Pinot Noir is a serious stage actress. Cabernet Sauvignon is a Hollywood goddess. Malbec is a hardcore porn star.
The World Wine Awards. They were the brainchild of the excellent Canadian website Wine Align. For the last two years, about 20 wine experts have been assembled in a hotel to taste, rate and rank hundreds of the world’s best bottles of wine. There’s only one rule. The wine must be available, somewhere in Canada, for less than $50 a bottle.
There were 1335 entries for the 2014 awards and, in October, when the winners were announced, they instantly disappeared from Canadian store shelves. But what about Mexican shelves? The enthusiasm for wine in Mexico is minuscule compared to Canada. The per capita consumption is only one tenth of the Canadian number. Was there a chance I could find any of the wines in this country?
I took the name of each of the winners and, one by one, put the name of the wine and the word Mexico into a Google Search. One by one, I struck out. Until I was somewhere near the bottom of the ninth. And, with one of the last cracks of the bat, I hit a home run.
A wine that won best of its grape variety, best in its price group, best of its country and a very prestigious gold award was on the price list of a distributor in nearby Leon.
A few emails later and 18 guys were gathered at Casa Chiquita, on one of San Miguel de Allende’s prettiest patios, for a tasting.
To prep the palate (and more importantly because we didn’t have enough pesos to be drinking the award winning wine all through lunch) we started with a refreshing white from Tintos y Copas, the same distributor who represents the recipient of the World Wine Award.
It was a very San Miguel de Allende day. A just a few fluffy clouds in the sky day. A perfect day for Torrontes. And especially San Felipe Seleccion Torrontes, an excellent example of the grape at the lower end of the price range. Torrontes is Argentina’s signature white and perfect for patio sipping.
As we counted the church steeples you can see from Casa Chiquita‘s roof, I did the look like you’re sophisticated swirl and stuck my nose in the glass for the floral notes of jasmine and geraniums that are typical for Torrontes. On the tongue, there was peach and grapefruit and honey, all a nice balance for the vinegary dressing that painted the green salad with peppers, sun dried tomatoes and a generous amount of cheese.
“I like this vinaigrette”, said Terry. “Most dressings are way too sweet for me.”
There are at least 20 places doing pizza in San Miguel and Casa Chiquita is either first or second on my hit list. The pizzas are baked in a mesquite-fired oven with crispy, thin, Neopolitan-style crusts. The toppings are imaginative, generous but never weird.
Luz, one half of Jorgé and Luz, the delightful couple that came from the West coast to manage Casa Chiquita about seven months ago, had brought out our first pizza, one called Carnes Frias by the restaurant.
I like the way the plates are all made of wood at Casa Chiquita (but can’t help feeling sorry for whoever has to wash the melted cheese off them). I like a little chile oil on my pizza so I like the way each table gets a little bowl.
There was no meat on original Neopolitan pizzas. Carnes Frias is topped with an entire delicatessen of meat, including salami, turkey, pepperoni and prosciutto plus cheese and pomodoro sauce. When I first reviewed Casa Chiquita, I had one complaint. The pomodoro had too much tomato paste. I’m happy to say that has been corrected. There’s less of it (which is good) and the sauce is now much fresher and sweeter tasting.
I wanted meat to top all three of the pizzas we were tasting because it was a big wine we were about to taste. Yes, it was time for the star of the show to take the stage. The bottles had been unwrapped from their fancy tissue paper and opened a couple of hours earlier because this is a wine that really needs to open up before it kisses your lips.
Kaiken is one of Argentina’s most successful wineries. With six different grapes represented in their line-up. Bottles that bear the black Kaiken Ultra label are ranked a step above the Reservas and have excellent structure, full and rounded tannins, complexity, and a long finish. Kaiken Ultra Malbec was ready for tasting.
I recently received an email containing the weekly issue of a wine buyer’s guide that I subscribe to. It was the release of their “Argentine Edition” and in the description of the Malbec that was reviewed all of the following words were used: Big, savoury, floral, orange peel, chocolate, dried herb, vanilla, rich, round, supple, balance, juiciness. tobacco, cedar, mushroom, rooty, licorice, spicy, savoury, black olive, black cherry and black plum. As I smelled and then tasted the Kaiken Ultra Malbec, I thought of how many of those words applied. Not all of them. But most of them.
For some people it would be wearing a celebrated designer’s clothing. For others it would be hearing a great diva’s voice. For others it would be a ride in a European sports car. For me, tasting that Kaiken Ultra Malbec was dressing in an Armani suit while riding in a Ferrari Testarossa while listening to Maria Callas singing La Traviata.
We were now on to a combination of toppings called Cipriani, the only pizza I’ve ever had with beef carpaccio and when combined with arugula, black olives, sundried tomatoes and a mysterious dressing called Adarezo Harris, it makes one of the best pizza flavor combinations ever. Adarezo Harris has driven me crazy since the first time I saw it on Casa Chiquita‘s menu. I’d hated to admit that, me, who spends about a quarter of his life either eating food or reading about it, had never ever heard of it but finally I couldn’t help myself.
I didn’t feel quite as bad when Jorgé told me, “Aderezo Harris is made of parmesan cheese, a taste of mayonnaise and perejil. Honestly I don’t know where the name comes from.”
The pizza was now being talked up by all of the guys with a unanimous thumbs up for Jorgé and Luz and Casa Chiquita‘s chef who’s in charge of the oven. Well unanimous except for Walter who thinks that spinach should be on Popeye cartoons not pizza.
“This is how thin crust pizza should be”, said Jack. “Great toppings”, said Andy. “Fabulous pizza”, said Mark. “Interesting and unusual toppings”, said Cliff. “I love this pizza”, said Jacques. “Especially with the wine”, said Ron.
Malbec was introduced to Argentina in 1868 by a French agricultural scientist. For years, Argentinian Malbec was known as a bulk wine, marketed with names as bland as “House Red”. Over the last 30 years, winemakers in Mendoza, where most of the Malbec is grown, have started to prune more dramatically and plant newer clones that are allowing for the marketing of premium labels. Because Argentinian Malbec is still in the early stages of recognition from critics and the public alike, it is much easier to purchase the very best.
I’m never going to be able to afford a great Burgundy. I’m never going to be able to afford a great Bordeaux. But I have now tasted a great Malbec. And I was even able to treat myself to a few more bottles of Kaiken Ultra Malbec that I’m going to drink one of, every year, for the next five years. Knowing that it’s just going to get better.
Kaiken Ultra Malbec is available from Tintos y Copas for $4548 pesos a 12 bottle case. San Felipe Torrontes is $1704 pesos a case. To order or for more information about wines distributed by Tintos y Copas, contact Isaac Heredia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Casa Chiquita Pizza is located at Correo #45 at the corner of Chiquitos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Their menu is available at casachiquita.com.mx. Telephone 415 152 3327 for pick-up or delivery. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.