Torrontés Reconsidered

7 May 2016
Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

I had my last glass of Torrontés about 10 years ago. A cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Mission (Criolla Chica), the signature white wine of Argentina, as I remembered it, felt a little off-kilter. I recalled an overabundance of flowers and a rather bitter note on the dry finish. It lacked balance. And though Torrontés may be much more obscure than Chardonnay, with so many delicious Chardonnays now coming out of Mendoza, it seemed foolish to opt for a Torrontés instead.

On my recent trip to Salta and Cafayate, I had little choice. Even the “wine bar” in my resort offered only one still white wine by the glass: Torrontés from the surrounding estate. In the high-altitude vineyards here in the Calchaquí Valley, Torrontés has few white competitors.

Vineyards at Piattelli

Vineyards at Piattelli

Seeing the actual vineyards didn’t fill me with confidence, I must admit. Although scenically spectacular, with a backdrop of rugged mountains in every direction, the sandy vineyards are home not only to grapevines, but the occasional cactus as well! Vines are supposed to have to suffer to produce great wine, but this seemed a bit extreme.

Nevertheless, the conditions in the Calchaquí Valley can foster wines that are truly world-class. Vineyards receive some 300 days of sun each year, and as I can attest, the winds blowing through the valley ensure that the grapes remain free of mold, mildew and fungus. Elevation is an even more important consideration, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

I certainly tasted no shortage of sensational Malbecs, as well as the occasional superb Bordeaux-style blend. They were rich, ripe and sometimes even chewy, with lush fruit, velvety tannins and frequently impressive focus. If you have yet to taste a red wine from Cafayate (Salta), I encourage you to set aside your other plans and drink one immediately.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

But I couldn’t keep eating beef at every meal, and I didn’t want to drink a rich, chewy Malbec with a dish of local trout. I finally capitulated and ordered a glass of Torrontés. I was in the restaurant of the House of Jasmines, a Relais & Chateaux member which should theoretically have a restaurant of high quality. It was with some surprise, then, when I saw the waiter bring over a bottle of Torrontés with “16/4” written in pen on the label. I realized that those numbers indicated the date the wine bottle was opened, which meant that it was a week old! I requested that he uncork a fresh bottle.

The food at House of Jasmines matched the service in its mediocrity, but the (newly opened) Torrontés was a delight. The 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Torrontés had a clean, crisp and exotically spicy aroma. The pear/apple fruit tasted ripe and taut, and I appreciated the ample lemon/lime acids, which were followed by some gingery spice. It felt quite balanced, this Torrontés — it wasn’t at all the flower bomb I feared.

Piattelli's winery and restaurant in Cafayate

Piattelli’s winery and restaurant

Nor were any of the other Torrontéses I tried. The organic 2015 Nanni Torrontés had delicious melony fruit undergirded by zesty acids and more of that fine gingery spice. An unusual 2015 Amalaya “Blanco Dulce de Corte” Torrontés/Riesling blend had notes of sweet corn and hay, forceful orangey acids and a surprisingly dry, ethereal finish. And a fresh 2015 Piattelli Torrontés Reserve had wonderfully round fruit shot through with sharp acids and warm white-pepper spice.

I had a chance to chat with the winemaker of Piattelli, Alejandro Nesman, shortly after I tried his Torrontés. I mentioned how I barely recognized the examples of Torrontés, I tried, such was the leap in quality. He told me that things really started to change in Cafayate only recently. “That [high-quality] Torrontés started five years ago,” he said.

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

The last winery I visited was El Porvenir, where I had the chance to sample the 2016 vintage straight from the fermentation tank. Still cloudy, it felt rather rowdy and rough, but the component parts — tropical fruit, racy acidity, sharp spice and floral overtones — were all there.

But the wine I’ll never forget was the 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Oak-Fermented Torrontés. Unlike the similar wine I had at House of Jasmines, this Torrontés ferments for one month in oak barrels. It had a huge aroma of both flowers and buttery oak. “I’ve never smelled anything quite like it,” I exclaimed.

“It’s very strange,” the export manager remarked, with admirable candor. The flavor was absolutely fascinating — a combination of tropical fruit, butter, cream, flowers and green peppercorn spice. I really liked it. Who would have ever guessed that you could successfully oak Torrontés?

Vineyards in SaltaSomething truly exciting is happening in Cafayate. If you have long ignored wines from Salta and the Calchaquí Valley, as I have, consider giving them another try. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottle for more than $30, and most retail for $15 or less. They’re fantastic values for the money. They’re making great wine in those sandy, cactus-riddled vineyards, and I have a feeling that it won’t remain under the radar for much longer.

