Wines of Serbia

Serbia is a fascinating country historically and culturally, though the wines that I have tried recently are the first that I have been able to sample from this re-emerging wine country. Like many of the nations formerly under communist rule, quality production in Serbia was stagnant as quantity received greater value than quality production. However, unlike many other communist nations, Yugoslavia retained more private property rights and a greater trade freedom, which may have made for an easier transition into the “free” wine market, had the nation not been plagued by ethnic conflict and subsequent trade restrictions and sanctions throughout the 1990s and early 21st century. As Serbia looks toward inclusion in the EU, formal vineyard assessments will occur, which should pave the way for much-needed infrastructure and intellectual investments in the fields of viticulture and viniculture.

Because vineyard censuses and classifications are terribly outdated, there is little information to be found about the current state of wine culture in the country. In these instances, it can be helpful to forget existing political boundaries and look to neighboring nations for comparisons. For example, the northern area known as Vojvodina is, more or less, an extension of the continental regions of Croatia, where white varieties like Welschriesling reign supreme. This large area north of the Danube is divided into the Srem region in the south, Subotica-Horgoš in the far north near the Hungarian border, and Banat in the east, near the town of Vršac on the Romanian border.  Here, the various Pinots are also grown, along with Traminac (aka Traminer).  One of the more noteworthy areas of production is located in the Srem region, colorfully known as Fruška Gora, which has purportedly cultivated the vine for 1700 years.  Another historical and protected wine style produced here is Bermet, an aromatized wine similar to vermouth, produced through macerating red wine with about 20 botanicals and herbs.

Further south of the Danube, there are several different regions known as Morava, divided into Greater Morava, Western Morava, and Southern Morava.  Our wines that we sample for today’s post come from the village of Aleksandrovac, located in Western Morava (Zapadna Morava).  In this area a wide variety of grape varieties are grown, most notable the red Prokupac and the white Tamjanika, which is said to be a strain of Muscat grown in the area for 500 years, which happen to be the two varieties that we tried for today.

Wine growing areas are also located in the mountainous eastern frontier near the borders with Bulgaria and Romania, known as the Timok River Valley, with the Negotin-Krajina subregion being the better known.

Vineyards are also located in the former territory of Kosovo-Metohija: primarily sweeter reds produced for the German export market.

IMG_20150307_230454On to the wines!  The two wines that we tasted were from the Ivanović winery located in Aleksandrovac in Zapadna Morava.  The Vinarija Ivanović Prokupac 2011 was very reminiscent of a medium-bodied, earthy Merlot.  Soft plum, baked black cherry, black fig, and dried blackberry flavors dominated, with a hefty dose of dried herbs and dried autumn leaves.  Light spice notes of allspice and clove came in on the back end, which would lend well to hearty fare like grilled meats and stews.

The Vinarija Ivanović Tamianika 2012 was of particular interest to me, being a fan of dry Muscats that I had tried from other nations.  A light golden color in the glass led into an explosively floral nose.  Fresh white flowers, incense, wet rocks, tropical and citrus fruits were all fighting it out in the glass.  Lime, pineapple, green apple, and white peach fruit flavors were subsumed by bright floral qualities, a strong mineral/wet limestone note, and an earthy herbal note of Thai basil and lemongrass.  This was a very complex and interesting wine, though I feel that a touch more RS (residual sugar) might have helped to meld the flavors a bit better.  I really like strong-floral impact wines like this, but it might be a little discordant to your average “cougar juice”- or watery Pinot Grigio-drinker.  Lovers of great German Riesling should find a lot to like here in the strong mineral elements, though definitely lacking the subtlety of a fine Mosel or Nahe Riesling.

Overall, I really liked the wines.  They were both technically correct, which already says quite a bit for an emerging wine region like Serbia, and were very interesting and spoke of a traditional winemaking culture and a unique sense of place that I feel is extremely important for novel wine countries.  I’m very glad to see them utilizing indigenous grape varieties with modern, but not too modern (i.e. barrique use, concentrated musts, etc.) winemaking technologies to bring delicious and interesting wines to a thirsty public. 

