October 2011

This series looks at cabernet sauvignon wines produced by wineries that began production in 1980 or before.

Many years ago, Warren Winiarski, owner and winemaker at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, coined the phrase “iron fist in a velvet glove” to characterize cabernet sauvignon wines made in the Napa Valley. Nowadays, he might say “velvet fist in a velveteen glove” to define contemporary cabernets deliberately made to deliver more immediate appeal by sacrificing structural authority for the sake of upfront ripeness, toasty new oak vanilla and spice and the sweet heat of high alcohol.

Thank Bacchus and all his pards that such is not the case with the Trefethen Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. (The family started growing grapes in the 1960s and made its first wine in 1973.) Not that the dark ruby-colored wine does not offer a smoldering, swooningly seductive bouquet that weaves cassis, lavender and licorice with mulberry and blueberry and a touch of fruitcake; it’s just that these heady, sensuous delights are tempered by notes of rye bread, cedar, dusty thyme, prunes and a deep bastion of graphite. It’s all about elements that balance each other being thoroughly permeated by each other. In the mouth, the wine is frankly delicious with flavors of slightly spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums, all very pure and intense, but these factors are drenched and imbued with the best kind of tannins — the tannins that feel fine-grained and finely-milled — and a staggering granite-like mineral nature; oak however, from 17 months aging in 98 percent French and 2 percent American barrels, stays firmly in the background, providing framing and foundation and lovely suppleness to the texture. The finish leads out long and persistent, with touches of spice and leather. You could say that this is a cabernet that combines the best of tradition with a new style that doesn’t dominate. Director of viticulture and winemaking at Trefethen is Jon Ruel; winemaker is Zeke Neeley. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink now — please, with the medium rare strip steak that it was born to accompany — through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $58.

A sample for review.

No, blanc de blancs Champagne will not yield its supreme place in my heart to any upstart, but I tasted and, yeah, just outright drank a great deal of what’s called Bordeaux Clairet when I was in Entre-Deux-Mers during the last week of September, and it’s a wine that brings lots of pleasure, delight and savor, qualities that are often overlooked in our search for vinous experiences of the profound variety. Sometimes it’s fine if a wine just makes you feel good and perhaps brings a smile to your undernourished lips and a twinkle to your jaded eye. Bordeaux Clairet — the final “t” should be pronounced according to the regional idiom of Bordeaux — is a bit darker and slightly more substantial and flavorful than Bordeaux Rosé, which is made in the traditional pale French manner, but less dark and less substantial than Bordeaux rouge. The color tends to be brilliant cerise or scarlet rather than the onion skin or light copper of a rosé or the dark ruby of red Bordeaux. In fact, Bordeaux Clairet resembles, as far as people understand, the delicate light-colored wines that began to be exported to England in the 12th century and continued until the late 17th Century when the wine’s character began to be darker, weightier and more age-worthy. Those earlier wines gave the British the word “claret,” by which they still refer to the red wines of Bordeaux.

The grapes for Bordeaux Clairet are the same as for any red wine made in Bordeaux: merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with malbec and petit verdot allowed but seldom seen. Clairet tends to come from younger vines and typically is not aged in barrels. The ideal is a young, fresh, juicy wine of immediate appeal — think spiced strawberries and mulberries with a hint of black and red currants — that offers moderate texture and body and avoids the austerity or aridity that sometimes defines a very dry and delicate rosé. Clairet really goes well with charcuterie.

The Bordeaux Clairet appellation coincides with all of the Bordeaux region; in other words, chateaux in any appellation, even high-toned Margaux and Pauillac, Pomerol and St. Emilion, could produce Clairet if they so desired. Imagine the cellarmaster at Mouton-Rothschild or Latour saying, “Alors, I have a thought. Let’s take these three rows of not quite up to snuff grapes and turn them into a few thousand bottles of Clairet.” Well, no, that’s not going to happen; grapes at the grand houses are too valuable to waste in such a way; that’s why the concept of the “second wine” was invented.

Realistically, Bordeaux Clairet is made by the smaller properties that produce A.O.C. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. In fact, most of the chateaux we visited on our brief tour offered both Bordeaux Rosé and Bordeaux Clairet, but the latter is not made in large amounts. Clairet production totals about 33,912 hectoliters — a hectoliter, which is a hundred liters, equals 26.4 gallons — or about 377,000 cases. That’s about 13.5 percent of the production of Bordeaux Rosé and just a drop in the barrel compared to AOC Bordeaux Red and Bordeaux Supérieur Red.

