Seven Martinis shaken, not stirred

The Cabernet Sauvignon of Louis M. Martini Photo: (c) http://www.louismartini.com/

The Cabernet Sauvignon of Louis M. Martini
Photo: (c) http://www.louismartini.com/

To shake or to stir, that is the question. In the case of the Martini, the answer is always the former, unless Ian Fleming and James Bond are a part of the response. Author W. Somerset Maugham declared that “Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other.” Bond was quoted to declare that shaking, “bruises the gin.” Chardonnay is most certainly stirred through the process of bâttonage, to suppress Sulphur compounds, to increase maximum exposure to the cells and adulterants it is decomposing into and to promote texture.

What about Cabernet Sauvignon? To stir or not to stir is a hotly debated procedure. In the case of Niagara’s Château des Charmes, winemakers Paul Bosc and Amélie Boury have been known to agitate the ferment with a regular stirring of the lees. Ramey Vineyards performs monthly bâtonnage on their $100 “winemaker’s” Annum to coat the tannins and smoothly integrate the wood. Many winemakers will not touch their collective fine red lees settling of yeast and grape cells with a ten-foot stir stick. What about shaken? Well, that is another matter altogether.

The shaken not stirred reference may strike at the frailty of James Bond and his preference for how he wished his martini prepared. Scientists have speculated that Bond “was unlikely to be able to stir his drinks, even if he would have wanted to, because of likely alcohol induced tremor.” When it comes to wine, the term shaken refers to agitation, but not in the sense of a wobble, a quiver or a vibration. That would be bad. The term shaken has everything to do with what happens to a red wine due to barrel aging, in oak (primarily new) that leads to the development of flavours and texture resembling that of a milkshake.

The milkshake phenomenon is something I have touched upon many times in the past. In November of 2012 I penned the column, “Wine is the new coffee,” in which I waxed on about the mocha, java, arabica and jamocha flavours in the current and prevalent state of red wine. I wrote, “iconic red wines from Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Napa Valley and Burgundy are heavily influenced by the barrels that house megalitres of famous juice, but for the most part, the premier or grand cru grape ferment is up to the splintered task.” I’ve talked about mocha milkshakes, talcy acidity, whipped beet shakes of hide, vanilla and lavender and reds gone over to the shaken, splintered and mocha chocolate dark side.

When oak is corrupted, misused or used to make a federal case, the resulting wine will sport black eyes of puffy redness caused by a bonfire in the barrel. When oak is used generously yet judiciously it still remains one of the most endearing techniques towards making fabulous red wine. The trend finally seems to be scaling back from the (here it comes) Parkerized, high extraction and alcohol red behemoths but where there is retreat there also persists the stay of the course. The wines of Louis M. Martini embody that doctrine.

Louis M. Martini Tasting at The Vintage Conservatory

Louis M. Martini Tasting at The Vintage Conservatory

For 80 years the Martini family has made Cabernet Sauvignon the focus of their portfolio, searching for the best grapes in Napa and Sonoma to make the best wines.  As third-generation winemaker Mike Martini, likes to say, “Cabernet: it’s what we do.” Martini brought his briefcase full of shaken Cabernet Sauvignon to Toronto’s Vintage Conservatory in September, with the obliging and expedient assistance of parent company E. & J. Gallo and their Ontario facilitator, Praxis PR. Mike Martini opened with “we’re shaken, not stirred.” How refreshing is truth spoken without pretense. Very.

Martini took over the winemaking duties in 1977. “All of us put in something, mostly personality.” The Cabernet Sauvignon style, drawn from many iconic Sonoma and Napa sites is both barefaced and to the fore. Despite the unfavourable monetary translations to Canadian and especially LCBO dollars, their Sonoma County, Napa Valley and Alexander Valley brands represent fortuitous value in full-bodied, reliably-crafted Cabernet. There is no mistaking a Martini rendition of the Bordeaux grape. Ripe, optimum extraction and unabashed richness from quality time spent in high percentages of new French, American (and sometimes) Hungarian oak barrels.

The élevage of a Martini Cabernet Sauvignon is both unapologetic and expected. It is, what it is. Their Cabernet may be treated to cold soaks, warmed to tropical temperatures, pumped over, oxygenated (délestage), subjected to extended maceration, racked by gravity and housed in toasted barrels, but there is no stirring of the fine lees. The adage holds true. A Martini Cabernet is shaken, not stirred.

Seven wines were tasted at the Martini event, followed by a lunch that included one of the better hanger steaks I have ever had the pleasure to taste. Michael Martini was both gracious and humorous in his presentation, spending plenty of time reliving the great legacy left by his father along with some terrific anecdotes along the way. The Martini codex is classic; immigrant family develops a world-renowned blend, takes on investment from a corporate behemoth, uses the resources to great effect and finds the wherewithal to keep the original name alive, front and centre. Great story.

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2012, California, USA (292151, $18.95, WineAlign)

The case load is large (will be 400,000 by 2014) and the concept, according to winemaker Michael Martini is to capture the “idea” of Sonoma County, simply done. “We think of it as cold, by California standards,” says Martini. The Sonoma bottling is higher in acidity and structured tannin than most in its class. While it sees “a few chips,” its tank mentality gives it separation and reform. It is played in movements and even in religious moments. There are bits of cocoa nibs, chocolate chips and the flavour of a cookie out of a good recipe. Some (not over-extracted) Merlot and Petit Sirah add just enough continental, savory texture with final notes of black olive and caper. All in the name of linear yet wound at the same time.  Tasted September 2014

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012, California, USA (232371, $29,95, WineAlign)

Michael Martini calls 2011 a “radically different vintage, not normal for Napa,” in others words, near-perfect. Nothing about the élevage (18 months in 40 per cent new oak) strays from the company line nor will it cause any radical concern. Give a nose and many contorted faces will result due to the herbaceous piquancy and near-capsicum rise. Changes to a country lane on the palate, in rolling, twangy, welcoming and delicious flavours. Good oak integration in holistic extraction substantiates a grapiness of fruit to balance a smoky, stewarded rod of wood. Has girth, weight and jamming length not present in its Sonoman counterpart. If “you were sorting through the odds and ends, you was looking for a bargain,” in Napa Cabernet Sauvignon then you’ve come to the right place.  Tasted September 2014

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2011, California, USA (Agent, $37.00)

“We’re still making 8,000 cases. That’s where we started,” says Michael Martini. The treatment here is a quintessentially kinetic Martini, a pure distillation of Alexander Valley straight from the shaker. After 18 months in a mélange of French, American and Hungarian oak the ’11 is getting a leather and tobacco in terroir component, straight from the vineyard, a sculpted earth tone and a sage that is Alexander Valley. Smoke, spice and spiciness runs through, from the mid-palate to the sumptuous finale. Has a sense of chewy density  with seamless integration of oak through to tannin. The acidity does not ring, it pops. Drink now and for three to five more years.  Tasted September 2014

Monte Rosso 2004, 2008 and 2010

Monte Rosso 2004, 2008 and 2010

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso 2004, Sonoma Valley, California, USA (Agent, $100.00, WineAlign)

This 10 years forward retrospective taste of the Monte Rosso 2004 shows surprisingly little development. From fruit grown on 30 feet of level, volcanic, pumice stone replete with holes that serve as water reservoirs. A 15 per cent abv bruiser that spent quality time in new and used French oak barrels, for an average of 26 months. From an extremely early vintage, this is what Michael Martini describes as “almost phlegmy upfront,” made in a similar style to the Lot 1, minus the screen. The vines averaged 45 years and for the first time, a Martini wine out of the red soil shows some funk, magnified by 10 years time. “If you can taste the alcohol, you’ve got too much,” says Martini and here, though that is the case, it is rendered aphonic and transformed into a taste of spiked, highest quality chocolate. The fruit is cured and spice accented in a seemingly youthful Cabernet. So much for the five to 12 year declared window from the Martini team. Drink for five more, at the very least.  Tasted September 2014

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso 2008, Sonoma Valley, California, USA (Agent, $100.00, WineAlign)

The red (in the Mayacamas) mountain has been in the family since 1938 and this 70 years later Sonoman is one of its most relucent. Aged 27 months in 83 per cent French and 17 New American Oak, there is no shortage of modernity in its sweet, thick skin. From a challenging vintage replete with heat spikes and low yields, the ’08 MR is blessed with luminous and lustrous fruit. It goes supple, it goes dark, it goes deep, “like the pale moon before the darkness spills,” then it goes brighter still. Sunshine breathes floral scents, vanilla and red fruit in soft, high caste with a hit of citrus. A very forward Cabernet with round, circling acidity. The mid-palate to end game is cool and layered b ut never thick or crushing.This has seven to 10 years of life ahead.  Tasted September 2014

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso 2010, Sonoma Valley, California, USA (Agent, $100.00, WineAlign)

As in 2009, storms tested the harvest on the (Mayacamas range) “Red Mountain.” Heeding the warning and learning from the previous year’s challenge, Michael Martini saw the bunches through the mud below his feet, chose a regimen of advanced picking and cut some of the later picked fruit that got mired in the weather’s muck. The result was a tighter Monte Rosso, most backward of the three (’04 and ’08) tasted and wound up without any release. This MR does not give away any of its charms quite so easy. It retains a cocoa dusting and a cool, linear band of acidity. Elusive yet seamless, the acumen combined with the formidable summons to create something lasting out of everything toilsome has produced a most age-worthy wine. Blessed with “na, la, na, la, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na” length, this ’10 will be the night they drove old rosso down. Tasted September 2014

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 1 2010, Napa Valley, California, USA (Agent, $150.00, WineAlign)

The Lot 1 Cabernet is Michael Martini’s cementing of a father’s legacy. It is a Napa Valley thickening of history, plot and extraction, through ripe fruit and new wood. Draws from AVA fruit of the most promising ontogeny, from Pritchard Hill in St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Stag’s Leap, Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. The 2003 was the first vintage and by now the cabal has reached maximum density to bursting within its two-year soak in brand spanking new oak. Approximately 400 cases are made (and will be 650 in 2013) from out of the gravity flow, (former sugar dairy) Gallo-funded million dollar winery. A very black wine, vampiric in pitch, with fruits, peels, pods, roots and herbs, like cherry, orange, bokser, licorice and sage. The massive tannins are woven of chalk, grain and chew. The flavours range from bitter chocolate to caramelized beef to wood smoke. They continue to cook, evolving into crusted layers of roasting, rendering meat and a sauce made from dusty cocoa, espresso and beef blood. Such a massive wine, wanting to search for elegance. Needs more punching down and time. “As soon as you smell the carbonic,” notes Martini, “you punch it down.” Or lay it down. For 10 years. Tasted September 2014

Good to go!

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