Cape Mentelle Margaret River Cabernet Merlot, 2005We’re fast approaching the end of 2012, and yet another crappy day! The sky was leaden throughout, with nothing on the horizon but drizzle or worse. A weekend to forget, or at least slog through to better times. But there is one quick solution to conditions outside: go inside! Retreat to the (hopefully) toasty interior of your apartment/house and pop some corks while eating lasagna/pork loin/another family oriented comfort food. And this is just what I did, all weekend. With January being Diet Month, there’s no better time than right now to indulge in favorite foods… and wines.

I like to keep my anti-social bad weather wines varied; keeps it interesting. So for this most recent departure from rainy reality, and in acknowledgment that New Year’s is right around the corner, I resolved to try something I would not normally try: a completely unfamiliar Australian red blend. Risky? Absolutely. Without good knowledge of vintages across regions, you can easily pick an Aussie red that falls flat on its face; these wines are very much at the mercy of the weather. But as with all good resolutions, this one paid off.

A little background on Australia’s Margaret River region: easily one of Australia’s premiere winemaking locales, this region is both extremely isolated and extremely good for grape vines. It is also very young. The first vines were planted in the mid-to-late 1960’s after Dr. John Gladstones wrote a book titled Viticulture and Environment outlining how ideal Margaret River’s climate and soils are for vineyards. Wines produced here tend to balance their typical Aussie big character and round, fleshy fruit with nice definition and poise. Unlike the Barossa Valley, which is renowned for its Shiraz, Margaret River produces especially fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blends. Cape Mentelle is one of the pioneer wineries in the region, and has vineyard blocks dating back to 1970.

With none of this in mind, I opened the 2005 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot to pair with a variety of grilled sausages. And DANG. Deep purple in the glass, inky and slinky: liquefied desert flowers. The aromas were striking, too, with jammy blackcurrant fruit and touches of spice. Great silky mouthfeel, fine soft tannins throughout, round but not flabby; just enough acidity. More dark berry fruit and spices in the mouth, with notes of black pepper and cocoa. Great finish; my only complaint here is that the finish is shorter than I would like, considering the fruit. Well-balanced overall, and a steal at $15. Pair with spice-rubbed lamb rack, grilled sausages, or any other meaty comfort food.

Clos de los Siete Red BlendDecember has so far been a cold, bleak, windy affair. No snow as of yet, and very little to recommend in terms of scenery. In fact, I would much rather go somewhere else entirely at this time of year. Some far country where I could forget about the artificial urgency of the holidays, truly kick back, and relax. New York winter weather makes me crave wines with opposing qualities: warm, lush, and full of cheer. Big, hearty numbers that shout “it’s time for STEAK, b****!” – or perhaps they’d shout something more mature, yet equally bold. Wines with hot bluster and tannin to match. And because I’m feeling the wallet crunch of the coming Christmas, I also want to enjoy wines that I know cost the makers many millions of dollars. Wine is a form of wealth redistribution I can get behind.

So let’s combine these elements: wine from a far country that has been really, really expensive to realize, but reaches we happy consumers with minimal pocket pinch. “Clos de los Siete” is of the more expensive wine projects in recent history, fitting all of my winter-and-I’m-depressed-tell-me-a-wine-story criteria. Headed by the star oenologist Michel Rolland, this effort focuses on expressing Argentinian terroir while sparing no expense in sourcing and vinifying high-quality grapes. We’re talking over 2000 acres of vines at 1,200 meters above sea level, right at the doorstep of the Andes mountains, turned into wine at seven wineries designed with extravagant attention to detail by master architects. Truly the kind of place where you’d expect fine wine to be made.

And so it is. The 2008 “Clos de los Siete,” the signature wine from this project, is blended personally by Michel Rolland every year, from painstakingly handpicked Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. It’s a big wine, to be sure: a dark ruby red in the glass, with ripe aromas of plum, cassis, and saddle leather. In the mouth, more dark cherry and cassis fruit rage around like Lindsay Lohan on a road trip in the countryside, stomping all over hints of cedar and loam. In a good way. Finishes long, with definite grainy tannins that cloak your tongue; it could well benefit from a year or two more of bottle aging. While expensive to produce, “Clos de los Siete” will cost you only $20: good for breaking winter doldrums without breaking the bank. Begs for roast meats of any kind or caliber.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m crazy about Bordeaux. Not a guy who goes nuts over the en primeur tastings in April, those early barrel tastings that get wine journalists salivating, mostly because I don’t buy based on hype alone. Nor do I drink the top tier Médoc monsters – Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, and so on… because who can drop $1200 on a bottle on a typical Friday? But still, something about the region – its heritage, its complex classification system, and its astonishing wines – brings me back, reliably, month after month. I can count on my hands the number of months I’ve gone without Bordeaux in the past five years.

A few points to keep us all on the same page. Most people, when they’re talking about Bordeaux wines, are talking about wines from the Médoc – the most famous wine-growing region in France, I’d say, nested along the Gironde river. All of the Bordeaux wines in the famous 1855 Classification are produced in the Médoc , with the exception of Château Haut-Brion, which hails from Graves (another favorite spot of mine for its stony, delicious Cabernet and Merlot-based reds). I won’t get into the classification system, except to note that the Wikipedia article does a good job, and don’t try too hard: it’s pointless to memorize something subject to change. Beyond that, it’s important to keep in mind that five grapes are legally permitted in red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. White Bordeaux (especially esteemed when from Graves) can include the grapes Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle, although you’ll find odd birds like Ugni Blanc and Colombard in the blend as well.

Tonight’s wine, the 2009 Chateau La Grolet, is an odd bird as well. For all that hubbub above about the Médoc, this wine is actually from the Côtes de Bourg, a little-known, tiny appellation located just across the Gironde river from Margaux. It is produced by the winemaker Jean-Luc Hubert, entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Shows a nice crimson color in the glass. On the nose, you find very forward, savory ripe fruit and a touch of cocoa and smoke. Nice and soft in texture, medium-bodied, with just enough acid to keep things going. In the mouth, it bursts with cherry fruit backed by definite mineral notes, kind of jammy – something I love in my wine. Medium finish, with the acidity keeping you coming back for another sip. Total crowd-pleaser. Totally Bordeaux. $12.

Been writing an awful lot about rosés lately. Shame, because some of my favorite summer reds are those friendly, approachable blends everyone pretends to pooh-pooh and then swigs as fast as they can when backs are turned. So! Here’s a short and sweet write-up of one of my guilty pleasures.

The 2007 Bodega NQN “Picada” 15 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot produced in Patagonia, Argentina. What a country! What wines! Cooler climate makes for better acidity and more distinct character than Chile overall, while the leading grapes – Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon – are everybody’s favorite, even the trendy wine Poindexters in plaid I so want to stomp.

A nice garnet red in the glass, with dusty berries and other red fruit on the nose, and some fruitcake spice to make it fun. Lush but not flabby mouthfeel, this is a round, medium-bodied treat for the big wine aficionado, the kind of man who wears denim and drinks Sonoma Zinfandel. Or Syrah from the Rhone. And fights bulls. Soft tannins, medium, earthy finish with some pepper notes. $10. Pair this with London Broil and mashed potatoes and green beans, or some juicy rare burgers off the grill.

Today’s post is about the 1999 Serafini & Vidotto “Il Rosso Dell’Abazia,” but begins with a long digression.

Only one wine has ever brought me to tears. It is unfortunately not eligible for this forum due to its extraordinary price ($350-400 retail), but I name it now to establish my benchmark for truly great wine: the 2004 “Astralis,” the flagship Syrah from the Clarenden Hills collection. At first whiff it was the wine that will always haunt me, setting the bar for every wine I’ve tasted since. Huge, dark, brooding, pungent, rich – but it was an infant! Even then, I knew that the 2004 Astralis was a wine that would not be ready to drink until 15-20 years later; it is still barely approachable now. L’Enfant terrible. Shockingly good.

