Grape Varieties

Germany? Ja! Riesling? Nein!

16 August 2017

On my recent 12-day trip to Germany, I decided to try an experiment. Would I be able to have high-quality German wine(s) every night with dinner — and sometimes with lunch — and never drink a single Riesling?

One could be forgiven for thinking that such an experiment was misguided at best, or quite simply impossible. I suspect that few casual wine consumers can name a single other top grape variety grown in Germany off the top of their heads. For better or worse, Germany and Riesling are inextricably linked.

But Germany has far more to offer than beautiful Rieslings. Any guesses as to how much vineyard area in the country is devoted to other grapes? Maybe 20%? Maybe 40%?

In fact, Riesling composes just 23% of Germany’s vineyards as of 2013, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Second place goes to the unglamorous but productive Müller-Thurgau at 13%, followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) at 12% and Dornfelder at 8%. Indeed, red wine grapes represent a whopping 36% of Germany’s vineyards.

I love well-made Riesling, both sweet and bone-dry, but it’s time to give the other 77% of German wines some attention. Here are some of the discoveries I made.

WEISSBURGUNDER (Pinot Blanc)

Pinot Blanc barely registers in its birthplace of Burgundy nowadays. You might have seen a bottle or two from the Alsace, but there, too, it’s on the wane. But it’s one of my very favorite German whites. The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to agree: “Under the fashionable name Weissburgunder, it is now Germany’s fifth most planted white wine cultivar, with vinous personalities ranging from the full, rich, oaked examples of Baden and the Pfalz to relatively delicate, mineral-inflected variations along the Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and with quality aspirations ranging from workaday norm to occasional brilliance.”

Consider the following two examples I tried side-by-side at Hamburg’s Louis C. Jacob restaurant:

2014 Weingut Dreissigacker “Louis C. Jacob Edition” Weissburgunder, Rheinhessen

This less-expensive example had a spicy aroma marked with a note of burnt popcorn. Its lively acids worked well with food, and I very much enjoyed its clean pear fruit, green peppercorn spice and dry finish. Later at Heldenplatz, a restaurant in central Hamburg, I tried Dreissigacker’s top Weissburgunder, called “Einzigacker.” Wow. It tasted rich, balanced, focused and elegant, truly earning the name Weissburgunder, which literally translates as “white Burgundy.” Sublime.

2015 Weingut Franz Keller “Oberbergener Pulverbuck” Weissburgunder, Baden

The Franz Keller Weissburgunder (pictured with the Dreissigacker above) is more expensive than the Louis C. Jacob Dreissigacker, but its quality is unimpeachable. The aroma was more buttered popcorn, and though the lively acids were here too, they felt more refined and more focused. The arc of polished spice lasted ages. From the start to the lengthy finish, the wine developed and built with gradual determination. Oo, I love when that happens.

*****

GRAUBURGUNDER (Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio)

The total vineyard area of this grape has increased 90% in Germany since 2000, “[making] it the country’s fourth most planted white wine grape and far more popular than Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc),” according to The Oxford Companion. I can understand why people love Grauburgunder, which typically has ample fruit and zesty spice, but my heart remains with Weissburgunder. Even so, many dishes call for a spicier wine, and Grauburgunder can stand up to all sorts of recipes.

2016 Weingut Klumpp Grauburgunder, Baden

In the cozy bistro restaurant of Ole Liese near Germany’s Baltic Coast, I paired this Grauburgunder with a rich cod appetizer. It had a melony, spicy aroma, and flavors of ripe apple and honeydew. Peppery spice kept things well in balance, and the wine finished clean and dry.

2016 Weingut Bercher Grauburgunder, Baden

Back in Hamburg at traditional Casse Croute, the Bercher Grauburgunder had a more citrusy aroma along with the telltale spicy note. It tasted mouthwateringly juicy, with almost prickly lemon-lime acids, reminding me of a full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. Just the thing to pair with some veal-and-black truffle Labskaus.

*****

SILVANER

In the first half of the 20th century, this variety was the most widely planted in Germany, but after World War II, it was overtaken by Müller-Thurgau and now, Riesling. I remember drinking a few Silvaners when I lived in Germany in the late 90s, and I don’t have fond memories of the stuff. It probably didn’t help matters that the bottles I bought cost less than $5. I know this, because all the bottles I bought that year in Germany cost less than $5. The Oxford Companion to Wine gives the grape tepid praise, calling it a “suitable neutral canvas” on which to display terroir, and noting that “encouraging examples” can be found. So don’t buy just any Silvaner you come across.

2015 Weingut Bickel Stumpf “Kapellenberg Frickenhausen” Silvaner, Franken

The sommelier of Michelin-starred Courtier recommended this Silvaner to me, and I have to think it’s one of the best out there. It’s got a mouthful of a name, and it certainly worked well with food. The wine had a slightly burnt, spicy aroma, and its most notable characteristic was its big, lemony acids. Unexpectedly, the finish went on and on. If you like juicy Sauvignon Blancs — or zippy Grüner Veltliners — a well-made Silvaner should be on your list.

*****

SAUVIGNON GRIS

This little-known grape is the “non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer,” according to The Oxford Companion, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc.” I’ve tasted a few of these over the years, and I can’t recall a single disappointment. Should you encounter a bottle, particularly the bottle below, I highly recommend snapping it up.

2015 Weingut Lichti Sauvignon Gris “Royal,” Pfalz

For a “non-aromatic” grape, this wine certainly had an enticingly spicy and buttery nose. Ripe pear flavor moved to butter and taut spice, as the wine sharpened to a point. Rich but amply balanced, and tense with excitement. I loved it.

*****

ROSÉ

Like just about anywhere with red wine grape vines, Germany also makes rosé. I had a couple of charming examples, including the one below.

2014 Weingut Geisser “Strawberry Fields” Rosé Trocken, Pfalz

 

A blend of 90% Spätburgunder, 5% Merlot and 5% Dornfelder, this rosé was ideal for my beachside seafood dinner at Bootshaus. Its spicy, watermelon-candy aroma sucked me right in. I loved its ripe watermelon fruit (and yes, the touch of strawberry), lively limey acids and clean, dry finish. Simple, refreshing and delicious.

*****

SPÄTBURGUNDER (Pinot Noir)

It’s not just Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon that make superlative Pinot Noir. Germany’s Spätburgunder can achieve sublime clarity of fruit and refinement of spice, and sometimes even some richness. But don’t just take my word for it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Today [Spätburgunder] is at least as deep coloured, dry, alcoholic, and well structured as red burgundy…”. Because of Spätburgunder’s popularity within Germany, all too little is exported.

2013 Weingut Friedrich Becker “Schweigener” Spätburgunder, Pfalz

This Spätburgunder had a wonderful aroma of spiced dark cherries, and flavors of dark cherries and cough syrup. Light-bodied but not a lightweight, this wine held its focus for quite some time, with polished spice serving as a backbone. Superb with some Poltinger lamb at Hamburg’s Heldenplatz restaurant.

2007 Weingut Stigler “Freiburg Schlossberg” Spätburgunder GG, Baden

The “GG” stands for “Grosses Gewächs,” indicating that this wine comes from a vineyard classified as a “Great Growth,” or “Grand Cru,” one could say. There was no way for me to resist this wine, made as it was in Freiburg from a vineyard on the Schlossberg. I spent many happy evenings at the beer garden on top of the steep Schlossberg hill when I was a student in Freiburg, and I remember seeing the vineyards there, rising from the edge of the exquisite old center.

Considering my heavy nostalgia, the wine could have easily let me down, but it did not disappoint. It smelled of dark cherries, with a savory/meaty undertone. It started quite light — it seemed like nothing at first — but dark cherry fruit firmed up, and white pepper spice focused the wine into a laser. With time in the glass, it became richer and earthier.

When I tried this beautiful wine, it brought me to tears for a moment. I never drank a wine like this when I lived in Freiburg, but it took me right back there all the same.

For more about unusual German wines, read about tasting Elbing, Goldriesling and Weissburgunder with German royalty here, and discovering the delights of Kerner here.

The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

Sauternes: It’s What’s For Breakfast

28 April 2017

Everyone agrees that we should all be drinking more Sauternes. The World Atlas of Wine calls it “lamentably underappreciated but incomparable,” and The Oxford Companion to Wine argues that “it remains underpriced in relation to the enormous pleasure it brings to those growing numbers of wine lovers who find a fine Sauternes has an undeniable place on the dinner table.”

Alas, Sauternes is the gym membership of wine. We all think it’s a great idea, but too few of us actually take advantage of it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attended a dinner where the Sauternes truly flowed: at the charming Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes itself. Over some exquisite foie gras and sensationally flavorful duck breast that had been grilled in the restaurant’s fireplace, the six of us who won the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards discussed Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine with Pierre Montégut, the Technical Director of Château Suduiraut.

Auberge les Vignes

“People tell me all the time that they love Sauternes, and that they don’t understand why people don’t drink more of it,” he said. “Then I ask them, how many bottles of Sauternes do you drink in a month? Or in a year?” If people manage two or three bottles a year, they’re at the top end of the curve, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably average only a bottle a year myself.

What makes Sauternes so special, anyway? In a word: rot. The vineyards of Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) grow near the confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers. Starting in the early autumn, the Garonne is warm enough so that when the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron flow into it, the temperature difference causes evening mists. The fog creates conditions ideal for the development of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. This mold looks ugly but it is vital to Sauternes.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut abut forest and the vineyards of Château d’Yquem

Noble Rot causes minuscule holes in the skins of the grape, encouraging water inside to evaporate, concentrating the remaining juice. But simple concentration isn’t enough — that only sweetens the wine. The mold also chemically alters the juice, usually Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, adding important complexity and aroma. Unfortunately, the mold does not affect all the grapes at once, and the best châteaux harvest multiple times, sometimes going so far as to select berries individually in the vineyard.

When it works, the wine is sweet, yes, but it also has an almost startling liveliness, with big but focused acidity and a shaft of spice, in addition to flavors such as green tobacco, mint, oak, orange, saffron and jasmine combining with the honeyed richness. It’s one of the most sensual wines I can think of. The combination of sweetness, acidity and freshness is one of the wine world’s most compelling.

Agnes Nemeth and the Head Sommelier of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Why do we deny ourselves the pleasures of Sauternes? Well, dessert wine just isn’t a thing in the United States, for starters. I have yet to attend a dinner party in Chicago in which a friend presented a wine to pair with dessert (or a dessert wine as dessert), and people don’t think to order it in restaurants, either. And it’s not just Americans. Even in the city of Bordeaux, the Head Sommelier of the restaurants in the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel said that she rarely sells Sauternes. People might order a glass from time to time, but it was highly unusual for a table to order a bottle.

On my visit, what we’re missing by ignoring Sauternes became painfully clear. First, let’s start with something inexpensive and relatively easy to find: the 2013 Lions de Suduiraut, a new Sauternes developed by Suduiraut to emphasize freshness and minerality, which you can open immediately with no decanting, according to Montégut. The flavor started on a rich and honeyed note, but a wave of sharp ginger spice swept in, along with bright, orangey acids. The finish was fresh and spicy, not sweet. It’s absolutely delicious, rather sexy, and a screaming value at just $13 for a half-bottle.

Pierre Montégut, Technical Director of Château Suduiraut

What about something a little older and more expensive? We did an unforgettable vertical tasting (trying several different vintages of the same wine) at Château Suduiraut, one of which was the 2009. Its aroma had more to it than the Lions’ did, with heady honeysuckle, tropical fruit and some spiciness. The flavor kept changing and flowing — honey, orange, cardamom, hay — and all the notes felt beautifully integrated and refined. Fellow Millésima blog award-winner Agnes Nemeth of Hungarian Wines remarked, “I would really use this as a perfume.” Binny’s sells this wine for $45 for a half-bottle, an excellent value considering the quality. Even better, buy a magnum of it from Millésima for $190 and throw a party.

Sauternes, though white, can age just as well as any red, especially in the good years. Consider the 1997 Château Suduiraut, which had an aroma redolent of honey and something savory as well. It tasted of overripe apricot and dark honey, which moved into toffee/caramel country. Deep and dark orange acids, along with some spiciness and a touch of something smokey, assured balance. Gorgeous and complex.

To hammer home the point, Montégut also presented us with a bottle of 1975 Château Suduiraut to have with dessert at the Auberge les Vignes. This wine is older than I am, and yet it still feels lively. The aroma had an almost startling freshness to it. And I felt thoroughly seduced by the flavors of dark honey, green tobacco, dark orange and honeysuckle. The acids and spice were more than up to the task of balancing the sweetness. This unforgettable wine can be had for $80 to $100, according to Wine Searcher. That’s insane. I’m tempted to buy a bottle before I finish writing this post.

The 1975 Château Suduiraut caused quite a stir at the Auberge les Vignes!

We also had the chance to try numerous Sauternes en primeur, which means that we sampled the latest vintage, 2016, well before bottling, in order to try to determine the vintage’s quality. According to Montégut, Sauternes this young should display balance, freshness, and energy on the finish, if they’re to attain greatness.

I think the 2016 vintage should be quite fine, even though the Noble Rot arrived only in the last half of October. The 2016 Bastor-Lamontagne had more citrus to it than honey, with ginger spice and a dry finish. Château Guiraud took things a step further, balancing its dark honey flavors with deep orangey acids and a surprising blast of eucalyptus freshness. Lafaurie-Peyraguey offered stone fruit, incense and more of that eye-opening eucalyptus. And then there was the Sigalas-Rabaud, which kept itself taut as it moved through flavors of honey and peach, ending with such freshness that I felt as if I’d just popped a breath mint. Wow.

Jeff Burrows and Lisa Denning at our vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut

Which brings me to breakfast. We started our vertical tasting of Château Suduiraut at 9:30 a.m., at the end of a long week of château hopping. The week was a joy, to be sure, but exhausting. That tasting at Suduiraut perked me up far more than the pot of coffee I’d had earlier. The wines — we sampled ten of them — felt positively invigorating. Each one made me feel more and more energized, even aroused.

At brunch, we Americans tend to drink only two alcoholic beverages: Bloody Marys and sparkling wine. Why not Sauternes? I wrote in my notebook, “These would be amazing with some chicken and waffles!” Or pancakes and sausages. It’s an ideal breakfast wine. And because Sauternes is sweet and spicy, it also would work well with a range of Asian foods. If you think of sweet wines as simple and heavy, you’re not thinking of Sauternes. Instead, think rich, racy, complex and fresh.

Rare is the wine which will please absolutely everyone, from the most amateur wine drinker to the most jaded connoisseur. Sauternes is one of those wines.

For more about Sauternes and some fantastic photos of the vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut, check out this post by fellow award-winner Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, or this post for more photos of the village itself.

Award-winner Chiara Bassi of Perlage Suite also wrote about Sauternes, posting about our dinner at Auberges les Vignes here. She also wrote about our 2016 en primeur Sauternes tasting here, including detailed tasting notes about 19 different wines.

And on my blog, you can learn more about the 2011 vintage and why Sauternes is Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine.

Note: These wine samples were all provided free of charge.

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.

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 (the former name of Villa Oeiras), which was still making Carcavelos. I knew I had to find it, this, the very last winery in a DOC which is dangerously close to disappearing entirely, forever.

Galego Dourado vines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara and Tiago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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