The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

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Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

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The Wonderful Whites Of Cahors

14 May 2017

If you think of Cahors at all, you likely think of big, tannic reds. Stretched along the Lot River in southwestern France, this region is the original Malbec country. Argentina can claim responsibility for Malbec’s renaissance — even Cahors winemakers admit this fact — but the grape variety was born in France. All AOC Cahors wines must be at least 70% Malbec, with the remainder a blend of Merlot and/or Tannat. Cahors white wines do not exist.

Which is not to say that white wine is not made in Cahors. Indeed, Cahors winemakers produce gorgeous white wines, made mostly from Chardonnay, Viognier and/or Chenin Blanc. But they are not Cahors. After tasting delicious white after delicious white, it struck me that the powers that be in the Cahors AOC have made quite the oversight.

And they’re not the only ones. I can find no reference to the white wines of the region in any of my usual resources, The Oxford Companion to WineThe World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. My pre-trip research gave me no reason to expect that I would encounter a single white in Cahors during my stay.

So you will, I trust, forgive my surprise when the sommelier in the restaurant of the Château de la Treyne hotel first confronted me with a Viognier/Chardonnay blend by Clos Triguedina, one of the most important wineries in Cahors. When I tasted it, I was positively shocked: ripe and rich, with stone fruit and pineapple notes, sharpening into orangey, gingery spice and a dry finish. Well balanced and classy.

Countryside south of the Lot River

I tasted this wine again at Clos Triguedina itself, hidden in the countryside just south of Puy L’Évêque, a medieval town rising steeply from the Lot. Olga and I had a tasting in the cozy old tasting room, lit by stained-glass windows (a new minimalist tasting room is under construction). We tasted the soon-to-be-bottled 2016 rosé of Malbec together. “This is like a bon-bon,” she exclaimed. And indeed, it had plenty of watermelon and strawberry fruit, but it tasted dry and spicy nevertheless. As with the Chardonnay/Vioginier blend, this rosé cannot be labeled as Cahors.

Owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Baldès worked for a time in Barsac, which, like neighboring Sauternes, produces sweet botryrized white wines. And, somehow, he has found a way to produce a botrytized wine in Cahors as well: a Chenin Blanc. The 2014 tasted lush and sweet, with ample dark honey, stone-fruit flavors like apricot, and orangey acids that slowly grow, ensuring that the wine remains balanced.

Sabine Baldès

His wife, Sabine, led me to the vineyards behind the tasting room and estate house, where her mother-in-law lives. The vines occupy a gentle but distinct rise in the land, affording panoramic views in almost every direction. This pebbly hump counts among Cahors’ finest vineyard locations, and in the coming classification, I would be surprised if it weren’t awarded Grand Cru status.

But the slope of the Pigeonnier vineyard spilling down from the 15th-century Château Lagrézette gives Clos Triguedina some serious competition. Led by Sales Administrator Yannick Druon, I toured the winery, built right into the hillside. He explained that when workers dug out the space for the winery in 1992, they preserved each layer of soil individually, so that the terroir might be restored to its former condition once construction was complete.

I won’t soon forget the 2015 “White Vision” Le Pigeonnier Viognier. It was wonderfully fragrant, with aromas of jasmine and white peach. It tasted full and fat, but not blowsy — oodles of focused spice and orangey acids gave the big, bold wine some firm boundaries. Nor was the less-expensive 2010 “Dame de Grézette” Chardonnay any slouch. It smelled fresh and fruity, not oaky, and though its fruit was deliciously creamy, this wine had no buttery or woodsy notes. Zesty spice built and built, and the wine ended dry. Very refined.

In fact, I didn’t have to travel any farther than my hotel to find a winery producing a notable Cahors white. Under the front garden of the Château de Mercuès is a well-designed contemporary winery which seems to play second fiddle to the owner’s more famous winery, Château de Haute-Serre. Nevertheless, the 2014 Château de Mercuès Chenin Blanc was a delight. It had a clear, pure, fruity aroma, and it tasted of ripe pear and lemon peel. Refined spice tightened into quite a long finish. I also had the chance to try the 2014 Château de Haute-Serre “Albesco” Chardonnay, which blew me away.  I loved its dewy aroma with notes of buttered popcorn, and its rich, buttery flavor that maintained balance with focused orangey acids and gentle spice. It might have been Burgundian.

