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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hondarrabi Beltza - Getariako and Bizkaiko Txakolina, Spain

Autochthonous (pronounced aw-tok-thuh-nuhs) is a fun word.  It's come up a bit in some of the research I've done and I've never bothered to look it up until today.  It's essentially a really fancy word for "indigenous" or "native"  and, for some reason, is used with shocking frequency to describe wine grapes.  If you can wrap your tongue around it after a few glasses of wine, you can throw it around at your next soiree and impress, well, the kind of people who are impressed by those sorts of things.

It came up for me today as I was doing some research on the grape Hondarrabi Beltza.  There are two Hondarrabis: Zuri, the white skinned version (which will be talked about in a separate post) and Beltza, the red-skinned version, which we'll talk about here.  Both versions are autochthonal (I think that's the correct part of speech) to the Basque region, which spans the Spanish/French border in northeastern Spain (and thus southwestern France).  Politically and sociologically, there's a lot of stuff to write about regarding the Basque area, but I'm going to forgo most of that as it falls a bit outside of my sphere of interest.

The area of the Basque Country that we are concerned with here is a sub-section within Spain (also, somewhat confusingly, simply referred to as "Basque Country") which is essentially autonomous and has very little to do with the rest of the country.  This area has much cooler weather than other parts of Spain and gets a lot of rain which creates conditions that don't exactly add up to what one would usually consider prime wine real estate, but the tradition of wine here goes back several thousand years and the people are fiercely independent and take a great deal of pride in the wines they are able to produce from their land.

Within this region, there are three small (and I mean small...each area is less than 100 hectares) areas which produce a wine known as Txakoli (pronounced cha-co-li).  I'll talk more about two of the regions below, but the smallest of the three regions is called Arabako Txakolina and it consists of a scant 50 hectares of land.  This area was created (for DO purposes) in 2003 and, unlike the other areas, it allows for some French grapes (like Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu) to be used.  For the most part, the Txakoli wines are high acid, slightly sparkling white wines made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape with some Hondarrabi Beltza blended in.  

The first wine that I tried was a rosato wine from the Getariako Txakolina region, which is the largest of the three areas with 84 hectares of land under vine.  The blend here is 50% Hondarrabi Beltza and 50% Hondarrabi Zuri.  Both grapes are grown in this region, but for the white wines, the Beltza grapes are pressed and immediately run off the skins so that the wine stays white.  For this wine, I believe that the Beltza grapes may be made into a red wine and then blended with the white wine from the Zuri grapes to create a pink wine, but I'm not totally sure (if anyone knows, please feel free to correct me in the comments).  Whatever the case may be, the importer claims that the wine is made from vines that are over 150 years old.  If you look closely at the label, you can see a little picture of a guy wearing an awesome hat.  That guy is Juan Sebastian Elcano who was a Basque explorer who was technically the first person to circumnavigate the globe (he was Magellan's second in command and took over the ship after Magellan died prior to the circumnavigating journey's end).  When he returned to his home after his trip, he was celebrated with Txacoli wine and they're obviously still pretty proud of him today.

I picked up this bottle of 2009 Ameztoi Rubentis Txakoli for about $20 from my friends at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass, the wine had a pale salmon-pink color and was showing a little petillance.  The nose was very aromatic with fresh cut strawberries and watermelon aromas.  It was all fruit on the nose, but that didn't carry over so much to the palate.  The wine was light bodied with high acidity and just a slight touch of fizz to it.  It clocks in at 10.5% alcohol, but was bone dry with some strawberry fruit but it mostly had a minerally kind of taste to it that reminded me of quinine.  On the whole, this was a little like drinking slightly fruity tonic water, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not exactly a great thing either.  It was very clean and refreshing and would complement a lot of seafood dishes.

The other wine I was able to try was from the smaller Bizkaiko Txakolina region, which has only about 60 hectares of land under vine.  Hondarrabi Beltza is more common in this area and they make more red table wines than the other Txakoli producing regions.  The Gorrondona estate has 12 hectares of land under vine and only two of those are dedicated to Hondarrabi Beltza.  They claim that these vines pre-date the phylloxera epidemic, which decimated the Basque region in the 19th Century.  Prior to phylloxera, it was estimated that the Basque region had more than 1,000 hectares of land under vine.  Phylloxera completely ravaged the area, decimating nearly all the vineyards, and many people didn't bother to replant afterwards, which is why today the three Txakoli regions have less than 200 hectares of land under vine.

I was able to find this bottle of the 2009 Gorrondona from my friends at The Wine Bottega for about $30.  In the glass, this wine was a medium purple-ruby color with a meaty, stewed nose.  There were aromas of stewed black cherries and something kind of tomato-y about it.  There were also spicy blackberry and black plum aromas and an earthy coffee ground smell as well.  On the palate, this was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and medium tannins that had a little bit of a grip to them.  It needed a little while to open up and when it did, there was blackberry and black cherry fruit with some peppery plum flavors and little bit of funk to it.  Many people compare these wines to the Cabernet Franc based wines from the Loire Valley, and I can kind of see that.  It was a little more intense than many Cab Franc based wines that I've had and definitely had a little more funkiness to it.  It was a very savory wine that would go well with many meat dishes.  $30 is pretty steep for what you're getting, but considering the extraordinarily limited production, it's probably not that bad of a deal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dornfelder - Rheinhessen, Germany and Finger Lakes, NY, USA

On the grand stage of wine, Dornfelder is a relative newcomer.  We know this because we know exactly when it came into being and exactly what its parents were.  Unlike most vines that are propagated today, Dornfelder was created in a lab and is not the result of chance coupled with selective cloning. It's still considered a vinifera grape, as its parents and all of its ancestors are vinifera grapes, which is actually more important than whether it was created in nature or in a lab.  Technically speaking, all of the vinifera grapes that are made into wine are crossings, it's just that most of them happened in nature rather than in a lab setting. 

As mentioned in my posts on Scheurebe and Kerner, German wine production areas are located in marginal climate zones and they have some difficulty getting grapes to ripen fully in many areas of the country.  To combat that problem, the Germans created several research institutes whose aim was to develop new grapes through crossings and hybridization that would be better suited to some of the more extreme climactic conditions in some areas of Germany (there's a similar situation in New York at Cornell University).  The process isn't simple and it can take several decades for a new crossing to go through the testing and approval process prior to release.  Dornfelder, for instance, was created in 1956 by crossing Helfensteiner (itself a cross between Frühburgunder, a small-berried mutation of Pinot Noir, and Trollinger, also known as Schiava) and Heroldrebe (a cross between Portugieser and Lemberger), but it wasn't approved for cultivation until 1979.  It is said that Dornfelder has some DNA trace of every red wine grape grown in Germany due to its breeding history.  Dr. August Herold was its creator and, unfortunately for Herold, he lent his own name to another of his creations, Heroldrebe, which has never really taken off (there are about 200 ha under vine in Germany).  Dornfelder was named for August Ludwig Dornfeld who was one of the key figures in establishing the viticultural school in Weinsberg, Germany, where Dornfelder was created.

In its short existence, Dornfelder has really taken hold of the German wine world.  It is currently second in vineyard area for red grapes, behind only Pinot Noir (here called Spätburgunder).  It's a hardy grape, resistant to many vineyard diseases and it is capable of extremely high yields, but the main reason for its popularity in the vineyards of Germany is its deep coloring.  Up until 1971, German wine makers were allowed to add juice from outside of Germany to give their red wines some extra color.  Many of the red grapes grown in Germany are either naturally low in pigment or cannot get ripe enough in the German climate in order to provide deep coloration for the wines.  Once the law was rewritten to ban this practice, Dornfelder became very important as it is capable of producing deep color and achieving higher ripeness levels than Portugieser or Schiava.  It also doesn't hurt that the juice from the grapes is capable of making pretty decent wine, a claim that very few of the crossings or hybrids produced in the German research institutes (or anywhere else for that matter) can make.

I was able to try two different Dornfelder wines, one from its native Germany and one from the Finger Lakes region of New York.  The first wine I tried was a 2007 Georg Albrecht Schneider Dornfelder from the Rheinhessen region of Germany.  I paid about $10 for this wine at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass, the wine was a dense, opaque ruby-purple color.  The nose was pretty simple with spicy sour cherry and juicy red fruit.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and soft tannins.  Juicy is a word that keeps popping in my review, as the palate was characterized by juicy red fruit with cherry and some blackberry flavors.  This was pretty much all fruit which, it turns out, is one of the hallmarks of wines made from Dornfelder.  It's not a grape that's going to knock you out with incredible depth or complexity, but it is going to give you a nice, fruity drink.  Think Beaujolais with a bit more richness and you'll be on the right track.  There are producers who are seriously cutting down their yields and aging these wines in oak barrels in an attempt to make a more serious style of wine, but I've not been able to try any of them and frankly, I'm not sure if it's really that necessary.  The world is full of painfully serious wines and sometimes you just want something soft and fruity.

