… well, four wonderful Greek grapes in any case.

Greek wines have been around for a long, long time… some 4,000 years to be sure! Greece (aka ‘the land of the wine-dark sea’) is not only responsible for spreading the vines throughout its colonies in Europe beginning in the 8th century, but also for ‘democratizing’ the drink and making it a social (rather than strictly religious) beverage. That said, upon mention of Greek wines, many still only think of ‘Retsina’ (traditional wine aged in pine resin) and this is usually followed by running and screaming to the hills.

So despite its illustrious beginnings, the  modern Greek wine industry had a lot of catching up to do since ancient times, but since the 60’s and 70’s, it has caught up quickly. Today Greece offers wines that are incredibly food-friendly because of the zesty acidity in both white and red wines AND at excellent value.

Moreover, it’s a wine adventurer’s dream: there are over 300 grape varieties that are indigenous to Greece to explore. Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by all these impossible-to-pronounce grapes and wines, so they tend to shun them altogether. If by chance you fall into this camp, there is help. Here are four grapes to help you get started:

1. Moschofilero (moss KOH feel air oh): A pink-skinned variety from mainland Greece known for floral, grape-fruited and citrus white wines (still or sparkling). It is similar in aromatics to the grape Muscat.

2. Assyrtiko (Ah SERE tee koh): A smokey, minerally white wine with haunting flavor and complexity, from the Cycladic islands, most notably the volcanic island of Santorini.

3. Agiorgitiko (aye YORE yeh tee koh): This is the noble red of mainland Greece in Nemea (where Hercules killed the lion) and is responsible for wines that range from lighter and fruity (but still with tannic grip) to deeper and more brooding flavors. The name is actually a corruption of ‘St. George.’

4. Xynomavro (zee NOH ma vroh): This northern Greek grape translates as ‘bitter-black’ but don’t let that scare you, it’s delicious and often described as a cross between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo.

If these four grapes whet your appetite (and I think they will), you should check out the New Wines of Greece website, it’s packed with information … Happy exploring!

Savvy_Greece-1

Sancerre is an extremely popular wine in the market right now, and indeed, no self-respecting classic wine list is seen as complete without it. I even read an article this week in which Sancerre was referred to as ‘hipsterific’ and ‘post-post-modern.’ (Side note: even with an MA in Art History, I am not sure what was meant by the latter.)

With such an outpouring of praise, we might well ask: “Are we in a Sancerre ‘bubble’??”

Unlike other consumer trends (say, the almost zombie-like demand for Pinot Grigios and Malbecs), Sancerre is a sophisticated wine that is worthy of the amount of attention it gets. Situated in northern France along one of its longest, most Chateau-riddled rivers, this appellation is practically synonymous with the Sauvignon Blanc grape (although a few reds and rosés can be made here from Pinot Noir as well). The soils here are a mixture of Kimmeridgean clay (sea-fossilized soil also found in Chablis), stony  and flinty soils. Stylistically, the wines are marked by steely, herbaceous notes as well as a creamy minerality. Moreover, its refreshing acidity, subtle complexity and length does make it a great choice at the dinner table. So if you don’t want to get beyond Sancerre, that is fine. Just sit tight. You’re good.

But for those who do say it’s time to diversify, you are also in luck, as the Sancerre wine region has many excellent neighbors. These appellations (with one exception) get much less attention but are often no less worthy than their more illustrious neighbor. 

  • Pouilly-Fumé: This appellation is situated to the east of Sancerre, right across the river, where the soils have a higher concentration of flint (silex). Some credit this with giving the wines here an element of ‘gunflint’ minerality, more smokiness in the wine.
    Producer recommendation: Chateau de Tracy
  • Menetou-Salon: Whereas Sancerre is a mix of three soils, the appellation of Menetou-Salon (located to the southwest of Sancerre) is defined by one soil type: Kimmeridgean clay. If it’s not fossilized ancient seabed, it can’t be Menetou-Salon. These wines give Sancerre a serious run for the money.
    Producer recommendation: Domaine de Chatenoy 
  • Quincy: Pronounced CAN-see. This tiny appellation is located southwest of Menetou-Salon on banks of the Cher river, where vineyards are planted on ancient terraces comprised of sand and gravel soils.
    Producer recommendation: Domaine du Tremblay 
  • Reuilly: Located to the southwest of Quincy, the vineyards here are planted on steeper vineyards between the banks of the rivers Cher and Arnon. The soils here are similar to Sancerre, a combination of fossilized marl and gravel.
    Producer recommendation: Claud Lafond

 

Just as I was getting into writing up those Summer recaps, the Autumn season arrived with a bang. First, the NYC wine business rocketed one day after Labor Day (which was great!) and then came Sandy (which was so very not) … that freak storm that upended all sense of normalcy, for some much more than others.

When such natural disasters occur, there is always a scramble for flashlights, matches, D batteries and ice, but what about that emergency BEVERAGE kit?? What did we DRINK to get us through those ten days without power?

Here’s a few items that worked for us:

  • The French Coffee press was crucial: just add water and pre-ground coffee. We KNEW we would lose power, so I ground enough for a two-week supply. Or if tea is your bag, ditto. If nothing else, remember this first bullet point!
  • Obviously, nothing that required ice or chilling was practical, so we looked to red wines from the cellar that were layered, rich and soul-satisfying: Amarones from Valpolicella, Bandols from the south of France and Barolos from Piedmont–all perfect comfort wines. (Let’s just say our wine cellar is much more depleted than it was on October 30th!)
  • A fine Bourbon, Single Malt or Armagnac. Enough said. Pick your preference, but sipping a small glass of these brown spirits by the fire were a great alternative to yelling (to no effect) at our local utility company.

So now as we head into what I fear is going to be a long, bone-chilling winter, I will hold onto those summer recollections and write them up when there is need for a little warmth and nostalgia.

Cheers!

From Piedmont we traveled to the Veneto and the fair city of Verona, Italy’s unofficial wine capital and home to Italy’s major wine fest every Spring: Vinitaly. The landscape around Verona is dominated by cherry trees (very beautiful in Spring), and of course, vineyards! Exactly what is grown in the vineyard depends on where you are in the Veneto. The region offers a rich tapestry of wine styles; it is the perfect destination for wine lovers.

Lovely Verona is definitely a destination for wine lovers …

One of the most famous wine regions in the Veneto is Valpolicella, which loosely translates as ‘valley of many cellars’, located about 20 minutes north of Verona. The vineyards in Valpolicella are situated throughout the foothills of the Dolomites (Italian Alps), of varying elevation and exposure (the direction of the vineyard slopes). The soils are fossil rich, a combination of morainic and limestone. This alone explains why the wines are so diverse, but it doesn’t end there…

Here, the red grape Corvina is key. This vibrant grape is cherished for its tart acidity and notes of plum and cherry in straight Valpolicella wines. Rondinella and Molinara grapes can play supportive roles in the wines of this region, but the latter brings less to the blend. And while the blend is more or less consistent, the styles vary.

  • In straight Valpolicella wines, grapes are crushed and the fermentation process is normal. The end result is (usually) a medium-bodied wine with crisp acidity and fresh fruit flavors.
  • In Ripasso della Valpolicella style versions (where the wine is ‘repassed’ over the gross lees, i.e. grape skins, pulp and yeasts, a process known as appassimento) it is a degree higher in alcohol, richness and complexity of flavor.
  • In Amarone della Valpolicella, which is produced from grapes that have been carefully dried for three to four months before fermentation even begins, you’ll get a fuller-bodied wine with deeper, darker fruit notes along with coffee, toffee, sweet spice, pepper, tar and mocha–all of which depends on the use of oak in raising the wine.
  • Lastly, Recioto della Valpolicella is made in a similar method to Amarone, but with even higher concentrations of sugar so the final wine is a sweet, dessert style wine of great complexity. Both Amarone and Recioto are considered ‘meditation’ wines, but can be expensive, as they are very expensive to produce.

These Corvina grapes have been dried for about four months and are ready for pressing. As one can see, there is not much juice left in the grapes!

Next up: What is Classico and Superiore about Valpolicella?

The first thing to note is that it is very easy to get lost in Piedmont.

This is true when trying to follow, say, Google directions between wineries. This is surprising when most wineries have existed here for a long, long time, but the fact that they are so established does not translate to their roadside signage. In other cases, roads do not exist where they should (or in our case have fallen down a hillside or over a bridge) or the wineries changed names/ownership but the signs remained the same (not helpful). Somehow, we managed to stay on schedule.

“Go back that way.” (Note: suspicious fire in background, yes we are again lost here).

But who can really complain about being in Piedmont? Because more importantly, it is also really easy to lose yourself in the sensory richness of this region, not just among producers, grape varieties and cuisine but also among a vertical tasting of the different vintages from the same producer, or even this same vineyard. It is not only incredibly terroir-driven, but vintage-driven as well. No matter how lost you may become, a visit to Piedmont is a rich experience for the oenophile.

We actually visited four wineries in Piedmont, all very different. One could certainly spill a lot of ink on this topic, as many already have, but my highlights include:

The Scagliola estate is located in southern Piemonte in the hills of Monferrato in a small (and hard to find) village of Calosso. What impressed me most about this family run winery was that they were consistent across the board among the numerous offerings from Camilo Metodo Classico (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne method) to their Azord blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is a special producer from the Barolo commune of Verduno. Winemaker/owner Silvio Busco is considered somewhat of an ‘upstart’ because he has only been making wine for twenty years in the Barolo appellation, but it should also be noted that he is only 39! A bright future ahead, Silvio makes a straight Barolo and single vineyard (Monvigliero), as well as tasty reds made from Dolcetto and Pelaverga, grown at lower elevations and ready to drink now.

However beautiful the vineyards, I was always on the lookout for wolves (volpe) and wild boars (cinghiale). Thankfully, I saw neither.

After tasting through the line-up of Poderi Roset we were treated to lots and lots of carne crudo, followed by the best lasagne I will ever have in my life, prepared by Silvio’s mom.

Like the Barolo appellation, Barbaresco is exclusively devoted to red wines from Nebbiolo, but is said to be the more elegant, accessible of the two. Rapalino winemaker, Marco Rapalino, worked under the guidance of the legendary Bruno Giacosa for more than ten years, and it shows. Across the board, these wines are deep, dark and brooding–even the Vughima Freisa, a grape otherwise known for light, strawberry-scented wines.

Mechanical engineer Annalisa Battuello switched careers from automobile design to Piedmontese winemaking after she turned forty… so the name I Quaranta not only refers to the village where her Barbera vineyards are located, but also to the fact that she found her ‘true’ direction at age forty. Indeed. Her wines are amazing across the board, and she certainly breathes new life into the Barbera variety…with dry, sweet and sparkling styles.

Vineyards are scattered throughout the villages because, as you can see, this is mountain country. And there are wildflowers everywhere …

Our small importing team had the opportunity to visit many of our producers in northern and central Italy earlier in the summer. Our first stop was in Valle d’Aosta, the northernmost region of Italy, to visit La Kiuva. We stayed in Bard, a small village situated along a famous pilgrimage route on the Dora Baltea River. Our host pointed out that those historically those traveling north through this region were traveling for reasons of war and conquest (Roman empire) and those traveling south were doing so for reasons of peace (to the Vatican). Because of French and Swiss influences and also their isolation from the rest of Italy in this mountainous terrain, they are really seen as ‘outsiders’ by most Italians to the south. Despite having such a reputation quirkiness (such as our host answering every question with “perhaps”), I found the people to be quite endearing overall.

This tiny, alpine region is predominantly known for its reds from a local clone of Nebbiolo called Picotendro, along with other grapes rarely encountered in the market, such as Gros Vien, Neyret and other field ‘varietal spices’. These vineyards are high and steep (not an ideal place to visit for victims of vertigo) and because of the high elevation, phylloxera (a pest that can be fatal to vines) cannot exist here.

