Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fill Up My Cava - Part I

Eight months ago we moved into a new home and my only desire (besides a massive kitchen where I could pretend to be an insultingly poor man's version of Virgilio Martínez) was to own a wine cellar. 

After countless discussions with local experts, The Wife Ph.D., and I settled for a series of wine fridges, pseudo-cavas that are better prepared to withstand the hellish heat The Rock bears down on our rotting souls come June (or mid-February if you're a Scandinavian retiree).

Obviously, with a great cellar comes great responsibility—to stack it to the brim with bottles upon bottles upon more bottles of one's favorite wines.

If you've been following my journey through wine, I've settled on three red varieties that will outshine all others in what I expect to be the rather temperamental build-up of my collection.

18-Year Old Grand Reserve Anyone?
Back in 2017, courtesy of Photos Photiades Distributors Ltd and Boutari Winery in Greece, I was invited to a mini-vertical tasting of Xinomavro, Greece's most acclaimed red variety that has drawn comparisons to Italy's Nebbiolo and has become since my landing on The Rock twelve long years ago one of my all-time favorite varieties. [Editor's Note: This article is a year late because the hirsute chubster behind this blog is a world-class slacker.]

Drinkers beware, though. Xinomavro (literally meaning 'Sour Black') can be a hard swill to swallow. When young, it can be super tannic, highly acidic and seemingly rough or rustic. These traits, however, have afforded Xinomavro ample opportunity to age gracefully for decades. In its best variations, it can be beautifully perfumed, reminiscent of a field of flowers and damp earth cohabiting with tomatoes drying on their vines, fresh black olive paste and a sour cherry orchard. It's truly awe-inspiring.

The tasting, which was held at Nicosia's most sophisticated food-and-wine haunt, Pralina Experience, was led by Boutari's oenologist Vasilis Georgiou. He started off by emphasizing that the winery's heart lies in Naoussa, Northern Greece's PDO where Xinomavro is queen, and that this variety is his favorite of all. What draws him to this difficult variety? Its versatility and dynamism as a grape—it can produce sparklers, light and heavy rosés, fresh reds and fuller reds destined for aging.

Aging Gracefully
Furthermore, Vasilis said, Xinomavro in Naoussa are terroir-driven wines. Each sub-region within Naoussa delivers a unique wine. For instance, two separate vineyards with a mere 150 meters difference in altitude result in different wines.

When it comes to the actual wine-making, a good discussion started on old school versus new school methods. Vasilis said that new school methods might be used to open the market to Xinomavro but ultimately what people want is the old school, more traditional and rustic style. Georgios Hadjistylianou, who runs the excellent Fat Fish restaurant in Limassol, opined that Naoussa leans more towards Burgundy in style and Vasilis concurred; Boutari's intention is to mimic an international wine but give it a local touch.

Before boring you further, here are some of the wines we tasted and, yes, dear readers, many of these will one day fill up my cava.

2014 Boutari Sparkling Rosé - An experimental bubbly made with Xinomavro. Plenty of red fruit, raspberry, brioche and yeasty notes on the nose. The palate was rather delicate with raspberries and strawberries up front and a toasted-bread-like middle.

2016 Xinomavro Rosé - Another experimental bottle, this one is meant to be a food-friendly rosé. According to Vasilis, the original plan was to make a fashionable, lighter Provence-style rosé, but instead they made this one, which is much darker and has enough weight to be accompanied by food. Bright red fruit, caramel, some herbal touches, really creamy. As Maria Massoura of The Wander Notes succinctly put: "Strawberry panna cotta."

A Few of the Wines Sampled
2015 Boutari Naoussa - Vasilis says that Boutari's entry-level Naoussa serves as the barometer to the vintage's success. It is the winery's generic Xinomavro with grapes picked from all of its different regions. The 2015 was quite woody—it spends twelve months in oak barrels—and marked by aromas of red cherries and strawberries and a hint of black olives, characteristic of the variety. This wine was just okay; very short, clean and simple with a nose that outperformed its palate.

2003 Boutari Naoussa - This wine clearly showed Xinomavro's amazing aging potential. On the nose, plenty of violets, mushrooms, dried red fruit and leather. Once tasted, there was plenty of red fruit still present, many herbal components and a wonderful wet earth and dustiness to it on the finish with a decent acidity for its teenage years.

2012 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - According to Vasilis, the Grand Reserve Naoussa, a great value-for-money bottling, is a wine meant to be aged and it is not released for bad vintages. Furthermore, it spends two years in oak barrels and two additional years aging in the bottle and it's generally made from grapes coming from three specific vineyards—Marina, Trilofos and Polla Nera. This specific vintage comes from a vineyard called Trilofos and is marked by red forest fruit, floral elements and a lovely minty touch. Tannins are very chewy as this wine is still in its infant stage.

