I’ll Drink to That! Exclusive interview with Samuel Tinon

Samuel Tinon
Photo credit: Holley Robbins

If you like Tokaj, or if you want to learn more about Tokaj, you should check I’ll Drink to That!‘s latest episode.

I’ll Drink to That! is a podcast that releases new interviews of sommeliers, vintners, importers, retailers, and wine journalists every Tuesday and Friday. Episode 164 features an interview with Tokaj guru Samuel Tinon during his recent visit to New York City.

Born in Bordeaux in 1966, Samuel Tinon comes from a wine producing family in Sainte Croix du Mont, a sweet wine appellation on the Garonne River across from Sauternes. After his wine studies in Bordeaux and Montpellier, Samuel traveled to Spain and Chile. In 1999, he had the opportunity to work in Hungary in the Tokaj region. He didn’t know much about Hungary but there is a strong connection between sweet wine making in Bordeaux and Tokaj. He was the first French winemaker to arrive in the region, just a month after the departure of the Soviet Army.

Interview Highlights

How he started his winery
In 2000, when his contract with Oremus ended, Samuel decided to buy some land, grapes, and a tractor in the village of Olaszliska, but had no money. To finance his venture, he had to sell his wines to friends before they were made. Today, he exports his wines to 10-15 countries, mainly in Europe.

About the village of Olaszliska
Olaszliska is on the right bank of the river Bodrog at the center of the appellation. Tokaj has two main rivers: the Tisza, coming from Ukraine and the Bodrog, coming from Slovakia. Between the 2 rivers, there is an area of wet lands that provides the humidity for the botrytis. Half the village is on the wet land and the other half is on farming land near the hills and the vineyards. The oak trees that grow on top of the hills are used for barrel making.

One of the characteristics of Tokaj is that it produces wine and barrels from the same volcanic soil. It is very convenient to have your barrel maker in the next village. The wood is of very good quality and even French barrel makers are buying wood from this forest.

About the diversity of the terroir
The soil comes from the bottom of the Pannonian Sea and as a result, is a very complex and diverse terroir. Nowadays, producers have to find out how to work with this kind of terroir. During Communism, nobody tried to understand the differences between one plot and another, they were blending everything all together.

Today, it is important to realize the potential of one specific vineyard or soil. This is very complex, but progress has been made in the last 10 years. Tokaj can now have an offer that includes different styles and different producers from the same styles. The winemaker’s hand is still a little bit strong compared to the terroir but you find winemakers coming from different countries: France, Spain, Germany, Slovakia, with very different experiences and a different understanding of what is a good job. It is almost like there’s too much diversity but this is a very exciting situation. It takes a lot of time to understand a terroir and how to properly make each style of wine.

How his wines got imported to the United States
Blue Danube Wine Company has been importing wines from other Tokaji producers and they were looking for a specific wine called Dry Szamorodni. Samuel’s Dry Szamorodni is 90% Furmint attacked with botrytis with a little bit of Hárslevelű. To produce botrytized wines, the berries have to be picked when they are ready. Sometimes, you have a good selection of botrytized berries and sometimes, they are not so good. In terms of alcohol, the Aszú starts at 20º-22º, the Sweet Szamorodni at 18º-20º, but the wine that is between 15º and 18º cannot be labeled as dry because it’s too high in alcohol and has remaining sugar and it is not a pleasant wine to drink. But you can ferment this wine to reach 16º-17º and then age it in a damp cellar. With time, the alcohol decreases —half a degree every year. Then, after 4 to 6 years in the cellar, the resulting wine has something between 13º and 14º in alcohol and a veil of yeast on the top, like in Jerez for the Fino or in Jura for the Vin Jaune.

How he made his first Szamorodni
It happened in 2001. This was a very difficult vintage and 2 barrels were not so good. In the spring of 2003, Samuel thought of getting rid of these 2 barrels but for some reasons, didn’t empty them. Then, just before the harvest and needing some space for the new vintage, he realized that he had a “Vin Jaune”, right there. He didn’t know that he could have his own “flor” that could happen naturally in the cellar. Coming from Bordeaux, this was not a style of wine that he knew very well. Therefore, he decided to travel to Jura to learn more about the wine. The result was bottled in 2009. His other wines, the Aszú, Eszencia, are very classical but this wine is unusual. In fact, if he is here in New York today, it’s because of this wine. It’s because Blue Danube contacted him for this wine.

