War in the Calchaquí!

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 the ranch foreman arrived the following morning 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 high plains above the vineyards… a war was brewing.

More on that in a moment… But first, never pair a Riesling with oysters. This week, resident expert Julien Michel explains “aromatic” versus “neutral” whites… including why you’d never say a red wine is aromatic… how to properly pair those aromatic whites… the ‘magic’ white wine combo that wins every time… and much more…

War in the Calchaquí! (continued)

As long-time readers know, winemaking in Argentina’s Calchaquí Valley is already a marginal endeavor. 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).

Yet recently, another threat emerged: Originarios.

Made up mostly of local goat herders and cattle rustlers living out in remote haciendas a day’s journey from their nearest neighbor, their attacks rarely, if ever, 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 to sign over their lands.

Government Support

Worse still, the Originarios, not the landowner, have the government on their side.

In 2005, a local group seized 196,000 acres of a cattle ranch 230 miles south of the Calchaquí in this manner. At one point, local politicians even showed up at the ranch… in support of the land thieves!

Of course, in their eyes – and to some extent, in the eyes of the law – they are not thieves at all. They are simply a wronged people, reclaiming what is rightfully theirs.

Identity

An Originario is, supposedly, a descendant of one of the “original” tribes that populated Argentina before a series of bloody conquistas in the 19th century. Out of contrition, Argentina affords these descendants certain privileges, one of which, enshrined in the constitución itself, gives them rights to their “ancestral” lands.

If you’re wondering about our liberal use of quotation marks, it is because Argentina manages indigenous reparations about as well as it manages 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, in the grasslands known as La Pampa, and even further south in Patagonia, the question of identity and ownership is a lot easier. 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 even if they were a unified people (evidence suggests they weren’t).

By the time Argentine presidents Julio Roca and Juan de Rosas were leading campaigns against the Mapuche to the south, 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.

Cold Comfort

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.

The local farm workers and gauchos laugh at the idea that the Originarios of the Calchaquí are true descendants of the Diaguita. Many of them, it is said, aren’t even from the Calchaquí (rumor has it the original Originario was actually European).

Yet, with courts and the local government refusing to intervene, the flimsy basis of the Originario claims is cold comfort to landowners and winemakers here.

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 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 valley. So far, both sides appear to be honoring the pact.

Till next time,

The Wine Explorer

P.S. Did you miss last week’s Q&A video with Julien? It’s full of fascinating information like what to drink with surf ‘n turf… what kind of wine glasses you should buy… the trick to buying a bottle of wine that everyone will enjoy… how the Bonner Private Wine Partnership selects its wines… the cleanest wine region… and much more… Click here to watch it.