Blends – Bordeaux Style

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
Lemberger

Lemberger

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.

My First First Growths

15 February 2012

It may seem odd, at first glance, to see me discussing my tasting of Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone on Odd Bacchus. After all, what are four of the world’s most famous and celebrated wines doing on a blog devoted to drinking the unusual? Well, I don’t know about you, but drinking wines that sell between $750 and $1,500 per bottle is certainly an unusual experience for me.

While visiting Bordeaux, I took advantage of Max, a wine bar filled with temperature-controlled cases of everything from basic Médoc to Premiers Grands Crus Classés. I put money on a card, inserted it into the case, and splash – I’m $40 poorer and 25 milliliters of Château Latour richer.

Château Latour is one of the four crus selected by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce as a Premier Cru (First Growth) in the landmark 1855 Classification, organized for that year’s Universal Exposition in Paris, where the best Bordeaux wines were showcased. As such, Latour, along with the other First Growths, became a benchmark of quality, and it remains so today.

Alone in the wine bar except for the staff and an Australian couple, I tasted my first First Growth sip beneath glimmering wine glasses cascading down from the ceiling. The brick-purple 2004 Château Latour ($975) smelled of jam and earth and metal, and the fruit was deep and rich. The finesse of the wine caused me to note, in a moment of unchecked romanticism, that the wine “doesn’t let it all hang out – it shows just enough to be thoroughly ravishing.” Oy — purple indeed.

My notes about the 2004 Château Margaux took a more sensible tone. Which is surprising, considering that The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls this the “greatest” wine in the world, a distinction it’s apparently had for some time. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Thomas Jefferson cited Château Margaux as a vineyard of “first quality” in 1787. It better be, for $750 a bottle.

I did love the Margaux’s chocolate-raspberry nose, and its elegant, restrained palate. It didn’t seem especially big, but the fruit was unquestionably lush and supple. Cocoa made an appearance again in the long finish. I enjoyed it, but it was a tough, tannic wine, needing more age to open up.

The vineyards around St-Émilion, a historic village in the Bordeaux region to the east of the city, were not classified until 1958, and then only two achieved Premier Grand Cru Classé status. I had the chance to try them both.

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Virginia Is For (Red Wine) Lovers

30 July 2011

A veritable forest of stemware covered our dinner table

Virginia produces delicious Viogniers (among other white wines), but it turns out there are some remarkable reds in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I looked for some at Binny’s yesterday, but all I found was a lone Sauvignon Blanc from Barboursville (a Cabernet Franc is also available on their website). Until Virginia wines catch on, and I do hope they will, you will likely have to order them straight from the winery’s website. A bit of a pain, perhaps, but worth the trouble.

Here are a few favorites from the Wine Blogger Conference’s tastings, in no particular order:  (more…)

A Meeting Of Rivals

31 May 2011

There may be an almost countless number of wine regions gracing the globe, but Bordeaux remains arguably the most important benchmark of quality. It wasn’t always so, of course. The Loire Valley once held that title, its river serving as an easy trade route into the Atlantic, from which cargoes of wine swung north to thirsty Holland and England.

That all ended in the 12th Century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II favored Gascony with generous excise tax privileges, ensuring that “…Gascony became the most important supplier of the English court and London society,” according to André Dominé’s Wine.

The Loire Valley’s still wines have languished in the shadow of Bordeaux ever since, and to the north, the sparklers of Champagne continue to eclipse Loire bubblies. But again, “Saumur producers claim to have been in the fizz business long before the Champenois.” (Alice King, Fabulous Fizz.)

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What You Should Like

6 April 2011

I recently popped into In Fine Spirits to pick up another bottle of Jović Vranac, and I noticed two bottles of wine, labels hidden, standing on the tasting table.

“Would you like to try them and see which you like better? It’s for our own ‘Sweet Sixteen’ contest.” Each year, In Fine Spirits makes a bracket of wines in honor of March Madness. Customers vote on their favorites, and the field of wines narrows in concert with the basketball tournament.

Never able to resist a blind tasting, or really any tasting, I sipped Mystery Wine A.

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