An interview with Cristobal Undurraga

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Back to the Land with Chile's Cristobal Undurraga

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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.