Monthly Archives: April 2010

A Change of Pace – Great Greek Wines

I thought I’d take a break from my Italy travels and post this article I wrote recently about Greek Wines. I am thinking of Greece a lot in these days because of the ongoing credit difficulties they are having. While their Sovereign Debt may be downgraded, I for one am upgrading my own ratings on Greek wines.

I am closely following the situation, professional deformity from my days as a financial journalist. That said, these are serious times for Greece and I’d like to at least support the wine industry. In Florence this past weekend I also ran into an old Greek friend Costantino who reminded me what a lovely country it is. I haven’t been in the past five years but do look forward to a future trip and great wines. Lastly, Dobianchi also reminded me via email of his ongoing connection to Greek wines. Check out his blog in coming days for news.

When most people think of Greece, images of glorious islands in the sun or classical buildings from ancient Greece come to mind immediately. When thinking about Greek wines, most people think of Retsina, a tradition wine from Attica made with pine resin that can be, shall we say, an acquired taste. However, the world of Greek wines has so much more to offer and luckily for us, many great Greek Wines are now available on the U.S. market.

Greece can be separated into a number of growing regions, each characterized by a particular indigenous or native grape variety. Some international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are grown in Greece but the country is mostly looking to market its own native grape varieties. True, they are somewhat hard to pronounce but than again, the Italian and Spanish varieties were also hard to pronounce at the beginning.

Of course it is difficult to see the current Greek wine renaissance as a beginning because Greek Wine has been around for thousands of years since the Greeks ruled the world. Much has changed, however, in the last 10 to 15 years.

Experts believe that wine making in Greece began in ancient times, ca. 8000-4000 B.C. We know this because of pottery dating from ca. 6000 B.C. which contain resin. Winemaking began in the Caucasus and then spread to Mesopotamia and on to Egypt and finally to Greece. Traces of winemaking were found on Crete from 1500 B.C. The island of Crete was a major crossroads and a port of call on the trading routes in the ancient world. Many nations occupied Greece throughout the centuries including the Romans, the Venetians and the Ottomans.

The first Greek wine known on the export markets was Retsina from Attica. The second was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine Carras which was founded in 1966. Greece established its appellation laws in the early 1970s. However, the real boost in the wine industry came in the 1990s, however, when producers began to look for export markets as domestic consumption shrunk.

Traditionally there were three very large and well known producers: Tsantalis, Achaia Clauss and Boutari. All three are still very well known and are even larger today.

Of the regions of Greece, the one that received an Appellation designation earliest is Macedonia. Some 460,000 hectoliters of wine are made in the region which has 13,000 hectares of vines. It has a continental climate and is more inland than most of the other regions. Drama, one the main areas in Macedonia, has been producing wine for 5000 years. Naoussa is another area in Macedonia that has been famous for its wines for more than a century thanks to the efforts of the Boutari family. The grape used in Naoussa is the red variety Xinomavro. It produces wines of great complexity and depth which can age for many years.

The three peninsulas of Halidiki: Athos, Cotes de Meliton and Epanomi are also quite famous for their red wines made from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The well established wineries Tsantali and Domaine Carras are located in this area.

Central Greece is another region with more than two million hectoliters of wine being produced. This area, which surrounds Athens, is known for its white wines made from the Savatiano grape. The climate is hot in this region but the sea breezes can be a mitigating factor. Retsina from Attica is made using Savatiano vinified with pine resin. Other white grapes that grow here are Asyrtiko, Athiri, and Roditis.

Another region is Epirus where wines are made from Debina, an indigenous variety which makes elegant, floral wines. The two main towns are Zitsa and Metsovo, both are at high elevation, 600 and 1100 meters above sea level, respectively.

The Peloponnese region also produces significant wines in the town of Patras where the white variety Roditis dominates while Nemea, another town, is famous for its red wines made from Agiorgitiko. Moschofiliero, instead, is the main pink skinned grape in thw town of Mantinia. Mavrodaphne, a red grape which is made into a sweet wine is also from Patras. Achaia Clauss is the most famous winery making Mavorodaphne. The winery was established in the 1800s. More than 1.5 million hectoliters of wine are made in this area per year.

Thessaly is yet another region of Greece where wines are made. Here, in Rapsani, Xinomavro is blended with other indigenous varieties such as Stavroto and Krassato to make big tannic wines.

