Blends – Red

A Sensible Napa Red

28 June 2014
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Horror Show 3

Label photo courtesy of Vending Machine Winery

Readers of this blog could be forgiven for feeling at times frustrated, because after I extol the virtues of Somló Juhfark or Slovak Furmint, I frequently write something like, “You’ll have trouble finding this anywhere other than Bratislava.” And let’s face it, Bratislava is just not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. So let’s break from obscure Eastern European wines for a moment, and consider a nice red from a winery in Napa.

Napa does not figure prominently in this blog — Arizona has more entries — but that’s not to say there aren’t enticingly unusual cuvées coming from America’s most famous wine region. As a gift for watching their cats, some thoughtful friends recently brought over a Napa red (or more accurately, a Lodi/Sierra Nevada Foothills red) which turned out to be one of the most unusual blends I’ve ever encountered.

The label (right) already indicates that this wine won’t be your usual Cabernet. The 2011 Vending Machine Winery “Horror Show” is in fact an absolutely insane-sounding blend of Sousão, a red Portuguese grape figuring prominently in Port; Montepulciano, an Italian variety planted mostly in central Italy; and Tannat, which originated in southwest France but is more well-known as the national grape of Uruguay. How on earth did these three disparate varieties come to live in the same bottle? I telephoned the winery to find out.

Neil Gernon, who owns the winery with his wife, Monica Bourgeois, answered my call. He explained that “Horror Show” is a slang term used in the film A Clockwork Orange to indicate “dark, brooding fun.” And who wouldn’t enjoy a wine that tasted like that? So Gernon and Bourgeois got to work, thinking about dark grapes to include in a potential Horror Show blend. They hit right away on Sousão, because it “makes Petit Sirah look light,” according to Gernon. And Petit Sirah seemed a little too obvious in any case.

IMG_6778Building from brooding Sousão, they hit on Montepulciano, which is “dark in color but with bright, red-berry fruit,” Gernon explained. But the blend still needed something else, some undergirding of earth. Bourgeois and Gernon settled on Tannat, which adds “earthy, funky” notes and some tannic power. So there’s the initial fun fruit of the Montepulciano, the brooding mid-palate of the Sousão and the dark, powerful finish of the Tannat. After Gernon explained it, this extremely unorthodox blend sounded like the most sensible thing in the world. 

And it works! I recently brought the bottle to my parents’ house for a stir-fry dinner on a cool evening, and the wine’s dark, meaty fruit and rowdy acids paired deliciously with the beef. The wine had rustic red fruit, notes of iron and earth and a lovely aromatic quality on top balancing its sense of thickness. The wine wasn’t fussy, as you might gather from the description of its finish on the website: “Just when you feel safe, the thrill ramps up like a graveyard shovel hit to the mouth.” 

I wouldn’t describe this wine as refined, but I certainly enjoyed it in any case. If you’re in the mood for something big, bold and rustic, with lots of fruit, lots of acids and lots of earth, Horror Show is an ideal choice. And its beautiful but distressing label, which changes every year, makes this wine perfect for Halloween. Dark, brooding fun indeed.

You can find Horror Show and other Vending Machine Winery bottlings at the stores and restaurants listed here. Horror Show retails for about $28; not inexpensive, but a reasonable price for the flavor it delivers.

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
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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
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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.


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.

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