Grape Varieties

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.

Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

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

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

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

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

2010 Reserva de la Familia: You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky; as Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.” Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

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

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

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

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

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

Unusual Australian Shiraz

31 October 2014

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier L Block ShirazMy first instinct, when offered two complimentary samples of some Australian Shiraz, was to decline them. Australian Shiraz is one of the least unusual wines I can think of, right up there with Napa Cabernet. But these were from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, and that winery’s 2012 Shiraz-Viognier ranked among my Top Red Wines of 2013. Just as important in my decision to write about the samples, these Shirazes weren’t from one of Australia’s more well-known wine regions. They came from Pyrenees.

I think of “the Pyrenees” as the rugged mountain range dividing Spain and France, but it is also “the (ironic?) name of the rolling landscape to the east of the Grampians” in Victoria not far from Melbourne, as The World Atlas of Wine explains. “Formerly known as the Avoca district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Pyrenees is “…red-wine country, making wines of a distinctive and attractive minty character.” The Oxford Companion to Wine is even more complimentary of the region, arguing that “The Pyrenees on the eastern side can provide Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as sumptuous as that of Heathcote or Bendigo…”

Acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier visited the area in 1998, and he was immediately taken with a certain undeveloped stretch of land that received ample sunlight mitigated by cool breezes. Already in a beneficial business relationship with Anthony Terlato, Chapoutier telephoned him, exclaimed something to the effect of, “You gotta see this!” and exhorted Mr. Terlato to get on the next plane to Australia, as Liz Barrett, Terlato’s Vice President of PR, related to me over a recent dinner. Anthony’s son Bill flew down, and Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier was born.

Over the next two years, they planted mostly Shiraz in what became known as the Malakoff vineyard. Notably, these vines grow on their own ungrafted rootstock, since Pyrenees is unafflicted by phylloxera. This destructive louse requires most of the world’s vineyards to be planted on American rootstocks, making the Malakoff vineyard unusual indeed.

Barrett and I tasted two of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier’s wines over a delicious steak dinner at Chicago’s Tango Sur, and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to the beef. First, we tried the 2011 Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz which runs about $50 a bottle. It smelled of deeply dark fruit, and there was a meatiness to the aroma. Barrett exclaimed, “Raisinettes!” and she was quite right. This is a masculine, muscular wine with ample ripe fruit, lots of black pepper spice and some underlying freshness, all under very tight control. That control is what elevates this wine above many other Australian Shirazes I’ve tasted, and justifies the price tag.

We also sampled the 2009 L Block Shiraz, named for a certain L-shaped section of the vineyard with more slate and iron in the soil. It smelled big, deep and juicy, with notes of hearty black cherries. Barrett took a sip and remarked, “It’s a he-wine,” and indeed, there was something masculine about this Shiraz as well. It had ripe raspberry-jam fruit, black pepper spice, strong but supple tannins and raisins on the finish. It was big and ripe but wonderfully light on its feet, with a lively mouthfeel. I could see why this wine fetches around $60 a bottle.

If you’re planning a special dinner for your partner, or just want a really beautiful wine to cozy up with on a chilly autumn evening, either of these unusual Shirazes would be an excellent choice. If $50 is beyond your budget, opt for the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier instead. For about $18, it’s one of the best red-wine values available anywhere.

A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

At large wine-tasting events, I usually run out of time before I get to try everything I would like. And a recent tasting of Portuguese, Spanish, Argentinean and Chilean wines organized by Winebow in the Pump Room of Chicago’s Public Hotel was no different. With only minutes to spare, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t yet tried one of the wines I was most excited to experience. I dedicated my last minutes to the table of Chilean winery Cousiño-Macul, which, in addition to the expected Chardonnays and Cabernets, presented an unusual Sauvignon Gris.