Winemaking has also taken place on Greece’s fabulous islands for many years. The 3000 islands can be separated into two groups: Ionian Islands and Aegean Islands.and Crete. The Ionian islands such as Cephalonia, Zakinthos and Lefkada have different grape varieties as well. Robola, a white grape grows well on Cephalonia while Lefkada and Zakinthos have local varieties which are made into wines that are only available domestically.

The Aegean islands are a different story and have been making wine since Ancient Greece. The sweet Muscat of Samos was famous in the ancient world as was the Muscat of Limnos. Rhodes makes wines using the Athiri grape and the Muscat grape as well. Wines from the romantic island of Santorini are also quite prized and the vineyards are something to see. The vines grow in a bowl like shape on volcanic soil. Assyrtiko from Santorini makes fabulous wines.

Greek wines were on show during a recent group of tastings held by Athenee Importers & Distributors. Judging from the crowd at the event, it seemed that the wines were a hit. Athenee has been promoting Greek wines in the United States for over 30 years. The Mother-Daughter operation is the first and largest importer of Greek wines in the United States. Most of the wines are available for $12-17. What emerged from tasting the wines was the immense complexity of the offering. As we move towards summer, Greece offers a change of pace at an affordable price, a decidedly winning combination

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Vinitaly Day 4: Lombardy My Love

Vinitaly ended last week but I tried so many wines there that I can probably keep writing about them for the next two months. One building where I spent a lot of time is the Lombardy area in the Palaexpo building. It is the closest one to the entrance, has the sala stampa (press room) and conference rooms but more importantly, it has a number of great wines. Lombardy as a wine area is not that well known in the United States despite the efforts of numerous producers, PR agenices and others. I think this is a terrible shame because it has a number of great wines areas such as Franciacorta and the Valtellina as well as the lesser known areas of Garda (Brescia), Valcalepio (Bergamo), Colli Mantovani (Mantova), San Colombano (Milano), Oltrepo’ Pavese (Pavia). It also has a great gastronomic tradition, beautiful cities, museums, lakes and ski areas. I am in an in-love phase with Lombardy as I am in Milan for the foreseeable future until I can get a flight out. I also lived in Milan for 10 years so it seems like home thanks to the warmth and hospitality of numerous friends, business contacts and honestly strangers on the street. I am overwhelmed with people’s generosity at the moment, so forgive me if I seem to have rose colored glasses on when I wax poetic about Lombardy and its wines.

I love Franciacorta wines and have written about them a lot in the past so I will move along to some of the other wines I tasted at Vinitaly.

Every morning I started my day at a different area in Lombardy, trying sparkling wines. One of the wines from Garda which I really enjoyed was a Chiaretto from Averoldi. It was made using indigenous grapes Groppello, Barbera, Marzemino and Sangiovese. I tried a sparkling version but it is more common to find a Chiaretto as a still wine. Chiaretto is a very light salmon colored wine that is made from red grapes which spend just a few hours macerating. The skins are removed after a few hours or over the course of one evening. Garda Classico DOC comes from the west side of Lake Garda, my favorite of the Lombard lakes and the only one in which I have taken a swim because the water is blue and clear not grey and hard to see through. Friday the 13th ruined me as a child and i am always waiting for Jason to pop out of a lake. I can only swim where I can see my toes…

Another wine made on the shores of Lake Garda, is Lugana DOC. This wine is made with the Trebbiano lugana grape and can be either sparkling or still. I tried five or six sparkling wines made using the charmat (tank refermentation) method which truly surprised me. Lugana has been a DOC or denominazione d’origine controllata wine since 1967.

The wine is light and refreshing and is perfect as an aperitivo. It has good acidity and minerality with the right amount of “sapidità” a very difficult term to translate into English but savory or mouthwatering might do the trick. Sapidità is essentially saltiness but not quite. As with many words, there is no distinct English equivalent of the Italian word. When a wine is sapido, it makes you salivate a bit.

I particularly liked one from Ottella. This Lugana Brut spent some six months in the tanks. The grapes were picked manually. I also really liked these wines because they all had 12%-12.5% alcohol. Most Italian wines used to have that level of alcohol but many producers have been moving towards what they consider to be “international” standards and making wines with 13% and above. I think this is an error.

I also tried an interesting sparkling wine made from Chardonnay from a winery called Perla del Garda, also located in the same area. The wine spent six months on its lees and was a 2006. This wine was sold in a very particular bottle which was beautiful to look at but would be hard to carry home.

I tried my first wine from another area of Lombardy called San Martino Della Battaglia DOC, also somewhat near the city of Brescia.

