Ode to Greek Wines

A few weeks ago I went to a tasting hosted by the Wines of Greece.  It was pretty timely because, if you follow along with me, you know that I have some resolutions that I am keeping up with throughout the year. One of them was to share some info about Greek wine: June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy! 

I love it when a plan comes together!

The tasting was terrific and the visiting winemakers and other staff from the wineries and distributors couldn’t have been nicer – or more informative about their wines. Too often the wine from Greece is associated with simple Roditis along with shouts of “Opa” at the restaurant or aggressive Retsina, but don’t’ let that fool you into misunderstanding how much quality wine there is to enjoy from Greece.  The Greeks are making wonderful wines from their indigenous grapes, but also from the international varieties too, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  And the result is some unique blending which can offer us wines with familiar names on the label alongside grapes new to many of us. In my view that’s the ideal way to introduce us to the wines of Greece.

There are four local varieties I’d like to highlight: The whites are Assyrtiko and Moschofilero.  The reds are Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko.

Assyrtiko. This is the white wine of Santorini and if there is a wine that is the ideal partner for the bounty of the sea, this is it.  santorini_greek_island_greeceAssyrtiko has vivid acidity along with citrusy flavor and telltale mineralty.  Whenever we see the word mineralty Chablis comes to mind, but unlike chardonnay, Assyrtiko leads with a fresh lemon zest quality that seems perfect for sun-drenched sipping. And this grape blends particularly well with Sauvignon Blanc giving us delightful wine that is very food friendly.

Moschofilero.  Tropical flowers and food friendly acidity make Moschofilero a lively choice for everyday white sipping. Much like Pinot Grigio, it’s the kind of wine that is pleasant and refreshing all by itself yet shines when you put some steamed clams on the table. I think it’s a lovely starter wine with salad.

Xinomavro. From the northern part of Greece comes Xinomavro, a red wine that typically is more medium bodied with bright acidity and red berry flavors.  Most often people compare it to Pinot Noir.  In my own tasting I wouldn’t disagree, however I found it to be more like Nebbiolo, the wine of Italy’s Piedmont, that kept coming back at me – a flavor with roses and violets. That said, the Pinot comparison is a great way to quickly shortcut to Xinmavro’s versatility with food.

Agiorgitiko.  This is perhaps the best known of the Greek reds, but you may know it by its English name, St. George. I really like these wines. They have good structure and are tannic enough for meaty dishes.  Mostly I tasted black cherries and dried fruit with a little spicy quality. Well made and aged in oak, these wine have complexity and all of the nuance one would expect from a world class wine.

The one challenge to enjoying Greek wine is finding them. The Wines of Greece hosted a tasting for restauranteurs, retailers and the media – to get the word out that there are terrific wines just waiting to be discovered. The good news is more retailers are carrying them, and we can let our fingers do the walking online.  On your behalf I let my fingers walk so here are some Greek wines for your to explore.

Every Day Sip
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 $14
Nasiakos Moschofilero 2015 $16
Boutari Moschofilero $18
Skouras St. George, Nemea $18
Gaia Agiorgitiko 2015 $20
Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2012 $24

Guest Sip
Domaine Karydas Xinomavro 2012 $28
2015 Tselepos Assyrtiko $30

Italy’s Sardinia

I admit it – I love all things Italian. From the ancient history to modern dolce vita; from mountaintop perched villages to the bustle of Roma; from sumptuous foods to lip smacking wines, I am completely besotted. And I never tire of sharing that passion so buckle up for more. Let’s venture to a lesser known wine area floating in the blue of the Mediterranean – Sardinia (in the Italian it’s Sardegna). This is a pretty big island, second only to Sicily in the Mediterranean and it’s got an old winemaking culture.

First let me say that there is not a lot wine from Sardinia out there on the retail shelves, but I like to try to be ahead of the game when it comes to sharing the undiscovered wine regions and the unique wines they offer.  The two most popular and available wines from Sardinia are Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino, a red and a white respectively.

