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Chile’s The Irish Wine Heritage – A Sligo and Tyrone Wine Story

20 Feb

For the last month, Chilean winemakers and winery owners have been streaming into Ireland, but without doubt the biggest splash was made when Chilean Ambassador, Cecilia McKenna and Jose Yuraszeck, the owner of Vina Undurraga hosted a major wine launch at a Chilean food fair in Fire Restaurant at the Mansion House in Dublin.

The reason for the Irish launch of a Chilean wine is that, of course, there is a strong Irish link for Irish wine lovers to get their teeth into.

Ambassador McKenna, as you might have guessed is a distant relative of the second most famous Irishman in history of Chile, one John McKenna born in Clogher Co. Tyrone in 1771, an ancestor of the owners of Vina Undurraga.

The most famous Irishman in Chile, after whom the main boulevard in the capital Santiago is named along with his name on innumerable statues, schools, colleges, ships and medals is General Bernardo O’Higgins, The Liberator. Bernardo O’Higgins was born in South America, but educated back in Europe, sent there by his father Ambrose O’Higgins, Viceroy Of Spain, effectively the ruler of half the continent of South America and a Sligo born Irishman.

John McKenna, from Clogher, was taken under the wing of Ambrose O’Higgins from Sligo when the two met as soldier and administrator, respectively, of the Spanish Crown’s South American colonies.

Ambrose O’Higgins made his fellow Irishman, the 25 year old McKenna, Governor of Osorno, a province of what would become southern Chile.

If this happened today, there would be a tribunal of Inquiry that would run for a century as an expatriate Irish political mafia carved up positions of power for themselves. There was no need to demand transparency, it was all too obvious what was going on politically.

The point of difference between what people who get given sinecures today and those like McKenna who acquired them was what they did next.

McKenna, like O’Higgins was a self made man, a soldier and what we might call today and entrepreneur but was definitely an adventurer in 18th century language. Mckenna made a huge success of his Governorship for himself, and, the people.

Then when the time came, he became a hero of the revolution through audacity and military skill.

After Ambrose O’Higgins’ death, his son, Bernardo O’Higgins became increasingly convinced of the need for independence and a war of liberation ensued into which he called his friend, John McKenna, who eventually became Commandant-General of the Army of the newly liberated Chile.

In later years, post liberation in-fighting led to both O’Higgins and McKenna being exiled from Chile to Argentina after a Coup D’Etat led by one José Luis Carreras. It was not to be a long exile for McKenna.

On the 21st of November, 1814, on the streets of Buenos Aires, McKenna, engaged in a duel with the man who led the counter coup, Carreras, and was shot dead. An entirely suitable and dramatic end for a dashing 18th century adventurer.

His descendents however did get back to Chile and they eventually exited from the world of high politics, swapping swords and pistols for vines and corks.

There are hundreds of families in Chile who claim a lineage or have the name McKenna, in all walks of life in Chile, including the current Chilean Ambassador in Ireland, Cecilia McKenna.

The current CEO of Vina Undurraga, Jose Yuraszeck, is the man behind this move to emphasise the Irish heritage of the winery, but it was the Undurraga family, the previous owners who were the relatives of McKenna.

However, in spirit, Yuraszeck seems well in tune with his patriotic predecessor.

Winery Warrior, Jose Yuraszeck

In Chile, indeed across South America Jose Yuraszeck is a colossus of the business world, who headed up one of that continents most controversial business deals, one of the largest in Chilean history when he took Chilectra, the state electricity to the stock market. That was in 1997, when effectively the company morphed into a mega-multinational involving Spain and German state backed entities.

What followed was years of wrangling over who did what, and when, and who made money and who lost out, not unlike the controversy surrounding the privatisation of Telecom Eireann in this country. Many issues are still being examined, but in Chile the Supreme Court in 2005 upheld $66 million in fines against various executives, Jose Yuraszeck amongst them, of the former state electricity entity for company law infringements.

Of course this simply sealed his fame, and Yuraszeck has gone on to feature at the centre of a decade of top level acquisitions of businesses where he has made and remade fortunes. Perhaps his most important deal was the sale, of his SPL Group which owned the largest salt reserves in the Western Hemisphere, 10,000 years reserves, drawn from the Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile. This was one of the largest deals in Chilean history and had to jump through anti-trust investigations in 6 nations, including the USA, which with Yuraszeck at the head, it did.

In 2006 Yuraszeck with his partners in Prospecta Minera acquired a controlling interest in Vina Undeggara .

“No, for me this is not retirement, but it is a very different world to that in which I have been operating before this point.” Said Yuraszeck, in Dublin for the wine launch.

“Everything is on a much longer timescale, but the vision and the dynamics of business are much the same.” Says Jose Yuraszeck.

“The wine business is also fully a part of the rest of the global business system. In respect of transport issues for example, petrol is going to be an important factor in future growth of the New World, but there are many things we can do to offset the problems of such prices. Chile is at the forefront of looking at these responses.” Says Yuraszeck

These include sending wine in bulk to Europe and the US for bottling here, investing in alternative energy sources for international super tanker traffic and switching to entirely different enclosures, such as tetrapak.

