Grape Varieties

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

Serious Wines From Seneca Lake

11 March 2015

Villa Bellangelo WinesAlthough New York makes more wine than any other state except for California, it’s far easier to find bottles from Washington and Oregon than the Empire State. A characteristically grumpy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains why:

As New York has just one-tenth of Washington’s vinifera area, yet makes twice as much wine, the bulk of New York’s production can only be from native grapes. Only a bigot believes it impossible for native grapes to ever make a fine wine, but they are few and far between — certainly not even half of one per cent; it is the 99.5 per cent of New York’s native grape wines that are ruining the efforts of this state’s best vinifera wineries to create an international reputation for New York wine.

One might reasonably wonder how vinifera grape varieties (classics such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling) could even survive — let alone thrive — in New York, a northern state subject to harsh winters. In the case of the Finger Lakes region, the answer lies in a lucky stroke of geography.

Glaciers carved deep lake beds with steep banks of slate-rich soil. The lakes, notably Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka, store heat and help warm the surrounding landscape. “…Cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and rises,” as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “permitting more cold air to drain from the hillside.” This satellite photo, also found in The World Atlas of Wine, shows how the land adjacent to the larger lakes has less frost than land farther away. The steep banks also drain water well, important for healthy vine roots.

Villa Bellangelo Seyval BlancWine growing in the Finger Lakes region dates back to the 1820s, according to the Oxford Companion, and one of its newest fine vinifera wineries is Villa Bellangelo, set in a prime location on the west shore of Seneca Lake. The current owners of the winery, the Missick family, discovered the property on a wine-tasting tour following a 2009 wedding nearby. When it went up for sale in 2011, the Missicks acquired it and initiated extensive renovations, including installing new stainless steel fermentation tanks and a new crush pad.

Christopher Missick recently sent me free samples of six Villa Bellangelo wines, mostly from the 2013 vintage. I assembled a small group of friends to try them, and we were all impressed by the quality, especially considering that these wines represent the Missick’s third vintage ever. Here’s what we discovered:

2013 Seyval Blanc: This variety is a French hybrid well-suited to cool climates, according to the Oxford Companion. Although this hybrid has some non-vinifera genes, it can make a very pleasing wine, as evidenced by this example. We noted aromas of green apple, dried herbs and light honeysuckle, and tasters liked its “Rieslingly flavor.” It had taut white fruit, smooth white-pepper spice, a hint of sweetness and enough acids to keep it balanced. The acids became more prominent and orangey with some caramelized onion and Parmesan crostini. Not too shabby for $16.

Fellow Taster Cornelia

Fellow wine taster Cornelia

2012 Gewürztraminer: A “very perfumy” wine, as one tasting companion noted, this Gewürztraminer had a delightful aroma of honeysuckle. It feinted briefly towards honeyed fruit, but moved almost immediately to warm, gingery spice and some hay. The finish had a not-unpleasant bitter note, punctuating the dryness of this floral and fruity wine. One fellow taster remarked, rather distressingly, that this wine “tastes like [his] grandmother’s neck.” Now there’s a tasting note you don’t hear every day. $20.

2013 Chardonnay: The grapes for this wine come from the Sawmill Creek vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake, opposite the winery. I smelled a light caramel aroma, and another taster detected “something burnt — but in a nice way.” Others smelled wet stone and dried pasta, and I would concur. It had a buttered popcorn flavor, but this was no butter bomb. The wine was quite lively and balanced, with judicious oak, notable spice and a long finish. It worked especially well with olives, which brought out more of a vanilla note. An excellent value for $20.

2013 Dry Riesling: The soil composition came through clearly in this wine, which had a slatey aroma with something rich underneath (some also described the nose, not unfavorably, as “shower curtain” and “Band-Aid”). It tasted very juicy, with green-apple fruit, lemony acids and a very dry finish. Paired with bleu cheese, it felt richer and rounder. I liked its austerity, as did about half the group, but one taster called it “the least compelling so far.” $19.

Villa Bellangelo Cabernet Franc2013 Semi-Dry Riesling: The surprise hit of the evening, this wine had appealing aromas of honeyed red apple overlayed with some bright freshness. I liked its appley fruit and orangey acids, which balanced out the light sweetness. The entire group was enthusiastic about this wine, exclaiming, “This is by far the best,” and, “I don’t usually like Riesling, and I like this,” and even, “This is the wine I would like to go home with.” Very fun, and a very good value for $18.

