Last-Minute Winery Lunch In Kvareli

27 July 2018

Lake Kvareli, the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti

I felt irritated with my guide, NaNa. We had just spent half an hour driving in circles trying to find the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti, Georgia’s most important wine region (the prettiest lake she wanted to save for later). She was now on her phone, trying to arrange a last-minute lunch at a family winery nearby. When she announced, with palpable relief, that the family could indeed host us, in spite of the short notice, my irritation turned to pleasant surprise, as it so often did in Georgia.

Georgia is not just a state, of course, but a magnificently beautiful country, bordered by the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, south of Russia and northeast of Turkey. Winemaking there dates back at least 8,000 years, according to the most recent archaeological evidence, making Georgia the likely birthplace of wine itself. But there were a few viticultural bumps in the road between then and now, most recently the communist prioritization of quantity over quality when Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union.

Wine Gallery, just your average Tbilisi wine shop

All my research materials tell me that quality winemaking took off in Georgia only after the Russians banned the import of Georgian wine between 2006-2013, in order to punish the country (recall the brief war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions Russia still illegally occupies). Ironically, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The embargo forced exporters to improve quality and look further afield to more demanding markets such as western Europe, the U.S., Japan, China and Hong Kong.”

Because this development is so recent and ongoing, most books describing Georgian wines are in some respects out of date. The World Atlas of Wine, for example, speaks of Georgia’s “extraordinary potential,” and Uncorking the Caucasus warns that “Obtaining high-quality wine is difficult outside of the niche bars and shops in Tbilisi,” and that even “…in Georgia’s most famous wine region, Kakheti, options were remarkably thin and the wineries were mostly inconveniently spread out over long distances in the valley.”

I visited in June of this year, and nowadays, Georgia is less a country of potential and more a country of results. I found excellent and inexpensive wines all over the place, and in scenic Kakheti, I had no trouble weaving seven winery visits in with my monastery tours and hearty country lunches.

My first of such lunches was, in fact, at a winery: the Old Vine Family Cellar in Kvareli. We arrived not 15 minutes after NaNa’s phone call to the aptly named winery, which was an extension of a family’s home, built alongside a patio shaded by a century-old grapevine. The small winery had several qvevri in the floor. Qvevri — amphora-like clay pots lined with beeswax and buried in the ground — are the cornerstone of traditional Georgian winemaking. Rather than pressing juice into the qvevri, winemakers usually put gently crushed whole grapes inside, including seeds, skins and sometimes stems. As as result, white wines fermented in qvevri can be as tannic as reds. A white Kisi I tried in Tbilisi tasted like a mouthful of fruity burlap.

Giorgi among his qvevri at Old Vine Family Cellar

Giorgi, the owner and winemaker, met us and took us to his cozy tasting room. As a gentleman of a certain age, Giorgi knew more Russian than English, but [insert standard passage about the language of wine being universal here]. And NaNa helped translate the more complicated ideas we wanted to express to each other.

I asked for a spit bucket, which confused NaNa a bit. “So he doesn’t get drunk,” Giorgi explained, though NaNa was clearly skeptical. Georgians don’t seem to worry too much about getting drunk. One of my later guides told me how, the night before, he drank about three liters of wine, he injured his finger, and his friend had somehow broken a rib. Wine is a health food in Georgia, the occasional broken bone aside, and Georgians drink it as such. Toss those kale juicing machines! A qvevri is all you need.

Giorgi’s small, home-based winery doesn’t appear on any list of Georgia’s best, but I’ll be damned if Old Vine Family Cellar doesn’t make some captivating stuff. The Rkatsiteli — one of Georgia’s most important white wine grapes — smelled of peach blossoms and felt surprisingly spritzy. He could have put “pétillant naturel” on the label if he’d wanted to. I loved the juicy acids and well-balanced tannins. NaNa joined me in the tasting, but, of course, refrained from any nasty spitting.

The blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane Manavi was fragrant with peaches and apricots, and developed gracefully from peachy fruit to orangey acids to a tannic finish. Excellent. Mtsvane is another of Georgia’s important white wine grapes, and like Rkatsiteli it often has notes of stone fruits, but I find it tends to be spicier and more floral. Qvevri-made Mtsvane is a bit like tannic Gewürztraminer.

An Rkatsiteli fermented without the grape seeds had aromas of apple and peach, leavened with a freshness like strawberry leaf. It, too, was well-balanced, with ample fruit, round acids and pleasantly nutty tannins, softer because of the absence of the seeds in the qvevri.

Saperavi, Georgia’s most important red wine grape, has dark skin and dark flesh (most red wine grapes have only dark skin). It makes inky dark wines full of rich fruit and acid, and Giorgi’s example was no exception. It smelled rich and raisiny, and it had plenty of ripe dark fruit flavor. Yet it didn’t feel at all heavy, with bright sour cherry acids and well-integrated tannins keeping it well in balance.

And I loved the Old Vine Family Cellar blend of Aladasturi, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, redolent of currants, black pepper and earth. Again, zesty acids kept the wine light on its feet in spite of its rich fruit.

There was nothing amateurish or clumsy about these wines. I would be happy to drink any of them, any time.

When Giorgi suggested that we try some homemade brandy and chacha, NaNa exclaimed, “No! No, it’s too much. Too much to drink.” I gestured to the spit bucket and indicated that I would be happy to try some. Once NaNa saw me trying the spirits, she couldn’t resist trying them herself. The brandy tasted strong but pleasantly nutty; the grappa-like chacha developed slowly, allowing me to get used to its alcoholic power; and I also enjoyed the sweet tarragon liqueur, which reminded me of Italian finocchietto.

NaNa playing guitar while our lunch arrived

We moved to the shady patio, sitting down at a table beneath that massive century-old grapevine. While Giorgi had been pouring wine for us in the tasting room, his wife, Liana, had conjured a feast in the kitchen. Soon our table heaved with colorful salads, local cheeses, pork fritters, bean stew and fresh bread. I reached for the garden tomato and basil salad, but NaNa stopped me. “Wait. I will try first and let you know if it is good,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. She did this with each dish, like a taster protecting a king from poison, pronouncing “This is very good” or, less commonly, “This is just OK.” She must be more of a connoisseur than I, because I found everything to be thoroughly delicious. Our table looked like something out of a travel magazine spread.

“Robbie.” NaNa liked to call me Robbie, which I found oddly endearing. “You should go help with the barbecue! That is a man’s job.” NaNa had a great sense of humor but she could be rather sexist, like many people in Georgia. Earlier that day, I had told her about a wine I tried in a Tbilisi bar, the first vintage by the first winemaker to commercially bottle a wine from a grape called Buera. I was excited to be among the first to try wine made from this grape. She replied, “Buera? No, I don’t know it. But let’s ask the driver. He’s a man, so he knows all the Georgian grape varieties.” (There are approximately 500 Georgian grape varieties.) The driver, unsurprisingly, had not heard of Buera. “No, he doesn’t know it. It must be a foreign wine,” she said, and that was the end of it.

Bakur at the barbecue

Helping with the barbecue did sound like a good idea in any case. I joined our driver, Bakur, by the grill, filled with smoldering grapevine cuttings. We had no common language and only two skewers of pork to worry about, but we had fun fussing with them and taking photos of each other at the grill. NaNa grew bored, however. “Robbie! Robbie!” she called out, sounding rather tipsy. “Don’t leave me alone for so long!” I lingered for a couple of minutes more by the grill, but NaNa grew more insistent. “Robbie! Come drink with me!” We brought the pork over to the table, and it was perfect: simple and fatty, and flavorful from the grapevine smoke.

I raised my glass to Liana and Giorgi who had joined us. Toasts are important in Georgia, and I wanted to make mine count. “I would like to make a toast to Georgia,” I said, “and to your wonderful hospitality. Look at this beautiful feast! What a joy to share it with you, here, in such a lovely place, while drinking such delicious wine. To welcome me so warmly to your home, and at such short notice — I feel very honored. I won’t ever forget this lunch. To new friends, and to Georgia!” I must have been just a little bit tipsy myself, because I had a tear in my eye as I finished.

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.


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.

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