Viognier

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.

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased the winery, as well as the front lawn of Kluge’s palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

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A Golden Surprise: Virginia Viognier

27 July 2011

The 2009 Barboursville paired wonderfully with some antipasti.

I must admit I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Virginia wine country, where the recent Wine Blogger Conference took place. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “Chardonnay and the red Bordeaux varieties do exceptionally well [in Virginia], and interesting wines are also made from Norton, Touriga Nacional, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Petit Manseng.” After reading this passage, I suspected there might be a few standouts, but that most wine would be just “eh.”

What a wonderful surprise to find wine after Virginia wine tasting really good. And I don’t mean just “good for Virginia;” these were world-class wines hiding in the picturesque foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on par with wine made just about anywhere.

I was especially delighted by the quality of the numerous Virginia Viogniers I tasted, which ranged from crisp and floral to lusciously rich and soulful. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions that “there has been considerable experimentation with [Viognier] all over North America, notably in Virginia and Canada.”

I would venture that the time of experimentation with Viognier in Virginia is over. They know what they’re doing.

Here is a list of some of my favorite examples: (more…)

Speed Blogging! (Part 1)

22 July 2011

As part of the Wine Bloggers’ Conference, we have a “Speed Blogging” session, in which we’re to sample a bunch o’ wine and blog about it as we’re tasting. I’ve never tried such a thing, but since some of these wines are most definitely unusual, I think it’s worth a try:

2010 Keswick Vineyards Verdejo: Light, sprightly, acidic, with green aromas. Melon, green apples and grassy flavors. Still experimenting, Keswick Vineyards grows only an acre of this varietal, which is much more likely to be found in Spain than Virginia. $18 retail. Not a bad deal for what’s sure to be a conversation starter.

2009 Tarara Winery “Nevaeh”: Set on the Potomac in the far north of Virginia, this winery focuses on “low yields and terrior.” This wine is  a blend of 70% Viognier (a varietal noted as doing well in Virginia) and 30% Chardonnay. Tight, bright aromas, with ample oak but enough balancing acids to make it food-friendly. Buttery and minerally, it’s not as floral as I expected. $30 retail. Expensive, but pretty darn tasty.

2009 Williamsburg Winery Chardonnay: “If you want a Burgundian-style Chardonnay but don’t want to pay for it, this wine is for you,” according to the sales rep. Rich bouquet, with some flinty stone. Nicely balanced, with some of the wine aged in steel and some in oak. Nice and light, with butter offset by food-friendly acids — ideal for fish, cheese… And a great buy for $14 retail.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars “Stepping Stone” Rosé: A light, charming pink, this rosé is 100% Syrah from Oak Knoll in the Napa Valley. Some bubblegum on the nose, I enjoyed its creamy texture and watermelon flavors. The $18 price tag seems a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying it’s good.

2009 Emma Pearl Central Coast Chardonnay: I really liked this Chardonnay (blended with 10% Viognier); it felt lush and rich, with just enough acids to make me want to pair it with a schnitzel or some saltimbocca. Or maybe I’m just in desperate need of food after six hours of wine tasting. A fine deal at $18 retail. (My neighbor, incidentally, exclaimed “Schnitzel?! F**k yeah!”

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