Monday, November 28, 2022

Grape Spotlight: Oltrepò Pavese DOC Pinot Nero and Others

Lombardy is one of Italy's largest and most populous regions and is located in the north-central part of the country. It consists of five DOCG, 21 DOC, and 15 IGP titles with the Oltrepò Pavese DOC being one of the larger and better-known regions. Oltrepò  Pavese refers to Pavia across the Po -- or more meaningful - the area south of the Po River. The region lies in southwest Lombardy and shares many common features with neighboring Piedmont as both regions were once ruled by the House of Savoy.

Viticulture has been prevalent in Oltrepò Pavese for thousands of years as evidenced by the discovery of a fossilized caràsa, that is, a fossilized vine trunk, 25 cm long by 6 cm in diameter, found near Casteggio (Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese). And why not. According to, "the vineyards of the Oltrepo zone sit among the foothills between the Apennines and the river Po in the provinces of Alessandria, Genoa, and Piacenza. The vines benefit from an excellent microclimate (thanks to its proximity to the Po), well-drained soils rich in clay and calcareous marl, and a terroir often compared to that of Barolo".  In 1884 Oltrepò Pavese was home to at least 225 native vines, but today there are just a dozen that are the most widespread.
Last week I attended a fascinating lunch at Cafe Milano featuring wines from Oltrepò Pavese presented by Carlo Veronese, the director of the Consorzio Vini Oltrepò. Even though there are 20 classifications within Oltrepò Pavese, this tasting focused on the Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero dell'Oltrepo Pavese, and Sangue di Giuda dell'Oltrepo Pavese. And notice that the wines of Oltrepò Pavese are generally named from the vines from which they are made and not just the region.
Pinot Nero dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC
Oltrepò Pavese is considered the Pinot Nero (Noir) capital of Italy as more Pinot Nero is planted there than anywhere else in Italy. Interestingly, the original genotypes of Pinot Noir were already cultivated in the Oltrepò areas by the ancient Romans and may have been the source of Pinot Noir in the south of France. However, the current Pinot Noir vines derive from French selections that were planted after the Phylloxera epidemic. Pinot Nero can be labeled as a vintage wine or a Reserva with a minimum of two years of aging.

The Cantina di Casteggio Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2020 is a lighter style but with noticeable tannins and a little chewy mint.

The Dino Torti Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2019 was perhaps my favorite despite the interesting branding. It's floral with creamy red raspberries and cherries and a viscosity throughout.

The Mazzolino Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2018 was the biggest of the reds, aged twelve months in oak and offering a tea and pepper aroma, a full-bodied interior, with a firm and lasting finish.

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG
Metodo classico is Italy's version of Champagne's methode classique and Pinot Nero is dominant in all wines made under this title.  The sparkling wine can be made either as a white or rosé and 70 percent or more of the final blend must be Pinot Nero. This percentage increases to 85 percent for wines claiming the varietal title Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Pinot Nero.  Picked at the early stages of skin ripeness, Pinot Nero displays a good balance of acidity and sugar required for these sparkling wines.

The Asburgico Oltrepò Pavese DOCG Metodo Classico Pinot Nero 2018 explodes in the mouth with textured citrus notes.

The Azienda Agricola Quaquarini Francesco Oltrepò Pavese DOCG Metodo Classico Pinot Nero 2014 needed a few minutes to open then the floral, white grapefruit and a little tropic fruit notes rushed out.

Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio DOC
This title applies to still and frizzante white wines containing at least 85 percent Pinot Grigio.

The Vanzini Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio DOC was an eye-opener on the region's richer style and orangish-colored versions of this varietal wine.

Sangue di Giuda dell'Oltrepo Pavese DOC
The title translates to "Blood of Judas" and applies to sweet red wines which can be still, frizzante (semi-sparkling), or spumante. Barbera and Croatina must each account for between 25 and 65 percent of any blend with Pinot Nero, Uva Rara, and Vespolina alone or in any combination, accounting for 45 percent. The intriguing and sometimes controversial name Sangue di Giuda means "Blood of Judah" or "Blood of Judas". 

The Losito & Guarini Sangue Di Giuda Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC, C'era Una Volta 2021 is a low alcohol (6%), full-bodied, and fresh wine where the sweetness is partially obscured by the abundant acidity.

Oltrepò Pavese Riesling
The Ca Di Frara Oliva Oltrepò Pavese Riesling DOC also provides a darker copper color with tropical and petrol notes.

