Regions

Carcavelos: Portugal’s Most Endangered DOC

23 February 2017

The Casal da Manteiga

“It’s she-wolf,” my driver said, referring to the fur collar on his caped Inverness-style overcoat. “I don’t follow international fashions.” He has that in common with Portuguese wine, which, to a large extent, is still made with the country’s wonderful array of indigenous grape varieties, many of which are grown nowhere else. That’s not to say, however, that Portugal’s wines aren’t of international caliber. In fact, they offer some of the best quality-to-price ratios in the world.

We drove down an allée leading to a winery, with vineyards on one side and a crumbling stone wall on the other. “I can’t believe it. I’ve never been here,” he exclaimed. “How an American discovered this place, I don’t know.” The wonderful thing about traveling as an American in Europe is that it’s incredibly easy to impress the locals, many of whom expect people from the U.S. to be ignorant, monolingual barbarians.

But discovering this winery, Villa Oeiras, was not so easy. My journey there started with a rather distressing entry in The Oxford Companion to Wine about Carcavelos, a “tiny [DOC], renowned in its heyday for fortified wines. However, its vineyards have almost been obliterated by the westward expansion of the capital city Lisbon along the Tagus Estuary.” The entry went on to mention a winery, Conde de Oeiras, which was still making Carcavelos. I knew I had to find it, this, the very last winery in a DOC which is dangerously close to disappearing entirely, forever.

Galego Dourado vines

I found myself in Lisbon in January, and I was determined to do whatever it took to visit Villa Oeiras. Finally, the day before my last chance to visit, my hotel concierge was able to confirm an appointment.

The winery’s vivacious guide, Sara, met me in the courtyard of the pentagonal Casal da Manteiga, a building which once served as a dairy (now it houses fermentation tanks and an aging room). We walked into the vineyards just outside, growing on an ideal south-facing hillside sloping gently down towards the estuary. Blocky apartment buildings loomed not far from where we stood, built, no doubt, on what had also been vineyards at one point.

Only about 31 acres of vineyards are now devoted to producing proper Carcavelos. These vineyards were preserved from development only through an unusual partnership between the municipality of Oeiras and Portugal’s Ministry of Agriculture, and Villa Oeiras is the only publicly owned winery in Portugal. It encompasses part of the original 615-acre estate of the Marques de Pombal, the prime minister responsible for reconstructing Lisbon after the devastating 1755 earthquake, and for creating Carcavelos (“…he had to do something with the grapes from his country residence at nearby Oeiras,” according to the Oxford Companion).

The exterior of the barrel room in the palace of the Marques de Pombal

In addition to preserving these Carcavelos vineyards, the partnership restored the 18th-century aging facility in the Marques de Pombal’s palace, which had been converted into offices. The original architect cleverly built the barrel room atop a natural spring, ensuring that humidity constantly suffuses the space, and its design also fosters natural air circulation. The austere, vaulted room is beautiful, too, and I only wish I had been able to help tear out the cubicles which once cluttered it.

But what is Carcavelos? The Villa Oeiras estate produces several bottlings, in fact, including table wines. But traditional Carcavelos, like Port, is fortified. The winemaker allows fermentation to go only so far before killing the yeast with the addition of strong brandy. The wine retains its sweetness, because the yeast didn’t have the chance to consume too much sugar, and it has plenty of power because of the higher alcoholic content. Barrel-aging provides additional complexity.

The dashing winemaker, Tiago Correia (to whom Sara recently became engaged), met us in the vineyards and escorted us into the fermentation room. There we tried tank samples of the three component parts of white Carcavelos: Galego Dourado and Ratinho, grown almost exclusively in Carcavelos, and Arinto, which is also found just to the north in Bucelas.

Sara and Tiago

Each grape offered something exciting and different. The Arinto had pleasing honeysuckle notes, a pop of spice and an “elegance of acidity,” as Correia put it. The more mellow Galego Dourao tasted sweet and orangey. “Galego is nothing in the beginning,” Correia explained, “but with aging, it is the glue that holds the wine together.” And I won’t soon forget the amazingly bright and zesty Ratinho, full of lemon oil and white flowers.

