Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Quirky Taste Of History

Two days have elapsed since I tasted the strangest wine, the source of the strangest reaction I've seen at a tasting, and I still don't know what to make of either.

The wine was the 2008 Vinos Tanama (about $11), which is the name of both winery and wine, which is the way Mexican vintners sometimes handle their marketing - concisely and casually. The wine is a 50/50 blend of rosa de peru and mission, two obscure Spanish varieties introduced to Latin America by conquistadores and missionaries perhaps as early as the 16th century. The grapes that went into the 2008 Vinos Tanama were grown in a century-old vineyard at Guadalupe Ranch in Tanama Valley south of Tecate in Baja California Norte, an area hot and arid.

Tuesday night, the wine had been chilled, and San Jose del Cabo wine merchant Carlos Fernandez suggested that tasters approach it as if it were a rose, not easy to do given its dark ruby tone, viscosity and weight. At first sip, it was downright peculiar - green, grapey and funky, with a smell that suggested Naugahyde in a rusting car that had been sitting on a sun-baked hillside for a couple of decades. One taster said "cactus," and in its herbal and slippery nature the wine did bear a resemblance to nopales. It was semi-sweet, but with a note of bitterness in the finish. It was too mangy and feral for my taste, but as I headed to the dump bucket something told me not to give up on it so soon. I took a few more tastes, and while I still didn't particularly care for it I had to admit that it had grown on me somewhat. It was sweet, husky and ragged, all right, but the early stemminess had yielded to a hearty sun-baked fruitiness.

A few people who tasted it didn't get far beyond the first sip before dumping the wine, but others lingered over it, equally mesmerized by both its novelty and its changing dynamics. If what you look for in a wine is unfolding drama, the 2008 Vinos Tanama delivers. It's quirky, but at that price it's worth the investment, if for no other reason than it might give some idea of what conquistadores and missionaries were drinking three centuries ago.

Winemaker Fernando Martain made only about 370 cases of the wine, so distribution likely isn't far beyond Tecate and Ensenada. The wine carries 12.9 percent alcohol and absolutely no oak. Martain suggests it be poured with spicy Mexican dishes, pates, sushi and after-dinner cheeses. I wouldn't pour it with sushi, but it did work splendidly with assorted Baja cheeses that Fernandez had spread out, and the richer the better.

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