“Many things are being considered, but I have to tell you that I am not at all certain that oil will reach that level, in the medium or long term. New sources are a distinct possibility.” Says Jose Yuraszeck in a way that almost made me think of investing in mining stocks.

“But with Vina Undurraga we have the opportunity to move towards what I believe is the real future for Chilean wine, to elevate the wines and the perception of our wines to the highest quality levels.” Says Yuraszeck

“You see, we are only beginning and we have already achieved so much, just 20 or so years ago, vineyards in Chile, and I mean nearly all of the major wineries, were located in a band perhaps a hundred or so miles north and south of Santiago.” Says Yuraszeck

“This was an industry that was clearly orientated on volume for that population. You travelled in the vineyard regions and across say the Maipo, a valley with excellent slopes and a wide array of soils and all you saw was vines planted in easy to access rows along the floors of the valleys.” Says Yuraszeck.

“I am sure you know that even the vines that were there were not even what people thought they were, so Merlot, which we grew a great deal of, turned out to be another varietal altogether. This was a blessing of course because in one move, it gave us, gave Chile our own unique varietal in the world, Carmenere.”

“In just a couple of decades, all that has changed, radically. And what is more, we are only just beginning. We are trying learn our country, our terroir, in a decade, when of course it took France or Italy a thousand years. But we are doing it.” Says Yuraszeck.

“In last months Decanter World Wine Awards, Chilean wines won in almost every major International category.” Says Yuraszeck, modestly not mentioning that his own Vina Undurraga, picked up the International Trophy for Sauvignon Blanc with his Vina Undurraga T.H. Sauvignon Blanc Lo Abarca 2008.

“This is happening because we are now finding the right spots, the exact parcels where the very best clones and vines can bring the best rewards. So you see that we are now searching out in remote cool climate regions like Bio Bio in the south, or Elqui in the north. This kind of enthusiastic and thorough approach si going to elevate Chilean wines in the years to come.” Says Yuraszeck

“My friend Eduardo Chadwick of course is taking the route of directly demonstrating the strides we have already made with his completely open tastings against the best in the world, I understand him but it is not the path we are taking at Vina Undurraga.”

“ We are putting our energy into young winemakers like Rafeal Urrejola, who makes our TH range, and into the winemaking.”

Yuraszeck is also investing money, millions of dollars have been spent on buying new land in the best sites amounting to almost 400 Hectares in Leyda, Maipo Alto and Almahue in the Cachapoal Valley.

This has allowed Yuraszeck’s team to then cherry pick the best parcels from their plantings, so the prize-winning TH Sauvignon Blanc is from a single parcel in Tapihue in the Casablanca Valley. In years to come, vineyard sites like Tapihue could Yuraszeck hopes become the well know clos of Chile as famous as vineyards like Clos de Vougeot or Clos De Mouches in Burgundy.

Wine is an expression of the people and the nation that makes it. Jose Yuraszeck is very aware of this and that in Vina Undurraga he is presenting an image of Chile. The impression of Yuraszeck himself is of a meticulous, observant and hugely ambitious individual, if those traits find there way into the winery Undurraga’s future is assured.

The Irish market in hard currency terms is small, but to Yuraszeck, he says, an important part of the jigsaw for Chile’s development.

“The UK market and Germany, and of course the USA, these are very important, but Ireland responded early to Chile, and with my Wines of Chile role I must say, we are immensely proud to be the best selling wine here.” Says Yuraszeck.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the wine making equivalent of ‘Dublin We Love You’ by so many touring rock bands, but it is said over and over by so many Chilean winery owners, that when you also realise that Santiago the capital is nearly bisected by the 8km long Avenue of The Liberator Bernardo O’Higgins, then you might even believe it.

We of course in Ireland get an unexpected boost, another wine of course, but even better another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of our country’s still fractured history, another small insight into who we really are and not the nationalist or colonialist myth we have been weaned on. Sligo and Tyrone, O’Higgins and McKenna joined in adventure, self determination and now, wine.

McKenna Collection Wines

McKenna Collection Sauvignon Blanc (88)

-This McKenna Collection Sauvignon Blanc is a somewhat one-dimensional offering that has a decent crisp, green and cut grass-like wash, but the mid palate lacks depth and the finish is clean but un-involving. Chilled it is a creditable, quaffable Sauvignon

McKenna Collection Cabernet Sauvignon (87)

-A rather smooth, sweet take on Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon which emphasises easy drinking ultra ripeness over complexity. A reasonable, correct and quaffable wine, for immediate consumption.

Other Available Wines Of Vina Undurraga

Aliwen Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (88) around €11.99
Undurraga Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (87) around €9.55

Undurraga Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (87) around €9.55

Undurraga Merlot 2006 (86) around €9.55

Vina Undurraga wines are widely available, Tesco Supermarkets, Nationwide, Molloys Liquor Stores Chain, Martins Off Licence, 11 Marino Mart, Fairview, Dublin 3

Email the wine column at wine@sbpost.ie

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