Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ji Ji Ji Pinot Noir/Malbec Blend: A Surprising Perfect Fit

Amber told me we were having spaghetti for dinner and asked if I could stop and get a bottle of wine, so I stopped into my favorite local wine shop and began piling the usual suspects on the counter - a little Clare Valley Riesling, a few Portuguese reds, and Beaujolais (in my defense, she should have known better than to send me for a bottle of wine).

(Amber here - yeah, this is what he came home with. I should have known better, but I won't complain! #wino4lyfe)

Her spaghetti is incredible, so I needed a bottle that would fit with the meal, so lighter end of medium bodied, bright and balanced acidity, and - since the sauce tends to have a little extra spice - a little residual sugar and/or a generous dose of fruit. When I couldn’t find the specific bottle I had in mine, a Nebbiolo from an unusual part of Italy, I went to the girl who runs the shop and told her what I was looking for. What she produced immediately gave rise to skepticism: a 50/50 Malbec/Pinot Noir blend, Ji Ji Ji.
Via K&L Wines.
The winemaker - Gen del Alma - uses a technique called Carbonic Maceration to ferment this wine. Carbonic Maceration (or Whole Cluster Fermentation) is when the grapes are placed whole into a sealed tank to ferment intact. If you can picture little grapes building up pressure and popping like tiny juice balloons (99 Juice Balloons playing in anyone else’s head?), you have the basic idea. This is how Beaujolais Nouveau, that often awful stuff everyone buys to be festive at Thanksgiving, is made.

You see this technique all over the world now though as winemakers look for new ways to showcase good fruit without it being burdened by flavors from other aspects of the winemaking process. I examined the label a little more closely after hearing about the process, and saw that this wine had some very specific areas of Argentina listed on the label - high altitude regions with cooler climates for the area. As I looked a little closer, I discovered that this was also a single vineyard wine (a term which has a very different meaning in Argentina than it does in say, Burgundy). But with the attractive price on this bottle ($15.99), I was already sold.

Amber’s red sauce is meaty, spicy, rich in big garlic flavor, and mouthwatering acidity from the tomatoes. I needed a zippy, light red with either a touch of sweetness or a ton of fruit to match this. A standard Argentine Malbec could not have done this alone, nor could any Pinot Noir I could think of. It didn’t sound good at all on paper, but I trust my fellow wine geeks until I have reason not to. Armed with my intriguing experiment, I ventured home for pasta time!

Once home, I showed Amber my wares and waited patiently for dinner. I wanted to read about this wine and this producer a little more, but I try to drink before I dig. Preconceived notions limit adventures, and don’t make very good seasoning in spaghetti. When time came to pour, bright ruby liquid filled the glass, nice and transparent. When I stuck my nose in a rush of sour cherry and violet hit me with force. A little sip and my mouth watered just the right amount from the acidity. I knew right then I had a winner. The flavor was just big enough, with a tinge of bitterness and flinty mineral notes run through a big fruity mid palate the flavors linger just long enough to get to the next bite.

When Amber hits the wine store, her go-to is a bottle of Argentine Malbec. The experience this bottle delivers is far from that, but it works for her for some of the same reasons, and would be a crowd-pleaser for Malbec fans and for those who like bold fruity wines but might want something not quite so heavy. The big fruit is all there, but the lower acidity, fuller body, and greater amount of tannin in a standard bottle of Malbec would not have made the ideal companion for this dish - or the weather for August in Memphis. For Amber’s sauce, acidity demands acidity and spice demands fruit.

Malbec is rarely made with carbonic maceration, whereas with Pinot Noir it is a little more common. But to co-ferment these grapes in this way is practically unheard of. If I had tasted this blind, I would have guessed it was something from a Loire Valley producer trying to make their red wine more accessible to an American audience. Instead, it is something new and exciting.

When I think of these two grapes blended 50/50, it brings to mind some of the less exciting things I usually see from Argentina. Some of the larger producers who don’t have the right climate for growing stellar Pinot Noir will use this blend to cover up bad Pinot with good Malbec, while taking advantage of having the recognizable and trendy “Pinot Noir” on the label of their cheap bottle. I was intrigued, because my suspicious look was immediately followed with a description of the winemaking process, and the wine geek in me knew this had to be good.

When I sold wine, I met many people who thought all wine in category “x” tastes similar, so I must like category “x.” If you want a wine that delivers a pleasant surprise, but don’t have the resource of an awesome wine shop like we do in our neighborhood, there's one practice I can think of that would lead you to a wine like this from the label, if it comes from Argentina.

Argentine wines tend to be labeled with both grape names and place names. Bigger regions, like Mendoza, you will find often on many wine labels. But if you examine more closely you will see the names of smaller places within these bigger places. “Ji Ji Ji” from Gen del Alma has three: Mendoza, Tupungato, and Gualta. Mendoza is the larger region, and the current home of what we think of as Malbec. Tupungato is a town within Mendoza’s Uco Valley known for some pretty fantastic Malbec and cooler climates. Gualtallary is an even smaller area near this town.

After the wine made a solid impression on us both, I decided to do a little digging. Gen del Alma is a project of Gerardo and Andrea Michellini, a husband/wife team that has made their mission to take Argentine wine to a new level. As a team, they have been making these wines since 2012, but this is the first I have sampled. They use creative techniques to showcase the unique fruit they produce, of which this wine is just one example.

Here is a larger map of the region:


(Found here)

And a smaller map showing specific areas in the Uco Valley:


(Found here)

What does this tell us about the wine? It says that this wine is more likely to be made in smaller amounts by people who are focused on producing something interesting. It is not always an indicator of a good bottle, but to me it points to a worthwhile risk.