Cabernet Franc

The Unusual Reds Of El Enemigo

26 November 2014

El EnemigoTwenty years ago, the wines of Argentina barely made a ripple on the vinous seismograph. Now that quality has dramatically improved, wine store shelves heave with bottles from this South American nation, and Malbec, formerly just an obscure Bordeaux blending grape, reigns as its signature variety.

But Malbec, as you might expect, is not the whole story. Lettie Teague recently praised the Cabernet Sauvignons of Mendoza in this Wall Street Journal article, and indeed, I sampled several beautifully fruity and focused Argentinean Cabernets at a recent tasting at Chicago’s Public Hotel. A well-balanced 2013 Tilia tasted fresh, ripe and spicy, and Catena Zapata, Argentina’s most storied winery, presented two big and lush Cabernet varietals and two wonderfully elegant Cabernet-based blends.

The winemaker of Catena Zapata, Alejandro Vigil, started his own project together with Adrianna Catena, focusing on “smaller varietals in Mendoza,” according to the press materials I received. They named this side label “El Enemigo,” which refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung, who manned the tasting table. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc is another variety frequently used in Bordeaux blends, and it is the dominant grape in the Loire’s red Chinon wines. I’ve also tried it from all sorts of other regions around the world, and Cabernet Franc makes a mean varietal in New Mexico and Virginia, oddly enough. But as far as I can remember, I’d never tried any Cabernet Franc-based blends from South America. The trouble with this grape is that it can sometimes take on some vegetal character, with potentially off-putting notes of green pepper. But that wasn’t a problem here. El Enemigo’s wines proved to be thoroughly ripe and vegetable-free:

2011 Cabernet Franc: This blend of 92% Cabernet Franc and 8% Malbec takes on a beautiful magenta hue, because the high altitude and cool climate of the Gualtallary vineyard from which it’s sourced cause the grapes to develop especially thick skins. A big and cheerful wine, with ripe fruit, bright acids and supple tannins.

2010 Gran Enemigo: Vigil seeks to emulate “the old Pomerol style,” according to the Enemigo website, with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. I can’t afford to drink Pomerol with any frequency, so I can’t compare this effort to its French inspiration. But if this wine is any indication of the character of Pomerol, I might have to splurge once in a while. It had a fresh, raisiny aroma and loads of red fruit, with big and focused white pepper spice. The finish went on and on. A delight.

 2010 Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard: Here Vigil forgoes Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, blending 85% Cabernet Franc with 15% Malbec. Again, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.

2010 Gran Enemigo Agrelo Single Vineyard: This wine combines Cabernet Franc and Malbec in the same proportions as the Gualtallary Single Vineyard, but because of the Agrelo vineyard’s lower altitude, it has a noticeably different character. It had notes of creamy red fruit, and it displayed impressively elegant restraint despite its obvious power. Very classy.

2011 Malbec: I did succumb to a traditional Malbec as well, and I’m glad I did. A gorgeous violet color, it smelled of perfumed dark fruit. It tasted big and beautiful, with the traditional dark cassis (currant) flavor, black pepper spice and some soft tannins on the finish. This Malbec, blended with 6% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, served as a reminder of what makes Argentina’s signature grape so wildly popular.

These wines aren’t especially inexpensive, nor are they all that easy to find (online retailers are the best bet). But if you’re looking for a nice gift for a creative wine lover in your life — someone who just needs to vanquish those enemies within in order to do something amazing — any of the above would be a fine choice.

A New Home For Cabernet Franc?

31 August 2013
Casa Rondeña

Casa Rondeña

The Bordeaux variety of Cabernet Franc, like Malbec, has long played second fiddle to its more glamorous blending partners of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec, of course, emerged from Bordeaux obscurity and came into its own in Argentina, where it produces ripe, powerful wines. Cabernet Franc is perhaps best-known as the major ingredient in the Loire Valley’s Chinon wines, but I think it may have found a very comfortable new home in the New World: New Mexico.

I only tasted a handful of New Mexican Cabernet Francs, but not for lack of trying. In one tasting room, when I asked about a Cabernet Franc, the winery representative replied, “Yes, we used to make one, and it was great, but you try to sell a Cab Franc in New Mexico.” I’m sure the marketing isn’t easy, but keep at it! The New Mexican Cabernet Francs I did manage to find were thoroughly delicious. The state needs a signature grape, and this could be it.

The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “Cabernet Franc is particularly well-suited to cool, inland climates,” and though New Mexico is inland, I never regarded it as a particularly cool place. It’s right next to Arizona, Texas and Mexico, after all. But New Mexico has a startling array of microclimates, ranging from scrubby deserts to cool Alpine-like forests, often within just a few miles of each other. In much of the state, the elevation ensures that temperatures remain moderate and that there is wide diurnal variation. Cool nights mitigate the effects of warm, sunny days, and they ensure that the grapes ripen slowly and evenly. New Mexico has plenty of poor soil, plenty of hills, plenty of sun, and in many places, an ideal temperature range. Add a little irrigation, and you have some serious potential terroir.

