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Moat of Montsant
Montsant is a term to remember. Regal, saintly, the word screams castle on a hilltop. Funny that it’s actually more like the moat around the castle, despite the term that sounds a lot like a Mountain-Saint hybrid. The true mountain of this part of Spain (Catalonia – home to Barcelona and Cava) is Priorat, a region famous for amazing red wines. You’ve heard of Rioja? This is the ONLY other region in all of Spain with a DOCa – translated as Awesome Wine Region.

More Wine, Less $$$
Montsant though is the entire region that surrounds the Priorat castle on the hilltop. Same grapes, less $$$. When you find the bottle, buy the bottle since it’s pretty under the radar and it’s the rare find on the shelves. These guys seem intent on making it more available so h/t not just for the map, but for the work they’re doing.

Syrah – Spanish blend
Syrah is the majority contributor to this wine so its name shows up as Grape #41, although Garnacha throws its 45% into the barrel too. Pretty typical blend from this part of Catalonia even thought the traditional mix had a lot more Garnacha and a lot less of the other.

Shiraz – more crocodile per bottle
We Anglos in particular have a love for Syrah. Actually, it’s more a love for Shiraz, which sounds less French and more Australian. Same grape but more crocodiles.

Masquerade! Paper Faces on Parade
Australia turns out ridiculous amounts of Shiraz, puts a Yellow Tail label on it, and sells it to supermarkets in the US and Britain. They’re been doing this gig this the 1980s and it’s still not old. Sorta like Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, it hangs on for decades because it’s just that loved. Expect the infatuation to continue.

Addictive Yellow Tail
Yes, Australia puts out high-end ridiculously delicious Barossa Shiraz and France has really smooth, silky Syrahs going back centuries but it’s hard to look past the Yellow Tail kangaroo staring at us in the face. If someone had put a Yellow Tail crocodile on our shelves, you better believe we’d buy that too. We bought those crazy tennis shirts back in the day with the crocodile and those were French tennis shirts… with collars. Clearly we’re obsessed.

Seven of us dinner-goers tried this bottle (and ordered a second since one glass wasn’t enough) at Landmarc, known mostly for outdoor seating and less of a wine mark-up than most restaurants. Surprisingly for a large group, everyone loved this wine. And people had ordered fish, chicken and burgers. Not exactly the easiest food to match a wine to – but all seven of us came away impressed.

“Chalky” and “dark” were the two words I heard the most at the table, although truth be told, we were talking lots more about everything else and very little about the wine. Other reviewers who actually paid attention add in “blueberries” and “mineral” to their descriptions and they probably thought a lot more about their descriptions. Really though, it’s a fun wine and clearly a crowd-pleaser.

Detail Up!
Finca l’Argata 2008 Joan d’Anguera from Montsant in Catalonia, Spain (h/t to those guys for the image)

Random Googles:
* Syrah is pronounced by the pretentious and the French (especially in SE France where’s it’s famous) as si-hah. The rest of us call it Sir-Ah.
* Shiraz is Australia’s name for the grape, which is also a city in Iran. Shiraz’s Ur-story anyone?
* Spain uses it mostly as a blending wine with Spanish grapes – Montsant and Jumilla both use it in their blends and both regions make great wine at prices mortals can purchase.

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Messi, Mazuelo and Graciano
Tempranillo rules Spain like it owns a Barza jersey and answers to Messi, there’s no disputing that. But behind Messi is a whole team of supporting grapes that make Tempranillo what it is. Two of those grapes are Mazuelo and Graciano, little known grapes who tend to shy from the spotlight but set up Tempranillo for the MVP Award when it counts.

Spanish Night of Fellini
Personally, I missed the Barza (3) – Manchester (1) final where Messi won his MVP and Spain erupted in a fit of hysteria not seen since oh… the EXACT same thing happened two years ago when Barza defeated Manchester for the final. Fortunately, my brother arrived direct from Spain with a bottle under his arm (and another stashed in his suitcase), with stories of Spanish victories, appropriate wine intake levels and early morning Fellini-esque tales of Spanish celebrations.

Fauns and Fantasia
Mazuelo is the more famous of the two, although it’s only the Spanish who call it that. The rest of Europe calls it “Carignan” and knows it as the grape from the cheaper parts of France that led to the famous “wine lake.” Not sure how “wine lake” came to mean a bad thing since it seems like an amazing faun-centric scene from Fantasia, but France managed to make “wine lake” a bad thing. They produced way more than France (or anyone else) could consume and had to turn hundreds of millions of bottles of wine into industrial alcohol. Surely a faun is crying somewhere.

