Wine. Chile. The words go nearly hand-in-hand in the gastronomic world. That’s because Chile has held the pole position in South America’s wine race for decades, overshadowing the wines of Argentina as the stalwart producer of outstanding wine for outstanding value. While Chile is not alone in this race – indeed Argentina has long pulled-up alongside its flank and newer producers from Uruguay and even Bolivia are nipping at its heels – it remains preeminent for its many wine regions and distinctive varieties which come from them. And the region closest to Santiago is the Casablanca Valley, just an hour from the national’s capital on the main road leading to the sea
One of the early pioneers in the Casablanca Valley was Carl Johnson Kingston, an Upper Peninsula Michigander in search of a South American gold rush. In 1906 he went to Peru, joined a copper company and then headed to Chile to find his nuggets of fortune. But like most prospectors, CJ Kingston never hit that golden vein, so he made a deal with his bankrupt partners to inherit land in exchange for his failed investment. And such it was that that CJ became a Chilean landowner and the new family dairy business was born.
Three generations later, great-granddaughter Courtney Kingston thought there was more opportunity in the land, and in 1998 the family started to grow grapes and make wine. They started one hill at a time, breaking all the traditional wine rules. Since Casablanca Valley is less than 30 miles from Chile’s Pacific coast, the night’s cold, briny breezes flow from the sea, over the mountains and shroud the valley in fog and mist before the bright sun burns it off. It’s a near-perfect climate for the white wines that Casablanca is famous for: herbal chardonnays and crisp sauvignon blancs. But Courtney wanted to produce cool-climate reds that showcased both the quality of the wines made lovingly by hand and the unique terroir of the Casablanca soil. Wines like delicate pinot noirs and smooth, silky syrahs. “Crazy,” other growers in the valley said; “Can’t be done here,” they quipped; “Bankruptcy will soon follow!”
But in 2003 Kingston Family Vineyards released its first production of pinot noir and syrah – just 400 cases in all – which were immediately recognized as a breakthrough in coastal wine making. Since then, the Kingston’s have continued to cultivate their vineyards carefully and selectively. Productions are small and controlled; the vines intentionally stressed so their roots dig deep into the riverless valley in search of water. This produces a lower yield, but grapes that are intense, acidic and as fruity as can be. Grapes that aren’t even supposed to grow here.
A visit to Kingston Family Vineyards begins with a long, straight lane of palms leading to the winery’s sparkling new restaurant and salon which opened last December. A wall of glass the entire length of the sleek modern structure overlooks CJ’s land deal in all its splendor. The view is bucolic; rows of vines grace the floor of the vineyard and stretch up over the gentle hills that flow like verdant waves, green in the summer, golden in the fall. On a clear day you can see the snowcapped Andes in the distance. We are welcomed with a pinkish 2018 Rosillo Syrah Rosé, cool and dry with a nose of Spring blossoms and the subtle taste of berries, apple and pears grown in rocky soil. Perfect.
It was hard to take my eyes away to savor the restaurant’s alluring food, like the first course of reineta tartar, small cubes of uniquely Chilean fish with avocado, beet leaves, and soy sauce, encircled by cucumber. Paired with an herbaceous and citrusy 2017 CJ’s Barrel Sauvignon Blanc, the dish was light and fresh with fish that just hinted of a splash from the nearby Pacific. The second course – long-braised beef medallions with rustic scallion/garlic/cilantro smashed potatoes – was graced by a 2017 Lucero Syrah, garnet in the glass and luscious with blackberry, white pepper and cherry nuances. Its dark, full bodied flavor was both bold and soft, like satin brushing lightly across my cheek. The meal was nicely closed by a potted cheesecake with quince and almonds. In line with Kingston’s down-to-earth vibe, the meal was simple and honest, unafraid to not try and dazzle, leaving the limelight on the main event in the glass.
The Kingston Family Vineyard’s commitment to doing it their way hasn’t gone unnoticed. Acclaimed by heavyweight connoisseurs for making “some of Chile's best pinots” (Food & Wine), the Kingston Family Vineyard is today referred to as "among the best wineries in Chile" (Stephen Tanzer) and in 2011 was designated “Winery of the Year” (Wine & Spirits Magazine). Even the James Beard Foundation asked them to host a special wine dinner in New York. Today they are featured on wine lists at top restaurants across the US and also at Boragó in Santiago. And when you stick your nose in a glass of their cool-climate coastal reds or hay-colored whites; when those first mildly tannic drops nibble at your tongue and tighten your mouth just so before blooming into rich, smooth torrents of flavor, you will understand what the fuss is all about. And you will nod your head at the pioneering spirit of the Kingston family and quickly take another sip.
Kingston Family Vineyards
Hijuela El Maitén S/N
Casablanca, Región de Valparaíso