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A good wine?
wine By Ben Giliberti
Originally published on

Well, it just got better.
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I'll admit that, as a wine writer, I often worry about ghosts and spirits that would not trouble most readers. Indeed, my job is to do such worrying, for the precise reason that you won't have to. Yet, as accustomed as I've become to high anxiety, when I heard that one of my all-time favorite $15-range Cabernet Sauvignons, Chile's Cousiņo-Macul Antiguas Reserva, was being "reworked" by the winery, a chill ran down my spine, as strong as any I'd felt since the announcement of New Coke 20-plus years ago. There are just some things you shouldn't mess with. For me, Antiguas Riserva Cabernet was among them. Or so I thought.

Consider the pedigree. Cousiņo-Macul is the winery that the legendary English wine writer Hugh Johnson dubbed "The First Growth of Chile." Brits don't use such terms lightly. To them, First Growth means First Growth Bordeaux, wines as intrinsic to upper crust existence as attending (though not necessarily graduating from) Oxford or Cambridge. The comparison was spot on. Cousiņo-Macul Cabernets had always borne a striking resemblance to First Growth Chateau Haut Brion, displaying earthy Graves-like notes of cedar, mineral and earth combined with a delicate, lacy structure of tannins, red-brown fruit and excellent aging ability. That the wine could even be mentioned in the same breath with the Bordeaux giants is extraordinary, considering that it costs about a tenth as much.

Cousiņo's park-like wine estate was established in 1856 in Macul, then a distant suburb of Santiago. Long one of the leading industrialists of Chile, the Cousiņo family developed shipping lines, railroads, mines and agricultural export companies in the 19th and 20th centuries and today commands vast wealth through its ownership of much of downtown Santiago.

The Cousiņo-Macul vineyard and winery remained the family's pride and joy. It occupies what many consider the best Cabernet terroir in Chile, including the original 300-year-old Macul vineyard purchased in 1856, plus contiguous acreage patiently assembled over the years from plots acquired from neighbors. With considerable irony, when prominent French vignerons, such as Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux and Bruno Prats of Chateau Cos d'Estournel, led what eventually became a virtual invasion of French winemakers to Chile in the 1980s, among the proudest boasts was that one had acquired one of the last remaining prime parcels in Macul not owned by the Cousiņo family.

But trouble was brewing. Over the years, as the city of Santiago grew and prospered, the once distant suburb of Macul was becoming prime real estate for suburban development. Much the same had occurred in Pessac, the home of Haut Brion, 50 years earlier. Haut Brion and its sister estate, La Mission Haut Brion, have become Alamo-like outposts of days gone by, walled parks of lush, verdant vines surrounded by office buildings, tract houses and gas stations in the bustling suburb of Pessac. While development has not yet progressed to that degree around Macul, it became clear to the Cousiņo family, ably led by sixth-generation scion Arturo Cousiņo, that maintaining the idyllic life at the Cousiņo estate no longer made economic sense and was doomed in any event by suburban development that would eventually parallel that which befell Haut Brion. In 1994, after much soul-searching, the impossibly difficult decision was made to relinquish the historic original estate and to relocate the winery and its vineyards to a new home. After extensive studies, Arturo Cousiņo narrowed the search to Buin, a promising Maipo valley sub-region about 20 miles from the former estate. In 1996, Cousiņo planted a 300-acre vineyard and began construction of a new winery. It continued to produce wine at the original estate until the Buin property was ready.

Buin was chosen for several reasons. Its infertile, well-drained soil forces the vines to develop deep root systems to obtain nutrients, which contributes to vine stress that curtails vigor and encourages smaller berries and clusters. This translates to more concentrated flavor components. Proximity to the Yeso ("gypsum") River provides a key component also found in the soil in the old estate, a high a concentration of calcium, known to have a distinct effect on the flavor of Cabernet and other vines. In addition, the micro-climate enjoys excellent sunlight, and extremes of high daytime and low nighttime temperatures, which encourages slow, even ripening, greater color intensity, more complex aromatics and natural acidities in the fruit.

Arturo Cousiņo also ordered that the estate take with it what he considered the most important part of its long history: the genetic inheritance of its vines. All of the Cabernet Sauvignon planted at Buin is directly descended from the original pre-phylloxera cuttings planted at Macul in 1863. Growing on their own, ungrafted root systems, these vines embody the unique flavor of Cousiņo, and the hope was that they would express that flavor when planted on the similar, but not identical, terroir of Buin.

This all sounded great in theory. The proof would have to be in the bottle. Would my beloved Cousiņo Cabernet survive its transplant operation or be relegated to a fond memory?

This month, I finally got my answer with the arrival of the first commercial releases of Antiguas Riserva Cabernet Sauvignon made exclusively from the Buin estate. The news is wonderful. The taste of Cousiņo is alive and well, and overall, the wine is better than ever. My worrying days are over, at least for this particular artifact of great wine.

Here are my happy tasting notes on the three most recent Antiguas Reservas:

Cousiņ o-Macul 2001 Antiguas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($15; Chile): Powerful, with fine depth and concentration, this exceptional wine from the new Buin Estate rivals the great Antiguas Reservas made on the old Macul estate from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Though slightly different from earlier editions, it is still thoroughly Cousiņo, a bit more modern and fruit-driven, but still exhibiting the complex, Graves-like flavors and aromas of leaf tobacco, cedar and earth, layered around a core of ripe fruit and tannins. Though quite enjoyable now, this beautiful wine will age well for 5 to 10 years.

Counsiņ o-Macul 2000 Antiguas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($15; Chile): Also from Buin, the graceful 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, from the more difficult 2000 vintage, is also quite impressive. While it doesn't have quite the cellaring potential of the 2001, it is drinking beautifully now, with classic Cousiņo flavors and elegance. Indeed, this is the one to drink now, while the just-released 2001 rounds out a wee bit.

Counsiņ o-Macul 1999 Antiguas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($15; Chile): The last Antiguas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon made from the Macul estate: I will buy some of this for sentimental reasons. But in truth, unlike Coke Classic, I don't see anyone clamoring for a return to the old Cousiņo. While I love it, the wine is somewhat of an acquired taste, quite earthy and a bit shy of the appealing fruit and concentration of the Buin wine. It was a great wine in its time, but like the premature death of a popular actor whose time has passed, its graceful exit is what might be called a good career move.


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