In the summer of 1923 Lord Sebastian Flyte entices his friend Charles Ryder to escape the confines of Oxford and spend the day at his family’s estate. “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey — which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”
Evelyn Waugh, one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists and author of this scene from Brideshead Revisited, was known for creating some of literature’s wittiest characters, many of whom had a glass of wine or a cocktail in hand. Waugh was a knowledgeable oenophile so his selections are both informed and precise, lending scenes that extra bit of authenticity. So why, of all the wines in the world, did he send his two main characters off on a picnic with a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an intriguing choice.
Throughout Waugh’s stories you’ll find clarets, champagnes and burgundies, but his true passion was for dessert wines, a taste he acquired during his student days at Oxford in the early 1920s. In an essay titled “Drinking” he writes: “We tried anything we could lay our hands on, but table-wines were the least of our interests. We drank them conventionally at luncheon and dinner parties but waited eagerly for the heavier and headier concomitants of dessert.” Port, sherry, Tokaji, he loved them all. “We were not ashamed (nor am I now) to relish sweet wine. Yquem had, of course, a unique reputation. Starting to drink it in a mood of ostentation, I was led to the other white Bordeaux.” By that he means Sauternes, the luscious, golden, dessert wine made possible by a little gray fungus Botrytis cinerea, aka noble rot. Which brings us back to the Chateau Peyraguey. Waugh doesn’t send Sebastian and Charles under an elm tree with a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Romanée-Conti; they’re bestowed with sweet Sauternes.
But why Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an unusual choice since the wine hasn’t existed as such since 1879 when, following the death of the owner, a family squabble split the property in two and became Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Chateau LaFaurie Peyraguey. Given the fact that Waugh wrote the novel in 1944, long after rupture, what was he up to? There were plenty of other Sauternes chateaux he could have chosen. Did he simply use his creative license and shorten the name for convenience, or did he intentionally send his characters picnicking with a bottle that was a half-century old?
Plausibility for the latter comes in the next chapter of the book when Waugh endows Sebastian’s family estate with a wine cellar stocked with old vintages (which the two proceed to drink their way through the following summer). It’s a minor detail but a telling one that exhibits not only Waugh’s knowledge and taste in wine but also his skill as a writer. With a single bottle he encapsulates one of the book’s main themes. The scene is set in the aftermath of World War I when Britain is reeling from the loss of so many young men. The devastation has left no family, rich or poor, untouched and upended many of society’s traditions. Sebastian mourns this lost innocence and yearns for an earlier time. Here then, is a bottle from before the Great War, before the carnage, a golden, sweet wine still in possession of its youthful charms and virtue.
Of course, there is no way of knowing Waugh’s intentions, (he died in 1966). It is, however, still possible to have a picnic of strawberries and wine made from same plot of land as the Peyraguey. Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Lafaurie-Peyraguay are readily found in good wine stores and are an extraordinary value at $40 per half bottle. Both properties sit near the famed vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem, a half-bottle of which is never under three figures. This prime real estate earned the original Chateau Peyraguey the status of Premier Cru Classé in the 1855 Bordeaux classification, and the two current chateaux have been able to keep that same ranking. It’s one step below the top classification of Premier Cru Classé Superiore, whose sole occupant is Yquem.
Both properties have recently come under new ownership with promises to bring their wines to even greater heights. Clos Haut-Peyraguey was purchased in October 2012 by Bernard Magrez, who owns numerous wineries around the world, including Château Pape Clément, Château La Tour Carnet and Château Fombrauge. The 12-hectare vineyard is planted with 95% semillon and 5% sauvignon blanc on gravel, sand and clay. Wine destined to become the grand vin is fermented in oak and then aged in oak barrels (50% new) for 18 months. The winery’s long-time cellar master, Anthony Defives, continues to make the wine even in his new role as estate manager, so the style is unlikely to change dramatically.
The only vintage I was able to find in New York was 2005, a year with near-perfect conditions for both the dry reds and sweet whites. A long, dry summer, was followed by heavy rain in September, which is just what those tiny Botrytis spores needed to flourish. And flourish they did. Botrytis is one of the first scents to spiral out of the glass, closely followed by honey and caramel, dried apricots, and chamomile. A bright acidity keeps it light on the palate and is accompanied by flavors of caramelized pear, prunes and more honey. It’s a gorgeous, complex wine. Recent vintages to look for include 1995, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
Lafaurie Peyraguey was acquired last year by Silvio Denz, who added the 36-hectare property to his collection of Saint-Émilion vineyards such as Peby Faugeres and Faugeres. He purchased the vineyard and its postcard-perfect chateau (parts of which date to the 13th century) from the French energy company GDF Suez, which had acquired it in 1984 and subsequently modernized the facilities, renovated the chateau and installed climate controlled cellars. Denz also owns the crystal company Lalique and had a special engraved bottle made for the 2014 vintage.
