The 100 Best Wines Of Slovakia

15 November 2014

Slovak Cabernet in the Arcadia HotelFor most people, the words “Slovak wine” do not inspire visions of grand châteaux or even charming tasting rooms. Slovak wine is not something most of us (any of us?) seek out. When I mention to friends that I did a tasting of Slovak wine, they usually respond uncertainly, carefully — as if they’re about to be the butt of a joke. And who can blame them?

My older wine reference books have few kind words for the wines of Slovakia. The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine minces no words: “When [Slovakia] voted to split from the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, it failed to privatize its wine industry successfully.” The 2007 edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is even less encouraging: “Most Slovakian wine is classified as lowly table wine, which would be a good thing if this were the result of a quality-conscious culling of the total production to produce stunning quality top wines, but that is not the case — the wines are naturally of a dismal quality.”

Slovakia hadn’t achieved widespread vinous acclaim even before the communists took over, and when they did, “centralized processing… obscured whatever local reputations there were and cast a gray shadow over any individual efforts, as the vineyards were replanted high and wide for mass production,” Sotheby’s explains.

And even if, for some reason, we still wanted to drink Slovak wine, we wouldn’t be able to find any. Almost the entire production is consumed within Slovakia, except for a small amount exported to Poland and the Czech Republic. Nor does it help that the total vineyard area in Slovakia fell from about 62,000 acres to just 35,000 acres as of 2002, according to the Oxford Companion.

But now, something is happening in Slovakia. “Progress — bringing, for example, malolactic fermentation, oak aging and lees contact — is changing the picture,” my 2013 edition of The World Atlas of Wine declares. Winemakers are experimenting with an array of unusual crossings bred to “ripen early with high sugar levels and full flavors,” so that vineyards are less at risk for frost, the Atlas continues. There are still a handful of industrial-sized producers, the Atlas explains, and plenty of tiny winemakers who consume all they make. The real action is with medium-sized producers, which have the budget for higher-quality equipment and talent.

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado (right) in the Národný Salón Vín

But really, are Slovak wines any good, even with the progress that’s been made? On a recent stay in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, I visited the Národný Salón Vín to find out. This cellar in a rococo palace assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings. If fine wine is being made in Slovakia, this was the place to find it.

Find it I did. I sampled a broad cross-section of wines — white, rosé and red — from a range of different winemaking regions. Some of them were simply well-crafted and delicious, but many of them were truly surprising and unusual and even compelling. Nothing about any of the wines said “centralized processing.”

2012 Skovajsa Veltlínske Zelené: This Grüner Veltliner had a fresh, spring-like aroma with notes of white flowers and fresh-cut grass. Its juicy and focused acids would surely work well with food.

2011 Janoušek Rizling Rýnsky: Located northeast of Bratislava, the Janoušek winery produced this charming Riesling, which had a powerfully spicy aroma undergirded by something savory. It exhibited ripely sweet fruit, broad lemony acids and a touch of something floral on the finish.

2012 Juraj Zápražný Pinot Gris: What a delight. Like the Riesling above, this wine comes from the Južnoslovenská region, which is surprisingly “warm and sunny,” according to Sotheby’s. The wine had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance. I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere.

2012 Vins Winery Devín: Devín is a relatively new grape variety developed for the Slovak terroir, a crossing of Roter Veltliner and Gewürztraminer. It had a completely unexpected aroma of roses and black pepper. Floral overtones continued on the palate, which had notable spice and a pop of sweet fruit, followed by a dry finish. If you like Viognier, you’ll probably like Devín.

IMG_83192012 Modra Elesko Petit Merle Rosé: A beautiful watermelon color, this rosé of Merlot had everything I like in a pink wine — ripe strawberry fruit, a perk of white pepper and some chalky minerals on the finish. Fruity, but well-balanced and dry. This is what I would bring to a picnic on the bank of the Danube.

2012 Dubovský & Grančič Dunaj: Named after the Danube River, Dunaj is a red crossing of Muscat Bouchet, Portugieser and St. Laurent (called Muškát Bouchet, Oporto and Svätovavrinecké in Slovak). A lovely dark magenta color, this wine had aromas of deep raspberry jam. I loved its round, ripe fruit, elegant tannins and spicy black-pepper finish. Focused and powerful, this wine would likely please fans of Zinfandel.

2009 Michal Sadloň Svätovavřinecké: Svätovavřinecké is better known (and more easily pronounced) as St. Laurent, a grape variety capable of making some truly sexy red wines. This expression had a tight, savory aroma marked by earth and green wood. On the palate, its red fruit was mixed with notes of vanilla, tobacco and green peppercorn spice. Controlled, velvety, and indeed rather sultry.

