Rayun CarmenereBeen awhile since my last post! A lot has happened – my longtime girlfriend Lyndsey and I finally got engaged, we traveled to Guatemala and Belize, and my cat learned how to jump through hoops. So many excellent reasons to party have accumulated that I’ve been too busy partying to post! But the time for delaying is over, and today’s critique concerns an affordable wine that suits just about any dinner party or similar occasion, particularly if you have something to celebrate. Like my life in general, this bottle is full of surprising enjoyments.

If you’re looking for a wine to pour with loved ones during Sunday dinner, you’re probably looking for a red that has exactly that right balance of friendly fruit, depth and body. If you’re me, and it’s tonight, you’re having lamb. The ideal wine partner for lamb will generally exhibit a couple of characteristics: dark fruit, earthy or peppery undertones, and nice balance. In other words, you’re looking for Carmenère.

I have described Carmenère’s intriguing history in Chile before, wherein growers often thought they were dealing with Merlot for over a century; it was only formally recognized as a grape variety in 1998. Fortunately for wine drinkers everywhere, production was not discontinued after they discovered otherwise; rather, Chile remains the world’s primary producer of this ancient French relative of Cabernet Sauvignon. Carmenère now grows chiefly in the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley, and Maipo Province. In fact, the name ‘Carmenère’ is derived from the French word carmin, meaning crimson. It is indeed a beautiful deep crimson in the glass, and can often be difficult to distinguish from Cabernet or Merlot in blind tastings.

Tonight’s wine, the 2010 Geo Wines Rayun Carmenère, hails from the Rapel Valley. It’s a classic example of what this grape can do in a drier, warmer microclimate. A lovely crimson in color, with aromas of blackcurrants, plum, green bell pepper, and earth. Medium-bodied, lush, with more dark fruit on the mouth tending towards cocoa and earthiness towards the long finish. Really a spectacular value at $11. Pair with any kind of red meat that you’re roasting, and bring friends, family, or loved ones.

I will readily admit to preferring French wine over all others for the most part. No country produces wine as focused, as brilliantly complex, or as delicious as French producers can; especially the right makers, especially in good years. There is clearly room here for forceful debate, and the truth of my statement varies from varietal to maker to region to vintage, but I feel safe making this generalization anyway.

Does this mean that we should not bother to try wines made by, say, Chilean vintners? No! Great wine is made everywhere, just as plenty of awful wine is made in France ( Languedoc-Roussillon has an ocean of it, although good wines abound even there). Removing wine from its global context, and becoming too focused, reduces the richness of our appreciation. As long as it is not an over-extracted, muddled fruit-bomb from a huge conglomerate, I will give any wine from any region a fair go.

And here is a wine to appreciate: the 2008 Cono Sur Pinot Noir, from their “Visión” line. These wines are, according to Cono Sur, a celebration of the various terroirs that Chile can offer, using a wide set of varietals grown in the Colchagua Valley to demonstrate how microclimates express wine in varying ways. I have found the “Visión” wines to be very pleasant overall, and would recommend any as a good bet for value.

Their 2008 “Visión” Pinot Noir, a big step up from the baseline Cono Sur Pinot, is lip-smacking. A gorgeous ruby red in the glass, with excellent clarity. The nose struts out aromas of dark cherry and ripe raspberry, juicy and fresh, with layers of coffee and cocoa just barely peeking through the red fruit. Extremely silky in the mouth, with well-balanced acidity and some earthiness towards the medium finish. This would be excellent with pork chops, baked turkey, grilled salmon, or hearty European soups. $12.

Sometimes I just want a wine that is not the least bit complicated. Something that pairs with burgers. Something heady and full, like a plum left to ripen until it nearly bursts with its own heaviness.

Cabernet Sauvignon is my grape of choice for those moments. 2007 Finca el Origen Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chilean Cabernet of high auspices, has one of the most forward and aggressive presentations out of all of the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignons I have tried in the past few years. Exploding with fruit, well-oaked and textured, this is the answer to the timeless question: Are fruit bombs allowed? The answer is a decisive yes.