The winery, Cattani, makes a great Lugana DOC with Trebbiano di Lugana called Costa Alta which should soon be arriving in New York as well as a host of other wines including sparklers made from Riesling and a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco.

I also tasted through a number of wines made in Oltrepo’ Pavese with Pinot Nero and some from Capriano del Colle DOC made with the indigenous grape Marzemino.

Perhaps the biggest “novità” though were wines made in the Colli Mantovani from Lambrusco Mantovana, not to be confused with the other famous Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna. I found them delicious and more intense than the average Lambrusco.

All in all, Lombardy showed me a new side of its viticultural self and I hope to continue discovering other gems.

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Vinitaly Tastings: Niedermayr From Alto Adige

Vinitaly is tough not just on your palate but on your decision making skills. So many wines and so little time. I often am pointed in one direction or another by friends of wine colleagues. That is how I ended up tasting the wines of Niedermayr from Alto Adige.

Together with some wine friends, we tasted through numerous Pinot Nero (Noir) wines being made in Italy. Alto Adige is the area par excellence for Pinot Nero although I have found one from Tuscany that is dreamy from Podere Fortuna as well. Franz Haas is the most famous producer of Pinot Nero in Alto Adige but others are giving him a run for his money. One of this is Niedermayr in my opinion.

I tried two of the Pinot Neros from 2006 and I think the Linea Classica one was my favorite. It was beautiful both on the nose and the palate showing typical expressions of Pinot Nero – small red and black fruits (sotto bosco), earthy notes and a hint of mushroom. It was also intense and persistent. A real find.

The cru version of this wine called Precios was a bigger wine which spent a period in oak. It too was delicious but I preferred the former.

I also tried a fantastic passito called Aureus from their Reserve Line.

Many wineries in Alto Adige buy some of their grapes from growers and then have some of their own vineyards. This is true of Niedermayr as well.

The winery has been operational for 158 years and is still run by the same family. Most of their vineyards are located on volcanic soil, which is often mixed with clay and sand in some of the areas as Alto Adige is at the foot of what used to be a glacial fan.

The main cities in Alto Adige are Bolzano, Trento and Merano. Niedermayr is located near Bolzano. Many wineries are influenced by the breezes from Lake Caldaro.

A beautiful area which makes exquisite wines, the Alto Adige building is always an obligatory stop for me at Vinitaly.

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Stranded…Nature’s Bigger Than We Are

I’m stranded like many millions of other people in Europe. While I am happy to be in my adopted city of Milan, I am also extremely frustrated like everyone else. The good news is that I will blog a lot in the days to come about the wines I tasted at Vinitaly and the ones I tried later in Apulia. I also may now have the opportunity to go to a few new (to me) wine fairs this weekend because I can’t leave before next week… A dear friend said he thought it was a sign. Anyway, one of the events that I may get to see is Forte Divino organized by wine expert Gianpaolo Giacomelli and a few other wine experts. I know Gianpaolo from my visits to Vinitaly but have not had the pleasure of meeting the other organizers. Gianpaolo owns a wine shop in Sarzana, Liguria called Il Mulino del Cibus. Forte Di Vino takes place this coming weekend, April 25-April 26 in Forte dei Marmi at Villa Bertelli in Versilia. The event is dedicated to white wines and sparkling wines, both Italian and from other countries. Some 150 Italian wineries and 70 wineries from other countries are participating. In all, more than 500 wines will be offered for the modest sum of 10 euro… This is the second edition of this event. I missed the first and was sure that the seond wasn’t in the cards either but Mother Nature has changed my plans and I have to arrangiarmi….the most Italian of verbs which means to be flexible, more or less.

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Vinitaly Day 3: Southern Italian Regions Bring Surprises Such As Agostinella

Vinitaly is a wonderful occasion to try many new Italian indigenous varieties. Yesterday I spent the morning trying wines from Campania. I had numerous Greco, Fiano and Falanghina that impressed me as well as a couple of well made wines from the Coda di Volpe grape. I also tried a wine made from an indigenous variety I had never heard of, Agostinella. The wine was from Vigna Sanniti in the Sannio DOC and the city of Benevento.

The wine was a rich white wine that was full bodied with minerality, tropical white fruits and fabulous acidity. Apparently it came from 100 year old vines which of course produce little fruit. The wine was so out of character for a wine from Campania and truly reminded me of a wine from Friuli, almost like a wine you would find from Gravner or Lis Neris. It was delicious and I highly recommend everyone and anyone at Vinitaly to go taste it.

