Sachsen: East Germany’s Great Wine Secret

26 May 2015
Along the Saxon Wine Road

Along the Saxon Wine Road

I made a terrible mistake on my recent visit to Dresden. I allowed only one day to explore Germany’s smallest and easternmost wine region, Sachsen (Saxony). Even in Germany, this landscape of charming little towns and vineyards terraced into bluffs above the Elbe River is little known, and prejudices about “East German wine” have not entirely disappeared. And who can blame anyone for not rushing out to tour the vineyards of former East Germany?

Meissen

Meissen

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia ruefully notes, “Wines have been produced in this area for nearly 1,000 years, but it took [East Germany] less than 50 years to erase… once-well-known names from the memory of wine drinkers.” The region was important enough to house Germany’s first viticultural training institute, which, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, was established in Meissen in 1811-12.

Then phylloxera hit, followed closely by World War I. The region started to bounce back a bit just in time for World War II to start. The communist regime which took over after the war had little interest in quality wine, nor in the terraces where the vineyards once grew — growing grapes on the slopes was labor-intensive and expensive. Few vineyards were replanted, and many terraces fell into disrepair. The Elbe Valley has yet to fully recover from this time of neglect, though vineyard plantings increased dramatically after Germany reunification to about 1,100 acres.

Looking at a map, it seems insane to try to grow fine-wine grapes here, at a latitude about even with London. But as The World Atlas of Wine explains, Sachsen’s “much more continental climate frequently blesses [it] with magnificent summers, even if the risk of serious spring frosts is high.” The Elbe River helps moderate the cold, and the relatively steep south-facing slopes provide an ideal microclimate in which to ripen grapes. In fact, as the Atlas goes on to say, the best wineries “manage to produce dry wines of remarkable substance and character for their northerly location.”

Frédéric Fourré's 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

Frédéric Fourré’s 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

And what a location! I drove out of Dresden following the south bank of the Elbe, and it didn’t take long for vineyards to appear, tumbling down to the occasional 18th- or 19th-century villa. The road took me through a number of well-preserved towns, each of which had its share of inviting wine taverns.

By this point in my trip, I had already tried a number of local wines in Dresden restaurants, most of which have at least two or three Sachsen bottlings on their menus. At Caroussel, one of Dresden’s Michelin-starred restaurants, I sampled a Frédéric Fourré blend of Kerner and Gutedel (Chasselas) with aromas of honeysuckle and spice and a green-apple tartness that worked wonderfully with food. Sitting outside at Pulverturm an der Frauenkirche, I sipped a peachy and floral Schloss Wackerbarth Bacchus, a crossing of Silvaner and Riesling with Müller Thurgau, which had enough juicy, lemony oomph to more than match my dish of char with creamed leeks. And a Schloss Proschwitz rosé of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder, with a heady strawberry aroma and a rich powdered-candy quality, proved to be the high point of my meal at the riverside Canaletto restaurant.

Schloss Proschwitz appeared time and time again on the wine lists of high-end restaurants in Dresden, and each of the reference books cited above notes Schloss Proschwitz as one of the top wineries in the area.

It was with some excitement, then, that I passed the spiky Gothic skyline of Meissen and neared Schloss Proschwitz itself, where I had an appointment with owner Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe.

Up Next: Wine tasting with the Princess.

My Buttons Get Pushed

21 May 2015

Wine All-in-One For DummiesIt will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I have a soft spot for an underdog. That’s one of the reasons I love to highlight unusual and obscure wines and spirits. It gives me great joy to write about wonderful bottles that far too few people know about, and wine regions that don’t get nearly the attention they should.

It was with some irritation, then, that I listened to a woman at a recent lunch held to promote Chablis complain about the state of Chicago wine lists. “Nowadays, sommeliers here seem to think the weirder, the better,” she opined, “and I think they’re not doing their job of educating the consumer about wines they really should know about.”

I thought about it, and I realized that this judgmental comment most likely results from her feeling threatened: If someone considers themselves to be something of an expert in wine, and a wine list confronts them with all sorts of unfamiliar options, it potentially calls their expertise into question. I wish instead that she would look at such moments as opportunities to learn and grow as a wine consumer. But I know that’s difficult — for some of us, myself included, it takes some effort to keep our wine knowledge and our self-esteem untied.

Later at lunch we discussed the price of Chablis, which tends to be much lower than other white Burgundies. “The Chicago wine consumer just isn’t as sophisticated,” she suggested, irritating me yet further. “So you can’t charge as much as you might in, say, San Francisco or New York.”

I protested, but her neighbor at the table agreed. “No no, the wine scene is definitely more sophisticated in New York and San Fran. You could charge a lot more for a bottle like this,” he said, gesturing to a Premier Cru, “in Manhattan than you could in Chicago. The consumers there know that it’s worth the money.”

I felt defensive of Chicago and our wine scene. I’ve always taken pride in Chicago wine shops and wine lists, which tend to offer a surprising breadth of wines from around the world. Lacking a wine region of our own, we serve wines from everywhere. And we have demanding palates as well, as evidenced by our weird (some might say adventurous) wine lists.

But you’ve no need to take my word for it. Lettie Teague, the New York-based wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article in 2011 comparing the wine scenes in Manhattan and Chicago. She gives the edge to her home town, but if you look at the evidence she presents, Chicago appears at the very least to tie the Big Apple in terms of wine sophistication.

I still wondered, though, if the Chicago disparagers across the dining table from me could be right. Were New Yorkers more willing to pay for quality than Chicagoans? Does the wine market there bear higher prices?

With so many Chablis producers each producing a variety of wines, it can be difficult to compare apples to apples. After some hunting, I finally found a store in Chicago and a store in New York each selling exactly the same wine: the 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Les Clos, a Grand Cru Chablis. Binny’s, which ranks among Chicago’s best-priced wine shops because of its immense size, sells the wine for $89.99 a bottle. Flatiron Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, however, sells the wine for $84.99.

While not thrilled that Chicago has a higher price for this Chablis than New York, I can’t deny feeling vindicated.

Chicago may be the Second City — pancake-flat and in the middle of the Midwest — but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing. You don’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to get great wine anymore. That duopoly ended years ago, and it isn’t just Chicago that ended it. You can find compelling wine lists and wine shops in all manner of cities around the country these days.

New York, San Francisco, you’re fantastic. I love you. But the rest of the country is doing just fine.

Postcard From Sachsen

10 May 2015
Saxony's Schloss Wackerbarth

On the grounds of Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

If you haven’t heard about wine from Sachsen (Saxony), Germany’s smallest wine region, you’re not alone. Even many Germans are unaware that Sachsen produces wine, let alone wine of real character.

Vineyards along the Elbe

Vineyards along the Elbe

Because I’ve visited Dresden twice before, I knew that the area — the most northeasterly wine region in Germany — had vineyards. But because I’d always stayed in the city, I had no idea how beautiful the vineyards were. The Sächsische Weinstrasse (Saxon Wine Road) follows the Elbe River outside Dresden in the former East, passing by terraced vineyards, wine taverns and elaborate villas. I found it startlingly beautiful.

Even more startling was the quality of some of the wine I tasted, ranging from elegant Méthode Champenoise Sekt to barrique-aged Weissburgunder of true Burgundian richness, balance and depth.

Rapeseed field near Meissen

Rapeseed field near Meissen

How has this surpassingly beautiful region escaped notice, even in its home country? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the idea of “wine from former East Germany” doesn’t sound especially promising. Also problematic is that almost none of the wine is exported.

I foolishly allowed only one day to explore the wineries of Saxony on this trip, but what a day! It involved not only wine, but a castle and a princess as well. A post devoted to it will be coming shortly.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Postcards From New York City

10 April 2015

New York has an all-too-beguiling array of craft cocktail lounges and wine bars. I had a wonderful time on my last visit, mostly confined to Lower Manhattan. But this time, for reasons too tedious to explain, I maintained a relatively tight radius around Times Square.

Times Square, in case there’s any doubt, may be “The Crossroads of the World,” but it hardly qualifies as an epicenter of fine drinking or dining. Overgrown, bloated versions of chains such as Olive Garden and Bubba Gump Shrimp are the order of the day, and, most notoriously, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar (the New York Times review of the place ranks among the greatest restaurant take-downs of all time).

Nevertheless, with a little digging, I discovered some perfectly pleasant places for drinks and dinner just a short walk from the heart of dining darkness.

Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling

At Thalia on the corner of 50th and 8th, I found a local wine on the by-the-glass list, the only New York wine I encountered during my stay: a 2013 Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling from the Finger Lakes. The waiter didn’t really sell it — he described it as “Not too sweet. Just a little sweet. It’s good. You know, it’s good.” He seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as me.

I quite liked it, actually. It had an aroma of light honeysuckle, a little orange blossom and that telltale note I describe as “fresh shower curtain” which many Rieslings from the Finger Lakes seem to exhibit. It’s much pleasanter than it sounds. The flavor was well-balanced, with ripe pear and red apple fruit balanced by broad, orangey acids. There was a bit of sweetness there, but it finished dry. And most important, it worked well with a spicy tuna and scallop tartar.

Honeysuckle Cocktail at Charlie Palmer at The Knick

Charlie Palmer at The Knick just opened, and judging by all the empty tables around us, it’s still a bit of a secret, despite it’s location on the corner of 42nd and Broadway (its fourth-floor setting doesn’t attract foot traffic). It’s a refreshingly quiet place for a drink or dinner in this overrun neighborhood.

I tried a Honeysuckle cocktail (above), made from Appleton Estate V/X Rum, lemon juice, honey and Yellow Chartreuse, which tasted delightfully sweet, citrusy and floral. Unfortunately, balance eluded my friend’s Old Fashioned, an overly sweet and syrupy concoction of Elijah Craig 12-year-old Bourbon, Demerara sugar syrup and Giffard Crème de Pêche.

Bar Centrale

The classic cocktails at Bar Centrale may not have been especially unusual, but they tasted perfectly balanced and carefully crafted. Hidden in an unmarked brownstone townhouse on 46th and 8th, this bar is perfect for an insidery-feeling pre- or post-theater drink.

My Sidecar (cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice) was right on the money. My friend ordered an Aviation, a drink of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and crème de violette which can all too easily become a syrupy perfume bomb. But the bartender mixed it perfectly. I could clearly identify an almond note from the maraschino liqueur, and the floral flavor of the crème de violette remained just under the surface, where it belonged.

To ensure that you have comfortable seating, reserve a table in advance.

Rum House

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

My Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish. I felt very suspicious of my friend’s cocktail, The Escape, a piña colada-like blend of dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice and sweet vermouth. I anticipated the usual boring milkshake-like flavor, but this drink wasn’t just a sugar attack. It had a delightful nutty quality, and even a bit of depth afforded by the vermouth.

Alamos Malbec

Most unusual of all was this complimentary bottle of 2014 Alamos Malbec I discovered waiting for me in my hotel room. You’ll notice how vigorously the name had been crossed out with a Sharpie marker. Was the wine poisoned? Was it cursed? I couldn’t tell, so I left it with some local friends and hopped a plane out of town.

Sorry, Chad and Kevin! Open with caution!

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

Vin Santo: Tuscany’s Forgotten Luxury

18 March 2015
Tasting wines from Montepulciano and San Gimignano

Tasting wines from Montepulciano and San Gimignano

I had the fortune to first try Vin Santo on a trip to Tuscany. A colleague and I spent a few days in Florence in 2002, and even then I had an interest in unusual wines. Tired of gorging on tiramisu, my go-to dessert from 1992-2003, I opted instead for a glass of Vin Santo and some cantuccini biscuits (like biscotti). I had read about the dessert pairing in my Frommer’s guidebook. The waitress seemed impressed by my order, and I remember the resulting feeling of pride more than the Vin Santo itself. But even now, I can still taste its nutty goodness. It was just the thing for that cool January evening.

Presenting Falchini's "Podere Casale I" Vin Santo

Presenting Falchini’s “Podere Casale I” Vin Santo

I’ve tried Vin Santo only a handful of times since then. Unfortunately, Tuscany rarely figures in my travels, and the wine isn’t exactly all the rage anywhere else. Sweet and sherry-like wines just aren’t popular these days, which is a shame. They can be a superb value, and as I discovered at a recent wine tasting at Chicago’s Allerton Hotel, Vin Santo is no exception to that rule.

The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all.” My sources agree that the quality of Vin Santo varies widely, but when it’s good, it’s really, really good.

Most Vin Santos blend the white varieties Trebbiano and Malvasia, though Occhio di Pernice is made with red Sangiovese. In all cases, the grapes are dried for about two or three months, traditionally on straw mats, to concentrate the sugars. The grapes are fermented in small, sealed barrels for years. DOC regulations require at least three, but “the better producers rarely release their Vin Santo before five years,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. During this period, the barrels are never topped up. Slow evaporation concentrates the contents, and oxidation turns the wine tawny and imparts a nutty sherry-like note.

The three Vin Santos I sampled at the tasting each delighted with appealing nuttiness and lively acids, ensuring that the wines never felt syrupy or cloying. I look forward to trying each of these again sometime soon:

2009 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vin Santo del ChiantiIMG_0693

A blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia and San Colombano (hopefully a synonym for Verdea, not Besgano Bianco), this Vin Santo was aged six years under the winery’s roof, exposing it to summer’s heat and winter’s chill, an aging method akin to Madeira’s estufagem process.

The result had an appealing aroma of slightly burnt caramel, honey and nuts, with a distinct tang of oxidation. It tasted very rich and nutty — I wrote “pecan pie in a glass” in my notes — but remarkably zesty acids kept the sweetness well in balance. A really great deal at about $33 for 0.75 liters.

2008 Falchini “Podere Casale I” Vin Santo

Falchini doesn’t mention its Vin Santo on its website, which is odd, because it’s thoroughly delicious. According to this review I found on Snooth, the wine is a traditional blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia, but it’s aged in cherry wood as well as oak casks.

It smelled of wood and honey and dates, and it tasted round and rich. Flavors of dried apricots and nuts were supported by relaxed, orangey acids. It felt elegant and languid, rather than taut. Another excellent value for about $26 for 500 ml.

Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

Susanna Crociani and her Vin Santo di Montepulciano

2009 Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

The World Atlas of Wine reserves special praise for the Vin Santo of Montepulciano, and I can certainly see why. I met Susanna Crociani at the tasting, and she explained that 100 kilos of grapes (about 220 pounds) yields only 10 to 12 liters of Crociani Vin Santo. That amount of grapes, she went on, usually translates to about 65 liters of table wine.

The concentration in the Crociani was evident. The wine had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It felt rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness. I can’t find many places selling this wine in the U.S., but the Crociani website has it listed for €21 ($23) for 500 ml, which strikes me as hugely underpriced.

Vin Santo’s lack of popularity is our gain. All three of these wines offered impressive flavor and balance for the money. But not every Vin Santo will be a home run, making it important to ask a trusted wine shop for a recommendation. Quality Vin Santo producers like the ones above are crafting wines of character deserving much bigger price tags than the market will currently bear.

Serious Wines From Seneca Lake

11 March 2015

Villa Bellangelo WinesAlthough New York makes more wine than any other state except for California, it’s far easier to find bottles from Washington and Oregon than the Empire State. A characteristically grumpy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains why:

As New York has just one-tenth of Washington’s vinifera area, yet makes twice as much wine, the bulk of New York’s production can only be from native grapes. Only a bigot believes it impossible for native grapes to ever make a fine wine, but they are few and far between — certainly not even half of one per cent; it is the 99.5 per cent of New York’s native grape wines that are ruining the efforts of this state’s best vinifera wineries to create an international reputation for New York wine.

One might reasonably wonder how vinifera grape varieties (classics such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling) could even survive — let alone thrive — in New York, a northern state subject to harsh winters. In the case of the Finger Lakes region, the answer lies in a lucky stroke of geography.

Glaciers carved deep lake beds with steep banks of slate-rich soil. The lakes, notably Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka, store heat and help warm the surrounding landscape. “…Cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and rises,” as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “permitting more cold air to drain from the hillside.” This satellite photo, also found in The World Atlas of Wine, shows how the land adjacent to the larger lakes has less frost than land farther away. The steep banks also drain water well, important for healthy vine roots.

Villa Bellangelo Seyval BlancWine growing in the Finger Lakes region dates back to the 1820s, according to the Oxford Companion, and one of its newest fine vinifera wineries is Villa Bellangelo, set in a prime location on the west shore of Seneca Lake. The current owners of the winery, the Missick family, discovered the property on a wine-tasting tour following a 2009 wedding nearby. When it went up for sale in 2011, the Missicks acquired it and initiated extensive renovations, including installing new stainless steel fermentation tanks and a new crush pad.

Christopher Missick recently sent me free samples of six Villa Bellangelo wines, mostly from the 2013 vintage. I assembled a small group of friends to try them, and we were all impressed by the quality, especially considering that these wines represent the Missick’s third vintage ever. Here’s what we discovered:

2013 Seyval Blanc: This variety is a French hybrid well-suited to cool climates, according to the Oxford Companion. Although this hybrid has some non-vinifera genes, it can make a very pleasing wine, as evidenced by this example. We noted aromas of green apple, dried herbs and light honeysuckle, and tasters liked its “Rieslingly flavor.” It had taut white fruit, smooth white-pepper spice, a hint of sweetness and enough acids to keep it balanced. The acids became more prominent and orangey with some caramelized onion and Parmesan crostini. Not too shabby for $16.

Fellow Taster Cornelia

Fellow wine taster Cornelia

2012 Gewürztraminer: A “very perfumy” wine, as one tasting companion noted, this Gewürztraminer had a delightful aroma of honeysuckle. It feinted briefly towards honeyed fruit, but moved almost immediately to warm, gingery spice and some hay. The finish had a not-unpleasant bitter note, punctuating the dryness of this floral and fruity wine. One fellow taster remarked, rather distressingly, that this wine “tastes like [his] grandmother’s neck.” Now there’s a tasting note you don’t hear every day. $20.

2013 Chardonnay: The grapes for this wine come from the Sawmill Creek vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake, opposite the winery. I smelled a light caramel aroma, and another taster detected “something burnt — but in a nice way.” Others smelled wet stone and dried pasta, and I would concur. It had a buttered popcorn flavor, but this was no butter bomb. The wine was quite lively and balanced, with judicious oak, notable spice and a long finish. It worked especially well with olives, which brought out more of a vanilla note. An excellent value for $20.

2013 Dry Riesling: The soil composition came through clearly in this wine, which had a slatey aroma with something rich underneath (some also described the nose, not unfavorably, as “shower curtain” and “Band-Aid”). It tasted very juicy, with green-apple fruit, lemony acids and a very dry finish. Paired with bleu cheese, it felt richer and rounder. I liked its austerity, as did about half the group, but one taster called it “the least compelling so far.” $19.

Villa Bellangelo Cabernet Franc2013 Semi-Dry Riesling: The surprise hit of the evening, this wine had appealing aromas of honeyed red apple overlayed with some bright freshness. I liked its appley fruit and orangey acids, which balanced out the light sweetness. The entire group was enthusiastic about this wine, exclaiming, “This is by far the best,” and, “I don’t usually like Riesling, and I like this,” and even, “This is the wine I would like to go home with.” Very fun, and a very good value for $18.

2013 Cabernet Franc: As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “some very fine Cabernet Franc is made in the most benign years” in the Finger Lakes. This example smelled of ripe red fruit and vanilla, and on the palate it had cherry fruit, black pepper spice and an aromatic almond note. “Maraschino cherry pits!” exclaimed a fellow taster. I liked its ample fruit and rustic texture, but the wine again divided the group. $18.

Although some of these wines were controversial, each was clearly crafted with care. I especially loved the floral but dry Gewürztraminer, the rich Chardonnay and the well-balanced Semi-Dry Riesling. These wines leave no doubt in my mind that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.

I can’t wait to discover more of what the region has to offer when I head there in August to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll find.

Zenato’s Super Veronese

4 March 2015

Zenato "Alanera" Rosso VeroneseMany of you might be familiar with wines nicknamed “Super Tuscans,” high-quality but rule-breaking bottlings which originally had to be labeled as lowly vino da tavola. The great expense of these “table wines” made the dysfunction of Italian wine regulations all too clear, and they shamed the bureaucracy into action. In 1992, Italy created the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica category, or IGT, which alleviated the embarrassment and gave innovative winemakers a new home in which to experiment.

And experiment they have. This inspired (if forced) act of deregulation paved the way for a host of exciting new wines produced up and down the boot of Italy, not just in Tuscany. I’ve written about several delicious IGT wines in the recent past, including examples from Soave, Maremma and Lazio. Now, thanks to a free sample provided by importer Winebow, I had the chance to try a “Super Veronese.” This wine offered yet more evidence of the great success of the IGT category.

At first glance, the 2012 Zenato “Alanera” Rosso Veronese looks rather like an Amarone, the famous red blend made from partially dried grapes. Drying the grapes concentrates the sugars and chemically alters the grapes’ acids and the tannins, “something that explains the richness yet balance of a good Amarone,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Botrytis, the fungus which beneficially desiccates grapes in Sauternes and Tokaj, is undesirable in this case. Only healthy grapes are used, and they are loosely packed in order to prevent fungal growth. As the Oxford Companion explains, “anything like botrytis that degrades the skins diminishes the intensity and purity of the wine,” because unlike a white Sauternes or a Tokaji wine, red Amarone depends on grape skins for color, flavor and tannins.

The Alanera blend contains the three classic Amarone grapes, with 55% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 10% Corvinone. Corvina, according to the Oxford Companion, has the capability to make “serious, barrel-aged reds,” as long as yields are low. “Particularly suited to drying” because of its “loose bunches and large berries,” Corvinone was long thought to be a clone of Corvina, but ampelographers showed it to be a different variety altogether. The black sheep of the blend, Rondinella is allowed in Amarone DOCG wines, but “its produce is rarely sufficiently flavorsome to please consumers,” the Oxford Companion argues. But Rondinella dries well, according to Wikipedia, and Wine Searcher notes that it adds roundness and herbal notes to Corvina-based blends.

The Zenato Alanera differs quite dramatically from Amarone, however, in two important respects. It includes 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot in the blend, and only half the grapes are dried for any length of time. By not drying half the grapes, the Zenato Alanera would seem to combine the best of both worlds: concentration and intensity together with bright, fresh fruit. Or is it just Amarone lite?

I opened the bottle last weekend to find out. The deep, almost opaque garnet color looked immediately enticing, and the aromas of dusky red fruit and earth were quite encouraging. The first sip revealed very taut red fruit, broadly generous acids and a raisiny, earthy finish, with a top note of something floral — roses perhaps.

The Alanera was clearly well made, but it didn’t seduce me until about an hour later. By then, the fruit opened up and integrated beautifully with the rest of the wine. Some spicier notes came to the fore, particularly when paired with some rigatoni Bolognese. The wine felt big but controlled, with a focus that went above and beyond its $20 price tag. It’s a great value for the money.

The Zenato Alanera may be innovative, but it builds on a centuries-old tradition. Veronese dried-grape wines “are the direct descendants of the Greek wines shipped by the Venetians in the Middle Ages,” The World Atlas of Wine explains. The Alanera represents the next generation in this storied lineage, and it is without question a worthy successor.

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