2000 Merlot from the Las Niñas Winery, Chili Recipe

Las Niñas 2000 Merlot

I am very proud to be participating in the very first World Wide Wine Blogging Wednesday, imagined, organized and brought to us by Lenn. The theme for this first edition is “inexpensive new world merlot that is not from the US”. I am proud to be participating, but boy, that was close : I’ll admit that I almost didn’t take part.

Why? Well, out of intimidation, of all things.

Although I love wine and am eager and itchy and willing to learn about it, my knowledge of it is still very basic and unstructured. In fact, I feel like I am standing outside, looking in through a giant glass wall. Things inside look tempting and voluptuous and noble and fascinating, but I have no idea how to break through that wall and step in. I have the hardest time remembering about origins and regions and domains and characteristics and types of grapes and good and bad years, and I don’t know where to start.

Oddly enough, my tastebuds also seem to have little sharpness and no memory when it comes to wine, and I can’t remember from one bottle to the next, what make them similar or different. I blame part of that on my lack of vocabulary to describe those tastes and sensations : Nicolas Boileau, a smart French guy from the 17th century, once wrote : “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement”, what is well understood is expressed clearly, and I would add, what is expressed clearly is well remembered. What isn’t, isn’t.

As with all things, patience and the desire to learn are key I’m sure, and I can tell I’m already getting better. In particular, it helps tremendously when one is lucky enough to have the opportunity to go and visit wineries : instead of just relying on a bottle, a label and a taste, you can also factor in myriads of other memories — who your tasting companions were, the mood you were in, where you had lunch, the weather that day, the color of the sommelier‘s bow tie — and this really helps in making your knowledge of the wine multi-dimensional and, more importantly, emotional.

But visiting every single winery on Earth, although a tempting endeavor, is hardly an option. A more than acceptable substitute however, is to try and drink with awareness : smell, look, sip, gurgle and taste to your heart’s content, rub your tongue against your palate and teeth, feel the difference on the tip and the back of your tongue, breathe in and then out, register all that you’re feeling, let your imagination run loose, freely associate with other feelings and tastes you’ve experienced before, and try to express what comes to your mind. Don’t be tempted to hide behind the words of others, yours have as much worth, if not more because they are fresh.

Hold the bottle, feel its weight, study the label, read the domain name out loud, decide if you like the design. Think about your surroundings, and take a moment to bask in the experience as a whole. If you’re so inclined, write all of this down in a pretty notebook, the first page of which you can proudly inscribe with the title “Wine Tasting Notes“, and doodle little vine leaves and grapes. Write down the date, the occasion, who you were with and as many comments and notes as you like, with what energy and disciplin you can muster after engaging in all that drinking.

At least, that is my plan of action.

After a while, I hope to build a knowledge and a taste that are my own, I’ll know what I like and what I don’t, I’ll read about wines and wineries and think oh I know that one, I’ll know a good wine deal when I see one, I’ll be able to speak with sommeliers without doing all the listening, I’ll be able to determine what wine goes with what food, what wine goes with what mood. I’ll do you proud.

With this in mind, it was just impossible for me to ignore Lenn’s call anymore, because it was obvious that I was exactly the kind of person this event was designed for. So, with Lenn’s encouraging voice in my ear, I set out to hunt for a qualifying wine. Of course, France being the wine country it is, little room is made in stores for foreign wines, when any at all. Adding into the mix the other constraints — new world, non-US and merlot — turned this into a small-scale treasure hunt around my neighborhood wine stores, which are fortunately aplenty.

I finally found Ze Bottle at Tchin-Tchin on the rue des Martyrs, a wine store that is part of a small chain trying hard to compete with its giant counterpart, Nicolas. They had two shelves (two shelves!) devoted to non-French wines, which had to accommodate wines from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand, North America and South America. Needless to say, the selection was pretty small, but there was one bottle (one bottle!) that fit the bill, a 2000 Merlot from the Viña de Las Niñas, in the Colchagua Valley in Chili. At 10.60 €, it was also just under the spending limit.

