by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
There are very few Chilean cabernet sauvignons with the pedigree of Vina Don Melchor. First planted in 1883 in the Puente Alto region of the Maipo Valley, its 314-acre vineyard is divided into seven primary parcels and divided yet again into 151 sub-parcels to isolate the unique character of the soil. The cabernet sauvignons – the only wines made by this producer – reflect the painstaking attention that goes into choosing the complex vineyard blend for each vintage.
Named after the founder of Concha y Toro, this brand was launched in the late 1980s and quickly achieved fame among the world’s best cabernet sauvignons. Nine times it made Wine Spectator’s annual list of top 100 wines in the world. The 2020 Vina Don Melchor scored a perfect 100 by wine critic James Suckling.
We had an opportunity to taste the 2017 and 2018 vintages with winemaker Enrique Tirado, who has been the exclusive winemaker at Vina Don Melchor since 1997. Based almost entirely on the great cabernet sauvignon that does best in the alluvial soil, Don Melchor sees sparse amounts of cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot in rare vintages.
Few winemakers give so much effort in determining the final blend. Each year, Tirado sends 181 lots of wine to Lamarque, Bordeaux, where he joins winemaker Eric Boissenot in picking the blend over three days. On the first day, they taste six free-run wines from the top parcels that lay the foundation for the blend. Another 105 lots of pressed wine are then judged on the second day. The final day is spent experimenting with a combination of free-run and pressed wines for the final selection.
Tirado said he is looking for a “very fine wine with intense expression and a very precise definition of the flavors. But it has to have maximum emotion. Very important to make a wine that produces an emotion.
What’s missing in this wine is the indigenous grape variety carmenere. Tirado said the terroir is not the best for this local grape variety, but he’s probably being diplomatic. Carmenere, a descendant of cabernet franc, would hardly complement Vina Don Melchor.
These long-lived wines aren’t cheap at $110 a bottle, but they stand up to the best Bordeaux at the same price.
The 2017 Vina Don Melchor has red fruit character with an amazing thread of graphite. It had effusive floral aromas, a balance of power and elegance, fine tannins and complexity.
The 2018 Vina Don Melchor was a bit tighter and more oaky for us, probably because the 2017 had more time to develop. But the 2018 had that energy and balance that makes this wine a world classic.
Pinot blanc from Alsace
White wine labeled pinot blanc from Alsace is a bit of a conundrum. Although pinot blanc is a distinct grape variety, Alsatian wine labeled pinot blanc only indicates that the wine is made from one of the several grapes grown there.
Technically, pinot blanc can be made from any combination of pinot blanc, auxerrois blanc, pinot gris or the no-skin-contact juice from pinot noir. Confused? To further confound consumers, its kissing cousin pinot gris must be made entirely from that varietal to be labeled pinot gris.
Pinot blanc (and pinot gris) are a mutation from the notoriously unstable pinot noir grape, and probably originated in Burgundy. It is a relatively minor grape variety in most of the world with minor outposts in California, Burgundy, Austria and Italy. In Alsace pinot blanc is one of the three most planted grape varieties along with riesling and gewürztraminer but it produces the most wine of all white grapes.
In general, the wines are more akin to riesling and pinot gris than any other grape variety.
Typically, the pinot blancs we recently tried tasted of peach and pear with an underlying minerality. Overall, we felt that like other Alsace and German wines, they would match well with spicy Asian and Indian foods as well as Alsace favorites, such as choucroute garni (pork and pork sausages with sauerkraut).
Following are our favorites of the six wines we tasted.
Domaine Emile Beyer Pinot Blanc Tradition Alsace 2019 ($18). Two of our three favorites, including this one, were 100 percent pinot blanc. All stainless-steel fermentation along with several months of lees aging produced a very clean, smooth, honied, wine with peach and floral notes in a very smooth package.
Domaine Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc Alsace 2018 ($16). This pinot blanc also exhibited floral and peach elements but with distinctive mineral slate notes. Enjoyed best with food.
Famille Hugel Pinot Blanc Cuvee Les Amours Alsace 2018 ($17). Our favorite, this pinot blanc displayed lemon/lime notes with an overlay of peach and a bright acidity that cleansed the palate. Great package and widely available.
Justin Isosceles 2018 ($76). The flagship wine of Justin, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot is one of the best from Paso Robles. We’ve tasted three vintages of this wine and can attest to its ageability. Full bodied, it has both strength and elegance. Ripe plum, currant and black cherry flavors with hints of anise and cedar.
Robert Hall Paso Red Blend 2018 ($20). A good value, this Central Coast wine is a juicy Rhone-style blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, syrah, petit verdot, grenache and mourvedre. Ripe, sweet fruit character with notes of dark berries. It’s delicious.
CVNE Monopole 2020 ($16). A delightful wine to welcome spring, this white Rioja is made entire of viura grapes. Simple, tasty and pure with citrus and herbal notes.
Little Mad Bird 2019 ($12). This malbec from Argentina sports a black raven on its label – the little mad bird. The color of the wine is dense and the flavors are ripe blackberry and blueberry. Soft mouthfeel.