Encounters With Unicum

5 July 2014

UnicumI figured at some point during my stay in Hungary it would rear its head, but I was quite taken aback to be offered a shot of Unicum Zwack at 10:00 a.m., right at the beginning of my food tour of Budapest. Unicum is not my preferred morning beverage. I held the glass with equal measures of trepidation and resignation.

I first encountered Unicum in Budapest in February of 1999, where I bought a bottle having no idea of the nature of its contents. Even then, unusual wines and spirits interested me. I brought the distinctively spherical bottle home and tried a glass after dinner with my parents. It reminded me too much of bitter, cloying Jägermeister for me to drink more than half a shot. My mother quite enjoyed it, however, and I recall she kept the bottle on her nightstand for a time, taking a medicinal sip before bed.

And indeed, Unicum started out as a health tonic, created by Dr. Zwack, physician to the Habsburg Imperial Court, “to alleviate the royal family’s digestion problems,” according to Food, Wine, Budapest by Carolyn Bánfalvi. It increased in popularity until World War II, when the factory was destroyed. The Zwack family rebuilt it, just in time to have it expropriated by the communists in 1948. “Péter Zwack returned to Hungary in 1989 to rebuild the family business,” Food, Wine, Budapest goes on to say, “and he was among the first in Hungary to buy back a business from the government.”

Since then, Unicum once again has been produced with the true recipe (the communists had a fake), which involves a secret (of course) blend of some 40 herbs and spices. Or maybe more.

Which brings us to the present, with me holding a glass of the stuff at 10:00 a.m., having eaten nothing but some runny scrambled eggs and a paprika-spiked breakfast link. I hoped that the rumors of digestive benefits were true, and gingerly took a sip. And hey, it wasn’t so bad after all! Yes, it tasted bitter and felt syrupy, just like Jäger, but it tasted spicier and more citrusy. Indeed, it almost felt balanced. Despite the early hour and the dubious contents of my stomach, I happily downed the rest of the shot.

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Aware that its flavor won’t appeal to everyone, Unicum has recently come up with two alternative versions of the spirit which don’t taste as bitter. I didn’t try either one on its own, but I did discover that a daring mixologist at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace had created a cocktail showcasing Unicum Szilva (Plum). How could I resist?

A mix of Unicum Szilva, plum pálinka (a plum brandy with a grappa-like mouthfeel) and lime, the Sza-Szi cocktail tasted very purple and dusky, but citrusy notes from the lime somehow managed to keep things balanced. It’s not a cocktail that will appeal to die-hard Manhattan or dry Martini drinkers, but I had no qualms about finishing it off. If you find yourself in Budapest, by all means order one. The bar is spectacular, and you’ll be drinking something you won’t find on any other cocktail menu in the world.

In the meantime, you can find Unicum Zwack at certain large wine and spirits stores in the United States, like Binny’s, where it’s labeled simply “Zwack.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bottle on my own nightstand sometime soon — for medicinal purposes only, of course.

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.

Juhfark Freak Out

14 June 2014

Cafe PierrotIf you’ve had Hungarian wine, you’ve likely tried something from Tokaj, long famed for its sweet whites, or something from Eger, famous (and infamous) for its Bull’s Blood. But few bottles are exported from Hungary’s smallest wine region, Somló. Importer and Hungarian wine expert Athena Bochanis of Palinkerie first alerted me to the potential of wines from the slopes of this extinct volcano, a single odd hill poking up from the countryside north of Lake Balaton. I kept its name in the back of my head on my recent trip to Hungary, hoping to find a bottle or two from Somló on a restaurant wine list.

Somló wines proved to be elusive, even in Hungary, since it’s the country’s smallest wine region. But at last, at Café Pierrot in Buda, the wine list had four different Somló selections, including a Juhfark by the glass. I can’t deny that my heart skipped a bit of a beat. I’ve tasted a lot of unusual wines over the course of three years writing Odd Bacchus, but Somló Juhfark had to rank among the most obscure wines I’ve ever encountered.

“This is a wine from Somló?” I asked the waiter, pointing to the word “Somló” on the menu, eyes widening with anticipation.

“Yes… from Somló,” he replied, also pointing to the word.

“And it’s a Juhfark? A Juhfark?” I stupidly pointed to that word as well.

“Yes. Yes. A Juhfark… from Somló.” The waiter did not point to the words this time, so as not to lose contact with my increasingly wild eyes. “Would you… like a glass? Sir?” He spoke slowly and carefully, in excellent English.

I suppose most of the tourists he serves (or the Hungarians, for that matter) do not tend to lose their composure at the sight of the words “Somló Juhfark.” Which is perhaps why, when he discovered that they had actually run out of Somló Juhfark, he dispatched a colleague to a nearby sister restaurant to procure a bottle.

Juhfark, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, is a “distinctive but almost extinct white grape variety,” and how often does one have the chance to sample a wine made from grapes at once distinctive and almost extinct? I can find precious little additional information about this variety, which translates as “Ewe’s Tail” or “Sheep’s Tail” in Hungarian, other than that it was almost wiped out because of the phylloxera louse. Come on, ampelographers. You can do better.

Somloi Apatsagi JuhfarkI did find some juicy tidbits about Somló, however, “whose wood-aged, blended wines once enjoyed a similar reputation to those of Tokaj,” the Oxford Companion tells us. In fact, if “popular memory” is to be believed, “in the imperial court of Vienna, the newlyweds drank Somló wines on their wedding night to promote the birth of a male heir to the throne,” an uncharacteristically steamy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates.

At last, the waiter poured me a glass of 2011 Somlói Apátsági Pince Juhfark to pair with my “Pike Perch with Old Fish Soup Sauce and Fish Dumplings,” a dish far more delicious than it sounds. The wine had a sweet, heavy aroma leavened with notes of green tobacco. Broad, orangey acids balanced the very rich, honeyed texture, aided in that effort by an aromatic quality on top. It developed slowly and deliberately and forcefully on the palate, tightening up on the finish. Paired with the fish, the acids really blossomed and the wine positively popped. Wow.

You may have trouble finding a Somló Juhfark at your local wine shop, but if you go to Hungary — and some of you undoubtedly will — this is a wine to seek out on a borlap (wine list).

The chance to sample wines like this is one of the reasons I travel. What a privilege, to drink a glass of a wine that once invigorated the Viennese court, made from grapes now almost extinct.  I paid less than $8 for that glass of wine, and I’ll never forget it.

Postcard From Bratislava

7 June 2014
2011 Macik Tokaj Mono Furmint

Macik “Mono” Furmint

I’ve never heard anyone express interest in Slovak wine. I’ve never seen a bottle on an American shelf. But I am certainly glad I tried some local wines while visiting Bratislava. As in all Eastern Bloc countries, the Slovak vineyards and wineries suffered under communism, which demanded only quantity, not quality. Now, things are changing for the better, and if you have the fortune to visit Slovakia, you’ll discover an array of unusual and delicious wines on local menus.

I had this 2011 Macik Winery “Mono” Furmint at Ufo, a surprisingly excellent restaurant on top of a communist-era bridge crossing the Danube. This 100% Furmint comes from Slovakia’s tiny chunk of Tokaj, Eastern Europe’s most renowned wine region, the vast majority of which lies in Hungary. It had aromas of honey and green peppercorns, and flavors of sweet fruit, lemony acids and focused gingery spice. Despite its honey tones, the Mono is a dry wine, and its acids worked very well with food.

Slovakia exports a little of its wine to the Czech Republic and Poland, and almost none to the U.S. So should you find yourself in Vienna, take an extra day or two and visit Bratislava, which is just an hour away. The city is an absolute delight, and as unlikely as it sounds, so are the local wines.

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!

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