The interesting thing about Cannonau is that it is the Sardinian name for Grenache or Garnacha, and there remains a debate as to whether it is the place of origin for that grape, as opposed to Spain.  Not that I really care, but if you’re from there you do!  So right away we can expect some old vine Grenache in the bottle.

This is a hot Mediterranean climate so the wines are ripe and offer red berry fruitiness – think raspberry and strawberry, much like Pinot Noir. There’s good acidity and they tend to be medium bodied with just a little kick of white pepper or spice when you sip. Often they’re a bit higher alcohol too. Cannonau is a good food wine because of that acidity. It’s not a very “sophisticated” wine and tends to the simpler side which is why I think it’s just right with a burger on the grill or pizza, or just about anything you might like paired with Pinot Noir. In some ways it is like a more rustic version of Pinot, without the nuance and subtlety of that more finicky and classy grape. But it’s also less expensive when you can find it – I picked up a bottle today for $15 at my local wine store. So let you fingers do the walking online or just ask your retailer to get you some.

Then there is Vermentino. Vermentino is a widely planted white grape in Sardinia.  This is good wine for the warm days of summer. Sardinia is known for great beaches and I can’t think of a nicer afternoon than gazing at the sea under the shade of an umbrella as you lunch on a chilled seafood salad.  Get the picture?  Since it’s not likely we’ll be in Sardinia itself anytime soon, I plan on keeping that picture in mind when I pop one open!  Pale, straw colored, light bodied, soft and fruity, Vermentino has a fragrant nose and often an apple-like flavor. Like many Italian whites this is easy sipping wine, especially since it’s less that $15 a bottle.

Cannonau and Vermentino aren’t the only wines of Sardinia, but it’s likely that they’re the ones you’ll see. The other most produced one is Carignano, which is Carignan. Carignan is found widely in Spain and southern France, so again there is that shared Mediterranean heritage.

This evening I am grilling some chicken kabobs – and I think my wine choice is pretty obvious – I’ll be sipping some Cannonau di Sardegna!

Ciao!

P.S. If you’re following along with my New Year Resolution then we just made good on May – “we drink a lot of Italian wine at our place but there’s still a lot of Italy to sip into.  So let’s hop over to the island of Sardinia and see what we find.”

Ever Day Sip
2012 Sella E Mosca Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna $15
2014 Contini Pariglia Vermentino di Sardegna $14

The Wines of Alsace

As spring turns to summer I begin thinking more about white wines and the pleasure of a chilled glass in my hand. So let’s dial in to the wines of Alsace. It’s a wine region that seems a little out of place in the whole scheme of French wine country. It’s unique because there is a distinct geographic, cultural and wine making connection to Germany, which lies just across the Rhine River.

Alsace is narrow wine region running north to south from near Strasbourg for about 60 miles and is plunked right between the Vosges Mountains on the west and the Rhine on the east. Like its German wine neighbors it is a cold climate region, but the mountains ensure that it is also a dry and sunny one, which helps the grapes reach maturity before the chill sets in. That’s why Alsace is a terrific place to find refreshing, fruit forward, dry Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat.  And the good news is that Alsace, unlike other French wine regions, labels the bottle with the grape variety.  At the store you’ll see those tall green bottles that look German, with German domaine names too, but the wine will be pure French and easy to identify.

What’s the Alsatian style?  Well I mentioned fruit forward and that’s for sure, but the other thing to know is that they really don’t use any oak and generally what is says on the label is 100% in the bottle so you get a full expression of that grape.

  • The Riesling will have the classic flavors of stone fruits like peaches and won’t be as sweet or acidic like most of its German counterparts (read more about Riesling here). It’s a delightful sipping wine, especially to begin an evening or a meal since it’s traditionally lighter in alcohol.
  • The Gewurtztraminer is a favorite of mine. Gewrurtz may seem sweet when you take the first sip but that’s its profound fruity character. Usually tropical flavors of lychee, jasmine, pineapple and honeysuckle lead the way with spiciness underneath. These are floral and aromatic wines.  Gewurtztraminer is awesome with Asian foods and just plain terrific with smokey ones. And this is my wine choice with Indian food – Vindaloo chicken anyone?
  • Pinot Blanc is like a more delicate version of Pinot Gris (FYI –  I think the Alsace Pinot Gris is richer in style than Italian Pinot Grigio) and they’re both easy drinking. I like them best simply to sip or to share with some seafood.
  • Then there is Muscat. Muscat is an ancient grape found in many wine regions where it is often made into sweet dessert wines, but in Alsace this is a dry and lively wine with notes of orange blossom.

The grape types I mentioned above are known as the “noble” grapes of Alsace (except Pinot Blanc) and the local rules permit some blending of them. In a blend when at least half of the wine is from these grapes you will see the word “Gentil” on the label. I have to say, this is a pleasant and typically inexpensive white wine to have around for simple sipping times.

There is also sparkling wine made in the Alsace region.  It’s called Cremant d’Alsace which is made in the traditional Champagne method and may even contain a little chardonnay.  It is a lively sparkler that features delicate bubbles, some toasty flavor and lighter alcohol that makes it fun and simple if you have a taste for a little tingle.

In case you’re keeping track (like I am!) this post is part of the continuing fulfillment of my New Year Resolution!  For those of you playing along at home: “April – makes me think of the song “April in Paris” so let’s head to France. Hmmm, how about some of the lovely whites of Alsace?”

So now that we know a bit about those lovely white wines I think it’s time to sip!

Every Day Sip
2015 Hugel Gentil $12

2014 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc Les Princes Abbes $15

2014 Emile Beyer Gewurztraminer Tradition $18

Lucien Albrecht Blancs de Blanc Cremant d’Alsace $18

2012 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve $22

2013 Trimbach Riesling $20

Guest Sip
2013 Zind Humbrecht Muscat $25

2014 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Cuvee Theo $30

2013 Ostertag Riesling Clos Mathis $40

Splurge Sip
2012 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim $50

Wine Memories – Sipping Special Places

Let’s do some traveling together.  We just returned from a vacation overseas and we captured the memories in pictures and videos as well as locking special moments into the memory bank. Isn’t savoring new experiences and building the memories why we travel? We have been blessed with many opportunities to fill the memory bank with special times involving wine so I thought it would be fun to highlight some of them, especially since they also offer insight into wine with food and wine with different places. In a way this is wine pairing at the source! Cue the traveling music please…

  • New Zealand may be known for lamb but did you know about the green lipped mussels? These are large, tender and flavorful mussels you can enjoy either hot or chilled. I like ‘em chilled and there’s nothing better than sitting around the table like we did in Blenheim – drinking some Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc and sharing a heap of green lipped mussels. The tart and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal match to the soft texture and slight taste of the sea. In the memory bank.
  • More seafood? The most enjoyable bottle of Pinot Grigio I can remember was sipped with a bucket of steamed “pisser” clams on a dock in Nantucket. The small clams, steamed in white wine, served in a bucket under the summer sun with the swish of the Atlantic waves under the dock, screamed for chilled, somewhat fruity yet bone dry Pinot Grigio. With a crusty loaf to dunk in the juice it was the perfect summer lunch and Nantucket memory.
  • Barcelona is an amazing city filled with the fantastical art of Gaudi and museums devoted to Picasso and Miro, but there is also art at the La Boqueria market where the variety of foods and tastes is almost overwhelming. IMG_4776So pull up a stool, order a bottle of wine from the Priorate and start noshing. The wine of Priorate is primarily Grenache and there is nothing like ordering up an array of tapas amid the bustle of the market, especially with a bowl of squid and beans as part of the choice, and sharing the bottle with good friends. It is a highlight memory of what Barcelona is all about… art, food and life.
  • Then there is my favorite bottle of Chianti, which we sipped with grilled-to- perfection sliced Chianina beef in a little trattoria called La Grotta della Rana (the courtyard is pictured above) in the small village of San Sano in Tuscany. The San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva is not the most famous or priciest of the area, but it was perfect – the vineyard is just a few kilometers away in the rolling countryside near Giaole. It’s pairing food and wine from the place – the easiest pairing rule you can remember for sure! And doesn’t the wine always seem to taste better when you’re in the special place of its origin? Sure does for me.
  • We’ll always have Paris – and the memory of dining at Alain Ducasse. The tasting menu was outrageously enjoyable as were our dinner companions, Parisian friends who know their way around a wine list!  This was one of the best splurges ever, complete with a bottle of the famed Chateau Haut Brion. Haut Brion is one of the 1st Growth Bordeaux estates and the wines are exceptional (both in taste and price!). Typically a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the wine is an amazing experience, with layers of tastes that punctuate it as a memorable sipping experience. This night was the epitome of French fine dining. I saved the bottle.

