Sunday, July 31, 2011

LOIRE VALLEY: Four(4) Gardens of Wine

No other wine growing region in the world produces so many unique benchmarks for so many grape varietals in such a majestic landscape. Throughout their long centuries of monastic nurturing, Loire Valley wines were among the most prized in the world during the Middle Ages, more revered than even Bordeaux or Rheingau. Around the early part of the 18th century the wines from this Garden of France began a fall from grace as the influence of Bordeaux grew and the sun king moved court to Versailles. Yet, the 600 mile lazy river highway continued to feed agriculture and transport goods across France, from the continental interior climates of the Massif Central to is cooler maritime arrival in the Atlantic, just as it did for the earlier Valois kings.
Loire Valley: a Garden of Castles

Today, the Loire region totals around 185,000 vineyard acres, about 2/3rds the size of Bordeaux, with its soils unfolding across 87 appellations, from gravel and limestone in its interior, to alluvial's, then shale and granite towards the sea. Mostly a white wine region, it is home to perhaps the greatest grape expressions of gunflinty Sauvignon Blancs, delicate, high acid Chenin Blancs, early ripening Cabernet Franc, and dry, but spritzy Muscadet(Melon de Bourgogne). Dry, sweet and volumes of sparkling, more white wine is currently produced in the Loire than any other region in France. Due to its annual dance with the Atlantic weather and levels of ripeness, it can be said that in this place it is Mother Nature who makes the wines.

Situated on opposite banks of the river in the Upper Loire or Central Vineyards, sits two of Sauvignon Blancs greatest appellations. On the eastern banks stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc, with its pronounced gooseberry notes creates the rounder Pouilly Fume AOC, and the Chasselas grape becomes designated Pouilly-sur-Loire AOC. Grown around 15 villages on the opposite western banks, Sancerre AOC produces focused, world class Sauvignon Blancs, as well as Pinot Noir reds and rose's in its limestone soils. Heading further west  into the river Cher department are Quincy AOC, a Sauvignon Blanc only appellation, and Reuilly AOC and Menetou-Salon AOC, producing fine Sauvignon Blancs as well as reds and rose's from Pinot Noir.

A region of fertile farmlands, bountiful forests and summer castles, here within the downriver Tourain is found Cabernet Franc's greatest expression. On the regions eastern edge the diminutive Cheverny AOC produces mostly whites from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, in a range of sweetness levels; an annual response to its grapes variable seasonal ripeness levels. Generic still wines of the region are available to the Touraine AOC designation. Grown and even cellared in chalky limestone, known as tuffeau, high acid sparkling(mousseux) wines are also made in a light sparkling(petillant) white, rose and even red styles. Closer to Tours, the important Vouvray AOC also produces a range of dry to sweet white wines, principally from workhorse, late-ripening, Chenin Blanc(locally called Pineau). On its western flank, the notable Touraine appellations of Chinon AOC, Bourgueil AOC and St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC present the sweet earth and raspberry notes of age-able Cabernet Franc, producing the Loire's best reds. Gamay and Malbec are minor red blending grapes in this part of the fertile Touraine, where you can also find early release nouveau's, just like in Beaujolais. Coteaux du Loir AOC produces the regions best Malbecs, and Valencay AOC specializes in Gamay wines.

Vouvray tuffeau wine cave

Every style of regional wine is produced in the maritime climates and varied soils of Anjou-Saumur to the west. Here, Cabernet Franc is typically labeled Anjou-Villages AOP, the best being produced in the fruity, red wine designation, Saumur-Champigny AOC. Anjou produces a significant amount of rose' wines, a result of unreliable ripening of red grapes in the coolest years. Saumur AOC finds blended whites and reds within its appellation, as well as volumes of Cremant de Loire AOC, traditional method sparkling wines. Further towards the Atlantic, Savennieres AOP, is a sub-region specializing in some of the very best dry Chenin Blancs. Additionally, from numerous tributaries flowing through its southern banks, the important schist soils sub-regions of Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quartes du Chaume AOC's harvest Chenin Blanc late in the season, hopefully with a noble rot benefit to produce some of the worlds greatest and long lived sweet wines.

Loire Valley winter pruning
One of the largest white wine appellations in France, Pays Nantais AOC, sits at the cool mouth of the Loire, producing perhaps the worlds greatest expression of a grape taken from Burgundy. Few wine region grapes can mark the year of their birth, but Melon(Muscadet) or Melon de Bourgogne, was the variety that survived the terrible frost of 1709 and found itself primed for the expanding Dutch appetite for exported distilled wines. Of the 23 villages growing Melon, the appellation Muscadet Se'vre et Maine AOC produces about 80% of the regions entire output. Its best wines are labeled sur lie, coming from one of three sub-appellations and youthfully bottled directly off their sediment(lees) between March and November following the year of harvest. Even with a regulated maximum alcohol of 12%, these wines can be freshly neutral, tart and even spritzy. As such, they are perfect partners for the coastal regions oceans of fresh and farmed sea foods.

Sitting on the northern edge of where grapes can ripen presents a constant challenge in the grape and soil diversity of the Loire, so chaptalization is widely practiced. Each of these four regional gardens produce world class high acid wines at the whim of nature, with a firm anchor to tradition and fed by the endless sweat of those who farm the land. It seems here in the Loire to be about making the most out of what you are given, and the 'Garden of France' continues to do just that. Today these wines produced in a region that is easy to understand remain generally under appreciated for their benchmark qualities. Yet, for informed wine consumers the wine of the Loire Valley represent terrific gardens of value in the right vintage.  Throughout much of France as in the Loire, 2009 was just such a vintage. Raise a glass to the king!


Monday, July 25, 2011

SOUTHWEST FRANCE: Explored Identities

Could this be Basque country? No, not all of it. Vasconia? Not for the last thousand years. Then can we call this land Guyenne-Gascony? Maybe, but it needs to include the important Lot-et-Garonne & Tarn-et-Garonne departments to the north-northeast. The Pyrenees-Atlantique is only its western half to the Atlantic and it can't correctly be called the Aquitaine because it covers precious Bordeaux. Then Midi-Pyre'ne'es is only its Mediterranean influenced eastern half. Today, this rural landscape that makes up the wrist to the Iberian fist to the South is composed of nine(9) administrative departments across two(2) regions.  It is commonly known as the Southwest, or Sud-Quest. Primarily a red wine region, it is most notably the home of the oldest distilled spirit in France, Armagnac.

Among France's oldest wine regions, it is perhaps also its most diverse. It produces wines that can be often compared to Bordeaux, as well as wines from unique indigenous grapes that grow no where else. Defined by valleys and its rivers: the Dordogne in the North, the Lot, the Garonne, and the Gers cutting across its middle, to the Adour River valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Southwest is a broad landscape of dissimilar wines.  In total there are about 16000 hectares planted, where 6000 winemakers, peasant farmers and cooperatives work in the giant shadow of Bordeaux to the mountainous border with Spain.

South of Bordeaux lies the large Bergerac AOC of the Dordogne/Bergerac sub-region, which continues to be defined by good value Bordeaux varieties.  All the major grape players are here, including dry Muscadelle and botryized sweet Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, notable products of the small sub-appellations Monbazillac AOC and Sussignac AOC. Some of the regions best reds are quality wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and indigenous Fer, using the Cotes de Bergerac AOC.
Cahor AOC Chateau

The Garonne sub-region to the south includes Cahors, historic Gaillac AOC on the river Tarn, and on to Buzet AOC. Red wine Cahors AOC on the river Lot, is the home of the dark Malbec grape, known locally as Cot or Auxerrois, producing long lived wines which do not permit the Cabernets in their blend(getting back at the Bordelais?).  Some of the oldest vineyards in France(Celtic origin?) are in Gaillac AOC, today producing a full range of wines: from nouveau reds and whites, to sweets(doux) and sparkling(mousseux).  Some of its most interesting sparklers are the product of methode rurale, using just one(1) fermentation with no added liqueur de triage, so that the bottled sweetness is from the original grape sugars. Northwest of Toulouse is Buzet AOC, often described as a "supervalue" Bordeaux satellite, producing good quality still reds, whites and rose' from Bordeaux grapes.