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Spotlight: Mosel, Germany

The German wine category has been one of my most fun areas to expand in both my retail liquor life and my wine student life. It is an almost labyrinthine rabbit hole that delves deeply into issues of terroir, geology, geography and the technical limits of winemaking. On the retail side, it is incredibly beneficial to utilize our in-store tastings to introduce these awesome wines to a new and receptive public. It is, by far, one of my most successful areas as far as taster:purchase ratio and helps to cultivate an atmosphere of curiosity and trust that the wines from this area will be genuinely provocative AND delicious.

I had opportunity to try two fantastic examples of Mosel Riesling recently, and am excited to delve a little further into this iconic wine region.  First, our attentions turn to Weingut Alfred Merkelbach,  one of the stalwart traditionalists of the section of the river between Ürzig and Kinheim.  This area contains some of the region’s most highly-regarded vineyards.  They are a small opporation run by two brothers whose family has a history of growing wine in this region, and like so many, selling to larger growers and co-ops.  They are also regarded for their traditional methods of viniculture, utilizing the same füders for each small lot for each different vintage for decades.  Vinifying small plots in this manner truly reveals the similarities and differences between these different sites.  I have tried several of their wines before, but today we are focusing on one of the lesser-known sites, Kinheimer Rosenberg.  It is one of the lightest wines in their portfolio, producingIMG_20150307_230642 an exquisite and pure Kabinett.  The 2012 vintage was one characterized by opulent fruit character, contrasting nicely with the 2013, which featured a considerable amount of botrytis in some areas.  The Merkelbach Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2012 is classic Mosel Riesling Kabinett: the nose was a little reserved at first, but the palate just kept revealing layer after layer of flavor, both overt and nuanced.  Snappy green apple, pear, a little melon, lime, yellow papaya, white peaches, lots of white flowers, wet rocks… a heavenly array of fruit and mineral.  This wine is why I love German Riesling so much.  It delivers such an amazing amount of complexity in such a refreshing and enjoyable package.  

Our second wine is the St. Urbans-hof Estate Riesling 2013.  St. Urbans-hof owns several choice parcels throughout the Mosel and the Saar, including the hallowed Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, Leiwener Laurentiuslay, Ockfener Bockstein, among others.  The bottle indicates that this wine is produced from old vines, but does not specify a particular site.  This wine delivers outstanding quality for the price.  Winemaker Nik Weis is considered one of the leading members of the “new generation” of winemakers in the Mosel, and this wine is evidence of the high quality of work going on here from their greatest bottlings to the everyday offerings.  This particular wine seemed a bit more rounded that the Merkelbach, offering more peach, nectarine, red papaya, pineapple, guava, loads of honeysuckle, and still more wet rocks.  The fruit character was a bit riper and more extroverted.  Both were absolutely lovely wines, and offered a great opportunity to see the different manifestations of Riesling in different sites and vintages.  

Lets talk about vintages for a little bit, because vintage variation is so important in this corner of the world, where grapes can struggle to ripen properly.  In 2013, the wines of the Mosel are characterized by a considerable amount of botrytis, generally high acid levels, and an amazing amount of dry extract in the grapes.  A cool start to the season and rain at the wrong time resulted in really small yields for many producers.  Very careful selection of grapes was paramount, unless you allowed the botrytis to go all out and make some crazy-concentrated dessert wines.  2012 paints quite a different picture.  A slow and cool start to the season left growers a bit nervous, especially with rains in Spring and Summer.  Towards the latter part of Summer, however, the weather turned for the better and sunshine and warmth prevailed, giving a wonderfully slow ripening period and yielding wines with lots of flavor and extract and almost no botrytis.  This year was heralded as one of the best in nearly a decade for many producers.

Overall, I was incredibly pleased with these wines, further cementing my love for the great wines of this classic wine region.  Wines like this evoke so much romanticism and so much awe in this wonderful practice of winemaking.  I hope that everybody goes out a picks up a great bottle of Mosel Riesling to celebrate a life that mirrors these wines: incredibly distinctive and the result of many years and generations of hard work and worthy endeavors.

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Tokaji for a Celebration

I love Tokaji.  Frankly, I love dessert wines in general and find them to be the most nuanced and complex wine category in the world, and woe to the wine drinker who poo-poos so-called sweet wines.  You are missing out!  I also love the history of Tokaji wines and have been in love with the wines from there since my first introduction relatively early in my wine career.  If you love Tokaji too, you should check out the ultimate Tokaji wine reference by Miles Lambert-Gócs Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition.  It is one of my favorite specialized wine books and is a really unique style of wine writing that is so completely thorough without going into producer profiles, that I find myself constantly returning to it to glean more information from this incredibly information-dense tome.  I found myself looking to enjoy some Tokaji recently that I picked up from work.  I had never had any from Disznókő and was excited to reward myself after an intense period of study leading up to my Burgundy Master-Level Program exam.  I know, I know.  I should have celebrated with some Burgundy, but I had just got this in at work and was excited to try it.

