I have posted before about a wonderful, albeit tiny northern German wine region called the Ahr. They predominantly grow Spaetburgunder, which is Pinot Noir in Germany, on this tiny valley just south of Cologne. The valley is almost like a canyon with very steep walls built primarily of slate. Because of the steepness and the slate’s ability to absorb heat, the grapes in this tiny valley get a lot of warmth that one would not expect from such a nordic location. In fact, because the Ahr valley is so far north, the grapes here get exposed to the sun much longer than in more southern locations such as Pinot Noir’s home, Burgundy. Also because if the northern location, the nights are quite cool, which is perfect for Pinots. Welcome to one of the strangest wine regions in the world, where they grow truly world class Pinot Noir: the Ahr Valley of Germany.

One of the top producers in the Ahr is Jean Stodden. I had the fortune to visit with Jean back in the fall of 2007. That is when I picked up this gorgeous 2003 Spaetburgunder Auslese. This is one of Stodden’s top wines, probably among the best of the Ahr, if not of German Pinots.

The first thing that hits me is the clean nose of the wine. It is obvious, as soon as you smell it that we have a Pinot in the glass. Then as you taste it, you get a load of acidity, then the same clean fruit and on the finish you get that minerality that probably comes from slate. It has complexity, but much more, the wine has a beautiful structure that would be hard to find in Burgundies. In fact Jean Stodden does not even like to compare the Ahr to Burgundy, he wants to make wines that stand on their own and have a unique quality that resembles the terroir of the region. Let’s just say, after tasting several others like Mayer-Naeckel and Adeneur, he succeeds at that more than any other from the valley.

Name: Jean Stodden, Spaetburgunder Auslese ***, 2003

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 56 euros

Got it at: Weingut Jean Stodden, Rech, Ahr, Germany

A Fine Ribera Del Duero

August 5, 2008

If I had to choose, I prefer Ribera Del Duero over Rioja as the prime Spanish region for Tempranillo. The wines are a bit more sophisticated, rounder, and I feel there is more oopmh to them than in Rioja. These words are of course sweeping generalizations as in both regions there are vastly different wines, in some cases so different that it is near impossible to tell that two wines you taste back to back are made from the same grape.

Tonight I had a beautiful tempranillo from the Ribera Del Duero. It is a Crianza, which is a quality denomination in this region. In Rioja, which is near Ribera Del Duero, the wine needs to spend at least 2 years in oak barrels in order to be called Crianza. I am not sure what the law is in Ribera, but this wine spent 13 months in new French oak. It gets that vanilla flavor that you can pick up from wine that has not been over oaked. I feel it has that perfect balance between oak and fruit. 2003 was a particularly hot year all over Europe and Spain was no exception. Because of the heat I think a lot of the wines show more fruit than normal, but the winemakers did an excellent job to balance this with the oak. You get the earthiness that is familiar to Ribera lovers, and it has a slight leathery feeling, though you really have to look for that. The alcohol content is only 13.5%, but the finish is quite alcoholy. In a good way that is. Imagine beautiful velvety red wine with a load of warmth as it goes down. Love it.

All in all I love the wine and would certainly buy it again. Especially at this price.

Name: Torremilanos Crianza, Ribera Del Duero, 2003

Rating: 8.5

Body: Medium to Full

Price: Normally ~$20, this one was $10, an absolute steal

Got it at: Dee Vine Wines, San Francisco, CA

Wine From Patagonia

July 29, 2008

It is not often one comes across wine from Patagonia, a remote, cold montaneous region of South America shared by Argentina and Chile. At least, that is what I thought until I looked into it. The primary, internationally well known wine region in Argentina is Mendoza, which I have never associated with Patagonia. When I think of Mendoza I think of hot summers, flat lands and rolling hills at the foot of the Andes. I associate Patagonia with jagged mountain peaks, ice and wind. The two do not really go together well.

So I am sitting in a wine bar in Seattle and I see a wine from Argentina labeled as from the Patagonia appellation. Wow, I thought to myself, I must try this. Nowhere on the bottle does it say Mendoza so this must be real, not a gimmick.

I ordered the wine and as I am sipping on it I am geeking out and using my new iPhone to look up wine regions in Patagonia. Little did I know that Mendoza is in fact still considered Patagonia, even though it is relatively far north. Well, so I got scammed 🙂

In fact the wine does taste very much like a Malbec from Mendoza. It is rich, fruity, bold, new world style and not super elegant. It is very drinkable, though, especially on a somewhat chilly Monday night. Would I buy a bottle? Probably for nothing else but to take a better quality picture of a wine label that says Patagonia.