Heading south, the Gascony sub-region includes world famous Armangnac, the distilled product of ten(10) allowed grapes, including workhorse white grapes Ugli Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanc(Italy's Trebbiano), and the notable region of Madiran AOC. This small appellation is the only AOC based on the tannic Tannat grape, comprising a minimum 70% of any blend. The broad rolling hills and river valleys of the Baise and Gers rivers to the east are the landscape for the sub-regions Cotes de Gascogne, France's largest producer of white Vin de Pays.

Raisined Petit Manseng in Juracon

Within sight of the Pyrenees Mountainsin the southern foothills lies Juracon AOC, a white only appellation known historically for its sweet wines from native late harvested Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng grapes. Also in this Northern Basque region is isolated Iroule'guy AOC, known for its red soiled vineyard terraces, and producing mostly red wines from Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Scattered across this large, diverse region, artisan wine-grape growers and their many cooperatives here have not been as politically active as elsewhere in France. They do remain tied to the land, slowly benefiting from modernization, and producing a wide range of wines of distinctive character. But, rather than having a regional identity, they are a mix of cultures from lands that have been fought over since the beginnings of recorded history.  Whatever we choose to call these lands of the southwest, they remain uniquely different from every other part of France. To discover these wonderful products is what wine exploration is all about.
Barge life on River Baise, Buzet AOC


Friday, July 22, 2011

LANGUEDOC & ROUSSILLON: Massively Beyond Country Midi

Massive volumes of wine from a great mass of vineyard acreage along the Mediterranean crescent south of the Massif Central in France are produced each year. In the Languedoc-Roussillon region(s) there are currently more than 700,000 acres of vines, annually producing more than a third of all French wines.  Although this historical region, which extends west of the Rhone river to the Spanish border, produces mostly Vin de Pays(country) classified wines, that's still more than all of the wine produced by the U.S. each year! Importantly, this regions current wave of innovation and quality improvements are a benchmark for all wine lovers, because this is simply the largest wine growing area in the world.
Rocky Roussillon vineyard soils

France's highest quality tier, the AOC, is built with numerous restrictions in grape selection, yield and vinification, as well as its most stringent quality evaluations for typicity of the specific appellation. Created in the 1970's, the broad Vin de Pays classification allows producers a less regulated quality category for typically selected regional varietals evaluated on their individual merits. Among the oldest planted vineyards in all of France, the Vin de Pays d'Oc is the nations' largest VdP. Within its less regulated production of non-indigenous varietals, grape blends and even varietal labeling, the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon have seen a great wave of investment and modernization in the last 30 years, making it perhaps France's most innovative and exciting wine region. If a wine here is labeled by grape variety, it must contain 100% of that grape!

Today coastal dominated Languedoc, and Catalan influenced Roussillon remain the wine frontier for France.  There are over 50,000 growers here, mostly organized into more than 400 cooperatives, which alone produce around 70% of the regions wines. And they have a long and active history of flexing their political muscle to maintain their traditions and promote the wines of the region by way of dozens of 'brotherhoods'. In 1992 these political action associations grouped together to form the Languedoc & Roussillon Brotherhood Academy to maintain their long established ancestral traditions. The region(s) have long been the source of France's vin ordinare, and today only produces about 10% AOC designated wines.

Reflecting its Iberian sensibilities, Banyuls AOC producers use mutage, similar to that of Port, to fortify(arrest) the fermentation, and can expose the barreled wine to the sun, like maderized Sherries for their sweet and blended Carignan/Grenache vin doux naturals. Red as well as white VDN's from Muscat, Grenache Blanc and Spains's Macabeu are produced in volume at Rivesaltes AOC in the northern foothills, amounting to almost 75% of the entire countries' VDN production! Heading towards the Mediterranean, the appellation of Fitou AOC is a still red wine zone from the same widely planted regional grapes, and the regions first AOC.
Vineyards of Carcassone

South of the Roman fortress, Carcassone, lies Limoux, whose monks of Saint Hilaire are to have produced sparkling wines from 1531, more than a hundred years before the birth of Dom Perignon! Without the benefit of disgorgement of its lees, the cloudy Blanquette de Limoux AOC continues to produce methode ancestrale sparklers from the local late ripening Mauzac white grape. This region also produces the more traditional method Cre'mant de Limoux AOC, with Mauzac, Chardonnay and even Chenin Blanc in its version of blended sparklers. Corbieres AOC, the regions largest AOC, sits to the north, producing vast quantities of Carignan dominated blended reds, plus whites and rose' wines from all the usual regional varieties. The catch-all Coteaux du Languedoc AOC sits to the Mediterranean east, with its numerous communes poised for individual recognition of their continuing  improvement of traditional and international variety wines.