Very little Bordeaux Clairet is exported to the United States, if any is at all. Many wineries in California now produce rosé wines in a “New World” style that’s darker, spicier and more flavorful than the traditional pale Provençal-style rosé, so what would it behoove properties in Bordeaux to send their Clairet across the Atlantic? Better, perhaps, for the wine-producing families to keep Clairet for local restaurants, for themselves, their friends and honored guests. I know that I’ll look forward to a glass or two of Clairet when I return to Bordeaux.

Look no further for a fresh, attractive aperitif or wine to go with sushi, fresh seafood or, as we drank it, with seared salmon, just rare in the center, with a crust of crushed black and red pepper. This is the Palacios de Bornos Verdejo 2010, from the Spanish region of Rueda, which straddles the river Duero southwest of the university town of Valladolid. The river is important; the climate of the high plateau of Castilla y León, Spain’s largest autonomous region, is harsh and arid. You won’t be thinking of anything harsh and arid, however, when you’re sipping this little gem. Made all in stainless steel from 100 percent verdejo grapes, the wine sports a pale but radiant straw-gold color; aromas of spiced lemon and pear are wreathed with hints of dried thyme and tarragon (and a faint whiff of lilac) and a bracing sort of brisk sea-breeze/salt-marsh aspect that brings it close to exhilarating. Palacios de Bornos Verdejo 2010 is dry and spare, quite lively and spicy, supple in texture but crisp with pert acidity that supports ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors and a finish permeated by lime peel and limestone. Delightful and almost savory in effect. Winemaker was Pilar Garcia. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $13, representing Great Value.

Hélène and David Barrault bought Chateau Tire Pé, in Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers region, in 1997. The couple had no experience growing grapes or making wine, and their families were not involved in those trades either, so by what means except trial and error and hard work and luck did David Barrault manage to produce that rarity in Bordeaux — Bordeaux the encompassing idea and Bordeaux the specific A.O.C. — a 100 percent malbec wine which to describe I am now overdrawn at the bank of the word “beautiful.” It sells in the United States for $25 to $28.

The central part of the house was built in the 1750s; identical perpendicular wings were added soon after. It’s a large but simple two-story edifice, plain and dignified, a sort of glorified farmstead; its rosy salmon colored plaster reflects the early morning and late afternoon sun with a confidential glow. The view from the long wide knoll upon which it stands, 80 meters above the Garonne river, provides a spectacular panorama of the countryside.

The couple converted one wing of the chateau to bed and breakfast accommodations in 2007, a practice that many of the old properties in Bordeaux are taking up, for the same reason that the grand manor houses of England nowadays often include petting zoos and miniature railroads; bills must be paid, banks must be satisfied. The artistic Hélène Barrault designed the labels for Tire Pe’s wine bottles, she makes and glazes pottery, and she decorated, if her elegant intuition allows that word, the three B&B rooms and the downstairs kitchen-parlor in a spare, timeless manner that evokes an ideal of childhood country life, a kind of austere yet inevitable Eden, well, if the WiFi connection were more reliable and if towels were delivered in a more timely fashion. Still, if the proximity of ancient beamed ceilings and the soft luminosity of ambient light in wooden cupboards send you into a nostalgic dither — guilty as charged! — this is the place for you.

The estate’s vineyards slope in well-tended rows down the hills from the focal point of the chateau. Cultivation is along sustainable practices, with no chemical fertilizers or herbicides. The production varies from 40,000 to 50,000 bottles a year — about 3,300 to 4,160 cases annually — of which more than half is sent to the U.S., imported principally by Jenny & François Selections in New York. Barrault, seen in this photograph, allows natural yeasts to start fermentation and limits the use of new oak to 10 to 12 percent, “depending on the vintage, never more.” He employs a few Bordelaise barrels (the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon size) but also 400-, 500-, and 600-liter French barrels “with little toast,” he said, “or between medium and low.” Chateau Tire Pé’s wines carry a Bordeaux designation (and, yes, I promise that I’m preparing a post about the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur A.O.C.s. Soon, maybe not tomorrow, but soon …)

Here are quick evaluations of the wines:

*) Chateau Tire Pé Diem 2010. The estate’s basic wine, 100 percent merlot from young vines; no oak, aging six months in concrete vats. Bright, ripe and vibrant; black currants, blueberries and mulberries; lively, dense and chewy, touches of briers and walnut shell; great presence, personality and length for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $8 in the U.S., said Barrault, so let’s say under $10, and even if it were a few dollars more it would represent Great Value.

*) Chateau Tire Pé 2009. This is also merlot, made from older vines with lower yields; it spent one and a half years in concrete vats. There’s more acidity here, more structure, more grip, grit and give, more sense of earthy, graphite-like minerality and briers and brambles; this is quite dry, yet very ripe, wild almost, bursting with notes of blueberry and mulberry lashed with dense, chewy yet supple tannins. Begs for a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the coals. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12, perhaps $14 depending on the state. Another Terrific Bargain.

