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In this article, you will learn a bit about the interesting history of the “Criollas” grapes, their characteristics, sown surfaces and some opinions about their use in the wine industry. Until the introduction of French grapes, the formerly called “black grape“ was the most important variety in America in general, and in Argentina and Chile in particular. In the late nineteenth century, it began to be called País in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina, being “Criolla” a term given to individuals born in America descendants of European parents.
They were called “Criollas” (a Spanish term for Creole) because of their age in the region and in the entire American colonial area, due to the diversity of forms that they can be encountered and the disconnection with certain European grapes that, nevertheless, gave them origin.
They stand out for their vigor, high productivity and ability to adapt to unfavorable growing conditions (that is, more tolerant to drought and salinity) compared to European varieties. They are still considered to be of lower oenological quality than European cultivars and are used mainly to produce table wine, must, grape juice and raisins. But this situation may be quickly changing, as we’ll see.
The cultivation of the vine (Vitis vinifera L.) in America is a relatively recent historical fact, starting from the arrival of the Spanish and expanding from the sixteenth century. After the conquest (between 1521 and 1540) the Spanish Crown ordered the introduction and cultivation of the vine and the olive tree throughout the Americas. In very few years the cultivation of the vine spread throughout the continent from the north to the south.
Undoubtedly, they brought different varietals, but it has not been clear in many cases the origin of the vines brought from Europe to America, so the grapes began to acquire regional names.
There is no doubt that the Criolla is a variety of the Vitis vinifera species, that is, a grape originating in the old world. The Vitis vinifera species is a European vine, and it has been proven that there were no specimens of Vitis vinifera in America until it was introduced by Europeans. From that moment and for more than 300 years the predominant variety of Latin American viticulture was that known in Argentina as Criolla Chica.
Studies with Microsatellites and Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (APFL, a technique that can be considered a DNA fingerprint) demonstrated that the grapes known as Criolla Chica and its synonymies, País (Chile), Rosa del Perú or Negra Corriente (Peru), Misión (Mexico) and Mission (USA), are synonyms of the Listán Prieto grape, a former Spanish variety now restricted to the Canary Islands in Europe.
Listán Prieto was also known as Palomina Negra, formerly in Castilla (Spain) in the 16th century, where it was widely cultivated, but has already disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula and was later introduced to the Canary Islands where it still exists.
The disappearance of Listán Prieto in continental Spain was probably the result of the plague of phylloxera that eliminated 70% of the vines in Europe and extinguished innumerable varietals in that continent.
It is very probable that the Listán Prieto grape was introduced to America directly from the Canary Islands since these islands were a resting point for the great majority of the ships that made the crossing between Europe and America between the 16th and 19th centuries.
In addition to the Criolla Chica grape, which reached a hegemonic role in Argentina during the XVII and XVIII centuries, since around 96.4% of the plants cultivated in Cuyo (Mendoza and San Juan provinces) belonged to this variety, a large part of the Criolla grapes correspond to hybrid progeny of Muscat of Alexandria, Listán Prieto, or both.
The remaining 3.5% corresponded to muscatel varieties (Moscatel de Alejandría, Moscatel Blanco and Moscatel Rosado) and 0.1% to the variety Mollar. The Moscatel de Alejandría variety, of Greek origin, was brought to Spain by the Arabs and introduced by the Jesuit missionaries at the beginning of the 18th century. These two ancient varieties were simultaneously cultivated during the colonial period coexisting in the same vineyards.
Several recent studies have also determined that the crossing between these two vine varieties (Listán Prieto and Moscatel de Alejandría) has given rise to the autochthonous varieties of South America, commonly called Criollas. Among the most known varieties that derive from this crossing, it can be mentioned Cereza, Criolla Grande, Torrontés Riojano (the one is used for quality wines) and Pedro Giménez. These varieties had great importance occupying a large part of the area cultivated with vines in Argentina for a long time.
The dominant attributes of the Criolla Chica grape are its high vigor (they produce a lot of foliage), resistance to desiccation and high productivity (they produce a lot of fruit). The vines generate thick trunks with strong and long branches. The leaves are elongated, dark green and with a thick cuticle that gives them a waxy appearance, with cobweb indument and pubescence.
The bunches, conical and elongated, are large and loose (the grapes are not very tight) which makes the bunch can mature for a long time been very resistant to fungal rot. Due to this long period of maturation, they can concentrate high levels of sugar. The berry is black-reddish and pink. In warm climates, it can reach a yield of more than 20 tons per hectare.
It is also a variety that can be used in places where the production is not very well organized since its grains are still in good condition although the harvest is made late.
The statistics of the National Institute of Viticulture show that, despite its hegemonic past in Argentina, the remaining surface cultivated with Criolla Chica grapes is very small: there were only 278 Hectares left in 2015. But if the Criolla Grande (15,790 Ha) and the Criolla Mediana (6.5 Ha) are also considered, the total area reaches 16,254 Ha, having lost more than 6,000 hectares in just ten years.
In Chile, the outlook for the País grape (Criolla Chica) is similar, with a notable reduction: in 1985, 29,400 hectares were cultivated, reaching 15,990 in 1994 and barely 7,652 in 2014, according to figures from the Chilean National Vinification Vines Cadaster.
Although currently it is not considered as a quality grape due to the lack of balance to produce “Parker style” concentrated wines (this varietal produces grapes with little color, with lack of acidity and a somewhat bland flavor) under adequate viticulture, it is possible to obtain grapes of much better quality that generate excellent wines.
However, the new trend towards less concentrated wines, lighter but aromatically complex, can favor it in the consideration of young audiences and consumers eager for novelties.
For this reason, in the last four years a resurgence has been seen in the elaboration of Criolla grape varietals, with a series of small, medium and large-scale producers, who trust in the potential of the Criolla grape for category wines (Catena Zapata, Trivento, El Esteco, Nieto Senetiner, Matias Michelini, Matias Etchart, Durigutti, Pala Corazón, etc.) that are making remarkable wines with Criollas grapes.
Proof of this is that two of the American Master Sommeliers who recently visited Argentina chose to highlight these wines: Alpana Singh (the youngest woman to obtain MS certification in 2003, at age 26, born in California and current resident of Chicago, where she has his own restaurant Terra and Vine) was fascinated with the discovery of the Criolla grape for the production of reds. “I live in Chicago, a very hot city in summer when everyone wants to be outdoors. Argentine Criolla reds are fruity, fresh and bright to enjoy in warm climates as an alternative to rosé or white wine, unique and interesting”. Another one who was impressed with the Criolla was Christopher Bates (Best Young Sommelier 2012, owner of a wine bar, a restaurant and a brewery in Finger Lakes, NY) who said: “I noticed a very wide range, a great diversity, and variety, frankly I think it’s a group of grapes that has a lot of potential, but they are also wines that have the ability to be serious, elegant and balanced, they are fresh and fun at the same time, it is interesting to see what comes to the future with this grapes”.
Despite its history and tradition, we all know that wines made with Criolla grapes will not exceed (or even approach) the success of Argentinian Malbec but, without hesitation, they are a good option to find out what else the Argentine terroirs have nowadays to offer.
Check the EL ESTECO CRIOLLA rated in VinoApp.
In the summers, as a child, I went all over a small vineyard of white grapes in Patagonia (Río Negro), with my grandfather and my uncle. I saw them elaborating homemade wine using an old press. All memories that kept alive the flame of the interest that made me devour all the texts related to wine that fell into my hands. I felt included among the “serfs of the wine” named by Miguel Brascó in his column in La Nacion magazine. Almost without realizing it, I became an oenophile. I enjoy wine, I taste it, I research and I relate to the people of the world of wine. I tweet and I write a blog called “El Angel del Vino” (the angel of wine) where I reflect these experiences: I spread the word about Argentinian wine and I stand up for it.