Legui: Argentina’s Best Digestif

24 April 2016

La Esquina de MertiAfter traveling in Argentina for a week or so, finding luscious Malbecs seemingly on every street corner, I began to wonder what sort of liquors the country produced. It was around this time I found myself in the town of San Antonio de Areco, a center of gaucho culture about 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires. This town did not strike me as a place to order a glass of wine.

I strode into an atmospheric bar called La Esquina de Merti, with art nouveau display cases along the walls and shelves laden with ancient bottles of unfamiliar spirits. It probably would have felt touristy in another town, but here, it was exactly what I was looking for.

Behind the bar, I spotted a shelf of local-looking spirits. “Esta licores — esta licores Argentinos?” I asked in my not-very-good Spanish. “Que me recomienda… una licores Argentinos?” The bartender looked a little puzzled. I pointed to a promising-looking bottle. “Esta Legui… Esta bien? Recomienda esta?” She said something that sounded very positive. “Bien. Uh, bebida esta con hielo? No? Solo? OK — perfecto. Una Legui, porfavor.”

LeguiShe somehow managed to understand me and served me quite a large shot of Legui, which is named after a notable jockey, Irenaeus Leguizamo. He won, according to this website, some 3,200 races in Argentina and he ranks among the greatest jockeys in history. Legui, it turned out, was the perfect drink to try in this center of Argentine horse culture.

I took a sniff, and I can’t deny that I recoiled. This liqueur of herb-infused alcohol and sugar reminded me of cough syrup, a certain yellow cough syrup that disgusted me in my youth. And indeed, it had the same yellow-green hue. I might charitably describe the aroma as herbaceous and bitter, with a note of anise. With great reluctance, I took a sip.

The Legui started sweet, moving on to cinnamon spice and green peppercorn. There was little bitterness; in fact, it tasted quite balanced. And because it has only 29.9 percent alcohol, I felt little alcoholic burn. Indeed, drinking it felt quite soothing.

If, after dinner in Argentina, you’re looking for a digestif — and after the uninterrupted meat parade I’ve experienced here, I certainly was — Legui is the liqueur to order. It doesn’t seem to be available in the United States, according to Wine Searcher, but in Argentina, it’s certainly worth seeking out.

And don’t worry about trying to down it like a shot. The cowboys here wear berets, after all, so you can feel free to drink your Legui in civilized sips.

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

A Tasting Of Trump

1 April 2016

Trump Winery EntranceWith the presidential primaries in full swing, I decided to pay a visit to the Trump Winery in Albemarle County, Virginia. I’ve written before about Virginia wines, and I had high hopes that the wines of Trump would display the same finesse and elegance with which he has run his campaign.

I tasted a range of unusual cuvées during my visit:

Great Wall Blanc de Blancs: As you may have surmised from the name, this sparkling wine contains only white grapes. I found it to be bland and lacking in complexity, but a surprising number of people in the tasting room seemed really excited about it. This wine is not a collaboration with Great Wall Winery in China, which manipulates its grapes in an unfair way according to Tiffany, who was pouring the wines. The locally grown grapes were in fact funded by Mexico, though she couldn’t explain why they would do such a thing.

Aloha Blanc: Trump bucks conventional wisdom with this wine, making it with pineapple instead of grapes. Tiffany confided that although the label states in no uncertain terms that the pineapple used in the wine comes from Hawaii, it actually comes from Kenya.

Trump Winery tasting room

Tasting room at the Trump Winery

Mexican Red Blend: Another collaboration with Mexico, this lively wine includes too many grape varieties to list here. It tasted multi-layered and rich, and it struck me as an excellent value. I was therefore surprised to hear Tiffany tell me that Mexico didn’t send its best grapes. “They have lots of problems, and they’re bringing the problems to the wine,” she explained. I responded that I actually quite liked the blend, and she admitted, “Well, some of the grapes, I assume, are good.”

Good Brain Grenache: “This wine says a lot of things,” Tiffany explained enigmatically as she poured. I looked forward to tasting something nuanced and well-structured, but it tasted underripe and overly aggressive. The mid-section sagged. Even so, the finish, by some strange circumstance, was very strong. I certainly wouldn’t purchase this wine, but I saw a number of people in the tasting room gulping it down and begging for more.

Muslim Terroir Blend: Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to try this wine. It seems a small minority of the bottles were labeled “Terror” instead of “Terroir.” Instead of sorting those out, Trump Winery decided to turn away the entire shipment. Previous vintages that did make it into the U.S. are being rounded up and interned in secure offsite cellars.

Five-Year-Old Tawny Port “Cooper Cuvée”: I took a sip of this last wine and remarked, “With all due respect, it seems awfully young, doesn’t it?” Tiffany retorted, “No it’s not!”

