Meeting the maker: Max Undurruga
Author: Will Heslop
The most obvious perk of my role at Berry Bros. & Rudd is the opportunity to taste countless wonderful wines, but meeting the people who make them is just as rewarding. Among the warmest, most engaging suppliers we work with is the team at Viña Koyle, in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Koyle was established in 2006 by Alfonso Undurraga Mackenna and his four children, who today run the business. I caught up with one of the four, Commercial Manager Max Undurraga, to hear more about the philosophy, place and people behind Koyle’s exceptional wines.
The Undurraga family has been at the forefront of the Chilean wine industry for five generations – Alfonso was formerly CEO of the vast Viñas Undurraga – but when they established Koyle, Max says, they were “looking for something different, looking to add something to the Chilean wine industry”. Having gained an encyclopaedic knowledge of Chile’s grape growing regions over the course of his long career, Alfonso identified Los Lingues, in Alto Colchagua, as the best for Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. It was here that the family’s ambition would become reality.
In the 11 years since, Los Lingues has proved a happy home for a raft of other varietals too, notably Malbec and Syrah. Max reels off some of the attributes that make it such a propitious site for viticulture: volcanic soils; intense sunlight; the gradient of the vineyards; and the cooling effect of the nearby Andes.
For Max, this terroir, with its deposits of basalt and iron, imbues Koyle’s wines with a freshness and minerality which “express the essence of the place”. He highlights Cerro Basalto, a blend of Monastrell, Garnacha, Syrah and Cariñena, planted at extremely high density (up to 12,500 vines per hectare) to encourage the roots to penetrate as deep as possible into the basalt beneath or, as Max puts it, “to give the vines the (chance) to find the minerals… to express the region, to tell the consumer where the wine is produced”.
From day one, the estate has been farmed biodynamically which, Max believes, results in wines of greater “purity”, as well as showing “respect for the land”. Max and his siblings encourage other Chilean wineries to follow suit: “We’re trying to push them to continue what we’re doing… the more natural, sustainable way, which is biodynamics.”
Max describes his homeland as “an amazing country, with so many combinations of climates, soils and grapes”, and talks persuasively about the potential of Chile’s emerging wine regions. Koyle produces the fabulous Costa Sauvignon Blanc from a rented vineyard in Paredones, a coastal area with soils rich in quartz, as well as the superb Don Cande range from ancient Cinsault and Muscat vines belonging to a family friend (the venerable Don Candelario) in Itata.
The epitome of a people person, Max emphasises how positive relationships with the likes of Don Candelario enhance the quality of Koyle’s wines. Moreover, he is unequivocal when asked what it is like working so closely with his father and siblings: “Working for a family company has more pros than cons. For us, it’s really important – we’re really close. I have confidence that each of us is doing the best possible job.” Happily, Max’s views tend to align with those of his brothers Cristóbal (Chief Winemaker) and Alfonso Junior (Commercial Manager for the domestic market), and sister Rebecca (Finance).
Max and Cristóbal travel extensively to promote their wines – Max was in São Paulo when we chatted – visiting wine regions whenever they can. I was curious to know where in the world they have found inspiration: “Well, you find amazing things all over the world. But perhaps what inspires us (most) is the Old World: Mediterranean wines, Bordeaux and Burgundy.”
Still, Max is at his most animated when our discussion turns to home; for all São Paulo’s charms, he is sad to be absent from his family midway through a fortnight of national holidays which, for the Undurragas, revolve around food – especially barbecues – and wine. Koyle’s Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon is a staple at this time of year, but Max also highlights the affinity between Carménère and spicy dishes, be it chancho en piedra (a Chilean salsa) or the Indian cuisine Max enjoys on his trips to London. As for Costa Sauvignon Blanc, “It goes brilliantly with all the seafood we have from our long, long coast: 4,500 kilometres of coast. Maybe we forget a little the seafood in barbecue season, but it [Costa] is perfect with fish, ceviche, oysters or sea urchins.”
Max paints a seductive picture of life at Koyle, and urges Berry Bros & Rudd customers (and staff!) to visit, emphasizing that “it’s really important to show the place; to show how we work; the philosophy behind each bottle of wine”. I, for one, hope to take Max up on his offer. In the meantime, I will continue to drink his family’s wines – wines that capture something of the extraordinary place and remarkable people who produce them.
Browse a range of Koyle’s wines on bbr.com.