Posts tagged Merlot

Merlot: First taste of 2011 Bordeaux wines from the Right Bank

When I taste wines like this, I’m reminded why we all fell in love with Merlot. Years ago, that is. Before it got stupid, before it got flabby and boring. Bordeaux’s Right Bank wines are the best examples of this.
Without getting into detailed tasting notes, I can say that these wines are consistent: tasting the wines now and those from a few years ago shows once again that these chateaux are true to their own styles, whether it’s a blockbuster vintage or not.
Circumventing the big show of barrel tastings in April, this month some of Bordeaux’s Right Bank wineries came to New York with their new and recent vintage wines. Held at the French Consulate, it was a big draw: a club-like line to enter, in mid-afternoon on a weekday – and that was just for the media.
Last year I went to the rigorous, day-long Cercle Rive Droite tasting in Bordeaux. This year my tasting in NYC was a little more relaxed, with only a few dozen participants on hand. As you might already know, 2011 was a difficult year, and I was curious to see what the wines were like. Or rather, what they seemed like they would be like in the future.
Fortunately, the chateaux owners had also brought some recent vintages to taste the barrel samples against. What I found was remarkable consistency. A 2011 barrel sample tasted next to 2008 of the same wine was heading in the same direction, with similar fruit, spice and other characteristics. The winemakers had pulled it off; no need to fear the 2011s.

Merlots at any price — really?

For some time, whenever anyone asks me for a really good Merlot recommendation, I’ve been saying “Bordeaux.” Too often, US Merlot wines are lacking…well… almost everything except fruitiness. I want a Merlot that tastes like well-made wine. That IS a well-made wine. And you have to go way up in price if you want to get that in the US. This week I opened a few different Merlots, and I started with the two lower-priced wines: both nicely crafted and both, surprisingly, $20 or under.
The first two were Bordeaux Supérieur wines. 2009 Chateau Timberlay: buttery, cheery, bright fruit aroma, with lightish tannins. Medium-light body up front but a more solid finish. The flavors deepened with food; great with a plain hamburger.
The 2009 Chateau de Bel “La Capitaine” was finely restrained in both its aroma and flavors. Mild dark cherry, cassis and some leather, backed by very nice tannins. Hamburger or steak would be great here.
Twomey’s 2007 Napa Valley Merlot is a prime example of a US Merlot I would recommend. Across between red and black fruits, nicely integrated tannins. Moderate finish with a hint of cinnamon in its wood notes. Needs to accompany a little more complicated dish than plain meat; a beef stew flavored with onions, carrots and wine does the job nicely. Price? You have to go up; this one averages about $45.
Moving on to a less common American wine, I found a lot more fruit. I had pulled out a 2004 Dr. Konstantin Frank Merlot from the Finger Lakes, and found it bursting with fruit, pleasant and easy-drinking; quite a nice accomplishment in a Merlot from this area. And when I just looked up the price, it seems to go for only around $16 — fun if you can find it.

Bordeaux Soup, Part IV — Along the Dordogne River, on the Arcachon Bay, and Through the Vineyards

Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur vineyards also line the wide Dordogne River. There, several new families have taken up residence and are re-working the traditional vineyards according to the new AOCs’ specs. Near a traditional river fishing-hut with its winched-up net, Frederic Mallier is also going organic at Château de la Vielle Chapelle. Despite the frost, hail and other problems during the 2007 season, he has produced an extremely nice “everyday Bordeaux” with 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc which was my favorite in the tasting.
Also along the river are Dominique Meneret’s park-like gardens, golden at the end of the day, next to his vineyards. Since he acquired Château Brondeau in 1980 and Château Courteillac in 1998, he has been working to make a “cashmere wine,” smooth and elegant. Many of his wines have the feel of a Cru Classé; the 2009, still in barrel, was extremely promising, too.
Next door, at Château de Bel, Olivier Cazenave has fulfilled his dream of establishing his young family in a small house with vineyards. When we arrived one evening, we found he had also invited friends from Chateau Belgarde and Chateau La Mothe-du Barry to come over with their wines for an informal dinner. This was preceded by a long Apéritif during the sunset on a deck over-looking the river, where we sipped everyone’s wines while waiting for the mascaret – an remarkable, twice-daily tidal bore that comes up the Dordogne 70 km from the sea during certain seasons. And impressive sight I had never heard of before; I learned that in warmer months when the wave is higher, people surf this wave all the way up the river.
We experienced true historical life at Stefaan Massart’s Château Vilatte, where he grows his own wheat and bakes bread in the 19th century oven he renovated. He took over the estate at 19, when his father died in the early 1980s. Stefaan’s friend brought over a buggy drawn by a spectacular draft horse, to take us on a tour of the vineyards. Back at the house, looking at his curious collection of historic winery machines, we enjoyed a traditional, regional stew Stefaan had been cooking all day. Even his wines tended toward the historic, meant for ageing, like his merlot-based 2000: big, fruity and vibrant and great to drink right now, ten years after it was made.
Xavier Milhade of Château Recougne chose a different mode of transportation: he took us out on a simple oyster barge on the bay at Arcachon (Bordeaux’s seaside getaway). Along with blue-eyed, curly-haired Jonathan, our pilot, we had our aperitif wine – sauvignon blanc with a good balance of crisp and fruity — on the boat. Afterward, we went back to Jonathan’s oyster shack and feasted on fresh seafood matched to Xavier’s wines.

To hear more about my travels through the region, listen to me on iwineradio
To learn more about the region, visit the Planet Bordeaux visitor center – it’s about 20 minutes east of the city of Bordeaux — or check out the Planete Bordeaux website

Bordeaux Soup, Part II — Mechanical Harvesting and Hollywood in the Vineyards

Veronique Barthe of Chateau la Freynell

Not only have the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Sup proprietors been improving their vineyards, they have also had to learn to cut costs. No matter that unemployment is high now, it’s almost impossible to find people to work in the vineyards, especially during harvest time. Many people have found the price too high, with the French requirements for a 35-hour work week, lunch provided, etc. so they’ve mechanized. People like Veronique Barthe, who now rents the vineyards of the family’s Château La Freynelle, who was very vocal about the problem of unwilling workers. She is the winemaker as neither of her brothers was interested, when their parents handed on the reins to the next generation. Her white was a great aperitif, and her rosé wine was hearty enough to pair with a full-course lunch.

At another place we visited, the small, family-owned At Château Penin—where they also make ends meet by exporting friends’ wines to the Netherlands—they tend to do small, targeted mechanical harvests, whenever the grapes are ready in their different vineyards. Their 2008 Bordeaux “Grande Séléction” from 30-year-old vines was rich and velvety.

Chateau Couronneau dates from the 15th century

Christophe and Bénédicte Piat, who purchased the15th-century Château Couronneau in 1994, were in the midst of a quick mechanical harvest when we arrived, but didn’t let it get in the way of having their two children politely greet everyone with a handshake. There they grow organic Merlot and Sauvignon Gris, and are concentrating on reducing the use of chemicals by 90% in their replanted vineyards. And, as it happens, this beautiful property, a medieval setting with gardens, horses and ducks, will appear on the next CD by jazz musician Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son) who had just finished recording there.

Hollywood has also touched the large Cooperative of Sauveterre. This co-op also blends wines for one of Francis Ford Coppola’s projects. There, we did our own blending with cellar master Philippe Cazaux. His evaluations were extremely diplomatic – though I noticed he didn’t happen to preserve any of our blends.

To hear more about my travels through the region, listen to me on iwineradio
To learn more about the region, visit the Planet Bordeaux visitor center – it’s about 20 minutes east of the city of Bordeaux — or check out the Planete Bordeaux website

Bordeaux Soup, Part I — I mean Bordeaux Sup. [Supérieur]

Excellent wines are pouring out of Bordeaux, at prices from $10 to $25 –several notches up from what you’d expect at these prices – a great choice for a “weekend wine.” Look for the words Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur on the label.
The winemakers refer to Bordeaux Superieur as Bordeaux Sup., which I can’t help envisioning as Bordeaux SOUP. (Yum) I had a great time exploring these wines earlier this fall, meeting the winemakers at their homes, in a variety of picturesque scenes and activities. And getting some of my questions answered.
For instance, have you been wondering what happened to Merlot? Didn’t it use to be a great wine? Yes, and it still is, in Bordeaux. The Bordeaux and Bordeaux Sup red wines are Merlot-based — sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc. And they’re very good: structured and fruity, meaty and lightly tannic. Wines for a meal you can sink your teeth into, wines that are served with grilled steaks and stews, pâtés and all types of cheeses.
In addition, most of the producers in the southern and eastern parts of this region make white wines that are usually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. These whites are an integral part of the local ritual of the Apéritif: a chilled glass is poured, a plate of sliced pâtés and salamis is brought out, and people come together to relax for a few minutes and talk about their day, before lunch or dinner. Always a very welcome respite in the hectic schedule our little band of writers maintained for our week in Bordeaux.
Traditions like these die hard in the countryside, and for that I’m thankful. It’s part protocol and part hospitality. Like the kids: every single child we met said a polite hello and kissed every guest on both cheeks, or shook hands. As they did at Château Bellevue, where genial Yves de Ponton d’Amécourt and his artistic wife Sophie have six beautifully-behaved children, each of whom came out to the vineyards next to the house to greet us as they arrived home from school.
In the rolling hills along the border of the Dordogne region, in addition to his other red grapes, Yves now plants a little Malbec, too. As does his neighbor, Regis Chayne of Château Ballan-Larquette – to add character to the wines, they explained over dinner. As at most of the chateaux (wineries) we visited, they also make some white wine. Two of my favorites at that meal: 2007 Château Ballan-Larquette dry white, with good fruit and enough body to pair with turkey for dinner, and then, with Camembert, the 2005 Château Bellevue “Friends Reserve” red.
To hear more about my travels through the region, listen to me on iwineradio
To learn more about the region, visit the Planet Bordeaux visitor center – it’s about 20 minutes east of the city of Bordeaux — or check out the Planete Bordeaux website

Yellow Tail Reserve wines: Nice Whites, Reds too Similar

Yellow Tail Reserve Pinot Grigio

I like to think I’m not a wine snob. So when I heard about mega-popular [yellow tail] ® wines’ Reserve line of course I wanted to try it Luckily, I learned about it through the US distributor, and WJ Deutsch & Sons delivered a sample of all 5 wines.
This is a relaunch of the Reserve, and the marketing campaign is clever: regular label Yellow Tail for ‘any night” and the Reserve for “Date Night” – backed up by their statistics that 90% of Americans like a wine upgrade for special events. Sounds reasonable.
So, what is the wine like? The Pinot Grigio is light and lively, with a hint of tangerine and plenty of lime in both flavor and finish. Fine as an aperitif wine, but too sweet when I kept the glass and tried it with dinner.
More of the self-confessed, unsophisticated wine-drinkers in the house liked the Chardonnay, favorably identifying with both its look (a medium-pale tan-yellow) and its flavors; this Chard is somewhat fruity but is not over-oaked or overly sweet. And it did work with the chicken we had for dinner that night.
The reds were a problem for me because all three were astoundingly similar to each other. So much so that I went back and checked the glasses against the bottles several times. The labels identify them as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, but the visual, aromatic and flavor elements were hard to tell apart.
When drinking one of the reds, if someone accidentally poured you a refill of one of the others, would you notice the difference? Maybe not. But does this matter? Maybe not, at the time, if all the wines are pleasant enough: some fruit, little tannin, berry flavors, non-acidic finish. The Merlot’s fruit is a touch more restrained than the Cab’s; the Shiraz is a tad more exuberant. The wines did benefit from air – I would suggest opening them about a half hour before serving to let the flavors develop – though they remained very similar.
The PR stuff that came with the wines maintains that each wine is made with 100% of the grape on the label, which further mystified me because I had thought their similarities might be explained if the wines were blends. In the US, single-varietal wines must contain 75% of the varietal named on the label; the other 25% can be any other wine grape. The wines I sampled are vintage 2008.
The grapes are sourced from various parts of Australia, then blended. Perhaps that’s the issue. In looking for consistency of flavor for the line, the winemakers have gone too far over the edge and made them all the same, instead of allowing for each grape’s varietal expression in the wine.
If you have a different experience when trying these wines, I’d love to hear about it. The line’s suggested retail price is $12 but I found it heavily discounted online.