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A Sophisticated Trini Wine

By Jeremy Matouk, published on Island Origins Magazine on the 20th of November, 2017

In spite of ridiculously high duties on wine, more and more, Trinibagonians are discovering the wine experience. Compared to beer and rum, our traditional drinks of choice, decent wine is quite expensive. But we are, nonetheless, developing a fascination with variety and exploring finer options in the process.

For me, the fascination began 40 years ago while at university trying to impress my future bride, but really became a passion in my 30s and thereafter. Having tried hundreds of wines from different countries and regions I became more and more inquisitive. In 2004 I decided to take a second honeymoon and explore several of Italy’s regions—specifically Piedmont, Tuscany and Umbria. I needed to experience first-hand where the wines were from, and to learn more about the people that made them.

What I discovered was such a romantic and educational experience. I knew then I had to be part of the world of wine—either as a winery owner or wine merchant. To do either necessitated much more travel and exploration. Over the next few years I visited wine regions in Napa, Sonoma, Chile, Argentina, Spain and France, so different from the cane fields that yielded the spirits of my home. Travel and exploration have taught me that all great wine has locational identity. Wine writers call it ‘terroir’ but it is more than that. It is also about culture, cuisine and tradition.

Our multi-cultural heritage and cuisine here on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, lend themselves very well to all sorts of wine experimentation. A personal favorite with local cuisine is White Hermitage (from the Northern Rhône Valley) with curry. It’s a culinary marriage made in heaven. All it takes is an adventurous spirit and an open mind.

Photograph by Kyle Walcott via Island Origins Magazine. (Scaled via AI.)

Cover photograph by Photo Mix via

Why French Wines?

Some of you may be asking the question: ‘Why did Cru start off with exclusively French wines?’ After all the Trinidad and Tobago market is largely a market for New World varietals—Argentine Malbec, Chilean Cabernet, Australian Shiraz, etc, etc. French wine seems almost a throwback to the past, before all these New World varietals came to dominate the local market. What’s more, they are harder to understand and without specific wine knowledge it seems like the buyer is taking a chance. Will I like it? What does it taste like? How do I know what I’m getting?

There are good reasons for the popularity of these New World varietals—they are inexpensive (meaning a good selection between $80-150) and they are easy to understand (what’s to figure out with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot?) Wine buying made easy. Many customers I interface with tell me “I like Merlot” or “I like Pinot Noir.” French wines by comparison are something of a mystery. You can seldom tell what grape is in the bottle with French wine. It’s usually a place name. It’s like we’re supposed to know the grape type. Well, not really. The French are not too caught up with single varietals as the new world. They have been making wine before many new world countries were even discovered.

This is especially true with Bordeaux wines, typically a mixture of 4 grape types—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in vastly varying proportions. Pomerol for example is almost exclusively Merlot while Pauillac is heavy on the Cabernet Sauvignon. And what about Graves, Margaux, St. Emilion, St. Estephe and all those other Bordeaux names? Yes, it can be quite a mystery and the French producers have been roundly criticised for assuming that consumers either have this knowledge or are willing to purchase on blind trust. No wonder the New World Varietals are so popular! It gets even more confusing when you start talking about regions like the Loire and the Rhône Valley. Who the hell buys that stuff any more?

France is Still the Benchmark

So why then did Cru go for French wines to start off its business? Are we mad or just pompous? Who would be so crazy to go against the grain of clear consumer preference? There are several reasons.

Having travelled to many parts of the wine world and meeting hundreds of winemakers, we have come to realise that France is still the reference point by which most, if not all, wines are judged and compared. Where do the Barolo makers go to learn about producing wine from the finicky Nebbiolo grape? To Burgundy where they have been producing wines from the even more finicky Pinot Noir for centuries and where vineyard and cellar techniques have been perfected over centuries.

When top Napa Valley wineries (known for their exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon) produce a ‘meritage’ (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) what do they compare it to? To a Bordeaux.

When Chilean wineries receive the highest praise the reference comparison is usually French Bordeaux or Burgundy. The Australians’ development of Shiraz is an attempt to reproduce the Côte-Rôties and Hermitages of the Northern Rhône and their more recent GSM blends are Southern Rhône combinations of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre of which Côte du Rhône and Châteaneuf-du-Pape are made. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

These comments are in no way intended to denigrate any of the new world wines. Indeed I find them excellent and they usually offer excellent value (with the exception of Napa Valley which I find ridiculously expensive). In fact I have drunk more non-French wine than I have drunk French wine over the years. There was a time when I drank little or no French wine at all. I was busy exploring all the new world had to offer. After a time however the lure of French wine returned. The problem was that the offerings on the local market, apart from Bordeaux, were few and far between and worse yet most of them were overpriced and did not offer a quality/price relationship that was attractive. But as Hugh Johnson says “Nobody argues with the primacy of France as the country that set the international standards by which wine is judged.”

Wines for the Wine Lover

In contemplating our entry into the local wine market the initial temptation was to follow the competition and begin with the wines of Chile, Argentina and Australia, as these were the most popular wines on the market. Had we done that we would have simply become yet another supplier of wines that were already widely available. To the wine lover looking to expand their selection we would be of little relevance or interest.

