Carmenere


All right, let’s do this again. Recently, I posted the entry “8 Grapes, 8 Places, 8 Wines,” and it was an agreeable way to celebrate the diversity of wine in the world’s wine-making regions, but such an effort doesn’t even qualify as a molecule of a gnat’s whisker on the needle-point of the teeniest tippy-tip of the vinous iceberg, if you see what I mean. So let’s do it again. In the previous post, I reviewed wines made predominantly from these grapes: sauvignon blanc, riesling, chenin blanc and chardonnay; pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. The regions were Mendoza and Patagonia in Argentina; Rheinhessen in Germany; Chablis in France; Rioja in Spain; Marlborough in New Zealand; and Carmel Valley and Napa Valley in California. So, today, none of those grapes and none of those places. The first post offered four whites and four reds; today the line-up is five whites, fairly light-bodied and charming for summer, the reds rather more serious.
These wines were samples for review or were tasted at trade events.
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Albariño Rias Baixas is the most important wine region in the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, right up against the Atlantic coastline. The white albariño is the principal grape. Albariño does not take well to oak, and its quality diminishes exponentially when it is over-cropped, so care must be taken in the vineyard and the winery. No such worries with the Don Olegario Albariño 2010, Rias Baixas, made all in stainless steel tanks from grapes grown using sustainable practices. Heady aromas of jasmine and camellia are twined with roasted lemon, lemon balm, limestone and a bracing whiff of salt-strewn sea-breeze; lovely heft and texture, almost lacy in transparency yet with a tug of lushness bestowed by ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors (touched with a bit of dried thyme and tarragon), all enlivened by brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Albariño is not grown much outside of Spain and Portugal, where it’s known as alvarinho and goes into Vinho Verde; Mahoney Vineyards, however, makes an excellent example in Carneros. Great with fresh seafood, grilled fish and risottos. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $18.
Imported by Kobrand Corp, Purchase, N.Y.
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Falanghina We are used to the promiscuous regard of grapes in Italy, in which one variety can be found in many provinces throughout the country and usually under different local names. Not so the ancient falanghina, grown in a small area of Campania, the state of which Naples is the capital; it is grown nowhere else except in vineyards near the coast north of Naples. Perhaps this situation is a healthy and profitable one for the producers of wines made from the falanghina grape, because they can at least make a claim for uniqueness. A great introduction to the grape is the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009, Sannio Falanghina. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is notably clean and fresh and appealing. The color is pale straw-gold with green notes; it’s a savory, spicy, floral wine, bursting with hints of apple, roasted lemon and baked pear, cloves and allspice, lilac and lavender, all given a slightly serious tone by the bracing astringency of what I have to call salt-marsh and some hardy sea-side flowering plant. There’s a touch of the tropical in flavors of pineapple and banana, with strong citrus undercurrents and a hint of dried thyme and tarragon, all of this bolstered by crisp acidity and a burgeoning quality of limestone-like minerality. A natural with seafood, grilled fish and sushi. Winemaker is Riccardo Cotarella. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+ About $18.
Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Melon de Bourgogne This grape was kicked out of Burgundy in the 18th Century, leading to the eventual ascendancy of the chardonnay grape. It made a pretty perfect fit, however, with the maritime climate and stony soil of the Nantais, way to the west of the Loire region. While it’s true that 90 percent of Muscadet wines are cheap, bland and forgettable, in the right hands the melon de Bourgogne grape is capable of finer things. The Éric Chevalier Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu 2009 feels like an exhalation of sea wind, bright, clean, salt-flecked, exhilarating. The wine is spare and pared-down, lean and sinewy, with notes of roasted lemon and pear imbued with hints of honeysuckle and yellow plum. Chiseled acidity etches deep and scintillating limestone-like minerality resonates like a blow on an anvil, yet the wine remains warm, slightly spicy and tremendously appealing. If ever a wine got down on its knees and practically begged, I repeat begged, to be consumed with a platter of just shucked oysters extracted from cold, briny waters a fleeting moment past, by damn, this is it. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.
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Pinot gris Let’s just come right out and say that the Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 2009, Yarra Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, is delightful, but at the same time, while “delight” might conjure a notion of being too eager to please, the wine is also fresh, pert and sassy, talkin’ back and takin’ names, an Ellen Page of a wine. The bouquet is freighted with aromas of cloves and ginger, jasmine and honeysuckle, apple and spiced pear, with undercurrents of lime, fennel and thyme. Bright and vibrant, this pinot gris zings with crisp acidity and sings with crystalline notes of limestone minerality, while offering tasty peach, pear and quince flavors. It drinks almost too easily. We had it one night with seared swordfish marinated in lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and white wine. The wine ages in neutral or used French oak barrels, a device that lends it a sheen of woody spice and a lovely, shapely structure. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Old bridge cellars, Napa, Ca.
