Malagousia And Other Greek Wine (Re)Discoveries

1 April 2018

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

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

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

Evangelos Gerovassiliou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return To The Rhône #Winophiles

17 March 2018

Photo copyright M. Chapoutier

The Rhône Valley in southern France contains some of the world’s greatest and most beautiful wine appellations. And it’s a region I’ve managed to almost completely ignore for a good 15 years. Rhône shmône.

The problem is that I encountered the Rhône too early in my wine-drinking days. When I was about 21, my parents and I toured Provence — still one of my favorite vacations — and we visited the stone-built town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After climbing the hill to the ruined papal castle at the top, we descended into one of the town’s cellars for a tasting. There, I did not drink one of the wines that changed my life. This isn’t one of those stories in which I taste a wine and it opened my eyes to flavor and the joy of living. The wines didn’t dazzle me. But what did I know? I was barely an adult. They were, however, delicious enough to warrant my father buying a bottle or two to bring home.

In my mid-20s, I regularly bought wine from the Côtes du Rhône AOC, the catch-all appellation for wines from the entire region, because they were popular but not too expensive. Eventually, I realized I didn’t care for the earthy note in the light-bodied reds I’d been purchasing.

That was that, until I revisited Provence with a colleague in 2004. Our itinerary didn’t allow for a single winery visit, alas, and when we sped past the turn-offs to Hermitage and Condrieu — by then the names actually meant something to me — I cried a little bit. Well, on the inside.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford Hermitage (perhaps the world’s best Syrah) or Condrieu (the world’s best Viognier) here at home. I can afford some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, when they’re on sale, but they have those fusty coats of arms on the bottles. And so the old Rhône lost its luster, and I turned my attention to shinier somm darlings like Jura. I’m not impervious to fashion.

After recently tasting some Rhônes by M. Chapoutier, I feel rather foolish for having ignored a giant swath of the world’s loveliest wines for so long. Chapoutier really came into its own in the 1990s, when Michel Chapoutier took over the merchant-grower company. In many vineyards he implemented organic and even biodynamic viticulture, which is sort of like organic viticulture combined with astrology and magic potions. In both cases, the goal is to increase the health of the vines by fostering a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other beneficial organisms in the soil. Some studies show that biodynamic agriculture is more successful than organic, but it’s unclear exactly why.

Whether you believe in biodynamics or not, the jump in the quality of the Chapoutier’s wine since Michel took the reins is undeniable. When I see the Chapoutier name on a bottle, I know there’s a very good chance I’m going to really enjoy the wine. Many others must agree — Chapoutier has long since expanded out of its Tain-l’Hermitage base, with vineyards in the Alsace, Australia and Portugal, among other regions.

As a member of the #Winophiles wine-writing group, I received free samples of three Chapoutier wines from the Rhône. I took them to one of my favorite BYOB restaurants in Chicago, HB Home Bistro, and invited one of my zestiest wine-loving friends, Rebecca.

2016 M. Chapoutier “La Ciboise” Luberon Blanc

In Rhône Valley’s southeast, the Luberon ranks among my favorite parts of France, with its stupendously scenic combination of vineyards, lavender fields, olive groves and hill towns. Unfortunately, this organic wine ranked as my least-favorite of the three wine samples. I liked its clean, melony aroma, marked by a “minty-flinty” note, as Rebecca remarked, but its loosey-goosey fruit didn’t integrate well with the taut, grapefruity acids or the savory notes. I liked it better with food — it rounded out more with some mussels — but I can’t unreservedly recommend this wine, even with its relatively modest $16 price tag.

2015 M. Chapoutier “La Bernardine” Châteauneuf-du-Pape

I have no such reservations about this Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which I absolutely adored. It had an immensely appealing aroma of cranberry and herbs like bay leaf and thyme, and a very satisfying texture in the mouth. It felt ripe and a bit chewy, but focused, zesty acids and white-pepper spice kept the wine admirably balanced, as did an herbaceous lift at the end. “Complex and gorgeous,” I wrote in my notebook. When Rebecca tasted it, she exclaimed, “Talk about a punch of fruit and spice!”

Chapoutier does something rather different with this wine, in that it’s 90% Grenache (the “Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape par excellence,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine) and 10% Syrah, which “has been planted by producers who admire its tannins and structure, although, unlike Grenache and Mourvèdre, it needs care to avoid overripeness and is falling from favor in some quarters,” the Companion goes on to say. The use of Syrah is unusual, but even more so is the wine’s lack of other grapes. Most Châteauneuf-du-Papes are blends, which can be composed of up to 18 different grape varieties, though very few wines use them all.

According to the information sheet from Terlato that I received with the wine, “minimizing grape varieties allows for true expression of the terroir, which appeals to consumers for the authenticity and sense of place.” The wine no doubt expresses its terroir, but it strikes me that “authentic” Châteauneuf-du-Papes have more traditional blends. Authenticity, however, is overrated, and this wine is sheer delight, both with and without food. I particularly loved it with some bacon-wrapped dates. It’s expensive at about $60, but you’re getting what you pay for.

2015 M. Chapoutier “Les Meysonniers” Crozes-Hermitage

Tiny Hermitage produces some of the world’s greatest wines, with impressive price tags to match. Mere mortals should opt instead for a Crozes-Hermitage, a wine from the vineyards surrounding the more august Hermitage appellation. Both appellations focus mostly on Syrah. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best reds are softer and fruitier than Hermitage because the soils are richer (and because it’s more difficult to justify barrel aging at Crozes prices), but they tend to share more of Hermitage’s solidity than St-Joseph,” an appellation on the opposite riverbank.

This 100% Syrah is made with biodynamically farmed grapes, and the technique seems to have paid off. I loved the aroma of ripe plum, blueberry jam and leather, as well as the big, beautiful flavor. The wine moved from deep, rich fruit to elegant acids, refined spice, that note of leather again and finally some fine-grained, well-integrated tannins. I relished this wine on its own, but with the bacon-wrapped dates, it dried out and evaporated. It also failed to pair well with my too-spicy main course of beef bulgogi with kimchi and spaetzle. I suspect it would have fared better with a simple steak. It’s not inexpensive at $44, but again, this is a wine with some real stuffing.

I’m so glad to have received these samples. They reminded me of what a joy the wines of the Rhône can be. I’m going to keep my eye out for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage the next time I need a special-occasion wine. Neither is at the forefront of wine fashion at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious.

For more about the Rhône and M. Chapoutier, check out these articles by fellow #winophiles:

–Gwendolyn Alley of Wine Predator tells us about “Duck à l’Orange with M. Chapoutier’s Biodynamic, Organic Rhone Wines”

–Jill Barth of L’Occasion writes about “Braille on the Label and Other Pioneering Moments of Chapoutier”

–J.R. Boynton of Great Big Reds writes about “The Dark Side of Syrah, with Domaine Fondreche Persia 2012 (Ventoux)”

–Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click shares “Northern Rhone Wines and My Steak Tartare Disaster”

–David Crowley of Cooking Chat at tells us about “London Broil Steak with Châteauneuf-du-Pape”

–Susannah Gold of Avvinare writes about “Rhône Gems from Chapoutier in Châteauneuf, du Pape, Crozes-Hermitage, and Luberon”

–Nicole Ruiz Hudson of Somm’s Table tells her story of “Cooking to the Wine: Les Vins de Vienne Gigondas with Gratinéed Shepherd’s Pie”

–Camilla Mann of Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares a post on “Sober Clams + a French Syrah”

–Jane Niemeyer of Always Ravenous shares “Bison Burger Paired with Northern Rhône Syrah”

–Martin Redmond of Enofylz shares “A Taste of The House of Chapoutier”

–Rupal Desai Shankar of Syrah Queen writes about “Chapoutier: King of the Rhône”

–Lauren Walsh of The Swirling Dervish writes about “France’s Rhône Valley: Mountains, Sea, Wind, and Wine”

–Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog writes about “Maison M. Chapoutier: Expressing Terroir Through Biodynamics”

–Wendy Klik of A Day in the Life on the Farm talks about when “Ireland and France Collide”

–Liz Barrett of What’s in that Bottle invites us to “Get to know the Rhône Valley with Michel Chapoutier”

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Morocco: North Africa’s Great Wine Secret

22 February 2018

Domaine de Sahari Rosé

Many of us, I’ve discovered, don’t know much about Morocco. People generally realize that it’s a Muslim-majority country, and as such, they expect it to be part of the Middle East and entirely alcohol-free. In fact, Morocco is almost as close to New York as it is to Riyadh, and as I discovered, delicious wine is quite easy to find. And not just imports. Delicious local wine. This came as something of a shock even to me, a person quite accustomed to writing about wine from unexpected places.

Winemaking in Morocco dates back to the Phoenicians, and the Romans carried on the tradition. Reports conflict about what happened after the Arab invasions. My Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia states that “after more than 1,000 years of Muslim rule, winemaking died out.” But the history of Moroccan wine printed in La Sultana‘s menu claims that Morocco’s “strong Jewish community continued to produce wine in its gardens,” and that the Portuguese made wine around their enclaves on the coast. Either way, serious commercial winemaking didn’t reappear in Morocco until the French took over in the early 20th century.

Morocco briefly became something of a wine powerhouse, at least in terms of quantity, but after the country became independent in the 1950s, the local market shrank dramatically, and European rules hindered exports. It was only in the 1990s, when King Hassan II attracted foreign investment in the country’s vineyards, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, that things began to turn around (the current king, Mohammed VI, continues his policies). Just seven years ago, in 2011, Morocco designated its first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Les Coteaux de l’Atlas. So although winemaking in Morocco has ancient roots, the best wines available now are all new creations.

La Perle du Sud in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

But wait a minute. Isn’t Morocco too hot and too dry for quality winemaking? The image “Morocco” conjures for many of us involves desert caravans and spice-filled souks. Not vineyards! But as I discovered, winters can be downright frigid, especially in the mountains — my driver took me through a snowstorm at one point — and even in the summer, cool Atlantic currents keep the coast temperate. Irrigation is a necessity, but that’s hardly unusual. And rocky Moroccan soil drains well. Vineyards that take advantage of either ocean breezes or high elevation to stay cool can produce very fine wine indeed.

Nowadays, Moroccan wines take pride-of-place on menus of restaurants that serve alcohol. One wine list I encountered offered some 34 different Moroccan bottlings, including a sparkler, whites, rosés, reds and vin gris, a sort of light rosé made by vinifying dark-skinned grapes as if you were making a white wine (i.e. with little to no skin contact).

The one sparkling wine I had, a La Perle du Sud Blanc de Blancs by Le Celliers de Meknès, Morocco’s largest winery, had an AOC designation (Crémant de l’Atlas), but it tasted like not-very-expensive Cava to me. Some of the whites, like the CB Initiales Domaine Thalvin Chardonnay from Benslimane (east of Casablanca), were balanced and delicious, but most were frankly disappointing. The worst was a funky Médaillon Sauvignon Blanc that tasted aggressively citrusy. It clashed horrifically with some seafood couscous, which brought out some sort of odd artificial cantaloupe note in the wine. Blergh. Be careful with the whites.

I only tried a handful of the spicy vin gris wines, but I liked all of them. The rosés also tended to be quite good, with classic strawberry fruit and juicy acids (it’s hard to really screw up a dry rosé, I think). The Domaine de Sahari Reserve rosé of Syrah is a good example, with powdery strawberry fruit, lemony acids, refined green peppercorn spice and a dry finish. I sipped it by a swimming pool as the call of the muezzin floated across the medina. It felt deliciously sacrilegious.

Château Roslane at La Grande Table Marocaine

Much as I enjoyed the vin gris and rosé, red is currently Morocco’s strong suit. Moroccan reds come in a range of styles, and all the ones I tried had reasonable balance. My favorite was the 2014 Château Roslane Premier Cru from the Coteaux de l’Atlas AOC, also by Le Celliers de Meknès. I tasted the wine in what is surely Morocco’s most exquisite restaurant, La Grande Table Marocaine in the Royal Mansour hotel. The setting didn’t hurt, but the wine would have been memorable anywhere. It tasted of ripe dark fruit — Morocco has no trouble ripening its grapes — and an almost minty freshness gave the fruit a lift, floating it atop refined white-pepper spice and serious but very well-integrated tannins. Very impressive.

I wouldn’t rush out to organize a Moroccan wine tour just yet — the wineries are forbidden from selling directly to consumers, and so tasting rooms aren’t much of a thing (Château Roslane excepted). I’m also not convinced you’ll find too many Moroccan options in your local wine shop, though there is at least one importer in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Morocco is a stupendously beautiful country to visit that’s quite welcoming to tourists. I highly recommend going, unless you’re an introvert. You’ll be absolutely miserable there if you’re an introvert. For everyone else, it’s a delight, and while you’re there, you’re sure to find some surprisingly tasty local wines to take the edge off a day of haggling in the souks.

Name That Wine: On Location

9 February 2018

I’m especially excited about our latest two episodes of Name That Wine, the blind tasting-themed web series I started with my dear friend Liz. This time, we’re on location in one of our favorite Chicago wine shops, In Fine Spirits, and we’ve asked owner Jarran Conger to share some wines with stories.

In Episode 9, Jarran selects a delicious white from an unexpected location, and he tells us why he thinks women winemakers tend to be better than men:

And in Episode 10, Jarran shares a red with a surprising connection to our North Side Chicago neighborhood, Andersonville:

Both wines prove to be quite good values for the money, as is usually the case at In Fine Spirits. They’re worth seeking out!

If you like Name That Wine, please do hit the “Subscribe” button on the YouTube site. The more subscribers we get, the more interesting places we can shoot our show!

« Previous PageNext Page »