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.


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.


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.

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!

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

Paringa Sparkling ShirazLately the trend has shifted to wines with a sense of terroir, a sense of the specific site where the grapes were grown. This encompasses not just the soil but all factors affecting the particular vineyard, yet the soil tends to be the most tangible influence. A fashion for earthy-flavored wines has gone hand in hand with the increasing interest in terroir-focused wines, with more and more wineries seeking to emulate the Burgundian style: earthy reds specifically reflective of their vineyards.

Overtly fruity Australian Sparkling Shiraz is nothing like that. In fact, it’s so unfashionable (except perhaps in Australia itself) that I could barely find a passing mention of it in The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The most I found was in Sotheby’s, which described Seppelt’s Show Sparkling Shiraz as “the biggest, brashest and most brilliant” of Sparkling Shirazes, “even though its massive, concentrated black-currant-syrup fruit is too much for many to swallow more than half a glass.” Burgundian style that is not. You won’t find any sommeliers in Brooklyn clamoring to pour you a flute, not even ironically.

But just because a wine is deeply unfashionable doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of consideration. I may have my wine blogger license revoked for what I’m about to write, but I quite like a glass of Sparkling Shiraz from time to time. In fact, I was feeling particularly unstylish just yesterday evening, and I opened up a bottle to serve as an apéritif before a dinner party. I love how incongruous the purplish wine looks in a champagne flute.

The 2012 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz I served is much lighter than the Seppelt described above, which is aged for 10 years before it’s released. With 36 grams of residual (unfermented) sugar per liter, the Paringa tastes sweet but not syrupy. I quite liked its aroma of dark grape jelly and its ripe, openly grapey fruit. Some lemony acids kept things in balance, aided in that effort by tight, frothy bubbles and some light tannins on the finish. It’s fun and surprising, both in terms of color and flavor, which makes it an ideal party wine.

I could find nothing about Paringa’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz on its website other than an image of the bottle. Fortunately the importer, Quintessential Wines, is a bit more forthcoming: “The grapes come from 14 year-old vines grown in a sub-surface limestone layer beneath a sandy loam topsoil. The 2012 vintage was an outstanding year… The wine is matured in French oak for a short period of time prior to bottling.” The tannins on the end were at least partially the result of this brief stint in oak.

Neither the bottle nor the website mention whether the wine is bottle fermented in the manner of Champagne, which leads me to believe it’s tank fermented instead. Certainly the reasonable price of $14 or $15 a bottle points to tank fermentation. Nevertheless, the bubbles aren’t too large or aggressive, as is sometimes the case with tank-fermented sparklers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving Sparkling Shiraz to any wine snob friends — they might raise an eyebrow, or worse, surreptitiously research the wine on their smart phone and discover that Paringa is “Great with your favorite chocolate dessert or with bacon and eggs in the morning,” according to Quintessential Wines. Those pairings don’t exactly inspire confidence. An austere Crémant d’Alsace might be a better choice, assuming you don’t want to splash out on a Grower Champagne, currently the most fashionable of bubblies.

If, on the other hand, your friends don’t give a brix about wine fashion and just like to have a good time, a Sparkling Shiraz would be a fun and memorable way to kick off your next party.

A Red For “Spring”

22 March 2014

Agiorgitiko & Shepherd's PieNow that spring has arrived, or so I’ve heard, I would ordinarily start turning my eye to the section of my wine rack containing richer whites, like Chardonnay or Riesling. But the ceaseless whirling of polar vortices continues to mar this so-called spring, and I’m not ready to turn away from hearty reds just yet. Facing yet another day of temperatures measuring 20 degrees below normal, I fixed up a comforting beef-and-bison shepherd’s pie and opened some Agiorgitiko to go with it.

Greek Agiorgitiko is not a classic pairing for shepherd’s pie, but it should be. This hard-to-pronounce variety (ah-your-YEE-tee-koh is my best approximation) produces ever-more delicious red wines in Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the northern half of the peninsula “has seen even more energy and activity than any other part of Greece in recent years,” and Agiorgitiko is one of the region’s signature grapes.