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Vermentino The white vermentino grape is found in nooks and crannies up and down the Italian boot but does its best work in Tuscany and Sardenia, with good examples coming recently from Tuscany’s Maremma region, an isolated area in the southwest by the Tyrennian Sea. So, the Val delle Rose Litorale Vermentino 2010, Maremma, Toscana (one of the Cecchi Family Estates), could be called another seaside wine (or at least in proximity), though unlike the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009 mentioned above, this is not so much a savory, spicy drink as a wine of delicacy and nuance. This is a blend of 85 percent vermentino and “15 percent other complementary white grape varieties,” a vague designation that occurs not merely on the printed matter that accompanied the wine to my door-step but on the website of Banfi Vintners, the wine’s importer. What I really want to know, of course, is what those other grapes are, but I’m writing this post on Sunday morning, so I won’t worry my pretty little head about the issue. Anyway, yes, the Litorale Vermentino 2010 — sporting a radically different label that emphasizes the wine’s coastal or desk-side drinkability — offers subtle tissues in a well-wrought fabric of almonds and almond blossom, lemon and lime peel, a slightly leafy character and just a hint of mango and papaya. It’s balanced and harmonious in the mouth, with mildly lush citrus and stone-fruit flavors, though crisp acidity and chalk-like minerality lend to its lively, thirst-quenching nature and a sprightly finish. Drink through summer 2012. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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Carmenère The story of how for decades all that merlot in Chile was really carmenère — widely planted in Bordeaux in the 19th Century — but this fact wasn’t discovered until the 1980s and so on has often been related, even by me on numerous occasions, so here’s a link to something I wrote previously on the issue and let’s leave it at that. Apaltagua is a small estate in the Apalta Valley of Chile’s Colchagua wine region, itself part of the Rapel Valley south of Santiago. The winery is owned by the Edward Tutunjian family; winemaker is Alvaro Espinoza. The Apaltagua Reserva Carmenère 2010, Apalta Valley, Colchagua, impresses immediately with its clarity, purity and intensity of expression. The color is deep ruby-purple; vivid scents of black currants, blackberries and blueberries are permeated by notes of black olive, dried thyme, briers and brambles, smoky cedar and lavender. Your mouth will welcome a dense chewy texture founded on dusty, graphite-imbued tannins and ripe, spicy black and blue fruit flavors — adding a bit of plum — buoyed by vibrant acidity. Sorta like cabernet sauvignon and merlot but sorta itself, too. A terrific red to quaff with burgers, meat loaf, pepperoni pizza and such. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $11, a Fantastic Bargain.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
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Merlot Merlot doesn’t receive a huge amount of respect because it’s so much like cabernet sauvignon in many ways, or at least it’s made that way, so when you run across an example of the grape that expresses some individually, a little character that sets it apart from cabernet, then it’s time to splurge on a case. The Kunde Family Estate Merlot 2006, Sonoma Valley, California, is one of those models. The deep ruby color may be dark, but the wine is bright and clean with intense aromas of very spicy black currants and red and black cherries that take on a slight edge of graphite-like minerality and smoky wood; the wine aged 18 months in small barrels of French, Hungarian and American oak, 30 percent new. The Kunde Merlot 06 is dense and chewy, robust without being rustic, solid without being stolid, and a few minutes in the glass smooths it out nicely and lends a bit of finesse and elegance. In fact, the hallmark of this wine is lovely balance and harmony among oak and tannin, fruit and acidity, while its pass at wildness in hints of oolong tea, moss and blueberry gives it a sense of off-beat but appropriate personality. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $18 — Good Value — but found around the country at prices ranging from $14 to $20.
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Syrah Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2008, Central Coast. This wine features on the label a depiction of the montebank, the alchemical trickster from the Tarot deck, but there’s nothing shifty or tricky about the wine in the bottle. Made by the inimitable Randall Grahm, Le Pousseur 2008 offers a deep, dark ruby color with a fleck of magenta at the rim; it’s winsome and involving simultaneously, with seductive aromas of ripe, spicy, dusty black currants, blueberries and plums that unfold to hints of rhubarb and mulberry and, deeper and more intense, layers of licorice, lavender and sandalwood. Great grip and definition make for a wine that fills the mouth and nurtures the palate while grounding its effects in slightly sandpapery tannins and earthy elements of briars, brambles and underbrush, all serving to promote savory, up-front flavors of blackberries and blueberries tinged with a little smoke and bacon fat. Scrumptious but with a nod to syrah’s more serious (but not too severe) side. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 with roasted and grilled meats and such hearty fare. 2,705 cases were made. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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The point of making wines from a single vineyard or even more precisely from selected blocks within a vineyard is to highlight particular qualities of character and excellence that those locations or rows of vines theoretically embody. Such a principle is the philosophical and esthetic guiding light, for example, of Burgundy, where legendary vineyards separated by no more than a low stone wall or narrow country lane serve as testimony to the nuances imposed upon a wine by the minute shifts in exposure, drainage, soil composition and wind direction that we call terroir. It takes a taster possessing years of experience with Burgundy — a Clive Coates or Allen Meadows — to be able to detect the differences between an estate’s bottling of the adjacent vineyards of Chambolle-Musigny Les Chabiots and Chambolle-Musigny Les Borniques (seen in the accompanying map, left of center) or Montrachet Les Pucelles and Montrachet Le Cailleret. Most of us, even in the wine-writing business, are not called upon to render such rarefied distinctions, though we are, of course, grievously envious of those who have the opportunity.

