Archive for September 17, 2016

The Sherry Region’s Delightful Dark Horse

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It’s inky, mahogany in color, thick and syrupy; oozing with aromas of dried fig, dates and raisins.  This dense, muscular monster is punctuated with flavors as far ranging as licorice, coffee, figs, cocoa and treacle.  What is this intriguing wine, you ask?  Why, it’s the Sherry region’s most decadent “dulce naturale” wine, made with the grape Pedro Ximénez.

Some love it, while others hate this nuclear bomb in a glass. Not for the faint of heart, Pedro Ximénez or PX, the grape used to make one of the richest, sweetest dessert wines on the planet somehow manages to maintain a certain freshness and elegance that belies the fact that many examples exceed 400 grams of sugar!  Of course, this has to do with its relatively high levels of acidity.

The secret to obtaining this elegant balance is through “asoleo,”  or literally, the “sunning” of the grapes.  The benefits of drying grapes out in the sun is that the acidity remains intact as the grapes raisin and their juices concentrate.

The PX of the Sherry region is different than most dessert wines in that it is fortified with the addition of a wine spirit.  Once Pedro Ximénez has been stabilized on a microbiological level, the fermentation arrested using wine spirit, further wine spirit is added to fortify the wine up to between 15 and 17 degrees of alcohol.

The PX is then usually put into oak casks that are part of a solera, Sherry’s famous system. This allows the wine to age via fractional blending.  The final product will be a mix of different years, with the exception being “Vintage” Sherries or “Añadas,” which are aged in the same cask.

Interestingly, when purchasing sherry, you may notice VOS (Very Old Sherry) 20 or VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) 30 on the label.  This means the average age of the solera wine is at least 20 or 30 years old.  A solera can date back to the 18th century, theoretically meaning that some drop of wine from many years ago could still exist in the solera.  In order to determine the rough age of a bottle of wine, the Consejo Regulador  uses carbon dating and puts the wine through a panel tasting.   A 30 VORS could actually be closer to 50 years old, which from a wine geek perspective is pretty amazing.

Delicious alone or with a dark chocolate cake, on ice cream or blue cheese, PX is a bargain in the dessert wine world, especially when you consider the level of aging each of these wines undergoes.    I recently tasted one that was about 70 years old and I cherished every drop in my glass.   Of course, this wine was extremely expensive, but very good PX can still be found between 20-30 GBP.

Below are some compelling examples of PX:

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Fernando de Castilla is a small, independent sherry house taken over in 1999 by Norwegian Jan Pettersen.    Since then, the bodega has focused on making their Antique range of single solera Sherries top notch.

Fernando de Castilla’s Antique Pedro Ximénez VOS has flavors of sticky toffee, dark chocolate and figs.  This 20 year old is well integrated despite logging in close to 500 grams/liter sugar.

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Salto al Cielo is a boutique almacenista Sherry producer.  Their Salto al Cielo Pedro Ximénez is from one single butt, so supply is very limited.  Salted caramel, coffee notes and dried prunes were among some of the rich flavors present here.

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Osborne was founded in 1772 by English entrepreneur Thomas Osborne Mann, who started shipping his own sherries in 1804.   Today, Osborne owns a large bodega complex on the outskirts of El Puerto de Santa María, as well as an older bodega in the center of town that used to belong to the family Moreno Mora.  This bodega has a fantastic range of VORS sherries and is worth a taste and a visit, if you are lucky to get to the Sherry triangle.

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Osborne’s Venerable Pedro Ximénez VORS 30 Year old is very elegant and full bodied, with dried dates and figs, cocoa and molasses notes.

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Another cool, smaller bodega producing interesting sherries, Bodega Yuste Aurora ‘s Pedro Ximénez  is well-balanced and ready to drink now despite its density.  Loaded with figs, dates and cocoa flavors, the opaque brown-black wine toffee, black coffee flavors.

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A typical sherry tasting at Lustau’s bodega, available to visitors.

Bodega Emilio Lustau is one of the most lauded producers in Sherry.   In fact, the bodega was the most awarded European winery at the recent 2015 Wine Challenge.   They definitely have an extensive range of fantastic sherries that are worthy of serious attention, and their estate tours are not to be missed, as you can see above!  I was there a few years back and had a fantastic time trying their range of sherries alongside some of the best charcuterie in my life.  It was pure heaven!

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Now about their PX…Lustau’s Pedro Ximénez  VORS comes from one cask selected from a Solera of six, set aside as a family reserve in the 1930’s.  This PX is a luscious, deep mahogany with aromas of dried prune, sultana and spicy fig.  Concentrated and Sweet, the finish on this wine goes on forever.

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Now, last but not least is the Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana, one of the oldest, family owned bodegas in the Sherry triangle. In fact, the estate is now in its 7th generation of Hidalgo’s running the bodega.  While the whole Hidalgo line-up is excellent, it is best known for its flagship wine, their Manzanilla La Gitana.  This is apparently the most popular Manzanilla world-wide and I can believe it.  I try to have this Manzanilla on-hand at home whenever possible as it is so versatile with food and in cooking.

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Now back to PX…Hidalgo’s Pedro Ximénez Triana VORS 30 is a top end example of PX.  Dark mahogany, densely concentrated, with tea, date and caramel aromas and Black plum, prune and treacle flavors on the palate. This wine has a persistent, long finish.

PX is fun to drink and when paired right, can really add to an evening with friends…or alone.  In addition, the high sugar and good acidity levels means that an open bottle can remain for several weeks in the refrigerator without going bad.  Not a bad deal.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby! And, other musings about South African wines

img_1063 Time flies when you’re having fun, so the saying goes.  It’s hard to believe that I tasted my first South African wine circa 1996–It seems just like yesterday.  Back in those days, South African wines were just barely hitting the shelves in the US market and there seemed to be a certain amount of mystery surrounding these wines. No one seemed to know much.

As might be expected, I was excited to have my first taste of South African vino.  And one day, the occasion finally arrived, my chance for a taste!  An importer new to the wine business, looking for distribution into my market was keen to taste me on his prized Pinotage, a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

My first taste of Pinotage that day was surprising…and shocking, but not in a good way. The wine in question came from a cooperative and the importer unabashedly admitted that the wine racked in at above 15.5% alcohol!   I should have been prepared for the unbelievable hotness of the wine, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the funky medicinal, banana-ish, nail varnish flavors that I came to learn later were characteristic of poorly made Pinotage.

Thankfully, times have changed, and in the meantime, South African wine producers have learned how to hone the unique South African terroir using world class wine-making techniques.  The wines are often well-balanced with good fruit and acidity and best still, South African wines offer a big bang for the buck. These wines are commonly featured on restaurant, wine bar and pub by-the-glass menus due to the obvious value offered in terms of its quality/price ratio.

At the recent Intrepid Tasting, a tasting featuring only the wines of South Africa, I was lucky enough to taste some very interesting wines from some, perhaps, lesser-known, boutique producers.

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I stumbled upon Eikendal Vineyard’s wines and was happy to taste a whole range of interesting, very well-made wines.  The one that stuck in my mind was the 2015 “Janina” Unwooded Chardonnay, probably because it was both well-made and very reasonably priced.  I often wish I could go to more restaurants and find a wine like this by the glass. From Stellenbosh, it has rich flavors of pineapple, mango and peach finishing on limey mineral notes.

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Next, I found a fellow-American who recently purchased a wine farm in South Africa and started producing a range of wines.  I really liked the Straw Wine and her Chenin Blanc, in particular.  Her Botanica 2014 Chenin Blanc is lean, citrus, quince and finishes on a lightly flinty mineral note. Perfect to hangout on the porch and drink with friends and serious enough to pair with top end food.  The cool labels were created by incorporating collages painted by British artist Mary Delany in the late 1700′s.  It’s nice being able to appreciate artistry both in the bottle and on the outside of it.

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Next up, is Thorne Daughter’s 2015 Old Vine Semillion.  This wine exhibits stone fruit aromas of peach and nectarine.  Weighty on the palate and filled with notes of apricot and honey it is intriguing now, but I wonder what it will taste like in 12-18 months.

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Soms-Delta Amalie is a white wine blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. The Grenache Blanc grapes are desiccated on the vine following an ancient Greek practice that concentrates color and flavors. The Viognier was sourced from six different sites to achieve a complex flavor profile. Both grape varieties were fermented and matured separately in new French oak barrels for a slow fermentation and extended lees maturation, and were blended prior to bottling. Amalie has intense fruit flavors of tangerine, honeysuckle, vanilla, layers of complexity and a well-integrated tannic structure and lingering finish.

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Solms-Delta’s 2015 Rose is made up of mostly Grenache Noir 97% and a touch of Cinsault 3% Style of Wine this dry rose is like a bowl of fruit freshly picked at peak ripeness in summer, with raspberry, strawberry and a touch of green apple on the finish. This Rose has a beautiful  pink- salmon color that reminds me of one of my favorite Rose Champagnes.

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Now, back to South Africa’s famous Pinotage.  Eikendol Vineyard makes a lighter more delicate version of Pinotage.  It’s 2015 vintage is made from Pinotage sourced in Stellenbosch from a non-irrigated, 20 year old vineyard comprised of decomposed granite and koffie klip’. Aged for 12 months in Burgundian and this wine is more pinot noir-like and refined compared to many other Pinotages that display a more muscular flavor profile.  This wine is light and fragrant, red currants, wild strawberries and black raspberries.

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The Bernard Series Bush Vine Pinotage on the other hand is a heavier, more alpha male version of Pinotage, but also enjoyable, nonetheless.

Rich, and packed with toasty vanilla, red and black plums, black cherries, black berries and a touch of chocolate and a bit of spicy notes, this is a heavy, full-bodied wine that must pair with game and red meat very well.

The Bernard Series Basket Press Syrah is made up of a blend of Syrah (98%) and Viogner (2%) this wine is an aromatic wine with hints of mulberry, dark chocolate and a black raspberry and violet on the palate.  Another great food wine for the BBQ or Braai.

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Deux Freres is a small family owned winery located on the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch and run by brothers Retief and Stephan du Toit.  The brothers focus is in producing quality wines that reflect their unique terroir. With their wine “Liberte,” a blend of Cabernet and Petit Verdot, they have managed to create a wine that is lush and velvety at the same time as having plenty of backbone to carry the fruit.  This Bordeaux style blend has plenty of flavor; I got lots of black plum, black cherry, current, cocoa and vanilla flavors on the palate.  Their Shiraz/Mourvedre blend and Blanc de Noir are worth exploring, too.

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There has to be one “sticky” at any given tasting that grabs your attention and for me it was Miles Mossop’s 2014 Kika Late Harvest Chenin Blanc. This is a decadent treat made with 100% botrytised Chenin Blanc.  A golden, viscous, sticky treat of liquid honey, orange blossoms, dried apricot, peach and almond flavors.  Harvested at about 42 Brix/ this wine has about 147 g/l RS and 9.3 g/l Acidity, so although sweet, it has plenty of acidity to balance off the sugar.  Yum!