The Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

Three Unusual German Reds

17 July 2013
Lemberger

Lemberger

In addition to Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Germany grows a number of other red grape varieties quite successfully, as I rediscovered on a recent visit. An unusual but traditional varietal such as Lemberger was fun to drink, but what really made me want to stand up and yodel was the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend I tried. Wow. Who would have thought that these varieties, which reach their apex in warm, maritime Bordeaux, could do so well in cool, continental Germany?

Apparently, some smart German winemakers thought so. The World Atlas of Wine notes that there have been some “convincing experiments” with red Bordeaux varieties in Württemberg, and you can consider me convinced. Not all German reds are worth trying — many are still thin and sweet — but after tasting the Spätburgunders described in this post and the wines detailed below, I am certain that there is a German red for everyone.

2010 Staatsweingut Weinsberg Lemberger Trocken:  This wine comes from Württemberg, an area just north of Stuttgart which the Atlas says is “really red wine country.” It started fruity and sweet, and I feared it would be a simple snoozer, but then a blast of black-pepper spice kicked in, ensuring that there was no way I would sleep through this glass of wine. You might have tried a Lemberger and not known it — the variety is especially popular in Austria, where it’s known as Blaufränkisch.

2007 Geisel Weinbau Brentano “R” Markelsheimer Probstberg Merlot Trocken: I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard wine (Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier selected this wine from northern Württemberg to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

2010 Weingut Fritz Wassmer “Cuvée Félix” Cabernet & Merlot: This Bordeaux-style blend comes from the far southwestern corner of Baden, the southwesternmost state of Germany. I felt especially excited to try it because it comes from a town called Bad Krozingen, just a few miles from where I studied abroad in Freiburg. Again there was that velvety red fruit that I love, followed by some soft spice and a smokey finish of tobacco. It paired perfectly with an insanely large portion of Zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef with caramelized onions), and, oddly enough, it worked with the asparagus as well.

Late Burgundian

13 July 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderIt probably won’t come as a great shock that Germany produces some red wines, but as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Even members of the wine trade find it surprising that almost 37% of German vineyards are planted with black grape varieties.” That figure certainly came as a surprise to me. Where is this apparent sea of German red wine? Certainly not on the shelves of American wine shops — Even the largest stores typically carry just one or two.

The most widely planted (and some would argue most successful) red grape variety in Germany is Spätburgunder, which we know as Pinot Noir. But according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Few of these wines are exported since demand so much exceeds supply within Germany, and prices are high.” And surely foreign markets would be difficult for these wines to crack. I suspect if the average American wine consumer saw a high-priced Spätburgunder on the shelf, they would be loath to take a risk on it, even on the off-chance they knew it was a Pinot Noir.

But should you encounter a Spätburgunder at a reasonable price, and should you be a fan of Pinot Noir, I recommend snapping it up. It’s true that not too long ago, the “typical Spätburgunder was pale, sweetish and all too often tinged with rot-related odours,” according to the pull-no-punches Oxford Companion. I had a number of these when I studied abroad in Germany, and I must admit they put me off Teutonic reds for years.

How times have changed! Lower yields and longer maceration periods (the time the juice has in contact with the grape skins and seeds) over the last two decades have markedly increased quality, and I have to agree with Sotheby’s when it argues that nowadays, “talented winemakers have produced truly beautiful, silky-smooth, well-colored red wines from [Spätburgunder].”

I tasted a number of fine Spätburgunders on my last trip to Germany, and they ranged from fruity and pleasing to absolutely lovely:

2008 Weingut August Kesseler Spätburgunder Trocken: This wine from Assmannshausen in the Rheingau had the classic cherries and earth aroma I associate with Pinot Noir. It tasted light, fruity, spicy and earthy, again in classic Pinot fashion. The almost tart acids really perked up when paired with some saddle of venison.

2008 Weingut Schloss Eberstein Spätburgunder Trocken: No one can accuse this winery east of Baden-Baden of overpricing its Spätburgunders — I found a German shop selling bottles of this for just €9 (about $12). A clear brick-red color, it smelled of red fruit and iron. It moved from ripe up-front fruit to a velvety midsection to some rather rustic white-pepper spice. Oddly, I also drank this wine with venison, which it matched perfectly.

2009 Weingut Seeger Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder “S” Trocken: This winery based in northern Baden takes its highest quality Blauer Spätburgunder (another German synonym for Pinot Noir), designates it as “S”, “R” or “RR”, and ages it in small French-oak barriques for 18 to 20 months. The Sotheby’s Encyclopedia actually cites wines from the Herrenberg, a steep vineyard just outside Heidelberg, as particularly worthy of note, and highlights Seeger as a top producer. I certainly enjoyed this wine — it had aromas of cherries, tobaccos and earth, and open red-fruit flavors which tightened up and crescendoed into some black-pepper spice.

