WBW #6: South African Reds
February 16, 2005
After an extended affair with Zinfandel which we will not speak of further, my first true wine love was the California Bordeaux-style blend (the so-called Meritage, which term I despise). Where many Cabernets seemed angry and unforgiving, and most Merlots effusive and obsequious, put them together and the assemblage somehow worked. A union of opposites, like the perfect relationship...in the 1950's. Throw in some Cabernet Franc and maybe some Malbec to correct for any remaining deficiencies and you're ready to go. Why would you even want to try to make a single-varietal wine?
All this Meritage-drinking left me convinced that I was a Bordeaux fan, despite the fact that I hadn't had much actual Bordeaux, and the (cheap) examples I had tried -- mostly what was available at the local grocer -- hadn't made much of an impression. In fact, I came up with a theory: Deep down, we're all either Bordeaux people or Burgundy people. Oh, sure, we may like other kinds of grapes grown in other regions or other countries, but there's really only one underlying question: Burgundy or Bordeaux?
Bordeaux people, I imagined, were from Mars; balanced, scientific, rational people. Bordeaux winemakers were empiricists above all; they created their wines as part of an experimental process of mixing and tasting. Burgundy people, on the other hand, were artistic, temperamental, Venusian prima-donnas. Just like the grape that they so adored, they were notoriously thin-skinned, erratic, and unreliable. They made wine from one grape, and if things didn't go well that year, they had no recourse; they just burned some patchouli and promised to love the vines harder next time.
Myself, I hated Pinot Noir. Based on a couple of inexpensive domestic examples, I'd sussed them all out as thin, acidic wines with bright cherry fruit. What was all the Burgundy hoo-ha about? It wasn't hard to determine which side of the fence I fell on.
In the meantime, I'd had a few actual Bordeaux that I responded strongly to. Although they were a bit more austere than my Meritages, they seemed much more balanced and profound than even the more expensive of my favorites. The red fruit high notes of the Cabernet just rounded out by the fleshy mid-palate of the Merlot, all complemented by a bit of earthy terroir and a just touch of coffee grounds from the oak. By comparison, the Meritages seemed overripe and overoaked and waay too juicy. I continued to appreciate them, but more guiltily. But all of this left me even more convinced that I was a Bordeaux person.
All that changed a few years later over a ten year old bottle of 1er Cru Vosne-Romanee. Its combination of thick, velvety texture, heady perfume, and spice-laden palate was unlike anything I'd ever had before. I was tearfully forced to admit that, despite the fact that I still enjoyed a good Bordeaux now and again, deep down I was a Burgundy person. It was difficult to muster up the courage to come out to my friends. Strangely, they didn't react as strongly to the news as I expected. I guess they love me just that much.
But that's a story for another time. Today we're here to talk about Bordeaux-style blends. I have a nice South African wine here for you to try. Today's wine reminds me of many things I like about Bordeaux -- but in lurid technicolor. And I don't mean that disparagingly.
Barnyard on the nose, but also coffee and spices. Red fruit up front, but with nicely balancing acids. (One thing many New World offerings lack!) Soft, lush mouthfeel betray the Merlot in the blend, but the mid-palate is in no way weak; mocha and spices add flavor interest while acid and tannin lend structure. Tannins are strong but smooth and manageable. Give it a couple of years in the bottle, or have it with a nice steak topped with Stilton. (I prefer to do the latter.) I found this an enjoyable wine to drink, especially the next day, when some of the sharper edges had muted. A strong contender in its price range.
Related items of interest:
If you'd like to know more about the ways that the grapes in the Bordeaux blend have evolved to support each other in the vineyard and on the palate, please read this fantastic article by Bill Nesto, Master of Wine and winewriter.
Here's an interesting (if technical) article on the cultivation of Petit Verdot in South Africa.
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