One question people often ask me at tastings is why first vine wines are mostly from France.
The reason is partly luck, or fate, whatever you want to call it. I had a friend who was married to a man with a vineyard in Provence. It happened that her husband and some of his friends were looking to get their wines into the U.S., et voila. The beginning of first vine.
There’s another reason, too. Not to get all Sally Field on you, but I really, really like them. There are a lot of wines in France, and I haven’t tried them all. But many of them make my tongue roll over with pleasure like a dog getting a belly rub. And since I like them, I have an easier time being more enthusiastic about them. Let’s face it, nothing sells itself these days, so the more passionate I can be about the wines, the easier it is to put on the salesman’s hat.
Now and then, though, I have to ask myself if my booster-ism and profession get in the way of enjoying or even judging other wines fairly. I’d like to think that they don’t. Especially when the wine is made from grapes you don’t find (or at least not often) in France.
But what about wines described as being in the French style or with French varietals but made outside of France? I have to admit, when I hear that a wine is made from Grenache and/or Syrah, my first mental image is of Rhône wines. Likewise, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc make me wonder if they’ll taste like wines from Bordeaux. So I have to concentrate on what I am tasting, rather than on what I might not be tasting.
It’s not always easy to put preconceptions aside, but I try. And I think it has worked so far. There are a lot of excellent Bordeaux-style wines in California that I’d drink anytime. You wouldn’t necessarily say they taste like Bordeaux from France, but they’re really complex and tasty, so that’s the important thing. Likewise for some of the single French-style varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) from California and Virginia. As I wrote in previous posts, I feel like I have to put my love of French Rhônes in check when I taste non-French Rhône clones, but I’ve found wines made from those grapes in California and some Bordeaux varietals in Virginia that I really enjoyed too.
So I purposely left preconceptions at home and went off to taste the Wines of Brazil (along with eating a kick-ass lunch) at Fogo de Chão restaurant, sponsored by the Embassy of Brazil. To my knowledge, I’d never tried Brazilian wines and didn’t know anything about them.
Of course, the grandiose title “Wines of Brazil” was a little misleading. Not because the wines weren’t from Brazil. There aren’t that many Brazilian wines here in the U.S., but we didn’t get any idea of how comprehensive the tasting was, either. And even though the organizers had samples from different grape varietals and different wine regions, I had to take their word for it that these were “representative” and not just what a few producers currently export to the U.S.
The tasting started off with an interesting discussion about the history of winemaking in Brazil. There were three big waves of winemaking in the past. First, the Portugese, then the Italians (especially during and after World War II), and then the French (who, according to the presenter, came in and told everyone if they wanted to make “good” wine, it had to be Bordeaux-style…). These days, a new wine industry is emerging that is free to pick and choose from different grapes and styles of wine. While there is a regulatory body like in France, Italy, and Spain, the winemakers generally stay outside of it to avoid restrictions on what they can grow and produce.
One thing I found amazing is that half of the high-quality wine produced in Brazil is sparkling wine. The presenter joked something along the lines of “Well, you know Brazilians like to party…” But I think that’s great. I have always thought that sparkling wine and Champagne are underused in cooking and drinking. We tried three different sparkling wines, a mix of Methode Champenoise and other methods, made in more or less French and Italian styles. They were all at least good, and didn’t have the bitter aftertaste you often find in sparkling wines. So hooray for Brazil on that one!
Then we tried the whites and reds. Brazil’s still wine production is something like 90% reds, and we had only two whites to try. Both were Chardonnays, one oaked and one not. Neither one had much flavor, and even the blandest of the sparkling wines was more enjoyable to my taste than these. It seems a shame, since if there’s not all that much white production, you’d think the tasting would have featured the best available.
Of the nine red wines at the tasting, there was one Italian varietal, one from Portugese varietals, and seven wines from French varietals. My favorite by far was the Ancellotta. Ancellotta is a grape grown mostly in northern Italy and is usually a secondary blending grape in Lambrusco. I’d never had it by itself, but it was mighty tasty. Very ripe blackberries and a little bit of oak. And very, very purple. One thing that surprised me was that the first sniff put my mind in Italy – it just had that smell, hard to describe, but if you like Italian wines you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The Portugese-style wine was made from 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% Tinta Roriz. It was excellent too, again very purple, with fig and chocolate flavors.
My favorite among the French varietals was an Egiodola. Egiodola is a grape from the Languedoc, kind of rare. The name is Basque and means “pure blood,” which might not sound appealing, but was perfect for the slabs of red meat we had with lunch. It was the only one of the reds I thought had a little herbal quality to it. The fruit was a little light but with the spice it made a great accompaniment to our meal.
The rest of the French-varietal wines made me have to think hard. There was a Cab/Merlot blend, a Cab/Cab Franc/Merlot blend, a 100% Merlot, a Tannat, a Marselan, and an Alicante Bouschet. Since I’ve had all of these varietals except the Alicante Bouschet in France, I had to tread carefully and put those associations out of mind. Ultimately, though, I didn’t like the wines enough to recommend that anyone seek them out. The Cab/Merlot blend and the 100% Merlot were both acceptable but nothing to make them stand out. They both had a little earthiness, which I usually enjoy, but again, not distinctive.
The rest of them all had unpleasant notes. Whether it was a little soapiness or vegetal flavors or some major barnyard-iness (a little can go a long way), they just didn’t do it for me. I purposely tried them all several times, in different order, and also talked some with my tablemates (mostly wine buyers for restaurants). While there was a little disagreement about particular ones, most of us were disappointed by these six wines. My least favorites were the Marselan (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache) and the Alicante Bouschet (also a Grenache hybrid).
What was going on? I assume that everything tasted as it was supposed to, or the presenter (who seemed very knowledgeable) would have pulled any that wasn’t up to snuff. Maybe it was because the vines were relatively young. According to the notes they gave us, the oldest vines were the Egiodolas at 20 years. The next oldest was the 15-year-old Alicante Bouschet. The rest of the vines were all less than 10 years old at the time of harvest for these wines (which ranged from 2005 to 2009). In general, more established vines produce grapes that make tastier wine. Maybe Bordeaux varietals take more time to mature. Others I spoke with seemed to think that’s the case.
So if that’s the reason, and if these wines are truly representative of what you find in Brazil today (a big if), you should definitely wait a while, in my opinion, before buying Bordeaux-style Brazilian wines. Luckily, there are other good wines (hello, sparkling!) and certainly there’s a lot to look forward to.
There – I think I managed to keep my prejudices in check! If any of you knows Brazilian wine, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorites?
I have to admit that the tasting made me long for something Bordeaux-y and for food that wasn’t slabs of meat. So here’s a great combination: Château Milon Bordeaux Supérieur 2005 ($21) and Lentil Soup with Roasted Portabella Mushrooms. The soup is a variation on one my mother has made ever since I can remember. She uses Italian sausage, which you could certainly do, but I think the portabellas make a nice substitute and make the dish completely vegetarian. There’s always a question of whether you remove the “gills” under the caps of the mushrooms. They taste fine, but they can add a black color to your food that some people don’t like. So I scrape off the gills with a spoon.
Over the years, I’ve added some reconstituted porcini mushrooms and their soaking liquid to the soup even when I use sausage, and I like that a lot. The lentils and mushrooms are both earthy, and make the soup perfect for these almost-fall days.
The wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. The producer, Gérald Majou, trained as an electrical engineer but went into winemaking with great results. Unfortunately he had to give it up for financial reasons, and has moved to Paris to live with his girlfriend Emeline, who is an actress. Gérald is upbeat about it all, though, and is now working for a company that educates students on sustainable development. As he says, the Château Milon wine gets better and better with time, and he has only good memories of being a winemaker. Try the wine and you’ll have the basis for good memories, too.
1 pound brown or green lentils, rinsed and picked over
3 garlic cloves, smashed, peeled, and minced
¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 cup dried porcini mushroom pieces (about an ounce or so)
1-1/2 cups boiling water
6-8 portabella mushroom caps (12 to 14 ounces total)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups good-tasting vegetable stock
1 15-ounce can small-diced tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted)
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced thin
4 stalks celery, sliced thin
2 onions, diced
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the porcini mushroom pieces quickly in cold water to remove visible grit. Then put them in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Cover the bowl with a dish and let it sit for 45 minutes to soften the mushrooms. Take out the soft mushroom pieces and roughly chop them.
While the oven is warming and the porcini are soaking, put the rinsed lentils in a large pot. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, a few grinds of black pepper, and 4 cups of water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover the pot, and cook for 20 minutes.
Remove the gills from the portabella mushrooms with a spoon. Lightly oil a baking sheet big enough to hold the mushroom caps in a single layer. Put the mushrooms on the sheet gill-side down, drizzle a little oil over them, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Then turn the mushrooms over, drizzle with a little more oil, add more salt and pepper, and continue to roast until they’re a little browned, about 20 minutes more. You want to keep them concave side up most of the time so that the juices stay inside the caps. Set the mushrooms aside to cool just a little.
When the 20 minutes are up for the lentils, add the rehydrated mushrooms, diced tomatoes (with the juice from the can) and the vegetable stock, then the carrots, onion, and celery, and at least a teaspoon of salt. Add the mushroom soaking liquid (either pour it carefully to avoid the grit in the bowl or strain it first through a coffee filter.) If the liquid doesn’t cover the vegetables, add some water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes.
If there’s liquid in the roasted portabella caps, pour it into the soup pot. Slice the mushrooms about ¼-inch thick, then cut the slices in half crosswise. Add the mushrooms to the soup, and add some more water if the level is too low. Cook for another 15 minutes. The vegetables should be soft. Taste for salt and pepper, and serve hot.