John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 3rd 2012: A Tour de France’s signature varieties, Carmenère & Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

There is much to cover this week, including a Tour de France of not only signature varieties, but tidy values as well; fully half of this week’s top ten smart buys are French. Plus I’ll speculate on the origins of French domination – grapes and wine style – of the modern wine world. Then there’s carmenère, the occasionally maligned, often misunderstood grape that is immediately associated today with Chile despite its Bordelais origins; there are some terrific examples being released on March 3rd. And finally, check for part two of my sideways Central Coast tour of California, with a look at Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains, in an upcoming blog posting.

On the Origins of French Domination
To speak of France’s signature varieties, the theme of the Vintages March 3rd release, is to speak of the world’s signature varieties. France has more successfully exported her grapes and wines styles, reaching virtually every corner of the wine-producing globe, than any other nation. Why? The Portuguese and Spaniards, both rich in native varieties, were much more successful colonizers then the French (neither Saharan Africa, Polynesia nor Lower Canada could have looked very promising for vineyards). One wonders why the New World is not replete with Iberian grapes instead of French. And what of Italy, a beacon of art, culture and fashion since the Renaissance? Why has it taken so long for Italian grapes to reach foreign soils en masse? Pizza and shoes are more successful Italian exports than grapes, all things considered.

Terrior De FranceI can’t really say for sure, but I speculate that among the many and varied reasons for French domination of the wine world, essentially it comes down to having been more advanced and organized than any other nation at the start of the wine boom of the modern era, the beginning of the 19th century. And this advanced status stems from the very fibers of French culture: the French are nothing if not masters of classifications and hierarchies, of codification and rationalization. Who, after all, gave us René Descartes, that champion of method and analysis, or Auguste Escoffier, father of systematic haute cuisine and the prix fixe menu? Even today, ask for Béarnaise sauce in 100 French restaurants and you’ll get 100 identical sauces. In Italy, good luck finding any preparation that reappears outside of the valley in which it originated.

By 1855 the French were already classifying their most expensive and sought after bottles, while at the time, Montalcino was a tiny Tuscan backwater, Barolo was semi-sweet and sold in demi johns, and Riojanos were busy selling their wines to Bordeaux château. In France, ampelography (identification and classification of grapevines) was a science, offering the world such seminal works as Victor Rendu’s Ampélographie française of 1857, at a time when winegrowers in the Douro Valley had mixed plantings of dozens of unnamed/unknown grapes. So, as a would-be winegrower from Chile, Argentina, Australia or South Africa at the end of the 19thC, where would you look for inspiration?

A Tour De France of Smart Buys
La Chablisienne Montmains Chablis 1er CruThis week I found inspiration from both classic French wines and some less-well-known corners of vinous Gaul. I’d like to draw your attention to a tremendous Chablis, that is, chardonnay, from the world’s best patch of chalk on which to grow it: 2009 La Chablisienne Montmains Chablis 1er Cru AC ($24.95). La Chablisienne is a well-run cooperative formed in 1923, now consisting of over 300 growers. Each year the co-op produces 30 different wines, including six of the seven grands crus and fifteen premiers crus. Montmains is a top premier cru site on the left (west) bank of the Serein River, looking across to the grand crus. Damien Leclerc, MD of La Chablisienne, observes: “on the left bank, the minerality is more pebbly, chalky and austere tastes from the soil” in the company’s 11-page minerality manifesto on their website. In Chablis, minerality’s existence is not questioned. It’s considered a birthright, even though the term remains frustratingly slippery to define and suspiciously, increasingly, common around the world. But sucking on stones or not, premier cru Chablis at under $25 is what they call a no-brainer.

Turckheim Hengst GewurztraminerFrom Chablis you can head northeast to Alsace to experience the archetypical 2007 Turckheim Hengst Gewürztraminer AC Alsace Grand Cru ($24.95). Hengst is a steep, southeast facing cru officially in the commune of Wintzenheim, where the particularly warm and relatively dry conditions are perfectly suited to rich and powerful gewürztraminer. Turckheim’s version is marvelously smoky, mineral and earthy, medium-dry in style, with exceptional density and flavour impact. It could almost be put into the vendanges tardives (late harvest) category, and would suit all manner of intense, spicy, intensely flavoured foods.

Delas Frères Les Launes Crozes HermitageIf red is your colour, then head south instead to the northern Rhône appellation of Crozes-Hermitage and the classically styled 2009 Delas Frères les Launes Crozes-Hermitage AC ($20.95). Since taking over this storied négociant house, established in 1835, Fabrice Rosset has set Delas Frères on a steady upward rise in quality. From 1997 onwards investments have been ongoing: stainless steel was replaced by newly fashionable concrete vats, and gravity was engaged to eliminate harsh pumping. The barrel chai was completely refurbished, and dodgy old foudres were replaced with 225l François Frères barrels (a chic brand). Les Launes, a vineyard blend from the varying soils of the appellation, is aged 1/3 in wood and the rest in vat to preserve the textbook northern Rhône characteristics of black pepper, smoked hickory, fresh tar, black fruit and scorched rock notes. The palate is fresh and lively, with juicy acidity, firm tannins and lingering finish, and should improve over the next 2-3 years.