Château Lagrézette

So far, I have found just one book that talks about the whites of Cahors more than in passing. But even in Michael S. Sanders’ Families of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France, the whites aren’t taken very seriously:

“…Many winemakers then complete their lines with the fruit of their playtime — rosés and whites made in small quantities because, quite simply, it amuses them to turn their hand to something different.”

The whites I tasted were more than playtime. They were often quite refined and elegant, and they were always delicious. Perhaps its time for Cahors wine laws to recognize what is already happening in the AOC. It’s silly that such well-crafted wines must be labeled as Vin de Pays.

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Sauternes: It’s What’s For Breakfast

28 April 2017

Everyone agrees that we should all be drinking more Sauternes. The World Atlas of Wine calls it “lamentably underappreciated but incomparable,” and The Oxford Companion to Wine argues that “it remains underpriced in relation to the enormous pleasure it brings to those growing numbers of wine lovers who find a fine Sauternes has an undeniable place on the dinner table.”

Alas, Sauternes is the gym membership of wine. We all think it’s a great idea, but too few of us actually take advantage of it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attended a dinner where the Sauternes truly flowed: at the charming Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes itself. Over some exquisite foie gras and sensationally flavorful duck breast that had been grilled in the restaurant’s fireplace, the six of us who won the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards discussed Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine with Pierre Montégut, the Technical Director of Château Suduiraut.

Auberge les Vignes

“People tell me all the time that they love Sauternes, and that they don’t understand why people don’t drink more of it,” he said. “Then I ask them, how many bottles of Sauternes do you drink in a month? Or in a year?” If people manage two or three bottles a year, they’re at the top end of the curve, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably average only a bottle a year myself.

What makes Sauternes so special, anyway? In a word: rot. The vineyards of Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) grow near the confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers. Starting in the early autumn, the Garonne is warm enough so that when the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron flow into it, the temperature difference causes evening mists. The fog creates conditions ideal for the development of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. This mold looks ugly but it is vital to Sauternes.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut abut forest and the vineyards of Château d’Yquem

Noble Rot causes minuscule holes in the skins of the grape, encouraging water inside to evaporate, concentrating the remaining juice. But simple concentration isn’t enough — that only sweetens the wine. The mold also chemically alters the juice, usually Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, adding important complexity and aroma. Unfortunately, the mold does not affect all the grapes at once, and the best châteaux harvest multiple times, sometimes going so far as to select berries individually in the vineyard.

When it works, the wine is sweet, yes, but it also has an almost startling liveliness, with big but focused acidity and a shaft of spice, in addition to flavors such as green tobacco, mint, oak, orange, saffron and jasmine combining with the honeyed richness. It’s one of the most sensual wines I can think of. The combination of sweetness, acidity and freshness is one of the wine world’s most compelling.

Agnes Nemeth and the Head Sommelier of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Why do we deny ourselves the pleasures of Sauternes? Well, dessert wine just isn’t a thing in the United States, for starters. I have yet to attend a dinner party in Chicago in which a friend presented a wine to pair with dessert (or a dessert wine as dessert), and people don’t think to order it in restaurants, either. And it’s not just Americans. Even in the city of Bordeaux, the Head Sommelier of the restaurants in the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel said that she rarely sells Sauternes. People might order a glass from time to time, but it was highly unusual for a table to order a bottle.

On my visit, what we’re missing by ignoring Sauternes became painfully clear. First, let’s start with something inexpensive and relatively easy to find: the 2013 Lions de Suduiraut, a new Sauternes developed by Suduiraut to emphasize freshness and minerality, which you can open immediately with no decanting, according to Montégut. The flavor started on a rich and honeyed note, but a wave of sharp ginger spice swept in, along with bright, orangey acids. The finish was fresh and spicy, not sweet. It’s absolutely delicious, rather sexy, and a screaming value at just $13 for a half-bottle.

