A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Newport Vineyards - Landot Noir

Today's wine is another local specialty. Located just a few minutes from downtown Newport, RI, Newport Vineyards cranks out a wide variety of wines made both from classic, European varieties as well as some hybrid grapes. Landot Noir falls into the latter category. Also known as Landot 4511, the grape is named for Pierre Landot, a French grape breeder who was experimenting to try to find phylloxera resistant grape varieties. It's parent grapes are Landal Noir (Landot 244) and Villard Blanc (Seyve Villard 12.375). The grape has a genetic link to a whopping eight different Vitis species as a result of its extensive parenting tree. It is not widely grown, though it is well represented in the Northeastern United States. Newport has two different bottlings containing Landot Noir: the 100% Landot bottling and the Rochambeau which is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon (I'm unsure whether their Gemini bottling contains any Landot). Under consideration here is the pure Landot Noir bottling.

These wines may be available in some liquor stores or restaurant locations around the Newport area, but your best bet is probably going straight to the winery. I picked up my bottle of the 2009 Landot Noir at the winery for $25. Information on visiting the winery can be found here.

The color of this wine is very deep. It's nearly opaque with very intense saturation and turns dark garnet at the rim. The nose is all fruit: blueberry pie, blackberry jam, dark black cherries and black plums. It's a rich, heady mix of fruits with just a touch of chocolate to round them out. In the mouth, the wine has a medium body with nice acidity and almost no tannin. "Juicy" is the word that keeps popping up in my tasting note. There are flavors of tart red cherries, blueberry compote and fresh blackberries. Where the nose has a lot of cooked fruit flavors, the palate is mostly fresh fruit with some jammy elements there. The structure for this wine comes from the acid and it's fairly well balanced. Think of a very soft petite sirah or an Australian Shiraz and you'll be on the right track.

This wine is fine just on its own, but I tasted it with steak tips wrapped in bacon and it was excellent with that as well. Red wines in the Northeastern US can be really hit or miss, but this wine connects solidly. I like to see local wineries focusing more on varieties that are suited to the harsh New England climate rather than just growing Cabernet Sauvignon (I've yet to have a decent example and am beginning to think that all CS vines north of Virginia should be uprooted immediately) or Merlot (which can be successful with special care and a the right site) because they know that somebody will buy it. The price tag is the biggest sticking point with this wine but it's unique enough where I don't really mind paying the local premium for it. Newport's selection is pretty good all the way around and is well worth a visit if you are in the area. Their unoaked Chardonnay is very good, but likely won't be getting a review here. In an upcoming post, I will be reviewing their Blaufrankish alongside a Washington State version of that wine.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tbilisuri - Medium Dry Rkatsiteli

This is the last article on rkatsiteli this year. Early next year, I'll be discussing a very interesting version from New Jersey, but until then, there will be a few posts concerning other varietals from other corners of the world.

This bottle has me a bit vexed. I can't really find any good information about this particular style. It isn't mentioned at all in Wines and Cognacs of Georgia and the brief blurb about it on Wikipedia is not helpful in the least. According to Wikipedia, Tbilisuri is a semi-dry pink wine made from saperavi, cabernet sauvignon and rkatsiteli. I can certainly tell you that that description is way off in describing the bottle I tried (pictured at left: the Marani/Telavi Wine Cellars offering, NV). My bottling was, I believe, 100% rkatsiteli and was definitely a white wine. I bought it for $10 at Bazaar in Brookline, which is where I go for most of my Georgian wine needs. My best guess is that Tbilisuri indicates that the wine is made somewhere around the Georgia capital of Tbilisi, but aside from that, I really don't have a lot of information on this bottle.

In the glass it had a yellow straw color that was closing in on gold with a full glass. The nose was a little shy, as many of these Georgian examples have been. I picked up on some green melon and lemon cream aromas, but they weren't exactly jumping out of the glass. On the palate, the wine is medium bodied and semi-sweet. The most glaring defect of the wine is apparent as soon as the wine hits your tongue: the acid is shockingly low here. Rkatsiteli tends to be a pretty high-acid grape, but in this bottle, it's almost completely absent. This is a big drawback in a wine with some sweetness to it, as the sugar just overwhelms the palate and the wine feels big and clunky in the mouth. The major reason that grapes like chenin blanc and riesling can take a bit of residual sugar is that the wine has a nice acid streak to keep it in balance. Acid in white wine is akin to tannin in a red wine; it's the structure that the other flavors really hang onto.

It's a shame, too, as the palate was layered and complex. There were flavors of orange cream, canteloupe, honeysuckle, candied lemon peel, white peach and mandarin orange wedges. It had a lingering finish composed mostly of canned mandarin oranges. I'm undecided about whether that's a good thing or not. I couldn't finish the bottle, though, as the lack of balance was so pronounced. If you don't mind drinking syrup straight out of the bottle, this wine might be for you, but otherwise, I'd give it a fairly wide berth and try one of the many other versions of rkatsiteli available.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tsinandali - Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane

Next stop on my little tour of Rkatsiteli is the little region of Tsinandali in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. From a cultural perspective, Tsinandali is best known as the home of the poet Alexander Chavchavadze. I'm not familiar with the man's work, but he is apparently something of a big deal in Georgia literature. More to the point here, Alexander had a winery on his estate which, if I'm reading the wikipedia article correctly, was called Marani. There is still a winery by this name, but a bit of digging leads me to believe that it's not the same. Georgia wineries seem to go by more than one name a lot of the time and I believe what's labeled as Marani wine these days is perhaps better known as Telavi Wine Cellar. It seems that perhaps the old winery on the Chavchavadze estate is being converted into a museum which sounds pretty cool (that's the estate in the picture to the left).

According to Wines and Cognacs of Georgia, Tsinandali has been "manufactured" since 1892. They go on to say that the "European" method is used in the production of Tsinandali, as opposed to the Khakhetian method or Imeretian method, where the wine is fermented in large clay jars buried in the ground. The blend consists of rkatsiteli and mtsvane grapes which are harvested, sorted, destemmed, pressed, fermented in temperature controlled tanks, clarified and matured in oak casks for 2-3 years, though this last part seems to be pretty variable (of the two Tsinandalis I tasted, only one specified the amount of time in oak: 9 months...neither bottle specified whether it was new or neutral oak, but more on that below).

I had two bottles of Tsinandali to sample. The first was a 2007 vintage from JS Corporation (Corporation Kindzmarauli?) which retailed for $12. The second was a 2006 vintage from Alaverdi for $9. There seems to be more than one company called Alaverdi in Georgia (at least three and possibly four), and mine was made from this company. As a side note, almost all of the Georgian winery websites are just awful to try and navigate. Click on the link above and just try to get somewhere. Only one of the links on the opening page actually works, and that's the Home link. Once you click on that, it takes you to a page where you can navigate the rest of the site.

So, the wines. The JS Corporation Tsinandali was a pale straw color with a pretty reserved nose. There was a bit of melon and vanilla, but not much else. On the palate the wine was clean and neutral tasting with very little fruit, which seems to be a hallmark of Georgian Tsinandali. The Alaverdi bottling had a blurb on the back which touted the "thin fruit taste." What fruit there is is mostly diluted lemon and lemon peel. As the wine came down to room temperature, the lemon flavors started to jump out a little more and a faint melon flavor showed up. It was medium bodied with pretty good acidity. If this actually spent nine months in oak, there's no way it was new oak. My guess is that this is mostly neutral oak casks or at the most a few batches see some new oak and those batches are blended into the final product.

The Alaverdi Tsinandali had the same pale color with some silvery undertones to it. The nose was much more lively with an herbal characteristic. There were a lot of green melon and lime peel aromas as well. This wine had a little bit more heft to it than the JSC wine and also carried the characteristic rkatsiteli acidity. The fruit on the palate were was light with lemon leading the way backed up by some nice, round honeydew melon flavors. The finish was crisp and clean. Not a lingering finish, but just the kind of thing you're looking for with shellfish, either raw or cooked. Again, the back of this bottle touted their use of oak, but there's just no way that new oak was used here in any great quantity. The one caveat about this wine: if you buy it, drink it all the day you open the cork or just pour it out when you're finished for the day. This was abysmally bad the next day.

For less than $15, the Georgian Tsinandalis were very interesting and certainly have their place at the table. Both were very clean and crisp on the palate but had enough body to them to possibly stand up to lighter chicken dishes. This certainly wouldn't be out of place as an aperitif, either. Of the two, the Alaverdi was more interesting and represents a better value. I will certainly be looking to have a few of these on hand once summer rolls around again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rkatsiteli - Alazanis Valley, Georgia

The Alazani Valley is formed along the Alazani River in the Khaketi region of Georgia. The river forms in the Caucasus mountains and forms part of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan before it empties into the latter country. This valley seems to be the focal point of the Georgian wine industry with towns like Tsinandali and Akhasheni located there.

As mentioned previously on this website, they've been making wine in Georgia for a very very long time and for a big portion of their long winemaking history, they've been making wine from rkatsiteli grapes. There is archaeological evidence of rkatsiteli seeds dating back to 3000 BC.

You may be asking yourself at this point "since the wine history goes back so far here, why is it that I've never heard of a lot of these grapes and wines?" The short answer is: the Cold War. The longer answer involves a history of occupation by foreign powers. Georgia's location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia made it a popular target and the country has been under the rule of the Mongols, the ancient Persians, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the modern state of Russia. Whenever the nation of Georgia appears in the news these days, it's usually because of their ongoing conflict with Russia, who still occupies a good deal of land in the center of the country.

The most disastrous of these occupations as far as the Georgian wine industry is concerned was the Soviet occupation. Behind the Iron Curtain, most of the production from Georgia was controlled by the Soviet Union and produced for consumption within Soviet borders. In the 1965 book Wines and Cognacs of Georgia, the emphasis is clearly on gross production numbers rather than on quality. You get quotes like: "It was after the advent of Soviet power that wine-growing in Georgia began to develop on a planned, industrial basis." To any quality wine lover, the word "industrial" sends a shiver down the spine.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was still the biggest importer of Georgian wines and very few of them were exported to the United States. The former Soviet bloc area was still Georgia's primary market. That all changed in 2006, however, when Russia instituted an embargo on Georgian wine due to allegations of counterfeiting labels. The issue is a complex one that goes beyond the scope of this piece, but the primary result is that Georgia's major source of wine exports dried up virtually overnight and they have been looking to expand into newer markets recently. A few bottles are starting to show up outside of Eastern European specialty stores around Boston, but the widest selections are still in these specialty markets.

So, all that as a prelude to this bottling. The label says Alizanis Valley, though this is clearly the Alazani Valley mentioned above. It seems that wines made with the regional distinction "Alizani(s) Valley" are a relatively recent phenomenon, first being produced in 1977. My guess is that this wine is akin to buying a French bottle simply marked "Burgundy." The grapes are probably sourced throughout the valley rather than in very specific sites as the rest of Georgian wine seems to be. I believe this bottling is 100% rkatsiteli, though other producers do seem to mix in a few other white varietals as well.

The producer is the JS Corporation, which may also go by the name Coporation Kindzmarauli. It's hard to say, honestly. In any case, the label to the left is the label on my bottle, and this company seems to be the most heavily represented in many of the wine shops I've been to. The price tag on this bottle was $12 and the vintage was 2007. I should note that there are two wines from this producer labeled Alazanis Valley. One is white and made from Rkatsiteli grapes while the other is red and made from Saperavi grapes. The bottle color should be a dead giveaway for those of you shopping for this, but do double check the label very closely, as they are virtually identical (in fact, as I was writing this, I double checked the image, and sure enough, this is the red label...I can't seem to find the white one online anywhere and have already discarded by bottle).

