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!


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

Perfect New Year Resolution

This is not about working out.  And it’s not about doing the “cleanse” that is so popular or paying for a membership at the Bikram yoga studio.  My Perfect New Year Resolution is this: I resolve to experience a new wine every month.  I am up for the challenge (and the rules are pretty loose) – this can mean a varietal I’m not really familiar with, or a wine from a region from which I don’t normally buy the wines, or a particular style or approach to winemaking that is new to me, or a wine that is just different, or maybe something from off the beaten track.  I think this is a heck of a way to end up with a mixed case of new wine experiences.

This is one resolution that I know I can keep – how about you?

Over the years I’ve tried to be open to finding as many different wine experiences as I can.  And one of the things that enamors me most about wine is its almost infinite variety.  So here are my resolution sips and each month I’ll share them with you:

  • January – starting the year off with a journey south and an exploration of Carmenere from Chile
  • February – means something for my Valentine and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia
  • March – as we look forward to spring in the northern hemisphere they are picking grapes in New Zealand so I think we’ll try some of the Cabernet and Merlot from the North Island
  • 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?
  • 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
  • June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy!
  • July – time for the 4th of July and some wine from Jefferson’s home state, Virginia
  • August – did you know that Spain is the 3rd largest wine producing country in the world with more wine than the US and Australia combined? That’s a lot of wine to experience so we’d better get on it. Hint: following the footsteps of Don Quixote
  • September – crush time begins in California and what better time to step off the beaten path and take in some wine from places outside of Napa and Sonoma
  • October – the Danube flows through and separates the cities of Buda and Pest – but not the amazing wines of Hungary
  • November – when I visit Mexico I drink local.  Not tequila, but tasty wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.
  • December – down at the tip of South Africa there’s a wine with a unique heritage to uncover

Stay tuned and keep sipping!


Knowing Bordeaux Part 2 – The Medoc

St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien and Margaux.  These are perhaps the four most famous of the Bordeaux appellations and they all share two common characteristics – they only produce red wines and they are all located in the Haut Medoc on the left bank of the Gironde River.map-vignoble-de-bordeaux-medoc

While there are certainly great wines produced in other areas of Bordeaux, one could argue that it is these four that are most indicative of how we think about the region.  Each are part of the original 1855 Classification. Instigated by Napoleon III, the 1855 Classification was meant as a quality ranking based on reputation and price for the wines being produced in the Gironde.  Four of the five Premier Crus or First Growth estates came from the Medoc (the exception being Chateau Haut Brion from Graves, which is to the south of the village of Bordeaux).  These First Growths are the signature wines of France and some of the most sought after and long-lived wines in the world.  Odds are you will recognize them even if you haven’t had the wonderful opportunity to sip them!  Here they are :

  • Chateau Lafite Rothschild of Pauillac
  • Chateau Mouton Rothschild of Pauillac
  • Chateau Latour of Pauillac
  • Chateau Margaux of Margaux
  • Chateau Haut-Brion of Graves

There are many incredible wines made in this region. In order to capture all the quality wines of the Medoc a new classification was introduced in 1932 to recognize them – Cru Bourgeois. There are approximately 240 of these estates designated annually.  So what we have is a system for understanding all of the wines coming out of this area relative to each other and many of them are affordable and drinkable every day wines.  See my post on Burgers and Bordeaux for some tasty examples.

To me the main thing to know and remember about the Medoc is that it is the definitive use and style Cabernet Sauvignon based and blended wines to which the world aspired.  This region is responsible for the intensity of focus that California winemakers put on Cabernet.  To be taken seriously on the world wine stage they had to compete with the Medoc.  And compete successfully they did, creating a fruit forward bolder style that captured the taste preferences of the world – but that’s for another post.  The fact is that the Medoc set the standard.

The wines for his area use the “noble grapes” of Bordeaux.  Rarely is there a single varietal wine, rather the wines are blends made from at least two of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. They are often wines that need a bit of age in the bottle to round out the tannins and let the flavors come together.  If you are a California Cab drinker then you will likely find them a bit leaner and tannic when younger, but let me tell you, these are great food wines.

I find their attention to terroir and devotion to blending to be their artistry.  So seek out some of the wines of the Medoc and sip the essence of French wines.

Everyday Sips

2012 Chateau Greysac Medoc Cru Bourgeois  $20
2012 Larose Trintaudon Haut Medoc $20
2012 Blason d’Issan Margaux $25

Guest Sips
2012 Chateau d’Armailhac Pauillac $50
2012 La Dame de Montrose Saint Estephe $35
2012 Chateau Talbot Saint Julien $55

Splurge Sips
2012 Chateau Rauzan Segla Margaux $70
2013 Chateau Pontet Canet Pauillac $100
2000 Chateau Latour Pauillac $1,000 – if you have one of these call me!!!

Italy Part 3 – The Veneto

I just returned from Italy and the last stop on the itinerary was Venice. And while I didn’t have time to go wandering through the vineyards of the Veneto that didn’t stop me from enjoying some of the local wines!  If you’re not familiar with the wines get ready for some really tasty every day reds, whites that are crispy and refreshingly perfect for summer, some bubbly to tickle your fancy and that big bomb of intense and chewy wine called Amarone.  So let’s get started.

The Veneto is the major Italian wine region of the Northeast of Italy.  The most significant areas within it cluster near Verona and are influenced by Lake Garda to the west with the sparkling wine, Prosecco, from the growing areas north of Venice.  One of the unique things about the region is the ancient process called appassimento used to create the signature red wine of the Veneto – Amarone della Valpolicella.  But more on that in a bit.

Prosecco is a delightful sparkling wine that is just plain fun to sip.  Its lower alcohol makes it the perfect aperitif and many of the little restaurants you’ll encounter in Venice, Verona and throughout the region will greet you with a glass as you settle in. It’s made from a grape called Glera, but is also known as Prosecco. The light bubbles carry aromas of citrus and fresh flowers and the taste often reminds me of green apples.  It’s a terrific sparkler to use for those mimosas at brunch, a refreshing Bellini in the afternoon or all by itself.  And here’s the best part – you’ll find it for less that $15 a bottle so stock up.

Soave is the most well known white wine of the area and I think it is often overlooked, especially during the warmer months. Pear, citrus, stony mineralty with refreshingly crisp acidity – this is a wonderful salad wine and a nice match with fish dishes.  The classic grilled Bronzino (sea bass) of Venice paired with soave will transport you to dining next to a canal with gondolas passing by if you close your eyes!

Let’s get to the reds.

Valpolicella and Bardolino are the everyday choices and they are blends primarily of Covina and Rondinella.  These are really pretty simple wines – that’s not meant as criticism but just that they can fit a lot of sipping occasions, are rBertanieady to drink when you buy them and are every day priced.  You’ll taste bright red fruit like cherry with soft tannins.  These are pizza and lighter  pasta dish wines. For a more layered and deeper flavor experience look for Valpolicella Ripasso.  Ripasso  literally means “repassed.”  The winemaker takes the fermented Valpolicella then puts it with the skins and leftovers from the production of Amarone so the wine is re-passed and there is a second fermentation -which adds depth of flavor along with higher alcohol.  Many folks call the Ripasso wines “baby Amarone.”  But you wont’ pay an Amarone price!

What’s the big deal about Amarone?  Amarone is one of the unique wines in the world.  Same grape blend as Valpolicella but it’s made in a time-tested distinctive way.  When the grapes are picked at harvest they aren’t pressed right away to make wine – they’re set aside to dry first.  This drying is done in slotted boxes or straw mats, or the bunches are even hung from the ceiling. They’re dried that way for a few months.  The drying evaporates the water in the grapes and concentrates the sugars.  These partially raisined grapes are then pressed and the juice is fermented into a pretty high in alcohol, deeply flavored and intense red wine. This is the appassimento process. As you’d expect, the extra time and care that goes into to making these means it costs more – but I love Amarone!

Dark plum, black cherry, licorice, woody, brambly, coffee, sun dried tomato, and. of course raisiny – these are just some of the descriptors which try to capture the sip.  The bottom line – this is a big wine. It’s also velvety smooth and terrific with hearty meat dishes.  My favorite pairings are osso buco, grilled lamb chops or just about any braised beef dish like short ribs – yum!

Time to Sip the Veneto so here’s a sampler!

Every Day Sips
Zardetto Brut Prosecco $14. Crispy fresh pear.

2014 Gini Soave Classico $14. Lemony and zesty.

2014 Allegrini Valpolicella $15. Classic taste profile

2013 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore $14. Red berries.

2011 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre $18.  This is a go-to wine for me – I love it and buy it frequently. Dried fruit flavor. Really drinkable and versatile .

2013 Bertani Valpolicella Ripasso Villa Novare $18. Had to include this – just had a bottle in Venice! Kind of tough to find at retail.

Guest Sips
Zenato Ripassa Superiore 2012 $26. Rich coffee bean.

2010 Masi Brolo di Campofiorin $28. A lush and big ripassa

2011 Masi Amarone Costasera $50. Bold with dried fruit. Raisiny with coffee along with dark plum.

Splurge Sips

2010 Allegrini Amarone $70. Amarone elegance. Confession: I am partial to Allegrini wines and this wine always says “Amarone” to me.

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 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