Cousiño-Macul’s youthful agricultural engineer and chief winemaker, Gabriel Mustakis, manned the table, and he explained that the parents of the current Sauvignon Gris vines came over in 1860 from Bordeaux, arriving just before phylloxera hit France. This pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

The renewed interest in this variety is no doubt due to the fact that these wines can be “much more elegant” (if less aromatic) than Sauvignon Blanc, as Wine Searcher attests, and that Sauvignon Gris can “produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” as the Oxford Companion asserts.

The 2013 Cousiño-Macul “Isidora” Sauvignon Gris, named for the family’s 19th-century matriarch, certainly had no lack of aroma. It smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted the wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

I found an entry on Cousiño-Macul in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The review was quite mixed — it called Cousiño-Macul “Chile’s one-time best winery,” lamenting that the winery “maintained its old-fashioned standards” as other producers overtook them in terms of quality. But this 2007 edition of Sotheby’s goes on to say that Cousiño-Macul “recently relocated to new vineyards, and has started producing fresher, fruitier, better-focused wines since the 2002 vintage.”

Based on this distinctly fresh, fruity and focused Sauvignon Gris and the creamy and exotic 2012 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay I tasted, I’d say my Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is out of date in this case. Cousiño-Macul is clearly back at the top of its game.

Ancient, Rare And Californian

11 October 2014

Inglenook and Duxoup CharbonoI only ever kept perhaps three or four bottles of wine in my home at a time, until one day, when I was about 25, my father acquired some cases of 1975 Inglenook Charbono. In an act of great generosity, he gave me one, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I had a wine collection. Lacking a cellar, I lovingly stored the bottles in my studio apartment in the cinder blocks forming my bookcase, saving them for special occasions. These old bottles were what started my wine collecting habit, and the thought of Charbono still gives me a tingle.

Charbono also stirs my soul because of its rarity and age. Plantings of Charbono predate Cabernet and Pinot Noir in France, according to Duxoup Wine Works. This ancient variety was once thought to be Dolcetto, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but DNA profiling “established that it is identical to the virtually extinct Corbeau of the Savoie region in the French Alps.”

Now, the center of Charbono production is California, half a world away. According to this 2004 article in The Wine News, Charbono arrived with immigrants from northern Italy, who thought they were bringing cuttings of Barbera with them. Since Savoie borders northern Italy, it seems some Charbono got mixed in as well, and it ended up in California vineyards.

Inglenook was the first winery to make a varietal Charbono wine, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, but it no longer continues that great tradition. Francis Ford Coppola bought the winery in 1995, and in an act of supreme anti-romance, he had the old Charbono vines growing in front of the Inglenook chateau torn out and replaced with the more lucrative and popular Cabernet Sauvignon. Inglenook produced its last Charbono vintage in 1998.

Fortunately, other winemakers in California still produce Charbono varietals, and approximately 89 acres of Charbono vineyards remain, according to this 2013 Wine Country Getaways article.

Duxoup makes some of the best. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News. A couple of years ago, I spotted a bottle of 2009 Duxoup Charbono at In Fine Spirits, and despite its price tag of about $20, I couldn’t resist. Here was the first Charbono I’d encountered since I received the case of Inglenook in 2001.

I took the bottle to 42 Grams, an upscale BYOB restaurant tucked away in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. It was a delight, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare, ancient and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. You can purchase the 2011 Duxoup Charbono from the winery’s website.

I still have one bottle of the 1975 Inglenook left. I opened my second-to-last bottle last year — I brought it to a beautiful lunch at the Terlato mansion-headquarters in the northern Chicago suburbs. The lunch wasn’t about this wine, so I only took brief notes: “Raisins, iron, earth — a bit of structure left, by God!”

Yes. That’s exactly how I remember it.

Grey Pinot Noir

19 September 2014

Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin GrisWith the exception of sparkling Blanc de Noirs, I’ve always thought of Pinot Noir varietal wines as, very simply put, red. One does not tend to go to the white wine aisle in search of a Pinot Noir. But white Pinot Noir does indeed exist, as I discovered on a recent visit to my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits.

There stood a bottle on the shelf, white as could be, but clearly labeled “Pinot Noir Vin Gris.” What was this stuff? Vin gris, which translates literally as “grey wine,” is wine made from dark-skinned grapes but without any skin contact after pressing. The pulp of most red grapes tends to be much lighter in color than the skins, which means if little or no skin contact is allowed during fermentation, the resulting wine will be white, pinkish or orange — not red. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, vin gris is a specialty of the Côtes de Toul in Lorraine, some wineries in the Loire and a number of producers in the Midi near the salt flats of the Camargue.

The Oxford Companion does not mention vin gris as a specialty of Michigan, however. Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering if any good wine of any kind comes out of the northern Midwest. But the lakes surrounding this state mitigate the climate enough to allow for the growing of wine grapes, and The World Atlas of Wine calls the vinifera vineyards of Michigan “promising.” That distinction, though, is important — many of Michigan’s vineyards are planted with American grape varieties or hybrids.

Chateau Grand Traverse, the producer of my bottle of Pinot Noir vin gris, has never planted anything other than vinifera grapes in its vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula, the finger of land extending north from Traverse City. In fact, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates, the owner of Chateau Grand Traverse was the first to attempt growing vinifera varieties in the area starting in 1974:

Ed O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse… is the only person in the entire Michigan wine industry who has been 100 percent committed to vinifera from the very start. His constant arguing of his case did not make him many friends among his fellow winegrowers, particularly those of the old school who were clinging on to their hybrids, but he was right, and in the end he did everyone in the Michigan wine industry a big favor.

I’ve had other Chateau Grand Traverse wines before, and I found its dry wines to be quite tasty. But why attempt to market a vin gris of Pinot Noir? Surely that can’t be the easiest wine to sell. On the chateau’s website, the winemaker explains: “Vin Gris is the outcome of a pet project of exploring a white(ish) wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Since 2001, I’ve been looking at the differences between reds and whites, in a quest to merge the two.”

I felt very interested to find out the results of this quest, and recently opened my bottle of 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin Gris to pair with some risotto I’d made. A beautiful rose-gold color, the wine had a fresh, green aroma marked by some dried herbs. There was some pétillance (spritz) to the mouthfeel, and when it first came out of the fridge, the wine felt very bright and tight, with tart, appley fruit, prickly acids and a dry finish. As the wine warmed slightly, it developed a riper, rounder mouthfeel, and lovely undertones of berries. The acids of the wine cut right through the richness of the risotto, making for a fine pairing.

If you can’t make it over to In Fine Spirits, the Chateau Grand Traverse website sells the Pinot Noir Vin Gris for $14 a bottle. For such an unusual and food-friendly wine, that seems like a bargain to me.

Go For Emerald Green

30 August 2014
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna's Palmenhaus

Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna’s Palmenhaus

These last lazy days of summer call for a full-bodied but zesty white, lively enough to feel refreshing on a warm night and serious enough to merit a little quiet contemplation. On a trip to Vienna, I discovered just the thing: Grüner Veltliner Smaragd.

Grüner Veltliner, you might justifiably argue, is not exactly a discovery. In the last decade or so, the Austrian variety has become quite popular with sommeliers for its food-friendly acidity and peppery spice, and it’s not at all uncommon nowadays to find examples on wine lists. In fact, I had more or less stopped drinking Grüner in favor of more obscure varieties. It took a little green lizard to get me back.

Austria’s most famous wine region is the Wachau, a surprisingly small region along the Danube west of Vienna. In addition to classifying wines using terms familiar to German Riesling drinkers (Kabinett, Auslese, Spätlese, etc.), the Wachau complicates matters by often substituting its own unique system, as The World Atlas of Wine explains:

Steinfeder is a light wine up to 11.5% alcohol for early drinking. Federspiel is made from slightly riper grapes, 11.5-12.5% alcohol, good in its first five years. Wines labeled Smaragd (after a local green lizard) can be seriously full-bodied, with alcohol levels above — often far above — 12.5%; they repay six or more years’ aging.

Most Grüner Veltliners I see don’t carry any of the above designations, which isn’t a comment on their quality. But if you see a Grüner labeled Smaragd, which literally translates as “emerald,” snap it up. They are harder to find, but they repay the effort. As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, the Smaragd designation indicates “the most valuable category of white wines made from the ripest grapes on the best sites of the Wachau.”

At vegetarian Tian in Vienna, we ordered a 2012 Tegernseerhof “Bergdistel” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, which blends grapes from Tegernseerhof’s various vineyards. I knew I would like it as soon as I smelled its enticingly creamy green aroma. It had deliciously creamy fruit on the palate as well, with restrained spice and beautiful balance. It felt very classy, this Grüner, and as many Grüners do, it paired wonderfully with a range of vegetables.

I also found an example at Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house, which has an excellent selection of Austrian wines by the glass. The barrel-vaulted glass roof makes for a gorgeous interior, but the weather was simply too fine to sit indoors. I found a table outside overlooking the leafy Burggarten and settled in with a glass of 2012 Graben Gritsch “Schön” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd. “Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau near the town of Spitz.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping outside the palm house of the palace of the Habsburgs.

Tasty Grüner Veltliners are produced in many of Austria’s wine regions — the grape occupies no less than a third of the country’s vineyards. But Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines are special. Seek them out. They are a worthy pairing with summer’s last few precious days.

Drink Like The Czars – Barta Pince

25 July 2014

Barta PinceIn addition to touring the wonderful Erzsébet Pince while exploring Hungary’s Tokaj region, I had the fortune to visit the equally delightful Barta Pince in the tranquil wine town of Mád. Barta Pince (“pince” is Hungarian for “cellars”) moved into its current home only in 2009, but the building itself dates back to the 16th century, with a newer second floor added in the 18th. This floor had yet to be fully renovated as of my visit (see right), and it retained its supremely atmospheric vaulted ceilings covered with faded, flaking paint above deeply worn wooden floors.

The winery gets its fruit from the Öreg Király dűlő (Old King vineyard), which is the second-highest vineyard in Hungary, according to Barta’s sales manager, Anita Balogh (below right). This vineyard produced some of the best fruit in the region, but the communist authorities were not impressed by the vineyard’s steep, difficult-to-work topography. They “barbarically” chopped down the vineyard, Balogh related with understandable emotion, and let the land return to scrub brush and eventually forest. Not content to leave well enough alone, the communists turned the other side of the hill into a quarry, an atrocity akin to converting one of Burgundy’s top vineyards into a strip mine.

Anita BaloghThe owners of Barta Pince bought the Öreg Király vineyard in 2003 and slowly reclaimed it from the forest. They discovered that about three quarters of the original stone terraces remained miraculously intact, and the Furmint and Hárslevelű vineyards make use of these ancient terraces today. The height and grade of these 100% organic vineyards requires that most work be done by hand, just as it has been for centuries.

I sat down with Balogh in the elegant dining room of Barta Pince, just off the complex’s shady garden courtyard. The wines proved to be packed with vibrant fruit and racy acids. After my tasting at Erzsébet Pince the day before, I had expected nothing less.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: What a delightful, elegant wine. It had bright aromas of honey and white pepper, a luscious texture and honeyed apple fruit. Beautifully controlled, the wine maintained balance with refined white-pepper spice that slowly gave way to a mineral finish.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: The following vintage had an open nose of honey and green peppercorn along with some citrus. It still felt lush on the tongue, but it seemed much drier, with an almost saline quality. It didn’t feel as exquisitely refined as the 2011, but perhaps it just needs another year in the bottle to mature. These are quibbles though, arising only because the 2011 was so clearly at its peak.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Hárslevelű: Barta made only 900 bottles of this complex varietal wine, which had ripe, full aromas of peaches leavened with stone. It felt big and round, but the fruit resolved into tart acids and a dry finish of minerals and even a touch of wood. Quite a journey.