Tasting with Sebastian at Basserman-Jordan2011 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Spätburgunder Trocken: This Pinot Noir from Pfalz-based Basserman-Jordan had a particularly earthy aroma, with notes of iron and cherries. It tasted brick-red, with powerful black-pepper spice and a touch of something herbaceous. I wouldn’t call this one “refined;” it was more rowdy and rustic, which is not at all a bad thing.

2010 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Ölberg Grosses Gewächs Spätburgunder Trocken: There are a lot of rules governing what qualifies a wine classified as “Grosses Gewächs,” a very recently developed designation which translates as “Great Growth.” Most important is that these wines come from vineyard sites which have shown themselves over the years to be truly superior. There are also rules about residual sugar and so forth (as there always are in Germany) which I just can’t bring myself to write about. You can often tell a wine is a Grosses Gewächs by the “GG” on the label, but prior to 2006 or so, you just have to know your vineyards.  In any case, this Spätburgunder comes from the Ölberg, a vineyard which produces some of the Pfalz’s very top red wines. It had a more herbaceous aroma, and it felt more under control, its red fruit flavors complemented by vanilla notes and white-pepper spice. It seemed elegant, this Pinot Noir, with a silky, creamy texture. Superb.

None of my resources, incidentally, indicated why the Germans call Pinot Noir “Spätburgunder,” which translates as “Late Burgundian.” It seems an odd name for a grape which traditionally ripens early. My theory is that Germans simply called it “Burgunder” until an even earlier-ripening Pinot Noir mutation evolved in Franken about 150 years ago. To distinguish between the two, it only made sense to call one Late Burgundian and the other Early Burgundian, or Frühburgunder.

White And Gray Burgundian

10 July 2013

Tasting at A. ChristmannGerman wine and Riesling are practically synonymous, and considering the quality of fine German Rieslings, it’s no wonder. But Germany grows other varieties as well, of course, and quite successfully at that. Some tend to be duds (like Müller-Thurgau), but some are quite delicious, such as Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder. These varieties, which translate as “White Burgundian” and “Gray Burgundian,” respectively, are in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than German Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Wines made from Weissburgunder or Grauburgunder tend to be richly flavorful, and yet, it’s rare to find them here in the United States. Perhaps these semi-pronounceable varieties are overshadowed by Riesling, or perhaps the Germans prefer to keep these wines all to themselves!

Whatever the case, they are worth seeking out. As you might have guessed from the names, both varieties are direct descendants of the highly regarded Pinot Noir variety (Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc is a mutation of Pinot Gris). This noble pedigree shows in the wines these varieties produce.

I tasted a number of delicious examples of Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder during my recent German sojourn, and there wasn’t a single disappointment:

2011 Weingut Max Ferd Richter Weissburgunder: This wine from the spectacularly scenic Mosel Valley — my favorite German wine region — had a fresh and spicy aroma, floral fruit, limey acids and a tight finish. Cheerful and refreshing.

2012 Weingut Wolf Weissburgunder Trocken: I sampled this wine from the Pfalz region, which is really a northern extension of the famed Alsace, in a thoroughly delightful Munich restaurant called Halali. The Pfalz produces some of Germany’s best wines, though this is quite an inexpensive Weissburgunder, offered for just €5.50 per bottle on the winery’s website. I would have guessed it cost at least triple that. Almost clear in color, it had a bright and spicy aroma in keeping with the variety. Its ripe fruit tightened quickly into tart, focused acids. Not bad for a $7.00 bottle of wine!

2012 Weingut Christmann Gimmeldingen Weissburgunder: Now we’re really getting somewhere — the “climatically pampered” vineyard of Gimmeldingen produces some of the Pfalz’s best wines, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. I had a feeling this Weissburgunder would hit a home run when I smelled its bouquet of rich white fruit. It tasted very fruity, and its lush texture was well-balanced by tightly wound acids, some distinct minerality and a hint of earth. Excellent.

2011 Schnaitmann Grau Weiss: I’m cheating a little bit here, but bear with me — I loved this one. The Grau Weiss is actually a surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay. It sounds crazy to me, but I suppose if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan2012 Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Grauburgunder Trocken: Another Pfalz wine, this Grauburgunder smelled bright and fresh, reminding me a bit of a swimming pool. On the palate, it was sprightly, sweet and green, resolving into some limey acids on the finish. Unusual and fun.

