Monthly Archives: August 2012

Greek Wine, Santorini Edition: Why go, how to do it and what to drink (Assyrtiko!)

Goodbye, tourists!

If you read my column Unscrewed last week, you know that I promoted the Greek varietal Moschofilero.  I think there is tremendous value in the Greek world of wine, once you know where to look.

The history of winemaking in Greece, some argue, extends back 6500 years to the Neolithic period; others claim the earliest hard data is a foot press (I would love to have one—I could type while my foot tap, tap, taps, pressing grapes!), discovered in a Minoan archaeological site on Crete, dated at 1600 B.C.  However, high-quality, modern wine production is nascent as compared to the rest of Europe.  Although I could go into a long explanation of the current debilitating factors in the Greek wine world that add up to value for YOU, the consumer, I will presume you didn’t come here for a history and economics lesson.  Instead, let’s explore Greek wines by starting with a place to which I have traveled recently, and with which most are familiar, but not because of their wine: Santorini.

After years of reading all the hoopla; seeing the striking infinity pool of the Perivolas Hotel grace the cover of every travel magazine at least twice, I bit the bullet and picked touristy Santorini as part of our Greek Cyclades escape, over less-visited islands such as Milos or Amorgos.  What I discovered, however, was a visually stunning place; the “Helen” of the Greek Isles.  But despite her dramatic beauty, that is as spectacular in person as every glossy marketing campaign has boasted, Santorini proved more than a gorgeous face; she offers vinous and culinary delights that many travelers don’t seem to know are just a few moped clicks away.

The Island of Santorini: Impressions and Rituals

A jumble of houses strewn along the cliffs

Santorini, also known as Thira (Thera or Theira– this gets confusing when booking hotels and flights), is a volcanic island. Her appearance today is the result of a massive eruption 3500 years ago which literally, blew her top off. This led to the collapse of the volcanic mouth into a caldera (aka crater) to be filled in by the sea, leaving a ring of cliffs upon which the villages are now built.  The resulting scenery draws thousands of tourists, but isn’t necessarily stable, as recent seismic tremors indicate.  This same volcano is blamed for destroying the Minoan civilization on Crete (the same ones who made the foot press!).

View of balcony

Our 5:15 am, 45-minute flight out of Athens touched down on the outer edge of the isle, just as the sun began to glow, slowly hoisting itself out of the eastern stretch of sea.  We would be staying on the caldera side, not far from bustling Fira town, the capital. After a short cab ride from the airport, we arrived at our hotel the Heliotopos, and were greeted with our first glimpse of the famous view, from our private balcony.

The azure expanse of sea stretched as though to another galaxy, silent and shimmering, only broken by the occasional boat skimming across its deep waters, ribbons traced across the placid surface.  Steep, stark cliffs stretched starward, nearly 1000 feet above the ocean, with apparently as much descending into the depths below.  As the rim curves, one can see specks of whitewashed villages, perched along the precipice; cubic homes built in jumbled stacks, as though rows of teeth in the mouth of a sleeping shark, swallowing the sea below.

During our four days on the island, we fell into an easy routine. Wine tasting during the day, followed by a sunset vigil on our balcony. Each evening we rambled down the hill to the nearest mart to collect fresh cheeses, local bread and cured meats before our evening celestial worship.  We supplemented our offerings with the very local rose (I think the shopkeeper made it at home) or one of the many Assyrtikos we had amassed during our circadian wine tastings.  Four days felt like one on Santorini, and after discovering there were multiple wineries producing high-quality vino strewn throughout the island, I quickly wished I had booked a week.

Evening ritual of Assyrtiko and Sunset

The Wine(s) of Santorini and Unusual Growing Conditions

Prior to my trip, I knew Greece produced wine, but I didn’t know Santorini was so prominent in its portfolio. The primary grape grown is Assyrtiko, often expounded as the finest white varietal from Greece.  Although that is not entirely true, one can claim Assyrtiko has had the most international exposure.

Known for producing dry wines (except for Vinsanto) with vivid acidity, excellent structure, moderate to high-alcohol and saturated flavors ranging from citrus, smoke, pepper and minerality, Assyrtiko flourishes in the volcanic soils of the island.  Flourish may be too strong a word, however, as the grape vines are trained to keep low to the ground in a basket shape, rather than on a traditional trellis, to protect against fierce winds and heat.  In fact, the grapes can only survive in this harsh environment due to the ingenuity of the original farmers who perfected this method of viticulture thousands of years ago.

Santorini church blessing the Assyrtiko

The wind, although harsh, does serve to keep pests and fungi away, allowing the vineyards to be farmed mostly, if not entirely, organically. The old vines are also phylloxera free—the pest can’t harbor in the volcanic soil.  Inside the vinous baskets each evening, moisture is trapped in the soil from the cooling fog, later providing a self-contained, mini-irrigation system to the plant.  A true collaboration between man and nature!

In addition to dry, white wine, Assyrtiko is used to produce a sweet wine called Vinsanto. The grapes are dried in the sun for two weeks then crushed, fermented and barrel aged for two years. The resulting wines show dried fruits, spice and minerality on the palate.

Other grapes grown on the island, such as Athiri and Aidani, play supporting roles—there is even an indigenous red—but Assyrtiko is the star of the show.

The Santorini Wine Trail

Many tourists hole up in their villas, stargazing or gazing at each other; others head to the beaches.  We were surprised to find the charming wineries and villages of the interior to be rather deserted, having them all to ourselves.  Why don’t tourists know about the other faces of this island goddess?  According to the wineries, an effort had only recently been made to put out a tourist-friendly wine map to encourage visitors to explore.  So now, I am encouraging you.

Adorable village of Megalochori

There are 12 wineries to check out on Santorini, easily visited with a moped or rental car; moped being more fun, but more dangerous. I recommend visiting them over the course of three or four days—make sure to check their schedules!  In between tastings, try out the various beaches and villages, plus the roadside stands selling capers, cherry tomatoes (buy the paste!!) and homemade retsina, while meandering leisurely around the island.  And don’t forget to be back on your balcony in time for sunset.   The wineries are:

Hatzidakis Winery

Art Space in Exo Gonia, Argyros, Boutari, Canava Roussos, Gaia, Gavalas, Halaris, Hatzidakis, HeliopoulosSantos, Sigalas and Volcan Wines

Some have tasting rooms that are big and modern, but most are modest with friendly owners looking to connect with curious wine lovers.  Each has its own flavor, so try to catch them all!  Prices on the island range from $6-$15 a bottle—tremendous value for such well-made, interesting wines. Not all will be winners, of course—that is up to your palate.

Tasting Assyrtiko in the U.S.

If you can’t make it to Santorini anytime soon (I imagine quite a few  of you), inquire about Assyrtiko at your local shop, or better yet, check the online merchants almost guaranteed to carry a greater breadth of options at equal or better prices.  Generally, a good bottle should run between $12-$20, and the higher range is for the really good stuff. For instance, K&L Wine Merchants currently stocks the three well-known brands, relatively speaking, of Sigalas, Gaia and Argyros.

Tips to Improve Your Trip

  1. Stay on the Caldera side of the island, with a private terrace.  Spend the extra money, and save cash somewhere else along the way.  You will regret not having a private retreat in the evening to enjoy the serenity of the sea and sunset.

    Caldera side villas, best views

  2. If you go during shoulder or low season, only book the first night or two, then shop around if you aren’t happy.  Although our hotel was nice, we definitely saw nicer and wished we hadn’t pre-booked before arrival, as many places were willing to negotiate.  There are so many places to choose from, and it is easier to vet them in person than online.  This was in late May and DOES NOT APPLY TO HIGH SEASON.
  3. Oia village, on the northern tip of the island, is adorable and has beautiful sunsets, but the nightly sunset ritual gets crowded.  I found it difficult to sit and watch it without someone breathing down my neck.  Better off staying on your private balcony, with a bottle of wine.
  4. Stay near Fira town if you want any kind of nightlife and the greatest choice of restaurants.  There is nothing to do in Oia after the sunset.  NOTHING.
  5. Visit the beaches.  We found the red beach at Akrotiri scenic and unique, and the black beach of Perissa to have a relaxing vibe with a beach club that served excellent cocktails—one of the best Tom Collins’ I have ever had. Go figure!

    Unique red cliff beach at Akrotiri

  6. Buy cans of Santorini tomato paste and bring it home. Freeze it in ice cubes and use in everything. It is spectacularly good, sweet and bright; like no other tomato paste I have ever had.
  7. Buy capers! They are meaty and salted without being salty.
  8. Fly to Santorini from Athens.  The ferry from Athens is 9 hours of wasted time, given the flight is so short and fairly inexpensive.
  9. Our itinerary: 1 day in Athens, 4 days in Santorini, 3 days in Naxos, 2 days in Mykonos, final day in Athens. We flew to Santorini, took a ferry from Santorini to Naxos, Naxos to Mykonos, then flew from Mykonos to Athens.   To do all over again, I would’ve swapped out a day on Naxos for one more on Mykonos.

    Half Woman/Half Planter. Don’t remember that mythical figure…


Filed under Assyrtiko, Greece, Santorini

Unscrewed: Get Him to the Greek (grape!) Moschofilero



Greek flag fluttering off the back of a ferry

If you missed my post on Unscrewed last week, here is your second chance:

It’s time to add a new grape to your repertoire and order a seemingly unpronounceable variety (see rule #2).

Despite the dreary economic situation, Greece has long been associated with the sybaritic lifestyle, attracting like-minded voluptuaries to places like Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete. Plus, Greek variety names sound seriously sexy rolling off the tongue, so let’s indulge our hedonistic streak and try a glass of Moschofilero (moh-skoh-FEE-leh-roh).

This grape is grown primarily in the high, cool Mantinia plateau in central Peloponnese, and produces dry white wines that are light in alcohol (between 11.5 to 12 percent), but intensely perfumed with wild florals, spice, stone fruits, and citrus notes on a racy, fresh palate.

Greece boasts 6,500 years of wine-making on its résumé. But a lack of international awareness (partially due to the fairly recent revitalization of the industry) means there are undervalued bottles hiding throughout the city’s wine shops. If you ask me, Greek wines are going to be the next big thing, so taste them while they’re still under the radar and cheap:

Where to try:

Moschofilero at The Immigrant

The wine list is quite short at The Immigrant, a very intimate, very dark East Village establishment, but it covers some interesting territory. Although I take issue with its thick-lipped wine glasses — I prefer mine sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel — the Moschofilero is a perfect tipple on a balmy night: fresh, mouth-watering acidity with intense aromatics of pear, peach, and white flowers followed by lingering citrus pith on the palate. Antonopoulos Vineyards, Moschofilero, Arkadia, Peloponnese (Greece) $11/glass

Where to buy: 

Sherry-Lehman carries Boutari, Mantinia Moschofilero (Greece) 2011 $12.95. Boutari is a leader in the Greek wine renaissance and considered one of the best (and biggest) producers, making its wines easier to find in the States. While Uva in Williamsburg carries Nikiforou, Moschofilero (Greece) 2010 at a steal — just $10.


Filed under Moschofilero, Unscrewed

Where I am going- Harvest East End


Let’s make a list of our favorite things: Wine (Always #1). Food (Close 2nd). Sunshine followed by Sunset. Charity. Tented events held in the Hamptons. Yes, that sums up the potentially fabulous event on Saturday, August 25th, 2012 from 6-9 pm in Bridgehampton that is Harvest East End.  Nearly 40 wineries from Long Island will showcase 200 plus wines, including unreleased barrel samples; 30 restaurants will provide tastings of their latest creations; and all of this bounty will be offered in the spirit of charity to benefit East End Hospice, Group for the East End & Peconic Land Trust.  A few tickets are still available online and at the door for $150. See you there!

Sunset over Long Beach, Sag Harbor (another favorite!)

