Archive for the ‘Grape Varieties’ Category

Cafayate’s Cabernet Sauvignon

February 3, 2011

Move on Malbec! just kidding. But hey, a jewish celebrity said two thousand years ago “not on bread alone”, and the wisdom of this phrase still holds today, especially when it comes to wine, where searching for new flavors, grapes, styles and appellations is the only way to learn and enjoy more. After the 2012´ish tsunami wave of Malbec sweeping all six continents (they drink it in the research stations in the Antarctic), one has to wonder what else may come from the land of the gaucho, cheap beef and omnipresent botox applications. Well, it turns out that the king of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is doing really well there, and thanks to the long ripening season the phenolic ripeness many a time coincides with the sugar ripeness. The latter is the one that makes the fruit taste like a grape and not like mouthwash. It breaks down the acids and increases  the sugar content. Phenolic ripening is related to tannins, and when picking happens while the tannins are not mature enough this can have an unpleasant effect on the wine, giving it a “green” character. In grapes with heavy loads of tannin, like Cabernet Sauvignon, this problem can be a nightmare for the grower and the winemaker. In Argentina, however, due to the high elevation of the vineyards and lack of autumn rains, this is less of a concern, resulting in “sweet” tannins, also called “redondos” (round) and some other names that are reminiscent of the phemale anatomy and that I will discuss in another post dealing with the sexuality of wine.

Anyhow, and going back to the subject of interest, no better place for Cabernet Sauvignon than Cafayate, a colonial city in the province of Salta, far up north toward Bolivia. Cabernets from the area are intense, big, unfathomably fruity and have those beautiful sweet round tannins that tickle your buds long after you swallow. The province is famous for the Calchaquies Valleys, which boast truly high elevation vineyards, up to 2000 meters above sea level, dwarfening the “high vineyard” monicker that many wineries from Mendoza love to stamp on their back labels. Cabernet Sauvignon does so well there that in fact, wines from Cafayate have won national challenges in Argentina, leaving behind not only wines from famed Mendoza but those made with the legendary Malbec grape. Names to look for include Etchart, Colome, San Pedro, Nanni, among many more.

Cellaring on a Budget

August 4, 2010

Contrary to what most people believe, you don’t have to spend large sums of money to get a wine cellar started. In fact –according to expert Michaela Morris– if you have only one or two bottles that you are reserving for future drinking, you already have a cellar. Michaela and Michelle Bouffard are the owners of house wine, a business dedicated to wine education and consulting. In an informative and fun session at the Listel Hotel, they quenched the audience’s thirst for wine tips.

The first thing you should know before you start a cellar is how you like your wines. If you like them fruity and fresh then perhaps cellaring is not a good idea. If you like to taste past those vibrant fresh fruit tones and discover strokes of barn, forest floor and earthy minerality, then ageing wine is for you. Once you decide to start cellaring wines, you need to find a place where the temperature will be relatively stable and unlikely to get too hot. Usually this place could be a basement or if you live in an apartment, a closet which door should be kept shut to fend off temperature variation. Ideally the temperature should be around 12-15C. Lights should be kept off as much as possible and a humidifier comes in handy if the natural air moisture is low.

The Housewine experts xplained that wines you choose to cellar must be the ones you like. Once that point is checked you need to taste the wine and ponder three qualities: acidity, tannin and fruit. If the wine lacks acidity then is not a good candidate for long term cellaring. This is because acidity underpins the fruit flavors of the wine and with low acidity the wine will taste flat and will lack freshness. Tannin is the other element to consider, especially when picking red wines. Tannins are compounds found in the grapes’ skins as well as in seeds and other woody tissues. Tannins have an antiseptic role as well as an anti-oxidative one. These qualities will allow the fruit to remain free of oxidation, showing its flavor through time.