After a little research, I found out that this winery is in fact owned and operated by a French family, the Dauré, who have found the Chilean soil and weather to be very similar to those of the South of France. The label has a black and white picture of some of the ladies of the house, and it simply states “Las Niñas Merlot 2000″. The back label has a little blurb about the winery and its philosophy. In passing, the mention “merlot” is one thing you will never read on a traditional French wine bottle (unless it is designed to be marketed abroad) : in France, it is the region, the appellation, the domain, the “cru” that count. The grape variety (and French wines are almost always mixes of several varieties) is never mentioned, as it is considered secondary to all those other characteristics.

We conducted the tasting in the company of our neighbors Stéphan and Patricia — who must be familiar characters of this blog by now — and another one of our neighbors, Thierry. Thierry is originally from Toulouse, which explains the sunny lilt in his voice as well as the deep love of good food and fabulous wine.

But this Merlot, well, let us say that it was less than stellar. I opened the bottle (the cork almost falling apart), and poured some in five of our large wine tasting glasses. It was of a light ruby color and rather thin texture, and didn’t stay much to coat the walls of the glass when swished around. The smell was very strong, almost alarmingly so : we identified smells of blackcurrant, wet oak, wood coal and blue cheese, but also a strong alcoholy smell, like acetone or nail polish, which can’t be a compliment for a wine.

We moved on to the actual tasting, and um, it didn’t really get any better. It had a violent and explosive way of hitting your tastebuds, with earthy and smoky tastes, accents of prunes and olives, but the sensation was short-lived (it was very court en bouche as we say in French), and you were just left with a lingering bitterness at the back of your mouth. In fact, we all found that this wine lacked harmony and structure, with too many conflicting tastes and aggressive sensations. We tried it on its own, then with a variety of nibbles, and found that a little charcuterie (cold cuts like ham, salami, dry sausage…) helped somewhat.

Two things, though : it is possible that we are a little spoiled when it comes to wine, as good bottles around 6 or 7 euros are rather easy to come by. Also, our palates are probably formatted to appreciate the structure and characteristics of French wines, since that’s what we’re used to drinking, and maybe it would take a little while for us to warm up to this particular wine.

More importantly, it seems to me that tasting a wine you don’t like is just as important as tasting a wine you like, and counter-examples are necessary to build a capacity to critique wine and define your own preferences.

I am delighted to have submitted myself and my friends to this little exercise, and would like to thank Lenn for the idea and for putting this event together. I hope it has as much success as Alberto‘s IMBB series, and I’ll be waiting for the next round with eager anticipation!

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  • http://www.tetellita.blogspot.com Estelle

    Thanks for this pretty description, Clotilde. Too bad it didn’t taste that as good as the label looks!

  • http://lennthompson.typepad.com/lenndevours Lenn

    You found one!! I’m so glad you were able to do so…even if the wine wasn’t that great.

    I am quite curious to see if anyone found any wine that fits the theme that they consider stellar. Mine was only slightly above average…and your’s was obviously below average.

    You raise an interesting point with your “French wine palate.” I’m wondering if our friends in Napa Valley will have similar experiences (probably not to the degree).

    Anyway…I’m off to see who else has posted! I see lots of Chilean entrants…let’s hope we find one great wine!

  • http://www.obsessionwithfood.com Derrick Schneider

    Clotilde,

    A great post, bien sur. There is a mammoth wine store on the Boulevard (Rue de la?) Madeleine, just up from the Arc de Triomphe. As Melissa says, across from the Maison du Chocolat. It’s called Lavinia, and has an extensive selection of wines from elsewhere. It’s very modern, and probably charges a little more for its wares, but is at least worth a look.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    So glad you enjoyed the post! My first wine review — is it reason enough to shed a tear of emotion? Okay, let’s.

