There are over 800 distinctly different varietals in Italy, most of which are completely unknown to us mortal wine drinkers. Apart from the sheer number, one potential reason for many people not knowing even important varietals is that in most cases they do not appear on the label. This is the case in many old world appellations across Italy, Spain, France and even other countries. Appellations in Europe carry a much heavier “brand name”, partially because not only do they enforce what grapes the wine makers must use, but in many cases also the style of wine making is regulated. DOCs, and DOCGs in Italy are fairly strict and if you want to put “Barolo” or “Chianti” on a label, it better adhere to the local rules or else…

Today’s wine is from the Cesanese del Piglio DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). The predominant grape in Cesanese del Piglio is not surprisingly the Cesanese di Affile, a fairly obscure Italian varietal virtually exclusively grown in this small appellation right outside of Rome. The varietal is said to be just as hard to cultivate as Pinot Noir, which makes these wines quite expensive, I would say a bit overpriced for what they are. Giovanni Terenzi‘s Vajoscuro is one of the best examples of this region, of course outside of the Torre Ercolana, the cult wine I described in an earlier entry. Unlike the Torre Ercolana, this wine is 100% Cesanese di Affile, so if you want to find out this grape’s potential, I would recommend this wine.

When you open the bottle the first thing you notice is that it smells like an old wine cellar. I am pretty sure my bottle is not corked, it is the natural aroma this wine exudes. As many Italian reds, this Cesanese is quite high in acid, but you taste a load of blueberry with a tobacco and leather undertone. For the first hour or so after opening you get a massive amount of tannins, which tend to subside after it has been open for several hours. I think it is too heavy on the tannins and it is better to open it up and decant it a few hours before consumption. You will taste the characteristics of the wine much better this way. The body is on the lighter side of medium and you barely notice the oak, which makes sense as it only spends about 10 months in French oak. It is best to drink with game dishes, or if you insist on pasta, definitely pick something with a meat sauce. I could also see it well paired with strong hard cheeses.

Name: Vajoscuro, Cesanese del Piglio, 2003

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: ~ 20 euros

Got it at: Enoteca Lo Schiaffo Di Tagliaboschi, Anagni, Italy

Vajoscuro, Cesanese del Piglio, 2003

My Lack of Love for Rioja

December 20, 2007

Rioja is perhaps the most famous wine region in Spain producing mostly reds, though some whites as well. The predominant red grape used in Rioja is tempranillio, which is also Spain’s most important varietal. I love tempranillo, but to me the style in which they make it in Rioja is inferior to that of Ribera del Duero, Spain’s #2 region which is actually really close to Rioja. Though I have to mention that my absolute favorite region in Spain has to be Priorat in Catalonia, north eastern Spain. Wine from Priorat can be quite full bodied, velvety, fruit forward, perhaps even more so than Bordeaux.

Back to Rioja: I have a weird relationship with this region. I like the concept of it, but I do not like the execution. First about the area. On paper everything is right about Rioja. It is a hilly area going up against a sizable mountain range which provides an extremely beautiful backdrop. Small wine villages with castles on hilltops are scattered all over, vines are planted as far as you can see, which is contrasted by cutting edge, super modern structures, such as a Sheraton Hotel designed by Frank Gehry. The area is stunning. That is until you start to engage, talk to people, eat the local food, etc. Wine regions throughout Europe tend to have really friendly, knowledgeable people and usually good food accompanies good wine. This was not my experience in Rioja. The food was mediocre (probably the worst I have had in Spain) and people are not super knowledgeable about the wines. It is a bit weird to me, but perhaps the problem is that mass tourism killed the local touch and Rioja now feels more like the Napa Valley of Europe. Not sure. If I go back, I think I will concentrate on very small cellars, rather than the big guys and hopefully I will have a different experience.

At any rate, the wines are not necessarily bad, but I guess I could say Rioja is not my style. There are four different categories of Riojas: Rioja (no special notation), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The plain Rioja spends less than a year in oak, the Crianza spends at least one year in oak and is aged at least 2 years, the Reserva is aged in oak at least one year but is at least 3 years before it hits the market, and in order to label wine Gran Reserva, wine makers have to age it for at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in the bottle. There is also the traditional style, which tends to be lighter as they use large oak barrels which are not necessarily new. The modern Rioja is more full bodied and fruit forward and is aged in French barriques, though some wineries also tend to like American and to a smaller extend Hungarian oak barrels.

Today’s example is a modern Rioja, the Bai Gorri Reserva 2002. As many Riojas I have tasted, this one is fairly high in acid, more strawberry-ish than black fruit and quite earthy. The finish is long and bitter, absolutely not gentle. This Bai Gorri is drinkable by itself, but I would vastly prefer it with some Iberian ham and cheese to help with the acidity. I think that would probably be the best pairing for it.

By the way, on the topic of Bai Gorri, this house also has an amazingly modern headquaters (I cannot find a more descriptive name for their complex). It is glass on all 4 sides top to bottom with huge letters Bai Gorri written all over them. It seems to me wineries in Rioja compete with each other on who can make a more extravagant architectural statement. This one is a great example of it, but if you are in the area you have to also visit Ysios, probably my favorite of all. Also, Ysios has quite nice reds at relatively affordable prices.

Name: Bai Gorri Reserva 2002

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 16 euros

Got it at: Wine store in Laguardia, Rioja, Spain

Bai Gorri Reserva 2002

San Francisco and Lisbon are similar. They are both on the ocean, they have similar climate, they are both hilly (both 7 hills both to be exact), and both San Francisco and Lisbon have a Golden Gate Bridge, in fact almost identical looking and near identical size (SF: 2,737 m, Lisbon: 2,277 meters). Is this not freaky? To add to the freakiness, I discovered that in downtown Lisbon there is a wine bar called Nectar Wine Bar. Now this is freaky because I spent half of my life at the counter (the customer’s side) in a wine bar called Nectar Wine Lounge in San Francisco. Even their logos are similar.

So needless to say I like Lisbon and I like their wine culture. Wine is everywhere in Lisbon and it comes in all kinds of varieties. Unlike Spain, where with some exceptions basically Tempranillo rules, Portugal has all kinds of wines. Think fizzy Vinho Verde, the sweet Madeira, the reds and whites from Dão, Alentejano and Duoro, and of course Port. And it does not stop there, wine comes in light body, full body, old world, modern style, any kind of shape or form. I do not like them all, but I love the variety. This is a country to discover in terms of wine.

And discover we did at the Nectar Wine bar. We had fantastic food and several tastes of wine, three of which I will try to summarize now. The first one is Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, a white from the Dão. Rui Reguinga, the wine maker, makes the Encruzado, the white varietal indigenous Dão, in a modern style. The nose immediately hit me as caramelized apple, then you taste tropical fruit, rich minerality and a long finish. Good stuff, I would buy it any day.

The second wine is a light bodied red from Quinta dos Cozinheiros. This house is in the Beiras region, halfway between Porto and Lisbon, very near, a mere 8 kilometers from the Atlantic Coast. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the climate is cool, steady without heat waves and summer sleet, which is almost normal in continental climates, such as France and Germany. The steady cool weather helps maintain the acidity level in the grapes , and as a result these wines age quite well. This red was the Poeirinho 2000, which is made of the grape of the same name or otherwise referred to as Baga. Baga is a red grape with a very thick skin, which tends to rot quickly. They harvest these grapes before they fully ripen and ferment them in their skin, if I am not mistaken, sort of like Beaujolais Nouveau. One difference is that they leave Poeirinho in French oak for 12 months. It is kind of strange, because these wines age very well, yet they have quite a bit of commonality with Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually consumed within the first year. In fact when I tasted this Poeirinho 2000, I thought it was sort of a cross between Beaujolais Nouveau and a Lambrusco as it is light, simple, and a tiny bit sparkling. Go figure! I was not a huge fan of this wine, but it was interesting.

The last one of the Nectar Wine Bar batch is the Passadouro 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro. This estate is owned by a Belgian businessman Dieter Bohrmann who moved down to Portugal twenty years ago to break with the Port tradition (for which Douro is famous) and try to make dry red wines. For the first 15 or so years he had been working with famed Port maker, Dirk Niepoort, but over the last few years Passadouro has been more and more independent. This 2005 vintage is one of the first fruits of this independence. The wine is super dark color, very high in tannins, a bit tarty, heavy on minerals sort of that old fashioned Dão style, and has a disappointingly short finish. It is way too tight at the moment, and I think this wine needs to age quite a bit before it becomes more enjoyable. That said, it has potential, and I can tell that it will taste quite different in a few years, but it is a shame to put this wine on the shelves now. The winery also acts as a guesthouse and next time I am Douro I will be sure to knock on their door and perhaps spend a night.

Name: Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 3.50 euros per glass, ~10 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, 2006

Name: Quinta dos Cozinheiros, Poeirinho, 2000

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 5.50 euros per glass, ~14 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Quinta dos Cozinheiros, Poeirinho, 2000

Name: Passadouro, 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro

Rating: 7 out of 10 (with quite a bit of potential)

Body: Medium

Price: 5.80 euros per glass, ~12 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Passadouro, 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro

Old World Shiraz

December 12, 2007

What an oxymoron. Syrah, the grape they refer to in Australia as Shiraz, is mostly planted in the old world in the Rhone Valley of France and there it is referred to the same way as it is in most of the US, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere: Syrah. They are experimenting with Syrah in other European countries, and also generally call it Syrah. Not so in some parts of Hungary, as in the example of Vesztergombi, a great wine maker from the Szekszard region, about 200kms south of Budapest. He calls it Shiraz.

I had a discussion with Mr Vesztergombi a couple of months ago and I asked him why he calls it Shiraz when in most of the old world this grape is referred to as Syrah. He promptly set the record straight that what I refer to as old world is actually really quite new when you put it in perspective. Syrah, or Shiraz, was first planted by the Persians near the city of Shiraz in where Iran is today 7,000 (!) years ago. They have been making wine from this grape for 7 millenniums in this region and our measly 2-3,000 year wine tradition pales in comparison. So the reason Mr. Vesztergombi calls his Syrah Shiraz is to yield to tradition and give respect to the origins of the grape that he is using for this fantastic wine.

The Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006 is a mouthful. It is dark, earthy, I taste leather, quite a load of spice that you get from the Shiraz fruit and a long alcoholy finish. I am more and more surprised that wine makers can make young wine, such as this 2006, to be quite full bodied, fruity and complex. This wine is clearly made to satisfy current market demands, which to me means it fits modern tastes and is pushed to market at the earliest possible time. There is nothing wrong with the wine, in fact it is quite nice, but I feel it is almost tastes unnatural for something that was still grapes 14 months ago.

Vesztergombi makes quite a range of reds and whites, though to me there are only two standouts. This Shiraz is one of them and the other is the product of the new Vesztergombi generation, his son and wine maker Csaba. It is aptly named Csaba Cuvee and it is one of the top wines I have ever tasted. It roughly costs 40 euros retail (would probably even pay double for it), but if you can ever taste it I promise it will be a unique experience.

Name: Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 12 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006

This wine must be among the best values I have ever had. If you are in the US, you can get this for about $9! Here in Europe it is still a good value, but in spite of the fact that we are a single market and the largest wine market in the world, it retails more than in the US, between 10 euros to 10 pounds according to wine-searcher. So unless you are in the UK, where for some reason you cannot get this wine for anything under an arm and a leg, I would consider this to be one of the wines to get stocked up on.

Cannonau is the same varietal as Grenache in France. In fact this grape is indigenous to Sardegna and was only later planted in France. Granache likes hot climates such as the South of France, parts of Spain and of course in Sardegna. This wine brings out the intensity from the Cannonau grape, both in the aroma and on the palate, it is well rounded, substantial, very fruity with ripe plums, berries. It spent 3 years in oak, and I am sure it can age at least 10 more years in the bottle. The 2004, which was just put on the market, is ready to drink already, but I could see it becoming more velvety and smooth over the next few years. But at these prices who puts wine away…

Sardegna is home to some of Italy’s best values, right along with Sicily. Sella & Mosca is leading the value pack with this one as far as I am concerned and they are also not surprisingly one of the largest producers in Sardegna with about 160,000 cases a year. I need to see if their other wines are similarly good quality and value. If anyone has tried them let me know.

