Drinking Now: Terre Margaritelli from Umbria

Italy is a place commonly known for its Tuscan wines, generally from the Chianti region of Northern Italy. Chianti’s main grape is Sangiovese followed by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Sangiovese is, however, grown in a number of regions of Italy, including that of a small region just south and literally bordering Montepulciano, one of the most famous Chianti regions, Umbria.1-vigna-e-cantina-da-sud

Umbria, somewhat of a lesser known cousin of Tuscany, mainly grows Sangiovese as well. Umbria also produces a well-known crisp peachy white wine called Orvieto made from Trebbiano, Grechetto, Verdello and other varieties. Umbria has two DOCGs (notable wine regions): Torgiano Rosso Riserva and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

I had the pleasure to try a few wines from a winery called Terre Margaritelli, which is located in the heart of Umbria, between Assisi and Perugia on a 128-acre estate planted with organic vineyards in Miralduolo, Torgiano DOCG area. This particular winery had its start in 1870 and the Margaritelli family has passed on its love of wine generation by generation.

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Grechetto grapes ready for harvest.

One of the first wines I had the chance to try was a Greco Di Renabianca, a white wine made from the grape varietal Grechetto. It ages for about two to three months in French oak and later aged in a bottle for a year. It was a very interesting wine for me as it was reminiscent of a lightly oaked Chardonnay.  It had the same kind of apple and white floral notes with a grassiness that I tend to like about unoaked Chardonnay wines but a light buttery finish that didn’t linger too long.  The grapes pictured above are the Grechetto grapes, which are more commonly used to blend but have the potential, as demonstrated in this wine, to stand alone. It retails for around $25 a bottle.

img_0790The wine that I enjoyed the most was the 100% Sangiovese, Freccia Degli Scacchi, with the Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG classification. It has been aged 24 months in French oak and 24 months in bottle. This wine reminded me somewhat of a Priorat (NE Spain) wine with some flintiness (licorella) and licorice on the palate. The color of the wine was a deep garnet red. On the nose, baked dark berries, leather and some candied fruit and finally in the mouth: blackberries, dark cherries, licorice, licorella, and a long persistent finish.  It retails around $30 a bottle.

Both of these wines were not only tasty but eye-opening for the region. I look forward to trying more wines from Umbria and hopefully visiting the region one day!

 

 

Discovering the Hungarian Burgundy: Kovács Nimród Wines

When one now thinks of Hungary and its wines, one thinks of the deliciously sweet, luscious wine Tokaji (Tokay in English). Few, however, know that from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Hungary was arguably one of the third most sophisticated wine cultures in Europe, after France and Germany.  Hungary sits on the same northern latitude as Burgundy, France, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon; this location makes it an ideal place to produce crisp white wines.  Yet interestingly enough, it also has a continental climate, which allows the country to produce riper, bolder varieties. Hungary dedicates about 70 percent of its total wine production to white wines. Few also know that Hungary has 21 wine-producing regions, seven of which were more commonly known based on the historic quality of their wines. One of the most prestigious of these is Tokaj-Hegyalja in the northeastern part of the country, along the Slovakian border. The six other regions include Badacsony, Somló, Szekszárd, Villány-Siklós, Mátra, and Eger.  Eger is where my story on Kovács Nimród wines begins.

Thanks to the generosity of Bottle Rocket Wine Works, a wine distributor, I was invited to taste some of the wines of Hungary.  I love a great Tokaji wine, and honestly, when I attended this tasting, I expected to taste a few Tokaji wines. Instead, I was met with some beautiful wines that were Burgundian in style and that I never knew existed. I had the opportunity to meet Nimród Kovács of Kovács Nimród Winery(KNW), located in the “Gran Cru” region of Eger in the northeastern part of Hungary.