The La Kiuva cooperative oversees 25 hectares of vineyards overseen by about 60 growers in the Aosta AOC sub-zone of Arnad-Montjovet (for reference: there are 350 hectares in the entire AOC of Aosta). Many of the La Kiuva vineyards are centered in and around Chateau Vallaise, a castle which dates back to 15th century. The cooperative makes use of the cellar storage space for riddling (and even the keys to these cellars are ancient)as well as visitor presentations.

There are three wines we tried (and loved).

La Kiuva Arnad-Montjovet Normale 2011 and Superiore 2007 were both comprised of 75% Picotendro (Nebbiolo), 20% Pinot Noir and that varietal spice from Gros Vien, Neyret, Cornalin and Fumin. I found both to be layered and complex with bright cherry fruit, tea leaf and black pepper spiciness but the Superiore–which sees a year in oak– tended to be much more tannic and structured, like a true Nebbiolo, whereas the Normale drank more like a delicious, accessible Pinot Noir. And the La Kiuva Rosé 2011? that was so good it is already sold out (but you can try it in 2012).

As for pairing, we were treated to numerous dishes of charcuterie, lots of delicious lard, Vitello Tonnato (thin sliced veal with tuna sauce), creamy gnocchi, and one tray that our host would not identify until we tasted it: cow udder. This is true mountain country after all!

This feels a little like a flashback to elementary school days, when every student was forced to recite those dreaded  ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ reports to the rest of the class.

1. I was not at all on vacation. Not really, anyway. And ..

2. I actually LIKE sharing my adventures in the field with my small but growing list of readers.

So as we move into the lovely season of autumn, I want to recap over the next few weeks some of my summer travel highlights from Italy, South America and Downeast Maine.

Stay tuned …

SD

There are certain wine appellations that are cursed by thriving tourism, and the sunny, Mediterranean region of Provence is one of them. Typically, quality goes to the wayside when you have a steady, reliable market for whatever wine made, whether good or not. Moreover, the region is really, really sunny (I think I said that already), so this is good for tourists, but bad for grapes, which can ripen too quickly for their own good, with lackluster flavors in the final wine.

But Bandol is one of the blessed exceptions. The vineyards (first planted by the Greeks in 600 BCE) are planted on south-facing slopes on rustic stone terraces called restanques where they are protected from cold northerly winds, but bathed in warm Mediterranean breezes. This is, in fact, the only French red wine region where Mourvèdre (pronounced muhr-VED-reh) dominates–because this grape actually needs all that glorious sunlight of this region in order to fully ripen; and any Bandol Rouge must have at least 50-95% to be classified as such (pink Bandol wines 20-95%). On its own, this unique variety is known for producing wildly rich, meaty and structured red wines, but it is often blended with Grenache, Cinsault (pronounced SAN-soh), Syrah or Carignan (CARE-in-yawn). The red wines must spend 18 months in oak before it is released.

Nota bene: this grape produces substantial wines, red or pink.

In fact, for restaurant-goers, Bandol Rouge is often a ‘steal’ on a wine list, compared to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Why? Because most consumers simply aren’t familiar with its key grape, Mourvèdre, or the region. But this makes one of the finest French reds in France, and is also responsible for some of the best, most layered rosés.

So as far as pairing food with a Bandol Rouge, think savage and meaty. Steak is a no-brainer, roasted pork, or hearty stews or casseroles work very well, but rich cheeses such as Tete-du-Moine from Switzerland, marked by delicious notes of beef consommé, or Pyrenees Agour, a full-flavored savory cheese from the Basque region of Spain. Bandols with some age can be quite a meditative experience without food.

Here are a few sampled recently:

Bandol Rosés

Domaine le Galantin Bandol Rosé 2011

Medium salmon-pink in color, brimming with white peach and ‘wet stone’ minerality. Bright acidity and beautiful balance.

Château de Pibarnon Bandol Rosé 2010

Lovely aromatics with notes of ripe white peaches, orange rind and that classic ‘wet stone’ minerality. Lots of textural appeal as well (like the Tempier) and showing bright acidity and freshness. (Side note: not all rosés need to be 2011!)

Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé 2011

Very aromatic, and more red berry/strawberry fruit than the Galantin, a little fuller and well-rounded, more glycerol and creaminess in the texture of this wine.

Bandol Rouge

Domaine de la Tour du Bon Revôlution Bandol Rouge 2009

60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 10% Cinsault.  This wine was the youngest sampled, but felt underripe. Along with the dark fruit and firm, coarse tannins, there were also a lot of vegetal notes (minty? Eucalyptus?) in this wine. 14% alcohol.

Domaine le Galantin Bandol Rouge 2007

85% Mourvèdre, 15% old-vine Grenache. This wine showed darker fruit notes and much more density, balance than the Revôlution, along with black pepper spice, and firmer, finer tannins. More balance and beauty, and this wine will develop for another 5-10 years. 15% alcohol.

Chateau Saint-Anne 2005

60% Mourvèdre and 40% unstated. Along with darker fruit notes (fig, plum, dried fruit), this wines showed developing coffee and toffee notes, a hint of cola. Ready to drink, now or within 1-2 years.

Domaine du Gros Noré Bandol Rouge 2005

Deep garnet wine with enticing aromas of blackberry fruit, tar, earthiness and a hint of black pepper. This is a deeper, more brooding wine than the Domaine Saint-Annes (I would swear this wine is heavier on the Mourvèdre). Beautifully balanced with lots of concentration, this wine is full-bodied and sumptuous. This will easily age for another 5-8 years, perhaps longer.

While visiting one of my accounts last week, I stumbled upon one of the coolest cocktail gifts available (at least in the NY market): The Bitter Truth Cocktail Bitters Travelers Set.

And what exactly are bitters? Basically defined, a bitter is a base spirit flavored (infused) by something that imparts a bitter note or flavor to that spirit, be it root, vegetable, spice, seed or fruit. Depending on its alcohol strength (usually around 45%), it can be either served as an aperitif or digestive. Either way, it’s a must-have for anyone dabbling in the art of cocktails, although some are delicious on their own (such as Amaro, made from a mix of Italian herbs, roots, bark and orange peel). In short, bitters are your spice kit. They can intensify existing flavors or add that little ‘something special’ to a standard cocktail.

Almost all bitters originated for ‘medicinal’ purposes in the early nineteenth century, usually for help with digestion. Some of the most famous bitters are closely guarded family secrets, such as Angostura Bitters from Trinidad or Fernet Branca from Milan.

But I digress. This well-packaged traveling kit comes with five 20 ml bottles (probably just enough to help one endure a one-way trip to Japan or New Zealand!):

  • Orange Bitters
  • Old Time Aromatic Bitters
  • Creole Bitters
  • Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
  • Original Celery Bitters

Stay tuned as I dabble with each of these, cocktail reports to follow …

It’s always a thrill when you find that perfect pairing.

It happened this weekend when having a casual dinner with friends who had just returned from southern France. We nibbled on tomato salad, fennel salami, lentils and green beans, and a special treat, duck breast rolled with foie gras (smuggled back in their suitcase).

After depleting the first bottle, I then served a rather unusual sparkling red: Rocchi San Ginesio Vernaccia Nera Secco—a sparkling red from the Marche region of Italy.  Yes, a sparkling red made in the exact same way as Prosecco but with the red grape variety of Vernaccia Nera.

Try this at home.

On its own, it had a wild profile, and brimmed with overlapping notes of ripe blackberries, violets and spiciness (of the black pepper sort), but when tasted along with both the fennel salami, it reached new heights. In fact, the salami even became creamier as a result of the pairing… and the duck worked beautifully. Not only did the darker flavors mesh with the salami and duck breast, but the bubbles just added that extra something and cleansed the palate between bites at the same time. To put it simply, the sum was greater than the parts.

There are others like this wine that make excellent matches to charcuterie and meat-based antipasti dishes. The most famous by far is Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna (not coincidentally considered the ‘stomach’ of Italy for its charcuterie) which is currently enjoying a sort of renaissance in premium restaurants, but such varieties Malbec, Barbera and Shiraz can also be found. If you see one in your favorite wine store, I highly recommend trying this at home.