Confrérie de TokajIf you’re currently in Hungary, don’t miss the Great Tokaj Wine Auction 2014. This flagship event of the Confrérie de Tokaj will be held on the 25th, 26th and 27th April 2014 in the Castle of Sárospatak. Beyond the offering of exclusive new releases of Tokaji wines, the aim of the Auction is to help rebuild the viticultural landscape of the region, which has been a World Heritage Cultural Landscape since 2002. This is the most important rendez-vous of the year giving all wine lovers the opportunity to discover the richness of Tokaji wines and the regions’s latest creations.

Splendor of the Isles: Saveur’s Best Bottles from Croatia

Saveur's Best Croatian Wines

In the new issue of Saveur Magazine, writer and radio host Brendan Francis Newnam takes us to his family’s homeland: the tiny island of Murter in Northern Dalmatia, sharing family stories and traditional seafood recipes: Skampi na Buzaru (Langoustines in Tomato, Garlic, and Wine Sauce) Crni Rižoto (a Black Cuttlefish Risotto) Riba na Rostilju (Whole Grilled Fish with Lemon) and Brodet (a Croatian Fish Stew made with white wine). “In Croatia, a fish must swim three times: once in the sea, once in oil, and once in wine,” explains the author’s cousin.

While you enjoy reading the article, pour yourself a glass of one of Saveur’s wine recommendations from Dalmatia and Istria. We are proud to point out that 5 out of 6 are imported by Blue Danube Wine Co:

Carić Vina Bogdanjuša 2012:
If you haven’t heard of bogdanjuša, a grape from the Island of Hvar whose name means godsend, you’re not alone. Redolent of grapefruit peel and Mediterranean herbs, Carić Bogdanjuša 2012 ($17) is the first wine made from the rare grape to be exported to the U.S. Its citrusy flavor makes it a nice match for whole grilled fish.

Coronica Malvasia 2012:
Malvasia Istriana, one of Friuli’s favorite grapes, is named for the rust-colored soil of Istria in northern Croatia, where it originates. Like many of its Italian cousins, Coronica Malvasia 2012 ($20) smells of Meyer lemons and the sweet-scented acacia that blankets the countryside. The long mineral finish pairs nicely with the tang of a brodet.

Bibich R6 Riserva 2010:
As for reds, the country’s most promising grape is babić, according to Cliff Rames, founder of Wines of Croatia. Dusty and smoky on the nose, Bibich R6 Riserva 2010 ($20), made of babić and the local lasina and plavina grapes, tastes like a sunnier Rhône syrah.

Suha Punta Tirada Babić 2009:
Suha Punta Tirada Babić 2009 ($39), from the intricately walled “stone lace” vineyards in Primošten, a historic site, reveals the grape’s rich, dark, oaky side.

Miloš Plavac 2009:
The most widely planted Croatian grape is plavac mali (little blue), a purple descendant of zinfandel that thrives on the coast. Brambly Miloš Plavac 2009 ($27) has the aroma of dried figs and chewy mouth-coating tannins. It’s a foil for all sorts of game dishes.

Ready to plan a trip to Croatia this summer? Check Saveur’s Travel Guide to the Dalmatian Coast and don’t forget to visit our producers while you’re there.

The winemakers are coming, meet them in Danubia!

Danubia Winemakers

Danubia is a border-less wineland situated geographically and philosophically between wine’s contemporary western position and its ancient Eastern origins. The mighty Danube River spans not just geography but also culture and time, defining landscape and the tastes of our Danubian wine loving predecessors. We dub it Danubia: unity through diversity.

Nothing else in the world tastes like these wines. From steep terraced limestone vineyards overlooking the Adriatic, to basalt volcanoes whose wines once promised male progeny, to the world’s first classified vineyards where botrytis meets flor, these are the flavors of Danubia.

Join us in DANUBIA and meet our fabulous winemakers that will be visiting the US this month: Grand Liquoreux Master Samuel Tinon will be presenting his remarkable Tokaji wines in New York. He will be joined by Skradin winemaker star Alen Bibić and natural wines pioneer Miha Batič, who will also visit Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

For the new Miloš generation, Ivan, Franica, and Josip, this will be their first US trip. They will bring their most respected Plavac wines to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and finally New York.

This will be a rare opportunity to armchair travel to Central Europe, talk to the people, learn about the place, and taste through a range of styles and flavors that offer a unique perspective in the world of wine.

Danubia Tasting

Tasting Events in the New York Area:

Tuesday 3/18 6:30pm Samuel Tinon pairs up with Chef David Bouley at Bouley Restaurant, NYC, NY
Friday 3/21 9:00-11:00pm Happy Hour with Tinon at Rouge Tomate, NYC, NY
Friday 3/21 Dalmatian Dinner with Alen Bibić at Dubrovnik Restaurant, New Rochelle, NY
Saturday 3/22 1:00-3:00pm Wine Pairing Event with Alen Bibić at Bin 56, Huntington, NY
Saturday 3/22 7:00-10:00pm Wine Tasting with Alen Bibić and Bruno Trapan at Veslo, Astoria, NY
Sunday 3/23 Meet Peter Bernreiter at Heritage Wines, NYC, NY
Tuesday 3/25 Winemaker dinner with Alen Bibić at Glasserie, Brooklyn, NY
Saturday 4/5 1:00-3:00pm Winemaker Lunch with the Miloš family at Bin 56, Huntington, NY
Monday 4/7 7:00pm Wine Class: Dalmatia, Plavac & Miloš at In Vino, NYC, NY

Los Angeles Area/South West:

Sunday 3/16 5:00-7:00pm Miloš Tasting Event at Wet Stone Wine Bar, San Diego, CA
Tuesday 3/18 5:00-7:00pm Miloš Tasting at Caffe Boa, Tempe, AZ
Friday 3/21 10:00pm-1:00am Miloš and Batič Tasting at Lombardi’s Romagna Mia, Las Vegas, NV
Sunday 3/23 3:00-5:00pm Miloš Tasting Event at Silverlake Wine, Los Angeles, CA
Wednesday 4/2 7:00-9:00pm Miloš Good Bye California party at Shade Hotel, Manhattan Beach, CA

San Francisco Area:

Thursday 3/27 6:00-9:00pm Miloš Tasting Event at Palo Alto Grill, Palo Alto, CA
Friday 3/28 6:00-9:00pm Miloš Tasting Event at ACME Fine Wines, St Helena, CA

For additional information, check our News & Events page.

The SF Chronicle: the whites of Central Europe are ideal wines for winter

Szőke Mátyás
Szőke Mátyás (left) in his cellar
Finally! Some recent rainstorms and snow falling over the Sierra Nevada gave us a small peek at winter weather as well as cravings of cheese fondue accompanied by one of those crisp and mineral Alpine wines that go so well with hard cheese.

But winter with its rich food is also a great time to expand our wine horizons argues Jon Bonné, wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Beyond the Alps, he recommends exploring Slovenia, a country bordering the eastern section of the Alps as well as neighboring Hungary and Croatia.

What the wines of these regions share, he writes, is “a bridge between that lean mineral cut of the mountains and the richness and exoticism of ripe, fleshy grapes.”

These countries have been growing grapes for centuries and offer an incredible diversity of native grape varieties that are just coming to international awareness: spicy Furmint, the dominant grape in Tokaj, Muscat-like Irsai Olivér also from Hungary, crisp and floral Rebula, called Ribolla Gialla in nearby Friuli, aromatic Malvasia Istriana from the Istrian Peninsula at the north of the Adriatic sea, and many more.

Check out Jon Bonné’s recommendations, you’ll find some of Blue Danube’s best selling wines: the Rebula from Kabaj in Slovenia, the Irsai Olivér from Szőke Mátyás in Hungary, and the Malvasia from Coronica in Croatia:

2010 Kabaj Goriška Brda Rebula
“Fermented on skins for 30 days, this version of Ribolla is as user-friendly as orange wine gets: the pronounced acidity and wet-rock mineral aspect of Ribolla, plus the beautiful aromas of a Turkish sundry shop: dried apricots, sesame seeds, a cress-like minty side.”

2012 Szőke Mátyás Mátra Irsai Olivér
“a floral whomp of lilies and roses, plus white chalk, peach and green apple. It’s leaner than Muscat but not as fat as Gewurz.”

2012 Coronica Istria Malvasia
“Malvasia Istriana, Istria’s strain of this grape, shows less of a floral side and more tangy minerality: resin and honeycomb richness balance out melon, lime rind and orris root. It’s just flourishy enough.”

Read the whole article.

Curious & Thirsty – WEIN (WINE) City

Vienna Vineyard
Vienna is Europe’s only metropolis with a wine region within the city limits.

Wien or Vienna, as us English speakers call it, is an ancient pre-Roman city of Imperial grandeur, and authentic rural charm. It is also Europe’s only metropolis with a wine region within the city limits. The region is known simply as Wien.

Today the vineyards drape the hills of Nussberg and Bisamberg that overlook the city center. Between the city and the hills are streets of Heurigers—wineries that are part wine tavern, part picnic and part concert—uniting the cosmopolitan and the country.

Heurigers are quintessentially Viennese. Heurig means “this year’s”. Their beginnings date back to the late 18th Century when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph the II, one of the three Enlightened Monarchs, gave permission to the local farmers to sell their wine privately. Variations do exist, but the traditional Heuriger observes a few simple but important rules. No recorded music! Homemade food! Homemade wine!

The unyielding affection the Viennese have for the Heuriger has in a most beautiful way, preserved these familial businesses and in doing so protected a delicious and traditional wine type, Gemischter Satz. Gemischter-what??? Gemischter Satz (Geh-meest-er Saw-tz), which means “mixed set”, is Vienna’s wine specialty, a true field blend of mixed grape sorts.

Get your Gemütlichkeit at the Heuriger and read the full article here.

Experience Croatia and Slovenia’s Istria Region in the Flesh!

Being able to meet the people, eat the local food, attempt the language, and imbue every glass of wine with first hand experiences is why we got into the wine business. Context makes everything taste better. Plus, once you’ve visited, every time you have a wine from that place you’re immediately transported back.

With this in mind, everyone at Blue Danube is happy to announce a partnership with Savor The Experience Tours, a company that has been running small group tours to Slovenia and Croatia for the past 9 years. As a Blue Danube Supporter, you’ll get 11 nights of winery visits, special feasts, and olive oil while staying with family run B&B’s. And once you return, you’ll have a gift certificate with us to purchase the wines stateside and relive the whole thing over again with friends and family.

Harvest Tour

This October, don’t miss this unique opportunity to meet with some of Blue Danube’s best producers: Kabaj, Piquentum, and Kogl. For more information please contact info@savortheexperiencetours.com or call 206.529.4237.

NYT Resolution for 2014: drink adventurously, drink Kabaj!

Kabaj Ravan

Here is New York Times columnist Eric Asimov’s latest New Year resolution: 20 adventurous wines for $20 to drink this winter. Some are white, some are red, and all should warm your heart but they should also stretch your comfort zone: they will introduce you to intriguing grapes as well as little-known appellations from wine-growing regions rich in history and culture and long wine-making traditions.

Besides the 2010 Kabaj Ravan from Goriška Brda in Slovenia listed in the article—“zesty and fresh with persistent, tangy flavors”—our portfolio contains plenty of intriguing wines for you to discover this winter.

With fresh oysters on the half shell and crabs, enjoy a crisp and mineral Hárslevelű from Hungary.

Experiment with skin macerated whites and try them with Swiss fondue or raclette.

Consider the Croatian grapes Plavac Mali and Babić as delicious alternative to Zinfandel.

Anyway, have fun! Happy Drinking and Happy New Year!

Beyond Italian Borders : Wines Of Croatia & Slovenia

Map of Croatia

When I first started selling wines from Croatia and Slovenia nearly four years ago, the myriad of Italian restaurants almost mocked me as I rolled my bag down the streets of New York City. Very often their food and quality of service were just begging to be married with the flavors and level sophistication of the bottles I had on hand. Yet, to get the Sommelier to even consider tasting was nearly impossible. “Sorry, Italian only wine list, no exceptions.” It’s not as if I was trying to pawn some New York State Riesling or Merlot onto their focused and curated list, these were wines that had an equally long tradition in the same regions as everything on their menu and these were the flavors that were meant for their food.

Italy, perhaps more than any other country, embodies a strong sense of regional pride. All 20 regions have held fast to their gastronomic cultures, preserving their distinct styles of wine and food. Over the centuries the regions formed their unique cuisines based on what was available in their land. This is why ingredients like truffles are hallmarks of Piedmonte while a dish like veal Marsala is unmistakably Sicilian. It’s no wonder that serious Italian establishments in one of the cultural capitals of the world seek to preserve these regional essences. What’s not so clear is that modern political borders should shape the centuries old traditions.

It seemed to me that in an attempt to preserve the Italian culture, many sommeliers were missing an opportunity to be authentic by incorporating traditional grape varieties and styles. At the time when the regional food and wine cultures were forming, many of the current political borders were not in place. Even so, political borders are just that, political. Especially in an area like Collio and Brda, both meaning ‘hill’ in Italian and Slovenian respectively, it is the same hill, and the vines do not recognize the theoretical boundaries.

Map of Slovenia

Keith Beavers, owner of In Vino, an Italian restaurant and winebar in NYC’s East Village, recalls the moment the scale tipped for him:

“I was tasting wine with Stetson while I was eating, and he poured me a glass of Kabaj Rebula, I took a bite of risotto and a sip of this wine, and I thought, there’s no reason not to have these wines on the list. We started talking about borders and terroir, and of course I knew Slovenia was right around the corner, but it wasn’t until the moment I tasted them together I realized I had to celebrate these wines on my list and that political borders do not define terroir.”

Almost paradoxically, by incorporating wines from just beyond the borders of current day Italy, a more authentic profile of flavors is achieved. Since incorporating Blue Danube Wines onto his Italian list, In Vino now features at least one white and one red by the glass from Croatia and/or Slovenia and will soon be dedicating an entire section of his list to these extended regions.

At the Northern tip of the Adriatic, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy converge, sharing terroir and centuries of history. Blue Danube has always focused on sourcing the best wines in their traditional styles from all of the regions they represent. Not surprisingly, this makes many of the Croatian and Slovenian selections ideal for Italian focused restaurants.

“For our restaurant, Danube wines are a natural match. Our chef, Nick Balla, lived in Hungary during high school and our menu shows Eastern European influence in the cuisine. Blue Danube offers the most meaningful selection from this part of the world.” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.

Another attribute of these wines is their relative value compared to wines from regions that have more name recognition, and therefore command higher price points. Both buyers and customers have been pleased to find a high quality to price ratio in these off-the-beaten-path varieties and styles.

“Blue Danube’s book is a treasure trove of gems from Croatia and Slovenia. The wines are vibrant, pure, well made and exciting. And there are many great value wines that work well with our mostly by the glass list. They give our guests an opportunity to try something new and exciting that really highlights and compliments the food.” Ben McGroarty of Superba Snack Bar in Los Angeles.

“The quality of the products are top notch and yet the wines cost a fraction of what I am paying for the more esteemed appellations of Italy, France and Spain. People commonly say “Wines from Slovenia? …No way!” Which I find funny as these regions are just as ancestral in their winemaking traditions as say Burgundy. At the end of the day, it is nice to be able to offer affordable indigenous wine flavor in a world clogged with expensive and homogenized wine style. This is especially true if the wine flavor is delicious.” Maxwell Leer of Bestia in Los Angeles.

Ultimately these wines appeal to people and establishments that embody an enthusiasm and passion for educating their customers and offering something new and exciting.

“As Americans enter a new phase in our wine drinking, I find that more and more people have the courage and confidence to explore regions and grapes unknown to them. It makes for a lot of learning and a lot of fun!” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.

I’m delighted to see that nearly four years later, it is not uncommon to see Slovenian and Croatian wines on the bottle and glass lists of Italian “only” and Italian focused restaurants and winebars. In fact, I’d say it’s becoming the status quo.

Leo Gracin on how to grow Babić

Babic Terroir

Dr. Leo Gracin, a professor and enologist at the Faculty of Food Technology and Biotechnology in Zagreb is a specialist of Babić, a indigenous variety that grows primarily in Central Dalmatia, near the towns of Šibenik and Primošten. The wine he produces, Gracin Babić, is actually considered one of the finest red Croatian wines today.

Babić is believed to be genetically related to the more widely planted variety Plavac Mali through their common parent, the ancient wine grape Dobričić. Although the vines are very vigorous, like Plavac Mali, they can produce great wines when growing in extreme conditions: sun-drenched slopes and poor, rocky soils, which gives lower yields and more concentrated flavors. The resulting wine is dark, full-bodied, quite earthy and tannic, with more acidity than Plavac Mali. It is also well suited to barrel aging.

Watch Enologist and Winemaker Dr. Leo Gracin explain how to farm Babić in his Primošten vineyard:

Dossier Zinfandel: Zinfandel’s Origins Demystified

Dossier Zinfandel Panel
Discussion panel after the screening of Dossier Zinfandel: Dr Carole Meredith (right), David Gates from Ridge Vineyards (left), and Yountville former mayor in red.

Last thursday was the premiere screening of Dossier Zinfandel at the third annual Napa Valley Film Festival. Directed by Mika Barisic, the documentary tells the compelling story of Zinfandel, “California’s own grape,” and the search for its mysterious origins.

When Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley in 1958, he noticed that the Zinfandel vines looked familiar and very similar to Plavac Mali, a native variety from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. He was convinced at the time that Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were the same grape.

Mike Grgich
Mike Grgich at the Dossier Zinfandel reception hosted by Grgich Hills Estate

With his support, UC Davis professor and grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith started a collaboration with the University of Zagreb. In May 1998, she traveled to Croatia to meet scientists Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic and the three of them started exploring the Dalmatian coast. Eventually, they collected 150 samples that Dr Meredith brought back to UC Davis so that they could be identified in her lab using DNA fingerprinting.

Carole Meredith
Carole Meredith at the Dossier Zinfandel reception

While Meredith’s team was able to confirm that the Italian grape Primitivo and Zinfandel were clones of the same variety, they found out that Plavac Mali was not a good match. Instead, they identified the Croatian grape as an offspring of Primitivo/Zinfandel.

It is only in 2001 that Pejic and Maletic finally discovered the correct match when they sampled an almost extinct indigenous grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski (Kaštela Red) in an old vineyard in Kaštel Novi in Central Dalmatia. Only nine Crljenak Kaštelanski vines were found in the vineyards. More vines known locally as Pribidrag were eventually discovered near the coastal town of Omiš. Finally, they were able to identify a 90-year-old dried Tribidrag leaf from the Natural History Museum in Split as being identical to Pribidrag/Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo/Zinfandel.

There are references of Tribidrag being cultivated in Croatia as far back as the early 15th century. At the time, Tribidrag was an important part of the wine trade between Dalmatia and Venice, which makes Zinfandel one of the oldest grape varietals from which wine is still being made.

Ridge Vineyards played a crucial role in the import of the Croatian grapes to California via the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis. After undergoing virus elimination treatment, these grapes are now available for planting. The Crljenak Kaštelanski clone is called Zinfandel 42.1 and the Pribidrag clones are called Zinfandel 43.1 and Zinfandel 44.1.

Meanwhile in Croatia, Zinfandel is back to its roots. Zinfandel, Primitivo, and virus-free Crljenak Kaštelanski from UC Davis are now planted side by side in an experimental vineyard where Pejic and Maletic are studying how each clone behaves on the same terroir and in the same climate.

David Gates
David Gates, Vice President, Vineyard Operations at Ridge Vineyards, and Frank at the Dossier Zinfandel reception