2012 Egy Kis Édes Furmint: Bottled just five weeks before I tasted it, Barta’s least-expensive wine smelled enticingly floral. It tasted sweet and fruity, but lemony acids and floral overtones kept things well in balance.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: A blend of 60% Muskotály (Muscat) and 40% Furmint, this late-harvest wine had an entrancing aroma of perfumed white flowers and peaches. Ripe and rich, it was redolent of white peaches, with softly limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Barta Tasting2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: In 2012, Barta tweaked the blend to 50% Muskotály and 50% Furmint. It had a fresh, spicy, floral aroma, but the flavor was a little darker. Lovely orangey acids balanced out tones of honey, dates and figs.

2010 Öreg Király Dűlő Late Harvest Furmint: Barta had to wait later than usual to harvest the grapes for this wine because of the rains. Balogh called the aroma “pure quince.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to some of us (I must admit that I don’t encounter quince on a regular basis), so I’ll describe the smell as peach pie with a hint of green peppercorn. Very sweet and honeyed, this wine had well-balanced orangey acids and notes of green tobacco giving it a lift.

2008 Öreg Király Dűlő Szamorodni: This sherry-like wine is aged in barrels for 20 months, and the botrytis-affected aszú grapes are not removed, deepening and concentrating the flavors. After tasting it, I can understand why a Hungarian president once ordered 1,500 cases of the wine. I loved the nose of honey and old wood, and though the wine exhibited fantastic richness, it was perfectly balanced. I must sound like a broken record by now, with all this talk of lush richness balanced by zesty acids, but that combination never gets boring. Flavors I noticed included pie crust, wood, peach and fig.

Cellars at Barta Pince2008 Öreg Király Dűlő 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú: Tokaj became famous in the courts of Europe for its aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one. You can find Tokaji Aszú ranging anywhere from 3 to 6 puttonyos, and basically, the higher the number of puttonyos, the richer and sweeter the flavor. This extraordinary wine has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter. With all that sugar, could it possibly be as balanced as the wines above? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

That’s two spectacular tastings in a row! And I found yet more on my tour of Tokaj, tasting wonderful wines at Gróf Degenfeld and Szent Tamás. But after reading about Erzsébet and Barta, you get the idea. The wines of Tokaj, to put it simply, rank among the very best in the world. I don’t mean that they rank among the best in their price range, or that they rank among the best in Central Europe. Tokaj’s wines are some of the world’s most beautifully crafted and extravagantly delicious. Period.

And what a joy and privilege to taste them in Tokaj itself! The wines of Tokaj have been famous since at least 1700, when the region was classified. But the region feels undiscovered, which makes visiting it an unusual and singular delight. If you have the means, go. Go.

Drink Like The Czars – Erzsébet Pince

12 July 2014

Vineyards near TarcalEastern Europe has only one historically great wine region. Many parts of Eastern Europe are capable of producing top-quality wine, certainly, but Tokaj in Hungary stands in a class apart. Its vineyards were classified some 150 years before those of Bordeaux, and its wines were coveted by the Russian and French royal courts for generations.

But Tokaj had a rather rough 20th century, to put it mildly. It had yet to fully recover from phylloxera when World War II hit, and when peace finally came, the communists took over, nationalizing wineries and putting quantity far ahead of quality. Fortunately, some winemakers in Tokaj stubbornly stuck to tradition, producing excellent wines against all odds and passing down their knowledge to the next generation.

Nowadays, Tokaj is no longer recovering from phylloxera, nor war, nor the depredations of communism. Tokaj has unquestionably returned to full, triumphant health. If I learned anything during my two-day stay in Tokaj, I learned that. Tokaji wine is no longer the “legendary” wine of the czars. There’s nothing legendary about it anymore. The wine exists. It is there, in all its regal glory, ready to be tasted by anyone willing to visit.

Erzsebet PinceWine lists in Budapest typically have several options from Tokaj, but nothing compares with going straight to the source. I started with a winery named for Czarina Elizabeth, Erzsébet Pince.

