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Quality reds beyond the mainstream favorites
By John H. Isacs

WITH the weeklong Chinese National Day holiday firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to get back to work and for me that means more tasting.

In fact, I spent my holiday tasting some interesting wines somewhat out of the mainstream.

In keeping with the proper color theme of the holiday, most of the wines I tasted were red.

Crimson delights

During the quiet Shanghai holiday evenings I tasted several Carmenere wines from Chile. I have a growing fascination with Carmenere wines as they’ve been improving in quality and have one of the best price-quality ratios in the wine world.

The name Carmenere comes from the French word for the color crimson. Most wines made from this variety have a beautiful deep crimson red color often with purple and black tones.

Until the mid to late 19th century, Carmenere was one of the six noble red wine grapes of Bordeaux blended with the other five grapes to create some of the finest wines ever made.

There are theories suggesting this grape may be the direct ancestor of the legendary Biturica, a variety highly prized in ancient Rome more than 2,000 years ago.

The downfall of this variety in Bordeaux started with the devastating Phylloxera plague in 1867 that destroyed most of the vines in France and elsewhere in Europe. Grafting with American rootstock that was resistant to the disease helped bring back the other five noble red wine grapes but not the Carmenere.

The grape has all but disappeared from Bordeaux. But remarkably it has gained a new thriving presence in Chile, where the consistently hot and dry days along with cool evenings provide an ideal environment for cultivating this late ripening variety.

The flavors and aromas commonly found in well-made Carmenere wines are ripe red and black fruits along with dark chocolate, tobacco and leather. Like Merlot wines, the tannins are quite round, subtle and often silky.

They are also remarkably food friendly, pairing nicely with a wide variety of meat dishes, as well as pastas and pizzas. The zesty almost spicy fruit in many Carmenere wines make them natural partners to popular Asian barbecue meat dishes, including grilled Korean dishes and Xinjiang mutton Shahik. The ripe fruit of the wines blends beautifully in the palate with the smoky, sometimes spicy flavors of the barbecue meats while the tannins offset the greasiness and cleanse the palate.

Recommended producers of Carmenere with wines available in Shanghai are Santa Rita, Calina, Casa La Joya, Chocalon, and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild.

Another style and variety of red wine I savored over the holiday was Barbera. Long lost in the shadow of their more famous Piedmont cousins Barolo and Barberesco, Barbera reds offer a range of different styles suitable for different drinking.

Some are light, fresh wines with overt sensations of berries while others from better vineyards and older vines can be serious wines with excellent complexity and persistence.

Barbera typically ripens about two weeks before the Nebbiolo grapes that make Barolo and Babaresco wines. Until recently many growers in Piedmont would select lesser vineyards to grow Barbera while saving the best vineyards for Nebbiolo.

In the 1980s and 1990s, in part inspired by the success of the Super Tuscan wines, some producers decided to plant Barbera in some of their best vineyards and this resulted in new heartier Barbera wines that are often fermented and aged in small French oak. These wines are more concentrated and textured than the traditional lighter style of Barbera wines and tend to age well.

The lighter style of Barbera wines with their good acidity and soft tannins should be served slightly chilled and make wonderful companions to Chinese meals that combine seafood and meat.

The more weighty Barbera wines with oak aging are best with meat dishes since the more ample tannins in these wines accentuate the best qualities of hearty meat dishes while also facilitating digestion.

As with most Italian wines, choosing the right producer is the most reliable way to get a good result. Top producers that have traditional Barbera wines are Michele Chiarlo, Pio Cesare and Antario.

If you want to try lovely examples of modern, more weighty and heady Barberas, I highly recommend the Hastae Barbera d’Asti Quorum. As all the best Barbera wines come from in or around the Piedmont villages of Asti and Alba, look for these names on the label.


Bull’s Blood

As Hungary was among the first nations to officially recognize the People’s Republic of China, doing so on October 6, 1949, this past Monday I arranged a tasting of Hungarian red wines. The most famous Hungarian red wine is Egri Bikaver, more popularly referred to as Bull’s Blood.

This rather colorful name is said to have originated when the Turk Suleman the Magnificent besieged the Castle of Eger during the Ottoman-Hungarian war in the mid 16th century.

Legend has it that the Hungarian soldiers defending the castle fortified themselves with the local red wine before battle and in their haste the wine spilled all over their beards and clothes, which turned a bloody red color. The combination of their liquid courage and gruesome looks helped them defeat the Turkish invaders.

Made in the northern Hungarian wine region of Eger, Bull’s Blood wines are deeply colored and hearty reds comprising up to 13 authorized varieties. The most important components of the blend are the ancient Kadarka and Blaufrankisch varieties.

In 2004, a new premium level of Bull’s Blood wines called Egri Bikaver Superior was established. These lower yield wines are even heartier and more concentrated than the already quite substantial mainstream wines.

Their full body and distinctive dark fruit and spicy characteristics make them particularly appropriate for meat dishes, especially game. Over the holiday I was fortunate to enjoy a bottle of 2009 Aldas Egri Bikaver with a Chinese style roasted venison rubbed in spices. The combination was inspiring.

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