As for the number of bottles you need to purchase to start your cellar,  Michaela recommend to buy three as a minimum. The first one you can open after a couple of years. This is a testing time also, since the wine will show its capacity to age. If it still maintains good level of fruit and acidity and tastes better than the original product, you can keep the other two bottles and open one at year four or three and the last one at year five. However, if the flavors already start to decline it is the moment to drink. Further ageing will disappoint you with lack of flavor and sluggish acidity. Finally, when assessing wines to age, acidity is the main indicator for whites and tannin for reds. In both cases time will turn the color towards brown. Red wine will have a brick red hue; white will become golden or even amber.

Wine Recommendations

Good white varieties to age, due to their natural high acidity include Riesling and Semillon. The first one will develop a diesel-like aroma, with fruit going from the green apple initial to riper apple, stone fruit or even tropical notes. Semillon is known to age well for decades due to its unflagging acidity and develops deliciously toasty flavors. Good choices include Nederburg (12.99), Hattenheimer (22.99) or Markus Molitor Himmelreich (53.99) for Rieslings. Excellent candidates for Semillon or Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends are Poacher’s Blend (12.99), Brokenwood (22.99), Black Hills Alibi (36.99) and Bordeaux’ Chateau Mirambeau (43.99).

Tannic load, as mentioned before, will increase the capacity of a red wine to age gracefully. Little known Xinomavro grape is one of the best Greek varieties for this purpose. Boutari Naoussa Reserve (21.99) will improve greatly with five years in the cellar, enhancing its natural dry cherry and fig flavors. Italy’s Nebbiolo grape always benefits from ageing. Barbaresco by Produttori (42.99) is a great option. Also from Italy, but this time in the south, the Aglianico grape with its fiery tannins gets only better after a few years of rest. Red Cello (14.99) will see its fruit shine and its tannins soften up. Other reds to put away for a couple of years include Volteo Cabernet Tempranillo (19.99), Morande Pionero Pinot Noir (15.99) and Agua de Piedra Cabernet Sauvignon (13.99).

You don’t need to be rich to start a cellar. In a few years you will be more than happy you did.

Sauvignon Blanc is In

July 6, 2010

When it comes to wine, nothing says summer like Sauvignon Blanc. Well, there is Pinot Grigio, Unoaked Chardonnay, Tocai, Moschofilero, and all those delicious whites. But talking about Sauvignon Blanc, what a wonderful grape it is. Regardless where the wine is made, it always welcomes your nose with a brushtroke, an aromatic draft of vegetable nature, be it freshly cut grass, rue, lemongrass, gooseberry or a myriad other herbs. Properly made it delivers on that promise, lightning up your palate with shiny acidity and more or less fruit, again, depending on the origin. Some make your eyes tear with citric, limey quality; others are apt at imparting fully ripened apples, pears and peaches, while others offer subtle -or blunt- tropical flavors like guava, banana, passion or even dragon fruit.

More minerally versions, where terroir is highlighted and fruit -though firm- is more subdued, come from the Loire Valley, in the heart of France. Sancerre -right guess- but not the only apellation in the area where you will get delicious Sauv Blanc.  Try Chateau de Sancerre, Pascal Jolivet, Levin. A little less mineral and also riding an deliciously acidic wave, Northern Italy can be home to lovely Sauvignon Blanc. One bottle of Bastianich B will send you looking for more good renditions from the top of the boot-shaped country.

There’s no need to say much about New Zealand’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, not much that haven’t been said already. Perhaps the most popular appellation for Sauvignon Blanc these days, the region’s wines are easy to drink, with a purity of fruit that is seldom found elsewhere. A Kiwi winemaker once told me that the high level of aseptique technique developed in the farm and dairy industries was behind this. Apparently, when New Zealand farmers lost some of their international markets due to competition, they redirected their skills at the wine industry. True or not, memorable whites come from the land of tongue-show-off warriors, unidentifiable national flag and bad soccer. Try the spark-studded  acidity of the Matua’s Paretai. Or the savory backdrop of the Wither Hills Rarangi. Or Jackson’s Stich. Not to mention the well known Kim Crawford, Scott or Villa Maria,plus all kind of  wines by names of critter and small mammals pissing on gooseberry bushes or monkeying around bays. Whoa, they sure  are taking after their Australian cousins when it comes to label originality.