Oltrepò Pavese Barbera
The Ca Montebello Oltrepò Pavese Barbera DOC 2020 is fruit-forward, and very friendly with a floral start and a slight mocha tail.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Enjoy Beer, Wine, and Scenic Views from Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Brewery


We can all agree that every winery provides its own unique glorious view of the surrounding countryside and the views from Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Brewery are no exception. Except that it may provide the best mountain and valley views in Virginia, and arguably the entire East Coast.  The 35-acre estate vineyard off Afton Mountain is planted on south-facing slopes ranging in elevation from 800 feet to 1,140 feet within the Monticello AVA. And with amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont valleys.

In addition to the estate vineyard, Hazy Mountain farms 50 acres in the cooler Shenandoah AVA west of Staunton, on the southeast-facing slopes of the west side of the Shenandoah Valley. The Little North Mountain Vineyard also houses their production facility. Thus Hazy Mountain offers wines from two distinct Virginia AVAs - cool climate Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and Pinot Noir from the Shenandoah Valley and Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot from Nelson County and the Monticello AVA.

We stuck to the white wines and were very impressed with these cool climate varietal wines. We learned that the 2020 Chenin Blanc was fermented and aged in large French oak puncheons and aged on lees in a barrel for 11 months, providing rich fruit texture and a larger mouthfeel. Great acidity too. As did the 2019 Dry Riesling and 2020 Gruner Veltliner with the Riesling very light in the Kabinett style and the Gruner providing layers of white grapefruit. As for beer, go no further than the German Pilsner. Excellent. Can't wait to visit for a Nelson County Dark Skies night.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Virginia Cider Week & Cider Smackdown: Attack of the Crab

Virginia Cider Week
started last Friday and runs through November 20th and we attended the kickoff event Cider Smackdown: Attack of the Crab at Albemarle CiderWorks. This event was a blind tasting of eight Virginia ciders composed of crab apples and the entries consisted of either Virginia Hewes, Wickson, or Rub Ted Crabapple.

Hewe’s Crab was the most common fruit variety grown in eighteenth-century Virginia. It is thought to be a cross between the native American crabapple, Malus angustifolia, and the domesticated European apple of horticulture. It produces a delicious cinnamon-flavored cider that is both sugary and pungent. Jefferson planted his entire north orchard exclusively with this variety and once wrote that crushing the juicy Hewe's Crab for cider was like "squeezing a wet sponge." Its small, round fruit, which ripens in September in Central Virginia, is dull red and streaked with green. (

Wickson Crab was developed by Albert Etter, an apple enthusiast best known for his work on pink-fleshed and red-fleshed apples. Wickson was the result of crossing two other crab apple varieties. Confusingly Etter refers to them as Spitzenberg crab and Newtown crab in his patent papers, but it is not thought they are related to the mainstream apples of the same names but were crabs developed by Etter himself...Like most crab apples Wickson is very small and is also a hardy and problem-free tree. However, that is where the resemblance to other crab apples ends. Wickson is unusually sweet, but at the same time has a strong acid component. The result is an apple that has a very strong flavor, making it an excellent component for cider blends. (

Ruby Red is a chance seedling that actually originates from the property. The tree was found behind an old cabin at the base of Priest Mountain by John Saunders and after noting the apples' intense flavor and colored flesh, they chose to propagate the apple for commercial purposes. (Troddenvale at Oakley Farm

The Cider Smackdown was a blind tasting where attendees voted on their two favorites or a single favorite getting both votes. Each of the ciders was completely unique even those composed of the same apple varieties, as cellar techniques varied among the cideries. The Albemarle CiderWorks Wickson Crab received the most votes followed by a three-way tie of the Sage Bird Cider Virginia Hewes CrabHalcyon Days Cider Occam's Razor, and Big Fish Cider Virginia Hewes Crab.  I had recognized the Sage Bird Hewes Crab from opening a bottle a few weeks previously when studying for the CCP. Love the fleshy tart and bittersweet notes. My other vote went to the Potter's Craft Cider Wickson Crab (which finished in a three-way tie with the Lost Boy Cider Cellar Series: Hewes and Courthouse Creek Cider Crabtree Falls.  The Potter's Wickson Crab was aged in French oak wine barrels and was able to retain tartness and acidity while providing red currants on the nose and a full body palate.  The Troddenvale Grower Series, Silver Creek Orchards - 2021 rounded out the entries and this was my first taste of a Ruby Red Crabapple cider. There was an interesting farmhouse hoppy flavor combined with creamy lees and a bittersharp finish.

