New feature on our blog! Every week a Blue Danubian will highlight his or her favorite wine of the moment. Starting things off is Tom, our newest sales guy in the San Francisco Bay Area:
Conformity, regularity, status quo, etc. Call it what you will, these terms have again and again been stricken from my vocabulary. Rather than going “by-the-book”, I have always chosen to pursue the road less traveled, even if it sometimes led to learning things the hard way. For exactly this reason, I was delighted to meet winemaker Jean-Michel Morel of Kabaj (Ka-BUY) Winery in Slovenia. He truly embodies the spirit of being an expat, leaving his native France to create an entirely different style of wine in a country that has been underestimated in terms of its wine production (especially compared to the juggernaut that is France). He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy. He knows what he likes, he knows what he doesn’t, and his brutal honesty is perfectly balanced and underscored by his charming personality.
This aspect of his personality is reflected in his skin contact wines, which offer an unusually grippy and full-bodied mouthfeel supported by subtle undertones playing a back-up role. Mention the name Goriška Brda to any upstanding wine enthusiast and you may be greeted with “Bless you”, but for any diehard Slavic wine fan, this name reflects only the highest quality and passion.
The Ravan is a chameleon, known under other aliases such as Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon Vert, and Jakot (since passive-aggressivity is the best way to deal with political gridlock, as “Jakot” is simply “Tokaj” backwards). As with much of this region, the subtleties are imperceptible. I’ll be bringing a bottle to my family for Thanksgiving (“No Mom, it’s not Pinot Grigio!”) to pair with our veggie-heavy side dishes and to take a shot at the bird itself, while simultaneously stimulating the tongues of all involved, both through its tangy tannins and its barely pronounceable origin information. Ka-baj yourself a bottle for the holidays and be the life of the party, just like Jean-Michel! Na zdravje!
Is there a future for traditional sweet wines as global taste changes? Zachary Sussman explores the “uncertain” future for the world’s famous sweet wines, like Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú, in this article for Punch.
Ironically, the examples that have fallen the furthest out of fashion—basically, port, Sauternes and Tokaji—were once revered as the coveted darlings of kings and counts and royal courts. It was by virtue of their sweetness, in fact, that they first gained international fame. Not only did high sugar contents prevent spoilage during the days before refrigeration, allowing wines to enter the export market as global commodities, but sugar also enjoyed luxury status at the time: The kind of intense sweetness found in a bottle of port or Tokaji was inseparable from its aura of aristocratic splendor….What’s next? Faced with declining sales and a wine culture that increasingly prizes the savory, the saline and the mineral, will these regions take the necessary steps to remain relevant? Or are they destined to survive as mere museum pieces?
Our own Stetson Robbins weighs in on the shift away from traditional wine styles in Tokaj:
Even at the sweetest levels, producers in Tokaji are moving towards a brighter, modern style. Hopefully, the traditional oxidative style won’t get lost along the way.
Samuel Tinon, a Tokaji producer we work with, had this to say:
During the first years after privatization, when we were starting new estates, we believed that everyone would be able to survive on sweet wine. Now most of the estates are playing in both fields, making at least as much dry wine as sweet, if not more.
Do your part to keep these traditional wines alive!
Five years ago marked the entrance of “orange wine”—an obscure category that has stirred some very vocal proponents and riled some very vocal detractors—into the international wine scene. Though the style has been produced for quite some time, the “orange” description was purportedly coined in 2004 by a U.K.-based wine importer who encountered a bottle in winemaker Frank Cornelissen’s cellar in Sicily. It refers to certain white wines (yes, they’re made from white grapes) that fall somewhere on the color spectrum of fall foliage. Their flavors also have great autumnal appeal, since many can be downright and broodingly earthy.
This style of winemaking, which involves extended periods of skin maceration, is very traditional in some countries like Slovenia and the Republic of Georgia. The article suggests a few must try wines for fall, including one from Kabaj, a winery we have worked with for some time now.
