Regions

Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

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Grappa: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

10 March 2017

Pork belly eggs Benedict and Nonino grappa

Tell people that you’re going to a grappa tasting, and the response will likely be “Ugh.” Go on to say that the tasting is at 9 a.m. over breakfast, and the response will likely be some sort of attempt at an intervention. In my defense, there is, in fact, a long tradition of drinking grappa at breakfast (or at least with espresso), as evidenced by Caffè Corretto, or “Corrected Coffee.”

Actually, no one I talked to expressed any concern whatsoever about my tasting spirits at breakfast (I’m not sure if that’s good or bad). But grappa… that concerned everyone. This northern Italian spirit distilled from grape pomace — the stems, seeds, skins and pulp — has a reputation for rusticity, to put it kindly. Indeed, for a long time, it was a spirit of the poor, created from the leftovers of winemaking. A “refined grappa” was an oxymoron.

I was lucky. The first time I tried grappa was in Venice at a bar just off the Fondamente Nove, about 15 years ago. It was a Grappa di Amarone — even then I knew that Amarone was something special. The bartender approved of my choice, and I still remember its rich raisiny quality mixed with alcoholic fire. I also purchased a slender bottle of delightfully floral Moscato grappa to bring home.

At the time, I didn’t know that varietal grappas were a relatively new creation, invented by the estimable Nonino distillery (traditionally grappas are blends of various grapes). Nonino first distilled a single-varietal grappa in 1967, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the distillery created “the first Cru single varietal Grappa: not by chance this time but as the result of their love for their work, study, research and experimentation,” according to the company’s website.

“We go against the rules for grappa,” Elisabetta Nonino told me over a breakfast of avocado toast. “The rules are very bad. They are all against quality.” Grappa is not Cognac. You really have to choose your producer carefully. And I can’t imagine that there are many producers which take more care with their grappa than Nonino.

Elisabetta Nonino

First, there are the stills. The distillery contains no fewer than 66 pot stills (12 for each member of the family, plus one for each niece and nephew, Elisabetta explained). Why so many? Nonino produces numerous single-variety grappas as well as various fruit brandies, and all the fruit is distilled fresh, making a big difference in terms of flavor. That means the stills are in use only nine or 10 weeks each year, during the harvest season, but during that time, each is required.

Second, Nonino removes the grape stems from the pomace, distilling only the pulp, skins and seeds. This extra step adds to the refinement of the grappa.

Elisabetta grew up in the distillery, learning the art of grappa production from observing her family at work. Her parents told her, “First learn to distill, then study whatever you want.” But her heart was always with the family business, even as she studied Political Science at the university. “It took longer than usual to graduate,” Elisabetta said. “‘I can’t take my exams in April,’ I told my professors. ‘No no, that’s Vinitaly!'” If the grappas I tasted are any indication, she made the right choice for her profession.

The traditional Nonino Vendemmia grappa, made from a blend of Prosecco, Malvasia and Pinot Noir, has a fresh, slightly raisiny aroma and ample raisiny flavor. It remains smooth on the tongue for quite some time, delaying the alcoholic power until the last moment. It’s spicy, but classy. I noticed that when I smelled this grappa, it didn’t burn my nostrils at all — nor did any of the others I tried.

Even more interesting was Il Merlot di Nonino grappa, which started with a lush texture and lots of raisiny fruit before moving to clean, alcoholic spice. But I really fell for Il Moscato di Nonino grappa, which brought back memories of that trip to Venice. I loved its aroma, reminiscent of lily of the valley, as well as its slow development on the palate. It moved gracefully from smooth and perfumed to powerful and spicy. It cut right through the fat of my pork belly eggs Benedict.

On Elisabetta’s recommendation, I tried making some cocktails with the Moscato grappa later at home. You can find plenty of interesting grappa cocktail recipes on the Nonino site, but in order to really let the grappa come to the fore, I wanted as simple a cocktail as possible. First I tried the Moscato grappa with some fresh lime, but I preferred the roundness of fresh lemon juice. Two parts Moscato grappa, one part fresh lemon and a healthy dash of simple syrup (or a couple of teaspoons of sugar) makes for an exceedingly delicious drink: round, citrusy and just a touch floral, with a pleasantly raisiny aftertaste.

I also sampled some barrel-aged grappas, akin to French Marc. The Noninos take no shortcuts here, either, keeping their aging cellars under lock and key, controlled by a government official who records each entry into the facility. When the Noninos tell you that your grappa was aged, say, a minimum of three years, there is no question that it was. The distillery has documentation to prove the fact.

Aged one year in barriques, Il Chardonnay di Nonino grappa had the classic raisiny aroma, but there was a vanilla note in there, too. It tasted rich and balanced, starting almost sweet, with a touch of cream and a bit of wood, moving to a spicy build-up followed by a freshly herbaceous finish. What a delight.

Made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino grape pomace, the Riserva grappa is aged between three and 18 years in barriques. Its aroma had more wood to it, underneath notes of dark fruit. After a rich start, a note of fresh tobacco took over followed by a spicy midsection and a lift of green herbs. The finish, marked by notes of wood, vanilla and caramel, seemed to go on and on.

Italy has a knack for turning food and drink that was originally popular with peasants into something fit for royalty. Nonino’s grappa happily fits right into that tradition. Next time you’re out to eat at a nice restaurant, check the spirits list to see if the bar offers a Nonino grappa. It makes for a surprisingly elegant digestif, and not just at breakfast.

Note: The grappa tastes and my pork belly eggs Benedict were provided free of charge.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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