It’s not such an unusual phenomenon that people from Tokyo to Texas visit such attractions as the Riviera or Cinque Terre – the Ligurian coast (and the entroterra (“inland”) as well) offers verdant mountains running down to azure seas, impossibly charming towns and a cuisine that is arguably the greatest in Italy, especially for seafood lovers. Liguria makes a fair bit of really idiosyncratic and high quality wine, but a trip to any but the best wine shops outside of the region will likely turn up precisely zero examples of its viticultural produce. The obvious question is “Why?” Well, here’s why…

The first major reason is related to the robustness of Liguria’s tourist trade. Due to the great demand for wine at the countless restaurants dotting Liguria’s extensive coast, most Ligurian winemakers can sell most if not all of their products by simply picking up their respective telephones and jingling the cells of their friends Giovanni or Emma or Ugo that are more or less neighbors and whom they and their fathers and granfathers have been dealing with for decades. An afternoon’s work at their desks, and the sales aspect of the business is put to bed for the season. Why bother with overseas importers, shipping issues, getting payment from customers residing halfway around the world when all this can be taken care of over a plate of pasta and a grilled fish with Giovanni or Emma or Ugo, with a likely payment in full, in cash?

The second major factor for the relative rarity of Ligurian wines outside of Liguria lies with the nature of Liguria as a place. For all its beauty, the terrain is steep and rocky and indeed precisely because of all of this natural pulchritude, land is very expensive. These two factors wind up making almost all Ligurian wine concerns little more than cottage industries. Most Ligurian winemakers just don’t have a lot of wine to sell, and the opportunities to acquire more land are scarce indeed, so why create a worldwide taste for your products if you can only dribble out to 5 or 10 cases to any given client?

So on to the brass tacks of this evening’s wine, which is made entirely of a grape called Pigato. This is a variety that for a very long time that has been held up as the signature white grape variety in a region that produces mostly white wines. So when recent genetic testing revealed that Pigato is more or less identical to Pigato’s frequent vinyard-mate Vermentino (they may be “brothers from another mother” in that they descend from different clonal lines) there was a bit of disappointment. But even with this information, most winos (this one included) note some consistent differences in the bottle between these two grapes, with Pigato tending to be a bit softer, bigger and deeper than the more sprightly Vermentino; mind over matter? Perhaps, but the perception remains.

This evening’s example of this very Ligurian wine comes from a producer who exports very little of its small production, and which is universally considered to be one of top few producers of Pigato, full stop. As a grape, Pigato has a very round and amiable nature; it’s pliant, but it knows just as well how to draw lines in the sand with even the most imposing dishes and not be overwhelmed by them, so it makes the perfect match with oh-so-Ligurian dishes like Pesto alla Genovese, and since I’ve got a few pots of basil that I’ve got to get to before the cold weather does, this became the first course. For the main, I made pan-fried battered chicken cutlets with a tangy lemon, butter, wine and parsley sauce and side of baby peas with pancetta and sage.

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Azienda Agricola Bruna Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente “Maje`” 2013

Slightly green-tinted, pale “white gold” color. Pretty, almost perfumed nose of white peach, lemon curd, fresh pineapple, almond milk, shiitake mushroom, hay, broom, and a touch of vanilla egg custard. The palate is medium in body with an intense, soft and supple texture that is balanced by a briny minerality and a freshly elegant acidity that push forward flavors of yellow cherry, Anjou pear, white currants, sliced celery and fresh ginger. Long, bitterish finish. A paradigm for the grape.

Posted by: tomciocco | October 24, 2014

MAY I TAKE YOUR COAT, SIGNOR AGLIANICO?

This is pretty common knowledge by now, but I’ll reiterate nevertheless – the juice of almost every red-skinned grape is as white as that which comes from Fiano or Chardonnay or Albarino. There are a few oddities like certain strains of Gamay and the Georgian variety Saperavi that are called tinturier varieties that have red juice, but they are very much the exception. The pigmentation that appears in almost all finished wines comes from a process called maceration whereby the skins are left to sit in the juice for a certain period of time, and during this process, the colorative compounds called anthocyanins leach into the juice, coloring it red. So with this understood, it becomes clear that it is possible to make white wine from red grapes by pressing red-skinned fruit and immediately separating the skins from the juice, and on occasion certain vitcultural iconoclasts decide to do just that, and that is precisely what we’ve got here.