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New York Wines hit Chinese Shores

Shanghai’s Pudong on a rainy day, viewed from the Park Hyatt

I can’t stop reading and thinking about China and wine.  Perhaps topical stories are catching my eye, since I am tuned into the subject due to my visit to China in June; nonetheless, I have discovered another new development.  It seems the looming tidal wave of Chinese wine consumption has finally reached local NY shores—or rather, we have gone to theirs, hoping to catch a ride in on the money wave: New York State Wine Outlet opens in Shanghai!  Unfortunately, my visit was a month before the opening of this exciting experiment, or else I would have liked to see how the Chinese represent NY wines to the local populace.  Currently, Chinese wine consumption is estimated at 1 measly bottle a head per year (I know some people who can put one back in a night—not good either though).  This figure may sound small, but there are 1.3 billion humans over there, and consumption and income are ballooning.

Lord Stow’s Egg Custard operation in Macau

It seems, rightfully so, that New York wants a slice of the egg custard (particularly if it is from Lord Stow’s in Macau. Me too!)  Empire State Cellars (the only all NY wine store), owned  by Peconic Bay Winery in the North Fork, was commissioned with creating an assortment of 30 wines representative of different regions and styles from NY State.  Wineries that comprised the initial shipment included: Anthony Road Wine CompanyBedell CellarsChanning Daughters WineryHudson-Chatham Winery, Jamesport VineyardsMedolla VineyardsPaumanok VineyardsPeconic Bay WineryShaw Vineyard and Shinn Estate Vineyards.

The Outlet itself is meant as a resource for trading, selling and showcasing NY wines plus the venue will host trade shows, promotional events and matchmaking (no, not like Elimidate) for distributors and buyers.  Why is this exciting beyond merely the opportunity for New York to stake a claim in unchartered China?  It was only a decade ago that NY State wines lacked the quality-price ratio (QPR) to compete nationally, let alone globally. I am sure many will pick a bone with that statement, but I stand by it having spent more than a decade tasting and mostly spitting the wines.   However, in the last 5-6 years the vino has improved tremendously across the board; call it better weather (global warming) or better technique, or both.  Either way, the price points look much more reasonable when the juice in the glass has balance, complexity and is delicious to drink.

So, what does the New York State Wine and Spints (yes, not Spirits) website look like? Kind of hilarious.  Having just come back from China, I am familiar with the theme of poor Chinese –English translation and spelling, coupled with jumbled site design.  They definitely have some work to do on the NYSWO website.  For instance, some of the NY wineries have their names misspelled: sparking ponte vineyards should be Sparkling Pointe and lieb family cellards is, well, obvious.  Also, content was lacking and functionality was off.  I was the 76th visitor; my husband, 15 minutes later, was the 72nd. Maybe they are counting down from a million and #1 will win a prize!  I applaud the efforts here, but wonder why winemakers stateside aren’t insisting on a few fixes, given there is a large population of English speaking expats in Shanghai.  Maybe the Chinese version of the site looks better-unfortunately, I can’t read it!

Lion guarding the gates at the Forbidden City, Beijing

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Filed under China, New York, NY Wines hit Chinese Shores

Unscrewed: 5 New York Rosés to drink before they are gone

If you didn’t see my Village Voice column “Unscrewed” last week, here’s another opportunity to find out 5 of my favorite New York rosés from Long Island to catch before summer ends. Hurry, only another week before Labor Day! Of course, you can drink rosé all year in my opinion.

rose_collage.jpgAs summer winds down (or up, depending on your plans), it’s time to celebrate the pink drink that fuels fantasies of seaside, Provençal retreats. If I had a garden hose that spouted such watermelon-hued berry bliss, I would fill a pool and host a fête. Alas, no such aquifer exists; the best we can do is visit the gorgeous vineyards of Long Island or pick up some chilled bottles and take the party to Sheep Meadow — discreetly, of course.

A chilled glass of rosé appeals to drinkers of white and red — it refreshes while offering fruit and body to pair with all manner of foods. Wolffer Estate in Bridgehampton might be the most prolific and well-known rosé producer out of the East End, but there are many others to seek out. Below are my five favorites to enjoy right now, before summer’s end.

