We think yes! The wines are truly distinct and the country is gorgeous. Tara Isabella Burton writes about her experience in Georgia for The Wall Street Journal. The entire original article can be read here.
Traveling through Georgia, the tiny post-Soviet country set between the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is always a metabolic endurance test. Wine, brandy, chacha—a grape-skin moonshine with the flavor of gasoline schnapps—all these are habitually, exuberantly, foisted upon any foreigner who sits still long enough. But in the country’s primary wine region of Kakheti—according to Georgians, the birthplace of wine itself—consumption seems to be the primary occupation.
Contributed by Christine Havens, Portland-based wine writer and former winemaker. Original review can be found here.
A country with an ancient wine growing and winemaking heritage, Georgia is little more than a blip on the radar of the American wine scene. I hope that will change with time, as I have been favorably impressed by the wines I’ve sampled thus far. Credited as the birthplace of viticulture and even vitis vinifera itself, the country is home to some 500 indigenous varieties, the most widely cultivated of which are Saperavi and Rkatsiteli. (Some years ago, my former mother-in-law had planted a few rows of Rkatsiteli, a think skinned, bronzy-pink white variety that seemed oddly out of place with our more conventional rows of Syrah, Cabernet and Chardonnay. But that is another story, for another time.)
The 2013 Kindzmarauli Marani Dry Red Saperavi offers up ripe, juicy plums, dried black cherries and earthy terra cotta notes. There is a pronounced but pleasant herbaceous note on the nose and palate, something akin to bay leaf or green wood intertwining a rather gorgeous structure trussed in firm tannins that are equally distributed across the palate. The mouthfeel of this wine is, in many ways reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s elegant, yet slightly rustic and better still, very reasonably priced.
Since April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring? Floral wines, naturally. Enjoying aromatic wines is a sure-fire path to sensory pleasure. These five wines selected by our editors deliver vibrant floral bouquets—even if it’s raining outside.
There’s nothing obvious about this subtle and elegant wine.The nose holds back and the taut palate unfurls slowly to show a floral, fruity wine reminiscent of crimson peony petals as much as of dark, juicy cherries. A sensuous, intriguing wine of great elegance whose name means “Silk & Velvet.” —Anne Krebiehl
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a potica baking workshop hosted by the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco. I knew that potica was an important, sweet staple for Slovenians but little else. When I saw the invitation, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more and have the chance to taste this delicacy prepared by local experts. I’m glad I did!
Potica (pronounced po-teet-sa), which roughly means “to wrap in” in Slovene, is a traditional cake often served at holiday celebrations, especially Easter. Every family has its favorite recipe but it is usually a rolled bread filled with a walnut paste. It can be shaped as a log, baked in a loaf pan or in a Bundt pan.
It was a fun afternoon featuring 3 different variations on the treat. I chose one to share with you here and hope that you will give it a try, perhaps as a snack along side a Slovenian wine?
1 c. plus 6 T. butter, melted and cooled
1 c. + 1 t. sugar
6 egg yolks
1-1/2 c. sour cream
2 packages dry yeast
3/4 c. warm milk
6 c. flour
1 t. salt
In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar, egg yolks, and sour cream. Mix well.
In a small bowl, proof yeast in warm milk and sugar. Add yeast to the first mixture. Mix well.
Sift flour and salt. Add to the mixture in the large bowl and stir to combine. You should have a soft, sticky dough. Turn it out on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Divide dough into four even balls and flatten them slightly. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.
2 pounds (about 6-1/2 cups) finely ground walnuts
1 c. sugar
1 T. cinnamon
dash of salt (optional)
1⁄2 cup melted butter
honey to taste, 1/2 to 1 cup
(Optional: dried cranberries or raisins)
It is easiest to use a floured cloth to roll out the dough. I like to cover the kitchen table with a tablecloth and then put a floured pillowcase in the center. The pillowcase provides a good guide for shaping and it can also be used to nudge the roll along.
Remove a ball of dough from refrigerator and place it on floured surface. Roll it into a rectangle. The dough should be thinner than pie crust but thicker than strudel or phyllo. I ended up with a 15 x 26 inch rectangle.