I won’t spend too much time with the “beginner-level” information about Tokaji, but want to go to the next level with some more advanced Tokaji tibdits.  I made a chart below that features the requirements for the major categories of Tokaji and included a few other notable dessert wines from other parts of the world as a point of comparison:

Style Min. Potential Alcohol Min. Achieved Alcohol Residual Sugar Levels
Aszú 3 puttonyos 12.54% 9% 60g/L
Aszú 4 puttonyos 14.31% 9% 90g/L
Aszú 5 puttonyos 16.11% 9% 120g/L
Aszú 6 puttonyos 18.53% 9% 150g/L
Aszúeszencia 16.62% 6% 180g/L
Eszencia 27.75% 1.2-8.0% 450g/L
Riesling Auslese 88° Oechsle 7% No required minimum
Riesling Beerenauslese 110° Oechsle (13.8%) 5.5% No required minimum
Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese 150° Oechsle 5.5% No required minimum
Riesling Eiswein 110° Oechsle (13.8%) 5.5% No required minimum
Ruster Ausbruch (Austria) 27° KMV 5% No required minimum

Tentatively, there have been recent legislative changes that have removed certain categories of Tokaji, namely 3- and 4-puttonyos wines as well as the Aszúeszencia category.  The aim, I suppose, is to further align Tokaji identity with heavy botrytis influence, though this seems contrary to recent endeavors by many producers to produce dry white wines based primarily on Furmint or Hárslevelű. Perhaps we will see separate designations for these economically important, though recently developed, wine styles.   However, in Lambert-Gócs’s book, his research seems to indicate that the identification of Tokaji with botrytis-affected wines has not always been traditional, though historically the most highly-regarded wines were those affected by noble rot.

Disznókő holds a very important and historical position in Tokaj.  The wines of Tokaj were among the first to be classified and delimited.  Disznókő was a highly-regarded vineyard tract that was mentioned in the classifications of 1798 and 1867 and rated “1st Class” (Lambert-Gócs 142).  It is located on the southern face of the Perlitdomb hill of the Mezőzombor commune, which is one of the most southerly villages of Tokaj-Hegyalja.  While Disznókő has been Mezőzombor’s most notable vineyard, other 1st Class rated vineyards include Csojka, Hangács, and Zombori-Király (89).  Disznókő  is currently the largest single vineyard tract in the Tokaji production area.  It is a 150ha vineyards that is planted with 104ha of vines.  The soil is dominated by clay over volcanic-derived tuff, though undoubtedly there is a great deal of variation over such a large vineyard area.  According to their website, which is chock-full of great information, their vineyard is planted to 60% Furmint, 30% Hárslevelű, 9% Zéta, and 1% Sárgamuskotály (aka Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains).

IMG_20141029_095213The example that I was able to try was the 2007 vintage 5 puttonyos example.  2007 was reported to be an ideal year for aszú wines, with a prolonged and warm summer with rains arriving at precisely the right time in the autumn, fostering good botrytis growth.  The wine was a very fresh and modern example of Tokaji Aszú.  The fruit profile was very fresh and tropical, in contrast to other examples that I have had that feature more dried and preserved fruit flavors and also tend to have a mildly oily texture.  Bright pineapple, red papaya, tangerine, yellow apple, and quince flavors were carried by a very refreshing acidity that kept the texture light and fresh.  White flower and honey notes were also present, but the fruit character was really at the forefront.  The aforementioned acidity kept the wine far from the cloying character which occasionally plagues the category of dessert wine.  I really enjoyed the wine, which was served with two different varieties of bleu cheese and some red grapefruit marmalade.  It was a great match and an ideal way to relax after intensive study.  The wine was an interesting contrast to other Tokaji Aszú that I have had, which is admittedly little and with no examples of the extreme age that the wine is famed to support.  It was a good representation of the modern and new wave of winemaking in the region, though I really hope that the more traditional ways are maintained as well, in fear that Tokaji will become less distinguishable from other dessert wines.