Diversity in geography and geology, with mountainous schist terraces to coastal sedimentary sands, uniquely combine here in the Languedoc-Roussillon with passionate traditions and modern innovation. In the summer of 2010, the regions authority introduced a new hierarchy of wine classifications, Grand Vins du Languedoc, and the top tier Grand Cru du Languedoc intended to simplify consumer recognition of their existing 29 AOC's. And, a recent N.Y.Times tasting panel found great quality for value relationships in several Cotes du Roussillon AOC wines and even a few stellar examples within the regions Vin de Pays. As this historic and proud region, sometimes referred to as the Midi, moves quickly forward it remains for savvy consumers to seek out these fine wines and discover the new benchmarks in Old World wine innovation.

Vineyards of Corbieres


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

PROVENCE & CORSICA: Sun Spots in my Wines

Blindingly bright sun drenched vistas, warm air filled with aromas of lavender and rosemary, and the sense that the sea is not very far away is what comes to my mind. But its untapped potential that most wine writers mention about sunny Provence and the paradise isle of Corsica.  It is a shame really, because wine making has been part of these lands since at least 600BC.  It is easy for thirsty tourists to consider these wines as a natural extension of their cuisine, hand and glove. Little else but olives and resinous scrub can grow in their baked complex of poor soils. There's that minimal amount of rainfall that comes only in the winter, the fierce dry mistral winds that sweeping in from the northwest, and the constant light of the sun that would seem to make this place perfect for grapes.  The Greeks, and then the Romans certainly thought so.
Provencal Lavender

Provence stretches from Marseilles across the southern tip of France to the Italian border, and in this warm region red grapes dominate. Of its eight(8) major AOC's, Cotes de Provence is the largest producer and acreage; a non-contiguous swath, like a moth-eaten blanket, covering most of this mountainous region finished by the sea. Vines here get the minimum amount of water needed, are generally free of vineyard diseases, and receive about the maximum amount of sunshine(more than 3000 growing season hours) each year. If good wines are produced where the vines struggle, it is curious then that not many great wines come from this region. Much fought-over Provence was ravaged by late-19th century phylloxera, as was most of western Europe, and a lot of easy growing, undistinguished Carignan was slowly planted as a response.Today, Provence produces more the half of all the rose' wines made each year in France, and dark Mourvedere is now the regions most widely planted grape.

In the northwest sits Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence AOC, producing sturdy red blends from Grenache, Cinsaut and Mouvedere, with other approved red Mediterranean varietals. Nearby Baux-de-Provence is the nations' first AOC to require all vineyards to be farmed bio-dynamically! East of Marseilles, Cassis AOC, principally a white wine appellation,  produces from its limestone soils quality wines from widely planted Clairette, Marsanne and Ugni Blanc grapes. Producing perhaps the regions only world-class wine is coastal Bandol AOC, whose age-worthy reds are a minimum 50% Mourvedere, and can offer perhaps one of the great expressions of the grape. Closer to the border with Italy, Bellet AOC, near Nice,  produces wines of all colors, but the best may be the whites it generates from the Italian Vermentino.

Today, Provence makes over 1000 kinds of wine(mostly blends & mostly rose's) from 13 approved grape varieties, with much of it consumed locally. Fourteen(14) of its consistently best producers are uniquely part of a Cru Class system ranking, the only region to do so outside of Bordeaux. Yet for all of its potential, Provence seems content to continue to produce volumes of simple wines that pair nicely with the regions farm to table cuisine served under the sun.

Corsica, which for much of its history belonged to Italy, is really no different than Provence, except that it is a volcanic island. Ajaccio, the western capital and home of Napoleon,  is a mountainous granite based AOC that is historically home to the indigenous, highly perfumed red Sciacarello.  It is typically the base of a blend, for rose' wines are prominent here too. In the north sits Corsica's first AOC, the well-known Patrimonio. This clay and limestone region is the home of Nielluccio, the other 'noble' Corsican red grape, producing full bodied dry wines.  Research suggests that rather than being indigenous, this grape is actually Sangiovese from Tuscany. On the extreme northern tip of the island is Cap de Corse AOC, renowned for centuries for its sweet dessert Muscat vin doux naturel. Esteemed wine writer Hugh Johnson pens that it may be among the best examples of sweet Muscat Blanc a' Petits Grains in the world.  The island also produces unfortified, still Muscats, and its most widely planted white grape. Vermentino,  also shows Italian influence.
Historically, Algeria had been a big market for the wines of Corsica. Cultivation of new vineyards spiked dramatically following Algeria's independence from France in the early 1960's, and the islands wines became more about quantity than quality. In the 1980's the influence of the European Union began to reduce yields here and renew efforts to modernize for more quality wine production. Unfortunately, only about 15% of Corsicas' vineyards are of AOC quality today, yielding only about 5% of the islands total production.  It is estimated that about 90% of all wines here are blends, the best of which contribute to the volume of Corsicas' Vin de Pays de Me'diterrane'e country wines.
Even with the few pearls of great wine to be found in Provence and Corsica, even as they easily sit in the warmth of untapped potential, I still would not really mind being a thirsty tourist consuming fresh, regional wines in either of these sunny spots.  Cheers!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

JURA & SAVOIE: Mountains of Difference

These are mountain people whose homelands on the eastern boarder straddle Lake Geneva.  It is their nature to struggle, to bond tightly in their remote enclaves, and to persevere.  Even as these relative isolationists  remain uniquely different from our notion of French winegrowers, they still can produce wines that wine lovers become passionate for.
Vineyards of Jura
 In the hills east of the Beaujolais, a buttress to the Swiss border and French Alps, sit the long isolated wine French regions of Jura and Savoie. Among France's smallest wine regions, Jura has a distinctly continental climate; its hills and meadows composed of mostly marled clay soils with limestone prominent at the higher elevations. Current planted vineyard acreage in the Jura is 1/10th of what it was pre-phylloxera(late 19th c.) in its once prominent terraces. Even as there are Burgundian grape varieties here among this regions traditional grapes, everything here on the western face of the Jura Mountains remains uniquely different. Producing a lighter version, Chardonnay has been grown here since medieval times, but it is the green-skinned Savagnin(Traminer) that dominates Jura's plantings of white wine grapes. Allowed red varieties include Pinot Noir, the light pigmented and often blended Ploussard, and the rustic, old variety of Trousseau.

First recognized in 1936, today there are six(6) AOC designations for the more than 200 winegrowers in the Jura. The broad Cotes de Jura AOC is the regional appellation applied to still wines from any of the regions approved (5) grapes. Cre'mant du Jura AOC is designated to any traditional method sparkling wine produced within the region from any of the Jura's grapes. And, Marcvin(vin de liqueur) du Jura AOC is the fortified wine produced from, again, any of the regions approved grapes. In the center of the region, L'Etoile earned its white wine AOC in 1937, and today produces still wines and the other specialties from Chardonnay plus the same regional grapes.