Spread the dough with 2 T. melted butter and a quarter of the nut/sugar mixture, which should be about 2 cups. Warm the honey in a saucepan of hot water to thin it slightly. Drizzle the dough with 2-4 T. of honey.
Roll up the dough, beginning from the short end. After every few turns, prick the dough with a fork to eliminate air bubbles. Pinch seam and ends closed and fold ends under. Place seam side down on baking sheet or rectangular pan that has been oiled or lined with parchment paper.
Repeat with remaining balls of dough, for a total of four loaves.
Let potica rise 1-1/4 hours. (Note: Loaves don’t rise much.) Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. If necessary, bake for 10 minutes more at 325 degrees. Let cool before slicing. To store, wrap in aluminum foil. Potica tastes better the next day. It stores well. It also freezes well.
For the past decade, wines from Central and Eastern Europe have been something of a sommelier secret stateside. The names can be hard to pronounce (hárslevelű, anyone?), but the best bottles offer exceptional value and tend to work extremely well with food.
Sommeliers and wine insiders have been raving about furmint for years. The grape, which is commonly used to make Hungary’s famous sweet wines, also makes an intriguing dry wine with medium- to full-body and high acidity (read: an ideal wine to pair with food).
Croatia may have initially gained some international fame for its red wines, but many sommeliers now feel that the white Malvasia coming out of the country is some of the best representations of the grape in Europe. When made in a dry style, it makes a crisp wine with some weight in the body, similar to dry Chenin Blanc.
Georgian wines can be tricky to pin down from producer to producer. Some are quite rustic and oxidative, while a growing number offer more polish. Natural wine converts prize the skin-fermented wines made in traditional clay qvevri (clay pots). A fair warning: the unusual orange colored wines are not to everyone’s taste, but are worth a try—maybe you’ll be the next super fan.
I would like to introduce you to the wine grape Otskhanuri Sapere.
Otskhanuri Sapere is one of the oldest red grapes in Georgia. It is believed that the grape originated from the village of “Otskhana” in the Guria region, in the western part of the country. Sapere loosely translates to “something you color with” in Georgian. So, it is known as “Otskana’s colorful” or Otskhanuri Sapere.
These days, the best examples of Otskhanuri Sapere are found in the districts of Baghdati, Zestaponi, and Terjola in the Imereti region of central Georgia. The grape can also be found in select locations in the Racha region of northern Georgia. It is also believed that while this grape is centuries old, it is maybe only 50% domesticated and 50% wild. Having seen the vineyard and tasted the grape, I can understand this belief. It also makes sense since Georgia is one of the few places left on Earth where “wild” wine grapes still exist.
One of the noble attributes of Otskhanuri Sapere is the high level of anthocyanins found in the grape. In short, this grape has crazy color and is used to boost the color of other wine grapes. On its own, this wine grape creates some of the darkest, deepest, densest wines that I have every come across. Tannat and Touriga Nacional wish that they were this dark! This wine is inky BLACK, with a gorgeous black purple hue. It stains everything it touches, including your glass. Treat this wine like you would beet juice, because it will show its dominance with anything that it comes into contact with.
I had the pleasure of being introduced to this wine grape on my trip to Georgia back in March of 2014. I was spending the day with winemaker and Renaissance man, Ramaz Nikoladze. He was kind enough to drive me around Imereti to visit a few producers that he works with and respects. On our last stop of the day, I remember him telling me that we were making one more stop and that “we going to visit very rare grape. Wild. Black.” After having tasted some inspirational white and amber wines all day, a black wine sounded like the perfect ending to a near perfect day.
Little did I know, as we entered the tiny village of Zeda Kldeeti, that I was about to be given one of the first tastes of a wine made from an extremely rare grape by Amiran Vepkhvadze. A wine that, to-date, is still the most haunting wine I have ever experienced.
Sometimes you meet a winemaker and their wines taste like their personality. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Amiran and his lovely wife. We were warmly greeted at the entrance to their home, and they whisked us to the vineyard. Daylight was fleeting so we had to hike at a brisk pace in order to see the vineyard in good light. We crossed a football field (i.e. soccer field), a few orchards, and a couple of farmhouses until we came upon Amiran’s Otskhanuri Sapere vineyard.
