Grape Varieties

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

Paringa Sparkling ShirazLately the trend has shifted to wines with a sense of terroir, a sense of the specific site where the grapes were grown. This encompasses not just the soil but all factors affecting the particular vineyard, yet the soil tends to be the most tangible influence. A fashion for earthy-flavored wines has gone hand in hand with the increasing interest in terroir-focused wines, with more and more wineries seeking to emulate the Burgundian style: earthy reds specifically reflective of their vineyards.

Overtly fruity Australian Sparkling Shiraz is nothing like that. In fact, it’s so unfashionable (except perhaps in Australia itself) that I could barely find a passing mention of it in The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The most I found was in Sotheby’s, which described Seppelt’s Show Sparkling Shiraz as “the biggest, brashest and most brilliant” of Sparkling Shirazes, “even though its massive, concentrated black-currant-syrup fruit is too much for many to swallow more than half a glass.” Burgundian style that is not. You won’t find any sommeliers in Brooklyn clamoring to pour you a flute, not even ironically.

But just because a wine is deeply unfashionable doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of consideration. I may have my wine blogger license revoked for what I’m about to write, but I quite like a glass of Sparkling Shiraz from time to time. In fact, I was feeling particularly unstylish just yesterday evening, and I opened up a bottle to serve as an apéritif before a dinner party. I love how incongruous the purplish wine looks in a champagne flute.

The 2012 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz I served is much lighter than the Seppelt described above, which is aged for 10 years before it’s released. With 36 grams of residual (unfermented) sugar per liter, the Paringa tastes sweet but not syrupy. I quite liked its aroma of dark grape jelly and its ripe, openly grapey fruit. Some lemony acids kept things in balance, aided in that effort by tight, frothy bubbles and some light tannins on the finish. It’s fun and surprising, both in terms of color and flavor, which makes it an ideal party wine.

I could find nothing about Paringa’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz on its website other than an image of the bottle. Fortunately the importer, Quintessential Wines, is a bit more forthcoming: ”The grapes come from 14 year-old vines grown in a sub-surface limestone layer beneath a sandy loam topsoil. The 2012 vintage was an outstanding year… The wine is matured in French oak for a short period of time prior to bottling.” The tannins on the end were at least partially the result of this brief stint in oak.

Neither the bottle nor the website mention whether the wine is bottle fermented in the manner of Champagne, which leads me to believe it’s tank fermented instead. Certainly the reasonable price of $14 or $15 a bottle points to tank fermentation. Nevertheless, the bubbles aren’t too large or aggressive, as is sometimes the case with tank-fermented sparklers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving Sparkling Shiraz to any wine snob friends — they might raise an eyebrow, or worse, surreptitiously research the wine on their smart phone and discover that Paringa is “Great with your favorite chocolate dessert or with bacon and eggs in the morning,” according to Quintessential Wines. Those pairings don’t exactly inspire confidence. An austere Crémant d’Alsace might be a better choice, assuming you don’t want to splash out on a Grower Champagne, currently the most fashionable of bubblies.

If, on the other hand, your friends don’t give a brix about wine fashion and just like to have a good time, a Sparkling Shiraz would be a fun and memorable way to kick off your next party.

A Red For “Spring”

22 March 2014

Agiorgitiko & Shepherd's PieNow that spring has arrived, or so I’ve heard, I would ordinarily start turning my eye to the section of my wine rack containing richer whites, like Chardonnay or Riesling. But the ceaseless whirling of polar vortices continues to mar this so-called spring, and I’m not ready to turn away from hearty reds just yet. Facing yet another day of temperatures measuring 20 degrees below normal, I fixed up a comforting beef-and-bison shepherd’s pie and opened some Agiorgitiko to go with it.

Greek Agiorgitiko is not a classic pairing for shepherd’s pie, but it should be. This hard-to-pronounce variety (ah-your-YEE-tee-koh is my best approximation) produces ever-more delicious red wines in Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the northern half of the peninsula “has seen even more energy and activity than any other part of Greece in recent years,” and Agiorgitiko is one of the region’s signature grapes.

The Oxford Companion to Wine gives mixed reviews of wines made from Agiorgitiko, a name it manages to make even more incomprehensible by using the ghastly spelling of “Aghiorghitiko.” The Companion grumbles that these wines are “fruity but can lack acidity,” although “grapes grown on the higher vineyards of Neméa can yield long-lived reds.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also has reservations about the variety, but for almost opposite reasons. “The Agiorgitiko grape provides a deep-colored, full, and spicy red wine,” it argues, “that can be spoiled by dried-out fruit, or by a lack of fruit.”

Fortunately, the 2012 Tselepos Agiorgitiko lacked neither acid nor fruit, despite its rather general “Arcadia” appellation (Arcadian grapes can be grown anywhere in the central Peloponnese, in either choice high-altitude vineyards or less-desirable plains). It smelled of raspberry jam and vanilla, and it had plenty of red fruit flavor, matched by prominent, rustic acids. But it’s a dry wine, with some tannins on the finish along with a note of earth.

Casual and fun, the Tselepos Agiorgitiko would make a fine party wine, surely pairing well with a range of foods. It certainly matched the rich shepherd’s pie well; the acids smoothed out and the tannins were just stout enough to clear my palate for the next bite. And at $11.50, the price I paid for the bottle at In Fine Spirits, it won’t break the bank to serve a few bottles to your guests. Though this isn’t a wine to serve for a special occasion, at that price, it doesn’t have to be.

It looks like we’ve got more frigid “spring” evenings yet to come, and goodness knows we’ll need help getting through them. The flavorful Tselepos Agiorgitiko provides a lot of comfort for the money.

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.

Beyond Bourbon: A Kentucky Cabernet

15 January 2014

Capital CellarsIt takes a little doing to find local wine in the heart of bourbon country. I’ve been visiting Louisville and the surrounding area annually for the last seven or eight years, and though I’ve toured a number of distilleries, I only just recently tasted my first Kentucky wine. It took a visit to the pretty state capital, Frankfort, to finally find some.

Wineries in Kentucky have a tough uphill battle to fight, and not just because of bourbon’s overwhelming firepower. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, in Kentucky, “Winter freeze may only be a marginal issue, but the hot, humid summers have so far proved discouraging to efforts with vinifera vines.” Vinifera vines include varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot — really any grape of world-class quality, with the exception of Norton and perhaps one or two others. If you can’t successfully grow vinifera varieties, your winery is unlikely to make much of a splash.

Nowadays, it seems some Kentucky wineries have overcome the sultry summers and are indeed growing vinifera grapes of real quality. Capital Cellars, a shop across the street from Kentucky’s old capitol building, stocks an impressive array of local wines, including many made from tried-and-true grape varieties. The service at this shop isn’t great — I had a great deal of trouble getting the attention of the staff, and when I finally did, the first person I spoke with knew next to nothing about Kentucky wine. I was also disappointed to discover that Capital Cellars’ small wine bar served no Kentucky wines by the glass. Nevertheless, I recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, if only to take advantage of the breadth of Capital Cellars’ selection.

MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon ReserveOne of the wines which caught my attention was the NV MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, clearly labeled as “A Kentucky Cabernet Sauvignon.” (I had no interest in buying a wine made from out-of-state fruit.) Set just south of Louisville on 22 acres near Mt. Washington, the winery produces 18 different wines, some of which with dubious names like “Chardonberry.” But there is no denying the high quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

One of my tasting partners for the evening took a sip and remarked, “It’s a lot better than I thought it would be,” and indeed it was. A dark, opaque red, the MillaNova Cabernet had a rich aroma of jammy fruit and chocolate. I was impressed by the clear, bell-like fruit, redolent of plums. Aged in French and American oak for 18 months, the wine felt full-bodied and well-balanced, with big, bold acids, some white-pepper spice and a smoothly tannic finish. I must admit I felt nervous buying a Kentucky Cabernet for $25, but the MillaNova unquestionably lived up to its price tag.

If you find yourself in Kentucky, there’s no need to limit yourself to just the local spirits. As the MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve illustrates, the state is capable of producing perfectly delicious wines as well.

Arcadian Moschofilero

9 January 2014

Tselepos MoschofileroI’ve written before about Greek Moschofilero (also spelled Moscophilero), a white wine which I’ve found both exceedingly charming and slightly off-putting. The origins of this pink-skinned grape variety are “as yet obscure,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and goodness knows I love a mysterious grape variety. Moschofilero also happens to usually taste rather floral and fruity, which made it ideal to pour with the season premier of Downton Abbey. Not so much because of the show, but because one of our guests preferred sweeter whites, and because I thought it would pair well with the chicken pot pie in the oven.

Why open a Moschofilero instead of a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer? For shock value, of course, and because you tend to get a lot of bang for your buck. The 2012 Tselepos Moschofilero cost me just $10 at Binny’s, and really, you’ll be hard pressed to find a well-balanced Riesling at that price.

According to the label, this particular Moschofilero is a “Protected Geographical Indication Arcadia,” which basically means the fruit for the wine could come from anywhere in that central Peloponnese province. Arcadia doesn’t qualify as an appellation, however. That distinction belongs to Mantinia, a high-altitude plateau in Arcadia, which produces wines that can command higher prices (see the Tselepos Mantinia, which costs about $5 more at Binny’s than the Tselepos Arcadia).

Beyond that, the wine is a bit of a mystery. The minimalist importer’s website shines little light upon it, and the Tselepos website doesn’t list the Arcadian Moschofilero among its bottlings. But in any case, at $10, this Moschofilero isn’t much of a risk.

A pale, pinkish yellow, this wine had a heady, sweet aroma of ripe apples, jasmine and incense. It tasted drier than I thought it would, with a bit of a prickly texture, flavors of apples and flowers, and some exotic spice underneath. The fruit was a bit flabby, to be sure, but the wine pulled together some with the pot pie. I wished it had more of a backbone, but hey, for $10, it’s quite an interesting and flavorful wine.

Would I buy it again? I would probably go for the more expensive Mantinia version if I could find it, or if I did want to only spend $10, I would buy the Kyklos Moschofilero instead.

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.

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.

A Taste Of Cognac History

24 November 2013

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacIf I had to choose just one spirit to consume for the rest of my life, I would be crushed, but after I got over the initial shock of being forced to make such a difficult decision, I would choose cognac. I’ve had the fortune to taste quite a few cognacs, including the most famous brands, delicious small-production gems and even a couple of cognacs which literally brought me to tears. If you think cognac is just for aging aristocrats or rap stars, you’re missing out on an exquisite beverage that need not be burdensomely expensive to be thoroughly satisfying.

I’m pleased to drink just about any cognac, really, but I get especially excited when I have the opportunity to taste an unusual cognac. The Château de Beaulon 7-Year Cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche.

Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes (you can read more about cognac production and age designations in my post here). In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano).

There were a number of reasons farmers turned from Folle Blanche to Ugni Blanc. According to Cognac by Kyle Jarrad, Folle Blanche “tend[s] to suffer from rot when grafted onto American roots,” and grafting was the solution to the phylloxera epidemic. Just as important, Cognac producers “don’t want to start the process with a wine that is highly aromatic… Better to start the aging with the more acidic wine that Ugni Blanc gives,” to leave more room for the oak barrels to flavor the spirit.

Almost all cognacs you drink nowadays are distilled mostly or entirely from Ugni Blanc. Distilling a cognac from Folle Blanche instead is a reactionary move; it’s a throwback to the cognacs of the 19th century and earlier. In fact, according to the Château de Beaulon website, “Beaulon has remained faithful to the region’s traditional 16th-century vine stocks: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Montils for Cognac.”

Though it is possible to purchase cognacs with at least part of the blend dating back a century or more, such as the extravagantly beautiful Hennessy Paradis Impérial, those seeking a taste of cognac’s past will find the Château de Beaulon much easier on the pocketbook. And you certainly won’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice when you drink it.

The light caramel-colored cognac had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

If you’re planning on serving a digestif after your Thanksgiving dinner, and I strongly recommend it, a cognac like Château de Beaulon’s would be just the thing.

Frank Cornelissen’s Volcanic Reds

20 November 2013

Munjebel 8MCAs I wrote in this post, “non-interventionist” winemaker Frank Cornelissen isn’t afraid to break a few rules. He refuses to add preservative sulfur to his wines, he refuses to filter them, and he even ferments the juice of white grapes with the skins, resulting in the startlingly tannic Munjebel 9. It is a wine I’ll never forget.

After tasting that incredible oddity, I couldn’t wait to wrap my palate around some of Cornelissen’s reds. All his grapes come from the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in eastern Sicily. But “It’s a good volcano,” Cornelissen contended, and about as ancient as wine regions get. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “this is the wine that Ulysses used to intoxicate the Cyclops,” in Homer’s Odyssey.

On the higher elevations, where The Oxford Companion to Wine says vineyards “show great promise,” Cornelissen asserted it’s not the stereotypical southern Italian landscape. “We’ve got lizards, we’ve got snow — it’s completely different from people’s idea of Sicily,” he explained. And he’s convinced it’s one of the world’s great wine regions. “To be honest, I think the greatest terroirs are in Italy,” Cornelissen confided, “but people don’t necessarily understand it.”

He certainly has worked to understand his terroir, altering the environment as little as possible as he tends to his vineyards, eschewing even organic additives and biodynamic preparations in all but the direst circumstances. And as noted above, his hands-off philosophy continues into the winery, resulting in unusual and controversial wines absolutely packed with flavor. In addition to the Munjebel 9, we tasted three of Cornelissen’s exciting reds at Autre Monde‘s Sicilian themed-dinner:

Pasta al FornoRosso del Contadino 10: This big, barely-in-control wine blends several white and red Sicilian varieties, including Nerello Mascalese and Carricante. It smelled of enticingly of violets and tight, dark-red fruit, and my goodness, what a slap in the face of flavor: big, red, aromatic fruit; big, tart, mouth-puckering acids; big tannins. Kabam! It made for a seriously gutsy pairing with some perfectly tender octopus with potatoes, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. The touch of brininess in the dish brought out a little something extra in the wine.

MUNJEBEL 8 MC: The “MC” stands for “Monte Colla,” the name of the recently acquired vineyard from which this wine comes. According to distributor Cream Wine, the steep, sandy-clay vineyard dates to 1946, and the vines produce very low yields of Nerello Mascalese (a centuries-old crossing of Sangiovese and an as-yet unknown variety). Vineyard sites are of paramount importance at Etna, according to Cornelissen, who likens the area to Burgundy. This single-vineyard Nerello Mascalese had a dark cherry aroma and appealing flavors of tight red fruit and smooth, dark chocolate, followed by a very tannic finish. We tried the Munjebel 8 MC with some savory pasta al forno (baked pasta, photo above) with tomato sauce enriched by various cheeses and mortadella. It became noticeably more powerful and intense. My dining companion remarked that “the dusty-musty Parmesan goes really well with the dusty-musty aspects of the wine.”

Caponata and pickled onionsMUNJEBEL 8 VA: Another 100% Nerello Mascalese, this wine comes from four different vineyards averaging 80 years in age, according to Cream Wine. Even more unusual is that approximately 90% of the vines are ungrafted, meaning that they grow on their own rootstocks. Almost all European vines were regrafted onto American rootstocks in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic, but because of the high altitude of these vineyards, regrafting was unnecessary. This expression of Nerello Mascalese had a more subtle aroma of dark fruit, and my dining companion noted a floral quality as well. It tasted less tannic than the MC, with dark fruit, notes of mocha and big, bold acids. First we sampled it with some delicious caponata and pickled onions (photo right). “This is just what the wine needed,” my dining companion remarked. “Pickled onions. It’s just so much more calm.” Paired with an exquisite dish of fork-tender braised lamb and pearl cous-cous, the wine became even bigger and spicier. A magnificent match.

Cornelissen’s wines can be difficult to find because of the small production. Restaurants are apparently your best bet. Those in Chicago should check with Autre Monde to see if they have any in stock (or just go to Autre Monde regardless, because the food was superb). Alternatively, pizzeria Spacca Napoli is a good bet, along with Spiaggia, Trencherman and Telegraph.

If you see one of his wines on a menu, it might be a pricey by-the-glass option, but don’t hesitate to order it. It’s sure to be worth every penny.

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Burgundy’s Most Unusual White

13 November 2013

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisWhen you think of white wine from Burgundy, if you think of anything, you likely think of Chardonnay. This is the variety that goes into the region’s greatest whites such as Meursault, Montrachet and Chablis. Certain pedantic types might also point to the lesser Aligoté grape, an acidic variety often found in Crémant de Bourgogne, the local sparkling wine. But even the most over-educated wine geek would be unlikely to think of Sauvignon Blanc.

It was thus with equal measures of confusion and excitement that I discovered a bottle of 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc, which declared itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I asked a Whole Foods employee who was stocking wines nearby if this wine was indeed a Sauvignon Blanc (the label said only “Sauvignon”). “Yes – it’s a Sauvignon Blanc,” she replied, pointing out the word and probably wondering why this over-excited idiot needed her to read the label to him.

“But it’s from Burgundy,” I explained.

“Umm, yes – it’s from Burgundy,” she confirmed, patiently pointing to the relevant word on the back label.

Semi-convinced I’d passed through a wormhole into some sort of alternate universe, I bought the wine and turned to my trusty reference library for some answers. It turns out my wormhole theory was incorrect. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. Sotheby’s argues that “This wine is as good as most Sauvignon Blanc AOCs, and considerably better than many other white AOCs made from lesser grape varieties.”

Saint-Bris, located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis, has only about 250 acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. That is one small AOC. It goes on to say that Saint-Bris “is too obscure to be made with anything other than artisan passion, but it lacks the breed and concentration of great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest.” It also lacks the price tag of the great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest. I paid only $12 for this bottle of wine (on sale), whereas a Sancerre can easily cost two or three times as much. Frankly, Companion, I don’t think the comparison is fair.

Let’s concentrate instead on the “artisan passion” aspect. In addition to making the obscure Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc and various other Chablis wines, the Simonnet-Febvre winery also vinifies the only Crémant de Bourgogne produced in the Chablis region. This is a winery not afraid to go out on a limb. And its willingness to take risks pays off amply in the bottle.

Barley risottoThe 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What a value for $12!

The Companion is probably right that the 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc does not rise to the level of France’s greatest Sauvignon Blancs. But for those of us whose budgets don’t allow the purchase of the greatest, this merely excellent wine is quite a fine substitute.

Find It: I purchased this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland in Chicago on sale for $12. It usually retails for $15, which is still a great value.

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