Cahors: A Lot To Love #Winophiles

13 September 2018

Château Lagrézette

In her sanctimonious book, For the Love of Wine, Alice Feiring relates how a Georgian traveling companion felt “dismayed by the weak wines” of France, and natural-wine-advocate Feiring seems to agree. I don’t know what they were drinking on their trip to Paris, but it must not have been Cahors.

Cahors (pronounced CAH-or) is a not-especially-famous region to the southeast of Bordeaux, stretched out along both banks of the picturesquely tortured course of the Lot River. Its lack of fame makes sense when you consider how unkind history has been to the region. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes how although the Lot, which empties into the Garonne River and eventually the sea, is an ideal trading route, winemakers “long suffered from the protectionist measures… inflicted on Cahors by the merchants of Bordeaux,” who controlled the mouth of the river. Phylloxera reduced the vineyard area in Cahors by more than 90%, and the hybrid vines planted thereafter produced wines of dubious quality.

The Oxford Companion goes on to argue that the 1956 winter freeze “provided a clean slate at an appropriate moment in the appellation’s history.” Vignerons once again replanted, and this time, they returned to the roots of Cahors: Malbec.

Nowadays we associate Malbec with Argentina, but the grape was born in France, likely in Cahors. The dark, forceful wines Malbec produces in its birthplace are a joy to drink, though they feel more serious than their Argentine brothers. Argentine Malbecs are often sexy party boys, whereas Cahors Malbecs are handsome gentlemen who hang out in whiskey bars smoking cigars.

Lagrézette Cru d’Exception Malbec at Château de la Treyne

It’s possible to find lightweight Cahors, but almost all the wines I had on a visit last year had real stuffing and density. Weak wines these were not, even by Georgian standards. Consider the 2008 Château Lagrézette “Cru d’Exception,” a 100% Malbec (AOC rules require at least 70% Malbec in Cahors, which may be blended with Tannat or Merlot). It had an enticing deep, plummy aroma marked with a note of fresh tobacco. And the flavor! Sensationally rich, almost chewy dark-plum fruit, big but velvety tannins, and some tobacco on the finish. It was gorgeous paired with a lamb dish I had at Château de la Treyne.

I liked the wine so much I later visited Château Lagrézette, one of the few wineries in Cahors with an actual castle. Its gravity-flow winery is new, however, carefully inserted beneath one of the winery’s top vineyards, La Pigeonnier. In fact, they kept the soil layers separate as they excavated for the winery, so that the layers could be replaced in order, maintaining the integrity of the terroir.

I tasted the 2014 Château Lagrézette (85% Malbec, 15% Merlot) just before its release, and already, its big tannins had a velvety quality. It’s drinkable now, but like most good Cahors, it will benefit from a few years of aging. The winery’s top single-vineyard bottlings, the 2014 Paragon Massaut and the 2014 Le Pigeonnier, both had deeply concentrated fruit, well-integrated tannins and notes of purple flowers. I hope I have a chance to taste them again in a few years!

While in Cahors, I stayed in one of the region’s other notable castles, the 13th-century Château de Mercuès, perched on a tall bluff over the Lot. Beneath its gardens hides one of the first design wineries (i.e. designed with wine tourism in mind) built in France. Owner Georges Vigouroux makes wine under Château de Mercuès as well as Château de Haut-Serre and his own name, among other labels. The hotel manager of Château de Mercuès led me on a tour of the winery just below my room, followed by a tasting. He proved extremely knowledgeable about the winery’s history and terroir, as well as Cahors in general. I learned, for example, that 2013 wasn’t such a great vintage in Cahors. “Don’t write that down!” he said. Whoops!

General Manager of the Château de Mercuès hotel, Yann Potet

The 2014 Château de Mercuès Malbec de Cahors (88% Malbec, 12% Merlot), full of purple fruit, already had a velvety quality to it, with impressively well-integrated tannins considering its youth. That was good, but yowza, the 2011 Château de Mercuès “Cuvée Malbec 6666” (100% Malbec) was out of this world. It smelled rich, almost porty, and the aroma practically leapt from the glass. Complex and lengthy, it kept driving steadily forward, developing and unfolding at its own pace. It reminded me of that guy who doesn’t need to shout to show he owns the room because he’s confident and knows he’s in control. And then there was the 2009 Château de Mercuès “Icône,” the winery’s “icon” bottling, created in consultation with Paul Hobbs, who’s something of an icon himself. I wrote a page of notes about this super rich, dense wine. What insistence, what driving force! Good God. Have a sip of this one, Alice!

