Thursday, August 25, 2022

Grape Spotlight: DO Navarra Ribera Alta Graciano with Bodegas Alconde

Navarra’s reputation for making exceptional wine blossomed during the late Middle Ages, as pilgrims traveling along the Camino de Santiago—a medieval pilgrimage route currently enjoying a dramatic resurgence in popularity—began noting the particularly high quality of wines they encountered as they made their way through the Kingdom of Navarra, en route to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela, roughly 400 walking miles to the west, in the northwestern Spanish province of Galicia. (Rioja, Navarra’s next-door neighbor to the west, found its own early fame in precisely the same way.)  -- Navarra Wine

Navarra is not only the convergence of Camino de Santiago pilgrims and traded between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe, but also a "rugged, transitional zone at the convergence of three major climate types–Mediterranean, Continental, and Atlantic".  This results from its proximity to the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean) to the northwest, the Pyrenees to the northeast, and the Ebro River -- all combine to moderate the temperatures within the inherent Mediterranean climate. This convergence helps create a diverse landscape comprising a semi-desert basin, lush woodland hills, and high mountain peaks, all within a total area smaller than that of Connecticut.

The D.O. Navarra wine region occupies roughly half the area of the municipal region of Navarra, with approximately 11,500 hectares of vineyards. The D.O. is bounded to the north by the verdant lower slopes of the Pyrenees, just below Pamplona, and extends southward and outward, down a series of river valleys until the region reaches its southern terminus at the arid Ebro basin. Because of its geographic and climatic diversity, five sub-zones were created: Baja Montana in the northeast, Valdizarbe in the north, Tierra Estella in the northeast, Ribera Alta in the center, north of the Ebro, and Ribera Baja in the south below the river. A small section of Navarra is classified as Rioja DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada)".

Ribera Alta is situated along Navarra’s midsection -- a transitional belt between the semi-arid south and the dry north -- with a large concentration of wine-growing centered around the historical town of Olite. Many of the 4,125 hectares of vines are planted along the gentle slopes leading to the River Ega. Far from the influences of the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, Ribera Alta is typically warmer than its three neighboring subzones to the north. It contains a mixture of soils, depending on elevation and substrata composition. On most slopes, soil depth and particle size vary, with layers of fine or silty loam alternating with marl and sand. There are exceptions where vineyards sit atop shallow, loamy-clay soils with marked calcareous content. 

Photo Courtesy of Bodegas Alconde

Although Graciano is considered indigenous to Navarre, it is considered a minor grape with less than 2% of D.O. Navarra plantings. Perhaps because this variety is susceptible to mildew and very low-yielding. Wines made from Graciano have moderate tannins and an intense aroma that makes the variety very popular with winemakers to use in the classic Rioja blend with Tempranillo and Garnacha.

However, just to the west of Olite, in Lerín, Bodegas Alconde produces a single-varietal Bodegas Alconde Graciano X01 (14%).  Viticulture in Lerin is at least as old as the Roman era as evident by the wine artifacts found at the Roman villa at Arellano. Later in medieval times, there is documented evidence of the wine trade between Navarre and the Basque Country and La Rioja written in the La Saca of 1356 -- "a document which, by order of the Crown of Navarre, contained the records of this national export of the wine produced in the town".

According to Bodegas Alconde, "we bring together the whole tradition of winemaking that dates back to Roman times. We are local winegrowers, we are from here, we are Lerineses and we have been growing vines and making wine for many, many generations. In fact, we don’t even know from when because it is not documented. We only know that our grandparents, our grandparents’ grandparents, and their grandparents… all made wine".

In fact, Bodegas Alconde was created in 1956 as a collective of several small family winemakers who learned their craft directly from techniques passed from previous generations. They combined their vineyards -- 150 hectares of vineyards and all at least 50 years old and sometimes over a century old -- with the shared goal to create quality Ribera Alta wines. The vineyards around Lerin experience old winters and hot summers and are planted in poor and limy soils that are suitable for small yields.  The grapes for the Bodegas Alconde Graciano X01 come from such a low-yield plot. The wine is immediately impactful from its strong floral aroma which yields to bright silky cherries and a structured soft finish. Excellent. 

Maps courtesy of  Navarra Wine.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Inventing the Catoctin Mountain Craft Beverage Trail

According to wikipedia, the "Catoctin Mountain, along with the geologically associated Bull Run Mountains, forms the easternmost mountain ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are in turn a part of the Appalachian Mountains range. The ridge runs northeast–southwest for about 50 miles (80 km) departing from South Mountain near Emmitsburg, Maryland, and running south past Leesburg, Virginia, where it disappears into the Piedmont in a series of low-lying hills near New Baltimore, Virginia. The ridge forms the eastern rampart of the Loudoun and Middletown valleys".

