Blends – Red

An Unusual Super Latin

6 November 2013

Santa Benedetta Tre VecchieWines from Italy’s Lazio region, also known as Latium, haven’t been celebrated since Roman times, when Falernian was all the rage. In more recent times, this swath of land around Rome has been “oddly inert in terms of wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine. Never one to mince words, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has much less patience for Lazio: “One of Italy’s largest regions, Latium appropriately boasts one of its largest-selling wines, Frascati, the Latin Liebfraumilch, and Est! Est!! Est!!!, probably the blandest tourist wine in existence.” Ouch.

What gave me some hope for the 2007 Santa Benedetta “Tre Vecchie” Rosso di Lazio that a colleague brought back for me from Italy was that — unusually for a Lazio bottling — it was a red wine. The Oxford Companion to Wine asserts that “an occasional Cabernet-Merlot blend of significant quality… suggests that the soil and climate are well suited to red wine production, even if no real tradition exists in the region.” And even Sotheby’s concedes that Lazio boasts two “innovative Cabernet-Merlot blends, which are very good.”

The Santa Benedetta Rosso di Lazio follows in the footsteps of the Cabernet-Merlot blends noted above, blending Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Because this wine makes use of international varieties and doesn’t conform to the traditions of the region, it’s classed as an IGT rather than a DOC, in the manner of a Super Tuscan.  So that makes this wine a sort of Super Latin, for lack of a better term.

According to the Santa Benedetta website — one of the most irritating sites I’ve ever encountered (it insists on playing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria every time you move to a new page) — the famed Sassicaia inspired this Rosso di Lazio (red of Lazio). Though this wine from the Castelli Romani section of Lazio (south of Rome) doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of that most coveted of Super Tuscans, it certainly was no bland tourist wine.

Santa Benedetta with polentaAn opaque brick-red, the Santa Benedetta smelled of jammy raspberry fruit and earth. It started softly on the palate, with an opening of ripe, dark strawberries, followed quickly by some rustic acids and tannins and then a quick perk of spice. The finish moved into more earthy/irony notes. It tasted like an older wine, with undertones of wine-soaked wood — not yet over the hill, but I’m glad I opened the wine when I did.

I tried the Rosso di Lazio with some basil- and tomato-studded frittata leftover from breakfast, and it was not a good match. Neither the acids nor the spice in the wine could compete. But I opened this wine to drink with some thyme-infused polenta topped with spicy Italian sausage, cannellini beans, wilted chard, red peppers, onions and mushrooms. That pairing proved to be delicious. The wine’s acids felt livelier, and the spice got an extra lift from the sausage.

It’s still a big gamble to buy any random wine from Italy’s Lazio region, but should you happen to see a red Lazio wine incorporating international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot, there’s a good chance you found yourself a good value. This example didn’t have as much concentration or focus as I would have liked, but it was a pleasant red all the same, and a very fine pairing for some spicy Italian cuisine.

The Message Is: Drink Blends

4 September 2013

Art+Farm's Messenger winesI’ve written about California wines a number of times on this blog, but the wines I’ve written about tend to come from unusual nooks and crannies such as Temecula and Amador County. But even in famous Napa Valley, it’s possible to find unusual wines. Three came my way recently from Art+Farm Wine, a partnership of two families founded in 2005.

This winery makes a number of varietal wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon which are surely very tasty, but they don’t have a place on this blog. I was more interested in Art+Farm’s blends, which fall under its “Messenger” label. In her letter to me, Art+Farm’s vintner, Kat McDonald, described why she finds these blends so exciting:

When the wine industry is all about single vineyard, estate grown — blah, blah, blah. We looked at each other and said, “What if we made killer wines and that be our only goal. We are not going to limit ourselves in any way.”

McDonald has a point. Just because a wine comes from a single vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior. The greatest wines of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are blends, for example. A fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape might contain eight or nine different varieties of grapes from just as many different vineyards. If you have some very soft, supple wine and you have some tightly structured but rather tough and tannic wine, it only makes sense to combine them. The resulting blend will be better than either of its constituent parts alone.

