Winery of the Week: Cousiño-Macul

Cousino-Macul's new winery in the Maipo Valley. Photograph by Dave McIntyre.

Wine collectors tend to favor big-ticket reds—first-growth Bordeaux, cult-favorite Napa Cabernets—that have massive structure and tannin that allow them to age gracefully for decades. Besides, they’re so expensive and special that one tends not to want to drink them. When thinking of aging wines, we tend to ignore the cheap ones.

Mariano Fernández knows otherwise. Fernández is the ambassador from Chile and a major wine lover, and he recently proved his point to a group of local wine writers at a dinner at the Chilean ambassador’s residence. The dinner featured eight vintages of Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1992 going back to 1960.

Cousiño-Macul is the only 19th-century winery in Chile still owned by the founding family—now under Arturo Cousiño, a member of the sixth generation. Established in 1856 near what is now the outskirts of Santiago, the winery moved its operations about an hour farther south in the Maipo Valley about a decade ago to escape the capital’s sprawl.

I won’t reproduce my tasting notes from the dinner here because these older vintages aren’t available. But they all showed consistent character and quality, and each unfurled different nuances to reflect its age.

The wines can still fuel the passions. Alfredo Bartholomaus, who created Billington Imports and introduced Cousiño-Macul wines to the US market two decades ago, said of the extremely lively 1965: “This is one of those wines you should put on your palate and close your eyes, let it touch you all over, and then ask yourself, ‘When was the last time I was touched like that?’ ”

As I smelled the 1960, with its beautiful aromas of stone, earth, wood, and water—the basic elements of life—combined with an echo of its youthful cherry fruit and a hint of cocoa, I realized that the wine in my glass was three months younger than I am. It has aged so much more gracefully.

The kicker for this tasting was that each of these wines sold for no more than $7 retail when it was on the market. Today the 2006 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $15. The style has changed a bit—more modern, with deeper extraction and grittier tannins than even more recent vintages have displayed. This could be a result of the shift to new, younger vineyards and perhaps a concession to modern tastes. But the Antiguas still shows that Cousiño-Macul character, and it’s a wonderful ambassador for Chilean Cabernet.

Cousiño-Macul wines are widely available in the Washington area. Look also for the Sauvignon Gris, a delicious relative of Sauvignon Blanc, and the new Reserve Riesling 2007.