Still, the thinking in the wine industry is that while a wine, let’s say chardonnay, that carries a Napa Valley designation may be good, a chardonnay from Carneros will, hypothetically, be better because it derives from a smaller, more specialized area, while a chardonnay from a particular vineyard in Carneros, say Truchard or Sangiacomo, will be the best because it originated from a designated and well-known patch of land. And occasionally this scheme works. Certainly wineries and their marketing teams would like to persuade us that this is the case because single-vineyard products generally command higher prices than wines from a more general appellation. The problem is that even some of the most famous vineyards in California aren’t more than 40 or 50 years old; people have cultivated those fragmented vineyards in Burgundy for a thousand years. The track-record for many vineyards in California, Oregon and Washington is far from complete or even necessarily convincing.

Oh, yes, a winery like Diamond Creek made its indisputable reputation on cabernet sauvignon wines produced from three teeny-weeny and very different vineyards, bottled separately, nestled around a little pond high on Diamond Mountain west of Calistoga; those cushioned by trust funds can savor and debate the subtleties of those expensive wines. For every successful producer of single-vineyard wines like Diamond Creek, however, there are dozens that trade on the supposed superiority of vineyard-designated wines for which the public will pay.

All of which leads me to the trio of wines being considered in this post today: the Terrunyo wines produced by Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s most historic producers and the source, under its roster of labels, of almost 25 percent of the country’s wine production. The Terrunyo wines are not simply single-vineyard wines; the grapes come from specific blocks of vines within these vineyards. They are, according to the press release lying here on my desk, “The Ultimate Definition of Chilean Terroir.” Let’s look at each individually. Winemaker was Ignacio Recabarren. These were samples for review.

Map of the commune of Chambolle-Musigny from Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne (Le Grand Bernard des Vins de France, 1985), by Sylvain Pitiot and Pierre Poupon. Notice, if you can see it, that the Premier Cru Les Bornique directly abuts the Grand Cru Les Musigny. How much difference does a few feet make; in Burgundy, a lot.
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The Terrunyo Carmenere 2007 originates from Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley of the Rapel region. This information isn’t very enlightening if one doesn’t know much about the geography of Chile’s wine regions; suffice to say that Rapel is part of Chile’s vast Central Valley that starts immediately south and southwest of the city of Santiago with Maipo and continues south with Rapel, Curico and Maule, each of which is divided into sub-regions and zones. Cachapoal lies along the river of that name, so not surprisingly the soil is alluvial in nature, deep and loamy. Carmenère is a grape grown almost exclusively in Chile. In the 19th Century, it was considered as important as cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux but fell from favor because of its irregular ripening pattern; by the early 20th Century, carmenère had basically been eliminated from Bordeaux, but cuttings had been imported to Chile along with merlot. This field blend planting became so dominant that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that DNA testing revealed that something like 80 percent of what was thought of as merlot in Chile was actually carmenère; now, on its own or blended with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it has become the country’s signature red grape. I’ve noticed, by the way, that many wineries in Chile have dropped the accent that should properly be part of carmenère; is this supposed to make matters somehow easier for Americans? Fie, leave the accent alone!

So, Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard — the vineyard was planted in 1990 — is a dark ruby-purple color; aromas of cedar and tobacco, mint and graphite are woven with spiced and macerated blueberries, black currants and plums. This is a dusty, earthy, minerally, leathery wine, steeply endowed with oak and tannin and all their austere attributes of underbrush, forest floor and dried porcini mushrooms; it aged 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and you really feel the dry, mouth-coating mocha-bitter chocolate/briery-brambly influence of that process. Where’s the fruit? I mean, wine is made from grapes, remember? One has to wonder what aspect of Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard is left in this wine after it was been fashioned with so much oak and tannin. The motivation of such a wine is to be a distinctive reflection of a specific site within a specific vineyard, while what emerges in this case is a carmenère made like many others in Chile, with a high level of aspiration that’s choked by technique. I’m not saying that Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard, couldn’t be enjoyed with a steak, just that it doesn’t do what it claims to do. 14 percent alcohol. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2017 to ’18. Very Good+. About $38.

Map from chilediscover.com.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ All right, let’s turn to the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Las Terrazas Block, Old Pirque Vineyard, Maipo region, Maipo being the area of the Central Valley closest to Santiago. This vineyard was planted in 1978. The oak regimen is the same as for the Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, that is, 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. And as with its carmenère cousin, the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is made from grapes influenced by a nearby river, the Maipo, and its alluvial, deep gravelly soil. For whatever reason, despite its quite evident earthiness, leather and granite/graphite-like minerality, this wine is a little brighter, its black currant, black cherry and plum aromas given a lift of ripeness and freshness. A few minutes in the glass bring out classic cabernet touches of cedar and black olives, dried thyme and rosemary, with the latter herb’s slightly resinous quality. Still, tannins are stalwart, a shaggy, dusty bastion bolstered by sleek polished oak that sends a line of austerity directly through the mouth and into the wine’s dry, woody/spicy finish. Well, so, here’s a cabernet that’s fine up to a point but doesn’t deliver on its promise of reflecting the virtues of a particular, limited set of vines within a significant vineyard; whatever details of cabernet-like nuance Las Terrazas Block night have imparted seem subsumed to a general idea of international cabernetness such as could be found in many other examples of cabernet sauvignon from Chile or California, Italy or Australia. Good to drink with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill? Sure. A unique terroiristique expression of the cabernet sauvignon grape? Sorry, no way. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $38.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Hailing from Block 34 of the Rucahue Vineyard in the Rapel Valley, the Terrunyo Syrah 2007 is a wine that simply does not assert anything of the character of the grape. Grape varieties do, of course, have individual character, which is why we make wine from cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, from chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, so we can savor the differences between them. Everything you love about the syrah grape — the meaty, fleshy, slightly stewed black and blue fruit scents and flavors; the touches of bacon fat, wet dog and fruitcake; the spicy, peppery qualities; the bit of funkiness balanced by piercing minerality and scintillating acidity — don’t look for any of that here, because this is a syrah wine that so closely resembles a cabernet sauvignon that it’s almost indistinguishable from the wine reviewed just above. Indeed, this wine’s panoply of dry, leathery, earthy, austere tannins, with their notes of walnut shell, wheatmeal and bitter chocolate pretty much out-cabernets most cabernets: mark, and I pray you, avoid it! 14 percent alcohol. Good+. About $38.

