Monthly Archives: May 2012

Soviet Champagne

30 May 2012

Shopping in the disorganized but intriguing wine section of Gene’s a few days ago, I came across an exciting find: a bottle of 2010 Artemovsk Winery “Krim” semi-sweet sparkling wine. From the Ukraine! The label had the reassuring words “Classical Technology,” which I interpreted as Méthode Champenoise, since it went on to say “aged in bottles for one year.” It would seem I had a well-made Ukrainian sparkling wine on my hands! The $14 price tag indicated some ambition, so I snapped it up.

If you, like me, assumed that Ukraine didn’t have much of a wine industry, you would be quite incorrect. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, about 250,000 acres of vineyards currently grow in this former Soviet republic, mostly on the southerly Crimean Peninsula. Viticulture dates back thousands of years here. Serious sparkling wine production is a more recent phenomenon, starting in 1896 when Henri Roederer (of Roederer Champagne) founded a winery devoted to bubbly near Odessa.

The Russian Imperial Court loved sparkling wine, and the Soviets carried on that tradition (among others less palatable). One of the most important wineries producing Soviet “Champagne” was Artemovsk (also spelled “Artyomovsk”), located in the eastern Ukrainian town of Artemivsk.

No vineyards grace the countryside surrounding this industrial city, so why build a major winery here? Gypsum mines. These huge, abandoned mines provide ideal conditions for aging wine: cool and stable. With aging facilities like this, who cares if you have to truck the grapes up from the Crimean Peninsula?


The Summery Reds Of Austria

26 May 2012

When you hear the words “Austrian wine,” your first connotations are unlikely to be either “summery” or “red.” Although Austrian wines appear with increasing frequency on wine lists and in wine shops, almost all of it will be Grüner Veltliner (along with an occasional Riesling). I love a good Grüner Veltliner — it can pair particularly well with spring vegetables such as asparagus — but this oddly named variety can only barely be considered odd at this point. Instead, let’s talk Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt.

As I noted in this post about Austrian St. Laurent, it can be difficult to find red Austrian wines, so I was particularly excited to be able to try several in succession at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. I already knew I liked St. Laurent going into the tasting, but I felt skeptical about Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt wines. I visited Vienna in my early and mid-20s, and I remembered these wines as a little boring and bland.

As I tasted wine after tasty wine at “Austria Uncorked,” it became increasingly clear I had been drinking at the wrong bars! These wines had excellent fruit, some balancing earth and even a touch of spice. They were great fun, and with a slight chill, they would complement any picnic or barbeque.

Blaufränkisch has been a popular variety for quite some time; it dates back at least 1000 years to pre-medieval times, when “it was common to divide grape varieties into the (superior) ‘fränkisch’, whose origins lay with the Franks, and the rest,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The Companion as well as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia note that it grows in abundance near the warm, shallow Neusiedlersee (Neusiedler Lake) in Austria’s Burgenland region.

Zweigelt, on the other hand, is a much newer variety. Also known as “Blauer Zweigelt,” this grape dates back only to 1922, when Dr. Zweigelt crossed Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. According to the Companion, Zweigelt “at its best combines some of the bite of the first with the elegance of the second,” although sometimes it produces “too much dilute wine.” Sotheby’s agrees, praising the best examples but cautioning that “the norm is rather light and lackluster.”

Fortunately, that certainly wasn’t the norm at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. Here’s a roundup of some of the Austrian reds I particularly enjoyed, most of which are (or will be) available in the United States:

2010 Claus Preisinger Zweigelt: This winery sandwiched between the Neusiedlersee and the Hungarian border grows its grapes biodynamically, following the principles of Rudolf Steiner. It seems to be working — I certainly enjoyed this Zweigelt. The wine had an aroma dominated by iron, and lots of red fruit on the palate. The finish was surprisingly dry and tannic.

2009 Claus Preisinger “Pannobile”: This garnet-colored blend of 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufränkisch smelled of dark fruit and iron. The flavors took me on a memorable journey, moving from rich fruit to metal to earth to spice. Delicious.

