Blends – Bordeaux Style

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Gnomes Forged A Star Of It

17 May 2014

Edi Simcic DuetDespite the general high quality and relative obscurity of Slovenian wines, I haven’t written much about them. I finally figured out the completely irrational reason why: Years ago, on a visit to Movia’s wine bar in Ljubljana, my friend and I were wildly overcharged for some tastes of wine. I was in my mid-20s, just learning about wine, and too shy to say anything to the bartender. Since then, it’s been almost a reflex to avoid Slovenian wine, and Movia’s in particular. Irrational, as I said, but there it is.

It’s time to overcome that aversion. During Slovenia’s Yugoslav decades, wineries concentrated on quantity over quality, as did every other communist wine-making country. But now, Slovenia has “established by far the most successful wine industry [of the former Yugoslav republics],” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It goes on to note that “Production is focused on quality and premium quality (vrhunsko) wines, with only about 30 percent of basic table wine quality.” And The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia lavishes praise on Slovenia, calling it “the rising star among the winemaking countries of the Western Balkans.”

It makes good sense that Slovenia, which lies south of Austria and east of Italy, would have the potential to make great wine. Some of its best vineyard sites are “influenced both by the Adriatic and the Alps,” as The World Atlas of Wine describes, and “the green rolling hills provide some excellent grape-ripening sites.” In Slovenia’s west, some of the wine regions simply continue on from the Italian vineyards just across the border.

Feeling ready to once again explore the joys of Slovenian wine, I happily accepted a free sample of 2008 Edi Simčič “Duet” from the Goriška Brda region, which more than one source describes as an extension of Italy’s Collio DOC.

Indeed, The World Atlas of Wine‘s detailed map of Goriška Brda is placed with Friuli, rather than with other Slovenian wine regions. The map locates the Edi Simčič estate in the far south of Goriška Brda, near its more famous neighbor of Movia and the Italian border. Keep an eye out for wines from Goriška Brda. The Oxford Companion calls it “Slovenia’s most esteemed wine district, having begun to move to quality in the late 1980s.” Like neighboring Friuli, Goriška Brda produces many white wines, but both the Oxford Companion and the World Atlas note that Bordeaux-style blends, such as the Simčič “Duet,” are some of the regions best bottlings.

Tasting Edi Simcic Duet with friends

“Don’t put that photo in your blog,” requested fellow wine taster Will White.

I sampled the Simčič “Duet” with some friends recently, and our experience with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot certainly did nothing to contradict the Companion or the Atlas. It had an aroma of dusky, dark-red fruit with the notes of iron and clay that I associate with Slovenian reds. It’s a big wine. One friend exclaimed, “My first sip hit me hard!” Although the wine is powerful, it exhibits focus and restraint, with well-balanced acids and deep, creamy fruit undergirded with earth. The finish felt tannic but elegant and firmly in control.

According to this charming and rather enigmatic video, the winery first started making this blend in the 90s, when it was “still very shy, but gnomes were forging a star of it.” It’s certainly not shy anymore. The gnomes in the cellar did their work well. It’s now big and delicious, with a rather big $40 price tag to match. That’s beyond what I can usually spend on a bottle, but if you do have the means, the Edi Simčič “Duet” offers more than enough flavor and elegance to justify the price. 

The sample of this wine was kindly provided by Wine Chateau.

An Earthy Red From Serbia

17 December 2013
Chateau Damjanovic 2009

Chateau Damjanović 2009

A bottle from Serbia sparked this blog, and so I’ll always have a soft spot for wines from this landlocked country in the center of the Balkans. Wines from this country can be hard to find, but I keep running into them here in Chicago largely due to the efforts of Goran Sevic, owner of the import company Vino et Spiritus. His import philosophy is exciting: ”There are plenty of commodity Serbian wines produced in large co-ops that retail in the $7 and under category that are OK, but I really have no interest in importing them.  What I look for are artisanal wines with expression of place, varietal and vintage; terroir.”

