Conundrum Red, Conundrum White
C onundrum is one of those wines that has been around for a long time that you don’t think about much until you want a fail-safe wine that is sure to please everyone. Actually, it’s two wines, Conundrum White ($16) and Conundrum Red ($25).
Both are terrific, and I enjoyed a virtual tasting of them with the winemaker and two sommeliers last week. It was a tasting set up by Wine Spectator Magazine, where you buy the two bottles of wine and join an online tasting. These tastings are great fun, and a decent substitute for in-person tastings we have all been missing. There was no mystery or enigma about these wines: they were delicious and pretty good bargains.
This tasting was hosted by Keith Goldston, master sommelier and wine director at The Post Oak Hotel in Houston, and his deputy, Travis Hinkle, also a sommelier.
Conundrum White has been around since 1989, but its roots go back to 1972 when Caymus founder Charlie Wagner Sr. would sit down at the dinner table and blend some wine for that night’s dinner. There were few American blends back then, so his experiments were pretty radical.
Caymus, which is known for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, was started by Chuck Wagner and his parents, Charlie and Lorna, in 1972. When Conundrum was first produced, it was known as Caymus Conundrum. By 2001 it had become so popular it became its own brand and the name Caymus was dropped from the label.
The brand also moved into its own winery in Monterey County, while Caymus remains in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district. In 2011 a Conundrum Red was added.
For the tasting last week if you lived near a Del Frisco’s Grille, you also could order the food pairing, starting with a Caesar Salad, and followed by two seasoned center cut Filet Mignons. (You had to cook the steaks at home.)
Sides were Truffle Mac and Cheese and Brussel Sprouts with Smoked Bacon. Desert was Caramel Pot De Creme.
I didn’t have any of that great sounding food, but I loved the wines anyway.
We started with the white, which Hinkle said was a blend of Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli and Viognier.
“The blend gives the winemaker a greater toolbox,” said Hinkle. “So you get something interesting and special each year.”
The winery never discloses what the exact blend is each year.
When Charlie Wagner Jr. joined the conversation he said the five wines are consistent pieces each year.
“It has changed and now it’s not as sweet as it used to he,” he said. “There’s not as much residual sugar.”
This was a beautiful wine, with aromas of melon, pear, apricot and honeysuckle. There was a hint of sweetness on the first taste, but it was balanced by fresh acidity. Dry, fresh and crisp, it had a long, smooth finish. Each varietal added something to the blend.
Chardonnay adds weight and complexity. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon bring crisp acidity, while Muscat Canelli adds floral qualities. Viognier gives the wine its lush texture.
“It smells like fun and summer,” said Goldston. “It’s sexy and alluring, but approachable.”
For those tasters who had the meal package he said the white would pair well with the salad.
Next we moved on to Conundrum Red, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. This was another beautiful wine, with aromas of plums and dark berries. I picked up flavors of black cherries, blackberries and blueberries with a rich, smooth mouthfeel.
I had chilled this wine slightly before the tasting, and that’s what Goldston recommended, too. It would pair well with anything on the grill, and with spicy foods, such as a rich spaghetti sauce, or Asian and Indian foods or even tacos.
It is a wine of good structure, richness and complexity.
“We can source grapes from anywhere in the state,” said Wagner. “We have a base blend, but every year we experiment. There are no rules with this wine. These are like the wines my grandfather would blend at the table.”
Wagner explained they started with Conundrum White because the family came from the Alsace region of France, which is known for its crisp, mineral-laden white wines.
“I grew up among the vines,” said Wagner. “It’s been a great ride, and we have a lot of fun in what we do.”
Each block of grapes that goes into the blend is harvested separately and fermented separately. Then they experiment with various blends before settling on each year’s Conundrum.
“Once it’s blended, you can’t unblend it,” he said, explaining why they don’t ferment all the fruit together.
Wagner said some of the white wine, such as Chardonnay, is fermented in barrels, but much of the wine is fermented in stainless steel. They start blending 2-3 weeks before bottling. All the red varietals are fermented in barrels.
“We do a lot of bench blends,” he said.
Another project of Wagner’s is Red Shooner, a Malbec made from grapes grown in the Andes Mountains of Argentina. The grapes are shipped chilled to Napa Valley and produced in the style of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon.
He’s also working on a Cab/Shiraz blend from the Barossa Valley of Australia. It doesn’t have a name yet.
Caymus has several separate brands, all run by members of the Wagner family. Besides Caymus, Conundum and Red Schooner, there is Mer Soleil and Emmolo.
Charlie Jr.‘s brother Joe Wagner ran the Meiomi Pinot Noir brand until he sold the brand to Constellation for $315 million. Now he has his own company, Copper Cane Wine & Provisions, with several other brands.
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Conundrum Red, Conundrum White