Pierre Montégut, Technical Director of Château Suduiraut

What about something a little older and more expensive? We did an unforgettable vertical tasting (trying several different vintages of the same wine) at Château Suduiraut, one of which was the 2009. Its aroma had more to it than the Lions’ did, with heady honeysuckle, tropical fruit and some spiciness. The flavor kept changing and flowing — honey, orange, cardamom, hay — and all the notes felt beautifully integrated and refined. Fellow Millésima blog award-winner Agnes Nemeth of Hungarian Wines remarked, “I would really use this as a perfume.” Binny’s sells this wine for $45 for a half-bottle, an excellent value considering the quality. Even better, buy a magnum of it from Millésima for $190 and throw a party.

Sauternes, though white, can age just as well as any red, especially in the good years. Consider the 1997 Château Suduiraut, which had an aroma redolent of honey and something savory as well. It tasted of overripe apricot and dark honey, which moved into toffee/caramel country. Deep and dark orange acids, along with some spiciness and a touch of something smokey, assured balance. Gorgeous and complex.

To hammer home the point, Montégut also presented us with a bottle of 1975 Château Suduiraut to have with dessert at the Auberge les Vignes. This wine is older than I am, and yet it still feels lively. The aroma had an almost startling freshness to it. And I felt thoroughly seduced by the flavors of dark honey, green tobacco, dark orange and honeysuckle. The acids and spice were more than up to the task of balancing the sweetness. This unforgettable wine can be had for $80 to $100, according to Wine Searcher. That’s insane. I’m tempted to buy a bottle before I finish writing this post.

The 1975 Château Suduiraut caused quite a stir at the Auberge les Vignes!

We also had the chance to try numerous Sauternes en primeur, which means that we sampled the latest vintage, 2016, well before bottling, in order to try to determine the vintage’s quality. According to Montégut, Sauternes this young should display balance, freshness, and energy on the finish, if they’re to attain greatness.

I think the 2016 vintage should be quite fine, even though the Noble Rot arrived only in the last half of October. The 2016 Bastor-Lamontagne had more citrus to it than honey, with ginger spice and a dry finish. Château Guiraud took things a step further, balancing its dark honey flavors with deep orangey acids and a surprising blast of eucalyptus freshness. Lafaurie-Peyraguey offered stone fruit, incense and more of that eye-opening eucalyptus. And then there was the Sigalas-Rabaud, which kept itself taut as it moved through flavors of honey and peach, ending with such freshness that I felt as if I’d just popped a breath mint. Wow.

Jeff Burrows and Lisa Denning at our vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut

Which brings me to breakfast. We started our vertical tasting of Château Suduiraut at 9:30 a.m., at the end of a long week of château hopping. The week was a joy, to be sure, but exhausting. That tasting at Suduiraut perked me up far more than the pot of coffee I’d had earlier. The wines — we sampled ten of them — felt positively invigorating. Each one made me feel more and more energized, even aroused.

At brunch, we Americans tend to drink only two alcoholic beverages: Bloody Marys and sparkling wine. Why not Sauternes? I wrote in my notebook, “These would be amazing with some chicken and waffles!” Or pancakes and sausages. It’s an ideal breakfast wine. And because Sauternes is sweet and spicy, it also would work well with a range of Asian foods. If you think of sweet wines as simple and heavy, you’re not thinking of Sauternes. Instead, think rich, racy, complex and fresh.

Rare is the wine which will please absolutely everyone, from the most amateur wine drinker to the most jaded connoisseur. Sauternes is one of those wines.

For more about Sauternes and some fantastic photos of the vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut, check out this post by fellow award-winner Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, or this post for more photos of the village itself.

Award-winner Chiara Bassi of Perlage Suite also wrote about Sauternes, posting about our dinner at Auberges les Vignes here. She also wrote about our 2016 en primeur Sauternes tasting here, including detailed tasting notes about 19 different wines.

And on my blog, you can learn more about the 2011 vintage and why Sauternes is Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine.

Note: These wine samples were all provided free of charge.

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Château Margaux: Is It Worth It?

