Blends – Bordeaux Style

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.

(more…)

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:

2006 Barboursville Vineyards “Octagon”: I was very excited to try this magnum of a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It’s a big wine, with good fruit, a bit of spice, medium tannins and a pleasant metallic finish. I want to drink it with a grilled steak. $40 for a bottle, $90 for a magnum. Both label and wine have an elegance, making the magnum a great choice for a dinner party. The rich 2002 Octagon still seems young, with its jammy nose and long finish.

2007 Barboursville Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Often associated with the Loire Valley, this varietal does just as well in Virginia as Viognier — it’s almost always a safe bet. The Barboursville 2007 tasted big and spicy, with subdued flavors of green herbs at the end. We also had the fortune to taste a double magnum of the 1998 Cabernet Franc, which added flavors of ripe plums and tobacco. Gorgeous.

2009 Veritas Petit Verdot: From the Monticello AVA, this Virginia beauty is a deep purple, with an enticing black cherry nose. It’s big, bold and spicy, ideal perhaps for a rich duck confit. Thomas Jefferson, who never succeeded in producing wine at Monticello, would surely be thrilled to taste this. If you think $30 is too much to spend on a Virginia wine, this will change your mind.

The inimitable Jennifer McCloud pouring wine at Monticello

2008 Chrysalis Norton: The Norton variety may sound unromantic, but it produces beautiful wine in Virginia’s terroir. The Oxford Companion to Wine asserts that it’s “arguably the only variety of American vine species origin making a premium quality wine… Norton is undoubtedly underrated because of entrenched bias against non-vinifera varieties.” Chrysalis makes a particularly big and rich Norton, with a raisiny aroma, ample dark fruit and a burst of black pepper. You’ll be hard-pressed to do better; the personable winemaker, Jennifer McCloud, is “probably the world’s foremost expert on [Norton],” according to Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

2009 Horton Tannat “The Art of Darkness”: What a delight to see this unusual variety, normally confined to Uruguay and the little-known Madiran AOC in southwest France, thriving in Virginia. This tasty Tannat featured some spiciness and a little gaminess — I found myself hankering for an elk steak or some venison tenderloin.

2007 Horton Pinotage: This blend of 82% Pinotage and 18% Tannat was much fruitier than I expected, without the heavy earth and smoke one sometimes sees in South African expressions of this variety. Easy to drink, with food-friendly acids and noticeable structure.

2010 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir: Apparently there is a winery crazy enough to grow fussy Pinot Noir grapes in hot, humid Virginia (this variety is normally found in cooler climes like Oregon and Burgundy). And they actually succeeded in producing a charming wine! This Pinot Noir offered up-front fruit, a creamy texture and some spiciness in the finish, without the meat of Oregon or the earth of Burgundy. A very approachable Pinot.

What riches they have in Virginia! And so few of us have any idea these wines exist. Many Virginia wines are on the expensive side, from $20 on up, but served at a dinner party or other special occasion, they will be sure to start a conversation and delight your guests.

Seek out Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Bordeaux-style blends (like Octagon).  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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