Balkans

Top Red Wines Of 2014

9 January 2015
A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

This list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in Chile, California, Colorado or Croatia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2014, in alphabetical order:

 

Ciprian Pinot Noir

Ciprian Pinot Noir in Vienna’s Silvio Nickol restaurant

2009 CIPRIAN BARRIQUE PINOT NOIR, ZIZERS AOC

The adventurous sommelier at Silvio Nickol in Vienna poured me a glass of this extraordinary Swiss Pinot Noir from Zizers, a little-known AOC in Graubünden, set on the Rhein River just south of Liechtenstein. I don’t usually quote directly from the notes I take while tasting, but I’ll make an exception in this case and quote from my notebook at length:

“Gorgeously balanced — exquisite surprise! Great finesse. Earth, deep red fruit, elegant acids, aromatic cherry finish. Light, joyous, refined — how do I get some?? Chills down spine!”

The Swiss export almost none of their wines to the United States, unfortunately.

 

2009 DUXOUP CHARBONO

Only about 89 acres of Charbono vines remain in California, and Duxoup makes one of the best Charbono varietals. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News.

The wine was a pleasure in every respect, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. (The current vintage is 2011.)

 

2010 GRAN ENEMIGO GUALTALLARY SINGLE VINEYARD

El Enemigo

A lineup of The Enemy

El Enemigo is a side project of the winemaker of Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s most highly regarded wineries. Its name refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

In this blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.

 

Katunar "Kurykta Anton" Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon

Katunar “Kurykta Anton” Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon

2010 KATUNAR “KURYKTA ANTON”

The Katunar vineyards have an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula. Father and son Anton and Toni Katunar exploit their fine terroir fully. The 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious.

Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued Syrah had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf Bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.

 

2010 LAPOSTOLLE PIRQUE VINEYARD SYRAH

One of six unusual single-vineyard Syrahs that the estimable Chilean winery Lapostolle recently assembled in a special half-case, the Pirque had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma. It felt silky on the tongue and revealed itself slowly, deliberately. There was a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. Sexy and very classy. (The single-vineyard Carmenères are also excellent.)

The half-case of single-vineyard Syrahs (or Carmenères) would make an excellent gift, should you have a oenophile in your life that you wish to impress. It’s great fun to compare and contrast the wines side-by-side, to see the effects of the different terroirs.

 

Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec

Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec

2011 STOBI VRANEC

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.

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.

 

2009 SUTCLIFFE FIELD BLEND

Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

When I went to Colorado, I had no expectation of finding fine wine. Had I cracked open my Oxford Companion to Wine — always a good idea before heading off on a trip to pretty much anywhere — I would have discovered that “Colorado’s increasing vineyard area (nearly 1,000 acres) and growing number of wineries (over 50) are beginning to provide wines of quality to its major tourist market as well as Denver…” Sutcliffe is among those leading the charge.

Most blends occur in the winery, with a winemaker choosing so much of this and so much of that. A field blend occurs in the vineyard, blending whatever grape varieties happen to be growing together. This wine “gives the true taste of McElmo Canyon,” according to the Sutcliffe website. I loved its rich, dark-fruit aroma, and it had rich, creamy fruit on the palate. It had elegantly soft tannins and a dry finish, and it became even bigger and richer when paired with some “truffle tremor” cheese.

 

What fortune, to have tasted so many beautiful, unusual wines! I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.

Top White Wines Of 2014

31 December 2014
An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

For this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2014:

 

2013 ANSELMI CAPITEL CROCE

In 2000, Roberto Anselmi very publicly withdrew his wines from the Soave DOC, writing in an open letter, “I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom…”

Now bottling his whites under the broader Veneto IGT, Anselmi has used his freedom to the fullest. This 100% Garganega comes from a choice hillside vineyard rich with limestone. It had a sweet aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

 

2008 BARTA PINCE ÖREG KIRÁLY DŰLŐ 6 PUTTONYOS TOKAJI ASZÚ

The courtyard of Barta Pince

The courtyard of Barta Pince

Hungary’s Tokaj region became famous in the courts of Europe for its sweet aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one by Barta Pince. This extraordinary wine from the Öreg Király vineyard has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter.

With all that sugar, could it possibly be balanced? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

 

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. This Istrian Malvasia (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 notably focused acids and an underlying note of salinity.

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Unusual and very, very tasty.

 

2011 CHÂTEAU BASTOR-LAMONTAGNE SAUTERNES

The 2011 vintage 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 a Bordeaux tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding.

My favorite was the dazzling Bastor-Lamontagne. 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; it was a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

 

Winemaker Gabriel Mustakis, with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

2013 COUSIÑO-MACUL “ISADORA” SAUVIGNON GRIS

A pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris varietal smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted this Chilean wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

 

2011 ERZSÉBET PINCE LATE HARVEST KÖVÉRSZŐLŐ

Unpronounceable Kövérszőlő, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like family-owned Erzsébet Pince produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine.

 

2012 GRABEN GRITSCH SCHÖN GRÜNER VELTLINER SMARAGD

Inside Vienna's Palmenhaus

Inside Vienna’s Palmenhaus

“Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau Valley near the town of Spitz in Austria.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping on the terrace of Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house of the Habsburgs.

 

2012 JURAJ ZÁPRAŽNÝ PINOT GRIS

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

What a delightful surprise. This wine comes from Slovakia’s Južnoslovenská region, which is apparently “warm and sunny,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance.

I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere (I tasted it at Bratislava’s Národný Salón Vín, a cellar in a rococo palace which assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings).

 

2010 JUVÉ Y CAMPS RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA CAVA

You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky. As Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.”

Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

 

Next up: The top reds.

Gnomes Forged A Star Of It

17 May 2014

Edi Simcic DuetDespite the general high quality and relative obscurity of Slovenian wines, I haven’t written much about them. I finally figured out the completely irrational reason why: Years ago, on a visit to Movia’s wine bar in Ljubljana, my friend and I were wildly overcharged for some tastes of wine. I was in my mid-20s, just learning about wine, and too shy to say anything to the bartender. Since then, it’s been almost a reflex to avoid Slovenian wine, and Movia’s in particular. Irrational, as I said, but there it is.

It’s time to overcome that aversion. During Slovenia’s Yugoslav decades, wineries concentrated on quantity over quality, as did every other communist wine-making country. But now, Slovenia has “established by far the most successful wine industry [of the former Yugoslav republics],” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It goes on to note that “Production is focused on quality and premium quality (vrhunsko) wines, with only about 30 percent of basic table wine quality.” And The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia lavishes praise on Slovenia, calling it “the rising star among the winemaking countries of the Western Balkans.”

It makes good sense that Slovenia, which lies south of Austria and east of Italy, would have the potential to make great wine. Some of its best vineyard sites are “influenced both by the Adriatic and the Alps,” as The World Atlas of Wine describes, and “the green rolling hills provide some excellent grape-ripening sites.” In Slovenia’s west, some of the wine regions simply continue on from the Italian vineyards just across the border.

Feeling ready to once again explore the joys of Slovenian wine, I happily accepted a free sample of 2008 Edi Simčič “Duet” from the Goriška Brda region, which more than one source describes as an extension of Italy’s Collio DOC.

Indeed, The World Atlas of Wine‘s detailed map of Goriška Brda is placed with Friuli, rather than with other Slovenian wine regions. The map locates the Edi Simčič estate in the far south of Goriška Brda, near its more famous neighbor of Movia and the Italian border. Keep an eye out for wines from Goriška Brda. The Oxford Companion calls it “Slovenia’s most esteemed wine district, having begun to move to quality in the late 1980s.” Like neighboring Friuli, Goriška Brda produces many white wines, but both the Oxford Companion and the World Atlas note that Bordeaux-style blends, such as the Simčič “Duet,” are some of the regions best bottlings.

Tasting Edi Simcic Duet with friends

“Don’t put that photo in your blog,” requested fellow wine taster Will White.

I sampled the Simčič “Duet” with some friends recently, and our experience with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot certainly did nothing to contradict the Companion or the Atlas. It had an aroma of dusky, dark-red fruit with the notes of iron and clay that I associate with Slovenian reds. It’s a big wine. One friend exclaimed, “My first sip hit me hard!” Although the wine is powerful, it exhibits focus and restraint, with well-balanced acids and deep, creamy fruit undergirded with earth. The finish felt tannic but elegant and firmly in control.

According to this charming and rather enigmatic video, the winery first started making this blend in the 90s, when it was “still very shy, but gnomes were forging a star of it.” It’s certainly not shy anymore. The gnomes in the cellar did their work well. It’s now big and delicious, with a rather big $40 price tag to match. That’s beyond what I can usually spend on a bottle, but if you do have the means, the Edi Simčič “Duet” offers more than enough flavor and elegance to justify the price. 

The sample of this wine was kindly provided by Wine Chateau.

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.

MACEDONIAN WINES:

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.

SERBIAN WINES:

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.

The Rhône Comes To Krk

18 January 2014

Katunar Kurykta AntonWhile browsing the selection at my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits, I asked the proprietor my favorite question: “So what do you have that’s new and unusual?” Noticing the bottle of Serbian Prokupac already in my hand, she pointed out a Croatian Syrah, which at $21 was more than I had planned on spending. But how could I resist? A famous and extremely high-quality Rhône variety expressed through the terroir of coastal Croatia was simply too tempting. I paid the $21, and I am very glad I did.

Like all wine-growing countries ruled by communists, Croatia’s vintners were essentially required to focus on quantity rather than quality. Many fascinating indigenous varieties were therefore cast aside in favor of a handful of higher-yielding grapes which produced drinkable but uninteresting wines. Many vineyards in Croatia also suffered during the breakup of Yugoslavia, damaged by shelling, trampling or even being uprooted and replaced by landmines.

In more recent years, as the Croatian economy incorporated more capitalist principles and peace returned to the region, foresighted winemakers began exploring Croatia’s viticultural roots, restoring nearly lost local grape varieties and focusing again on quality instead of simply quantity. Anton and Toni Katunar are two of those foresighted winemakers.

The Katunar family has made wine for centuries, according to its website (translated from the Croatian by Google Translate), albeit as part of a cooperative during the communist years, “the only possible way of doing business.” In the 1990s, the Katunar winery worked hard to modernize and improve, investing in new Slavonian oak casks for aging and changing its sparkling wine production from tank fermentation to bottle fermentation.

Because the Katunar vineyards already had an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula, these investments have resulted in some very high-quality wines. Certainly the 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious. Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued wine had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.

Katunar Back LabelMy only problem with this wine was its confusing back label. On the one hand, it clearly states that the wine is 100% Syrah. But above that figure, the description notes that the Kurykta Anton blends “Syrah with Sansigot and Debejan, local varietals found only on the island of Krk.” The idea of trying a wine made in part from Sansigot and Debejan excites the Odd Bacchus in me to no end, but it’s as yet unclear to me if I’ve actually done so.

(You can read more about Sansigot here. Debejan is more mysterious. According to Wikipedia and the Wein-Plus glossary, Debejan is a synonym for Gegić, but I can find precious little about either variety.)

In any case, 100% Syrah or not, if you like hearty Côtes du Rhône wines, you will most definitely like Katunar Kurykta Anton. Full-bodied reds like this are perfect for winter dinners, and the acids in this wine ensure that it will pair with a range of robust stews, roasts and pastas. It’s a bit of a splurge at $21 a bottle, but your investment will be amply rewarded.

An Earthy Red From Serbia

17 December 2013
Chateau Damjanovic 2009

Chateau Damjanović 2009

A bottle from Serbia sparked this blog, and so I’ll always have a soft spot for wines from this landlocked country in the center of the Balkans. Wines from this country can be hard to find, but I keep running into them here in Chicago largely due to the efforts of Goran Sevic, owner of the import company Vino et Spiritus. His import philosophy is exciting: ”There are plenty of commodity Serbian wines produced in large co-ops that retail in the $7 and under category that are OK, but I really have no interest in importing them.  What I look for are artisanal wines with expression of place, varietal and vintage; terroir.”

I tasted through his portfolio a couple of years ago, and delighted in the Tamjanika, Prokupac, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch and Vranac he served me. But at that time, he hadn’t yet started to import the Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. When I saw a bottle of it on the shelf at In Fine Spirits, and noticed it was imported by Vino et Spiritus, I felt certain it would be a winner and snapped it up.

Chateau Damjanović  comes from Zapadna Morava (south of Belgrade), which used to be the site of imperial vineyards, according to Vinopedia. Further encouragement about the wine came from The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which suggests that “the best potential [in Serbia] is for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot when grown in Južna Morava,” the wine region immediately to the south of Zapadna Morava. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, arguing that “Cabernet and Merlot with intriguing potential can also be ripened, notably [in the Južna Morava region] in the south.” It also sounded promising that Chateau Damjanović has only 7.41 acres of vineyards, according to the Vino et Spiritus website, meaning that the winery certainly doesn’t fall into the mediocre large co-op category.

Chateau Damjanovic 2010

Chateau Damjanović 2010

The Chateau Damjanović sounded better and better. Unfortunately, when I have a wine I’m particularly excited about, it sometimes paradoxically stays in my wine rack much longer than I might like. It’s all too easy to leave it unopened, waiting for just the right occasion. I left my bottle of 2009 Chateau Damjanović for about year, so it seems, because I discovered the 2010 vintage at Binny’s just a few weeks ago. I bought it too, and decided it was high  time for a mini Damjanović vertical tasting.

2010 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I tasted this vintage first, while baking up some smoked gouda and rosemary bread. This Cabernet/Merlot blend had a dark, earthy and slightly funky aroma, which seemed promising. It had a rustic feel to it, with tightly wound red fruit and notes of iron and tobacco. Though the acids were big and rowdy, the tannins were relatively soft, and at the very end the wine finished with a bit of vanilla. It was lively and fun, and spicier when paired with a warm slice of the bread.

2009 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I opened this bottle while decorating the Christmas tree on a very cold Sunday afternoon, when something hearty was in order. The aroma of this wine was even more intensely earthy, with strong notes of iron and clay in addition to some red fruit. It tasted spicy, meaty and smokey, making me yearn for some smoked sausage to go with it. Though this wine was a year older, the fruit remained tightly wound, loosening a bit when paired with some Bolognese. It finished with a pronounced metallic note, rather than the vanilla of the 2010.

The Vino et Spiritus website recommends drinking this wine young. Certainly the 2010 is ready to drink now, but the 2009 was equally as good, if not better. Priced at about $13 — a very fine value — it’s an inexpensive risk to buy an extra bottle or two to lay down and see what happens. In the meantime, because the 2010 has such zesty acids, it’s well-suited to the hearty food of the holiday season.

Find It: I purchased the 2009 vintage at In Fine Spirits, and the 2010 vintage at Binny’s.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 1

2 January 2013

Chef de Cuisine Joshua MarrellEvery now and then, an invitation to attend a special dinner will waft my way, and though I do my best to avoid overindulgence (ahem), I feel it is my bloggerly duty to accept whenever possible. And so,  immediately following my office’s Christmas party, at which much pasta and red wine was consumed, I headed to Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, home to cozy and stylish Urban Union.

A handful of other food/wine bloggers gathered at the communal Chef’s Table, “where diners are served customized and unique creations, along with expertly selected wine pairings by the two sommeliers on staff,” according to the invitation. I felt a bit apprehensive, hoping that the pairings would be unusual enough to suit this blog, but as soon as I walked in, I knew it would work out just fine. A large chalkboard listed the “Wines on Tap,” starting with a Greek Moschofilero and a Californian Arneis. Yeah!

We started with a relatively conventional but undeniably delicious pairing of sake and ahi tuna sashimi with ponzu, basil and almonds. The Narutotai Ginjo Namagenshu, an unpasturized, unfiltered sake that continues to condition in its can, tasted fruity and a bit yeasty before driving to a clean, spicy finish. Paired with the sashimi, it seemed surprisingly less spicy; it became smoother, duskier. (You can read more about sake here.)

Domaine GiachinoThings started to get more unusual and exciting when General Manager and Sommelier Andrew Algren brought out the next bottle, a 2009 Domaine Giachino Abymes “Monfarina”.Very little wine escapes from France’s Alpine Savoie region, so I always feel delighted when I have the chance to taste one. This wine comes from the Abymes cru, about 100 kilometers south of Geneva, Switzerland, and it’s made with Jacquère, a white variety obscure to us but relatively common in Savoie. The wine smelled of rich green apples, and it tasted light-bodied and rather tart. The acids cried out for food, and a delightful winter beet salad with pancetta chips mellowed them nicely.

Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell kept things seasonal with his next course, a lush sunchoke purée topped with roasted sunchokes and sunchoke chips. Its deeply satisfying flavor worked marvelously with Algren’s most daring pairing yet: A 2011 Tikveš Rkaciteli from theSunchokes pureed, roasted and in chip form Republic of Macedonia (not to be confused with the Greek region of the same name). If you’ve encountered the incredibly ancient Rkaciteli variety at all, it was probably spelled “Rkatsiteli” and it probably came from Georgia (the country) or perhaps New York. It’s the most widely planted variety in the ex-Soviet republics, which isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement, but it can make some excellent wines.

Macedonia, for its part, has a climate “extremely favorable to vine cultivation,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I was excited to see what this little country would do with one of the world’s oldest wine varieties. The Tikveš Rkaciteli fascinated me with aromas of bright pear and a bit of tar. It proved to be very acidic, oily and minerally, which sounds terrible, but I found it oddly enticing. The rich sunchoke dish balanced out the acids, making the wine rounder and fuller.

Up Next: The meal continues with an unexpected rosé and a wine that tastes like “grabbing a handful of the French forest floor and chowing down.”

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The Tasting Room – Part 1

3 March 2012

We Chicagoans are blessed with an array of fine wine bars, such as In Fine Spirits, Webster’s and Avec. One of my favorites, The Tasting Room, boasts not only an intriguing by-the-glass wine selection, but also beautiful views of the city’s skyline. On my last visit, it was the Sears Tower I contemplated out the second-floor windows, not the Willis, so a return trip was certainly long overdue.

Some old friends and I met up on a clear Thursday evening, arriving early enough to score a plum table by the windows. I perused the wine list, planning my strategy for the evening. A number of unusual and obscure options tempted me, but there was no question what my first drink of the evening would be: a non-vintage (NV) Eric Bordelet “Poire Autentique” from France’s Pays d’Auge region (part of Normandy). This sparkler comes from pears, not grapes.

Monsieur Bordelet, a former sommelier, presides over bio-dynamically farmed orchards of heirloom pear and apple trees, some of which date back to the 18th century. As many as 15 different kinds of pears go into this light yellow/green sparkling cider, which has a mere 4% alcohol content, making it quite easy to drink. Its powerful aroma of ripe, golden pears sucked me right in, and I was impressed by the elegantly tiny bubbles (though there were so many of them as to make it almost foamy). It tasted sweet, acidic and, of course, peary, but the cider finished surprisingly dry. $5 for a three-ounce pour or $10 for six.

I also couldn’t resist trying the 2010 Verus Furmint from Štajerska, also known as Slovenian Styria. I’ve long had a fondness for Slovenian wines, and Slovenia, for that matter, but this glass turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The Oxford Companion to Wine calls Furmint a “fine, fiery white grape variety,” but this fruity, tart wine felt rather flabby, with a watery, slightly chalky finish. It livened up nicely with food, but all in all, it seemed to lack structure. I may have sampled a bottle that had been open too long — noted wine critic Jancis Robinson lavished praise on the 2007 Verus Furmint in this article, which also relates the fascinating story of the company. $5.50 for a three-ounce pour, $11 for six.

Some delicious reds would soon overshadow this small disappointment, but that’s for another post…

 

A White Delight From Istria

15 October 2011

The World Atlas Of Wine asserts that Croatia is “a country full of original, if elusive, rewards…” It helps then, to have someone like Sasha of the distributor Tasty Wine Company separate the rubies from the garnets. He turned me on to an Istrian winery called Piquentum, which makes some fascinating stuff.

Back in May, I wrote about my experience with the Piquentum Teranum in this post. Though clearly well made, this wine simply wasn’t to my taste (more an indication of a flaw in my palate than in the wine, surely). I let the other bottle of Piquentum wine, a 2009 Istrian Malvasia, languish on my shelf for months thereafter.

It was worth the wait. This wine was most certainly to my taste.

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A New Frontier – Part 4

17 June 2011

Our explorations of Serbian drink were not confined to wine. Mr. Goran Sevic of importer Vino et Spiritus brings a number of spirits into the United States, including loza (Serbian grappa), brandy and slivovitz. (You can read a previous post about slivovitz here.)

I briefly felt concerned that hard alcohol might not agree with my stomach, still recovering from a bout of food poisoning, but after tasting six wines, some sremska sausage and a stalk of green garlic, I decided to just go for it.

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