Down the river stands one of Cahors’ most famous wineries, Clos Triguedina. A new, sleek tasting room was under construction when I visited, evidence of Cahors’ increasing popularity. Cahors doesn’t seem to rank near the top of most wine travelers’ bucket lists, but it should. The countryside is nothing short of sensational, with rolling hills and steep bluffs interspersed with unspoiled riverside market towns, set in an intoxicatingly beautiful patchwork of vineyards, orchards and pastures. Clos Triguedina occupies a particularly lovely spot, not far from the steep little town of Puy l’Évêque.

What a tasting! After trying the fruity and spicy entry-level 2014 Malbec du Clos and the earthy, surprisingly graceful 2012 Petit Clos, (Clos Triguedina’s second wine), we moved on to some really serious stuff.

Puy l’Évêque

The 2012 Clos Triguedina (80% Malbec, 18% Merlot, 2% Tannat) already felt elegant, with dark, almost raisiny fruit, focused spice, a note of earth and well-integrated tannins that ended with some mocha. Lovely. The 2010 “Les Galets” had a big, spicy aroma that opened my sinuses in the manner of wasabi. It seemed to last forever, its black fruit given a lift by spice and minerality, keeping it from being ponderous. The similarly lengthy 2010 “Petites Cailles” had even more earth to it, contrasting the dark fruit.

And we tried two of Cahors greatest wines. The 2007 Probus, the current release at the time, still felt young and intense, like a cooped-up teenager. It smelled of plum and leather, and in the mouth, it rang with tautness, like a plucked string. Mouth-filling fruit kept things in balance. Then there was the 2000 Prince Probus, with its brooding aroma of dark jam and sweet cherries. It tasted rich and open, with huge fruit, focused black-pepper spice and tannins that were so big, I could feel them coating my teeth, and yet they somehow were graceful. Magnificent.

The author and Sabine Baldès at her winery, Clos Triguedina

At the end of the tasting, I remarked to winery employee Olga, who had led my tasting, and winery owner Sabine Baldès, who had joined us, “Wow, what an opportunity, to taste a whole range of your wines!” They had poured several others in addition to the ones described above, including memorable whites and rosés. I continued, “Thank you for sharing them with me, just a blogger, not Wine Spectator or anything.”

Olga’s unexpected response really touched me. “Yes, but you came to us,” she said. “Wine Spectator, we must go to them. They tell us what wines to send. You, you took the time to come here and visit us.”

And then Madame Baldès herself took me into the vineyards. It was a splendid day.

Read about the delicious white wines made in Cahors here.


And for more about Cahors, check out these delightful posts by my #Winophiles friends:

Liz from What’s In That Bottle paints the place Red Wine & Black All Over

Wendy from A Day In The Life On The Farm tempts the crowd with Basque Chicken Stew paired with Black Wine

Payal from Keep the Peas gives us a bit of everything we want with White Wine, Red Wine, Black Wine, Cahors!

Camilla from Culinary Adventures With Camilla gets the party going with Grilled Lamb Sirloin with Cedre Heritage 2015

Rupal from Journeys Of A Syrah Queen inspires and delights with Crocus Wines – Exploring Cahors With Paul Hobbs

Jeff from Food Wine Click may be getting us in trouble with Forbidden Foods and Stinky Cahors

Robin from Crushed Grape Chronicles gets out the map and takes us to Cahors – Malbec from along the winding river Lot

And on L’Occasion, Jill and Jason share Cahors: Your Favorite Wine For Fall

Sulphur Bath Masseur Wine

11 August 2018

A private room at Chreli Abano

I didn’t plan on ending up drunk in a grotty Tbilisi locker room, making toasts to the glories of Georgia. But then, I suppose one never does.

I ended up in that locker room because what I thought would be a two-hour river cruise through the center of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, turned out to be just 30 minutes. What to do with that extra time? Exhausted from the previous day’s hiking in the Caucasus Mountains, I decided that a sulphur bath soak would be just the thing. I’d had a lovely experience at the freshly renovated Chreli Abano, a historic sulphur bath sparkling with mosaics, but it was expensive and a little tame.