Name: Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, 2004

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 10 euros

Got it at: Rothschild Supermarket, Budapest, Hungary

Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, 2004

You read it right. Louis Roederer, the house that is most famous for its high-end Cristal Champagne, also makes beautiful reds and whites in Portugal. Their winery is called Ramos Pinto Cellars and they are located just outside of Porto in the Douro region of Northern Portugal. They are one of the most reputable producers of the Port desert wine, but Ramos also make traditional reds and whites.

We selected a bottle of Bons Ares, 2006 from Ramos Pinto to go with our seafood at 1 De Maio restaurant in Lisbon. The wine is made of the indigenous varieal of Viozinho and Sauvignon Blanc. It has a golden color, quite aromatic, hints of cinnamon, baked apples and a fairly heavy weight on the finish. It is perfect with seafood, even with spicy sauces as the acidity (perhaps from the Sauvignon Blanc?) is definitely present and cuts through the sauce. It is also a good value at about 6 euros a bottle in retail, which is quite a deal in Portugal. I wish I could get this wine elsewhere in Europe or in the US, I would likely get a case of it.

Name: Bons Ares Branco, Ramos Pinto, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 12 euros (in restaurant), 6 euros retail

Got it at: 1 De Maio restaurant, Bairro Alto district, Lisbon, Portugal

Bons Ares Branco, Ramos Pinto, 2006

Best Value Tokaj Wine

December 9, 2007

Tokaj is most famous for its Aszu desert wine, but there is a lot more to this region than Aszu. In fact most experts agree that the real future in Tokaj will be in dry whites, predominantly from the Furmint grape, which is also the main varietal in Aszu. You can already see many dry Furmints on the market from top wine makers, such as Szepsy, Kiralyudvar and Demeter Zoltan.

There is a whole other category of Tokajis, which are late harvest wines, also predominantly furmints, though some are hárslevelű, the other grape used in Aszu. While strictly speaking all Aszus are late harvest as they leave the fruit on the vine to botrytise, or in simple words to rot, late harvest wines in Tokaj do not rot, they are picked before they are botrytised. Most of these late harvest wines are also expensive, but one can occasionally find good values. The best I have ever found was Tokaji Hétszőlő‘s Dessewffy Kastély Hárslevelű. This is a beautiful late harvest wine, which although is sweet, it is not too sweet to enjoy more than a small glass of it. It is full of concentrated tropical fruits, pineapple, mango layered with honey. Yet, it is not too heavy, it is quite drinkable standalone and pairs perfectly with spicy Asian dishes. I would think, though never tried it, it also pairs well with foie gras as most Tokajis and other similar wines, such as Sauternes do. Now all I ask, where do you get wine that pairs well with foie gras at 6 euros a 750 ml bottle?

Name: Dessewffy Late Harvest Hárslevelű, 2005

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 6 euros

Got it at: Monarchia Wine Store, Budapest, Hungary

Dessewffy Late Harvest Hárslevelű, 2005

Simonsig Chenin Blanc

December 9, 2007

I like wines from South Africa. They are consistent quality, never bad, though I must admit never jump out as the best wines either. Most of them are super drinkable, every day table wines at a decent price. I realize there are very expensive South African wines, but I think what South Africa is really best at is to produce decent table wines for the mass market.

South African wines are somewhere between new world and old world. Wine tradition goes back to the 1600s so one cannot really call this new world. On the other hand, the style is more reminiscent of new world wines, perhaps a bit less fruit bombish, more sophisticated. One such example is the Chenin Blanc, 2007 from Simonsig. Chenin Blanc is originally from the Loire Valley of France, but it is heavily planted in the new world, including South Africa. Simonsig’s is a beautiful fresh Chenin fully of tropical fruit, pineapple, guava, pears and a backdrop of green apples that shows through the acidity. Really smooth white wine with a big bouquet. At this price I think it is difficult to find a better table wine.

The winery produces a large variety, including the infamous Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) , South Africa’s unique varietal. I recommend sticking to their Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, though.