A bottle of Lafaurie Peyraguey from 2006 showed much less botrytis than the 2005 Haut-Peyraguey, but was a denser, more concentrated wine. It’s made with 93% Sémillon, 6% Sauvignon blanc, and 1% Muscadelle, fermented and aged in oak (40-70% new) for 18 to 20 months. Here the flavors lean more toward baked apples and quince, with dried figs, honey and caramel. The presence of oak was also more noticeable. The vintage had been a difficult one with many grapes spoiled by bad rot and very little Botrytis. Producers had to be vigilante in the vineyard to salvage what harvest they could. Such are the perils of making Sauternes. Given the challenges, this is still a very good wine, with enough acidity and concentration for it to age for decades. Top vintages include 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.
Don’t forget the strawberries.
After this interminable, bone-chilling winter, has the approach of summer ever been so welcome? I’m guessing it’s pretty unanimous, at least on the East Coast, that we’re all eager to burn our parkas and head to the beach already. Now, what to read? With the growing popularity of fortified wines, a new crop of books has been published (some updated and reissued) on sherry, madeira and port. Whether you’ve been meaning to finally get your amontillados straight from your manzanillas or want some guidance on buying vintage ports these are the best reference books available. And, while you’re honing your fortified wine knowledge you might as well enjoy a glass of what you’re reading about. Here then are the best books on fortified wines along with recommended pours.
Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes (2014) by Talia Baiocchi Ten Speed Press, $24.99
Even if you never read a word of Talia Baiocchi’s guide to sherry just perusing the gorgeous photos is likely to inspire a craving for a glass of fino if not trigger a sudden urge to check airfares to Spain. It’s an eye-catching book, a lovely little object d’art whose presence in anyone’s drinks library will signify its owner as very au courant on the wine scene. It is, however, also a book worth reading as it happens to be chock full of useful information about the different styles of sherry and how each is made. You can also read about the history, towns and bodegas, as well as find recipes for cocktails and a few southern Spanish dishes.
Baiocchi is the editor of the online drinks magazine PUNCH and writes from a personal vantage point with a fun, lively tone. My only quibble is with the cocktail section. I know all the mixologists are doing it these days, and she has enlisted the help of some of the best bartenders out there, but I confess that I’m a purist. Sherries are delicious wines in their own right, and it pains me to think of them mixed with rum or tequila among a myriad other things. It’s maybe not as cringe-worthy as mixing Coke and Chateau Latour, but close. Perhaps by integrating it into the current cocktail craze more sherry will be sold, but I don’t think it does sherry’s reputation any favors in the long run. That aside, this is a well-researched enjoyable book and well deserving of its nomination as a James Beard award finalist.
What to drink: Fino Inocente from Valdespino, $23.99 (750 ml); Barbadillo Manzanilla Solear En Rama Primavera, $15.99 (375 ml).
Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A guide to the traditional wines of Andalucia by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín (2012) Manutius, $29.95
Ever wonder which strains of yeast make up the flor in biologically aged sherries? How about the calcium carbonate content of Jerez’s albariza soil? Then this is the book for you. Not all the information in this book is that technical, but the content is definitely targeted toward serious oenophiles, sommeliers and those in the trade. Published two years ago, this was the first new sherry book to come out in a decade and was received with universal praise and a sigh of relief “at last.” It’s a thorough and authoritative exploration of the history, wines, soils, and bodegas of the Jerez region. What the book lacks in color photos, it more than makes up for with in-depth information.
Although Peter Liem gained a following for his expertise on Champagne, he has been an extraordinary champion for sherry and is a co-founder of Sherryfest, an annual tasting event in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. His co-author, Jesús Barquín, is one of the principals of Equipo Navazos, a relatively new sherry label (basically a negoçiant that buys individually selected aged wines from bodegas), which has developed a cult-like following. Together they bring both a breadth and depth of knowledge to the subject. If you have a serious interest in sherry this is a must.
What to drink: Equipo Navazos La Bota de Amontillado #37, $67.97 (750 ml); Bodegas Tradicion Palo Cortado VORS, $99.95 (750 ml).
Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine (2014) By Alex Liddell Hurst & Company, $29.95
Hard on the heels of the recent sherry renaissance comes the revival of yet another fortified wine that also spent decades languishing in the back of liquor cabinets everywhere: madeira. As with sherry, up-to-date publications have lagged behind the wine’s popularity and are therefore pretty scant. Thankfully, Alex Liddell has revised and reissued his thorough, authoritative book “Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine,” which was first published in 1998. Liddell began his career in academia and brings a scholarly approach to the subject. The result is a thorough, meticulously researched book.
The island of Madeira, situated in the Mid-Atlantic, provided the perfect stopping off point for ships sailing to North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa or points further east such as India and the Spice Islands. Madeira wine became a popular commodity. It was, in fact, the very act of shipping wines on long, hot journeys that created the style of Madeira wines as we know them today. Liddell not only tells this story wonderfully, he also delves into the soil, grapes, viticulture, vinification and the producers. There is enough basic information here to entice the amateur enthusiast but it also has the level of detail for professionals.
What to drink: Blandy’s 1998 Colheita Sercial, $54.99 500 ml.; Broadbent 10 year old Bual, $39.99, 500 ml.
Port and the Douro (2013) By Richard Mayson Infinite Ideas, $50
Whether or not you are a long-time port collector or struggle to discern an LBV from a colheita, Richard Mayson’s “Port and the Douro” is an indispensable guide to the region’s fortified wines. He’s been in the wine business for more than 30 years and written numerous books on port, madeira and the wines of Iberia as well as making his own wine in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. The last few decades have seen a lot of changes in the Douro and Mayson has been there chronicling every development. In this third edition we’re brought right up to 2011.
Mayson begins with the fascinating history of the region, which was originally settled by the Romans, and the beginnings of the Port trade, which flourished as a result of war between England and France. He provides a thorough description of the numerous grape varieties allowed in Port as well as the viticulture and vinification processes. He provides information on some of the major quintas and for those with a deep interest in vintage ports, he provides an invaluable account of vintages from 2011 back to 1844.
What to drink: 2008 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port, $19.00, 750 ml; Quinta do Noval Black, $19.97, 750 ml.
In the latest issue of Wine & Spirits magazine a report on top restaurant wines found that when it comes to dessert wines the most popular after-dinner tipple is tawny port. In fact, all but two of the top ten were tawnies. This may reflect the fact that this style is a particularly attractive by-the-glass option for restaurants in that an opened bottle will keep for at least a month and these wines don’t require decanting (both good reasons to stock up at home too). But practical considerations aside, tawny ports, specifically those that have been aged for a decade or more, are a delicious way to cap off an evening. Much lighter in body than young ruby’s or mature vintage ports, tawnies have nutty, caramel-like flavors that pair well with a wide variety of desserts such as apple tarts or chocolate mousse, while their sweetness makes them an excellent choice with cheese. And although we tend to associate port with winter weather and a roaring fire, you could also do as the Portuguese and sip them in the summer, slightly chilled, all on their own.
Of all the styles of port tawnies perhaps are the most challenging to make and are the most reflective of their shipping houses. They begin their lives the same way all ports do with red grapes crushed and vigorously macerated. Usually the best grapes are used, often from the same batch used for vintage ports since this style’s long aging requires firm tannins and high acidity. Grape spirit is then added to the must to halt fermentation, resulting in a sweet, intensely fruity wine with between 19 and 22% abv. Different houses halt fermentation at different times to obtain their own distinct level of sweetness (the earlier grape spirit is added the sweeter the wine). Wines destined to become tawnies are then aged in large wooden casks for the first few years and then transferred to smaller wood pipes. These are well-seasoned, neutral barrels not intended to impart any flavors to the wine. Instead, their purpose is to allow slow, controlled exposure to air over time. This gentle oxidation along with evaporation concentrates the sweetness and flavors and transforms the wine’s bright fresh fruit into more developed dried fruit, cinnamon, caramel and nuttiness. The color fades from bright purpley red to brownish amber, or tawny.
Tawny vs. Tawny
Not all tawny ports are created equally. It’s not uncommon to see generic “tawny” ports without an indication of age. These wines, however, have usually spent no more than a few years in barrel and are often blended with white port to replicate a true tawny. Those aged for seven years in barrel are labeled reserve tawnies and although a few good examples exist these are attractive mostly for their low price. Top quality tawny ports give an indication of age on the label: 10, 20, 30, or 40 years, which represents an approximation of the age of the component wines (they are blends of vintages). Each shipper aims to maintain a house style and may use anywhere from 10 to 50 different wines. One element of some tawnies is called “Duoro Bake” and refers to wine that has been aged in barrels kept in the hot, sunny Duoro valley rather than the cooler, coastal village of Vila Nova de Gaia. The higher inland temperatures cause more evaporation and quicker aging and give more pronounced “rancio” or carmelized flavors.
The longer the wine spends in barrel the deeper the concentration, the more developed the flavors and, of course, the more expensive it becomes. About 1- 2% is lost to evaporation every year (3% in the Duoro). Ten-year tawnies average around $20 per bottle retail, while 40-year tawnies are around $140. Hitting the sweet spot of a full array of tawny notes at a reasonable price are the 20-year tawnies, considered by many port aficionados to be the pinnacle of tawny ports. The style exhibits the transition between the vibrant fresh fruit of its younger self and the more mature, developed nutty notes and are slightly sweeter than the 10 year olds. Of those eight favorite tawnies, five were 20 year olds. Here then are some recommended 20-year tawnies and the restaurants where you can find them.
Recommended 20-year-old tawnies and where to drink them by the glass:
Ferreira “Duque de Braganca” 20 year old Tawny Port. Elegant and rich with distinct notes of walnuts, toffee, dried cherry and orange peel. $69.99 retail, $22/glass at Gramercy Tavern, 42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003, (212) 477-0777.
Fonseca 20 year old Tawny Port. Fonseca may be known for its vintage ports, but its 20-year tawny is top notch. This wine was my favorite of the three for its smooth and silky texture and its complex notes of stewed plums, dates, dried cherries, and candied pecans, which lingered for a good long time. $49.99 retail, $18/glass at Aldea, 31 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011, (212) 675-7223.
Taylor Fladgate 20 year old Tawny Port. This wine took top honors as the most popular dessert wine. Although I preferred the other two, this is still a delicious, bright and refined wine with notes of raspberry jam, dried cherry, and cloves. $50.97 retail, $20/glass at Bar Boulud, 1900 Broadway (at 64th Street) New York, NY 10023, (212) 595-0303.
Will the snow ever end? It’s all the East Coast is talking about. Personally I love a good winter storm and how the whiteness (while it lasts) brightens the skeletal trees and the city becomes a little less frenetic. Cold, snowy nights like these call for an extra dose of something to take the chill out, like an oloroso sherry. Sherries have made a comeback in the last few years, but while finos and manzanillas have drawn most of the attention olorosos remain mostly out of the spotlight. In fact when I went searching for a bottle in my local shops there were few to choose from.
Made from the courser base wines, olorosos are often more textured and fuller bodied than finos and amontillados. While they still make for a fine apperitif, the style lends itself to pairing cold-weather fare such as stews or game dishes. Oloroso means “fragrant” in Spanish and these are potent, hearty wines, usually a dark amber color with nutty, dried fruit flavors. This comes from aging entirely oxidatively in barrels with no time spent under a layer of flor (yeast), which is how finos, manzanillas and amontillados are aged. Over the years some of the wine evaporates, concentrating the flavors and increasing the level of alcohol, which can range from 18 to 24%. This may leave an impression of sweetness although most oloroso wines are dry. A truly sweet oloroso will have had some Pedro Ximenez added and labeled a cream sherry.
This oloroso comes from a former almacenista, who used to sell his wines to big producers such as Gonzalez Byass, but now bottles them under his own name. The bodegas of Gutiérrez Colosía are found in the coastal town of El Puerto de Santa María and therefore feel the influence from the Atlantic winds. The saline quality of this oloroso is prominent, but is accompanied by notes of toasted walnuts, raisins, and a touch of iron. And, since it has already been exposed to oxygen, once it’s open it’ll keep in the refrigerator for a couple of months.
Gutiérrez Colosía Oloroso dry sherry, 750 ml, 18% abv, $34.99.
We’ve known since the age of the Aztecs that chocolate is the food of love, so what could be more romantic on the day we celebrate that special someone than sharing a box of luscious truffles or a gooey chocolate cake. The more pressing question is what wine to pair with it? Chocolate can be tricky since it comes in so many variations, from creamy milk chocolate to bittersweet and dark. Complicating the matter is that chocolate is often mixed with fruit or caramel. One wine, however, that complements the full range of chocolate confections is Malmsey Madeira.
Madeiras are fortified wines from the eponymous Portuguese island, which lies a little more than 500 km west of Morocco. The wines are made in the same way as port, meaning grape spirit is added to the fermenting must, leaving some residual sugar and upping the alcohol level. Though while all ports are sweet Madeiras range in style and sweetness depending on the grape variety and aging. At the drier, lighter end of the spectrum are wines made from Sercial and Verdelho grapes, while the sweeter, richer wines are made from the Bual and Malvasia (Malmsey) varieties. What makes Madeira wines so unique, however, is that while every other winemaker in the world tries to protect their wines from the heat, in Madeira, heat is the secret ingredient.
Some time in the 17th century while the Portuguese where conquering distant lands they discovered that the wine they stocked up in Madeira became much more stable and delicious when cast about on the sun-scorched deck of a ship for months at a time. They quickly figured out, however, that they needn’t actually send the barrels of wine on ships to attain the same result, and today the wines are either heated in a large stainless steel tanks (for less expensive wines) or left in oak barrels in heated attics, sometimes for decades.
In a Malmsey Madeira all that heat shows itself in the wine in both taste and color. The longer the wine is aged in barrel the darker and richer the wine. This particular 15 year old Blandy’s has a dark amber hue and a full body with a complex array of flavors, such as caramel, toffee and raisins. There is also a pleasantly surprising streak of orange rind and clove. As with all Madeira wines there is a tongue tingling acidity, which balances out the sweetness and makes this wine so refreshing and food friendly, especially when you need to cut through the richness of chocolate. They make an ideal pair.
Blandy’s 15-Year-Old Malmsey Madeira, 500ml, $39.95
It turns out, Botrytis cinerea, that noble fungus responsible for the prized dessert wines of Sauternes, is a bit of a prima donna. Only under just the right conditions (foggy autumn mornings, usually from a nearby river or lake, followed by sunny afternoons) will it spring to life and perform its artistry. As such, very few grape growing regions are able to produce these magical sweet wines. Sauternes in Bordeaux and the aszú wines of Tokaji in Hungary may get all the attention (such as it is), but the earliest known botryized wines were made in Burgenland Austria, where a barrel dating from 1526 was discovered (and unfortunately consumed in 1852). These days, Austria’s star producer of botrytized wines is Kracher.
The key to Weinleibenhof Kracher’s success lies in its proximity to Neusiedl Lake, whose vast, shallow waters near the Hungarian border reliably blanket the surrounding vineyards with autumnal mists, ensuring a harvest of botrytized grapes year after year. Located near the village of Illmitz on the lake’s eastern shore, the winery was founded by Alois Kracher Sr., who began growing grapes (along with corn and other crops) at the end of WWII as a means of supporting his poverty-stricken family. It wasn’t until the harvest of 1959 that he realized the potential of his wine and began bottling it under his own name instead of selling it off in bulk as he had been doing. It was the efforts of his son, Alois Jr., however, that eventually brought them international attention. In 1988 he audaciously held a tasting that pitted Kracher wines against the ultimate standard: Château d’Yquem, Sauternes’ only Premier Cru Supérieur. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Kracher wines won. It was their Judgment-of-Paris moment and secured their reputation as a producer of world-class wines.
The winery is currently in the hands of Gerhard Kracher, who took over in 2007 following the death of his father, Alois Jr., from pancreatic cancer at age 48. Gerhard is continuing his father and grandfather’s practices and makes an extensive array of cuvees every year from varieties such as Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Traminer, Muskat Ottonel and Scheurebe. In Austria wines made from botrytized grapes are classified as trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), meaning individually picked, dried, late harvest grapes. Kracher makes a whole host of styles including beerenauslese (which in Austria are usually not affected by botrytis), auslese, spatlese as well as dry whites and reds. The TBA’s, however, are the real stars of the portfolio. Part of what elevates these wines, is how the grapes are handled. Not only is each variety vinified separately, but so are the grapes from each pass through the vineyard. Grapes don’t always develop botrytis at the same rate and thus are picked individually only at the right moment. Keeping everything separate gives Gerhard a freer hand for blending before bottling. To keep the wines straight Alois Jr. devised a numbering system where the higher the number, the more concentrated the wine. Too, the wines are fermented and aged in one of two styles: either in small new oak for the “Nouvelle Vague” (“new wave”) wines, or in large old wood or stainless steel for the more traditional “Zwischen den Seen” (“between the lakes”) wines. Some years will see 15 different cuvees, while in 2003, a very hot year, there was only one: Nouvelle Vague TBA #1, a blend of Welschriesling (70%), Chardonnay (20%) and Pinot Gris (10%). Even with the warm weather, this wine has a firm streak of acidity and is velvety smooth with notes of honey, raisins and orange.
