“Vintage” Wine?

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Seeing the name “Carmen” took me back to the days when I was a very small boy, a long time ago in a galaxy far away. One day, my father bought a gramophone record of Bizet’s opera Carmen. He was always buying gramophone records, but I was especially excited about this one, because I quite naturally assumed that it was an opera about cars.

Much to my intense disappointment, there wasn’t a mention of a car in the entire opera, but I quite liked some of the tunes. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that Carmen was written in the early 1870s when there were not very many cars around. It wasn’t until about fifteen years later that some German chap built the first car which used a gasoline engine. His name, if memory serves correctly, was Carl Benz. But then ninety years later, in the early 1960s, there was a curious circular turn of fate. A television commercial appeared advertising Esso (“Esso Sign means Happy Motoring”) sung to the tune of “The Toreador’s Song” from Carmen. To my perverse satisfaction, the opera finally got its automotive connection.

Now then, where was I? (I was beginning to wonder – Ed.) Oh yes, in the bar the other night, I heard someone talking about “vintage wine”, as though it was something very special and very old. I think he was getting confused with vintage cars too. Of course, a vintage car is an old and venerable one. To those people who enthuse about these things, the expression is rather more precise, meaning a vehicle built between 1919 and 1939. Or so I’m told. But there is no such age connotation with “vintage wine” although like the bloke in the bar, many people get confused about it.

It’s really quite simple. A wine’s vintage is merely the year in which the grapes were picked and the wine made. Most table wines use grapes from a single year and if the label shows a year – which most of them do – then it’s a vintage wine, even if the year happens to be 2013. You see, almost all table wine is vintage wine, which is why the expression is virtually meaningless. The few exceptions are cheap commercial products like J.P.Chenet or Blue Nun which are blended using wines of different years.

Nearly all wine-producing countries allow a bit of flexibility in their regulations. For example, Chilean wine must contain at least 75% of grapes from the vintage year. In Australia, New Zealand and Europe, the requirement is 85%. The vintage year is not especially important in warm countries, where weather conditions tend to be much the same from year to year, but it’s a different story in cooler regions. The vintage year of European wines is especially important because of the variations in annual weather patterns. The weather influences the quality of the grapes, which in turn affect the quality of the wine.

There are a couple of exceptions. Fortified wines (like Port) and sparkling wines (like Champagne) are nearly always non-vintage because in order to create a consistent style they’re made from a blend of wines of different years. Every three or four years, the weather conditions turn out to be so good that only the grapes from that single year are used. Then the wines are sold as Vintage Port or Vintage Champagne.

“Carmen” Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (white), Chile (Bt. 590 @ Friendship)

Over the years, Viña Carmen has acquired vineyards in Chile’s top wine producing regions and today, their award-winning wines are sold in more than fifty countries. This Sauvignon Blanc is from Chile’s Central Valley, or El Valle Central, if you prefer a bit of local colour. It’s one of the largest wine-producing areas in South America, stretching from south of Santiago to the far end of the Maule Valley, 250 miles to the south.

It’s a splendid wine. With a very light straw colour and a greenish tinge, aromas waft out of the glass. You’ll probably recognise pineapple, melon and apricot, then a touch of ripe grapefruit. There are faint hints of orange peel and dusty herbs too, especially thyme and oregano. At first sniff, it’s almost like a Chardonnay but after a short time the sharp, summery aroma of freshly-cut grass comes through. The mineral smells in the background confirm that this indeed a Sauvignon Blanc and a pretty feisty one at that.

The lively Sauvignon character is more noticeable on the taste. Although the mouth-feel is smooth and clean, there’s plenty of fresh, lemony acidity up front giving the wine a sharp refreshing bite. It’s pretty dry of course, because Sauvignons always are (or should be) but the dryness is balanced by rich fruit on the palate. You’ll find that there’s a long, crisp and dry finish too. The label suggests that you could serve this wine as an apéritif and of course you could, but it would make a splendid partner for roast chicken. The citrus quality would go well with many fish dishes, ideally with a dash of thyme or oregano. This is a really well-made wine and you can serve it straight out of the fridge, so that the aromas gradually develop in the glass.

“Carmen” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (red), Chile (Bt. 590 @ Friendship)

Here’s an inviting dark ruby-red wine with oily legs that appear inside the glass when you swirl it around. There’s a rather classy Cabernet aroma, typical of the rich reds that are coming out of Chile these days. You’ll probably pick up dark fruit, brambles and herbs. At first the aroma reminded me of a Merlot but then, almost as a second thought, the characteristic Cabernet smells of sweet black and red fruit come through with cherries, blackberries and plums.

This smooth-tasting wine is perfectly balanced with an attractive flavour of ripe black fruit, a refreshing touch of acidity and a pleasing framework of firm tannin. It’s totally dry and verging on full-bodied with a long, satisfying finish. It’s quite assertive too and strikes me as very much a food wine. Rich red meat dishes, steak, roasts and casseroles would probably work well and possibly even game. If you’re going to have pasta or pizza, save this Cabernet for something else, because it will almost certainly overpower light dishes. It’s a hefty 13.5% alcohol content and pretty well near the top of the tree for table wines, but if you like rich, powerful and fruity reds, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in this wine.

Heavens, all this wine tasting has put me the mood for a song. How about “The Toreador Song” from Carmen? I’m sure you remember it, but we’ll have the original French words if you don’t mind. Right, altogether now…