2010 Lenz Moser Zweigelt: Since Burgenland-based Lenz Moser is one of Austria’s largest wine exporters, you might be able to find this brand at your local wine shop. This brick-red Zweigelt had the telltale aromas of fruit and iron and a rather simple, fruity flavor profile, finishing with a bit of spice. Easy to drink, and probably best with a touch of chill.

2011 Pfaffl Austrian Rosé: Pfaffl’s vineyards grow in the aptly named (and very large) Weinviertel region north of Vienna, and Sotheby’s cites this winery as one of the few in the area worth knowing about. This charming Zweigelt rosé had the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, ample fruit and a pleasantly chalky finish. An ideal picnic choice.


Furmint And Bull’s Blood

23 May 2012

A dear friend and talented graphic designer did me the great favor of designing my business cards some time ago, and I resolved to thank him in proper Odd Bacchus fashion. Since his paternal grandfather is of Hungarian extraction, it seemed like a fun idea to cook up a full-blown Hungarian feast for him and his wife, complete with wine pairings.

Frustratingly, sometimes it seemed that making a full-blown Hungarian feast was easier than finding fine Hungarian wines.

A number of shops in Chicago carry Hungarian wines, but too often it’s low-quality, “semi-sweet” plonk. Binny’s, for example, had a number of unpromising looking bottles in its small Eastern European wine section, to which Georgia, Armenia and Bulgaria apparently send the wines too appalling to drink at home. These countries actually all make fine wine, but it too rarely makes it to the United States.

I moved on to the Austrian section, planning to use the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an excuse to serve wine from across the border. What a pleasant surprise to find a bottle of 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec hiding in a forest of Grüner Veltliner! And how telling, that Binny’s chose to place this Hungarian wine in the high-class Austrian section, rather than in the Eastern ‘hood with its over-sweet compatriots. I snatched it up.

The name takes a little unpacking to understand. The Királyudvar winery is located in Tokaj, a renowned wine region near Hungary’s northern boundary. Although this region is most famous for Sauternes-like Tokaji Aszú, a lusciously sweet wine made from botrytized Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes, this Furmint/Hárslevelű blend is sec, or dry. Sweet wines from Tokaj have been prized for centuries, but dry table wines are a relatively new phenomenon.

Because Furmint grapes are particularly susceptible to the botrytis fungus (noble rot), they’re ideal for Tokaji Aszú, but much harder to use in dry wines. Rather than use chemicals to tackle the botrytis, Királyudvar found a hillside vineyard called Percze where botrytis sets in very late in the season, allowing the grapes to fully ripen before being affected by the fungus.

The resulting dry Furmint delighted all of us at the table. It had a rich, enticing and exotic aroma of overripe pear and perhaps a touch of camphor. Others smelled dark berries and even bubble gum. The lush texture and honeyed flavor reminded me of why Furmint and Hárslevelű work so well in Tokaji Aszú. Ample acids provided refreshing balance, and I loved the clean, minerally finish. The acids also stood up well to my version of “Fisherman’s Soup à la Szeged,” though the pairing didn’t make any sparks fly.

I felt nervous about my $8 bottle of Egri Bikavér, also known as Bull’s Blood, Hungary’s most famous red wine and the only Hungarian red I could find. As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, this Kékfrankos-based wine from Eger (halfway between Budapest and Tokaj) “has been notoriously variable in both quality and character” since the 1980s. My gamble did not pay off. This wine tasted like vanilla-soaked wood, and not much else. It was undrinkable. Fortunately, the Furmint could hold its own even against the beef pörkölt, a thick stew with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and spicy paprika.

I wish that more of Hungary’s finer reds would make their way stateside. Unless you have a reputable source, sticking to whites will be safest. If you do see a dry Hungarian white, I strongly recommend giving it a try. It will likely have been made by a forward-thinking winery and crafted with care. And if you do happen upon a well-priced bottle of Tokaji Aszú, for goodness sake buy it, and bring it over immediately.


2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec: A delightful and unusual white, with a rich aroma and rich flavors tempered by food-friendly acids and attention-grabbing minerals. Drink with light cream- or olive-oil based sauces, or even lightly spicy Asian cuisine. Chill well before serving.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this bottle at Binny’s in Lakeview (in the Austrian section) for $20. Ignore the website’s description — it’s not a dessert wine. It’s fruity, but unquestionably dry.


Alcoholic Archaeology

19 May 2012

The first time I remember reading about Crème Yvette was in the now-defunct Wall Street Journal cocktail column, “How’s Your Drink?”, written by Eric Felten. In this 2006 article, he lamented that no one will ever have the opportunity to taste a proper Blue Moon cocktail, because Crème Yvette “long ago went the way of the Great Auk.” He mentioned it again in 2007, taking the Yale Club in New York to task for using food coloring-rich blue curaçao in its Yale Cocktail (Crème Yvette used to provide a naturally purple color).

Unfortunately, all bartenders had to muddle through with Crème Yvette substitutes, because the Charles Jacquin et Cie liqueur company stopped making the liqueur in 1969. And that was that, for fifty years. I assumed it was lost forever, until I found it listed on the cocktail menu of the newly renovated Four Seasons Chicago. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Crème Yvette was back?

According to a 2009 interview in Imbibe Magazine, Charles Jacquin et Cie’s Robert Cooper had long been fascinated by the discontinued products of his family’s company, including Crème Yvette. On the heels of his success introducing St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and encouraged by a number of bartenders, Cooper decided to reintroduce this spirit made from dried violet petals, blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, blackcurrants, honey, orange peel and vanilla.

This resurrected liqueur doesn’t come cheap, however. Binny’s sells it for $50. Before you invest in an entire bottle, give Crème Yvette a try in a bar. The Four Seasons makes a fine cocktail with it called the , a riff on the classic Aviation. Here, the mixologist replaces the Aviation’s gin with Journeyman W.R. Whiskey, mixing it with Crème Yvette, Yuzu (a small grapefruit-like fruit) and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (not to be confused with fluorescent red “maraschino” cherry juice).

I can’t deny that I felt I shiver of excitement as I tasted the A², my first ever chance to sample anything with Crème Yvette. The cocktail had an aroma of purple grapes, a strong, fruity flavor with some tangy citrus notes, and a dry, floral finish. A well-balanced and elegant drink, and well-priced at $14. Bars in many other five-star hotels wouldn’t hesitate to charge twice as much.

You won’t find an A² anywhere but the Four Seasons, but if a bar near you has Crème Yvette on the shelf, ask for a classic Blue Moon (2 parts gin, 1/2 part Crème Yvette, 1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice; shaken with ice and strained).

It will be a taste of history.

From The Formerly Malarial Side Of Tuscany

16 May 2012

Until relatively recently, Italy’s Maremma region was better known for poverty and malarial swamps than fine wine. Mussolini drained the swamps, solving the malaria problem, but the region didn’t achieve much viticultural fame until the 1970s, when Sassicaia hit the scene (now it’s one of Italy’s most well-known and expensive wines).

One little region rose above the swamps, however, allowing vineyards to be cultivated well before Mussolini intervened. Morellino di Scansano had a fine reputation at least as far back as the 19th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Nowadays the area has achieved DOCG status, a significant vote of confidence for its wines.

On hillsides near the sea, vineyards planted with Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) flourish in “balmy conditions,” notes The World Atlas of Wine, and “a host of outsiders” such as Antinori and Frescobaldi have invested in wineries here. But Maremma didn’t quite turn out to be the next Chianti, and the lack of pedigree along with the economic downturns in the last decade “left many a producer with a large hole in their bank account,” according to the Companion. That has left consumers with some “interesting bargains” on their hands.

And goodness knows I love a good bargain. I wish I could claim to have known about the value proposition of Morellino di Scansano before I purchased a bottle of it at Urban Orchard, but no. I bought the wine because I’d never heard of Morellino di Scansano before, and because it was only $15. That’s a buck or two more than I usually like to spend on an unknown, but hey, it was DOCG, and there were two creepy-looking peasants with scythes on the label. How could I resist?


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