Chilean Cellar Surprises

Chilean Cellar Surprises

Wine of the WeekCousi_o-Macul 2005 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.15, 89 points, LCBO 212993)Maipo Valley, ChileCellaring a $15 Chilean cabernet is likely not an idea that has occurred to many people this week. But if building a cellar on a shoestring budget don’t miss this 100% cabernet from one of Chile’s oldest estate wineries. They’ve been making this wine since 1927 and a recent tasting of the 1979 vintage shows it has the stuffing to last. It’s full bodied, surprisingly dense, rich and smooth for the money, with well-integrated tannin. Aromatically complex as well, with classic Chilean cabernet cassis, eucalyptus, generous wood spice from American oak barrels. There is a meaty, leathery note that runs through all the Cousi_o Macul reds, which some like and some don’t. So take a test drive before going for a case or two. But do take that first spin.

The tasting was rushed—I had train to catch—but my hour with Arturo Cousi_o in the Toronto offices of importer Philipe Danduarand Wines was one of the most fascinating I’ve spent in weeks. He had lined up two vertical tastings: one of his flagship Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Maipo Valley, and a more expensive cabernet-merlot blend called Finis Terrae. To finish, we also had the delicious Cousi_o-Macul 2006 Cabernet Rose (88 points, $11.95, Vintages 34314) loaded with red currant, strawberry and bay leaf character, and the intriguing, ripe, fleshy, almost tropical (yet dry) Cousi_o Macul 2006 Riesling Do_a Isadora (88 points, $11.95). (It’s currently under consideration for an LCBO general listing.) It’s certainly not in the laser-thin, nervy, high-acid style of German or Niagara examples, but it is nonetheless amazing—balanced and concentrated.

But it was the sense of history, so unexpected with the majority of New World wines, that most impressed me this day. While sitting across from the dapper, aristocratic Se_or Cousi_o, I was transported to the mid-19th century, when this wine estate was founded south of Santiago. (It’s now almost within the suburbs of the city.) Vines were already on the property, but founder Matias Cousi_o sought to improve the quality by going to Bordeaux and bringing back cabernet vine cuttings from Margaux and Pauillac, just before the phylloxera plague all but wiped out French viticulture. Whether it’s the quality of the vine stocks, the age of the vines, or the terroir of the Macul vineyard itself, these reds possess impressive structure, depth and elegance, and have aged very well.

The current vintage of the Antiguas Reservas is the first from a new 300 hectare property (nothing is small in Chile) called Buin which sits at higher altitude in the Alto Maipo closer to the Andes. It was very difficult to detect significant differences from the older Macul Vineyard vintages; all show incredible richness, especially for a wine so inexpensive. The 1999 vintage was excellent, rating 91 (a great year in Chile), while the 1990 (93 points) was drop-dead gorgeous, at peak maturity with amazing harmony, complexity and vitality. The 1983 (90 points), from a cooler, wetter El Ni_o vintage, was kept amazing spry due to higher acidity, with cassis and mint still intact. The 1979 (88 pts), although fading, was still drinkable. Only the 1985, with a touch of cork, failed the time test.

Finis Terrae is a more sophisticated, concentrated French oak-aged blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot first introduced in 1992 to compete with the New World surge of premium and upper-premium “meritage” or “Bordeaux blends.” It is technically better and more elegant than Anitguas Reservas, and, at $30, still represents very good value in the genre, but is somehow less generous and exuberant. (Certainly a wine for white table cloth situations, especially along with rack of lamb.) The 2003 (92 points, Vintages $29.95 not currently in stock) is dense, more elegant and restrained and still a bit too tannic, with lifted pine, eucalyptus and blackcurrant. Of earlier vintages, both the 1999 (93 points) and 1997 (91 points) are superb and now drinking well, while the heavily merlot-based, softer, more delicate 2001 (89 points) is sliding past prime already, and the 1993 has utterly collapsed.

By the way, if you are tracking Chilean vintages, Arturo Cousiño has an easy rule of thumb. For no apparent reason, the odd years are better vintages, the even years merely good. But of course there are very few disastrous years in this climatically benevolent corner of the world.

Coming up… On Tuesday, June 12, swing by the Distillery District for SIP, a showcase of Ontario wines based on the recent Ontario Wine Awards. Tickets at Watch this space next week for some Ontario wines to watch for…