We came home with a bottle each of the Albemarle CiderWorks Wickson Crab and Halcyon Days Occam's Razor but hope to revisit all of these ciders during the BevFluence® New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign. All ciders are welcome for the campaign. Cheers. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

New Perspectives on Wines of Uruguay

Last week the Uruguay Wine Fall Tour landed in Washington DC where 16 producers poured several wines each at  La Cosecha (voted one of America's Top 50 Best Wine Retailers in 2021). The tour was sponsored by Uruguay Wine, the brand used by INAVI - Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura to promote Uruguayan wine around the world. During a previous tasting almost a decade ago, the emphasis was strictly on Tannat -- introduced into Uruguay in 1870 by Basque immigrants and at the time had represented one-third of all wine produced in that country.  And yes, there were several single-varietal Tannat wines and Tannat-based blends poured at this event. However, I was more impressed by the emergence of other grape varietals and stylistic changes. 

Uruguay resides in the same parallels as its neighbors Argentina & Chile, but also South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The soils are mostly clay, there's plenty of sunshine, and the vineyards are primarily situated near the Rios de la Plata (across from Buenos Aires) or near the Atlantic Ocean. Think cool coastal breezes and balanced and structured wines. There's a relatively long wine-making tradition in the county as immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Germany brought their wine-making traditions and wine grapes with them. 

The first new trend I noticed was the expansion of Albariño. The grape was introduced into Uruguay by the Bouza Winery incorporating the family's Spanish roots from Galicia. They also farm several other winegrapes in five vineyards from the metropolitan areas of Montevideo and Canelones to the oceanic-influenced Maldonado region. These are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Tannat. The last three comprise their Mount Vide Eu - a full-bodied and structured wine providing a robust mouthfeel. Yet, it was their tropical fruit and saline-driven Albariño 2022 that piqued my interest in discovering who else was producing wines from this grape variety.

Bodega Garzon was the next station I visited and they poured a coastal and racy Albariño Reserve 2022 that featured grapefruit and refreshing acids and minerality.  In addition, their Pinot Noir Rosé 2022 was very provencal - elegant with layers of strawberries. 

Another excellent example was provided by Familia Deicas and their Atlantico Sur Albariño.  As the name suggests, the grapes are grown no further than 30 kilometers from the coast where the cooler temperatures allow for slow ripening and fresh wine. This version has similar acidity and saline as the Bouza but shows more floral and citrus notes.  Familia Deicas has been very innovative throughout the years by producing the first Sauternes-style noble rot wine in Uruguay, the first ISO 9001 Quality Certification in South America, the first Tannat Liqueur in Uruguay, the first Tannat produced according to the Bordeaux Cru Garage techniques in Uruguay, and many others.

Winemaker Santiago Deicas has continued this innovation through his  Bizarra Extravaganza brand. This project began in 2014 when he started making craft beer and inspiration from the purity of that beverage triggered the concept of producing natural wines. Two of these wines were presented at the tasting: the Vino Natural Amphora and Vino Natural Orange. The former is made from 100% Tannat and aged two months in Amphora and 10 months in concrete tanks. The latter is composed of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng and is aged nine months in used French oak and concrete tanks. Both are truly unique with the Amphora showing fruit-forward Tannat.

Another fruit-forward innovative wine was the Pizzorno Maceracion Carbonica Tannat 2022. The wine was fermented using carbonic maceration in concrete tanks where, in a carbon dioxide-rich environment, most of the juice is fermented while still inside the grape. The resulting wine is low in tannins and showcases the grape's fruit - in this case, rich raspberries and cherries. The 4th generation at Pizzorno Family Estates also poured a very elegant Pinot Noir Reserve 2020 and a sturdy Tannat Reserve 2020 with the grapes from all of these wines grown in the country's largest wine region: Canelones. 

Another new perspective occurred while visiting the table for Bodega Cerro Chapeu. This 10th-generation family started producing wine in Catalonia in 1792 and in Uruguay in 1930. They are located in the Cerro Chapeu of the Rivera wine region which is located in northern Uruguay - very close to the Brazilian border.  This continental region is "characterized by its vineyards on the sides of hills and slopes, around 220 meters high, and its deep red sand soils with very good drainage and the seasons are drier with longer sun hours. Ideal for late-maturing varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia. These are the grapes that form the Castel Pujol Folklore Pet Nat. The grapes are fermented separately and right before complete fermentation, they are blended and bottled. I was not expecting a fun wine like this. They also poured a delicious still version of the Pet Nat, the Castel Pujol Folklore Blanco, with plenty of fruitiness and surprisingly body. Finally, they continued to stretch traditional winemaking with the Castel Pujol Folklore Tinto -- 80% Tannat co-pigmentation with 20% Petit Manseng first press skins. What a mouthfeel. 