Yes, he’s on his high-horse again. Or flogging a dead horse. It must be done, so I’ll ask a question I have asked before: why go to the effort, the time and the expense to produce a vineyard-designated wine or even more narrowly, as in the case of these Terrunya examples, ones from specific blocks within vineyards, if you’re not going to allow the grapes to express what’s unique about the site? Without using those wines to define what’s unique about the site and make a case for their legitimacy? Unfortunately, the world of wine is filled with such wasted opportunities.
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Here’s an inexpensive — actually cheap — 100 percent carmenère wine that pulls rank and expresses the character of the grape without echos or sneaky infiltrations of merlot or cabernet sauvignon. The Santa Digna Carmenère Reserva 2009, from Chile’s vast Central Valley, is made by Miguel Torres, of the well-known Torres wine family of Spain. The color pulses with deep purple, and aromas of black olive, bell pepper, tomato skin, black currants, blueberries and plums convince your nose that this is the real deal. A few moments in the glass bring up notes of cedar and tobacco and dusty graphite. The wine is dense and chewy, but still a light-hearted charmer that invests its spicy black and blue fruit flavors — looks for touches of dried orange rind and fig — with vibrant acidity, moderately firm tannins and a long, mineral-laced finish. It’s a bit rustic, as befits a tasty, uncomplicated wine that you might quaff while lying back in a hay-rick gnawing on a piece of cold fried chicken, yet smooth and palatable. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $10, a Great Bargain.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co, New York. A sample for review.

Yes, Oveja Negra means “black sheep” — the outcast, the shunned — but this quartet of blended wines from Chile should be insiders on your table this summer. The wines are thoughtfully made from sustainable vineyards by Rafael Tirado, they’re primarily tasty and approachable, and the price, as you’ll see, can’t be beat. They’re from Chile’s Maule Valley, which lies within the country’s vast and productive Central Valley, which also include the vineyard regions of Maipo, Rapel and Curicó. No new oak is used with these Reserva wines. The bottles are topped with screw-caps for easy opening.

The Oveja Negra Reserva Sauvignon Blanc Carmenère 2009 is absolutely delightful. The blend is 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent carmenère, which, the sharp-eyed among you will assert, is a red grape, so it’s picked early, slightly under-ripe for the acidity, treated as if it were being made into a rosé wine, with no skin contact, and then blended back. The wine is made completely in stainless steel. This is clean, fresh and delicate, with penetrating scents of grapefruit, crushed jasmine, talc, lime peel and lemon balm; that’s right, you could dab it behind your ears on a soft summer night. Vivid acidity keeps the wine crisp and lively, buoying light flavors of slightly leafy lemon with hints of cloves and new-mown grass. The wine is quite dry and a little chalky, and the finish brings in a note of damp limestone. One of the prettiest wines around. Alcohol content is 13.2 percent. Very Good+. About $12 and a Great Bargain.

I was not quite as enamored of the Oveja Negra Reserva Chardonnay Viognier 2008, a blend of 82 percent chardonnay and 18 percent viognier. It’s simply a stylistic matter; this is rather too boldly and brightly spicy and tropical for my taste, but it’s certainly well-made. Ten percent of the wine is aged eight months in used French oak; in fact, these Oveja Negra Reserva wines see no new oak at all. Roasted grapefruit, baked pineapple, lemon-lime and lemon balm, a hint of spiced mango (and in the bouquet a beguiling touch of honeysuckle from the viognier): juicy but very dry, quite drinkable but more florid than I like, even in an inexpensive white wine. If it’s to your taste, go for it. Alcohol is 13.7 percent. Very Good. About $12.

The aromas of black and red currants that waft from a glass of the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Franc Carmenère 2008 — the blend is 70/30 — are not only ripe and seductive but intense and concentrated and permeated by elements of cocoa powder and cloves, briers and brambles; the wine is deeply spicy and peppery, earthy and minerally in a crushed gravel sort of way, and its luscious, almost velvety black and red fruit flavors (with a whisk of cedary blueberry) lead to a finish with a touch of leathery austerity. The oak regimen is this: 40 percent of the wine aged eight to 10 months in a combination of 60 percent French and 40 percent American used oak barrels; the majority of the wine remained in stainless steel. A lot of personality for the price here, and a natural mate with grilled steaks and hamburgers or hearty pizzas and pasta dishes. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at about $12.

Fourth in this roster is the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2008, a 68/32 percent blend with the same oak treatment as the Cabernet Franc Carmenère 08 mentioned above. This is a sizable wine, dense, concentrated, chewy, smoky and very spicy; it’s packed with earth- and mineral-infused black currant, blackberry and plum flavors, and the finish is stalwart with grainy tannins and polished oak. A little closed-in now and showing not quite the immediate pleasure of the previous wine. Perhaps a year in the bottle will soften it. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $12.

Imported by Vici Wine & Spirits, Coral Springs, Fla. Tasted at a trade luncheon.

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