what am i tasting?


Tasting Note

Posted May 23, 2013 Plump and friendly, with enticing chamomile, freshly churned butter, heather and yellow apple notes backed by a hint of fennel frond on the rounded finish. Displays a lush, languid feel, but an echo of green plum keeps the finish persistent. Intriguing.

And the answer is...


Varietal:

A zaftig wine with a mix of white fruit, herbal and dairy flavors sounds like the perfect pairing for the sort of rich, gut-busting seafood platters many of us look forward to chowing down on in the lush, languid sunset hours of the spring and summer.

Given the typical winemaking uses of the grapes we have at hand and the intermingling of unusual and disparate flavors in this complex wine, we can probably venture that this is a blend. But which variety shines brightest here?

Let's deal with the outliers first. Merlot Blanc, confusingly, is not a clone of the Merlot you know, unlike the relationship between, say, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Nor is it the same as white Merlot, a white-Zin-like confection made from regular Merlot grapes, nor still is it the same "Merlot Blanc" that some producers make as a grown-up alternative to white Merlot, which is a blanc de noirs—a white wine made from red grapes because little or no skin contact is permitted to impart tannins, other phenolic compounds and color. No, Merlot Blanc is her own woman, a cross between Merlot classic and Folle Blanche, a grape found in Cognac and the Loire. The few winemakers that utilize Merlot Blanc generally find a wine distinctive mainly for its raspberry note. No raspberries here, so no Merlot Blanc.

Like Merlot Blanc (and Muscadelle), Mauzac is a permitted variety for white Bordeaux, and indeed, one can find the savory nut and fruity apple notes in the grape that you see a bit of in this wine. But Mauzac is shot through with minerality and acidity, often manifested in hints of anise, which make it more popular for sparkling wine. It is most famous as the granddaddy of bubbly, the first sparkling wine in the modern world, now called blanquette méthode ancestrale, which emerged in the Limoux region of the Languedoc in the 16th century or earlier. It's an unlikely candidate here.

Ready for more mind-bending? Our last three grapes are Melon de Borgogne—most likely known to you in its bottled form as Muscadet wine—plus Muscat and Muscadelle. These are three totally distinct wines with confusingly similar names (for no good reason). Melon, though occasionally found outside the Atlantic-facing Loire Pays Nantes, is most closely associated with Muscadet. It can be distinguished from the other two grapes by its light breeziness, its saline qualities coming off the Atlantic and, sometimes, a leesy character from sur lie aging, which bulks up the body. The style is at the opposite end of the dry white spectrum from "lush." Nix this one.

Muscat is nowadays most commonly spotted bumping with vodka at the club, using its suave Italian alias "Moscato." But it's a work hard/play hard type of grape, as the load bearer for the fine Piedmontese frizzante Moscato d'Asti and Asti Spumante, and the ancient, august fortified dessert vins doux naturels Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise in the Southern Rhône and Muscat de Rivesaltes in the Roussillon. It's also a player in Spanish regions like Jerez, Australia's Rutherglen and Hungary's Tokaj-Hegyalja. In dry wines, it can certainly fill the profile of a plump, lush version with stone fruit and herbal flavors, but it is best-known for its highly aromatic floral, grapey nose. Muscat doesn't quite fit the bill here.

That leaves Muscadelle, another name for which is Muscadet Doux, which certainly doesn't help matters. Some might argue the highest expression of this grape is in the dessert varietal wines and blends of Australia—called "Tokay" until the E.U. decided that was not OK (sorry) and now known as "Topaque"—and Monbazillac, the Bergerac dessert wine similar to Sauternes (Bergerac is the immediate eastern neighbor of Bordeaux, in the southwest of France). But Muscadelle also plays a usually supporting role in the dry whites of the whole Bordeaux region, where Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc typically dominate. The roundness and creaminess of this wine might suggest Sémillon, but the intensity of the bright fruit flavors in this wine points more toward Muscadelle. The herbal notes of "chamomile" and "fennel frond" may be the contributions of another grape in the blend ….

This is a Muscadelle-based blend.

Country:

Muscadelle is a rather unloved grape just about everywhere, and it is virtually only the Australians, ever torchbearers for the underdog, who reward it its own varietal bottlings. In the hands of able sweet winemakers, most notably at houses like Chambers and Campbells, Muscadelle can make a divinely opulent, yet not overbearing, dessert sipper. South Africa, too, makes a handful of late-harvest, botrytized and fortified Muscadelles. But ours is a dry wine.

