They Aren't from France 

A Francophile Wineau passes judgment on big reds from Chile and Australia.

This week I tricked my Francophile cousin into tasting some New World reds — bold, brash wines that were a far cry from the lighter, fruit-forward Côtes du Rhônes she usually favors. "These are Californian, yes?" she asked, with just a touch of disdain — but no, I had presented her instead with a Chilean Carmenère, a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and an Australian Cabernet-Shiraz blend.

Least offensive to her French-ness — and reminding her in everything from aroma to palate to finish of autumn leaves — was the 2007 Root:1 Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.99), which hails from Chile's Colchagua Valley. I didn't love the aroma here — "tangy rot" was how I described it, with notes of berries and wet cardboard. French Cousin and our Token Winemaker were both bigger fans — they smelled, collectively, earth, smoke, olives, and tree bark, and tasted dark fruit and rich tannins. The Colchagua Valley, located in Chile's famed Valle Central appellation, is known for distinguished red wines — particularly distinguished Cabs and Merlots. You may recall from previous columns that Cabs from this region are counted among life's greatest pleasures by Wineau's Chilean correspondent, an California expat and avid collector named Matt.

Matt is also a big fan of Carmenère, a varietal often reminiscent of Merlot made from a grape that many view as synonymous with Chilean viticulture. But knowing that he has excellent taste, I think even Matt would have taken a pass on the 2007 (oops) Carmenère ($12), also from the Valle Central. Once upon a time, Carmenère was plentiful and well-regarded in Bordeaux, but low yields eventually led the French to reject the grape. French Cousin followed suit, momentarily channeling her British-ness as she dismissed the (oops) as "cheeky," punchy, and with a quality that "scorches your stomach like a Zin." Token Winemaker and I agreed that this wine had a muted aroma — he smelled a little smoke and ripe fruit — and a slight bitterness on the palate.

No matter, we found aroma enough for several wines in Penfolds' 2006 Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet ($7.49) from South Australia. Penfolds makes the good stuff — fancy world-renowned reds like Penfolds Grange Shiraz that fetch up to hundreds of dollars a bottle (thousands, at auction, for old and rare vintages). Given all that success at its high end, it's refreshing to find quality in Penfolds' bargain brand as well. I loved the Koonunga Hill's powerful cedar and berry bouquet and agreed once again with Token Winemaker in his appraisal of its nice balance and mouthfeel, and good fruit. (The breakdown here is 78 percent Shiraz and 22 percent Cab, and the wine does have that telltale spice of the former.) French Cousin particularly admired the finish, which she found herself enjoying for exactly four minutes following her first sip. Les Françaises, elles sont très précises, n'est pas?


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