    Derrick – Yes, Lavinia is a great store, we can spend hours in there looking around, and I especially like the underground, air-conditioned room where they store the very very old bottles, with their half-burned, half-eaten labels — some look like they were recovered from a shipwreck! But I conducted my treasure hunt on Monday after work, and I didn’t feel like going to the Madeleine area, so I had to rely on the hidden treasures of Montmartre!

  • http://seattlebonvivant.typepad.com Seattle Bon Vivant

    Ahh! What a lovely label! Sorry it did not work out for you. :-) Clothilde, some of Chile’s best wines are coming out of Maipo Valley were their best Cabs are being produced. For something a bit more obscure try a Carmenère (they seem to be using this grape more and more while the EU still gives it a cold shoulder). One of my personal favorites is from Apaltagua Estate. :-)

  • Abbacat

    Clotilde:

    I found your blog through the livejournal community called food_porn, and I have enjoyed it immensely!

    I don’t know an awful lot about wines either, but I thought I would share one good South American variety we discovered this year: El Felino, which is made of Malbec varietals that originated in Bordeaux. Apparently the drier climes of Argentina suit this little grape well. At 12.99/bottle it certainly fits the pocketbook nicely too; if you find it, give it a try!

  • http://www.dimsumdolly.com dimsumdolly

    For your virgin attempt at a wine review, i must say you’ve done very well!

    I know nothing about wine–wine, liquor, beer, alcohol or any other intoxicating drink is expensive in Singapore compared to other countries. That’s not to say not many people drink, but I think it’s not so ingrained in the culture here.

    However, there’s now an increasing wine trend in Singapore.

  • http://www.foodandthoughts.blogspot.com Zarah

    This is just to weird a coincidence! I read about WWWBW, but forgot about it – then yesterday at work, my boss decided we had to make a wine geek out of me! And what happens, I come home and have a look at your blog – and there you are, going about the same business! I did start out with German rieslings, but who knows, we might end up in the same place. Looking forward to keeping up with your endeavours here, and am keeping my eyes peeled for the next event. And thanks for making me feel there’s nothing weird in trying to describe a wine as being “nail polish-y”(!) – which I agree, cannot be a desirable quality in a wine!

  • wam

    happy to find a blog about wine. nice post about this merlot. i read your approach to improve your tasting abilities, no doubt you’ll do great within a few months : the more you taste, the best you’ll get at tasting.

    as a wine lover (and also involved in this business), I issue some posts about tastings on my “oeno-blog”.

  • http://mywinesdirect.typepad.com Marie

    Bonjour Clothilde, j’ai beaucoup aime cette note qui reflete ce que beaucoup de personnes oublient : On peut apprecier le vin sans etre un “winnista” et pour cela il faut effectivement savourer, gouter ne pas hesiter a lire aussi. Le film Sideways a peut etre donne l’envie a certains d’allant dans ce sens.

    Je suis francaise et je travaille aux USA, ma societe organise des wine tastings et seulement ceux voter a 100% par les membres (des gens comme vous et moi, loin d’etre des experts en vin)qui ont souhaiter participer au test sont mise en vente sur le site. (le shipping est gratuit).

    Je sais que vous habitez a Paris sinon je vous aurais bien demande de venir au prochain testing a new york ou a napa valley !

    Bien cordialement et longue vie a Chocolate et Zuchini.
    Marie

    Dear Chotilde,
    I really liked this post, it reminds me of the fact that people sometimes forget that they do not need to be expert on wines in order to appreciate wines.

    It is indeed true that the simplest way to get to know them is to taste them. I am french and work for a US company. What differentiate us from other wine company is that every great wine we hear about gets our personal review.

    We taste it ourselves, and then we bring the wine to our tasting panels of people just like you and me (members are always offered to come to our free tastings). So in the end we only offer for sale the winners (and we always ship for free in many states !).

    Wine for the people by the people !

    I learned from your “about” that you live in paris, otherwise we would have been delighted to have you come to one of our tastings. Let us knoz if you stop by NYC or Napa !

    Take Care and all the best in continuing this blog.

    Marie

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