*) Chateau Tire Pé La Côte 2007 is a blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet franc; it was fermented in concrete vats and aged in barrels. The year was not an easy one, but Barrault liked it; “it made me pay attention,” he said, “and make progress in my job.” As winemakers say, you delight in the easy vintages and learn from the hard ones. The most rustic of the Tire Pé wines, La Côte 07 is very earthy, loamy and mossy, with tremendous tannic grip and almost fierce acidity bolstering intense and concentrated flavors of deeply spicy black currants and blueberries. A wine to chew on with braised short ribs or venison and best from 2012 to 2015 or ’16. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

*) Barrault is justly proud of his 100 percent malbec wine. Chateau Tire Pé Les Malbecs 2009 is frankly riveting in its seductive mulberry-magenta color; its beguiling aromas of blueberries, briery black currants, crushed violets and gravel; its combination of dusty-mossy-graphite tinged depth (there’s a touch of intense bitter chocolate and lavender there) and paradoxically balletic, elevating acidity and spice. A warm, stylish and immensely appealing expression of the malbec grape that doesn’t sacrifice structure for accessibility. Best from 2012 through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25 to $28.

I have mentioned Jamie Oliver’s Pasta alla Norma on this blog several times; here’s a link to the post that describes the first time I made this hearty, flavorful, no-fail combination of deeply sauteed eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, basil and red pepper flakes. For wine, I opened the Allegrini Valpolicella 2009, a blend of 65 percent corvino grapes, 30 percent rondinella and five percent molinara, in others words a classic Valpolicella from that area northwest of the city of Verona. “Classic,” I say, but not only in the manner of its shape and proportion but in the sense of its superiority, because a lot of mediocre Valpolicella gluts the world’s markets, the result of thoughtlessly expanding vineyard areas and increasing yields. Allegrini, however, founded in 1858, is one of the best producers in the region. This wine undergoes no oak treatment, so its deep, dark, spicy nature is a product of the grapes themselves and careful handling in the winery. The color is intense ruby-purple; the bouquet, which requires a few minutes to open — this is no light-hearted, easy-listening red — reveals heady aspects of macerated black currants and plums, fresh and dried violets and rose petals, fruitcake and quince paste, smoke, dust and graphite. Allegrini Valpolicella 2009 is dense and chewy, permeated by graphite-laced, grainy tannins and concentrated flavors of black currants, blueberries and plums that feel slightly roasted and fleshy, all the while maintaining gratifying measures of appealing freshness and warmth. Quite a performance for the winery’s basic level Valpolicella and one of the best matches with Pasta alla Norma that we’ve had. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Winemaker was Franco Allegrini. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Very Good+. I paid $20, but you see it around the country as low as $14.

A Leonardo LoCascio selection for Winebow, New York.

Probably all writers about wine use one or two terms more often than they should. One of my own forays into over-exposure is the word “lovely,” by which I try to convey in a single adjective all the accumulation of delicacy, elegance, appeal, prettiness and balance that makes a wine so irresistible. “Lovely” is not “gorgeous”; the latter implies an element of powerful glamor and sexiness, of purposeful artfulness, that loveliness does not convey. “Lovely” seems more naturally affecting, more innocent (not to get too anthropomorphic) and artless. So, here I go, pulling out that word again, because the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros-Napa Valley, is about as lovely as pinot noir gets in California. The color is an enchanting radiant black cherry-ruby hue through and through; winsome aromas of black cherry, cranberry and rhubarb, cloves and cola beguile the nose. Give this a few minutes in the glass and elements of briers and brambles, moss and leather, crushed violets and lavender appear. The wine aged 12 months in mostly French oak, 30 percent new barrels; the moderation displayed in this oak treatment results in a pinot noir that’s firm but supple, a bit lithe yet altogether satiny in texture. Flavors of black cherry and plum are ripe and slightly macerated, touched with cloves and sandalwood, and they unfold to reveal a structure of soft, dusty graphite and mildly dense tannins, all backed by essential, almost resolute acidity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Winemakers were Reed Renaudin and Gina Richmond. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $27.

A sample for review.

When you’re on a wine tour, you never know what the next visit is going to bring. On our schedule for the last day of this trip to Entre-Deux-Mers, the entry said merely: “9h30 – 11h00 — Visit Chateau L’Escart in Saint-Loubés with Damien Laurent.” Sounds pretty low-key, but we had a terrific time at Chateau L’Escart and encountered the two wines mentioned in the title of this post, which are available in the U.S. but with geographical limitations.