In the glass, this has a pale yellowish straw color. The nose is a bit reserved with lemon peel being the dominant note. The wine is off-dry, which brings up another point about Georgian wines. They have a lot of ways to indicate that the wine is kind of sweet, and I'm not sure i they are standardized at all. I've seen semi-dry, semi-sweet, medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet all on different bottles. This one says semi-sweet, but to my taste, this was semi-sweet like a Riesling or a Vouvray with a little residual sugar in it. This is definitely not a dessert wine.

The wine has a medium body on the palate and probably medium plus acidity. It's nowhere near as racy as the Westport Rivers offering. The wine is floral in the mouth with more stone fruit flavors like apricots and white peaches. There isn't quite so much zippy citrus in this wine. The finish isn't particularly complex or lingering, but has a minerally edge that feels nice and clean. For comparison's sake, Riesling is really the obvious parallel here, though this lacks the acidic structure of a fine Riesling. This wine is probably very similar to Riesling, though, in its ability to match up with food. This would be particularly nice with spicy foods, as the residual sugar would be most welcome to a scorched mouth. I find that on the whole, I have a better tolerance for the semi-sweet white wines than reds and have been focusing on them more lately. There's another semi-sweet rkatsiteli wine from Georgia that I'll write about very soon, though up next will be a comparison of two different dry wines from Tsinandali.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rkatsiteli - The New World Version

The next few posts here will all be about the same grape treated different ways. The grape in question here is rkatsiteli, an ancient varietal grown extensively in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and in other areas of Eastern Europe, with some plantings in the US. I've read conflicting accounts regarding the total acreage devoted to this grape worldwide. Some sources say it is likely the second most planted white grape varietal behind Airen in Spain, while other sources say that after Gorbachev's vine pull scheme, the total acreage dropped below other worldwide varietals. In either case, the fact remains that rkatsiteli is a widely planted grape that is virtually unknown in the United States. There are a few producers on the east coast who have had some success with the grape, and this post is about one of those producers. I will delve a bit more into the history of the grape when I examine some of the wines coming from Georgia.

Westport Rivers in southern Massachusetts is best known for their production of sparkling wine. Their vineyards are populated with the pinot noir and chardonnay necessary for their sparkling wines, but they also grow other white varietals such as Riesling, pinot gris and pinot blanc. In the midst of all these well known European grape varietals sits rkatsiteli. Wineries in New York state such as Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes region have been having some success with rkatsiteli and since the New England coastal climate shares some similarities with the Finger Lakes microclimate, it makes sense that a New England producer would give this grape a shot. Westport Rivers produced 218 cases of the 2008 vintage and sell it for $18.99.

I tasted this wine twice, once at the winery and again several months later at home, with similar notes. In the glass the wine has a pale straw color. On the nose, this is all lemon/lime citrus flavors with some flowery aromas in the background and a bit of oak. Lemon is all over the palate. This is a very high acid grape. When I tasted it at the winery, I wrote "runaway acidity...almost too sour." After a few months in the bottle, this acidity seems to have settled into itself a bit more and though it was very present, it wasn't nearly as out of control as the first time I tasted it. Westport doesn't specify whether this spends time in oak, but I'd be very surprised if it didn't (UPDATE: the winemaker has emailed me and indicated this is 100% stainless steel fermented. That's pretty impressive, considering the fairly weighty texture the wine has in the mouth). The body has a certain fleshiness and creaminess to it that apparently is solely a function of the varietal itself..

When I tasted this wine at home, I sampled it at several different temperatures and found that I enjoyed it most right around room temperature. A lot of the nice citrusy flavors were muted when the wine was very cold and all I really got from it was the creamy mouthfeel and some of the acidity. As the wine warmed up, the lemon/lime flavors really started to pop and the wine became very dynamic, lively and interesting in the glass. Think of a dry Loire or South African Chenin Blanc with a bit more heft on the palate and you'll be on the right track with this bottle.

This wine would probably go with just about any kind of food you can think of barring red meat dishes. The acidity in it would be very nice with richer cream or butter dishes, while the body allows it to stand up to lobster, chicken and probably even pork. Westport really seems to specialize in these kinds of ultra-versatile food wines, as my recently emptied case of their rose of pinot noir demonstrates. If you're ever in their neck of the woods, be sure to stop by and try their selection. For my money, they're the best thing going in the Northeastern United States by a fairly wide margin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Picpoul de Pinet - Coteaux du Languedoc, France

I buy a lot of wine, and like any wine lover, I have my favorite shops. There are some places that I go to for all my Bordeaux needs, some places I go for my value wine needs and still other places I go for my fringe wine kicks. The Gypsy Kitchen in Quincy Center, MA, is definitely one of my favorites for value wines and off-the-beaten path adventures. Lisa Lamme's selection is always interesting and she's very knowledgeable about every bottle on her shelves. In addition to her nice wine selection, she also has a great variety of imported cheeses and cured meats. She's a hot sauce aficionado who founded the first store devoted to hot sauce in the country. She even has a cookbook coming out which you can pre-order on amazon.com or through her virtual storefront. On my last visit to her shop, I loaded up on some fringe wines, and will be writing here about a Picpoul de Pinet I picked up for $10.

Picpoul Blanc is a little known grape grown in the Rhone valley (where it is one of the 13 grapes allowed in the Cheateauneuf-du-Pape blend) and the Languedoc region of France primarily, though there are small plantings in other parts of the world. This particular bottling is from the Languedoc, a massive wine region in the south of France. The Languedoc produces more wine than any other region on earth and is responsible for 1/3 of the French output. For years, most of the production coming out of this region was ordinary, nondescript juice destined for bulk wine consumption, but recently there has been a stronger focus on quality production from many producers in the area. Within the Languedoc, there are several sub-appellations, of which Picpoul de Pinet is one. Wines from this region must be made from 100% Picpoul Blanc grapes sourced from one of six local communes. The name "picpoul" literally means "lip stinger."

The producer of my bottling was La Chapelle de la Bastide and the vintage was 2009. In the glass, the wine had a pale straw color. The nose was a bit reserved with some melon and flower components and a whiff of creamy pear. On the palate, my first written impression was "lean and stony." The wine had a light body and medium to medium plus acidity, which surprised me given the etymology of the grape's name. There was a lot of wet stone minerality as well as some light lemon flavors. It reminded me of being in a restaurant where they keep lemon slices in the water pitchers. You can definitely pick up some lemon flavor, but it's faint and very far in the background.

I should note that the tasting notes above were written when I first removed the wine from the refrigerator. I always try, with white wines, to taste them at several different temperatures, as over-chilling them can blunt many of their most interesting characteristics. I thought this wine really hit its stride with a medium-chill on it, when it had been sitting on the counter for about half an hour. The lemon flavors definitely moved closer to the front with a little time on the counter. Lemon peel dominated the nose and beginning of the attack, fading into those nice stony minerals as the wine finished. As the wine approached room temperature, the lemon flavors faded again and there were more round melon and floral qualities to the nose and palate. The wine behaved like a Sauvignon Blanc mixed with Chenin Blanc with a little Muscadet and Riesling thrown in for good measure. It's an absolute slam-dunk with shellfish and light seafood and could probably stand up to an acidic chicken dish like a piccata. It's light and refreshing enough to be served as an apertif as well. All in all, it's a very nice, crisp offering that I wish I'd uncorked in July rather than November.

Please see this post for a more recent tasting note from another Picpoul-based wine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sakonnet Vineyards - Cock of the Walk Red

Sakonnet Vineyards is located in Little Compton, Rhode Island, just a few miles outside of Newport. They are the largest producer of wines in New England, and have been making wines since 1975. They have a wide variety of wines available, some from traditional vinifera varietals and some from hybrids. I visited the winery in July of 2010 and tasted through a wide variety of their offerings. The wine I will be discussing here is their Cock of the Walk Red, a blend of 75% Lemberger (Blaufrankish), 22% Cabernet Franc and 3% Chancellor.

We've run into Lemberger here before. It is a major grape in the production of Bull's Blood in Hungary, though it is perhaps best known for wines produced from it in Austria and Germany. Kiona Vineyards of Washington state make a very nice domestic version of Lemberger. Lemberger is a pretty versatile food wine with nice acidity and a flavor that reminds me of a spicier Pinot Noir.

Chancellor is a Seibel crossing (Seibel 7053, specifically), that I had not heard of prior to visiting Sakonnet. It's hard for me to say just what wine produced from Chancellor might taste like, as it only comprises 3% of the blend here and the only bottling I have seen that is from 100% Chancellor grapes is vinified into a port-style wine at Sakonnet. My notes from my tasting at Sakonnet indicate that there were a lot of dried fruit flavors like fig and prune, but I'd hesitate to make any kinds of statements about typicity for the grape. Anyone who's had a true Port and also a table wine made from Touriga Nacional knows that they are two very different experiences, despite the fact that Touriga is the dominant grape in the Port blend.

In any case, I revisited Sakonnet in October to pick up a bottle of their Cock of the Walk red for $15. When I tasted it in July, I wrote "Gamey, earthy nose. Smooth & rich...raspberry flavors dominate. Very very fruity." I'm publishing my initial tasting notes because when I got the bottle home, I had an entirely different experience and would like to take this opportunity to share a cautionary tale.

The Cock of the Walk red from Sakonnet is a non-vintage wine. Sakonnet is not unique in this; many wineries produce NV offerings, blending wines from different years in order to create something like a homogenous product (NV Champagne is the obvious analogy here). The idea is that every bottle, no matter when you buy it, will taste as much as possible like the wine tasted the last time you had it. The problem is, when you are looking at the bottles in their tasting room, you have no indication of when the bottle you are holding was produced. As the winery produces more of the NV wine, you are not sure what they do with the unsold bottles. They could take them off the shelf and not sell them, but it's doubtful that that is what happens. What's more likely, and what I think happened to me, is that the unsold bottles from previous production runs stay on the shelves and age, sometimes for far too long and often in less than ideal conditions. You can bet your life, though, that the bottles they are opening at the tasting bar are as fresh as can be.

I bring this up because the wine that I opened at home was perhaps at one point in time similar to the wine I had in the tasting room, but at the time that I actually opened it, it was deader than dead. The color was gone from the wine, leaving a pale burgundy color with orange tints to it. The fruit was totally gone from this wine. It was all damp earth and astringency. This wine was totally dried out and tasted like it sat on the shelf for too long and died in the bottle.

These are the hazards that one faces when one purchases a non-vintage bottle of wine, especially from a producer that one is not intimately familiar with. Sakonnet is a bit of a tourist spot, and examples like this call into question their commitment to quality. A more fastidious producer would have some indication of at least the bottling date of the wine and would take better care to not leave dried out bottles on the sales shelf. The bottle I reached for was right up front on the sales shelf, not buried in the back and certainly not covered in a film of dust. I am not accusing them of any willful malevolence, only carelessness. I have only poured out three bottles of wine in my life, and this was the third. I could not finish my first glass.

Sakonnet does have other tasty wines in their portfolio, and the grounds are beautiful and well worth a visit for those in the New England area, but exercise caution around their NV bottlings. The grapes that these wines are made from are capable of producing quality wine, and hopefully I will be able to cover them in the future from more fastidious producers.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kindzmarauli - Semi-Sweet Saperavi

For this week's wine, I decided to revisit the nation of Georgia, home of the Mukuzani wine that I enjoyed so much before. What I found when researching Mukuzani is that the overwhelming majority of wines being produced in Georgia were actually semi-sweet, rather than dry. Interestingly, there are more semi-sweet red/pink wines than white wines, as you can read on the Georgian Wine Wikipedia entry. Of the sixteen red/pink wines given descriptions on that page, only two reds are dry, while of the seventeen white wines, nine are dry.

I will confess that I'm not sure how authoritative the Wikipedia page is, but at the moment, it's really the only resource I have for Georgian wine. As far as I can tell, there only two books available that deal with Georgian wine. One is a book from the 1960's that is pretty clearly a Soviet propaganda book called The Wines and Cognacs of Georgia. While interesting in it's own way, it's not a very good source of information for the current state of the industry (the artwork is killer, though). The other book is called The Vine, Wine, and the Georgians, and it is not easy to obtain. My copy has not arrived yet, so in the meantime, Wikipedia is my source, though it appears to have the information entered by someone from the Department of Agriculture or at least by someone with a vested interest in the success of Georgian wines. It reads more like an advertisement than an encyclopedic reference, but what are you gonna do?

Kindzmarauli is a red wine, made from the Saperavi grape, that is vinified in a semi-sweet style. I am not clear on whether there is sugar added or whether the fermentation is stopped with some residual sugar (UPDATE: it seems that grapes are picked extraordinarily ripe and the fermentation is halted before all the sugar converts to alcohol. My best guess is that they drop the temperature to kill off the yeast in order to keep some of the sugar around but I'm not 100% sure). The vines are cultivated on the slopes of the Caucasus mountain range in the Kvareli region of Kakheti, Georgia, which is in the far eastern part of the country. Most of the wine I've been able to find from Georgia comes from Kakheti.

I will say right off the bat that, as a general rule, I'm not a fan of red wines with any sweetness except for ports or other red dessert wines like Brachetto d'Acqui. That said, I tried to table that particular prejudice and approach Kindzmarauli with an open mind.

The bottle that I had was from the same producer as the Mukuzani that I enjoyed, JSC Corporation (pictured at right). The vintage was 2007 and the price was $16. The wine had the same intense saturation of the Mukuzani, again from the intense pigmentation of the teinturier grape variety, Saperavi. It had an inky, dark black core with a bright purple rim to it. On the nose, the wine was a little grapey and instantly reminded me of grape juice. There were also blueberry and strawberry jam notes to it as well. The nose wasn't explosive, but it was persistent and pleasant.

On the palate, the wine had a full mouthfeel with medium acidity. There was a little tannic bite to it, but it was very faint. Grape juice, again, was the dominant impression here. There was also black cherry and blackcurrant jam tastes. All of the fruit flavors here were thick, ripe and jammy. The sweetness was definitely noticeable, but it wasn't cloying. This certainly isn't a dessert wine, though it does seem like it would be a natural fit with some milk chocolate. I tried the wine with a little bit of cheese, which was a very bad idea and I do not recommend that you do the same. I had the wine with a pan seared trout for dinner and while it wasn't a spectacular match, it was more than serviceable. It's one of the few wines I can think of that might be perfect with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

So did it convert me to the semi-sweet red wine world? Not exactly. I will not be looking for other Kinzmarauli bottlings from this producer or others, but I will probably check out other semi-sweet reds from Georgia and other regions (I currently have one waiting for me that is an Italian wine from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cesanese grapes). It seems to me that many of the Eastern European wines that I see in shops are semi-sweet, and I'd hate to write off a whole corner of the world without giving them a fair shot.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dry Furmint

Furmint is one of those grapes that is typically hidden behind a geographical name. Its best known incarnation is in the sweet, botrytized wines of Tokaji, Hungary, where it is blended with a few other native grapes and known as Tokaji Aszú. This sweet wine has been known and widely consumed for several centuries, as there are references to Aszú wines as far back as 1576. It was frequently served at royal tables throughout Europe and the list of notable people who have written about Aszú wines reads like a who's who of world culture. The region where Aszú is made was the site of the first appellation control in the history of wine, predating the Port system by several decades. Aszú is so important, it is even mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem!

Tokaji Aszú isn't particularly easy to find in the United States, but it's not terribly difficult either. Most wine stores with a fairly large inventory generally will stock at least one sweet Tokaji wine. The dry version, however, is a different story. Very little of it is exported to the US and the only place I've been able to find any is an Eastern European specialty store in Brookline, MA. The bottle I picked up was from the Royal Tokaji company, a top-flight producer of Aszú wines best known to me because of British wine writer Hugh Johnson's part ownership of the company. The vintage was 2007 and the price tag was a hefty $25.

In the glass, the wine had a straw color tending to yellow gold. The color was darker than I expected in a wine this young, and I soon found out why. Strong vanilla in the nose makes me think this wine saw a lot of new oak. It reminded me very strongly of California Chardonnay, which is either very nice or very unwelcome, depending on your tolerance for that winemaking style. In this case, I really wanted to get a sense of the varietal itself, and it felt like the grape was hiding behind a massive wall of oak. Furmint is apparently not particularly aromatic, much like Chardonnay, so I may not be missing much, but it was still a bit of a disappointment. I was looking for something new and interesting and instead found something that I can buy pretty much anywhere in the US, though it was much cheaper than many high-end Chardonnay bottlings.

Anyhow, the wine itself was full-bodied, rich and creamy in the mouth. There was a lot of ripe apple and pear flavors along with the creamy vanilla. I picked up a little bit of light citrus flavors reminiscent of lemon peel, but not a lot. Considering the fact that Furmint is traditionally known for it's high acidity, this wine was surprisingly flat. It is generally that strong acidic core that allows Aszú wines to age for so long, and it just wasn't really in this wine. Don't get me wrong, the wine wasn't flabby; there was just enough acidity there to keep the body of the wine from going totally over the top, but it wasn't as pronounced as I had expected. Overall, the wine was fairly balanced and tasted pretty good, but there wasn't anything new or exciting about it. You can get something that tastes almost exactly like this from practically every winery in California who is producing a Chardonnay.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rhode Island Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is difficult to grow. Well, difficult to grow well, in any case. It is a notoriously fickle, thin-skinned grape that prefers cooler climates than varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. The thin skins make the clusters more susceptible to vineyard maladies and also provide less intense coloration than many of the other great red wines of the world. Marq de Villiers has written a fascinating study of the Calera winery in California titled The Heartbreak Grape, a nod to a popular description of Pinot Noir. Andre Tchelistcheff, the great Russian-born winemaking pioneer of Napa Valley's Beaulieu Vineyards, has said "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."