We Americans love our varietal wines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we turn our nose up at blends, we deny ourselves a huge range of wine expressions. If choosing among blends seems daunting, I recommend starting with a Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), a domestic Bordeaux-style blend based on Cabernet and/or Merlot. Or if you’re like me, go for a combination you’ve never seen and see what happens. There’s always an element of safety to a blend, because you know the flavor in that bottle is intentional.

Here are my thoughts on Art+Farm’s three Messenger blends, which I received as complimentary samples and tasted with a group of oenophile friends:

Art+Farm “The Messenger” White Wine Number One (Lot #412): I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number One (Lot #612): This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different wines made their way into the mix, which is composed of 31% 2009 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% 2006 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% 2008 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% 2010 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% 2008 Napa Merlot, 9% 2008 Sonoma Merlot, 1% 2008 Dry Creek Merlot, 4% 2006 Napa Malbec, 4% 2008 Dry Creek Malbec, 3% 2008 Napa Cabernet Franc, and 12% 2009 Shenandoah Valley Montepulciano.

Whew! In the unlikely event you actually read the list above, you might be thinking, “What the heck is Montepulciano doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties?” According to McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and another fantastic value at $18.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number Two: Bottled in a Rhone-style bottle (as opposed to the Bordeaux-style bottle of Red Wine Number One), this blend contains, as you might expect, a mix of traditional Rhone varieties: 57% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 1% Viognier. Again, the constituent wines come from an array of vineyards and vintages ranging from 2008 to 2011. It may seem unusual to blend a white wine (Viognier) with reds, but this combination is more traditional than you might think — none other than Côte Rotie blends Syrah and Viognier together.

This blend also had a dusky, dark-fruit aroma, but there was an intriguing note of caramel underneath as well. It proved to be a rustic, forceful wine, with meaty fruit, black-pepper spice, an undertone of iron and an aromatic note of violets. Tasted with some dried cranberries, the wine brightened and “the spices headed to the heavens,” or so my notes say in their typically over-dramatic fashion. This was a popular wine with my group. As one taster remarked, “I would like to enjoy this all by myself.” Again, a startling value for $18.

The French, it seems, aren’t the only ones adept at blending wine. If you see these wines in your local shop, snap them up for date night, or purchase them on the winery’s website.

Note: These wines were provided as complimentary samples by the winery.

A Thoughtful Gift

28 November 2012

Not too long ago, my friend Will brought over a bottle of wine, and he chose something right up my alley. Knowing my preference for the unusual, he purchased a 2009 Can Blau Montsant, a blend of 40% Mazuelo, 40% Syrah and 20% Garnacha (Grenache).

What? A Mazuelo-based blend from Montsant?? Be still my obscure heart!

The Montsant D.O. (Denominación de Origen), I discovered, came into being only in 2001. It was carved out of the Tarragona D.O. in Catalonia, Spain, in order to “highlight its superior quality,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It can apparently produce wines “similar in style and quality” to those crafted in neighboring Priorat, which is pretty high praise as far as I’m concerned. And it’s no surprise. According to the map in The World Atlas of Wine, the Can Blau winery is barely a kilometer outside the Priorat region. So close!

Now, Syrah and Garnacha I’ve heard of and sampled, but Mazuelo? Well, it turns out I’ve tried that too — “Mazuelo” is the term people in Rioja use for Carignan (also spelled “Carignane”). But why a winery in Monstant would label its wine with a term from the Rioja region instead of the locally used “Cariñena” is a mystery. Or is it?

I realized that though I’d tried wines made from Carignan before, I didn’t know all that much about the grape. I read the entry about it in the Companion, and it began to make sense why Can Blau wouldn’t necessarily be anxious to announce the Carignan component in its wine. The Companion praises old Carignan vines, but calls the variety in general “the bane of the European wine industry…distinguished mainly by its disadvantages.” Varietal wines from this rot-prone grape tend to be “high in everything — acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness — but finesse and charm.” Which boils down to wines that are too rough to drink young but are also “unworthy of maturation.” Ouch.

But if late-ripening Carignan is going to do well anywhere, it seems, it’s in sunny Catalonia. I have no idea how old the Carignan vines of Can Blau are (the website of its parent company is only in Spanish), but I suspect the Companion might not entirely approve. The wine was big and a little unpolished, but it was great with a bowl of hearty vegetable gratin on a cold Sunday evening. An appealing deep magenta, the Can Blau had fragrant aromas of jam and vanilla. On the palate, it started with a zing of black pepper before moving on to dark fruit, big rustic tannins and expansive acids. It finished with some sweet notes; a bit of anise and a quick reprise of vanilla.

