Surprises from the Study of Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc

9 Nov

            Week 3 of my ISG Fundamentals of wine class brought us to a second assortment of black grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel and Gamay.  I’ve tasted and enjoyed wine made from these grapes many times through the years, but I found it interesting to discover a couple of different points.  First, I was a little surprised to learn that my taste memory of these wines was not as strong as I would have expected it to be.  These wines are not strangers to our cellar.   I expected to recognize most of these wines almost as easily as I recognize Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.  But in spite of expectations, I found the distinctions between these grapes to be a bit more subtle and identification more elusive.  I found myself going through a mental list of the details typical of each variety to narrow down the possibilities: scent and flavor markers, and the relative levels of acid, tannin and alcohol.  The exercise left me with simultaneous feelings of excitement and trepidation.  It’s been years since I was in the classroom and it’s been a lot of work for me to commit what seems like a million details about each grape to memory.  It felt fulfilling to reap the rewards and to use the data analytically with some modicum of success.  On the other hand, I gained some insight into both how vast this cavern of information really is, and the depth of the challenges ahead.  So far, the path to becoming (hopefully) a wine expert is both exhilarating and a little scary.

            Second, I was surprised to discover that I have been a “wine bigot”.  I’ve never been a fan of Zinfandel.  I’ve tasted many through the years and concluded that I don’t really enjoy the peppery finish that I have associated with all Zinfandel.  This week, I learned that not all Zinfandel is the same.  The grapes have a tendency to ripen unevenly.  Zinfandel grown in warmer climates is more likely to show that peppery finish. I tasted a bold, fruity, “pepper-less” Zin on Monday and loved it.  Similarly, most of my experience with Gamay, to date, has been with Beaujolais Nouveau, which generally, to me, tastes a bit like candied apples.  I learned that the candied taste comes from a technique called carbonic maceration.  The good news for me is that, again, not all Gamay is the same.  Many Beaujolais are produced without carbonic maceration and I tasted one this week that made me want to try more.  Bigotry is never a good thing and I’m happy to set my grape prejudices aside and to approach learning with a clean slate.

            Third, I was excited to learn more about, and especially to taste Cabernet Franc.  I’ve really only tasted Cab Franc in blends, so I really didn’t know what it tastes like.  We tore 2/3 of our Sangiovese vines out in Italy three years ago.  We replanted, on the advice of our wine making team and their consultants, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  I’m happy to now know a bit more about one of “my” grapes.  I was excited to read this week in Wine Spectator about the 98 point Le Macchiole 2007 Paleo Cabernet Franc (Toscana), which they recommend as a top cellar choice for 2011.  I’m eager to try it.  And when our new vines are mature, hopefully next year, I wonder if we should consider a producing a barrel of Cab Franc?


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