Saturday, 25 September 2010

Cheval des Andes tasting at Ham Polo Club

Last Wednesday Nicolas Audebert, winemaker for the Mendoza-based Terrazas de los Andes, flew into town to host a vertical tasting of Cheval des Andes – a joint venture between Terrazas and Ch√Ęteau Cheval Blanc in St Emilion.

The tasting, quite appropriately, took place at Ham Polo club in Richmond, where Audebert must have felt at home. He's such a polo nut he built a polo pitch in the middle of one of his vineyards in Mendoza.

We all sit down in the club house and Audebert emerges, looking like a movie star (Ed Burns with a bit of Matthew fox thrown in) in a brown leather jacket with a pristine beige pashmina around his neck. He's even got designer stubble. I never get like this with winemakers but I'm all of a flutter, and unable to take my eyes off him. He launches into describing the five wines on show, comparing a single varietal to a violin, and a blend to an orchestra. He seems particularly fond of this comparison, and uses it several times throughout the tasting. 'Malbec is more interesting when it's blended', he admits.

First up we try the Terrazas Torrontes 2008 from Salta. I'm not a Torrontes fan - it's like chomping on a wedding bouquet, but this is light and fresh with good acidity and a lovely orange blossom finish. We move on to the Terrazas Reserva Malbec 2007, which is bursting with red currants, sour cherries and violets. Smooth on the palate, the tannins are wonderfully soft, making way for the peppery finish.

I'm trying my best to concentrate on the wines, but my eyes keep wondering back to Nicolas, still in his leather jacket and pashmina. It looks like he's just landed his own private jet on the polo pitch and I half expect a pair of Biggles goggles to fall out of his back pocket.

After the Terrazas duo, he talks us through a trio of Cheval des Andes, which he describes as 'a South American first growth', made from a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The 2006 is inky purple, with an attack of pink grapefruit, violets, black cherry, black currant and vanilla. Cabernet dominant, it's silky on the palate, with fine grain tannins, smoky tobacco notes and hints of rosemary and mint on the finish. It needs time to develop. These are definitely wines for laying down.

Next up is the 2003, which wins us all over. Deep ruby, it has a warm, almost Port-like nose - you can smell the heat of the vintage, with cherries, raspberries, chocolate, leather, figs, dried fruits, tobacco and spice all in the mix. Seven years of ageing and it has come out of its shell magnificently, with a velvety palate and sweet spice on the finish. 'We used lots of Petit Verdot to give it freshness', Audbert says.

Lastly we try the 1999. A bright garnet colour, it smells like an aged Bordeaux. As soon as I get stuck in, I realise how long it's been since I tasted an old claret, and how much I miss it. This is all about the secondary notes: leather, meat, game, pencil shavings, cedar and cigar box, with tobacco, laurel and chocolate on the palate developing into a mushroomy, olive finish. There is so much going on in the glass.

It's exciting to see such complex, ageworthy wines coming out of Argentina. And that is where Audebert's challenge lies: what to take from Bordeaux and what to keep from Argentina in the blend. It would be boring to make wines that ape Bordeaux, but equally, with his classic training, he is trying to achieve the perfect balance between New World power and juiciness of fruit, and Old World elegance and freshness – the best of both worlds. After the tasting Audebert swaps his leather jacket for a polo shirt and mounts his trusty steed for a 4 chukka polo match against the Gaucho restaurant team, while we all dive into juicy steaks followed by mountains of dulce de leche ice cream.

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