Blackstone – Winemaker’s Select – Merlot – 2016 – California ($5.59)

BlackstoneBlackstone, William, was the notable English (and thus Anglo-American) jurist of the 18th century, with his key works published in the 1760’s.  The man himself seems to have been a pretty impressive 18th century Tory social climber, but time tumbles everyone down. Now, whenever his name appears, it’s a hazy reference in a very British period drama and it’s always from the mouth of either some cold reptile of a barrister justifying the cruelest exploitation of a working class hero, or less often, the squeaking ineffectual panic noises of some well educated mouse-person about to fall to a Victorian slasher’s straight razor.

This thin California Merlot bearing Blackstone’s name most closely resembles the last of these tropes: it’s not a foundational force of jurisprudence, nor is it entirely cruel, petty and oppressive – it is silly and mostly benign, but still somehow contemptible. With minimal body even for a Merlot, foggy purple tinged ruby appearance and a fuzzy, cherry scent buoyed on what might be charitably be described as a clean or fresh notes Blackstone appears innocuous.  Uncharitably the stuff stinks of some kind cherry scented, bleach based floor cleaner – thankfully well diluted, but still strong enough to conjure images of some long green linoleum hallway where behind the reinforced glass window of every identical door some mortally ill sufferer is beyond the aid of science.

Blackstone’s flavor is also unremarkable at first. Simple, typical of a single varietal blend starting with muddy, sweet blue plum that slides coolly into a soft vanilla. The whole wine takes a drastic turn after this soporific beginning, as the astringent hospital cleaning fluid flavor rises up like a slasher movie villain, tearing the mellower notes of a very traditional, if uncomplicated, Merlot apart to splatter everything with gobs of tsharp red cherry.  It’s the ending of Blackstone that is the most puzzling though.

An odd lingering taste, reaching past the standard doubtful flavors of cheap wine. This singular strangeness does remain a stodgy British strangeness, in keeping with Blackstone’s name though, and it’s even a relief after the bleach and cherries – a mushy sweet raisin taste with a yeasty baked layer – the near caramel flavor of a Garibaldi Biscuit (that extra thin sandwich cookie with raisin paste in the middle).

Blackstone is a slapdash wine, in a way that it’s very serious namesake, old William, would entirely disapprove of, and yet it captures something of the horror popularly associated with 18th century English jurisprudence.  Blackstone is monstrous inevitability and harsh cruelty, barely held in check by a veneer of dusty propriety and there are dodgy biscuits afterwards.


La Marchesina – Rosso Terre Siciliane – Sicily, Italy ($6.99*)

ROSSOItalian table wine, made from “The most important indigenous varietals from Sicily” with no year, no mention of what those varietals might be.  I’m guessing Nero d’Avolo from La Marchesia’s ruby color, clarity, relative thinness and that it’s the notable “important indigenous varietal from Sicily”.  Regular readers may note that I rarely drink a wine I unreservedly enjoy, whose flavor doesn’t at some point turn, with: swamp weeds, asbestos fiber, penny candy, plastic wrap or feculence leaping to the fore. However, La Marchesina is a wine that’s just pleasurable to drink.  A surprisingly excellent table wine with no specific overwhelming flavor, or anything off, content to be a crisp drink to pair with a simple meal (a havarti and beet topped hamburger with some potato chips, coleslaw and green salad on this evening).

I spent a long time sipping this wine, both because enjoyment mainly leads to an empty glass and because La Marchesina has a multitude of subtle flavors, each distant and mild enough to blend harmoniously, but difficult to pin down. The odor isn’t strong, but hints of cold, sweet blueberries with a currently or even liquorice tang somewhere beneath.

A glass alone with food just tastes pleasant and fairly light, but lengthy and intensely focused drinking will tease out a strange jumble of seemingly contradictory flavors.  Drinking La Marchesina, quickly devolves into trying to pin down elusive flavors, a glass full of tiny darting fish, flavored with watermelon and chili pepper – or lemon peel and a spark of tart herbal sage.  The middle of La Marchesina is black pepper, covered over by tar and woodsmoke and ending with cocoa nibs, musky and smooth – except for a flash of dryness.

In the end this table wine is perhaps similar to a good cigar or a Russian style watermelon, feta and dill salad I had once at a BBQ – an unexpectedly tasty combination of incoherent flavor.  La Marchesina though, unlike cigars or watermelon and feta, is all very subtle, its flavors tentative and hidden in the fog of table wine. However, better an excellent table wine then something bawdy and overwrought pretending to greatness.

*Gift – Price estimated from untrustworthy Internet sources.

Primi Soli – Cabernet Sauvignon Veneto – (2016) – ($5.99*)

Primi SolFaint scents of dust, wind, burnt leaves, and leather, all under a wet green blanket of moss.  I wish I had more to say. It’s neither bad, nor good, the flavors – starting with sweet cherry vinegar and opening a bit into a dry tannin spiced sawdust under an herbal tang – aren’t inedible, but only because they are so vague and unfocused.

The wine itself is an equally uninspiring dull red-purple, moderately clear and generally inoffensive.  It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon, but has little of the grape’s traditional flavors: black cherry, plum and spice. It also lacks the green pepper flavor that low quality Cabernet Sauvignon is often notable for, but this is hardly a plus in a wine that’s so simple.  The body and fullness on the tongue is Primi Soli’s best feature, it feels like a good wine, but the taste just never reaches anything memorable.

I’m not even done with the bottle, and I can’t remember anything about it – I must write now, unpolished, because I will forget there’s a hint of leathery smoothness in the depths, and also some greenery.  It’s fading though, even now, and I can’t tell you what greenery this wine might hide (a memory clings…bright green moss). Primi Soli is the the damnable river Lethe, bottled and shipped out so that I can forget, not my troubles, but any inkling of flavor.

It’s wines like these that frighten and anger me a bit – they call into question the whole concept of ‘tasting’, stripping the process down to its basics.  I am an ape guzzling spoiled fruit juice because it deadens the overactive parts of my brain. Primi Soli is nakedly a wine to induce a drunken sense of well being, it doesn’t have enough flavor to savor or to offend – only a vague earthy and herbaceous body with softly burred tannic finish that might indicate it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Primi Soli is bland, inoffensive and meandering – A perfectly cromulent wine.

*Wine received as a gift, prices based on exceedingly rough internet estimates.

Pontificus – Grenache * Syrah * Mourverde – (2015) – Pays d’Oc, France ($6.99)

red PontiffThe French had their own papacy once, in Avignon, which gifted us with the name of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietal.  The pope’s New Castle, 14th century new, is in the Southern Rhone region, while the whole area (all of Southern France really) is called Pays d’Oc (aka the Occitan). Pontificis is also a Pays d’Oc wine, from Languedoc-Rousillon – longtime maker of Vin de pays (‘country wine’, a step up from ‘table wine’), more South and West then the Rhone valley.  French wine designation is serious stuff, and despite its origin Pontificus is seemingly not Vin de pays (though this may just be an issue of grape choice), not Cotes du Rhone, and certainly not Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With two antipopes and seven acceptable ones, ending in a European wide war, the Avignon papacy was also a bit confusing and contentious, far more than Pontificus’ disingenuous effort to attach itself to the tradition of Rhone wine. Still, Pontificis’ bottle is designed for any struggle – heavy enough to restrain champagne, threaten appellation purists, or to crack the skull of the deluded supporters of a foreign pope. My reliance on historical references here may be a bit absurd, like the entire presentation of this wine.

Pontificis, despite its lesser appellation is a Cotes du Rhone style blend, sold in the classic a bell shaped (but sturdier, I did mention that?) bottle and containing a traditional blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.

A heavy wine, as suggested by those rich varietals, the Faux du Rhone lacks clarity and loiters in the glass with the thickness and viscosity of a deep purple cooking oil – the sort of regal and garish color only an antipope would have his robes dyed.  Purple this dark always reminds me of candy, here the dark crystal of a grape Jolly Rancher, and Pontificus also has some of the Rancher’s sweetness. The essence is less a fruit-heavy bludgeon and more buttery caramel though, with a resinous ocean tang somewhere below.  The same tastes dominate the blend in the mouth – caramel at the fore, caramel in the middle and then a fade to a slick, waxy vanilla faint enough not to overpower the rest of the wine. There might be a few other subsidiary flavors, a hint of pine resin, sea salt, and the burn of alcohol – but all are enrobed golden brown sweetness.

There’s nothing more to this wine, it’s mild, mildly sweet, and pillowy – quite drinkable really, but bland enough that this review can only be made interesting through reference to the 14th and 15th century ‘Great Occidential Schism’ that ended in a five year siege of Avignon’s Papal Palace (the Châteauneuf) with all the expected bizarre awfulness of early-modern warfare (perhaps up to and including cats and birds strapped with rudimentary bombs as a sort of pre-modern/pre-SPCA guided missile).  When one puts aside the perversions of the ancients and antipopes, Pontificus is a simple and inoffensive wine, more sweet then dry, but not overpoweringly anything, that leaves the mind to wander..

Gabbiano – Il Cavaliere Chianti – 2016 – Garantita Italy ($6.49)

KnightlyI can’t comprehend the strangely common practice of putting Medieval knights on wine labels.  Is the buyer expected to believe that the armored horsemen who defined the feudal warlord system, cementing the destruction of classical refinement and superintending the lowest ebb of the European World, were sophisticated drinkers?  Is the buyer expected to think highly of wine made in the days of knightly valor? Wine fermented by starving serfs, in mud huts built against the shattered remnants of marble temples, where the statuary within is burnt for lime – is this the environment that produces a quality tipple?  “Il Cavaliere’s” panoply even shows him to be of the 12th through 14th century, not a classy Renaissance jousting type, a robber baron or crusader of the High Middle Ages.

If we use history as a guide wine advertised as ‘knightly’ should be harsh, cheap and plentiful; just the sort of drink one needs to chase memories of slaughter, burnt villages and cruelty from a fevered mind.  Gabbiano manages this without faults or vileness, so perhaps it’s labelled appropriately.

A deep inhalation provides a vinegary rush with a hint of some tangy fruit, tomato or green plum and a tingle in the sinuses, with none of the diabolic odors that indicate sulfur dioxide.  The flavor is as clumsy as a drunk riding a plow horse wearing an iron shirt, but not nearly as unpleasant, mostly notable in its absence. At the front Gabbiano Il Cavaliere is pure, crisp, cooling – a spring water or iced tea flavored by one’s most recent meal.  It’s a false coolness though, in the end, with a notable tongue burr and only a mild, ferrous mineral flavor, the alcohol in the wine predictably overwhelms this dry absence of taste and burns in the back of the mouth, hot down the throat. Like the rest of Gabbiano’s flavors this burn is only half-hearted, more Don Quixote then Sir Gawain, lackadaisical.

Gabbiano is a perennial Chianti, a grocery store staple – forcefully mild and dry – which won’t lead any expeditions of blood and rapine or even disconcert most drinkers.  Fans of dry wines could do a lot worse, but Gabbiano Il Cavaliere’s void of flavor, like the image of Medieval knighthood in conjures, would be far interesting if it acknowledged its contents (grapes or history) even at the risk of revealing some distasteful elements.

New World – Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot – 2016 – Stellenbosch, South Africa ($15.00*)

New WorldSometimes a wine can transcend the normal rules of wine tasting and discussion, something exceptional. New World Cabernet Sauvignon (52%) Merlot (48%) is a transcendent ‘wine’ … though it is wine only in the sense that it’s an alcoholic beverage directly fermented from grapes, transcendent only through incomprehensibility.

The assault on reason begins when one cracks the screw top and pours New World into the glass – unlike many value wines, its nose is forthright and bold, but also redolent of olives and not grapes. Not just any olives either, those intensely wrinkled, brine cured, oil soaked ones from Morocco, Turkey or Southern France: pungently oil, nutty with a yeasty fermented tang.  I have lost the proper words to express how odd this all is – it’s not just a wine with olive undertones, a grape that has something yeasty, a lactic acid fault – there’s no fruit or spice involved. It’s not an unpleasant odor, just not one associated with wine.  New World’s color is dark, clarity a bit murky, but uninteresting compared with the oddity of flavor and smell.

Reason flees completely when tasting New World, and the flavor mystery deepens.  As expected olive hits hard from the start, sharp and sour, but not quite vinegary, more the tangy oiled relish of caper berry and olive tapenade, still devoid of fruit flavors.  There’s a lot of  heat and pepper as well: black pepper, green bell pepper from the dubious Cabernet Sauvignon … and some variety of mildly spicy hot peppers, Anaheim Chili? One senses this isn’t wine exactly, it’s some sort of Italianate fajita fusion side-dish pureed into a shake with added alcohol.  There’s even a slight effervescence evocative of flat sprite that finishes a quaff, which – again amazingly, doesn’t render New World undrinkable but is unexpected and ill favored.

Unlike the nearly forgotten cuisine of Italian futurism, inexpertly prepared but brutally experimental (and frequently involving sandpaper), that may have inspired these flavors, New World can be ingested without harm, but it’s not really enjoyable.  A vegetable slurry transformed into wine, with flavors that don’t quite deserve to be called ‘wine faults’ so much as ‘wine mysteries’.

*Estimated based on very dubious data from the internet.

Lar de Oro – Vino de Tierra – Tempranillo Syrah – 2016 – Extremadura, Spain ($9.99*)

Oro pupperRusty red and pale lavender, smoky and thin with a clean perfume of berry, not really a nose – just an impression of fresh sweetness.  Bombastic flavor, with strawberry in the fore, and a dry bite of anise that abruptly fades into heat and a still sweet sour plum. Tempranillo reasserts itself in the end, struggling to finish with its traditional crisp dryness with the syrah’s lingering ripe grape undertone.

An exuberant wine, lively and wildly bouncing about between flavors, an excited puppy of a drink.  Lar de Oro is so happy you want to play with it, and quite a good boy, but it still ends up leaving sticky paw prints on everything and with furious cheerful licking slathers one’s face and hands in mild off flavors.  Stem, vegetal and tart, is the most vigorous and easily excused of these undesirable flavors, but as the cheerful buffeting of the wine starts to wear, a more insidious and alarming flaw rises to prominence. A medicinal taint, mixing with the berry sweetness and the body of the syrah, builds into the taste of fruit flavored chewable multivitamins.

Whatever it’s flaws Lar de Oro is still a puppy, who knows what it might age into, but it’s pure rambunctious life today!  It’s got oversized paws, flavor and ears. It’s bright, smooth and charming – unless you hate puppies, and then what kind of monster are you?

*Price estimated from online sources.