This Surfer-Winemaker Harvests Grapes and Hangs Ten
Photo courtesy Jean-Charles Villard.

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This Surfer-Winemaker Harvests Grapes and Hangs Ten

“Both surfing and winemaking connect your senses a lot so there are certain similarities,” says Jean-Charles Villard, a winemaker and surfer whose 40-hectare Chilean winery produces acclaimed Pinot Noir and Syrah.
August 18, 2015, 10:00am

"MOVI is made up of a group of people who are passionate about wine: lawyers, analysts, an asparagus farmer, a marketeer. I'm also a surfer," says Jean-Charles Villard, explaining the concept behind Chile's Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes or "Independent Vintners Movement," the specialist wine producers association to which his Casablanca Valley winery belongs.

Known as Charlie, the Chilean winemaker chases tubes with the same dedication as he produces acclaimed vintages. Earlier this year, renowned US wine critic James Suckling gave Charlie's Tanagra 2012—a cold-climate Syrah—96 points on the 100-point scale he uses for grading wine (anything above 90 is "outstanding.") It was the highest recognition for a MOVI wine to date, with his Le Pinot Noir Grand Vin 2013 and 2011 also awarded 95 Suckling Points.

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"I found out from my mate Sven via WhatsApp that James had given us 96 points, the best MOVI result. I thought, Wow and couldn't really believe it, although I knew I had a good score because when I tasted my Syrah with James, he said it was impressive and mentioned all its layers. But I told my mate I'd rather wait for the official results," remembers Charlie. "The next morning, I started receiving emails and more messages and phone calls from all around the world saying, Hey man, you did it!"

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Winemaker and surfer Jean-Charles "Charlie" Villard on his Casablanca Valley winery. Photo by the author. Villard Fine Wines winery, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Photo by the author.

Born in Australia to a French father and Chilean mother, Charlie moved to Santiago aged ten. Wine forms part of his DNA: Père Thierry was a wine-seller in Australia before turning his hand to exporting Chilean vintages. Then, at the end of the 1980s, Thierry started to make wine out of Casablanca Valley.

While Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are big hitters on the global market today, Charlie explains that Chilean whites were "almost non-existent" back then.

"When we came to Casablanca Valley, not even 100 hectares were planted. Today there are more than 6,000 hectares of vineyards in this region," he says. "We were one of the first to plant Pinot Noir in the valley, for example. We built a winery next to the highway and sold that in 2006, but we kept our family name and brand, and continued to make wine at other viñas."

Like father, like son. Charlie worked his first harvest in Australia's Hunter Valley in 2000, and notched up a second at Villiers Estate near Stellenbosch in South Africa a year later. With Margaux, Entre-deux-Mers, Emilia-Romagna, and Bourgogne harvests also under his belt, as well as an oenology degree from Bordeaux, he returned to Chile to make his first Villard vintage in 2005—and got back into the Pacific Ocean.

These days, and with 4000 miles of coast to play with, a typical 24 hours might see Charlie head to the coast to hang ten in the morning before undertaking some tank tasting later that the afternoon.

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Charlie hitting the surf. Photo courtesy Jean-Charles Villard. Photo by the author.

"I love connecting with the ocean as it has so much energy and when you have an aggressive sea like the Pacific Ocean with such big waves, you have to test yourself and combine all your sensibilities," he says. "It's awesome and surfing is like a fantastic wine. Like most pleasures in life, such as sex or whatever, it's fantastic. If I don't go surfing for a while, I get a bit lost. In the [wine] industry, you drink and go out a lot and I need some kind of connection to settle down a bit."

Despite living in Australia until the age of ten, Charlie learned to surf on Chile's liquid turf and calls his homeland an undiscovered surfers' paradise.

"We have very good waves, some of the best in the world, though it's not very well known yet. It's an awesome place," he says. "I can drive for an hour and a half in the morning to go surfing and be back at the winery by the afternoon—when you're motivated, it doesn't matter how far it is."

And just as he checks out weather charts for wave height predictions and wind direction, Charlie uses similar tools to protect his 40 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc, which will have its first harvest in 2016.

"Both surfing and winemaking connect your senses a lot, so there are certain similarities," he says.

The sea also plays its part when it comes to impacting wine-growing conditions.

"The wind comes from the Pacific and enters the valley, even though we are 60 kilometres from the ocean," Charlie explains. "That keeps the grapes cool."

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Aside from basking in the glory of his 96-point Syrah and keeping a close eye on the surf, Charlie is busy overseeing the Villard family's latest project: a new winery. While his parents sold their original viña in 2006, they retained the brand and have been renting stainless-steel tanks at other wineries to make wine during the intervening years. But the time has come to produce their 120,000 litres per year on their own premises, and the family is constructing a new space that's due to open in time for 2016's harvest.

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Photo courtesy Jean-Charles Villard.

"I want to expand production but I'll never more than double it, otherwise all of this [the points at the vineyards] becomes pointless," Charlie says. "We have a lot of quartz on our terroir and find more each year. I want to decorate the new winery with it somehow and do something with these rocks, maybe decorate one wall with quartz. That's what gives us such good quality wine! And they also give you good vibes."