John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 4th 2012: A Greek Symposium; Hot & Cold California; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

February 4th brings a ray of sunshine to Ontario, in the form of the sun-drenched wines of California and Greece. Yet despite the perceived similarity in climate, the wines of these two places are worlds apart for reasons explored below in my mini Greek Wine Symposium. Two distinct style streams of California wines are neatly exposed in this thematic, with a thick line drawn in the sand between the just ripe and overripe styles, which I’ll examine briefly here. For those looking for a quick fix, jump straight to the top ten smart buys.

A Greek Symposium

A symposium in ancient Athens was quite unlike the modern version we’re used to. Contrast the image of an auditorium, a panel of speakers with their bottled water and a quiet audience with pen and notebook in hand, with that of the sumptuous interior of a wealthy Athenian’s villa, gentlemen lounging in togas vigorously discussing matters of importance, a lavish banquet feast spread before them, and a large amphora of wine generously ladled into chalices with regularity until the moon set. Symposium derives from the Greek verb “to drink together”; these were drinking parties, during which men of society would discuss important matters of philosophy, politics and war. One wonders if international politics and economics wouldn’t be just a little better off today if our forums, summits and symposiums were conducted in the ancient Greek style (but with far more women involved).

The ancient Greeks were nothing if not wine connoisseurs. The world’s first appellations of origin for wine evolved within its borders, and trade in wine throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean was big business. Yet despite nearly 7000 years of wine history, Greece today is as young and developing as any new world country in the modern business of fine wine. The image of rustic, pine-scented wine served in rough-hewn copper pitchers in a seaside taverna still lingers, and bottled wine is a relative novelty. But for wine lovers seeking to broaden their range of familiar flavours and lengthen their lists of food-friendly, regional specialties, Greece is well worth some investigatory drinking.

New Wines of GreeceFebruary 4th sees Greece in the spotlight at Vintages for the first time, with a well-chosen selection of some of the country’s strongest export-ready grapes and regions. I will be charged with a bias towards Greek wines, having done considerable trade education on the subject on behalf of the Greek government (I’ve even been part of a film on Greek wines), so of course it’s true. I’m always drawn to distinctive wines with unique flavour profiles, and am happy to share these discoveries. I was intrigued by Greek wines from the very first moment I tasted a glass of Santorini less than a decade ago, captivated by the fascinating mix ancient and modern, distinctiveness, and sheer deliciousness. Out of 300 or so indigenous grapes, this release highlights four of the most established. Here’s the order in which I suggest you serve wines at your own symposium:

1. 2010 TSELEPOS MOSCHOFILERO MANTINIA PDO $16.95  Moschofilero is the grape, a pinkish-skinned, fragrant, floral variety vaguely reminiscent of Muscat on the nose. Mantinia is the region, essentially a plateau located in the central Peloponnese at an average of 650m elevation. Believe it or not, grapes struggle to ripen regularly here. Typically Mantinia is a crisp, light-bodied white (or slightly pink-tinged) with crisp acid, low alcohol, 11-12% and bright citrus, sweet herb and floral aromas. It’s just about the stylistic opposite of what one would expect from a Mediterranean country. Fans of pinot grigio, dry riesling, albariño, lighter sauvignon blanc and really any dry crisp whites will feel at home with moschofilero.

Tselepos Moschofilero Mantinia 2010

2. 2007 PAPAIOANNOU SINGLE VINEYARD AGIORGITIKO AOQS Nemea $19.95  Nemea is Greece’s largest red wine appellation, a hilly zone in the northwestern Peloponnese near the town of ancient Nemea. Agiorgitiko, or “St. George” is the only permitted grape. It’s what the Greeks would call a polydynamic variety, capable of being rendered into any style from crisp rose at higher elevations (up to 900m abs.) to sweet styles from raisined grapes grown on the valley floor. It reminds me a little of merlot or tempranillo, fairly round and plush, with soft tannins and sumptuous mouth feel. But Papaionannou’s version, with its fresh strawberry and raspberry fruit is more like pinot noir or light grenache – ’07 is one of his best vintages to date.

Papaioannou Single Vineyard Agiorgitiko 2007

3. 2010 SIGALAS ASSYRTIKO SANTORINI AOQS $21.95  Now that you’re a little more comfortable with Greece and haven’t run screaming to the nearest bottle of chardonnay or merlot, it’s time to go a little further. Santorini is the appellation, a volcanic island in the Cyclades – you know the postcard image of Greece, with the white washed houses, pale blue domes and deep blue sea beyond? That’s Santorini. Assyrtiko is the grape, widely acknowledged to be not just one of Greece’s, but one of the Mediterranean’s most distinctive white varieties. It’s far from easy going, more like a sommelier’s pet grape: powerful, stony, both relatively high in alcohol and acidity, with vaguely fruity-grapefruit aromas. It can smell like a matchstick, after all, it grows in volcanic pumice. If you like top Alsatian or German Riesling, gruner veltliner from the Wachau, premier or grand cru Chablis, and other similar, singular, minerally wines, give this a try.

Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini 2010

4. 2008 KIR-YIANNI RAMNISTA XINOMAVRO AOQS Naoussa $19.95  Xinomavro is the red equivalent to assyrtiko: a decidedly tough, non-cuddly grape, with fierce tannins, juicy acids and complex range of generally non-fruity aromas. It grows in several appellations in northern Greece, but Naoussa is easily the best known. There is a striking parallel between xinomavro (which means literally “acid-black”) and northern Italy’s nebbiolo. Both are pale garnet-coloured, with high acid and firm tannins, fruit in the sweet red berry spectrum augmented by a range of savoury, floral, licorice, resinous herb and pot-pourri-like aromas. Kir-Yianni’s is a more concentrated, ripe and modern version, while the 2004 BOUTARI GRANDE RESERVE AOQS Naoussa $16.95 , obviously more mature, is also more old school in style. Both are delicious and well priced, especially if you are used to paying for Barolo and Barbaresco. But before you try either of these, a nice segue into the category is the 2007 TSANTALI RESERVE RAPSANI PDO $15.95 . Rapsani is further south on the western slopes of Mt. Olympus, and xinomavro is blended with equal parts krassato and stavroto (1/3 each). The latter two varieties used essentially soften the texture and deepen the colour of xinomavro. Tsantali’s example is delicate and strawberry-scented, with light, dusty tannins and bright acidity, resulting a juicy, food-friendly wine. Serve with a light chill for maximum enjoyment.

Kir Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro 2008  Boutari Grande Reserve 2004Tsantali Reserve Rapsani 2007

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The Two Faces of California

California is the main theme of the February 4th release, which will certainly build further on their current domination of Vintages sales. But far from complacent, as one might expect given their success, my most recent trip to California last December revealed a region in a fervent state of evolution. I observed a growing experimental, counter-culture side to the California wine industry, driven, I believe, in large measure by the growing divide over the issue of ripeness. To anyone on the outside of the industry, timing the harvest to pick ripe grapes would seem a straightforward decision. But the precise timing of the harvest, and an individual producer’s definition of ‘ripe’ has a dramatic impact on wine style, to the point where regional, or even varietal character, can be overridden.

I spoke with many Californian sommeliers who expressed a similar weariness towards the style that has dominated the market for the last 15 years: super ripe, raisined, big, thick, highly extracted and lavishly oaked reds from the bigger-is-better school. Many winemakers, too, bemoan the late harvest style that has become entrenched at the upper end of the market, which require a significant amount of manipulation in the winery in order to render them stable. It became clear from talking and tasting that the increased alcohol levels of California wines in the last two decades (and of many other regions around the world) is purely a cultural and stylistic decision, removed from any discussion of global warming. In other words, it is a conscious choice to make raisin and fig-flavored wine. One need only point to the many excellent California wines harvested at a less extreme degree of ripeness to make the point. Yet there’s still evidently a place for raisined wines in the market, as the sales keep churning and the prices reach consistently into triple digits. Plenty of consumers, and wine critics, like these wines.

And that’s fine – diversity is what makes wine more interesting than soft drinks – I’m just reporting on that diversity (peppered with my uncontainable personal opinion). And so I was delighted to discover the emergence of a small but growing number of tiny wineries purchasing top quality fruit and transforming it, often in old warehouses, industrial parks and other makeshift facilities, into wonderfully individual, eccentric wines. I tasted a wild range ‘indie’ wines such as long skin contact white (orange) wines, crisp and vibrant reds from old vines and unpopular varieties like carignan and mataro, sulphur-free wines sold only locally in re-useable Kleen Kanteens, even a cabernet franc that was a dead ringer for a cool vintage Chinon from the Loire Valley. Yes, the spirit of innovation is alive and well in the Golden State. And I suspect that these small operations, tuned into the sub-currents of wine culture, will exert increasing influence on the industry as a whole, given their direct and simpatico connection with the gatekeepers of wine sales: sommeliers and wine shop owners. At the very least, they make the California landscape vastly more interesting.

Whether your preference is big or balanced, there are wines to satisfy both style streams in this release. My three favorite California wines are the exceptional 2007 DUNN VINEYARDS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $87.95, an arch-classical estate, the 2007 BEAULIEU VINEYARD GEORGES DE LATOUR PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $89.95, a wine with a long pedigree of quality and ageability, and the organically/biodynamically farmed 2009 FROG’S LEAP CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley 90 $58.95 *1/2. All three are naturally well-balanced, delicious wines.

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Beaulieu Vineyard Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

If big flavour impact is what you’re after, then you’ll be more drawn to the 2007 ROBERT MONDAVI RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $139.95, or the 2009 CAYMUS CABERNET SAUVIGNON Napa Valley $69.95. Just don’t ask me to have a glass, even if you’re buying.  But it’s only fair to illuminate both faces of California wine.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
From the February 4th, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Great Greek Wines
Top Californians
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier