Sunday, April 3, 2016

The best sparkling wines you have never heard of: Domaine Karanika, Amynteo, Greece

My initial exposure to Domaine Karanika came about during my trip to Athens in February of this year to participate in the #Winelovers 4th Anniversary Celebration. I was on my third visit to Vintage Wine Bar & Bistro, this latter visit prompted by my encounter on the previous evening with the 1999 Domaine Economou Sitia, a Liatiko-based wine which I found to be extremely pleasurable and which exhibited great persistence, as regards my thought process, on the following day. So much so that I convinced Brandon Tokash and a number of other Winelovers to revisit the bar with me (Brandon and I went initially and the others followed after a stop at Fabrica).

When Panos Kyriazis (co-proprietor at Vintage) set two sparkling wines on the table for Brandon and me to try, my mind was still on the Liatiko . The first sparkling wine that we tried -- the Amalia Brut -- did nothing to distract me from that single-minded pursuit but the second, the Karanika Brut Cuvée Speciale, was truly an eye-opening wine. I was very impressed with it both as a standalone as well as paired with the restaurant's butterflied shrimp tartare. In my notes I mentioned that "maybe (Xinomavro) producers from the region should spend some more time looking at this solution."

Since coming back to the US I have purchased a couple of cases of the wine and drunk a number of bottles. In this post I share what I have learned about the producer and its sparkling wines since that initial encounter.

Domaine Karanika is located in the Amynteo region of Macedonia, an area which I have previously described. The winery was founded by Laurens M. Hartman-Karanika and Annette van Kampen, a husband-and-wife team who, like John Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, left management positions in the publishing industry to pursue dreams of creating a business in the wine industry. The key difference here is that John's path led from Illinois to Napa's Stags Leap District while our subjects' journey took them from the Netherlands to Amynteo. Today Laurens functions as the domaine's oenologist while Annette is the vineyardist.

The overarching philosophy of the estate is minimalism incorporating practices such as:
  • Organic farming with elements of biodynamics
  • Cover crops for soil revitalization
  • Gravity flow in the winery to minimize handling
  • Natural-yeasts fermentation
  • Minimal sulfite addition and use of Montmorillonite clay for filtering only when absolutely necessary
The first chart below illustrates the soil distribution in the major grape-growing regions of Amynteo while the second chart depicts the Karanika vineyard locations, varieties, and the destination of the grapes from the individual vineyards. Vineyard management practices are also summarized in the second chart.

Domaine Karanika produces a number of still wines but I have not tasted any of them as yet and, to that extent, they are not covered in this post. Rather, my focus is on the sparkling wines.

The table below summarizes the specs for the three sparkling wines that are produced by the estate: two 100% Xinomavro wines and one Assyrtiko-Xinomavro blend, a relatively recent addition to the product line.

In an interview with the Greek magazine Monopole, Laurens was asked what made him decide to use Xinomavro as the varietal base of his sparkling wines. Laurens indicated that he had tasted some Blanc de Noirs in Amynteo and Naoussa in 2003, and, having some experience with Blanc de Noirs from Epernay, immediately knew that Xinomavro would be the perfect grape for a Blanc de Noir. The only question was whether it could provide a high-quality mousse, a question which was answered affirmatively by subsequent research.

During my recent passage through North Greece, I tasted a few sparkling wines but none come close to the Karanika Brut Cuvee Speciale, especially due to the fact that they mostly employ the Charmat Method. I have written a 10-part series on this blog comparing Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava and I have not encountered examples from the latter three which excite me as much as does the Karanika product.

And I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Both Graperover, and the aforementioned Monopole, refer to the comments made by Tom Stevenson, the noted Champagne and Sparkling wine critic, about Domaine Karanika sparkling wines. I reproduce below a Tom Stevenson quote currently resident on the Graperover site:
I shall be keeping a very close eye on Laurens Hartman in the future. He has the potential to produce a world class sparkling wine and of all the budding new sparkling wine superstars I am currently following, Hartman is the only one not using classic Champagne grape varieties. Xinomavro's naturally high acid and intrinsically low color makes it the obvious choice for anyone trying to craft a sparkling wine that is expressive of its Greek roots, but seldom have I come across any artisanal sparkling wine that is as polished as Hartman's 2010-based second release of Domaine Karanika Xinomavro Brut. It has a silky smooth mousse that most champenois would die for. ... it is already the best sparkling wine produced in Greece ... it is only a matter of time and experience before Hartman crafts something truly world class.
Since my return from Greece, I have hunted these wines down relentlessly. I have not been able to locate the Assyrtiko-Xinomavro blend but have been able to order cases of both the Cuvee Speciale and the Rosé from MacArthur Beverages in Wasington DC. I have drunk these wines alone, with food, and with Champagnes of varying caliber and never have they appeared miscast.

The Cuvee Speciale shows its true character if allowed to remain on the palate briefly allowing an opportunity for the bubbles to ennervate said palate both with their vigor as well as the bursts of lemom-lime acidity, reminiscent of eating Pop Rocks candy. That lemon-lime acidity morphs into a distinct tamarind character. The yeasty/bready character of many double ferments is not readily apparent, a result of relatively short sur lie residence. The Rosé drinks easily with distinct raspberry notes, great acidity, and persistence.

My next goal is to get my hands on the Assyrtiko-Xinomavro blend so that I can see how far forward Domaine Karanika has moved the chains to what Tom Stevenson predicts will be "something truly world class." In my estimation, Domaine Karanika is already ahead of much of the world with the in-place product lineup. And don't get me started on the QPR associated with these products.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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