We decided instead to take the bold step of sourcing fine French wines that could compete on a price basis with the new world offerings of the other importers and offer wine lovers authentic alternatives. In this regard we noted that Burgundy and the Rhône Valley were particularly underrepresented in the local supply chain. So we did extensive research on both regions and then visited in person to find the makers we respected and who we felt would offer good value-for-money propositions.

We are very confident in the wines we have sourced. The public reaction so far has exceeded our expectations. What we did not originally contemplate is the fact that all the wines we have sourced are consistently well-made. Our decision to transport them and store them with utmost care has also paid off. Most customers tell us that, having tasted properly-transported and stored wines, they cannot go back to buying wines that have been exposed to excessive and prolonged heat and which have been thus damaged to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course we do not intend to restrict our selection to only French wines. As we grow we will add wines from all regions and countries. We will ensure however that every wine we import will be carefully selected and meticulously transported so as to guarantee that our customers enjoy the real thing.

The Enigma of Burgundy

I find it amazing that many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers seem to have a problem with Burgundy. Why do I say that? Well, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from California, Oregon, Washington State, Chile, New Zealand and Australia sell very well yet Burgundies tend to sit on the shelf. Why is that?

Burgundy is that wine region in eastern-central France that is situated between the cities of Dijon to the north and Lyon to the south, including the region of Chablis just to the north-west of Dijon. At its centre is the beautiful and charming medieval town of Beaune. The northern part is known as the Cote-de-Nuits, the central part as the Cote d’Or and the southern parts are the Cote Challonais and Beaujolais.

All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir (except for Beaujolais which is made from Gamay) and all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grapes varieties that are native to Burgundy and have been grown there for hundreds of years. They find their most sublime expressions in the soils of Burgundy and the hands of the Burgundian winemakers, yet so many wine consumers look at a bottle of Burgundy with a mixture of confusion and fear.

Perhaps the reason for this can be explained by two facts. First, most Burgundy is quite expensive. A decent bottle cannot be had for much under $200, the good stuff costs $300 plus and often much more. That’s at retail, in restaurants one can usually double or triple those prices. For most wine consumers that is big money. The reason behind the pricing is simply demand and supply. There is just not that much good Burgundy produced and wealthy wine buyers are prepared to pay top dollar for the good ones, which incidentally drives up the price of all Burgundy.

To give a stark example, it is all but impossible to get one’s hands on a bottle of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti’s ‘La Tache’ and those lucky enough to get a small allocation are willing to pay US$3-4,000 per bottle. Nothing from Bordeaux or anywhere else even approaches such price points for current vintages.

Secondly, Burgundy is a confusing region with many denominations and it’s hard to know the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Volnay, far less an Echezeaux, a Nuits St. Georges or a Santenay. And that’s just touching the surface; among the Villages, 1er Crus and Grand Crus there are also many single-vineyard names to contend with, which can make buying Burgundy a most intimidating experience for the uninitiated. Most people just shake their heads and buy simpler wines that they understand.

Worse again is the fact that paying top dollar does not guarantee one will get a tasty bottle of wine. I have had expensive Burgundies that are not worth a tenth of what I paid. Little wonder then that most wine consumers just shy away.

But what are they missing? Simply put, Burgundies are among the most elegant, complex and ethereal wines made on earth. They are able to express terroir—the effect of soil, climate and environment—like no other wines. It is possible to taste the difference between vineyards a mere few hundred yards apart. The levels of minerality, the subtlety and complexity of flavours, the gaminess and earthiness are often characteristics that only discriminating and experienced palates can appreciate. I know many wine lovers who just don’t appreciate these qualities and think Burgundy a complete waste of money. For those who do however, there is nothing else like it.

With wine drinking becoming a more and more popular pastime, there is a growing interest in Burgundy, especially among wine lovers who have become a little tired or bored with New-World varietals that offer no sense of locational identity.

Finding good Burgundy to buy therefore requires either a lot of patience, a lot of money or a good wine merchant who has done the homework.

After intensive research for about two years I actually went to the region and visited scores of wineries I had learned about. I swirled, smelt, tasted and spat hundreds of wines, some ordinary, some very good, some so brilliant they were “unspittable.” One day while walking the streets of Beaune I happened on a retailer who had a vast collection of the finest Burgundies in his showcase. Frederic Henry, who thankfully spoke good English, gave me a short but necessary education in Burgundy. I learned that there are 1,900 or so makers in the region of which only 100 are any good. Of that 100, 75 are horrendously expensive. The remaining 25 are the up-and-coming winemakers who are producing excellent wines but who have not yet earned the right to charge a fortune.

From that small group I chose to buy from just two. Nicolas Potel is something of a winemaker prodigy with a cult following. He purchases grapes from some appellations while owning his own vines in others. This young winemaker, whose father was himself a famous winemaker in his own right until his premature death, is gifted. It will not be long before his wines will cost an arm and a leg but so far he remains a value proposition.