2013 Cabernet Franc: As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “some very fine Cabernet Franc is made in the most benign years” in the Finger Lakes. This example smelled of ripe red fruit and vanilla, and on the palate it had cherry fruit, black pepper spice and an aromatic almond note. “Maraschino cherry pits!” exclaimed a fellow taster. I liked its ample fruit and rustic texture, but the wine again divided the group. $18.

Although some of these wines were controversial, each was clearly crafted with care. I especially loved the floral but dry Gewürztraminer, the rich Chardonnay and the well-balanced Semi-Dry Riesling. These wines leave no doubt in my mind that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.

I can’t wait to discover more of what the region has to offer when I head there in August to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll find.

Zenato’s Super Veronese

4 March 2015

Zenato "Alanera" Rosso VeroneseMany of you might be familiar with wines nicknamed “Super Tuscans,” high-quality but rule-breaking bottlings which originally had to be labeled as lowly vino da tavola. The great expense of these “table wines” made the dysfunction of Italian wine regulations all too clear, and they shamed the bureaucracy into action. In 1992, Italy created the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica category, or IGT, which alleviated the embarrassment and gave innovative winemakers a new home in which to experiment.

And experiment they have. This inspired (if forced) act of deregulation paved the way for a host of exciting new wines produced up and down the boot of Italy, not just in Tuscany. I’ve written about several delicious IGT wines in the recent past, including examples from Soave, Maremma and Lazio. Now, thanks to a free sample provided by importer Winebow, I had the chance to try a “Super Veronese.” This wine offered yet more evidence of the great success of the IGT category.

At first glance, the 2012 Zenato “Alanera” Rosso Veronese looks rather like an Amarone, the famous red blend made from partially dried grapes. Drying the grapes concentrates the sugars and chemically alters the grapes’ acids and the tannins, “something that explains the richness yet balance of a good Amarone,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Botrytis, the fungus which beneficially desiccates grapes in Sauternes and Tokaj, is undesirable in this case. Only healthy grapes are used, and they are loosely packed in order to prevent fungal growth. As the Oxford Companion explains, “anything like botrytis that degrades the skins diminishes the intensity and purity of the wine,” because unlike a white Sauternes or a Tokaji wine, red Amarone depends on grape skins for color, flavor and tannins.

The Alanera blend contains the three classic Amarone grapes, with 55% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 10% Corvinone. Corvina, according to the Oxford Companion, has the capability to make “serious, barrel-aged reds,” as long as yields are low. “Particularly suited to drying” because of its “loose bunches and large berries,” Corvinone was long thought to be a clone of Corvina, but ampelographers showed it to be a different variety altogether. The black sheep of the blend, Rondinella is allowed in Amarone DOCG wines, but “its produce is rarely sufficiently flavorsome to please consumers,” the Oxford Companion argues. But Rondinella dries well, according to Wikipedia, and Wine Searcher notes that it adds roundness and herbal notes to Corvina-based blends.

The Zenato Alanera differs quite dramatically from Amarone, however, in two important respects. It includes 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot in the blend, and only half the grapes are dried for any length of time. By not drying half the grapes, the Zenato Alanera would seem to combine the best of both worlds: concentration and intensity together with bright, fresh fruit. Or is it just Amarone lite?

I opened the bottle last weekend to find out. The deep, almost opaque garnet color looked immediately enticing, and the aromas of dusky red fruit and earth were quite encouraging. The first sip revealed very taut red fruit, broadly generous acids and a raisiny, earthy finish, with a top note of something floral — roses perhaps.

The Alanera was clearly well made, but it didn’t seduce me until about an hour later. By then, the fruit opened up and integrated beautifully with the rest of the wine. Some spicier notes came to the fore, particularly when paired with some rigatoni Bolognese. The wine felt big but controlled, with a focus that went above and beyond its $20 price tag. It’s a great value for the money.

The Zenato Alanera may be innovative, but it builds on a centuries-old tradition. Veronese dried-grape wines “are the direct descendants of the Greek wines shipped by the Venetians in the Middle Ages,” The World Atlas of Wine explains. The Alanera represents the next generation in this storied lineage, and it is without question a worthy successor.

Chardonnay Shame

21 February 2015
Sunday asado in Mendoza

A Sunday asado in Mendoza

The wine drinking culture in America is so much more open than it used to be. Notions such as “sweet wines are for amateurs” hold less weight than ever, and yet, it’s still surprisingly common to encounter people who feel some shame about the wine they like to drink.

I recently had the fortune to spend some time in Mendoza, Argentina, where I met Meredith and Jeff, a friendly American couple, at a Sunday asado. As our plates were filled with beef and pork and sausages and sweetbreads, our conversation turned to wine, as most conversations in Mendoza do.

“We’ve been so impressed by the wine here,” Jeff said, and I certainly did not disagree. I chose the wineries I visited carefully, but even so, the refined craftsmanship, ripe fruit and focus of almost all the wines I tried had left me thoroughly impressed as well. The quality to price ratio of wine in Mendoza is incredibly high.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Meredith said with a sigh. “But I think we’re going home with more Chardonnay than Malbec! I know I’m not supposed to like it, but…” and she shrugged, seemingly embarrassed about her taste in wine.

Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata

Her remark pushed my buttons. “What?” I exclaimed, a little too loudly. “Of course you like it. The Chardonnays here are beautiful!”

And they are. I remembered the 2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay I tasted in the Mayan pyramid-shaped winery of Catena Zapata: “Ample spice balancing creamy fruit —  well-integrated wood, spice and fruit,” I wrote in my notes. The 2013 Chardonnay I tried in the historic Terrazas de los Andes winery had a luscious mouthfeel, zesty acids and focused white-pepper spice. A delight. At The Vines Resort, I tried a lively 2014 Chardonnay straight from the steel tank, their first attempt at an unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit tasted surprisingly rich, balanced by some sharp, gingery spice.

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

And I especially loved the two single-vineyard Chardonnays I tasted at Viña Cobos, the winery of famed winemaker Paul Hobbs. The gorgeous 2013 Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Chardonnay had very ripe fruit and sweet notes of caramel and vanilla, but bright acids kept it from being heavy. Even the entry-level 2014 Felino Chardonnay was delicious, with some tropical fruit notes, a focused shaft of white-pepper spice and something savory on the finish.

Malbec or no Malbec, how could someone not like fruity, well-balanced Chardonnays like these? I told Meredith that she was absolutely right to like the Chardonnays, and, fully surrendering to the button Meredith had pushed, I demanded that she proudly own her preference: “I want you to say, ‘Yes! I like Mendoza Chardonnay, and there is nothing wrong with that!'” Though slightly startled, Meredith, to her credit, did exactly what I asked.

I had bad boundaries with Meredith, and I’m going to have bad boundaries with you as well. Don’t let anyone tell you that the wine you like is wrong, even if the person telling you that is yourself.

The Remarkable Red Of Viña Vik

14 February 2015
Viña Vik

Viña Vik

I have had the fortune to explore numerous wine regions around the world, but never have I stayed in a hotel quite like Viña Vik. This new property gleams from its hilltop perch like an alien space base, its spiraling titanium roof a beacon above the vineyards. And what vineyards!

Millahue ValleyThey grow in the valley and up the sides of the low mountains surrounding the hotel on all sides, until finally they give way to groves of acacia. A small lake covers much of the rest of the valley floor, where flocks of waterfowl gather. It is a sublime landscape. Every view from the hotel is a vineyard view.

On the map in my World Atlas of Wine, Viña Vik looks to be just a stone’s throw from one of my favorite Chilean wineries, Casa Lapostolle. But Viña Vik is on the edge of the Cachapoal Valley, and Casa Lapostolle is in the Colchagua Valley. I was disappointed to learn that despite their proximity as the crow flies, it takes well over an hour to drive between them, skirting a high ridge. Fortunately, confining myself to the Viña Vik property didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.

I toured the vineyards with Miguel, a young gentleman who “used to hate wine.” It seems working at Viña Vik has changed all that — his passion for wine became quite clear as he showed me the 950-some acres of vineyards and led me through a tasting. He pointed out where Cabernet  was planted, where Merlot, and the hillsides of slower-ripening Carmenère, Chile’s signature variety. “All the vines are grafted onto American rootstocks,” he explained, “because of the phylloxera.”

Carmenère Grapes

Carmenère Grapes

Confused, I replied, “But there is no phylloxera in Chile.” Chile is one of the few wine-growing countries in the world as yet unaffected by the destructive aphid-like pests.

“American rootstocks give you better grapes,” he quickly responded. He gestured towards the panorama of grape vines before us. “These are the only vineyards in Chile growing on American rootstocks.”

The quality of American versus European rootstocks is up for debate, but the care with which Viña Vik selected its rootstocks is indisputable. In the strikingly contemporary winery — water flows all around the boulders scattered about its roof, keeping the barrel room cool and humidified — he showed me several maps of the valley. Agronomists had carefully tested the soil composition at regular intervals, and Viña Vik determined which of seven different American rootstocks best matched the soil in each parcel of land. Though a certain section of the valley may be all Cabernet, for example, those vines aren’t necessarily growing on the same type of rootstock.

Viña Vik's WineryMiguel guided me through an absolutely fascinating private tasting in the barrel room. The winery currently produces only one wine, but Miguel didn’t restrict the tasting to that one red blend. First, we tried some of its component parts, including a big, tough and well-structured 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; a round, decadent and much softer 2013 Merlot; and a complex and earthy 2013 Carmenère with a finish redolent of mesquite smoke and spice. (Syrah also goes into the mix.)

Tasting these components helped me identify their contributions to the final blend. The 2010 Vik had an enticing aroma of dark, almost jammy fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay the bottle down for another couple of years. The finish went on and on.

Viña Vik Varietals

Bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère that go into Vik’s blend

I found this wine for sale here in the U.S., retailing for $150 at Sotheby’s Wine. Yet the Viña Vik hotel pours the wine freely as its house red! Each lunch and dinner, decanters of the stuff would appear, and waitstaff would fill our glasses as often as we liked. It was always served too warm, alas, but even so — what a treat! It worked especially well with a dish of Wagyu beef slow-cooked for 24 hours and served with a rich potato purée.

I’ll never forget my stay at Viña Vik. Because of the wine, yes, but also because of the 4.8-magnitude earthquake which startled this Midwesterner out of bed one morning. It lasted all of six or seven seconds, but that was enough to have me springing out of the sheets and diving, naked, under the desk.

Viña Vik's red blendAnd there was the afternoon an odd smoggy haze filled the valley and drifted over the hotel. I later learned that it was no smog. At dinner, a couple related how they had been hiking and encountered a helicopter manned by heavily armed guards. Instead of walking the other direction, they approached and asked for the time. The guards, it turned out, were the Chilean equivalent of DEA agents. They had discovered an illegal field of marijuana on public land adjacent to the hotel’s property and were setting it on fire. That was the smoggy haze — a great cloud of pot smoke! No wonder the Wagyu beef tasted so good that night…

A Festive Sparkler From The Holy Land

20 December 2014

Gilgal BrutToday marks the midpoint of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just days away. What better time, then, to celebrate with a bottle of sparkling wine from Israel?

Many people still associate sickly sweet Maneschewitz-like wines with Israel, but in recent decades, the country has quietly undergone a quality revolution. “It was the late-1970s planting on the volcanic soils of the Golan Heights, from 1,300 feet above the Sea of Galilee up to 4,000 feet towards Mount Hermon,” The World Atlas of Wine explains, “that signaled a new direction.” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “Planting vineyards with noble varieties in cooler, high-altitude areas, combined with internationally trained winemakers and expertise… had dramatic effects.”

But winemaking in Israel dates back thousands of years, and wine appears frequently in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. That tradition continued under Roman and Byzantine rule until AD 636, the Oxford Companion relates, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards.” Crusaders started wine production again in about AD 1100, but maintained it for only about 200 years: “With the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.”

As Jewish people returned from the Diaspora centuries later, winemaking began once again. Galilee in northern Israel is the best-quality region, according to every resource I’ve consulted, its high-altitude vineyards offering a beneficially cooler climate than the coast. Jesus grew up in this region, in Nazareth, and it makes sense: If you’re the son of God, of course you would choose to live in the best wine region you could.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in Israel, and it helped lead the quality revolution by planting vineyards of noble international varieties in the Golan Heights in 1976. The winery’s 28 vineyards “range in altitude from 400 meters (1,300 feet) at Geshur, up to almost 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) at Odem,” according to its website, and these vineyards are further divided into 400 separate blocks. The grapes from each are stored and handled separately throughout the winemaking process, allowing Golan Heights to get a real feel for each parcel’s terroir and determine which varieties grow best where. I was also excited to see that Golan Heights was the first winery in Israel to grow its grapes organically.

I picked up a bottle of its NV Gilgal Brut, a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend named after the Gilgal Refaim, an enigmatic 5,000-year-old assemblage of some 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles located near the winery. This light straw-colored wine proved to be delightful, with aromas of red berries, yeast and round, orangey citrus. It felt full and ripe in the mouth. The berries and yeast were there, along with zesty acids and a froth of prickly bubbles. The finish was quite tart, with pronounced notes of green apple. I tried it again after it sat open in the refrigerator for two hours, which gave it time to develop a rounder note of vanilla.

What a fun, cheerful sparkler, and food-friendly, too. Its racy acids paired especially well with some crab Rangoon, cutting right through the richness. The Gilgal Brut would surely do well with just about any cheese or cream-based dish, making it ideal as an apéritif with cheese and crackers. I really want to try it with cheese fondue.

Making a sparkling wine in the Champagne method with traditional grapes requires great effort and significant investment in infrastructure. But it makes sense that Golan Heights would want to dive into such an elaborate project. The head winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, worked at Jacquesson, a 200-year-old Champagne house in France, before he joined Golan Heights. His Gilgal Brut clearly reflects that experience.

I purchased the Gilgal Brut at Binny’s for about $14, which is quite a value for the money. If your wine shop has a Kosher section, you might also find it there (it’s Kosher for Passover).

There are any number of wonderful wines you can serve during Hanukkah and Christmas, but I found it particularly satisfying to sip the Gilgal Brut, which has a direct connection to the Holy Land. It’s a very fun and festive wine, but it offers an opportunity for reflection as well.

Exploring The Terroir Of Chile

12 December 2014

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard CarmenereSingle-vineyard wines are nothing new. Burgundy has perhaps the most famous examples, and in recent years, vintners in the U.S. have also started marketing vineyard-designated bottlings. But it’s still relatively rare to see single-vineyard wines from anywhere in South America, which has a shorter history of high-quality winemaking.

Vinous excellence is certainly no stranger to South America now, however, as illustrated by this recent tasting, and this one, and this one. It makes sense that ambitious winemakers would now want to take things a step further and start delving into the subtleties of terroir.

The word “terroir” refers to all the factors affecting a certain patch of land, be it soil composition, exposure to light or wind, elevation, rainfall, etc. Wines lose their sense of terroir in direct proportion to the size of the geographical area from which their grapes were harvested. A Sonoma Coast wine will have, in theory, more of a sense of terroir than a wine labeled simply “California,” even if the Sonoma Coast wine comes from more than one vineyard.

This concept sounds esoteric, and you may very well be wondering, who cares? And it’s true that a single-vineyard wine does not guarantee quality, nor does a blended wine necessarily suffer in any way. Some of the world’s very best wines are blends. But single-vineyard wines most often come from vineyards that winemakers regard as special. Setting the grapes from this vineyard aside allows them to display all of what makes that particular site great. A single-vineyard wine also connects the taster to the land in a way that a blend, however grand, simply cannot.

Lapostolle Carmenere Gift BoxI was very excited, therefore, to learn about Lapostolle‘s single-vineyard Carmenères and Syrahs. I can’t recall tasting single-vineyard Chilean wines before, and I’d never tried a single-vineyard Carmenère from anywhere. This variety was popular as a blending grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but it slowly fell out of favor for various reasons, and now it rarely pops up in its homeland. The grape arrived in Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century, where it was mistaken for Merlot until 1994. Now, just 20 years later, Carmenère has become the signature variety of Chile.

The country may be extraordinarily narrow, but the terroir varies as much east to west as north to south because of the effects of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It was absolutely fascinating, then, to taste single-vineyard Carmenères from Marchigüe, near the Pacific, Apalta, in the middle of the country, and Portezuelo, closer to the mountains (as illustrated by their labels).

Each was a delight. The 2010 Marchigüe smelled of plum jam, and it had dark fruit leavened by bright green peppercorn spice. The 2010 Apalta had a heady, jammy aroma and flavors of ripe dark-red fruit and big but focused white peppercorn spice. The group favorite, however, was the sexy 2010 Portezuelo Carmenère, with its creamy raspberry aromas and big, dusky fruit. Some smokiness and meatiness undergirded the fruit, and despite the ripeness and sultriness of the wine, it maintained impressive focus. Though each wine came from the same grape, the same vintage and the same producer, each had its own distinctive character.

Lapostolle Pirque SyrahI also had the opportunity to try two of the six Syrahs, which come from vineyards running north to south. The 2010 Pirque and the  2010 Las Kuras both came from vineyards relatively close to the Andes, but the Pirque vineyard is in Maipo, and Las Kuras is in the Cachapoal Valley, the wine region immediately to the south. The Las Kuras Syrah smelled of chocolate and violets, and its bright acids and black pepper spice kept its dark fruit well in balance. The Pirque also had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma, but it felt silkier on the tongue and revealed itself more slowly than the Las Kuras. It had a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. It felt sexy and very classy, whereas Las Kuras was more of a “punch in the face — in a good way,” as a fellow taster noted.

Either the half-case of Syrah or the half-case of Carmenère would be an ideal base for a wine-tasting party. It’s great fun to try the wines side-by-side to compare them. The boxes also make a beautiful gift for a wine lover you would like to impress. Each half-case costs $200, and you can purchase them at uncorked.com. The Carmenère box includes two wines from each of three vineyards, and the Syrah box includes six different wines.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more single-vineyard wines like these coming out of South America, and if these thoroughly delicious bottlings are any indication, we’re in for a treat.

Note: These samples were provided free of charge by Terlato Wines.

Anselmi’s Super Soave

5 December 2014

Anselmi Capitel CroceThe word “Soave” does not tend to stir the heart of the oenophile. This white-wine country in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region started out well, when vineyards were confined mostly to hillsides. But after Soave received DOC status in 1968, it enjoyed  “an export boom, so production flowed off the small hilly zone onto the alluvial plain of the Adige river,” explains The Oxford Companion to Wine. Plains tend to produce far less interesting grapes than hills. Yields increased, leading to less-concentrated wines, and productive (but bland) Trebbiano Toscano began to invade the vineyards.

The World Atlas of Wine illuminates yet another important problem in Soave: “Almost 80% of the vineyards are cultivated by growers who deliver their grapes straight to the local co-op with no personal reputation for quality to uphold.” And, in its usual laconic style, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia flatly states that “Most Soave is still overcropped, thin and acidic.”

It makes sense that producers devoted to quality would want to distance themselves from the Soave DOC, “…and in 2000,” as Sotheby’s explains, “Roberto Anselmi took his greatly admired wines out of the Soave appellation in protest.” He had tried for years to reform the Soave DOC without success, and he finally had enough. He wrote an open letter to Soave announcing his break:

I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom. Freedom to improve, to make a great wine without inhibitions, to fly onto outstanding varieties, with better training systems, to relate to world viticulture with no boundaries, rules, bureaucracy, to create an honest market for a great white wine from my terroir, from a terroir after my own heart, where passion and imagination will no longer be obstructed. –Roberto Anselmi, as translated on the Terlato website.

Now, Anselmi classifies his wines under the much broader Veneto IGT, making his wines akin to the Super Tuscans, which also don’t necessarily follow DOC rules.

Liz Barrett, vice president of corporate communications and PR at Terlato Wines, brought two of Anselmi’s single-vineyard Super Soaves to a BYOB dinner at Tango Sur in Chicago. Both vineyards, Capitel Croce and Capitel Foscarino, are high on south-facing hillsides, far from the alluvial plains disparaged in The Oxford Companion. And the wines are entirely or almost entirely Garganega, with no bland Trebbiano to intrude.

Garganega, according to The Oxford Companion, “can produce fine, delicate whites redolent of lemon and almonds which give Soave a good name.” But Garganega reaches its potential only in the Soave Classico zone (in hillside vineyards), “with yields kept well in check, and where it is allowed to ripen fully.” Anselmi is doing everything right, by the sound of things, and his care is reflected in his compelling wines.

We started with the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Foscarino, a blend of 90% Garganega and 10% Chardonnay from a vineyard composed mostly of volcanic tuff. The aroma had notes of grapefruit and minerals, and Barrett detected some peach. It tasted tart, but the smooth fruit and ample minerality kept things well in balance — a delicious combination. The acids ensured that this wine paired well with our appetizer.

Barrett liked the Foscarino best, but my favorite was the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Croce. This 100% Garganega comes from a vineyard with more limestone in the soil, which clearly affected the flavor. It had a sweeter aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

A quick internet search revealed that the Foscarino costs around $19-$22, and the Croce runs for $21-$25 (Barrett provided the samples to me free of charge). At these prices, such perfectly balanced and carefully crafted wines are an excellent value. I rarely pay more than $20 for a bottle, but these single-vineyard Super Soaves are now on my short list.

The Unusual Reds Of El Enemigo

26 November 2014

El EnemigoTwenty years ago, the wines of Argentina barely made a ripple on the vinous seismograph. Now that quality has dramatically improved, wine store shelves heave with bottles from this South American nation, and Malbec, formerly just an obscure Bordeaux blending grape, reigns as its signature variety.

But Malbec, as you might expect, is not the whole story. Lettie Teague recently praised the Cabernet Sauvignons of Mendoza in this Wall Street Journal article, and indeed, I sampled several beautifully fruity and focused Argentinean Cabernets at a recent tasting at Chicago’s Public Hotel. A well-balanced 2013 Tilia tasted fresh, ripe and spicy, and Catena Zapata, Argentina’s most storied winery, presented two big and lush Cabernet varietals and two wonderfully elegant Cabernet-based blends.

The winemaker of Catena Zapata, Alejandro Vigil, started his own project together with Adrianna Catena, focusing on “smaller varietals in Mendoza,” according to the press materials I received. They named this side label “El Enemigo,” which refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung, who manned the tasting table. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc is another variety frequently used in Bordeaux blends, and it is the dominant grape in the Loire’s red Chinon wines. I’ve also tried it from all sorts of other regions around the world, and Cabernet Franc makes a mean varietal in New Mexico and Virginia, oddly enough. But as far as I can remember, I’d never tried any Cabernet Franc-based blends from South America. The trouble with this grape is that it can sometimes take on some vegetal character, with potentially off-putting notes of green pepper. But that wasn’t a problem here. El Enemigo’s wines proved to be thoroughly ripe and vegetable-free:

2011 Cabernet Franc: This blend of 92% Cabernet Franc and 8% Malbec takes on a beautiful magenta hue, because the high altitude and cool climate of the Gualtallary vineyard from which it’s sourced cause the grapes to develop especially thick skins. A big and cheerful wine, with ripe fruit, bright acids and supple tannins.

2010 Gran Enemigo: Vigil seeks to emulate “the old Pomerol style,” according to the Enemigo website, with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. I can’t afford to drink Pomerol with any frequency, so I can’t compare this effort to its French inspiration. But if this wine is any indication of the character of Pomerol, I might have to splurge once in a while. It had a fresh, raisiny aroma and loads of red fruit, with big and focused white pepper spice. The finish went on and on. A delight.

 2010 Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard: Here Vigil forgoes Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, blending 85% Cabernet Franc with 15% Malbec. Again, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.

2010 Gran Enemigo Agrelo Single Vineyard: This wine combines Cabernet Franc and Malbec in the same proportions as the Gualtallary Single Vineyard, but because of the Agrelo vineyard’s lower altitude, it has a noticeably different character. It had notes of creamy red fruit, and it displayed impressively elegant restraint despite its obvious power. Very classy.

2011 Malbec: I did succumb to a traditional Malbec as well, and I’m glad I did. A gorgeous violet color, it smelled of perfumed dark fruit. It tasted big and beautiful, with the traditional dark cassis (currant) flavor, black pepper spice and some soft tannins on the finish. This Malbec, blended with 6% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, served as a reminder of what makes Argentina’s signature grape so wildly popular.

These wines aren’t especially inexpensive, nor are they all that easy to find (online retailers are the best bet). But if you’re looking for a nice gift for a creative wine lover in your life — someone who just needs to vanquish those enemies within in order to do something amazing — any of the above would be a fine choice.

The 100 Best Wines Of Slovakia

15 November 2014

Slovak Cabernet in the Arcadia HotelFor most people, the words “Slovak wine” do not inspire visions of grand châteaux or even charming tasting rooms. Slovak wine is not something most of us (any of us?) seek out. When I mention to friends that I did a tasting of Slovak wine, they usually respond uncertainly, carefully — as if they’re about to be the butt of a joke. And who can blame them?

My older wine reference books have few kind words for the wines of Slovakia. The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine minces no words: “When [Slovakia] voted to split from the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, it failed to privatize its wine industry successfully.” The 2007 edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is even less encouraging: “Most Slovakian wine is classified as lowly table wine, which would be a good thing if this were the result of a quality-conscious culling of the total production to produce stunning quality top wines, but that is not the case — the wines are naturally of a dismal quality.”

Slovakia hadn’t achieved widespread vinous acclaim even before the communists took over, and when they did, “centralized processing… obscured whatever local reputations there were and cast a gray shadow over any individual efforts, as the vineyards were replanted high and wide for mass production,” Sotheby’s explains.

And even if, for some reason, we still wanted to drink Slovak wine, we wouldn’t be able to find any. Almost the entire production is consumed within Slovakia, except for a small amount exported to Poland and the Czech Republic. Nor does it help that the total vineyard area in Slovakia fell from about 62,000 acres to just 35,000 acres as of 2002, according to the Oxford Companion.

But now, something is happening in Slovakia. “Progress — bringing, for example, malolactic fermentation, oak aging and lees contact — is changing the picture,” my 2013 edition of The World Atlas of Wine declares. Winemakers are experimenting with an array of unusual crossings bred to “ripen early with high sugar levels and full flavors,” so that vineyards are less at risk for frost, the Atlas continues. There are still a handful of industrial-sized producers, the Atlas explains, and plenty of tiny winemakers who consume all they make. The real action is with medium-sized producers, which have the budget for higher-quality equipment and talent.

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado (right) in the Národný Salón Vín

But really, are Slovak wines any good, even with the progress that’s been made? On a recent stay in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, I visited the Národný Salón Vín to find out. This cellar in a rococo palace assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings. If fine wine is being made in Slovakia, this was the place to find it.

Find it I did. I sampled a broad cross-section of wines — white, rosé and red — from a range of different winemaking regions. Some of them were simply well-crafted and delicious, but many of them were truly surprising and unusual and even compelling. Nothing about any of the wines said “centralized processing.”

2012 Skovajsa Veltlínske Zelené: This Grüner Veltliner had a fresh, spring-like aroma with notes of white flowers and fresh-cut grass. Its juicy and focused acids would surely work well with food.

2011 Janoušek Rizling Rýnsky: Located northeast of Bratislava, the Janoušek winery produced this charming Riesling, which had a powerfully spicy aroma undergirded by something savory. It exhibited ripely sweet fruit, broad lemony acids and a touch of something floral on the finish.

2012 Juraj Zápražný Pinot Gris: What a delight. Like the Riesling above, this wine comes from the Južnoslovenská region, which is surprisingly “warm and sunny,” according to Sotheby’s. The wine had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance. I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere.

2012 Vins Winery Devín: Devín is a relatively new grape variety developed for the Slovak terroir, a crossing of Roter Veltliner and Gewürztraminer. It had a completely unexpected aroma of roses and black pepper. Floral overtones continued on the palate, which had notable spice and a pop of sweet fruit, followed by a dry finish. If you like Viognier, you’ll probably like Devín.

IMG_83192012 Modra Elesko Petit Merle Rosé: A beautiful watermelon color, this rosé of Merlot had everything I like in a pink wine — ripe strawberry fruit, a perk of white pepper and some chalky minerals on the finish. Fruity, but well-balanced and dry. This is what I would bring to a picnic on the bank of the Danube.

2012 Dubovský & Grančič Dunaj: Named after the Danube River, Dunaj is a red crossing of Muscat Bouchet, Portugieser and St. Laurent (called Muškát Bouchet, Oporto and Svätovavrinecké in Slovak). A lovely dark magenta color, this wine had aromas of deep raspberry jam. I loved its round, ripe fruit, elegant tannins and spicy black-pepper finish. Focused and powerful, this wine would likely please fans of Zinfandel.

2009 Michal Sadloň Svätovavřinecké: Svätovavřinecké is better known (and more easily pronounced) as St. Laurent, a grape variety capable of making some truly sexy red wines. This expression had a tight, savory aroma marked by earth and green wood. On the palate, its red fruit was mixed with notes of vanilla, tobacco and green peppercorn spice. Controlled, velvety, and indeed rather sultry.

Bratislava

Bratislava

2012 Modra Elesko Rosa: Another uniquely Slovak grape, Rosa is a new crossing of Picpoul Noir, Blaufränkisch (Lemberger) and Gewürztraminer. The resulting wine is, as you might expect, quite unusual. Although it’s a clear cherry red, it has a highly perfumed nose redolent of heady flowers like lilacs and lily of the valley. Smelled with my eyes closed, I would have guessed it was white! Its cherry blossom flavor focused into a dry finish, which, along with some subtle spice, helped it to maintain balance. If dry, floral whites are what you typically enjoy, this is the red for you.

As I said, you’re almost certainly not going to find any of these wines unless you go to Slovakia.* Which is something I highly recommend you do. Bratislava is an absolutely enchanting city, and it’s only an hour by car, train or river ferry from Vienna. Stroll its pedestrianized old quarter, dine in the retro-futuristic UFO restaurant perched above the Danube, and visit Národný Salón Vín. That’s the best place to discover the exciting and delightfully unusual wines now being crafted in Slovakia.

*Centeur Imports will soon be bringing some Slovak wines to New Hampshire, and then hopefully the rest of the U.S. See the comments below.

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