Instead, I sought out a bath still frequented by local people. A sulphur bath with public pools. A bath that doesn’t take credit cards. A bath that was a little more of an adventure.

The Abanotubani neighborhood, including the blue façade of Chreli Abano

Most of the bathhouses in the Abanotubani neighborhood cater almost exclusively to tourists nowadays, and I had trouble finding one with public facilities. Front desk clerks kept pointing me farther and farther up the street, until there it was, exactly what I was looking for: The Queen’s Bath, housed in a once-grand Persian-style building with crumbling stucco. A bald gentleman sitting outside the entrance greeted me. I later learned his name was GaGa (no relation to Lady).

I said that I wanted a scrub and massage — Tbilisi’s sulphur baths are reminiscent of Turkey’s hammams — and he understood, despite my almost total lack of Georgian. After taking me to the counter to pay, he escorted me to the locker room, which hasn’t seen an update since before I was born. But no matter — a massive attendant of about 70 opened a locker for me, and I undressed and put on my flip-flops (always bring flip-flops when you travel). I was about to wrap the sheet-like towel I’d received around my waist, but the attendant took it from me, tossed it in my locker and locked the door. Towels, it seems, were not allowed in the bath!

GaGa, who was to be my masseur, led me to the showers, a row of narrow-gauge PVC pipes mounted on the wall, and I had a rinse. He pointed to the turbid sulphur bath, indicating I should have a soak before my scrub. In the pool were two more gentlemen. One rested his arms on the edge and faced away from the center, and another, a zaftig 60-something, sat facing me. He spoke.

Queen’s Bath

“I don’t understand,” I said, raising my hands in the universal gesture of confusion. He pointed to himself and said his name, Rahib, and I did the same.

“Amerikani!” he exclaimed. I nodded. “Azeri, Azeri,” he said pointing to himself, indicating that he came from neighboring Azerbaijan.

“Ah, very nice.” I said, smiling and nodding. That was an error.

Rahib scooted across the pool and sat next to me. He then took my hand and attempted to place it… in an inappropriate place. I withdrew, saying politely but firmly, “No, no. No thank you.” And I scooted myself to the other side of the pool.

Unfortunately, Rahib did not wish to take no for an answer, and he followed me. I moved towards the pool’s exit — all the while, mind you, the other man in the pool hasn’t moved a muscle — and Rahib continued his pursuit. “Muslim! Muslim!” he said, pointing to himself, with a tone that seemed to suggest that because he was a Muslim, it was great idea for me to touch his junk. I felt unpersuaded.

Fortunately, GaGa was ready to give me my scrub, and I escaped the randy Azeri. I laid down on a marble plinth topped with a slimy piece of black rubber matting. I felt concerned about what might be living on/in the mat, but GaGa got to work and gave me the scrub to end all scrubs, followed by a thorough soaping with a fluffy mitt and an ocean of suds. I arose from the plinth feeling thoroughly restored, refreshed, and sparkling clean. GaGa suggested another soak, but I decided a nice cool shower was a better idea. I’d had enough of the sulphur pool.

I returned to the locker room, thirsty but fully relaxed. I had just finished dressing when GaGa approached holding a small tumbler of a dark red liquid. “Drink,” he said. I took a big gulp, relishing the idea of some cool cherry juice — cherries were in season — and nearly gagged. It was most definitely not cherry juice.

Three men at a table in the corner of the locker room laughed. “Ha ha! No like wine! Ha ha ha!”

I composed myself after the initial surprise, and said, “Ha! I like! I like! I like wine very much.” I pointed to the glass. “Saperavi?” Saperavi, Georgia’s signature red grape, is unusual in that both its flesh and its skin are dark. Most red wine grapes have dark skins but light-colored flesh. It has the capability to make rich, structured wines full of fruit and sour-cherry acids. Some Saperavis can be absolutely sensational. It’s even started to catch on in New York’s Finger Lakes.

From left to right: Ilia, Giorgi and GaGa

“Yes! Saperavi!” they exclaimed, surprised I knew what it was. “Come. Come! Sit!” They graciously invited me to join them at their table, where GaGa had just set out a jug of Saperavi, a salad of tomato, cucumber and basil, and a skillet with an egg dish resembling a Spanish tortilla. How could I refuse? GaGa refilled my glass.