I could go on and on – but will spare you! The amazing thing about wine is that its experience can last well beyond the empty glass or bottle.  And sometimes those most amazing experiences are right at home too. For Cris’ last birthday we grilled a steak, sat on the deck and opened a bottle of 1994 Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  We not only celebrated her birthday but were reminded of trips to Napa and Sonoma and all of the magical moments that wine has brought to life for us.

And that’s what Sips, and wine memories, are all about.

Knowing Bordeaux – Part 1

Bordeaux.  If there is one word in wine that captures the culture and costliness, savior faire and snobbery, history and histrionics of wine this is it.  There are other parts of the world where wine has been made more anciently but none where wine has come to so be exquisitely defined.  Bordeaux truly has been the ‘pebble in the pond’ from which wine popularity and appreciation have spread outward (largely thanks to the British – but that’s another story).  Yet to many who like to drink and enjoy wine it remains somewhat confusing and inaccessible.  Let’s change that by starting with a little journey through the region.

Reds are the dominant wines in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon getting most of the attention, but Merlot is actually more widely planted. The red wines are blends of the ‘noble grapes’ of Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  Usually two or more of these grapes are in the bottle but you won’t see them listed on the label.  The white wines are Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon.  The French don’t label by the grape type so this is why it’s good to know a bit about the region in general and each of the particular areas within it.  You can then know what to look for in the store and how to buy smarter.

Knowing Bordeaux begins with some basic geography.  The geography of Bordeaux directly influences the wine in the bottle.  Bordeaux is located near the Atlantic Ocean in the southwestern corner of France.  The ocean plays a very strong role in the wine of the region because of the cool and chilly dampness and rain that is typical during the growing season.  However, the vines get some moderating protection from a coastal forest so the extremes are not as significant as in other maritime growing environments.

The region is bisected by two major rivers which then join into a large estuary.  The Garonne River meets the Dordogne River near the city of Bordeaux and together they make up the Gironde – the estuary that runs into the Atlantic.  These four bodies of water – ocean and three rivers – are the natural demarcation of the Bordeaux wine country, controlling climate and creating the terroir of the region.  The gravelly soils are ideal for Cabernet and the more fertile areas help Merlot thrive.

The eastern side of the Dordogne and Gironde is known as the “Right Bank.”  It’s here that Merlot based wines are predominant. At the center is the village of St. Emilion and scattered though the broader area are Pomerol, Fronsac and others.  This is the Libournais, so named after the city of Libourne.

fotoBORDELAIS-mapa-post-sobre-cata-Bordeaux-1140x904

To the west of the Garonne and Gironde is the “Left Bank.”  This is home to the most famous wines of Bordeaux from the chateaux of the Medoc north of the town of Bordeaux – St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux – and Graves to the south.  The Left Bank wines are driven by Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs to be hardy in that maritime climate and makes wine that is tannic, structured and very age-worthy.  In Graves it is also where the white wines of Bordeaux are prominent. Then tucked away near the banks of the Garonne is Sauternes and the world famous dessert wine of Chateau D’Yquem.

