Pouring myself a glass of sauvignon blanc from a container that was first opened 30 days ago is not among the more appealing wine images that come to mind. But that’s exactly what I did the other night when I realized that it had been almost a month since I first tasted and wrote about the 2009 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc from Indulge, which is offering a line of California wines in a lightweight bag called an Astrapouch, complete with a little plastic tap with which to pour yourself a glass. At the time, I found the wine attractive and a good value at $20 for a liter and a half, the equivalent of two conventional wine bottles. Marketing of the wine includes an emphasis on its environmentally friendly packaging and the claim that it will remain fresh for up to a month. In fact, the wine was just fine, perhaps not quite so fresh tasting as it was when first opened, but still showing its fruit without any off tastes that would emerge had a regular bottle been left in the fridge for a month. I doubt that many people will leave the wine that long, but it’s nice to know that the system works.
Two Bordeaux-style red blends from South Africa stand out for their elegance and finesse at a time when many wine drinkers are looking for good-value alternatives to France and California. We’re talking about cabernet sauvignon and other red grapes that are commonly known as Bordeaux varieties. The first wine is a $20 bargain from the Paarl area that considerably exceeded my expectations. The label on Glen Carlou’s 2008 Grand Classique reads like a who’s who of Bordeaux grapes – cabernet sauvignon 52 percent, malbec 16 percent, merlot 14 percent, petit verdot 13 percent and cabernet franc five percent. This is a bright and opulent wine with good fruit concentration supported by a firm tannic structure. It’s easy to drink yet complex, with tastes of blueberry, cherry, black cherry and cranberry and notes of mocha and milk chocolate. Excellent for a variety of meats and fowl. Alcohol is restrained at 14 percent. Imported by The Hess Collection New World Wines, Napa, California.
The second wine is Rustenberg’s 2006 “John X. Merriman” from the Stellenbosch area. I don’t know if it’s the vintage, but I enjoyed this wine more than I had in previous years. For one thing I found the fruit riper, and the oak influence was more subtle. The blend includes the same grapes as the Glen Carlou but the proportions are quite different – cabernet sauvignon 45 percent, merlot 38 percent, petit verdot 13 percent and very small amounts of cabernet franc and malbec. This wine, with a price of $25 or so, is fairly big (14.5 percent alcohol) but well balanced and almost demands a grilled steak with its firm tannins, herbs, blackberry and vanilla notes. It’s enjoyable now but will benefit from a few years or so in the cellar. Imported by Cape Classics, New York. Wines received as press samples.
Every once in a while, I hit on a food and wine pairing that’s just right, which was the case last night with a quick dinner I put together after a long day and no desire to spend much time in the kitchen.
The meal was a pasta dish centered around a couple of cans of clam sauce, in this Bar Harbor’s New England Style White Clam Sauce. As the “New England” in the name implies, there is a good deal of cream present (actually milk), which signaled a richness calling for a white wine with some weight. With more typical clam sauces that I have bought (or made), one uses a good deal of olive oil, which calls for a fresh and piercing wine such as sauvignon blanc or a Muscadet from France or perhaps a Roero Arneis from Italy to cut through the sauce with a refreshing lift.
For this one, however, I thought a chardonnay with a touch of creaminess was in order, and Rustenberg’s 2009 Stellenbosch Chardonnay from South Africa proved to be an excellent match. This $20 wine is relatively light, with 13.5 percent alcohol, has excellent balance between oak and fruit, evoking Burgundy more than California. It shows a good deal of citrus, especially orange, along with apple, pear and apricot notes and some subtle vanilla and butterscotch. The wine was the perfect “weight” for the sauce, providing the level of richness it required while still light enough to make it a delightful counterpoint to the dish. Imported by Cape Classics, New York. Received as a press sample.
California merlot still suffers, I believe, from a somewhat undeserved reputation as an easy-drinking but largely undistinguished red. Raymond’s delicious 2007 Napa Valley “Reserve Selection” Merlot belies that status and should be considered whenever the need calls for a distinctive and elegant Bordeaux-style wine. The first thing that appealed to me about this wine is that it is not overly alcoholic. The label lists alcohol at 14.2 percent, compared with some California merlots (and other reds) that exceed 15 percent and can suffer from an alcoholic hotness (Bordeaux reds typically weigh in at 13 percent ). Sorry, but it’s just hard for me to contemplate such wines as refreshing food companions. Second, Raymond’s merlot (with the addition of 15 percent cabernet sauvignon) is notable for its complexity, with concentrated tastes of ripe fig, plum, cherry and black cherry with background notes of earth, mocha and vanilla. Third, oak treatment is subtle and well integrated with the fruit, which is supported by a good tannic structure and ample acidity. All of this makes Raymond’s merlot an excellent companion to a variety of foods, including many beef and lamb, pork, chicken and vegetarian dishes. And its price, $23, is just right. Received as a press sample.
SWIRL: For every newfangled wine opening gadget I’ve tried over the years, I’ve always gone back to any number of basic corkscrews. They’re reliable and safe. I was reminded of this as I read about the recall of a Sunbeam product, the Air Pump Wine Opener (Model NBSKWA2600), sold this past November and December by QVC. The problem? Some wine bottles have been breaking while people have been using the product. Sunbeam said it had received 52 such complaints, including 22 reports of injuries. About 159,000 of the openers are being recalled. Read the press release from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
SWIRL: Wine temperature is everything. Okay, not everything, but a very important factor in the enjoyment of wine. Most red wines are served too warm, making them taste clumsy; most whites are poured too cold, which obscures their tastes. With that in mind, how about a thermometer that tells you when your wine has reached the temperature you desire – a wireless thermometer to boot? Read about it in the LA Times.
SWIRL: Once opened, many wines actually get better with exposure to air, whether its for an hour or two or even two or three days. Beyond that, air becomes the enemy and things start to go downhill. A new product may help. It’s called the Platypus Platypreserve Wine Preservation System. As far as I can tell, it’s a variation of the system used in boxed wines that expels the air above the surface of the wine. It is, of course, reusable. The Globe and Mail has more.
As I write this, I am sipping a glass of white wine that came out of an unusual container. The tipoff when it arrived the other morning was on the shipping box – a big red sticker that warned, “Do not open with sharp object.” Inside, I found what immediately reminded me of an I-V drip bag. In fact, it was a liter and a half of 2009 California North Coast sauvignon blanc from a company called Indulge. The bag or pouch or whatever it was appeared to be the grownup equivalent of the ubiquitous little juice containers known as “Tetra Paks.” But instead of inserting a straw in a hole at the top, you break off a hunk of plastic and remove a piece of foil on the spout at the bottom of the bag to dispense yourself a glass of wine. Now let’s take a look at what this is all about.
The bag is called the Astrapouch, or AP. It came out of South Africa a couple of years ago and seems to be a sturdier variation of the bags, or bladders, in boxed wines. It caught the attention of Pierre LaBarge IV, who wanted to market a line of varietally correct wines in an alternative package that could travel easily – to the beach or an outdoor concert, let’s say -- and was environmentally responsible (the Astrapouch’s weight is said to be 98 percent wine and just two percent packaging). The bag, which purportedly keeps wine fresh for up to 30 days once opened, stands up so it can fit upright in the refrigerator (or on its side if you prefer). It has two sets of holes at the top so it can be carried like the bag that it is or perhaps placed on a pole and left to hang (I can’t help but think of that I-V image again).
“There’s a paradigm shift occurring in the wine business right now,” LaBarge declares in a press release and then states rather obviously: “Consumers and their taste are increasingly relevant. Scores may still matter, but what matters more is what the consumer enjoys. They want good wine at good prices. It’s that simple.” On that last point, he is absolutely right.
As for his sauvignon blanc, he is right about that is well. It is good wine, though not outstanding. It’s quite racy with green apple and lime tastes and some minerals on the long finish, though a bit leafy as well. At $20 for a liter and a half (the equivalent of two conventional wine bottles), the price should be a draw. The sauvignon and a pinot noir at the same price, which I haven’t received yet, are the first two offerings and are available only in California at this point but will be distributed nationally this summer. Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah are also in the works. It will be interesting to see whether they rise above so many inexpensive, generic California wines being marketed these days in colorful clothing.
We have a French friend who sniffs at the thought of wines from the corner of the country where he lives – the Dordogne in southwest France. When it comes to such local appellations as Cahors or Bergerac, he dismisses them as country bumpkins of French wine, preferring, among others, wines from Bordeaux, the Dordogne’s illustrious neighbor to the north. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and it may have been largely true at one time, but I will suggest to my friend the next time I see him that this is old thinking.
What got me focused on the region once again was a bottle I bought the other night at my local wine store, Martin Brothers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I like to start most evenings with a refreshing white while cooking and unwinding, and I find myself chronically short of them. One that will easily fill the void is Grandissime’s 2009 Bergerac, a dry and elegant Bordeaux-style blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. The $10.99 price will make it easy to keep on hand as an aperitif wine and well beyond. Light but with nice complexity, it shows pear, green apple, apple skin and herb notes. Alcohol at 12.5 percent and little or no oak make it effortless to drink. Enjoy it with fish, shellfish and simple chicken dishes.
This is the kind of wine that makes me turn to France time and again, especially to the lesser-known appellations that offer some of the best values around. And when my friend is in New York, perhaps I’ll pour him a glass of a wine practically grown in his own backyard. Imported by Gabriella Importers, Bohemia, New York.