The Oxford Companion to Wine gives mixed reviews of wines made from Agiorgitiko, a name it manages to make even more incomprehensible by using the ghastly spelling of “Aghiorghitiko.” The Companion grumbles that these wines are “fruity but can lack acidity,” although “grapes grown on the higher vineyards of Neméa can yield long-lived reds.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also has reservations about the variety, but for almost opposite reasons. “The Agiorgitiko grape provides a deep-colored, full, and spicy red wine,” it argues, “that can be spoiled by dried-out fruit, or by a lack of fruit.”

Fortunately, the 2012 Tselepos Agiorgitiko lacked neither acid nor fruit, despite its rather general “Arcadia” appellation (Arcadian grapes can be grown anywhere in the central Peloponnese, in either choice high-altitude vineyards or less-desirable plains). It smelled of raspberry jam and vanilla, and it had plenty of red fruit flavor, matched by prominent, rustic acids. But it’s a dry wine, with some tannins on the finish along with a note of earth.

Casual and fun, the Tselepos Agiorgitiko would make a fine party wine, surely pairing well with a range of foods. It certainly matched the rich shepherd’s pie well; the acids smoothed out and the tannins were just stout enough to clear my palate for the next bite. And at $11.50, the price I paid for the bottle at In Fine Spirits, it won’t break the bank to serve a few bottles to your guests. Though this isn’t a wine to serve for a special occasion, at that price, it doesn’t have to be.

It looks like we’ve got more frigid “spring” evenings yet to come, and goodness knows we’ll need help getting through them. The flavorful Tselepos Agiorgitiko provides a lot of comfort for the money.

More Reasons To Drink In Colombia

1 March 2014

In case you weren’t convinced by my Colombian postcards #1, #2 or #3, here are a few more memorable drinks I had during my two-week journey. Especially after waking up to yet more snow in Chicago today, it didn’t take looking at many of these to make me want to hop on a plane and head right back.

Tcherassi Martini

The Tcherassi hotel’s Aquabar made this deliciously balanced martini from gin, aguardiente (a local anise-flavored spirit) and “lemon foam.”

Macul Gris

This refreshingly dry Cabernet Sauvignon rosé with creamy strawberry fruit and a chalky finish comes from Chilean winery Cousiño Macul, owned by the same family since its founding in 1856. It was heaven with lunch on the breezy patio of Cuzco restaurant in Cartagena.


Aside from its unforgettable Islas de Rosarios setting, this mojito may not look especially unusual. But it tasted lusciously balanced and just a little naughty, since it was made with Havana Club rum from Cuba.

Chakana Malbec Rose

Rosé is just irresistable in Cartagena’s courtyard restaurants, like Bohemia pictured above. This ripely fruit rosé of Malbec was made by Chakana, a 12-year-old winery in Mendoza, Argentina. It had a bracingly chalky quality and sharp, orangey acids. Delicious.

Mojito on Providencia

There are two unusual things about this mojito, sipped at Deep Blue on the gloriously unspoiled Caribbean island of Providencia. First, what appears to be an orange wheel garnishing the glass is actually a lime, and second, no lime juice actually made it into the cocktail. Whoops!

Sauvignon Blanc in Cartagena

There was nothing unusual about this well-crafted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, enjoyed on the rooftop of the Movich Hotel in Cartagena. But with that view, it was hard to care.

Postcard From Colombia #3

21 February 2014

Lulo MartiniColombia is not best known for its corozo-based cocktails, but its aguardiente. This clear spirit distilled from sugarcane has a delightful anise flavor, and it resembles a less cloying and less alcoholic ouzo, with a smooth spiciness. I quite like it neat. Look for aguardiente without added sugar.

Aguardiente makes a fine cocktail base, especially in the sure hands of the bartenders at El Coro in the Sofitel Santa Clara. Although the cocktail menu there is extensive, I wanted to try something specifically Colombian. The energetic bartender Jhon had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept well in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

Hmm… I wonder how much trouble I would get in if I tried to smuggle a suitcase full of fresh lulos home with me?

Postcard From Colombia #2

18 February 2014

Corozo 75 at Carmen in CartagenaAh ha! I knew it could be done — a truly delectable drink made from the Colombian corozo fruit. As I described in this post, corozo has a tart flavor somewhere in between a blackberry and a cranberry, which would seem to make it ideal for cocktails.

I tried a Corozo 75 in Cartagena at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá, and what a revelation. This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich, in marked contrast to my previous experience with a corozo-based cocktail. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.

If you can get your hands on some corozo, this is the cocktail to make.