Graciano’s All Muscles
Graciano grows pretty much only in La Rioja, with some outposts around the world. Mostly, it’s used as the muscle in the body-building world of Old Wines (Reserva and Gran Reserva under the Spanish system). Spain used to consider Graciano a key ingredient in Rioja wines but it’s a hard grape to grow and it’s not as common to find as it once was back in the yesteryears of the 1970s. That said, the grape is coming back and even some entire bottles are now made from 100% Graciano. Mostly though, it remains a blending wine to ensure that Tempranillo has staying power and will be running around Barza’s field for decades to come.

Red fruit, lots of fun on the mouth – long smokey finish without annoying tannin power

Detail Up!
2006 Beronia Reserva from Rioja, Spain

Random Googles:
* Californians call Graciano by its awesome persian name – Xeres
* Mazuelo – what NOT to serve to my favorite wine writer
* Mazuelo, aka Carignan, was the #1 most planted grape in France in the late 1970s. The #2 grape (Grenache) had about 1/3 as many vines planted. Two words – “Wine. Lake.”

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Confusion over Corvina
Corvina just doesn’t sound like a wine grape. Walk into a grocery store and the only “corvina” you’ll be finding will be over in the fishy-smelling section where your local fishmonger will instantly know it’s a Chilean Sea Bass you’re looking for (what was called, in another era, the Patagonian Toothfish – understandably, they changed it). Walk into a Portuguese restaurant and ask for the “corvina” and your waitress (possibly named “Corvina”) will instantly bring you Corvina on a platter. Just don’t ask for a bottle of Corvina – everyone will be very confused.

Veneto, Land of Ancient Wines and Feuds
Only in an Italian restaurant that specializes in food from Veneto, the northeastern part of Italy, will your order of “a Bottle of Corvina” bring smiles and appreciative hand gestures. In Veneto (and not many other places even in Italy), people cherish the Corvina and make all kinds of magic with it in wines. This is a region with a long history of wine-making dating back to the Romans (one of its valleys literally means “Valley of Many Cellars”) but most people know it as the site of Verona – home to Romeo & Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, Mercutio and Benvolio, the Nurse and the Friar, (the Corvina and the Rondinella?).

Famous Amarone
Veneto is one of the early adopters of the “straw wine” process, although not the first, and the Venetians have been winning crazy praise for the last 50 years with their big Amarone dessert wine. Amarone, despite its noodle-sounding name, is probably the most famous dessert wine from Italy, and Corvina features as its largest grape contributor in that final, raisin-y blend.

Detail Up!
Corvina 2009 “Torre del Falasco” by Valpantena Winery in Veneto, Italy (h/t for the image)

Really dark red color, fruity (i thought blackberry but others said cherry) with medium body with a little licorice finish and medium-strength tannins.

Google Randoms:
* Valpolicella, an affordable ($12-18) wine also from Veneto, counts Corvina among its majority shareholders (often in the 70% range)
* Corvina performs best in volcanic soil that resists the cold well – thinking there are parts out west in the US where this could work post-volcanic wonders
* Corvinione, once thought to be Corvina until scientists discovered that they’re actually two separate grapes, wasn’t discovered until 1993. Kinda exciting.

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Tale of Two Columns
Most often the menu on the table shows two sides – one white, one red. The white side has the favorites you’ve heard of, the red side has 4 wines, maybe 5. At the top of the list (read: lightest body), you see Pinot Noir, followed by Merlot, followed by Malbec or something you don’t recognize, and then Cabernet slams it home with the bass line.

Rugby on the Menu
However, once in a great while, there’s a wine that doesn’t fit the menu. Mansois is that wine. Not sure whether it’s heavy or light, tannic or not, dark or light. It defies categories. In fact, this wino went straight to the internets after trying it to find out what this strange wine involved. SW France, rustic in some parts of the region (translation: heavy and tannic), light with paprika in other parts. Almost nobody outside of the region (renowned for french rugby and Armagnac) grow this grape. So, thank you Rugby France – you’ve managed to break free of the menu in a really top-quality way.