The village of Vosne-Romanee is the home of the greatest vineyards in the Cote-de-Nuits. This village, for many wine connoisseurs, is the Mecca of the wine world. The wine writer Hugh Johnson put it very simply: “There are no common wines in Vosne.” Allen Meadows, probably the most respected expert on Burgundy, called the Vosne ‘The Pearl of The Cote’.

It is in this village that we found Domaine Jacques Cacheux and proprietor Patrice Cacheux. As was the case with Nicolas Potel, every sample we tasted was yummy, expressive and memorable. Patrice has, within the last six or seven years, raised the quality of his domaine to rank with the very best. He too will be ‘expensive’ before long.

As with all great Burgundy, these wines are smooth, expressive and subtle, offering complex flavours and delicate balance. For those of you who do not appreciate strong, mouth-drying tannins as a pre-requisite to full favour, red Burgundy offers an elegant and sublime wine experience. They are wines that work equally well as pre-dinner aperitifs as companions to food.

If you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and are willing to explore, you will come to love Burgundy.

Tasting and Understanding Wine

When one reads tasting notes from the likes of Robert Parker, James Molesworth, James Suckling or many of the professional wine tasters whose publications we can buy or subscribe to on the internet, it can be quite intimidating, even while oftentimes being reasonably accurate and informative. The ability to discern specific flavours is definitely an acquired skill that comes from years of practice and often specific training. I know people who can tell you grape type, country of origin and even tell the percentages of a blend consisting of four to five grape types. Yes, such people do exist and their skill is often quite profound.

For the vast majority of wine drinkers, wine appreciation often goes no further than “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” There is absolutely no shame in that and the best wine in the world is the one you like best, regardless of its price or what some ‘expert’ or ‘connoisseur’ thinks of it.

For regular wine drinkers—those who may have some wine with their dinner every evening or several times a week, we do develop preferences and with experience comes a degree of discernment. We may find that we like drier wines or sweeter wines, wines with more or less tannin, or more or less oak. We also develop likings for specific grape types, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Syrah or Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, etc, etc. The wines we prefer today may not be the same a year or two from now or those we preferred a year or two ago. We may even develop preferences for certain styles of wine or wines from certain countries or regions.

I spent several years quite fixated on Italian wines, trying as many different ones as I could find. I even once explained to a friend who asked about my obsession with all those Italian wines that it was like learning about Italy through the different wines from the different regions. You can taste the differences in soil, climate and even culture. Even today when I sip a glass of Morellino I can recall the scents and smells of the region, which is located on the western coast of Tuscany.

I have never been able to develop much of a skill of identifying specific flavours in wine—at least not past the very basic elements of citrus or berries, etc—even after 30 years of wine tasting. My daughter is far better at it with almost no experience. She can separate raspberries from strawberries, peaches from apricots and even identify different floral scents. I think there must be some in-born talent for that skill (and she clearly did not inherit it from me). Robert Parker is perhaps the most renowned for it—when you read a note such as, “with sweet mulberry, black currant and cherry notes intermixed with tobacco leaf, cedar, resin, and licorice,” you can understand what I mean. He can also recall any of the over 10,000 wines he has tasted with a photographic memory. No wonder his sense of smell is insured for millions of dollars. It is one thing to be able to detect different flavours but quite another to be able to say precisely what they are.

For my own part, having tasted thousands of wines from all over the world for over 30 years I have developed my own system for evaluating wines and one I think is very useful and accessible to us ‘normal’ people. I think it is a reliable guide to the intrinsic quality of wine—regardless of whether one happens to like the particular flavours or not.

The system applies to all the steps of wine tasting and evaluation, from the initial smelling to the aftertaste. The elements of the system consist of ‘complexity’, ‘balance’ and ‘finesse’. Of these, balance is the most vital as it is the first and foremost characteristic of well-made wine. Balance refers to fruit, alcohol and tannin and how these three essential characteristics come together. When evaluating a wine we are usually looking for obvious flaws. Once there are no obvious flaws we can move on to other characteristics.

On the nose wines differ in the complexity of their smell. If you can detect several scents as opposed to just one it suggests the wine has some depth of character. Likewise on the palate. There is nothing wrong with a straightforward wine—in fact that may be exactly what you are looking for when choosing a wine to go with simple food like pizza or pasta or stewed chicken. However, straightforward wines should not command big bucks. When you spend ample dollars on a wine you expect the wine to have some complexity, something to keep your interest and make you want to sip it again and again.

Complexity however cannot stand by itself. It is only a marker of quality when it also has finesse, which is when the multiple flavours make up a satisfying whole.

When these characteristics come together in a wine it is usually accompanied by a long and delicious finish, an aftertaste that is pleasant and satisfying and one which appeals as much to one’s intellect and emotions as to one’s taste buds.

So without getting too technical or academic, those are my markers of a fine wine. When I refer to a wine as sexy, ‘luxurious’ or ’emotional’, you can be sure it has touched more than my taste buds. Such wines are not for drinking every day but they can and do make special occasions very special indeed.

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