And of all the candidates for doing this very atypical winemaking choice, the Italian powerhouse variety Aglianico might be at or near the bottom of almost anyone’s list. Aglianico is a very ancient variety that is native to southern Italy, but it’s found in its highest concentrations in Campania and in the northernmost area of Basilcata known as Vulture (VOOL-too-reh), and it is this latter area from whence this wine hails. Due to the deeply volcanic soils (the earth in many spots in Vulture approaches a nearly black color) and the high elevations in this region, the red Aglianico wines from this region are the most complex and elegant of all the regional styles, so it stands to reason that these terroir-driven traits would come through as prominently in an Aglianico wine made in bianco (the Italian language term for making white wine from red grapes) and indeed this wine bears out that supposition. And while I wouldn’t say that Aglianico vinified in bianco has even the remotest chance of supplanting the red stuff, or that it even should, this approach is undoubtedly a clever and fascinating way to showcase a truly noble variety in a really unconventional way.

I paired this lovely little oddball of a wine with a first course of pennoni pasta with a ricotta, pancetta, yellow pepper and broccoli rabe sauce, followed by a main course of flounder baked with bread crumbs, green olives, oregano and red onions and a side of deep-fried cauliflower.

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Madonna delle Grazie “Leuconoe” Basilicata Bianco 2013

Ever-so-slightly coppery-toned “white gold” color. Clean nose of pear, orange, yellow cherry, wildflowers, cinnamon and vanilla bean. The palate is medium-full and well structured and slightly buttery but with a balancing fresh acidity and minerally flavors of lemon juice and zest, peach pit, canteloupe, apricot nectar, ground ginger and a long bitter almond finish. Uncommon juice indeed.

Posted by: tomciocco | October 21, 2014

COSTE DELLA SESIA: ALTO PIEMONTE’S WINE OF THE PEOPLE

The tiny appellations of Bramaterra, Boca, Fara, and a few others are to this part of northern Piemont what Barolo and Barbaresco to are to The Langhe further south: the pinnacle (both in terms of quality and price) of wines made predominately from Nebbiolo. And though the prices stuck onto the bottles from these northerly areas almost never reach the high numbers that their cousins further south carry, they are made in such tiny quantities, and consequently so rare, that you could easily equalize the gap by wasting a lot of car or train fare out searching for them.

This is not to say that the wines from Coste della Sesia are as ubiquitous as Pinot Grigio or Chianti. The appellation (which means “Banks of the Sesia” which is river that runs through the region) is appreciably larger than any of the aforementioned Piemontese regions, and its production norms are a bit looser, so turning up a bottle or two shouldn’t wind up being a grail quest.

Coste della Sesia wines are typically red but a small amount of white wine is made there too. The reds are named by the primary grapes from which they are made (no less than 85% of a single grape variety) but the wines designated as rosso is always a blend, and in the case of this particular wine, a melange of 65% Nebbiolo, 25% Croatina and 15% Vespolina, and in my estimation quite a felicitous one too, with Nebbiolo providing structure and elegance, Croatina the flesh and color, and Vespolina a soft and easy-going fruit, ultimately making for a wine that is more than the sum of its parts.

This particular cuvee` is made from fruit sourced from 40 year old vines grown on a warm and sunny southwest-facing vineyard situated 1150 feet above sea level in high-acid yellow sand a terroir typical to the whole zone that serves to generally leaven the wines making them decidedly ethereal with a sophisticated fruitiness. In the cellar, this wine is vinified spontaneously with wild, native yeasts and then aged for a bit less than a year in once and twice-used French barriques – just enough exsposure to fine oak to refine and polish the wine without in any way obscuring its decidedly cool blend of grapes or the area’s rare terroir. Again, Coste della Sesia wines are not typically available at Big Bob’s Wine Dump or the like, but that said, they are well worth keeping your eyes peeled for if not calling or surfing around to find – for me, they are amongst the most most expressive wines that emanate from Piedmont, period, especially if price is a factor. Go forth.

