A Man, A Plan, A Shiraz, Australia!

12 July 2018

Neil McGuigan

One country I routinely avoid in both wine shops and on wine lists is Australia. It’s a flaw of mine. I’m still scarred from insta-hangover Yellowtail and the ark of critter quaffers that followed in its wake. An all-too-brief visit to Australia a couple of years ago helped set me on the road to recovery, however. I loved the wines, especially from the continent’s cool-climate regions. And my recovery continues apace after a sensational lunch at Chicago’s Wollensky’s Grill hosted by McGuigan Wines.

This much-decorated winery stands in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a region just north of Sydney that The World Atlas of Wine calls “a far from ideal place to grow grapes” because of its subtropical climate. Nevertheless, the book praises “a strip of weathered basalt” in the foothills of the Brokenback Range, as well as “red volcanic soils on higher ground, such as those of Pokolbin…” McGuigan stands in the heart of that region, just east of the Brokenback Range. It has vineyards there, but the winery also sources fruit from a number of other regions, including some of Australia’s fashionable cool-climate spots.

Although popular in Britain, McGuigan has only recently become available in the United States. Look for McGuigan’s black “The Plan” label, which can be Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. What sets these wines apart is the the company’s dedication to cleanness and freshness in the wine, according to CEO Neil McGuigan. He’s not interested in making jam bombs:

Food culture [in the U.S.] has grown logarithmically, and where there’s a food culture, a wine culture follows. To go with the food, you need wines that are bright, flavorsome and fresh.

When I hear the words “Australian wine,” the first word that comes to mind is not “fresh.” I love that McGuigan is working on changing that.

We started our lunch with the 2016 “The Plan” Chardonnay, and it certainly got things going on the right foot. It had firm, juicy acids balanced by a touch of creaminess, and some refined Sichuan peppercorn-like spice. It’s a fantastic value for about $12 a bottle. I have trouble thinking of too many other Chardonnays at that price that have the balance of The Plan.

The red McGuigan “The Plan” wines also punched above their weight. The 2016 Red Blend had cheerful notes of vanilla and dark cherries balanced with a spicy lift on the finish. I felt momentarily skeptical of the 2016 Shiraz, which started with jammy fruit and plenty of sweet vanilla, but it maintained balance by finishing fresh and dry. It went in a totally different direction than I was expecting. And I quite liked the plush and plummy 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, which moved slowly from fruit to vanilla to black pepper spice. Each of The Plan wines ranges in alcohol content between 12.5% and 13.5%, which shows admirable restraint in an era when 15% is not uncommon.

The Hand Made Shirazes paired beautifully with steak

We also sampled several vintages of McGuigan “Hand Made” Shiraz, made from grapes grown “just outside Langhorne Creek” in South Australia, not far from Adelaide. Much farther south than the Hunter Valley, and therefore cooler, Langhorne Creek is known for “soft, gentle, mouth-filling Shiraz and succulent Cabernet Sauvignon, according to The World Atlas of Wine. A nearby lake helps keep things fresh: “The so-called Lake Doctor, a reliable afternoon breeze off the lake, slows ripening here so that grapes are usually picked two weeks later than those of McLaren Vale.”

The 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008 vintages were all delicious, and all different. The 2014 is still young and brash, but the 2012 has settled in, with a more obviously fruity aroma marked by an additional savory note. Its tannins felt more fine-grained and the wine moved from moment to moment more slowly. My favorite was the 2010, which had developed even more of a savory quality in its aroma. The wine had excellent balance and control, with big fruit and big, refined, slow-moving spice. Because it was a drought year, 2008 is something of an anomaly, but it too had wonderfully integrated flavors of dark fruit, oak and spice.

The star of the tasting was the 2013 McGuigan “The Philosophy,” a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Shiraz that costs about $125 a bottle. McGuigan has a smart managerial reason for producing this sort of flagship wine. “When you make a $150 bottle,” he explained, “it creates a culture of excellence at the winery, so that a $10 bottle starts to taste like a $12 bottle.”

Is a $125 bottle 10 times as good as a $12 bottle? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that a $125 bottle (ideally) offers something different from a $12 bottle — it offers control, refinement and elegance that require a lot of expensive winemaking technique to achieve. For most of us, a $125 wine won’t be worth the money. But if you want to splurge on such a bottle, “The Philosophy” would be a beautiful choice. It had a dark fruit aroma with a savory undertone, and it developed with confident evenness on the palate. The wine moved with grace from opulent fruit to big oak (the fruit was rich enough to take it) to refined spice to very fine-grained tannins.