Or better yet (and perhaps easier), come to Cartagena’s Carmen Restaurant. The cocktail and the meal alone are almost worth the trip.

In Search Of Equatorial Wine

6 February 2014

In preparation for my upcoming trip south, I consulted my trusty World Atlas of Wine, which contains precisely zero information about Colombia. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was scarcely better, mentioning the country just once, in a table, noting that it has approximately 1,500 hectares (about 3,700 acres) dedicated to vineyards, in contrast to Argentina’s vast 207,985 hectares.

None of this was a great shock — Colombia, after all, won’t win a Ms. Fancy Wine South America pageant. Of my research tomes, only the ever-comprehensive Oxford Companion to Wine offered any prose about the country. Only in the 1990s, it says, did Colombia start producing wine from vinifera grapes in any measurable amounts. Production, such as it is, centers in the country’s southeast, away from the tourist centers of Cartagena and Bogotá.

I was most interested to read that vines must be annually de-leafed by hand, a project which temperate-climate winemakers would doubtless find baffling. Why strip the leaves of perfectly healthy grape vines? Defoliating the plants forces them into a state of dormancy normally induced by winter a season which seldom comes to these equatorial vineyards. No dormancy, no fruit.

I hope to find one or two examples of Colombian wines to try out, otherwise I suppose I’ll be relegated to the local aguardiente. But I hear of a restaurant on the island of Providencia that makes its own tamarind wine, and after being beaten down by this relentless cold and snow, the idea of sipping some tamarind wine by the sea is all that’s keeping me from huddling under my down comforter until spring.

Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine

1 February 2014
Michel with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel with Château Bastor-Lamontagne

When wine drinkers see the word “Bordeaux,” most think of great reds, and very expensive ones at that. Especially in the wake of the widely heralded 2009 and 2010 vintages, demand for top red Bordeaux has never been higher. But sweet white wines are hardly as fashionable, especially in the United States, where we like our steaks beefy and our wines even beefier.

The softer demand for sweet white wines results in softer prices, which means that some of the greatest wines of Bordeaux are affordable for you and me. Instead of St-Estèphe and Paulliac, we need to look for Sauternes and Barsac. These wines need not be relegated to foie gras and dessert pairings — many have the acids and freshness to pair well with Thai and Indian dishes, which can be difficult to match with something drier.

But really, you may wonder, are the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac actually all that special? At the recent Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I tried several remarkable Sauternes, including one with a laser-like beam of acids and minerals shooting through a gloriously rich nectar of honeyed fruit. That’s the 2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne. It startled me, this wine, with its sumptuous flavor and pristine clarity, and I became even more startled when I learned the price: $30-$40 a bottle. Quite a difference from the stratospheric sums red Bordeaux wines fetch nowadays.

The price seems even more shocking when one takes into consideration the incredible amount of work and luck that goes into a Sauternes or a Barsac (or a Preignac or a Fargues, all of which can be classified as Sauternes, the term I will henceforth use to refer to the entire area).

The vineyards of Sauternes grow near the junction of two rivers, the key to their success. The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

When, in autumn, the cool spring-fed Ciron waters flow into the warmer tidal Garonne, evening mists envelop the vineyards until late morning the following day, when the sun, if it shines, burns the mist away. This moist atmosphere encourages Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that attacks the grapes and causes them to shrivel and rot.

Shriveled, rotted grapes sound pretty terrible, but this “Noble Rot” reduces the water content of the grapes, concentrating the sugars. The fungus also chemically alters the grapes in many favorable ways, increasing aromas and complexity in a manner impossible to replicate by simply letting water evaporate from the grapes or pressed juice.

Chateau Lafaurie-PeyragueyNoble Rot does not usually affect a vineyard evenly, however, which means the châteaux most dedicated to quality must pick grapes by hand, picking only the bunches — or indeed only the individual grapes — that have rotted enough. In some unfortunate years, there can be so little Noble Rot that some châteaux simply skip the vintage altogether and hope for better conditions next time. As you might imagine, yields even in the best years tend to be quite low.

Fortunately, 2011 happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by the tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding. There wasn’t a single dud, and believe me, I tried them all.