Furthermore, "Catoctin Mountain traverses Frederick County, Maryland, and extends into northern Loudoun County, Virginia. It rises to its greatest elevation of 1,900 feet (580 m) above sea level just southwest of Cunningham Falls State Park and is transected by gaps at Braddock Heights (Fairview Pass), Point of Rocks on the Potomac River, and Clarke's Gap west of Leesburg, as well as several other unnamed passes in Maryland and Virginia. The mountain is much lower in elevation in Virginia, reaching its highest peak just south of the Potomac at Furnace Mountain (891 feet/271 m) and with only one peak above 800 feet (240 m) south of Leesburg".

This past Sunday I decided to visit a few craft beverage establishments starting near Frederick, Maryland then move south towards the Potomac and back into the Commonwealth.  Inadvertently I had traversed a potential Catoctin Mountain Craft Beverage Trail running parallel to the mountain and along Route 15. Seems like a well-matched partnership that the proper entities should investigate.

Dragon Distillery, Frederick Maryland
I set out for this distillery in order to sample a couple of their Ready-to-Drink cocktails as we wind down the BevFluence RTD campaign. And I learned earlier that they were the first East Coast distillery to launch an RTD product.  They have a couple that I really enjoyed starting with the 20 proof Dragon's Mule - a take on the popular Moscow Mule. The recipe calls for Barritt's Ginger Beer, vodka, and artificial flavors; I was surprised by its lack of sweetness and generally pleasant vibe. I also sat down to their 38-proof Dragon's Draft Bourbon & Cream Soda. Although it uses sugar-free cream soda it comes across as a little sweeter but plays nicely with the bourbon.  

On previous visits I had tasted their traditional moonshine and whiskey, so today I delved into their flavored products starting with the FigZilla Fig Infused Whiskey. Despite the name, vanilla overtakes the subtle fig which is most noticeable on the nose. A very smooth, drinkable whiskey.  You must be a coffee lover to enjoy the Dwarven Morning Blend -- where coffee completely overwhelms the white rum. Instead, I came home with a bottle of the Sultan's Surprise Toasted Coconut rum for its cocktail potential. It has a little more burn than the other two, but the toasted coconut will play nicely with the iCiNG Pina Colada flavor shots. 

Willow Oaks Craft Cider and Wine, Middletown Maryland
This cidery is a subset of Country Pleasures Farm, a 35-year-old family farm and orchard located in the Middletown Valley - with Catoctin Mountain in the background. While talking to proprietor Eric Rice, I learned quite a bit about the region's history, the farm, and Maryland cider regulations. His, and many surrounding farms, were originally part of a colonial land grant that waited until the late 20th century to be subdivided.  Rice planted his farm 35 years ago and at the time there were no certified organic farms in the Free State and not a single organic orchard on the East Coast. More firsts on this tour - the first organic farm in Maryland and the first organic orchard on the Atlantic. Rice has planted a large number of traditional cider apples, some newer varieties, a couple English and French cidre apples, plus Asian pears.  Even though cider is the focus, Maryland regulations are still in their infancy where cider making was illegal only 13 years ago; thus Willow Oaks is registered as a winery.  

The ciders are all fermented using natural yeast and at times bottled unfiltered.  I went through a flight of six which highlighted the preferences of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson. The All In is their flagship and this organic cider blend is aged in neutral oak barrels. The natural fermentation is telling, with an appealing refreshing finish. The Blue Note enhances this process with organic blueberries adding tartness and berry fruit to the tangy apples. The Confluence is a juicy heritage blend of Spitzenburg and Winesap apples with rounded tannins that provide a contrast to the previous tangy ciders.  I was all in on this cider, bringing a bottle home. The Appearition was the first perry on the flight but was overshadowed by the Pairing - also organic Asian pears, but this time infused with fresh pressed ginger juice. Very unique.  The final cider, and another in my cellar, was the Gloaming, a delicious blend of organic apples and organic black currants. Tart for sure, but also dry, fruity, and refreshing. 