A similar co-fermentation occurred with Alto de la Ballena and their 2018 Tannat - Viognier Reserve. This is an 85% - 15% co-fermented blend aged for nine months in American oak barrels. The Viognier softens the Tannat and provides a pleasant floral aroma. This 20-year-old winery is located in the southeast and seaside region of Maldonado and also produces a luscious Cabernet Franc Reserve - silky and juicy in nature

Perhaps the most delicious Cabernet Franc was provided by Bracco Basca and their 2021 Cabernet Franc. Layers of dark cherries, structured, and a long satisfying tail. The winery was founded in 2005 by Darwin Bracco and Mirtha Bosca "but its vineyards have been in the family for 5 generations. Originally from Piedmont, Italy, the family moved to Uruguay and established in Atlántida region to continue the wine tradition".  This winery is also releasing several innovative products such as the first dry Muscatel in Uruguay as well as a Merlot - Ugni Blanc Claret. Fun, fantastic wines. 

Looking forward to visiting all these wineries in person one day. Cheers. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Grappa, Brandy, Vidal, and Sangiovese at Maryland's Fiore Winery & Distillery

Since attending my first Maryland wine festival about 20 years ago and through various festivals and trade tastings over the successive years, I've wanted to visit Fiore Winery & Distillery. Yet its relatively remote location with its back to the Pennsylvania border in northeast Maryland hindered that effort. Fortunately this past weekend we traveled to visit relatives in Harford County who live only minutes away from the Free State's 12th bonded winery.

This year Fiore Winery is celebrating its 36th anniversary which doesn't include the many earlier years when founder Mike Fiore joined the Maryland Wine Association and planted two acres of 150 Vidal Blanc vines. After making the difficult decision to become bonded they expanded the plantings with more French hybrids such as Chancellor and Chambourcin and it was a bottle of an aged Reserve Chambourcin that drew my attention to the winery and the wine I would seek out at future tastings and festivals. The family added several vinifera grapes to their portfolio including a uniquely Maryland Sangiovese to honor Mike's Italian heritage. And eventually seeing the popularity of craft distilling on the horizon, they incorporated distilling and warehouse operations into the farm.

Their current lineup includes a large range of dry to sweet wines and traditional spirits to flavored moonshine. The three of us shared two wine flights of seven wines each and a spirit flight of four samples. For the spirits, I chose the Bourbon Whiskey ($34.99), Straight Rye Whiskey ($29.99), Apple Brandy ($29.99), and Grappa Nicholas Reserve ($39.99). The two whiskies were excellent representatives of their genres with the Bourbon rounder than the Rye, but both having a dry lasting finish.  The Apple Brandy is a solid spirit where the apple fruit dominates the palate and ends with a clean pomme finish. Fiore produces two grappas by distilling the leftover pomace from their estate-grown grapes. The Reserve is produced by aging a portion of that spirit in specially designed 30-gallon oak casks for a minimum of two years. This rounds out the intense profile of the grappa providing roundness, nuts, and honey. Nicely done. 

We stuck to mostly their dry wines and for the whites, their traditional dry Vidal Blanc ($14.99) being the consensus among our party. The wine provides plenty of tropical and stone fruit notes and refreshing acidity -- excellent for a sunny, autumn day. Their Chambourcin 2016 ($19.99) is still one of the best produced in the Free State, aged two years in oak, and shows loads of dark fruit (without the jamminess) with a round slightly tannic finish. We tried the single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot but these grapes are better represented in the Proprietor's Select Meritage 2014 ($39.99) -- a proprietary blend aged two years in new Hungarian oak barrels.  A mouthful of structured fruit and a lasting tail. Fiore is an east-coast pioneer in planting Sangiovese and offers two versions in their tasting room. The Sangiovese 2013 ($19.99) is a fresher wine whereas the Proprietor's Select Sangiovese 2014 ($39.99) is aged longer in new Hungarian oak barrels which helps create a fuller character with some earthiness and chocolate mixing with the dark fruit. The final wine was the Green Apple Riesling ($12.99) which is also canned and a little sweeter than the others. However, the tartness of the apples and acidity from the Riesling helps alleviate that sensation for a refreshing palate cleanser. 