First, I must confess that I have a special fondness for all things Greek. When I was 17 years old I spent the summer living with a family in Athens as an American Field Service exchange student, and it was a life-defining experience. My Greek parents and two sisters welcomed me into their family as if I had always been a part of it. Many of our meals were spent with extended family, most of whom didn’t speak English, so my Greek vocabulary consists of mainly tableware and food (although I did learn the Greek words for all the colors from their five-year-old cousins Giorgos and Kostas). The experience didn’t just set the hook for my love of travel, it made me want to immerse myself in other cultures and get to know the people. And so, I’m biased. I love Greece. I love the people, the landscape, the history, the food, and, of course, the wine.
While Greek dry wines have been making a name for themselves lately, the country has a long tradition of making dessert and fortified wines. Styles vary by region/island, but I decided to sample three of the most well known: Muscat of Samos, Vinsanto from Santorini and Mavrodaphne of Patras from the Peloponnese. Finding them in retail stores is a bit of a challenge, unless you live near a Greek neighborhood like Astoria, Queens (Omega wines has a good selection), but they are featured on wine lists in most Greek restaurants.
Greeks usually pair them with cheese and fruit. I tried mizithra, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese, drizzled with honey and graviera kritis, a firm Swiss-like cheese also made from sheep’s milk. It’s hard not to include baklava on the table, as no Greek meal would seem complete with out a bite of gooey phyllo, honey and walnuts. However, this is best served on its own as it is just too sweet and makes the wines tart.
Muscat of Samos
Winemaking on the island of Samos, just a mile off the west coast of Turkey, can be traced back as far as 1200 B.C. The main grape here is Muscat a Petit Grains, grown on terraces that line the slopes of Mt. Ampelos. The altitude (up to 900 m) tempers the hot Mediterranean climate and helps retain that all-important acidity. Since 1934, all production has been in the hands of the Union Of Winemaking Cooperative of Samos. Although some dry wines are made, the island is most famous for the sweet versions, which comes in two basic styles: one made from sun-dried grapes and the other fortified with grape spirit (i.e. vin doux naturel). The Samos Nectar is made from grapes that have been dried in the sun and then aged in oak barrels for three years. This deep golden wine isn’t overly sweet; instead it has a bright liveliness to it, with Muscat’s signature grapey perfume and notes of orange marmalade, raisins, honey, and walnuts. It was a spot-on match with the mizithra cheese and honey, and a bargain at $19.99.
Santorini may provide Greece’s postcard industry with the country’s quintessential scene—cliff-top, whitewashed homes set against the cerulean blue Aegean—but the island is also one of the country’s most prominent areas for winemaking. Its volcanic soils happen to be perfect for growing the Assyrtiko grape, whose dry wines are currently making a name for themselves in the U.S. Historically, however, it is the sweet versions of the grape that the island has been known for. Greek Vinsanto (one word), not to be confused with Italy’s Vin Santo (two words), dates back to the 16th century when the island was controlled by the Venetians. Vinsanto means wine from the island of Santorini, and is now a protected name designated for the dessert wines from Santorini (Italy is still allowed to use Vin Santo). While Assyrtiko is the main grape, it is blended with Aidani and Athiri. The grapes are left to ripen on the vine late into the season, then dried in the sun for two weeks until they’ve shriveled into raisins. They are then fermented on the skins, and the wine is aged in oak barrels for 2 to 4 years. This Vinsanto made by Koutsoyiannopolous is a deep amber color and a delicious combination of strawberry jam, stewed plums, and dried cranberries. (Sample provided).
Mavrodaphne of Patras
Given Greece’s ancient roots, Mavrodaphne of Patras is a relative newcomer to the wine scene. In 1859 a German immigrant name Gustav Clauss moved to the northern Peloponnese near the city of Patras, and planted his property with black currants and a few local grapevines. Although the region made mostly dry wines, Clauss decided that these dark skinned grapes might make a good port-like wine. He stopped fermentation with the addition of grape spirit to retain some residual sugar and then aged the wine in open oak barrels for several years. For a long time producers would leave the barrels outside, but nowadays they are kept indoors. The result is a wine similar to a Ruby port with some oxidation. Koutarki is owned by Greek Wine Cellars and is fairly ubiquitous in the U.S. This wine is a deep ruby color and more viscous than the other two, but surprisingly complex with flavors of dried cherries, figs, raisins, dates and caramel. You feel the heat at 15% abv, but there’s so much going on in the glass it makes for a very pleasant sip, especially at $10.99.