There are very few places in the world where Pinot Noir can truly flourish and come completely into its own. There's Burgundy, of course, Oregon, very specific places in California, and lately some parts of New Zealand. But Rhode Island?

Diamond Hill Vineyard is located just a few miles off of I-295 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The tasting room is in a 200+ year old farm house at the end of a very long driveway that makes it easy to forget just how close you are to the scramble of interstate traffic. They've been growing vinfera vines in the state since 1976, longer than any other winery in Rhode Island, including Sakonnet, the state's flagship winery. Diamond Hill has a small acreage devoted to grapes: 5.5 acres total, with 4.5 of that devoted to Pinot Noir and 1 to Chardonnay. They produce only about 300 cases of pinot noir each year. The bulk of the wines they offer are fruit wines.

Their Pinot Noir is called Berntson and currently retails for about $25. The bottle I picked up from the winery was a 2005 (all sales are on-site). It is classic cold-weather Pinot Noir. A very pale burgundy color with some brown tint that is totally transparent. The nose is full of small red berry fruit: raspberry, wild strawberry and some delicate red cherry aromas surrounded by earthy aromas of wet leaves and damp earth. The wine is light bodied and delicate on the palate with medium acidity. The fruits are light and soft with the same raspberry and cooked strawberry. There is definitely an earthiness here that I get in a lot of Burgundies. It always reminds me of walking through the woods when I was little kid after a huge rainstorm. I label it as "wet leaves," but it's really a full wet forest vibe that I absolutely love and miss in my new urban lifestyle. There are virtually no tannins and the result is a silky texture across the tongue. If I were inclined to these kinds of descriptors, this would be the platonic ideal of a "feminine" wine. It doesn't really have very much aging potential not only because of its structure, but also because Diamond Hill uses very little sulfur in their vinification process.

Is Rhode Island the next great terroir for Pinot Noir? Probably not. Newport Vineyards also makes a Pinot in much the same style while Westport Rivers, just over the state line in Massachusetts, primarily uses their Pinot Noir grapes in the production of sparkling wines and rosés. The very light colors and flavors of this wine suggest to me that it is a real struggle for the grape to fully ripen this far north. But the Berntson Pinot from Diamond Hill is a very interesting wine from an interesting location. This is my first tasting of their Pinot, and I will definitely be back to sample other vintages.

Monday, October 4, 2010

White Xinomavro?

Today's post is a kind of double whammy of weirdness. Honestly, I have no idea what I drank this weekend. I only know what was on the bottle, and frankly, I'm not sure if I trust it.

I went to a local wine shop last week and was scrounging around in their Greek section when I came across a bottle labeled as xinomavro. I've been on the lookout for a good xinomavro based wine for awhile because I've read some really good things about the grape and am curious to check it out myself. One problem: everything I've read has said that xinomavro is a red wine grape and the bottle I picked up was a white wine. I even asked the proprietor about the disconnect between what I'd read and what I was seeing and was met with a shrug and nothing more. Now, I do know that white wine can be made from red grapes; if the grapes are pressed lightly and allowed almost no contact with the skins, then the resulting juice will be clear and will make white wine. I've had a white pinot noir from Germany that was vinified this way which was interesting, but made me wonder why someone would do that to a perfectly good pinot noir grape. In any case, I probably should have put the bottle on the shelf and slowly backed away, but curiosity got the better of me, and here I am, confused and disappointed.

I don't think I'll go into a lot of depth here with any history or interesting facts about xinomavro because, frankly, I have my doubts that what I tasted was actually xinomavro, so I'll save that info for when I get a legitimate bottle. I have tried and tried in vain to find some information somewhere online about a xinomavro white but keep coming up empty. I can't find any reference even to the producer of this bottle online. The only information I have is what's printed on the back label, which is no help at all. It does claim that what is in the bottle is "nothing short of spectacular," which is pretty self-congratulatory, even for a bottle blurb.

So what did I get? As far as I can tell, I got mineral water with a little alcohol added. The wine's color was very pale straw. A whiff of the glass yielded nothing. A vigorous swirl and another sniff: still nothing. My hand on top of the glass, shaking the glass like I was trying to mix up a paint can: still nothing. A very clean, very dumb, very boring nose. If I tried really hard, I could maybe, almost get a whiff of something like melon, but honestly, it could have just been my brain trying desperately to locate anything at all in my glass.

On the palate, still nothing. This was a light to medium bodied wine with very little acidity and almost no flavor. I thought maybe I had over-chilled the wine at first so I let it sit on the counter and come down to room temperature. Now I had room temperature alcoholic mineral water. If I had to make a comparison to another type of wine, well, it's tough to draw a comparison because of how plain this bottling really is. Stainless steel chardonnay minus all the green apple flavors? Muscadet with none of the crisp acidity or minerality? Cold water really comes closest to describing this, I guess.

The lesson here is that research is pretty key when shopping for wine. Hell, I even knew that the word "xinomavro" meant "acid-black" in Greek from some of my reading, and I let the shrug of the salesman convince me that maybe I was thinking of something else and was in fact mistaken. What I ended up with was a disappointment, but luckily it wasn't too costly. The bottle I picked up was a 2006 Eleftherios Estates Xinomavro White for about $14. I can't recommend this wine to anybody except maybe wine drinkers who don't enjoy the taste of wine.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mukuzani - Saperavi

Today's wine is one that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to purchasing the bottle you see on the left. I was in a local wine shop, Brookline Fine Wine & Gourmet, which has an nice selection of Greek and Eastern European wines, looking for new things to try when I stumbled across this bottle. My familiarity with Georgian wine begins and ends with the trivial bit of information that the Rkatsiteli grape is native to that country and is grown voluminously there (Rkatsiteli is grown in limited quantities in the Northeastern US and will be the subject of a future post on this blog).