Name: Baqueano Patagonia, Malbec, 2007

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: $9.50/glass, $31/bottle (restaurant/bar)

Got it at: Flying Fish, Seattle, WA

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Inexpensive Burgundies

July 23, 2008

I love Burgundy but do not love the price levels of these beauties. So I am always on the lookout for decent Burgundies at a good price. Today I got one that is fantastic value for the quality. The wine is A. Chopin & Fils “Les Essards” Cote De Nuits Villages. It is fairly high in acidity, still young, but already shows nice complexity and if it spends some time breathing it can become fairly soft. Definitely recommended, especially if you consider that I paid a whopping $25 for the bottle.

Update: the wine really exhibits much deeper, complex characters once you let it open for a couple of hours. I highly recommend to decant this pinot, it will thank you for it.

Cheers–Zoli

Name: A. Chopin & Fils, “Les Essards”, Cote De Nuits Villages 2005

Price: $25 (discounted off $35)

Body: Medium

Got it at: Dee Vine Wines, Pier 19, San Francisco

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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I had written about the Ahr region, the northernmost Pinot Noir region in the world (perhaps the northernmost red wine region) in an earlier post. At that time I reviewed a FrĂĽhburgunder, a little known clone of the Pinot Noir grape. What is planted most in the Ahr is actually Spätburgunder, which is identical to Pinot Noir. Some Pinots from the Ahr stand up to the best of Burgudies in terms of complexity and elegance and today’s wine is one of these examples.

JJ Adeneuer’s Ahrweiler Rosenthal, 2005 is entirely from a Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru) vineyard. Adeneuer is one of the top producers in the Ahr valley and to me his style is probably the closest to Burgundy. Comparisons are difficult and unfair, though, because Pinot Noir in the Ahr do not need to, in fact probably should not taste like Burgundies. The soil is quite different, the Ahr is mostly slate, and the climate is also unlike the Burgundy with cooler days, but longer hours of sunshine.

The Rosenthal Grosses Gewächs is a stunningly beautiful example of a top German Spätburgunder. The nose is very similar to a Burgundy, you can definitely smell the Pinot grape, but it also exudes quite a load of alcohol. The wine has a relatively high alcohol content at 14%, but you can mostly detect it on the nose, not so much in the taste. As I sipped on it the first thing that stunned me was the absolute perfect balance of fruit and acidity. It is obvious that this wine maker is highly skilled, the wine is superbly executed just as a German engineered car. I tasted plum, black cherry, slight roasted coffee and on the finish just a hint bitterness with a vanilla undertone (which I can appreciate that it is weird, but the complexity of taste is amazing). What is perhaps even more beautiful than the taste is the structure of this wine. It is silky, creamy, a bit earthy, extremely seductive, as you want a Pinot to be. Great finesse and absolute elegance is the best words I can use to describe the way it comes across.

We had the fortune to taste several of Adeneuer’s wines with the wine maker and the Rosenthal was one of my favorites. I liked the J.J.Adeneuer N° 1 and the N° 2 as well, though the Rosenthal is in a different league. The N° 1 is relatively light and has a bit less complexity than the N° 2, though both are very nice and elegant. They are not cheap wines and honestly if I were to buy a bottle from Adeneuer now, I would definitely step up to the Rosenthal. The only other Adeneuer that I would compare to the Rosenthal was the Walporzheimer Gärkammer Grosses Gewächs, of which I still have a bottle at home. Look for that review soon.

Name: JJ Adeneuer, Ahrweiler Rosenthal, 2005

Rating: 9/9.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 49 euros

Got it at: Adeneuer winery, Ahrweiler, Germany

JJ Adeneuer’s Ahrweiler Rosenthal, 2005

Name: JJ Adeneuer, N° 1, 2005

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 35 euros

Got it at: Adeneuer winery, Ahrweiler, Germany

JJ Adeneuer, N° 1, 2005

Name: JJ Adeneuer, N° 2, 2005

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 25 euros

Got it at: Adeneuer winery, Ahrweiler, Germany

JJ Adeneuer, N° 2, 2005

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 DĂŁo, 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 DĂŁo. Rui Reguinga, the wine maker, makes the Encruzado, the white varietal indigenous DĂŁo, 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 DĂŁo 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