Weekly Apéro Hour: The Magician of Verdejo, Serbian Natural Wine, A New Indie Wine Mag

Here’s Your Weekly Apéro Hour!

DRINKING. When people list the so-called “noble grape” varieties, you’ll notice the predominance of one language: French. There are a few Italian varieties, a few German; the only Spanish grape in that list is Tempranillo. I cannot think of a stupider list at the moment except that horrible 50 Best Restaurants thing. Why would you ever want to limit your experience of wine to a few high-priced and finicky French grape varieties? How boring. (To be fair, technically the list is based on the quantity of each grape variety planted worldwide, but I mean, if you use a word like “noble,” it’s clear what is meant.)

Case in point: two recent experiences with non noble grape varieties that were pretty mind blowing.

The other day, after a long spree of drinking Aussie and French wine quite intensely, I rummaged around for something different and came out with a Verdejo from MicroBio Wines, a project from winemaker Ismael Gozalo in the Ruedo D.O. of northern Spain.

This bottle was just exactly what I was looking for: a fresh but flavorful and round white, ideal for winter. We crushed it alongside a few bites of salami. About halfway through the bottle, I noticed the alcohol percentage and was shocked.

“What is the ABV of this wine, would you guess?” I asked my lovely drinking partner.

He chewed a piece of salami and took another sip of wine, thinking. “11.5 percent?”

That’s what I had also thought — but it was 13.5! The aromatics of the wine, which was made without any sulfites, seemed to mask the alcohol content beautifully.

Reading up on Ismael’s website, I learned that he makes this wine in an old-fashioned vertical press, sort of like the old-fashioned basket press but in this case outfitted with inox to allow just a hint of oxidation to touch the grapes (many winemakers would frown upon this, but Ismael trusts that his fruit can withstand a bit of air). I think this oxidation shows in the wine in an incredibly pleasant way.

I also learned that his vines are ungrafted (on their own rootstock) and as much as 200 years old! And that he’s known as the “Magician of Verdejo” locally. OK, so I am officially on a mission to get over to Ismael’s vineyard. Soon! 

(If you’re looking for another awesome natural Verdejo, try Santyuste, by Esmeralda Garcia in Segovia. It’s delicious!)

Again looking outside the usual suspects: recently, I tried a Serbian red wine, from a French couple, Estelle & Cyrille Bongiraud. As you can probably imagine, Serbia has been producing wine for many many centuries, but there isn’t necessarily what you’d call a natural wine scene there, and generally the country’s exports are rather low, which certainly would have to do with the political-economic situation there in the past few decades. But the Bongirauds have installed themselves in the Timok Valley of Eastern Serbia (bordering Romania), which apparently is full of limestone bedrock — ideal for winegrowing.

Cyrille being a renowned soil scientist and Estelle being a Burgundian grower, they never meant to end up in Serbia but apparently were simply traveling through when their car broke down and they were stunned by the terroir: “Beautifully maintained, old vineyards with deep root systems on limestone soils. Artisanal, organic methods of cultivation and winemaking that had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries,” according to the website of their Australian importer.

Over time, they gave up their work in Franc and founded this winery, called Francuska Vinarija, about ten years ago by renting seven hectares, mostly of red grapes, from local growers. They have also planted a vineyard with indigenous grape varieties.

The 2011 “Obecanje” (translation: “Promise,” in Serbian) wine I tasted is, to my incredible surprise, made from an older clone of Gamay à petit grain (small berries).

“What is the grape variety of this wine, would you guess?” I now asked my lovely drinking partner.

He replied, “Something in the Syrah family?”

It’s fun to be surprised by a wine. Per the importer website, again: “This small berry, thinner skinned version of Gamay is believed to have arrived from France during the Phylloxera era, as French vignerons sought solace in Serbia’s sandy and chalky soils that were resisting the nasty aphid’s advance.”

The wine was much higher in alcohol than you’d expect from most Gamays — 14.5%, although, as with the MicroBio wine, it held the alcohol quite well. The palate was very expressive, full of ripe plums and black cherries and prunes, with a garnet hue, and an overall juiciness flattered by soft chewy tannins. If this is an old version of Gamay, well, that’s amazing. I would have thought something more closely related to Plavac, the Croatian ancestor of Zinfandel!

Well, I loved the wine and will seek out more from the Bongirauds.

READING. Yes, it’s another indie mag. About wine. We’re not going away, us indie mag publishers, with our devotion to excellent journalism and creative design. We’re proliferating! It’s an invasion! Make room on your bookshelves and coffee tables! (OK, not that much room, these are biannual publications, we can’t afford to come out more often, don’t worry.)

It’s a pleasure to discover Above Sea Level via their inaugural issue, which is focused on California wines. In these pages, I found some very original approaches to wine, like the collaboration between art duo Lazy Mom and natural wine bar owner Bradford Taylor (Ordinaire in Oakland; Diversey in Chicago) that pokes fun at typical tasting notes through wacky sculptural illustrations and commentary. A new take on the Michel Tolmer school of wine humor, I might say. And there is a really great feature on label art, as well as a review of a temporary museum exhibition focused on wine in the modern age, at the San Francisco MoMa.

There’s also an incredible photo essay feature on California’s persistent fog — what a cool way to approach terroir. And a brief interview with legendary importer Kermit Lynch. And some winemaker-written pieces. It’s been a while since I’ve drunk some California wine of visited the state, and it was nice to briefly transport there such a beautiful magazine. (Time for a visit, soon, perhaps?)

OK, time for a confession: I’ve officially developed a minor obsession with indie magazines. I love how different they all are and how much effort and thought goes into them! So I am thinking about trying to do an indie mag pop-up somewhere. Just an idea at this point. But if I keep thinking it and talking about it, eventually it will manifest! That’s how life works, right? For me, anyway.

More soon…

xRachel

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