Its cellars, built into a hillside in the town of Tokaj itself, date back to at least 1743, but just five houses down, the cellars bear an inscription dating back to the 16th century. They smell of sweet, old wood and are caked in layers of beneficial black mold, which helps maintain a constant level of humidity, explained owner Hajni Pracser. Her parents started work for the state wine company in 1974, and they founded Erzsébet Pince in its current form in 1989 (its first vintage, however, was not until 1993). They now produce about 10,000 bottles per year, and plan on working up to a maximum of 20,000.

If you can find an Erzsébet Pince wine, don’t hesitate to buy it. We sat down to a tasting on the terrace of Pracser’s winery/home, and each of the wines I tried was a delight:

Erzsebet Pince Cellars2012 Lunée: This cheerful 100% Muscat Blanc had aromas of honeydew and orange peel. There was the expected sweet Muscat fruit on the palate, but it was very light on its feet, with tart, lively acids.

2011 Zafir Dűlő: A blend of 60% Hárslevelű and 40% Furmint, which are classic blending partners in Tokaj — the Hárslevelű adds perfume and softness to the spicy, fiery Furmint. Its name refers to the Zafir vineyard (dűlő), set on a south-facing hillside near Tarcal. This privileged location yielded a predictably excellent wine with a nose of fresh wood and peach pie. It had honeyed fruit, focused acids, some white pepper and notes of oak. I wrote, “Scallops, please!”

2012 Zafir Dűlő: The following vintage had more of a pie-crust smell topped off with citrus, and the flavor had a more distinct orangey note. Again, balanced and zesty.

2012 Estate Furmint: This brilliantly light-gold 100% Furmint comes from the top-quality Zafir and Király vineyards. There was that lovely citrus in the nose again, along with brioche and something floral. It felt very elegant, with notes of bread and fresh white fruits. Sharply focused acids kept everything tightly in balance.

2011 Betsek Dűlő: The Betsek vineyard outside Mád is very stony, in contrast to the clay-heavy Király vineyard. That minerality appears clearly in the finish of this wine, a blend of 90% Hárslevelű and 10% Kabar, a new crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier. It smelled rich and round, with an unusual note of caramel. Aromatic and fruity, the wine felt round and juicy, with lemony acids, a bit of funk and something that reminded me of a baked good, like a danish. The stony finish left no doubt, however, that this is essentially a dry wine.

2012 Király Dűlő: Király is one of Tokaj’s top vineyards, and it shows in this 100% Furmint. It had a light brioche and lime aroma, and notes of white flowers and honey. Bright acids maintained strict balance, and the finish kept going and going. A delight.

Tasting at Erzsebet Pince2011 Late-Harvest Kövérszőlő: This variety, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like Erzsébet produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine. 

2004 Szamarodni: Aged for four years in a 500-liter oak barrel, this wine takes on an oxidized, sherry-like character. It smelled of honey and wood but tasted very dry, with lemony acids and more notes of wood. Woodsy, yes, but balanced nevertheless.

2010 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: Very simply, the more puttonyos in a sweet, Sauternes-like Aszú wine, the higher the sugar content and the richer the flavor (see more specifics here). Six is the maximum, and as of very recently, five is now the minimum (you can still find three- and four-puttonyos wines from past vintages, however). This wine saw two years in new oak, but it retains a very light color and most important, an underlying freshness. It had the classic green honeyed aroma, and richly honeyed fruit balanced by orangey acids. Even so, as Pracser noted, “Your palate is left dry.” No mean feat, considering the sugar content. If you think you don’t like dessert wine, this one might just convert you.

2003 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: A vibrant amber, this vintage had a darker honey aroma, but it was leavened by some freshness underneath. Thick and rich, the wine had notes of butterscotch, cream, tropical fruit and apricots, kept somehow in balance with prickly acids. Fantastic.