The next wine I tried was from Fulkerson Winery on Seneca Lake in New York State.  It was their 2008 Dornfelder bottling and I picked it up at the winery for $12.  The market this as a Beaujolais style wine, but I'm not sure what the production method for it is.  I suspect part of it is done with carbonic maceration, but I wouldn't swear to it.  They are also one of only two producers growing Dornfelder and are the only producer to produce a varietal bottling (according to their website).  The Finger Lakes has such great success with Riesling that I was very curious to see if that would translate to success with a German red as well.  In the glass, the wine had medium saturation with a ruby core fading to a lavender rim.  It was pretty light as far as Dornfelder usually goes.  The nose was shy with some red cherry and a kind of bubble gum aroma .  On the palate, the wine was light to medium bodied with acidity on the higher side of medium, which is pretty surprising as Dornfelder is typically known for its low acidity.  At this point, I'm starting to seriously wonder about the ripeness level of the grapes being used for this wine as the color doesn't seem fully developed, the palate was a little thin and the acidity really seemed out of whack.  There was some red cherry fruit here and a bit of spicy plum but it also had kind of a tinny, metallic taste.  It's a hard wine to recommend, which is a shame, because I feel like the grape itself may have some potential in this region.  Fulkerson is not exactly at the forefront of quality wine production in the Finger Lakes, so their effort is certainly not indicative of what the grape can potentially do there.  I'd definitely like to see someone else in the region give it a shot, though, as it's an enjoyable wine that can be made in a difficult climate.

For anyone interested, I recently wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Cork Report that dealt specifically with grape selection in that region.  You can check it out here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gaglioppo - Cirò, Calabria, Italy

It feels sometimes like hardly a week goes by where there isn't some interesting grape from Italy for me to write about.  Last week we took a trip into southern Italy to explore Negroamaro.  Today we'll stay in southern Italy but move away from the heel and into the toe of the boot to end up in Calabria.

Historically, Calabria was known as Enotria, which means "land of wine."  I'm unclear, though, whether it was because of the wine produced there or whether it was because it was named for a guy named Oenotrus who, as the legend has it, left Greece to settle there and became its first king.  Whatever the case happens to be, vineyards in Calabria date back to ancient Greek times and many of the grapes grown in the region have been grown there in some capacity for the last 3000 years. 

One of those grapes is Gaglioppo.  Gaglioppo is a somewhat hardy grape, able to survive the hot, dry conditions of Calabria but still susceptible to a few fungal diseases.  It's unusual in that it has fairly thick skins but isn't particularly tannic.  It was thought for many years that Gaglioppo, like Calabria's first king, was an import from Greece, but recent DNA evidence doesn't seem to support that interpretation.  In an article from 2008, a team of researchers found that Gaglioppo (along with a host of other Italian grapes) likely has a parent-offspring relationship with Sangiovese.  The writing in that article is pretty dense, but from what I can gather, their DNA analysis seems to indicate that Sangiovese is likely one of the two parents for Gaglioppo, which means that Gaglioppo is likely native to Italy and not a Greek import at all. 

A study done in 2010 has confirmed that Gaglioppo is an offspring of Sangiovese.  The full parentage of Gaglioppo is Sangiovese x Mantonico Bianco.  Source: Cipriani, G. et al.  The SSR-based molecular profile of 1005 grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions uncovers new synonymy and parentages, and reveals a large admixture amongst varieties of different geographic origin.  2010.  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  121: 1569-1585.

Modern day Calabrian wine isn't something that many people get too excited about.  As little as 5% of the agricultural land in Calabria is devoted to the vine, and nearly all of it (up to 90%) is used for red wine production.  Of that production, only about 4% is classified as DOC wine with the rest ending up as IGT, table wine or fodder for the distillery.  There are 12 DOC regions (no DOCGs), of which the most well known is Cirò, which may not be saying much.  The Oxford Companion to Wine's entire entry on Cirò reads: "the only DOC of any quantitative significance in the southern Italian region of Calabria." Wines made in Cirò must contain at least 95% Gaglioppo with up to 5% of the white grapes Greco and/or Trebbiano allowed.

I was able to track down a 2007 Librandi "Duca San Felice" Cirò Riserva for about $20.  The wine was a pale ruby color in the glass, but the nose was very aromatic with spicy, savory red berry fruit like crushed raspberries.  It also had a kind of distinctive meaty aroma to it that was really interesting.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with high acid and low tannins.  I was surprised, since most of what I'd read about the grape led me to believe it tended to be a big, tannic kind of wine.  I don't know if four years of bottle age is sufficient to tame the beast, but I'd be surprised if all the stuffing fell out of the wine that fast.  The wine was very savory with spicy raspberry fruit and a kind of smoky meatiness to it.  My wife commented that it tasted to her like a cross between Pinot Noir and Nero d'Avola, and that comparison makes sense to me.  It's a great food wine that would go with everything from pizza to grilled meats.  It's a good wine for the money, but at $20, it's not exactly a bargain for what you'll get out of it.  It is definitely worth trying, though, and it's something I'd be eager to try at different stages of development and from different producers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poulsard - Arbois, Jura, France

Yesterday we talked a bit about one of the Jura's two unusual red grapes Trousseau.  Today we'll visit with Trousseau's lesser known and, in many ways, more provincial running-mate Poulsard (often spelled Ploussard by many Jura producers).  I say more provincial because while Trousseau can be found (albeit in limited quantities) in a few other wine regions throughout the world, Poulsard is found virtually nowhere else on earth outside of a small area in eastern France.

There are several good reasons for that, and almost all of them have to do with the grape's skin.  As you can see from the picture on the left, Poulsard is a very thin-skinned grape, which has a lot of consequences both in the winery and in the vineyard.  In the winery, the grapes tend to produce very lightly colored wines that can resemble rosé wines more than full-throttle reds.  The grape has so little pigmentation that it is often bolstered with fellow thin-skinned grape Pinot Noir to provide a bit of extra color and extraction.  This isn't a problem in itself, but it is a problem in the marketplace where dense reds are what many consumers are looking for.  That's a style of wine that Poulsard just isn't ever going to make.

In the vineyard, the thin skins mean that the grape is difficult to grow.  The only thing that is protecting the juice inside of each berry is the grape's skin and the thinner that skin is, the more susceptible the grapes are to a variety of diseases.  Poulsard is particularly vulnerable to various fungal diseases and rot, which makes sense as these are all diseases that tend to thrive when there is a breach in the skin at some point and the sugary juice is exposed to whatever pathogens are floating around in the air.  Couple these problems with the vine's tendency to yield irregularly and it starts to make sense that plantings of the grape are declining.  Poulsard was, at one time, the most planted grape in the Jura but it has recently fallen to number two behind Chardonnay.

The upside for Poulsard is that it is a very versatile grape once it gets to the winery.  Sure, the light style is a barrier to producing blockbusters, but it lends itself very well to sparkling wines (such as the Crémant du Jura written about earlier) and it adds a nice red berry fruit character to the vin de paille wines made in the area without being overwhelming.  The red wines made from the grape also happen to be excellent with a little chill on them and are wonderful for summertime (I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but we're in the mid-90's here lately and the thought of chugging a Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon makes me a little nauseous right now).

I was able to try two different Poulsard based wines, both of which I picked up from my friends at The Wine Bottega.  The first was a 2009 Michel Gahier from Arbois, Jura, that I picked up for about $25.  In the glass, the wine was a medium pink color.  The nose was moderately open with aromas of raspberries, wet tea leaves and damp earth.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acid and, surprisingly, a little bit of tannic grip to it.  Right out of the bottle, the wine was a little tight and tasted fairly thin but it opened up quickly with flavors of wild strawberries, tart cherries, raspberries and black tea.  This was kind of the mirror image of yesterday's Trousseau from Gahier which was wild and savage on the nose but came up a little short on the palate.  The nose on this wine never really erupted but the palate was full of juicy red fruit with a little earthiness to ground it.  Again, the comparison point for this is probably Pinot Noir or possibly something like Schiava.

The second bottle I tried was a NV bottling from Philippe Bornard called "Tant-Mieux."  This was a fizzy Poulsard that was bottled under crown cap and clocked in at 9.5% alcohol.  It's bottled as table wine, presumably because of the fizz, which I'm guessing isn't allowed in the Jura DOC.  The bottle set me back about $35.  In the glass, the wine was a dark salmon pink color with pretty substantial bubbles.  The nose was pretty assertive and tasted kind of like strawberries and a slightly funky cheese.  I know that doesn't sound particularly appetizing, but it was definitely working here.  On the palate the wine was light and was maybe a little sweeter than off-dry with nice acidity.  There was a lot of nice strawberry fruit and, overall, the wine kind of made think about what it would be like to drink fizzy strawberry jam.  My guess is that it would be pretty similar to drinking this.  This doesn't have a lot of complexity or depth, but it's very delicious and sometimes that's enough.  The price tag is a little steep for this and I don't know that I'd pay that much for it on a consistent basis, but  it was definitely enjoyable and was the perfect thing to drink after I mowed the lawn in the 90 degree heat.

I also would like to point out that I have written the section on the Jura for AG Wine's iPhone app.  The piece is currently in the final editing stages and should be up on the app soon.  If you buy the app now, you will receive all future updates with new regions for free.  You can check out AG Wine's website here or you can go here to download the app for your iPhone or iPad.  It's definitely one of the most informative and useful wine apps that I've used and I enthusiastically recommend it for people interested in learning more about wine and less about wine scores.  I've also written the section on Alsace and the upcoming section for Savoie as well.  Their free Wine News app also syndicates my posts so you can follow Fringe Wine and many other great writers on the go for free.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do not receive any financial compensation from AG Wine for any of the content or promotion that I provide to them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Trousseau - Arbois, Jura, France

If you do a Google image search for Trousseau, you might be surprised at what pops up.  It seems there is a company that makes bridal dresses who goes by the name Modern Trousseau, trousseau being another name for the outfit of a bride, apparently (the grape, it turns out, is named for this reason...the shape of the bunch apparently looks "packed up" like a wedding dress). Searching for its other well-known synonym "Bastardo" leads you down an entirely different pathway, as there is (or was, I don't really know) a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies named Antonio Bastardo.  The crossroads of the world can sometimes amaze you.