Keep in mind that though our demand for rosé has grown, local production remains small. A helpful note on finding my five picks: You can buy them directly from the wineries (in-person or on their websites), try your local wine store like Astor Wines and Spirits in NYC, or check out Empire State Cellars (the only all NY wine shop) which ships to NYC for a flat $10 fee.

Lauren Mowery

Channing Daughters (South Fork) 2011 Rosato di Lagrein ($20). Purplish-pink and brimming with flavor, this dry, 100 percent Lagrein rosé is crisp, floral, fruity, and spicy, all in one sip.

Channing Daughters made eight variations of rosé, both from well-known grapes such as Merlot to more esoteric varietals (at least for Long Island) like Lagrein. Hues range from pale tangerine to pink flamingo, and are as pretty sitting on the table as they are in the glass. Tastings are inside at the bar, but there is a shaded patio that faces the vineyards with several benches. About half the rosati are sold out, so check their website. Channing Daughters focuses largely on Northern Italian varietals and has an intriguing lineup of whites, reds, and orange wines to explore, should you (gasp) tire of rosé.

Lauren Mowery

Peconic Bay (North Fork) NV Nautique Esprit de Rosé ($9.99). 50/50 Cab Sauv and Cab Franc, this dry, medium-bodied wine is redolent of muddled strawberries, dried herbs, orange peel, and tea leaves.

Peconic features an indoor tasting bar and outdoor, shaded patio with plentiful seating, and live music on weekends. In addition to the Nautique rosé, a great value at $9.99 (or $99 a case), I highly recommend their whites. The Riesling and Gewurztraminer are exceptional North Fork examples of these grapes.

Lauren Mowery

Paumanok (North Fork) 2011 Dry Rosé ($17.99). A blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Pale persimmon in color and highly aromatic, with pronounced strawberry-rhubarb notes on the refreshing, zippy palate.

Paumanok has a large deck overlooking the vineyards and allows outside picnic food. They have a well-regarded lineup of whites and reds, including a Chenin Blanc. Their Tuthill Lane reds are great examples of the depths Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can reach in Long Island in an excellent vintage, albeit pricey at $60 a bottle.

Lauren Mowery

Mattebella Vineyards (North Fork) 2011 Dry Rosé ($18). Mostly Merlot with a splash of Cab Franc. This dry, pale pink, lighter-bodied wine smells and tastes like a garden in full-bloom showing herbs, flowers and plump, red fruits with balanced acidity.

Mattebella evokes a lawn party at a friend’s rustic country cottage, with a smattering of tables scattered outside. The owners are hands-on and friendly, and will happily share with you the joys and frustrations of owning a vineyard. They make several other wines, including Chardonnay and old-world-style red blends. The 2011 rosé was picked up by Jean-George Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant as the house pour.

Lauren Mowery

Croteaux Vineyards (North Fork) 2011 Merlot 314 Rosé ($19). Salmon-hued, medium-bodied, and dry, this juicy, merlot-based wine shows notes of melon, apple, dried lavender, and roses, with sea-salt woven throughout.

Specializing in rosé only, Croteaux made 12 versions for 2012. Their tasting garden is gorgeous — think romantic French countryside. Prices range from $19 for their signature merlot based wines up to $30 for fuller-bodied versions. Croteaux is releasing a new rosé at the end of summer called Voyage for only $16. Yay, rosé in the fall!

Dog owners should note that Croteaux Vineyards, Peconic Bay, Paumanok, and Mattebella Vineyards are all dog friendly!

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What I Drank- Valsacro Rioja “Dioro” 2005

Valsacro Rioja “Dioro” 2005

Valsacro Rioja “Dioro” 2005 made the sale rounds several months back, showing up at drastically reduced prices on Lot 18, and my go-to guy, Garagiste.  With a suggested retail of $50-$60, but offered at the crazy tariff of $19.99 by Garagiste, I felt compelled to give it a try.  I don’t care much for scores, so I relied on the detailed winery and tasting notes to convince my trigger finger (or rather a left-click of the mouse) to order a bottle.  Valsacro Dioro is still available on for $24.99, as well as a smattering of other smaller shops for $19.99, found using wine-searcher.