Correia also gave me samples of young Carcavelos straight from the tank. The 2016 already felt balanced, with plenty of fruit and acidity along with some smoothing salinity, and the previous vintage had started to develop some richness. The 2014, though still quite young, felt more mature, with weight and calm leavening the spiciness.

The Carcavelos then ages in oak barrels for several years. Correia continues to experiment with different kinds of oak (French, Portuguese) as well as different “toasts,” meaning how much the interior of a barrel is charred. Villa Oeiras’s flagship Carcavelos sees 10 years in oak and a year in the bottle before its release.

And what a joy it is to drink. The rich, nutty aroma sucked me right in. It tasted big and powerful, with flavors of nuts, honey, raisins and well-balanced wood, with ample spice and a long, rather saline finish. The Carcavelos is quite sweet, certainly, but its acids are so lively that they practically prickle. I brought a bottle home and opened it at a tasting I recently hosted. My friend Liz described the Carcavelos this way: “It’s a gingerbread man with raisins for eyes who had a little cardamom for breakfast.”

I also tried the red Carcavelos, aged eight years in oak (so far) and not yet bottled. This wine, made from Castelão, Trincadeira and Amostrinha, was nothing short of extraordinary. Big and zesty, it tasted of deep, sweet berries buried in nuts. It was powerful, but it moved with such grace, and the finish rang with salinity and eucalyptus freshness.

Then there was the 2004 white Carcavelos (the flagship white is non-vintage), with its shockingly fresh spice, bright wood and seemingly endless finish, and the 1997, to be released in 2017 as a 20-year Carcavelos. (1997 is the year when the municipality of Oeiras and the Ministry of Agriculture first created the Carcavelos partnership.) It had similar power and richness as its younger siblings, but the ’97 displayed an elegance worthy of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire. Sublime.

The story of Carcavelos, the wine that almost went extinct, is a wonderfully romantic one. But even if I had known nothing of the wine’s historic pedigree and near demise, its richness, complexity and power would have deeply impressed me. This wine is a cultural treasure. If you plan on visiting Lisbon, seek it out (it’s pronounced “Vee-la oh-I-rahsh car-ca-VEL-ohsh”). The excellent Garrafeira Nacional wine shop in the Baxia carries it, and some restaurants (Alma, for example) have it on their wine lists.

Bring home some beautiful Port and Madeira, by all means, but leave some room in your luggage for a bottle of Villa Oeiras Carcavelos, a sumptuous and elegant wine barely rescued from oblivion.

“You should buy this winery,” my driver told me, as we departed the palace. “I don’t like that the state owns it. Nothing good happens when the state owns things.”

Ordinarily I might agree, but Villa Oeiras is something very good indeed.

Share

Soulful Wines From The Heart Of Turkey

9 February 2017

Cappadocia

When we visited Turkey in 2005, I purchased two bottles of focused and minerally Narince from Cappadocia to bring home. I’ll never forget the expression on our Istanbul guide’s face when I explained how I planned on doing so. “I’ve never had a bottle break in my luggage,” I proudly told her. “To protect them, I stick each bottle inside three or four of my socks.” She looked absolutely horrified. I had forgotten that in Turkey, as in many Muslim-majority countries, many people consider the feet to be unclean.

In spite of my socks, the Narince was thoroughly delicious. It may surprise some Americans that Turkey produces wine at all, let alone wine of high quality. But Turkey has a tradition of winemaking dating back thousands of years, and may in fact be where wine itself originated. Already in 1650 B.C., laws regulated wine production in what is now Turkey. The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

“Between 1650 and 1200 B.C., when the Hittites ruled most of Anatolia, there were enhanced laws safeguarding viticultural practices and trade routes… Hittites used the word wiyana for wine, influencing the words used in many modern languages.”

Nowadays, unfortunately, the laws work against winemakers in Turkey. Times have changed dramatically since the Hittites, and even since the 1920s, when the resolutely secular Kemal Atatürk openly encouraged winemaking and consumption, “thereby ensuring the survival of indigenous Anatolian grape varieties, which may yet yield clues to the origins of viticulture itself,” according to The World Atlas of Wine. The problems are twofold.

First, there is an absence of law organizing Turkish wine. Yields, grape varieties and vineyard sites are more or less unregulated, which means “the wine scene in Turkey is based on the practice of individual producers,” according to the Oxford Companion.

Second, the current regime, which does not prioritize carrying on the secular policies established by Atatürk, has enacted numerous laws detrimental to the business of local winemakers. New laws forbid the direct sale of wine over the internet, making it hard for small wineries in particular to grow their sales. Advertising — including the sponsoring of festivals or public promotions of any kind — is forbidden. Bottles must carry labels warning against the dangers of alcohol. And retail sales between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. are also forbidden.

Making wine is not easy pursuit in any country, but in Turkey, laws like these make it especially difficult. A winemaker dedicated to producing high-quality wines must have true passion to succeed. That passion, combined with Turkey’s unique and ancient indigenous grape varieties, results in some very exciting wines indeed.

Some of the most exciting are made by a winery called Vinkara, located near Turkey’s capital, Ankara. This is the home of Kalecik Karasi, a “native black grape variety… saved from extinction during the 1970s,” according to the Oxford Companion. A PR firm sent me a bottle of it, along with a bottle of Boğazkere, a thicker-skinned grape indigenous to southeastern Anatolia, which also grows well near Ankara.

These two wines are among the most soulful I’ve tasted in some time.

The 2012 Vinkara Kalecik Karasi Reserve, aged 14 months in 225-liter oak casks, came in a Burgundy-style bottle. It had a dark fruit aroma, like prunes, with an undertone of spice. The flavor was rich, rich, rich, and the wine felt almost chewy with ripe dark fruit. It moved on to baking spice and supple tannins, and I noticed a hearty, meaty undertone. With some beef lagman (I tried this wine over some Kyrgyz food at Jibek Jolu, a BYOB restaurant near me in Chicago), an additional vanilla note revealed itself.

A Bordeaux-style bottle contained the 2011 Vinkara Boğazkere Reserve, and indeed, if the Kalecik Karasi could be compared to Pinot Noir, the Boğazkere was more like Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 30 months in 225-liter oak casks, it had a dusty dark fruit aroma with a savory undertone, and it tasted of richly ripe dark fruit as well. After the fruit, a pop of acids grabbed my attention, which resolved into hefty but well-integrated tannins followed by a white pepper finish. The wine became more peppery with the lagman as well as some beef manti dumplings.

Moved by the depth of these wines, I sent some questions to Ardiç Gürsel, who founded the winery with her family in 2003.

–How were you first introduced to fine wine, and what made you decide to start a winery?

“I became interested in wine some time ago, while in college, naturally enough. I started to wonder why, with such a rich and varied heritage, is Turkish wine not more popular. As time went on I began by looking into grape production in Turkey. I needed to understand whether it was possible to produce world-class wine using indigenous Turkish grapes. We researched the grapes, the climate, the terrain, the chemical composition of the soil and many other variables. Everything we found out was telling me one thing: Yes! I could do this.”

–I read that wine consumption in Turkey averages only one liter per person per year. Are you able to sell much of your wine in Turkey? Or do you export most of your wine?

“Correct! Not a lot of Turkish people drink wine.  Most of the wines are consumed by the foreign visitors. At the height in 2014, Turkey attracted around 42 million foreign tourists. This number, however, declined to 36 million in 2015 and deteriorated further in 2016, due to political tension and terrorist attacks. The adverse performance of the Turkish travel and tourism industry, bans on the advertisement and promotion of all alcoholic drinks, and rising excise taxes have restricted the volume of wine sales within the country.

“Today we export 20,000 liters of our wine production, and we plan to increase our sales abroad up to 120,000 within the next five years.”

–My 2013 edition of The World Atlas of Wine tells me that “younger and more cosmopolitan Turks are beginning to take an interest in wine.” Has that trend continued? Or has it reversed in recent years?

“There is a great interest in wine among cosmopolitan Turks. The trend is still on.”

–When you work with foreign wine consumers, do you find that they have a lot of misconceptions about Turkish wine?

“Turkish winemaking began to evolve only in 1990s. In the early 2000s, 15 to 20 new wineries were established. Fine wines and wine styles from different wine regions were introduced by the late 2000s to international markets. There is very little knowledge by the foreign consumers. In fact, they are very surprised that wines are produced in a Muslim country.”

–I see you also make a Narince in addition to the Kalecik Karasi and the Boğazkere. Do you plan on adding any additional grape varieties to your winemaking portfolio in the coming years?

“So it was and remains as my mission to offer something unique to our customers. As long as we find a worthwhile local grape, we definitely would invest on the grape. Hasan Dede, a white variety indigenous to the Kazmaca area in Anatolia, is the latest one we included to our range.”

–Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your wine?

“At Vinkara, we have successfully reintroduced grapes indigenous to Turkey, to offer full-bodied wines that are not only of the highest quality, but that are intense and abundant of flavour, and that offer our customers something truly exceptional: a new experience that is faithful to the origins of wine. I’m extremely proud of where we are today. I love what we do, and I love our wine. I sincerely believe we’re at the forefront of world-class wine production within the emerging markets, and this has been reinforced by the many great reviews we’ve been fortunate enough to receive.”

Ardiç Gürsel

How ironic that Turkey, likely the place where wine originated, now finds itself as an emerging producer of world-class wine. Turkey is most certainly that, thanks to the efforts of passionate producers like Ardiç Gürsel, who perseveres in spite of the legal roadblocks placed in her way.

Turkish wine is an important part of the heritage of all of humanity, a fact which Turkey’s current government chooses to ignore. It was here that one of the world’s most cherished beverages had its beginnings, and yet, in wine’s very birthplace, misguided laws threaten its existence.

Gürsel and her fellow winemakers produce world-class wines in a deeply historic but increasingly tough neighborhood. They need our support. But don’t buy Vinkara’s wines out of a sense of altruism. Buy Vinkara’s wines because they have palpable depth and soul, and a lineage reaching back to the dawn of civilization.

Note: The two bottles of Vinkara wine were provided to me as tasting samples free of charge.

Share

Lodi’s Most Important Winery

28 January 2017

I had no idea where the excursion I’d chosen would lead. The Wine Bloggers Conference organizers kept the excursion titles enigmatic, but “Souzãoberry Fields Forever” was clearly meant for me. I signed up, and I discovered Lodi’s most important winery: St. Jorge.

Now, other wineries in Lodi may arguably make better wine, and there are certainly others that are better known. What makes St. Jorge special is its devotion to Portuguese grape varieties, and its unique willingness to bottle these varieties as varietal wines. I know of no other place in the U.S. where you can try varietals such as Souzão, Trincadeiro and Touriga Nacional — all made by the same winemaker from grapes grown in similar terroirs — on their own against each other. St. Jorge’s wines are not only delicious, they offer insight into Portuguese wine that you simply can’t get anywhere else, outside of Portugal itself.

Vern Vierra in his vineyards

But really, who cares about Portuguese wine? Port is unfashionable, Madeira is barely more stylish, and Portuguese table wines are a drop in the U.S. market, representing about 1.1% of American wine imports. This is all true. It is also true that there are two kinds of wine drinkers in this world: Those who love Portuguese wines, and those who have yet to try Portuguese wines. Semi-pronounceable grape names aside, Portuguese wines currently have one of the best flavor-to-price ratios in the wine world.

Lodi’s relatively dry, sunny climate is reminiscent of certain Portuguese regions, but St. Jorge owner Vern Vierra didn’t start the winery because of the similarities in terroir. He had been making beer, he explained to us, and when he went to pick up some hops, he discovered a de-stemmer someone had ordered but didn’t collect. “Because I’m Portuguese, I love a deal,” he said. The discount de-stemmer set things in motion, and the Vierras opened St. Jorge in 2009.

The winery and tasting room was a delight to visit. With its Mediterranean-style architecture and fountain-cooled patio, it embodied the fantasy of gracious living in wine country. The vineyards surrounding the winery appear to be thriving, too, despite the minimal use of irrigation. “I’m training the vines to go deep for water and nutrients,” Vierra explained, “and you can see that the leaves are bright green, so the vines must like what I’m doing.”

I like what he’s doing, too, as you can see from the tasting notes below. You won’t find any blends in the list — St. Jorge bottles only varietal wines. “I want the variety to have the respect it deserves, to shine on its own,” Vierra told us.

Dinner at St. Jorge

If you’re a wine professional, a wine blogger, or anyone with more than just a passing interest in wine, I can’t recommend a visit to St. Jorge too highly. Tasting the portfolio is education you’ll be hard-pressed to obtain outside of Portugal itself.

2011 Verdelho Seco Silvaspoons Vineyard: Verdelho, not to be confused with Spanish Verdejo, occupies many of the vineyards on the island of Madeira, but it also produces delightful table wine, as in this case. It smelled a bit perfumed, with notes of stone fruit and hay, and it tasted of tropical fruit and warm ginger spice. Vierra allegedly sneaked one of these vines into the country in his luggage, and it was obviously a risk worth taking.

2014 Verdelho Vierra Estate: Though this wine was younger, it was less perfumed. It smelled more of dusty orange peel and apricot. I loved the white-peach fruit and the ample minerality. A touch sweet, but balanced.

2011 “Maria” Silvaspoons Vineyard: This wine is also 100% Verdelho, but Vierra vinified it in the style of Madeira. A grape grower apparently let his grapes overripen, which meant a wine made with them would be sweet without enough acids to balance. Vierra bought the grapes at an excellent price. “I’m Portuguese, so I didn’t want them to go to waste.” Waste them he did not. The wine had a wonderfully caramelly aroma overlaid with fresh green tobacco. It felt big, rich and spicy, and I relished the long tobacco finish.

2014 Trincadeira Vierra Estate: The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that Trincadeira is particularly susceptible to rot, which means that it “only performs well in the driest of climates.” It’s no surprise that it’s a success in sunny Lodi. This first Trincadeira vintage from the Vierra Estate looked almost inky in the glass, and it had plenty of rich purple fruit. But after a pop of spice its tannins dried my mouth right up, before lifting into a finish of baking spice.

2014 Touriga Vierra Estate: Also called Touriga Nacional, this grape variety is the one you’re most likely to encounter as a varietal wine. If you’ve had a sip of Port, you’ve almost certainly sipped Touriga Nacional (at least as part of the blend). I noted a perfumed nose of dark fruit and flowers, and one of my fellow tasters called it “musky.” On the palate, the cool, clear dark fruit moved with real elegance to supple tannins and spice. The spice gently built, so that it arrived without my even noticing, and it persisted in the long finish. Delicious.

Vern Vierra giving a taste of Zinfandel from the barrel to Josh Likes Wine

2014 Souzão Vierra Estate: At last, the namesake of the excursion. The Oxford Companion notes that this grape’s high acidity makes it popular in Port blends. Souzão (also spelled “Sousão”) must express itself a little differently in Lodi, because this wine felt dark and dense. It had a rather raisiny, porty aroma, but I tasted dark fruit and mocha more than zippy acids. The wine dried up towards the finish, moving into a note of hay and spice. Very pretty.

2011 Vinho Tinto Doce: St. Jorge’s version of Port had the classic rich, raisiny aroma and flavors of raisins and chocolate. A surprising note of exotic spice poked its head above the richness, followed by firm tannins. The spicy finish lasted a good 30 seconds. What a delight.

St. Jorge also makes wines from international grape varieties. I especially liked the sexy Sangiovese, the aroma of which reminded me of a high-end spa, and the graceful and rich Syrah, with its fragrant fruit and supple tannins. These are the icing on the Portuguese custard tart.

The Vierra family has created a truly special winery in Lodi, where it’s not only possible to taste delicious wine, but also to learn about important lesser-known grape varieties hard to find outside of Portugal. And even there, the chances to try a range of Portuguese varietals all in a row are exceedingly rare.

For more insight into the wines of St. Jorge, I highly recommend reading this post from one of my favorite wine blogs, Josh Likes Wine.

Note: The wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Share

Vote In The Millésima Wine Blog Awards

17 January 2017

I received some terribly exciting news yesterday: Odd Bacchus is a finalist in the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards! My post, The Most Unusual Wine of Gevrey-Chambertin, was one of three American-written pieces selected in the “Wine Travel” category.

To win the grand prize — a trip to Bordeaux! — I need your help and your votes. Follow this link to cast your ballot: https://fcld.me/lxW3td. You can find Odd Bacchus under the Wine Travel (USA) section.

I also ask that you take one more moment to share the link above in a post on Facebook, and encourage your friends to vote for me as well.

I’m in very good company, with Christine Havens who wrote a fascinating piece about one of my favorite wine regions, Hungary’s Tokaj, and Cindy Rynning, who wrote this fun post about California’s Livermore Valley, an area which deserves to be better known.

It’s an honor to share the title of finalist with these talented bloggers.

I treasure your support, and I thank you for your vote. To win a competition like this would be simply unbelievable.

Share

What To Buy A Wine Geek For Christmas

13 December 2016

Christmas Party‘Tis the season for holiday parties, my most favorite season of all. A good friend of mine recently threw one, and conversation turned, as it inevitably does at such events, to whether we had finished our Christmas shopping. My friend hadn’t, and he confessed that he found me especially difficult to shop for.

“Why?” I asked, more than a little incredulous. I can’t think of anyone with desires less complicated than mine.

“Well,” he responded, “I know you like wine, but you’ve got your wine blog and everything, so I always feel nervous picking a bottle out for you.”

“What??” I didn’t bother trying to understand his feelings, and chose instead to act like he was an idiot. “Just go in a decent wine shop, tell the clerk that you have a wine snob friend, tell him your budget, and have the clerk pick something out,” I said, a little too loudly. I wasn’t even drunk. All I’d had was two chocolate/peppermint scones and a cup of decaf.

That is really all you need to do to come up with perfectly wonderful gift for the wine geek in your life. Find a good wine shop, go into it, and ask an employee for a recommendation for a wine snob that costs between $___ and $___.

A grower Champagne

A grower Champagne

I would end my gift-guide post right here, but I know that lots of people out there would rather have Trump fact-check their foreign policy thesis paper than ask a wine shop clerk for advice. For a birthday one year, I remember that I asked party guests to bring me an unusual wine. I made it very clear that it need not be expensive, and that if people had doubts, that they should ask a wine store clerk for advice. Precisely one of my guests asked a clerk for advice (she brought me a beautiful white from Santorini).

I’m not entirely sure why there is this aversion to talking with wine store clerks. Perhaps it’s a worry that the clerk will hard-sell an expensive wine, or even worse, that the clerk will judge a person who doesn’t have a lot of wine knowledge.

Judgmental wine clerks do exist, I can’t deny it. I wrote about one at Binny’s that I encountered a while back, for example. Fortunately, he is much more the exception than the rule. Most wine shop employees are great fun to chat with and are more than happy to recommend something in whatever price range you set.

Frank Cornelissen

Frank Cornelissen

That said, if you’re determined not to talk to a wine clerk, here are a few gift ideas guaranteed to impress your wine geek friend without breaking the bank:

Grower Champagne. Most Champagne is a blend of grapes grown by different vineyard owners. Grower Champagne, however, is produced by the person who grew the grapes. To tell the difference, you’ll need your reading glasses. Look for a number on the bottom of the label (it might be on the front or back). If it starts with “RM,” you’ve got a grower Champagne. If it starts with “NM” or the less-common “CM,” you don’t. Grower Champagnes start at about $30 or so.

Something from Jura. Pronounced approximately “zhoo-rah,” this region, located just east of Burgundy in France, has become a darling of wine geeks everywhere.  Expect to pay around $18 to $25.

Something from Sicily. Sicily, too, has surged in popularity, but don’t just grab any old Sicilian off the shelf. Go for something that costs more than $15. Bonus points if you can find something by Frank Cornelissen.

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

High-end red from Argentina or Chile. People tend to regard wines from Argentina and Chile as bargains, not splurges, and indeed, there are plenty of wonderfully drinkable inexpensive wines from these two countries. But many winemakers have upped their game, and it has become easier and easier to find Argentine and Chilean wines with true elegance and force. In general, look for something that costs $20 or more, and it’s bound to taste more expensive than it is.

Single-Vineyard Riesling. Any wine geek worth his or her brix will appreciate a high-quality Riesling. Look for one from the Mosel or Pfalz with a vineyard designation. A German vineyard name often consists of two words, the first ending in “-er,” as in Ürziger Würzgarten. Look to spend between $20 and $30.

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Toro. This Spanish wine can vary in quality, but the region is small and exclusive enough that you’re likely to find a big, fruity and spicy red, whichever Toro you choose. It’s a a less obvious choice than Rioja, and it’s one of my personal favorites. Toros start at around $16, but buy one over $20 if you can.

A Magnum of anything. A Magnum is a large-format bottle containing the equivalent of two standard bottles of wine. No wine snob can resist a Magnum. If you can find and afford a Double Magnum or a Jeroboam, the recipient will be your devoted friend for life.

And remember folks, it’s just wine. It’s supposed to be fun. Shopping for wine should be fun, giving wine should be fun, and drinking wine should certainly be fun. Don’t let anyone else, be it a judgmental shop clerk or an overly picky wine snob friend, tell you otherwise.

Share

What Does A $500 Wine Taste Like?

29 November 2016
Maple & Ash

Maple & Ash

There is a widespread suspicion that high-end wines are something of a con, even among high-end winemakers themselves. I recall a swanky Bordeaux tasting I attended where I chatted with the owner of a Sauternes winery. He did not mince words about trophy wines: “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.”

Because I have limited experience with wines in the $300-$800 price bracket, and because it suited my own prejudices, I was inclined to believe him. What could you possibly get for $500, say, that you couldn’t in a $250 bottle? Would the $500 wine be twice as good as the $250? And of course, the $250 should theoretically be twice as good as a $125 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $62 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $31 bottle, which should be twice as good as the $15 bottle that I typically have on my rack at home.

Which means that a $500 bottle should, with that kind of quality, literally make my head explode with joyous rapture. Literally. I mean blood-on-the-ceiling joyous rapture explosion.

Fortunately for the condition of my head, wine tends to occupy a more logarithmic scale, which means that though there will indeed likely be a gigantic leap in quality from an $8 bottle to a $15 bottle and again from a $15 bottle to a $30 bottle, the returns start to diminish as wines become more expensive. So how could a $500 wine be worth it?

Gaja wineYou do get something for all that expense. At a recent tasting in Chicago’s Maple & Ash restaurant, I had the fortune to sample three $500 wines in succession. Well, two $500 wines and one $535 wine. I observed the room during the tasting, and many of the men (the guests were almost exclusively men) did indeed appear to be enraptured. I must admit I felt some shivers of delight myself, as I tried them.

These were wines by Gaja (pronounced guy-a), one of Italy’s most formidable wine families, which has vineyards in Barbaresco, Barolo, Bolgheri and Brunello. But it’s the Barbarescos that fetch top dollar. Or more accurately, the Langhes. As I learned from The Oxford Companion to Wine, which devotes an entire column to Gaja, Angelo Gaja thought that his coveted single-vineyard wines had hurt the reputation of his traditional Barbaresco, which is blended from multiple vineyards. So, as is common in unnecessarily complicated Italy, Gaja now sells its most expensive bottlings under a basic catch-all appellation, Langhe DOC, instead of the ostensibly more prestigious Barbaresco DOCG.

At the tasting, I tried the 2013 Gaja Barbaresco, a blend of 100% Nebbiolo grapes from 14 different vineyards around the town. Barbaresco, incidentally, was for ages not an especially popular wine. “Barbaresco did not enjoy Barolo’s connection with the House of Savoy and the nobility of the royal court in Turin,” The Oxford Companion explains, “and suffered in relative commercial obscurity until the efforts of Giovanni Gaja and Bruno Giacosa in the 1960s demonstrated the full potential of the wine.”

