Syrah/Shiraz

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhône Comes To Krk

18 January 2014

Katunar Kurykta AntonWhile browsing the selection at my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits, I asked the proprietor my favorite question: “So what do you have that’s new and unusual?” Noticing the bottle of Serbian Prokupac already in my hand, she pointed out a Croatian Syrah, which at $21 was more than I had planned on spending. But how could I resist? A famous and extremely high-quality Rhône variety expressed through the terroir of coastal Croatia was simply too tempting. I paid the $21, and I am very glad I did.

Like all wine-growing countries ruled by communists, Croatia’s vintners were essentially required to focus on quantity rather than quality. Many fascinating indigenous varieties were therefore cast aside in favor of a handful of higher-yielding grapes which produced drinkable but uninteresting wines. Many vineyards in Croatia also suffered during the breakup of Yugoslavia, damaged by shelling, trampling or even being uprooted and replaced by landmines.

In more recent years, as the Croatian economy incorporated more capitalist principles and peace returned to the region, foresighted winemakers began exploring Croatia’s viticultural roots, restoring nearly lost local grape varieties and focusing again on quality instead of simply quantity. Anton and Toni Katunar are two of those foresighted winemakers.

The Katunar family has made wine for centuries, according to its website (translated from the Croatian by Google Translate), albeit as part of a cooperative during the communist years, “the only possible way of doing business.” In the 1990s, the Katunar winery worked hard to modernize and improve, investing in new Slavonian oak casks for aging and changing its sparkling wine production from tank fermentation to bottle fermentation.

Because the Katunar vineyards already had an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula, these investments have resulted in some very high-quality wines. Certainly the 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious. Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued wine had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.

Katunar Back LabelMy only problem with this wine was its confusing back label. On the one hand, it clearly states that the wine is 100% Syrah. But above that figure, the description notes that the Kurykta Anton blends “Syrah with Sansigot and Debejan, local varietals found only on the island of Krk.” The idea of trying a wine made in part from Sansigot and Debejan excites the Odd Bacchus in me to no end, but it’s as yet unclear to me if I’ve actually done so.

(You can read more about Sansigot here. Debejan is more mysterious. According to Wikipedia and the Wein-Plus glossary, Debejan is a synonym for Gegić, but I can find precious little about either variety.)

In any case, 100% Syrah or not, if you like hearty Côtes du Rhône wines, you will most definitely like Katunar Kurykta Anton. Full-bodied reds like this are perfect for winter dinners, and the acids in this wine ensure that it will pair with a range of robust stews, roasts and pastas. It’s a bit of a splurge at $21 a bottle, but your investment will be amply rewarded.

Unusual And Undrinkable

21 November 2012

Most wines I write about on Odd Bacchus receive pretty good grades. I prefer to write posts about wines which excite me, because I like to think I’m helping bring unheralded wine regions and grape varieties to light. Even more important, I hope I’m helping my readers find some great values, since delicious unusual wines and spirits tend to cost less than delicious well- known wines and spirits.

But a regular reader of this blog could be forgiven for thinking that I am happy with almost any alcohol that passes my lips, an opinion shared by most of my family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and neighbors. Indeed, I do try to be charitable with wines — a very non-snobby French sommelier shamed me into that — but a recent selection really rubbed me the wrong way.

My husband returned from Whole Foods last week with a bottle of 2011 Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz from South Africa, thinking it would work well with the red-wine pickled pears he planned on canning. Mixed with vinegar, cinnamon and other spices, it made a perfectly lovely pickling liquid for the pears, and I gaze at the Mason jars of pears with no small measure of anticipation. Drunk on its own, however, this wine was an offense to the palate.

A simulacrum of raspberry jam pervaded the nose, and something artificial marred the flavor as well. It started a bit flabby before coalescing into acidic, chemically-tinged fruit. An unpleasant tomato note took over before the wine climaxed into a diabetic, teeth-coating finish. I don’t know what Jam Jar did to make this Shiraz “sweet,” but I have a feeling it didn’t happen in the vineyard.

What a waste of money. My husband spent $12 for this bottle of raspberry sugar water. Don’t be suckered in by Jam Jar’s cutesy font — behind the innocuous label lurks an unpleasant, saccharine wine, offering yet more evidence supporting my theory that the cuter the label, the crappier the wine.

SUMMARY

2011 Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz: Certainly sweet, but marred by chemically fruit and abrasive acids. Barely drinkable.

Grade: D

Find It: If you want to experience this charmer yourself, you can find it at Whole Foods. At the store on Halsted in Chicago, it’s on sale for $10 as of this posting. Still a poor value.

Leap Into Limari

29 February 2012

There’s a lot more to Chile, it turns out, than Maipo and Colchagua, two of Chile’s most famous wine valleys. I recently ended up with a bottle of 2008 Tabali Reserva Especial Syrah from the Limarí Valley, a region I’d never heard of and certainly couldn’t place on a map. I couldn’t place Maipo or Colchagua on a map either, for that matter, so I knew it was time to reach for my trusty World Atlas of Wine.

In such a long, thin country, I assumed that latitude determines the climate of a particular vineyard. Most growers held this opinion until quite recently, and indeed, the wine regions are organized from north to south. But according to the Atlas, the terroir varies “much more from west to east, according to a site’s geology and proximity to the cooling influences of the Pacific and the Andes.”

The cold Humboldt Current running up the coast and the snowy Andes Mountains allow high-quality vineyards at latitudes much closer to the tropics than in most other countries. The days get quite hot, but crisply cool evenings keep things under control. The Atlas notes that Chile’s wide day-night temperature variation “is almost certainly a factor in the clarity of the fruit flavors.”

Until oenologists realized the potential of Chile’s other regions, most vineyards were planted around Santiago in areas like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Unfortunately, this is “the wrong place,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It argues that the Secano region harbors the most potential in Chile, but even today this “forgotten” region remains relatively inaccessible and underutilized.

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(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).

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Boeuf and Principles

4 May 2011

We spent half our first day in Door County preparing Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, a deeply flavored beef stew we adore but rarely have time to make. The simple ingredients – beef, pearl onions, carrots, bacon, wine – belie the rich satisfaction this recipe provides.

To accompany the boeuf, I made Hefeknöpfle, a yeasted dumpling I found in a German cookbook. You essentially make a bread dough, but instead of baking it, you quarter the dough and boil it. Using a wire, you cut the resulting brain-like dumplings into thick slices, and voilà! Light but sturdy Hefeknöpfle. 

A side dish of barely bitter black kale sautéed in olive oil with garlic and peperoncino flakes contrasted the boeuf and brain dumplings perfectly.

I brought along a couple of unusual wines to sample with the boeuf, notably Slovenian and Istrian Terans, but I must now admit a moment of weakness. I betrayed my “unusual and obscure” principles  for our first boeuf dinner, selecting a 2007 Los Alisos Syrah from Santa Barbara County. A Central Coast Syrah surely cannot qualify as unusual, but even I could not resist Whole Foods’ sale on this wine: $13 instead of the usual $23. It called out to be drunk with the boeuf. The Terans could wait.

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