Sep 9, 201012:00 AM
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The Quest for Big Reds on a Budget
I’m torn. I am a firm believer in the “drink what you like” school of pleasure. Why not? Why drink or eat anything that does not make you happy? Life is too short and all that.
On the other hand, how do you know what you really like or if you really like that thing you are now drinking the best if you don’t try other things? I am also a big proponent of tasting around; try what is put in front of you. Plus, in my case, when it comes to wine, what’s the problem with trying something? Or everything? All wine is fermented grape juice. How bad can any of it be? (The question was rhetorical, and yes, I’ve had some pretty bad wine, either because it had a problem in the bottle or the winemaker really screwed up. Nothing to be done about the former, but the latter situation makes me want to grab the winemaker around the throat … oops, never mind.)
My problem is the legions of people who only want to drink massive, jammy, alcohol-loaded red wines because they think that’s how wine should taste. And these same people do not even try to appreciate anything else. For them, it’s a punch in the nose or nothing.
I’m going to take another run at this situation because I have spoken of this often, and I still don’t think I’ve hit on the magic reason to convince these people to look at other flavors of red wine.
So here’s the deal: I would like to suggest two grape varietals for you folks out there who are sticking to your fruit-bomb wines. Yes, I said I am going to suggest a few red wines to play an auxiliary role to your current red wine. That should make things easier.
Also, and here is where I think I can get some traction for my suggestions, the wines I am going to suggest to you are probably cheaper than what you are now drinking. Oh, really?! Well, now we’re getting somewhere.
Carmenere is gaining a tenuous foothold on the palates of wine-lovers here in America because it is a pleasant, soft, silky wine, usually not over-complicated but with fine red and black components, and it pairs well with a wide variety of foods.
Carmenere has had an interesting path to market, beginning from its first mentions by the Romans in the area that is now Bordeaux. In fact, Carmenere’s Latin name was "Biturica," and that is probably the origin of the Gallic word “Bordeaux,” used to describe the whole region.
Carmenere was plentiful, and it was a good blending grape for the best wines of the Bordeaux region, cabernet sauvignon. But Carmenere has a problem: ripening. When the grape achieves full ripening, it is quite seductive, but anything less than that, and it goes “green” and flabby. Not attractive.
And the folks in Bordeaux in the middle 1800s recognized this shortcoming because their northern European climate did not always provide enough sun or a long enough season to make this grape do right. About this same time, locals and some French ex-patriots in Chile thought they had a climate to grow fine grapes and make good wines, so they sent to France for grapevine cuttings.
The cuttings arrived and seemed to thrive in the Chilean climate. The wine was made. Everyone rejoiced and toasted their good fortune with their new Chilean merlot.
Merlot? But I thought we were talking about Carmenere. Well, it seems wines were made, awards won, bottles sold and fortunes made on a misidentification. This went on for years -- until modern methods of testing led to the startling conclusion that Chile’s merlot was actually Bordeaux’s Carmenere.
What sometimes happens to the now-properly identified Carmenere in Chile is that in this South American mountain country, the grapes do not fully ripen. Chile possesses a rugged terrain, and its altitudes can mean not enough of a warm season to put the Carmenere in the proper condition for harvest. But the rains and snows of winter are coming, so picking must begin.
There is much research now being done in the universities in Chile to overcome the ripening issue with Carmenere, and to date, a number of new clones have been identified that should minimize the occurrence of the unripened issue in the future.
Carmenere-and-merlot blends are usually sturdy and provide a fine wine experience.
Still, Carmenere on its own is pretty good juice, and in the best years, it’s really good juice. It also is priced quite nicely.
Some labels that bear your attention:
Concha y Toro
The other red grape, again attractively priced, that is a real big hit in America is the Malbec from Argentina.
Like Carmenere, the Malbec grape hails from Bordeaux. It can exhibit the high-octane characteristics of cabernet sauvignon, and it also possesses the velvet qualities of merlot, a very nice combination.
Everything about the Argentinean experience seems to make Malbec happy. The soils and the climate are ideally suited to this late-season-ripening grape, and the workhorse-like structure on the palate is a pleasing response to the question, “Why am I drinking a grape from Argentina that is no longer respected by the Bordelaise?”
In fact, today in France, the best iteration of the Malbec grape is in the area of Cahors, about 100 miles east from Bordeaux.
The New World Malbec has gone to a lusher, juicier, deeper profile, giving ripe black fruit notes on the palate and an incredible depth of bouquet to the nose. It was never this way in France and still isn’t. That’s an interesting development because much of the Malbec planted in Argentina is on its own stock; that is, there has been no grafting of the grapevine onto root stock. A great deal -- but not all -- of the Argentinean Malbec is pure, direct from France, but the results are quite dissimilar.
Unfortunately for Argentina, lately the grapevine root pest phylloxera has made its presence felt, and now Malbec plantings throughout the country will have to be on insect-resistant stock as old vines are pulled up and replaced.
Some wineries that make excellent Malbec from Argentina:
There you have them. New reds. Less expensive reds. And reds that can accompany a great steak or just a quiet evening. These New World wines carry a bit of France and bit of the Old South -- real old and real Southern, like in the other hemisphere.
The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.