Well, I suppose this wine didn’t exactly scream “finesse!” It was more of a robust farmer than a refined city type, but I very much enjoyed it nevertheless. After all, robust farmers can be a lot of fun every now and then.

SUMMARY

2009 Can Blau Montsant: Big, fragrant, fruity and a little rustic. This wine might be a little much for some tastes, but I thought it was great fun. Chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: Binny’s carries the 2010 vintage for $16, which is not at all a bad deal considering the wallop of flavor this wine packs.

The Witches Of Uruguay

10 November 2012

These days, almost everyone has tasted wines from Argentina at some point — its Malbec can be found almost anywhere — but that’s hardly the case for its neighbor, Uruguay. Although this little country on the north side of the Rio de la Plata is South America’s fourth-largest wine producer, you can’t just walk into a wine store and head to the Uruguayan section. Most of its vineyards, which average just 12.5 acres in size, are family owned, and similarly small-scale wineries have inconsequential marketing budgets. If you can actually find the wines, you’re paying more for what’s actually in the bottle and less for splashy ad campaigns.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some bad experiences with Uruguayan wines. I’ve only had two or three, but I can’t remember being excited about any of them. Now, after tasting a 2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier, I think I figured out what the problem. It’s the very signature grape of Uruguay: Tannat.

This exceedingly dark variety originated in southwest France, where it serves as the most important component of Madiran. As is common in France, the wines of Madiran are not varietals, they’re blends. But the Uruguayan wines I can recall trying were 100% Tannat, which meant that its tough and wooly tannins went unsoftened by any other grapes. In the unlikely event you happen upon a 100% Tannat, I recommend passing it by.

On the other hand, if you come across a Uruguayan blend, snap it up and give it a try. The southern part of the country, where Giminez Mendez and most other Uruguayan wineries make their homes, is well-suited to winemaking, with humid, sunny days mitigated by cool ocean currents from Antarctica.

Unfortunately, the humidity means party time for fungus and rot, making “organic viticulture virtually impossible,” according to the Atlas. Nevertheless, many wineries such as Giminez Mendez work to respect the environment, using a minimum of chemicals in the vineyards. Mendez also harvests all its fruit by hand, which means, theoretically, that only the ripest and best grapes make it into the wine.

The Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend I sampled certainly smelled enticingly ripe, with a jammy nose of dark currants. Made from fruit from vineyards in Las Brujas, which translates as “The Witches,” this wine was only 60% Tannat, but the tannins came through loud and proud. The wine started innocently enough, with rich, dark, lush fruit. But it gets a little rough in the middle, and before you know it, hefty tannins give you a slap, drying the mouth right out. It’s a bit of a wild ride! This is no Cary Grant of a wine; it’s more of an Axl Rose.

The label says it’s “ideal to drink in any occasion,” but the wine didn’t have great table manners either, becoming a little tart and overly spicy when paired with some pizza.

It’s not a wine to bring home to the parents, but when you’re in the mood to rebel a little and drink something rowdy, Giminez Mendez’s Las Brujas blend from Uruguay is your bad boy (or girl).

SUMMARY

2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier: Big up-front fruit, rough and tumble in the middle, and bracingly tannic on the finish. Acids afforded some measure of balance, but I’m not sure what food this wine would play well with. Maybe a hearty duck dish? Chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator before serving, and give it some time to breathe.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine at In Fine Spirits for $12.50, a fine value indeed.

 

A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, I still hadn’t quite put all the pieces together. How was it that Arizona, of all places, was coming up with these numerous high-quality wines?

In the professional and lively tasting room of Page Springs Cellars, an assistant winemaker named Matt pointed out the obvious: “We have ample water from the creek outside, and there’s an aquifer below.” He continued describing the terroir, how the rocky hillsides were well-drained with poor soil (the soil shouldn’t be too fertile — you want the vines to struggle a bit). The weather was hot during the day, of course, but at night, the high-elevation vineyards stayed nice and cool. Indeed, I had cozied up to my fireplace the evening before.

