Thursday, February 11, 2016

Wine and cheese in the clouds: The Rapsani (Mount Olympus, Greece) Vineyard Adventure

We were on cloud nine after visiting Ktima Geravassiliou on our tour of the North Greece wine trail: we had been led in a tasting by Vangelos Geravassiliou, one of the living legends of Greek wine; we had visited one of the best curated wine museums that I have ever encountered; and we had been treated to a spectacular lunch prior to boarding our vehicle for the next stop on our tour.

We were flying high. But higher heights awaited us in the form of the Rapsani Wine Adventure, a nail-biting, knee-knocking, white-knuckled, vertigo-inducing, end-of-the-rainbow, safari-themed tour of the Rapsani PDO vineyards which are located on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the Greek Gods. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

What it feels like to take the Rapsani Wine Adventure tour.
(Image from boredpanda.com)
We were scheduled to go on a vineyard tour so I was somewhat nonplussed when we pulled into what appeared to be a supermarket parking lot in a little village. Strange place for a vineyard, I thought. Stranger still, we were approached by a sunglass-wearing bloke who was dressed in attire more befitting the Serengeti Plain than this village parking lot. He spoke to the driver of our vehicle and the order was given for us to disembark. Strange.

Once we got out of our transport, I noticed two open-top, Jeep-like vehicles with logos for Rapsani Vineyard Adventure emblazoned on the doors. I got it then. We were transferring to our vineyard transports and the attire worn by the strange guy (who turned out to be Dr. George Salpiggidis, Viticultural Director and Head of Tsantali Rapsani) was all part of creating an atmosphere of a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, adventure guide. I liked it. So we clambered in and headed off.


This is probably an appropriate time to describe the environment within which the Rapsani vineyards reside. Rapsani is a protected designation of origin (PDO) in the Greek appellation schema. Its physical and legal characteristics are elaborated in the chart below.


The vineyards proper are located on the southern slopes of Mount Olympus and its "mainland mediterranean" climate is modified by the surrounding mountains and forests as well as by the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. One of the heralded aspects of the environment is the 10 - 15 ℃ temperature variation between day and night, a condition which, it is held, "enhances phenolic ripeness and aromatic concentration of the grapes."

Ones mortality is constantly on the mind as you wend your way up steep mountain slopes with vertiginous drops on one side and ever-rising slope on the other. Funny but I constantly felt the urge to lean away from the gorge, willing the "Jeep" away from the edge.

Our first stop was at a level where we were directly across from Rapsani which draped down the side of a mountain slope.


And Dr. Salpiggidis began to tell us the story of the Rapsani vineyards as he guided us through the vineyards. Grapes had been grown in this region for a very long time. The quality of those grapes were evidenced by the produce being classified as an appellation wine in 1932 and one of the first Greek PDO wines in 1971.

The vineyards had always been owned by local farmers who provided grapes to a cooperative. In the 1980s, however, the region fell on hard times and the winery was repossessed by the bank. Growers began to look at other alternatives and were further encouraged to desert grape growing by an EU initiative which paid them to keep grapes off the market.


Tsantali took an interest in the region when viable vineyards were 10 ha in total. According to Dr. Salpiggidis, they embarked on a program to resurrect the greatness by first paying the growers more money to plant vines than the EU was paying them to pull them out. Secondly, they embarked on a cooperative program with the growers to guide them in the production of high-quality grapes. And third, they acquired the local winery in order to meet the PDO production requirements. Today, vineyard size is up to 90 ha from the 10 ha starting point.

After this scintillating discussion on the history and current practice of Rapsani viticulture, and tasting of wines which magically appeared from one of the non-Jeep vehicles following us (thanks Kiriaki Panagiotou), we re-boarded our vehicles to continue our trip up the mountain.

This phase of the trip was even more "adventurous" than the first. I kept hoping that we would not encounter any vehicles coming the other way, mountain goats heading to lower ground, or wild boars hellbent on mindless destruction. I heaved a sigh of relief when we pulled into the courtyard of ... a church (According to Kiriaki, the name of the church is St Theodoroi Monastery Terrace)? Now this was the last thing I had expected to encounter at this level. But I can see its relevance -- the calm after the storm kinda thing.

But even more soothing was the spread that was laid out before us on some upturned wine barrels: breads and cheeses and wines that seemed to be surveying the valley at large. But before we partook of the bounties, Dr. Salpiggidis took us on a tour of the Monastery.




I have seen some idyllic settings for wine and cheese pairings but this one takes the cake.




I conversed intently with my seat mate on the way down and was very congratulatory to my driver when we pulled into the parking lot of the lunch restaurant. Mind you, it was 4:00 pm and we were embarking on lunch, our second of the day. And what a lunch it was. I am still sated after the passage of all this time.




This had been a fantastic experience whose conception was genius and the execution of which was flawless. The story of the region is captivating in and of itself but to tell it within that setting is absolutely brilliant. I have taken vineyard tours before. I have pursued the big five on safari in Masai Mara. And I have conversed with viticulturists while drinking wine in their vineyards. But never before have I experienced all three effects simultaneously.

The Rapsani Wine Adventure is an adventure worth having.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Characterizing Rioja wines: A blind tasting

There is a group of young Somms here in the Orlando area who are at various stages of the Guild Of Sommeliers certification process and have banded together to hone their skills as they pursue higher levels of individual accreditation. From time to time I act as a resource for the group by facilitating focused tastings, allowing the group to do deep dives into a region, variety, or soil type. Our most recent previous exercise was an exploration of the varying instances of Nebbiolo.

Last week we conducted another focused tasting, this time on the wines of Rioja. This tasting was held in the back room of Luma on Park (Winter Park), with approximately 15 people in attendance. In addition to the Somms, I had invited Ron Siegel and Andres Montoya to lend their expertise to the effort.

In that one of the Somms found Rioja wines rather challenging, I decided to conduct the tasting blind. The objective was to see if there were any natural groupings in the offered wines and to identify the characteristics which caused that grouping (if any). Towards that end, the wines were placed into numbered paper bags and were only referenced by number until a global reveal at the conclusion of the tasting. Of the wines tasted blind, six came from my cellar, five were purchased on the day of the tasting, two each were brought by Ron and Andres, and one bottle was brought by Kevin Quijano.

The traffic was brutal that afternoon so we got a late start waiting for some of our colleagues. But it was not wasted time. We whiled the time away first with a 1994 Lopez de Heredia Gravonia Blanco and then with a 1994 Tondonia Blanco. Melissa (Swirlery) felt that the oxidative notes of the Gravonia felt more like a Jura wine, or even a Sherry, while the Tondonia had a richer, nuttier feel, like a black walnut. I like oxidative notes and I like Lopez de Heredia so I was receptive to whatever was in the bottles.


I began the session with a brief overview of the factors that influence the character of a Rioja wine. This presentation was a summary of my detailed treatment of the region.

Tasted blind, the wines seem to fall into five groups which I will characterize as follows: Modern, Faulty, Over the Hill, Other, and Traditional. It should be pointed that while the wines were placed into groups during the tasting, the actual names of the wines within those groups were not revealed until the conclusion of the tasting. Now let us examine the wines within the identified groups.

Modern
The wines falling into the modern grouping are shown in the picture below. The Muga 2009 Seleccion Especial is not pictured here but is a member nonetheless.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan
Andres characterized the 2009 Marques de Legarda as a wine with a very extracted style with dark mint chocolate and plenty of new oak. It reminded him of a Paolo Scavino Barolo. The 2009 Muga Seleccion Especial was also modern but its extraction, blackberry jam notes, and French oak was reminiscent of a Napa Cab. The 2005 Muga Aro had a very dark color, too much oak, and appeared unbalanced. Ripe fruit and sweet oak. I saw Super Tuscan characteristics while Andrew tagged it as a Cab-based Bordeaux. Melissa agreed with its modernity. The 2005 Capricho and the 2001 Faustino hewed closely to the unfolding story line. Surprisingly for us, the 2004 Castello Ygay showed up in this list. In the blind tasting I had described it as having raspberry notes along with vanilla, coconut and dried herbs and had placed it in the middle between a modern and a traditional Rioja. Andres described it thusly: "fresh-picked raspberries, floral but with high alcohol on the nose. Modern in style (or appeared to be)."


Faulty
The 2005 Cincel Gran Reserva was identified as faulty due to an excess of sulfur on the nose.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

Over the Hill
The 2001 Berceo was characterized as "dark, port-like, oxidized, and disjointed."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

Other
The Remelluri 2007 (Iron, meaty, potted soil, french oak on nose) and 2006 Coleccion Vivanco Graciano single varietal (Dark, unfiltered. Naphthalene (mothball) on the nose. disjointed, extracted. Reminiscent of an earthy Cab Franc from Saumur-Champigny) were classed as the "other."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

Traditional
The wines that were placed into this category were everyone's favorites. While what had gone before was somewhat confusing, the wines that populated this category brought order to the tasting. As soon as you brought the glass up to your nose you knew that these were the aromas and flavors that you had found pleasing in an earlier wine.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The 1994 Rioja Alta 904 was Andres' Wine of the Night! "Gorgeous nose of mushroom, forest floor, pine needle, pickled fruit, beef broth (umami sensation) and great acidity. Drinks like a Gevrey Chambertin!" As shown in the section below, this was also Ron's wine of the night (but for different reasons). 

The 1991 Lopez Heredia Bosconia exhibited coffee, earth, and great integration between oak and fruit. Intense pepper spice, great acidity, and an expressiveness on the palate. This wine was drinking beautifully. Andres tagged it as his second wine of the night: "dried flower, wet earth, forest floor, road tar, lovely aromatics, very Burgundian." 

The Cune Imperial 1994 showed barnyard, cherry, spice, fruit, herbs and flowers. Restrained, subtle, elegant. For Andrew, "Delicate, floral, pinot-noir-like intensity, gravel/mineral, chewy tannins.

Andres found the 1973 Valoria to be surprisingly youthful, exhibiting scorched earth, ripe cherry, and tobacco. Bold. He was extremely surprised at the reveal because he had had this down as a wine from the 90's.

One of the surprises for us all, and not necessarily fitting neatly into this category, was the 2011 Vivanco Maturana Tinta. It had an intense color along with black cherry, olives, and leather on the palate. Balanced. Northern Rhone character. Everyone liked this wine. 

Post-Tasting Thoughts
Ron
I really enjoyed the tasting as it gave me a good perspective of the different styles being made in the region. The wines that were poured represented a good mix of the top producers and their styles. while some showed over-ripe fruit -- and seemed clunky, out of balance, and short of finish -- another style seemed to show a wine that was made in a region such as Tuscany or Bordeaux. Those wines displayed dark colors, primary characteristics, and bell pepper and were made in a modern style including the use of French oak. 

My favorite wine was made in a more traditional style that was elegant, floral, and displayed bright fruits, good acids and had a silky texture. I felt that the wines showed so much better when they had some age on them, usually 10-20 yrs where they had developed complexity and had lost the dominant dill and vanilla flavors associated with American oak.

My top wine of the tasting was the 1994 Rioja Alto 904 which had bright cherry and berry fruits with cinnamon, leather, tobacco, and licorice It was elegant and floral with silky tannins.
My second favorite was the 1991 Lopez Heredia Gran Reserva Bosconio which displayed cherry and strawberry fruits and had an earthy, leather, and blood orange component along with lavender.


I also liked the Il Vivanco Maturana which had a completely different style that reminded me of a Northern Rhone with dark cherry and black olive notes. 

Anne
Tasting through 18 different Riojas was enlightening.  I was fascinated by the uniqueness of each wine--some due to winemaker manipulation and others simply a result of terroir.  Exploring them side-by-side really heightened the observation of the differences between each bottle, and made me quickly realize that Rioja is complex region that has distinctly varied styles.

************************************************************************************************

In my opening remarks to the group I had characterized Rioja wines as shown in the chart below. 


The tasting panel very clearly opted for the classic Rioja style and traditionalism, soundly rejecting the modernist wines that were on offer. The tasting also revealed a few wines that did not fit neatly into any of the above molds and, of those, the Maturana was exceedingly pleasing with the others being eminently forgettable.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The wines of North Greece

The North Greece wine region has a highly favorable environment for growing high quality grapes and producing similarly endowed wines but may be offsetting these advantages through the sheer number of different wines produced.

The 11 wineries we visited during our tour of the region produce approximately 118 different wines, an average of 10.7 wines/producer. Kir-Yianni is top of the heap with 22 wines and Kitvrs the smallest with four wines. The distribution of wines by type is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Wine production by type
Style Number of Wines
White
40
Red
59
Rosé
8
Sparkling
3
Sweet
3

The chart below shows the appellation system guiding wine production and labeling in Greece. Directly below the chart, Table 2 documents the appellation zones under which the North Greece wines encountered fall.


Table 2. Wine production by appellation zone
PDO Zone Number of Wines PGI Zone Number of Wines Appellation by Tradition Number of Wines Other Number of Wines
Naoussa
11
Macedonia (R)
16
Retsina
3
Other
2
Amyndeon
5
Pangeon (A)
11




Slopes of Meliton
5
Epanomi (A)
10




Rapsani
3
Imathia (D)
10




Goumenissa
2
Halkidiki (D)
7






Drama (D)
7






Mount Athos (A)
5






Sithonia (A)
4






Pieria (D)
4






Metsovo (A)
3












The PGI wines in the table are differentiated by the letters R (regional classification), D (district classification -- grapes must be grown in the district and vinified in the district or a neighboring district), and A (area classification -- designated geographic area within a district or contiguous area of two districts with specific variety and wine production requirements). In the event that a producer cannot meet the area or district PGI requirements, the PGI Macedonia designation is available as a fallback. As shown in the table, this is the most frequently utilized of the available appellation options.

The distribution of wines by type is shown in Table 3 below. The table shows that, for both the white and red wines, almost as many blends are produced as are single-variety wines. And, as Table 4 below shows, there is very little agreement among the winemakers of the region as to the most appropriate blends. As a matter of fact, and as pointed out by Stellios Boutaris of Kir-Yianni, this is very much a brand-driven market environment; the focus, therefore would be more on differentiation than on regional profile.

Two other observations made by Stellios Boutaris (and borne out by my observations) were that (i) Greeks love Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc blends and (ii) the North Greece white wines are much better than the reds. As regards the former, and if we assume that wine production reflects market demand, four of the wines encountered were 100% Sauvignon Blancs, five were Assyrtiko/Sauvignon Blanc blends, and three were Sauvignon Blanc/Roditis blends. The latter point was supported by the multitude of wines that we tasted.

A final point about the data in Tables 3 and 4. In terms of the whites, Table 3 shows 17 blends while Table 4 shows a total of eight wines with similar blends. This means that there are an additional eight unique white blends in the data set. Again, brand-driven rather than region-driven winemaking.

Table 3. Distribution of wines by variety/blend
White Number of Wines Red Number of Wines Rosé Number of Wines Sparkling Number of Wines Sweet Number of Wines
Malagouzia
6
Xinomavro
21
Syrah
1
Debina
1
Gewurtz
1
Assyrtiko
4
Syrah
5
Xinomavro
1
Blend
1
Blend
1
Sauvignon Blanc
4
Cabernet Sauvignon
4
Blends
2




Chardonnay
3
Merlot
3






Atheri
1
Pinot Noir
2






Roditis
1
Tannat
1






Verdicchio
1
Negro Amaro
1






Viognier
1
Limnio
1






Blends
17
Traminer
1








Aglianico
1








Blends
29








Table 4. Frequency of blends with incidence greater than one
White Blends Number of Wines Red Blends Number of Wines
Assyrtiko/Sauvignon Blanc
5
Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Agiorgitiko
3
Sauvignon Blanc/Roditis
3
Limnio/Cabernet Sauvignon
3


Syrah/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Xinomavro
3


Xinomavro/Krassato/Stavroto
3


Syrah/Xinomavro
2


Xinomavro/Negoska
2

White Wines
In terms of the white wines, I was most impressed by the Malagouzias, the Assyrtikos, and the Retsinas. The Malagouzias from Alpha Estate, Geravassiliou, Wine Art Estate, and Kitvrs were redolent with white flowers, white fruits, and spice. In addition, the Geravassiliou wine had citrus notes, a green savoriness, and a drying finish. I had an additional opportunity to experience the Alpha Estate Malagouzia at a tasting I helmed in Orlando upon my return and the wine maintained its allure.


The Assyrtikos encountered in North Greece were fruitier and had less mineral and acidity characteristics than their Santorini counterparts. I think that this variety, under the proper conditions, and with the proper winemaking, can be a winner for the region. I tasted tank- and barrel fermented samples at Wine Art Estate and found the former to have complex tropical notes, riper fruit, and less minerality than the wines of Santorini while the latter had toast notes and a harmonic combination of fruit and oak. I was more tolerant of oak in the North Greece Assyrtiko than I am with it in a Santorini Assyrtiko.

I have written previously about my love affair with the Stelios Kechris Retsinas.

In terms of international-variety whites, I was impressed by the 2014 Viognier (excellent minted Viognier, according to my notes), the Verdicchio from Kitvrs (every offering from this winery hit it out of the park in my view), and the Chardonnay from Wine Art Estate. The latter had the stuffing and fundamentals to be a world-class Chardonnay but the oak levels diminished its potential (As a matter of fact that was the case for many of the fine wines in this portfolio and I did mention my observations directly to the winemaker.).

Red Wines
There is an ongoing concerted attempt to present Xinomavro as the face of North Greece red wines and it took a little while for me to get it. At 2014 DWCC, Ted Lelekas and Luiz Alberto presented a seminar on the wines of North Greece and I left the session not feeling the urge to add the wines to my collection. And it was nothing that the guys did. The wine just did not appeal to me. The tomato vegetal character and hint of a mid-palate were somewhat off-putting.

That feeling persisted on this tour until I tasted the 2005 Ramnista at Kir-Yianni and the 2008 Ramnista and the 2007 Boutari 1879 Legacy at the Wine Commanders Master Class at the Plovdiv DWCC. The 2008 Ramnista exhibited ripe fruit, truffles and a kerosene character. Red fruit on the palate with a mid-palate that raised its hand. According to the Wine Commanders, Kir-Yianni use clones that allow greater ripening of fruit (less vegetal character).

According to the Wine Commanders, the year 2007 was a "ripe vintage year" and the the 1879 Legacy reflected this with rich, ripe cherry fruit along with tar, licorice, earth, truffles and spice. And a mid-palate.

What this told me is that Xinomavro, like Barolo and Pinot Noir, for example, shows best after it has had an opportunity to evolve in the bottle. The problem with that is that the trend today is towards wines that are more approachable. One of the ways in which Brunello di Montalcino has solved this problem is by releasing a Rosso early and then holding the Brunello back for a later release. I do not know if Greek vintners have the wherewithal to embark on such a strategy, or some other strategy with a similar outcome, but some mechanism has to be devised where wine drinkers get more exposure to earlier vintages of this wine.


One of my favorite red wines on the trip was the Chateau Porto Carras from Domaine Porto Carras. I was fortunate enough to get a few bottles of this wine to bring back to the states and I offered it at the Orlando tasting I mentioned previously and my fellow tasters were similarly impressed. I am currently in the process of buying a case of selected library vintages of this wine which will be shipped from Domaine Porto Carras to Seabrook in London for trans-shipment to me here in the US.


The international red varieties from Wine Art Estate and Kitvrs were notable. Kitvrs' Syrah and Aglianico were both eye-openers even though tasted at the end of a long day while, but for the oak, I would be placing Wine Art Estate offerings even higher on my list of wines to acquire. The Nebbiolo in the portfolio exhibits all the classic characters of the variety along with a perfumed cassis, nutmeg and a stemminess. The attack left a bit to be desired but yielded to an excellent mid-palate and a long, elegant finish.

I started out by saying that there are too many different wines produced in North Greece. And I will end on that note. For a regional profile to emerge, winemakers will have to focus on fewer things and get really good at the things that they are focusing on. This is not to say that excellent wines are not being made in North Greece. What I am saying is that more of the product coming out of the region will be of uniformly higher quality if a smaller number of varieties became mainstays and production techniques and approaches were honed, standardized, and shared. A regional character would begin to emerge. Rising regions lift all members.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme