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

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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

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

Vinho Verde, the Green Wine

December 8, 2007

I love Portugal. It has awesome weather, a beautiful coastline, rich history and great wine. Portugal not only has fantastic reds, whites and desert wines, it also has a category which is distinctly Portuguese. This is Vinho Verde, or Green Wine. Vinho Verde does not refer to the wine’s color, but the fact that it is new wine. It is mostly white, though reds also exist. The whites are a bit sparkling, fairly acidic, and are all very refreshing. They are absolutely perfect summer wines and relatively low in alcohol so you can have some with lunch and not feel like you want to fall asleep in the afternoon.

The last Vinho Verde I tasted was a perfect example of this category. Casal Garcia is from the house Quinta da Aveleda, which is the largest producer of Vinho Verde in Portugal. They make about 1 million cases of wine a year! What I admire about them is that even at this huge production they make consistently good quality wines. The Casal Garcia is made from four grapes: Trajadura, Loureiro, Arinto and Azal. This simple wine has quite a bit of citrus and apple (granny smith) and a load of fresh taste. I had it with fresh seafood in Lisbon on a sunny afternoon. I would not have chosen any other wine for the occasion. And it was the house wine. Spain, are you listening?

Name: Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, NV

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: Almost Free (House Wine)

Got it at: Churrasqueira O Cofre, Lisbon, Portugal

Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, NV

House Wines in Spain

December 8, 2007

While I am writing about a specific wine here, this post is about a general topic. And the topic is that house wines in Spain suck. They do. House wines in some parts of Europe, Italy in particular and to a large extent Hungary, tend to be good. In Italy I have tasted house wines at rock bottom prices that were better than many on the wine list. In fact, it is really hard to get a bad house wine in Italy, north or south and for a casual lunch and even for dinner, I would highly recommend going with this inexpensive option.

This is not the case with Spain. I have yet to have decent house wine in Spain. Admittedly they are cheap, but they taste like it too. Case in point is the table wine (Vino de Mesa) named Donate from the cellar Cosecheros Embotelladores. I tasted this wine in Toledo, the former capital of Spain, just outside of Madrid, along with lunch. The lunch was the daily menu of three courses at 10 euros, including a half bottle of red wine. Now I admit at these prices (essentially free) I should not expect Vega Sicilia, but I would prefer that the wine was a bit better and the menu was 12 euros. Spain, look at how Italy is working this one! You guys produce some of the best wines in the world, please make sure your house wines also meet at least minimum quality standards. That’s it, I just needed to get this off my chest.

Name: Donate, Cosecheros Embotelladores, NV

Rating: 5 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: Almost Free

Got it at: Restaurant in Toledo, Spain

Donate, Cosecheros Embotelladores, NV