North of L'Etoile is Chateau Chalon AOC, which most notably produces sherry-like Vin Jaune exclusively from the late-harvested Savagnin grape. This 'yellow wine' is allowed to evaporate under a veil of yeast(voile) during its 6 years in barrel prior to bottling in the traditional clavelin. Go north and historic Arbois AOC, the home of Louis Pasteur,  produces some of the regions best wines, including Vin Jaune, and the sweet vin de Paille, a rare, highly regulated blended product of regional grapes which are air dried to meet a minimum alcohol level of 14.5! 
Vin Jaune with voile
Annexed by France in 1860, Savoie is located in the Rhone-Alpes region, in the foothills of the French Alps south of Jura. The Romans found wine grapes already growing in this alpine region when they arrived. For much of its written history this strategic region laced with mountain passes was part of the Italian House of Savoy. Today Savoie is more famous for its alpine tourism and cows than its distinct grape varieties. Perhaps that is why the lions share of its wine production is consumed locally. Widely planted in this white wine dominated region is Jacquere, producing a light and flowery fresh white wine. The Swiss grape Chasselas, plus Gringet and the higher quality Altesse(the Rhone's Roussanne, or Roussette or Bergeron) are also popular whites, producing light, crisp wines; and red Mondeuse(Marsanne Noire) clings to the regions steep hillsides to make dark, peppery wines. There is widespread Gamay plantings here too and even a little Pinot Noir. Unlike the Jura which is more Burgundian, Swiss, Italian and Rhone influences can be felt here.

In the west of the region, above the southerly flow of the Rhone River, sits Seyssel AOC. Regulated in 1942, it is a fine white wine appellation of Altesse and neutral Molette wine grapes.  Roussette de Savoie AOC is the broader appellation here which permits Chardonnay in its white wine blends, and covers much of the western region. Cre'py AOC sits in the extreeme north of the region on the southside of Lake Geneva, and produces light wines from the widely planted white grape, Chasselas(whose synonyms take up a full page). The all encompassing Vin de Savoie AOC is a catch-all for permitted grape variety wines from anywhere in the region. As in Jura, the technique of adding sugar to un-fermented grape must to boost its alcohol, called chaptalization, is allowed and utilized in the Savoie.

Summers around France's largest lake, Luc du Bourget, and winters in the resorts of Albertville or Grenoble produce thirsty markets for these local specialties. In the Jura it is small production of its rare wines and their lofty cost that limit their export market. Savoie's production from its aging vines is generally not transported because the market traditionally migrates here into their mountain enclaves. Should that rare opportunity present itself, the quality wines of Jura and Savoie are certainly worth seeking out. I've put them on my list of wines to seek out, if only because the specialties of these isolated regions continue to be as uniquely different as are mountain people.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

HUNGARY: A Promise Delivered

Wine writers like Jancis Robinson say that, "Hungary is poised to become one of the finest, and certainly best-value, producers of characterful white wines in the world". Oz Clark states that Hungary is, "ideally placed for the 21st century", and Hugh Johnson counters that "hardly any country has a national character so pronounced", "both in the old varieties and in the new". Of all the former Iron Curtain countries, it is Hungary that appears ready to take its place among the best wine producers in the world.  Grapevines have been in these rolling hills and lowlands since it was Pannonia, a Roman province. But it was the warring Maygars who followed, leaving a large cultural-linguistic imprint on the lands and vineyards of Hungary. The unique language and many traditions of the ethnic Hungarians all stem from their Magyar ancestry.
Lake Tisza, Upper Hungary

In the late Middle Ages and beyond, the unique wines of Hungary were among the most celebrated in Europe. Hungarian vineyards were among the first in Europe to be classified, beginning early in its viticultural Golden Age around 1700, with a Tokaj vineyard hierarchy system following in 1730 by the ranked classifications of its regional vineyards. With its union to the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1867, increasing amounts of Germanic varietals were planted in Hungary's ever expanding vineyards.  Then, the late 19th century brought the vineyard epidemic phylloxera and an abrupt halt to the growth of Hungary's wine trade.  Early 20th century replanting began anew with the introduction of many proven Bordeaux varietals, only once again to be arrested by decades of war. Once behind the Iron Curtain, Hungary developed as an industrial supplier of simple table wines from over-cropped vineyards with a state monopoly for their export, Monimpex.

Land locked by seven(7) countries, Hungary is almost sliced in half by the north to south running Danube. To the east flows the great Tisza River, and in between is the flat, rolling Great Hungarian Plain(Alfold) where more than half of the country's wines are produced in its sandy soils. Divided into three(3) major zones, today's Hungarian wine production is scattered among 22 defined regions, producing a wide variety of wines from time-tested native and long established international grape varieties.  Beyond the Alfold, Hungary's viticultural zones include the expansive lowlands and hills of Transdanubia in the west, and mountainous Upper Hungary in the northeast.

