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
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When Alex Russan was a young college student he had his first taste of sherry. In an instant, he was hooked. “It was the most complex thing I had ever tasted. The unique flavors really moved me.” In the following years, the California native worked as a coffee buyer and simply indulged his passion for sherry the way most of us do, by simply drinking a lot of it. As the sherry renaissance began to flourish, however, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and he saw an opportunity to turn his passion for sherry into a business. The result is Alexander Jules, a line of limited production, barrel-selected sherries, which made their debut last fall.
Sherry business is an old business, dominated by big shippers who can often trace their lineage back to the early 18th century. Many of them have been British—Harveys Bristol Cream, Byass of González-Byass, Sandeman—but Russan is the first American to bottle Jerez sherries. One of the factors that makes this possible is the fragmented structure of the industry. Rarely do the producers, who age and bottle the wine, own their own vineyards. Most buy their base wine from growers or an already aged wine from an almacenista. Traditionally, the goal for many of the sherry houses has been to maintain consistency, which is accomplished through blending the different barrels in their soleras, which are themselves blends of vintages. Beginning in the 1980s, however, Lustau recognized a market for smaller, more artisanal sherries and began bottling wines from individual almacenistas and featuring their names on the label. More recently, Equipo Navazos entered the market with their La Bota series, sherries from selected barrels that they thought expressed unique character but weren’t being bottled and sold. Bodegas can have hundreds of barrels (González Byass is the largest with 80,000), but inevitably not all are commercialized. This is where Equipo Navazos, and now Alexander Jules, have stepped in.
Having honed his palate over the years with specialty coffee (there are many similarities with wine) and recognizing that the interest in sherry was only growing stronger, Russan took the leap and, in August of 2012, began contacting the Jezez bodegas. The owners were all open to his proposal. “I was pleased with how receptive people were.” During his first trip to the region he tasted through barrels at 15 bodegas. “Once I have a sense of the spectrum of variation in the solera, I have an idea of what I’d like to focus on or accentuate in that solera. I’ll search for the barrels I feel represent that and will work well together. I look for complexity, cleanliness, precision of flavor, depth and elegance.” A few thousand emails and calls later, he bottled his first wines in May 2013.
In the last few years sherries have been increasingly bottled en rama, which means with minimal or no clarification or filtering before being bottled. This keeps the wine’s inherent characteristics as intact as possible and adds to the complexity and body. It’s as close to tasting a sherry in barrel as possible. Although Russan’s sherries are not labeled as such they are minimally treated. “Before en rama bottlings were common, most Finos and Manzanillas seemed fairly lean, austere wines, however, tasting them from the barrel they are often weighty, lush wines.” These in-barrel qualities are what he seeks to preserve in bottle.
Having tracked down a bottle of the 6/26 Amontillado at Slope Cellars, a wine store in Brooklyn, I can say that the sherry delivers in spades. This particular wine comes from a 26 barrel solera from Bodega Argüeso in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a city on the Atlantic coast and the home turf of Manzanillas. The wine spent five years under flor followed by another five years aging oxidatively. Out of those 26 barrels Russan selected wine from 6 of them to be bottled, hence the 6/26. Per Russan’s instructions I sampled it over the course of four days. Initially this golden wine smelled of roasted almonds and camomille, a distinctive quality found in Manzanilla sherries. On the palate it was bone dry and crisp but with a soft, creaminess to the body. Flavors of mushrooms, raisins, baguettes, and brine went on a surprisingly long time. A day later the smell of butterscotch rose to the fore before receding the next day. By day 4 the butterscotch had been overtaken by scents of mapled walnuts and raisins. On the palate it remained crisply dry and creamy and tasted of camomille, almonds and olives. I did as the Spanish do and paired it with Iberico ham, Marcona almonds, and Manchego cheese.
In addition to the Alexander Jules 6/26 Amontillado, 500 ml, $40, Russan currently has two other sherries on offer: Alexander Jules Manzanilla 17/71, which comes from a nearly 200-year-old solera at the same bodega as the Amontillado and is bottled en rama, and Alexander Jules Fino 22 /85 from the Fino Celestino solera at Sanchez Romate in Jerez de la Frontera. These wines are aged an average of eight years and also bottled en rama.
His future plans include another release of the Manzanilla and Amontillado as well as a new Fino, but the real highlight, he says is an “old Oloroso from barrels that were untouched for about 40 years, after having been essentially lost.” These barrels were initially filled with about 500 liters (of already old wine). After 40 years there’s been significant ullage, leaving about about 200 liters. “A really intriguing, concentrated wine and a unique story.”