Monthly Archives: April 2014

Good News From The Balkans

19 April 2014
Marko Babsek

Marko Babsek

Many people in the United States associate southern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula with war, not wine. Even before the breakup of Yugoslavia, the communist economic system encouraged high yields and “production standards were as low as the market would bear,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. But peace and capitalism have thoroughly transformed the region’s viticulture, and independent wineries are once again free to focus on quality wines from exciting indigenous grapes.

Those of us who live elsewhere are just recently starting to discover the riches of the region. Only in 2001, for example, did DNA profiling establish that Zinfandel, one of the United States’ most popular varieties, was identical to Crljenak Kaštelanski. When it was rediscovered, this ancient Croatian variety had been reduced to just a handful of vines on an island near the city of Split. Now it’s once again possible to buy Zinfandel produced in the terroir where the variety originated. 

I’ve written about wines from the Balkans here and there on this blog, and almost always favorably. Because the wines often came from very small wineries with limited production, it didn’t seem to me like they would make much of an impression in America’s collective wine consciousness. But that may be about to change.

About a year ago, certified sommelier and native Serbian Marko Babsek created a portfolio of wines called The Balkan Project for Winebow, a major importer and distributor. During a Winebow tasting in Chicago, I asked Babsek about this new portfolio. He seeks out wines made from “indigenous grapes which really highlight the region,” he said. “There aren’t really any more co-ops” in the Balkans, Babsek explained, “because they weren’t financially sustainable.” That leaves the independent wineries, which tend to focus much more on quality. And they are what Babsek and The Balkan Project focus on.

I tasted nine of the wines in the portfolio, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. In fact, several were quite strikingly delicious. If these represent the future of Balkan wines — the “first wave” of Balkan wines competing in a mainstream setting, as Babsek noted — we have exciting days ahead of us. It may not be long before it’s as common to see a “Balkan” section in a wine shop as it is to see an Argentinean section.

MACEDONIAN WINES:

2012 Stobi Žilavka: Tiny, landlocked Macedonia lies on the northern border of Greece, making it the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. Stobi is one of its largest wineries, and it used to export bulk wine to the Soviet Union before retooling to concentrate on quality instead of just quantity. The Balkan Wine Project’s website notes that Žilavka is an ancient Macedonian variety usually used for blending, but The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that it’s mostly planted in Herzegovina, where it can make “distinctive” white wines. In any case, I certainly enjoyed this unusual 100% Žilavka, which had aromas of citrus and creamy white fruit, focused fruit on the palace and some minerals on the finish. 

2011 Stobi Vranec: I’ll always have a soft spot for Vranec (also spelled “Vranac”), an ancient red variety native to the Balkans with a parent/offspring relationship to Zinfandel. It was a bottle of velvety Jović Vranac from Serbia which inspired this blog. This Macedonian expression had a ripe and lush dark-fruit aroma with an intriguing saline overtone. Very well-balanced, the wine had plummy fruit, a wonderful dusky quality and a spicy finish. Delightful. 

Balkan Wine ProjectCROATIAN WINES:

2012 Bruno Trapan Istrian Malvazija “Ponente”: Istria, a triangular peninsula jutting off the northwest of Croatia, used to belong to Italy, and its food and wine has started to rival that of its former owner. The two Istrian wines Babek presented during the tasting both were absolutely delicious and would surely please the pickiest of dinner guests. This Istrian Malvazija (known locally as Malvazija Istarska)  had a memorably rich aroma which almost moved into caramel territory. Savory and a bit floral, this beautifully balanced wine had impressively focused acids and an underlying note of salinity. Unusual and very, very tasty.

2008 Roxanich “Ines in White”: Roxanich, also an Istrian winery, produces wines with little technological and chemical intervention, emulating ancient methods as much as possible. It even bottles wine only during the full moon, according to its website. The “Ines in White” wine is a field blend, which means that instead of blending wines from barrels after they’ve already fermented, the blend literally occurs in the field. The vineyard for this wine contains Verduzzo, Sivi Pinot, Bijeli Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc, Friulano, Riesling Italico and Glera varieties, and the all grapes are fermented together to create the blend. Because the wine is aged in large (poorly sealed) wooden vats, it slowly oxidizes and turns orange. Add to that a lack of filtration, and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But this unusual, almost reactionary winemaking process results in a lovely final product. It smelled of sweet and rich orange flowers, but it tasted very dry, with focused fruit, tart acids and some noticeable tannins. It reminded me a bit of Frank Cornelissen’s Munjebel #9. Unique and wonderful.

SERBIAN WINES:

2011 Milijan Jelić Morava: This winery near Valvejo southeast of Belgrade dates back only to 2002, but already it’s producing wines worthy of note. I was glad Marko Babsek told me that Morava is a cross of Riesling and local Serbian varieties, since Morava doesn’t even appear in my Oxford Companion to Wine. Perhaps that’s because Milijan Jelić has the only vineyard of this variety in the world! This “Serbian Kerner,” as Babsek liked to call it, had an appealing aroma of tropical fruit and peaches underlined by lemon-lime citrus. The peaches reappeared on the palate, but tart acidity kept them well in balance. It reminded me of Pessac-Léognan from Bordeaux, one of my favorite white wines from anywhere. Seek this wine out.

2012 Agrina DOO Portugizer: The winery which produces this red is actually called Mačkov Podrum, but on exported bottles, the name was changed to the more pronounceable Agrina. I haven’t had too many good experiences with Portugieser (the more common spelling), to be honest. I remember it mostly from wine taverns in Vienna, where it tasted quite light and rather boring. But as the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, this variety “can yield wines of real concentration” in certain locations. This particular expression of Portugieser had a grape jam aroma and purple flavors of big, open fruit. Lemony acids provided some balance. A fun wine for a party.

2008 Vino Budimir Riesling “Margus Margi”: The hilly estate of Budimir has some of the oldest vineyards in The Balkan Project’s portfolio. Riesling may not be indigenous to Serbia, but Vino Budimir puts a distinctly local slant on this well-known variety. It smelled sweet and smoky, this Riesling, and though it tasted rich, powerful acids maintained balance. After a couple of sips I was craving a plate of pork cutlets with paprika.

2007 Vino Budimir “Sub Rosa”: Babsek alerted me that this wine, a blend of native Prokupac and Cabernet Sauvignon, comes from some particularly old vines on the property. It shows. The wine had a fascinating and enticing aroma of musky spice mixed with jammy fruit. It tasted of deeply rich, red fruit but the acids and some bracing tannins kept everything well in balance. I would love to have a few bottles of this in my cellar.

2007 Vino Budimir “Triada” Red: Triada translates as “trinity,” according to The Balkan Project website, and the name refers to the winery’s motto: “My family, my land, my wine.” This wine is composed of only one grape variety, Prokupac, which some claim is identical to Syrah, according to the Oxford Companion. I’ve been quite fond of Prokupac ever since I was introduced to it, and this example did nothing to change my strong affection for the variety. It had aromas of raspberry jam and earth, overlaid with a floral note — lilac perhaps. It tasted of dark fruit but felt surprisingly austere and dry, with almost rasping tannins leavened with juicy acids. Surely excellent with steak.

Too often, if one sees quality Balkan wines in a store at all, they’re shunted off with uninteresting, sickly sweet Manischewitz-like plonk. The wines in The Balkan Wine Project’s portfolio, along with the other fine examples I’ve tasted over the last three years, clearly demonstrate the high potential of this region. These wines deserve respect. There are exciting things happening on that peninsula, and wine drinkers are starting to notice.