I also tried an Albana Passito from Tre Monti that I really enjoyed. Indigenous varieties is a big interest of mine and I had written a series of articles for Alta Cucina Society on Italian indigenous varieties. I keep finding new ones. The Albana was rich with nice acidity and fresh fruit flavors. Quite a surprise.

This morning I will be attending a panel on Social Media and plan on spending the afternoon in the Southern Italian regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily. Of course, you can only visit a few wineries in each of these areas but I would like to spend a week in all. In some ways, Vinitaly is too long and in many others, just too short. Not enough time to get to try all the wines you would like.

On another note, I lost my blackberry in the press room yesterday and thanks to Facebook will be getting it back. The world is a small lovely place sometimes.

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Vinitaly Day 2 – Franciacorta, Emilia Romagna, Piedmont and Campania

To make it through Vinitaly, you need a kit per la sopravivenza (life saving)…All kidding aside, Vinitaly is an intense experience with so many wines to try and so little time. This year, I am relatively well organized and start my days in Franciacorta tasting bubbly. Yesterday, I tried some new wines that really impressed me. One winery in particular was Silvana Fracchetti Moraschi. I tried two of their wines, Donna Elisabetta and their Saten. Saten is a trademark name of Franciacorta and has less pressure than a regular Franciacorta. It is kept at 5 atm or less and is creamy on the palate and softer than Franciacorta, somewhat like a Cremant from France. Both of these wines were kept on their lees for 60 months. Both were made from 100% Chardonnay. Three grapes are allowed to be used in Franciacorta, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero but 85% of the plantings are Chardonnay. The nutty wonderful aromas that emanated from the wine were very appealing. Fracchetti Moraschi is a small winery and speaking with the owners, their passion for their wines and joy at being able to participate in Vinitaly was palpable. I will upload photos later on.

I also went to a seminar on Saten lead by an interesting teacher from ONAV, one of the Italian wine institutes. We tried 5 different Saten from different wineries to see the styles used. The wines were all lemon gold and most had that delicious yeasty, bread crust note that you get with Franciacorta. The area has grown immeasurably in the last 30 years from 11 producers to about 120-130 producers. Most use stainless steel when making their wines but some are also experimenting with wood aging. I prefer the stainless steel ones in general but have had others with a touch of oak that has been pleasing if it is not overwhelming. Most Franciacorta is called Brut but they also make other styles, including Pas Dosage, Extra Brut, Extra Dry, Dry and Demi-Sec as well as Rose.

Saten is a style which I really enjoy and it can be paired with an entire meal. It is less aggressive than some of the other styles and is more similar to a still white wine. In fact, the concept was developed in order to appeal to a wider audience and to be more competitive. Italians tend to drink Franciacorta and other sparkling wines only at birthday parties, Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. Only 10,000 bottles of Franciacorta are sold while Champagne sells more than 330,000 bottles a year.

I very much liked the Saten from Antica Fratta, La Spaviere and Ca del Bosco, all well known names. Today, I am going to try a few that I don’t know.

More later.

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Vinitaly 2010: Day 1 In Padiglione 8, Tuscany

Day 1 at Vinitaly invariably means Padiglione 8, Tuscany, where my Italian wine love affair began. Just for the record, I hated the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun although I am never sure if that is merely because I am jealous that Frances Mayes wrote that book not me. In any event, I love Tuscan wines and have lots of friends there who produce wines. Coming to Vinitaly is a bit of a reunion of sorts, seeing old friends, making new ones and tasting lots of new and old wines. I got here relatively late in the afternoon and immediately tasted through wines that are sold by Alessandro Fiore, a wine broker who lives in San Gimingnano, and whose family is steeped in the Tuscan and Emilia Romagna regions. The Fiore Wine Collection concentrates on small/medium wineries. Most of the wines are made with indigenous varieties and many are created by members of the Fiore family, Vittorio the noted enologist and head of the family and Claudio, one of his sons make wines at a lovely winery in Romagna called Castelluccio. I tried a number of these wines with Claudio yesterday and found that the Ronco delle Ginestre, made with 100% Sangiovese and Ronco dei Ciliegi were perfect expressions of that most Tuscan of grapes. It was great to taste the freshness of these wines and remember the pleasures of a true Italian wine brimming with acidity.

Vinitaly is Italy’s largest wine fair with 4200 exhibitors and 150,000 visitors are expected from over 100 countries. Everyone seemed a tad cheerier this year than last, at least that is my first impression.

Day 2 is about to start…..

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