Sunday, 3 February 2013



Animals won’t leave me alone. Dogs slip their leads and collars and run to me. Sometimes I ride wild ponies bareback over the moors. Whenever I walk through the fields at home, a bovine train falls into line behind me. I quizzed the cows once, and asked them why they were following me? But they just hung their heads and embarrassedly inspected their hooves.  Anthropologists tell us that humans took a momentous forward step when they started domesticating herbivores, but the way I read it, farming was a ruminant initiative for which we have ungraciously taken the credit. The raggedy, squat forbears of cows, goats and sheep just latched onto the raggedy, squat forbears of people like me. Animal magnetism was the giant evolutionary leap that began man’s hasty ascent.

Alvaro Espinosa’s Maipo-located farm, “Antiyal”, is far from being Neolithic or even neo-Neolithic - Alvaro drives a large V8 truck – but the small proportions and self-containment are indicative of a more pristine system of agriculture. Last time I stayed there were a few acres of vines and vegetables, and a menagerie of animals - ducks, geese, chickens, an alpaca - and, most conspicuously of all, an enormous mastiff that threatened to turn Antiyal’s other residents into dinner should the dog bowl go empty for too long. The industrious and talented Alvaro had built an adobe house at the centre of the property, together with a few outbuildings, which doubled as the winery and guest accommodation. He was better than me at all the things I really cared about, and could do all the things I normally pay people to do.

When I arrived, the mastiff charged the car. In Chile, big breeds double as crime fighters, but the hospital A&Es must be bursting with friendly-fire maulings, because dogs are about food and walks and other dogs; they can’t easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. The Mastiff was huge. It made me think of Giant Moas and Galapagos Tortoises, gargantuan Pacific Rim flops, except this beast looked like it might make a much better fist of bigness than they ever did. I stepped out of the car, sighed, and looked into the dog’s red-rimmed eyes. We were going to be friends.

We ate lunch in the shade with the dog at my feet. Beyond the vines, in a small enclosure was the alpaca. Something was wrong. The alpaca was standing on two legs; it was seven feet tall. The long neck gave a high vantage point for the brilliantly lacquered eyes. Whatever eats alpacas on the pampas needs good stamina, because their spines are engineered like periscopes, so they can see the curvature of the earth and look round corners. Not that this alpaca was behaving like anything’s lunch. I’d taken the solidity of Alvaro’s ranch work for granted, but the alpaca was snagging its pen for weaknesses, lunging its chest aggressively against the wooden rails. Maybe my host and I did share a few husbandly failings after all, and some of his clever wood improvisations overlapped, at their weakest points, with my bodging.

Over lunch we drank a blend of viognier, chardonnay and sauvignon from St Emiliana. I usually find Chilean whites brittle and green, but this tasted like a field blend, or an assemblage that had been aged on mixed lees; there was a heady mellowness that made me wish I was on a hammock rather than a chair. And there was a hammock. Alvaro had made one and strung it beneath the shady eaves of his house.

At dusk we began the tour. Each vine at Antiyal recieved very individual attention. They were flood irrigated, which works well with cabernet, but most importantly they were grown biodynamically. Biodynamic preparations can be bought off-the-peg in Europe, but in Chile you had to make your own, and lobotomy is not for the squeamish. No synthetic fungicides were used, and weeds and insects were kept in check by the ducks, chickens and geese, which joined us as we continued our round of the property.

At the back of the house were the compost piles, through which everything was recycled. I learnt that alpacas always shit in the same place, which makes collection easy. Vegetable waste, straw, prunings and the dung were amalgamated, and then sprayed with dynamized teas. “Nothing wasted”. The mastiff was sniffing interestedly at the base of the pile. “Great”, I replied. Alvaro had presented such a nourishing account of recycling at Antiyal that it seemed the wrong time to ask about any connection Chile’s biggest canine might also have to the heap, but the question was there all the same.

Over my shoulder, I heard the sound of DIY failure, but this time it wasn’t shelves collapsing or a cheap table flat-packing itself; the alpaca was out, and bounding towards us. In 70s Britain we had llama parks, inspired by the push-me-pull-you in Dr Doolittle. I visited one, but nobody ever went back a second time, so they all closed. Llamas are just so dull and maintenance free. I suspect most of the beasts are still there; and when the herd gets too large they’ll burst out of their enclosures and die on the roads, and then we will all agree that they were just oversized, small-brained, timid sheep all along. But as the alpaca approached, I had some misgivings.

“Does it have teeth, Alvaro?                                                   

“Sure, they have teeth”

“And a diastema?”

Alvaro looked blank.

The alpaca’s coat was springy, soft and irresistible. Alvaro’s wife, Marina, spun the wool into scarves, and things like scarves but bigger. I brought one back with me for my wife. I admired all the craft and resourcefulness, but I was beginning to feel overwhelmed. Historians put the defeat of the Incas and Aztecs by a small troop of conquistadors down to their exposure to measles and smallpox, and amid all the Espinosa’s industry and ingenuity, I was starting to feel like the next vector of European viruses come to devastate the continent, only this time they fatally de-skilled the mind and body, and left you hopelessly reliant upon others for food, warmth and shelter.

