Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Viña Koyle: Cristóbal, Carmenere & Auma

The art of blending. The death of 700,000 beetles. Cow horns filled with dung. An indigenous Chilean flower. The soul.

These were all fascinating topics that arose during a recent dinner I attended at Alden & Harlow with Matt Demers of Quintessential Wines and Cristóbal Undurraga Marimón, co-owner and winemaker at Viña Koyle, a Chilean winery. I'd been invited to meet Cristóbal (pictured above) and sample his wines. We had a fun evening, and I was impressed with his wines, especially his Carmenere wines and his top wine, Auma.

Though Viña Koyle was only established in 2006, its roots actually extend back to the latter part of the 19th century. In the early 1880s, Francisco Ramon Undurraga Vicuna began planting grape vines in Chile, vines he obtained from France and Germany. In 1885, Francisco founded his winery, Vina Undurraga, though his first harvest wasn't until 1891. Vina Undurraga was the first Chilean winery to export to the U.S. and during the 20th century, it became one of the largest wineries in Chile. However, in 2006, the Undurraga family decided to sell the winery and brand.

That sale didn't mean that the family was done with the wine business. They didn't wait and decided to start a new winery, a smaller, more artisan one, so they purchased about 2700 acres of land in the Los Lingues zone of Alto Colchuagua, in the foothills of the Andes. They didn't need to seek far for a wine maker, finding one in Cristóbal Undurraga, the sixth generation of their family.  

Cristóbal, who I found to be garrulous and passionate, originally didn't want to work in the large, family winery though he still possessed a strong affinity for wine. After graduation, he began to travel the world, seeking to learn all about winemaking. Beginning at Franciscan Estates in Napa, California in 2001, he later traveled, in 2002, to Rosemount Estates in Australia and then the famed Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, France. In 2003, he was recruited to become the lead enologist at Vina Kaiken in Argentina.

However, he was eventually drawn back to Chile, to become the chief winemaker at his family's new artisan winery. They needed a name for their new winery and one day they rode horses into the nearby Andes, hoping for inspiration. While riding, they saw a beautiful purple plant that grew near the oak forests, and had to ask someone the name of it. In the indigenous language of the region, the plant, which is also an endangered species, is called koyle, The family were intrigued by the name and chose it for their new winery, Viña Koyle.

Cristóbal had strong ideas about this new winery, believing that Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah would be their primary grapes. Pedro Parra, the famed Chilean soil scientist, was hired to examine their land and he eventually determined there were 87 different units of microterroir on the estate. Cristóbal stated that previously in Chile, winemakers and viticulturists generally worked separately, however Pedro has helped winemakers better appreciate the place of the vineyards, leading toward a greater collaboration between winemakers and viticulturists. The effect of that has been to increase the overall quality of Chilean wine.

Though Cristóbal had been interested in organic viticulture since 2001, while he worked in Australia, he learned about Biodynamic agriculture and was intrigued. The more he learned about it, the more he desired to create a Biodynamic vineyard. Since then, he immersed himself in Biodynamic agriculture and their vineyard has been Demeter certified since 2012. He embraces all of the esoteric aspects, seeing positive changes in his vineyard which he directly attributes to Biodynamics. Animals are raised on the estate, including sheep, cows, horses, and honey bees, and various fruits and vegetables are grown there as well.

One of the initial challenges they faced at the vineyard involved something similar to a biblical plague of locusts. They found that some unknown type of nocturnal insect was devouring the flowers on their vines and they needed to stop them or they would destroy all of their vineyards. Taking watch at night, they could hear the sound of the insects' feeding, a chilling experience as it indicated a vast number of insects, and eventually identified them as a type of beetle unique to Chile.

As they couldn't use commercial pesticides, they decided to destroy the larvae by using Indian tea tree oil in the ground, and this was successful. Next, they set up about 2000 lights to attract and destroy the beetles  From a distance at night, the lights almost looked as if the winery was on fire. In the end, they destroyed about 700,000 insects, counting them by the cup-load. What an incredible amount of dead beetles! They would have posed a dire threat to any vineyard.

