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Native Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt dropped into Chile on a three-month lark at age 22 in 1998 and essentially never left, not only falling hard for Chile's native, old-vine Paìs--and later the farmer-made huaso wines known as pipeños made from it--but also becoming its most vocal supporter out in the larger wine world. Starting as a dishwasher and ending up as a sommelier in Chile, Louis-Antoine returned home to France for oenology school in Beaune. While home, he worked five harvests with and become close to Beaujolais and natural-winemaking luminary Marcel Lapierre, whose influence was to be a profound one.
Louis-Antoine returned to Chile full-time in 2006 with a wife and with winegrowing/making know-how. He was drawn deep into the Maule region, whose remote old vineyards of local grape Paìs (aka the Mission grape, brought to Chile by Spanish conquistadors) became his primary passion. Nothing about those vines or pipeño wines had a place in the Chilean mainstream: though they are an ancient tradition in the countryside, the Chilean wine industry is a juggernaut, fueled mainly by conventionally-farmed, large-scale, bulk-oriented, internationally-styled wines from Bordeaux varieties. The despised, demeaned País in fresh, fruity, funky, fizzy form—poured mainly out of plastic soda bottles in farmers’ homes and rustic roadside restaurants–garnered no respect.
But bolstered by encouragement from Lapierre after a visit together to some of Maule’s 150-300-year-old vines in high-altitude, woodsy, scrappy-soiled sites, Louis-Antoine doubled down on promoting and honoring these traditional wines. Key to this process was his getting to know the individual farmers and vineyards and becoming involved in the viticulture as well as the winemaking. He led them toward fully organic, lower-yield farming, with earlier harvest and carbonically macerated wines. He brought these fruity, earthy Beaujolais-reminiscent wines—some of which he made, others of which he sourced and bottled--to natural wine fairs, championing these growers and their special terroirs and finding a warm reception for them.
Louis-Antoine expanded his attention beyond Maule to include Bio Bio—like Maule, a Paìs-dominated region considered a backwater by modern Chilean standards—and has continued to hone his focus on the various terroirs, which are named on the labels of his liter bottles. As of the 2017 vintage, Louis-Antoine works technically as a négociant, in the sense that he is not making the wine or working out of his own cellar with his own fruit. While this may sound on paper like a strictly commercial, practical arrangement, that could not be farther from the truth: he has meaningful personal relationships and collaborates closely with this diverse group of individual huasos to help them grow and make the best possible quality, most expressive wines on their own properties.
Over time, Louis-Antoine has adjusted his winemaking approach, moving away from purely carbonic Lapierre style with long macerations to shorter ones with destemmed fruit. True to tradition, the wines continue to be fermented with indigenous yeasts in the traditional vessels known as lagares, open-top wood or concrete vats without temperature control. Crucially, Louis-Antoine and his team have been able to renovate and update these old lagares and the rest of the winemaking equipment and facilities of their farmer partners. After the wines are finished at their respective farms, Luyt moves them to a modern facility for bottling in the Maule city of Curicó.
Luyt pipeños are a modern, thoughtful link to a rich viticultural past and are meant to be enjoyed with ease and without fuss. The liter bottles are Louis-Antoine’s calling card, sized and priced to be suggestive of generosity, in both volume and spirit. These are quintessential vins de soif. And Louis-Antoine was not the first and is not the only natural winemaker on the Chilean wine scene, but he has certainly been the loudest-and-proudest proponent of its Paìs growers, vines and wines.
For Jules Dressner's Chile Chronicles (LDM's first visit with Luyt in 2016 in 8 episodes), click here.