Wines of the Wild Horses: Kingston Family Vineyards, Casablanca, Chile

One of the rare pleasures of a relationship to wine lies in our ability to follow it through time. Normally we think of this in the context of observing the evolution of a particular bottling or vintage of wine as it ages and matures under the cork. Tasting a wine in its youth and then as it matures up to, and sometimes beyond, its peak can be an educational if not enthralling experience.

The same kind of temporal education can happen at the level of a vineyard or even an entire winery, though such experiences are often only available to those who work there. On occasion, though, thanks to a combination of luck and persistence wine writers and even consumers have the opportunity to follow the evolution of a winery from its infancy.

When Courtney Kingston, a friend of a friend, sat down in the tiny kitchen of my San Francisco home in 2005 to tell me about her family’s new adventure on their ancestral homestead in Chile, I had little idea that I was witnessing the birth of a wine project that would present me with precisely this opportunity. Courtney has never failed since to send me the latest releases from Kingston Family Vineyards. I believe I have tasted literally every commercially released wine they’ve made (and a couple more besides) from every vintage they’ve been in production. And it’s been fascinating to observe, through tasting alone, the process of a family and a winemaker building a relationship with and understanding of a place, not to mention figuring out how to express that understanding through wine.

Of course, one can only learn so much about a wine by opening bottles. In the spring of 2019 (Chile’s autumn) I had the opportunity to return to Chile for the second time, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the place that I had been tasting for so long.

Carl John Kingston received his degree from the Michigan School of Mines in 1906, and soon after left to seek his fortunes in mines of South America. After a stint in the mines of Peru, he decided to head farther south and try his hand at prospecting for gold in Chile.

There was only one problem. Chile doesn’t have any gold.

Luckily plenty of people at the time needed the advice of someone with a mining degree, and so Chile’s booming copper business (and those who persistently kept hoping for gold) became the source of Kingston’s rapidly growing fortune.

Eventually his work brought him to Chile’s Casablanca Valley, where one of his business partners talked Kingston into accepting an 8000 acre ranchero as collateral for a loan. When that loan became unrecoverable, Kingston saw an opportunity to change careers. In those days there were two things that you could do with that much land: run cattle or farm tobacco.

The Kingston winery building

By 1922, Kingston was a dairyman and a beef rancher, busy establishing the foundations for generations of descendants to work his land. His granddaughter, Courtney Kingston had no real intention of being a farmer. Per the family’s tradition, she attended college in the United States and went on to work at the consulting firm Deloitte for a few years before coming to the realization that many of us consultants arrive at: we can’t do this forever. She headed off to Business School, and for her final project, she put together a business plan for getting into the wine business, which she then went on to present to her siblings and parents.

Initially, they dismissed it as another “cheddar cheese” venture, referencing her grandfather’s infamous failed attempts to create a Chilean version of the American staple, invoking what has become the family’s traditional warning against overzealous entrepreneurialism.

Eventually, however, Kingston prevailed and the family embarked on a quest for an American partner in the business. After courting several big-name wine companies and the near completion and subsequent collapse of a deal for a joint venture, the family decided to go it on their own. Using the research developed during the partnership search, they entered the grape growing business and haven’t looked back since.

Late harvest Sauvignon Blanc grapes

Their first grapes were planted 1997 and 1998 including, notably, the first red grapes planted in Casablanca in 1998. The only problem? No one really wanted to buy red grapes from a region that had clearly cemented itself as a Sauvignon Blanc region.

But Kingston’s decision to plant Pinot Noir and Syrah in addition to Sauvignon Blanc proved unusually astute. The jury is still out on the Merlot.

Winemaker Amael Orrego

The family’s first vintage was 2003, and they secured the help of an American consulting winemaker named Byron Kosuge, who had spent time at Saintsbury and also makes wine for Miura Vineyards. Based in Napa, Kosuge made the wines until 2015, when his local assistant Amael Orrego stepped into the winemaker role. Kosuge remains the consulting winemaker.

Inside the winery

When searching for names for their wines, the family hit upon the idea of naming the wines after their farm’s most charming residents: their herd of 80 partially feral horses that mostly roam freely across the estate. Kingston’s uncle had a favorite among the horses that he named Alazan de Paso, referring to its the sorrel-red coloring. Each of the family’s wines, when deemed of high enough quality, receives the nickname of a horse from the herd.

The winemaking journey of discovery that the Kingston family has made was fascinating to taste from afar. The wines started off dark, rich and blocky, like adolescents struggling with rapid weight gain. As the vines matured and the team gained a deeper understanding of their site, the wines have become more refined, more sure of themselves, and much lighter on their feet. They are being picked earlier, farmed for higher acidity and brighter fruit flavors, and made with an increasingly steady hand that offers a lighter and lighter winemaking touch. The barrels have gotten more neutral, concrete eggs have entered the picture, and extraction is now gentler. Orrego has moved the production to entirely ambient yeast ferments, and no sulfur is added throughout the winemaking process except at bottling.

In 2016 the family made the decision to begin conversion to organic viticulture. And why not, when they have two fantastic sources of manure to work with?

The latest vintages of these wines are truly excellent, representing some of the highest quality the family has ever produced in my opinion. Yes, even the Merlot, which, after years of selling to Concha y Toro, was so good in 2017 Orrego finally convinced everyone to bottle it under their name.

“The grapes looked so beautiful, and they looked so nice, with no dehydration…. I think it could be an interesting expression of the place,” he said as we tasted it on the winery’s new, expansive patio overlooking the vineyards. It may be a few more years before the Merlot gets a horse of its own, but from my first taste, that seems likely. Perhaps with a little time.

reflecting pool and sculpture at the winery’s new tasting room

The Kingston family is coming up on their 20th commercial vintage. It’s been a pleasure to watch the journey this far, and I look forward to seeing just how much farther they go.

Tasting Notes

2018 Kingston Family Vineyards “Cariblanco” Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of passionfruit and green apple. In the mouth, crisp stony flavors of green apple and passionfruit have a delightful white flower brightness to them. Excellent acidity and wet pavement minerality. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $21. click to buy.

2017 Kingston Family Vineyards “CJ’s Barrel” Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and lime. In the mouth, green apple and cut grass and star fruit flavors have a deep mineral stoniness as excellent acidity keeps the wine super fresh. Faint chalky texture lingers in the finish. The wine was fermented and aged entirely in a concrete egg for more than a year. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2018 Kingston Family Vineyards “Sabino” Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of freshly cut apples and lemon peel. In the mouth, bright and juicy lemon zest and lemon curd flavors are brimming with mouthwatering acidity. A faint chalky texture emerges as the wine finishes with lemon oil and zest and a touch of wet chalkboard. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2018 Kingston Family Vineyards “Rosillo” Rosé of Syrah, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Pale coppery salmon in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries and raspberries. In the mouth, bright, citrusy flavors of orange peel, raspberry, and a touch of herbs have a mouthwatering juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Citrus zest lingers in the finish. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2018 Kingston Family Vineyards “Alazan” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Very light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs and peeled willow bark. In the mouth, gorgeously elegant flavors of wet earth mix with chopped herbs, redcurrant, and a wonderful floral note that lingers through the finish. Wonderful acidity and silky texture round out this stunner of a wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $34. click to buy.

2018 Kingston Family Vineyards “Tobiano” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of earth and herbs and berries. In the mouth, bright berries and herbs and forest floor flavors have a wonderful silkiness and a faint nut-skin-like caramel note in addition to faint, powdery tannins. Very pretty, very elegant, very tasty. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2017 Kingston Family Vineyards Merlot, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum and earth and dried herbs. In the mouth, plum and deeply earthy, dried herb savoriness makes for a stony, refined, and reserved expression of fruit. Very fine-grained tannins and nice length. About 20% whole cluster fermented. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2017 Kingston Family Vineyards “Lucero” Syrah, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of white pepper and blackberries. In the mouth, blackberry and cassis and black cherry flavors have a cool wet-slate minerality and a nice herbal savoriness to them. Excellent acidity. Very faint tannins dust the edges of the palate as notes of dried herbs and flowers linger in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.