Between the rivers is a fertile triangle of land known as Entre-Deux-Mers, literally ‘between the waters.’  This is the breadbasket of Bordeaux wine where there is big production and a high volume of every day drinking Merlot based wines.  There aren’t a lot of Entre-Deux-Mers wines on our shelves, but they are a staple throughout France.

In future posts I’ll get into more detail on both the Right and Left Bank and the styles and characters of the wines we’ll find there, but here’s a little sampling to wet your tastebuds!

Every Day Sip
2012 Chateau Cap de Faugeres Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $18

2012 Francois Thienpont Rouge Lalande de Pomerol $18

2012 Chateau Bellevue Peycharneau Bordeaux Superieur $14

Guest Sip
2012 Chateau d’Armailhac Pauillac $50

2012 Chateau Sansonnet Saint Emilion $36

2012 Chateau Cantenac Brown Margaux $48

Splurge Sip
2012 Chateau Pape Clement Pessac Leognan $100

1999 d’Yquem $100 (auction price) for half bottle 375ml

What is a “Reserve” Wine?

You see it on the label all the time – the word  Reserve, Reserva or Riserva.  At least on the surface that must mean there’s something a bit more special about the wine, right?  And that’s usually reinforced by the price, which is more than a non-reserve wine from the same producer.  The answer is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

As with many things about wine there is a lot of “it depends” in that answer. In the New World wine countries – the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused.  Therefore, here’s a short guided walk through the meaning of those words on the label.

United States:  The term “Reserve” or other iterations of it on the label has no legal or regulatory meaning. It does not automatically mean higher quality. That’s right, it’s a labeling that is completely up to the winery to use in whatever way they chose.  I think that’s called marketing!

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe this is meant to be misleading, rather, wineries typically use “reserve” to indicate they have somehow treated the wine with more special care –  and most will also tell you why it’s more special.  They may have made it from selected vineyards or plots or from a blend of specific barrels or types of oak.  Whatever the case, the Reserve is meant to stand out, fill in their brand offering and generate more selective sales – and, according to the winery, give you a more special sip. The key is to know what you’re buying – so read the back label, check the winery website or rely on a good wine store to help you decide.  And here’s an earlier post on reading the label in general that you may find useful too.

Italy: There is no country wide rule for the use of Riserva but it’s definitive within the different Italian appellations.  Wine from the Chianti zone has different requirements than the Piedmont or Montalcino or the Veneto.  However the general rule is that Riserva have to be aged longer before being released. In Chianti that means a Riserva has been aged at least 2 years and has slightly higher alcohol, for a Brunello it’s 5 years with at least 2 in wood and 6 months in the bottle, and for Barolo the minimum aging is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4 years. These are all meant to be higher quality than non-reserve wines and they are “reserved” or held back for you by the winery while they age and develop. Further Italian wine basics can be found here.

Spain: Thankfully Spain is really straight forward and has specific aging designations.  For quality red wines Reserva is 3 years with 1 in the barrel and Gran Reserva means 5 years with 18 months in the barrel. For white and Rose’ it is 2 years/6 months for Reserva and 4 years/6 months for Gran Reserva.  So for Spanish wines it’s very clear that wine has been treated to extended cellaring before it’s ready for you to sip. And here’s a link to more about Spainsh Reds.

You won’t typically see Reserve designations for French wine (although it’s not precluded) since there is defined labeling based on the classification systems within the appellations and these are highly focused on the place and producer.  For more see earlier posts on Bordeaux and Burgundy.

So next time you’re in the wine shop, or looking over the list at the restaurant, and the word Reserve pops out you have this little sip of label knowledge to guide you!

Enjoy your reserved and unreserved sips!

Italian Wine Part 2 – The Piedmont

In Part 1 on Italian wine I shared some thoughts on Sangiovese, the blockbuster grape of Italy and star of Chianti and Tuscany.  During a visit to the Piedmont (Piemonte in the Italian) I spent some time at Pio Cesare and at Marchesi di Barolo (which first gave the Barolo name to wine) tasting through their wines and further developed a fondness for the wines of the region while wandering villages like Serralunga, Barolo (pictured above), La Morra, Alba and more.  I want to share that fondness with you.

Serralunga
Serralunga and the vineyards of the Piedmont

The Piedmont region in the Northwest of Italy is perhaps where the most age-worthy and renowned grape of the country hangs on the vines – Nebbiolo.  And it is also there where we get delightfully drinkable Barbera, Dolcetto, Gavi, Arneis and the fresh tingly sparking wines of Asti as well.

The village of Barolo is the capital of the Piedmont – not politically or geographically, but spiritually – because Barolo is where Nebbiolo finds its greatest expression, and Nebbiolo is to the Piedmont what Cabernet is to Napa, its face to the wider world of wine.  What makes Nebbiolo such a terrific Sip? It starts with the aroma.  When you take a sniff of Nebbiolo it’s like walking into a room with a dozen Valentine roses on the table, along with the woody smell of greens surrounding them. And then when you take a Sip there’s an abundance of red berry flavor, but typically with a richer, more intense taste reminding you of cloves or cinnamon.  In fact, the experience of drinking Nebbiolo is very similar to Pinot Noir, especially because the wines have very good, food friendly acidity as their backbone. The difference with Nebbiolo is the astringency and tannin due to the cool growing conditions and its late ripening – The Piedmont is in the shadow of the Alps and is composed of high plains and hill towns. Nebbiolo wines need time to soften which is why there are strict aging requirements for Barolo and Barbaresco in particular since they must offer 100% Nebbiolo wines.  Other areas of the Piedmont producing Nebbiolo wines are Gattinara, Ghemme and the Langhe hills, which can typically be drunk younger and appear at lower prices.

Tasting at Marchesi
Tasting at Marchesi di Barolo

Barbera may be one of my favorite, easy to drink, ready any night of the week wines.  It is the workhorse of the Piedmont along with Dolcetto.  Barbara is at home with a burger or a pizza, and I love the blackberry and spice of it.  The same goes for Dolcetto with its more full bodied texture. My appreciation for these wines was elevated on that visit and I regularly buy them now.

The best white wines of the Piedmont are Gavi (the grape is Cortese) and Arneis.  These are floral and crisp and I especially love them as summertime and salad wines, and they are just awesome with lingini and clam sauce.  I find them a bit richer and more complex than Pinot Grigio as a go-to Italian white.

And finally there is Asti.  Asti is a village known for its Asti Spumante, the sparking wine that is an inexpensive and fruity fizzy and for Moscato d’Asti, a slightly fizzy (called frizzante) wine with some residual sugar that makes it pleasant to Sip along with some cookies for desert.  But don’t be confused, you will also see both Barbera and Dolcetto d’Asti, which are reds we noted above.

The Piedmont wine culture is just as strong, but perhaps not quite as well known as Tuscany – yet it’s a quick drive from Milan.  What more of an excuse do you need for exploring more of Italy!

Cesare Cellar 2
In the cellar at Pio Cesare

Let’s Sip!

Everyday Sips
2012 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti Le Orme $14
2014 Vietti Dolcetto d’Alba $20
2013 Damilano Nebbiolo d’Alba $20

Guest Sips
2009 Travaglini Gattinara $30
2011 Ceretto Barolo $45
2012 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco $30
2008 Marchesi di Barolo Antiche Cantine Barolo $50
2009 Pio Cesare Barolo $60

Splurge Sips
2009 Vietti Barolo Brunate $135
2011 Gaja Barbaresco $190