Postcard From Vienna

31 May 2014

North of Vienna’s Altstadt stands one of the finest cocktail bars in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Halbestadt, set in a brick arch beneath some railway tracks. Proprietors Erich and Konny focus on classic cocktails, including many almost-forgotten gems popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But they also stock the largest selection of mezcal in Vienna, and they’re not afraid to use it to create some truly unusual and cutting-edge cocktails.

Mezcal Negroni

Erich blew my mind with this Negroni in which he replaced the gin with mezcal. It tasted remarkably balanced, with pronounced smoky, sweet and bitter flavors harmonizing perfectly. A wonderfully complex flavor journey — one I never would have taken on my own.

 

Clover Club

The little-known Clover Club cocktail pre-dates Prohibition, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and it’s high time this delicious drink of raspberry, lemon, sugar, egg white and gin had a revival. Erich and Konny use only fresh fruit in their cocktails, ensuring that there was nothing cloying or artificial-tasting about this Clover Club. It tasted tart and fruity, with a bit of juniper from the gin. What a beautifully balanced cocktail.

Gnomes Forged A Star Of It

17 May 2014

Edi Simcic DuetDespite the general high quality and relative obscurity of Slovenian wines, I haven’t written much about them. I finally figured out the completely irrational reason why: Years ago, on a visit to Movia’s wine bar in Ljubljana, my friend and I were wildly overcharged for some tastes of wine. I was in my mid-20s, just learning about wine, and too shy to say anything to the bartender. Since then, it’s been almost a reflex to avoid Slovenian wine, and Movia’s in particular. Irrational, as I said, but there it is.

It’s time to overcome that aversion. During Slovenia’s Yugoslav decades, wineries concentrated on quantity over quality, as did every other communist wine-making country. But now, Slovenia has “established by far the most successful wine industry [of the former Yugoslav republics],” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It goes on to note that “Production is focused on quality and premium quality (vrhunsko) wines, with only about 30 percent of basic table wine quality.” And The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia lavishes praise on Slovenia, calling it “the rising star among the winemaking countries of the Western Balkans.”

It makes good sense that Slovenia, which lies south of Austria and east of Italy, would have the potential to make great wine. Some of its best vineyard sites are “influenced both by the Adriatic and the Alps,” as The World Atlas of Wine describes, and “the green rolling hills provide some excellent grape-ripening sites.” In Slovenia’s west, some of the wine regions simply continue on from the Italian vineyards just across the border.

Feeling ready to once again explore the joys of Slovenian wine, I happily accepted a free sample of 2008 Edi Simčič “Duet” from the Goriška Brda region, which more than one source describes as an extension of Italy’s Collio DOC.

Indeed, The World Atlas of Wine‘s detailed map of Goriška Brda is placed with Friuli, rather than with other Slovenian wine regions. The map locates the Edi Simčič estate in the far south of Goriška Brda, near its more famous neighbor of Movia and the Italian border. Keep an eye out for wines from Goriška Brda. The Oxford Companion calls it “Slovenia’s most esteemed wine district, having begun to move to quality in the late 1980s.” Like neighboring Friuli, Goriška Brda produces many white wines, but both the Oxford Companion and the World Atlas note that Bordeaux-style blends, such as the Simčič “Duet,” are some of the regions best bottlings.

Tasting Edi Simcic Duet with friends

“Don’t put that photo in your blog,” requested fellow wine taster Will White.

I sampled the Simčič “Duet” with some friends recently, and our experience with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot certainly did nothing to contradict the Companion or the Atlas. It had an aroma of dusky, dark-red fruit with the notes of iron and clay that I associate with Slovenian reds. It’s a big wine. One friend exclaimed, “My first sip hit me hard!” Although the wine is powerful, it exhibits focus and restraint, with well-balanced acids and deep, creamy fruit undergirded with earth. The finish felt tannic but elegant and firmly in control.

According to this charming and rather enigmatic video, the winery first started making this blend in the 90s, when it was “still very shy, but gnomes were forging a star of it.” It’s certainly not shy anymore. The gnomes in the cellar did their work well. It’s now big and delicious, with a rather big $40 price tag to match. That’s beyond what I can usually spend on a bottle, but if you do have the means, the Edi Simčič “Duet” offers more than enough flavor and elegance to justify the price. 

The sample of this wine was kindly provided by Wine Chateau.

Two Wise Greek Blends

10 May 2014

Sofos RedI’ve been having a lot of luck with Greek wines lately, so it was with no hesitation that I accepted free samples of two “Sofos” blends from the Peloponnese Peninsula. These wines, produced by Domaine Gioulis, intrigued me for two reasons besides their Greek origin. They each blend an indigenous Greek variety with a well-known international grape, and they are each organic.

In fact, the vineyards which produced these wines are the first in Greece to be “Non-GMO Project Verified.” I’m not convinced that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are especially widespread in the wine industry — The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that there have been field trials, but “consumer resistance in parts of Europe has been considerable,” and it’s not even clear if genetically modified vines can legally retain their varietal name. Nevertheless, if you wish to be 100% sure that you’re avoiding anything produced from GMOs, these wines are for you.

Both come from the Klimenti region, a “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) adjacent to Neméa, one of Greece’s very best wine regions. As The World Atlas of Wine explains, Neméa (and Klimenti too, according to a Sofos press release) has “milder winters and cooler summers than one might expect,” because of the influence of the Mediterranean and the high altitude, respectively. Sofos’ vineyards grow at 750 meters (about 2,500 feet), quite close to the highest zone of Neméa at 2,950 feet. At these altitudes, the vineyards produce “fine, elegant, almost “cool-climate reds,” according to the Atlas.

Sofos (which means “wise old man”) makes its red wine from 50% Agiorgitiko, a variety indigenous to the Neméa region which “can yield long-lived reds” from grapes grown in higher vineyards, according to the Oxford Companion. The other half of the wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety with which Agiorgitiko blends notably well, the Companion asserts.

The high-altitude vineyards and ideal blending partners pay off in the bottle. Enticingly purple and opaque, the 2010 Sofos Red‘s fruit and minerality were evident at first sniff. “It’s that rocky, chalky stuff,” a tasting partner remarked, and another detected “an undertone of super-sweetness in the aroma.” I agreed, smelling chalk, vanilla and red berries in the nose. It started with surprising lightness on the palate, given the deep color, with bright red fruit that darkened and broadened into purple plums, followed by orangey acids and some beefy tannins. Paired with a sausage pizza, spicier notes came to the fore. Quite a value for about $12 a bottle.

Sofos WhiteThe 2013 Sofos White was even more of a surprise. Perhaps because this blend of 50% Moschofilero and 50% Chardonnay lacks stabilizing agents of any kind, my sample continued to ferment in the bottle, and by the time I opened it, it had become all but a sparkling wine. I asked the sales representative whether this sparkle was normal. She checked with the winery, which replied,

The pétillance [light sparkle] is due to the freshness of the wine. The white Sofos comes from the 2013 vintage that was bottled early, in October 2013. Thus there is a small percentage of bottles that could have appear pétillance in the border. The slight existence of CO2 -pétillance- in a fresh wine is something natural that unfortunately we cannot avoid it in 100%.

In my bottle it was no mere pétillance — the bubbles were clearly evident in the glass, not just on the tongue. But this was not necessarily a bad thing — Chardonnay, of course, serves as the base of many top Champagnes, and I also recently tasted a delicious sparkling Moschofilero, one of my favorite Greek white varieties (you can read more about Moschofilero here).

The Sofos white had aromas of ripe apples, tropical fruit and tart lime, but it tasted quite dry, with floral overtones and a lemony finish. The bubbles felt tight and fizzy, helping the wine cut through the richness of some barley risotto with asparagus, peas, mushrooms and Parmesan. And the risotto enhanced the wine as well, making it feel rounder and deeper. Another excellent value for $12 a bottle.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and doubtless I’ll say it again: There’s something exciting happening in Greece. Many people still regard Greece as a second-rate wine producer — read about the reaction of a Binny’s Beverage Depot sales clerk here — but those days are in the past. These Sofos wines provide yet more evidence that Greece is making delicious, fascinating and food-friendly wines. Most, like Sofos, are priced very affordably. Greek wine hasn’t been this good since the days of Pericles, and it’s only getting better.

