Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

I have never been a great fan of New World wines. For my palate, they are – generally – too fruit-forward and simplistic, lacking in depth and complexity, and often too tannic and insufficiently acidic to match well with food.

I recognize, however, that what I call deficiencies many wine lovers regard as plusses, and that that style has many admirers. Just read the tasting notes in any issue of The Wine Spectator to see what I mean. More important, New World wines are evolving (so are Old World wines, for that matter, but that is a topic for another post). Many of them have been, by my standards, steadily improving, becoming more food-friendly, which I think is crucial. Almost as important, many have dropped the almost confrontational, fruit-forward style in favor of an increase in elegance and complexity that makes them for me much more interesting to drink.


Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background


I had this change underlined recently when I had the opportunity to taste a few Malbecs from Bodega Trivento in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley. I don’t attend many of these occasions, anticipating disappointment, but it seemed about time I opened my mind and my palate to see what was going on below the Equator. I’m glad I did.

Malbec first entered my consciousness decades ago as the major grape variety in Cahors. The town from which the wine takes its name is deep in the heart of La France profonde, situated picturesquely within a horseshoe bend of the river Lot in Quercy – truffle, chestnut, foie gras, and game country, well worth a gastronomically minded traveller’s attention.

City of Cahors


Its wine, hearty, deep, a bit rustic but capable of long aging, was once almost legendary in England as “the black wine of Cahors” for its depth of color and flavor. I loved it. Diane and I even made a pilgrimage there back in the Seventies, when Cahors was just beginning to reclaim the importance it had lost with the devastations of the phylloxera, and I still recall with great pleasure some of the meals we ate and wines we drank there.

Malbec was once a very important variety in France, grown in almost every significant wine region, even Bordeaux. It was almost always used in blends, rarely as a monovarietal wine. In South America, where it has established a new homeland in Chile and especially in Argentina, it is used both ways. In Argentina the monovarietal version seems to be both the most esteemed and – for my very European palate – the most successful.

Germán di CesareTasting with Trivento’s winemaker Germán di Cesare, I tried the red blend Amado Sur (70% Malbec, 20% Bonarda, 10% Syrah) and three vintages (2011, 2012, 2013) of its 100% Malbec Golden Reserve. (Charles Scicolone gives a full account of this tasting on his blog). These all derive from high-altitude vines, and they are grown on their own roots from pre-phylloxera stock. I was impressed by the wines, both for their intrinsic drinkability – no overpowering tannins, good structural acidity, prominent but not palate-drowning fruit – and because they reminded me of old-style Cahors.

In my book, that is very definitely a compliment, and it’s what prompted me to try re-tasting the Golden Reserve Malbec at home, side by side with a respectable Cahors, Le Petit Clos from Triguedina, a long-established Cahors producer.

two malbecs

Both wines were from the 2011 vintage (that made the Trivento about six months older than the Petit Clos). The Golden Reserve was 100% Malbec, the Petit Clos 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot. We tasted them both by themselves and with food (a broiled steak) and finished them up over the next several days. Both held well and were still pleasantly drinkable a few days on.

Both wines showed the deep, dark coloration that gave Cahors its traditional name. The Cahors had an earthy, grapey aroma, strong and assertive. So too did the Golden Reserve Malbec, with a slightly more evident berry note.

On the palate, some differences began to show. Le Petit Clos felt smooth and soft, with good underlying tannins and decent acidity. It offered blackberry/mulberry flavors, with a hint of black pepper, and a long, slightly tobacco-y finish. It impressed me as a somewhat rustic wine, hearty and enjoyable.

The Trivento Malbec showed its New World origins clearly in its fruit-forwardness, which was the initial palatal impression it made – all dark berries and plums. To my surprise, however, that ostensibly big fruit attack was mollified and balanced by its acidity, more perceptible than that of the Cahors, making it lighter in the mouth. It too finished long, with berries and leather. Overall, despite the differences it was quite comparable to the Petit Clos: The family resemblance of the two wines’ fruit stood out clearly. I found the Trivento thoroughly enjoyable though perhaps a bit simpler, at least at this age.

Both wines are definitely capable of a good amount of bottle-aging and development. And both seemed a tad more sophisticated when tasted alongside that juicy steak, which may seem like no news at all – except that in the not far distant past it used not to be the case with many New World wines. As far as I am concerned, that is very good news, as is the fact that you can buy an almost-Cahors-equivalent wine at a very reasonable price (around $22).

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A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4


What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

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I want to start the new year off right, by cleaning my desktop and sweeping my brain of some items that have been accumulating, so this first post of 2010 (How did that get here so soon?) will be more miscellaneous than has been my norm. Diversity is good, right? At least it’s the complimentary way to refer to disorder, which is the only order my desk accepts.

Bubble, bubble, bubble

OK, so the holidays are over, and every respectable wine columnist will now forget about Champagne until the June-wedding-season is upon us – so naturally, I’m now going to talk about that delightful sparkling wine. That’s at least in part because I don’t confine Champagne just to the holidays. I long ago found out that a glass of good bubbly does wonders in smoothing out the bumps in life’s road. For instance, if you have to dwell in a tiny New York apartment while having it renovated, nothing works as well as a glass of Champagne to wash the dust from your throat or ease the shock of your contractor’s bills, which could become bills of mortality without it.

