Sunday, March 19, 2017

Biking the Vines

Once upon a time, Santiago was a small city surrounded by farmland, including extensive vineyards. Over the past century-plus, it’s turned most of that farmland into factories, houses and roads. Many of those houses now sport parras, the grape arbors that cover driveways and patios for table grapes, but there remain a handful of vineyards and wineries.
The cellars at Viña Santa Carolina, Santiago's most central winery
The closest of the wineries is Viña Santa Carolina, just a few Metro stops from the central Plaza de Armas, but it has no vines to speak of—all the grapes are trucked into town. A bit farther out, though, in the capital’s Peñalolén district, extensive vineyards still surround the facilities of Viña Cousiño Macul, which has occupied these lands since 1856.
Coal tailings at Lota are still visible from the lovingly landscaped Parque Isidora Cousiño
The Cousiños have been in Chile since 1760, and originally made their fortune from coal near the southern city of Concepción—where the lushly landscaped grounds of Parque Isidora Cousiño contrast with tailings from the mines that gave them their wealth. In downtown Santiago, the Palacio Cousiño—current undergoing restoration after the powerful 2010 earthquake—was the family’s urban gem.
Carlos Cousiño (at left) at the bar of the Grigoriy Mikheev
In 2005, I met winery owner Carlos Cousiño, who brought wine to shared with other passengers on board the Grigoriy Mikheev, a Russian vessel then under charter to the Chilean company Antarctica XXI. I’d paid an earlier visit to the winery but, recently in Santiago, I took the opportunity to do a bike and wine tour with the Santiago operator Bicicleta Verde.
Cousiño Macul's vineyards are on the eastern edge of the city.
The ride doesn’t leave from Bicicleta Verde’s downtown Santiago offices (though the company does offer tours of the city proper). Peñalolén’s a bit distant for that, but it’s still a quick trip on the exemplary Metro to Estación Quilín, despite involving a change of trains.
The bikes await the riders.
From Quilín, it’s a half-hour walk or a short taxi ride to the winery, where wrought-iron gates open onto a tree-shaded road leading to a complex of buildings dating, in some cases, to the mid-19th century. Bicicleta Verde stores its gear in a warehouse here but, on this particular morning, I was the only client on hand (I chose to avoid the hot afternoon sun). The bikes themselves are basic, with baskets, big tires, limited gears, and hand brakes, suitable for terrain that slopes only slightly from the piedmont vineyards toward the city proper. It’s not a strenuous tour, though the return to winery requires a bit more effort (especially after sampling a glass of cool rosé offered by a well-prepared guide).
The Cousiño family's private collection ages in secure subterranean cellars.

After visiting the vines, we toured the atmospheric cellars proper—dating from 1870—where the Cousiño family keeps its private stash and much of the modern equipment resides; there’s also a collection of antique paraphernalia in one museum-like room. Then it was time to conclude the tasting, before catching a cab back to the Metro.
The tasting facilities at Cousiño Macul

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