I can hear the snickers already. Wines that taste like coffee? "Marge, Beppi's writing his column from Starbucks again."
Fair warning: There will be wacky adjectives below, and coffee will be front and centre. Chocolate, cola, leather armchair and roast beef will make cameos, too. It's a weird-wine-note weekend.
Readers can be hard on beverage critics who take adjectival flight. I've been razzed for using "hardwood smoke" to describe a heavily peated whisky and called to task for using "petrol" and "barnyard" in the case of some wines. There are no fireplace cinders or fossil fuels and no manure in the products I write about, of course (unless you count winery mischief and mishaps). But I think those flavours can suggest themselves to the keen drinker. Pinpointing subtleties, subjective though the practice surely is, can telegraph styles to readers who choose to nosedive into their glassware rather than wade around the edges. I may spy coffee where you spy caramel and maybe neither of us is right, but nobody's ever really wrong.
Brewers seem more comfortable with metaphorical language. There's a classic beer style called coffee stout or coffee porter. Sometimes coffee is indeed added as a flavouring (as in Mill Street Coffee Porter from Toronto), but often not. The more traditional coffee porters get their flavour from dark-roasted barley malts. The result tastes like java but it's only an olfactory illusion. The same goes for chocolate stouts, which taste like cocoa but are made from malt roasted to a dark-chocolate colour (again, in some cases, the brewer actually adds cocoa beans to the vat). Milk stouts get their essence from lactose, the soft acid in milk and butter. Many wines contain lactic acid, yet it would seem nuts to label a wine as Milky Chardonnay.
Even the wine world is changing, though, as unpretentious producers grow more comfortable with playful label language. Amusingly, there's Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, which echoes a popular critics' joke about the hallmark taste of many New Zealand sauvignon blancs. I've written in the past about a South African red called Café Culture. It boasts an uncanny taste of coffee owing mainly to time in freshly charred barrels. At least it tastes that way to me. But, then, I've always liked Coffee Crisp better than Snickers.
Nottola Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2006 (Italy)
A smart buy for a red from an underappreciated appellation in Tuscany. Pure, succulent cherry gets support from coffee grounds and herbs. Dense but not heavy. Try it with braised-meat pasta dishes - brisket, wild boar or duck, for example.
Domaine Notre Dame des Pallières Gigondas 2007 (France)
Muscular with a dusty texture, this full-bodied red from an excellent harvest in the Rhône Valley packs a berry blast, then sustains interest with licorice, roast beef jus and dried herbs. A subtle chemical taste from the 15.5-per-cent alcohol sticks out a bit, like an untucked shirt tail, but it's not fatal. Try it with lamb.
Casa de Illana Tresdecinco 2004 (Spain)
This hails from the little-known central Ribera del Jucar appellation near Spain's geographic centre. Full-bodied and succulent, it evoked for me an espresso spiked with cherry liqueur, with a whisper of old wood on the finish. The tannins are nicely integrated in this bargain red, which is hitting its stride at almost seven years of age. Meat dishes in a mushroom-heavy sauce would pair nicely.
Burgo Viejo Gran Reserva Rioja 2000 (Spain)
Great price for a decade-old gran reserva red. It whispers notes of raisin, dried leaf, herbs and old leather armchair. Try it with roast rabbit or veal.
Château Peyros Madiran 2005 (France)
Try it and tell me if you don't detect cola. It's made from ugly-duckling tannat, a tannic red grape that could hardly be described as crowd-pleasing. It's hard not to admire this example, though, with its plum-like, ripe fruit, fine, silt-like tannins and earthy, iron-like nuances on the finish. Pair it with medium-rare steak.
Château le Pey Cru Bourgeois 2008 (France)
Full-bodied and very dry, this red Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot delivers the classic characters of its region, black currant and pencil lead, with juicy acidity and fine, silt-like tannins on the warm finish. Big value. Steak would be a blissful match.
Morande Reserva Pinot Noir 2008 (Chile)
Cool-climate-loving pinot noir is not exactly a signature grape of mostly sunny Chile. But here's a bargain worth a try. Jammy forest berries get a lift from crisp acidity and spice. Try it with roast chicken or pork.
Sartori L'Appassito Rosso 2008 (Italy)
Unusually herbal for a "baby Amarone," showing a seamless, silky texture, juicy berries, chocolate and pleasantly bitter finish. Serve it with cheese or roast pork.
Château Camplazens La Garrigue 2007 (France)
The sunny 2007 growing season in the southern Languedoc region shines through in this ripe, almost sweet, slightly herbal red. The cappuccino finish is so pronounced the wine could be served out of a cup in a Milanese coffee bar. Roast duck would make a good partner.
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