 

 

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Roses, Violets, and Incense: Reveling in the Aromatics of Ruchè

Intensely aromatic wines are the bee’s knees for me.  I simply can’t get enough of wines that display heavy floral and spice aromatics, which usually is more prevalent in white varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Torrontés, etc.  I was able to expand my repertoire of aromatic reds with an introduction to an obscure grape variety from Italy’s Piemonte.

Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato is a recent addition to Italy’s DOCG family, hailing from a small cluster of villages in the province of Asti in Piemonte.  At the center of this appellation is a somewhat mysterious red grape variety that displays floral and spice aromatics and varying tannin levels, depending on winemaking decisions and oak treatments (or lack thereof).  In the vineyard, Ruchè is purported to ripen in areas that even Barbera will not fully ripen.  Communes of production include Castagnole Monferrato, Montemagno, Grana, Portacomaro, Refrancore, Scurzolengo, and Viarigi.  DOCG rules allow for up to 10% Brachetto to be blended into the wine.  Only 123 ha on Ruchè are cultivated, though this number has been increasingly steadily, but slowly, so maybe there will be more Ruchè available in the export market.

IMG_20141029_094929Cantina Sant’agata specializes in wines made from the Ruchè grape.  With four different examples in their portfolio, they are able to represent the different aspects of this wonderful grape.  The particular example that I tried is the ” ‘Na Vota” Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato.  It was fermented in 100% stainless steel, which helped to preserve the aromatics and helped to develop a complementary fruity character.  Aside from the flavor and exoticism of this wine, I absolutely love that there is a small booklet attached to the back of each bottle that explains the history of Ruchè, the region, the vinification methods, and some producer background.  Any effort to further educate the public is always a plus in my book, and this little tidbit of information was rather informative for an obscure wine and was replete with romantic vineyard photographs of Piemonte.

Visually, this wine was ruby colored with medium-plus concentration.  There was a bit of fizz on the wine, which I have seen in other bottles of this same wine.  I don’t think that they were supposed to be there, but it did give the wine a frothy, lambrusco-like quality (not quite frizzante, but you know what I mean) that didn’t seem to detract from it.  It did, however, make the cork extremely difficult to extract.  On the nose, aromas of dried violets, rose petals, incense, and allspice dominated the fruit character of candied red cherry and pomegranate.  The palate showed a little more balance between the fruit and the floral, but the floral and spice components held through the bottle, lending a very mild bitterness that is fairly common in phenoic-driven wines like this one.  The wine was light- to medium-bodied, with medium-plus acidity, medium-minus tannins, and medium alcohol content.  Overall, I loved this wine and can’t wait to try other examples of this floral-driven red grape.

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Savennières

Savennières Fast Facts:

Communes of Production: Savennières, La Possonnière, Bouchmaine, producing roughly 4500 hl of wine annually in 145 ha in the Maine-et-Loire département

Encépagement: 100% Chenin Blanc

Min. Must Weight: Sec 186g/L

Demi-Sec or sweeter 212g/L

Min. Alcohol: (Sec) 11.5% potential, 11% acquired

(Demi-Sec, Moelleux, Doux) 12.5% potential, 11% acquired

Chaptalization: Permitted for Sec, Prohibited for Demi-Sec and sweeter

Residual Sugar: 4g/L Sec

18g/L Demi-Sec

18-45g/L Moelleux

45g/L+ Doux

**Requirements for Demi-Sec and sweeter are now set by the EU

Other: Manual harvests are required and wines may not be released until April of the year following harvest; Appellation is located on the right bank (north bank) of the Loire River; two former sub-regions, Coulée de Serrant and Roche-aux-Moines were given their own AOP status in 2011

Soil Types: schist, volcanic deposits (rhyolites), sand

Named Vineyards (West-East roughly):

  • Croix Picot *
  • Clos Bouchard
  • Le Pare
  • La Pierre Bécherelle *
  • Le Clos de Grand Hamé
  • Château de Chambourean
  • Le Vir-Boyau (abandoned) *
  • Le Hu-Boyau *
  • Chambourcier
  • Moulin de Beaupréau
  • Clos de la Coulée de Serrant **
  • La Roche-aux-Moines **
  • Rochepin
  • Le Fougeraies
  • Le Clos St Yves
  • Le Clos de Varennes *
  • Moulin de Gué
  • Le Clos de la Marche
  • Le Clos de la Royauté
  • Le Clos du Papillon *
  • La Jalousie
  • Les Caillardières
  • Le Coteaux (abandoned) *
  • Le Gabillard
  • Clos Lavaux
  • Le Clos des Perrières
  • Les Bastes
  • Les Noues
  • Le Clos de Coulaine
  • Le Clos Ferrand (not planted)
  • Le Clos de Fremine

Courtesy of map at richardkelley.co.uk

* vineyards are those most highly-regarded

The vine’s history in the region began in the early 11th century with the establishment of several abbeys in Anjou.  Several centuries later, the vineyard lands were sold off to the local gentry, with a handful of estates being established by the late 1500s, several of which are still in operation today.

A notable figure in the history of Savennières comes in the form of Swiss native Pierre Constant Guillory.  He founded the Société Agricole et Industrielle de l’Anjou and owned a home and vineyards in Roche-aux-Moines.  He initiated experiemental plantings in the region and was a strong advocate for the planting of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon in the region, on account of their earlier ripening.  He also began a viticultural school.

Phylloxera and downy mildew arrived in 1880.  When grafting and replanting began in earnest a decade later, the area was drastically reduced and Chenin’s dominance was established.  The AOC of Savennières was established in 1952, and the area’s reputation was based on demi-sec or sweeter-styled wines.  As the fashion for drier wines ascended, Savennières followed suit, and now the region is primarily identified as a dry white producer.  The area was injected with new enthusiasm as the 1980s and ’90s saw the arrival of new growers from outside the region, especially growers expanding from Coteaux du Layon across the river.  Nicolas Joly, owner of the monopole Coulée de Serrant, has also elevated the visibility of the region with his very vocal advocacy of biodynamic viticulture, though the generally unusual and variable wine production is hardly representative of the region as a whole.

The wines are noted for their austerity in youth and pronounced acidity and concentration.  They are also noted for their ability to age well, taking on notes of nuttiness and spice with age.  Personally speaking, I have much more enjoyed the representations of Chenin Blanc found in Vouvray and Coteaux du Layon than those of Savennières.  My sweet tooth is party to blame, but I also have not really had much experience with aged versions of Savennières, so maybe the older versions are more remarkable.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the wines okay, I just haven’t found them to be as memorable and complex as their reputation purports them to be.

Château des Vaults/Domaine du Closel Savennières “La Jalousie” 2011

This is an important historical producer, being established in the late 1400s.  While the property has known several owners, the current owner is the president of the local grower’s syndicate.  They own several parcels in Clos du Papillon, La Jalousie, and Les Caillardières.  Their wines enjoy a good reputation and have a track record for longevity.  They practice organic viticulture and mostly utilize native yeasts.

The wine was beginning to take on a golden hue, not fully gold, but definitely taking on some color.  A relatively subdued nose segued to flavors of pear, apple, and lemon peel with light dried white flower accents.  A medium-viscous texture and high acidity were the predominant structural components, as well as medium-plus alcohol.  Flavors were relatively light, with the structure being the most notable aspect of the wine.  It would be interesting to see where this wine goes in a few years.

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Wines of Lebanon

Photo courtesy of Chateau Ksara

Photo courtesy of Chateau Ksara

My vinous journey to the Middle East was inspired by some of my recent non-wine-related reading this year.  I like to take periodic breaks from the monotony of wine study–I find that it helps to keep the brain fresh.  This was my first book that I had finished that was not wine-related for a couple of years, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, which appealed to my anthropology and history background.  It wasn’t the fastest read, but was a very interesting diversion that is surprisingly contemporary and foreboding, despite the 1997 publishing date.  In it, author William Dalrymple travels among the declining and disappearing Christian populations of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestinian Israel, Egypt, an area that also corresponds with the rise of grape domestication for wine production.  Therefore, I thought to honor this occasion with a bottle of wine rom one of these ancient world wine regions.  Before I completely move on from the book, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed it and this is a subject matter which few are aware of, at least in the U.S.  Here is my take-away quote from the read from pages 447-48:

“When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited.  But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.

