The Not Merlot Of Chile

19 October 2013

Historically, Chile has not been especially proficient at identifying its grape varieties. As described in this post, Chile’s Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all until the 1990s. And it wasn’t until 1994 that a French professor discovered that thousands of acres of what was thought to be Merlot was actually another grape entirely. Since Merlot was quite fashionable in the 1990s (and up until the release of the film Sideways), vineyard owners must have been initially dismayed to learn that they in fact had some odd, old Bordeaux variety that no one had ever heard of. But what a propitious discovery it turned out to be.

The vineyards contained not Merlot but Carmenère, which had “virtually died out” in Bordeaux, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, by the time it was discovered in Chile. Though this variety is “rarely acknowledged in the vineyards of Bordeaux today,” notes The Oxford Companion to Wine, it was “widely cultivated in the Médoc in the early 18th century and, with Cabernet Franc, established the reputations of its best properties.” The reason the Bordelais eventually abandoned the variety, the Companion goes on, was because of its “susceptibility to coulure and resultant low yields.”

I think this is a fact that’s important to emphasize: The abandonment of Carmenère in Bordeaux had little or nothing to do with the quality of the wine it produced.

Even more exciting, the Carmenère “had been preserved in its pure, ungrafted format,” according to Sotheby’s, since the original vines had been imported from France in the 19th century before phylloxera required the grafting of vines onto American rootstocks. At its best, according to the Companion, when yields are limited, Carmenère “has the potential to make some very fine wines, combining some of the charm of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea Leon Iriarte at Del Frisco's in Chicago

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea León Iriarte at Del Frisco’s in Chicago

That sounds like a winning combination to me, and so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to dinner with Andrea León Iriarte, the winemaker of Casa Lapostolle (one of Chile’s most critically acclaimed wineries), and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Lapostolle’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines.

Founded by the same family that owns Grand Marnier, Lapostolle grows its fruit organically, and then takes things one step further by employing time-consuming biodynamic practices as well. These practices have tangible effects in the vineyards and in the wines, according to Iriarte, who noted that organic and biodynamic agriculture has made the differences between vintages more distinct.

Just as important, Lapostolle sited its vineyards to take advantage of the most favorable terroir, rather than the most fertile soil (where many of Chile’s vineyards were originally located). The World Atlas of Wine cites one of Lapostolle’s vineyard sites by name, in fact, noting that “the most quality-conscious producers are now actively seeking poorer soils, such as those of Apalta in Colchagua for their best wines.” As described on the Lapostolle website, the shape of the Colchagua Valley also naturally regulates exposure to the sun, which is particularly beneficial in warmer climates.

All that sounds promising, but would the Carmenère varietals and Carmenère-based blends we were trying taste like the ideal that the Companion described above? Or would the wines be what Sotheby’s argues that Carmenère too often becomes, “a one-dimensional parody of overripe blackcurrants”? Let us consult my tasting notes:

2011 Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Carmenère: Though officially a varietal, this wine is technically a blend of 89% Carmenère, 6% Merlot and 5% Syrah, and most of my resources agree that Carmenère indeed benefits from the addition of some blending grapes. I found the aroma of wine-soaked wood enticing, and the flavor did not disappoint: big fruit, round but lively acids, some oak, and a fresh finish — a pleasant parsley-like lift at the end. Paired with some of Del Frisco’s superbly tender beef, the wine tightened up, and more notes of iron and earth came to the fore. An excellent value for about $14, and certainly not the blackcurrant bomb of Sotheby’s fear.

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: The “Song of Apalta” was thus named, according to Iriarte, because of the birds’ nests discovered in the vineyard (the winery itself also takes the form of an abstracted bird’s nest). The 2011 is only the second vintage of this blend of 45% Carmenère, 25% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Syrah. A less-expensive reinterpretation of the flagship Clos Apalta, this wine was originally created for a restaurant, but it proved to be so popular, the winery started making more of it and marketing it more generally. I can see why. It had a nose of dark and dusky fruit, and powerful flavors. After a blast of big, big fruit, a hit of white-pepper spice kicked in followed by some significant but well-balanced tannins. Paired with the beef, the tannins felt more rustic, giving the pairing a rather masculine feel. Another very fine value for about $20 a bottle.

2011 Lapostolle “Cuvée Alexandre” Carmenère: The fruit for this wine, a blend of 85% Carmenère and 15% Syrah, comes entirely from the top-quality Apalta vineyard. And as with all Lapostolle’s wines, the fruit was hand-harvested. The attention to detail makes a difference — this wine had a meaty, red-fruit aroma and notable focus on the palate, with restrained red fruit, green-peppercorn spice and some soft tannins undergirded by a meaty note. Again, it packs a lot of flavor considering its $15 price tag.

2009 Lapostolle “Clos Apalta”: On its website, Lapostolle calls this opaque purple wine a “world-class blend in the Bordeaux tradition,” and indeed, if you are interested in experiencing what the top Bordeaux wines of the 18th century might have tasted like, the Clos Apalta might be getting close. A blend of 78% Carmenère, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot (another Bordeaux variety now rare in its original home), this wine is a worthy splurge, with fruit coming from vines ranging between 60 and 80 years old. I knew from the lusciously rich aroma that I would be in for a treat. Absolutely gorgeous fruit managed to seem at once jammy and focused — no mean feat. The perfectly balanced acids and tannins made the wine feel exceedingly elegant, and undertones of violets and thyme added to its complexity. The finish went on and on — just when I thought it would be over, yet another flavor would reveal itself. As Barrett aptly noted, the Clos Apalta “happily overstays its welcome.” It tasted fantastically rich with the lamb, which brought forth additional notes of dried herbs. It sounds expensive at $70, but if you put this wine side-by-side in a blind tasting with Bordeaux wines costing two or three times as much, my money is on the Clos Apalta.

It seems odd to think that Bordeaux’s reputation as a top wine region is due in no small part, historically speaking, to the former success of its Carmenère-based blends. It seems odd, that is, until you taste wines like Lapostolle’s.

A Formerly Unusual Sauvignon Blanc

16 October 2013

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc may not sound especially unusual, but the story of this wine is surprising indeed. For many years, it turns out, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, much of what was sold as Sauvignon Blanc “was actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse” (The Oxford Companion to Wine considers these two varieties to be synonymous). Despite their names, they have little in common with Sauvignon Blanc. The Oxford Companion notes that “wines produced from Sauvignonasse are much less crisp and aromatic than those of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has less patience with Sauvignonasse, simply stating that it’s “not related to Sauvignon and has no Sauvignon character whatever.”

Tom Stevenson, the author of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, was frustrated by Chile’s unwillingness to distinguish between Sauvignon and Sauvignonasse, and he made a trip to the vineyards himself. In addition to plenty of Sauvignonasse, he discovered acres of confusing mutations and crosses: “Sémillon with Sauvignon, Sauvignonasse with Sauvignon, and Sauvignonasse with Sémillon.” Separating the Sauvignon Blanc from the Sauvignonasse turned out to be not so simple after all.

But in the 1990s, Chilean vintners began a serious effort to replant vineyards with true Sauvignon Blanc, and today any reputable winery that labels its wine as Sauvignon Blanc is indeed bottling wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from true Sauvignon Blanc. One Chilean Sauvignon Blanc particularly worth seeking out is made by Casa Lapostolle, a critically acclaimed 19-year-old winery founded by the owners of Grand Marnier.

I had the opportunity to sample a glass of the 2012 Lapostolle Casa Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc over dinner with winemaker Andrea León Iriarte and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the wine’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines. It put to rest any remaining doubts as to whether Chile can make world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night. This practice helps preserve some freshness in the fruit as well as reduce energy costs. Because the grapes come in already cool from the night air, the winery expends less energy bringing the grapes to the correct temperature for fermentation.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded — this Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

This wine, it should be noted, isn’t 100% Sauvignon Blanc. The 8% Sémillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris surely help round out the edges. Iriarte confided that there likely is just a touch of Sauvignonasse in the blend as well, from “just one or two” old vines that weren’t removed from the vineyards. “It adds to the complexity,” she said. It’s also a subtle nod to Chilean wine history; a faint whisper from another era.

A Remarkable Port Hiding In Telluride

12 October 2013

Barros 1988 Colheita PortMost of the time, people ignore the “Dessert Wine” section of a wine list, either because they aren’t ordering dessert or they think they don’t care for sweet wines. But if you pass over that list every time, you’re denying yourself some of the world’s greatest wines, and sometimes some of the greatest wine values.

Port, for instance, usually ends up at the tail end of a wine list or on the dessert menu itself. That ensures that very few people will order it, which is a shame. I can think of few better ways to cap a meal than with a glass of port. It never fails to settle my stomach and engender a feeling of relaxed well-being.

I found myself in need of a good digestif after overdoing it at the Cosmopolitan restaurant in Telluride, and I was delighted to discover a real gem of a port on the menu — a 1988 Barros Colheita, priced at $16 a glass.

$16 may seem expensive for a glass of wine, and certainly that’s more than what I’m used to paying. But it seemed like a bargain for the opportunity to try a 25-year-old vintage port, which would easily cost more than $50 a bottle retail if you could even find it.

Good port tends to age quite well because of its relatively high alcohol content and ample tannins. In fact, many discourage drinking vintage ports until they’re at least 10 years old, because the tannins will otherwise be too tough. I don’t like to wait that long (or pay the high price of vintage port), so I typically purchase “late bottle vintage” port, which, like vintage port, is also from a single year, but ready to drink upon release. It’s also usually a heck of a lot less expensive, because vintage port is made only in “declared” vintage years, and only from the very best fruit of those years.

Colheita port is an even more complicated animal. Although it is a port with a vintage, it tastes very different from vintage port, which is typically concentrated, ripe and raisiny. Colheita is more akin to a tawny port, which can be anything from brown-tinged inexpensive port made from lighter grapes aged in wood, to port aged 10, 20, 30 or more years in fine oak made from high-quality fruit in undeclared vintage years. I think of tawnys as brownish in color, with caramel, oak and sometimes some oxidative sherry-like notes.

But Colheita port is a more clearly defined and restricted category than tawny port. The Oxford Companion to Wine offers this concise explanation of colheita:

Colheitas are best understood as tawny ports from a single year, bottled with the date of harvest on the label. The law states that colheita ports must be aged in wood for at least seven years, although most are aged considerably longer.

There are yet more styles of port besides colheita, tawny, vintage and late bottle vintage port. It’s a ridiculously complicated beverage. And yet so irresistible. The 1988 Barros Colheita Port had a reddish caramel color and a bouquet that expanded far beyond the rim of the glass. It smelled very enticingly of wood, dark-red fruit, caramel and vanilla. Though my eyes were wide with anticipation at this point, the flavor did not let me down. Kapow! The forceful, driving flavors of wood, apricot, dried fruit and zesty spice seemed remarkably young, especially considering that the port was a quarter-century old.

Lively, gorgeous and exciting — well worth the $16 price tag. More evidence that the wines on the dessert menu can be some of the best in a restaurant’s collection.

Favorite New Mexican Wines: The Reds

10 October 2013

Vineyards at Estrella del NorteIt’s weeks now after my visit to New Mexico, and I still can’t get over the quality of the wines that the state now produces. I recently wrote about how New Mexico could be an ideal home for Cabernet Franc here, but Cab Franc is hardly the only red variety which grows well in the state.

Many of the reds I tried had a brick-red color, perhaps due to the local soil composition, and many looked relatively transparent and light, like a typical Pinot Noir. But the color belied the ripe fruit flavors so often evident in New Mexican reds.

Here is a round-up of some of the best red wines I tasted while traveling through New Mexico (not including the Cabernet Francs). Most will be difficult to find outside of the state, making it all the more worthwhile to explore its extraordinarily beautiful landscapes yourself.


A very fine winery located southwest of Taos, Vivác also has a cheerful tasting room in Santa Fe at the Railroad District’s twice-weekly farmers market, held Tuesdays and Saturdays (see the tasting room webpage for specific hours). Although Vivác makes some fine whites, it is better-known for its red wines, which I found to be generally delicious. It didn’t hurt that the tasting room served them in Riedel crystal stemware. Any of the wines below would be a fine value for the money.

2011 Vivác Dolcetto: Very little of this early-ripening variety is planted outside Italy’s Piemonte (Piedmont) region, and I most often see it in Dolcetto d’Alba. But here it was in the Southwest, with ripe up-front fruit, measured spice, well-balanced acids and a dry finish. A positively delightful Dolcetto — rich in fruit but light on its feet.

2009 Vivác Nebbiolo V. Series: Later-ripening Nebbiolo also traditionally grows in Piemonte, where it forms the base of famed (and expensive) wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. This more affordable Nebbiolo is aged 12 months in used oak barrels, and the fruit comes from a single vineyard (hence the “V” designation). Despite the contact with oak, the aroma remained light and fresh, and the flavor was obviously fruity. Yet it felt dry, again with elegantly balanced acids, and some intriguing dried herbs underneath. I have a feeling it would have been easy to over-oak this wine, but by employing used barrels, the oaky notes were kept under firm control.

2009 Vivác Refosco: Yet another Italian variety, from the far eastern border with Slovenia, where it sometimes appears as Teran. With a handful of exceptions, most Slovenian Terans I’ve tried were mouthfuls of metal due to the iron-rich soil. Here the wine was free of metallic notes, offering instead an aroma of red fruit and fresh hay. I very much enjoyed the creamy texture and dark strawberry fruit, and the green undertones would surely make this wine a fine pairing with lamb or venison.

2011 Vivác Tempranillo: Vivác doesn’t only make northern Italian varietals — Tempranillo (the base of Rioja) made a lovely wine with ripe and dusky fruit, something a little herbaceous and focused, restrained spice. Lively, with a lovely texture.

2010 Vivác Cabernet Sauvignon V. Series: This classic Bordeaux variety made for a surprisingly refreshing wine, with bright acids, darkly raisiny fruit and well-balanced tannins. Certainly a fine pairing with red meat of any kind.

2008 Vivác “Diavolo”: An unusual blend of 40% Syrah, 30% Tempranillo, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot, this wine exhibited an herbaceous red-fruit aroma, a luxuriously rich mouthfeel, ripe red fruit and very bright white-pepper spice. Zesty and delicious. Bring me a steak.

2009 Vivác “Amante”: I am a real sucker for a good port-style wine, and the Amante put a giant smile on my face. Made with Tempranillo and local Don Quixote brandy (port is a fortified wine), the Amante had a luscious raisiny aroma with overtones of violets. Rich, raisiny fruit gave way to an unusual (and not at all unpleasant) note of hay, with a delectable finish of mocha. The texture was almost syrupy, but the ample acids somehow managed to balance it out.


Dene at Estrella del NorteThis winery lay derelict at the base of the High Road to Taos for years, its vineyards neglected and overgrown. The present owners did a magnificent job restoring the property, which now has a tasting room and a romantic outdoor event venue. The wines lived up to the idyllic setting.

2010 Estrella del Norte Barbera: Another northern Italian variety flourishing in New Mexico — I wouldn’t have guessed that northern Italian vineyards had so much in common with the American Southwest! This Barbera would be an ideal barbeque wine, with soft fruit and zippy black-pepper spice. Dené, who poured the wines, told me that this was the first Estrella del Norte wine she fell in love with.

NV Santa Fe Vineyards Tinto del Sol: This unorthodox blend of Ruby Cabernet (a cross of Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon) and Zinfandel had a very jammy aroma, and it tasted fun, soft and a little sweet. I’ve been on the hunt for a red wine to go with spicy red meat-based dishes, and I suspect this one would do the trick nicely.

2008 Santa Fe Vineyards Zinfandel Port: With bold, spicy, raisiny fruit, this was one racy port. Big and attention-grabbing.


The Taos tasting room of Black MesaThis winery is located in Velarde, about 30 miles southwest of Taos (Taos itself is too cold to grow grapes). Its tasting room in Taos is right between the Harwood Museum and the Blumenschein House, making it an ideal place for refreshment in the middle of an art-focused afternoon. The Hacienda del Cerezo recommended that I try the Black Mesa Chardonnay with dinner one night. I was disappointed neither by it nor the reds I later sampled.

2011 Black Mesa Syrah: What a beautiful aroma of jammy cherries and earth. This wine had a lovely texture, and it developed deeply and slowly. I loved the very sophisticated, tightly restrained black-pepper finish.

2010 Black Mesa Antelope: My notes tell me this is a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but the Black Mesa website also lists Cabernet Franc. Whatever is in it, this wine is lovely, with a creamy dark-fruit aroma and big, bold flavors. The ripe fruit, zesty acids and hint of green would certainly make this Bordeaux-style blend an ideal match for lamb.

2009 Black Mesa Petite Sirah: This wine really seduced me with its sumptuous aroma of deep red fruit and tobacco. On the palate, the lush fruit moved into a burst of black pepper and a graceful finish of tobacco. Lovely.


Cristin at Casa RondenaThis winery on the outskirts of Albuquerque wouldn’t look out of place in Andalusia (the owner/vintner studied flamenco in southern Spain). The tasting room also serves as a bar, where guests can purchase full glasses of favorite wines to enjoy in the grand lounges or fountained gardens.

2010 Casa Rondeña Meritage: A lively blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine had creamy fruit, bright acids and some pointy spice, with something meaty in the finish. “Could definitely have a few glasses of that,” I wrote in my notes.

2009 Casa Rondeña “1629”: This blend takes its name from the year the first vines were planted in the United States, not all that far from where Casa Rondeña stands today. A mix of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, the 1629 had a heady, alcoholic aroma of dark fruit. It tasted rich, jammy and spicy, and I can see why it’s a favorite of Cristin, who was pouring. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo don’t often appear in the same bottle together, except in New Mexico it seems (see the Vivác “Diavolo” above). But hey, it works!

2006 Casa Rondeña Animante: I thoroughly enjoyed this Cabernet Sauvignon-based dessert wine, with its richly raisiny fruit, dry underbelly, brassy spice and tannic finish. It cut right through the richness of some chocolate fudge — an excellent pairing.


The patio of St. Clair's wine bar and bistro in AlbuquerqueAbout 10 minutes south from Casa Rondeña, on the edge of Old Town, the Albuquerque branch of this winery is more of a wine bar and bistro. The patio looked like a wonderfully relaxing place for lunch. I stuck to drinking, however, and discovered all sorts of delights.

2009 St. Claire Reserve Merlot: With a nose full of cherries, tart cherry fruit on the palate and a tannic finish, this was cherry pie in a glass. But oddly, it didn’t taste overly sweet.

2008 D.H. Lescombes Pinot Noir: This unusual Pinot Noir had a subtle nose of dusky fruit but little of the characteristic earth. It moved from tightly wound fruit to a bang of lemon/orange acids, finishing on a note of grape candy and white-pepper spice. For those who prefer their Pinots without a lot of earth, this is the one for you.

2008 D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Sauvignon: A pretty magenta, this Cab had an enticingly jammy aroma; big, full fruit; some well-balanced oak and a spicy finish.

2008 D.H. Lescombes Limited Release Petit Verdot: Originally a Bordeaux blending grape, Petit Verdot is seen more and more as a stand-alone varietal in various parts of the world (though not in Bordeaux). This expression had appealing notes of dusty raisins and black pepper, and an elegantly supple mouthfeel. This wine could hold its head high in any tasting of Petit Verdots.

See my round-up of favorite New Mexican whites here, and a review of a particularly delightful New Mexican Chardonnay here.

Postcard From Colorado

2 October 2013
Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey

Drinking whiskey at a bar where Butch Cassidy once did

I’m currently traveling through the wilds of Colorado, and along the way. I’ve encountered a handful of surprisingly well-crafted wines, most notably from Sutcliffe Vineyards.

But when I stopped by a former mining town-turned-resort where the notorious criminal Butch Cassidy once drank, I decided it was time to order some whiskey. It just didn’t seem quite right to have a glass of Riesling standing atop Cassidy’s signature carved into the bar (see right).

I wanted something local, and Erik the bartender recommended Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Stranahan’s distillery is located in Denver, and the whiskey is distilled exclusively from barley grown in the nearby Rocky Mountains. (The water also comes, of course, “from the snow-packed peaks of the Colorado Rockies.”)

Sampled neat, the whiskey had an appealing nose of corn and vanilla, but a generally dry character. It started smooth and oaky, followed by a blast of rowdy spice and a fascinating herbaceous and slightly bitter finish.

At 94 proof, this is a strong, serious whiskey that any manly mountain man would enjoy. I suspect even Butch Cassidy himself would have approved.

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