In short, the Page Springs terroir is pretty darn great. Most of the fruit, however, still seems to come from Arizona’s southeast, which is at a similar elevation.

Matt thought Malvasia might become one of Arizona’s signature varieties, and my tasting at Page Springs Cellars certainly supported that theory. I sampled that along with a number of other excellent wines, mostly Rhône varietals and blends, the quality of which no longer came as a surprise. If you only have time to visit one winery while in the Sedona area, this should be it.

Here’s a rundown of my tasting. Again, all the fruit from these wines comes from southeastern Arizona, not the Page Springs area, unless otherwise noted:

2010 Bonita Springs Malvasia: Like all the other wines I sampled at Page Springs Cellars, this one came with an eye-catching black and white label. The nose had big fruit and a touch of flowers, and juicy acids balanced subtle flavors of peach and pineapple. $28

2010 La Serrana: Try this blend of 50% Viognier from the Arizona Stronghold vineyard and 50% Rousanne from the Colibri vineyard as soon as you can. According to the Page Springs Cellars website, “A portion of the [Colibri] vineyard was burned to the ground. Thirty-foot high flames cooked the vineyard on three sides and damaged many other vines.” The wine had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet. $30

(more…)

Lighting A Fuse In Lebanon

11 April 2012

I was about to leave a wine tasting at Rogers Park Fine Wines & Spirits, when I noticed that half the people in line to check out had at least one bottle of Massaya Classic in their hands. Recently, I saw the Massaya Classic appear again, this time in In Fine Spirits‘ “tasting tournament.” It made it to the final four, at least. This obscure Lebanese red blend seems unlikely to remain obscure for long.

I wisely bought a bottle of the 2008 at the Rogers Park tasting, and I finally decided to open it and see what the fuss was about. The nose of red fruit, red meat and black pepper seemed promising, and indeed, it won me over at first sip with big, fruity flavors of cherries and plums followed by a peppery finish. I could see why this wine was so popular.

We paired it, perhaps in error, with some homemade pork tacos topped with guacamole, salsa, black beans, rice, cilantro and cheese. The wine became almost overpoweringly spicy, the black pepper kicking into overdrive. (I’m still working on a good red to pair with spicier dishes — if anyone has had any success beyond Lambrusco, please let me know.)

So what’s going on here? Is Lebanon poised to become a real player in the international wine markets? Although nowadays it’s associated more with Hezbollah and war, Lebanon has produced quality wine for thousands of years. Most of the vineyards (including Massaya’s) grow in the Bekaa Valley, where the ancient Romans erected a temple to Bacchus. Even then, this was major terroir.

(more…)

The ’09 Holmes

9 November 2011

Because of my recent travels, I hadn’t cooked a thing in at least three weeks. My sanity demanded that I return to the kitchen. I knew I wanted to use up the last of some bread my husband baked and the luscious dates I brought back from Dubai, so I cooked up some Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato-bread soup) and Moroccan tagine with lamb and dates.

Deciding on the recipes was easier than choosing a wine — I had trouble figuring out what red would pair well with both of these dishes. A Bordeaux might have worked, but it’s hardly odd, so I opted for a 2009 Big House Red. This wine blends no fewer than 12 different varieties, and I figured something in there would surely pair well with each recipe.

(more…)

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

31 August 2011

I tossed together some hearty rigatoni with spicy peppers, pea-sized green tomatoes, Italian sausage and San Marzano tomato sauce, and I needed a muscular red to pair with it. The 2007 Monte Volpe Primo Rosso looked about right; its name means “Wolf Mountain” and it packs a 14.5% alcohol punch.

Reading the back label left me feeling a bit skeptical, however. I was intrigued to try this California blend of exclusively Italian varietals, but they really threw just about everything they could in this wine:

Primo Rosso (meaning 1st or best red) is a proprietary blend of several old world red grape varieties including Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Carignane, Negroamaro and Nebbiolo… This wine was aged for 18 months in American, Eastern European and French Burgundy oak barrels.

So let me get this straight — there are at least five varieties (maybe more) aged in three different kinds of oak. I’m no winemaker, and I certainly have only the most rudimentary knowledge of blending, but good heavens, is that necessary? I mean, how many different kinds of oak does one really need in a wine?

(more…)

(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).

(more…)

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.

(more…)