Château La Brie Prestige
Top value seekers should cycle cross country to the little-known appellation of Bergerac and the astonishingly good 2009 Château La Brie Prestige AC Bergerac ($13.95). There’s little I can tell you about this wine – the château, reassuringly, has no useful web presence – other than that it is a Bordeaux-type blend and it is delicious. I can only imagine that in centuries past, when all of the geographically unfortunate wine producers inland and up river from the main shipping port of Bordeaux, like Bergerac, were heavily taxed in order to protect Bordeaux’s market position, wine of this quality must have commanded 3-4 times the price.

Domaine Thunevin Calvet Cuvée ConstanceWrap up your Tour in the deep south near the Spanish border in the currently red-hot Roussillon. 2008 Domaine Thunevin-Calvet Cuvée Constance AC Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($18.95) is a smart buy born of the 2001 partnership of super star Bordeaux garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin (of Château Valandraud fame, one of those wines you can’t find, nor could you afford it if you could) and local Maury garçon Jean-Roger Calvet. Cuvée Constance is a 50-50 blend of grenache and carignan grown on typically stony, schistous soils, and aged in concrete and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The result is full, dense and rich, a satisfying mouthful to be sure, with big, plush, ripe tannins and juicy acidity. 15% alcohol sneaks by unnoticed until the finish heats up, like warm cherry pie. In any case, this is an exceptionally satisfying wine for the money, waiting for roast and grilled meats. It’s hard to beat this intensity and character for under $20. Vive la France!

Of Carmenère and Garden Salads
Carmenère: Chile’s flagship grape, or making the most of what you’ve got? Opinions are divided, but most agree that carmenère is both distinctive and good, the two prerequisites for flagship status, and I agree. Carmenère is an old Bordeaux variety that made it’s way to Chile in the mid 19thC, where it was promptly mistaken for merlot for almost a century and a half until French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot identified it in 1994. It’s a troublesome grape, in that it’s a late season variety with tendency to produce vegetal wines, likened by some to the smell and taste of a garden salad when not fully ripe, the reason why it was most likely abandoned in Bordeaux post-phylloxera.

Until it was identified in Chile as carmenère, it was usually harvested early along with merlot, although it ripens up to two months later, resulting in, well, green, garden salad wines. But Chile’s generously warm and dry climate is far more suitable than Bordeaux’s for the grape, and along with winemaking experimentation and pinpointing of the most suitable warm but not hot sites over the past 15 years, carmenère can now surely be counted among the most distinctive and high quality varieties of Chile. While it is likely still too early to say definitively, the epicenters for top carmenère appear to be the Colchagua and Cachapoal (Rapel) valleys south of Santiago.

Generally, the grape is deep purple, rich in dark berry fruit (cassis, blackberry, black cherry) and particularly spicy, with tobacco, tar, leather, black pepper and bell pepper notes. On the whole, it is less tannic than cabernet but more grippy than merlot. Practically, there are of course many styles, and here are the ones to look for in the March 3rd release to get a handle of what it has to offer.

Montes Purple AngelConcha Y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 CarmenèreMisiones De Rengo Gran Reserva Cuvée CarmenèreCasa Silva Reserva Carmenère

The leader of the pack is the iconic 2009 Montes Purple Angel Colchagua Valley ($56.95), easily the densest and richest of the lot, but with abundant wood influence that will need 2-4 years minimum to settle down.

The best value of the lot, even at $30, is the 2008 Concha y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 Carmenère Peumo Vineyard, Peumo, Cachapoal Valley ($29.95). Peumo is like Shangri-La for carmenère, based on tastings of this wine and it’s more expensive sibling, the excellent Carmìn del Peumo from Concha y Toro. While the latter is indeed extraordinary, it’s also $100+. The Terrunyo, which comes from the same zone, is very nearly as great for a less than a third the price.

The best of the sub-$20 examples on offer is the 2010 Misiones de Rengo Gran Reserva Cuvée Carmenère Rapel Valley ($19.95). It starts to highlight the quality potential of the variety, with just-ripe fruit, well-integrated wood, and intriguing fresh, sweet green herbal spice, dark black berry fruit character, and juicy-lively acidity – a well-balanced, vibrant wine that should age well over the mid-term.

The greatest crowd appeal/price ratio goes to the 2009 Casa Silva Reserva Carmenère Colchagua Valley ($15.00). It’s quite oaky for the moment, round and plush, but quite a tour of flavour and intensity for the money.

From the March 3, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Hot Carmenère
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier