November can mean only one thing to you intellectuals out there: that’s right, wine season, from the Beaujolais Nouveau to the nouveaux Bordeaux. As bottling, packaging and shipping time nears this year, the American vintage looks like a doozy. Harkening back to the great years of 1800, 1824, 1876, 1916, and 2000, it seems hard to pick a clear favorite in 2004. I have used my powerful Yale Daily News press credentials to obtain an early taste and have managed to narrow down the field to two front-runners, a red and a white, both competing for title of American Wine of the Year.
It seems the current favorite comes out of La Maison Blanche, a small vintner in central Texas that produces a powerful, wandering red Grenache. This wild, earthy red has a strong nose, an unpretentious leathery odor with a hint of smoked fish, leather and maybe cocaine, if you really dig your nose in there. With short, stumpy legs, this wine is bone dry, anything but fruity. In fact, this wine is anti-fruity. This wine attacks the taste buds without reservation; it invades your palate with a metallic tinge, strong tannins and heavy alcohol. The suggestion of acid balances out the liquor, leaving a strong finish with a slightly bitter aftertaste and a rich hint of woody sawdust. This simple-minded red is aggressive yet unpretentious and ages quickly. It is an obvious accompaniment to dishes loaded with red meat, heavy sauces or oil.
A strong contender for Wine of the Year however, comes to us from the exclusive Chateau Ketchum in Massachusetts. Ketchum has daringly decided to leave this wine on the lees for an extra two tours, giving it a hint of purple in its color. This fleshy, stringy Sauvignon Blanc has a rich tomato bouquet, backed by a powerful, late-blooming hint of flowers. This wine could not be called fruity either, although it is supported by a merry hint of cherries that lingers on the middle palate. This wine is thin-bodied, with long legs, but boasts an impressive variety of subtle, elusive flavors. We taste not only a healthy dose of tannins — this is a white that might be good for the heart — but also a balancing acidic factor that maintains the tartness of the garlic, onions, and sugar combination. The wine hints toward vinegar, but not in an off-putting way, rather the total combination serves to balance the wine and put it on par with the full-bodied Maison Blanche 2004. The wine shows a strong finish, but its gyrating flavors may confuse the unpretentious palate. Although many consumers are quick to relegate white wine to the fish course, Ketchum has scored a real coup with this wine. The wine is light enough to harmonize with your usual fish, while the tomato undertones strongly complement a lighter meat course like ground beef or meatloaf.
If the decision were left to me alone, the Ketchum would be a clear choice. It is a unique vintage, an experiment in forward-thinking white wines that will clearly leave the American wine consumer better off. The Ketchum would undoubtedly raise the world’s respect for America’s wine making prowess, sorely overlooked these last few years, while providing a wine that can answer to the gustatory interests of a large portion of America. The time has come for an American wine that can garner the respect of the great wine producing nations of the world. With Italy the only major wine producer that heavily supports American wines, we need to change the minds of countries like France, Spain and Germany. The history of wine is a history of trade, migration and cultural interchange. Would America have its excellent rootstock if it weren’t for donations from the great wineries of Europe? Would France have recovered from the great Phylloxera disaster if it weren’t for American aid? Cooperation and mutual respect between the great grape countries can only improve the world’s wine, and Ketchum is the wine to do that.
But if you’re looking for the “worst” bang for your buck, Maison Blanche will get you really f–ked up.
Andrew Smeall is not really a wine taster, but he really is f–ked up right now.