Smoketown Brewing Station, Brunswick Maryland
Situated on the Potomac River, Brunswick is a transportation and recreation hub with many activities involving the river and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. It also contains a bridge spanning the Potomac that leads directly into the bowels of Loudoun county. Smoketown Brewing Station sits in a converted fire station and theatre near the bridge and houses plenty of history within its walls. Plus the spirit of Walter Rice which is the namesake for their best offering, the Walter's Spirit Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter. This beer was aged four months in A. Smith Bowman bourbon barrels and is one of the best of 2022; an excellent melding of chocolate and bourbon & honey and vanilla. The brewery has plenty of other beer styles ready to satisfy the most discriminating palate. I enjoyed the low abv "Cherry Lane Social Club" Cherry Berliner Weisse enough to purchase a crowler. The Patsy Hazy IPA is named after the famous country singer who once performed in the second story Swing Hall and is juicy and delicious. The Fighting Fifth Cream Lager was a little too sweet for this palate, but the "Couchboy" Pilsner is a new favored lawnmower beer. 

Corcoran Vineyards and Cider, Waterford Virginia
Our favorite family cider and wine producer is on a direct line from Brunswick, over the Potomac on the Berlin Turnpike. A historical note that Brunswick was once called Berlin until it started being confused with the town on the Eastern Shore. Lori and Jim are good friends so I try to visit whenever I'm in the area.  Their standard flight of ciders consists of the Sinful, Original, Popo Peach, and Knot Head. These are made using Virginia-grown apples and each with a unique technique. The Sinful is dry but with added cinnamon and all-spice. The Original is just apples but fermented using champaign yeast. As the name suggests, Popo Peach includes some peach juice and the Knot Head is aged in whiskey barrels. This last is still my favorite, but they are all solid ciders. Would love to see these and other Maryland and Virginia ciders in the Cider: New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign. Cheers. 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Ilok and Croatia's Srijem Vineyards

Ilok is a city and region located in the far eastern end of Croatia - adjacent to the Danube to its North and surrounded by Serbia except for a sliver of Croatian territory to the west. Grape growing started even before the Romans, by the Illyrians, and has survived  millenniums of changing rulers. Viticulture continued throughout the Middle Ages and was reconstituted after the Ottoman occupation by the  Odescalchi dukes, who in the "17th century built unique cellars underneath the Odescalchi castle, planted even more quality varieties, and started bottling wine".

Most of the vines are planted on the southern and southwestern slopes of Fruška Gora - a mountain centered in Serbia that was once an island in the ancient Pannonian sea. The western side of the mountain extends into eastern Croatia - specifically just south of the city. These Ilok vineyards are also known as the Srijem vineyards (from Vukovar-Srijem County) and receive a full day's exposure to the sun, with the hills positioned from 200 to 250 meters and containing porous flagstone soils. Grasevina, Rhine Riesling,  and Traminac (Traminer) are the primary grapes planted. 

During our Spring trip to Slavonia, we participated in a whirlwind half-day tour of five wineries -- showcasing the history and modern approaches to Ilok winemaking. Will need to return for a more relaxed and in-depth visit.

Ilok Cellars (Iločki podrumi)
In 1450, Nikola of Ilok (1) built a 100-meter-long wine cellar underneath his castle, which itself was built on the foundations of the former Roman fortress Cuccium.  Wine production continued under the Ottoman occupation (1526 - 1688) and in 1697, the castle and significant properties around Ilok were granted to the Italian aristocratic Odescalchi family.  They expanded the wine cellar and in 1710, the Odescalchis planted the first Gewürztraminer vines in the area on the unique single vineyard appellation – Principovac. (This is the site of the grand Odescalchi summer residence castle.)  These Traminac grapes became the foundation for the famous 1947 Traminac vintage which was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. During the Homeland War, the remaining bottles of this vintage, as well as the existing 8,000 library wines were saved from destruction by an innovative winery employee who build a false wall into the cellar. The wine that was not hidden was stolen and distilled into brandy by the Serbians.  During our visit, we sampled several of the Iok Cellars wines and highly recommend the current vintages of Traminac - particularly the Premium Traminac 2020 (70 Kuna). The wine is dry with the accustomed string floral aroma, and a full-bodied, citrus, and stone fruit profile. 

(1) Nicholas of Ilok was a Ban of Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Macsó; Voivode of Transylvania; and titular King of Bosnia from 1471 until his death. A member of the Iločki noble family, he was one of the richest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia and one of its most influential magnates. He served under four kings of Hungary: Albert, Vladislaus I, Ladislaus V, and Matthias I.

Vina Papak

This is the easternmost winery in both Ilok and in the whole of Croatia and is surrounded by Serbia in three directions. Mladen Papak is a first-generation winemaker and resurrected Iločki podrumi as its Director and Oenologist after the Homeland War. He and his brother first planted grapes at Radoško brdo in 2001 and then he converted his childhood home to a winery in 2014. His son Karl has retraced his Father's steps by graduating from the Faculty of Agriculture in Zagreb and will eventually succeed Mladen. 

Radoško brdo is located on the slopes of the Fruška Gora mountain and the vines face southern and southwestern positions -- providing a full day of sunshine. From 2001 to 2010 they planted Grasevina, Rhine Riesling, Traminac, Chardonnay,  Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

Radosh is a shortened name for the region and the Papak Radosh label is intended to ingrain consumer awareness of Light, Fresh, & Fruity. They also produce Vina Papak classic labels of  Grasevina and Traminac. We only had time for white wines and loved all those presented, Grasevina, Chardonnay,  Rhine Riesling, and Traminac. For me, the 2021 Vina Papak Grasevina and 2021 Radosh Chardonnay stood out.  We were also treated to the 2016 Traminac Icewine, harvested on January 7th, 2017 at 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Simply delicious.

Vinarija Čobanković

The family of Ivan Čobanković has been cultivating grapes for 50 years and making wine for the past 20 years. In 2022 they started with 21 hectares of vineyards but now they are “the biggest small winery in Croatia”. They cultivate or control approximately 200 hectares of vineyards and produce almost 2,000,000 liters of wine (the second largest after Ilok Cellars). Like many of the Srijem wineries, their vines along the slopes of Fruška Gora consist of Graševina, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Frankovka, Cabernet Sauvignon, and uniquely Grüner Silvaner (a descendent of Traminer),  Unfortunately during our rushed and late-night visit we were only able to sample three of these: Graševina, Pinot Gris, and Grüner Silvaner.  The 2022 Pinot Sivi was very unique, aged in barrique and undergoing malolactic fermentation it is heavier and creamier than others in its class. The 2021 Silvanac Zeleni (Grüner Silvaner) is very fresh, with lots of citrus and acidity for a palate cleanser. 

Vinarija Buhač

This is a small family winery that has owned and cultivated vineyards since 1982, opened the winery in 1998, and today cultivates 20 hectares of vineyards -- 16 hectares of white varieties and 4 hectares of red varieties. These grapes consist of Graševina, Rhine Riesling, Traminac, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. We were invited into their quaint tasting area for a late-night serving of wine, cheese, and kobasica. We started with the 2021 Graševina which showed green apple, white flowers, citrus, and that pleasant bitterness that we've come to expect from this wine.  The Buhač Sauvignon 2021 provided an opportunity to contrast the international variety in different regions and this provides more melons over lemongrass with distinct herbaceous qualities. The Buhač Rosé 2021 is on the fruitier side with plenty of acidity to pair alongside the strawberry and raspberry flavors.  The most interesting wine we sampled was the single vineyard Buhač Merlot Liska 2019. The wine is very drinkable now, with black fruits mingling with subtle vanilla and spices. 

TRS Winery

This winery is built upon the remains of the region's first wine association, First the Sriem Vineyard Joint Stock Company, formed on January 30, 1872. The association only lasted 20-25 years --  deteriorating due to the phylloxera epidemic. But its legacy is an old 834 squared meter wine cellar built around 1885 which the owners of TRS plan to refurbish.  These owners are the Bosnjak and Feletar families who merged their respective family farms and winemaking equipment into the TRS Agricultural Cooperative. The TRS Winery opened a year later where they had a production capacity of 80,000 liters while cultivating 29 hectares of vines.  Seeking to expand further, the cooperative added Ilija Tokic as an investor and strategic partner and moved to the remains of the First the Sriem Vineyard Joint Stock Company.

TRS vineyards on the slopes of Fruška Gora – Vinogorja Srijem are at an altitude of 200 to 260 meters, which includes the areas: Dekan, Veliko Brdo, Principal, Vukovo, Radjevac, and Radoš. And like Vina Papak the vines are Graševina, Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, Traminac, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc -- with additional plots of Frankovka (Blaufrankish).

During our visit, we saw firsthand how the winery has an extremely diverse portfolio, both in terms of the grape varieties vinified but also in the different styles for the same variety.  We sampled lots of wine, from Graševina in the tank to aged Graševina in the bottle. Their 2015 Graševina highlights the age-ability of that variety where some of the acidity is displaced for a fuller body. The fresher side of most of their current Graševina shows a range of fruit flavors from lemon to apple with a slightly bitter finish. Their Rhine Riesling and Traminac are solid with a Late Harvest 2017 Traminac, excellent. TRS produces more red wines than its neighbors and we sampled the very respectable 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2017 Cabernet Franc. But the highlight was the delicious and completely unique 2018 3 C's. This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenere, with the latter perhaps the only time vinified in Croatia. The winery purchased and planted what they thought was Frankovka. Five years later they determined that the vines were, in fact, Carmenere, and the 3 C's was born. This is a luscious wine, with black fruit, some spices, chocolate, and earthiness.