Even so, it pays to not go for the least-expensive Sauternes you can find. Some châteaux are more painstaking in their harvesting and winemaking than others. Ask your wine shop for a recommendation, or consider one of the Sauternes below:

2011 Château Suduiraut: This Preignac-based château ranks as a Premier Cru Classé, and no wonder — its vineyard adjoins that of the legendary Château d’Yquem. According to Directeur Technique Pierre Montégut, Suduiraut’s blend of 92% Sémillon and 8% Sauvignon Blanc has more freshness than Yquem, because whereas Yquem has some clay in its soil, Suduiraut has only gravel. And indeed, underneath the classic honeyed aroma, I detected a shaft of stone. The wine tasted very rich at first, but tightly focused gingery spice and broad orangey acids gave it admirable balance.

2011 Château La Tour Blanche: State-owned La Tour Blanche is one of Sauternes’ most important château, not only because it produces excellent wines but because it serves as a school for the next generation of Sauternes’ vintners. But Sales Manager Didier Fréchinet assured me that the wine was crafted by experts, not students, and I have no reason to doubt his claim. La Tour Blanche’s honeyed white-fruit aroma had an appealingly intriguing undertone of something burnt. There was that wonderfully lush richness, but this lithe wine moved across the palate with impressive lightness, finishing fresh and focused with white-pepper spice. La Tour Blanche exemplified what I love about Sauternes — it manages the seemingly impossible feat of tasting deeply rich and fresh and lively all at once.

2011 Château Coutet: Aline Baly, who manages this Premier Cru Classé estate in Barsac with her uncle, related that Coutet’s first recorded vintage dates back to 1643, and that until the 1920′s, M. Lur-Saluces had his horse barn on the property (a connection with Yquem’s Lur-Saluces family is gold in Sauternes). The classic honeyed fruit Sauternes aroma had enticing orange notes and a pleasing waft of salinity. The wine tasted wonderfully lush, its richness leavened with some herbaceousness, notes of bitter orange and eye-poppingly zesty acids. Delicious. The charming Baly remarked, “As Anthony Giglio says, acids are the Zamboni of the palate,” and indeed they are!

Didier Frechinet of La Tour Blanche

Didier Fréchinet of La Tour Blanche

2011 Château de Rayne-Vigneau: Situated between La Tour Blanche and Lafaurie-Peyraguey (see below), this Sauternes tasted as fresh as a dewy spring morning. It had a surprisingly green aroma, and hovering over the rich, spicy flavors was something aromatic and exotic, a whisper of something like frankincense. 

2011 Château de Fargues: The ancestral home of the Lur-Saluces family, Château de Fargues uses “essentially the same fastidious methods as Yquem,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, an assertion confirmed by Directeur Général Eudes d’Orleans. This barrel sample (it won’t be bottled until June) felt incredibly plump, with notes of roasted peaches and minerals. It developed very slowly and deliberately on the palate, the sumptuous texture balanced by big, orangey acids.

2011 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey: This château mixes in 1% of Muscadet in with the traditional Sauternes blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It must make a difference; a delightful freshness was overlayed on top of the dark honey aroma, and the wine positively sparkled on the tongue. The zestiest acids I’d experienced so far made this wine feel incredibly lively and bright, in spite of its deep, deep richness.

2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne: As I described above, this Sauternes was dazzling. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell, like a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. I took notes on this exquisite wine, but it was unnecessary — there is no chance I’ll ever forget the 2011 Bastor-Lamontagne. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

Strategies For Bordeaux

25 January 2014
Grands Crus de Bordeaux Tasting

Grands Crus de Bordeaux Tasting

Much to my surprise and delight, I received an invitation to attend the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting held here in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. You may be wondering what Bordeaux wines could possibly be considered unusual or obscure. Bordeaux is, after all, perhaps the most famous wine region in the world, with wines in such demand that top bottles can infamously cost more than $1,000 each. Bordeaux was already famous when Thomas Jefferson traveled through the region, purchasing wine to stock his cellars at Monticello. Indeed, the oldest château, Pape-Clément, has been producing wine under that name continuously since 1305.

I wondered what else could be said about the wines of Bordeaux, and I also wondered how a writer who has “Dedicated to Drinking the Unusual and the Obscure” on his business card would be received by the grape juice grandees at this tasting. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to regard this blog as a direct reaction to overpriced wines and the culture of snobbery they engender. And where, stereotypically, would this culture flower more fully than in Bordeaux?

But Bordeaux is no monolith, and neither are its winemakers. In fact, almost everyone at the tasting was at the very least quite cordial, and most seemed very pleased to meet me. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely interested in learning more about the wines — many people walked up to the tasting tables, held out their glasses with barely a word, and retreated to taste the wines with their friends or colleagues. I observed one woman who repeatedly charged up to a table of dump buckets, emptied her excess wine and literally ran back to the tasting tables. I can’t imagine that she had too many enlightening conversations.

I learned quite a bit from my chats with the winery representatives, especially those from unfamous châteaux. I approached one winery I had in my notes as a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, but the representative corrected me. “In the last classification, we became just Cru Bourgeois.”

“Oh that’s strange,” I replied. “I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that your wines are some of the best values in the Médoc.”

“Well, the last time we didn’t really try,” he answered, rather cryptically. “The classification, eh…” He trailed off.

“I’m sure the classification doesn’t always reflect reality, does it,” I ventured. “I mean, I’m sure there are a lot of powerful interests who influence the classification.”

Chateau PoujeauxHe simply raised his eyebrows at that. Bordeaux classifications, even were they entirely free from political influences, would still be quite confusing and only a rough gauge of quality. Time and time again, Sotheby’s writes of châteaux performing well above their classifications (and occasionally of châteaux resting on past laurels). More confusing for the American wine consumer, different parts of Bordeaux use different classification vocabularies, which, of course, are also different from the classification system of Burgundy and other regions of France. You might understandably feel excited to find a low price on a grandiosely named St-Émillon grand cru, for example. After all, a good deal on a grand cru from Burgundy would be exciting indeed. But a St-Émillon grand cru is just one step up from the most basic St-Émillon.

Another winery representative and I chatted about his wine, which turned out to be one of my very favorites of the entire tasting. I remarked that it was an incredible value for the price. He leaned in close to me, and said, “You know, to be perfectly honest, I never buy wines that cost more than 50 or 60 euro. That’s maybe $100? Anything that costs more than that is bull****. When you buy wines,” he gestured towards the room, “that cost $300 or $800, you are not buying the wine. You are buying the label. I want to buy only the wine.” This felt like a shocking admission from a winery representative standing in the middle of a Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting.

So classification and price are not necessarily true indicators of value in Bordeaux. One final additional complicating factor is vintage. In Bordeaux, unlike in Napa, the quality of the vintage can vary radically from year to year, and worse, the vintage can be wonderful for certain châteaux and dire for others. In 2011, for example, was inconsistent for red wines but excellent for white and sweet wines.

Bordeaux, therefore, defies broad generalizations. I’m tempted to throw up my hands and say the heck with it, I’m not buying anything from Bordeaux. But what a loss that would be. Bordeaux, for all its inconsistencies and wild prices, produces all sorts of thoroughly delicious wines. These are wines that have long set viticultural standards around the world. To ignore them would be to deny yourself great pleasure. It pays to learn a little about Bordeaux and shop as an educated consumer.

If you’ve made it this far in this blog post, you are likely willing to do a little more reading on the subject. An well-written reference book like The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia can be a wonderful resource, describing the various Bordeaux sub-regions, classification systems and notable châteaux in engaging, opinionated prose. Having an overview of how the region is organized is invaluable; you’ll get an immediate sense of which Bordeaux wines are most likely to align with your palate. A trusted wine shop where you can turn for advice is equally invaluable. Learn the outlines of the classification systems so that you won’t be suckered in by grands crus that aren’t necessarily so grand. Don’t bother with anything that costs more than $100 (not usually a problem for me in any case). Get a sense of which vintages in the last five to ten years were excellent (2005, 2009, 2010), and look for more basic wines from these years.

Learning about the vagaries of Bordeaux — red, white and sweet — can actually be great fun. There are Bordeaux wines out there for every kind of palate, and those are wines worth finding. A small amount of reading about the region will pay significant dividends when you’re faced with a large Bordeaux section at the liquor store. Your efforts will be repaid with wines rich in fruit, strong with structure and well-balanced with focused acids and minerals.

And just because it’s Bordeaux, don’t assume it isn’t unusual. The sweet wines of Barsac and Preignac and the elegant dry whites of Pessac-Léognan have little popularity or name recognition in this country. But they deserve it, as I’ll describe in some upcoming posts.

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