Jul 312012
 

Parthenon, GreeceThere are few other countries that can claim a pedigree anywhere near the magnitude of Greece. Greece really founded the first culture of wine, and can be credited with spreading that culture throughout the Mediterranean.

To understand Greek wine, you must first understand the country and culture that spawned it. Greece is the third most mountainous country in Europe, with more than 9,000 miles of coastline and 3,000 islands. This means that just about every climate that exists may be found in Greece. At one time a world power under Alexander the Great, the country has seen a series of overseers and regimes in the past 2,000 or so years. Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans, all had an impact.

Understandably, this long history of wine making had led to some complacency on the part of Greek winemakers. They’d been doing things the same way for generations, so why change now? So they entered the later half of the 20th century with outmoded ideas and methods. Elsewhere, winemakers were adapting to changing customer tastes, implementing modern winemaking techniques, and working on improving their wine quality. In Greece? Not so much.

When most American wine drinkers think of Greek wine, if at all, they think of Retsina. You know, that wine that tastes like you just licked a Christmas tree? That’s a shame, and I expect it will change over the next several years. The fact is that Greece is coming into its own as a region that can produce wines that can succeed on the world stage. The reason? A new generation has mostly taken over from their parents and grandparents, bringing a modern sensibility and winemaking techniques.

Greece has many things going for it, and we’ll talk about it in Chapter 2.

Jul 262012
 

Over the past several years, wines from the country of Spain have been turning heads. Due in large part to increased energy and investment, most Spanish wines now offer exceptional quality at a price that most of us can afford.

In terms of the styles of wine that the country produces, they are as varied as colors of the rainbow. Being the second most mountainous country in Europe (can you guess the first?) and with shorelines on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, the country offers a range of climates and soil types.

The region of Castilla-La Mancha is the very center of the country. This is Don Quixote’s Spain. Full of history, tradition, and wine, Castilla-La Mancha is little known in the United States. While most U.S.-based connoisseurs are familiar with Rioja, Navarra, Ribera del Duero, or Priorat, few have heard of the wines from Castilla-La Mancha. That is because, until recently, the region was known mostly for producing uninspired wines, made in an outdated style and meant for a local audience. This is changing however.

“Spain is full of these ‘new’ old regions,” says noted author Karen MacNeil. And it’s true. These traditional regions are making an effort to bring themselves into the 21st century and their work is paying off.

With a typically continental climate, Castilla-La Mancha experiences very hot days and cool nights. The diurnal temperature swing can be as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s extreme by any measure. But, what that ensures is that you end up with an extended growing season, and those cool nights help the wines retain a good acidity level without too much alcohol. Numerous mountain ranges and rivers lend their influence on the meso-climates of the region, and the soils are pretty consistently limestone with some sedimentary clay in spots. At 1,200 to 3,000 foot elevation, it makes it one of the higher growing regions in the world.

Within the Castilla-La Mancha area, there are several sub-DOs (denominación de origen). DO Méntrida, DO Mandéjar, DO Uclés, DO La Mancha, DO Valdepeñas, DO Ribera del Júcar, DO Manchuela, DO Almansa, and DO Jumilla (partly in Murcia also). 46 grape varieties (23 red and 23 white) are permitted in these DOs and range from obscure local varieties to well-known international varieties such as Merlot.

Interestingly, there are more DO Pagos in Castilla-La Mancha than anywhere else in Spain. A Denominación de Pago are individual single-estates with an international reputation.  This speaks very highly of the regions overall quality and potential.

At a recent tasting hosted by Fundación Castilla-La Mancha Tierra de Viñedos, I had an opportunity to try some wines from this region. Here are some of the stand-outs:

  • Los Alijares DO Méntrida Viognier 2011 – pale gold color, orange blossom, jasmine, ripe apple, medium acid, light body, low alcohol, mineral on the palate, refreshing, Very Good
  • Solmayor DO Uclés Young Red (Tempranillo) 2011 – medium-minus purple color, unoaked, mineral, Santa rosa plum, cranberry, olive, medium body, medium tannin, medium plus acidity, young, fresh, delicious, Very Good
  • Azusa DO Manchuela Bobal Roble 2010 – pale ruby color, cigar box, cherry, underbrush, medium acidity, low tannin, medium body, long length, Very Good
  • Maar D Cervera Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Syrah 2010 – medium purple color, root beer, vanilla, brown sugar, spice, medium plus acidity, medium plus body, soft tannin, round, smoked meat and dried fruit on palate, complex, Very Good
  • Finca Los Alijares DO Méntrida Graciano 2009 – medium ruby color, crushed berry, strawberry, fresh, fruity, medium acid,medium body, Very Good
  • Viña Cerrón Vino de la Tierra de Castilla  El Sentido de La Vida 2009 – ripe, powerful, concentrated, Very Good
  • Viña Cerrón Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Rabia Petit Verdot 2009 – floral, balanced, spicy, Excellent

These wines range in price from arpund $8 to $25 at retail. That’s a bargain if I ever saw one. We’re not chasing windmills here.

Jul 232012
 
The Freeze Miser

Source: Rankin/Bass Productions Inc. “The Year Without a Santa Claus”

It has hardly heated up this summer, and already the daydreams have started: there I am, sitting by the fire sipping luxuriously rich wines. What’s with this cold weather we are having lately? I think Freeze Miser has finally tackled his miserable brother, Heat Miser.

Even if the summer heat were at normal levels, however, Napa Valley gets nippy every evening and every evening is therefore cause celebre for whispers of sweet nothings in our glasses. Only I prefer sweet everythings: Port style wines, Muscat wines, late harvest Zinfandels. You name it, it goes down the hatch to stave off pesky goosebumps.

Sweet wines are historic in California, if only because that is what we produced forever. Well, long before dry wine pushed the sweet ones off the hill anyway. In the 1960s in particular, California became known for its sweet wines. The most popular were fortified wines, made in the style of Portugal’s Port. It took a winemaking renaissance later in the 60s to elevate dry wines in California, and this same renaissance brought about a pretty nice side effect: serious, high-quality sweet wines.

Sweet wines are no picnic to make. You have to really love them to go through the pain of making them. With late harvest wines, there is stress over weather and rot issues. For botrytized wines (a good mold sucks the grape practically dry so the only thing left is sweet, syrup-like elixir). For this mold to happen in Napa Valley, you pretty much have to do special rain dances wearing a bunny suit and waving around a scepter; it don’t come easy. With Port-style wines, you have to go all grape-spirity and the husband or wife may not appreciate a distillation pot or tank in the kitchen.

However, once sweet wines are made, there they all, ready to whisper sweet everythings in to your glass.

Here are some fun sweet wines being made in Napa Valley:

  • Alpha Omega 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • V Sattui Winery  2009 Late Harvest White Riesling
  • Heitz Wine  Non-vintage Cellars Ink Grade Port
  • Honig Vineyard  2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • Truchard Vineyards 2007 Roussane Carneros
  • Bennett Lane Winery  Non-vintage  After Feasting Wine (Port-style)
Jul 192012
 

Wine JudgingThe world of wine can seem quite glamorous – jaunting off to Italy or France to taste wines with some of the world’s most highly respected winemakers, enjoying dinners at top-rated restaurants and just generally basking in the glow of vaunted vineyards and scenic countryside. What’s not to like?

But, it can also be hard work. No, I’m not asking for sympathy (you can dismiss the violins); I know I live a “winederful” life. Yet, it’s not all truffles, roses and cherries.

Well, actually, that’s not entirely true either. In mid-May, I found myself tasting through hundreds of samples of Nebbiolo, a grape variety which is generally characterized by its aromas and flavors of truffles, roses and cherries. But, even with such a well regarded grape in my glass, it wasn’t as thrilling as you might expect.

On Monday morning, I was perched at a white-clothed table, fully set with five Riedel stems, a water glass, a bottle each of still and sparkling water and a bundle of breadsticks nestled in a napkin. This being my first visit to Alba in Piedmont, Italy for Nebbiolo Prima, I wasn’t sure what to expect next.

My fellow journalists were similarly seated while members of the Italian Sommelier Society, in crisp black uniforms, prepared bottles of wine on a central table. Each bottle was equally clothed in black with a bag pulled to the neck to hide the wine’s identity, designated only by a single number written in white.

After being given a small amount of wine with which to prepare (rinse) our glasses, the spectacle began. Tasting the wines poured in flights of five, we proceeded to taste a total of 67 wines. And, this wasn’t any ordinary tasting. These were the newest releases of Nebbiolo hailing from the DOCGs of Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. In other words, VERY YOUNG, VERY TIGHT, VERY TANNIC, TEETH-STAINING Nebbiolo.

Taste, spit, taste, spit, taste, spit (with some notes scribbled in between each taste and spit session) continued for nearly three hours, punctuated only by the occasional gulp of water, bite of breadstick or enforced pause while you waited for someone to bring you an empty spit bucket. Very glamorous, no? After the 67th wine, we were excused for lunch and other activities, but the same procedure was repeated the next day.

Whereas Monday focused on Roero 2009, Roero Riserva 2008 and Barbaresco 2009, Tuesday concluded the 2009 Barbarescos and introduced the Barbaresco Riserva 2007s and Barolo 2008s. By Wednesday, it was all Barolo 2008, all the time, which continued into Thursday. Thursday also offered up a “pleasant” surprise with an additional 10 wines, bringing that day’s tally to 80 samples. Those last ten were a struggle, but I trudged through knowing that the producers of those ten wines weren’t to blame (and, thus, shouldn’t be penalized) for their placement in the tasting lineup. To say I had palate fatigue would be the understatement of the year – I had palate coma.

About a third of the way through the tasting on Friday, we shifted to Barolo Riserva 2006, concluding with a final count of 350 samples tasted over the five days (excluding those tasted outside of the formal proceedings). At this point, I was strongly considering moving my semi-annual dental appointment up a few weeks to be certain that I hadn’t sustained any permanent damage to my teeth.

For me, the experience and exercise of tasting the wines at this early stage in their development was a challenge. I did find wines I preferred more than others (and a few I outright disliked) and saw some patterns emerge among samples from the various vintages and communes. However, it was not nearly as instructive as the tastings that took place during our visits to the wineries or while dining at local restaurants with the winemakers themselves. Admittedly, these latter activities are more relaxing, but, more importantly, they bring the people and the place to life, which is what truly makes all of the days and days of wine and roses worthwhile.

Jul 022012
 

Photo Credit: Michael Wangbickler

The heat is on (some might call it sultry), but there’s no need to get all hot and bothered. Although there’s no prohibition against drinking rose during the winter months (admittedly ordering rose in the middle of a snow storm may raise some eyebrows), summer is certainly a perfect time for turning to rose-colored glasses.

Not quite white and definitely not crimson, these wines are somewhere in between, but offer a wide range of styles. With a grape’s color pigments contained in its skin and not in the pulp, these wines are produced primarily from red grapes, but with much more limited contact between the skins and grape juice (think tie-dyeing). Longer macerations and more deeply pigmented grapes will result in wines with deeper, more intense shades of pink (and frequently more body and flavor intensity), while shorter skin contact and paler grape varieties create lighter-bodied roses with just a blush of color.

Purse your lips and get ready to enjoy these wonderfully refreshing wines, broadly available at your neighborhood wine shop this time of year.