Friday, November 11, 2011

Beef Stew, Not The Worst Wine After All, A Bargain, A Disappointment, And An Italian Merlot a la française

Pelee Island is the southernmost Canadian vineyard, as they like to say, on the same latitude as the Napa Valley (and the Macôn). The bottle pictured above was the gift, after a fashion, of a Canadian customer. “This is the worst wine I've ever tasted,” she said, handing it to me. I promised I'd give it due consideration, and for the last four years or so it's been in the cellar, considering itself. The Chef was making boeuf à la Bourguignonne and hollered from the kitchen that she needed a cheap Pinot Noir for the pot. Somehow, I knew exactly what to reach for (I also reached for a backup bottle—another Pinot, this time from Patagonia—just in case). With no little trepidation we tasted it—and it was...Pinot Noir. A bit dilute, and just starting to show a little brown on the rim, but fine for the pot, which is where it went.

Les and Kathy brought some bottles. We started with a sparkler from the Marches, made by Garofoli from Chardonnay and Verdicchio. Guelfo Verde Vino Frizzante 2010 is light, gently fizzy, had some nice orchard fruit notes and a sturdy mineral finish. It was delightful, and became even more delightful when we found out it was priced at $9.99.

The featured wine with our beef stew was an els jelipins 2004. It is a “natural” wine, a blend of two grapes, the rare Sumoll (60%) and garnacha (40%). It is produced in the Penedès by the young and attractive Glòria Garriga & Oriol Illa, who hand-pick, making passes through the vines at various intervals, ferment at low temperatures with indigenous yeasts, and age the wine for 30 months in old French and Slavonian oak vats. Now you know we were primed to fall pantingly in love with this wine, but this particular bottle wasn't quite there. I got a little whiff of peppermint candy on the nose, which was…unusual. It was nicely textured, and had some red and black fruit to it, as well as some notes of sweet spice and cocoa. But there just wasn't all that much going on. Les and Kathy, who'd had it before, were clearly disappointed; Les said the last bottle had been much more substantial. Maybe the stew was too much for it. Although one does not like to be in the position of making excuses for a $90+ bottle. Then again, the whole point of natural wines is that they are not factory-made products, and there will be bottle variation. And as has been noted in this space before, managing expectations can be a bitch.

Feeling a bit let down, I went back to the cellar and pulled out another bottle that had been gathering dust—a merlot picked up on a visit to Tuscany in 2004, that made its way back to the U.S. during that Golden Age before the damned three-ounce rule: Fattoria La Rendola IGT Merlot 2001, from the winery of the same name, in the village of Montevarchi, not too far from Arezzo.

The wine was made by the highly regarded Fabrizio Moltard, a consultant agronomist, native of Piemonte, who moved to Tuscany to work for Angelo Gaja then went out on his own. These days he consults with many wineries in Maremma. He's the go-to guy if you're growing French grapes around Scansano. You'll recall that in the mid 1990s French grapes aged in French oak were all the rage in certain parts of Tuscany; everybody wanted to get on the Super Tuscan bandwagon. Fattoria La Rendola was no exception, and they brought in Dottore Moltard to produce wine in the Bordeaux style, and that's what they got with the 2001 IGT Merlot: Red plum, blackcurrant, and lead pencil on the nose, a silky-textured palate with more plum and a touch of cocoa, and a nice lift of acidic red berry on the finish. With air, it developed a creamy richness, at which point it became a little too much of a good thing.

It's tempting to try to find a moral here about the calculatedness of what Fabrizio Moltard does for a living vs. the deliberate lack of calculation at els jelipins, but it's only two bottles, folks. And I don't want Tom Wark to get mad at me for suggesting that winemakers might have any motivations beyond wanting to sell what they make. I have to admit that despite some recent disappointments, as a class, I find the “natural” stuff very appealing these days. How're they gonna keep me down in Paree, now that I've seen the farm?

The els jelipins and the Guelfo Verde are available at Vinsite.

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