Bratislava

Bratislava

2012 Modra Elesko Rosa: Another uniquely Slovak grape, Rosa is a new crossing of Picpoul Noir, Blaufränkisch (Lemberger) and Gewürztraminer. The resulting wine is, as you might expect, quite unusual. Although it’s a clear cherry red, it has a highly perfumed nose redolent of heady flowers like lilacs and lily of the valley. Smelled with my eyes closed, I would have guessed it was white! Its cherry blossom flavor focused into a dry finish, which, along with some subtle spice, helped it to maintain balance. If dry, floral whites are what you typically enjoy, this is the red for you.

As I said, you’re almost certainly not going to find any of these wines unless you go to Slovakia.* Which is something I highly recommend you do. Bratislava is an absolutely enchanting city, and it’s only an hour by car, train or river ferry from Vienna. Stroll its pedestrianized old quarter, dine in the retro-futuristic UFO restaurant perched above the Danube, and visit Národný Salón Vín. That’s the best place to discover the exciting and delightfully unusual wines now being crafted in Slovakia.

*Centeur Imports will soon be bringing some Slovak wines to New Hampshire, and then hopefully the rest of the U.S. See the comments below.

Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

Oriol Gual of Juve y CampsIt is unquestionably celebratory to hear that most beautiful of all sounds, that of a cork pop, and bubbly deserves its status as the most festive of all wines. Prosecco appears at parties more frequently now, and Champagne corks whiz through the air on New Year’s Eve. But considering all we Americans have to celebrate, we serve sparkling wine relatively rarely. This is an error.

First, sparkling wine goes well with such a wide variety of foods, it’s quite difficult to screw up a pairing. When in doubt, go with the bubbles. Second, guests love sparkling wine, regardless of the occasion for their visit. It makes them feel special. Third, it can be a fantastic value for the money. It’s not affordable for most of us to drink Champagne any time we feel like it, but there are plenty of other fine sparkling wines available for weeknight prices. Cava is one of them.

I recently tried six superb Cavas produced by Juvé y Camps, which, according to the promotional materials I received, uses fruit only from its own vineyards (most Cava producers, like those in Champagne, buy fruit from independent growers). Juvé y Camps also hand-riddles all its bottles, a labor-intensive process now performed by machines in most wineries, and it uses free-run juice, collected without pressing the grapes. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, free-run juice “is generally superior to, and much lower in tannins than, juice or wine whose extraction depends on pressing.”

In the 2007 Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, author Tom Stevenson is more than usually grumpy about Juvé y Camps, writing, “I have failed to discern any of the intrinsically superior qualities in these wines that some Cava-infatuated critics have found. However, I do hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the wines of this respected, traditional family firm.” I’m no Cava-infatuated critic — I rarely buy them, as a matter of fact, because I (rightly or wrongly) associate Cava with large bubbles. But I thought Juvé y Camps’ Cavas were quite delicious and elegant, whatever Mr. Stevenson has to say.

2010 Reserva de la Familia: You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky; as Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.” Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

2009 Gran Juvé Reserva Brut: Aged 60 months on the lees and made only in the best vintages, this Cava includes the unorthodox variety of Chardonnay in with the traditional Spanish blend. It felt very classy, with a toasty, citrusy aroma, sharp bubbles, and a dry but perfumed quality — there were notes of orange flowers and stone fruits. Delicious and refined.

2010 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva: Unusually for a Cava, or any sparkling wine, for that matter, this bottling blends 90% Pinot Noir with 10% Xarel·lo (Cava producers have been experimenting with the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in recent years). This romantic sparkler had a tight aroma of candied berries, or as one fellow taster exclaimed, “It’s like that dust in straws!” (he meant Pixy Stix). Spicy but elegant, it had tiny, pointy bubbles, some subtle red-fruit undertones and chalk on the finish.

NV Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir had a lovely watermelon color and aromas of berries and orange zest. It was fruity but dry, with orangey acids and very small, classy bubbles. An excellent choice for date night — I could easily picture snuggling up by the fireplace with this one.

NV Juvé Sweet: During my time at the Juvé y Camps tasting table, several people expressed skepticism about this Cava. A lot of experienced wine drinkers look down on sweeter wines, regarding them as uninteresting or simply for amateurs. They may be unfashionable, but by ignoring them, you deny yourself an entire range of beautiful and well-balanced wines. In this case, I enjoyed Juvé Sweet’s fresh, cheerful aromas of white fruits, and its sweet but non-cloying character. It had balanced acids, a bit of perfume and small, refined bubbles. This Cava would make an excellent aperitif — it’s a more sophisticated alternative to Moscato d’Asti.

Many of these wines cost far less than you might expect, considering the quality and the labor required to craft them. Binny’s, for example, sells the Reserva de la Familia and the Brut Rosé for $15 a bottle. I think that’s cause for some celebration.

Unusual Australian Shiraz

31 October 2014

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier L Block ShirazMy first instinct, when offered two complimentary samples of some Australian Shiraz, was to decline them. Australian Shiraz is one of the least unusual wines I can think of, right up there with Napa Cabernet. But these were from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, and that winery’s 2012 Shiraz-Viognier ranked among my Top Red Wines of 2013. Just as important in my decision to write about the samples, these Shirazes weren’t from one of Australia’s more well-known wine regions. They came from Pyrenees.

I think of “the Pyrenees” as the rugged mountain range dividing Spain and France, but it is also “the (ironic?) name of the rolling landscape to the east of the Grampians” in Victoria not far from Melbourne, as The World Atlas of Wine explains. “Formerly known as the Avoca district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Pyrenees is “…red-wine country, making wines of a distinctive and attractive minty character.” The Oxford Companion to Wine is even more complimentary of the region, arguing that “The Pyrenees on the eastern side can provide Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as sumptuous as that of Heathcote or Bendigo…”

Acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier visited the area in 1998, and he was immediately taken with a certain undeveloped stretch of land that received ample sunlight mitigated by cool breezes. Already in a beneficial business relationship with Anthony Terlato, Chapoutier telephoned him, exclaimed something to the effect of, “You gotta see this!” and exhorted Mr. Terlato to get on the next plane to Australia, as Liz Barrett, Terlato’s Vice President of PR, related to me over a recent dinner. Anthony’s son Bill flew down, and Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier was born.

Over the next two years, they planted mostly Shiraz in what became known as the Malakoff vineyard. Notably, these vines grow on their own ungrafted rootstock, since Pyrenees is unafflicted by phylloxera. This destructive louse requires most of the world’s vineyards to be planted on American rootstocks, making the Malakoff vineyard unusual indeed.

Barrett and I tasted two of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier’s wines over a delicious steak dinner at Chicago’s Tango Sur, and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to the beef. First, we tried the 2011 Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz which runs about $50 a bottle. It smelled of deeply dark fruit, and there was a meatiness to the aroma. Barrett exclaimed, “Raisinettes!” and she was quite right. This is a masculine, muscular wine with ample ripe fruit, lots of black pepper spice and some underlying freshness, all under very tight control. That control is what elevates this wine above many other Australian Shirazes I’ve tasted, and justifies the price tag.

We also sampled the 2009 L Block Shiraz, named for a certain L-shaped section of the vineyard with more slate and iron in the soil. It smelled big, deep and juicy, with notes of hearty black cherries. Barrett took a sip and remarked, “It’s a he-wine,” and indeed, there was something masculine about this Shiraz as well. It had ripe raspberry-jam fruit, black pepper spice, strong but supple tannins and raisins on the finish. It was big and ripe but wonderfully light on its feet, with a lively mouthfeel. I could see why this wine fetches around $60 a bottle.

If you’re planning a special dinner for your partner, or just want a really beautiful wine to cozy up with on a chilly autumn evening, either of these unusual Shirazes would be an excellent choice. If $50 is beyond your budget, opt for the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier instead. For about $18, it’s one of the best red-wine values available anywhere.

A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

At large wine-tasting events, I usually run out of time before I get to try everything I would like. And a recent tasting of Portuguese, Spanish, Argentinean and Chilean wines organized by Winebow in the Pump Room of Chicago’s Public Hotel was no different. With only minutes to spare, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t yet tried one of the wines I was most excited to experience. I dedicated my last minutes to the table of Chilean winery Cousiño-Macul, which, in addition to the expected Chardonnays and Cabernets, presented an unusual Sauvignon Gris.

Cousiño-Macul’s youthful agricultural engineer and chief winemaker, Gabriel Mustakis, manned the table, and he explained that the parents of the current Sauvignon Gris vines came over in 1860 from Bordeaux, arriving just before phylloxera hit France. This pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

The renewed interest in this variety is no doubt due to the fact that these wines can be “much more elegant” (if less aromatic) than Sauvignon Blanc, as Wine Searcher attests, and that Sauvignon Gris can “produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” as the Oxford Companion asserts.

The 2013 Cousiño-Macul “Isidora” Sauvignon Gris, named for the family’s 19th-century matriarch, certainly had no lack of aroma. It smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted the wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

I found an entry on Cousiño-Macul in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The review was quite mixed — it called Cousiño-Macul “Chile’s one-time best winery,” lamenting that the winery “maintained its old-fashioned standards” as other producers overtook them in terms of quality. But this 2007 edition of Sotheby’s goes on to say that Cousiño-Macul “recently relocated to new vineyards, and has started producing fresher, fruitier, better-focused wines since the 2002 vintage.”

Based on this distinctly fresh, fruity and focused Sauvignon Gris and the creamy and exotic 2012 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay I tasted, I’d say my Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is out of date in this case. Cousiño-Macul is clearly back at the top of its game.

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