Understanding Fine Wines: Frank Smulders

Dwayne Perreault — Frank Smulders MW received his degree in 1992 and is to this day Holland’s only Master of Wine. I was his student while doing my WSET Advanced course, and I’ve also made a posting on this blog about a memorable Austrian wine trip Frank organized.

I was able, with great pleasure, to sit in on a recent lesson Frank gave, as part of his course on Understanding Fine Wines. The theme was Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo, so there were top bottles from the Rhône, Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Priorat and Australia to be tasted.

We began with a discussion of Tempranillo and a tasting of some top Spanish specimens. Tempranillo recently overtook Garnacha to become Spain’s most planted grape, and its character is very much determined by the climate. Frank underlined how important this is, by pointing out that Tempranillo produces clearly different wines in each of the three best known regions where it is grown: Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro.

In Rioja, Tempranillo has an almost Pinot Noir-like character, lighter in colour and structure, tending toward elegance. The art of blending with Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano produces different styles of wine. In Ribera del Duero, it is called Tinto Fino and the added elevation provides extremely hot days and cold nights, which produces grapes with more sugars, tannins and acidity. Varietals are much more common here, as they are in Toro, where Tempranillo is called Tinto de Toro. Of the three, Toro with its richer soil produces the most powerful wine, yet it is Frank’s least favourite.

Frank is more a new style Rioja lover, embracing more fruit and use of French oak, which is less porous than American oak and leads to a less oxidative style. But there are still some wonderful old style producers out there, and as an example we tasted the 1997 La Rioja Alta S.A. Gran Reserva 904, an American oak-aged wine with a light brownish rim. Fragrant notes of tobacco and licorice, with very luxurious dark cherry fruit and a touch of cacao.

The Marqués de Vargas Reserva 2000, also Rioja Alta, is much darker and younger in style, with coffee and black fruit notes. It contains some Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian oak, which is similar to French oak, was used.

The Ribera del Duero, Pago de los Capillanes 2002 contains 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. There are wild berries and something animal in the nose. The taste has tart but elegant red fruit with black currants, somewhat sweet and quite tannic.

As for Grenache, I know from having studied under Frank that he does not value this thin-skinned grape much. So it was amusing to hear his experience at the Wine Future Conference in Rioja in 2009. Robert Parker had been invited by Rioja producers to host a private tasting, for more than 600 wine professionals. Parker confounded the Rioja producers by choosing Garnacha as his theme, a grape which is in general decline in Spain and accounts for less than 9% of all plantings in Rioja.

In fact, Grenache is one of Parker’s favourite grapes, and he has particularly had a great influence in changing the style of Châteauneuf du Pape. Under Parker’s influence, the barrique came to be used, and the top cuvée was produced. Frank believes that Châteauneuf du Pape has become better because of Parker, but also more expensive.

We tasted a very old-style Châteauneuf du Pape first, Clos Saint Jean 1986. Somewhat funky, with chocolate and animal Brett tones. This wine began a discussion on what Brettanomyces is and how it played a conscious role in certain old Papes. Admittedly, in smaller proportions Brett can add an intriguing complex note to the wine, but once that threshold has been reached, it goes bad. According to Frank, the Brett generally tastes as unripe tannins.

Château de Beaucastel was known to have Brett up until 2000. We tried the 2004. Containing over 40% Mourvèdre, this is an extremely powerful wine, and still very much in its youth. Very dark rich fruit with strong tannins.

Finally, the Priorat, Fra Fulcó 1996, a blend of old Garnacha and Carineña vines from a house that unfortunately doesn’t exist any more. Very ripe dark fruit with pepper, and very powerful tannins.

As for Syrah, we started off with two Australian wines. The McClaren Vale, Rosemount Estate “Show Reserve” Shiraz 1997 had super ripe sweet and sour dark fruit with nicely balanced acidity. The “Show Reserve” designation means that it comes from a particularly good vat reserved for trade shows, which are very important in Australia. The Barossa, Peter Lehmann “Stonewell Shiraz” 2005 was less interesting, a dark fruit bomb, overly tannic, perhaps too young.

The northern Rhône is where Syrah finds its truest expression, and the Côte Rôtie, Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan 2002 is a much leaner wine, with wilder red fruits and spicey overtones. Elegant, softer in structure than the Aussies. Tasted the following day after a full night’s decanting and still wonderfully fresh.

Finally, the Hermitage, Domaine de Valloit, Les Greffières 1988 had everything I expect from a Hermitage bouquet: sweaty socks and red fruits. Quite elegant in the mouth, where more acidity is to be perceived than in the southern Rhône. A beautiful and almost delicate wine, with still enough bones to hold itself up.

Thanks again to Frank for allowing me to attend, learn about and taste these wonderful wines!


James Swann said…
Interesting piece

Tempranillo may certainly now be the most extended grape variety in Spain, however, there should be no inference as to quality here.

A tremendous amount of production is in the central and southern vineyard areas, which are inappropriate - the variety needs cooler (relative to the south) climates over limestone-based soils.

Moreover, it is often produced at yields where it cannot maintain acidity and so, cannot produce sufficient quality at the kind of workhorse level in way that say, Cabernet Sauvignon can - a major reason for why Tempranillo has not found a truly comparable place among the 'international varieties' despite an accessible style and a public well-disposed to the grape.

In this sense, and in others, Tempranillo reminds one of Sangiovese, a quality grape variety of certain complexity and much extended within its county but, performs best perhaps when blended with a small amount of other varieties, in this case such as Graciano or Mazuelo.

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