14 April 2017

Corinne Menztelopoulos and the author (photo by Lisa Denning)

“I don’t know! Do I like Rob?” asked Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, while considering the seating arrangement for lunch. We all laughed, because she was almost certainly joking. Against her better judgment, she placed me next to her at the dining table. Immediately I was smitten by this woman, with her easy elegance and wicked sense of humor.

Already I had been feeling a little overwhelmed. The schedule, arranged by Millésima for the six of us who had won its wine blog competition, said only this about the visit: “Private tasting & lunch at Château Margaux with Aurélien Valance, Managing Director and member of the Blog Awards jury.”

I had anticipated a lunch in the airy new Norman Foster-designed winery with Valance and perhaps a PR person for Margaux. But our group paused before the tall gates leading to the neo-Palladian château itself, and they proceeded to swing open. The building looked familiar — it appears on the château’s wine labels, which I had seen reproduced in my World Atlas of Wine. But the drawing didn’t prepare me for the experience of standing in front of the château itself.

Château Margaux

It has a startling and imposing verticality, with four ionic columns and a pediment rising from a base that itself is 22 steps above ground level (I counted). Château Margaux’s General Director Philippe Bascaules descended to meet us, accompanied by what appeared to be a foxhound. I have been witness to few tableaux more aristocratic than this.

He led us inside to the entry hall and an adjacent salon, both decorated in high French Empire style, with spindly-legged chairs upholstered in jewel-tone silk damask and marble-topped tables supported by winged caryatid figures. In my hand was a flute of Krug Champagne. I stared at it and my surroundings for a moment, feeling a sort of elated confusion.

“I don’t want to see any blog posts about Krug at Château Margaux!” someone joked. I refrained from taking tasting notes.*

Instead, I fell into conversation with Monsieur Bascaules. He had loved his time at Inglenook, he told me, but he was pleased to be back in France, at Margaux, where he had worked for 20 years before his time in California. I asked what food he most craved when he returned to France. “The bread,” he replied, without hesitation. “A crusty baguette… it’s just different here.” I told him I agreed, and that I felt the same way about chocolate chip cookies. It’s impossible to find good ones outside the U.S, I explained. Just as I realized that I was using my time with Philippe Bascaules to discuss baked goods, we were summoned to lunch.

We descended to the former kitchen. The formal dining room is too stuffy, Mentzelopoulos told us, and doesn’t promote relaxed conversation. A fire blazed in the giant hearth, complete with a spit for roasting entire lambs or pigs. In the center of the vaulted room of golden stone was a round table, laid with crystal wine glasses, tightly packed flower arrangements and delicate china of green, gold and white, all atop a pristine tablecloth embroidered with silk leaves. This room may be the more casual, relaxed dining space, but it dazzled nevertheless.

I took my place at the table between Madame Mentzelopoulos and her son, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos (he goes by Alexi). His sister, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos sat across from us. Because the two of them were young, beautiful, thin and rich, I hoped just a little bit that they would be haughty or in some other way unpleasant. Instead, they proved to be quite down-to-earth and charming, and as fluent in English as in French (and goodness knows what other languages). Alexandra later asked me for my card. “I want to know the best place in Chicago for deep-dish pizza,” she told me, to my astonishment.

Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos and Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos

I looked at the hand-lettered menu (which did not mention pizza, for better or worse) and discovered that we would be starting with the 2011 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc classed as a humble Bordeaux AOC (the Margaux appellation has no room for whites). Château Margaux has produced a white for three centuries, Madame Mentzelopoulos explained to us, starting when the château’s winemaker decided to separate the white and red grapes during vinification. Until then, most Bordeaux wines had been field blends of both red and white grapes.

It smelled spicy, with an undertone of tropical fruit. The wine felt lush and round, with creamy stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors, leavened with some focused green-peppercorn spice. A forceful but graceful wine, with a finish that was long and fresh. It worked beautifully with some crab salad topped with mango gelée. If you tasted this side by side with a Sauvignon Blanc from, say, New Zealand, you would never guess that the wines came from the same grape. Binny’s currently sells the 2015 Pavillon Blanc as a future for $140 a bottle. It’s steep, but if you have the funds, the wine is worth the money for a special occasion.

Foie gras stuffed chicken and 1996 Château Margaux

To pair with some foie gras-stuffed chicken, waiters poured us glasses of 1996 Château Margaux. Of this vintage, wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote, “You might call the 1996s classic, so long as you were sure that this would not be interpreted as skinny.” All the other sources I consulted also regarded 1996 as a very fine vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc, the left bank region where Margaux is located.

Aurélian Valance held up his glass and said simply, “This is Château Margaux.” He went on to tell us how this particular bottling was the first to give him a “wine emotion.” He loved it so much, in fact, that it inspired him to approach Madame Mentzelopoulos and ask if he could work at Château Margaux. She appreciated his enthusiasm and chutzpah, and gave him a job.

Madame Mentzelopoulos told us that “The tannins of Château Margaux are always very soft — you almost forget them.” That’s no mean feat for a wine composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 100% new oak (the rest of the blend in this vintage is 12% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc). “Sometimes people confuse the tannins of wood with the tannins of grapes,” she explained.

Wine.com currently sells the 1996 for $850 a bottle. What on earth do you get for that price?

I smelled the wine, redolent of dark cherries but with a wonderful freshness buoying them up. I braced myself — it’s not every day I try an $850 wine — and took a sip. The fruit flavors of dark berries and cherries felt pure and rich, and the wine positively vibrated in my mouth. The fruit rang like a bell, such was its clarity. The wine hummed on my palate, developing with great evenness and confidence. It moved with consistency, grace and firmness from one note to the next, and it still felt young, in spite of its age and in spite of it having been decanted.

Millésima’s photographer Frederic Lot in the Château Margaux winery

Involuntarily, I groaned and sighed. Madame Mentzelopoulos turned to me and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

I wish I could say that I responded with something like, “Madame, I am shameless!” or “Au contraire, Madame, it is you who should be ashamed!” But my mind was still aglow with the wonder of the wine, and witticisms were temporarily beyond my capacity.

It’s hard to believe that a wine that costs $850 a bottle could possibly be worth it. After all, there are perfectly lovely wines that cost $12. If you are one of the fortunate few with $850 to blow on a bottle, are you getting anything for your money other than hype and prestige? What makes Château Margaux so special that it can charge such a price?

It’s the finesse. The wine shifts gears in the mouth like an expert driver handling a finely tuned stick-shift racing car. That kind of experience comes at a price. Château Margaux is wildly expensive, yes, but it has the stuffing to back up the price. You can bet that if I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a case.

Philippe Bascaules, General Director of Château Margaux, discussing 2016

The 2016 vintage looks just as promising, should you be interested in investing in futures. The aroma of the château’s second wine, Pavillon Rouge, leapt from the glass, and I loved its cherry-pie fruit and sneaky tannins. The 2016 Château Margaux already felt lush and integrated, with rich fruit, focused acids and graceful tannins, capped with a fresh note of mint. And the 2016 Pavillon Blanc had all the tropical fruit and creamy stone fruit I loved in the 2011, plus an enticing note of popcorn and juicy green-apple acids. What a joy.

On our way to the winery to taste the 2016 vintage, Madame Mentzelopoulos drew our attention to a mosaic mounted on the wall. “This is a Roman mosaic, but it has the Greek name,” she told us. “I like that it’s Dionysus, and not Bacchus,” she continued. A few people, aware of the title of my blog, glanced nervously in my direction. “Dionysus is elegant, you see here,” she said, pointing to the lithe figure in the center. “Bacchus is fat and drunk and vulgar.” And very, very happy, I’d add.

The allée leading away from Château Margaux

Whether Madame Mentzelopoulos liked me or not is an open question, but my feelings about her and her wines are not in doubt.

Note: The lunch and wines at Château Margaux were provided free of charge, as part of the program for the Millésima Wine Blog Competition winners.

*Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that the Krug somehow managed to feel crisp and rich at the same time, and that its bubbles were sublimely elegant. But for my money, I’ll stick with a lesser-known Grower Champagne.

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