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Best of the Best 2005: International Red Wines

In one of those unfortunate but necessary wastes of infant Bordeaux, I recently had the occasion to size up the 2001 Haut-Brion alongside the same vintage from the other four original first-growth châteaux (sans latecomer Mouton) at a private tasting in Los Angeles. The Haut-Brion was the hands-down winner in my book, easily sprinting past the Margaux (which seemed a tad thin for this vintage) and finally edging out the admittedly fine Lafite and Latour by dint of its sheer power and elegance.

Interestingly, Americans have always had a special taste for Haut-Brion, as oenophile ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson once noted. Jefferson was so fond of Haut-Brion that he paid the estate a visit in 1787. Founded in the mid-16th century by the Pontacs, a wine merchant family, Haut-Brion was most famously (although briefly) owned by Tallyrand, Napoleon’s minister of foreign affairs. After changing hands several times and falling on an extended rough patch in the early 20th century, the château was finally sold in 1935 to the Clarence Dillon family, who immediately set about restoring the property—and the wine—to its former and much deserved glory.

Late last year, the extraordinary manager, Jean-Bernard Delmas, who was born at Haut-Brion, was pursuaded to remain in the position he has held for more than three decades. (Delmas had wanted to start his own consulting firm, but Bordeaux lovers can thank the Dillon family for providing sufficient “unspecified incentives” to keep him put.) Delmas’ son Jean-Philippe is now on board, as well, in the capacity of oenologist.

Composed of more than 50 percent Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc playing second and third fiddles respectively, the 2001 vintage is pure and rich, its astonishing black cherry and currant fruit held in a firm tannic structure that promises to become more supple with age. Despite its youth, this lovely wine is already showing its characteristic finesse and exquisite breeding. Buy this one to lay down for five to 10 years. Only fools and wine critics drink such great wines so young.


Château Haut-Brion, www.haut-brion.com ($180)


Burst of Barolo

Michele Chiarlo’s winemaking remains on the cutting edge in Piedmont, submitting its wines to extended aging in barrique and bottle before final release. The winery was also the first in the region to practice extensive green-harvesting for better concentration, and it favors malolactic fermentation to soften the reds for greater accessibility in their youth. Still, Chiarlo did not add Barolo to its portfolio until the late 1960s. Yet, today the house fashions three magnificent single-cru Barolos, all of which stand among the best wines from the appellation. The stunning Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2001, which comes from 35-year-old vines, is meaty, racy, complex, and bursting with bright fruit.

Kobrand, www.kobrandwine.com ($90)


Magnificent Malbec

Achaval-Ferrer is not exactly a household name, even in Argentina. Founded in 1998, this ambitious Argentine-Italian joint venture is geared toward the high-end export market in much the same way as are other, better-known collaborative efforts, such as Paul Hobbs’ excellent Cobos. Winemaker Roberto Cipresso is co-owner of La Fiorita in the Montalcino region of Tuscany, which may go some distance toward explaining the European complexity of Achaval-Ferrer Finca Altamira Malbec 2002. If one still requires proof that Argentine Malbec is world-class, just sample this dusky beauty and become convinced. Racy and intense with amazingly vibrant fruit and spice, it also possesses great aging potential. 

TGIC Importers, 800.924.0030, www.tgicimporters.com ($75)


Barossa With A Bite

Aside from being a garrulous raconteur in the best Australian tradition, Stuart Bourne happens to be one of the most talented winemakers in the Barossa. His Barossa Valley Estate E&E Black Pepper Shiraz 2001 is perhaps the quintessential Barossa wine—a smooth yet powerful Shiraz named for two of this syndicate’s early German-Australian growers, both of whom shared a common first name, Elmore. Explosive black cherry and blackberry predominate on the palate, along with this proprietary wine’s characteristic peppery spice overtones—all of which are wrapped in a lush, silky robe that makes the overall experience nearly irresistible. 

Barossa Valley Estate, www.bve.com.au($85)


Spanish Modern

Mas d’en Gil was founded in 1998 when the Rovira Carbonell family, winemakers in the Penedès region since 1967, purchased the former Hermanos Barril estate, which (as far back as 1981) was the first bodega in Priorat to bottle its own wine. Clos Fontá comes from carefully selected old-vine plots. A blend of two local strains of Garnacha, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Mas d’en Gil Clos Fontà Priorat 2000 is dusky, dense, and packs an amazing concentration of inky blackberry and lively spice, backed by lovely, sweet oak. This is a modern Iberian wine with the heritage of character that makes Priorat one of Europe’s most exciting wine regions.

Gustin Imports, 917.497.2093 ($100)


Ultimate Umbrian

Sagrantino holds the same place in Umbria as Sangiovese does in Tuscany: an ancient and characteristic local grape that seems to best typify the place and express its terroir. And so, when neighboring Tuscans recently announced plans to begin planting Sagrantino, Umbrian producers were justifiably outraged. Chief among the protesters was Marco Caprai, who heads up the estate founded in 1971 by his father, Arnaldo. In Caprai’s hands, Sagrantino becomes sublime. The Arnaldo Caprai 2001 Sagrantino di Montefalco “25 Anni”—created to celebrate the winery’s twenty-fifth anniversary—exhibits searing acidity and flavors that arpeggio from dusky chocolate and coffee to intense blackberry, orange peel, and minty spice. A stunning argument for preserving Italy’s indigenous grapes. Arnaldo Caprai, www.arnaldocaprai.com ($100) 

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