Wine column no. 53: Some wines defy explanation

July 13, 2014: I have to admit that I’m a bit bewildered. Dave Phinney, the man I most identify with in the wine world, has created a wine I cannot understand. And that bothers me — a lot.

The 2010 Mannequin is a California white wine blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, Muscat and Marsanne grapes. At 15.5 percent alcohol, it’s what many oenophiles might call “hot,” but not for any well-known reason I would recognize, or agree to. First, the flavors are indistinguishable. Orin Swift Cellars’ website claims this wine marries ripe peach and pear with subtle French oak, yet I don’t get any of that. In fact, this wine is so commingled that I have trouble separating the good from the bad, the texture from the flavor. Second, The Mannequin is certainly not subtle. Drinking this wine is like getting hit in the head; there are no undulations here. And when it comes to wine, that’s not what I’m looking for at all.

Thankfully, The Wine Vault on Burkhardt Road has a variety of other wines that will impress. The staff is great at answering questions, too.

The 2012 Tikal Patriota from Mendoza, Argentina, is a blend of 60 percent Malbec and 40 percent Bonarda. Soft, with minor tannins, this is a round red wine that is much smoother than I’d usually expect. It paired well with roasted butternut squash with salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and grilled pork loins seasoned with dried rosemary and garlic. According to www.vineconnections.com, Tikal wines reflect the spirit of Mendoza in that they have a sense of pride, love and celebration.
13.8 percent alcohol. $23.99.

Then, there’s the 2010 Jester, a Shiraz from McLaren Vale, a wine region south of Adelaide in South Australia. This is a version of the wine that Frank Mitolo and Ben Glaetzer had quite a few bottles of during a “now legendary five-hour discussion over a restaurant table” 15 years ago. Their talk led them to chart the course of their lives on the closest thing available — the back of a napkin. Mitolo Wines’ 2010 Jester Shiraz has a blackberry and leather nose, contains some flat acidity and has a long finish. Yet even at 15.2 percent alcohol, it’s not nearly as syrupy, heavy or intense as the typical Molly Dooker Shiraz (which also hails from McLaren Vale.) $22.99.

A dark-skinned grape, Shiraz is Australia’s most popular grape varietal, well known for its inky color and intense (some would say red fruit-bomb) aromas and flavors. It’s also an extraordinarily interesting grape because of its flexibility. Like Zinfandel, this grape carries many passports; but it’s only Shiraz that is most likely to be both silk and steel.

Outside of Australia, Shiraz is mostly known as Syrah. I don’t know why the name changed when this grape headed south of the equator, but I do know that it has the ability to be simultaneously firm and fluid. Unlike any other red wine grape, Syrah/Shiraz is more fully responsive to terroir, meaning it can be both potent and subdued, smooth and rough, sweet and bitter, and acidic and tannic. It is, as well-known wine writer Andrew Jefford said, “the most protean of all red grape varieties. It contains multitudes. No other single red variety is capable of such a range of so many different expressions. And, like a great actor, that protean quality is based not on a desire to display but rather a profound sympathy with circumstances and predicament — which for a grapevine means its physical location.”

Another grape varietal meanders just as well. Zinfandel, it could be said, has had an identity crisis since at least 2002. That’s when it was reported that University of California — Davis grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith and other scientists determined it was the same grape as Primitivo in Italy and Crljenak Kastelanski in Croatia. Recently, I tried a 2009 Cakebread Cellars Zinfandel, a Varsity Liquors purchase that was a perfect pairing with a grilled bacon cheeseburger from Schnucks. This smooth, non-confrontational wine was easy to drink, and to like. It’s not spicy like some Zinfandel, not that spice is necessarily a bad thing. It tasted like strawberries and raisins, and its textures were only enhanced by the meal. This Zinfandel’s strength lies in its ability to blend with the burger in a balanced partnership, adding a bit of black pepper and minor tannins but finishing in a way that’s restrained, refined. Unlike other Zinfandel, this Cakebread isn’t overdone, or too flashy. At 14.1 percent alcohol, this Red Hills, Lake County, Californian is what it is, and I feel fortunate that I was able to appreciate it. $29.99.

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