that much more precious… It could always be our last.
Founder, Bonner Private Wine Partnership
P.S. Care to taste a malbec that’s 150 years old? Today, you can reserve some of the Calchaquí Valley’s greatest malbecs (PLUS a wine from the true home of the ancient Diaguita, the Famatina Valley)… brought to your doorstep from valleys over 5,000 miles away…
Our next shipment goes out just days from now. You can reserve yours by clicking here… (Supplies are limited and will sell out.)
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