“Thank you! It’s very good,” I said, feeling rather out of place in that little old locker room, at a table with people who spoke little to no English.

GaGa looked pleased. “I make,” he responded. Many Georgians make their own wine, because commercial wine is simply too expensive to drink in any quantity. And Georgians like to drink in quantity.

“You made this?” He nodded. I took another sip. “Wow! I mean, it’s really very, very good. It’s got lots of dark fruit, with plenty of juicy acids to balance, and there’s focus! The white pepper spice has great focus to it, and the tannins are big but really well-integrated. Fantastic!” In my enthusiasm, I had forgotten about his limited English, but he seemed to understand.

“Eat, eat. I also make,” he said, pointing to the salad and skillet. The richness of the eggs with potatoes worked beautifully with the forceful wine.

The two other gentlemen sitting with us, Giorgi and Ilia, also smiled at my description of the wine. As GaGa refilled my glass again, Giorgi, the younger of the two, brought out a clay bowl. I had an idea of what was happening. At a supra, a traditional Georgian feast, a tamada takes the role of toastmaster, who gets the ball rolling by saying something heartfelt or funny or poetic and drinking a hearty draught from a glass, bowl or drinking horn. He or she then passes the bowl on, so that  other guests can make their own toasts. We may have been in a poorly maintained locker room at a little table with just bread, salad and eggs, and naked men periodically squeezed by, but Giorgi had just turned our gathering into a little supra.

The author, out of focus in more ways than one, holding the toasting bowl

GaGa poured some Rkatsiteli — which he had also made himself — into the bowl for Giorgi. Rather touchingly, he toasted to America and to friendship, and downed the wine. The bowl came to me, and I toasted (as I had once before) to the beauty of Georgia and the joy of its hospitality. The Rkatsiteli had ample stone fruit flavor, a zip of green apple acid and no shortage of tannins, but the clay bowl helped tame them. If you have a wine that’s too tannic, you might try drinking it out of a clay bowl instead of decanting! GaGa and Ilia also made toasts, and once again the bowl came to me.

“Many Americans don’t know much about Georgia, but this country is absolutely amazing,” I said, probably a little too loudly. “I mean, look at this. GaGa just met me. Giorgi and Ilia, you didn’t know me at all, and yet you invited me to sit at this table to share your food and wine. This is… this is something that could only happen here in Georgia. Georgia is amazing, and you guys are amazing, and I love this place,” I said, with most of my vocabulary lost to the wine. GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia smiled and raised their glasses, and I downed a mercifully half-filled bowl of GaGa’s thoroughly delicious homemade Rkatsiteli.

I may have slurred a bit when I said it, but I meant every word. Georgia is amazing, and I do love that place. Thank you, GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia, for an afternoon I’ll never forget.

Last-Minute Winery Lunch In Kvareli

27 July 2018

Lake Kvareli, the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti

I felt irritated with my guide, NaNa. We had just spent half an hour driving in circles trying to find the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti, Georgia’s most important wine region (the prettiest lake she wanted to save for later). She was now on her phone, trying to arrange a last-minute lunch at a family winery nearby. When she announced, with palpable relief, that the family could indeed host us, in spite of the short notice, my irritation turned to pleasant surprise, as it so often did in Georgia.

Georgia is not just a state, of course, but a magnificently beautiful country, bordered by the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, south of Russia and northeast of Turkey. Winemaking there dates back at least 8,000 years, according to the most recent archaeological evidence, making Georgia the likely birthplace of wine itself. But there were a few viticultural bumps in the road between then and now, most recently the communist prioritization of quantity over quality when Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union.

Wine Gallery, just your average Tbilisi wine shop

All my research materials tell me that quality winemaking took off in Georgia only after the Russians banned the import of Georgian wine between 2006-2013, in order to punish the country (recall the brief war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions Russia still illegally occupies). Ironically, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The embargo forced exporters to improve quality and look further afield to more demanding markets such as western Europe, the U.S., Japan, China and Hong Kong.”

Because this development is so recent and ongoing, most books describing Georgian wines are in some respects out of date. The World Atlas of Wine, for example, speaks of Georgia’s “extraordinary potential,” and Uncorking the Caucasus warns that “Obtaining high-quality wine is difficult outside of the niche bars and shops in Tbilisi,” and that even “…in Georgia’s most famous wine region, Kakheti, options were remarkably thin and the wineries were mostly inconveniently spread out over long distances in the valley.”

