Monthly tasting and they’re all mixed up

By Celia Strong

Well, really, I mean the wines were all mixed up, not the tasters.  (Although, we all know some of the people we taste and drink with are definitely mixed up.)  And by mixed up, I mean mixtures of grapes — blends as are they are called in wine-speak. The group was the group I taste with every month on Hilton Head, some really experienced, some less so but looking to learn. The important thing is we’re all friends so it’s a chance to see each other and enjoy some libations.
Our tasting this week was five red wine blends, four from California and one from Washington state. They were all in the $12 to $15 range, not all the same grapes in each one but some were sort of similar to others and none of them were  the ones that most of this group expected.  I’m sure you  know by now that I like blends because of the added layers of flavors and textures that come from using more grape varieties.  The hard part of this, though, is that even wines that are named for one grape variety are not necessarily all that one grape.  United States’ wine regulations, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, say that a wine has to be a minimum of only 75% of the grape named on the label.  That means that many of the Cabs we drink, that are made in this country, are not all Cab.  They may be, but they may not be.  And, if they aren’t, no one has to tell what the percentage that isn’t Cab is.  All of which means, when we drink a Cab, we may be drinking a blend.  For the wines that aren’t named for a grape variety, the producers are allowed to use whatever name they choose.  Some of these names reflect what the wine is, where it’s from, or, just for fun, yada yada.  (I have to tell you the versions of what you remember of some of these names, after drinking them and then coming into the store later, can come close but not always.  Makes me wonder why they don’t think to use easier names.)
Anyhow, our first wine was Joel Gott Relative Red. Most of us have drunk at least one of the Joel Gott wines.  The Cab, the Chard, the red Zin — whichever.  The name “Relative Red” comes from the Gott winery’s family of workers, their sense of working and belonging together and what being part of their extended family means to them all.   This wine was hard to place in order for the tasting because its primary grape would suggest that it belonged later in the line up, but, overall, its body was lighter than the others.  It is mostly Zinfandel with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  As expected, the Zin delivers a punch of aromas right up front, then a real smoothness comes with the flavors.  The intensity of the Zin flavors are tempered by the Syrah and enhanced by the Cab.  Of all the wines, this one was the lowest price, but no one knew that except me.  (And now you do too, obviously.)
Wine number two was Guenoc Victorian Claret. “Claret” is the old British name for red wines from Bordeaux. Usually when an American blend is called “claret,” it implies that the five traditional Bordeaux red grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot), or most of them, are in there.  For this wine, all five are used.  It is full of cherry and black fruit flavors like blackberry, dark plum and blueberry.  From vintage to vintage, we never get to find out the exact blend, but year after year there is not much variation in how good it tastes. This wine is medium bodied so not too much in warm weather and not too much for seafood and poultry too.  I enjoy if often with salmon and tuna so you see what I mean.
Moving on, Waterbrook Melange Noir was our third wine.  This is the one from Washington state. Still with the French references in the name — “melange” is French for mixture and “noir” if French for black but, as we all know, it means dark skin grapes in wine-speak. (Has it occurred to anyone that wine people make up words and insist that we all use them.  Great game if you can get a copy of the rules!)  Considering it’s from Washington and a cooler growing climate, most of us thought this wine would have been lighter bodied than it is.  The exact blend of grapes and their percentages vary in this wine from year to year, but the list is longer than any of the others we tasted.  It’s usually mostly Merlot, close to 35%, then Cabernet Sauvignon, somewhere near 20 or 25%.   After that, look out!  There’s Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Counoise, Cinsault, Carignanne and maybe more.  This wine was really deeply colored in our glasses and most of us thought that it was the best balanced of the five as well — rich fruit flavors with good tannins and a nice finish. It was the highest priced at $14.99.
Fourth, we tasted St Francis Sonoma Claret. This one was also made with the five Bordeaux varieties (36% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc and 7% Petit Verdot).  Darker colored than the Guenoc Claret, the flavors and textures are deeper and more intense.  As usual with St Francis’ style, there is a lovely juicy texture in this wine that most of us really enjoyed.  And if that doesn’t make it easy drinking, nothing can.
Last but not least, we tasted Marietta Old Vine Red.  Since we usually see the phrase “old vine” associated with red Zinfandels, I’ll bet it’s a safe assumption that this wine is a Zin-based blend.  The rest of the blend we may never know.  Marietta admits to the Zin being the main grape, but no more. They have been making the wine for over 30 years and we are currently on Lot 56.  Since they are not telling us what the other grapes are, we can taste it without any preconceived notions or expectations.  As the first wine in the line up this would have been tough.  But, as the last, with the others still fresh in our heads, we were more able to taste with less information.  (Part of that could be a bit of alcohol too.)  This wine was the fullest bodied of all, although not heavy.  It had more dark chocolate, almost cocoa, and rich dark fruits — it sort of reminded me of chocolate-covered cherries and blueberries.  Yum yum.
So, that’s the mix. We each had our favorites, but we all agreed they were all good and, at the right times and with the right foods, one that might not have been our personal favorite would be better.  When your tasting group admits that you know you’ve had a good mix of wines.  And you know each winery made a good mix of grapes.  And, if you all go home happy, you know you have a good mix of friends.  Enjoy!

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