I tasted through his portfolio a couple of years ago, and delighted in the Tamjanika, Prokupac, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch and Vranac he served me. But at that time, he hadn’t yet started to import the Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. When I saw a bottle of it on the shelf at In Fine Spirits, and noticed it was imported by Vino et Spiritus, I felt certain it would be a winner and snapped it up.

Chateau Damjanović  comes from Zapadna Morava (south of Belgrade), which used to be the site of imperial vineyards, according to Vinopedia. Further encouragement about the wine came from The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which suggests that “the best potential [in Serbia] is for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot when grown in Južna Morava,” the wine region immediately to the south of Zapadna Morava. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, arguing that “Cabernet and Merlot with intriguing potential can also be ripened, notably [in the Južna Morava region] in the south.” It also sounded promising that Chateau Damjanović has only 7.41 acres of vineyards, according to the Vino et Spiritus website, meaning that the winery certainly doesn’t fall into the mediocre large co-op category.

Chateau Damjanovic 2010

Chateau Damjanović 2010

The Chateau Damjanović sounded better and better. Unfortunately, when I have a wine I’m particularly excited about, it sometimes paradoxically stays in my wine rack much longer than I might like. It’s all too easy to leave it unopened, waiting for just the right occasion. I left my bottle of 2009 Chateau Damjanović for about year, so it seems, because I discovered the 2010 vintage at Binny’s just a few weeks ago. I bought it too, and decided it was high  time for a mini Damjanović vertical tasting.

2010 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I tasted this vintage first, while baking up some smoked gouda and rosemary bread. This Cabernet/Merlot blend had a dark, earthy and slightly funky aroma, which seemed promising. It had a rustic feel to it, with tightly wound red fruit and notes of iron and tobacco. Though the acids were big and rowdy, the tannins were relatively soft, and at the very end the wine finished with a bit of vanilla. It was lively and fun, and spicier when paired with a warm slice of the bread.

2009 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I opened this bottle while decorating the Christmas tree on a very cold Sunday afternoon, when something hearty was in order. The aroma of this wine was even more intensely earthy, with strong notes of iron and clay in addition to some red fruit. It tasted spicy, meaty and smokey, making me yearn for some smoked sausage to go with it. Though this wine was a year older, the fruit remained tightly wound, loosening a bit when paired with some Bolognese. It finished with a pronounced metallic note, rather than the vanilla of the 2010.

The Vino et Spiritus website recommends drinking this wine young. Certainly the 2010 is ready to drink now, but the 2009 was equally as good, if not better. Priced at about $13 — a very fine value — it’s an inexpensive risk to buy an extra bottle or two to lay down and see what happens. In the meantime, because the 2010 has such zesty acids, it’s well-suited to the hearty food of the holiday season.

Find It: I purchased the 2009 vintage at In Fine Spirits, and the 2010 vintage at Binny’s.

South African Bordeaux

30 October 2013

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsAs I wrote in my previous post, South Africa’s wine industry has changed dramatically since trade sanctions were lifted in the early 1990s. It was particularly reassuring to hear Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch, describe how wineries had spent considerable effort in recent years to focus on grapes well-suited to the terroir of their estates, rather than simply growing a little bit of everything. But would this translate into truly world-class wines?

If Engelbrecht couldn’t convince me, no one could. He made it clear that he has little patience for anything that isn’t the best. We started our dinner at Chicago’s RL restaurant with flutes of NV Taittinger Brut, rather than a Cap Classique (South Africa’s méthode champenois sparkling wine). “If you’re going to drink bubbly, drink Champagne,” he declared. “Why waste one day of your maybe 65 years on Earth drinking something else?” This uncompromising attitude regarding quality has raised the ire of some of Engelbrecht’s countrymen — the wine list of his acclaimed restaurant contains nary a Cap Classique. It doesn’t yet compete with Champagne, Engelbrecht explained, so why serve it?

I had confidence, then, that any wine Engelbrecht would pour with dinner would represent not only South Africa’s best, but wine that would rank as some of the best anywhere. South Africa is already making a name for itself with vivacious Chenin Blancs, but it lacks a signature red (not counting inconsistent Pinotage). If this tasting was any indication, that signature red could well be Bordeaux-style blends. We tasted three together, and each dazzled with its concentration and control.