Good News From The Balkans

19 April 2014
Marko Babsek

Marko Babsek

Many people in the United States associate southern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula with war, not wine. Even before the breakup of Yugoslavia, the communist economic system encouraged high yields and “production standards were as low as the market would bear,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. But peace and capitalism have thoroughly transformed the region’s viticulture, and independent wineries are once again free to focus on quality wines from exciting indigenous grapes.

Those of us who live elsewhere are just recently starting to discover the riches of the region. Only in 2001, for example, did DNA profiling establish that Zinfandel, one of the United States’ most popular varieties, was identical to Crljenak Kaštelanski. When it was rediscovered, this ancient Croatian variety had been reduced to just a handful of vines on an island near the city of Split. Now it’s once again possible to buy Zinfandel produced in the terroir where the variety originated. 

I’ve written about wines from the Balkans here and there on this blog, and almost always favorably. Because the wines often came from very small wineries with limited production, it didn’t seem to me like they would make much of an impression in America’s collective wine consciousness. But that may be about to change.

About a year ago, certified sommelier and native Serbian Marko Babsek created a portfolio of wines called The Balkan Project for Winebow, a major importer and distributor. During a Winebow tasting in Chicago, I asked Babsek about this new portfolio. He seeks out wines made from “indigenous grapes which really highlight the region,” he said. “There aren’t really any more co-ops” in the Balkans, Babsek explained, “because they weren’t financially sustainable.” That leaves the independent wineries, which tend to focus much more on quality. And they are what Babsek and The Balkan Project focus on.

I tasted nine of the wines in the portfolio, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. In fact, several were quite strikingly delicious. If these represent the future of Balkan wines — the “first wave” of Balkan wines competing in a mainstream setting, as Babsek noted — we have exciting days ahead of us. It may not be long before it’s as common to see a “Balkan” section in a wine shop as it is to see an Argentinean section.

MACEDONIAN WINES:

2012 Stobi Žilavka: Tiny, landlocked Macedonia lies on the northern border of Greece, making it the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. Stobi is one of its largest wineries, and it used to export bulk wine to the Soviet Union before retooling to concentrate on quality instead of just quantity. The Balkan Wine Project’s website notes that Žilavka is an ancient Macedonian variety usually used for blending, but The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that it’s mostly planted in Herzegovina, where it can make “distinctive” white wines. In any case, I certainly enjoyed this unusual 100% Žilavka, which had aromas of citrus and creamy white fruit, focused fruit on the palace and some minerals on the finish. 

2011 Stobi Vranec: I’ll always have a soft spot for Vranec (also spelled “Vranac”), an ancient red variety native to the Balkans with a parent/offspring relationship to Zinfandel. It was a bottle of velvety Jović Vranac from Serbia which inspired this blog. This Macedonian expression had a ripe and lush dark-fruit aroma with an intriguing saline overtone. Very well-balanced, the wine had plummy fruit, a wonderful dusky quality and a spicy finish. Delightful. 

Balkan Wine ProjectCROATIAN WINES:

2012 Bruno Trapan Istrian Malvazija “Ponente”: Istria, a triangular peninsula jutting off the northwest of Croatia, used to belong to Italy, and its food and wine has started to rival that of its former owner. The two Istrian wines Babek presented during the tasting both were absolutely delicious and would surely please the pickiest of dinner guests. This Istrian Malvazija (known locally as Malvazija Istarska)  had a memorably rich aroma which almost moved into caramel territory. Savory and a bit floral, this beautifully balanced wine had impressively focused acids and an underlying note of salinity. Unusual and very, very tasty.

2008 Roxanich “Ines in White”: Roxanich, also an Istrian winery, produces wines with little technological and chemical intervention, emulating ancient methods as much as possible. It even bottles wine only during the full moon, according to its website. The “Ines in White” wine is a field blend, which means that instead of blending wines from barrels after they’ve already fermented, the blend literally occurs in the field. The vineyard for this wine contains Verduzzo, Sivi Pinot, Bijeli Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc, Friulano, Riesling Italico and Glera varieties, and the all grapes are fermented together to create the blend. Because the wine is aged in large (poorly sealed) wooden vats, it slowly oxidizes and turns orange. Add to that a lack of filtration, and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But this unusual, almost reactionary winemaking process results in a lovely final product. It smelled of sweet and rich orange flowers, but it tasted very dry, with focused fruit, tart acids and some noticeable tannins. It reminded me a bit of Frank Cornelissen’s Munjebel #9. Unique and wonderful.

SERBIAN WINES:

2011 Milijan Jelić Morava: This winery near Valvejo southeast of Belgrade dates back only to 2002, but already it’s producing wines worthy of note. I was glad Marko Babsek told me that Morava is a cross of Riesling and local Serbian varieties, since Morava doesn’t even appear in my Oxford Companion to Wine. Perhaps that’s because Milijan Jelić has the only vineyard of this variety in the world! This “Serbian Kerner,” as Babsek liked to call it, had an appealing aroma of tropical fruit and peaches underlined by lemon-lime citrus. The peaches reappeared on the palate, but tart acidity kept them well in balance. It reminded me of Pessac-Léognan from Bordeaux, one of my favorite white wines from anywhere. Seek this wine out.

2012 Agrina DOO Portugizer: The winery which produces this red is actually called Mačkov Podrum, but on exported bottles, the name was changed to the more pronounceable Agrina. I haven’t had too many good experiences with Portugieser (the more common spelling), to be honest. I remember it mostly from wine taverns in Vienna, where it tasted quite light and rather boring. But as the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, this variety “can yield wines of real concentration” in certain locations. This particular expression of Portugieser had a grape jam aroma and purple flavors of big, open fruit. Lemony acids provided some balance. A fun wine for a party.

2008 Vino Budimir Riesling “Margus Margi”: The hilly estate of Budimir has some of the oldest vineyards in The Balkan Project’s portfolio. Riesling may not be indigenous to Serbia, but Vino Budimir puts a distinctly local slant on this well-known variety. It smelled sweet and smoky, this Riesling, and though it tasted rich, powerful acids maintained balance. After a couple of sips I was craving a plate of pork cutlets with paprika.

2007 Vino Budimir “Sub Rosa”: Babsek alerted me that this wine, a blend of native Prokupac and Cabernet Sauvignon, comes from some particularly old vines on the property. It shows. The wine had a fascinating and enticing aroma of musky spice mixed with jammy fruit. It tasted of deeply rich, red fruit but the acids and some bracing tannins kept everything well in balance. I would love to have a few bottles of this in my cellar.

2007 Vino Budimir “Triada” Red: Triada translates as “trinity,” according to The Balkan Project website, and the name refers to the winery’s motto: “My family, my land, my wine.” This wine is composed of only one grape variety, Prokupac, which some claim is identical to Syrah, according to the Oxford Companion. I’ve been quite fond of Prokupac ever since I was introduced to it, and this example did nothing to change my strong affection for the variety. It had aromas of raspberry jam and earth, overlaid with a floral note — lilac perhaps. It tasted of dark fruit but felt surprisingly austere and dry, with almost rasping tannins leavened with juicy acids. Surely excellent with steak.

Too often, if one sees quality Balkan wines in a store at all, they’re shunted off with uninteresting, sickly sweet Manischewitz-like plonk. The wines in The Balkan Wine Project’s portfolio, along with the other fine examples I’ve tasted over the last three years, clearly demonstrate the high potential of this region. These wines deserve respect. There are exciting things happening on that peninsula, and wine drinkers are starting to notice.

Spit, Blood and Madness: The Mythology of Mead

12 April 2014

The article below was written by travel writer Susie Meadows, who had a fine idea for a guest post for this blog. She contributed a fascinating piece about the mythical origins of mead:

Mead was once a staple tipple of northwest Europe. Indeed, “mead halls” were the dwellings of Dark Age kings, where warriors would carouse and boast of their warlike exploits upon the medobenc (“mead-benches” or, as we call them, “benches”). The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf , serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.

Mead was clearly an integral part of this culture – and continued to be so in the Scando-Germanic world for many centuries.

A Faded Art

Now, however, asking for a pint of mead in a British, German or Scandinavian pub would get you a blank stare or an amused raised eyebrow. Bringing a bottle to a party is an immediate talking point due to its novelty value. Everybody has heard of this once-ubiquitous drink, but nobody is quite sure what it is. A few dedicated producers still make the stuff, but it’s rare. A curious downfall for a drink once considered sacred. However, mead is making a comeback, so it’s about time we reacquainted ourselves with this ancient beverage.

Honey and Yeast

First the basics. Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey. Given the sugar content of honey it is extremely easy to make – simply add water and yeast, come back after the yeast has worked its magic, and voilà! Of course, production methods have been refined somewhat over the centuries, but the basic principle remains the same. Mead is sweet but should not be sickly, and it can be imbued with a variety of flavors to give a complex taste comparable to that of wine of beer. Alcohol content is typically around 13%, and the final product is significantly influenced by the type of honey used. It has the rather marvelous reputation of allowing people to drink without visiting a morning-after hangover upon them – although if Old English hangover poetry (a flourishing genre in Dark-Age Britain) is anything to go by, this has more to do with the mythical healing properties of honey than with fact.

Visceral Creation

So much for the theory. Now for the mythology. Mead is an incredibly ancient drink – considered by some to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world (although it competes with beer for this title). Whatever its provenance, the drink was adopted with gusto by the people of Britain, Scandinavia and several Germanic nations. Such was their adoration for the “bright sweetness” that they imbued it with a deep mythic significance bordering on worship (anyone who has visited a British city on a Saturday night will have witnessed the evolution of this attitude to encompass the entire spectrum of booze).

Mead even has a Norse creation myth – although it’s probably not one to contemplate while enjoying a mouthful of the stuff. The story goes that the Æsir (Norse gods) had concluded a war with the Vanir (also Norse gods, subordinated in defeat). To seal their peace treaty, each of the gods spat into a vat. This was common Nordic practice, for reasons which remain unclear. Out of their spittle, they molded a man whom they named Kvasir.

Dwarven Murderers

Kvasir was incredibly wise. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, there was no question which Kvasir could not answer. He traveled the world dispensing his knowledge, until he had the bad fortune of falling into the hands of a pair of dwarves. These dwarves killed him and poured his blood into a pair of vats and a pot. They mixed the blood with honey, creating a mead which would grant anyone who drank it great wisdom and the divine gift of poetry. When the gods queried the location of Kvasir, the dwarves told them that he had suffocated beneath the weight of his great intelligence. The Norse pantheon – most of whom were never particularly noted for their intellects – appears to have accepted this dubious explanation without question.

Trickery, Sex, and Theft

Ultimately the dwarves were forced to give up their mead in restitution for some casual giant-slaying in which they had engaged. The mead was stored in the center of a mountain, guarded by a giantess named Gunnlod. By and by, Odin (a god of rare intelligence) came to hear of this turn of events and went to obtain the mead. By great artifice and cunning, Odin tricked a succession of laborers in order to obtain, by degrees, a mighty drill with which he could penetrate the mountain. In case the Freudian implications of such a device were not entirely clear to the audience, he then spent three lustful nights with Gunnlod. For each sexual encounter he was rewarded with a draught of the mead, and the conjugal consumption of mead would go on to have sexual connotations for many centuries. Each draught he took emptied one of the containers. He somehow managed to hold the mead in his mouth through each subsequent romp, and then maintain his hold on it despite transforming himself into an eagle to make his escape. (The bills of eagles are notoriously poor at holding stolen blood-mead, but Odin, as a god, was up to the challenge.) He transported the mead back to Asgard, where forever after he distributed it to men worthy of the divine gift of poetry.