Currently, Cristóbal's greatest challenge is more holistic, as he wants even more life within the soil, as well as vine roots which extend down eight meters into the soil. Despite making great strides during the last eight years, he believes there is much more to do, saying that it may take fifty years to accomplish all of his objectives. Cristóbal lives on the estate, one of the few winemakers who does so, and thus can personally see all the changes in the vineyard. Most other winemakers live in the cities, and commute to the vineyards. It was very important to Cristóbal though for him to be there, to live on the estate, to rely on much of what they can grow and produce on the estate.

Viña Koyle currently produces about 36,000 cases of wine, though they have the capacity to double that but they want their growth to be slow and steady. They currently sell some of their excess Biodynamic grapes to other local producers. The winery exports about 90% of their wines, to 35 different countries, and their top three export markets include the  U.S., Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Cristóbal mentioned that he desires to produce wines that you can easily drink, which are not overly concentrated. He didn't want to make a wine where you have a single glass, but it is so big and concentrated that you didn't want a second glass. Since meeting with Cristóbal, I met a Spanish winemaker who voiced the exact same sentiment. I agree with both of these men, desirous of wines where I can easily drink multiple glasses over the course of an evening rather than a single glass of some huge wine.

Cristóbal and I also discussed the importance of blending, both of adding various varietals to the same wine, as well as adding different barrels of the same varietal. This also has become a familiar conversation that I've had with other wine makers, as well as spirit producers. Blending is both art and science, and its role seems to often be underestimated. It allows wines to acquire greater complexity, as well as more consistency.It allows a winemaker to have a greater input on the type of wine that results.

I tasted seven Viña Koyle wines, the first two (a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir) were organic while the other five were Biodynamic. All of the wines had been opened for about five to six hours before I tasted them.

The 2012 Koyle Costa Sauvignon Blanc ($23.99) is produced from 100% Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard located about 9km from the Pacific Ocean. Cristóbal wants to make this wine with texture and high acidity, and not in the usual New World style. The vineyard, which was planted in 2006, has three exposures: north, south and a flat area. As such, each exposure is fermented differently, including Burgundy French oak barrels, concrete and stainless steel. In addition, the wine spends ten months on the lees and six months in the barrel. This is only the second vintage of this wine, and they plan to continue to make Sauvignon Blanc in this same way. With an alcohol content of 12.5%, this wine has bright aromas of citrus and a slight saline quality. On the palate, the wine is crisp, clean and tart, with pleasant grapefruit and lemon flavors, and strong mineral notes. Nice complexity, a lengthy finish and this would be an excellent seafood wine.

The 2012 Koyle Costa Pinot Noir ($34.99) is from the same vineyard as the Sauvignon Blanc and is made from 100% Pinot Noir. Cristóbal has studied how wine is made in Burgundy, seeking ideas on how Pinot could be properly grown in Chile. This is the third year that he has produced Pinot Noir, except he didn't bottle his first two attempts as he wasn't satisfied with the results. He stated that Pinot is "like a beautiful lady." and he sought to do justice to that image. I was impressed with this wine and think Cristóbal should be very happy with what he has produced. With an alcohol content of 14.5%, this wine had a pleasing aroma of red fruits with fleeting hints of other aromas, such as a hint of earthiness. On the palate, this was an elegant and complex wine, with bright cherry and raspberry flavors, minerality and a touch of earth. It is worth the price, and will remind you more of Burgundy than California.

These next two wine, Gran Reservas, are Biodynamic, and Cristóbal mentioned that he recently has begun thinking that the wines might be better labeled as "Wild Reserva," in reference to their more natural composition.

The 2012 Koyle Gran Reserva Carmenere ($16.99) is a blend of 86.5% Carmenere, 8% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2.5% Petite Verdot and has an alcohol content of 14%.  Cristóbal stated that too much Carmenere in Chile is either too vegetal/green or is too ripe. He believes that the key to making it properly is low yields. As I dislike the vegetal/green aspect in Carmenere, I was pleased to find it didn't exist in this Koyle wine. With a nose of black fruit and spice, I found this to be an elegant wine, with a delicious melange of black fruit, spice, minerality and hints of tobacco. It was silky smooth, with a long, satisfying finish. At this price, it is agood value for its complexity and quality. Cristóbal recommends this wine for pasta and risotto. Highly recommended.