Adjacent to Austria's Lake Neusiedl(Ferto) in Hungary's northwest corner sits the historic region of Sopron, known for its fine red wines of international varieties. Above Lake Balaton in the volcanic soils of the northern hills lie two(2) other important international white wine regions, Asz'ar-Neszmely and Mo'r, also known for its aromatic native Ezerjo. Prominent wine regions surround Europe's largest lake, Balaton, including Badacsony, producing clean, acid-driven whites from Italian Riesling and Pinot Grist. Among the most notable is Somlo', a small region of a wind-swept, volcanic landscape, long recognized for its crisp whites and barrel-aged oxidated wines from native varieties Furmit and Haraslevelu that once rivaled regal Tokaji. Further south are two(2) dynamic regions where modern equipment, marketable international varieties and new contemporary winemaking sensibilities are becoming the norm. The Southern Transdanubia regions of Szekszard, which is known historically for fine wines produced from the red Kardarka grape, and southernmost Villany-Siklos, which has a most Mediterranean climate, both are today producing elegant, world-class wines.

The Northern Massif(Matra) range runs northeast from outside Budapest all the way to the Ukraine, and it is in the hills of Upper Hungary where we can find two of this country's legendary wines. Halfway between the capital and Tokaji sits Eger, an old Magyar tribal city.  Above a labyrinth of lava rock and tuft carved caves, Eger is the home of Bull's Blood, a famous red fruity wine that today incorporates Bordeaux varieties in its blend with indigenous Kadarka. Further northeast, at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers sits Tokaj, in the famous wine region known as Tokaj-Hegyalia.

Mentioned as early as the mid-16th century, historical documents confirm that the legendary dessert wines of Tokaj were afflicted by noble rot to predate the botrytised wines of Germany and even Sauternes! Perfectly situated at the convergence of two rivers and sheltered by the countries tallest mountain range, Tokaj is both the name of the region and the prestigeous village that produces one of the worlds great wines. The surrounding villages(28) use the descriptor Tokaji. It is the slowly fermented product of one of this regions principal grapes, high-acid Furmint, a late ripening white grape, blended in harmony with botrytised-prone Harslevelu, to create one of the greatest sweet wines in the world. Furmint is also produced in dry(labeled szaraz), called Szamorodni,  to semi-sweet styles, as the noble rot does not occur every year.
Tokaj Harvest in traditional Puttonyos basket

Shriveled grapes high natural sugars and affected by noble rot at harvest qualify the wines as Aszu, which are then mashed and added in puttonyos proportions to the base wine. Final sweetness level is measured in puttonyos, the equivalent level of residual sugar, and classified from 3 to 6 puttonyos. A fraction of  free run Aszu juice is slowly fermented each harvest to create a very rare wine that is richer than honey, Esszencia. This rare and expensive Tokaj Aszu Esszencia is barrel aged for a minimum of 2 years and is more than 45 per cent sugar!

Following its entry into the EU in 2004, Hungary has remained relatively stable and even enjoyed some commercial success with its market-based economy. Realizing Hungary's potential, Western investments(mostly European) have also come into the country, but rarely as much as needed.  Modernization of equipment, its cellar and vineyard practices are resulting in consistent qualities being found in the 30% of annual wine volume that is exported here each year. Hungary's EU regulated wine labeling shows not only appellations, but also display the many international grape varieties which are immediately recognizable to world wine buyers. As a measure of how far Hungary has come, producers here earned 29 Decanter World Wine Awards in 2007.  An indicator of its many wine industry improvements, and of how well the wines of Hungary are placed in our marketplace, a remarkable 86 World Wine Awards were earned in 2010! A promise delivered!

Hungarian drinking toast: "Kedves egeszsegere"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

GREECE: New after 6000 Years!