I paired this very lovely little red with a first course of fettuccine dressed with a walnut, cheese and garlic sauce from Piemont called Aja (pronounced AH-ya) followed by breaded and fried escalopes of chicken dressed with traditional salsa piemontese, a piquant sauce made with hard-boiled egg yolk, capers, anchovies, red bell peppers, garlic et al. and carote in agrodolce – carrots made sweet and sour with honey and red wine vinegar.

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Colombera & Garella Coste della Sesia 2011

Translucent brownish ruby color. Sweetly spicy cherry, strawberry preserves and plum butter fruit notes beautifully backed by sophisticated notes of juniper, violet, dried herbs and wood-fire roasted chestnuts. The palate is nimbly medium-bodied with a fresh acidity, supple tannins, and very elegant flavors of red currants, blackberry, blueberry, cinnamon, and sweet mocha notes. Long complex finish. Great stuff indeed.

Posted by: tomciocco | October 17, 2014

ANSONICA PLAYS THE NAME GAME (IN ITALIAN OF COURSE)

The names of grape cultivars and their “true” identities are as often at odds as they are in step. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is also known as Cordisco. Grenache is also known as Alicante and Cannonau. There are a bevy of grapes that have “Trebbiano” in their names but which gentically turn out to be members of at least three completely unrelated families of vines. And so we arrive at Ansonica…or should we say Inzolia?

No matter what name this variety goes by (“Ansora” is another one), genetic testing has proved that all of the monikers point to the same vine. There is some controversy as to Ansonica’s origins, but most vivtcultural scholars agree that Ansonica’s home land is Sicily, specifically near the island’s biggest city Palermo, but there, and indeed all over Sicily, the vine is always known by the name “Inzolia” or very similarly, “Insolia”. The name Ansonica is the one that is most frequently used in the variety’s second home along the southern Tuscan coast and on the island of Elba. Small planting of this vine also exist in Lazio, Campania, Sardegna as well as the place of origin of this wine, Calabria. And despite Calabria’s proximity to the grape’s homeland in Sicily, the producer of this this wine eschews the Sicilian name for the Tuscan one. Dunno…

And if you thought if the confusion ended there, well, you’d be mistaken. In the course of trying to conclusively determine just what and who Inzolia/Ansonica was, it was discovered that there seem to be four quite distinct clonal “siblings” of the vine one of which most commonly carries the name “Inzolia” with the other three carrying completely different names that prior to this research, had been previously thought to be unrelated to Inzolia/Ansonica. Which one (or more) of the siblings made its way to Calabria and into this wine, I don’t know.

But, what I do know is that this is one hell of an Ansonica, with all of the luscious richness for which the grape is known and with plenty of balancing acidity that can be lacking in this variety if the cultivation sites are not optimal, the season is too wet, or the bunches are left to hang too long. This bottling most adroitly avoids any of these pitfalls, and to match its corpulent but still quite spunky character, I matched it with a first course of baked zucchini stuffed with scamorza and pecorino cheeses, with red pepper flakes, mint and oregano followed by hake braised with tomato, wine, onion, potatoes, peas basil and parsley.

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Cataldo Calabretta Ansonica 2013

Medium bright golden color. Big aromas of apricot, yellow cherry, cantaloupe, ground pinoli and almonds, intense yellow flower notes, and delicate honey scents. In the mouth the wine is full-bodied and rich but well balanced by clean elegant acids and flavors of mandarin orange, candied citron, pineapple, wet stones, and ground ginger. Long, bittersweet finish. Very nice stuff.

Posted by: tomciocco | October 14, 2014

A GREAT WHITE FROM GEORGIA

No, it’s not a shark from Savannah, but rather a wine from the country in the Caucasus whose soils birthed the grape vine and invented wine making. For too long, Georgia’s unique wine styles and its hundreds of native grape varieties have been hoarded behind the now defunct “Iron Curtain”, and until very recently, were unable to achieve the necessary fiscal “escape velocity” to break free from the gravitational pull of a country that was in financial ruin since its independence in 1991.

With the exception of the highest elevations of the Caucasus Range, the vine is grown in every region of Georgia under a bevy of names that refer to grapes, regions, and even some monikers whose origins have been lost to time This evening’s wine is considered by many to be one of Georgia’s finest white wines from what is likely the country’s greatest wine region, namely Tsinandali from Kakheti in the country’s far east.

Traditional Georgian winemaking, examples of which have only very recently been available outside of its borders, is effected in huge radish-shaped clay vats called qvevri that are buried in the ground up to their necks that are in turn sheltered by a shed. The fruit is crushed and the resultant must plus the skins, the pits, and in some cases, even the stems are transferred in the qvevri which are then closed with a clay cover and sealed with wax, and the wine is left to ferment for months. The final product, due to the effects of the clay itself and the must’s long contact with the vine pomace with regard to whites yield deeply golden yellow wines that are often somewhat cloudy (very traditional wines are entirely unfiltered, but for the sake of saleability, even some producers that use qvevri filter teir wines) and the reds are typically brownish brick red in color, Both the whites and the reds display a fascinatinfg and seductive range of flavors and aromas that no modern, “Western” wines can even begin to mimic.

All that said, this particular Tsinandali wine is made in the modern, western style from the only two grapes that are permitted in the zone: 80% Rkatsiteli (a very cold hardy vine that, almost shocking to some, is grown quite widely in the vineyards of the northeastern U.S.) and 20% Mtsvane (which simply means “green” in Georgian) . Typically, Tsinandali yields crisp wines with floral, apricot and apple flavors and aromas, and this cuvee` closely cleaves to these tedencies.

Georgia’s cuisine is just as unusual and exciting as wines, so of course I matched this clean and polished wine with a first course of a Georgian-style chicken salad with carrots and raisins with a bevy of herbs and spices followed by baked baby eggplants hollowed out and filled with yogurt, Feta cheese and chopped hard-boiled eggs served over a bed of melted spinach with the typical Georgian cornucopia of herbs, in this instnace dill, savory, cilantro, basil and mint.

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Teliani Valley Tsinandali 2012

Very pale “white gold” color. Complex, assured but subtle nose of peach, pear, baked apple, malted grains, curacao, white flowers, and honeycomb all underlaid by a salty minerality. In the mouth the wine is medium in body with a crisp acidity that carry forward flavors of fresh apricot, honeydew melon, a touch of grapefruit, almond and freshly cut grass. Long, freshly bitter finish.

Ah, the little secrets that the vineyards of the old world hide. The previous post took a sip from the bottle of an Italian ultra-rarity, and this time it’s an arcane vine from France, and to be more specific, from Le Jardin de France, the Loire Valley.

Running out a mental list of vine varieties from the Loire might begin with the reds: first, the two big ones (at least in terms of acreage), Cabernet Franc and Cot, and then moving “down” the list, Gamay and Pinot Noir, and at the very bottom of the page, such varieties as Grolleau and Pineau d’Aunis. For the whites, we would begin with Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, then on to Melon and Gros Plant, and again, at the very end of the column, tonight’s variety, Menu Pinot.

As the title states, despite this grape’s handle, Menu Pinot is not related in any direct way with Pinot Noir or Gris or Blanc. What it is kin with is the almost infamously ubiquitous genetic mark of a now quite unknown variety called Gouais Blanc, a grape that without much exaggeration, has been found to be part of the family tree of nearly half of the grapes in Western Europe. As with many of the more obscure grapes found anywhere, Menu Pinot is quite old, with its first written attestation coming from the early 16th century. And though fussiness in the vineyard or low yields is often the reason that these antique cultivars become supplanted by other more reliable varieities, Menu Pinot is not particularly difficult or parsimonious (in fact its fruit production is quite prolific, and often troublingly so), and indeed it has a well known resistence to cold winters. All that said, the total plantings of Menu Pinot have decreased over the decades and continue to do so.

In terms of its character in the glass, Menu Pinot typically has a somewhat “countrified”, softly sweet and sour (but not overly tart) character that make it a good choice to blend with its often searingly acidic neighbors in the vineyard like Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Romorantin. There are very few producers who bottle Menu Pinot unalloyed, and this farm that does, for whatever reason, does so behind a non-vintage label.

To maximize the big and burly charms of this wine (14% alcohol), I matched it with a first course of toasts spread with a hash of smoked salmon, soft goat cheese, grated apple and tarragon, followed by a good ol’ roasted chicken slathered with a “Scarborough Fair” compound butter and stuffed with a couple of oranges. With all of the dripping from said ingredients I made a sauce, and served carrots and peas as a side dish.

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Christophe Foucher La Lunotte “2 temps en temps” NV

Greenish, burnished medium golden color. Oxidative nose of apricot, yellow cherry, roasted quince, yellow flowers, honey, Shiitake mushrooms, malted grains, and almond milk. In the mouth the wine is big and full with a discreet acidity and “sherried” flavors of grilled peach, apple, dried lemon, white spices, caramel and salty notes on the broad, warm finish. 

The old world is rife wine grape varieties that are at least threatened and all the way up to no longer commercially cultivated and bottled and all but extinct, and there may be no place that contains more of these endangered varieities than Italy. Unfortunately but understandably, the cases in which the battle to save and revive these rare vines has been lost never make “the news”. Thankfully there are lots of success stories in this arena too – grapes like Arneis, Timorasso, Casavecchia, and Pugnitello come to mind, but then there are grape varieities like Blatterle that I (and almost no one else either) never knew existed in the first place that have been brought back from the brink of the abyss but are still struggling to find a community of growers (not just one champion) and a market to continue its advance.

Blatterle, whose name means “little leaf” (which is spelled “Blaterle” on the label of this wine, apparently to skirt regulations that do not permit it to be bottled unblended) is a white grape variety that has been grown in and around the small city of Bolzano (Bozen in German – the city, and the entire Sudtirol region is culturally Austrian and was once part of Austria) since ancient times. Traditionally, this grape, which thrives only in the local deep alluvial and porphyrian soils, was used to make either sweet grape juice or very light and easy-drinking wines. The Mayr family of Weingut Nusserhof, who are for all intents and purposes the only ones really carrying the flag for Blatterle and actually putting their money where their mouths are by actually producing a wine exclusively from it, believed that their particular warm and sunny south-facing plantings of the grape coupled with some drastic reductions in harvest yields could result in a truly fine wine, and I’m glad to report that their hunch was right.

Much more than this I can’t say about this wine, because to be perfectly honest, until I saw the bottle on the shelf in the shop where I bought it, I had never even heard of Blatterle much less tasted it, but notwithstanding, I’m very glad I did both. As always, full tasting notes appear below, but from what I could glean from the bit of research I did, this is a grape that tends to yield richer, fuller-bodied wines with only moderate acidity levels with a typical range of flavors that include wild herbs, yellow drupes, honey and Alpine flowers. So with this in mind, but with the wine as yet unsampled, I matched it with a first course of canederli al formaggio (bread, pancetta and chive dumplings in a gorgonzola sauce spiced with nutmeg) followed by baked green apples stuffed with ground pork, mushrooms, a banana pepper, and onions all bound together with a thick bechamel, nestled in a casserole with melted cabbage with wine, garlic and savory which became the side.

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Nusserhof Blaterle 2010

Slightly greenish bright light golden color. Expressive nose of lemon oil, green melon, yellow cherry, kerosene, vanilla bean, flint, and pine oil, In the mouth the wine is full-bodied, chewy, and quite unctuous but still fresh with slightly buttery flavors of apricots, pear, white currants, and white pepper. Very long finish. Gets better and better as it airs out. A distinctive and very well made wine.

Posted by: tomciocco | October 2, 2014

FROM PIEDMONT, ITALY TO WARREN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY

It’s fairly common knowledge that most of the earliest vineyards planted in California – the United State’s unrivalled place for viticulture – was done by Italian immigrants, and names like Gallo, Sebastiani, Foppiano and whole host of others are clear testament to this branch of American wine culture. Most of the Italians that emigrated to the west coast, an influx which began in the 1870s, unlike the mostly southern Italian groups that came to the east coast, were from the more northerly and western regions of Italy, mostly from Tuscany, Liguria and Piedmont and it is from Piedmont that this evening’s featured grape hails.

And though the varieties that these immigrants brought to California have been more recently largely supplanted by French/International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, many of the earliest vineyard sites were originally planted to Vermentino, Grignolino, Sangiovese and the variety that is the subject of this post, Barbera. For a cluster of reasons, some of which have to do with terroir and some of which have to do with fashion and marketability, most of the plots of the first three varieties have been ripped up, but a fairly large segment of the Barbera vineyards in California are still in situ and of late, more acreage has been planted. But unlike Sangiovese or Grignolino or Vermentino, all of which have a fussy nature and/or wines that have somewhat offbeat characters, Barbera is a workhorse in the vineyard (easy to grow with high yields and great resistence to disease) and an extremely versatile partner at the table.

And so we fly clean across the country to the high hills of western New Jersey. Believe it or else, the first documented wine made in what was to become the U.S.A. was made in New Jersey. Exactly what variety or varieties went into making this wine has been lost to history, but throughout most of the history of Garden State winemaking, most the production was made with so-called “French/American hybrid” varieties like Chambourcin, Norton, Vidal and Traminette because of their natural immunity to the phylloxera louse and their stiff resistence to cold New Jersey winters. But as vitis vinifera began to be regularly grafted onto American rootstocks and the of knowledge of the various terroirs around the state and the particular clones that perform best in them began to accrue, the total acreage of French/American hybrids in New Jersey has steadily diminished as the amount of land under pure vitis vinifera varieties has increased, and though much of this shift has been to the easily marketable “international” varieties that have come to dominate in California, a few of the more adventurous growers have tried their hands at more “parochial” vine varieties like the Galician white Albarino, the Austrian red Blaufrankisch and Piedmont’s go-to red, Barbera.

As alluded to above, Barbera is hardy, typically produces large quantities of fruit, and has a bright acidity and an even, friendly fruit profile, all characteristics which make Barbera a great pure vitis vinifra variety to plant in New Jersey’s fairly harsh and uneven weather, and as a result, Alba Vineyards, and quite of few others too, has planted this salt-of-the-earth but still classy grape variety. To be sure, the Barbera now made in the Warren Hills has not reached the levels that the great Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti from its native Piedmont have, but it’s abdundantly clear from the quality and expressiveness of this wine that Barbera could be (almost?) as big a star in New Jersey, U.S.A. as it has always been in its original home in Piemont, Italy. So as so many Italian-Americans say as they raise their glasses, I say “Salut’” – to the health of Barbera in The Garden State.

Because Barbera has such great acidity, deep color and brawny, chewy texture, Barbera pairs exceptionally well with more rustic meals. So with this in mind what better thing to pair with an Italian-American wine like New Jersey Barbera than an Italian-American classic like a cheesesteak sandwich with peppers and onions, fries and a nice green salad?

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Alba Vineyards Warren Hills Barbera 2011

Slightly browned blackish garnet color. Decisive nose of cherry, apple cider, grilled red plums, mocha, spicy oak, damp earth, roasted chestnuts, green underbrush, old leather and tobacco. In the mouth the wine has a medium-weight body with chewy, dry tannins, tart acidity, and clean flavors of cranberry, black currants, strawberry jam all underlaid with a prominent minerality. Long and warm finish. 

Posted by: tomciocco | September 28, 2014

PRETTY GIRLS (BUT MOSTLY SOME FUNNY-LOOKING MEN) MAKE GRAVES

The correct pronunciation of the last word in the title is “Grahv” by the way, but what some of us will do for a clever title… But on to the wine…In 9 of 10 pairs of ears the name “Bordeaux” brings to mind regal chateaux producing very fine, expensive, but somewhat stuffy red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, but there’s more to this southwestern wine region than big, fancy reds. In common parlance, the name Bordeaux is something of a geographical portmanteau word that encompasses multiple wine-growing sub-regions that produce both red and white wines, and Graves is one of them.

Situated south east of the city of Bordeaux, the tiny Graves region takes its name from the rough, gravelly soil found there. And though this a region that is better known for its light, fresh and feminine reds (a character derived from this chalky, rocky ground) made from the previously mentioned varieties, a sizable amount of the total production there is also white, and that’s what was on the table this evening.

Typically, white Graves wines are made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with the possible small additions of a few other local varieities. Sauvignon Blanc, which is usually the percentual leader in the blend, brings its spunky, and freshly “green” flavors and aromas for which the rich and opulent often melony character of Semillon makes the perfect foil. This particular cuvee` is comprised of 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon and 10% Muscadelle, which despite the similarity in the names, has no genetic relation to any of the many Muscat cultivars. That said, Muscadelle does have some of the effusive, aromatically floral aromas of the Muscat family of vines, and indeed it is for these scents that it is blended into some white Graves wines as something of a “leavener” for Sauvignon Blanc’s pungency and Semillon’s corpulence.

And because of this careful balancing act of grape varieties developed over centuries, white Graves makes an excellent accompaniment to lighter but still boldly flavorful dishes. As a consequence, I matched this great little wine with a first course of toasts spread with Boucheron goat cheese, fig paste and toasted ground fennel seeds followed by a main course of chicken breasts in an orange, tarragon and garlic glaze with a side of leeks braised with white wine, brandy and parsley.

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Chateau Coustaut Graves Blanc 2012

Pale golden color. Punchy aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry, yellow cherry, roasted herbs, sea spray, creme fraiche, and touch of lilies. The palate is medium-bodied with a cutting and nervous acidity and slightly smoke-infused flavors of green melon, Comice pear, lime zest, minerals and toasted almond. Bittterish, quinine finish.

For a host of reasons, the whats, whys and wherefores of Hungarian viticulture, eastern Europe’s most viticulturally oriented wine nation, are mostly unknown – the great white dessert wine Tokaji or maybe the fiery red called Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) rank, but that’s where it all stops for most. And then there’s something called Somloi Juhfark. Yeah.

So just what the hell is Somloi Juhfark? Well, the first word is the Hungarian form of (“from the”) Somlo’ region which is situated in the northwestern section of Hungary, and Juhfark is the somewhat silly-sounding (at least to the Anglophone ear) for the region’s signature grape. The Somlo’ region is dominated by a large loaf-shaped mountain that rises from mostly flat land, and as it turns out, this feature is the remnants of an extinct volcano. Juhfark means “sheep’s tail” in Hungarian and the variety is so dubbed due to the fact that its berry bunches often resemble the shape of the rear appendage of said wooly creature.

To say that Jufark is not a run of the mill white grape variety is a dramatic understatement. In terms of it tendencies in the vineyard, it’s not the world’s fussiest vine variety, but it’s not exactly a weed either. Its yields are high, but it buds very early making it susceptible to late spring frosts and it can incur serious damage or even vine death from winter temepratures that drop too low. It is also quite prone to dampness-elicited ailments like botrytis and downy mildew. Thankfully, in addition to volcanic soils being a paradise for vines in terms of providing minerals and micro-nutrients, its loose, so-called “cold” characteristics make it exceptionally well-draining.

The real issues with Juhfark however rest mostly in its basic nature. This is a very high acid variety that if not handled right, can be pinched and tough. But even assuming proper siting and a good vintage, this is a variety that absolutely REQUIRES at least a few years of aging for it to really blossom, and if that aging is done in wood, all the better (this particular wine is aged for three years in large, re-used Hungarian oak barrels). But Juhfark’s oddness doesn’t stop there. To really get the most from a Juhfark wine it needs lengthy aeration after the cork is pulled and a full and proper decanting is often the only way to achieve this.

In terms of character, Juhfark is weird. Period. As already mentioned, it is very high in acid, but also typically very high in alcohol as well (this one reaches 14.5%!) and it powerfully channels the smoky flavors from Somlo’ volcanic soils as well as possessing a powerful, sapid “twang” that no other grape anywhere can replicate, and there are more than a few drinkers that would say “thankfully”. This is not a to give to your Aunt Tilly if you get me…Juhfark is absolutely not Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, and Juhfarking better believe it.

This is the sort of wine that should be served with a non-Hungarian menu under the penalty of incarceration or death, so to avoid these pains, I matched this truly unique wine with a cream of savoy cabbage soup followed by pork cutlets cooked with green beans, yellow banana pepper, white wine, sour cream, tomato, paprika et al. with potato dumplings on the side.

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Fekete Pince Somlovasarhely Juhfark 2011

Seductive yellow/golden color. Super concentrated aromas of lemon oil, yellow pomegranate nectar, white currant jam, yellow flowers, sweet herbs, ginger, honey, toasted hazelnut and a touch of coal smoke. The palate is viscously full-bodied and very intense with a cutting and fiery but elegant acidity that beautifully balances big, powerful and luscious flavors of apricot, peach nectar, orange cream with a strong salty undertow. Very long and concentrated finish. The unquestionable paradigm for this region and variety.


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