The sun was setting over the Pacific, and the stars were already beginning to swarm in the eastern sky above the Andes: Alpha Centauri, Canopus, Sigius, Procyon, the Southern Cross. You can join the dots of light to form a dome, but the geometry is illusory. Space is cold, infinite and utterly detached. And in that deepening moment, we all felt each other’s fear, so we drew close together for comfort, the animals and me.

That night, I watched the Hydra constellation slide lengthways across my window. At 3 a.m., I was joined by the mastiff, but I left a noisy duck outside, which punished my display of favouritism by grumbling at the door until daylight.

Alvaro consulted for several estates, Perez Cruz, Casa Rivas, St Emiliana, and Haras de Pirque, and we spent the next day visiting each in turn. I slept between appointments, and would wake-up to see yet another vainglorious winery looming into view. Whenever I asked Alvaro where the money came from, he replied their owners had “interests”. Chile’s major industry is mining, and mining and interests seemed to be the same thing, except the latter gave the impression that the country did more than break bits off itself and ship them abroad. The people who owned the mines owned everything else. 

General Pinochet was “our bastard”, and like the nasty dogs that guarded Chilean homes, Pinochet confused the good people with the bad. During his dictatorship, 3000 people were murdered, and 40,000 tortured. On the road between Valparaiso and Santiago, Alvaro parked the truck at the apex of a rocky hairpin and pointed to a village in the valley below.

“All the men from this village were gathered together and brought here”, he said. “Everyone was murdered.”

At the end of Kafka’s The Trial, Josef K is taken to a quarry to be killed. He still doesn’t know what facts establish his culpability, but in an act of well-mannered complicity he asks his executioners if sledgehammering his skull would be made easier if he were to lay his head against the slab this way, or that? I suspect that for many Chileans Pinochet’s guilt feels like their shame, but it shouldn’t. The only people that benefited were the cronies and Junta members who shared the spoils of privatisation when the General de-centralised the Chilean economy, creating a class of people with “interests”. When the wheel of fortune was spun, you had to be in the game. Pinochet may have gone but he left a legacy. Decapitate the monster and other heads grow back in its place.

We drove into Santiago where I was leading a tasting. Most of the winemakers we had met through the day were there.  The tasting was blind, and the wines were French. We started with Burgundy, a monopole 1er Cru from Michel Gros, and Bonnes Mares from Christophe Roumier; and we finished on five clarets, with Haut Brion 89 the last wine. In Central Chile, the vines are irrigated and the weather is predictable. There are cool climates and warm climates, but wherever you are in Chile, the ultra violet is unrelenting and gives a thick accent to the country’s red wines. Only when we reached the bottle of Haut Brion was there any acknowledgement of hue and tannin.  Everyone was sympathetic towards the plight of the Burgundians; somebody had to make wines under impossible marginal conditions, and the tasters in the room were just happy it wasn’t them.

In the heat of the Chilean summer, I'd thought the lighter style of French wines might get some plaudits, but we were starting from different places. Champagne and Burgundy had given me a taste for limpidity and delicacy, whereas my hosts seemed capable of ingesting any amount of tannin and anthocyanin. I had been labouring the point about over-extraction all day, and I'd hoped the Grand Cru Burgundy and First Growth Bordeaux would support my position, when they actually achieved the opposite.

We re-corked the bottles and drove back to Antiyal. It was dark. Marina was cooking. 

Alvaro took me to the back of the house. A wood fire was burning underneath a water-filled 500l inox tank. The dog was there.

“It’s for you”, said Alvaro.

The mastiff watched. I took off my clothes, and felt myself being relegated down his Armageddon ration picks as I did: women and children first, and save the mottled one with the swatches of hair until there’s nothing left. I lowered myself into the vat and a little water lipped over the edge and hissed against the fire.

Alvaro returned with two glasses of Antiyal, and we spoke some more about Pinochet and the Junta. Chile was moving on; it was getting wealthier, but still there was desperate poverty. When terrible things have occurred so recently in a country’s history, people are scared to confront the past. Look back at the snake-haired Medusa and you’re instantly turned to stone.

I swirled the wine. Nothing would appear so dark again that night except sleep.

We talked of Alvaro’s time at Bordeaux University. He’d worked in Champagne, which had given him an appreciation of the product, but no ambition to make it. “This is Chile”, he said.

I understood the sentiment: day and night, this was the most iridescent place I’d ever visited.

It was late, the night sky shone, and Alvaro’s black wine tasted of Chile, then Maipo, then Antiyal.

Marina called us in for dinner. Alvaro chained the mastiff at the door.

“He won’t bother you tonight.”

“That just leaves the duck”, I said.

Alvaro raised his eyebrows. We walked into the kitchen: potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and, in the middle of the table, duck.