So I went ahead and bought the bottle. I've done some research since, and it turns out that Georgia is a pretty highly regarded wine country in Eastern Europe and their wines are considered the best of all the former Soviet Republics. They rank second in production for the region behind only Moldova (there's Moldova again!). Wine history in this region goes back to between 7000 and 5000 BC and there are nearly 500 native vinifera varietals! Of those, only 38 are grown commercially, and one of those grapes is saperavi.

Saperavi is a very unusual grape. It belongs to a group known as teinturier grapes which are unique because in addition to having red skins, they also have red pulps, and therefore red juice. Most red wine grapes have dark skins and clear pulps; the color in your red wine comes from the juice's contact with the skins during the fermentation process. The pulp of teinturier grapes contains the pigment anthocyanin (the same pigment that gives beets and red berries their color and which is also a powerful antioxidant) which gives it its unusual color. Few teinturier grapes are used as the primary grape in a bottle of wine, but saperavi is one of them. Saperavi originated in the Kakheti region of Georgia, but is planted widely throughout the country. This particular bottle is from Kakheti, a rare chance to taste a wine produced in a grape's natural home.

So what does Mukuzani mean? Well, Georgian wine is labeled much like French and Italian wine. What you see on the bottle is the name of the place where the wine comes from, and within those places, very particular kinds of wines are made. Mukuzani is an area in Kakheti where they are only allowed to make dry wines from 100% saperavi grapes. These wines tend to be made from grapes selected for their high quality and are watched over very carefully through the vinification process. The wine must be kept in oak for 3 years before release.

What does it taste like? I'll confess, when I first opened it, I had a sinking feeling. The cork popped and a very sour smell came out of the bottle. It's a smell that I've never been able to pin down, but it seems to hang around cheap, poorly produced bottles and tends to make the wine taste sour and out of balance. A first sniff in the glass and a first taste weren't very encouraging either. The smell and flavor were akin to canned, stewed tomatoes. In color, it was dark. Really dark. Opaque, inky black in the middle to a crimson rim. At the time, I was not aware that saperavi was a teinturier grape (I'll confess, I had never heard of teinurier grapes until about an hour ago when I was doing research for this post), so the deep, intense color was bit mystifying to me, given how hollow and sour the initial nose was. At first sip, the wine was definitely full bodied with soft, well-integrated tannins, but it just tasted a little off. I poured a full glass, finished making dinner, and then sat down with the wine one more time.

An amazing thing happened. The sour, tinny, stewed smell dissipated and in its wake was a dense, solid core of charcoal, pencil lead and dark dark dark cherries. Those flavors persisted on the palate and added some notes of black licorice and a lingering kind of scorched taste, but not in a bad way. Scorched like how sometimes a pizza from a really hot brick oven gets some black spots on the crust and those little scorched bits add complexity and character to it. That's what these flavors were like. If I had to make a comparison, I would say that it reminds me of wines from the hotter parts of the Rhone Valley like Gigondas, or even of a Paulliac from Bordeaux with the pencil lead and dark black flavors.

The take home message here is that this wine is dark in every way you can think of. It is inky black in color with charcoal, smoky, ripe black fruits in the nose and palate. It is dense and layered. It is probably the Platonic Ideal of wine to serve with grilled meats, especially steak or sausage. If I have a gripe, it's that I think it could have stood to have a bit more tannic structure to hold some of that density up and the acidity could have used a little boost as well (I would rate it as low/med acidity), but on the whole, this was a huge shock and a very pleasant surprise to me. I think the producer of my bottle was JSC Corporation, but that's a guess. The picture above is the same bottle I had (mine was a 2005 vintage) and it only cost $13. This is a stellar wine at that price, and would probably improve with a few more years in the bottle.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Agiorgitiko (St. George) - Nemea, Greece

I've been curious about Greek wine for quite some time but have never been able to work up sufficient courage to dive into the subject. The grape names are foreign and exotic, the producers are totally alien to me, and I just don't have any real frame of reference. I guess I kind of expected Greek wine to resemble Italian wine in the kind of way that the Roman Gods resemble the Greek Gods or in the way that the countries can kind of resemble one another when viewing them on a map (sort of, if you kind of squint and let your mind wander...). But I guess if there was enough of a correlation between the products of the two countries, then one might expect them to be similarly represented in the world marketplace, which is certainly not the case. Italy is currently number one in world production while Greece is a distant 15th in production (one slot behind Moldova!). Italy produces about 15 times more wine than Greece does and has about 9 times more land devoted to vineyard acreage.

In any case, I decided it was high time to see what they were up to on the Greek Isles and sample some wines with really long, funny sounding names.

First up was the Agiorgitiko grape which is much easier to say and spell in its Anglicized form, St. George. This grape is an indigenous Greek varietal and grows in the Peloponnese, most famously home to the ancient city-state of Sparta. Apparently Agiorgitiko is a pretty hardy grape that takes well to very warm climates, which is good because temperatures apparently regularly top out over 100 degree Fahrenheit in Nemea, the town best known for its Agiorgitiko plantings.

The bottle I bought was a 2007 Agiorgitiko from Skouras Estate, who apparently spells the grape Aghiorghitiko. A bit of googling finds that they are in a distinct minority with this spelling, but it's their wine and they can spell it however they want, I suppose. The bottle set me back $15.

The wine was a dark garnet color with a little bit of a purple hue. It was fairly densely saturated and there wasn't much of a color change near the rim. The deep garnet color was pretty steady all the way out.

The nose started out a little bit sour and acetic, but was really dominated by dark fleshy fruit flavors. Plum and some prune aromas were there, but overall, it wasn't a particularly aromatic wine and it took some pretty concentrated sniffing to be able to tease any individual aromas out of the glass.

First impression on the palate: juicy and a little thin. Black cherry and plum flavors were the main fruit components, but they tasted a little stewed. Fine, powdery tannins were present right after I opened the bottle, but they dissipated after about half an hour. The acidity was a little out of whack on this one, making the wine taste kind of sour. There was some kind of spicy undertones going on, but I couldn't nail them down. Clove? Nutmeg? Something in that vein. My wife took a taste and described it tasting "like flat Cold Duck." I'll have to take her word on that.

So is it any good? Well, it's not terrible. This wine was pretty one dimensional and plain with a pretty short finish. It wasn't particularly well balanced and really could have used some extra weight on the palate to carry those dark fruit flavors and even out the acidity a little bit. I'm not a Greek wine convert after this bottle, but I'm also not writing them off wholesale either. I'm definitely going to try some other producers for Agiorgitiko and will hopefully expand over into Xinomavro and Assyritiko territory at some point in the near future as well.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bull's Blood - Egri Bikaver, Hungary

If you spend enough time exploring some of the more neglected corners of your local wine shop, you may run across this colorfully named wine from Hungary. Egri Bikaver, which translates as "bull's blood from Eger" (Eger is the region in Hungary where this wine originates), is a blend of several different grapes. As far as I can tell, the blending is not standardized, so this wine can potentially have a wide range of different styles and tastes. The grapes that are supposed to comprise the blend are Kadarka, Kekfrankos (known as Blaufrankish in Austria or Lemberger in Germany), Kekoporto (Portugieser in Austria and Germany), Cab Sauv., Cab Franc, Merlot, Kekmedoc (also known as Menoire), Pinot Noir, Blauberger and Zweigelt. Yikes!

From what I can gather, historically Kadarka was the primary grape used for this blend, but it is a finicky grower and many producers have reduced its role while promoting Kekfrankos to the forefront. Oz Clarke and Hugh Johnson seem to think that this is a turn away from quality, but since I've never tasted "classic" Egri Bikaver, it's hard for me to say.

So what about that name? Legendary accounts have it that during a Turkish invasion, a group of soldiers in Eger were under siege in the Castle of Eger. To give them strength to repel the invasion (and, apparently, some liquid courage), they were given a banquet with a great deal of food and a whole lot of wine. They must have really tied it on during the feast, because when they showed up on the battlefield, their shirts were covered in the dark red wine. The Turks believed that the Hungarian defenders had been drinking bull's blood to give them strength in battle, and so they gave up.

So what does it taste like? I bought a bottle of Egervin's 2007 Bull's Blood for a whopping $7.99 to find out.

In the glass, it was a dark magenta color that was pretty solid out to the rim. It turned a little ruby at the edges. It wasn't as saturated as you might think something called Bull's Blood might be. It looked like a young, pretty well-extracted California Pinot Noir in the glass.

The nose was very juicy with a lot of red berry smells. Raspberry and light cherries were the predominant flavors. It wasn't a spectacular nose, but for $8, things were starting to look a little promising.

The wine was light to medium bodied, which was a big surprise. I've seen these bottles before and just assumed that there was a big tannic monster lurking in there. Not so, apparently. There were virtually no tannins in the wine at all and the fruit flavors were light cherry and some raspberry as well. The wine has a sky-high acidity and the finish turns a little musty and sour. This is certainly not a wine for contemplation or in-depth analysis; rather, it is a very food-friendly wine which would pair nicely with tomato based dishes or moderately heavy chicken and pork dishes. I'd probably stay away from steaks or roasts as it just doesn't have the tannin or heft to stand up to that kind of treatment.

It definitely reminded me of the few Lemberger's that I've had, in that it also reminded me somewhat of a pinot noir. It has the same kinds of ripe, light red berry fruits and low tannin that I associate with lower-tier California Pinot Noir. My guess would be that this is one of the Egri's that lean heavily on the Kekfrankos grape as opposed to the denser Kadarka. I will definitely keep my eyes open and try different brands if I see them around and will post updates below.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Torrontés - Argentina

I figured I'd kick this blog off with a post about a wine that is available across the country, but which many people may not have tried.

Torrontés is a white wine which is a specialty of Argentina. There are apparently quite a few different grapes, all very closely related genetically but not identical, that typically make up a bottling of Torrontés. Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino, and Torrontés Mendocino are the three individual varieties most likely to be in your bottle of Torrontés, with Torrontés Riojano being the best of the bunch, quality-wise. All three variations are thought to come from a crossing of Mission, a grape with a long history in California, and Muscat of Alexandria, which will make a lot more sense to you once you get a whiff of a good Torrontés.

Torrontés is amazingly aromatic, with an explosively floral nose that smells an awful lot like a Moscato D'Asti or a late harvest Muscat from Alsace. One sniff and you'll swear you're about to drink something rich and sweet, but when the wine hits your tongue, confusion sets in. The wine is light and crisp with green apple flavors. The flowers disappear on the palate and the rich, heady wine you were expecting never materializes. It's a slightly disorienting experience that I have every single time I try a Torrontés. I know it's not going to big and sweet, but the message I get from my nose and my mouth just don't want to mesh together.

So should you try it? Absolutely. If the wine were merely an exercise in sensory discordance, it wouldn't be worth much at all, but it does deliver in its own unique way. Come for the nose, stay for the flavor. It is an excellent summertime sipper and pairs with a wide variety of foods. Think somewhere between a Sauvignon Blanc and a dry Riesling to get a good idea of food matches.

Alamos and Crios are the two producers I have seen the most. The Alamos bottling is a little more restrained and certainly more austere on the palate. The Crios has such a positively knee-buckling aroma that you may be tempted to dab a little behind your ears. It's a bit fuller bodied and flavored on the palate than the Alamos as well. Both bottlings are available for around $15-$20.