Unveiling Hidden Gems Beyond the Usual Suspects

Unveiling Hidden Gems Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are wine varietals that you find to be most common, when you plunk down at a restaurant, open the menu, and turn to the wine selections. The normal, everyday suspects that grow anywhere and whose names just roll off the tongue—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio. Sure, there are differences by regions, and even differences by producer. But do you get bored by the same five or six kinds, regardless of where they are from? Is the world only in eight-bit color to you? There are more than 10,000 grapes in the world that have successfully fermented into wine, most even produced commercially. This week at City Vino we are exploring the obscure varietals.

The first stop is in Bulgaria. Viticulture in Bulgaria boasts a rich heritage dating back to ancient times, with traditions predating the formation of the Bulgarian state in 681 AD. The ancient Thracians, who inhabited these lands, revered wine as an integral part of their daily life and religious rituals, establishing what is considered the oldest European viticulture in Thrace some 5000 years ago. Their legacy endured through the ages, shaping Bulgarian culture with vine-related traditions, legends, and even national songs celebrating the grape. Fast-forwarding to 1989, the fall of Bulgaria's socialist regime ushered in a period of profound change for the country's wine industry. Liberation from government monopoly paved the way for privatization, though it brought challenges like fragmented vineyard ownership and quality control issues. Despite these setbacks, Bulgaria's accession to agricultural funds and programs in 2000 heralded a new era of growth and modernization. Foreign investment and technological advancements catalyzed the emergence of small, medium, and large wineries across the country, transforming Bulgaria's wine industry into a dynamic player on the global stage. 

This was the case for Chateau Burgozone, which is a boutique family winery, perched on the slopes of the Danube River, in Northern Bulgaria, and overlooking the island of Esperanto. Burgozone is named after the Roman fortress built on the ancient Roman road, Via Istrum. In 2000 soil expert Professor Penkov plotted out the best areas for viticulture and made recommendations on grape varieties and clones to be imported from France. One of which was Marselan—a crossing between Grenache that brings spice, and Cabernet Sauvignon which brings refined power and structure.

Marselan was first bread as a grape in 1961 by the French National Institute for Agriculture Research (INRA) in the Hérault department of the Languedoc-Roussillon, at their Domaine de Vassal station in Marseillan, after which the grape is named. The objective of this breeding program was to create high-yielding varieties with large berries. Despite its natural resistance to mildew and botrytis, Marselan's small berry size meant that it was shelved at this time, and revisited in the 1990s as producers began to look for quality over quantity. Given the humidity and general characteristics of the Danube, Marselan has definitely found a new home. 2020 Chateau Burgozone Via Istrum Cellar Selection is 100 percent Marselan. This wine expresses red fruit aromas of strawberries, red cherry, raspberries, red currants, baby’s breath flowers, blackberry, and black cherry, with red fruit compote flavors and a light clove, sweet cinnamon earth on the finish.

We next go to Lombardy, Italy, more specifically, on the lower plains of Oltrepo Pavese, where Bonarda grows. Or does it? When dealing with the world of wine grapes, there are true varietals which are stated by capitalizing the name, eg. Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines can be found growing naturally in the plant kingdom. Bonarda gets confusing fast. There is Bonarda (italicized for referencing the family of grapes)  which includes all the cultivators and biotypes. A cultivator is propagated via human intervention. Its continued existence is dependent upon being cut from a larger plant. A biotype is a group of organisms having an identical genetic constitution. In Oltrepo Pavese, the grape may be called Bonarda, but it may actually be Croatina, or Uva Rara, or Bonarda Piemontese. All of these grapes grow in the area and Italians have a hard time straightening their spaghetti naming system here.  If there is actual Bonarda that still grows in Lombardy, it may not be of any commercial exporting amount. The actual grape Bonarda jumped to France's Savoie regions and then the Italians took it to Mendoza, Argentina, where it is often blended with malbec. The other strange place Bonarda went to is Napa, where it is called Charbono. This week we are exploring Bonarda that is actually Croatina in 2020 Mazzolino Bonarda (Croatina) from Lombardy, Italy. It has big red cherry aromas and flavors with blueberry, violets, light earth, warm cinnamon bark, and toasted anise. Continuing to the palate are flavors of cherry compote, tomato leaf, black cherry, allspice, and bramble.

Next up is a turn toward Turkey. City Vino had been introduced to the most fun Mother-Daughter duo—Lisa and Alexis, respectively, who ventured to DC to a fun Turkish restaurant. They enjoyed each other’s company, Turkish wine, and laughter for the evening. Lisa had an inspiration to find the wine at some box wine store up north, only to discover there were no bottles on the shelves anywhere. Alexis having a background in international studies, talked her mom into creating an importing company to solve the need for Turkish wine in their DC oasis.

On one of their early trips, they stayed at the Mozaik Winery in Western Turkey, in the region of Urla-Izmir. The owner and his wife didn’t speak any English, but wine means you make friends anyway. The business started in 2006 by Ali and Melis Emin. The founder’s main business is horse breeding, and it shows when you go to the winery as vines are about the last thing you notice up the driveway. The love is wine, the income is horse breeding. Taxing in Turkey can be as much as 100 percent of the sales price. Also taxed is the equipment to make wine like stainless steel tanks, barrels, glass bottles, corks, anything else related.

The Emin’s hired an Italian oenologist who figured that the Italian grapes Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Rebo could grow on the property. Other grapes planted include Syrah, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Marselan, and Ekigaina. Our next wine is a blend of Petit Verdot and Rebo. Rebo is a crossing between Merlot and Teroldego, which is an Italian grape found in Alto Adige. This monster wine wraps up our tasting for the weekend—2013 Mozaik Winery Verdot-Rebo. It shows a deep ruby color. It takes a little decanting, but worth the time. Aromas of violets, lilac, cassis, black plum, blackberry, and bramble. Continuing to the palate with flavors of black pepper, dried herbs, vanilla, cream, and wet tobacco. This is a fun brewing of complex flavors.



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