Friday, February 8, 2013

Meditation in a bottle: Santa Maria Cellars' 2011 Malbec

On a dreary November afternoon, I stepped into Texas Wine Cellars Etc. The part that stood out most, besides the hustle and bustle, was Martin and Angela Santamaria offering wine samples. On that day, I chanced to sample the 2011 Malbec. As a Malbec lover, I was thrilled to taste another pure Texas Malbec. What was even better was that it was a unique Malbec that invited me in.
Signed bottle of Santa Maria Malbec

The Winery and the Wines

I have to admit, I wanted to visit this winery for awhile; it was part of  my New Years resolution from 2012. Several weeks ago, Sean and I made a trip to the unassuming homestead and tasting room on Highway 16 between Kerrville and Fredericksburg. While at Santa Maria Cellars, we enjoyed the Malbec, but we also got a chance to see more of Martin's vision as a wine maker.

Martin uses all Texas grapes -- mainly from the Texas High Plains Viticultural region (i.e. near Lubbock) -- like many wineries. However, he goes for varietals that are less noted as Texas wines. Some, like the Pinot Grigio and Muscat Canelli, can be found at wineries, but they are not common (like Viognier). And then there are the varietals that can be interesting when grown in Texas but will not be like their Californian or French cousins -- Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. Then there was the varietal I was not expecting but enjoyed for its unique flavors, Pinot Noir (with tobacco and chocolate fruit).

From these grapes, Martin is mainly making single varietal wines -- Malbec (2011), Pinot Grigio (2011), Cabernet Sauvignon (2009), Pinot Noir (2011), and Muscat Canelli (2010). There are also two nice blends. The Red Moscato combines the Muscat with some Merlot to make a light and sweet wine that is reminiscent of strawberries. The newest is a 2011 Cabernet-Petite Syrah blend. This wine has a soft fruit forwardness with that pepper and strength of a Texas Cab.

Tasting the Malbec

When Sean and I went to visit Santamaria Cellars, we went with one thing in mind, the Malbec.

After a few swirls, one is greeted with a strong sense of dark chocolate, refined and controlled. Berry and fruit, especially cherry, also is pronounced. To me, these are the smells of Valentines.

The aroma is a moment of indulgence that is met with bold flavor. The actual taste, however, is first dominated by the berries. This berry flavor is underlined by a strong current of cherry. This creates a rounded fruit flavor that is dark and distinctive rather than heavy berry or fruity sweetness.

As one moves on, the fruit softens, bringing back the chocolate tones from earlier. However, now this chocolate is subtle. It is a dark chocolate hidden in the other flavors, not proud and dominate like in the aroma. There is also a bitterness here, like warm, fresh green tea, that grows to lead the chocolate flavor. This is something I know all to well. When I have fresh green tea and pair it with a good dark chocolate of 60-70%, the bitterness in the chocolate is more the bitterness in the tea, allowing the chocolate to be a separate entity from its bitter component. Though I love dark chocolate, it has a habit to be strong, where the bitterness of the cacao is stronger than the richness. When one pairs it with tea, the tea's bitterness stands out more, and this bitterness has an earthy quality. That earthy bitterness comes through with this wine and is accentuated by the rich, smoothness of chocolate.

Visual Tasting

I lounged with this wine for a while. I had to sit and sip, eyes closed, to allow myself to see this wine. Though it was predominate with the berry and earthiness so often found in Argentinian Malbec's, it didn't quite taste like them. It was as I sat and contemplated that I finally found the difference. There is a ruggedness here lost in the Malbecs of Argentina. There is also a note of solitude and fulfillment here. Once I finished my first glass I knew what I was experiencing: my first trip to Red Rocks in Colorado.
Red Rocks Amphitheater, Coloardo
 Even before the amphitheater comes into view, the rocks are the center of attention. Their dark red shades, from orangish to deep burgundy, cut brilliantly into the often bright blue sky. They seem to loom above as well as pierce the sky. This wine feels that way. The berry and cherry, its brilliant reds, loom ahead, but it is the way the chocolate and bitterness pierce that sensation that matches the landscape.
Leading up to Red Rocks Amphitheater

When I visited Red Rocks, a chilly breeze blew down from the mountain tops; I have heard it is even that way in summer. At the time of year I visited, it wasn't consistent, but would sweep down without warning, catching everything up in it and sending the collection every which way. Then, just as the wind arrived, it was gone, leaving a calm that settled in. The wine's final notes are much like this. They come without warning, pushing the drinker to keep up with them, but before long, they settle in and allow one to appreciate them and the new sense they leave behind.
Looking down into the amphitheater at Red Rocks

With the wind, there are echoes. Sounds ring throughout the amphitheater, making it a great location for concerts -- too bad I never got to see on there. A single sound echoes along the sides, up and down, until it fills the space. Even as new sounds join, it isn't a jumbled, jangly mess; instead, the sounds resonate and hum, building into a single sound that speaks of parts. The flavors in the never quite fade away, even the fruit. Each sensation, berry, cherry, chocolate, tea, fill the space together, providing a harmony and yet distinct flavors.

The shadows from the stage at Red Rocks

One thing that is clear about Red Rocks, and the Malbec, is its meditative nature. When the amphitheater is not in use, its emptiness is quite pronounced. The sky above is blue, often a white blue, and the sun is a soft yellow. These colors seem lighter, faded almost, next to the dark, startling red of the rocks. It makes the world seem farther away, as if one is truly hidden away from the rest of the world. Even the shadows, ranging from a reddish black to a gray-pink, lengthen and grow, making the place seem empty. This is a sense of solitude, a place away. Here is a place where one can sit and think, to contemplate the world below. The Santa Maria Malbec is no different. One is transported, left following each flavor until everything else just isn't there. It seems all that is left are thoughts. I find this wine to have a calming effect.

Red wines have predominate flavors. It is not common to find berry or cherry. I often find chocolate, and from time-to-time tea. But it is how the flavors present themselves that make this wine one to return to. They invite me to slip away, they sweep me up and leave me in awe. They soften the world and find peace. This Malbec is like no other I have had. I am glad that this Malbec is Texas.

*NOTE: If you are interested in a different sort of visual tasting of this fascinating wine, check out Jim Baker's color based tasting at Texas Wine Geek.

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