Our featured wine this week just appeared in an article written by acclaimed New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov. Samuel Tinon produces his wine in Hungary’s oldest and most celebrated wine region: Tokaj. The word “Aszú” refers to the dried hand picked botrytis infected grapes. Puttonyos (literally baskets) refers to the ratio of Aszú berries to base wine. For a 5 Puttonyos, the residual sugar must have a minimum of 120 g/l. These Aszú berries are then mashed into a super sweet thick black paste and macerated in a finished dry wine for a month. Finally the wine spends two long years fermenting in barrel, constantly in contact with oxygen. This balance between building good oxidation into the wine brings out an incredible aromatic profile.
While similar, a 2005 5 puttonyos aszú from Samuel Tinon is also entirely different, as if the botrytis had taken the wine in unexpected directions that year. The peach and apple flavors beckon, as does the great acidity and balance, but the flavors seem wrapped in hazelnut and caramel, beautifully fresh and complex.
These aszu wines are perhaps my favorite sweet wines, astoundingly fragrant and honeyed, yet fresh, balanced and refreshing. Their complexities unfold in gorgeous waves that echo in the mouth. In every way, they signify the sweetness of life and inspire the joy of the holidays.
Part two of our interview with Stetson focusing on introducing our new Georgian producers and some of the indigenous varietals to become familiar with. Read part one of our interview here.
Let’s talk about the producers. How would you introduce them?
S: I’ll start with Kindzmarauli Marani and Shumi who share a similar story. Both are larger, modern wineries, producing “European-style” wines. This means that instead of qvevri they use stainless steel and/or oak barrels. They are located on either side of the Alazani River, in Kakheti — Georgia’s largest wine region — within two major appellations. Kindzmarauli Marani is on the left bank in the Kindzmarauli appellation, known for semi-sweet reds. Shumi is on the right bank within Tsinandali, an important white wine appellation. Even though both are considered large wineries, there is so much care that goes into the wines. Instead of purchasing fruit, both source from their own estates. Both are also dedicated to Georgia’s viticultural future. You can find experimental vineyards at both estates with hundreds of varietals, both indigenous and international. The goal is to see which grapes are most successful in their conditions. It’s encouraging to see this interest in supporting Georgia’s rich viticultural heritage from large and small producers alike.
The rest of the producers employ more traditional methods, using qvevri for fermentation and aging. If you want a window into the past, drink the wines from Shavnabada Monastery. This Orthodox monastery is located on the outskirts of Tbilisi, where classical wines are made under the strict supervision of the Monks. These Monks have been instrumental in making high quality qvevri wines for many centuries. The monastery is so far off the beaten path that we would not have known about it had it not been for Jean-Michel Morel of Kabaj in Slovenia. He apprenticed at this winery and was the one that introduced us to the wines. Drinking these wines is an almost spiritual or sacred experience.
Next is Amiran, who makes one wine, Otskhanuri Sapere, in Imereti, Western Georgia. Amiran’s vineyard is the largest contiguous plot of Otskhanuri Sapere anywhere in the world. The vines were in his family for a long time and the fruit was previously sold to other wineries. Formerly a lawyer, Amiran had no plans to become a winemaker. Over the years, as the prices other wineries would pay for the grapes steadily decreased, Amiran decided to make his own wine. Essentially he is a hobbyist with good taste who has quickly learned to produce exceptional wines. This is a testament to the fruit that he grows and that it is the right grape for the place. Naturally, Amiran does everything himself, from pruning to bottling, to make this one singular wine.
Then there is Beka Gotsadze of Gotsa Winery. While everything is based on traditional methods i.e the use of qvevri, Beka is not afraid to break convention for the sake of quality. The winery is in the hills of the Asureti Valley, in the appellation of Kartli, in Eastern Georgia. Beka chose this location for its cool climate; he is a bit obsessed with maintaining a cool temperature! He is a former architect which is something you can pick up on by observing his many designs and innovations in the winery. From drilling holes in the bottom of the qvevri to allow gravity flow to wrapping the qvevri with silicon tubing for temperature control, Beka is not afraid to try new things in the quest to best express each variety.
What about the grape varieties? What sort of characteristics should we expect?
S: All of the wines are produced from indigenous, Georgian varieties, which tend to display more savory and herbaceous aromas and flavors. Georgia’s incredible diversity of varieties suggest that it is one of, if not the first place, that wild grape vines were first domesticated.
Otskhanuri Sapere for instance is one of the most distinct wines you will ever encounter. The example from Amiran is black, viscous, powerful, and brimming with character. I like to tell the story of when I saw Amiran open the qvevri and dip the wine thief in to retrieve a sample. When I peered into the qvevri, I saw this shiny black cap resembling onyx. When he dipped the thief in, it disappear, as if going into a void. This wine will change your perspective and have you saying, “Maybe I haven’t had red wine until now.”
Chinuri is a local white variety from Kartli, which is why we have one from Gotsa. The variety is prone to quick oxidation so it needs to be handled carefully. When it is, you experience a range of spicy, tea-like flavors.
Saperavi is the red variety to know. It is the most widely grown grape in Georgia and can range from sweet to dry. It’s textured, dense, complex, velvety, chewy, and rich without being alcoholic. Its typical profile is an intense berry flavor accompanied by a strong woodsy/cedar note.
There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the full potential of Rkatsiteli, Georgia’s most-planted white grape. It does have some familiar flavors of apple/pear but the character really varies depending on winemaking. Mtsvane is a bit more structured, robust, and rich without being heavy. There is a certain “green” edge to the grape which sets it apart. Kisi is the most juicy, aromatic, and pleasant of the white varieties.
The journey down the Danube river continues! As you know, our company is named Blue Danube Wine because the wines we source come from the countries through which the Danube river flows. If you continue to follow the river, it empties into the Black Sea, at the Republic of Georgia. It only makes sense that we expand our selection of Georgian wines. Stetson Robbins, our New York Sales manager, has been to Georgia twice and personally selected the new wines we are excited to introduce. Read our interview with him to learn more about the country, the wines, and why you need to try them! Be sure to read part two for more information on the producers and grape varieties.
Tell us a bit about Georgia as a country?
S: What a special place! I was struck during my visits by the geological, biological, and cultural differences throughout the relatively small country.
Georgia is truly at the crossroads of civilization. The triangle-shaped country is one of Europe’s most diverse landscapes. Situated between a desert, Caucasian peaks, and the Black and Caspian seas, many different climatic influences can be seen. This also contributes to a density of biological diversity. As you move around the country, you begin to notice different aromas which relate to the local food and wine.
As it relates to wine, archaeological exploration has unearthed a terra cotta vessel decorated with grapevine ornamentation in present day Georgia. Carbon dating has revealed that the vitus vinifera seeds found inside the vessel date back 8,000 years! This is the earliest evidence to date of utilizing grapes for winemaking.
When you visit, it just makes sense that Georgia has been producing wine for so long. It is hard to describe, but that’s a feeling that completely overwhelms you upon arrival.
How should we understand Georgian food and wine culture? What are some typical Georgian foods?
S: The food is simply amazing. After returning from my last visit to Georgia, I didn’t eat for a week because I was spoiled by the freshness and superior quality of the food there. As I mentioned earlier, Georgia’s location puts it at a crossroads between Europe and Asia. While all these different cultures have impacted the cuisine, it is still anomalous, with dishes and preparations not seen elsewhere. One example of this is the tradition of “supra”. The word means tablecloth in Georgian, which is fitting since an elaborate spread of dishes is presented family-style on the dining table. There are a few rules to supra i.e special toasts, required number of guests, but at the basic level, all that is required is good food and wine.
The Georgian table is extremely diverse. Vegetable dishes and grilled meats are very popular. Skewers cooked over hot grapevines are a common sight. All the dishes are intensely flavored. The best match for all these mixed, strong flavors? Plenty of wine, of course! The traditional white wines fermented in terra cotta vessels, also known as qvevri, are perhaps the best suited. These wines are more savory than fruity with the perfect structure.
Why is it important for Blue Danube Wine to expand the Georgian wine portfolio?
S: Georgia displays consistent quality across the board. There are so many great wines to choose from that we could have easily selected more. Also Georgia has made a unique contribution to the world of winemaking. The qvevri is distinctively Georgian, just as barriques are distinctively French.
Our goal is to try to understand Georgia through the wines we have selected. Part of the fun of working as an importer is finding wines/regions that have never been widely discovered. In many more prominent wine regions, this is impossible because it has all been explored by many different people.
The wines we chose represent a range from the three primary appellations: Kakheti, Kartli, and Imereti.
What influence does the qvevri have on the wines?
S: Qvevri tends to accentuate the savory, herbal qualities of the grapes, while the fruit character dominates in the “Euro-style” wines. Qvevri wines compliment foods, almost like a sauce or condiment.
The other influence can be seen more in the white wines, which turn a golden amber color after spending time in the qvevri with skins, stems, and seeds. These are tannic whites that drink more like reds and suit a wide range of foods.
“Euro-style” vs. Qvevri…which is more important for Georgia?
S: Georgia is experiencing a renaissance at the moment and qvevri wine making is being revived. Honestly, there is a longer unbroken history of producing European-style wines than qvevri wines. Currently only 1% of wine production in the country is qvevri style. There is a serious lack of knowledge with this style of production which leads to inconsistent wines.
In our case, it was the qvevri wines that attracted our interest but it is the “Euro-style” wines that convince us of the market potential for Georgian wines in the United States. It will be interesting to see how the market develops and whether we will see demand shift.
At what temperature should the different styles of wine be served?
S: “Euro-style” wines should be served at the same recommended temperatures for all wines; whites 44-57 degrees and reds 58-65 degrees.
The qvevri wines, regardless of color, should be served at or just above cellar temperature, around 58-60 degrees.
Looking for a different type of sparkler for your holiday celebrations? Why not try one of the Bagrationi Sparkling wines from Georgia? Founded in 1937, Bagrationi is the first specialized company producing sparkling wine in Georgia. Nowadays, Bagrationi 1882 is the Georgian market leader of sparkling wines.
A dry sparkling wine from the country of Georgia, made from Chinebuli, Mtsvane, and Tsitska grapes. The fragrance has a faintly grapey fruitiness, suggesting musk melon and white flowers, and its active, crackly body feels green-citrusy but with a welcome bitter finish. This is a Charmat method wine so its complexity is modest, but the approach highlights the fruits’ freshness and pure flavors. More interesting than much Prosecco at this price level. Pair with fresh cheeses, crackers, snacks. 12% abv
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!