The Earthly Results

Mead spread like wildfire through the Scando-Germanic world. Alcohol is of course addictive, and as we now know, sugar has similar addictive properties. The combination of high amounts of honeyed sugar and alcohol was a recipe almost guaranteed to take hold of cultures which prized drinking as highly as those of northwest Europe did. Mead swiftly became ubiquitous and even semi-worshipped. Its association with Odin led to it being regarded much as absinthe was in fin-de-siècle France – it was thought to provoke both divine artistic inspiration and divine madness. Madness was a complex issue in the Viking world. Odin was the god of madness (among other things), so in many ways certain sorts of madness were prized as signs of divine favor. Berserkers, for example, would indulge heavily in mead before battle in an attempt to provoke the kind of madness which lends itself to mass, indiscriminate slaughter. At the other end of the scale, mead was drunk by lovers wishing to woo the objects of their desire with “honeyed words.”

Honeymoon

This association with lovers is perhaps mead’s most lasting legacy. Among its mythical properties were the abilities (as mentioned above) to get one drunk without causing a hangover, and to get a man drunk without causing impotence. It was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac for both men and women. As such, a month’s supply of mead would be given to married couples in order to “sweeten the deal” and provoke marital bliss. The word “honeymoon” comes from this tradition. Next time a friend invites you to their wedding, therefore, consider a month’s supply of mead as a present. They’ll probably appreciate it a lot more than yet another set of silverware.

–By Susie Meadows

An Unexpectedly Centered Tasting

5 April 2014

Tasting with Rebecca DelottOver the years, I’ve tasted wine in a lot of different places, including obvious places such as tasting rooms, restaurants and cellars, as well as more unusual places such as ghost townsnational landmarks and buses. But I had a completely new and unusual wine tasting experience a few days ago, thanks to my favorite yoga teacher.

Rebecca Delott organizes periodic yoga and wine tasting events. That might strike you as gimmicky, and perhaps in less expert hands it would be. Rebecca, however, leads yoga classes as well as wine tastings professionally. The wine tasting isn’t just a way to get people to come to yoga. It’s an integral part of the class.

About 16 or 18 of us gathered at Namaskar Yoga Studio on Chicago’s north side, and participants ranged in age from late 20s to mid 50s or so. We did some vinyasa flow yoga for 75 minutes, with several opportunities to do relatively advanced poses. After the class, the couple across from me remarked, “We usually do the beginners class here, but we’re in the big leagues now!” Like any good yoga teacher, Rebecca frequently illustrates several ways to do a pose, ranging from the gentle to the truly challenging, which makes the class suitable for yoga neophytes and experts alike.

Side Angle pose with Cabernet

Side Angle pose with 2012 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

I must admit I just expected to get a workout and a wine tasting, which wouldn’t have been at all a bad thing. But the yoga class left me feeling centered, grounded and relaxed — not necessarily my usual state of mind. It actually changed the wine-tasting experience. My nose and palate felt more open and receptive. Just as drinking from the right glass can enhance a wine, it seems doing some sun salutations in advance of a tasting can as well!

The four Chilean wines we sampled weren’t especially unusual — a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon — but each was well-balanced and quite tasty. Rebecca gracefully fielded an array of questions about the wines, ranging from “What does ‘unoaked’ mean?” to more technical questions about vinification. She managed to hold her audience’s attention even as she discussed carbonic maceration, an achievement I wouldn’t have thought possible.

If you have a chance to attend one of Rebecca’s classes ($40), it’s well worth it to experience how yoga affects the wine tasting experience (check the “Workshops” page of the Namaskar Yoga website for upcoming dates). Some exercise and meditation turns out to be an excellent warm-up for the palate.

Cheers and Namaste!

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.

A Red For “Spring”

22 March 2014

Agiorgitiko & Shepherd's PieNow that spring has arrived, or so I’ve heard, I would ordinarily start turning my eye to the section of my wine rack containing richer whites, like Chardonnay or Riesling. But the ceaseless whirling of polar vortices continues to mar this so-called spring, and I’m not ready to turn away from hearty reds just yet. Facing yet another day of temperatures measuring 20 degrees below normal, I fixed up a comforting beef-and-bison shepherd’s pie and opened some Agiorgitiko to go with it.

Greek Agiorgitiko is not a classic pairing for shepherd’s pie, but it should be. This hard-to-pronounce variety (ah-your-YEE-tee-koh is my best approximation) produces ever-more delicious red wines in Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the northern half of the peninsula “has seen even more energy and activity than any other part of Greece in recent years,” and Agiorgitiko is one of the region’s signature grapes.

The Oxford Companion to Wine gives mixed reviews of wines made from Agiorgitiko, a name it manages to make even more incomprehensible by using the ghastly spelling of “Aghiorghitiko.” The Companion grumbles that these wines are “fruity but can lack acidity,” although “grapes grown on the higher vineyards of Neméa can yield long-lived reds.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also has reservations about the variety, but for almost opposite reasons. “The Agiorgitiko grape provides a deep-colored, full, and spicy red wine,” it argues, “that can be spoiled by dried-out fruit, or by a lack of fruit.”

Fortunately, the 2012 Tselepos Agiorgitiko lacked neither acid nor fruit, despite its rather general “Arcadia” appellation (Arcadian grapes can be grown anywhere in the central Peloponnese, in either choice high-altitude vineyards or less-desirable plains). It smelled of raspberry jam and vanilla, and it had plenty of red fruit flavor, matched by prominent, rustic acids. But it’s a dry wine, with some tannins on the finish along with a note of earth.

Casual and fun, the Tselepos Agiorgitiko would make a fine party wine, surely pairing well with a range of foods. It certainly matched the rich shepherd’s pie well; the acids smoothed out and the tannins were just stout enough to clear my palate for the next bite. And at $11.50, the price I paid for the bottle at In Fine Spirits, it won’t break the bank to serve a few bottles to your guests. Though this isn’t a wine to serve for a special occasion, at that price, it doesn’t have to be.

It looks like we’ve got more frigid “spring” evenings yet to come, and goodness knows we’ll need help getting through them. The flavorful Tselepos Agiorgitiko provides a lot of comfort for the money.

More Reasons To Drink In Colombia

1 March 2014

In case you weren’t convinced by my Colombian postcards #1, #2 or #3, here are a few more memorable drinks I had during my two-week journey. Especially after waking up to yet more snow in Chicago today, it didn’t take looking at many of these to make me want to hop on a plane and head right back.

Tcherassi Martini

The Tcherassi hotel’s Aquabar made this deliciously balanced martini from gin, aguardiente (a local anise-flavored spirit) and “lemon foam.”

Macul Gris

This refreshingly dry Cabernet Sauvignon rosé with creamy strawberry fruit and a chalky finish comes from Chilean winery Cousiño Macul, owned by the same family since its founding in 1856. It was heaven with lunch on the breezy patio of Cuzco restaurant in Cartagena.

Mojito

Aside from its unforgettable Islas de Rosarios setting, this mojito may not look especially unusual. But it tasted lusciously balanced and just a little naughty, since it was made with Havana Club rum from Cuba.

Chakana Malbec Rose

Rosé is just irresistable in Cartagena’s courtyard restaurants, like Bohemia pictured above. This ripely fruit rosé of Malbec was made by Chakana, a 12-year-old winery in Mendoza, Argentina. It had a bracingly chalky quality and sharp, orangey acids. Delicious.

Mojito on Providencia

There are two unusual things about this mojito, sipped at Deep Blue on the gloriously unspoiled Caribbean island of Providencia. First, what appears to be an orange wheel garnishing the glass is actually a lime, and second, no lime juice actually made it into the cocktail. Whoops!

Sauvignon Blanc in Cartagena

There was nothing unusual about this well-crafted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, enjoyed on the rooftop of the Movich Hotel in Cartagena. But with that view, it was hard to care.

Postcard From Colombia #3

21 February 2014

Lulo MartiniColombia is not best known for its corozo-based cocktails, but its aguardiente. This clear spirit distilled from sugarcane has a delightful anise flavor, and it resembles a less cloying and less alcoholic ouzo, with a smooth spiciness. I quite like it neat. Look for aguardiente without added sugar.

Aguardiente makes a fine cocktail base, especially in the sure hands of the bartenders at El Coro in the Sofitel Santa Clara. Although the cocktail menu there is extensive, I wanted to try something specifically Colombian. The energetic bartender Jhon had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept well in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

Hmm… I wonder how much trouble I would get in if I tried to smuggle a suitcase full of fresh lulos home with me?

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