For white blends the Rhône tends to be the lodestar for adventurous winemakers in California and Washington, and many fine permutations of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier are coming out of these states. Though red Bordeaux blends are hot now, and in truth never really went out of style, white Bordeaux blends are relatively rare in the New World, perhaps because of the success Sauvignon Blanc has drawn as a varietal. A handful of producers are finding success with Muscadelle in the mix though, including Buty in Washington's Columbia Valley and Nichelini in Napa. But if Muscadelle-dominated blends are rare birds even in Bordeaux, you're hardly likely to find them in the States.

Which brings us to France, where Muscadelle is best-known. It is one of the three primary grapes of dry white Bordeaux from all over, especially Pessac-Léognan, Graves and Entre-deux-Mers, where it kicks in an aromatic tang while Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc typically do the heavy lifting. It's also a factor in many of the golden dessert nectars of Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac and Cérons. As mentioned, Muscadelle is more prominent in the whites of nearby Bergerac, both dry and sweet. A wine with Muscadelle muscle is fairly anomalous, but the roundness and friendly fruit are certainly hallmarks to look for. The buttery quality shows the hand of oak influence, which is typical of Bordeaux whites, while the spice rack of herbal flavors could be the calling card of Sauvignon Blanc—or even Sauvignon Gris—in the mix.

This wine is from France.

Age:

Even in traditional regions like Bordeaux, it is rare to age dry whites at the winery for more than two years. But the savory notes of fennel and churned butter indicate a bit of maturity past a pure fruit phase, likely in oak for at least part of the regimen. Our wine is made from Bordeaux grapes and it went out the doors at the same time as other Bordeauxs of the 2010 vintage, in late 2012.

This wine, therefore, is three to five years old.

Appellation:

Europeans have a certain fondness, borne of a millennia-long tradition of wine pedigree, for wine laws. A Napa Sangiovese is simply labeled a Napa Sangiovese, because the grapes were (at least mostly) grown in Napa. A Tuscan Brunello, however, must be 100 percent Sangiovese to earn the geographical distinction of the Brunello region; hence, the rise of declassified “super Tuscans” made from Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and whatever else. As Bordeaux wines are blends, the grape percentages are, of course, more flexible. But lines must be drawn, goes the thinking.

The INAO, the French agriculture governing body that makes the rules, allows Pessac-Léognan and Graves whites to wear their appellations, but if you're in the Médoc or Sauternes, your wines can only carry the same generic Bordeaux appellation as anything out of the Côtes de Bourg or Entre-deux-Mers—doesn't matter if your name is Yquem, Margaux, Lynch-Bages or Cos-d'Estournel (all of which grow and bottle dry whites).

But surely it can't be so hard to meet the requirements for the generic Bordeaux label, one of the broadest categories in French wine? For white wines, at least 70 percent of the blend is Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and/or Muscadelle, in any proportion. As much as 30 percent can be some concoction of fairly minor-league grapes like Merlot Blanc, Colombard, Mauzac, Ondenc and Ugni Blanc. Realistically, even the finest palate probably couldn't tell if this wine meets these very loose standards. The aromas and flavors here are nothing out of the ordinary for white Bordeaux; only the very evident rotundity and languor of this wine give pause. At many classified estates, releasing dry whites for public purchase instead of in-house enjoyment is a rather new practice, and as such allows for some exciting opportunities to experiment with blends, even ones that push the boundaries of what a "Bordeaux" wine is. For the famous châteaus, it's the name of the cru that counts anyway when it comes to whites, appellation be damned. This is such a case.

This wine is from a Bordeaux estate, but does not meet the specifications for the appellation, so it is declassified as a Vin de France.

Wine:

So what the heck is going on in this glass? The story here is a curious one. Until 1970, white grape acreage led red acreage in the Bordeaux region, and it was standard for even the top growths to vinify white wines, mostly for the benefit of the château owners and workers, who presumably preferred a more varied diet than all red for déjeuner and diner. Most of these vines were eventually torn up to squeeze more of that sweet Cabernet cash out of the great vine land.

Some years ago, the proprietors of Margaux third-growth Château Palmer discovered long-lost bottles of Palmer white from the 1925 vintage, and they were impressed by what they tasted. So impressed, in fact, that they carved out a small parcel for new cuttings to replicate the old-school recipe: Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris and a variety called Lauzet, all but erased from wine history, and absent from the Bordeaux rulebook. In 2007, the first vintage of Vin Blanc de Palmer was born. This wine is the Château Palmer Vin de France Vin Blanc de Palmer 2010, released to the public for the first time, its sale benefiting a cancer charity. It's 50 percent Muscadelle, 35 percent Lauzet and 15 percent Sauvignon Gris. If you can find it, the wine has a price tag of $190, about half the cost of the Palmer grand vin. It was rated 90 points and should drink well through 2014.

Ben O’Donnell, assistant editor

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