2008 Winzergenossenschaft Kallstadt Erpolzheimer Kieselberg Grauburgunder Auslese: I hereby award the prize for the longest wine name to ever appear on this blog. Only a German could come up with an overblown jumble of syllables like this. The first two words are the name of the cooperative which produced the wine, and the second two words are the name of the vineyard. This vineyard has the misfortune to be located in the Rosenbühl Grosslage, which Sotheby’s claims has “no outstanding villages, vineyards, or growers,” but I beg to differ. This Auslese was sheer delight, with aromas of green apple and spicy pineapple and marvelously rich fruit. The decadent texture didn’t become at all cloying, however, because of some incredibly lively acids and gingery spice. It had me yearning for some choucroute, and a second glass.

Keep your eyes peeled for these wines. You won’t see them everywhere, but a large wine shop may very well carry one or two, and a more ambitious restaurant wine list might also contain an example. Your hunt will be well rewarded.

Summery Wines From The Heel Of The Boot

5 July 2013

CanteleItay’s DOC system doesn’t always work as originally planned, most notably evidenced by the rise of Super Tuscans, which long had to be labeled as simple table wine in spite of their high quality. But Tuscany isn’t the only part of Italy which had to rethink its classification system. Sine 1992, a host of regions have adopted the IGT category (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) in an attempt to deal with the embarrassing number of Vino da Tavola wines selling for much higher prices than the supposedly superior DOC bottlings.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, was one such region to buy into the IGT system, and the Salento IGT encompasses the entire peninsula. This more flexible classification system, along with increased foreign demand for wine in the 1990s, led to significant improvements in Pugliese viticulture, though even today, less than a quarter of Puglia’s wine production is sold by the bottle, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rest is sold in bulk, making its way into vermouth, cheap blended wine and brandy.

Nevertheless, the reputation of the Pugliese wine that does make it into bottles is steadily improving, as innovative winemakers focus on lower yields and high-quality grape varieties, both local and international. The large Cantele Winery is one such venture. The family has been in the wine business since just after World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Canteles started buying their own vineyards and growing their own grapes.

I had the fortune to receive complimentary samples of three of Cantele’s wines, two of which demonstrated the success and value of the IGT classification system. The World Atlas of Wine has unkind words for IGT Chardonnay del Salento, calling these wines “anodyne shelf-fillers,” but I certainly enjoyed the 2011 Cantele Chardonnay del Salento. If you like your whites bright and un-oaky, you’ll enjoy it too.  Friends with whom I tasted this wine had plenty to say about its aroma, calling it “bready,” “creamy and tart,” and “peary, but not like a mealy Bartlett pear, it’s more of a Bosc.” Another taster, less sure of his aroma-detecting capabilities, asked, “Does it smell nutty? Or am I having a stroke?”

I also got notes of pear in the aroma (variety uncertain), along with some heady honeysuckle. It tasted crisp and juicy, with a bit of honey on the finish along with some gingery spice. Lively and light on its feet, I suspect most people would never guess this was a Chardonnay. It’s a perfect choice for a hot summer afternoon. According to Wine Searcher, it retails for an average of $12 — an excellent value.

The second IGT wine we sampled was a rosé of Negroamaro, an ancient variety that is a specialty of Puglia. “Negroamaro” translates as either “black bitter” or “black black,” depending on whether you work with Italian or Latin and Greek. The second translation, albeit repetitious, seems most likely, since this variety originated in Greece, arriving in Italy with Greek colonists in the 6th or 7th century B.C., according to the Oxford Companion.

I’d never tried a rosé made from Negroamaro, and so it was with some excitement I poured myself a glass of the 2011 Cantele Negroamaro Rosato. Straight out of the fridge, it didn’t have much of a bouquet — only when it warmed up a bit did I detect some red berries, chalk and a hint of something floral. On the palate, however, it offered plenty of sunny, strawberry fruit and some bracing minerals, reminiscent of pink aspirin. It felt sprightly throughout, and I liked the spicy lift at the end. Selling for just $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher, it’s a fun and unique choice for a picnic or barbeque.

The third wine in the sample was not an IGT — it conforms to the stricter regulations of Salice Salentino, a landlocked DOC right in the middle of the Salento peninsula. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in the Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the 2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

Since Cantele produces about two million bottles each year, according to its website, you have a fighting chance of finding one or more of its well-priced wines in your local shop. I’m certainly going to keep my eye out for them. And if any of you folks have sampled Cantele’s 100% Verdeca, let me know — I’m itching to give it a try.

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