If a God is wearing grapes in his crown, they must be valuable.  In fact, Greece was once the most important wine grape growing culture in antiquity. Among the oldest wine producing cultures in the world, Greece has been in the news quite a lot lately, not for wine, but for its current epic battles with yet another economic crisis. Their old world culture was responsible for the organized spread of the vine far from its sunny and semi-mountainous homeland, to distant places like France and the Danube. Greece today has among the smallest average vineyard acreage in Europe, with its wine regions geographically fragmented and complex, because only about 20% of its landscape is suitable for agriculture. In its dry, arid climate, some of the best new vineyards face North, in sub-mountainous elevations, to minimize the ravages of its harsh sun-baked environment. And yet, economic hardships aside in this hard land, grape growing has persisted and been synonymous with the culture of Greece for more than 6000 years!

The mountainous northern Greece regions of Macedonia and Trace sit at the crossroads of human development, between the Aegean and the Balkans, as well as across a diagonal staircase of geologic zones. Following the Second Balkins War(1913), this autonomous region became part of modern Greece, only to see the unfolding of decades of even more conflicts. These ethnic regions produce some of the countries best reds, and among its most famous are native, high-acid red producers of native grape Xinomavro in the Naoussa and Goumenissa zones. Crisp whites and sparkling wines are found here too, as a rose-skinned grape, Roditis, and the multi-purpose Assyritiko are also widely planted. Heading south to the nation's breadbasket, Thessaly(Thessalia), on the south-facing slate-rich slopes of Mount Olympos, produces AOC Rapsani, perhaps the most famous wine in Greece from a Xinomavro blend.

Central Greece(Sterea Ellada) is known as the home of Retsina, a legendary resinated wine from the widely planted Savatiano white grape.This region produces almost 30% of the countries annual wine output. A pillar of the new Greek wine revival, indigenous and international grape varieties are cultivated at the historic Boutari-Matsa estate outside of Athens, producing world class, award-winning wines. There is international recognition as well in the western Ionian Islands, where Cephalonia AOC is most widely recognized for quality production of sweet wines from native Rabola, Mavrodaphnine(Mavrodaphne) and Muscat grapes.

In the Peloponesse, red Aghiorgitiko, grown in the 16 villages of Nemea AOC, is considered southern Greece's best grape; and in Patras AOC there are quality dry whites from native Roditis, sweet wines from Muscats and a fortified sweet wine from the red Mavrodaphne. White wines, both dry and sweet, dominate southern Greece, as they do in the Aegean Islands. Although Crete was quite prominent in wines ancient history, today it is the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Samos that are making superior quality wines, notably from widely planted,  fruity Assyritiko and Muscat varieties.

There are more than 350 native grape varieties across the eight(8) wine regions of Greece, but only six(6) of those varieties produce about 90% of Greek wine. Most important among widely planted white wine varietals are Assyritiko of Santorini, Roditis of Patra, and Savatiano of Attiki(Central Greece). Red grapes predominate in the north of this white wine country, notably Agioritiko(Aghiorgitiko) of Nemea, Xinomavro of Macedonia, and Mandilaria(Amorgiano) of the Aegean, although Mavrodaphne is gaining acreage.
Crete Nostos Vineyard

The quality wines of Greece have benefited greatly from joining the E.U. and adopting the standards of a recognized appellation system modeled after the French AOC. Here assured origins are designated as Controlled Appellation of Origin: O.P.E., or the superior O.P.A.P. Typical regional wines of distinction may be labeled, as in the French system, Vin de Pays, or Topikos Oinos. The largest Greek production categories are for simple table wines, Epitrapezios Oinos, as well as the EU recognized traditional wine, Retsina. Due to the many restrictions of the higher quality wine classifications, notable fine producers of international varieties or native/international blends have successfully labeled their wines Topikos Oinos.
Porto Carras Portfolio

Most Greek wine stays in Greece, with only about 10% exported. But the current economic crisis has crippled homeland sales, as the SF Chronicle reports that wine sales are down 40% in last 12 months. For those of us who are seeking out Greek wines, there has been a history of ethnic distribution(restaurants & tavernas) and little product education for non-ethnic consumers. Even as Greek wines were beginning to win international wine competitions in the 1990's, and a new wave of Greek winemakers were modernizing their production, most of us new nothing about the wines from Greece. It seems the time is now for the new wines of Greece.  As this old world producer looks for other international channels to market its improving quality wines, many of us are hoping to find in the wines of Greece something valuable.  It only took about 3000 years!  
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