It’s difficult now to imagine that Barbaresco was once the ugly duckling of Piedmont. If anyone has any lingering doubts about Barbaresco’s potential, Gaja’s example will smash them into pomace. I loved the 2013, even in its youth — the dark-red fruit aroma had a savory note underneath, as well as a floral overtone. The wine moved gracefully from ripe fruit to white-pepper spice to supple, dusty tannins. It is an absolutely beautiful wine, with poise and elegance, but its suggested retail price is only $240, and we’re not here to talk about bargain Barbaresco. Let’s move on to the pricey stuff.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

But first, why are these wines so pricey, anyway? Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation in her family to work at the winery, presented the wines we tasted, and she provided part of the explanation: Gaja takes great pains to create healthy vineyards, using its own compost, seeding vineyards with a mix of plants from local meadow in order to improve biodiversity, introducing bees, and planting some 250 cypresses to serve as a refuge for small birds, among other measures. “The birds eat grapes,” Gaia Gaja told us, “but they also eat harmful insects, so we have to be generous.”

And, of course, making top-quality wine is expensive and labor-intensive. Gaia Gaja noted that the winery doesn’t hire many seasonal workers, relying more instead on full-time staff. “Seasonal workers know agriculture,” Gaia Gaja explained, “but not Nebbiolo vines.” The winery decided to train people and keep them on staff, ensuring that its workers really got to know the vineyards and how to coax the best fruit from them.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the price is simply that there is limited supply and high demand. Gaja, as evidenced by the family’s numerous appearances in The Oxford Companion, is a wine giant, and when a name has great renown, that name drives up the prices (that’s why I usually write about more obscure wines — they’re what I can afford).

Gaja’s wines, however, are more than just a name — they have the quality to back up their hype. Let’s examine the evidence:

2013 Gaja Sorì Tildìn, suggested retail price, $500: “Sorì” is a local Piemontese word indicating a desirable vineyard. The aroma of dark-red fruit is rich and forward, and that big fruit continues in the taste. This wine is powerful, with immense fruit, lively acids and youthful tannins. Deliberate and slow-building white-pepper spice marked the finish. That slow build was a delightful surprise, and although the wine felt youthful and bold, it moved from flavor to flavor with impressive finesse.

2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo, suggested retail price, $500: This wine was one of the first single-vineyard bottlings of Nebbiolo in the region, first sold in 1967, and as such, it helped put Barbaresco on the map. It had a rather dusky, hooded, dark-red fruit aroma, marked with some spice and some purple flowers. Again, this wine tasted big and brawny, with dark-red fruit flavors quickly moving to white-pepper spice and strong (some might say “tough”) tannins. It needs a little longer to mature, but even now, in its headstrong youth, it exhibits finesse as it shifts gears from fruit to spice to tannins.

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

2013 Gaja Costa Russi, suggested retail price, $535: “Costa” is the Italian version of côte, or slope. Here the dark-red fruit in the aroma was accompanied by some meaty notes as well as an overlay of violets (as I write this, I realize that combination sounds rather horrifying, but actually it’s thoroughly enticing). This wine had the slowest development of the three. It took its own graceful time to unfold, moving from concentrated fruit to focused acids to sneaky tannins. They started softly at first, and it wasn’t until I was in the thick of them that I realized their power.

What all three wines have in common is great finesse. It might be difficult to imagine, but when you taste a wine that has it, finesse is unmistakable. It’s like riding with an expert driver in a manual-shift car. Anyone who knows how to drive a stick can get you where you’re going, but the journey is ever so much more graceful and enjoyable with an expert maneuvering the gears and clutch.

But are these wines worth it? That depends. Let’s say you make about $50,000 a year, and you think $50 is an affordable splurge on a bottle of wine. To make a similarly affordable splurge on one of the three wines above, you would have to be making $500,000 a year.

If you are indeed one of those high-earners, these wines won’t disappoint. They offer a seductive and life-affirming combination of richness, power, balance and finesse. I loved tasting them. They put me in a brilliant mood for the rest of the day. I practically skipped home.

But would I spend 1% of my yearly earnings to purchase a bottle? I think I’ll have to settle for a ride in which I feel the gear shifts a bit more.

Share

Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

Share
Next Page »