2011 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - If I read my notes correctly, this was one of my favorite wines of the tasting. An explosion of truffles on the nose, leather, sweet spice and dark cherries working as one. Plenty of strawberries and mint with black olive pattée on the finish. It has great acidity, firm tannins, a really solid structure that will allow it to go for decades. If my limited knowledge of Naoussa vintages is not betraying me, 2011 was supposedly one of the great ones. By the way, this wine screams to be matched with food.

Xinomavro Screams for Food
1999 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - Another excellent example of this variety's aging prowess. Secondary and tertiary notes are now jumping with joy. Butterscotch toffee, coffee, smoke, leather, black pepper on the nose. The palate paired dehydrated strawberries with plenty of wet earth along many of these other elements.

2007 Boutari Legacy Single Vineyard - This wine is made from a single vineyard (Trilofos) only on exceptional years. If the grapes are not allotted to the Legacy, they are then used to make the Grand Reserve Naoussa. Tomato leaf, black olives, thyme and a wonderful meatiness to this wine. On the palate, plenty of ripe red fruit and a heavy dose of vanilla, courtesy of 12 months in French oak barrels.

[Editor's Note: If any of you readers feels the need to contribute a wine or two to his cava, please contact us to arrange for delivery. I think all he deserves is a good kick in the ass.]

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Savatiano Risin'

Savatiano Chillin'
It's survey time here at Whine On The Rocks. 

How many of you have heard of Savatiano

How many of you associate this variety with retsina, Greece's piny, Aquafresh-like wine that tastes like diluted toilet bowl cleaner when poorly made? [Editor's Note: The author is not being judgemental.]

No? Yes? Maybe? Boy, I've got news for you.

A few weeks ago, thanks to an event organized by Vassos Eliades Ltd., at Pralina Experience in Nicosia, I sat at the table with the big boys of Cyprus wine for a comprehensive tasting of Papagiannakos Winery's mad-scientist experimentation with all-things Savatiano.

Vassilis Papagiannakos, who now runs the winery, walked us through his story with Savatiano, a once disfavored variety with a four thousand year history that everyone solely associated with retsina. According to Vassilis, once the winery started experimenting with cold fermentation, Savatiano gave out a range of fruity aromas in the vein of Assyrtiko and Roditis, and its potential as a dry, non-resinated wine began to take shape. Furthermore, the terroir, said Vassilis, if treated like Burgundy and other great wine-making areas of the world, could lead to the production of excellent wines that could age for decades.

Vassilis Papagiannakos (right) Talks Savatiano
Case in point, during a 2014 visit by Wine & Spirits journalist Tara Q. Thomas, Vassilis organized a vertical tasting (2007 to 2014) of his Savatiano Old Vines with Thomas boldly asking for even older vintages. After sampling the 1998 and 2000 Savatiano, she deemed these wines world-class. About the 1998, Thomas writes, "The wine is a rich, golden color and smells of petrol, like old assyrtiko. Caramel flavors gild the fresh almond notes, the acidity mild yet still vibrant."

Vassilis Papagiannakos then led us through a tasting of the five Savatiano wines currently in his portfolio, and the variety's diversity, quality and uniqueness was put on display for all. Here are one amateur's tasting notes.

2017 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Old Vines - Light, fresh nose with hints of green apples, herbaceous notes, lightly peppery and almost soy-like. On the palate, nutty, mature citrus fruits, apples and pears with solid acidity. Very tough to beat at the price point, which is about 6 to 7 Euros in The Rock's major supermarkets.

Savatiano Revealed
2016 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Vientzi Single Vineyard - This wine comes from Vassilis Papagiannakos' father's favourite sixty-year-old vineyard called Vientzi. Very nutty and herbal nose marked predominantly by hazelnuts. Once tasted, the hazelnuts persisted and combined with notes of apples, pears and citrus with a lovely loukoumi-like sweetness running through the mid-palate. Really good length.

2016 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Natural - This was the strangest yet most alluring wine of the tasting. I really couldn't place its nose and picked up notes of mushrooms, green beans, nuts and white pepper. Really strange. One of the Cypriot sommeliers in attendance said it reminded him on salt-and-vinegar crisps. On the palate, though, this wine sang: smooth body with clean lines, bursting with touches of apple and pears. My second favorite of the soiree.

Veal Tenderloin with 2017 Savatiano Bareli
2014 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Ktima - Here Savatiano starts showing off its aging potential as secondary aromas  develop. A very nutty, almond-like nose with hints of smoke and even gaminess. Plenty of orange peel, bitter oranges, lemon zest, apple and pears with a lovely nutty finish. Good length and medium-plus acidity.