1999 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: At this age, the wine had turned a shiny caramel color, and the aromas had turned towards brown sugar, burnt caramel and molasses (Pracser also pointed out leather and plum jam). Flavors, too, became more complex — orange marmalade, tobacco, even mint. The wine felt rich and deep, yet still very light on its feet. What a joy to drink.

1993 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: This wine, from Erzsébet Pince’s very first vintage, had mellowed in its age, with dark, dusky flavors of caramel and candied orange. Yet it was still quite lively, with round acids and some soft tannins on the finish. Even after 21 years, the wine still felt wonderfully alive.

Wine writers who discuss Tokaj love to relate how the czars defended their shipments of Tokaji wines with special detachments of cossacks. But really, when you’ve got wines like these, is it any wonder?

A Sensible Napa Red

28 June 2014
Horror Show 3

Label photo courtesy of Vending Machine Winery

Readers of this blog could be forgiven for feeling at times frustrated, because after I extol the virtues of Somló Juhfark or Slovak Furmint, I frequently write something like, “You’ll have trouble finding this anywhere other than Bratislava.” And let’s face it, Bratislava is just not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. So let’s break from obscure Eastern European wines for a moment, and consider a nice red from a winery in Napa.

Napa does not figure prominently in this blog — Arizona has more entries — but that’s not to say there aren’t enticingly unusual cuvées coming from America’s most famous wine region. As a gift for watching their cats, some thoughtful friends recently brought over a Napa red (or more accurately, a Lodi/Sierra Nevada Foothills red) which turned out to be one of the most unusual blends I’ve ever encountered.

The label (right) already indicates that this wine won’t be your usual Cabernet. The 2011 Vending Machine Winery “Horror Show” is in fact an absolutely insane-sounding blend of Sousão, a red Portuguese grape figuring prominently in Port; Montepulciano, an Italian variety planted mostly in central Italy; and Tannat, which originated in southwest France but is more well-known as the national grape of Uruguay. How on earth did these three disparate varieties come to live in the same bottle? I telephoned the winery to find out.

Neil Gernon, who owns the winery with his wife, Monica Bourgeois, answered my call. He explained that “Horror Show” is a slang term used in the film A Clockwork Orange to indicate “dark, brooding fun.” And who wouldn’t enjoy a wine that tasted like that? So Gernon and Bourgeois got to work, thinking about dark grapes to include in a potential Horror Show blend. They hit right away on Sousão, because it “makes Petit Sirah look light,” according to Gernon. And Petit Sirah seemed a little too obvious in any case.

IMG_6778Building from brooding Sousão, they hit on Montepulciano, which is “dark in color but with bright, red-berry fruit,” Gernon explained. But the blend still needed something else, some undergirding of earth. Bourgeois and Gernon settled on Tannat, which adds “earthy, funky” notes and some tannic power. So there’s the initial fun fruit of the Montepulciano, the brooding mid-palate of the Sousão and the dark, powerful finish of the Tannat. After Gernon explained it, this extremely unorthodox blend sounded like the most sensible thing in the world. 

And it works! I recently brought the bottle to my parents’ house for a stir-fry dinner on a cool evening, and the wine’s dark, meaty fruit and rowdy acids paired deliciously with the beef. The wine had rustic red fruit, notes of iron and earth and a lovely aromatic quality on top balancing its sense of thickness. The wine wasn’t fussy, as you might gather from the description of its finish on the website: “Just when you feel safe, the thrill ramps up like a graveyard shovel hit to the mouth.” 

I wouldn’t describe this wine as refined, but I certainly enjoyed it in any case. If you’re in the mood for something big, bold and rustic, with lots of fruit, lots of acids and lots of earth, Horror Show is an ideal choice. And its beautiful but distressing label, which changes every year, makes this wine perfect for Halloween. Dark, brooding fun indeed.

You can find Horror Show and other Vending Machine Winery bottlings at the stores and restaurants listed here. Horror Show retails for about $28; not inexpensive, but a reasonable price for the flavor it delivers.

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