Hardy Cabernet Franc can survive the sometimes harsh New Mexico winters, and with the long, sunny and warm growing season, the variety can routinely achieve a ripeness it sometimes lacks elsewhere. That was what really struck me about the Cabernet Francs of New Mexico — their luscious ripeness and general lack of vegetal qualities often associated with Cabernet Franc. These were wines I’d be proud to serve at any dinner party.

New Mexican Cabernet Francs aren’t available at every corner wine shop. But should you find yourself in New Mexico, or should you happen to find one elsewhere, don’t miss the opportunity to try it. Who knows? Maybe someday New Mexican Cabernet Franc will be as ubiquitous as Argentinean Malbec. Twenty years ago, that wine sounded perfectly ridiculous as well, don’t forget.

Here are three examples of New Mexican Cabernet Francs that I particularly enjoyed:

2008 D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc: This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. The French Lescombes family has winemakers going back six generations. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

2009 Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc: Located about 15 minutes up the road from the St. Clair tasting room, this Albuquerque winery stands like an Andalusian pleasure palace amid an acre or so of vines. I tasted a number of well-crafted wines here, including this very elegant Cabernet Franc. I knew immediately from the aroma of creamy, drank fruit that I was going to really like this wine. It was dry, with restrained, almost tight fruit. Then a lift of spice, a note of violets and a tannic finish. Again, there was nary a hint of green pepper; the flavors of dark fruit, earth and flowers dominated.

2011 Estrella del Norte Cabernet Franc: This attractive winery and tasting room nestles near the southern end of the High Road to Taos. The vineyards on the property date back 18 to 20 years, and lay abandoned until the current owners of Estrella del Norte bought the land in 2007. I saw some photos of what the winery looked like when Estrella del Norte purchased it, and the vineyards were an overgrown mess. What a contrast to today’s tidy rows of grapes. This Cabernet Franc, a more recent vintage than the ones above, had a lovely jammy nose and a more fruit-forward flavor. A pop of black pepper took over after the initial hit of dark fruit, followed by a softly tannic finish. I detected an intriguing savory note underneath as well, which might become more pronounced as the wine ages. At this point though, it’s zippy and fun, and once again, not at all vegetal. For this quality, the price of $29 seems about right.

This is not just plonk for tourists — these ripe and well-balanced wines could compete favorably with any comparably priced Cabernet Franc on the market. It may be a few years yet, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last you’ll hear of New Mexican Cabernet Franc.

A Fizzy Pink For Spring

30 March 2013
L'Étage

L’Étage

For years, one of my very favorite wine and cocktail bars in the world, In Fine Spirits, stood just down the street from my home. Unfortunately, it transformed itself into a fine-dining restaurant, which then proceeded to fail. The neighborhood never quite forgave the popular In Fine Spirits for jilting it (thankfully, the excellent In Fine Spirits shop remains open).

I greatly missed having a wine bar within easy walking distance, and so it was with no small amount of pleasure that I discovered L’Étageoccupying a cozy space directly above where In Fine Spirits met its untimely demise. Its by-the-glass wine list isn’t nearly as ambitious, restricting itself to “French” and “Domestic” selections, but it contains a few unusual gems, including a refreshing Domaine Giachino Jacquère from Savoie, redolent of vanilla, green apples and lime.

But since I had already written about the Domaine Giachino in this post, my attention turned to another odd duck, a Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen a rosé Crémant de Loire — most versions of this French sparkling wine are made primarily with Chenin Blanc, but in this case, Cabernet Franc dominated. The idea of a sparkling Cabernet Franc fascinated me, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Château Moncontour Crémant  de Loire Brut  Rosé

Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé

I didn’t realize at the time that I was taking a bit of a gamble. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, more and more sparkling Cabernet Francs from the Loire are showing well, “However, the aggressive potential of this grape can quickly turn a thrilling raspberry-flavored fizz into something hideous.” Cabernet Franc is infamous, after all, for a tendency towards herbaceousness. Fortunately, L’Étage did not attempt to foist the equivalent of a glass of bubbly green peppers on me.

A flute came filled to the brim with the watermelon-colored Château Moncontour, and it lacked any bouquet whatsoever. It wasn’t until I took a few sips, giving it some room to breathe in the glass, that I discovered how aromatic this crémant actually was (not that I’m one to complain about an overfilled glass). Once I could actually smell it, I found the notes of red fruit and yeast enticing.

The bubbles erred on the foamy side, but their tiny size made them feel elegant nevertheless. It started off quite dry, moving to tart acids and a finish of rich, red fruit. It tasted perfectly delightful on its own, but paired with some duck rillettes topped with grainy mustard, the jammy notes became even more deliciously pronounced.

The Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé  would make a fine aperitif or an excellent mate with a range of food. The Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia makes me hesitant to recommend picking up any old rosé Crémant de Loire that you find, but if you do happen to come across one that your local wine shop recommends, don’t hesitate to give it a try. It’s perfect for a party, because it will satisfy guests who require sweet wine as well as those who demand something dry.

Thanks to L’Étage for introducing me to this festive sparkler, and welcome to the neighborhood!

