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

Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

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

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.

New Zealand’s Big Reds

We’re back!  It was a terrific visit to New Zealand. What a beautiful and diverse country – from the verdant hillsides covered in vines to the rugged natural beauty of the South Island, from the bustle of wharf-side Aukland to the laid back charm of Queenstown this is a nation of experiences.  And that certainly includes the full range of wine experiences.

In January I wrote some resolutions so let’s make good on another one: “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.” And let’s add Syrah to that too. Other red varietals as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are grown on the North Island but we’ll stick to the three biggies.

When you think red from New Zealand, think Hawke’s Bay first, then Aukland. These are warm weather places and the regions that produce the most Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties and from which we have the best chance of finding some on our shelves.  Hawke’s Bay is also an area that has a subregion with a unique soil type called “Gimblett Gravel.” IMG_2043I had several of these on the trip and I think it brings something different to the taste of the wines – there is a flinty dry mineralty which adds to the character. It’s similar to the Napa Valley Cabs from Rutherford with the well known “Rutherford Dust” of the gravelly soil there.

For the most part the wines I had were big and boldly flavored; ripe, warm weather offerings made to drink today. And, of course, capped with a screw top. Some of the Syrah were like a smack in the face they were so powerful and peppery – more like the inky black Petit Syrah grape. I admit, it took a bit getting used to and to me they definitely needed food at the same time. The best matches I had with the Syrah were a braised short rib one night and a coffee rubbed steak another. Big flavors to match up with big flavors. Not wine for the faint-hearted!

My favorite sips were the Cab/Merlot and Bordeaux style blends. These were good food wines to have with the New Zealand lamb, venison and beef – versatile and drinkable. The Hawke’s Bay wines are clearly “New World” with bursting forward fruitiness and heady flavors of currant, blueberry and brambles. They aren’t tight or tannic making them an easy choice right off of the shelf. One of the wines I had was from Waiheke Island near Aukland which is rich in volcanic soils and it was one of the biggest mouthfuls of Bordeaux styled wine I’ve ever had.

So the bottom line is that we discovered some new sips that add to the big wide world of tasting experiences.  I just love keeping my New Year Resolutions!

Unfortunately for us there are not a lot of these New Zealand wines in US distribution at retail but here are some to try that I have seen, including my favorite, Te Mata “Awatea.” Be sure to give a look to the wine list when you head to your favorite steakhouse too.

Let’s Sip!

Every Day Sip
2014 Villa Maria Cabernet Merlot, Hawke’s Bay, Cellar Selection $18
Good everyday example of a Hawke’s Bay red blend and since Villa Maria is a pretty big exporter of Sauvignon Blanc there are a number of retailers who also carry this. Definitely worth a try if you see it.

2011 Craggy Range Te Kahu $20
From the Wine Advocate: ”A blend of 69% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Malbec, the deep garnet-purple-colored 2011 Gimblett Gravels Te Kahu has a nose of warm plums, crushed black currants and wild blueberries with nuances of cedar, toast, cloves and dried mint. Light to medium-bodied with a slightly hollow mid-palate, it nonetheless gives very drinkable, delicate, black fruit and spice flavors in the mouth supported by crisp acid and chewy tannins. It finishes medium to long.”

Guest Sip
2010 Craggy Range Syrah Gimblett Gravels Vineyard $30IMG_2228
A chewy Syrah with bold flavor and lots of peppery spiciness.

2014 Te Mata “Awatea” Bordeaux Blend Hawkes Bay $30
My favorite of all the ones tasted from Hawke’s Bay during our trip! A blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot. Full flavored and as good as any Napa or Sonoma Cab Blend and equal to even pricier wines from Bordeaux. I think it’s right between both with the approachability of California and the nuance of France.

Splurge Sip
2013 Vidal “El Legado” Syrah Hawke’s Bay $65
Every critic agrees on this one – just a terrific wine with lush dark fruit and complexity.

On the Road – In Marlborough Country

Marlborough New Zealand that is.  We just finished a few days in Blenheim and got to immerse ourselves in the winemaking culture and attitude of Marlborough.  An aside – when we disembarked the Interislander Ferry from Wellington at Picton and took the short drive through the hills into the Wairau River Valley I had to pinch myself to realize I was actually in New Zealand, a place I’ve longed to visit (as I wrote about). They take their wine seriously here and, remember, it’s really Marlborough that put New Zealand on the world wine map with lively and zingy Sauvignon Blanc. They still focus on that but Pinot Noir is finding its place along with other varietals like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Notice a theme?  Yep – Marlborough is where you find cool climate varieties.

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Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the vine

New Zealand has several wine growing regions, and even though they have not yet adopted an appellation system like the US and other major wine growing countries, each does have unique characteristics. In Marlborough it’s the moderating influence of the rain shadow from the western mountains, the combination of clay and rocky greywacke soils and the ocean breezes from Cloudy Bay that give the wines their signature. The days are long and usually sunny and there are not high heat spikes so there is an extended, cooler growing season. Geek Alert: Greywacke is the mineral rich rock that makes up the mountains of the Southern Alps so its all over South Island New Zealand.

Blenheim is the heart of this wine region and from there it’s very easy to explore the whole area – none of the wineries were more than a 20 minute drive from our base station, the unique Antria Lodge, and owner Phil pointed us in all the right directions!  Most offer open to the public and free tastings at their “cellar door.” So we went off to sip some Marlborough wines.

This was like a Sauvignon Blanc seminar. When you consider that 85% of the wine in Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc there’s a lot of sipping to cover – but somebody has to do it!

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Tasting 2016 Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc and the grapes from 2017

What did we find?  We found characteristically grassy and tart wines and we found those with elegance and finesse.  We found wines with fruit forward flavors of gooseberry and herbaceous asparagus and wines with tropical grapefruit tastes.  We found edgy and acidic offerings and some lightly oaked with supple flavors. We found single vineyard wines and the high volume Marlborough wines you see all over the world. We found winemakers who are devoted to the heritage of their land (read the Auntsfield story), those who are experimenting with the nuances of the terroir (visit Clos Henri)and those using native wild yeast to give their wines a specific signature (see Greywacke).  In short we found a vibrant and eclectic wine country experience. There’s a lot more to a sip of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc than you may think. I know it opened me up to new sipping experiences.

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Greywacke visit

We were very fortunate to be able to wander these wines first hand, but a great way to pay a virtual visit to Marlborough, and help you find some wines near home, is by visiting Wine Marlborough.

Here are some Marlborough sips for you to enjoy from our visit. I tasted them all and they are a nice reflection of being “On the Road – In Marlborough Country.”
Let’s sip!

2016 Omaka Springs Sauvignon Blanc $14

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc $16

2016 Babich Sauvignon Blanc Black Label $16

Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $16

Auntsfield Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $18

Zephyr Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $18

Villa Maria 2016 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc $18

2016 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $20

Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $24

2014 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

What is a “Single Vineyard” Wine?

There certainly is a lot of information on wine labels and you will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard.Nunes Vineyard on harvest day 2006 This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard

To me that’s important because it means the grapes that make up the wine in the bottle have come from one clearly identifiable location.  And when it comes to wine this tells us that there has been more consistent soil, climate, vineyard management and all of the other things that go into growing grapes and producing good wine.  The French term this terroir – and for more about that you can read this previous post.

I know this gets a little geeky so why should it matter to you?  Well, the rule of thumb is that the more tightly defined and controlled the growing environment, the greater the opportunity to make the best wine from the grapes.  If you buy into the idea that great wine begins in the vineyard, which I do, then it’s something to know and care about as you get further into wine.

And it can make you a smart wine buyer.  Makes sense to me.

There are many single vineyard wines on the shelves – it’s become a common practice to isolate the source of the grapes in order to highlight greater potential quality. But some growers and winemakers go even further and designate down to the specific block of vines within the vineyard or even the specific clone of vine that is being used, and there are more of those appearing on the shelves too.

What does that mean in practice? It’s what Fred Nunes does with his Pinot Noir at St. Rose Winery and Nunes Vineyards in Sonoma.  Fred not only makes his wine under the St. Rose label, designated as “Nunes Vineyard” but further identifies “Ten Block” and “777” to show the Pinot Noir comes from a selection of the ten different blocks of Pinot vines within the vineyard or exclusively from the vines of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir.  nunes-10

Both are terrific and you can taste a difference.

His vineyard is also the source of high quality fruit for other winemakers, so it’s possible to find “Nunes Vineyard” wines not made by Fred – like the Matrix Pinot Noir pictured here.10_29681-36062_F

One final point: not all single vineyard wines are “Estate” wines. If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. So, while all of the St. Rose wines are Estate wines, you don’t see the word “estate” on the Matrix label.

It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon of wine, but there are some basic things that will help you become a smarter buyer and add confidence to the wine selection decisions you make at the retailer or when you’re at the dinner table.  Knowing what’s behind the info on the label is one of those basic things.

Our thanks to Fred and Wendy at Nunes Vineyards and St. Rose Winery for providing the photo of Fred checking his Pinot Noir!