Dark ruby in the glass, nearly purple, with great legs and a brooding aspect. The nose bursts with raspberries and plums, with distinctly ripe crushed fruit character; a bit of tobacco and bramble here as well. There are supple tannins, though this one is a bit flabby for my taste. Smooth, long finish. Drink now or keep for a couple of years. $14.

Thanksgiving is approaching, and so it is time to ponder some of my perennial favorite dinner wines for this particular holiday. When it comes to pairing wine, two things count most to me: the bird and the trimmings. Turkey is a naturally lean flesh, making it a perfect companion to fruity or even sweeter wines, such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Beaujolais, or some Pinot Noir. The trimmings tend to be better off when eaten with the reds in this list: my stuffing tends to have Italian sausage in it, and loves being wedded to more rustic Burgundies, while cranberry sauce is a natural pairing with Beaujolais, itself often hinting at cranberry fruit aromas. We also usually have some form of mushroom dish, which can harmonize beautifully with the notes of truffles and earth in Pinot Noir.

And Pinot Noir is the subject of this posting. The 2007 Cono Sur Pinot Noir, Chilean in origin, is a delightful value, perfect as the second red wine poured during Thanksgiving. I first tasted this wine’s 2005 vintage, and was equally impressed. It shows an intense brick red in the glass, with bright berry fruit, particularly raspberries, on the nose combining with truffles and dried leaves, with just a touch of meatiness. The mouthfeel is a tasty mix of suppleness and zesty acidity, balanced to just a hint of oak. A great introductory Pinot, although definitely New World in style; you need to appreciate this wine for what it is, instead of holding a Burgundian grudge. Simple and fine. $8.

Hailing from the high-altitude Maipo Valley in Chile, so named for the river producing the alluvial planes on which the vines grow, this Carmenère is a fine example of the grape’s potential even at a lower price range. As previously noted, I find that Chilean wine is a good value in general, although it tends to lack the lean acidity of its Argentinean counterpoints, something I prefer. In certain wines, though, everything comes together perfectly. The 2006 Chono Carmenère is a solid companion to summer or fall cooking, especially if you plan on using a barbecue.

Although wines made from Carmenère can taste green and brambly with insufficient ripening or poor handling, I saw none of that happening. A deep red in the glass. The nose was charged with bright red cherries and other berries, and spice: black pepper, cinnamon, along with hints of tobacco. More berry fruit in the mouth, especially cherries and blueberries, with a supple texture from the tannins; oak resulting from 60% of the wine being aged 10 months in barrel was well-integrated and balanced, lending hints of vanilla. Great finish, and seemingly designed for seasoned red meats on the grill – lamb, filet mignon, or t-bone. $13.

Generally, if I am eating Asiatic cuisine, I pair it with aromatic German Riesling or Gewürztraminer. The trembling acidity of these wines cloaking their cores of honeyed sweetness – and generally in the case of Gewürztraminer, a spicier floral element – make them ideal companions for mild Thai curries, among other things. Sometimes, however, none of these wines are at hand. I can rarely purchase truly fine Riesling, in fact. As a result, I have needed to find alternatives.

Enter the 2008 Cono Sur Visión Viognier; I have made much ado about their Pinot Noir in the past, and this varietal earns similar praise. Distinct notes of peach, citrus zest, and a hint of vanilla spice, the result of 60% of the blend being aged six months in oak, shimmer on the nose off of a wine that shines golden in the glass. Stony white fruits in the mouth, more peaches, citrus, apricot, and refreshing acidity. Lingering clean finish. I would readily drink this with anything sweet and sour, or with fish or chicken dishes based on Teriyaki or ginger marinades. This wine was surprisingly good, something I am happy to report I see frequently in Chilean wines, and is a terrific value at $10.

The 2007 Errazuriz Merlot surprised me. A nose full of spicy black pepper mixed with red and black fruits, particularly cherries and blackberries, with a touch of smoke. On the palate, this wine shows structure beyond what I anticipated, and features more black fruits combined with definite toasted oak character, along with vegetal hints of green pepper, making this a very traditional offering in some respects. Fine soft tannins, decent acidity, and a smooth finish round out what ends up being a great package for $9 a bottle. Pairs well with roasts of any kind.