It’s also in part because over the past few weeks, I’ve tasted a lot of Champagnes. I had to miss the Wine Media Guild’s annual multi-Champagne fete, for reasons that will be explained below, but I attended the New York Wine Press’s annual do at the Brasserie, which afforded the opportunity to sample 13 prestige cuvées, and I imbibed many more sparklers in less formal circumstances. I’m not going to enumerate all those wines, but I do want to honor a few reliable favorites. Among the prestige cuvées, you have to spend a very great deal of money to find better bubblies than either Gosset’s Celebris or Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. The current release of both is the 1998 vintage, and both are big, structured, mouth-filling wines, with the full complement of wheaty, toasty flavors and all the Champagne sparkle anyone could ask for. Neither is inexpensive, but both are worth their cost.

At a considerably less exalted economic level, anyone who seriously enjoys sparkling wines should never overlook Champagne Deutz nonvintage Brut or Roederer Estate’s nonvintage Anderson Valley Brut. The former is an excellent, full-bodied and fully dry NV from a too-often overlooked producer. The latter is, in my opinion, the best California sparkling wine – the most classic in its re-creation of authentic Champagne style in the new world. If you drink sparklers because you like them, not just because it’s New Year’s Eve, these two wines deserve your attention.

Worldwide Wine

The reason I missed the WMG Champagne luncheon, which is normally a highlight of the season for me, is because my wife and I were in Ecuador. Not a usual wine destination, I admit, but this wasn’t a wine trip. We’re birders, you see, and since most of our life is resolutely urban, when we take a vacation we strive to be as non-urban as we can get. Ecuador fit the bill very well: right on the equator (which is attractive by itself, as an alternative to a New York December), with over 1,600 species of birds, and habitats ranging from above the tree line in the Andes to sea level in the Amazon basin. Think condors and cold on one hand, toucans and mosquitoes on the other. 

Hands across the Equator: Tom is in the southern hemisphere, Diane in the northern

Hands across the Equator: Tom stands in the southern hemisphere, Diane in the northern. Photo by Arlene Gmitter

My fair bride and I always tell each other that we don’t go on these trips for the food or drink, but after two or three days of the local beer we’re usually hunting up any wine available and trying to find the most authentic regional food. This time Diane’s search for cuy – spit-roasted guinea pig: Ecuador’s national dish, we were told – proved fruitless, alas.

We did, however, find some Ecuadorian wine, with the help of Xavier Munoz, manager of Neblina Forest Tours, which had handled our South American arrangements. (Our North American organizer and trip leader was Mark Garland, a great birder from Cape May.) I wasn’t surprised that the wine was difficult to find. Rather, I was surprised that it existed. We’re talking about wine-making on the equator, folks: That ought to be close to impossible. That it’s done at all is an accomplishment: that it’s done well is a wonder.

As it happened, the wines were so hard to come by that we acquired them only on the night we were leaving for home, and so only got to taste them back in our own urban jungle. The white, called Enigma, is a Chardonnay, too oaky for my palate but certainly comparable in quality to any number of Californian or Australian Chardonnays, and probably better than many.

The red, called Bruma, proved to be a pleasantly drinkable blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, and Shiraz. (How’s that for touching all the bases?) Dos Hemisferios is the producer: an apt name, whether it refers to the northern and southern hemispheres that Ecuador straddles, or Europe and the Americas, straddled by the ambitious winemakers who are growing French varieties in Ecuador. It’s even apt for the style of the wines: classic French grapes vinified into distinctively New World wines. (There’s at least one more producing Ecuadorian vineyard, named Chaupi Estancia, but we were unable to locate its wines.)

On a previous trip to the Amazon – on a riverboat – we discovered that there are some decent Peruvian wines. Of course everyone knows about the wines of Argentina and Chile, and if you watch the National Geographic channel you’re probably aware that some hardy souls are trying to grow grapes and make wine in Brazil. India already has some producing vineyards, and China has planted uncounted acres. Every one of the lower 48 states and Hawaii now produce wine. What once upon a time was a pretty restricted enterprise is now truly a worldwide phenomenon – and while this ought to be an unmitigated good, what scares me is that the universal model for all these wines appears to be not France or Spain or Italy, but California – with (as the Beyond The Fringe group used to say) all that that entails.

Visions of universal deforestation fill my brain, as every oak and near-oak tree in reach is converted into barriques for the making of vanilla-accented fruit bombs. What a future! Ecological disaster paired with total market collapse as a glut of simple, fruit-driven wines flood the world’s shelves and cellars. Save your Barolo and Burgundy, friends: hard times are coming.

Magnum Force

You – loyal reader that you are – may remember that some time back I wrote about the wines of the Maremma. Mostly I focused on the simpler bottlings, but over the holidays I opened one of the higher-echelon Maremma wines, a magnum of 1998 Avvoltore from Moris Farms. 70 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet sauvignon, and 5 percent Syrah, this too-little-known Supertuscan accomplishes what so many of them strive for: balance, elegance, and accessibility – it drank like a liquid dream – combined with a distinctive Tuscan personality. A perennial prize-winner in Italy, Avvoltore is scarcely known here in the States, a fact that has kept its price moderate indeed for its very high quality and great longevity. My ’98 was live and fresh and still nowhere near its peak, a lovely, still-growing wine. I wish many more like it to all of us in 2010 and beyond!

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