Spain

The Obscure Delights Of Sumoll

8 July 2016

Sumoll, minor Catalan red wine grape usually blended, known as Vijariego Negra on the Canary Islands.

Gaintus "Radical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll

Thus reads the entirety of The Oxford Companion to Wine‘s description of Sumoll, which ranks among the shortest entries in the volume. If even the Oxford Companion can’t muster enough energy to make a single complete sentence about a grape variety, you know it’s really, really obscure. I was therefore amazed to learn from DeVinos that there used to be more Sumoll in Spain than Garnacha (Grenache), a variety which now counts among the country’s most ubiquitous grapes. What happened?

The 19th-century phylloxera plague took its toll, DeVinos explains, and according to Wine Searcher, most of the remaining vineyards were uprooted “in favor of less temperamental varieties.” The website of the Heretat MontRubí winery calls Sumoll a “delicate variety and so difficult to grow.” Wine Searcher agrees, noting that “The variety gives large grapes but low yields and is quite difficult to work with.” It’s not difficult to empathize with farmers who, faced with phylloxera-devastated fields of Sumoll, decided to grow something just a little bit easier and more internationally popular.

Sumoll RoseFor much of the 20th century, the only people with any interest in Sumoll, it seems, were Australians. For all its fussiness, Sumoll is “particularly drought-resistant,” according to Wine Searcher, and wine growers Down Under created four hybrids using the variety: Rubien, Cienna, Tyrian and Vermillion (Cienna merits no fewer than three sentences in the Oxford Companion). But aside from some Australian ampelographers, few cared all that much about Sumoll.

The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in local, indigenous varieties that arguably better express the personality of a wine region. This fashion may just have rescued Sumoll from extinction. Current plantings only cover about 300 acres, but a handful of dedicated wineries are giving the grape some much-needed attention.

This underdog variety captured my attention at a recent Catalan wine tasting, and I could hardly pass up the chance when a winery offered to send me four different samples of wines made from the variety.

Heretat MontRubí stands in Penedes, the heart of Spain’s Cava country, but the winery produces only small-production still wines — nothing sparkling. It released the first varietal Sumoll in 2001 (at least the first seen since phylloxera hit), and the winery now bottles three, a rosé and two reds, in addition to a Sumoll-based blend. Finding one Sumoll is rare enough, but to taste four side by side in one evening? That’s like winning the Odd Bacchus lottery.

Gaintus "Vertical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll

Should you encounter a Sumoll yourself, and it’s not out of the realm of reason, here is what to expect:

2015 Gaintus “One Night’s Rosé” Sumoll: This wine has a lovely pale peachy-pink color and ample red fruit on the nose, along with some citrus like grapefruit and lemon. Surprisingly, it doesn’t taste especially fruity, feeling more tart and lean. But sampled with some roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, it filled out nicely. This is a rosé you want to drink with food.

2014 Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll: I quite liked the aroma of vanilla, chocolate and peppercorn, and its color looked enticing as well — a Pinot Noir-like transparent garnet. My dinner companion remarked, “It tastes young,” and I sensed that as well. There was a green peppercorn note intermingled with the ripe black-cherry fruit. The finish felt tannic but certainly not harsh, and with some tagliatelle Bolognese, the acids came more to the fore. Again, it was with food that this wine really sang. I’m of a mind to buy a bottle or two and see what happens in five years, after it ages a bit longer.

2007 Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll: The Vertical Sumoll sees more time in wood — 14 months in new French barrels compared to the Radical’s six months in second-use barrels — and it’s aged an additional 24 months in the bottle before release. Its aroma smelled like a more subtle version of the Radical, again with the notes of vanilla, chocolate and a bit of pepper. But this time, the peppercorn flavor tasted more black than green. The dark cherry fruit was there, as were more than enough acids for balance. Indeed, it tasted a little too acidic for my taste, but some chicken with tomato sauce tamed the acids beautifully. As with the wines above, the Vertical was at its best with food.

Durona Red Blend2009 Durona Red Blend: A blend of 50% Sumoll, 25% Garnacha and 25% Samsó (a “confusing Catalan name used for both Carignan and Cinsault,” according to the Oxford Companion), this wine had a totally different character from the Sumoll varietals. It smelled big, ripe and rich, with lots of fruit and a vanilla overtone. My friend took a taste and exclaimed, “Oh, I love that.” I did, too. The flavors felt deep and powerful, with ample dark fruit, a shaft of white-pepper spice and a well-balanced note of wood underneath. If you like high-quality Cabernet Franc, I suspect you’ll like this wine a great deal. With the chicken, it became more taut and spicy, but I would happily drink the Durona all on its own.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a Sumoll aisle in your wine shop any time soon, but should you come across one of these wines while shopping for something to accompany dinner, don’t hesitate to pick it up.

Monastrell: The Wild, Rich Red Of Jumilla

20 May 2016

Juan Gil Conoloco and Silver LabelWhen I visit my Aunt Hannah, it’s easy to choose a wine to bring. She loves Ivanović Prokupac from Serbia, and — a little easier to find — Juan Gil’s Silver Label Monastrell from Jumilla. The latter, a Spanish red, remains relatively unknown in the United States, a fact which baffles me. Well-made Monastrell has such rich fruit and hearty character, it should be a perfect fit for the stereotypical American palate. And just as important, it usually offers a fantastic flavor-to-price ratio. Binny’s, for example, sells the Juan Gil Silver Label for $14.

I suspect the obscurity of Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France) has something to do with the fact that its home base in southeastern Spain produced “lackluster” wines until only recently, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, noting that “Wine is still made that is deliberately strong and sweet, but the best can compete with ‘premium’ super-ripe reds from California and Australia.” Fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz, if you’re looking for something new, Monastrell from Jumilla may be just the thing.

Like Salta in Argentina, Jumilla has an arid climate, a large day/night temperature differential and a relatively high altitude (Juan Gil’s vines grow between 2,300 and 2,800 feet). As a result, the vineyards tend to have low yields and the grapes tend to be thick-skinned, producing concentrated, aromatic and rather tannic reds, often with high alcohol levels. In other words, these wines are big.

And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Monastrell has “…a somewhat gamey, almost animal flavour when young.” That sounds problematic, but in the right hands, that “animal” quality turns into an appealing savory undertone akin to grilled meat, smoke or even bacon, adding complexity to the wine.

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

I had an opportunity to experience the full potential of Monastrell at a recent tasting hosted by Juan Gil in Chicago. The wines ranged in price from $8 a bottle into the triple digits, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. That said, exercise caution with bargain-priced Monastrell. I once had a harrowing experience with $9 Bodegas Volver “Wrongo Dongo” Monastrell, for example, though the resulting puns that flew around the table were some consolation. When in doubt, stick to Monastrell that costs $12 and up.

2014 Honoro Vera Monastrell: This entry-level Monastrell typically sells for less than $10 a bottle, but it tastes more expensive. It has taut and ripe red fruit, a savory undertone, some forceful white-pepper spice and a tannic finish. It all seemed in balance, and my goodness, what a value for the money.

2014 Honoro Vera Organic Monastrell: Surprisingly, the organic version of this wine sells for the same price (Binny’s sells both for $8 a bottle). It tastes different from the other Honoro Vera — it smells heartier, with more of a hint of meat and funk. Full of raspberry jam, it starts with a refined mouthfeel and builds to a big, rather rustic finish. Again, it’s a superlative value.

2014 Orowines “Comoloco” Monastrell: Juan Gil also owns Orowines, which produces another remarkably inexpensive Monastrell (Binny’s sells it for $8 a bottle). This example sees no wood, and though stainless steel highlights pure Monastrell fruit, I prefer a touch of oak. The wine smelled of dark red fruit and black pepper, and its fruit felt pleasingly fresh. The savory note and spice were both there, but I missed something in the midsection. Even so, considering the price, you’re still getting a lot of flavor for the money.

Juan Gil's 100th anniversary cake

Juan Gil’s 100th anniversary cake

2013 Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell: Aged 12 months in French oak, this wine costs more (about $14), but for that money, you’re getting a richer, darker wine, with no absence in the midsection. For years, the Silver Label has been one of my go-to reds.

2013 Juan Gil 18: If you have between $25 and $30 to spend, spend it on this. The 18 is a blend of 60% old-vine Monastrell, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah, all aged 18 months in French and American oak. The dark, rich aroma seduces immediately, and any Parkerized American will love the big, jammy fruit. A shaft of spice shoots right through it, keeping the wine balanced, and I loved the green tobacco note on the finish. This is a gorgeous wine, and a great value even at $30.

2013 Juan Gil “Aniversario” 100: Created for Juan Gil’s centennial, the “Aniversario” blends 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet and 25% Syrah, and it sells for just a bit more than the 18 (if you can find it). It sees El Nido Clio23 months in French and American oak, and it’s big, dark and rich. The fruit feels opulent but tightly controlled, and the focused spice keeps going and going. The wine slowly unfolds, growing and developing to a big finish of spice and fine-grained tannins. This is a delicious, elegant and powerful wine, but if I had the choice between the 100 and the 18, I would pick the 18.

2013 Bodegas El Nido “Clio”: Juan Gil also owns El Nido winery, a “…partnership between the Gil family and Chris Ringland, one of Australia’s best winemakers,” according to El Nido’s website. The Monastrell vines are “very old… almost centenarians,” and they produce some incredible fruit. This blend of 70% Monastrell and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon sees between 22 and 26 months in oak, and it was my favorite wine of the entire tasting. It had an aroma of rich, dark, almost jammy fruit, in the range of black cherries and plums. On the palate, the fruit felt sumptuously lush and clear, with a laser beam of white pepper spice streaming through it. The tannins on the finish were big but very refined. Binny’s sells the “Clio” for $40, and it’s worth every penny. A wine like this from Napa would easily be twice the price.

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis 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. 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 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

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.

Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

Oriol Gual of Juve y CampsIt is unquestionably celebratory to hear that most beautiful of all sounds, that of a cork pop, and bubbly deserves its status as the most festive of all wines. Prosecco appears at parties more frequently now, and Champagne corks whiz through the air on New Year’s Eve. But considering all we Americans have to celebrate, we serve sparkling wine relatively rarely. This is an error.

First, sparkling wine goes well with such a wide variety of foods, it’s quite difficult to screw up a pairing. When in doubt, go with the bubbles. Second, guests love sparkling wine, regardless of the occasion for their visit. It makes them feel special. Third, it can be a fantastic value for the money. It’s not affordable for most of us to drink Champagne any time we feel like it, but there are plenty of other fine sparkling wines available for weeknight prices. Cava is one of them.

I recently tried six superb Cavas produced by Juvé y Camps, which, according to the promotional materials I received, uses fruit only from its own vineyards (most Cava producers, like those in Champagne, buy fruit from independent growers). Juvé y Camps also hand-riddles all its bottles, a labor-intensive process now performed by machines in most wineries, and it uses free-run juice, collected without pressing the grapes. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, free-run juice “is generally superior to, and much lower in tannins than, juice or wine whose extraction depends on pressing.”

In the 2007 Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, author Tom Stevenson is more than usually grumpy about Juvé y Camps, writing, “I have failed to discern any of the intrinsically superior qualities in these wines that some Cava-infatuated critics have found. However, I do hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the wines of this respected, traditional family firm.” I’m no Cava-infatuated critic — I rarely buy them, as a matter of fact, because I (rightly or wrongly) associate Cava with large bubbles. But I thought Juvé y Camps’ Cavas were quite delicious and elegant, whatever Mr. Stevenson has to say.

2010 Reserva de la Familia: 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.

2009 Gran Juvé Reserva Brut: Aged 60 months on the lees and made only in the best vintages, this Cava includes the unorthodox variety of Chardonnay in with the traditional Spanish blend. It felt very classy, with a toasty, citrusy aroma, sharp bubbles, and a dry but perfumed quality — there were notes of orange flowers and stone fruits. Delicious and refined.

2010 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva: Unusually for a Cava, or any sparkling wine, for that matter, this bottling blends 90% Pinot Noir with 10% Xarel·lo (Cava producers have been experimenting with the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in recent years). This romantic sparkler had a tight aroma of candied berries, or as one fellow taster exclaimed, “It’s like that dust in straws!” (he meant Pixy Stix). Spicy but elegant, it had tiny, pointy bubbles, some subtle red-fruit undertones and chalk on the finish.

NV Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir had a lovely watermelon color and aromas of berries and orange zest. It was fruity but dry, with orangey acids and very small, classy bubbles. An excellent choice for date night — I could easily picture snuggling up by the fireplace with this one.

NV Juvé Sweet: During my time at the Juvé y Camps tasting table, several people expressed skepticism about this Cava. A lot of experienced wine drinkers look down on sweeter wines, regarding them as uninteresting or simply for amateurs. They may be unfashionable, but by ignoring them, you deny yourself an entire range of beautiful and well-balanced wines. In this case, I enjoyed Juvé Sweet’s fresh, cheerful aromas of white fruits, and its sweet but non-cloying character. It had balanced acids, a bit of perfume and small, refined bubbles. This Cava would make an excellent aperitif — it’s a more sophisticated alternative to Moscato d’Asti.

Many of these wines cost far less than you might expect, considering the quality and the labor required to craft them. Binny’s, for example, sells the Reserva de la Familia and the Brut Rosé for $15 a bottle. I think that’s cause for some celebration.

Old Vines In A New D.O.

7 December 2013

Vega Tolosa 11 Pinos BobalMy favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits, is a small but exciting place in which to simply browse, with nothing in mind other than finding something new and unusual to try. Wine megastores like Binny’s have a much wider selection, but I think every wine drinker needs a store like In Fine Spirits, which presents a curated offering of wines that the owners have tasted themselves and specifically chosen to put on their shelves. Because the palates of the owners align closely with my own, I never feel apprehensive about buying something I haven’t heard of.

Which is why I had no qualms about picking up a bottle of 2011 Vega Tolosa “11 Pinos” Bobal a few weeks ago, even though I’d never tried a wine made from the Bobal variety, nor could I remember sampling a wine from the Manchuela D.O. where the 11 Pinos originates.

Bobal, I read with some dismay in The Oxford Companion to Wine, “produces deep-colored red wines” in certain areas, but in others, it’s used “mainly but not exclusively for bulk wine production.” I didn’t feel any more reassured when I looked up the Manchuela D.O. in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. This region between La Mancha and Valencia generally makes wines of “a quality that is seldom better than an acceptable quaff,” and indeed, “much is a lot worse,” it says, not mincing any words.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Oxford Companion goes on to say that Bobal’s “reputation has been growing as producers such as Mustiguillo have managed to fashion velvety reds from high-altitude vineyards in Utiel-Requena,” an eastern sub-region of Manchuela. This high plateau, which was granted D.O. status in 2000, “shows great potential,” the Oxford Companion argues, “but has lacked the investment required to develop it.” It seemed there was hope for Manchuela Bobal after all.

I also felt encouraged by the fact that the Bobal vines in Vega Tolosa’s vineyards have an average age of 80 years, which theoretically means low yields, high concentration and deep flavors. I poured myself a glass as I cooked up some cavatappi with walnut-cilantro pesto, and I was immediately struck by the meaty, dark-fruit aroma. This was a lusty wine, with dark-red fruit, a dash of black pepper and a smoothly tannic finish. It felt rustic, strong and hearty, which was just what I needed on a cold winter’s night.

I’m not sure the 11 Pinos Bobal would win in a blind tasting with a fine Toro or a top Rioja, but then it didn’t have a top Rioja price tag, either. For $12.50, this wine packed a lot of flavor, and I would certainly buy it again. So if you see a Bobal on your wine shop’s shelf, I recommend giving it a try. It’s an ideal choice for a holiday party, where people will be in the mood for something hearty and fun.

Galicia’s Answer To Sauvignon Blanc

2 March 2013

She crab soup with sherryUnadventurous wine lists at corporate parties and weddings tend to read something like this: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc tops the list so often because it tends to be fruity and very food-friendly, with fun, juicy acids. But if you’re itching to get out of the Sauvignon Blanc rut — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — I’ve got just the white for you: Godello.

This variety indigenous to Spain’s northwestern Galicia region almost became extinct thanks to Phylloxera, and it languished in obscurity for years. It was only “recently re-discovered,” according to the 2001 edition of André Dominé’s Wine, and the Galician region best known for producing Godello, the rainy Valdeorras D.O., now “regularly hits the headlines of the Spanish trade press.”

All my wine books speak highly of Godello grown in Valdeorras. The World Atlas of Wine argues that it “can yield extremely fine wines worth ageing,” and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “The best [Valdeorras] wineries have now been modernized and are even better than they used to be, particularly for white wines made from the Godello grape.”

Even so, it can be hard to find this “fine white grape variety” (The Oxford Companion to Wine), because Galician vineyards and wineries tend to be small, with necessarily limited production, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. The Galicians know a good thing when they taste it. I felt very lucky, therefore, when I spotted it on the wines-by-the-glass list at Carter’s Kitchen, a delightful casual restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

Carter’s Kitchen offered the 2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello for $8 a glass, one of the least-expensive wines on the list. I needed something with some serious acids to compete with the decadent seafood I’d just ordered, and the Godello proved up to the challenge. It started with some sweet, apply fruit, but this was quickly overtaken by focused, limey acids which carried through to a white-peppery finish. The wine cut right through the richness of a creamy and thick she crab soup (pictured above), and it kept its laser focus against some beautifully fresh fried “doormat flounder” as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again with seafood, pork, chicken, pasta with cream sauce, risotto… Its juicy fruit and tight acids ensure that it can stand up to all sorts of rich foods, clearing the palate to prepare for the next bite. Keep an eye out for Godellos — if you like Sauvignon Blanc, a nervy Godello from Galicia will be right up your palate.

SUMMARY

2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello: Fruity but focused, with tight acids that can shine right through a host of rich foods. An excellent escape from a Sauvignon Blanc rut. Chill well before serving.

Grade: B+

Find It: Williams-Sonoma sells this particular Godello for $15, but don’t worry if you can’t find this specific label. Binny’s, for example, lists nine different Godellos on its website ranging in price from $10 to $50 a bottle. Also check out my review of this Godello from Galicia’s Monterrei region.

 

The Hearty Reds Of Toro

26 January 2013

Toro paired with fusilli BologneseI remember the first time I had a wine from Spain’s small Toro region, which straddles the Duero River not too far from northwestern Portugal. My husband-to-be and I were in New York at a delightful tapas bar in the Village (the name of which is alas lost to history), and at the bottom of the extensive wines-by-the-glass list was a Toro. I asked the bartender about it, and he replied, “Oh, I love that one — if you like big reds, you should give it a try.” We each had a glass, and our memories are so fond of that evening and that wine that we served a Toro at our wedding reception.

This Denominación de Origen (DO) was established only recently, in 1987, and the Toro DO only gained international renown in the last 10 years or so. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “The Alvarez family of Vega-Sicilia fame had been purchasing land [in Toro] since 1997, and after this was announced in 2002, the floodgates opened, so that at last count there were 40 bodegas.” Sotheby’s goes on to say that “the battle for Toro’s true quality has only just begun,” but I say it’s producing some pretty darn tasty stuff already.

Part of the region’s success is no doubt due to what The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “severe” growing conditions, with dry, stony soils and high altitudes. Grapevines need to suffer to produce great wine, the common wisdom goes, and in this “wild and remote zone,” the vines surely suffer indeed. The local specialty, Tinta de Toro (a variant of Tempranillo), has adapted to the Toro terroir, and it produces wines of “exciting quality” according to Sotheby’s, and according to me as well for that matter.

It’s January in Chicago, and I was in the mood, as you might expect, for a big red wine. I browsed the Toro section at Binny’s and discovered that, as usual, most of the Toros were pretty pricey. I picked up a couple of bottles of the least expensive, a 2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago,” recognizable by the big white “g” on its black label. It turned out $15 was quite a bargain for this beauty.

When I opened the bottle, I could immediately detect vanilla aromas, which intensified when I poured the deep-purple wine in a glass. Closer up, the wine smelled more like red fruit, iron and earth than vanilla. It felt focused up front — even a little tight — with flavors of vanilla and dark berries. At the back of the palate, however, it became almost rough, with hearty tannins, rustic power and some rowdy spice. It developed how I imagine a typical date in Las Vegas would. Paired with some Fusilli Bolognese, it became even more powerful and spicy.

This may not necessarily be the best Toro out there, but at $15, the Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago” took me on quite a ride. And if this Toro isn’t available at your local wine shop, try another one. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a wine from this newly discovered region.

SUMMARY

2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago”:This tasty Toro starts smooth and then gets a little rowdy. Big fruit and significant tannins. A fun ride and a fine value. Chill in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes before serving, and pair with red meat or strong cheese.

Grade: B+/A-

Find It: I purchased this wine for $15 at Binny’s on Clark Street.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 2

5 January 2013

We drank so many tasty and unusual things at our dinner at Urban Union, I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one post. To read about some fine unfiltered/unpasteurized sake, a bright wine from France’s Savoie and a truly odd selection from Macedonia, follow this link.

To venture yet further into the obscure, read on!

Mushrooms and Domaine FilliatreauWhen most people think of wines from France’s Loire Valley — if they think of them at all — they think of crisp, minerally whites like Sancerre. But the Loire produces robust reds as well, most notably from the Cabernet Franc variety. Ex-Sommelier Andrew Algren (he left Urban Union just days after our dinner) selected a wine from the Saumur-Champigny section of the Loire, which produces “one of Cabernet Franc’s most refreshing expressions,” according to The World Atlas to Wine. According to Algren, it’s “like grabbing a handful of French forest floor and chowing down.” I was intrigued.

To me, the 2010 Domaine Filliatreau “La Grande Vignolle” tasted eye-poppingly tight, especially after smelling its deep, enticing, meaty aroma. It was very acidic and tannic, with a finish of black pepper. It screamed for food. In keeping with the French forest floor theme, Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell presented a course of trumpet, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms foraged, reportedly, by a local comedian. This rather daringly simple dish smelled appealingly like mushroom-topped pizza. Its earthy flavors tamed the punchy acids in the wine, resulting in positively delightful combination.

Domaine RomyBucking convention, Algren moved from a red to pink, pouring a highly unusual Beaujolais rosé (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity but usually over-sweet red released around Thanksgiving). Made from Gamay, the variety used in all red Beaujolais wines, the orangey-pink 2010 Domaine Romy Beaujolais Rosé tasted of juicy strawberries, with a firm structure and ample minerals and acids. Delicious. Served with a wonderfully garlicky dish of tender charred octopus, confit of potatoes in beef fat and scallion purée, the wine’s flavor didn’t seem to change all that much. Instead, the wine enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing its savory richness to new heights.

Algren pouring UlaciaAnd then we were back, oddly enough, to a white. Poured theatrically from overhead, as is traditional in Spain’s Basque country, Algren presented a 2011 Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. This tart, apply, slightly fizzy wine comes from near the town of Getaria, a region of cool, rainy summers which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “hardly ideal grape-growing country.” Nevertheless, the whites, mostly made from the Hondarribi Zuri variety, have “noticeably improved” in the last couple of decades. (Incidentally, there’s a nasty rumor going around that Hondarribi Zuri is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera variety and some other species of Vitis. Scandal!)

Algren paired the Ulacia with a dish of prosciutto from black-skinned pigs, pickled mustard seeds and crunchy celery root, to marvelous effect. The tart wine cut right through the fat of the prosciutto and became a bit sweeter in the process. A hearty, zesty combination I wouldn’t hesitate to order again. (Marrell graciously credited the inspiration for this dish to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook “White Heat.”)

Good heavens, there’s yet more to come? Loosen your belts, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve got three courses left to go.

Up Next: A stellar cru Beaujolais, a Lagrein from Italy, and for dessert… vermouth. Hey, this is Odd Bacchus, folks. Were you expecting Port?

A Thoughtful Gift

28 November 2012

Not too long ago, my friend Will brought over a bottle of wine, and he chose something right up my alley. Knowing my preference for the unusual, he purchased a 2009 Can Blau Montsant, a blend of 40% Mazuelo, 40% Syrah and 20% Garnacha (Grenache).

What? A Mazuelo-based blend from Montsant?? Be still my obscure heart!

The Montsant D.O. (Denominación de Origen), I discovered, came into being only in 2001. It was carved out of the Tarragona D.O. in Catalonia, Spain, in order to “highlight its superior quality,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It can apparently produce wines “similar in style and quality” to those crafted in neighboring Priorat, which is pretty high praise as far as I’m concerned. And it’s no surprise. According to the map in The World Atlas of Wine, the Can Blau winery is barely a kilometer outside the Priorat region. So close!

Now, Syrah and Garnacha I’ve heard of and sampled, but Mazuelo? Well, it turns out I’ve tried that too — “Mazuelo” is the term people in Rioja use for Carignan (also spelled “Carignane”). But why a winery in Monstant would label its wine with a term from the Rioja region instead of the locally used “Cariñena” is a mystery. Or is it?

I realized that though I’d tried wines made from Carignan before, I didn’t know all that much about the grape. I read the entry about it in the Companion, and it began to make sense why Can Blau wouldn’t necessarily be anxious to announce the Carignan component in its wine. The Companion praises old Carignan vines, but calls the variety in general “the bane of the European wine industry…distinguished mainly by its disadvantages.” Varietal wines from this rot-prone grape tend to be “high in everything — acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness — but finesse and charm.” Which boils down to wines that are too rough to drink young but are also “unworthy of maturation.” Ouch.

But if late-ripening Carignan is going to do well anywhere, it seems, it’s in sunny Catalonia. I have no idea how old the Carignan vines of Can Blau are (the website of its parent company is only in Spanish), but I suspect the Companion might not entirely approve. The wine was big and a little unpolished, but it was great with a bowl of hearty vegetable gratin on a cold Sunday evening. An appealing deep magenta, the Can Blau had fragrant aromas of jam and vanilla. On the palate, it started with a zing of black pepper before moving on to dark fruit, big rustic tannins and expansive acids. It finished with some sweet notes; a bit of anise and a quick reprise of vanilla.

Well, I suppose this wine didn’t exactly scream “finesse!” It was more of a robust farmer than a refined city type, but I very much enjoyed it nevertheless. After all, robust farmers can be a lot of fun every now and then.

SUMMARY

2009 Can Blau Montsant: Big, fragrant, fruity and a little rustic. This wine might be a little much for some tastes, but I thought it was great fun. Chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: Binny’s carries the 2010 vintage for $16, which is not at all a bad deal considering the wallop of flavor this wine packs.

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