The chateau, built in 1752, sits in the middle of the village of Saint-Loubés. It’s not a true mansion — we saw some of those — being more of a large and refined stone farmhouse whose center block holds the family quarters — strewn when we visited with children’s toys and scooters — and whose wings encompass barrel-aging rooms and other winemaking necessities. As you can see from the aerial photograph, the estate includes various other outbuildings and sheds, a small park and then the vineyards beyond. Proprietor and seventh generation winemaker Damien Laurent is personable and articulate and clearly loves his work. “Wine is human,” he said, as we sat outside tasting through the wines of Chateau L’Escart, “vineyards, soil, what goes on around here. You cannot sit down for an hour and get the whole picture. It’s more complicated. We don’t have the same tools as the big chateaux. We are small. I am on the tractor. I’m in the tank room, on the phone, I sell the wines. We do it all alone.” And then — because the day feels perfect and the harvest is almost complete — “September is the tender month. I love September. It’s beautiful.”

Chateau L’Escart produces about 220,000 bottles annually — French winemakers always speak in terms of bottles — which means about 18,330 cases. A whopping 80 percent of that wine is exported, to Canada, Australia, the United States, Belgian and, inevitably, China, a huge wine-thirsty country of increasing importance to French producers of any size because there are too many people making wine in the country and more wine than French (or European) consumers can absorb. The output at L’Escart is overwhelmingly red, based on merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; a mere 5,000 bottles of white are made, “a warm-up,” Laurent said, “for the reds.” The appellations are Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur (about which more soon).

The estate is run on organic principles, with explorations into biodynamic methods, though Laurent insisted that he is skeptical of some of the biodynamic movements more esoteric practices.

First on the roster of wines we tasted was the basic-level Chateau Bergey 2009, Bordeaux, a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and
40 percent merlot that sees no oak. (Estates in Bordeaux often bottle their various grades of wine under different chateau labels.) The color is a lovely cerise-magenta, and the aromas are an exquisite weaving of potpourri, lavender, graphite, black currants and blueberries, with touches of wild raspberries, cedar and tobacco. This displays real grip and presence, with vivid acidity, a penetrating mineral quality, plenty of earthy tannins and round, spicy black fruit flavors. Why do wineries in California so rarely deliver such quality for the price? Very Good and perhaps even very Good+. “The price is the U.S. is about $8,” said Laurent, “certainly under $10.” If you live in New York, North Carolina or Texas, run, do not walk, to the nearest retail store and browbeat your friendly wine merchant into procuring this for your house red. Great Value.

But — always a “but” — even better at not much more cost is the Chateau L’Escart Cuvée Eden 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent malbec from 35 to 45-year-old vines. This is the wine, frankly, that made my colleagues and I cast sidelong glances at each other, giving the nod with raised eyebrows and mouthing the syllable “Whoa!” Here, at an irresistible price range, is a wine of lovely balance and integration, with all elements working in harmony. There’s plenty of tannin, of course, plenty of the gritty briery-minerally-earthy elements we expect from the clay-and-limestone soil that nurtured these grapes — and don’t forget that 2009 was a superb year in Bordeaux — and yet there’s also a surprising sense of delicacy and refinement, along with a factor of resonance that has to be called confidence; the wine is packed with ripe, slightly macerated black currant and black cherry flavors bolstered by taut acidity and permeated by dense spice and chewy tannins. It will drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Definitely Very Good+ and another Great Value at $13 to $15.

The next step up for Chateau L’Escart is the Omar Khayam label, introduced with the 1998 vintage. The connection is that the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), was a mathematician as well as a poet and astronomer, and Damien Laurant’s father was also a mathematician; each vintage of the wine, a beverage about which the poet was fond of writing, features a different verse. The grapes for the Omar Khayam label, as it’s spelled, derive from 50 to 60-year-old vines; the wines age in all new oak barrels from 16 to 18 months. About 830 cases are made, depending on what the year allows. The blend changes but is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The appellation is Bordeaux Supérieur. We tried the 2009, the 2004 and 2003. The 2009 version is well-balanced and integrated for being so young and being influenced by new oak; it would be best from 2013 through 2020 or ’22. The ’04 was smoother and riper, more fleshy and meaty, with spiced and macerated black fruit scents and flavors supported by sufficiently lively acidity and dense tannins; it’s a warm, spicy, earthy wine for drinking through 2015 or ’16. From the extremely hot year of 2003, Omar Khayam offers fleshy and roasted black and red fruit, heaps of graphite and gritty tannins but feels a bit hollow in the middle and finish, lacking the balance of the ’09 and ’04, which I would rate Excellent, while the ’03 would rate Very Good. The price is about $35.

The last wine was the estate’s top-of-the-line Agape 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 15 months in new Burgundy barrels (which are slightly larger than the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon Bordeaux barrel.) Not marketed in the U.S., the wine is certainly well-made for the type but at $50 a bottle seems no more interesting or compelling than hundreds of similar wines made all over the world.

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