During the visit, we learned more about the area and hope to return soon to visit the neighboring breweries (in both PA and MD) and hike to Kilgore Falls --  Maryland’s second-highest free-falling waterfall. See what other craft beverage operations are in the area using theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. Cheers. 

Friday, October 21, 2022

Studying for the Certified Cider Professional Level 1 Exam with Sage Bird Ciderworks Virginia Hewe's Crab

I finally began preparing for the Certified Cider Professional (CCP) exam this week as part of the BevFluence New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign and thought that the Sage Bird Ciderworks Virginia Hewe's Crab would be an appropriate study device. The American Cider Association (ACA) presents two levels for the CCP, " Level 1 CCP is designed for people who would benefit from a deeper but still introductory level of cider knowledge. The more advanced Certified PommelierTM test covers more in-depth cider knowledge, including sensory evaluation". 

The Level 1 CCP exam focuses on seven categories (1) Apples, the Orchard & History; (2) Cidermaking; (3) Evaluation; (4) Families & Flavor; (5) Keeping & Serving; (6) Food & Cider; and (7) Social Responsibility. I will now present the Virginia Hewe's Crab cider in terms of reviewing for the CCP. 

Sage Bird Ciderworks is located in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia and opened a couple years ago due to the persistent hard work of Zach and Amberlee Carlson. This is the first cidery in the home of the Dukes and they offer a wide array of various styles and apple varieties including Hewe's Crab from their Age Old Apples series. 

Hewe's Crab was once the most popular apple variety in Virginia and is thought to be a cross between the native American crabapple, Malus angustifolia, and a domesticated European apple. The Hewe's Crab apples for this cider were harvested from orchards in the mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley. These are most likely low-density and freestanding orchards with relatively wide spacing between the trees.  Each individual tree is also most likely a graft of a Hewe's Crab scion fused to a rooted tree. 

The Hewe's Crab apple itself is considered Bittersharp with the bitter implying high tannins (polyphenols) and the sharp implying high acidity (malic acid). This is based on the Long Ashton Research Station (LARS) classification. The tannins and acidity can provide this cider the capability to age.  The apple's flesh is white so makes a clear cider as opposed to some cider apples with pinkish flesh which can add a little color to the cider without having to macerate on their skins - unlike red wine grapes. However, I believe this cider was aged several months in oak which will impart color and other flavors. 

Let's look at this particular cider bottle. Since the cider is over 7% abv, its label is regulated by the TTB, whereas labels for ciders under 7% are regulated by the FDA. The TTP requires the ABV, total volume, name and address of the producers, and whether the cider contains sulfites. You will not see vintages or designated geographic areas like the wine AVA system. This label provides additional information stating its sweetness level (dry) and composition -- 100% Virginia grown, single heirloom Hewe's Crab Apples. 

This Virginia Hewe's Crab cider is made from 100% apples and thus falls into the cider category as opposed to the Perry, Fruit Cider, Botanical Cider, or Dessert Cider categories. The ACA uses five commonly accepted flavors that we can taste so let's examine this cider in terms of sweetness, acidity/sourness, bitterness, salt, and savoriness. This is a caramel-colored cider, completely dry, with a tart, tannic, and full-bodied. There is a general savoriness I think both from the flesh and the oak treatment. The cider also provides an interesting array of pineapples, raisins, and a little saltiness or saline. 

The ACA recommends several food and cider pairings - particularly with a Bittersharp cider apple like this Virginia Hewe's Crab.  The acidity has a cleansing quality that cuts through fat and rich flavors and thus refreshes the palate. High tannins can have a similar effect. Think beef short ribs, pork schnitzel, sausage,  nutty and mushroom flavors, and dense cheeses. And because of the cider's rich tannins, it can be paired with similar intense foods and not be overwhelmed.

The preparation for the CCP sure increases the amount of information to process when evaluating a cider. Cheers. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene by Vins du Languedoc

Recently I attended a seminar and wine tasting titled Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene and presented by Vins du Languedoc. I thought I knew a lot about the region but in reality - not so much. Thank you Erik Segelbaum. Particularly for informing us of the History of Innovation in Languedoc starting with fortified wines in 1295, sparkling wines in 1544, grafting in 1873, and the recent research into organic and heat-resistant grapes. (more to follow on these innovations)

Languedoc is located in southeast France on the Mediterranean and is comprised of 20 AOPs representing 90k+ acres of vines. These vines - representing 26 main grape varieties - receive more than 300 days of sunshine each year and are planted in generally limestone soils along with low-lying scrub and herbal vegetation. The region can be divided into three growing zones: Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Hills & Mountains.