Dioro is the premier bottling out of the new Valsacro winery, built by the Escudero brothers in the Baja region of Rioja.  The brothers, once under the tutelage of their father, broke free of his small, traditionally minded bodega in order to pursue their own modern-style of winemaking.  The Dioro is a blend of Graciano, Tempranillo, Carignan and Garnacha, and is the result of a rigorous grape selection process, followed by 12-14 months in the winery’s best French oak barrels.

I love the vibrant, inky-purple depths of color in my glass; we wine drinkers sometimes mistakenly believe deep color will reveal intense flavor, but in this case, the foreshadowing was dead on.  The palate is dense, sexy and velvety-smooth, with traces of smoked meat, pepper-spice and a cornucopia of black fruits.  Juicy, balanced and heavenly if you can get it for $19.99. 

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Where I am going: The North Fork

Croteaux’s French countryside-inspired tasting garden


One benefit of being a NYC dweller is the plethora of vinifera vines planted in our backyard, albeit one that requires an hour and a half drive to play in.  What began as one vineyard planted in 1973 by the Hargrave’s—now known as Castello di Borghese—has bloomed into 60 vineyards and 56 wine producers. Last week, in my Village Voice column Unscrewed, I espoused the tenet of touring the North Fork to other NYers.  Heeding my own advice, I composed a 3-prong plan to update myself on the greatest hits of the region, results to be published on this blog.  I have been tasting through the North Fork for the last 12 years of my Manhattan residency, with both good, great and seriously lackluster results.  Overall, the wines have consistently improved; but each vintage brings new weather and new players, so keeping abreast of change is an ongoing job that someone must do, and I have volunteered myself for the task. Below is a partial list of the wineries I am including in each taste-a-thon.

Part 1: CroteauxSparkling PointeMatebella and Anthony Nappa’s Wine Studio.

Part 2 tentatively includes: Clovis Point,  Paumanok,  Lieb Cellars,  Shinn and Peconic Bay.

Part 3 will be a mop up of the rest.  And of course, every tasting day invariably ends with a Sunset & Steamers session on the Pier at Claudio’s.  Last week’s sundown was a stunner!

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Unscrewed: Ten Tips for Wine Rookies

The Pinot Pimp of Brogan Cellars

Perhaps you have seen my new gig at the Village Voice as weekly wine columnist for Unscrewed. If not, here is my first post—ten tips for improving your personal wine program.

1. Be curious. There is no shame in learning, only in pretending to know what you don’t.

2. Order stuff you can’t pronounce. Or rather, don’t not order wine because you can’t eloquently articulate the name. I took Spanish, not French, and I certainly didn’t study Greek (Agiorgitiko: I can finally say this one–a-your-yay-teeko!) The sommelier and store clerk don’t give a crap if you mispronounce something and are more likely thrilled they can share their wine geekdom with someone.

3. Drink more white wine. Drink it in the winter. Drink it with meat (maybe not with a porterhouse). Whites can be amazingly complex or lovely for their simplicity. They are better for sipping than reds, which often need food to shine due to their tannins.

4. Treat yourself. Every now and then, spend a little more on your vino. I’ll be suggesting wonderful, inexpensive bottles here, but keep in mind that many small wineries that make interesting wines can’t afford to sell them to us for $9.99.

5. Don’t drink trendy wines. Just because celeb-driven restaurants and bars push certain brands at 20x wholesale (Hello, Whispering Angel?), doesn’t mean the wines are higher quality. Drink a wine because you like it.

6. Visit local wineries when you travel. This adds a fun dimension to your trip, gives you a local’s insight to the region — winemakers usually give great restaurant recs! — and you just might discover something tasty that you can’t find back home. Unless you are in New Jersey. They still haven’t figured out how to make tasty wine there. Sorry NJ!

7. Take a trip to the North Fork. We have wine country in our backyard, less than two hours away, and some of the wines are pretty darn good.

8. Taste a new varietal. Put down that Cab Sauv from California! How about Plavac Mali from Croatia? Hárslevelű from Hungary? Or something less challenging and easier to find, like Australian Riesling?

