An interview with Cristobal Undurraga

Explore / Grower Stories

Back to the Land with Chile's Cristobal Undurraga

Contents

Joanna Goodman Joanna Goodman
Cristóbal Undurraga
Cristóbal Undurraga

Cristóbal Undurraga on setting up Viña Koyle, his family's new venture in Chile's Alto Colchagua valley

On his business card Cristóbal Undurraga describes himself as 'Viticultor.' Not that unusual you might think; well perhaps not in other parts of the winemaking world, but in Chile, Toby Morrhall, The Society's buyer for Chile, tells me, it is practically unheard of.

And the significance of these semantics? Well, Cristóbal is one of the very few winemakers in Chile who actually lives with his family on the vineyard and is responsible for both making the wine and tending the vines. And despite the fact that the Undurraga family has been producing wine since 1885, Cristóbal, representing the sixth generation of the family, is their first winemaker.

He didn't originally intend to go into the family business, (not the first time I've heard this from the winemakers I have interviewed!) but his choice of studies was definitely apposite: geography, then forestry, then agronomy, followed finally and perhaps inevitably by oenology. Then like many young winemakers of his generation, he spent seven years travelling, gaining experience first in California at Franciscan Estates, then Australia with Rosemount, followed by a stint at Château Margaux in Bordeaux and finally returning closer to home at the Montes winery in Mendoza, Argentina. As well as learning about techniques and terroirs, one of the most important aspects of this extended sabbatical was gaining an understanding of the philosophies of those he worked alongside. The common theme that unites them all is an appreciation that the fine-tuning of wines has to take place in the vineyard.

The decision by some members of the family to sell their interests in the company that bears their name signalled difficult times for Cristóbal's father, Alfonso. The business had become so big that buying them out was not an option, and so it had to be sold. Alfonso had built up Viña Undurraga into a hugely successful business over more than 45 years. He was in charge during the '80s and '90s when Chilean wines first started making a global impact. 'Stepping away from this was not easy.' Cristóbal informed me.

For Cristóbal the next step was clear. 'In the past the emphasis was on producing big volumes of good quality, dependable wines and this we did well, but now things have changed,' He says. 'Everyone is searching for the best terroir as they realise this is what makes the difference between good and great wines.'

Autumn in Viña Koyle
Autumn in Viña Koyle

As to where to establish their new venture Cristóbal says that they were fortunate in that the family already knew where the best grape-growing areas were. 'We wanted to concentrate on reds, so we looked at vineyards in the Andean foothills; reds need warmth but not too much heat; the slopes of the Andes are ideal as the vines benefit from the cool evening breezes coming down from the mountains.' After much research and soil analysis, the family bought a lovely estate near Los Lingues in the Alto Colchagua (you don't pronounce the 'g', by the way). Two key points about this site influenced the decision. Good rocks and good drainage. 'All the best-quality wines have these,' Cristóbal says, 'but the most special thing is the human resource,' he says. All the estate workers live and work in the area giving them a connection with the land they farm, which Cristóbal deems essential.

They initially planted 50 hectares (ha) in 2006 – cabernet sauvignon, carmenère, syrah, malbec, petit verdot, mourvèdre, and tempranillo, then a further 30ha in 2010 of cabernet franc, merlot, carignan, grenache, sangiovese and petit syrah. They now also make some white wine from sauvignon blanc and are experimenting with pinot noir both from long-term-leased vineyards on the coast where the sea breezes maintain the freshness in the grapes.

Native Koyle Flower
Native Koyle Flower

Viña Koyle, the name chosen for the family's new venture, is indicative of their change of approach. Koyle (pronounced 'koy-leh') is a native flower which grows in the mountains near the property. 'It's a beautiful purple colour, like our wines,' says Cristóbal. 'When you have human life, plants and soil in harmony, this is what we mean by terroir.'

The focus of the estate is not one of growth but sustainability and a drive for perfection. 'Working on a more human scale is essential for quality; you can grow organically and in a balanced way.' Importantly, Cristóbal has been able to fulfil his dream of working biodynamically, something, he says, you can only do by living on the land and learning to understand it. 'When you have grown your grapes from scratch without using any chemicals you produce cleaner, healthier grapes with more stability and concentration, better able to express the terroir,' Cristóbal explains. Healthier and more pleasant for those working on the estate too, he adds.

By being close to the land he farms, Cristóbal was able to observe the popularity of his syrah vines with the local bee population. Syrah grapes can be quite sensitive to moisture, the skins split and botrytis can set in. When this happens, the bees are the first to notice, Cristóbal discovered. Attracted by the sugar oozing out of the grapes, they suck the sweetness from the grape and in so doing prevent rot from taking hold and the grapes can then heal and grow normally. Now Cristóbal actively encourages this free form of natural rotprevention, building colourful beehives around the syrah vines.

Ironically it was actually an Argentine malbec that brought Toby and Cristóbal together. Toby was given the wine to taste by another Chilean producer and was so impressed that he asked who had made it. Having learned that it was Cristóbal during his stint at Montes in Mendoza, Toby tracked him down to his vineyard home in Los Lingues.

And how was Cristóbal's father Alfonso, I wondered, after having to sell the family firm and set up anew in the countryside? 'My father is supposed to be retired', Cristóbal says, 'and although at first he found it difficult, after seven years at Viña Koyle he is completely rejuvenated and renewed by the experience.' Downsizing and getting back to the land doesn't just mean a higher quality of life but high-quality wines to live it by.

Society Promise
Members before profit
Awards

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.

 

Have a question?Live Chat

Live Chat