SUMMARY

NV Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé: Festive but elegant, with a dry start and a jammy finish. Tasty on its own, but even better paired with poultry (pork, light pastas and many Asian dishes should also work well). Serve well-chilled.

Grade: B+

Find It: I paid $9 for a glass at L’Étage. Wine Searcher listed two retailers selling the wine, each charging about $15 per bottle.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 2

5 January 2013

We drank so many tasty and unusual things at our dinner at Urban Union, I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one post. To read about some fine unfiltered/unpasteurized sake, a bright wine from France’s Savoie and a truly odd selection from Macedonia, follow this link.

To venture yet further into the obscure, read on!

Mushrooms and Domaine FilliatreauWhen most people think of wines from France’s Loire Valley — if they think of them at all — they think of crisp, minerally whites like Sancerre. But the Loire produces robust reds as well, most notably from the Cabernet Franc variety. Ex-Sommelier Andrew Algren (he left Urban Union just days after our dinner) selected a wine from the Saumur-Champigny section of the Loire, which produces “one of Cabernet Franc’s most refreshing expressions,” according to The World Atlas to Wine. According to Algren, it’s “like grabbing a handful of French forest floor and chowing down.” I was intrigued.

To me, the 2010 Domaine Filliatreau “La Grande Vignolle” tasted eye-poppingly tight, especially after smelling its deep, enticing, meaty aroma. It was very acidic and tannic, with a finish of black pepper. It screamed for food. In keeping with the French forest floor theme, Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell presented a course of trumpet, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms foraged, reportedly, by a local comedian. This rather daringly simple dish smelled appealingly like mushroom-topped pizza. Its earthy flavors tamed the punchy acids in the wine, resulting in positively delightful combination.

Domaine RomyBucking convention, Algren moved from a red to pink, pouring a highly unusual Beaujolais rosé (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity but usually over-sweet red released around Thanksgiving). Made from Gamay, the variety used in all red Beaujolais wines, the orangey-pink 2010 Domaine Romy Beaujolais Rosé tasted of juicy strawberries, with a firm structure and ample minerals and acids. Delicious. Served with a wonderfully garlicky dish of tender charred octopus, confit of potatoes in beef fat and scallion purée, the wine’s flavor didn’t seem to change all that much. Instead, the wine enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing its savory richness to new heights.

Algren pouring UlaciaAnd then we were back, oddly enough, to a white. Poured theatrically from overhead, as is traditional in Spain’s Basque country, Algren presented a 2011 Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. This tart, apply, slightly fizzy wine comes from near the town of Getaria, a region of cool, rainy summers which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “hardly ideal grape-growing country.” Nevertheless, the whites, mostly made from the Hondarribi Zuri variety, have “noticeably improved” in the last couple of decades. (Incidentally, there’s a nasty rumor going around that Hondarribi Zuri is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera variety and some other species of Vitis. Scandal!)

Algren paired the Ulacia with a dish of prosciutto from black-skinned pigs, pickled mustard seeds and crunchy celery root, to marvelous effect. The tart wine cut right through the fat of the prosciutto and became a bit sweeter in the process. A hearty, zesty combination I wouldn’t hesitate to order again. (Marrell graciously credited the inspiration for this dish to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook “White Heat.”)

Good heavens, there’s yet more to come? Loosen your belts, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve got three courses left to go.

Up Next: A stellar cru Beaujolais, a Lagrein from Italy, and for dessert… vermouth. Hey, this is Odd Bacchus, folks. Were you expecting Port?

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased Kluge’s winery, as well as the front lawn of her palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

Some Trump wines worked better than others. Calling the rather tart Chardonnay “Chablis-style” was a bit of an exaggeration; it lacked Chablis’ steely, minerally, focused vigor. The Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, and Bordeaux-style blends were all pleasant enough, but it was the sparkling wines, produced in the traditional Champenoise method, that really caught my attention. The Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) had a strawberry and honey nose, a touch of sweet apples on the palate, and ample but elegantly small bubbles. Berry notes marked the aromas of the Rosé as well. This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had some currants and yeast to it, along with those same delightful bubbles. The Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) had an almost jammy nose, but lemony acids, some yeastiness and a dry finish kept it balanced. Well, I suppose it makes sense that Trump’s Champagne-style wines were the most successful!

A two-minute drive away, Blenheim Vineyards has a dramatic vaulted tasting room overlooking a wide tract of vineyards. The space alone makes a visit worthwhile, particularly since you can bring your own picnic to enjoy with some Blenheim wine on the terrace. All of Blenheim’s wines had very prominent, food-friendly acids, and they would surely be fun with some picnic fare. But tasted without food, most of the wines were a little over-acidic for my taste. I did enjoy the Viognier, with its honeysuckle nose, tropical fruit flavors and limey acids, and the light-bodied Cabernet Franc, with surprising aromas of vanilla, dark fruit flavors and very bright acids. I wish I could have tasted these wines with food, because I suspect the acids would have felt more in balance.

Next Up: The four wineries you absolutely shouldn’t miss in Virginia.

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.