At the first sight of this vineyard I thought; “these vines want to grow HIGH!” This could be another indication of the grapes “wild” origins. The fruiting zone is easily six feet off of the ground and looks like an ancient version of a pergola trellis system. Ramaz indicated that the vines love to climb and if Amiran had taller stakes, the vines would be even happier. As it turns out, this is one of the largest contiguous plantings of Otskhanuri Sapere in all of Georgia and it is probably only ½ an acre. Like I said, this is a very rare wine grape.
Back in the cellar, with dusk approaching, Amiran dutifully opened his qvevri for us to try his wine. Since it was March, I’m guessing that this was one of the first times he had opened it since harvest. There was lots of excitement and anticipation in the air. Even Ramaz had a twinkle in his eye. When Amiran dipped that first glass into the qvevri, it became glazed in a black-purple-ish liquid. I remember seeing the light shimmering off the top of the qvevri, unable to penetrate through. Christ, It looked like a tar pit or a vat of motor oil.
There are those special moments in the wine industry when a wine simply defies explanation. You might have tasted thousands of wines, but one leaves you stunned and speechless. You have no reference point for it. This was one of those times. This is a singular wine. It was the thickness of this wine that was really impressive, as were the bright acids, the stones, the flowery aromatics, and the creosote. It was all tightly woven into this milkshake-thick wine. Was this even wine? Have I ever really had wine until now? Questions and curiosities were flooding my head.
I walked over to the open window in the cellar and raised my stained glass to the last remaining light of the day to marvel at the color of this wine, to see the wine seem to defy gravity by completely coating the glass, not appearing to move. I had to take a moment away from everyone to wrap my head around what I was seeing, feeling, tasting, and experiencing. When I walked back over to the group, Amiran could see the confusion on my face and said one word to me. He said; “wild”. That was the most simple, poetic, and concise way to describe Otskhanuri Sapere. It is truly and literally “wild”.
As our whirlwind vineyard tour and tasting finished, our travel schedule left us very little time with Amiran and his wife. Much is still to be learned about this grape and I hope that on my next visit to Georgia, that I get to enjoy a meal with them so we can talk more about this hauntingly beautiful wine grape, one who’s origins are centuries old, but without having been tamed by time, man, or full domestication. Most importantly, I want to be able to thank them in person for sharing one of their first wines with me and to thank them for curating this wild wine grape.
As a wine professional, visiting Georgia feels like a religious pilgrimage. There is so much to learn by honoring the past, by understanding tradition, and by drinking what used to be and yet still is.
Below is a short video clip of my travels to Georgia. I hope that it inspires you to buy Amiran’s wines and hopefully, if you are lucky, it will inspire you to visit. Georgia is one of the most important wine regions in the world. It is arguably the birthplace of wine and has the longest continuous wine culture in the world.
Last night at Jadis wine bar on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side I had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind with the wonderful fragrance that Austrian wine is capable of. I’m not talking about the in-your-face kind of aromas that many so-called Icon Wines from around the globe have – they are often so over-concentrated that they slams into you like rogue waves – much less the kind of overwhelming artificiality that many modern fragrances (for men and for women!) display. No, I’m talking about the aromatic delicacy that is possible in various parts of Austria, particularly with indigenous grape varieties like the white Grüner Veltliner and the red Blaufränkisch (aka Kékfrankos / Lemberger), or well-integrated immigrants like the white Riesling (from Germany) and Sauvignon Blanc (from the Loire in France).
Let’s start with tannic red wines, because this is the category of wine that many consumers imagine cannot ever be fragrantly aromatic. Blaufränkisch isn’t the only grape that proves this is possible (Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in the right location are also examples of this), but it is a very important one. Nowhere that I know of does it give more fragrant wines than on the slopes of the Spitzerberg in the small region of Carnuntum (named after the ancient Roman city there). Dorli Muhr of the Muhr – van der Niepoort estate winery, pictured above, is the most important producer of these wines and in the 2013 vintage she made the finest Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch I ever tasted. Even the regular bottling, the 2013 Samt & Seide meaning velvet & silk, has a fragrance in which lemon freshness mingles with all manner of summer flowers. In common with all Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch, this is a sleek wine with a forthright acidity, but also carries a generous load of dry tannins that give it power and the ability to age at least 5 years, maybe much longer. For under $25 retail this is a very serious wine.