So, I raise a glass to Greece and especially my Greek family. I’m so proud of my sisters, who’ve created a successful shoe and accessories company Sorelle. XO
As if the two vin santos hadn’t already added a special (albeit fuzzy) glow to the evening our host returned from her wine stash holding a bottle of 1977 Warre’s vintage port. Turns out she’s been collecting vintage ports for about 25 years. This bottle was one of her early purchases and definitely a wise one. Founded in 1670, Warre’s is the oldest British-owned port house in the Douro and one of the most esteemed. The 1977 is considered by many critics to be one of the more outstanding vintages from the last century.
Vintage ports don’t lend themselves to spur-of-moment drinking. Since they’re bottled without being filtered, a heavy sediment builds up over the years. Although the grit isn’t harmful it does make for an unpleasant mouthful. Decanting, therefore, is essential, but that takes time. Since most bottles are stored on their side, standing them upright for a few days allows all the sediment to settle at the bottom, which greatly facilitates the decanting process. And ideally, decanting should be done at least 3 hours before pouring.
While all that sediment may complicate the opening process, it is also part of what makes vintage ports so complex, so long lived, and so unique. At its heart port is a red wine, a blend of five grape varieties: Touriga National, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Traditionally the grapes were trod on by foot in long stone troughs called legares. Today, most producers use automated versions, which provide a similar amount of pressure and extraction as the human foot. Fermentation is halted with the addition of grape spirit before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, resulting in a sweet wine with around 20% abv. Only the best grapes from the top vineyards go into vintage ports, and even then, only when the quality meets certain criteria is a vintage “declared.” This happens on average only three years out of every decade.
The wine then spends two years aging in barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Most of its development, therefore, happens in the bottle and requires at least 15 to 20 years before being ready to drink. Recently it’s become acceptable/borderline trendy to drink vintage ports after 10 or even 5 years of aging. One explanation given is that changes in the vineyard have made the wines much more approachable at an earlier age. Until about 30 years ago, the main grapes that go into port, along with scores of other varieties (more than 100 are allowed) were often grown side by side in the same vineyard. Not surprisingly, however, they don’t all ripen at the same time. At harvest some grapes would be underripe, while others might be super ripe. It was the harsh tannins from the underripe grapes that needed 20 years to soften. In the 1980s vineyard management began to change, and these field blends started to disappear. Plots were planted with the same grape varieties and harvested and vinified separately. This meant that each variety was harvested at perfect ripeness. No more underripe grapes. Another explanation has been that in America, at least, people’s palates have grown accustomed to big, bold, tannic wines, which is essentially what a younger port would be. Still others point to marketing by port shippers wanting to move inventory.
Photos from a trip to the Douro in 2012
None of that, however, applies to our bottle of Warre’s, which at 37 years old is hitting its stride. What has given this wine its longevity can be traced to the vineyard and the weather that year. In 1977 grapes for Warre’s vintage port came from vineyards along the banks of the Rio Torto, which lies about 30 miles north of Pinhão, a small village that sits snug along the banks of the Douro 50 miles inland from Porto. The growing season of 1977 began with a chill. A cold and rainy winter lingered well into spring. Vines were even hit by frost in May. Summer remained unseasonably cool until September when a final burst of sunshine and warmth finally ripened the grapes. That long,cool growing season, however, gave the wines structure: firm tannins and high acidity. The wines were so tannic some critics wondered whether or not they would ever calm down. After nearly four decades, however, our bottle of Warre’s proved silky smooth. The wine was still a bright ruby color but somewhat opaque and offered up notes of dried cherries and raisins with toffee and cloves. It had all signature elements of a Warre vintage port: rich but elegant, powerful but complex. It was a truly exceptional evening, one that we will always remember/have foggy recollections of with great fondness. Thank you Paul and Susan.
And finally, because we were in Scotland, there was this . . .
