Thursday, November 3, 2016

Penfolds Offers Free Re-Corking for Older-Vintage Wines

Penfolds pulls out all stops (and corks) at their recorking clinics.
Those of us savvy enough to have begun collecting valuable wines early in our lives -- versus me, who just wishes I had -- can see significant returns on their investments. The bottle purchased at release for, say $100, can sell at auction for 10 times that amount 10 to 15 years later. One customer I met at my wine retail job told me that he cashed in some of his 1970s and 1980s investments and put his two children through elite colleges on the profits. I was envious. 

Current Senior Red Wine Maker Steve Lienert
took clinic participants through a tasting of
the latest vintage from Penfolds.
Most investors in high-end wine will go to great lengths to protect their investments. Temperature and humidity control are important, as is a stable, movement-free environment. The health of the wine and the corks are keys to their ageability. 

The world of high-end, aged wine is also high risk. In addition to the influences of such things as market fluctuations and critic scores, many wines change hands often among collectors, and there is often no guarantee that the wines have been handled properly. Additionally, corks can naturally deteriorate with age, causing leakage and the influx of oxygen, which is generally the enemy of wine.

In an effort to ease the minds of their customers, and to offset the destruction that a faulty cork can have on ageable wine, Penfolds of Australia has for the last 25 years been hosting free re-corking clinics to extend the life of some extremely valuable wines. And because the clinics are run by Penfolds winemakers they provide face-to-face time among the winemakers and collectors, which is extremely valuable to both.

Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago marks the fill
level on a bottle of Penfolds.

I attended a Penfolds Re-Corking Clinic recently at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles to see what this was all about. Customers with cases of older Penfolds and Penfolds Grange, or just a single bottle, were treated to a demonstration hosted by long-term Penfolds employees, most of whom are winemakers. Their expertise is undisputed. 

Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker and our host for the presentation, explained how customers often have a strong emotional attachment to their wines, as they represent memories, people, places, or anything that is important to them, whether it be a single bottle passed down through the family or a whole cellar bought solely for investment purposes.

Everyone is treated the same at these clinics, he says, regardless of how many bottles they bring. Some collectors with huge collections may walk away with just a few of their bottles needing to be re-corked and some walk away finding out their long-treasured bottle is not even worth saving with re-corking. 

The basic procedure of a Penfolds Re-corking clinic is as follows: 

Collectors' wines are checked in, and must be at least 15 years old. Collectors are asked about the provenance of their wine and how they have stored it. The collectors are assigned a time for their re-corking assessment by the Penfolds experts.

Next, wine bottles are visually and physically assessed, which involves reviewing the front and back labels, the capsule and cork, and ullage, or fill level. 

An older cork is removed with a special
 two-pronged Ah-So corkpull.
Capsules and corks are removed using either a long-barreled standard table model corkscrew or, for more crumbly, moist, older corks, the German Monopole Ah-So two-prong opener, which works by sliding two prongs down either side of the cork (see picture to right) to safely remove the cork in one piece.

One ounce of wine is then poured, and the remaining wine is immediately gassed and the bottle is closed with a temporary cork.

Wines are then assessed via nose and palate. If a wine is not deemed good, it receives a white dot on the bottle and is recorked immediately and returned to the customer. This can be a tense moment for the owner, emotions sometimes run high, says Gago.

If the wine is deemed good, it is topped off with a couple ounces of Penfolds' most recent vintage, fitted with a temporary cork, and moved on to the re-corking station. Here, another Penfolds expert removes some wine to bring the bottle back to its original fill level, adds more gas to the wine, and places a new Penfolds cork into the re-corking machine. This official Penfolds cork displays the company name -- either Penfolds or Penfolds Grange -- as well as an inscription indicating when it was re-corked. 

The re-corking machine -- of which there are two in the United States -- is a mobile device that the Penfolds team ships to clinic locations. Unlike bottling lines at wineries, where corks are inserted in a continuous cycle, it corks bottles one at a time, so more care is taken with the bottles and corks. 

Penfolds red wine maker Andrew Baldwin adds a
new foil capsule to a freshly recorked bottle.
Once the corks are inserted, the bottles are re-capsuled and then wrapped in tissue paper. In addition to making the bottles look nice, the tissue also reveals if any wine has spilled out during the process.

All information regarding the bottles coming to the clinic is meticulously noted and stored in the Cloud, providing records of provenance and authenticity. Each bottle receives a sticker on the back stating all the relevant information concerning it's recorking.

No bottle can be re-corked more than once through the Penfolds re-corking system. Gago says that the re-corked bottles' lives are extended and are therefore even more valuable. Which is a good thing, since some older Penfolds are among the highest-priced wines in the world. London's Telegraph has reported that Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 is Australia's most expensive wine, valued at $38,420.

Now that would have helped with my kids' college tuition!

Until next time, 


Learn more about Penfolds re-corking clinics.

Penfolds' latest wines were available for tasting after the re-corking clinic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Four Brix: Craft Winery in Ventura

When one thinks of American wine, one is usually thinking of California Wine, as the Golden State produces approximately 95% of all wine in the country, from such well-known areas as Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and, increasingly, Santa Barbara County. Ventura, both the county and the town, is not a name that often pops up on our wine radar, but it does have a nascent boutique wine industry, and one that is worth looking into.

Four Brix' beautiful tasting room
 belies the industrial park setting.
The Los Angeles Wine Writers group recently visited Four Brix Winery in the City of Ventura, located 65 miles north of LA. This small (2,000 cases total) boutique winery claims to be the first registered winery in Ventura County. Other Ventura County wineries that you might recognize are Ojai Vineyards and the cult-status Sine Qua Non (you are extremely lucky if you can even get a visit to the latter winery, or even get on their allotment list).

A trip to Four Brix is like a breath of sunshine ... in a West Ventura industrial park. But don't let that deter you. Yes, the location is reminiscent of "wine ghetto" areas in Lompoc and on Rt. 46 in Paso Robles. But like these places, once you step inside the beautifully appointed tasting room, it doesn't really matter that you are not out in the vineyard. Four Brix' tasting room offers wine, food, and the handiwork of local artists in a warm, plush, and friendly setting. It also sports a sizeable barrel and tank room behind glass doors in the back.

Four Brix is the passion project of three couples, who met at a Rotary home-wine-making club about 10 years ago. They realized they had in common a love of  varietal blends from four countries, namely France, Italy, Spain, and California, hence the "Four" in their name, which is paired with the word "Brix," the measure of wine's sweetness. Four Brix' first official vintage was in 2008. The very first wine they decided to make, "Scosso," is named for the riderless horse in the Palio de Siena horse race -- an event they attended while in Italy.

On our visit, co-owner Karen Stewart treated us to a generous tasting. Most bottles are priced between $24 and $40 (exact pricing can be found on their Web site).

I especially liked the Four Brix white wines, which included:
Cani Amante Riesling

2013 "Smitten" Viognier: Grapes are sourced from the Chumash-owned Camp 4 vineyard in Paso Robles. This wine has notes of melons and peaches, and is crisp and clean, thanks to its 100% stainless steel aging.

2013 "Desirous" Grenache Blanc: This crisp white is aged for 5 months in American oak (most of Four Brix' barrel-aged wines go into French oak), and is delicious, with fruit and minerality.

2014 Cani Amante Riesling: Crisp, fruit-forward, and lovely.

Red wines poured for us included:

2011 "Temptress": This is a Spanish red blend of mostly Tempranillo with Grenache and Mourvedre.

2011 Petit Sirah: This inky black 100% Petit Sirah, from grapes grown in the Gold Hawk Vineyard in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, is lush with notes of blueberries.

2012 Meritage: This is a French blend of Merlot from the "Rest and Be Thankful" vineyard in Paso Robles, plus Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Burbank vineyard in Paso.

Scosso is the first wine
 Four Brix decided to make.
2013 "Scosso": This is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, and is made from grapes grown in Paso Robles Vineyards.

2013 Cane Amante Block 4: From Cani Amante Vineyard in Ojai, the grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. This wine received 90 points from Wine Spectactor.

An Italian blend of Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano is being bottled in June.

Rounding out our tasting was a special surprise, the "Porteau" port-style dessert wine made from 100% grenache. This light red, Banyuls-style sweet wine was paired with Pecorino Romano cheese, and was a beautiful way to finish our tasting. It's sweet, but not too sweet, just the way I like it.

Four Brix offers flatbread pizzas in their tasting room, and flights of wine are offered at $12 (the fee is waived with a 2-bottle purchase). Karen Stewart, the only one of the 6 owners who works full time at the winery, runs the tasting room, and Karen's husband Gary is the winemaker.

Visit Four Brix Thursdays through Sundays -- their hours are available on their Web site, The winery also hosts special events and will soon be expanding into another 4,000 square feet of warehouse space. Their wine club, known as "Brix Heads" boasts 500 members.

Until next time,

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Women of Wine Series, Part 3: Judit Bodo of Hungary

tokaj,hungary,wine,winery,hungary,volcanic soil
Vineyards on the Tokaj Hill have varied soils from ancient volcanic eruptions.
After our visit with Heidi Schrock this summer in Rust, Austria, my husband and I made the five-hour drive to eastern Hungary to visit the town of Tokaj, home to the aptly named Tokaji sweet wine, which has been made for centuries in this quiet, unassuming corner of Eastern Europe. Schrock telephoned a winemaker friend in Tokaj before we left, resulting in a warm invitation to her winery, which we promptly accepted.

I was really excited about this part of the trip as I had read about the wines of Eastern Hungary for years, but rarely got a chance to taste them. Tokaji wines are legendary, dating from more than 400 years ago. For centuries, Hungary was renowned for its food and wine culture and also for having the most varied native grapes in any Eastern European country. They were also the first wine area to classify growths (yes, before they did it in Bordeaux!). But that all came crashing down under the weight of the communist regime, and for decades the ancient wine cellars and vineyards of Tokaj suffered with the indifference of the communists, and time-tested standards were all but abandoned. Grape vines were ripped out of prime hillside vineyards and replanted with money-making crops such as sunflowers and corn, and cellar practices slid to sub-par levels.

But since the late 1980s and the fall of communism, winemakers in Hungary have been rising up and reclaiming their legendary past. Prime vineyard locations are once again growing such grapes as Furmint, Harslevelu, and Sargamuskotaly -- the principal varieties that make up Tokaji wine. And viticulture and vinification practices are once again, in most cases, stellar. In recognition of its past and in order to protect its future, UNESCO declared Tokaj a World Heritage Site in 2001.

Judit Bodo and Bott Wines

Bott, tokaj, winery, wine
The entrance to Bott's winery.
Using their wedding money, winemaker Judit Bodo and her husband Joseph rented their first Tokaj vineyard -- 1 hectare -- and a cellar and produced their first vintage in 2005. Called "Bott," which is Judit's maiden name, the wines are traditional Tokaji, from indigenous varieties, and range from bone dry Furmint to super sweet Harslevelu. As of summer 2015, the couple has 5 hectares of vines scattered throughout the region and a cellar in the Tokaj Hill, which they purchased recently from a retiring winemaker. This is where we met Bodo this past July.

tokaj hill, tokaj, bott, winery, wine, hungary
Bott's cellars, built into the Tokaj Hill
On this hot and muggy summer day, our tour began with a drive up to Bott's vineyards on the Tokaj Hill, guided by the friendly Judit. She had just left her three young children at home with her husband, who oversees the vineyard side of their business. She proudly showed us her vines, but was lamenting the heat and lack of water this summer. She was envious when we told her about the sudden downpour in Rust, Austria, the day before. Bodo described the soils of  the Tokaj Hill, explaining that they are varied, created from the 400+ volcanoes in the area. This is prime vineyard land.

Our visit with Bodo continued with a tour of her cellar, which was fascinating. You enter the building from a quaint and unassuming building at the base of the hill (photo above), but the cellars themselves are built into the hill, creating a cave-like atmosphere, replete with cobwebs, fungus (see white stuff in picture to left), and lovely cool air suitable for aging wines.

Bodo says she and her husband "are two steps away from our dream" of having an official tasting room. But in the meantime, the upstairs room, which offers a pleasant view of the Tokaj train station across the street, was fine for us. While we sampled her lovely wines, Bodo proudly showed us a framed New York Times article, titled Hidden in Hungary, Treasures on the Vine (July 2010), in which she appears, and brought out geologic maps and soil and stone samples to give us a lesson on Tokaj, and why the wines are so special.

Bott's wines are artisanal, obviously made with attention to detail. The winery produces just about 1,000 bottles per vintage, sometimes less, sometimes none, depending on Mother Nature. No doubt about it, this is a small operation, but you get the impression that Bott, like other small wineries in Hungary, is striving for excellence.

judit bodo, bott, winery, wine, tokaj, hungary
Winemaker Judit Bodo 
"The communists damaged everything," said Bodo, referring to the state of the wine industry during their reign. While small wineries like Bott are working to bring back the glory of Tokaj wines, Bodo says the large companies, such as Disznoko (which we visited later the same day), owned by French insurance giant AXA Millesimes, are important too, as they too focus on quality but also bring in the tourists so badly needed in this corner of Hungary. This is not a "wine trail" type of area, with open tasting rooms everywhere. You have to know where you are going, make an appointment, and be prepared to have a private, intimate tasting. My husband and I were two of the few non-Hungarians in town, and felt a certain pride in knowing we had visited a place so few Americans even know about.

I do hope that Tokaj tourism picks up, and I highly recommend it as a stop on your Central European wine travels. In the meantime, if you haven't done so, try a Tokaji sweet wine at the end of a special meal. You will love it.

Until next time, Egeszsgedre!

Some of Bott's wines are available at The Wine House ( in West Los Angeles. You can also check for retail outlets near you.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of my Women of Wine series.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Women of Wine Series, Part 2: Austria's Heidi Schrock

Heidi Shrock
The affable Heidi Schrock in her tasting room.
When my husband and I arrived in the small town of Rust on the western shore of Lake Neusiedl in sunny southeastern Austria, we felt we were stepping into the past. With ancient-looking but well-maintained family homes with large wooden "garage" doors that were once used to allow animal-drawn carts into interior courtyards, and the large storks' nests atop most of the buildings, the town looks much like it must have looked 600 years ago, which is about how long winemaker Heidi Schrock's family has lived here.

Schrock, who resides in her pristine ancestral village home, has converted parts of it into a winery. The room that once housed cattle now holds wine fermenting in stainless steel tanks. Her tasting room was once a grain room. And her cellar, which once had a working well and provided safety during less stable times, is now a wine cellar holding large oak casks of the wine she lovingly makes. The place, like Shrock herself, is eclectic and inviting.

Schrock's vineyards are on the hill overlooking Rust.
Schrock welcomed us into her home/winery this past July and quickly whisked us off in her broken-in van to the plots of vines that have been in her family for generations. Just outside the downtown of Rust, the vines are meticulously kept, and in July -- even though there was a major heat wave in Europe -- looked healthy and robust. We found out later that day that Rust is susceptible -- in a good way -- to impromptu cloud bursts that provide adequate water to the vines.

Tanks now sit where cattle were once housed.
Schrock grows several varieties, many of which we don't see much of in the US or know by different names. Whites include Welschriesling (no relation to Riesling), Weissburgunder (known as Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Furmint, and Gelber Muskateller (Muscat Blanc); and reds Blaufrankish (Lemberger), St. Laurent, and Zweigelt (a cross of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent). In the mix are two more recognizable international varieties, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. She makes wines ranging from bone dry to the sweetest possible (known as Ruster Ausbruch, more on this below).

600-year-old barrel room
Shrock makes more Pinot Blanc, or Weissburgunder, than any other varietal, but refers to Welschriesling as "my dear friend," as it has never disappointed her, even if the vintage is not great. She feels her Pinot Gris, or Grauburgunder, vintage 2009, was her most beautiful ever made, reminding her of Burgundy whites. Her "Biscaya" rose is made of eight different varieties, and was created by her Texas-born assistant and named for its lobster bisque-like color.

As of the end of 2014, Shrock has a new project, where she has special labels on her sweet wines indicating what they can be paired with. In the photo below, the "Beerenauslese" on the left is a pairing for fish, ham, and cheese, and the "Ruster Ausbruch" on the right (vintage 2002) pairs well with fruits such as bananas, as well as nuts and blue-veined cheeses. I brought these two gems home with me.

A bit about Ruster Ausbruch. Ausbruch is a sweet wine of Rust that is similar in style to the sweet wines of Hungary, known as Tokaji (more on them in my next post). Both areas use the Furmint grape, and to some degree "botrytized," or noble-rotted, grapes that concentrate the sugars in a manner that is deliciously sweet but with enough acid to be refreshing. Schrock and many other winemakers in Rust formed the Ruster Ausbruch group in lieu of joining the DAC, or Districtus Austriae Controllatus, system, which determines the quality level of wines throughout the country (in Rust's case, the Burgunland DAC). They believed, and rightly so, that their wines were distinct and reflective of the area of Rust where they were grown and produced and should therefore have their own quality system.

The kinship with Tokaj, Hungary, became apparent to us when Shrock asked us which vineyards we were planning to visit there, which was our next stop on the summer tour. When I mentioned one of the larger producers, she immediately called her friend Judit Bodo in Tokaj and arranged to have us meet with her the very next day. And we were so glad she did, as that turned out to be a memorable visit with another fabulous woman winemaker. And displaying the camaraderie that seems to exist in just about any winemaking community, Shrock had us deliver a bottle of her lovely sweet wine to Bodo. More on our visit to Hungary in my next post.

Until next time, Prost!

For more on Heidi Shrock visit Some of Shrock's wines are also available at The Wine House ( in West Los Angeles. You can also check for retail outlets near you.

Read Part 1 of my Women of Wine series.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Women of Wine Series, Part 1: Kitá Honors Chumash Legacy

I was lucky enough to vacation this summer in Central Europe, visiting four countries, two of which are well known for their wines, Austria and Hungary. And living in California, there are of course hundreds if not thousands of wine makers within driving distance of my house that I can visit on a whim. Less common are wineries owned or run by women, and over the last few weeks I had the pleasure of meeting four exceptional women of wine: Heidi Schrock, in Rust, Austria; Judit Boda, in Tokaj, Hungary; and Tara Gomez and Tymari LoRe of Kitá in Santa Barbara, California.

Over my next few posts, I will profile each of these wine women, beginning with California's Kitá.

Kitá: Purity and Balance

Samala is the native language of Central California's Chumash Indian tribe, and their word Kitá means "our valley oak." Oak trees dot the 1,400 acres of vineyard property, known as Camp 4, that the tribe purchased from Fess Parker's estate in 2010, which is when Tara Gomez, a member of the tribe, was brought on as chief winemaker. 

Tymari LoRe and Tara Gomez
Gomez is a 17-years veteran of the wine industry who has worked various jobs around the world since graduating from Fresno State's oenology program. The Chumash tribe helped her with her education, and Gomez is a believer is paying it forward, and is hoping to teach the art of sustainable grape growing and winemaking to younger members of the tribe. "I see excitement about wine in the younger generation," she says.

Gomez brought on a female assistant winemaker, Tymari LoRe, five years ago. LoRe graduated from Cal Poly's viticulture and vinification program. Both winemaker and assistant believe that working with another woman has a certain "elegance" -- basically they taste things the same way and have a common, female, language for describing what they smell and taste. Together these two women are producing truly artisanal, award-winning wines, which they recently brought to an LA Wine Writer's luncheon at the West Restaurant of the Hotel Angeleno.

"Camp 4 is a special, spiritual place," says Gomez, who clearly loves what she does. She and LoRe, whom she has mentored like a daughter, are true believers in the philosophy that wine is not made in the winery, but out in the vineyard, and that there needs to be an "earth-to-man" balance. As winemakers, they feel they are the shepherds that guide the grapes through from vineyard to bottle. Both women love spending time in the vineyard, which features a mesa where the best soils are located and from where the vineyard can be viewed. They practice sustainability in the vineyard, although the winery is not currently SIP-certified.

Balance is important to both Gomez and LoRe. Both have traveled extensively, studying the grape and the purity of each variety. "We have experienced the true history of each grape," says Gomez, who spent time in Burgundy and the Pyrenees mountains of Spain, where she says she learned much from some of the oldest winemaking families in the world. She returned to California's Central Coast, spending 9 years with J. Lohr in Paso Robles, before reaching her true home in Santa Barbara, where she loves the wines being produced. LoRe spent a long harvest in Burgundy.

Grenache Rose paired with seared scallop
The Camp 4 vineyard was first planted by Fess Parker in 1999, and now boasts 19 different varieties of grapes. Gomez and LoRe are mainly focused on 100% pure variety wines, but recently created a few blends. Following are some of their wines:

Kitá's lovely Grenache Rose, a pretty salmon pink in color, is 100% Grenache, and paired beautifully with Chef Laura Scollan's seared scallop dish. This is a pre-release, but will be available soon at $18.

The 2013 T'aya -- which means "abalone shell" in Samala -- is a Southern Rhone style blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc, and is so named because of the lingering saline finish.The area of the Camp 4 vineyard has sandy loam soils, which impart the briney quality to the grapes. The wine sits on the yeast as it ages, giving it a creaminess, but it also has a refreshing, crisp acidity, as well as vibrant tropical fruit. This is a good summer wine, and is priced at $22.

Gomez and Lore also presented two Pinot Noir wines at the luncheon, which are made from grapes purchased at the outstanding Hilliard Bruce property in the Sta. Rita Hills. Gomez says the 2013 is "something special, one of the best. It has less in color [than the 2012], but great complexity, reminding me of a Burgundy." And I agree. Paired with pan-roasted quail, it is a voluptuous, silky wine, which was just bottled in May. This wine is currently pre-release, but will be priced at $60.

The 2012 Pinot, from a vintage with higher yields, and lots of fruitiness, has a darker garnet color. It has classical California Pinot aromas of cherry cola, rose petals, deep, rich earthiness, and is a more powerful wine than the 2013. It's also $60, and currently available.

Gold-medal winning 100% Cabernet Sauvignon 
For blended wine, the usual Rhone blend is GSM, or Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre. "Mourvedre can be overpowering," says Gomez, so  Kitá does it differently, blending Grenache, Syrah, and Carignane in a wine called Spe'y, or "flower" in Samala. "On its own, Carignane does not have a good backbone," Gomez adds. But with 20% Carignane paired with 53% Grenache and 27% Syrah she achieves a "harmonious companionship" that paired with moroccan spiced duck. This floral-scented wine with blueberry, black pepper and candied fruit is lovely and well priced at $30.

Camp 4 is located in the eastern end the Sta. Ynez Valley, next to the eastern-most Happy Canyon, The weather tends to be hotter than the rest of the valley, therefore good for Bordeaux varietals.The classic Bordeaux grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, and Kitá has a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from 2012 that is outstanding. "Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the few varieties where the growing season has to be correct," says Gomez, or things like "shatter" can occur, whereby blossoms are knocked off the vines before they can set, as they did for the 2015 vintage. The 2012 is a beautiful cab with deep color, and classic aromas of fresh blackberries, black currant, cedar, sweet tobacco and vanilla, with a rich texture and dusty tannins. At $40, this is a great value.

Kitá wines have won accolades, among them:

  • Gold Medal and 93 Points, Los Angeles International Wine Competition, for 2013 T'aya
  • Double Gold, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, for 2012 Pinot Noir, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard
  • Gold Medal, International Women's Wine Competition, 2012 Pinot Noir, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard
  • Gold Medal, Central Coast Wine Competition and International Women's Wine Competition, for 2012 Spe'y
  • Double Gold, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Gold Medal and 94 points, Los Angeles International Wine Competition, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Kitá wines can be purchased directly from their Web site, Some of their wines are also available at The Wine House ( in West Los Angeles. You can also check for retail outlets near you.

Until next time, Cheers!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Greece's "X" Factor Wine

A hard-to-pronounce grape from Northern Greece is my latest wine discovery, thanks to a recent LA Wine Writer's luncheon at Hotel Angeleno in Los Angeles. Hosted by the the XinomavroNaoussa trade organization, the luncheon featured three Greek winemakers, a slew of wines, and some Greek food.

Xinomavro (pronounced "Tsee-nó-ma-vro" I am told, with emphasis on the first "o" just as in the word "Sonoma") is what I am calling the X Factor in the wines of Greece. It took me several tries to get the name right, but it was worth the pronunciation lesson. The "X" grape is similar in style, body and flavor to the Barolas of Italy, but the price tag is much lower.

Grown in the part of northern Greece called Macedonia, it is just one of the more than 330 grape varieties indigenous to Greece, of which only about 40 are exported to the US market. However, things are improving as we in America expand our wine palates and explore more interesting wines from around the world, and Greek wines in particular. Xinomavro, a hearty red, and Assyrtico, an acidic and minerally white, are now becoming more common on wine store shelves nationally.

Xinomavro is most at home in Greece's Naoussa region, a PDO, or special designated wine area, the first such area designated in the country. Running approximately 15 miles long, the area is reminiscent of Napa Valley in that there are low-lying vineyards, high vineyards on terraced hillsides, and some coastal vineyards, which provide a variety of ecosystems that give different nuances to the wines. But unlike Napa, this area can see snow in the winter.

An acidic and tannic wine, Xinomavro translates from Greek to "black with high acid." Fickle, and difficult to grow, the grape is sensitive to warmth, drought, and rot, but when successfully harvested and vinified it offers wines with aromas and flavors of strawberry and sour cherry, as well as vegetal characteristics, such as tomato, olives, mushrooms, and tertiary aromas (from oak barrel aging) of tobacco and tar. The more aged versions -- and some can age a very long time -- give off more dried fruit, such as plum and figs. Comparisons can be made not only to the Nebbiolo grape, which is the foundation of Barolas from Italy, but also to Pinot Noir.

We were treated to 13 wines at our luncheon, along with a lamb-and-eggplant-based Greek version of a shepherd's pie, which was a good match for the wines' tannin and acid.

Some of the wines are available in the US, some are not. Some producers make only a few hundred cases, so they stay in Greece. For example, Kelesidis Estate Merchali, 2006, has a production of only 500 cases. It is aged a year in oak (common to these wines), and offered nice fruit after 9 years aging, with a balance and structure that supported it. It was a nice treat, only available at our luncheon.

One of my favorites was the Elinos Naoussa 2007, again an aged wine, which is holding up very well due to its firm tannins and acidity. Thirty-five-old vines provided the grapes. The winemaker is 31-year-old fourth-generation winemaker Christos Taralas (for more on the winery visit their Web site.).

Many of the 13 wines tasted at the luncheon carried price tags under $20. I've listed the producers below, so it's worth checking out the Greek wine section of your local retail shop for them.

For more on the wines of Naoussa visit

Until next time, Yamas!

List of Greek Wineries;
Vaeni Naoussa
Estate Chrisohoou
Ktima Diamantakos
Estate Foundi
Estate Karyda
Estate Kelesidis
Kir Yianni
Ktima Melitzani