Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Until recently, I’d never had a Brazilian — wax or wine. I found the idea of either one more than a little scary, and frankly unnecessary. But when I spied a table of Brazilian wines by Vinícola Salton at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, I decided it was time to face my fears.

Founded in 1910, Salton is one of Brazil’s oldest wineries, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Brazil has long made uninteresting wine “because of where it was made: near centers of population, in areas of high humidity with fertile soils, by small farmers with rudimentary skills.” And indeed, Salton’s beautiful winery is located in the old Serra Gaúcha region, where, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, where “Average rainfall… is very high for a wine region,” and soils “have a high proportion of water-retaining clay.” As a result, “fungal diseases are a constant threat,” and wines from here tend to be of “basic quality.”

Fortunately, tradition has not stopped Salton from investing in new vineyards in the drier and less fertile region of Campanha along the northern border of Uruguay. In 2010, Salton purchased 1,100-some acres of vineyards in Campanha, which the World Atlas calls “the focus of fine wine development in Brazil, with particular attention now being paid to matching vine variety and soil type.”

It all sounds promising, but really, Brazilian wine? Even this odd wine drinker felt a little skeptical as I held out my glass for a sample.

NV Salton Intenso Brut: Vanessa (pictured above) told me I was drinking a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling (!) from Campanha, but Salton’s website describes this wine as a blend of Chardonnay, Prosecco and Trebbiano from Serra Gaúcha. In any case, it has a subtle aroma of dried herbs, a fruity attack on the palate and a rather savory finish. I liked the flavor journey, and for $17, you can take it too. Other sparklers might be better values, but this is the obvious choice with which to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day (September 7).

2012 Salton Intenso Cabernet Franc: This restrained but still-powerful wine had a dusky dark-fruit aroma, taut dark-fruit flavors, a perk of white-pepper spice and some balanced tannins on the finish. I liked it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it came from Campanha. The next wine, however, was a complete and total astonishment.

2012 Salton Intenso Tannat: “This is a 100% Tannat? That’s brave,” I remarked, trying to sound as positive as possible. I enjoy Tannat in blends, but many of the varietal Tannats I’ve tried tend to be mouthfuls of tannins (see my controversial Tannat post here).

“It’s actually really light and elegant,” Vanessa replied, smiling despite my look of utter disbelief. A light and elegant Tannat seems about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I tasted it and nearly spit it out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Campanha Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

2009 Salton Talento: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat grapes in this Bordeaux-style blend are hand-harvested, and the quality control shows in the wine. It had a clean red-fruit aroma and it tasted beautifully balanced, with ripe fruit, ample spice, classy tannins on the finish and something earthy and funky underneath it all. The grapes come from both Campanha and Serra Gaúcha, which leads me to wonder if coaxing high-quality fruit from Serra Gaúcha might be possible after all. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to guests at a dinner party, ideally with some steak.

Brazil opened its markets to imported wine only in the 1990s, which means local wineries have had only about 20 years of competition. These wines are evidence that they haven’t wasted those two decades. There are some interesting things trickling out of Brazil these days, and should you encounter a Brazilian bottle on a wine list or in a shop, I recommend asking about it. Its quality might surprise you.

To Tannat, Or Not To Tannat?

24 July 2013

Pisano Licor de TannatSorry, Uruguay, to beat up on your signature grape, but I’ve never been very fond of Tannat. The handful of 100% Tannat varietal wines I tried over the years invariably disappointed, with tough and woolly tannins which other flavors and textures in the wine failed to balance. Now, to be fair, the only Tannats I tried in years past cost $10 or less, which means I’d most likely never sampled a Tannat of serious quality. I looked forward, therefore, to the Wines of Uruguay tasting at this year’s Wine Blogger Conference. Would these Tannats — surely some of the country’s best — change my mind? I felt skeptical.

The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to be of two minds about Tannat. It calls Madiran (a wine of southwestern France) “Tannat’s noblest manifestation,” but later goes on to say that Tannat “seems to thrive better in the warmer climate of its new home in South America than southwest France.” The Companion may hem and haw, but The World Atlas of Wine has no problem being direct, stating that “the Tannat produced in Uruguay is much plumper and more velvety than in its homeland in southwest France, and can often be drunk when only a year or two old — most unlike the prototype Madiran.” (Jancis Robinson wrote/co-wrote both books.)

Unfortunately, “plumper” and “more velvety” are relative terms, and they don’t really help answer the question of whether it’s generally a good idea to buy Uruguayan Tannat or not. My experience with Tannat is still far too meager to offer definitive advice, but I stand behind what I wrote in this blog post about a certain Tannat-based blend: Look for Tannat-based blends. In a blend, Tannat’s tannins are much likelier to be softer and more in balance.

With the additional experience of the Wines of Uruguay tasting, I would lengthen that advice to: Look for Tannat-based blends, or a Tannat varietal from a winery you trust. Which means you need a wine shop you trust, or you can trust this blogger and keep an eye out for one of these:

2011 Don Pascual Reserve Shiraz Tannat: Let’s ease into things with a 70% Shiraz/30% Tannat blend. The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia called “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This blend had an intriguing aroma of vanilla and black pepper, a velvety start on the tongue, a taut midsection and a tart, irony finish. Fruity, bright and pleasantly restrained, this wine was “not overblown, as I must admit I feared,” according to my (decidedly overblown) tasting notes.

2011 Bouza Tannat Reserva: You might have trouble finding this Tannat — it doesn’t even appear on the winery’s website. But if you do run across it, snap it up. I loved the enticing aroma of creamy raspberries, and the rich, up-front fruit on the palate. It grew into some black pepper spice before significant tannins came to the fore, but they weren’t overwhelming. I wrote that this was “as elegant a Tannat as I’ve ever found.”

2011 Giménez Méndez “Identity” Tannat: The “Identity” brand also doesn’t appear on Giménez Méndez’s website, but I would certainly keep an eye out for it. This Tannat sucked me in with its nose of dark, dusky fruit. Also restrained, this wine had a pleasing aromatic quality in the midsection, and serious but perfectly manageable tannins. Another fine Tannat.

2005 Pisano “Etxe Oneko” Licor de Tannat: The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also speaks highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” If that weren’t exciting enough, I discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of Port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano in the comments below) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed by, as you might expect, a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

Four winners in a row. I got off to a rocky start with Tannat, there is no question, but these wines have me seriously reconsidering. If you like big reds, and you’re in the mood for something a little different, you could do a lot worse than a well-crafted Uruguayan Tannat. And if you like Port, you could hardly do better than Pisano’s Etxe Oneko.

For some more about Uruguayan wine and reviews of some whites, check out this post.

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).


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.


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.