I visited in June of this year, and nowadays, Georgia is less a country of potential and more a country of results. I found excellent and inexpensive wines all over the place, and in scenic Kakheti, I had no trouble weaving seven winery visits in with my monastery tours and hearty country lunches.

My first of such lunches was, in fact, at a winery: the Old Vine Family Cellar in Kvareli. We arrived not 15 minutes after NaNa’s phone call to the aptly named winery, which was an extension of a family’s home, built alongside a patio shaded by a century-old grapevine. The small winery had several qvevri in the floor. Qvevri — amphora-like clay pots lined with beeswax and buried in the ground — are the cornerstone of traditional Georgian winemaking. Rather than pressing juice into the qvevri, winemakers usually put gently crushed whole grapes inside, including seeds, skins and sometimes stems. As as result, white wines fermented in qvevri can be as tannic as reds. A white Kisi I tried in Tbilisi tasted like a mouthful of fruity burlap.

Giorgi among his qvevri at Old Vine Family Cellar

Giorgi, the owner and winemaker, met us and took us to his cozy tasting room. As a gentleman of a certain age, Giorgi knew more Russian than English, but [insert standard passage about the language of wine being universal here]. And NaNa helped translate the more complicated ideas we wanted to express to each other.

I asked for a spit bucket, which confused NaNa a bit. “So he doesn’t get drunk,” Giorgi explained, though NaNa was clearly skeptical. Georgians don’t seem to worry too much about getting drunk. One of my later guides told me how, the night before, he drank about three liters of wine, he injured his finger, and his friend had somehow broken a rib. Wine is a health food in Georgia, the occasional broken bone aside, and Georgians drink it as such. Toss those kale juicing machines! A qvevri is all you need.

Giorgi’s small, home-based winery doesn’t appear on any list of Georgia’s best, but I’ll be damned if Old Vine Family Cellar doesn’t make some captivating stuff. The Rkatsiteli — one of Georgia’s most important white wine grapes — smelled of peach blossoms and felt surprisingly spritzy. He could have put “pétillant naturel” on the label if he’d wanted to. I loved the juicy acids and well-balanced tannins. NaNa joined me in the tasting, but, of course, refrained from any nasty spitting.

The blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane Manavi was fragrant with peaches and apricots, and developed gracefully from peachy fruit to orangey acids to a tannic finish. Excellent. Mtsvane is another of Georgia’s important white wine grapes, and like Rkatsiteli it often has notes of stone fruits, but I find it tends to be spicier and more floral. Qvevri-made Mtsvane is a bit like tannic Gewürztraminer.

An Rkatsiteli fermented without the grape seeds had aromas of apple and peach, leavened with a freshness like strawberry leaf. It, too, was well-balanced, with ample fruit, round acids and pleasantly nutty tannins, softer because of the absence of the seeds in the qvevri.

Saperavi, Georgia’s most important red wine grape, has dark skin and dark flesh (most red wine grapes have only dark skin). It makes inky dark wines full of rich fruit and acid, and Giorgi’s example was no exception. It smelled rich and raisiny, and it had plenty of ripe dark fruit flavor. Yet it didn’t feel at all heavy, with bright sour cherry acids and well-integrated tannins keeping it well in balance.

And I loved the Old Vine Family Cellar blend of Aladasturi, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, redolent of currants, black pepper and earth. Again, zesty acids kept the wine light on its feet in spite of its rich fruit.

There was nothing amateurish or clumsy about these wines. I would be happy to drink any of them, any time.

When Giorgi suggested that we try some homemade brandy and chacha, NaNa exclaimed, “No! No, it’s too much. Too much to drink.” I gestured to the spit bucket and indicated that I would be happy to try some. Once NaNa saw me trying the spirits, she couldn’t resist trying them herself. The brandy tasted strong but pleasantly nutty; the grappa-like chacha developed slowly, allowing me to get used to its alcoholic power; and I also enjoyed the sweet tarragon liqueur, which reminded me of Italian finocchietto.