Detail Up!
Marcillac 2009 Domaine Du Cros from Marcillac, in SW France “Lo Sang del Pais”

Fantastic body – fills up the mouth with none of the sticky tannins at the back of the tongue that clog up other wines. Bunch of strawberry and something black and sweet on the lips but kinda peppery too. Really different combination – like the first time you saw Angelina’s lips.

Google Randoms:
* Mansois has an everyman codename: Fer Servadou. Fer= iron, which should make you think twice before chopping down its vine.
* “Lo Sang del Pais” – blood of our country. Slightly heretical perhaps, but all delicious.
* The “corrida” join rugby and Armagnac on the list of SW French specialties. H/t Spain.
* Virginia plants a little of this Fer Servadou. Could use more of this here in the USA

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2011 Champion

Pinot Noir is the world champion of wine, it’s official. At least for 2011 that is. In a nerdily-awesome remake, somebody on twitter started Marc Madness, a competitive bracket mirroring college basketball for grape varieties. Whites on one side, reds on the other, and only in the finals do they meet (full bracket here). Riesling blew away the competition on the white side, trouncing everyone in its path (maybe Chardonnay was close) but then it hit the juggernaut of Pinot Noir. Luck ran out in the second half, and Pinot emerged covered in garlands as Riesling hit the showers and regrouped for next year.

Generational Revolt
Pinot Noir is that current sweet spot in wine-taster’s mouth. It’s red, it’s difficult (like all annoying winos) and it’s the opposite of all those big wines that people have loved and keep loving for years. Think big California Cabernets and bigger Chardonnays that coat your mouth in wine — soooo 1990s. Now it’s all soft, round, small, restrained fruit that grew up in France and went to boarding school abroad. It’s sophisticated, it sounds sexy and it probably wears a brooklyn fedora on the weekends. Call it a generational revolt or “these darn kids” (shakes fist) but it’s what’s in season.

Pinot and Jazz
Check your wine bar list and fax me if you find a list without Pinot. Just won’t happen. Most likely, they’ve got several – one from Burgundy, one from Oregon and one from California or New Zealand. That’s where the Pinot kids hang out. Burgundy – it’s the heartland and the soul of the grape, kinda like jazz and New Orleans. You can talk all you want about Dizzy’s, Chicago and Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center, but jazz is New Orleans. There’s no dispute. Then you get the newbies, the Oregons, the California hotspots and New Zealand’s Central Otago – all doing interesting and pretty cool things that nobody’s tried before. Oregon, always the hippest of any social trend, holds an annual Pinot Fest for “Pinot freaks.” Clearly not your grandfather’s wine festival.

Today there’s actually two options to check out, one from Burgundy and one from Austria. Why two? Parents – they come in twos and so should their wines. My dad mentioned that he liked red wines but not the heavy ones, which makes sense – he’s a light guy, both in humor and in weight. Also, he adores puns and somehow Cabernet seems way too serious for puns. So, I’d been saving this Austrian Pinot for a long time and thought it’d be perfect to try with them during a night of cooking in.

Turns out, it was way heavier than expected, although still in that medium-body range. Plus, it had all kinds of interesting, unexpected stuff along the side of the road – like driving through South Dakota. Not that everyone likes driving through South Dakota or stopping at the Corn Palace. So, between four of us, we came up with red fruits, dark finish and extremely smooth finish. 4 different votes though: 1 for magnificent, 1 for liked it, 1 for ok and 1 for didn’t like it.

Taste Too
Luck played a big hand in the second Pinot since our waiter pretty much insisted we try it at dinner the next night. The “Bourgogne” label threw us a bit but we managed to figure out that we were in Burgundy territory and the “Pinot Noir” on the label convinced us we were into a second bottle of Grape #29. Lighter body than the Austrian (or than almost every red – my dad approved; one could tell by his Groucho eyebrows at the use of the phrase “good body”) and really smooth, this wine got consistent voting – no magnificents, no oks, no didn’t like its. Just 4 liked it – perfect for the family dinner table.

Detail Up!
Austrian – Pinot Noir Gesellman Siglos 2004 from Bergenland, Austria
French – Pinot Noir Bonnes & Guerre 2009 from Burgundy, France

Random Googles:
* Pinot Noir = Black Pine(cone) – see a bunch, you’ll get it.
* Spätburgunder – the unpronounceable German name for Pinot and, consequently, the reason we call it “Pinot”
* Monks grew Pinot in Burgundy for about 1,600 years until they had their lands seized in the French Revolution – apparently, they still have a lot of monasteries among the vineyards.

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