2010 Rust en Vrede Estate: This Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. Jean Engelbrecht’s father, Jannie Engelbrecht, decided to focus solely on red wines after the 1979 Chenin Blanc left him less than impressed, a bold move at a time when South African wineries tended to grow a little of everything.

The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region. The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish.

The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

2009 Anthonij Rupert Optima: Anthonij Rupert has produced this Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc since the 1970s, but the 2009 is the first vintage of the wine since Johann Rupert took over the winery following the death of his brother. Since Johann Rupert took the helm, he overhauled the Franschhoek estate, where most of the vineyards are planted on hillside vineyards abutting the Groot Drakenstein Mountains.

The work undertaken by Rupert to improve the winery seems to have paid off — this wine also proved to be quite delicious. It smelled dark and rich and a little out of reach somehow, which made me want to taste it all the more. Its dark fruit was kept under tight restraint for a surprisingly long time, until it finally blossomed into eye-opening spice. It felt like a logarithmic scale of flavor.

2010 Ernie Els Signature: In South Africa at least, Ernie Els is probably better known as a golfer than a winery owner, but that may yet change, especially since he has quite a close connection to Engelbrecht, who introduced Els to his wife. The flagship wine of Els’ Stellenbosch winery is the Signature, which combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc in yet another version of a Bordeaux-style blend. Els ages all the varieties separately in new French oak before blending them together.

The result proved to be very food-friendly, both with my mussels and my filet. It had a dark, dusky aroma, and one fellow taster detected black cherry. But another (of “man musk” infamy) smelled a note of black olive. “What??” Engelbrecht exclaimed, aghast. But I can see her point — beneath the lush fruit, hearty spice and rustic tannins was an underlying tightness, perhaps even a touch of salinity. With that undergirding, the wine as a whole felt very balanced and focused.

These three Bordeaux-style beauties certainly beat any Pinotage I’ve ever tried. They’re not inexpensive, priced between $35 and $60, but if you tasted them side-by-side with similarly priced Meritage from California or Bordeaux from Bordeaux, these South African wines would hold their own admirably. I must admit I haven’t written about all that many South African wines on this blog, but after this tasting, I’m certainly interested in trying a lot more.

Three Unusual German Reds

17 July 2013


In addition to Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Germany grows a number of other red grape varieties quite successfully, as I rediscovered on a recent visit. An unusual but traditional varietal such as Lemberger was fun to drink, but what really made me want to stand up and yodel was the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend I tried. Wow. Who would have thought that these varieties, which reach their apex in warm, maritime Bordeaux, could do so well in cool, continental Germany?

Apparently, some smart German winemakers thought so. The World Atlas of Wine notes that there have been some “convincing experiments” with red Bordeaux varieties in Württemberg, and you can consider me convinced. Not all German reds are worth trying — many are still thin and sweet — but after tasting the Spätburgunders described in this post and the wines detailed below, I am certain that there is a German red for everyone.

2010 Staatsweingut Weinsberg Lemberger Trocken:  This wine comes from Württemberg, an area just north of Stuttgart which the Atlas says is “really red wine country.” It started fruity and sweet, and I feared it would be a simple snoozer, but then a blast of black-pepper spice kicked in, ensuring that there was no way I would sleep through this glass of wine. You might have tried a Lemberger and not known it — the variety is especially popular in Austria, where it’s known as Blaufränkisch.

2007 Geisel Weinbau Brentano “R” Markelsheimer Probstberg Merlot Trocken: I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard wine (Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier selected this wine from northern Württemberg to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

2010 Weingut Fritz Wassmer “Cuvée Félix” Cabernet & Merlot: This Bordeaux-style blend comes from the far southwestern corner of Baden, the southwesternmost state of Germany. I felt especially excited to try it because it comes from a town called Bad Krozingen, just a few miles from where I studied abroad in Freiburg. Again there was that velvety red fruit that I love, followed by some soft spice and a smokey finish of tobacco. It paired perfectly with an insanely large portion of Zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef with caramelized onions), and, oddly enough, it worked with the asparagus as well.

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