NaNa playing guitar while our lunch arrived

We moved to the shady patio, sitting down at a table beneath that massive century-old grapevine. While Giorgi had been pouring wine for us in the tasting room, his wife, Liana, had conjured a feast in the kitchen. Soon our table heaved with colorful salads, local cheeses, pork fritters, bean stew and fresh bread. I reached for the garden tomato and basil salad, but NaNa stopped me. “Wait. I will try first and let you know if it is good,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. She did this with each dish, like a taster protecting a king from poison, pronouncing “This is very good” or, less commonly, “This is just OK.” She must be more of a connoisseur than I, because I found everything to be thoroughly delicious. Our table looked like something out of a travel magazine spread.

“Robbie.” NaNa liked to call me Robbie, which I found oddly endearing. “You should go help with the barbecue! That is a man’s job.” NaNa had a great sense of humor but she could be rather sexist, like many people in Georgia. Earlier that day, I had told her about a wine I tried in a Tbilisi bar, the first vintage by the first winemaker to commercially bottle a wine from a grape called Buera. I was excited to be among the first to try wine made from this grape. She replied, “Buera? No, I don’t know it. But let’s ask the driver. He’s a man, so he knows all the Georgian grape varieties.” (There are approximately 500 Georgian grape varieties.) The driver, unsurprisingly, had not heard of Buera. “No, he doesn’t know it. It must be a foreign wine,” she said, and that was the end of it.

Bakur at the barbecue

Helping with the barbecue did sound like a good idea in any case. I joined our driver, Bakur, by the grill, filled with smoldering grapevine cuttings. We had no common language and only two skewers of pork to worry about, but we had fun fussing with them and taking photos of each other at the grill. NaNa grew bored, however. “Robbie! Robbie!” she called out, sounding rather tipsy. “Don’t leave me alone for so long!” I lingered for a couple of minutes more by the grill, but NaNa grew more insistent. “Robbie! Come drink with me!” We brought the pork over to the table, and it was perfect: simple and fatty, and flavorful from the grapevine smoke.

I raised my glass to Liana and Giorgi who had joined us. Toasts are important in Georgia, and I wanted to make mine count. “I would like to make a toast to Georgia,” I said, “and to your wonderful hospitality. Look at this beautiful feast! What a joy to share it with you, here, in such a lovely place, while drinking such delicious wine. To welcome me so warmly to your home, and at such short notice — I feel very honored. I won’t ever forget this lunch. To new friends, and to Georgia!” I must have been just a little bit tipsy myself, because I had a tear in my eye as I finished.

A Man, A Plan, A Shiraz, Australia!

12 July 2018

Neil McGuigan

One country I routinely avoid in both wine shops and on wine lists is Australia. It’s a flaw of mine. I’m still scarred from insta-hangover Yellowtail and the ark of critter quaffers that followed in its wake. An all-too-brief visit to Australia a couple of years ago helped set me on the road to recovery, however. I loved the wines, especially from the continent’s cool-climate regions. And my recovery continues apace after a sensational lunch at Chicago’s Wollensky’s Grill hosted by McGuigan Wines.

This much-decorated winery stands in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a region just north of Sydney that The World Atlas of Wine calls “a far from ideal place to grow grapes” because of its subtropical climate. Nevertheless, the book praises “a strip of weathered basalt” in the foothills of the Brokenback Range, as well as “red volcanic soils on higher ground, such as those of Pokolbin…” McGuigan stands in the heart of that region, just east of the Brokenback Range. It has vineyards there, but the winery also sources fruit from a number of other regions, including some of Australia’s fashionable cool-climate spots.

Although popular in Britain, McGuigan has only recently become available in the United States. Look for McGuigan’s black “The Plan” label, which can be Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. What sets these wines apart is the the company’s dedication to cleanness and freshness in the wine, according to CEO Neil McGuigan. He’s not interested in making jam bombs:

Food culture [in the U.S.] has grown logarithmically, and where there’s a food culture, a wine culture follows. To go with the food, you need wines that are bright, flavorsome and fresh.

When I hear the words “Australian wine,” the first word that comes to mind is not “fresh.” I love that McGuigan is working on changing that.

We started our lunch with the 2016 “The Plan” Chardonnay, and it certainly got things going on the right foot. It had firm, juicy acids balanced by a touch of creaminess, and some refined Sichuan peppercorn-like spice. It’s a fantastic value for about $12 a bottle. I have trouble thinking of too many other Chardonnays at that price that have the balance of The Plan.