The Mediterranean or Coastal Plains zone is the warmest with abundant sunshine and mild, wet winters. The soils are mostly limestone with mineral-rich clay and sandstone. Indigenous grapes such as Piquepoul, Bourboulenc, and Clairette thrive in this zone.  And that was evident by the Villa Noria La Serre 2021 ($30) - made from 100% Piquepoul farmed organically in the AOP Picpoul de Pinet region. This wine has more body than others as it is matured on its lees but retains freshness and a strong citrus profile.

The Atlantic Zone is much cooler and moist and is shaped by two winds -  the crisp and dry Atlantic wind from the west and the warm Mediterranean wind from the east. The coky soil of sandstone and limestone also assists in creating a very distinct terrior. This zone is widely planted with several better-known French varieties, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Malbec as well as the local Mauzac used in sparkling Limoux wines. Several domains stood out starting with Domaine de Brau in AOP Cabardès. Their Cuvée Château 2020 ($14)  is a fresh, but luscious blend of Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. And their Etymologie 2020 is a more structured blend of the same grape varieties. An excellent wine.

Finally, the Hills & Mountains zone has a dry and hot climate with longer diurnal cooling. The soils are mostly sandstone and limestone and the higher elevations and volcanic subsoils lead to more mineral-driven wines. The grape varieties planted here are shared with its southern Rhone neighbors - Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Carignan. Most of the wines poured at this session were from this region and the red blends were in general structured with a fresh, full mouthfeel. 

Calmel & Joseph poured a few wines with the Entre Amis 2020 ($39) from AOP Languedoc Pézenas as a standout. It is a blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre, & 20% Grenache and think blackberries and figs followed by herbs and a structured finish. The Terre des 2 Sources Empreintes 2020 had a similar structure and freshness with more red fruit.  And their AOP Terrasses du Larzac Caprices 2019 is a blend of predominately Syrah, then Grenache, and Carignan and has a fresh mouthfeel and brings us back to dark fruit and savory spices. The Domaine Saint-Martin d'Agel Pèlerin 2020 is a fabulous blend of  45% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 15% Carignan, & 10% Mourvèdre that has velvety red fruit and noticeable minerality.  Finally, Château de Lascaux is a multi-generation family winery - we are talking 14 generations of winegrowers. Today they farm 85 Demeter-certified hectares in AOP Pic Saint-Loup. Their Carra 2020 ($22) is a GSM blend of 70% Syrah that is plainly delicious with a vibrant mouthfeel and juicy red fruit.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Grape Spotlight: AOP Limoux Blanquette de Limoux Mauzac Blanc

Blanquette de Limoux is considered to be the first sparkling white wine produced in France and it was created long before the Champagne region became world-renowned. Although the vineyards date back to the 5th Century BC, introduced by the Greeks, this particular wine was discovered in 1531. A hundred years before Dom Perignon, some Benedictine Monks were fermenting a white wine at the Abbey in Saint-Hilaire.  It was produced in cork-stoppered flasks (the cork oak forest south of Limoux was an important factor). To this day an age-old tradition is followed to bottle at the time of the full moon in March ready for the warmer weather to start the secondary fermentation that produces les bulles (the bubbles) and the fabulous sparkle within the bottles. -- The Good Life France

This fact was highlighted during a recent seminar I attended titled Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene and presented by Vins du Languedoc. This region is located in southeast France on the Mediterranean and is comprised of 20 AOPs representing 90k+ acres of vines. AOP Limoux is a sub-regional appellation located close to the Pyrenean foothills and includes three sparkling wine AOPs: Crémant de Limoux, Limoux Blanquette de Limoux, and Limoux Méthode AncestraleMauzac Blanc is the dominant grape with each region allowing different percentages. Limoux Blanquette de Limoux and Limoux Méthode Ancestrale both obtain secondary fermentation in the bottle with Limoux Blanquette de Limoux using dosage and Limoux Méthode Ancestrale being bottled when the must reaches 5-6% abv.  

The AOP Limoux and three sparkling AOPs share similar growing conditions affected by the two main geographic influences: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. These are a cool, moist climate affected by the crisp and dry Atlantic wind from the west and the warm Mediterranean wind from the east.  In addition, the region's vineyards are higher and thus cooler than others in the general Languedoc appellation. The soils are rocky, mostly sandstone and limestone, providing excellent drainage. 