In south-east Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrimmage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish.  Here is was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians: the were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in.  In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution in Maronite power.  The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again.  Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a  mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters.  However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did en masse.  Very few were now left.  Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Dalrymple also goes on to state that while the situation is much different than he had expected, it was also much more desperate than expected.  The extinction of a people is a reality in many parts of the world, but this is in such a significant historical area that it bears sharing with others.  It also goes to show that you can always learn new perspectives, even about subjects with which you are well-versed.

Availability of Middle Eastern wines in the U.S., much less the Midwest, is extremely limited, and I was only really able to find Lebanese wines, which is where I have had previous experience with the wines of Serge Hochar’s Chateau Musar.  This time, I was able to try wines from the country’s largest producer, Chateau Ksara, based in the Bekaa Valley.

Major Wine-producing Regions:

Bekaa Valley: the most well-known and productive zone in the country.  It is more inland and runs northeast to southwest, sandwiched between the Anti-Lebanon and Lebanon Mountain ranges.  A generally warm climate that is ameliorated by its high altitude, which causes dramatic diurnal temperature swings.  This area is also very geologically diverse, with this part of the world being a very active fault area.  Interestingly, a significant Roman temple to the wine god Bacchus is located at Baalbek in the northern part of the Bekaa.

Batroun: the second-most productive area that borders the Mediterranean.  This is home to many newer, quality producers.  This region is the more northerly of the wine-producing areas.

Jezzine: southerly region in the hotly-contested area near the Israeli border.  It is very mountainous and difficult to work, so the plantings there are quite limited.

Another point worth noting is that many Lebanese wineries are located away from the vineyards, in some cases a considerable distance from them.

Grape Varieties of Lebanon:

For being such an ancient producer of wine, Lebanon does not appear to have much of an industry of indigenous grape varieties.  White varieties Obaideh and Merwah are locally rumored to be the antecedents to Chardonnay and Sémillon, respectively, but Robinson et. al’s Wine Grapes indicates that the are most likely just different clones of the grape varieties and do not present a historical example of these varieties.  Nevertheless, French varieties reign supreme.  Here is the breakdown of vineyard area according to the national Union Viticole du Liban:

Cabernet Sauvignon represents the largest wine vineyard area, covering about one quarter of the planteone varietid vineyards.

Cinsault (aka Cinsaut) is a prominent and well-established variety in the country and is quite a large component of Chateau Musar’s rouge bottling.  Native to Southern France, this variety takes well to the sunny climes of Lebanon.  Characterized by light color and high acids, the wines produced from this red grape lend longevity and freshness to the wines.

Carignan is another Southern French transplant, is also numerically significant.  This grape variety lends structure, color, and juiciness to the wines.

Other plantings of Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, as well as Tempranillo, are the other important red varieties of this conversely ancient and fledgling wine industry.

White varieties have a more varied history in Lebanon.  A long history of arak production (a clear, anise-flavored distillate akin to ouzo or Sambuca) favored high-yield, high-acid brandy-type grapes like Colombard and Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano Toscano).  Fragrant varieties such as Viognier and Muscat are relatively recent transplants, joining up with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Clairette.  The two most well-known Lebanese varieties are Obaideh and Merwah:

Obaideh is locally rumored to be the ancient predecessor of Chardonnay, but is most likely just a local cultivar of the variety.  Obaideh has a long history in arak production, and was one of the early varieties used in white table wine production.

Merwah is also supposed to be an ancient Sémillon ancestor, but was most likely introduced in more recent history and also played an early role in the transition between arak and table wine production.

Chateau Ksara “Reserve du Couvent” 2010

Blended from 40% Syrah, and 30% each Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine comes from Lebanon’s oldest commercial winery that is also the largest producer in the country.  The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 , and was coincidentally located atop a 2km network of Roman caves carved out of the limestone.  Grapes for the winery are farmed from six different vineyards in the Bekaa, representing a considerable diversity of wine styles.  This ruby-colored wine displayed medium minus concentration with a little bit of rim variation bordering on garnet.  The fruit character was in the dried and stewed camp, with red plum, raspberry, cranberry, and rhubarb dominating.  Dried purple flowers, inorganic and organic earthiness, and warm spices rounded out the flavor profile.  Overall, the wine was medium-bodied, with firm, drying tannins, moderate alcohol, medium acidity, and medium-plus finish.  I enjoyed the wine quite a bit, and found it to really exhibit the so-called “ancient world” style that is relatively common amongst wines of the Eastern Mediterranean.  I found it to be pleasantly earthy and fragrant, without the overt plushness or strong yeast profile more associated with New World styles.

 

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Exploring the Côte: Santenay

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking the online Master Burgundy course from the French Wine Society. It’s been a great opportunity to really cement this great region into my brain. So, I’d like to explore these areas through further research and tasting.  Today we will start with Santenay, one of the most southerly villages of the Côte d’Or.  Santenay is home to ancient health spas and a casino, in addition to the vineyard land.  Santenay is also notable as the home to a particular clone of Pinot Noir known as Pinot Fin de Santenay.  With the adoption of clonal selection over massal selection for vine propogation, it is less likely that Pinot Fin de Santenay is as prevalent as it once was.  However, certain old vine plots are likely to have some examples of this vine.  It is purported to be better adapted to the heavier, more marl-dense soils of the Santenay area and the southern Côte in general.  In Santenay they also practice cordon du royat training of the vines, as opposed to the more common method of Guyot training.  It is also worth noting that in Santenay the ridgeline of the Côte starts to change aspect, meaning that the vineyards that cover the slope also begin to change aspect.  In Santenay the vineyards are more likely to face south, while in the rest of the Côte d’Or, vineyards generally face east.

Santenay contains 11 climats that are classed as premier cru.  They are divided into two groupings: those that are in the more northerly section of the appellation, closer to Chassagne-Montrachet and those that are in the southern part of the appellation, closer to the village of Santenay-le-Haut.  Here is the breakdown of the premier cru locations:

Closer to Chassagne-Montrachet:

  • La Comme
  • Clos de Tavannes
  • Les Gravières
  • Beauregard
  • Clos Faubard (a section of Beauregard is also able to be labeled as Clos Faubard, as is a section of Clos des Mouches)
  • Passetemps
  • Beaurepaire
  •  La Maladière

Closer to Santenay-le-Haut

  • Clos Rousseau
  • Grand Clos Rousseau
  • Les Forneaux (while this is considered a separate climat, it is bottled as Clos Rousseau)

Santenay’s production is overwhelmingly red, though its whites are beginning to gain repute as well.  Generally speaking, the reds are considered more rustic and sturdy, though have the ability to age well and gracefully.  They are also noted for their deeper color, considered an important quality for lighter-hued Pinot Noir.

I recently had an opportunity to try a 1er Cru Santenay when I picked up two bottles during my recent trip to Chicago.  The availability of Burgundy here is very limited, so I wanted to make sure and pick some up when we were out of town.  For age-worthy wines, I also like to pick up at least two bottles: one for immediate enjoyment and one to hold on to if I feel that it will benefit from extra aging.  The excellent example that I tried was from Domaine Bachey-Legros, based in Santenay-le-Haut.  They own several old vine parcels in Clos Rousseau and also haveIMG_20140505_202606 holdings in Chassagne-Montrachet.    The wine that we picked up was the 1er Cru Clos Rousseau “Vieilles Vignes” 2008.  They own parcels in each of the three lieux-dits of Clos Rousseau, with the vines in Les Fourneaux being the oldest at about 80 years of age.  Each of the plots is vinified separately and the fruit is usually destemmed.

The 2008 vintage was characterized as a cool and wet vintage that was saved by a windy warm-up in September, allowing the grapes to fully ripen.  It was a small crop, but cool conditions maintained excellent acidity and will support aging in reds.  The domaine’s old vines also accounted for further concentration in the fruit.

This wine was the epitome of elegant and sexy red Burgundy.  A perfumed and aromatic nose was a great foretelling for a palate of dried cranberry and cherry flavors accented with just enough organic earth (dried leaves and rich humus) and floral notes.  The oak character was present in the form of subtle vanilla and older allspice notes, but it didn’t really impact the mouthfeel in the form of clunky tannins or anything like that.  Medium-bodied, with fresh acidity and mild tannins are just what I look for in a good Burgundy with a little bottle age.  I’m really glad that we have another to enjoy in a few years.  I even liked it so much (especially for the price point of $30 retail) that I recommended it to one of our local distributors who has been looking to expand their portfolio into some good value Burgundies.  I look forward to trying more from this domaine and REALLY hope to be able to share some with our customers locally.

 

 

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