The red McGuigan “The Plan” wines also punched above their weight. The 2016 Red Blend had cheerful notes of vanilla and dark cherries balanced with a spicy lift on the finish. I felt momentarily skeptical of the 2016 Shiraz, which started with jammy fruit and plenty of sweet vanilla, but it maintained balance by finishing fresh and dry. It went in a totally different direction than I was expecting. And I quite liked the plush and plummy 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, which moved slowly from fruit to vanilla to black pepper spice. Each of The Plan wines ranges in alcohol content between 12.5% and 13.5%, which shows admirable restraint in an era when 15% is not uncommon.

The Hand Made Shirazes paired beautifully with steak

We also sampled several vintages of McGuigan “Hand Made” Shiraz, made from grapes grown “just outside Langhorne Creek” in South Australia, not far from Adelaide. Much farther south than the Hunter Valley, and therefore cooler, Langhorne Creek is known for “soft, gentle, mouth-filling Shiraz and succulent Cabernet Sauvignon, according to The World Atlas of Wine. A nearby lake helps keep things fresh: “The so-called Lake Doctor, a reliable afternoon breeze off the lake, slows ripening here so that grapes are usually picked two weeks later than those of McLaren Vale.”

The 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008 vintages were all delicious, and all different. The 2014 is still young and brash, but the 2012 has settled in, with a more obviously fruity aroma marked by an additional savory note. Its tannins felt more fine-grained and the wine moved from moment to moment more slowly. My favorite was the 2010, which had developed even more of a savory quality in its aroma. The wine had excellent balance and control, with big fruit and big, refined, slow-moving spice. Because it was a drought year, 2008 is something of an anomaly, but it too had wonderfully integrated flavors of dark fruit, oak and spice.

The star of the tasting was the 2013 McGuigan “The Philosophy,” a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Shiraz that costs about $125 a bottle. McGuigan has a smart managerial reason for producing this sort of flagship wine. “When you make a $150 bottle,” he explained, “it creates a culture of excellence at the winery, so that a $10 bottle starts to taste like a $12 bottle.”

Is a $125 bottle 10 times as good as a $12 bottle? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that a $125 bottle (ideally) offers something different from a $12 bottle — it offers control, refinement and elegance that require a lot of expensive winemaking technique to achieve. For most of us, a $125 wine won’t be worth the money. But if you want to splurge on such a bottle, “The Philosophy” would be a beautiful choice. It had a dark fruit aroma with a savory undertone, and it developed with confident evenness on the palate. The wine moved with grace from opulent fruit to big oak (the fruit was rich enough to take it) to refined spice to very fine-grained tannins.

It was a joy to drink.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

Value In Bourgogne: Burgundy You Can Afford

21 June 2018

When I hear the word “Burgundy,” it sets my heart a bit aflutter. It’s one of my all-time favorite wine regions to visit — I’ve been four times — and it’s the home of some of the world’s most coveted wines. Burgundy, or Bourgogne to the locals, is the home of Romanée-Conti, Montrachet and La Tâche. The names send shivers down my spine, and I haven’t even tasted any of them! But the Grand Cru Burgundy I have tasted gives me some notion of what these wines must be like. I know I write about the unusual and the obscure, but fine Burgundy, white Burgundy in particular, ranks among my very favorite wines, famous though it may be.

Unfortunately, prices for Grand Cru Burgundies are stratospheric — the names I listed above can fetch four figures a bottle — and Premier Cru Burgundy is only somewhat more affordable. (Although I do vividly remember the time I stumbled upon a bar in Dijon’s food market offering glasses of Les Maranges for 7 euro!)

But Burgundy is more than these famous names. It ranges from cool Chablis in the north through the Côte d’Or heartland down to warm(ish) Mâcon. It’s a big region, and there are numerous values to be had there.

In search of value, Liz Barrett and I interviewed Anne Moreau of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis and the Bourgogne Wine Board. She joined us on an episode of Name That Wine to present four different white Burgundies that offer incredible value for the money:

We try one Champagne-like Crémant de Bourgogne and three gorgeous whites, all very different from one another. And best of all, these wines ranged in price from $18 to $35 a bottle. The $35 wine was a Chablis Premier Cru! Good luck finding a Premier Cru from the Côte d’Or at that price.

What a joy these wines were, and what fun to learn about them with an expert like Anne Moreau! I only wish that when we were blind-tasting the wines, I had taken her hint about #2 a little more to heart. Whoops!

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