Which brings me to the focus of today’s post: the 1999 Serafini & Vidotto “Il Rosso Dell’Abazia.” It has nothing in common with “Astralis,” not on the surface. “Astralis” is fermented from Syrah; this wine is made using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, a Bordeaux blend. Clarendon Hills is located 25 miles south of Adelaide, and northeast from the McLaren Vale in southern Australia; Serafini & Vidotto have their vineyards in Montello, a hilly area on the right bank of the Piave river in Treviso, a sub-region within Veneto (see photo).

“Astralis” is an ultra-boutique wine, a world-class luxury item made in a truly New World style. “Il Rosso Dell’Abazia,” on the other hand, is an exemplar of Cabernet Sauvignon in its Italian expression, but following the vinification philosophy and techniques of the great French makers. What do these wines share, what intangible quality? Easy: greatness. Why wax eloquent? It is greatness.

I opened the “Il Rosso Dell’Abazia” to celebrate moving to Brooklyn. It was to be paired with prime rib, roasted potatoes, and sauteed mushrooms, the first meal made in our new kitchen. If wine and food pairing could be considered a tango, this wine was definitely the leader. Textbook blood orange fading to pale rose-brown at the rim in the glass. On the nose, the first pour offered devious aromas, almost all secondary: rose petals, waterlilies, tar, olives, hung meats, and hints of dark fruit. In the mouth, “Il Rosso Dell’Abazia” felt like velvet. Over a decade of bottle-aging softened the tannins beautifully, giving it one of the finest textures of any wine I have tasted since “Astralis.” More dark fruit in the mouth, along with tobacco and a definite touch of balsamic spice. Long finish, echoing the completely even and balanced experience this wine provides. It touches greatness.

Normally a bottle retails for $80, but I found some for $16 at wholesale. Buying another half-case today. I do not think it will last another year, having just peaked, so find this wine immediately. Pairs with roast game of any kind, simpler fare; let the wine lead you.

Picture the scene: Wednesday night. You have friends over for dinner. Somebody decided that it was time for some Coq au vin, perhaps veal roasted in herbs. You want a Bordeaux or something like it, but cannot possibly shell out more than $10. Enter this wine, the 2006 Seigneurs de Bergerac, a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the Bergerac region in the southwest of France. It is brick red in the glass, simple and yet highly aromatic for the price, showing notes of cherries and other berries on the nose. The mouthfeel is a little rough, but remains supple due to the healthy amount of Merlot in the blend, and overall proves very quaffable, with the dark blackberry and plum fruit accented by stony notes, a hint of mineral, and slightly coarse tannins which bite into meat. For the money, I say go for it. $9.

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.

For an example of what the Napa Valley can really produce in reds, look no further than the Joseph Carr Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Although it’s labeled as a varietal, it’s actually a Bordeaux-style blend, comprised of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Cabernet Franc, and 2.5% Syrah.The vintage I tasted, the 2005, was utterly delicious. Strong notes of cherry, plum and leather on the nose, with a touch of cedar and smoke, featuring more black fruits and chocolate in the mouth, balanced to fine-grained tannins. Excellent structure and intensity, and it finished long, hinting at cinnamon. It blew me away, and it’ll blow you away too. $20 a bottle.

The other Mollydooker I’ve encountered. Two Left Feet, like its companion The Boxer, is just packed with fruit; in fact, it has even more, primarily cherry and cassis, and has almost as much spice, about as much body, and almost overwhelms (in a good way) with the massive finish. A blend of Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Serious oak character, showing as a deep smoky quality. It also has a definite cedary element. Don’t drink this alone. Be brave! $24. This needed decanting when I tried it, but by now should be drinking very well. Enjoy with rare peppered or seasoned steak.