9. Try new regions. Italy alone produces hundreds of varietals beyond
Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Tuscany is great, but so is Friuli. And Puglia. And Trentino-Alto Adige. Ask your favorite wine shop to help you on this quest.

10. Have fun! Wine isn’t meant to intimidate you. Even a Master of Wine can’t taste and recollect every wine in the world, so nobody expects you to either.

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What I Drank – Changyu Dry Red Wine, Vintage Unknown

Changyu Dry Red Wine (non-vintage?)

I planned to write a simple tasting note on the single bottle of Chinese wine I drank in China, while providing background info on the producer.  While looking up the winery Changyu, however, I came across a few random pieces of info on the ‘nets that struck me as comment-worthy.

1. Changyu winery just celebrated 120 years of wine-making. What?  Maybe they were fermenting Snake Wine, but I highly doubt they have been producing Bordeaux-esque, barrel-aged wines for ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY YEARS.  Well, I looked it up and YES, technically the winery and cellar were built in 1892, but they had a hell of a time producing anything worthy of consumption. In 2002, the French Castel Group teamed up with Changyu to create the first professional Chateau in China.  I guess I should retract my affront and at least give them credit for being first in trying to establish a vineyard in a non-wine drinking country (at the time).  And if that didn’t blow your mind, how about this:  Changyu is now the 10thlargest wine producer in the world!  So many new (scary?), random facts learned today. Here come some more…

Napa Town?

2.  Changyu winery announced plans at their 120th anniversary gala to build a wine theme park, twice the size of Monaco.  This “Winetropolis” would include such delights as a “wine-themed tourist town”, a vineyard, a shopping street, wine spas, bars and a chapel. Yikes. Having just returned from China and seeing the utter destruction done by the domestic tourism industry to both the natural environment and China’s ancient cities, this scares the crap out of me.  Seriously–the whole country is going full-Disney.  Why can’t domestic tourists embrace the natural beauty of their country?

Evening blight-show in center of Lijiang

Imagine putting up fluorescent, multi-colored high-beams all around El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, then holding a nightly song and dance show at the base of the mountain, set to David Guetta, using workers bused in from Appalachia, forced asked nicely to prance around in fake Native American garb, all while selling out of tickets to this disaster EVERY NIGHT; followed by a mass migration to the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, recently converted into a ginormous, disco-lit karaoke barn. This is the city of Lijiang, China.

3. A French Sommelier, while at the dubious 120th Anniversary tasting, apparently declared he was “glad to see that Changyu can produce great white wines, red wines, sweet wines and brandiesall different products but all at a very high level. They compete very well with the French wines.”  Seriously? Who is this Sommelier Pierre Barthe, and what on earth is he drinking in France?  Apparently an independent British wine consultant feels differently: “it (Changyu) has yet to improve quality in both its vineyards and winemaking.”

Oh, well. The world is officially insane. And with much ado about nothing, here are my tasting notes:

The wine draws a blank on the nose—very little aroma.  There is some perceptible, pleasant red fruit on the palate, but nothing I could pick out of a gang in a fruit line-up.  The wine has obviously had some oak treatment, reminiscent of a brown paper bag—possibly oak chips. The tannins are dry, a little scratchy but not totally offensive.  Amazingly, this is NOT the worst wine I have ever had.  For what it’s worth, we finished the bottle.  Of course, my standards may have been lowered inadvertently as a result of the sh!tty-Chinese-beer-fatigue-syndrome I was suffering from at the time.

Drinking some Changyu on the balcony in Lijiang


Filed under Changyu Dry Red Wine, China, What I Drank

From Snake Wine to Grapevine: Observations from the grape frontier of China

Shanghai’s Pudong by day

After spending the winter months at home in PJ’s, undergoing pre-China Pimsleur coursework, muttering out loud to my Doberman “wo bu ming bai” (“I have no idea what the heck you are saying to me”); followed by spring months honing my Putonghua with the dry-cleaner (who I later found out is Korean!), I have gone and returned from a 3 week jaunt across the mainland of China and Hong Kong; and since forgotten most of my Mandarin.  What I did grasp came in handy and generally broke the ice with locals—apparently it was hilarious that I, the blond-haired, blue-eyed wife of a partially Chinese husband, traveling with my partially Chinese father-in-law, was the only one who could bust out phrases in the native tongue.

Me and a bottle of Changyu on the terrace in Lijiang

As far as my goal of grasping the state of wine culture in the Motherland, that was a little more difficult.  The first half of the trip was dedicated to adventure travel: we traipsed through remote-ish places with limited exposure to modern wine culture (we still found weird, fermented “wines” such as made from snakes).

World Famous Ray’s Snake Wine. Not to be confused with Famous Original Ray’s snake wine, mind you.

The second half was dedicated to the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but we had my 80+ year old in-laws, in-tow, and they weren’t particularly interested in patronizing wine bars or the kind of restaurant that might have a wine list (we ate a lot of down and dirty—and delicious—food geared towards locals).  Yet, despite what I can hardly consider obstacles, I was still able to bring home a few observations about the state of the wine market for the mid-level consumer from both a retail and Café/Restaurant/Hotel standpoint.  If you read my piece on Where I am going: China, you will remember I offered some market analysis and speculation, largely based on my reading of 3rdparty resources.  Now that I have had two feet on their turf, I thought I would follow-up with a few impressions:

  • Wines are CRAZY expensive on the mainland.  China’s import tariff is staggeringly high at 50%; despite the abolishment of such tariffs in Hong Kong, Central is still sticking it to the ZhongGuoRen consumer and businesses. This is a short-sighted strategy given the huge, potential market and money to be made, particularly if the duty’s purpose is protectionism—a failing proposition as evidenced in history.
  • Bottles that cost $10/20/30 in the United States sold closer to $30/60/90 in groceries or department stores.  Yellowtail priced at $7 bucks in the United States, cost over $22 in a Shanghai shop.

    $22 Yellowtail. Yikes!

  • Wine by the glass at bars and restaurants is limited or non-existent. Most wine is sold by the bottle at such incredible mark-ups, even The Donald would blush.  This was always the case at bars geared towards the Chinese.  Bars and restos with broader  international appeal, such as found in the Sanlitun district of Beijing or at wine bars operated by non-chinese (such as H.O.W. aka House of Wine in Shanghai, owned by a Frenchman), tended to have more interesting bottle selections with by the glass programs that were, relatively speaking, affordable.

    H.O.W. House of Wine in Shanghai

  • Horrible storage conditions.  Apparently importers don’t include leaflets on ideal storage temps when they drop off their shipments.  We saw countless bottles of wine—some high-priced Bordeaux(!)—standing upright, baking in sunny windows, and covered with dust.
  • There were entire wine shops dedicated to high-end Bordeaux and Barolo. Nothing else.  All luxury, no middle ground, all over-priced.
  • Wine shops with a broader selection, still tended to carry 60-70% French wine. They are obsessed with it. Second place goes to Italy, but only Barolo and wines from Tuscany. I keep reading the American wine companies have made the biggest dent in the market, but from the ground, it all looked French and Italian to me.
  • The “high-end” or better Chinese wines, mentioned in my previous article, were very difficult to find.  Grace Vineyards, for instance, never graced a shelf I surveyed. Granted, I didn’t have time for major recon of every city’s best shops, so take that with a few salty granules.
  • Mid-range and low-end wines from the most prolific Chinese producers such as Great Wall and Changyu, were available in a few spots, but again, not as common as I expected.  We managed to find a shop in Lijiang that sold some mid-range stuff ($25), so we bought a bottle of Changyu red for tasting.  See my post on that bottle.

    Bottle of Changyu “Red” Wine

All in all, China has massive market potential and those getting an early foot in the door should make some bucks—whether through importing or working with local wineries, such as international partnerships with Chinese vineyards.  For those of us more interested in unique, small-produced wines from less trendy regions, Hong Kong has a population more open to learning and experimenting without any of the tariffs.

Nightime on the Bund in Shanghai


Filed under China