The Limoux Blanquette de Limoux AOP requires 90% Mauzac Blanc (plus no more than 10% Chardonnay and/or Chenin Blanc) with "Blanquette" representing the grape's local name. Mauzac prefers the region's limestone soils and cooler temps as it is a late-ripening variety and requires slow ripening.  The grape's dominant profile is honey and green apples. 

The most popular Limoux Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine in the U.S. is most likely the Saint Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux with its recognizable yellow-orange label and honors the Benedictine Monks from the Abbey in Saint-Hilaire.  The 2019 vintage is composed of 95% Mauzac and 5% Chenin Blanc and is extremely clean with a dry and crisp green apple profile. Love the yeasty aromas and the creamy texture that proceeds the effervescence. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Wine Tour Across Borders: Croatia and Hungary; Osijek-Baranja County and Villány

A cross-border region where rivers connect, not divide

During our Spring trip to Croatia and specifically in the historic city of Osijek, I saw a poster advertising the Wine Tour Across Borders. The program has many sponsors but it centers upon the Tourist Boards of Osijek-Baranja County and Villany and obviously reflects the shared culture between the two regions. Baranya (Baranja in Croatian) translates to marshland in Slavic and the swampy region is bordered by the Drava and the Danube rivers and is divided by the Croatian-Hungarian border.  Another translation of Baranya is "Mother of Vines and viticulture is robust.  

Up until the Treaty of Trianon, the two regions were joined together within the Roman Empire, the Hunnic Empire, the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, the Kingdom of the Lombards, the Avar Kingdom, the Frankish Empire, the Balaton Principality, the Bulgarian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg monarchy, the Austrian Empire and the Austria-Hungary.  After Trianon, the territories were split between Hungary and Yugoslavia. 

Living within these various empires and trade routes the multiple ethnicities combined aspects of various cultures (Hungarian, Croatian, Swabian (Germans), and Serbian). These influences include architecture, culinary dishes, and of course, wine grapes. Kekfrankos <=> Frankovka is obviously a shared grape, but since the regions lie near the infamous 45-degree latitude, many international grapes thrive in their vineyards: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. 

In northwestern Baranja, close to the Danube, the town of Zmajevac is located on the slopes of Baranja Mountain. For centuries, vines have been grown on Banova kosa, an elevation that stretches west-east along the entire region.  Zmajevac grew out of the Roman colony of Ad Novas and the Romans called "kosa" the Golden Hill.  The vineyards survived the various kingdoms and occupations and today several wine cellars are dug into the southern slope of the mountain with vineyards situated right above.  The Turkish name for these cuts is "sarduk" while the wine cellars or houses are called gators. Within these cellars, the temperature remains constant between 53 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one of the top wineries, Josic Winery, "Sarduks are considered one of the most prominent original cultural and historical treasures of this part of Baranja".  Looks very Hungarian to me. 

In 1999, the Osijek-based Josić family purchased a wine cellar built in 1935 and restored it by adding modern technology but keeping the original appearance. Simultaneously they purchased 1.6 hectares of languishing vines and a winery restaurant was established. Based on our visit, both are flourishing with the restaurant offering numerous river fish specialties such as perkelt, stewed fish, smoked fish - sometimes cooked over a spit, as well as the goulash, game, and other meat dishes.

Their food menu suggests wine pairings for each dish and we indulged in multiple courses - nine to be exact and paired with eight wines - with the duck perkelt and paprika fish stew the most memorable. There were several wines we anticipated such as Traminac, Grasevina, and a Frankovka blend, but they also offer a pleasant Pinot Bijeli (Pinot Blanc) and a solid Grand Cuvee (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir)  Yet, the standout wine was the 2018 Cabernet Franc -- aged 1.5 years in both barrique and bottle. Textured with layers of red fruit and juicy tannins. Interestingly the wine labels depict rare or endangered species of birds that live in this area with the original design signed by the academic painter Sabina Ostojić and the famous photographer Mario Romulić. 

