Christmas wines: Stratus 2007 Cabernet Franc, VQA Niagara Peninsula, and 2005 Chateau Suau update

Stratus is a rather high-end winery in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula area, at least to judge by their prices and modern, fashion-conscious tasting room out on the vine-laden flats between the QEW expressway and Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I picked up a bottle of their 2007 Cabernet Franc while tasting there a few years back, and we had it this Christmas with our traditional vegetarian Christmas dish of Chiles en Nogada --- a vegetarian modification of the Mexican recipe, made of Poblano chiles stuffed with a tofu, tomato, onion, raisin and spice mixture and topped with a cream and ground walnut sauce and pomegranate.

Someplace Hugh Johnson (I think) says that there are two main ways to get a great wine and food pairing:  a brilliant contrast in which each sets the other off, and an echoing in which the two are similar, yet different, for a total experience more complex than either one separately.  This was indeed a great pairing, mostly of the second kind, with the spiciness and slight grassy or vegetal elements characteristic of Cab Franc echoing the Poblano pepper.  Good strong fruit flavors too, and medium-grained tannins.   A very balanced wine, but fairly full-bodied, reminscent of a good Bourgeuil like the Domaine de la Chanteleuserie "Alouette"  but with some aspects more like an excellent Bordeaux:  it seemed a bit on the smooth and elegant side for a Cabernet Franc, but with no lack of flavor.  Tannins seeming to get more pronounced as the meal went on, fairly grippy on the finish, which is fairly long perhaps due to the tannins sticking the flavorsome stuff to the tongue.  Not obnoxiously tannic, though.  Still I'd guess this wine, though delicious and somewhat evolved now, has 3-8 more years of beneficial evolution in store.  Unfortunately I only bought one bottle---I recall it was fairly pricey (retail price was listed as $38 on release but I think it was on sale for less at the winery).

If one has to numerically rate it, perhaps a 8.5 or 9 on my 10 point scale that goes to 11, maybe 89 Parkeresque points.  Great stuff, unfortunate example of fairly expensive wine for which I know no cheaper substitute with quite the same qualities, though the Chanteleuserie comes close.  One of quite a few superlative Ontario wines I've had the pleasure of drinking this year... more on the others anon.

Good as this wine was, my wife's Chiles en Nogada were, as usual, the true pièce de résistance of the meal.  Dessert was pampepato, served with the 2005 Sauternes from Chateau Suau.  I've had several 375ml bottles of this, a couple of them somewhat disappointing after an initially fabulous experience...this one seemed back to form, with pineapple, cotton candy, and a little bit of burnt sugar flavors.  The overall format seemed relatively low-acid, not super-crisp, nor super-complex beyond the abovementioned flavors, but nonetheless fairly fresh-tasting.  Quite sweet, but not quite to the point of seeming syrupy.

2010 Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgeuil "Alouette"

Bourgueil is a French wine appelation in the Loire valley, which along with  nearby Chinon is the best known Loire appelation for red wine, produced from the Cabernet Franc grape.  The 2010 Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgeuil "Alouettes", which I think I got at the Casa Sena wine store in Santa Fe, is fabulous.  Imported by Berkeley's Kermit Lynch, always a good sign.  The wine has spicy and slightly herbal elements typical of Bourgueil, along with some good fruitiness.  Quite a bit of tannin for a Loire red, but not annoyingly tight... the tannins seem relatively loosely held, within a rather sappy, fruity, but not overly alcoholic or jammy, liquid.  Delicious.  Also relatively complex, with definite minerality and perhaps tarriness on the palate, and in the long finish carried by the tannins that stick to the mouth.  Fairly harmonious, too.  I would be curious to see how this evolves over the next 5 years---seems a good candidate for cellaring although definitely delicious now.  The only Bourgueil (or Chinon...) I've had that comes close to being this good was in a restaurant in Paris a few years back... this was strikingly reminiscent of that.  I will definitely be on the lookout for more.  Increasingly I feel that numerical scores are silly, but I'll give this a 9 out of 10 as it's just plain delicious and full of typical Bourgueil terroir.  Went pretty well with lentils cooked with a relatively mild example of a Ethiopian-style berebere red chili sauce, with sides of quinoa, and cauliflower.  As always with spicy-hot dishes, some of the complexity of the wine is masked by the spice, but it was still a good combination.

Trivia note: the wine is named "Alouettes", meaning "nightingales", perhaps the name of a vineyard.  The label features a bird, and some musical notes on the staff.  And some care was evidently taken, because the notes are actually those of "Alouette, gentil Alouette".