But obviously we're not here to talk about wedding dresses or obscure Phillies pitchers.  We're here today to talk about the grape Trousseau and its place in the Jura (we've briefly visited Trousseau in a Crémant de Jura post).  As mentioned above, Trousseau is known as Bastardo in Portugal where it is allowed as part of the Port blend.  It's grown in small quantities in Australia and California as well, but it's not a very important grape in either of those places.  It's not very popular with growers because it yields irregularly, but it is a good fit for the Jura because it buds late and misses many of the early spring frosts common to the region.

As for the Jura, well, the Jura is different.  Let's go ahead and get that statement out of the way because it is uncontroversially true.  At tastings of Jura wines, you should be presented with the red wines first before you work your way up to the whites as the red wines are frequently made in a much lighter style and tend to resemble rosé wines in color more so than reds.  To give you an idea, the thin skinned and pale Pinot Noir is used in the Jura to provide extra color and structure to the red wines of the region (especially those made from the Poulsard grape).  That's how light many of the reds from here can be.  The whites, on the other hand, are usually introduced to wood at some point along their way and, very often, are intentionally oxidized to some degree.  We'll talk a bit more about that when we get to Savagnin on this site.

The point is that the Jura is weird and, frankly, it's not for everybody.  The distinctive nutty tang of oxidation is, technically speaking, a fault in the wine and some people just can't get past that.  The red wines are un-apologetically light in color and body and don't carry the new-world hall marks of over-extraction and oak-blanketing.  Jura wines are old-school, plain and simple, and some people just can't get on board with that.  And that's fine.  There's just more for me, I guess.

Before I get to the wines I tried, I do want to talk for a minute about the place I got them.  The place is the Wine Bottega in the North End of Boston and if you like wine, this is the kind of place you can't afford not to go to.  The staff are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly and their selection is out of this world.  They have tastings at least once a week and at those tastings they put on a master class for each region and producer that they are profiling.  You won't find Parker and Spectator scores plastered all over the place, but you will find witty, informative blurbs on an astonishing number of bottles to let you know what you might expect when you pull the cork.  This place has become my go-to wine shop in the Boston area and I've been spending so much time there over the past few months they may need to start charging me rent. Nearly every bottle from the Jura that I'll be writing about over the next few days were picked up from the Wine Bottega.  They have more bottles from the Jura than probably anybody else in Massachusetts so if you're curious about the region, start here and put yourself in their hands.  They won't lead you astray.

The first bottle was from Michel Gahier in Arbois, Jura (the town at the very top of the region that has its own DOC and which is the go-to place for Jura reds).  I will say that wines from the Jura don't come cheap, as this bottle set me back $32.  They are unique and fascinating, though, so I don't mind spending the money.  In the glass, this wine had a pale ruby color.  It was explosively aromatic with wild, brambly red fruit, dusky raspberry, wild strawberry, tea leaves, damp herbs and musky leather.  "Perfumed" is too nice a word for what was going on here.  This was wildly and savagely aromatic and absolutely intoxicating to smell.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with high acid and no tannins.  There was wild strawberry and light raspberry fruit with some forest floor/wet tea leaves flavors as well.  It was not as explosive on the palate as it was on the nose, but was very nice.  Cool weather Pinot Noir is a good comparison point here, so if you're a fan of that kind of thing, give this a shot.

The second bottle I tried was a 2005 Domaine Rolet Pere et Fils from Arbois which I got at Bin Ends for about $19.  The wine had a pale ruby color and a delicate nose of strawberry and raspberry fruit.  The nose here was much more restrained than in the prior bottle, possibly because of the bottle age but also possibly because I think Rolet is tends to be a little cleaner and more polished than some of the other producers of the Jura.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with acid on the higher side of medium and very low tannins.  There was some dusky strawberry fruit with some red cherry and a little bit of baking spice and forest floor character to it.  The fruit was very pure here and much cleaner and more polished than the Gahier bottling.  If you twisted my arm about it, I'd probably say that this was a better made wine, technically speaking, but that something gets lost sometimes with pure technical virtuosity.  This wine was definitely a little cleaner and smooth around the edges, but it just wasn't as interesting as the Gahier bottling to me.  The analogue to cool weather Pinot Noir is much more pronounced here and this would be a good introduction for those of you who aren't yet ready to throw your hands up and let the Jura take you on a wild ride.  But for those who want to take a little walk on the wild side, go check out my friends at the Bottega and let them hook you up.  I can't imagine you'll be disappointed.

I also would like to point out that I have written the section on the Jura for AG Wine's iPhone app.  The piece is currently in the final editing stages and should be up on the app soon.  If you buy the app now, you will receive all future updates with new regions for free.  You can check out AG Wine's website here or you can go here to download the app for your iPhone or iPad.  It's definitely one of the most informative and useful wine apps that I've used and I enthusiastically recommend it for people interested in learning more about wine and less about wine scores.  I've also written the section on Alsace and the upcoming section for Savoie as well.  Their free Wine News app also syndicates my posts so you can follow Fringe Wine and many other great writers on the go for free.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do not receive any financial compensation from AG Wine for any of the content or promotion that I provide to them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Negroamaro - Salice Salentino, Puglia, Italy

We've spent a lot of time in northern Italy on this blog, exploring the obscure wonders of Piemonte, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy.  We've even spent a little time in central Italy exploring some of the wines of Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche.  I would guess that close to half of the posts I've written for this site were about Italian grapes and wines, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me that Fiano from Campania is pretty much the only southern Italian wine that I've written about.  It's certainly not because there's a lack of interesting grapes in southern Italy, but rather that I just haven't gotten around to pulling the corks on the ones that I have at home.  Hopefully that trend will start to change today, though, as the grape we're concerned with is Negroamaro from Puglia. 

It is thought that Negroamaro was brought to southern Italy by the Greeks sometime between the 8th and 7th Centuries BC (possibly by way of Albania according to Nicolas Belfrage).  How the grape got its name is a matter of some dispute.  Most books on the subject will tell you that the name comes from the Italian words for black (negro) and bitter (amaro).  Seems pretty open and shut, right?  Well, others claim that the "amaro" portion of the grape's name is actually a corruption of the Greek word for black, "mavro," while the "negro" portion is a corruption from the Latin "niger," so the grape's name would literally be translated as "black-black" in Latin and Greek.  I have to admit, this seemed like a much less likely explanation to me until I read Jeremy Parzen's take on the matter over at Do Bianchi.  The theory that he posits is that the grape was named redundantly in two different languages because the region of Puglia was a crossroads between Latin and Greek cultures so the name of the grape served as a kind of advertisement in two languages for what the drinker could expect from the wine.  It does make a kind of sense when viewed that way, but not being a historical linguist, I don't feel qualified to weigh in on the matter.  Suffice it to say that the matter is in some dispute and you can choose for yourself whether you want to call it "black-bitter," "black-black" or just plain old Negroamaro.

Negroamaro is grown almost exclusively in Puglia and, most notably, in the Salento peninsula in southern Puglia.  The vine is a favorite with growers because it's resistant to a wide variety of diseases, is drought resistant and is capable of very high yields.  It's fairly widely grown throughout Puglia (different sources quote the percentage of Negroamaro in the region from as low as 25% to as high as 80%), but not as widely grown as it used to be.  Puglia was a major contributor to the European Wine Lake in the late 1980's so in an effort to reduce the amount of excess wine being produced, the EU offered financial incentives for growers to pull up their vines.  These vine pull schemes cut the acreage devoted to Negroamaro in Puglia nearly in half from over 31,000 hectares in 1990 to about 16,000 in the year 2000.  Even with all the vine pulls, bulk wine is still where most of the action is in Puglia as only about 2% of Puglian production is DOC wine and only about 25% of the wine produced in Puglia is ever sold in bottle.

I was able to get my hands on two different bottlings of Negroamaro.  The first was a 2007 Sant'Angelo Negroamaro that I picked up for around $11.  This is an IGT bottling from the Salento region.  In the glass, the wine had a dense ruby colored core that faded to a light purple rim.  It had a moderately open nose of dusky blackcurrant and black cherry fruit with a hint of strawberry.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and medium tannins (that were nicely integrated).  There were flavors of tart cherry and chocolate with a bit of earthy espresso to it.  The fruit here is very ripe and juicy and though the wine is dry, it almost tastes sweet.  It had a kind of chocolate covered strawberry taste to it that was nice at first but got a little cloying as the night wore on.  It was an OK wine but it's not something I'm likely to revisit.

The second wine that I tried was a 2007 Taurino Salice Salentino Rosso Riserva that I picked up for about $10.50.  I'm not sure of the proportions, but this wine had a little Malvasia Nera in it (DOC regulations stipulate that this had to be at least 85% Negroamaro).  In the glass, the wine had a deep, opaque ruby core.  The nose was open with chocolate, black cherries, dried cherries, black plum and leather aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and soft, silky tannins.  It tasted like chocolate covered dried cherries with a bit of leather and tobacco mixed in it.  This wine was much more balanced than the Sant'Angelo bottling and had a nice complexity to it for the price. It had a nice polish to it, but it was still pretty rustic at heart.
A final note of caution here.  Quality for Negroamaro based wines is extraordinarily and notoriously variable.  DOC is never a guide to quality in Italy but it especially isn't here as there are many DOC labeled wines that are thin, sweet bottles that will leave you unhappy.  The best way to shop for Negroamaro based wines is to go to a store you trust and let someone lead you to a bottle.  I can unreservedly recommend the entire line of Taurino bottlings but beyond that, it's going to be trial and error.  Luckily, most Negroamaro based wines are fairly inexpensive so your mistakes won't be too costly.  It's definitely worth seeking them out, though, as when they are good, they are very good and represent incredible value for the money.  They are great food wines as well, complementing grilled foods, red meat and tomato sauced dishes with equal aplomb.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Grüner Veltliner - Austria and Finger Lakes, New York

Grüner Veltliner is one of those grapes that I was very unsure about for this site.  Yes, it's relatively obscure to the wine novice, but it is definitely a grape on the rise right now.  A few years ago, it was an interesting curiosity that popped up every now and again on a wine list or at a tasting, but lately I can't think of a single wine shop I've been in in the past year that wasn't carrying a bottle of Grüner.  I thought about it and ultimately decided that the world of wine was so vast that I could pass this one over.  My resolve loosened, though, when I found a bottle of sparkling Grüner and it dissolved completely when I came across a bottle on my recent trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York.  So, without futher ado, ladies and gentlemen, let's all welcome Grüner Veltliner to Fringe Wine.

Grüner Veltliner is very popular in Austria where it accounts for somewhere between 32% and 36% of the land under vine (and in some areas it accounts for over 50% of the land under vines).  It is, far and away, Austria's most important and, within the past decade or so, its most esteemed variety.  The name itself means "green grape from the village of Veltlin in the Tirol" and for many years, it was thought to be somehow related to two other grapes grown in Austria with veltliner in their name: Roter Veltliner and Frühroter Veltliner.  In the early 1990's, genetic testing was carried out and the results showed that Grüner Veltliner is not related to either of the other two grapes at all (though Frühroter Veltliner is the offspring of Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner).  The testing did identify one of the parents of Gruner Veltliner to be Traminer (or Savagnin, which we'll get to on this site very soon) but the other parent was unknown. 

In the year 2000, a single very old, very weak vine was discovered in an abandoned pasture in a place called St. Georgen in Austria.  The grape was previously unknown and so was provisionally named St. Georgen-Rebe.  When the land was about to be reclaimed and the vine was being threatened with uprooting in 2005, scientists took some cuttings and some genetic material from the plant and ran some tests.  When the tests came back, it was discovered that this was the other parent of Grüner Veltliner.  It is believed that this was the last surviving St. Georgen-Rebe vine on earth and it was on the verge of dying prior to discovery.  There are currently plans for experimental plots of the rediscovered vine to see what kind of grapes and wine it can produce.  It's pretty amazing, though, how close the world came to never knowing the full parentage of Grüner Veltliner and it certainly makes one wonder about the thousands of vines that have passed into obscurity due to neglect, vine-pulling and/or selective breeding.

In any case, though the vine seems to be native to Austria and is certainly best known in the wines that come from Austria, it is not solely an Austrian phenomenon.  Grüner is the most widely planted grape in Slovakia and the second most widely planted grape in the Czech Republic.  It is found to a lesser extent in Germany and Hungary and is being played around with in the new world throughout the USA and in some parts of New Zealand. 

The overwhelming majority of Grüner Veltliner wines produced are still wines, but Ewald Gruber (producer of the sparkling Zweigelt mentioned here) makes a slightly fizzy version.  I was able to pick up a bottle of this from my friends at Bin Ends on sale for about $10 (it's a NV bottling).  In the glass, the wine was a silvery lemon color with slight effervescence.  The nose here was surprisingly shy for a sparkler with just a hint of apple-y fruit, but it was mostly just a blank.  On the palate, the wine was light bodied with acidity on the higher side of medium.  Like its Zweigelt counterpart, this was definitely more frizzante than fully sparkling and tasted pretty dry, though the winery spec-sheet indicates that there is a whopping 15 grams per liter of residual sugar here.   There were nice flavors of crisp apple and pear with just a little of the white pepper and vegetal matter that makes Grüner so distinctive.  This is almost certainly tank fermented rather than bottle fermented as it's very fruit-forward and friendly (it's also under screwcap for those who are concerned about those kinds of things).  It's an interesting change of pace for a sparkler and an interesting take on the Grüner Veltliner grape.

While recently visiting the Finger Lakes, I remarked to my wife about halfway through the trip that I was surprised that we weren't seeing more Grüner Veltliner out that way.  The very next day we ended up at Dr. Frank's where we were able to try and purchase ($20) the winery's first ever bottling of Grüner Veltliner.  In the glass, the wine had a pale greenish lemon color.  The nose was very aromatic with ripe apples and stone fruit.  At the winery, this has a very distinct celery leaf kind of character to it that wasn't as prominent at home.  On the palate, the wine was on the lighter side of medium with medium acidity.  There was apple and grapefruit flavors along with a bit of pepper in the finish and very nice minerality.  I started to pick up the celery and celery leaf characteristics as the wine opened up a bit and, while that may not sound very appealing in a white wine, it works really well with Grüner.  I drank this wine with a crudites platter and it is a total slam dunk with a lot of vegetable dishes.  It's an exciting wine not just because of the quality but also because it shows the region's potential for this grape.  I don't think Grüner is going to unseat Riesling as the star of the Finger Lakes region, but it's a nice addition to their repertoire and shows the potential for some very interesting wines in the future.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Cesanese del Piglio - Lazio, Italy

Sorry for the lack of posting over the past week or so, but I've been on vacation in the Finger Lakes region of New York state and didn't have internet access while I was away.  I picked up some very interesting bottles there which will eventually find their way here, but for now, we're taking yet another trip into Italy to discuss the Cesanese grape.

There are two distinct clones of Cesanese.  Cesanese Comune is the most common and is distinguished by its larger berry size and its relative hardiness compared to Cesanese d'Affile which is the more prized of the two.  Cesanese d'Affile is used in the production of DOC wines from Olevano and Affile as well as the DOCG wines from Piglio.  Piglio was granted DOCG status in 2008 and it was, somewhat surprisingly, the first DOCG region in Lazio, which is essentially the grape's exclusive home, though a few plantings have managed to sneak northward into southern Tuscany. 

The grape is thought to be native to Lazio and may have roots here as far back as ancient Roman times.  As far as I can tell, the grape was not mentioned specifically by the name "Cesanese" by the Romans, but it may have been mentioned in a roundabout way by Pliny in one of his works.  Its more recent history is decidedly racier as Cesanese was chosen by porn star Savanna Samson to be the lead grape in her winemaking venture Sogno Ono (which, fortunately, means "Dream One" and is not some kind of lewd Italian phrase).  Cesanese accounts for 70% of the blend of her wine, and none other than Robert Parker gave the debut effort (the 2004 bottling) from the winery 91 points, though it should be noted that he did not taste the wine blind (he had it in a Parisian bistro according to the New York Times).  In case you don't feel like perusing the article, the hands-down winner for best quote is: "Ms. Oliveros said that her chief talent is her passion for her work. She said she genuinely enjoys having sex with strangers...'for those few minutes that I'm working with someone, I love that person,' she said. 'For that reason it makes me good at what I do.'"

Ahem.  So, back to Cesanese, shall we?  The wine is question today is a Cesanese del Piglio from 2005, which pre-dates the new DOCG law.  The Piglio region is just south of center of Lazio (itself located immediately south of Tuscany) and is almost right on the border with Abruzzo.  The area is somewhat hilly and is difficult to farm as a result of the terrain.  Cesanese is grown on fewer than 1000 hectares (2500 acres) across all of Italy, though I wasn't able to find a specific figure for the commune of Piglio.  Dry wines made from Cesanese are a relatively recent phenomenon as, traditionally, the grapes were made into sweet still or frizzante wines.  The first taste I ever had of Cesanese was in a 70/30 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cesanese from Cantina Gabriele that was called "Dolcemente."  The wine was enjoyable, but since Cesanese made up such a small proportion of the blend and since most of what I tasted was almost certainly from the Cabernet, I never did anything with my notes on the wine (for those deeply interested, my final thought was: "pleasant, but not sure how versatile it would be...not enough sugar for dessert and not enough structure for meats and cheeses").

The first varietally bottled Cesanese I ever saw I let get away from me and it took me almost six months of searching to find another in the Boston area.  I was finally able to track down the 2005 Hyperius Cesanese del Piglio at Federal Wine and Spirits for around $18.  In the glass, the wine had a medium ruby color and a moderately open nose with aromas of spicy black plum, black cherries and cloves.  The wine was medium bodied with high acid and no tannin.  There were a lot of baking spice notes (cloves and allspice in particular) to go with the dark, plummy, black cherry fruit.  The fruit was dark but the acidity gave it a bright, juicy taste.  As it opened up it started to pick up some raisin and prune flavors, which were not at all unwelcome.  Six years is a lot of age for a Cesanese, but the wine was very enjoyable and easy to drink.  Conventional wisdom says that these should be enjoyed as young as possible, so I would definitely like to get my hands on a younger one, but I'm not exactly holding my breath. If you like lighter red wines, you should definitely give Cesanese a shot and if you like lighter red wines and porn, well, you may have just hit the jackpot.