Good Deals Disguised

April 20, 2008

Given that I buy a lot of wine I am always on the lookout for good deals. There are a lot of them out there, but it is not an easy task to weed out the low quality wines, which tend to be the extreme majority in the lower price range.

One category that virtually always delivers consistent quality is Portugal’s Vinho Verde. I had recently written about Vinho Verde in connection with a trip to Portugal. In short they tend to be very refreshing, light, slightly bubbly whites made in a style that is not really comparable to anything out there. On a warm day it would be hard to imagine something more perfect than a bottle of Vinho Verde. To top it all, they tend to be really good values across the board. One example is Aveleda Fonte, the higher end label of the Casal Garcia I wrote up back in December. This wine retails for $6 a bottle at Cost Plus in the US. That is 4 euros in a retail establishment! What an amazing value?!

So why the title good value disguised? I happened to come across this wine at a good seafood joint in Sausalito, CA called The Fish. This is a perfect place for a Vinho Verde. Imagine sunshine, t-shirt weather, sitting outside on the water and sipping on slightly sparkling, beautiful wine. The problem is The Fish marks up the wine to $27 a bottle eroding that fantastic value I expect from Vinho Verde. I think it is outrageous for a self service restaurant to charge $27 (no service included!) for a bottle that they probably buy at around $4-$4.50. 

So go Vinho Verde, I will buy you whenever I can get my hands on you, but I will also avoid places that take advantage of your great value and try to rip off customers on your back.


Name: Aveleda Fonte, Vinho Verde, 2007

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: $6 retail, $27 at The Fish

Got it at: Cost Plus, San Francisco, CA

Aveleda Fonte, Vinho Verde, 2007


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

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

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

Canadian Ice Wine

December 8, 2007

I have heard that Canadian Ice Wine is among the best, if not the best in the world, though never tasted any before. A couple of weeks ago our friend Cindy, from Nova Scotia came over for dinner and brought us a gift. The gift is called Ortega Ice Wine from Jost Vineyards of Nova Scotia. And what a gift it is.

The wine comes in a 200 ml bottle, so it is a bit more than a 1/4 bottle. I sense the reason for this is because you could turn diabetic instantly if you consume more of it. This desert wine, made from the Ortega varietal, must have higher residual sugar content than the brown sugar you get at your local grocery store. Imagine tangerine, apricot, and melon syrups blended together and magically turned into an elegant wine with a significant dense body. That is this wine. Truly a trip and a very good one at that.

The reason for the extreme concentration is because they leave the grapes on the vine until late in December and only harvest them in ice-cold temperatures (below -10 Celsius). You can imagine the grapes are basically raisins by this time. Also, because of the high sugar content, the alcohol level is only about 10% in this wine. Not that it matters, you will never drink more than a few sips because of the super high concentration.

If you like desert wine, you have to give this one a try. I imagine it is not an easy one to find in your local supermarket, but it should be available at least via online merchants in North America or perhaps even in Europe. Do seek it out, it will be one of the best desert wines you will ever have.

Name: Ortega Ice Wine, Jost Vineyards, 2004

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: Free (present), but regularly approx. $45 per 200ml bottle

Got it at: My House

Ortega Ice Wine, Jost Vineyards, 2004

Wines from Africa

December 8, 2007

People in North Africa and Morocco in particular have made wine for thousands of years. This may not be obvious, as alcohol is generally not available in restaurants in Morocco, unless they cater to foreigners or to the tiny fraction of the population that is more western oriented. While wine making tradition may have a lot of legs to stand on in Morocco, the wines I have tasted unfortunately were nothing to write home about. Perhaps this is because I only had the chance to taste from one of the largest producers, Thalvin, so it may not be fair to be generally judgmental.

The first one was Thalvin’s Cuvée du Président Rouge. This blend is 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 20% Grenache and 20% Tempranillo. The Cuvée is a fairly mass produced wine, light to medium bodied, very little complexity, a bit flat. It was matured in oak so you get a tiny bit of vanilla, but don’t think Bordeaux or Napa.

The second wine was the Medallion White. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a white wine. Let’s just say it is interesting, and I am glad I tried it, but I think Cabernet is not exactly known for white wines. Maybe there is a reason for this 😉 I do not know how to describe the taste, but it completely lacked acidity and there was almost no fruit to taste. It had body, but I am not sure where the body came from . I’m going to invent a phrase here, but maybe the best way to describe the wine was it was mineral-forward. It was absolutely out of balance and was among the most boring and weird whites I have ever tasted. Still, I am glad I did. You only learn by trying.

Next time I am in Morocco, I will need to try some wines from producers other than Thalvin, but I will not be seeking out Moroccan wines in Europe or in the US.