Scenes from beautiful Scotland:
No sooner had our host poured the last golden drops of the Frescobaldi vin santo into our glasses, than she’d pulled out a bottle of 2008 Maculan Torcalato. This too is a passito wine, made from dried grapes, and a vino da meditazione, but it comes from the northeastern part of Italy, specifically from the area around the village of Breganze, 50 miles northwest of Venice.
The rolling volcanic hills of the Veneto are renowned for the many styles of passito wines (Amarone is a famous dry version). Torcolato, however, remains little known outside the region, and for most of its history this dessert wine remained a local specialty. As the wines were never meant for export, little attention was paid to quality, and the wines were often oxidized and, one could say, an acquired taste.
One man who sought to change that was Fausto Maculan, who in 1970 set his sights on transforming their family’s Torcolato into something more than just palatable. Young and armed with an enology degree, this third generation winemaker set about rehabilitating this old-fashioned wine.
Torcolato means twisted and comes from the tradition of leaving the grapes on the branches, which are then twisted together and hung from rafters in special drying houses. The Maculan wine is a blend of 85% Vespaiola, 10% Tocai and 5% Garganega grape varieties, which are harvested late in the season, usually in October. As the grapes dry and the water evaporates, the sugar and flavors in the must become more concentrated. By January the grapes have been transformed into raisins and are ready to be pressed. Fermentation is on the skins, after which the wine is aged in small French oak barrels for a year, followed by six months in bottle before being released.
We sipped this wine on its own, and it was a remarkable, luscious mix of apricot tart, honey, and cinnamon.
End of Part II (no, we didn’t stop there)
The Italians call them vini da meditazioni, or meditation wines, and while the name suggests that a transcendental state might be found at the bottom of a glass, what these wines are really meant for is leisurely sipping, preferably at home in the company of family and friends. They may be wines of great stature, such as the long-lived classics of Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino, but more often they are passito wines, which are made from dried grapes, and can be dry but are often sweet, luscious dessert wines.
In the hills of Tuscany, the wine of contemplation and sharing is vin santo. For centuries this golden, amber “holy wine” was made in minuscule batches and stashed away in private cellars, brought out only for visitors and special occasions. Rarely was the wine bottled and sold; that was what Chianti was for. These days, bottles from quality producers are readily available at any fine wine retailer, but it remains a wine to be sipped with guests, perhaps along with dessert, cantucci, or all on its own into the late hours of the night.
Which is precisely what happened at a recent dinner party in Edinburgh, where my husband’s cousin and his wife generously opened a bottle of the 2004 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castello di Pomino Vin Santo to serve with a cherry clafoutis (an excellent combination). Frescobaldi is one of the oldest, most prominent families in Florence, where, during the middle ages, they earned distinction as bankers to the royalty of Europe. The winery was founded in 1308 and the wines are said to have been favorites of Michelangelo and King Henry VIII. Today, Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi is one of Tuscany’s largest wine producers, making everything from Chardonnay to Brunello de Montalcino.
Castello di Pomino is one of nine estates owned by the winery and dates from 1500, the year its namesake castle was built. Located 20 miles east of Florence, the Pomino vineyards are planted along the base of the Apennine mountains at 1000 to 2400 feet. This makes for cool nights and warm days, which are critical for retaining that all-important acidity. Atypically for vin santo, this wine is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Trebbiano and a small amount of Sangiovese; more often, Malvasia and Trebbiano are the main grape varieties. Some producers dry the grapes on straw mats, but Frescobaldi hangs them on the vine from attic rafters in a special area called the vinsantaia. There they stay for a minimum of three months. Once the grapes have shriveled to raisins, sometime between Christmas and Easter (hence the name “holy wine”), they are pressed. As one might imagine, extracting liquid from a raisin is a challenge, and the amounts of thick, sweet grape must are tiny.
What must there is is then racked into small, wooden barrels called caratelli, where they remain for four years. Some producers trigger fermentation by adding a madre, a portion of the yeast left from previous fermentations, which is thought to add complexity to the wine, while others use cultured yeast. Naturally some of the wine is lost by evaporation through the wooden staves, and since the barrels are never topped up the wine is exposed to oxygen, resulting in dried fruit and caramel notes.
Styles of vin santo can range from dry and oxidized (almost like a fino sherry) to lusciously sweet with notes of dried apricots and honey. This wine was silky smooth and tasted of raisins, honey, dates and dried figs. A firm streak of acidity nicely balanced out the sweetness. It was the perfect accompaniment to the candle-lit conversation and added an extra spark to an already special evening, just as the Italians intended. Little did we know, however, that this was a mere prelude.
End of Part I