the stu sutcliffe and pete best of bordeaux grapes

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Students of Beatles trivia know that Sutcliffe and Best were both Beatles (playing bass and drums respectively) before the group solidified as a quartet, with McCartney on bass and Ringo on drums. I’ve often felt that among the six red Bordeaux grapes, Sutcliffe and Best must be the Malbec and Carmenère. John Lennon’s the Cabernet Sauvignon, Paul’s the Merlot, George the Cab Franc and Ringo the Petit Verdot (obviously). But Stu and Pete are destined to remain footnotes to greatness, as were Malbec and Carmenère in Bordeaux.

At least until South America got hold of them. Somehow, Malbec has become the superstar of Argentine reds, and Carmenère (also seen misspelled as Carménère, Carmenére, Carmeneré and other convolutions) has been claimed by Chile. This seems like a huge mistake. While Argentine Malbecs have proven to be both popular and capable of making very good, though not great wines, at all price levels, it is difficult to say the same about Carmenère. In fact, I find it hard to say anything positive about Carmenère.

Believe me, I have tried. Every time a tasting of Chilean wines comes along, there are sure to be numerous Carmenères, and I dutifully go through them, looking for something to like. This past weekend here came another one. It carried a full sleeve of credentials. “Gran Reserva” “Estate Bottled” “Vineyard Selection” were all prominently noted on the front label. On the back it talked about 60-year-old vineyards, minimal handling, and purity of the fruit.

It tasted like canned vegetables. Carmenère often – I’m tempted to say almost always – tastes like canned vegetables. Sometimes they have been rolled in dirt, which adds some grainy bitterness to the flavors of stem and weed. Fruit? Good luck finding anything resembling fruit. At best, you might find olive.

I wouldn’t bother with Carmenére at all except it pops up now and again here in Washington. A decade or so ago, a now-defunct Walla Walla winery made a name for itself by producing a popular Carmenère. The wine had its admirers, to be sure. But what they were admiring was brettanomyces, the smell and flavor of the barnyard and stable. The wines were loaded with brett, and within a short time the jig was up.

In the course of more than 14 years that I have been reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast, I have written and scored just 29 Carmenères. One was given a 91, and six were given 90 points. I take this as a tribute to the fruit grown in this state, which, on occasion, is so very good, that even a feckless shrub like Carmenère can produce a decent bottle of wine. Of the 29 reviews, 6 were for Reininger, and accounted for half of the top-scoring 12. But again, this speaks more to the quality of the vineyard and the masterful touch of Chuck Reininger than to any particular appeal of the grape itself.

Nor are these cheap wines. Among all 29 reviews, the best wine at the best price was the 2009 Avant Garde Carmenère from Nodland Cellars, which carries a $24 price tag. “This stylish example belongs in the cellar of anyone with a hunger for this unusual variety,” I wrote. “The green olive/herbal nature of the grape is carefully managed, and provides a nuance rather than a dominant flavor. At the core is tart red berry fruit and a wash of dark chocolate.” In other words, a lot of tasty new oak! Don’t get me wrong. I liked this wine a lot. Scored it 90 points and gave it an “Editors’ Choice” designation. But it was the winemaking, not the grape, that earned that praise.

So I toss down this small gauntlet. Any Carmenére lovers out there want to speak up for the grape? Or have you all moved the the Colchagua Valley?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. My wife and I spent some time in Chile two years ago and, at winery after winery, we tasted their various Carmeneres and came away asking, "What's the fascination here? This isn't very good..." Luckily, the whites we had, particularly in the Casablanca Valley, were stunning and saved the trip!

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