Chile does a great job too. Their Sauvignon Blancs are second to none, except to Sancerre and Marlborough, and Pouilly Fume. And…just kidding.  Casas del Bosque is a gem of a finding at 17 dollars. Firm fruit, impeccable acidity (Impeccable. Im starting to sound like Bobby Parker) and 90 WE points make my point. Brilliant. Veramonte and Errazuriz make truly good stuff under 15 dollars. They will shine any night at any party.

Malbec comes next. Er, I meant to say, Argentina. Who would’ve thought they can make anything other than red? Well, think again. Mapema (the only thing going against this delicious wine is its name. And its price @ $21) is a big surprise. Ripe fruit weaved into the firm acidic frame, this Sauvingon Blanc is a sign of better whites to come from Mendoza. And from further north in the country. Paula is another solid Sauv Blanc, leaner on the fruit and with remarkable, kiwi-esque acidity. Trophee winner Pascual Toso, after delighting us with Cab Sauvs and Malbecs, makes a pretty decent SauvBlanc for 13 dollars. And a solid rose, although, that is another matter.

How to finish this without a mention of California? With a touch of oak, Grgich makes a simply beautiful Fumee Blanc. Beautiful, memorable, remarkable. The similarly lightly oaked Supery comes close. And for those with deeper pockets, don’t let the summer go by without trying the superb Spring Mountain Sauvignon Blanc. We’ll taste vicariously through you.

Salud!

“I don’t like Merlot” Are you Sure?

March 30, 2010

Someone said once “A truth is a lie convened upon by many.”  (Just learned that someone was Lenin)…I don’t know if I concur fully with the idea, but got to say that in the case of Merlot it really hit it right on the nose. Back in the 90’s, when Merlot became popular in Northamerica, nobody seemed to object to the velvety varietal. As with any other wine, there are good and not so good versions, so condemning all the wines made from the grape just because some (or many) were pukeable, doesn’t ring right. But that is exactly what happened. The infamous movie Sideways was “cool” and cool was to order “anything but Merlot” (ditto for Chardonnay) and Pinot Noir became all the rage. In reality, Merlot still sold -and sells- a lot more than Pinot Noir. Ours is a culture of image. One wants to be seen as cool, knowledgeable, attractive. So, all the sudden ordering Merlot made you exactly into the opposite of desirable. Some people –especially those who don’t know an awful lot about wine but pretend to- repeated this mantra until it became “true.”

It is funny to think that actually, when it comes to good and not so good varietals, it is way easier to get a “good” Merlot under 30 dollars than a “good” Pinot Noir under 40. In fact, a lot of cheaper Pinots are not at all “true to type.” They taste like anything but. Even funnier is that most people –I say this without statistical back up but have no doubt about it- most people prefer full bodied wines. And this is not new. Back at the time when the movie shook the foundations of the North American wine culture, full bodied wines were already more popular. So, how do you end up drinking Pinot Noir when you really like bigger wines? We humans are a funny bunch, entirely illogical. Anyway, let’s go back to the point, which is, Merlot.

The variety originates in Bordeaux, where is the ideal complement to bony Cabernet Sauvignon to create all those legendary wines that are so far from reach –pocket depth wise- that most of us may never taste them. At that level, where appellations like Pomerol and St. Emilion shine, Merlot yields wines of tremendous richness, pronounced flavor intensity and with the typical velvety texture, provided by properly tamed tannins, round and smooth.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend megabucks and buy a legend to taste a good, juicy, soft Merlot. There are several varietals made in the new world (and old) that will provide a good idea of what Merlot can do when well made. Let’s take a look at what is available here in Vancouver.

Thelema Merlot. South Africa. $40. Opulent, dense, will leave you breathless. Not sure whether there is a production/import problem but it is hard to spot these days. If you see one, grab it.