Dorli’s 2013 Spitzerberg has the same basic characteristics, but there’s an earthiness behind the floral charm. The one thing that is eye-popping about this it is how vivid and energized it tastes, a dramatic contrast to many warm climate reds with their high alcoholic content and low acidity levels. In common with the best Blaufränkisch from Moric (in Mittelburgenland) and Uwe Schiefer (in Südburgenland), this wine has enormous depth and serious dry tannins, yet great balance and delicacy. For me, those are the hallmarks of world-class wines from this grape. If you are longing for red wines that make bold statements that can be fully understood with the first sip, move on somewhere else fast (Welcome to Cabernet Country!), but if you want the wine to tease, tantalize, fascinate and astonish you, then this is a wine you must try. Red Burgundies or Piemonte Nebbiolos that do all this cost several times this wine’s price tag of about $50. Those seeking a slightly more fruity version of this experience are recommended the 2012 vintage of both these wines. They are also a little more supple and fleshy.
By the way, none of the Muhr – van der Niepoort reds have any directly perceptible oak character (although there is a hint of it in there if go hunting for it and are really sensitive to these aromas), in common with the wines from Moric and Uwe Schiefer. This is all a great achievement considering that this estate winery was founded in 2002 and Dorli is a self-taught winemaker. Her main profession is public relations (at her Wine & Partners company in Vienna).
How is this freshness and elegance possible in a region with rather hot summers like the Carnuntum? “The summer isn’t only warm it’s also usually very dry and I think the vines shot down for periods, that is the drought slows the ripening process down,” Dorli explained, “in 2013 the summer was very dry it turned very cool in September and that slowed the ripening down again.” These therefore qualify as genuinely slow wines.
The better-known side of Austrian wine fragrance is that of the dry whites, but these days those wines are often richly aromatic, rather than delicate and subtle. That’s not a criticism, rather it’s an observation about how climate change has made some Austrian dry whites bolder and more imposing. Ilse Maier, pictured above, has been making dry whites with great freshness and fragrance at her family’s the Geyerhof estate winery in the southern part of the Kremstal region (directly neighboring the Wachau on the right bank of the Danube). Here the secret to the wines’ special personality is the altitude of the vineyards that all lie between 270 and 300 meters / 885 – 985 feet above sea level. Even in the age of climate change these are cool climate wines in the full sense of those words. However, to capture that special character the winemaker must decide to go with what nature gives her, then adapt to that in the vineyard, press house and cellar. That is what Ilse Maier has been perfecting at Geyerhof during the last decade.
Her 2014 Steinleithn Grüner Veltliner has a kaleidoscopic fragrance that spans the entire range of white and yellow fruits along with many fresh herbs. It has none of the exotic fruit aromas or the lushness of flavor and texture that many high-end Grüner Veltliners have in their youth, and it is stunningly light on its feet for a dry white with this kind of flavor concentration. It weighs in at just 12.5% alcohol and under $30, yet has a great future ahead of it, assuming that you can resist it’s abundant charms. The striking thing about the recently bottles 2015 Rosensteig Grüner Veltliner (herbal and citrusy with great vitality) and the 2015 Hoher Rain Grüner Veltliner (wonderful interplay of sweet vegetal aromas and spring-like freshness) is how bright their acidity tastes although analytically it is clearly lower than in the previous two vintages. Often when Grooner has lowish acidity it becomes a bit broad, but not these wines. Then there’s Ilse Maier’s 2015 Sprinzenberg Riesling (subtle peach and spice aromas) that has an athletic energy and vibrancy that wouldn’t be possible if the acidity was too low. Of course, these 2015s are still super-young and will show much better in a few months time, or a few years if you have the patience.
No doubt some readers will ask why I didn’t start with the observation that these are two women winemakers. To me, it is obvious that women can make excellent wines just like than man, or vice versa. Only in latently sexist societies is there ever any doubt about that fact or any need to talk about this subject!
Somló is Hungary’s smallest appellation and once an underwater volcano. Now dormant, its slopes of ancient sea sediment, hardened lava, and basalt are home to some of Hungary’s steepest, most densely planted vineyards. Somló is also home to winemaker Fekete Béla, who only recently retired after 30 + years tending the same vineyard. Our spotlight this week is his Juhfark as reviewed by Portland-based wine writer, Christine Havens:
From an obscure, nearly extinct grape variety, Juhfark translated literally means “sheep’s tail” so named because tightly clustered bunches have a distinctive curve at the tip. Found only in the Somló region of Hungary, this non-aromatic variety is typically aged in large oak barriques. Meyer lemon zest, cling peaches, chamomile, and white flowers round out the nose. It’s a broad-shouldered white with a coursing vein of acidity, along with a mineral upwelling that showcases an ashy, volcanic soil type.
Although Béla recommends drinking it with roasted wild fowl, rich cheeses, smoked fish, and subtly spicy dishes are all welcome pairings.
A group of Blue Danubians are preparing a trip to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast around the middle of April. As we started to put together our agenda we realized we should make visiting the original Zinfandel, or as the grape is known in Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski vineyards a top priority. This brought to mind the book written by Jasenka Piljac Žegarac, one of the scientists on Dr. Carole Meredith’s team who participated in the discovery of Zinfandel’s Croatian heritage. We got in touch with her to find out more and prepare for our own journey of discovery.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What is your professional background?
I was born in Croatia, but largely educated in the US where I completed both my high school and college education (UC Davis, biochemistry). I come from a family of well-established research scientists, physicians, and authors. Therefore, although my background is in plant biology (PhD) and natural products chemistry (postdoctoral work), I’ve always had an interest in medicine, medical research, and science writing.
2. What brought you to UC Davis to trace the origins of Zinfandel?
My family moved to Davis from Croatia in early 1990s, due to ongoing collaborations that my parents had with researchers from UC Davis. But, I believe that a touch of fate brought me to Prof. Carole Meredith’s lab in 1997. In my last year of undergraduate studies, I was looking to gain some hands-on laboratory experience. While searching through the job postings, I came across an advertisement for a research assistant position in her lab. At the time, Prof. Meredith was conducting cutting-edge grape genetics studies and I immediately got interested in her projects. But, I did not start with research work right off. I slowly worked my way up and got more involved in research after returning to work in the lab on several occasions.
The Zinfandel project started about a year later, in 1998, and I first got involved as a translator, then as Prof. Meredith’s companion during the fieldwork in Croatia, and later as a researcher. I should add that in my career as a research scientist, I’ve never encountered a group of scientists who were so cooperative and fun to work with as the Meredith group. This first positive experience was very encouraging to me as a young scientist.
3. Share a bit about this exciting research project you played a role in. What were some of the critical moments?
There were many ups and downs in the research, as well as some funny, lost-in-translation-type moments during our vineyard-hopping trip in Croatia in 1998. We met many Croatian vintners who helped us find our way through the vineyards along the coast. Everyone was excited about the possibility of having the true Zinfandel in their vineyard. It was a real opportunity for me to see the impact that scientific research can have on the lives of people outside the lab. And this is when the idea to write a book first came to my mind.
We were collecting leaf samples for DNA analyses in the last weeks of May, and the decisions about which vines to sample were largely based on leaf morphology. The problem was that most leaves resembled those of Zinfandel, and that there were so many vineyards with Zinfandel “suspects” on Dalmatian islands. However, to our disappointment, none of the many candidates turned out to match Zinfandel during the 1998 trip, and the discovery of Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag came two years later.