Name: Cuvée du Président Rouge, Thalvin, NV

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 10 euros

Got it at: Riad Safa, Marrakesh, Morocco

Cuvée du Président Rouge, Thalvin, NV

Name: Medallion Blanc, Thalvin, NV

Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full Bodied

Price: approx. 20 euros

Got it at: Narwama Restaurant, Marrakesh, Morocco

Medallion Blanc, Thalvin, NV

Best of Mosel Rieslings

December 7, 2007

I have not posted for a couple of weeks as I was just on a trip around Morocco and the Iberian peninsula. We were flying to Marrakesh from Germany and took the opportunity to spend some time in the Mosel wine region to taste some local wines. The Mosel (formerly named Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) is one of Germany’s premium wine regions, probably the best known along with the adjacent Rheingau. The Mosel is most famous for its Riesling, but they also produce other white varietals here and lately even some reds, such as Spätburgunder. To maximize sun exposure on the grapes, they tend to plant vines on extremely steep south facing slopes in this wine region. In fact most of the world’s steepest vineyards, some reaching a 65 degree incline, are located right here. If you have a chance to drive or bike along the curvy Mosel river, I highly recommend it not just for the fantastic wines, but also for the natural beauty of the land.

We stayed in the village of Reil, right on the bank of the Mosel river. Reil is in the Mittelmosel district, where much of the best Mosel wines come from. One up and coming winery of the Mittelmosel is Melsheimer, which in 2007 the prestigious Vinum magazine rated as the best Riesling producer in Germany. We were fortunate enough to visit this winery and meet the winemaker, Thorsten Melsheimer, a young, energetic very talented person who tasted 6 or 7 of his wines with us. While I must say all of Melsheimer’s wines were fantastic, and good value, two stood out to me the most:

The first one was the 2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling Spätlese Trocken. This wine is a dry late harvest (Spätlese) Riesling. Most late harvests that I know are at least a bit sweet, but Spätlese can actually be dry, in fact very dry, such as this beauty. The acid is perfectly balanced with the fruit in this wine, you get a taste of both but neither kills the other. You also get quite a lot of minerality, which is typical for Mittelmosel wines. This is a serious, complex dry Riesling, while perfectly paired with dishes that go well with dry whites, I would recommend it by itself to enjoy the complexity it delivers. Be careful, the alcohol content of this white is above 14%!

The other standout from Melsheimer was the 2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling, Auslese #36. This auslese is from the same vineyard, but Mr. Melsheimer left the fruit on the vines a bit longer to give it a more concentrated, fuller body. Also, this wine has much higher residual sugar content and is definitely sweet. The minerality is still there, but you get a lot of peach, honey, and a hint (not much more) of oiliness that we come to expect from German Rieslings. Again, while the wine pairs well with some dishes (for example it would be perfect for spicy thai food) I would recommend it standalone as it is amazingly beautiful.

Melsheimer is a fantastic producer and I think the young winemaker has not reached his limits just yet. It is a winery to watch over the next years. Let’s hope the prices will be contained as he gains reputation. Speaking of prices, I wish I could have tasted some of his Beerenauslese, but paying hundreds of euros for a half bottle was not exactly in my budget. He only makes 100 liters of Beerenauslese per year, but it is reputed to be among the best in Germany. And that means it is among the best desert wines in the world.

Name: Melsheimer 2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling Spätlese Trocken

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 12.90 euros

Got it at: Weingut Melsheimer, Reil, Germany

2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling Spätlese trocken

Name: Melsheimer 2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling, Auslese #36

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 18 euros

Got it at: Weingut Melsheimer, Reil, Germany

2006er Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, Riesling, Auslese #36

Otto Legli is running one of the premier wine houses in the southern Balaton region of Hungary. With the exception of one rose, he makes pretty much only white wines, which is typical for this region. Legli has a whole range of of whites from light, smart, fresh ones to full bodied and oaky Chardonnays.

Today we have a quick review of the Legli 333 vintage 2006, which is more on the fresh, light end of Otto’s spectrum. He aptly calls this wine 333, because he starts selling it every year on the 333rd day. It is a cuvee of early riping varietals, Irsai Oliver, Muscat Ottonel, Zenit (which in France is called Muscadet) and Müller Thurgau. All four of these are very typical white varietals to Central Europe, with the exception of Zenit or Muscadet, which is grown most in the Loire Valley of France. The wine is of course young, refreshing, has a definite muscat undertone but still dry. It is better for a summer night, but pairs well with fish any day of the year. Most of the time the 333 does not see the summer as at this price it sells out in a few months long before summer’s arrival. After all, Legli only makes about 2,000 cases of the 333 each year.

Legli’s winery is open all year to visitors on weekdays 9am-5pm and no appointments are necessary. I have not been yet, but I bet it is a fun few hours if you are in the area.

Name: Legli 333, 2006

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: 4 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Legli 333, 2006