The region of Eger is known for light-bodied reds as well as Hungary’s popular “bull’s blood,” a dry red wine. Bull’s blood, or Egri bikavér, is one of the most popular dry red wines. Eger is halfway between Tokaj and Budapest in the middle of the country. The legend goes that in the mid-1500s that when the Magyars (ancestors of modern Hungarians) were besieged by the Turks, the Magyars had been drinking red wine while fighting fiercely, and this had stained their faces red. Seeing their red-stained faces and fierce fighting, the Turks feared that the Magyars had been drinking bulls’ blood to obtain their fierce prowess—and they retreated. And this is how the wine got its name.

Compared to other regions of Hungary, the Eger region has a cooler climate similar to that of Burgundy or the northern Rhone region, and this allows them to produce varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as heartier reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is also where Hungarian varietals Furmint and Kekfrankos can be grown.  KNW tends to use for its barrels mostly Hungarian oak, which can be likened to having the best of both oaks, American and French oak.  Barrels made of Hungarian oak come from the same species as French oak but have an even tighter grain and more subtle impact.  This oak tends to convey vanilla-, spice-, and caramel-like flavors over a longer period of time than do traditionally used French and American oak. It also gives a smoother, creamier texture to the wines as well. At a price about halfway between those of American and French oak barrels, these Hungarian oak barrels are perfect for the varietals grown in this region.

My three favorite wines from this tasting were the 2010 Furmint and 2011 Furmint; 2013 Pinot Noir made with Dijon 777 clone; and the 2007 and 2009 NJK Grand Cru.

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2010 and 2011 Furmint

Tokaji, the most widely known Hungarian wine, is a beautifully luscious white-gold wine with an amazing aging potential due to the acid commonly found in Furmint, the grapes used.  Furmint has long been the dominant grape varietal for the Tokaj region in Hungary and was made popular during the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It has been used since then to make sweet wine through an aging-on-the-vine process using botrytis, which is a fungus commonly known as “Nobel Rot.” Nobel Rot keeps the grape from evolving into gray rot, the destructive form of rot, and instead allows the grape to dry out on the vine, naturally concentrating the sugar compounds.  This is a process commonly seen not only in Tokaj but also in Sauternes, regions where moist air and dry air alternate, allowing the fungus to thrive.  Furmint, however, can be used to make a dry white wine as well. In this case, this 2010 Furmint came from a difficult vintage and therefore made a truly wonderful complex wine.  This wine had medium acidity, likely in part because 30 to 40 percent of the grapes used for this vintage had botrytis, giving the wine a nice complex finish.  Nevertheless, it still had somewhat of a stainless-steel Chardonnay notes with a touch of flint and buttery oak.  I loved the pear, peach, and apricot notes that peaked with a long clean citrus finish.  The 2011 Furmint was similar, but I enjoyed it more than the 2010 Furmint due to the intensity of the crisp finish of the former.

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2013 Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a grape most commonly grown both in Burgundy, France and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The clone used for this vintage was a Dijon 777, which is known for being very dark and rich and for being commonly blended with other wines.  However, this clone is now being produced on its own, showing an intensity and complexity not seen in other clones. I personally have long been a fan of this clone since being exposed to it while working for Hyland Estates in the Willamette Valley, where I had the opportunity to try several of their single-clone Pinot Noirs.

This particular vintage tasted as if it could compete with that of an Oregon Pinot Noir, and I soon found out why. This wine was made by a RoxyAnne Oregon winemaker, Kent Barthman.

The wine had a distinctly spicy perfume with a considerable raspberry note and an almost skunky-ness, but not in a bad way.  I know it’s hard to believe it’s not bad, but I really enjoyed it quite a bit, and at a $25 price point, I would happily choose one of these Pinot Noirs to share with friends.

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2007 and 2009 NJK Grand Cru

Both vintages of this NJK wine were spectacular. These wines were aged for 24 months in Hungarian oak and reminded me of a big bold Syrah. The grapes come from the limestone-laden soils of their Grand Cru Nagy Eged vineyard and offer a beautiful leather, blackberry, raspberry, baked plum mouth that ends as elegantly as it started.

I hope I have enticed you to try some Hungarian wines—and at the price points, you really have very little to lose. Enjoy!

 

My Top Go-To Rioja Wines Under $20

Finding Rioja wine in your local stores isn’t as hard as most people think. Having lived in Rioja for two years and having completed a Masters of Viticulture and Enology (winemaking) there, this place is my second and favorite home. I am often asked what my “Go-to” Rioja wines are, and I have a few recommendations for a few favorites that you are likely to find in your store.

Let me first explain something about the wine regions of La Rioja, Spain.

Rioja's Three Regions, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

Rioja’s Three Regions, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

The Regions of La Rioja

La Rioja has three wine regions where wines of varying styles are made. The Rioja area is subdivided into three different regions – Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. While la Rioja Alavesa and la Rioja Alta are located closer to the mountain, they are at slightly higher elevations and have a cooler climate. This results in wines with more acidity and slightly more finesse and elegance.

La Rioja Baja is located to the southeast where it is drier and warmer. The annual rainfall in the region ranges from 12 inches in parts of Baja to more than 20 inches in La Rioja Alta and Alavesa.

Although each winemaker adds their own special touch, terroir is not something that can necessarily changed.  If I want a lighter, more distinguished wine, I tend to lean towards wines from Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa. These two areas, of higher altitude, are located in the northernmost part of La Rioja near Basque Country (if not in it).  If I want a slightly bigger-bodied wine, I lean towards wines from Rioja Baja, where there is a bit more sun and slightly different soil types dominate.

Aging and Oak

I also then consider how much aging or oak I would like on my wine. Rioja has a great classification standard that helps you understand how much long your wine has been aged; based on your tastes, this classification standard can help determine the right wine for you.

Rioja Labels and Classification, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

Rioja Labels and Classification, courtesy of DOCa Rioja

I love a Cosecha wine (a wine in its first or second year with little to no oak; it has a green label) for summertime due to how light and refreshing it is.  However, my go-to night wine is generally a Crianza (12 months+ in oak plus one year in bottle; it has a red label). I reserve Reserva (aged minimum of three years, tends to be 18-24 months in oak with the rest of the time in bottle) for those nights when I am having a hearty meal with friends.  These classifications, while made to be easy to understand, can be at times confusing. Some winemakers who chose to age a wine for 8 months, for example, based on the grape variety, terroir, vintage, etc., still have to use a Cosecha, or green. label.

In general, I stick to Crianza and Reserva unless it is a white wine.  For a white wine, I prefer the wine of the year or the Cosecha wine.

Here are a few of the wines that can easily be found in your grocery or liquor stores with a cost likely under $20. If you are lucky, you may even find them for under $15 on sale.

LAN Crianza or Reserva

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LAN Crianza

C.V.N.E. Crianza

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CVNE Crianza

Marqués de Cáceres Crianza

Marques de Caceres

Marques de Caceres

Campo Viejo Reserva

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CUNE Crianza and Campo Viejo Reserva

Marqués de Riscal Reserva

Marques de Riscal Reserva

Marques de Riscal Reserva

While I haven’t listed vintage, the wines currently released onto the market are ready to drink. Unlike their US counterparts, there are strict rules as indicated by the labels and by the Regulatory Council in Spain that prevent wine from being released before it has been properly aged. You generally can’t go wrong with the suggestions listed above. If you are interested in specific vintages, click here for the listing of the vintages.

The majority of the wineries listed above have been making wine since the 1900s and have vines close to 100 years old. Most are still held by the families who started the wineries back in the 1800s, and all have had a very high standard in winemaking for some time.

The wines listed above are also wines made with the traditional grapes grown in the region: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta.  These wines tend to be elegant and subtle yet powerful in the mouth.  To me, they bring me back to my time in La Rioja where I ate and drank with friends on Calle Laurel, the famous tapas street of Logroño.

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These Rioja wines have an earthy, dark cherry, tobacco mouth taste that conjures up all the sights, smells, and sounds of this amazing town. To me, they are special, and every sip I take brings me back to those times. While they may not do the same for you, I hope that you will visit La Rioja and have a chance to experience what I have loved so much about this region. It’s not just about the food and wine but about the people behind the wine that make it so special.