The 2012 Koyle Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($16.99) is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petite Verdot and has an alcohol content of 14%. This was produced to be a gastronomic wine. I found this to be more of a dark and brooding wine, with ripe plum and black berry fruits, combined with mineral notes and spice and with a background of moderate tannins. It isn't a fruit forward style, but more of a wine that needs a thick steak or hearty pasta to complement it.

A step-up in their portfolio is the 2011 Koyle Royale Carmenere ($25.99), a blend of 85% Carmenere, 9% Petite Verdot, and 6% Malbec. I enjoyed the Gran Reserva Carmenere, but this truly impressed, elevating all of the good qualities to a higher level. The enticing aroma presented violet notes and black fruits, and on the palate it was elegant, with silky tannins and a deep complexity of flavor. The harmonious flavors included lush black fruits, plenty of spiciness and a rich minerality. One of the best Carmeneres I have tasted in some time. Highly recommended. It is also recommended that you decant this wine at least 30 minutes before serving.

The 2010 Koyle Royale Cabernet Sauvignon ($25.99) is a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, and 5% Petite Verdot, and an alcohol content of 14.5%. Again, this wine is similar to the Gran Reserva, though elevates the quality. It remains dark and brooding wine, but with more intense and complex flavors. It is also recommended that you decant this wine at least 30 minutes before serving.

The apex of the tasting was the 2010 Koyle Auma ($99.99) is a blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carmenere, 18% Malbec, 13% Syrah, and 7% Petite Verdot, with an alcohol content of 14.3%. "Alma" is the Spanish word for the "soul", and they substituted the letter "U" for the "L" to reflect their family name, Underruga. Thus, this wine is the soul of their family, of their new winery. It is the wine which has been Cristóbal's dream from the beginning. This is the second vintage of this wine and only 692 6-bottle wood cases were produced. The wine, using only grapes from their best vineyards, was fermented in separate lots, and then aged, also in separate lots for about 24 months in French oak, about 50% new. It is then blended together by gravity in a concrete egg tank, and then aged for an additional 9 months in the concrete. It is unfiltered and should be able to age well for at least ten years in the cellar.

The wine is an inky dark color with an enticing nose of black fruits with eucalyptus notes. On the palate, it is seductive and alluring, a silky liquid which tantalizes the mind with its complex and harmonious blend of flavors. It is a wine where description becomes inadequate, where the best understanding comes from experiencing it. It may remind you of a high-end Bordeaux, though even if not, you are going to be impressed with its quality and complexity. Slowly savor this wine over the course of an evening with a good friend. My highest recommendation.

Despite the time and effort required to run Viña Koyle, Cristóbal still seems to have some time to engage in other wine endeavors. For example, he is currently working on producing a wine in Southern France. In addition, he is part of a new producer in Argentina, Larrain, Lasmartres, Toso & Undurraga, located in the Uco Valley. This endeavor is the work of six partners, 3 from Chile and 3 from Arrgentina. They make single vineyard Malbecs, from Don Fernando Vineyards in La Consulta. It is an organic vineyard, at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, one which Cristóbal hopes might become Biodynamic one day.

I got to sample one of these wines, the 2009 LTU ($64.99), which is produced from 100% Malbec, has an alcohol content of 14.7%, and only 1,000 six-bottles cases were produced. With a dark purplish color, this is a very concentrated wine with tasty plum, blackberry and blueberry notes. There is a nice depth of flavor and a certain elegance. It is still young and though it is drinkable now, I would like to see how it develops over time.

Cristóbal's passion for wine is infectious, and he is producing an excellent range of wines, from Pinot Noir to Carmenere. Our stimulating conversation raised several important issues, from blending to Biodynamics. All of the wines paired very well with food, and they certainly were the type of wines you could satisfactorily drink a few glasses.

Seek out the wines of Viña Koyle and explore the wonders of Chilean wine.

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