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Valuing Loyalty Over Innovation

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Valuing Loyalty Over Innovation
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

American culture has always sought out and prized the newest new thing. We believe in progress and have faith that if we welcome change and work for improvement, then the future will be better than the past. In the wine world, that translates into a feverish search for the newest grape varieties, the hottest winemakers and the most innovative wine styles. Does the name Colgin ring a bell?

Arturo Cousino begs to differ.

Cousino is the sixth generation of his family to run Cousino-Macul, Chile's second-oldest winery, founded in 1856 on an estate in the Macul region, just south of Santiago, where the first wine grapes in the country were planted, in 1554. Working with winemaker Jaime Rios, a veteran of 31 vintages at the estate, Cousino sees his first duty as preserving and protecting the tradition he has inherited.

"Too many wines today taste just the same," Cousino asserts. "Our estate's combination of soil, microclimate and plant material are all unique, and these factors determine the style of our wine. You may not like our style, but I think it would be a shame to throw it away."

In fact, I have not liked the Cousino-Macul style, at least as it has been embodied in some vintages of their signature wine, the Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon.

In blind tastings for Wine Spectator, I have found Antiguas Reservas to be admirably consistent: They are light-bodied, smooth and polished, with flavors of dried cherries, tobacco and toast, and are almost always distinguished by a strong eucalyptus note that, in weaker vintages, turns intensely smoky, much like burning rubber. While the fruity 1995 managed a score of 83 points, or "good," on our 100-point scale, the 1988, ashy and herbaceous, sank to 74 points, or "average."

So Cousino and his longtime American importer, Alfredo Bartholomeus, presented seven vintages of Antiguas Reservas for a vertical tasting that ranged from 1996 to 1969. It was a chance to put the estate's wine style in context, and it gave me a new understanding of the role of tradition in Chile's rapidly changing wine scene.

Every wine has two primary influences: the vineyard that produces the grapes, and the winery that turns them into wine. In the case of Cousino-Macul, the vineyard is part of an estate that covers nearly 2,000 acres of land, which because of urban encroachment now form an agricultural enclave surrounded by development. In 1860, just four years after the Cousino family purchased the property, the son of the founder traveled to France; he brought back grape cuttings of such varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along with French architects to build a winery in the latest style.

Ever since, the vineyard has been propagated from cuttings taken from existing plant material, giving it a genetic identity that bears more resemblance to a vanished, pre-phylloxera France than any contemporary clones developed by laboratories in California or nurseries in Chile. Currently, 329 acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and only grapes from vines more than 30 years old are made into wine under the Antiguas Reservas label, which dates back to the 1920s.

Winemaking techniques have evolved over the years, but slowly and cautiously. Rios trained in Bordeaux under Emile Peynaud, but early in his career he basically followed local conventions. Until 1983, the wines were aged in very large, very old vats made of American oak (and even rauli, a local hardwood) for up to three to four years before bottling. Today, Antiguas Reservas is aged in small oak barrels, mostly American but including some French, with up to 25 percent of them new every year, and bottled after a year in wood.

The tasting was not blind. At Cousino's request, I decanted all the wines two hours in advance; I tasted them both on opening and later with the group. All were in good condition, with high levels and healthy corks. They fell naturally into three groups: young ('96 and '92), mature ('89, '86, '83) and old ('76, '69).

The 1996, from an unusually dry year, showed good concentration and firm tannins; the eucalyptus note was present but balanced with ripe fruit flavors. It was promising, though a bit clumsy; I rated it 85 points. The 1992, still young and quite refreshing on the palate, was crisper and lighter, with bright cherry flavors and floral notes balancing the herbal ones (86 points).

The next group showed lighter colors, tending towards brick, smoother tannins and less fruit flavors. The firm '89 offered dried cherry and spicy notes, with only hints of menthol (85 points). The '86 seemed to be drying out, with an edge of dry tannins and a pronounced eucalyptus accent (80 points). The '83 was richer, with notes of coffee and chocolate to fill out the cherry flavor, and had a lovely silkiness on the finish (87 points).

The older wines were, as is often the case, the most extreme. The '76 was delicate but vibrant on opening, with truffle, tobacco and dried cherry flavors, somewhat reminiscent of an old Rioja, but it faded during the tasting and finished weak and dry (78 points). The '69, on the other hand, was deeply-colored and quite rich, with dried cherry, tobacco and cedar flavors; here, the eucalyptus note was a bit overbearing at first, but with air it became more integrated into the wine, which seemed to bloom, rising on my scorecard over an hour from 82 to an outstanding 90 points.

The tasting was a convincing demonstration that Antiguas Reservas does embody a signature style: rather light-bodied, but with good intensity and balance in the best years, and with consistent flavors of cherries, tobacco and eucalyptus that become better integrated and more complex over time. The distinctive mint, smoky and herbal flavors that can appear to be flaws in a young wine, when compared with more fruit-driven examples, are truly elements of a unique character.

"Macul is not an area that produces full-bodied wines," Cousino says. "Its strength is elegance."

And in fact, once this element is isolated and understood, it is evident not only in the wines of Cousino-Macul but also in its neighbors. Domaine Paul Bruno, a winery owned by Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier of Bordeaux, and Domus Aurea, whose winemaker is Chilean superstar Ignacio Recabarren, use different viticultural and vinification techniques in their Cabernets, but both wines show the telltale eucalyptus note, and both tend to be lighter-bodied and more elegant than, say, the top Cabs from Concha y Toro and Vina Santa Rita, only a few miles south.

Cousino recognizes that no winery can simply stand still. "We are moving a little more towards the riper, fruity style," he admits. But his insistence on remaining loyal to long-established tradition, rather than embracing novelty simply because the current market demands a new style, shows an admirable commitment to principle. And I consider it a virtue to maintain the kind of diversity that Cousino-Macul shows in both its vineyard and its winemaking approach. It's like preserving heirloom tomatoes or apples -- a way to ensure that future generations will have the widest possible field of endeavor. After all, sometimes what has appeared at first glance to be progress has proven, over time, to be only a dead end.

I still prefer other Chilean Cabernets to Antiguas Reservas. But I have new respect for Cousino-Macul and its principles. I know there are wine drinkers out there who appreciate its style, and I'm pleased they have the choice. After all, taste is a personal matter. The more options we have, the more pleasure and delight we'll find in the glass.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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