2017 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Bareli (Barrel Aged) - This was my favorite wine but I can definitely see how it's not for all; its unctuousness might be a bit over the top for some. A beautiful potpourri-like nose, very floral, very fragrant. Once sipped, there's a rush of sweet, overripe pears and baked apples, candied orange peel and loads of sweet spice. Keep in mind this wine is fermented and aged for five months in oak barrels and undergoes no battonage. This wine definitely needs a few years to soften up.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

To New Beginnings

Marcos Zambartas Leading the Way
My first visit to Zambartas Wineries happened maybe eight years ago. We were met by the late Akis Zambartas, who had made the winery's top floor his home. After a quick tour of the winery's small facilities two floors down, Akis, garrulous as ever, sat us in his outdoor dining room and shared a wealth of information and stories over multiple glasses of his red wines. It was a welcoming, cheerful, generous visit, the type you experience when someone happily opens the doors to his home and you stumble out a while later, tipsy and with a big grin stamped across your face. 

Following a summer press trip organized by Vassos Eliades Ltd., Zambartas Wineries' new distributor on The Rock, I can say that this heartfelt hospitality remains as strong as ever. 

The New Tasting Room
Yes, things have changed. The main reason for our visit was to experience Zambartas Wineries' extensive renovation of its top floor, which has now become a classy and modern tasting room with a fully stocked kitchen that can cater to parties and larger groups of visitors. Clean lines, some dark wood, beautiful iron racks for the bottles on sale, and a predominantly black-and-white collage of photos rendering tribute to Akis and the family tradition have transformed the space. Additionally, the mezzanine, which served as the main tasting room, will become the center stage for aging the winery's yet-to-be-released Commandaria.

Part of the trip also included a tour of some of the winery's nearby vineyards. We drove past KEO's Ktima Mallia, Oinou Yi's lavish mountaintop winery in Omodos and Ktima Gerolemo towards Agios Nikolaos and into a higher terroir populated by rows and rows of vineyards. Unfortunately, it rained donkeys and moufflons that day, so we couldn't walk the fields and get a chance to experience wine-making straight from its source.

Fancy Anything?
My favorite part of the visit was Marcos Zambartas telling us about Marcelina, a vineyard that harks back to 1921 and which he proudly purchased on Bazaraki.com (the Cypriot equivalent of eBay). Marcos believes Marcelina will offer not the best but the truest representation of Cypriot wine. Christodoulos, the winery's vigneron, called this plot a living museum of Cypriot wine as it offers a glimpse into the history of Cypriot wine. You can see how vineyards were planted in the past, one atop each other, crowded, nary a row. Different varieties—Mavro, Xynisteri, Maratheftiko and more—stand side by side, some of them unrecognizable to the trained eye. So much so that Marcos had to ship some of Marcelina's grapes for further review.

Of course, we tasted a few wines too as part of the visit. And here's always where I start to blabber like a hyper infant. Besides the usual suspects, we sampled a few surprises.

The 2017 Single Vineyard Xynisteri (now in screw cap!) is a limited production bottle made with small-bunch grapes and 40 percent of it going through wild yeast fermentation. The vineyard is located at 950 meters above sea level in Mandria and is 29 years old. I have no doubt in my mind that Zambartas' Single Vineyard Xynisteri is the benchmark for Cypriot (indigenous) white wines. Quite mineral with notes of citrus, orange peel, stone fruits and white flowers and hints of mountain herbs and sweet vanilla spice. It's smooth, lean, clean and fresh with great length and good acidity. Plus, it will definitely improve after a couple years.

Boom Goes the Dynamite!
The 2016 Single Vineyard Shiraz, a new addition to the wine roster and also in screw cap, has a limited production of about 600 bottles and spends 15 months in oak barrels with about 80 percent of it in new ones. If you enjoy meaty wines, this one's for you. It's lountza-y, spicy, smoky and loaded with notes of black fruit and berries—it screams steak in the same way I scream for a dalliance with a bottle of DRC. [Editor's note: This will happen one day; never stop believing.]

Finally, we tasted the 2011 Zambartas Commandaria, a 65-35 percent Mavro-Xynisteri blend that should be out in the markets in 2021. This was utterly delicious. A clean nose with touches of dried apricots, figs, dates, some butterscotch, brown sugar and just a hint of smoke or meatiness. On the palate, great acidity, weighty tannins and some remarkable notes of white chocolate, raisins and brioche.

Towards the end of the visit, Marleen, the winery's marketing guru and Marcos' wife, tells me one of their hopes is that Akis is proud of how they've transformed the space he once called home. From all of my visits to Zambartas Wineries, there's no other answer but yes.

For a post on my second or third visit to Zambartas Wineries, click HERE.