Vega De Castilla Ribera del Duero; Columbia Crest Two Vines

Two relatively inexpensive wines from Trader Joe's, one of them in two vintages  Although Two Vines is said on the label to refer to their trellising system, the 2008 and 2009 Two Vines wines from reliable Washington State mass-market wine producer Columbia Crest are made almost entirely, and in almost equal measure, from two grapes: Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2008, recommended by one of TJ's often-knowledgeable and always enthusiastic in-store staff, was indeed a good buy in the $7ish range.  Quite full-bodied, and with a dose of chewy tannin, the first day it was a bit on the foxy, grapy, and somewhat unbalanced side for my taste, but consumed over four or five days (my wife and I don't exactly slug back the juice with the best of them), it smoothed out, lost most of the foxiness, and exhibited a fair amount of complexity, tasty blackcurrantish flavors and hints of tar and the like.  Worked well with a variety of foods including some somewhat tough-on-wine ones like cheese, and pasta with beans, tomatoes, collard and mustard greens.  I suspect it would age interestingly for up to five years or so, maybe more.  The 2009 was decidedly lighter, with some similar foxiness that didn't go away, initally seeming a bit more suave and velvety but not developing over its period of being open.  However, with some fairly bright red fruit flavors, including strawberry and, I fancy, cherry, it went remarkably well with a wonderful dish my wife adapted from Jeff Smith's excellent cookbok "The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors".  To wit, Yugoslavian njoki (=gnocchi) of potato, wheat flour, ricotta and an egg (with a slight spicing of nutmeg and paprika), with an intense sauce of cherries, tomato, red wine, and (in place of the specified duck) huge reconstituted dried lima beans.  The dish was clearly the main attraction here, but the wine just happened to echo it really nicely.  I once read, probably in something by Hugh Johnson, that there are two main strategies for pairing wine with food:  go for a contrast in which each heightens, and somehow sets off, the other's flavor; or go for a harmony, in which aspects of the wine echo and underline flavors and textures in the food; this was clearly a fortuitous example of the latter.  The 2009 Two Vines also went pretty well with a vegetarian paella, but overall was not as satisfying as the 2008; definitely a simple wine, and slightly out of balance and with slightly off-putting elements of foxiness or perhaps even a slight cough syrupy sweetness.  Not a bad wine, it definitely enhanced some meals, though I probably won't be buying more for later.  I'd give the 2009 a  6.5 or 7 out of 10 (keep in mind that for me, this is definitely "worth drinking", and probably a bit better than you might think if you multiplied by 10 and compared to Robert Parker's scores).  The 2008 would get another point, probably a 7.5, perhaps 8.

The Vega De (I think that's an E nested inside the D on the label) Castilla Ribera del Duero Oak Aged 08 (from the Tempranillo grape) was on the order of $10.  A really excellent wine, relatively simple but not one-dimensional, remarkably well balanced for 14% alcohol.  I have had some Ribera del Dueros, mainly in restaurants, that were disappointing, kind of mushroomy and stale-ish, but also a fabulous one in a wine bar in Madrid that had the fresh, velvety, lush and balanced deliciousness that it sometimes seems you can buy even in young wine.  (I have a bottle in my cellar and will report when consumed.)  This does not have that voluptuousness, but it is just really tasty, with honest, non-foxy, non-funky fruit flavors (maybe blackberry, and after it's been open for a while, definitely cherry) that are not at all jammy and cloying, backed up by a decent, but not mouth-puckering, measure of tannin.  A little bit of complexity comes from some leafy, or tea, flavors behind the fruit.  Maybe this is the Ribera del Duero ("Banks of the Duero"---same river as the Douro of Portgual's Port-growing region) terroir coming through---the same terroir that can manifest as a bit mushroomy, vegetal, or funky in a suboptimal scenario.  This wine also reminded me of Graham Greene's novel Monsignor Quixote, in which one of the two central characters (I forget if it is the priest or the communist) will only drink wine bought in jugs straight from the winemaker (they keep a huge jug of such wine in their jalopy Rosinante), because he thinks the stuff sold in bottles is too pompous, adulterated, processed, and poncey.  This stuff is in a bottle, and even (bad news!) has a vintage barely acknowledged on the label, which also evinces some somewhat cool design---white, with the text in some mod-twiggy-medievalish font, the nested "DE" in gold, and a silhouette of a vine that looks like a sketch for some twiggy art installation---but I fancy it's got the straightforward, grapey, winey, non-fruit-bomb flavors that the priest, or the communist, were looking for.  Goes great with more of the veggie paella.  I guess 8.5 out of 10, although it's essentially a perfect example of what it is striving to be, which is an unpretentious but flawless and tasty wine for drinking with unpretentious but flawless and tasty food, like my veggie paella.  (I guess I'm reserving the extra 1.5 points for something more pompous and poncey.)