Grape Varieties

Taming Aglianico: Campania’s Noble, Underrated Red

1 April 2017

Certain beasts inhabit the world of Italian wine. Intense Barolo from Piedmont is perhaps the most famous example, with its high acidity and powerful tannins which often benefit from long bottle aging. But southern Italy has its own wonderful beast with big acids and forceful tannins: Aglianico.

Pronounced approximately “ahl-lee-AH-nee-coh,” this “dark-skinned, top-quality” grape, as The Oxford Companion to Wine describes it, doesn’t have the name recognition or cachet of Barolo. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Aglianico “underrated,” and The World Atlas of Wine describes it as “one of Italy’s greatest dark-skinned grapes, making wines with a powerful, obviously noble, brooding character.”

One of my very favorite things is an obviously noble but underrated grape.

The Oxford Companion explains that Aglianico “seems to prefer soils of volcanic origin” and that it’s quite late-ripening, which means that the warm vineyards of Campania, notably in the Irpina and Taurasi regions west of Mount Vesuvius, provide an ideal home. And what a home — in Roman times, Campania produced the most sought-after wines in the empire, notably Falernian.

One of the best and largest wineries now producing Aglianico in Campania is, oddly enough, one of the region’s newest, founded in 1986: Feudi di San Gregorio. Founder Enzo Ercolino grew up in Campania but had moved to Rome. After the devastating 1980 Irpina earthquake, he decided he wanted to help his home region recover by investing in it, and he started a winery.

Antonio Capaldo

His son, Antonio Capaldo, has since taken over and now serves as Feudi’s president. Like his father, he didn’t start out in the business of wine. “I come from a dark past,” he confided over lunch in the Birreria of Chicago’s Eataly. “I come from finance.” He always had felt close to the family business, however, and he has since made up for lost time, taking his sommelier exam. “And I drink a lot. That helps. My wife drinks even more, so that helps the industry.” I kind of love a guy willing to throw his wife under the bus if it makes for a good joke.

Feudi completed a new winery in 2004, but in 2009 it needed a family member to take over (Feudi was and is a family business, like many companies in Italy). So Capaldo returned, and devoted his ample energy to winemaking. “But I left the winemaking to the winemakers. I tried to explain to them that perfection doesn’t exist, that we should try to produce the best wine possible, that is the most important thing,” he said, with refreshing candor. “But also other things are important. We want to communicate the beauty of our terroir.” That’s a philosophy I can get behind.

Over a lunch, we sampled four Aglianicos, as well as two whites: a rich and spicy Falanghina and a fruity, well-balanced Greco di Tufo (the Falanghina was particularly compelling — seek it out). The tasting made an Aglianico lover out of me.

2016 “Ros’Aura” Aglianico Rosé: “I didn’t think it would be so challenging to make a rosé,” Capaldo exclaimed. Feudi brought in a Provençal winemaker to consult. “In terms of rosé, the French are ahead of us [Italians],” he continued. “I hate to admit it, because I have a French wife.” Well, this Italian rosé (with French assistance) certainly turned out well, with its fresh strawberry aroma, bright berry fruit and juicy, lemony acids, as well as an appealing undertone of richness.

2014 Rubrato Aglianico: This Irpino DOC Aglianico ages 8-10 months in stainless steel, with no time in oak. It felt big and bold, with ample dark-cherry fruit, forceful acids, medium tannins and some black pepper spice. Some mushroom ravioli enhanced the spice, and smoothed out the texture of the wine. Like many Italian bottlings, this one was at its best with food.

2011 Serpico Aglianico: Also officially an Irpino DOC, this Aglianico comes from the Dal Re vineyard near the village of Sorbo Serpico. It sees 18 months in barriques as well as larger wood barrels, evident in the aromatic notes of vanilla and a touch of oak in addition to dark fruit. The Serpico tasted dark and rich, with loads of fruit, significant oak and plenty of acidity. With some meatballs in marinara, it became extra spicy delicious.

2011 Taurasi Aglianico: All my resources love Aglianico from the Taurasi DOCG. According to  The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Taurasi] is one of the country’s greatest wines from this underrated grape variety.” The Oxford Companion to Wine agrees: “Taurasi demonstrates the heights which Aglianico can reach in the volcanic soil which it favours.” And from The World Atlas of Wine: “In the volcanic hills of the Taurasi DOCG zone, where [Aglianico] finds its finest expression, it can ripen as late as November…”

This particular Taurasi sees 18 months in wood, like the Serpico, but all the wood is barriques (smaller barrels enhance the effect of the wood and are more expensive to use). I loved its enticing aroma of deep, dark fruit and toasted wood with a touch of meatiness. As you might by now expect, it tasted rich and dark. The acids felt big but focused, and the tannins were brawny but not over-aggressive. There was spiciness, too, and a rather raisiny finish. Big and beautiful. If this wine were a person, he would be my ideal dinner party guest.

2012 Caparone Aglianico: Antonio Capaldo mentioned, with a tone of some amazement, that he knew of at least one winery growing Aglianico in California. As it happens, I had a bottle of Aglianico from California in my wine rack. I’d found a 2012 Caparone Aglianico from Paso Robles (between San Francisco and Los Angeles) at my favorite local wine shop, In Fine Spirits. Now seemed like an ideal moment to try it, to compare its character with that of Feudi’s Aglianicos.

Sotheby’s notes that in Paso Robles, coastal winds and fog do not penetrate, meaning that temperatures are high and sunny days are numerous. That’s important when you have a late-ripening grape like Aglianico. Caparone grows it along with two other noble Italian varieties, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Caparone ages its wines “several years” in barrels, though it can’t be too many years, since I bought the 2012 at least a year or two ago. In any case, its Aglianico was also delicious. It had a ripe and dusty dark-cherry aroma, with a bit of earth as well. The flavor was lusty and gutsy, with bold dark-red fruit, big acids, hefty but not clumsy tannins, a note of wood and some iron on the finish. The tannins softened with a slice of pepperoni pizza, and the food brought a vanilla note out from the background. Another fine Aglianico.

Of Italy’s noble red grapes, Aglianico is arguably the least famous. That means it’s also frequently the best value. It offers a lot of brawn for the buck.

Note: The glasses of Feudi wines were provided free of charge, but I purchased the Caparone Aglianico.

Share

Carcavelos: Portugal’s Most Endangered DOC

23 February 2017

The Casal da Manteiga

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

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

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

Galego Dourado vines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara and Tiago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Soulful Wines From The Heart Of Turkey

9 February 2017

Cappadocia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ardiç Gürsel

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

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

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

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

Share

Lodi’s Most Important Winery

28 January 2017

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

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

Vern Vierra in his vineyards

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

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

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

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

Dinner at St. Jorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

The Best Wine Pairing For Thai Food

13 January 2017

Every now and then I worry: Is this blog just a really, really elaborate cover for alcoholism? But then I glance at my wine rack, heaving with unopened sample bottles, and I realize that if I were an alcoholic, I would probably have transformed those samples into tasting notes and hangovers long ago. I feel relief, but only for a moment, because it strikes me that the wonderful PR people who sent me those dust-gathering samples would probably rather that I were an alcoholic.

In an effort to catch up, I brought two of my sample shelf’s oldest residents to Andy’s Thai Kitchen, a BYOB restaurant near the home of one of my favorite wine tasting friends, Liz Barrett, the Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR at Terlato Wines, one of Chicago’s most important wine importers and distributors. The company recently made news for severing its relationship with Santa Margherita, of Pinot Grigio infamy, and good riddance, too. (Terlato’s Friuli Pinot Grigio is ever so much better. It has important qualities lacking in the Santa Margherita, such as flavor.)

As Liz and I unloaded our wine onto our too-small table — five bottles in all — I briefly reconsidered my potential alcoholism, but that unpleasant thought was swiftly washed away by the exquisite Riesling Liz poured into my glass. Riesling and Gewürztraminer are classic choices for pairing with Thai food, and she brought along beautiful examples of each.

Both came from the Alsace, a region in eastern France along the border with Germany, which excels at producing dry whites (most famously, as luck would have it, Riesling and Gewürztraminer). Wines from the Alsace rarely lack acidity, and they sometimes even verge on the austere, making them an excellent choice if sweetness in wine gives you the heebie-jeebies.

The wines were created by Michel Chapoutier, a family wine company distinguished, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, by “its combination of high quality, often vineyard designated, and almost restless vineyard acquisition.” Chapoutier released his first Alsatian vintage in 2011, from fruit grown “on the only vein of blue schist in the Alsace region,” according to the Schieferkopf website. “Schieferkopf” literally means “head of schist.”

The 2012 Schieferkopf “Via Saint-Jacques” Riesling lived up to its hefty price tag of about $45, with a rich attack, wonderfully juicy and focused lemon/orange acids and a surprisingly long and minerally finish. “It’s crisp and rich at the same time,” Liz noted. Absolutely. It paired beautifully with some sweet and salty chicken satay — it even cut through the heavy peanut sauce — and the wine positively sang with some savory gyoza dumplings. (Why so many Thai restaurants insist on also serving Japanese food is beyond my comprehension, but at least Andy’s didn’t attempt sushi.)

The 2014 Schieferkopf Gewürztraminer — which had a seductive nose of honeysuckle and perfectly balanced flavors of tropical fruits, taut orangey acids and exotic spice — fell rather flat with the gyoza and satay, however. It felt tamped down. But paired with an aromatic and slightly spicy dish of fermented Isaan sausage with cabbage, fresh ginger and peanuts, the wine became magnificently bright and lively. It also stood up well to some sweet and spicy pork belly as well as some slightly spicy shrimp pad Thai.

I wouldn’t be Odd Bacchus if I stuck to classic pairings, of course, and so I selected some less conventional (and less expensive) wines to sip with our Thai/Japanese feast.

Remembering how much I loved the 2010 Planeta Carricante, with its lush fruit and incense-like spice, I brought along a bottle of 2014 Alta Mora Etna Bianco, made from 100% Carricante, an ancient grape variety grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. Etna wines have become rather fashionable these days, and when you sip wines like the Planeta and the Alta Mora, it’s easy to see why. Again, I noted something exotic and “incensy” in the nose, and the wine had some real heft on the palate. Nevertheless, it felt taut and dry, with some tart acids and an impressively long finish.

The Alta Mora worked well with the gyoza (though not as beautifully as the Riesling), and even better with the Isaan sausage. It became more integrated with the food, pairing well with just about everything on the table. But it was two days later when this wine most impressed me. I had taken the mostly full bottle home with me and stored it in the fridge. I thought that after two days, it would be barely drinkable at best, but it still tasted mostly intact. I suspect this wine could age well for a number of years. A fine value for about $20 a bottle.

The 2015 Ernie Els “Big Easy” Chenin Blanc from South Africa also paired generally well with all the food on the table. It tasted very citrusy, with broad, orangey acids, and it had a spicy gingery finish. The wine retained its acids and spice when matched with the satay and peanut sauce, and with the Isaan sausage it became even bigger and spicier. “This is just the right Chenin for this food,” Liz remarked, and I agreed. I wouldn’t hesitate to spend $15 of my own money on a bottle.

If you’re a red wine lover, I hope you haven’t given up on this post just yet. I also brought along a 2013 Nadler “Rote Rieden” Zweigelt from Carnuntum, in far eastern Austria. Austria made its name in the United States with Grüner Veltliner and to a lesser extent Riesling, but it also produces reds of notable character, including Zweigelt. (See my posts about velvety Austrian St. Laurent here.)

This Zweigelt had a light body — ideal for pairing with this sort of food — but no shortage of flavor: cherry, earth, mocha, black pepper… Liz also detected “something herbal, like eucalyptus.” It worked especially well with the pork, which turned the wine’s fruit darker and amped up the black pepper note. Not too shabby for a $13 bottle of wine!

So what do you pair with your favorite Thai treats? That depends. If you plan on ordering some spicy dishes, and you don’t abhor somewhat floral whites, go for a Gewürztraminer. A dry Riesling would be best if you plan on ordering dishes that are more savory than spicy. A light-bodied red like the Zweigelt would be ideal for meaty dishes, both savory and spicy. And if you like a variety of different Thai foods, an Etna Bianco or a Chenin Blanc should work well with a range of dishes.

When in doubt, choose two different bottles. Or better yet, five. After all, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic.

Note: These wines, with the exception of the Nadler Zweigelt, were samples provided free of charge.

Share
Next Page »