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, 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.