Kneževi Vinogradi or Prince's Vineyards is located southwest of Zmajevac and also has Roman roots. Locals also refer to it as Suljoš and it is one of the oldest places in Baranja. Belje Winery operates two facilities in or near the village of Kneževi Vinogradi. Their Old Cellar is the largest gator in Slavonia and was dug into the hill in the center of the village.  It was first mentioned in 1526 in the descriptions of the Battle of Mohács where it was used as a stable. [This was an overwhelming Otttomen victory leading to the destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary and the first siege of Vienna.] 170 years later Prince Eugene of Savoy was awarded an estate between the Danube and Drava rivers after his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Zenta in 1697. [The Turks had been slowly retreating from the Pannonian Basin since the second siege of Vienna in 1683.]  According to the winery, "At Belje, Eugene of Savoy built a castle and unified 19 surrounding villages into an agricultural estate where he developed crop husbandry and livestock breeding and in the village of Kneževi Vinogradi, where there already were large wine cellars, he built an irrigation system and planted grapevines". 

From that time the Old Cellar was expanded to three floors spanning 1,200 square meters. It holds wooden barrels made of Slavonian oak from the forests of Spačva and a wine archive containing 20,000 samples, with the oldest bottle, a Cabernet Franc, dating back to 1949.  Recently Vina Belje built a new state-of-the-art, 10,000 sqm winery within the confines of their vineyards. 

The wines from Vina Belje were very impressive, particularly those from their Premium and Goldberg brands. The Premium Blaufränkisch shows its suitability in the overall Baranya region and shows sherry notes with rich cherry fruit, slight spices, and noticeable tannins. The Premium Graševina is Belje’s most important wine and showcases the fresh green apple and bitter almonds characteristic of the Slavonian Graševina. The Premium Pinot Noir 2015 was the overall favorite with its integrated fruit (red and black fruit), a fresh mouthfeel, and structured tannins. A great selection of affordable wines -- all under $10.

Villány is a village in southcentral Hungary with a strong Swabian influence, evident in its rows of traditional whitewashed cellars. [The Danube Swabians refers to German settlers used by the Hapsburgs to repopulate the devastation inflicted by the Ottoman occupiers. During the 18th century, nearly 150,000 Germanic settlers moved into the territories of today's Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania.] Villány is known as the "Mediterranean of Hungary" because of its relatively warmer climate and vines also benefit from mountains in the north that protect the area from cold northerly winds. Southern ranges help establish a micro-climate where the number of sunny hours is the highest in the country. Villány is known for Bordeaux, Rhone, and Burgundy grape varieties as well as a few indigenous grapes like Kékfrankos and Kadarka. 

Grape cultivation in Villány probably originated with the Celts, and continued with the Romans as an inscription on a Roman-era altar stone discovered on the hillside of Szársomlyó documents 50 hectares of vine stock plantings. The Magyars continued this practice and, in his deed of foundation of the Szársomlyó Castle, King Béla IV mentions vineyards on the outskirts of Harsány. However, during the Turkish wars, the vineyards suffered terribly; and were rehabilitated when Serb and German settlers moved into the area. At the same time, these settlers introduced Hungarians to new grape varieties (Kadarka and Portugieser) as well as new winemaking and storage techniques. Villány wines soon were exported throughout Europe and the Americas and the region thrived until the phylloxera arrived in the late 1800s. Just like the rest of Europe, Hungary's vineyards suffered almost complete devastation. As over half the vineyards perished; a local grower, Zsigmond Teleki, established an experimental stockyard in Villány to test varieties of rootstock - both American and domestic. He eventually created several rootstocks that were used to reconstruct vineyards, in Villány, Hungary, and throughout Europe. With this reconstruction, Bordeaux varieties, as well as Syrah and Pinot Noir, were planted in this temperate climate.

Sauska Winery opened in 2007 and farms multiple sites in Villany. I've tasted several vintages of their Kadarka over the years and recall them as medium-bodied wines with layered cherries and a bit of spice. And their  Villány Cuvee 7, usually aged 15 months in French Oak, in general, is a fantastic silky and textured wine.

Years ago we met the Swiss and German owners of the Heumann Winery at the Hungarian Embassy.  They accommodate the Bordeaux style with the Terra Tartaro Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot while staying true to local grapes with an excellent Blaufränkisch.

Wines from Gere Attila Winery were being poured during a wine festival in Osijek from a booth advertising the Wine Tour Across Borders. This multi-generation organic winery produces several wines that are easily recognizable in Croatian Baranja. These include Kékfrankos (Frankovka ), Olaszrizling (Grasevina), Pinot Noir (Pinot Crni), and Cabernet Franc which is rebranded Villányi Franc. It was this Villányi Franc 2018 Csillagvölgy that was being poured at the festival - bright fruit, plenty of spices, and structured tannins.