It was a joy to drink.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

Value In Bourgogne: Burgundy You Can Afford

21 June 2018

When I hear the word “Burgundy,” it sets my heart a bit aflutter. It’s one of my all-time favorite wine regions to visit — I’ve been four times — and it’s the home of some of the world’s most coveted wines. Burgundy, or Bourgogne to the locals, is the home of Romanée-Conti, Montrachet and La Tâche. The names send shivers down my spine, and I haven’t even tasted any of them! But the Grand Cru Burgundy I have tasted gives me some notion of what these wines must be like. I know I write about the unusual and the obscure, but fine Burgundy, white Burgundy in particular, ranks among my very favorite wines, famous though it may be.

Unfortunately, prices for Grand Cru Burgundies are stratospheric — the names I listed above can fetch four figures a bottle — and Premier Cru Burgundy is only somewhat more affordable. (Although I do vividly remember the time I stumbled upon a bar in Dijon’s food market offering glasses of Les Maranges for 7 euro!)

But Burgundy is more than these famous names. It ranges from cool Chablis in the north through the Côte d’Or heartland down to warm(ish) Mâcon. It’s a big region, and there are numerous values to be had there.

In search of value, Liz Barrett and I interviewed Anne Moreau of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis and the Bourgogne Wine Board. She joined us on an episode of Name That Wine to present four different white Burgundies that offer incredible value for the money:

We try one Champagne-like Crémant de Bourgogne and three gorgeous whites, all very different from one another. And best of all, these wines ranged in price from $18 to $35 a bottle. The $35 wine was a Chablis Premier Cru! Good luck finding a Premier Cru from the Côte d’Or at that price.

What a joy these wines were, and what fun to learn about them with an expert like Anne Moreau! I only wish that when we were blind-tasting the wines, I had taken her hint about #2 a little more to heart. Whoops!

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The Best Wine Grape You’ve Never Heard Of: Pošip

9 June 2018

The balcony of Krajančić winery’s tasting room

I sat on the balcony of a hillside winery overlooking a pocket-sized Adriatic harbor, concerned for a moment that the extravagant beauty of the setting had clouded my judgment of the wine. But another sip confirmed what I already suspected: One of the world’s great grape varieties was one that almost nobody even knew existed.

After I got home, I looked up Pošip (pronounced “POH-ship”) in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. That massive book devotes just one sentence fragment to the grape: “Pošip, impressive southern Croatian white wine grape probably originating on the island of Korčula.” That’s it. The World Atlas of Wine writes but a single word about the grape, calling it “promising.” Well, Pošip’s promise has been kept.

If you like dry white wine, you’ll almost certainly like one version of Pošip or another. The Pošips I tasted ranged from juicy, Sauvignon Blanc-like wines to forceful and mineral Chablis-style bottlings to rich, polished, focused examples that reminded me of top-quality wines from the Côte d’Or. The worst Pošips I tried were merely good. The best were extraordinary.

I first tried Pošip at Diocletian’s Wine House, set behind three massive ancient Roman stone arches in the city of Split. This stylish wine bar and restaurant positively oozes sense-of-place. Its staff could not have been more welcoming, though (full disclosure) I did alert them that I was a wine blogger when I made my reservation. What I thought would be a one-hour tasting with the sommelier turned into a three-hour extravaganza, full of gorgeous wines complemented by platters of savory local cheeses and charcuterie.

Passionate about Pošip at Diocletian’s Wine House

Almost all Pošip is still, but my first taste of the grape was an unusual Degarra “Primo” sparkling Pošip from Zadar, made in the traditional method, including 1.5 years of aging on the lees. It smelled expensive, with notes of baguette, citrus and white flowers, and it felt very classy, with tiny, foamy bubbles, tight acids and a touch of minerality.

I also sampled Degarra’s still Pošip, the new 2017 release, which had a wonderful combination of citrus and chalky minerals. The organic 2017 Rizman Pošip, aged in stainless steel, had an attractive aroma of lime and passion fruit, and it too had that delightful combination of juiciness and minerality. Bright and brilliant.

The Pošips aged in steel as opposed to oak all exhibited that flavor combination, with variations. The refined Krajančić “Intrada” Pošip felt citrusy and saline, the Čara Winery “Marko Polo” Pošip had big lemon-lime acids and a sweetly chalky finish, the focused Toreta Pošip had excellent balance and a note of bay leaf mixed in with the lemon and pear notes, and the Skaramuča Pošip offered plush apple flavor with grapefruity acids, a perk of spice and a dry, mineral finish. These are refreshing, sunny wines that have no shortage of elegance.

But it was the Pošips with a little oak on them that really stole my heart. The 2016 Rizman “Nonno” barrique-aged Pošip was the first to blow my mind. It smelled of buttered popcorn and Meyer lemon, and it was at once big, bold and classy. The wine was gorgeously rich but very focused, with butter, fruit, spice and refined acids in all the right proportions. Korta Katarina’s 2016 Pošip blends wine aged in stainless steel and oak, resulting in a spicy, zesty wine leavened with a touch of cream and a finish of stone.

Both of those wines left me feeling thoroughly seduced by Pošip. Where I fell truly, irrevocably in love with Pošip was on that balcony overlooking the Adriatic, sitting at a table with winemaker Luka Krajančić (pronounced KRAH-yahn-chich). We were in the village of Zavalatica on the island of Korčula, the birthplace of Pošip. By that point I had already fallen in love with the island, which has a spine of weathered limestone mountains rising from green slopes plunging into the sea. Red-roofed hill towns poke up in places, surrounded by stone-walled fields and ancient stone terraces, some abandoned, some supporting struggling olive trees and grape vines.

Admittedly, I arrived at Krajančić’s winery drunk on the beauty of Korčula, but as something of a professional drunk, I knew how to pull myself together in order to properly evaluate his wines. Before I tasted any of them, Krajančić told me he thought that “Pošip could be important worldwide, and [his] vision is to produce the best wine in the world.” I very much liked the Krajančić “Intrada,” but the best wine in the world? Then I tasted the “Sur Lie.”

Grgich Pošip and the town of Korčula

The Krajančić “Sur Lie” Pošip comes from 55-year-old vines, which have much greater potential than young Pošip vines, Krajančić explained. “The energy of this wine is different,” he went on, “because we harvest this in August — very early — it’s still summer, we’re smiling, there are tourists, and we’re happy when we make it.” I certainly felt happy when I drank it. The aroma reminded me of an expensive white Burgundy, with notes of spice and butter. And what grace on the palate! Fresh butter, honeycrisp apples, refined acids, minerals on the finish… and through it all, a shaft of spice like a laser beam. Yes. A thousand times yes.

The “Sur Lie” Pošip felt rich and polished — the kind of wine you would be happy to marry — but the Krajančić “Statut” Pošips were more dangerous and unpredictable — the kind of wine you have a torrid affair with. “We are not controlling this wine,” Krajančić told me. “We are not looking for alcohol fermentation or malolactic fermentation. We put it in a barrel and let it be, like a person.” (Krajančić could be a little enigmatic at times.)

The 2015 “Statut” Pošip had an aroma reminiscent of kettle corn. Its ripe apple fruit almost dropped off, but some spice caught the baton before it fell, followed by a touch of wood on the finish. But the 2016 “Statut” was completely different, with an aroma of candied herbs. It tasted almost heavy, with honeyed fruit and sweet chalk balanced by spice. “This wine is different, because it made the decision that the alcoholic fermentation was not going to end,” Krajančić explained.

He had set out platters of cheese and fresh, sweet prawns, and the Pošips stood up to both with ease. I mentioned this fact, and Krajančić responded, “There’s a mystification around finding the perfect wine pairing for food. The best combination is the best company. It tastes better when you have good company.” I won’t disagree, but having beautiful food on a beautiful sea-view balcony certainly didn’t hurt the experience of the wine.

Korčula

Pošip does have one huge problem, which is that it can’t be produced in great quantity. The island of Korčula is steep and rocky, and most of its vineyards must be worked by hand (the same is true or many vineyards along Croatia’s coast). Most wineries are boutique, family affairs, with relatively small production. There isn’t much demand for Pošip in the United States, but there isn’t much supply, either. That fact makes travel to Croatia that much more rewarding.

That fact also got me thinking. Zinfandel was born in Croatia, and California produces some absolutely delicious wines from that grape. I wonder how Pošip would fare if it were grown somewhere other than its stupendously gorgeous island home?

I suspect it will be some time before I know the answer to that question, if ever. For now, I’m left with the couple of bottles I brought home with me, and the hope that I’ll return soon to Korčula.

Top Undiscovered Wines of Croatia

25 May 2018

A flute of Tomac Brut overlooking Dubrovnik

What a difference two decades can make. The first time I visited Croatia, I found drinkable but boring wines. The years of socialism — when quantity was emphasized over quality — had taken their toll. The violent break-up of Yugoslavia also delayed progress. Italy-bordering Slovenia emerged first, and wines from that gorgeous little country became fashionable years ago. But the name “Croatia” still lacks caché, even today. I suspect that’s going to change, and soon.

On my recent driving tour from Šibenik down to Dubrovnik along the Adriatic coast, I discovered dozens of delicious wines, and a handful that absolutely dazzled. It makes perfect sense that Croatia can achieve vinous greatness. Look at a map of the country, and you’ll see that its coast has an ideal southwest aspect, and a latitude that’s well-nigh perfect, ranging between Bordeaux and Tuscany. Look closer at the coast, and you’ll find steep, ancient terraces that must be worked by hand, where vines grow in the sort of stony soil high-quality wines love. The terroir is hard to beat.

Plus, my heavens, it’s gorgeous to look at. My jaw kept dropping to the floor of my tiny rental car as I drove along sensationally scenic narrow roads lined with weathered limestone mountains, hill towns, olive groves and sea-side vineyards. How many times did I almost drive right off a cliff while gaping at the view?

Some Croatian wineries work with international grape varieties like Syrah and Chardonnay and so forth, but most work with the country’s numerous unique indigenous varieties. Like Portugal, Greece, Georgia and Turkey, Croatia grows all sorts of wonderful vinifera grapes that grow nowhere else. Although one Croatian grape, at least, does indeed grow elsewhere: Crljenak. You might know it by its more familiar name, Zinfandel.

Krajančić Rosé

In spite of these unique grapes grown in gorgeously ideal terroirs, few Croatian wines make it to American store shelves or wine lists, and few American tourists book wine-themed tours to Croatia the way they do to Napa, Bordeaux, Mendoza, Tuscany and the Douro Valley. Why?

Croatia has a number of problems. First and foremost, Croatia’s language has a distinct lack of vowels and an overabundance of unusual diacritical marks. What are you more likely to pick from a wine list? A Rebula from Slovenia, or a Grk from Croatia? Or perhaps I could interest you in a Krajančić Pošip from the island of Korčula? A little refreshing Kujundžuša, perhaps? No. No one is ordering any of that. Mostly because no one can pronounce any of that.

(It’s easier than it seems — if you see a diacritical mark on a consonant, just add an “h” to it: š becomes sh, ć or č becomes ch, and ž becomes like the s in pleasure.)

Next is the issue of quantity that I mentioned earlier. There simply isn’t all that much Croatian wine to go around, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. Those astonishingly beautiful terraced vineyards plunging towards the sea can’t be worked with machinery; everything must be done by hand. The inhospitably stony soil on the coast makes life difficult for the vines, resulting in less, more-concentrated fruit. And Croatia, as countries go, just isn’t very large.

More and more American tourists do go to Croatia, but for ages, all the ads, guidebooks and travel magazines marketing the country have trumpeted its scenic beauty — archipelagoes filled with pristine beaches! — and the historical riches of cities like Split and Dubrovnik. When Americans go, it’s likely as a shore excursion off a cruise ship or, if they’re lucky, they’ve chartered a yacht for a week to sail down the coast. Few travelers, my friends at Exotic Wine Travel excepted, go for the wine.

Every now and then it pays to be a wine blogger.

Also, many Americans don’t seem to know where Croatia actually is. When I told people I was headed there, I got all sorts of interesting questions about its location. One of my acquaintances asked if it was once part of the Soviet Union, and another asked if it would be cold, because isn’t it near Ukraine? It is neither of those things. Coastal Croatia feels far more like Greece than it does Central or Eastern Europe.

I’ll be writing more about a few particular kinds of Croatian wines that delighted me time and time again, but in the meantime, here are a few of the all-around stars I discovered on my trip down the Dalmatian Coast:

NV Degarra Vinarija “Perla”

Kristina, the sommelier of Diocletian’s Wine House in Split, introduced me to this sparkling rosé of Plavina. It was just the beginning of a three-hour tasting extravaganza she organized. The wines ranged from delicious to unforgettable, and the setting was just as memorable: The wine bar incorporates three ancient Roman arches. If you’re in Split, don’t miss the chance to taste wine at Diocletian’s Wine House. But to the Degarra. This wine comes from near Zadar on the coast, as opposed to the inland Plešivica region, Croatia’s sparkling wine capital. I loved its aroma of fresh berries, elegantly small bubbles, sharply focused acids and minerally finish.

Tasting wine at Diocletian’s Wine House (sommelier Kristina at right)

2016 Bire Grk

The rare white Grk grape grows almost exclusively in one corner of the picturesque island of Korčula, one of the loveliest islands in all of Europe. I learned that Grk has only female flowers, so growers of the variety often plant Plavac Mali as well, to ensure that the Grk gets pollinated. Bire receives lots of praise for its Grk, and I can see why. When I took a sip, the wine felt as if it should be heavy in the mouth, what with its rich white fruit and creamy, buttery goodness. But any weightiness evaporated almost immediately — the wine felt like a cloud on my tongue. Quiet acids kept everything in balance and worked well with food, and I also enjoyed the note of bitter orange in the back of my throat at the end. Fascinating!

2016 Rak Maraština

Maraština, also known as Rukatac, doesn’t seem to rank among the most sought-after white grapes in Croatia, but Rak makes a superlative version. Winemaker Ante Rak explained that the highest-quality Maraština comes from around Šibenik and Primošten, because “the land is deeper here, and Maraština works best in deep land.” It had a complex aroma, with melon, cream, spice and something savory underneath. The wine tasted full bodied and rich with stone fruit, balanced by refined, driving acids and focused white-pepper spice.

Winemaker Ante Rak

2012 Rak Babić Barrique

“Babić can be a standard wine or something very special,” Ante told me, and this Babić, aged three years in new oak, is something very special indeed. It smelled wonderfully expensive, with lush raspberry jam and oak notes. “Girl, bring it to me!” was what I wrote in my notebook after giving the wine a sniff. The rich flavor was full of currants and oak, leavened with bright sour-cherry acids and a finish of fine-grained tannins. This is the kind of wine I expect to have in a high-end steakhouse. Big and beautiful.

2015 Rizman Tribidrag

Tribidrag is the original name of Crljenak, or Zinfandel. I tried a number of Zinfandels in Croatia, many of which had jammy fruit and punchy oak, similar to what one might find in Zinfandel from California. The Rizman Tribidrag, however, “is more of a gentleman of a wine,” as Kristina of Diocletian’s Wine House noted. The aroma was of ripe — but not jammy — cherry fruit, with a lift of herbaceous freshness underneath. The wine tasted full and powerful but carefully controlled, as opposed to brash and bold. This was one classy Zin.

Those familiar with Croatian wine might be wondering about two glaring omissions from the list above: Pošip and Plavac Mali. I did taste some stupendous versions of each. Indeed, I tasted so many wonderful Pošips and Plavac Malis, I decided that each grape deserved its own blog post. Stay tuned to learn about two of the most exciting wine grapes in Croatia, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

Nipyata: The Most Unusual Sample I’ve Yet To Receive

4 May 2018

I receive quite emails from PR people offering to send me free samples of various products, ranging from crackers to Cabernet. These days, I turn down almost all of them. It sounds crazy to take a pass on free booze, I know, but if I accept the sample, I feel bound to write about it. And after writing almost 500 posts since 2011, it takes something special to catch my eye nowadays. Recently, I discovered something special indeed.

When I received an email offering to send me a free Nipyata, at first I scoffed. A piñata filled with little bottles of liquor? Come on. This is a serious blog in which I’ve discussed Château Margaux and Hennessey Paradis Impérial Cognac, for heaven’s sake.

But like a fine wine, a fine blog needs balance. More important, this fine wine blogger needed to have a little fun. Bring on the Nipyata!

The Nipyata — “nips” are what the company calls the liquor bottles inside — arrived, and I knew right away where it would do the most good: my office. My colleagues are happy to use the flimsiest pretext as an excuse for a party, which is perhaps the main reason I’ve been with the company for 15 years now, and counting. Cinco de Mayo provided just such an excuse.

Cinco de Mayo actually honors the Mexican victory over the French army at Puebla on May 5, 1862, but in much of the U.S., and at my place of business, we like to use it as an opportunity to party. Nipyata!

On the Nipyata box are all sorts of clever rules to help maximize your Nipyata fun, most of which also involve maximizing your alcohol consumption. I especially like the “Prison Rules” version. I thought I would have to bring a blindfold, stick and hanging cord myself, but all three things conveniently came packaged with the Nipyata.

The “Stay Classy Burrito” Nipyata

We ended up decapitating the Nipyata rather than breaking it open, but our resourceful Nipyata Master (this is an official role designated by the rules, along with a Swinger and a Guide Dog, among others) conjured a shower of candy and booze bottles nevertheless. The booze bottles, incidentally, are plastic, ensuring that none break while the Nipyata is being bashed around.

Nipyatas are not inexpensive, starting at $90 (on sale from $100) for the “Stay Classy Burrito” set including all the accessories and 10 nips (the upgraded 20-nip Nipyata is currently $110). But I can’t deny that we had a fantastic time taking whacks at it and jostling each other for the booze once the Nipyata broke.

So this Cinco de Mayo, you can spend it in a respectful, reflective fashion, meditating on the Mexican contribution to American history, or you could get drunk, take some whacks at a Nipyata and get drunker. The choice seems clear.

This Nipyata was provided as a free sample.

To order your own Nipyata, visit www.Nipyata.com.

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