Spit, Blood and Madness: The Mythology of Mead

12 April 2014

The article below was written by travel writer Susie Meadows, who had a fine idea for a guest post for this blog. She contributed a fascinating piece about the mythical origins of mead:

Mead was once a staple tipple of northwest Europe. Indeed, “mead halls” were the dwellings of Dark Age kings, where warriors would carouse and boast of their warlike exploits upon the medobenc (“mead-benches” or, as we call them, “benches”). The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf , serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.

Mead was clearly an integral part of this culture – and continued to be so in the Scando-Germanic world for many centuries.

A Faded Art

Now, however, asking for a pint of mead in a British, German or Scandinavian pub would get you a blank stare or an amused raised eyebrow. Bringing a bottle to a party is an immediate talking point due to its novelty value. Everybody has heard of this once-ubiquitous drink, but nobody is quite sure what it is. A few dedicated producers still make the stuff, but it’s rare. A curious downfall for a drink once considered sacred. However, mead is making a comeback, so it’s about time we reacquainted ourselves with this ancient beverage.

Honey and Yeast

First the basics. Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey. Given the sugar content of honey it is extremely easy to make – simply add water and yeast, come back after the yeast has worked its magic, and voilà! Of course, production methods have been refined somewhat over the centuries, but the basic principle remains the same. Mead is sweet but should not be sickly, and it can be imbued with a variety of flavors to give a complex taste comparable to that of wine of beer. Alcohol content is typically around 13%, and the final product is significantly influenced by the type of honey used. It has the rather marvelous reputation of allowing people to drink without visiting a morning-after hangover upon them – although if Old English hangover poetry (a flourishing genre in Dark-Age Britain) is anything to go by, this has more to do with the mythical healing properties of honey than with fact.

Visceral Creation

So much for the theory. Now for the mythology. Mead is an incredibly ancient drink – considered by some to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world (although it competes with beer for this title). Whatever its provenance, the drink was adopted with gusto by the people of Britain, Scandinavia and several Germanic nations. Such was their adoration for the “bright sweetness” that they imbued it with a deep mythic significance bordering on worship (anyone who has visited a British city on a Saturday night will have witnessed the evolution of this attitude to encompass the entire spectrum of booze).

Mead even has a Norse creation myth – although it’s probably not one to contemplate while enjoying a mouthful of the stuff. The story goes that the Æsir (Norse gods) had concluded a war with the Vanir (also Norse gods, subordinated in defeat). To seal their peace treaty, each of the gods spat into a vat. This was common Nordic practice, for reasons which remain unclear. Out of their spittle, they molded a man whom they named Kvasir.

Dwarven Murderers

Kvasir was incredibly wise. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, there was no question which Kvasir could not answer. He traveled the world dispensing his knowledge, until he had the bad fortune of falling into the hands of a pair of dwarves. These dwarves killed him and poured his blood into a pair of vats and a pot. They mixed the blood with honey, creating a mead which would grant anyone who drank it great wisdom and the divine gift of poetry. When the gods queried the location of Kvasir, the dwarves told them that he had suffocated beneath the weight of his great intelligence. The Norse pantheon – most of whom were never particularly noted for their intellects – appears to have accepted this dubious explanation without question.

Trickery, Sex, and Theft

Ultimately the dwarves were forced to give up their mead in restitution for some casual giant-slaying in which they had engaged. The mead was stored in the center of a mountain, guarded by a giantess named Gunnlod. By and by, Odin (a god of rare intelligence) came to hear of this turn of events and went to obtain the mead. By great artifice and cunning, Odin tricked a succession of laborers in order to obtain, by degrees, a mighty drill with which he could penetrate the mountain. In case the Freudian implications of such a device were not entirely clear to the audience, he then spent three lustful nights with Gunnlod. For each sexual encounter he was rewarded with a draught of the mead, and the conjugal consumption of mead would go on to have sexual connotations for many centuries. Each draught he took emptied one of the containers. He somehow managed to hold the mead in his mouth through each subsequent romp, and then maintain his hold on it despite transforming himself into an eagle to make his escape. (The bills of eagles are notoriously poor at holding stolen blood-mead, but Odin, as a god, was up to the challenge.) He transported the mead back to Asgard, where forever after he distributed it to men worthy of the divine gift of poetry.

The Earthly Results

Mead spread like wildfire through the Scando-Germanic world. Alcohol is of course addictive, and as we now know, sugar has similar addictive properties. The combination of high amounts of honeyed sugar and alcohol was a recipe almost guaranteed to take hold of cultures which prized drinking as highly as those of northwest Europe did. Mead swiftly became ubiquitous and even semi-worshipped. Its association with Odin led to it being regarded much as absinthe was in fin-de-siècle France – it was thought to provoke both divine artistic inspiration and divine madness. Madness was a complex issue in the Viking world. Odin was the god of madness (among other things), so in many ways certain sorts of madness were prized as signs of divine favor. Berserkers, for example, would indulge heavily in mead before battle in an attempt to provoke the kind of madness which lends itself to mass, indiscriminate slaughter. At the other end of the scale, mead was drunk by lovers wishing to woo the objects of their desire with “honeyed words.”

Honeymoon

This association with lovers is perhaps mead’s most lasting legacy. Among its mythical properties were the abilities (as mentioned above) to get one drunk without causing a hangover, and to get a man drunk without causing impotence. It was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac for both men and women. As such, a month’s supply of mead would be given to married couples in order to “sweeten the deal” and provoke marital bliss. The word “honeymoon” comes from this tradition. Next time a friend invites you to their wedding, therefore, consider a month’s supply of mead as a present. They’ll probably appreciate it a lot more than yet another set of silverware.

–By Susie Meadows

An Unexpectedly Centered Tasting

5 April 2014

Tasting with Rebecca DelottOver the years, I’ve tasted wine in a lot of different places, including obvious places such as tasting rooms, restaurants and cellars, as well as more unusual places such as ghost townsnational landmarks and buses. But I had a completely new and unusual wine tasting experience a few days ago, thanks to my favorite yoga teacher.

Rebecca Delott organizes periodic yoga and wine tasting events. That might strike you as gimmicky, and perhaps in less expert hands it would be. Rebecca, however, leads yoga classes as well as wine tastings professionally. The wine tasting isn’t just a way to get people to come to yoga. It’s an integral part of the class.

About 16 or 18 of us gathered at Namaskar Yoga Studio on Chicago’s north side, and participants ranged in age from late 20s to mid 50s or so. We did some vinyasa flow yoga for 75 minutes, with several opportunities to do relatively advanced poses. After the class, the couple across from me remarked, “We usually do the beginners class here, but we’re in the big leagues now!” Like any good yoga teacher, Rebecca frequently illustrates several ways to do a pose, ranging from the gentle to the truly challenging, which makes the class suitable for yoga neophytes and experts alike.

Side Angle pose with Cabernet

Side Angle pose with 2012 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

I must admit I just expected to get a workout and a wine tasting, which wouldn’t have been at all a bad thing. But the yoga class left me feeling centered, grounded and relaxed — not necessarily my usual state of mind. It actually changed the wine-tasting experience. My nose and palate felt more open and receptive. Just as drinking from the right glass can enhance a wine, it seems doing some sun salutations in advance of a tasting can as well!

The four Chilean wines we sampled weren’t especially unusual — a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon — but each was well-balanced and quite tasty. Rebecca gracefully fielded an array of questions about the wines, ranging from “What does ‘unoaked’ mean?” to more technical questions about vinification. She managed to hold her audience’s attention even as she discussed carbonic maceration, an achievement I wouldn’t have thought possible.

If you have a chance to attend one of Rebecca’s classes ($40), it’s well worth it to experience how yoga affects the wine tasting experience (check the “Workshops” page of the Namaskar Yoga website for upcoming dates). Some exercise and meditation turns out to be an excellent warm-up for the palate.

Cheers and Namaste!