Cristóbal Undurraga: biodynamic winemaker
November 16, 2015
Disarmingly informal, Cristóbal Undurraga, fifth generation of one of Chile’s oldest wine-producing families, takes Alexandra and I on a walk up the little ravine he has lovingly restored in the heart of Koyle’s biodynamic Los Lingues vineyard in Alto Colchagua. “It was full of mud when we arrived,” he explains, “but we cleared it out and planted it with native trees and plants. It’s wonderful to see how they’ve grown.” It’s truly an enchanting place, filled with birdsong. He tells me that you can hear frogs croaking in the stream at night.
Varied land use and living in harmony with wildlife are, of course, part of the biodynamic concept of fostering agriculture within a whole integrated and harmonious system, but it is clear that the Undurraga family are paying more than just lip service. Cristóbal explains that the creek dries up in the summer, so then the impressive group of photovoltaic panels which make the winery self-sufficient in electricity come into play, pumping water up the creek and keeping the wildlife flourishing.
After graduating in agronomy with a major in oenology, Cristóbal spent seven years working in wineries around the world: California, Australia, France and Argentina. He first learned about the advantages of biodynamic wine production in Australia and was further inspired by talking to Alain Moueix of Château Fonroque in Bordeaux. So when his family asked him to come back to Chile to join the family’s new wine business, he was keen to put biodynamic viticulture into practice.
He admits that there were frustrations during the transition phase. For instance there was a period when the brand new flower clusters on one plot of vines began to mysteriously disappear. He started to check the vines regularly and it was at night that he discovered the culprit: a beetle known locally as pololo café (Phytholaema herrmanni). It’s not usually a pest in vineyards, as most are routinely sprayed and the beetle is sensitive to any kind of chemical, but clearly it was having a ball at Koyle. In fact, by weighing the insects collected each day, Cristóbal and his team calculated that there were more than a million of these creatures on this one plot of vines.
Some people would have given in and sprayed chemicals on the vines at this point. Not so Cristóbal. He began to fight back. First he applied an organic pesticide made from tea extract. Next, as this pest is nocturnal, he strung 200 lights along the vines and underneath them he put a trough of water. The beetles were drawn to the lights, then fell into the water and drowned. He also raked up the soil between the plants, so that the storks and hens would come and peck at the insects. Job done. Now Cristóbal knows to be on the lookout for this little pest and takes action at the first sign of trouble.
He is convinced that biodynamic production is not only environmentally friendly but makes commercial sense too, as the vines are now yielding more fruit than they had ever anticipated. He likens a biodynamically grown plant to a seasoned marathon runner: lean, with not an ounce of fat, but fighting fit and better able to resist pests, diseases and climatic problems.
I ask him about the ups and downs of working in a family business. He says, “it’s great to be building something for the generations to come. Of course, there are discussions, but we make it work by giving each other space. And of course, we all have other projects besides this. That’s really important, as it helps keep you fresh and open to new ideas.”
He clearly loves experimenting and has 13 different varieties planted across the different vineyards. “In the autumn it’s like a patchwork of different colours,” he says. He’s also experimenting with different training systems – for instance in the Los Lingues vineyard, he has planted a section of bush-trained Tempranillo vines, which he is dry-farming. There are also dry-farmed vines trained in the gobelet or bush style at the Bularco vineyard in the coastal area of Itata, but these are 70-year-old Cinsault vines.
Cristóbal’s goal is to produce new and interesting cuvées for different customers. “We’re about quality,” he explains, “not quantity. Sometimes someone comes along who wants to buy all our wine and talks about ramping up production, but that’s just not the market we’re in.” Instead Koyle concentrates on selling to small, niche markets, such as the Wine Society in the UK.
Check out my e-book Sustainability and wine from Chile, which looks at how Chilean wineries are working to be more sustainable and investigates natural, organic and biodynamic practices. Please click here if you would like to find out more.
I ask him about three wines he has enjoyed recently.
Cuvée La Migoua, Domaine Tempier from Bandol in southern France, a red blend based on Mourvedre, with some Cinsault and Grenache. These wines are made with minimal intervention – native yeasts, at least 18 months’ ageing and no clarification or filtering.
Red Gran Reserva, López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Winery, Rioja. Very traditional Rioja wines based on Tempranillo with contributions of Grenache, Carignan and Graciano, from Rioja Alta.
Red wines from Burgundy, especially from Chambertin.
An interesting old world focus for this New World ecologically-minded vigneron and winemaker.
Wine tasting at Koyle’s Los Lingues vineyard – tasting notes
Koyle Costa, Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Paredones
Interesting wine from three separate plots of vines, harvested and vinified separately and in different media and then 12 months ageing prior to blending and 6 months bottle-ageing. Aromas of white flowers and citron pressé. In the mouth, fresh and pleasing, agreeable acidity, quite long finish.
Koyle Don Cande Cinsault 2015, Itata
70-year-old dry-farmed bush vines. 30% whole cluster, 70% whole berries subjected to a quick, 10-day fermentation at 28°C, then 50% aged in used Burgundy barrels and 50% in cement eggs. Best drunk chilled and fresh.
An intriguing nose of bay and spices, intermingled with strawberries. Dry, with good acidity and notes of fresh figs. Slightly fizzy. 12.5% ABV.
Koyle Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alto Colchagua
Ruby, with orange hues. The nose is complex and well-integrated. High acidity, very drying in the mouth. Delicious.
Koyle Gran Reserva Carménère 2013, Alto Colchagua
Classic Carménère nose of chilli and black pepper together with fresh fruit. In the mouth, this is a fresh wine with high acidity, slightly astringent. Nice, enveloping mouthfeel.
Koyle Royale Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alto Colchagua
This Cabernet Sauvignon has more colour, body and legs than the Reserva. Aromas of spices and fresh fruit. The mouth is fresh and pleasant with agreeable tannins and good body.
Koyle Royale Syrah 2010, Alto Colchagua
Deeply coloured wine. The nose opens with herbs, menthol and granite, followed by fruit. Powerful in the mouth, with big tannins and fresh acidity. Lovely wine; would pair well with lamb.