April Fools! To read about what the wines of Trump Winery actually taste like, click here. And to read my scathing review of The Terrace at the Trump, a restaurant in the Trump Hotel Chicago, click here.

Czech Wine: An Unpronounceable Delight

24 March 2016

Duck and St. Laurent at U Modre KachnickyIt wasn’t until my third visit to Prague that I tried my first glass of Czech wine. That is partially because in 1998, when I first set foot in this jewel of a Central European city, the country’s wineries had yet to shake off the depredations of communism. And it’s partially because large glasses of local beer could be had for about a quarter.

By the time of my latest visit in 2007, the city had been overrun by British stag parties, beers cost $5, and sizeable sections of restaurant wine lists were devoted to Czech bottlings. We had our first dinner of the trip at the atmospheric U Modré Kachničky (The Blue Duck), in the relatively quiet Malá Strana neighborhood on the castle side of the river. I ordered duck in plum brandy sauce with potato pancakes, and after consulting with the waiter, a glass of Svatovavřinecké to pair with it. I memorialized the meal with the blurry photo to the right.

I still can’t pronounce Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent), but I remember that dinner — the worn frescoes of wisteria glimmering in the candlelight, the savory duck with crispy skin, the surprisingly rich St. Laurent. Moments like that stay with me.

It will doubtless surprise some readers that the Czech Republic makes wine, let alone wine of quality. Most of its best vineyards are in Moravia, immediately north of Austria’s Weinviertel. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Because of their position north of the Danube, most of the slopes face south and are protected by higher land in the north.” And just as important, “Winemaking techniques have fully recovered from the communist era,” the Companion goes on to say.

That’s all well and good, but quality aside, it remains quite difficult to find Czech wine outside the country, as The World Atlas of Wine notes: “Little [Czech wine] is exported yet, but the potential is there.” Very, very little Czech wine crosses the Atlantic. I never spotted one until about a year ago.

Vino z Czech St. Laurent by Vino MarcincakI was browsing the egregiously disorganized wine section of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, which never fails to irritate me. But sometimes I unearth a gem before my patience wears out. As my eye drifted along the jumble of wines on the shelves, a label with an Alphonse Mucha print caught my attention. “Vino z Czech” were the words beneath, and for the first time since 2007, I found myself purchasing a Czech wine.

I assumed Vino z Czech, which translates as “Wine from the Czech Republic,” was the rather uncreative name of the winemaker. It actually encompasses an entire collection of wines made by different Moravian vintners and assembled by Czech Wine Imports for sale in the United States. “Most of these wines are from small wineries,” according to the Vino z Czech website. “Annual production of our varieties range from 180 cases to just under 2200 cases.”

This particular wine, a 2006 St. Laurent, comes from Vino Marcinčák, the Czech Republic’s largest organic winery, headquartered in the Mikulov region of Moravia. Its vineyards “…have excellent locations in the warmest region of the Czech Republic,” if Vino Marcinčák’s website is to be believed, and the winery seeks to produce “…wines with character, intended for the most discriminating wine lovers.”

It all sounded very promising, but I did have some concern that this 10-year-old wine might be past its prime. The Oxford Companion asserts that St. Laurent is “…capable of producing deep-coloured, velvety reds with sufficient concentration — provided yields are limited — to merit ageing in oak and then bottle.” Even so, I poured a glass for myself with more hope than confidence.

Before my nose arrived at the rim of the glass, I could detect the wine’s enticingly dark, purplish aroma. I loved the generous fruit flavors of plum and prune, overlayed with a floral, violet note. The wine moved from cool, dark fruit to rather rustic acids, which morphed into a low-grade but lengthy hum of white-pepper spice. There was a pleasant duskiness throughout, likely because of its age.

My husband decided not to drink that evening, and I managed to finish only half the bottle. I used some inert gas in an attempt to prolong the wine’s life, and put it in the fridge. Two days later, it was time to cook Sunday dinner, and I uncorked the bottle, fully expecting the fruit and acids of this decade-old codger to have flattened or disappeared altogether. It was quite a shock, then, when I took a sip and found the wine to be perfectly lively. I happily finished off the other half of the bottle as we prepared some white bean soup with kale and kielbasa. For $17, this wine struck me as a very fine value.

You won’t find Czech wine in most wine shops, regardless of the extent of their selection. But Vino z Czech does distribute its wines in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Texas and Illinois (see a full list of stores and restaurants here). If you live in one of these states, by all means, visit an establishment that sells these wines and try one out.

And if you go to Prague, which I still recommend doing in spite of the crowds, don’t limit yourself to beer, as I did on my first two visits. The local wines may be difficult to pronounce, but they certainly aren’t difficult to enjoy.

If you prefer cocktails, this Czech concoction is one of my favorites.

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