Viognier

Malagousia And Other Greek Wine (Re)Discoveries

1 April 2018

At a recent tasting of Greek wines, I had expected the bottlings from Santorini to be some of the biggest stars. I’ve long loved the sunny whites from this volcanic Aegean Island, where most vines are trained into unusual basket shapes to protect them from the wind. Accompanied by Liz Barrett, who cohosts Name That Wine with me, I made a beeline for the Santorini table.

Indeed, I quite liked some of the Santorini wines — I’m always up for a good Assyrtiko, which often has ripe fruit, brightly lemony acids and a minerally finish. But the biggest surprise came at a table on the opposite side of the room, where winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou was pouring.

Gerovassiliou’s winery stands near the coast south of Thessaloniki, in the north of mainland Greece. My World Atlas of Wine considers this general region to be “red wine country,” but Gerovassiliou is famous for rescuing what is now one of Greece’s best-known white grape varieties: Malagousia. As he poured us tastes of his 2016 Single-Vineyard Malagousia, he told us how in the 1970s, he had been working with a University of Thessaloniki ampelographer, Professor Vassilis Logothetis. Logothetis found some Malagousia vines, planted them in his experimental vineyard and showed them to Gerovassiliou, who was working at a nearby winery as an oenologist.

Evangelos Gerovassiliou

Gerovassiliou recognized the vines’ potential, and his success with the nearly extinct grape drew the attention of other winemakers. Now numerous wineries in Greece work with Malagousia, which “yields full-bodied, perfumed wines in many Greek regions,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Gerovassiliou’s Malagousia certainly fit that description, with notes of ripe stone fruit, honey, orange flower and mango in the aroma. Yet it tasted spicy, clean and fresh, enhanced by zesty acids. A delight.

But Gerovassiliou is no one-trick pony. Each of the wines he poured us proved delicious:

2016 Gerovassiliou Fumé Sauvignon Blanc: Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs slap you in the face with grass and grapefruit. Those notes were in this wine too, but it had a lighter, subtler touch. Well-integrated and well-balanced. Retsina this is not! ~$30

2016 Gerovassiliou Viognier: Viogniers can sometimes feel ponderous, but this version had a bright, almost soapy aroma with a hint of cream, and a mouthfeel that seemed almost ethereal. A hint of butter kept the exotic fruit flavors and light spice grounded. ~$21

2015 Gerovassiliou Chardonnay: I loved the aroma of fresh butter and light wood. The fruit felt rich and lush but not heavy, lifted up by focused acids and spice. And whenever there’s a note of buttered popcorn in a Chardonnay, as in this one, I end up thoroughly seduced. ~$32

2015 Gerovassiliou Estate Red: This blend of 70% Syrah, 15% Merlot and 15% Limnio smelled of currants and vanilla. Rich, ripe fruit was blasted aside by an explosion of spice, followed by some cleansing (and not unpleasant) bitterness on the finish. Bracing and lively. ~$20

2013 Gerovassiliou “Avaton”: Here’s a blend I suspect you haven’t tried before: 50% Limnio, 25% Mavrotragano and 20% Mavroudi. Limnio, Gerovassiliou told us, is the oldest documented Greek grape variety, mentioned by Aristophanes in the 5th century B.C. Mavrotragano is an “increasingly appreciated” red grape indigenous to Santorini, according to an unusually brief description in the Oxford Companion to Wine. The book is even more laconic about Mavroudi: “generic name for several Greek grape varieties,” is the entirety of the entry. (You can read more about Mavrotragano here and Maroudi here.) I wrote in my notes that this blend “smells expensive,” with rich red fruit and some oak. Full of sumptuously ripe fruit, the wine was so graceful and delicate, it felt as if it hovered just above my palate, like some sort of wine ghost (quite surprising, considering the 14% alcohol content). I rather loved it. ~$40

2013 Gerovassiliou “Evangelo”: A Rhône-style blend of 92% Syrah and 8% Viognier, this dark beauty had a dusky, plummy aroma with notes of raisins and chocolate. I tasted it, and wow. It felt lithe and elegant, moving with slow power from prune-like fruit to focused spice to fine-grained tannins. Absolutely gorgeous. ~$65

2012 Gerovassiliou Late-Harvest Malagousia: Gerovassiliou makes this wine only in vintages when the conditions are right. I really loved it. It smelled enticingly of peach crumble and honeysuckle, and though it had sweet honey notes, the wine was quite light on its feet, leavened by green peppercorn spice, cardamom and lively acids. What a joy. ~$30

Too often in wine shops, Greek wines are shunted off in a corner along with various Eastern European oddities (and many of those deserve better as well). Yet Greece’s winemaking traditions go back thousands of years, and contemporary winemakers are making world-class wines that any sommelier should be proud to pour. Ask your wineshop for a recommendation. And if you happen to find a bottle by Ktima Gerovassiliou, don’t hesitate to snap it up. Anything by that winery is sure to be a pleasure.

The Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

The Memorable Whites Of Viña Chocalán

2 May 2013

Vina ChocolanOne of the eco-lodges where I stayed in Costa Rica veered much more towards “resort” than “lodge,” with a swim-up bar, wine bar and even a small sushi restaurant. I felt, I must admit, a little silly supping on sushi in the middle of Central America, but then I suppose it’s no more ridiculous in Costa Rica than it is in Chicago.

In any event, this sushi restaurant had two cases dispensing some surprisingly unusual wines by the glass, and I sampled several small pours along with my fish. The wines of Viña Chocalán turned out to be something of a revelation.

This winery dedicated to “sustainable and socially responsible” production methods is located in Chile’s famous Maipo Valley, near the town of Melipilla just south of the capital, Santiago. Phylloxera-free Maipo is well-known for its Cabernet, Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, its Carménère. But the sushi restaurant’s wine case boasted some true Maipo oddballs: Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Riesling in the sushi restaurant’s wine case.

I was initially confused to see these three varieties coming from one winery — Viognier traditionally thrives in France’s warm Rhône Valley, far from much chillier Alsace and Germany, where Gewürztraminer and Riesling are happiest. But a closer inspection of the labels revealed that Viña Chocalán’s Riesling and Gewürztraminer come from San Antonio, not Maipo. San Antonio, which Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “the fastest-rising new wine district in [the coastal viticultural] region,” is closer to the Pacific Ocean than Maipo, making it more susceptible to the cooling influence of the Humboldt Current.

None of these grape varieties is grown in any significant amount in Maipo or San Antonio. None of my reference books mentions any of them, and even the Viña Chocalán website omits Riesling and Gewürztraminer from its roster of wines. These are pioneer varietals, and if these examples are any indication, I’d say they have a serious future:

Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer (San Antonio): I loved the sweet, floral aroma, which reminded me of jasmine and honey. On the palate, this wine started with some slightly watery fruit, but it tightened up into some white pepper spice and a finish of tart acids.

Viña Chocalán Viognier Reserve (Maipo): A fine example of Viognier — dry, tight, focused, minerally and floral at the end.

Viña Chocalán Riesling (San Antonio): This was the one that really blew me away. Its dry, tart and woodsy flavors totally took me by surprise. This isn’t a Riesling that will please everyone, but I found it racy, exciting and wonderfully unusual.

You may not see any of these specific wines in your local shop, but keep your eye out for Chilean varietals besides the usual Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Carménère. Winemakers are engaging in some fascinating experiments down there, and you might just stumble across a real gem.

Australia Reconsidered

13 October 2012

I find myself avoiding most Australian wines. Many are inexpensive, to be sure, but most cheap Australian wine turns out to be a poor value for the money. As I’ve said before, just because a bottle of wine costs $7 or $8 doesn’t mean you’ll get $7 or $8 worth of flavor out of it. Inexpensive Shiraz, Australia’s most famous export, can frequently be quite crude and overblown, and a poor value at almost any price. I have no doubt that it’s possible to find bargains, but I don’t know enough about the Australian wine scene to ferret them out.

If you find yourself inexplicably in the mood for something Australian, go for one of the lesser-known grape varieties. You’ll likely get more bang for your buck with something like a Semillon or a Sangiovese. It’s just not safe to pick up a random bottle of Australian Shiraz or Chardonnay these days.

A bottle of 2008 Oxford Landing Viognier from South Australia had been languishing on my wine rack for years, I have no idea how it got there, and I must admit I’d been avoiding it. Even Viognier seems a little too fashionable to be trusted in Australian hands, and the fact that Oxford Landing is one of Australia’s most famous wineries did not inspire confidence (although the Oxford Landing website reassuringly describes its Viognier as “suitable for vegans and vegetarians”).

But I tend to prefer younger Viogniers, which have the best chance of retaining their trademark perfume intact. Already, this wine had likely passed its prime.

I decided to take my own advice and just open the stuff, and some Thai delivery provided the perfect opportunity: Low stakes, and numerous alternative bottles within easy reach, should the Viognier have to go down the drain. Fortunately, the wine still had a heady honeysuckle aroma, and my goodness, it was tasty and rich. A buttery start gave way to pears, flowers, some pointy acids and even a touch of flintiness at the end. The acids ensured balance, and its exotic flavors paired just fine with the Thai food.

I ended up quite enjoying this inexpensive Australian wine! I have no idea what I paid (perhaps it was a gift), but other Oxford Landing wines cost about $8 at Binny’s. Quite a fine value indeed. I may have to reconsider my ban on wines from Down Under. I would love to hear if you’ve made any exciting Australian discoveries lately — feel free to write me an e-mail or post in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can scare up some more unusual and inexpensive varietals from Australia. Who knows? Maybe I’ve been missing out!

SUMMARY

2008 Oxford Landing Viognier: Intact perfumy, honeysuckle aroma. Rich, fruity and flowery, with tart balancing acids and a touch of flint. A very good value. Pairs well with Asian dishes, and probably most pork recipes. Chill well in the refrigerator before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I have no idea where I got it, but Oxford Landing is a major exporter, and it’s likely a well-stocked wine shop will carry its wines, which run about $8 to $10.

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