Name: Simonsig Chenin Blanc, 2007

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 6.50 euros

Got it at: Rothschild Supermarket, Budapest, Hungary

Simonsig Chenin Blanc, 2007

Pannonhalma Pinot Noir

December 9, 2007

Hungary does ok with some International varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir is generally not one of them. For one thing it has only in the last few years become a fad to make Pinots in this country and with such a finicky grape I think more experience is necessary to work out the kinks. As a result, with a few exceptions, Hungarian Pinots I have tasted were borderline bad, but at best mediocre. This was the case with the Pannonhalmi Apatsagi Pinot Noir, 2006.

Now I realize that they make Pinots in many regions outside of the Burgundy and there are horrible examples of this varietal from Alsace, to me still Pinot Noir is supposed to be a complex, mult-layered, smooth wine with a long finish in which you can discover different tastes over time as you sip on it. In contrast, this wine is super simple, has little complexity and you will definitely not find the treasures you would in a nice Burgundy. It is more similar to a Sancerre Rouge than it is to a Burgundy Pinot, though it lacks the heavy minerality of the Sancerre as well. I am not a huge fan of red Sancerres either so perhaps that is the reason I do not like this Pinot.

Some wine makers here are experimenting with more Burgundian style Pinots, particularly in the Eger region, such as St. Andrea and Gal Tibor. Both of these are pretty good, though quite expensive for the quality. In Villany they are working on more concentrated, heavy, almost new world style Pinot Noirs. There are a couple of decent examples I have had, such as Ebner’s and Tiffan’s. Andreas Ebner, who is originally from the South Tirol Region of Italy but is now living in South Hungary near Villany, particularly makes Pinot in a Cabernet Sauvignon style. This may sound weird, but the result is actually really interesting in a positive way. Innovation is good and Pannonhalma should also take a different, more individualistic route with their Pinots.

Name: Pannonhalmi Abbey’s Winery, Pinot Noir, 2006

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 12 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Pannonhalmi Abbey’s Winery, Pinot Noir, 2006

Prior to visiting Portugal I had tasted wines from Douro, Dão (entry on Frei João Reserva) , and the northern Portuguese Minho region where they produce Vinho Verde. Last week I had the chance to visit Lisbon and taste some fantastic wines from Alentejo, which promptly became my favorite Portuguese region. This happens all the time. If you have an open mind and are willing to taste a wide variety of wines, you will discover amazing jewels that for one reason or another never made it to the mainstream outside of their locales.

While I would say wines from the Dão require an acquired taste, and to some extent even Douros, Alentejo wines, both reds and whites, are very approachable. I will start with a white, Herdade do Rocim‘s beautiful Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005, I tasted at the Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon. My first impression of this wine was that it tastes like Arneis, from the Italian region of Piemonte. It is fruity, has quite a bit of pears, almonds, and an upfront hint of petrol, though very different from Rieslings. The varietal, Antão Vaz, is typical for whites in Alentejo. The body is medium to full and the acidity level holds up quite nicely to the fruit. You can easily drink this standalone and it is also very flexible for pairing with food.

One of the impressive reds I tried from Alentejo was the José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca (JMF). It is plush, very velvety (almost Napa Cab style soft tannins), very well structured and explodes with dark fruit, tobacco and dark chocolate. It is a heavy, best paired with beef or perhaps game dishes. If there is something I took home from this wine is that it is the closest to modern International taste that I have found in Portugal. It is extremely approachable for even the non-adventurous mind. The one strange thing about it is that the wine is made in a traditional Alentejo style, in that they ferment the grapes in clay pots/tanks called lagares (if you’ve seen people stomping on grapes, this is similar), yet it has such a modern taste. It is made from 55% Trincadeira, 33% Aragonez (called Tempranillo in Spain) and 12% Grand Noir (Tinta Fina) from old vines planted in the 1950s, spends about 10 months in American oak and is bottled unfiltered. If you can get your hands on this wine, you have to try it.

Name: Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005 from Herdade do Rocim

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 4.50 euros per glass, 12 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon

Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005 from Herdade do Rocim
Name: José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 6.50 euros per glass, 18 euros retail

Got it at: Alfaia Wine Bar, Bairro Alto district, Lisbon, Portugal

José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca