Today we had the privilege to meet Aleksi Tsikhelishvili at his home near Telavi in Kakheti, Georgia. Learning winemaking from his mother, Aleksi started making wines when he was 10-year-old. Today, he makes wonderful organic qvevri wines from Rkatsiteli, the “White King of Kakheti” as he calls the most established white variety of Kakheti, and from the more delicate Mtsvane, the “White Queen of Kakheti”. His amber wines are deeply colored, tannic, savory, and incredibly multilayed. They can also age very well.
He also makes a unique red wine from the rare Jghia grape. The varietal is the opposite of Kakheti’s “Red King”, the full-bodied Saperavi. It has a thin skin and produces a lightly colored red wine with distinctive spicy aromas. It is a lovely wine, fragrant and very well balanced.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without tasting his homemade Chacha—the Georgian grappa—and making several toasts to friendship. After several hugs, we were sad to go but we promised to come back so that we could taste Aleksi’s special Georgian recipe.
The Serbian Orthodox Monastery Tvrdoš is located in southeastern Herzegovina, 2.5 miles west of the old town of Trebinje and less than 20 miles from the Adriatic Sea. Dedicated to The Dominion of the Mother of God, it was built in the late 13th century above the right bank of the Trebisnica river on the foundations of a 4th century Roman church.
The region’s winegrowing tradition dates back to the first hellenic colonies on the Adriatic Coast. The climate is submediterranean with hot summers and mild winters. The Herzegovinian karst soil is shallow, mixed with white crushed stones. These warm and dry conditions are particularly well suited to the native grape varieties Žilavka and Vranac.
Vranac was introduced to South Herzegovina during the AustroHungarian Empire. The name “Vranac”, which means “black horse”, highlights the grape’s dark color as well as its strength and power. When grown on the rocky grounds of Tvrdoš created by a washout of the soil from the surrounding hills, Vranac shows distinctive acids and intense fruity aromas.
Aged for 24 months in old monastic oak barrels, the Monastery Tvrdoš Vranac exhibits a purple red color and savory, earthy aromas on the nose. The palate has a good structure with some tannins and a lively acidity with notes of crushed cassis and blueberry and a nice finish. Try it with grilled lamb chops.
As you drive up and down the Croatian coast and up into the Karst ridden hinterlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is one constant smell: the combination of herbs and rocks. What “Garrigue” is to the French, “Friškina” is to the Balkans – herbs, rocks and salt baking under the sun. It’s also oddly refreshing. Maybe it’s the ocean air, and maybe it’s the super counterintuitive acidity of the wines and olive oils. Whatever it is, very few smells trigger our olfactory memory so violently. We want Brudet (fish stew), Crni Rižoto (squid ink risotto), octopus cooked under “Peka,” Palačinka (crepes) filled with small fish, and everything bathed in Dalmatian olive oil.
Focusing on the Dalmatian coast with a quick jump into Bosnia and Herzegovina (Istrian and Slavonian wines arrive in June), please consider these wines as ideal lubricates for our transition into Spring.
Starting on the Island of Korčula off the Southern Dalmatian Coast, three new Pošips from Frano Banicević’s Toreta winery. Pošip is a white grape that can muster a ton of acidity and alcohol if left unchecked. Farmed well on the windy island it can produce salty, aromatic and lively wines. From stainless steel to acacia fermented, they are a proper introduction to this former Venetian island in the Adriatic.
Back on the mainland south of Dubrovnik in the cooler climate of the Konavle area comes the 2015 Dubrovački Podrumi Crljenak Kaštelanski. AKA Tribidrag. AKA Zinfandel. Grown on impossibly stony terraced vineyards, the result is ripeness that retains its freshness.
Head north toward Dubrovnik but then swerve east for about 30 miles towards the Trebinje river valley. Here you find the 15 th Century Serbian Orthodox Monastery Tvrdoš. From the Brotherhood, we have a fresh 2016 Žilavka, a 2015 Vranac (aged in 100 year old barrels) and given the Monastic heritage, a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. Destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since the Middle Ages, winemaking persevered. In fact, proceeds from the wines actually helps rebuild what was destroyed in the 1990s. These are rustic, bright and engaging wines.
Back towards Dubrovnik and a little north we hit the Pelješac Peninsula and the Miloš Winery. There is too much to say here. Iconic terraced vineyards and one of our favorite families to host and visit. 100% Plavac Mali in both their 2015 Plavac and their flagship 2008 Stagnum. In lieu of the texture, acidity and aging potential of Nebbiolo from Piedmont’s, we have Plavac Mali from Miloš.
Now take some Plavac Mali from Vedran Kiridžija’s esteemed Dingač vineyards overlooking the Adriatic and blend it with the acidity and salt from Leo Gracin’s Babič grown up north in Primošten. Both vineyards look like they were based on a dare. Where Dingač is steep, the Bucavac site in Primošten vineyard is up for UNESCO designation due to the human labor involved. Called “Kontra,” this is one of the most elegant (the 6 years of age helped) and concentrated reds we’ve encountered from Croatia.
Our last stop heading north is the town of Skradin and the nearby Bibich Winery. Alen continues his family’s 500 year winemaking tradition and is a benchmark producer of the Debit grape. The new fresh Debit is the Bibich house wine and we’ve restocked the more macerated and oxidatively aged R5 and Lučica. The house red is the 2016 R6 (Babič, Plavina, Lasin) which are all cousins of Zinfandel in a bright and meaty package. There’s also a limited new batch of Ambra – his passito like Debit.
These are wines that inspire travel, cooking something new, and listening to some Balkan Beats.
A couple of months ago, Cliff Rames, founder of Wines of Croatia and also Contributing-Editor-at-Large for The SOMM Journal, led the SommCon San Diego attendees though a Wines of Croatia presentation, pointing out the connection between Croatia and California and recalling the quest for Zinfandel’s origins:
Geographically, Croatia appeared to be a plausible source and once researchers began testing, they found numerous varieties that shared Zinfandel’s genetic material—including Plavac Mali. After years of study, they traced an exact match: seven vines that were locally called Crljenak Kaštelanski (historically known as Tribidrag) in the Dalmatian region of coastal Croatia.
Plavac Mali, native to the Adriatic Coast, is the offspring of Tribidrag and Dobričić. The region’s extremely dry conditions and lack of irrigation make viticulture difficult and Plavac Mali was preferred over Zinfandel.
Cliff presented the Miloš Stagnum 2007 to showcase how well Plavac Mali can age despite its low acidity and higher alcohol content:
Intriguing aromas of mint, clove, and mushroom. On the palate, notes of bay leaf and green figs mingle around a tannic core of light roasted coffee, mint, chocolate, and plum pudding. A fascinating wine considering its maturity.
We just received the Miloš Stagnum 2008, also a very special wine that has aged perfectly well. Check also the Miloš Plavac Mali 2015, a well-balanced wine, rich and elegant, like all the Miloš wines.
Wines from the several types of volcanic soils—lava, pumice, ash, basalt, and more—can vary widely, but most share complex aromas, mouthwatering high acidity, and salty, savory, earthy flavors. The porosity of these soils stores more water, which contributes to the wines’ characteristic freshness and exuberance.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of romance:
But the image of volcanoes may be the secret reason these wines are getting buzz. As Eric Guido, director of wine and marketing at Morrell and Co., emailed me: “Just think of the romance that surrounds wines grown in soils born of molten earth and ash!”
She highlights eight volcanic wine regions around the world including Somló, Hungary’s smallest wine region, which lies on the slopes of an extinct volcano:
Though the country’s volcanoes are no longer active, violent eruptions millennia ago left behind spectacular basalt deposits in several parts of the country. Somlo, a single volcanic butte known as the “forgotten hat of God,” produces powerful, distinctive whites. Bottle to try: 2015 Somloi Apatsagi Pince Juhfark Somlo($29) is rich, smoky, and savory and made from an almost extinct grape variety, juhfark, which is exclusive to Somlo.
Romance or not, I think volcanic wines are powerful and distinctive and if you like rich, earthy, mineral whites, you’ll enjoy the wines from Somló. You should also read Elin McCoy’s whole article to get a good overview of some of the world’s best volcanic regions.
We are looking forward to our new Dalmatian container, which is coming at the end of the month. It contains a restock of Brkić Plava Greda 2015, a wine that was just reviewed by wine blogger Nenad Trifunović, founder of the leading Croatian wine blog Dnevnik Vinopije (Diary of the Wine-Drinker):
At first, there is a complete lack of common fruit sensations. The fruitful youth is peppermint, almost like a puffy Schioppettina … and completely earthy…Fully dry and succulent at 12.10% alc, more expressive and more durable than any other Blatina. I do not want to mention quality anymore compared to quantity … I want to talk about the beauty of the extract.
Uncompromising as the words on the label: I will make wines like this or I will not make them at all.
When French eonologist Stéphanie Berecz founded Kikelet Pince with her husband Zsolt in Tarcal, Tokaj, she wanted a name that was easy to write and pronounce. She chose Kikelet, which means springtime in Hungarian or more literally “out-waking” (“ki” meaning “out”, “kel” is “to wake up” so “kelet” is technically “waking”).
Kikelet refers to that moment when the young buds open up and the first spring flowers start blooming as the snow melts. Stéphanie told us when we visited the winery some years ago that she was enchanted by the fact that there was a Hungarian word for this moment and that she named the winery after it.
So Spring is in the air and we start craving for brighter, more fruit-forward wines that can be paired with green salads, spring vegetables and fresh fruits. Kikelet’s Hárslevelű and Furmint wines are delicious Springtime wines, quite mineral and savory and full of stony fruit flavors. Also from Hungary, the Gilvesy Bohém Cuvée is a fragrant and zingy blend of Olaszrizling, Pinot Gris, Rhine Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, the Gallay Bistronauta White (60% Pinot blanc, 40% Zenit) is an aromatic and easy going bistro wine, and the Pfneiszl Zefir is a refreshing white with some herbal and spicy notes. The Bibich Debit from Northern Dalmatia and the Carić Bogdanjuša from the island of Hvar are light-bodied and crisp sippers that will give you an early taste of Summer. And then from Slovenia, the Štoka Teran Rosé, Martinčič Pinot Noir Rosé and Santomas LNG Refošk are bright, juicy, and low tannins wines. So pop the cork and fire up the grill, it’s Springtime!
Spitzerberg (German for “Pointy Mountain”), is one of those best plots. This “Mountain” is actually a leftover shoreline from an ancient sea, a 300-meter-high outcropping of limestone South of the Danube in Lower Austria, near the Slovenian border. And it’s perfect for Blaufränkisch, an early budding, late ripening, grape that needs a long growing season to ripen fully.
Dorli Muhr enlisted Douro legend, Dirk Niepoort, to help re-establish her family’s old Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch. Today the vines are at least 50 years old and farmed organically. They vinify using some whole clusters and foot stomping, and without additives (even sulfur) or cultured yeasts, pump-overs or modern tools. The wines are finished with two years in used barrels.
Muhr-Van Der Niepoort, Spitzerberger 2012:
These grapes managed to hang on the vines until October! This crazy long hang time and wild temperature swings towards the end make for a fully ripe but still super-refreshing counterpoint to Samt & Seide, with rich yet tart fruit. Six years on, tertiary umami notes are starting to complement the primary fruit.
“These are little gems that crystalize their unique terroir,” conclude the folks at Flatiron. Clearly, this pointy mountain is also magic.
It’s hard to believe that it was three years ago this month that Blue Danubians Eric and Frank were inducted to the illustrious Confrérie de Tokaj at a ceremony during the Great Tokaj Wine Auction. This year, the 2018 Great Tokaj Wine Auction is on Saturday April 21th at the Great Synagogue in Tokaj. It will feature more than 30 wines including dry Furmint, sweet and dry Szamorodni, and Aszú from Barta, Bodrog Borműhely, Füleky, Kikelet, Patricius, and Samuel Tinon. A percentage of the proceeds will be used to invest in the next auction and for the benefit of the Tokaj wine region.
The Confrérie de Tokaj was formed in 2012 by 100 founding members —many of whom are winemakers — to promote the wines and gastronomy of the Tokaj wine region. The Confrérie organized the first Great Tokaj Wine Auction in 2013 featuring exclusive lots of high quality wine for sale at the auction.
If you’d like to participate to this extraordinary event and taste some rare and unique wines, you can check the program and register here.
Peter Wetzer was working in the wine industry in Austria, commuting from Sopron, Hungary, when he decided to reclaim his homeland’s past: until 1921, Sopron was the capital of Burgenland, a wine region where powerful Blaufränkisch dominates.
In 2007, Peter purchased 2.5 hectares of vineyards, looking for healthy soils, flora and fauna, that he could farm organically. Today, the estate is completely organic and everything is done by hand with minimum intervention in the vineyard and in the family’s 120 year-old cellar.
His Kékfrankos is sourced from 25-60 year-old vines growing on a mixture of clay, red gravel, limestone, and loess. The wine is fermented with native yeasts with no other additives, then aged in used Hungarian barrels before being bottled with no fining or filtration.