Bill’s Best Bets – October 2016
Loving it savoury
by Bill Zacharkiw
If you want to make my day, write to me and tell me about how you really dig an old vine carignan from the Roussillon, or an aged Chianti, a mourvėdre from Bandol, or some old, cranky wine from Rioja. What do all these wines have in common? Well, if they share anything it’s that the dominant flavours are most often not built around fruit, rather they revel in the earthier notes.
By earthier notes, I mean non-fruit flavours. Sometimes referred to as savoury, in contrast to the “sweet” flavours of the fruit and alcohol. This can mean everything from mineral notes to tobacco, from greener notes like herbs and green peppers to sometimes even more “animal,” barnyard-like notes. Sometimes these characteristics can veer into what one of my Californian-wine loving friends referred to as “disturbing” aromatics. The bottle we drank together was an aged Bandol, a wine from the Provence area of France and made almost entirely from the mourvèdre grape. It was 5 years old when we drank it, and the wine had a distinct aroma of manure.
So where do these aromas and flavours come from? Well, this is still a bit of a mystery. Is it the grape, where it was grown, the vinification method, or the wine’s age? The answer seems to be all of them. But just because certain grapes, like mourvèdre or tempranillo, have a reputation for showing slightly more animal characteristics, this does not necessarily mean that all wines made with those grapes will be as savoury. Nor will a wine necessarily show aromas like cigar and earth after a stint in your cellar.
Fault or terroir?
I know a number of wine critics and aficionados who would not have gotten past that first whiff of my Bandol. For many, aromas like leather saddle and manure are considered a wine fault, caused by a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces, or Brett. The single-celled fungus is found in old barrels, in wine making facilities, and in some regions, on the grapes themselves.
When present in high levels, the wines are often undrinkable, unless you really don’t mind the back-sides of farm animals. But in low levels, it can add incredible complexity and many of the greatest wines I have tasted have had low level infections.
What is known is that Brett is uncontrollable, though I have heard that scientists who work with yeasts are trying to find a way to harness it. So in most modern wineries, Brett is no longer an issue as the vast majority of wineries use sulphites to kill any yeasts that may be present in the wine making equipment, barrels and even on the grapes prior to fermentation. So if it isn’t Brett, then where do these aromas come from?
Certain grapes seem to show these earthier characteristics from the get go. Mourvedre, sangiovese, tempranillo, malbec, carignan are but a few of the less overtly fruity grapes. But much has to do with where the grapes are grown. Mourvedre from Bandol tends to show much less “fruit” than one grown in southern Spain, where it goes under the name of monastrell. A malbec in Cahors is a completely different smelling beast than in Argentina’s Mendoza.
So with hunting season around the corner here is a selection of earthier wines. If you are into liquorice, herbs, cigar, fallen leaves or more pronounced aromas of animal backsides, then these are for you.
Let’s start with malbec. If you normally drink Argentina over France’s Cahors, this will be quite a revelation. Try the 2012 Petit Clos from Jean-luc Baldes and smell what gamey is all about. I am a huge fan of carignan as it always has a venison note to go along with the dark fruit. Try the $16 2015 Empordà for a nose full of meat and cigar wrapper. For a great blend of fruit and liquorice, try the 2014 Minervois from Le Loup Blanc, the perfect median between drinkability and power.
But gaminess is not limited to powerful grapes like malbec and carignan. I was blown away by the 2014 Bourgogne Nature Ursulines from Boisset. I wanted a pheasant or game bird immediately upon rolling that first pour around my glass. Continuing on the pinot theme, the 2014 Pinot Noir from Montes is almost pure eucalyptus on the nose. Try a salmon with dill sauce with one of the better under $20 pinots on the market.
Sangiovese and tempranillo, the grapes of Tuscany and Rioja, rarely show much fruit. And if they do, you have top cut through notes of leather and tobacco to get to them. I tasted both the 2011 and 2012 Rioja Riserva from Marques de Riscal and I felt like I was walking through a forest in late Autumn. Sating Rioja, the 2009 Lan Reserva shows a touch more mushroom over leather, but with either wine, you can’t go wrong, especially with a rack of lamb and lots of mustard and herbs.
And finally, a stop in Tuscany with a few sangiovese based wines. I love a traditionally made Chianti, where acid and leather and crunchy tannins are what you get. Try the Villa Caffagio or the well priced Chianti from San Felice, and cook up a Veal Parmesan.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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