2011 Kabaj Rebula
Goriška Brda, Slovenia
Since very little has been written on the ancient methods, Kabaj’s winemaker—Jean-Michel Morel—opted to study at a Georgian monastery to fine-tune his craft. This rebula (the Slovenian name for Italy’s ribolla) ferments with the skins for thirty days to attain its rich texture and glowing amber hue while retaining vibrancy of fruit—like ripe peach and apricot reined in by savory herbal tones. It calls for sipping outside in the cool fall air and pairs impressively well with anything from tuna crudo to veal sweetbreads.
In preparation for this year’s holiday we have shared our favorite wines sourced from along the Danube river to enhance your celebrations. All of these wines are distinct in their own way but sure to pair beautifully with everything on your holiday table
I first learned of the significance of cranberry sauce to the Thanksgiving table while skating on frozen cranberry bogs in Massachusetts with my then young children. I’ve since traded the bogs for the backyard orange trees of California. The best cranberry sauce is a simple and quick relish made with fresh cranberries, freshly-squeezed orange juice, peels, and sugar. No wonder the orange Kabaj Rebula wine from Slovenia pairs so well with that dish! Falling somewhere between a white and red, the wine has intense tannins contrasting with a funky, spicy orange-blossom aroma. It has excellent minerality, and a very enjoyable rich long finish. No need to switch to red for me. This wine is a perfect match for the Thanksgiving table for the recognized 100 Top Winery of 2015!” — Eugénie Cabot
In the interest of eating and drinking for as long as possible on Thanksgiving, Cviček (Tsvee-check) is a promising option. Apart from Tuscan Chianti, Cviček is the only wine in the world with a legally protected blend of local red and white grapes. What sets it apart is the low alcohol (8.5-10%) and it’s completely dry. It’s also refreshing, has the weight of a white wine, the texture of a red, and great acidity. If you already have grapes like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc on the roster, this is a perfect “tweener” wine for everyone (and a liter!). One of the main grapes in the blend is Žametna which also happens to be same grape as the oldest living vine in Europe. At just over 400 years old, this puts its first harvest right around 1621 when the first Thanksgiving took place. And much like the Pilgrims and Indians introduced one another to new flavors, Cviček seems like an appropriate wine to continue this tradition with your friends and family. — Eric Danch
Blaufränkisch is a perfect varietal for Thanksgiving: it produces red wines that are fresh and juicy. This one from J. Heinrich in Austria’s Burgenland region is uncomplicated yet bright with characteristic spiciness. The wine is an outstanding value as recently noted by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where it is listed as one of the “Top 100 Best Buys 2015″. The dish I absolutely have to make for Thanksgiving is stuffing, so that is what I recommend to pair with this wine. When it comes to stuffing, I am a purist. I don’t really do much to it. My “recipe” is a loaf of whatever type of bread strikes my fancy, turkey broth, vegetables, fresh herbs, and a ridiculous amount of butter. Since the wine is bright, fruit-forward, and medium-bodied, it has the winning profile for my weighty dish. — Gisele Carig
This Plavac Mali wine made by Frano Miloš and his children is my first choice for Thanksgiving. It comes from the Pelješac Peninsula that connects with the Dalmatian mainland less than 50 miles north of Dubrovnik. It is where the Miloš family tends their organic vineyards. The main reason that Miloš Plavac fits so well on our Thanksgiving dinner table is its versatility. Naturally, Plavac pairs well with BBQ meats of all kinds. More surprisingly is that it also works very well with Turkey, Chicken, and even more gamey fowl. Most visitors to Dalmatia are amazed when they experience that Plavac also is a great match for Oysters regardless of how they are prepared: fresh on the shell with just a touch of lemon juice, or baked with bacon, hot sauce, and other flavorful condiments. Plavac also reminds us that there is an immigrant in every American. Keep in mind that Zinfandel is a direct relative of Plavac Mali and came originally from the Dalmatian coast to California. — Frank Dietrich
We are lucky to have among our friends a wonderful cook and it is a feast when we spend Thanksgiving with her. One of my favorite Thanksgiving dish is her gravy. The base of the gravy is a turkey stock that she prepares a few days in advance with roasted turkey wings and necks and vegetables. The broth is then slowly reduced to enhance the flavors. Spoon the gravy in the well of a mashed potato mound and you’re in heaven! The flavors are rich and savory, just like the Plantaže Vranac Procorde. Vranac, a relative of the Zinfandel family of grapes, originates from Montenegro and the nearby Republic of Macedonia. Deeply colored, it develops with age savory and unctuous aromas combined with vivid acidity. The winery’s reserve wine is the richly textured ProCorde, which means “heart healthy”. I shall add “heart happy”. Santé! — Catherine Granger
As a Hungarian I am interested in exploring Hungarian wines for the holidays. Tokaj is a fabled Hungarian region that has been producing legendary wines for centuries. I was thinking of something to go with the pumpkin pie that we love to end Thanksgiving dinner with. Pallas of Athens is the patron saint of knowledge and Füleky Winery named their smart and clever Late Harvest style sweet wine after the goddess. It’s made from overripe shriveled grapes creating a sweet but well balanced with acid wine. Hints of butterscotch and ripe fruit. Long finish of residual sweetness. The Russian Czars deployed a division of Cossacks each year to accompany their Imperial shipment of Tokaj back to the Imperial Cellars. Luckily we don’t have to send the troops out to enjoy the Pallas Late Harvest Furmint. — Zsuzsa Molnar
Last month we had the privilege of hosting Jean-Michel from the Kabaj Winery for a few action packed weeks. Jean was here primarily to attend the Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries event in San Francisco. Kabaj Winery, located in Goriška Brda, Slovenia, was listed as a Top 100 Winery for the second time. To celebrate this achievement we arranged a number of events throughout California and New York. One such event was a reception at hot new restaurant Hatchet Hall in Culver City. Wine blogger Randy Fuller, who writes Now and Zin Wine, was able to join us, and has now graciously allowed us to repost his blog post about the event here for you! Many thanks, Randy!
Trust Your Importer – Great Wines From Slovenia
Blue Danube Wines is one of those importers you want to check in with from time to time. For those who don’t have an extensive knowledge of wines from countries other than the US, a good importer is a good thing to know. Importers tend to find the wines they like, and bring them home to the rest of us. So, if Slovenia, for instance, or some other Central European country catches your fancy, Blue Danube Wines has a full portfolio of wines that are uniformly great.
When I was invited by Blue Danube to attend a tasting reception with Jean-Michel Morel (pictured) of Kabaj Wines, how could I refuse? They had never steered me wrong before. The event was held at Culver City’s Hatchet Hall, which has a great tasting bar in the back of the restaurant.
Morel is described as a “bad ass” winemaker. He is actually quite personable and very friendly. His wines lifted Kabaj (ka BYE) to be included on Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 Wineries list for 2015. The winery is in Goriška Brda, Slovenia, right across the border from Italy’s Collio region. In their respective languages, Collio and Brda mean “hills.” Brda’s hills of marl and flysch, are the remains of an ancient limestone seabed. Their steep slopes offer quite a range of micro climates.
For generations, the Kabaj family has grown grapes, but it was not until winemaker Morel married into the family that they started making their own wine. The first vintage of Kabaj wine came in 1993.
The Kabaj wines are produced mainly – 70% – from white grapes, and all wines are aged at least 12 months. When used, French oak is preferred. Morel is nothing if not passionate about his cellar techniques. “Step by step. We do it the right way. It is not to rush out the wine to the market. 2015? No. No.” He was pretty emphatic about that, so I would take it as his winemaking philosophy.
All the Kabaj presented at the tasting showed intense minerality and great acidity.
2008 Rebula – You might know this grape better as Ribolla – it is Morel’s signature grape. Lovely savory apricot honey. Great acid, savory lime and lanolin. Fresh, lots of vigor. Great, unusual flavor.
2011 Ravan – This white is flinty from the limestone. Savory saline palate.
2012 Ravan – Less flinty, more apricot and pear.
2012 Sivi Pinot – We would call it a Pinot Grigio. Showing a pink blush, muted strawberry, cherry and lime flavors are persistent.
2010 Luisa – This white wine – orange, actually – shows a beautiful copper color in the glass. Mineral-driven, savory nose, earthy palate.
2010 Merlot – Smoky black cherry and coffee on the nose, with a palate of tart cherry and raspberry. Huge minerals.
2009 Cuvée Morel – Merlot,Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot make a nose of minerals and black cherry. There is a tart edge on the palate with earth, fine tannins and a raspberry finish.
2006 Amfora – This wine stays in contact with the grape skins an amazing one year. The beautiful, golden color is deep and rich. A nose of honeyed apricot, flint and limestone lead to a palate of savory apricot. Lots of age here, showing beautifully. A massive white wine.
Amfora wine has a history dating back thousands of years to the Georgian culture. Ribolla, Malvasia and Sauvignon Vert (Tokai) grapes are destemmed in clay pots and held with the skins after fermentation. In the first month, the wine is stirred six times a day, then the pots are closed for ten months. Then, it goes into oak barrels for another year.
The world’s most highly prized dessert wines actually got off to a rotten start. The Sauternes region of France is best known for these wines today, but the practice of using botrytized grapes (those infected with the fungus Botrytis cinerea)to make unctuously sweet dessert wines actually began in Hungary’s Tokay region around 1650. (By comparison, the first Sauternes is thought to be an 1847 Chateau d’Yquem.) As the story goes, the Hungarian harvest was delayed that year due to a Turkish invasion. After several weeks of battle, Hungarians returned to their vineyards to find their grapes shriveled and rotting on the vine. They harvested them anyway, and, much to their surprise, found that, thanks to the fungus, the tiny amount of concentrated liquid left inside each grape tasted like honey!
Over the past few months, we have been fortunate to get to know Croatian wine writer, Nenad Trifunović, a bit better. He has also been so generous in allowing us to repost many of his translated wine reviews on our blog to share with all of you. We thought it would be nice to formally introduce him and get a better idea about his perspective on wine. I also encourage you to check out his blog Dnevnik Vinopije (Wine Drinker Journal). It is in Croatian but his insights our worth the effort of translating!
1. Tell us more about yourself. Where are you from? Where do you live? What is your “day job”?
I was born in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. I had a great childhood growing up here. Upon finishing university, were I majored in Economics, I decided to stay in Zagreb. I work as a creative director at a marketing agency. Fifteen years ago I started as an entry level accountant, fell in love with being a copywriter, and today am a partner at the same agency.
2. Why are you so passionate about wine?
My work requires me to have a business focus and writing about wine provides me with a sort of getaway. It is humanizing to be able to produce stuff “for yourself”, meaning the way you believe it should be done and not driven by market expectations. However, the truth is that wine occupies my attention, keeps me calm and focused, inspired, as well as nourishes my soul every moment I spend swirling the liquid in my glass. It is a relationship with a living product and wisdom it provides that I admire as well.
3. Have you always enjoyed writing?
Yes! It began with a love for reading and understanding, which helped evolve my sense of empathy for different perspectives, then came technique, form, structure and joy. Even though I do write about wine a lot, I don’t consider myself a writer per se. But its the wine that stimulates my writing. I simply interpret my impressions of the moment, what the wine tells me and what I am able to hear. Of course, there is a lot of me in there, in a way my writing really exposes my true self.
4. What inspired you to create your blog site Wine Drinker Journal (Dnevnik Vinopije)?
As I mentioned earlier, I needed to write down my thoughts in order for them not to be forgotten Now I think journal is not the best translation because it implies journey. I complete most of the writing from my sofa, and only just recently started to do more traveling, which is important. “Dnevnik” can translate as a diary. That is a more accurate word, a personal diary available for everybody to read and comment. Miracles of the modern age I guess 😀
5. Besides writing for your personal site, do you write for other publications? Do you teach classes on wine or act as a judge on tasting panels?
I have written some contracted articles for publications, and participated in a few tasting panels for wine evaluations. Now my focus is much more on wine education, specifically as it relates to wine culture. Instead of just swirling the glass and laughing to myself while using exuberant aromatic descriptors, or hiding behind a Powerpoint slideshow preaching a class to boredom, I actually spark the passion within participants so they can approach wine with the right mindset, enabling them to educate themselves.
6. Which wine regions are you interested in the most?
My mind could explode right now. I could just have a nervous breakdown! Off the top of my head, and just naming a few, in the Old World: Santorini (Greece), dry Furmints of Tokaj (Hungary), Carso (Slovenian/Italian border), parts of Friuli and Alto Adige (Italy), Sicily and Etna especially (Italy), classic Bordeaux, the Aube region of Champagne with their Blanc de Noirs, Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), Vinho Verde & Douro & Dao (Portugal), Spain, the entire Loire valley from Muscadet to Sancerre where I especially adore Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. Plenty more comes to mind and of course Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia. Obviously, I think I am too young to focus, right?
7. What is your process for evaluating a wine?
Is it alive? Does it have depth? Does it have a soul? Valorization of a wine is not my thing. One thing is appreciated though: The wine can only be properly assessed once it resting comfortably in your belly The “process” is always the same.
8. What are some grape varietals or wine producers, particularly from Central/Eastern Europe, you think Americans should know about?
For serious wine crowd in search for the Holy Grail, I will recommend what I prefer. To focus on Croatia: a good Plavac Mali, a good Teran, a good Malvasia Istriana, a good Graševina and a good Pošip or Vugava will do the trick. However, above all else I especially admire the work of wineries like Miloš, Tomac and Coronica in Croatia and Brkić from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Živjeli!
9. What are some of your current favorite wines?
This seems like a logical question with expected answer in a manner of Miles in the movie Sideways. Sort of “lately, I`ve been really into Rieslings” thing, but this is too difficult a question for me. Its crazy I know, but I would prefer not to answer. I appreciate the wine I have in my glass at the moment.
Vogue magazine knows that pét-nat is so hot right now. See this recent article by Kristin Tice Studeman on “Champagne’s Cooler Cousin”.
So what is pét-nat exactly? It’s a natural sparkling wine, made from red or white grapes, bottled during the primary fermentation process. This means the wine reflects the natural sugars from the grapes and the native yeasts, so the result can vary quite a bit…In short, pét-nat is a whole lot of fun because you never quite know exactly what you are going to get, except that it will be light, effervescent, and easy drinking (it is typically low in alcohol).
“I think that’s one of my favorite wine regions in the world; they are doing some very exciting things right now,” says Carroll of Slovenia. This particular wine, from the Štoka Winery in Kras (near the Slovenian-Italian border), comes from an iron-rich terroir. The resulting wine is a little more acidic and high in minerality than most of the pét-nats on this list. Overall, its also one of the more straightforward offerings here.”
It was finally cold enough this morning to start thinking about sweaters and heaven forbid a beanie after a seemingly nine month summer. There are also a few wines that have been waiting for the weather to change as well. Namely, from the Istrian Peninsula where Italy, Croatia and Slovenia all meet along the Adriatic. I also added something from the Posavje and the Kras regions for good measure (both less than 2 hours by car). As the seasonal and justifiable urge to reach for Cru Beaujolais, white Burgundy, white Rhone, Cab Franc, Champagne and Riesling etc… grow closer, the following wines offer an equally justifiable transition to something new. Acid, salt, smoke, earth, tart fruits and bubbles can all be found here, they are just hiding in different places and complimented by flavors unique to this little slice of the Northern Adriatic.
2013 Coronica Gran Malvasia Istriana, Istria, Croatia
The history of the indigenous variety Malvasia Istriana dates back to possibly before the Venetians. Over 30 types are still grown around the Mediterranean. Moreno Coronica’s Malvasia is considered a benchmark in Istria. In lieu of Garrigue, Croatians champion ‘Freškina’ (sent of the sea). Imagine the smell of the sun beating down on rocks covered in sweet briny seaweed. Moreno is therefore dismissive of wines that boast of flavors foreign to Istria, like tropical fruits catering to the “market.” And while aromatic yeasts be damned, he’s not against wood in the right vintages. The Gran Malvasia is aged sur lie in used French barrique for 6 months adding some weight, smoke and texture to the Freškina. A great gateway wine for new and old world Chardonnay drinkers.
2014 Martinčič Cviček (1L), Posavje, Slovenia
Apart from Tuscan Chianti, Cviček is the only wine in the world with a legally protected blend of local red and white grapes (Kraljevina, Laški Rizling, Sylvaner, Zlahtnina (aka Chasselas), Ranfol, Lipna, Žametovka, Franconian and Portugalka (aka Blauer Portugieser). What sets it apart is the low alcohol (8.5-10%), it’s completely dry, and has crazy high acidity often reaching 9-10 g/l. It looks like a dark Rosé with the weight of white and the texture of a red. A very unique and delicious wine. One of the main grapes in the blend is Žametovka which also happens to be same grape as the oldest living vine in Europe. At just over 400 years old, this puts its first harvest right around 1621 when the first Thanksgiving took place.
2014 Štoka Vitovska, 2014 Štoka Teran Rosé and 2014 Štoka Teran Peneče (Pétillant-Naturel), Kras, Slovenia
The Slovenian/Italian border region of the Kras (aka Carso) was historically covered in oak forests until the Venetians deforested nearly everything to build ships and the city of Venice. The resulting erosion, famously strong “burja” winds, and soluble bedrock soil (mostly limestone and dolomite), have since made it great place for grapes to suffer and become great. Fermenting them partially and then crown capping them to finish in bottle is yet another evolution. For Teran this makes perfect sense. Naturally high acidity, low sugar even when ripe, and full of iron rich character, it’s as if you crossed a dry Lambrusco with coagulated blood. Less blood and more fruit for the Rosé. For the Vitovska, although often fermented with extended skin contact, this is perhaps more of a rare creature. Aromatic, savory, and on the complete opposite end of the sparkling butter/toast spectrum. All three Peneče are bright, clean, don’t throw a bunch of sediment (no opening underwater), and ultimately reflect grape over process.
2014 Santomas Refošk, Istra, Slovenia
Roughly 30 miles south of Trieste you’ll hit the Slovenian port town of Koper. Drive a few minutes more up into the hills overlooking the Adriatic until you hit the small town of Šmarje. Overlooking the town at 250 meters above sea level, the Santomas winery is easy to spot along with its herb garden and olive trees growing on its living roof. The Glavina family has cultivated vines, olives and other crops here for 200 years. Refošk here differs from the iron rich soils of Istria and yields a more Cab Franc-y side of the grape planted in the sandy mixes of flysch and marl. More grip, more fruit, and meatiness. This is a ripe coastal red for smoked fish, rich tomato broths, and all those cranberries, persimmons, and pomegranates coming to market.
2012 Piquentum Rouge (Teran) and 2012 Terre (Refošk), Istria, Croatia
Originally built in 1928, converted into war shelter in the early 90s, and now a winery, it’s the classic tale of a son of a Frenchwoman and an Istrian father growing native Croatian grapes in an old Mussolini era concrete water tank. What’s the difference between Teran and Refošk? In short, Refošk is more like Merlot in the context of Bordeaux. More fruit, rounder, and slightly more weight. Teran typically has more acidity, more earth than fruit, and less weight. Historically, both were given to woman after childbirth to combat anemia due to the rich iron content. Both are a great pairing with charcuterie, oily cured fish, fish stews, and blood sausage. Locals also make “Istarska supa,” a slightly warmed broth of either wine, toasted country bread, olive oil, sugar, and a healthy dose of black pepper. See also Istrian hair of the dog.
Check the story called “East goes West — Wines from Central and Eastern Europe are turning American heads” in the latest issue of Imbibe Magazine. With interviews of Jeff Berlin, sommelier at À Côté, Michelle Polzine, owner of 20th Century Cafe, Paul Einbund, wine director for Frances and Octavia in San Francisco, Henry Beylin, sommelier of Los Angeles’ Gjelina, and our own Frank Dietrich, wine writer Jennifer Fiedler explores how wines from Central and Eastern Europe—what she calls the older Old World—are steadily making their way westward to some of the best restaurants’ wine lists.
Twenty years ago, a Plavac Mali or Rebula would have been a rare find on an American wine list of any stature, much less at a tiny local bistro or neighborhood wine shop. But what began as a small trickle of quality Central and Eastern European wine into U.S. markets—a Hungarian dry Furmint here, a Georgian Saperavi there—has gradually grown to a steady stream, buoyed by support from dedicated importers, enthusiastic sommeliers, and a public eager to explore wines outside of the traditional canon. “[These wines] are very unique, and very expressive of where they come from,” says Jeff Berlin, sommelier at À Côté in Oakland, and a longtime booster for wines from the region.