4. What is your theory on how Zinfandel came to be in Croatia? When did it arrive in the US?
I think that we will never really know for sure. One theory proposes that Zinfandel was included as an accession from the Schonbrunn imperial collection, and brought over to the East coast by George Gibbs along with many other European grape varieties. But I also think that we cannot exclude the possibility that one of the many Croatian immigrants traveling to North America brought a cutting of Zinfandel along as a ”piece of home”. Winemaking is so integrated into the lives of people from Dalmatia, because in coastal Croatia, vine products were the only source of income for many families for centuries. I would not be surprised if vines were one thing that Dalmatian immigrants could not part with during their voyage to America.
5. In Croatia, the grape is called by many different names, most commonly Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag. There seems to be much debate about what the grape should be called. What is your opinion?
This is a difficult question. Winegrowers become attached to the names used traditionally for grapes in their region, which is also often their home. This is a matter of tradition and a family/national legacy, if you will. There is a lot of emotion involved in taking “ownership” of a grape name, and it is not much different than taking ownership of our personal names. It would be best to let the winemakers growing Crljenak and Tribidrag decide, or include both names as synonyms.
6. Plavac Mali, Vranac, Blahtina, Babic, Plavina, Lasin- these are just a few of the grapes thought to belong to the same family as Zinfandel. What can you tell us about the family aspect of the grape?
Some of the grapes you mentioned (Plavac mali, Babic, Vranac, Plavina) are still well-established in Croatia today. In fact, Plavac mali and Babic are the two most prominent red wine grape cultivars of central and southern Dalmatia. Due to their resilience and quality. these grapes have survived the turbulent Croatian viticultural past, which included pests, diseases and challenging economic conditions. Plavac mali, the “child” of Zinfandel, has at least a 150-year long tradition in Dalmatia. Babic vines thrive on the karst terrain surrounding Primosten, and Babic vineyards have been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to their exquisite natural beauty.
To sum it up, Zinfandel is closely related to some very resistant, well-known, and high-quality red grapes of Croatia, which have also realized their winemaking potential.
7. Ridge Vineyards announced last year a planting of Crljenak Kaštelanski clones in California at their Lytton Springs vineyard. What are your thoughts? Have you heard of many other projects like this? Do you think CK has a future in CA?
Yes, I think that Crljenak Kaštelanski has a future in CA. I think that Zin lovers will be very interested in comparing and contrasting the attributes of wines made from Zinfandel and Crljenak Kaštelanski grapes grown under similar conditions. If you want to learn more about a person you just met, then you go and meet their family. If you want to learn more about Zinfandel and understand its full potential as a wine grape, then you need to go and meet its relatives as well.
8. What else have you been up to since working on this project and writing your book “Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story”?
I launched a science/medical writing business (www.thescientistwriter.com) in the scope of which I help clients from the food, pharma and biotech industries with scientific and medical content development. This work lets me combine my passion for science and medical research, with my writing talent, into a service that helps my clients effectively communicate important research findings. I write for both professional and lay audiences on a range of therapeutic areas and scientific topics.
More then ten years after publishing “Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story”, it gives me great satisfaction to continue working on dissemination of important scientific and medical research findings to wide audiences.
Jasenka welcomes any inquiries about her research work and writing here.
Our friend James the Wine Guy just posted another great video review, this time of the delicious Austrian red Muhr-van der Niepoort Samt & Seide. The name means Velvet & Silk in German and is an accurate description of the wine’s character. Composed of 100% Blaufränkisch from the extreme eastern Austrian winegrowing region Carnuntum, it speaks with authority and elegance in equal measure.
I love, love, love Austrian red wines…I just delight in this wine. I think it’s so expressive and beautiful.
James gives this wine 94 points out of 100 finding fruit, earth, and floral aromatics. He suggests pairing it with foods like pork, beef, salmon, red sauce dishes, and anything spiced with paprika. Watch the whole review below.
Try a bottle or even better, buy our Austrian 6-pack! It includes the Bernreiter Heuriger 2014 (1 Liter), the Bernreiter Gemischter Satz 2013, the Geyerhof Grüner Veltliner Rosensteig 2014, the Geyerhof Zweigelt Ried Richtern 2011, the Muhr-van der Niepoort Samt & Seide 2012 and the Muhr-van der Niepoort Spitzerberg 2012. All 6 bottles for just $150! Sign up for Club Vino Danubia and get free shipping!