Marques de Casa Concha. Chile. $30. A dash of Carmenere makes it deliciously smoky spicy.

Stimson. Washington State. $18. Medium bodied, easy driking and soft on the tannin. A good entry level by Chateau St. Michelle.

Church & Estate. British Columbia $25. Merlot is one of the black grapes that do really well in British Columbia. This gold medal winner is truly delicious, with a sweet-fruit entry and nicely managed oak.

Sonoma Vineyards. California. $18. At this point you wonder. How can they make it so good at this price? Notice also that the price went down three dollars in the past few months.

Velvet Devil. Washington State. $28. Big, assertive in its fruit forwardness. A great example of what the reds from our immediate neighbor to the south can do.

Woodbridge. California. $13.99. A house wine in many restaurants in Vancouver, yummy and juicy.

Bouchard Pere et Fils. France. $11.99. Not from Burgundy, where a Bouchard Pinot would set you back a couple hundred. The French powerhouse makes this one in the sunny south part of the country.

Diego Murillo. Argentina. $10.99. Organic, tasty and coming all the way from Patagonia. Doesn’t get better for budget Merlots.

Homework: find a Pinot at the price points above and see which one –blind tasting-  you like better.

Ciao for Now

Bonarda, the other Red Wine from Argentina

March 26, 2010

With the ever increasing popularity of the wines of Argentina in Vancouver, Malbec seems to be on everybody’s mind, not to say everybody’s palate. The grape’s name is as recognizably Argentinian as the Tango itself. Torrontes, Argentina’s white signature grape is slowly carving a space for itself on the city’s wine store shelves. Vancouverites are also becoming more familiar with other grapes –both black and white- coming alongside Malbec: Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier. But there is another new arrival, a black grape that is received with curiosity. That is Bonarda, an Italian variety that is planted extensively in Argentina. In fact, until not long ago, it was the most planted vine variety.

As such, Bonarda has always been blended to make the table reds that the southamerican nation demanded to quench their thirst for wine. Never considered a “noble” blend, Bonarda was limited to the passenger seat due to its character as a wine and its wild vigor in the vineyard. Bonarda grows and produces fruit like it is nobody’s business. That was precisely the reason for its ubiquitous presence in Argentina’s vineyards: lots of grapes were needed to make lots of wine. Let’s not forget that until the 70’s consumption in Argentina reached a mind –guzzle- boggling 90 liters per head per year.

With the arrival of the nineties, the innovative approach of familias like Catena, technology and investment, winemakers quickly realized that Bonarda would not satisfy the demand for quality export wine. Malbec took that honor. The rest is history. For Malbec, that is. The curious Vancouver wine drinker may have noticed Bonarda on the back labels of their favorite Malbec, with which is blended to add  perfume, inky purple red color, moderate acidity and to lighten up the tannic load.  They get along so well that it is considered a signature Argentinian corte (blend). Some say that they tango with each other. Bonarda is also blended with Sangiovese to make agreeable table reds for early consumption and it also has an interesting synergy with Syrah.

In conversations with different Argentinian winemakers it seems that there are two bands: one claims that Bonarda will become the next Malbec phenomenon; the other –idea I share- think that the grape will have a less exalted role, given that keeping yields low will always be a viticultural challenge. A little bit like what we see today with vigorous grapes like Carignan in Languedoc. In blends it does really well; alone it makes a few good wines. The rest of the varietals are just….Carignan.

To sum up, Bonarda on its own is intense in color, frequently rich, inky. The nose is perfumed, with easily identifiable aromas like red fruit and mulberry. Spice in the background is not unusual, and when oaked it can exhibit pleasant tones of vanilla and tobacco. In the mouth it shows vinous intensity, ripe, sweet fruit and velvety tannins. It can also show –testament to its ferocious vegetal vigor- a “green” background, a bit like biting into a fresh arrugula leaf.

 There are several bottlings that are available in Vancouver. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Colonia Las Liebres $12.99

Maipe $14-16

Dante Robino $19-22

Don Domenico El Escondido $28-32

All of the above are quite nice sips. Without doubt the best of the lot is the Finca El Escondido (San Juan region), by Don Domenico, perhaps reflecting the increasing viticultural costs of keeping the vine’s growth in check. Dante Robino is also very competent although it lacks the ripe, sweet fruit of the former.

Maipe and Las Liebres are also pleasing varietals; the second one is great value. Anecdotically, I once tasted the Las Liebres aerated through a Vinturi. The gizmo really enhanced the texture and flavor of this baby, suggesting that other Bonarda may benefit from aeration. 

Blends

Among the blends to be found in Vancouver we have:

Los Crios Syrah Bonarda (50%-50%), Vina Antigua Sangiovese Bonarda and Benmarco Malbec (blended with 10% Bonarda). This latter one speaks for itself, with its plump texture and sweet tannins.  Vina Antigua is a simple pleasing table red like the ones Argentinians put on the table any week night; follow suit and wash down your daily dinner with a sip or two.

Pour Bonarda to accompany grilled meats and vegetables; roast beef, pasta and hard cheese.

Salud

 

Aglianico: Volcano in a Bottle

November 6, 2009

For the average wine consumer, Italy, with its twenty wine regions and scores of commercially grown grapes –mostvulture-blog little known and with hard to remember names- can be plain down befuddling. Even for those who have tasted Chianti, Valpolicella or Sangiovese, these are seldom first picks when they go wine shopping. Like in every other sphere of thought and culture, wine is full of stereotypes and myths, and –unfortunately- Italian wine is plagued with them. “They are too acidic”, say some. “I can’t stand the strong tannins”, complain others. “Only good with food”, is what most say.

The reality is that, even myself, used to be in one of the groups above, or in all of them. It takes tasting more than a few Italian wines to realize that the myths above are not only false; they come from perceptions born out of tasting one or two wines from one or two regions only. Many people never go beyond Chianti and Valpolicella, usually low quality versions served as house wines in restaurants. More adventurous consumers go for ITP blends. These, the Indicazione Geografica Tipica wines, are made from international varieties (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah) sometimes blended with Italian ones, and can be just delicious, full bodied, powerful wines on their own right.

ITP wines have gained international recognition, but the heart of Italian wines resides in the indigenous varieties. Most of the well-known ones are grown in the north: Nebbiolo, found in Barolo and Barbaresco. Chianti’s Sangiovese or Valpolicella’s Corvina. But there is one variety that stands tall in the south: Aglianico. “The Nebbiolo of the south” as they call it, is like the true Nebbiolo, a grape that yields wines that can be big, sometimes massive.

The variety was taken to Southern Italy by the Greeks, although DNA analysis shows that its lineage cannot be traced to anything that is cultivated today in Greece. The name is believed to be a distortion of the word “Ellenico”, Italian word for Greek. Most Aglianico is cultivated in Basilicata (the region between the tip and heel of the Italian boot) and in Campania (the front side of the boot’s ankle). Some vineyards can be found in Molise and Puglia and, to a lesser extent, in Australia and California. In Basilicata the grape enjoys DOC (Denominazione d’Origine Controlatta) status, with the most prestigious wines coming from the volcanic soils around Mount Vulture. In Campania the grape has its own DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controlatta e Garantitta) based on the Taurasi appellation.

In the vineyard, Aglianico prefers volcanic soils, as mentioned above, and seems to benefit from relatively high altitude (400-500m). The dark skinned berries ripen incredibly late, a fact that has limited the quality of wines made from early harvesting. Aglianico wines, when well made, can deliver a powerful sensorial experience that rivals or bests that of most other big reds. An intense nose of tectonic force is a hallmark of good Aglianico. Chocolate, plum and spice are common. In the palate the combination of these flavours with the indomitable character of its tannins makes a lasting impression. Due to its high acidity and “ferocious tannins” (as described by Jancis Robinson) , Aglianico wines benefit from cellaring and will make the absolutely perfect match for grilled meats, roasted lamb and game.