Anyone who knows me will be astonished that I include this wine in my record of ‘interesting wines’. A rich, sweet-fruited touching 16% abv monster from a warm part of California? Steve, you’re going gaga in your old age. However, remember this is about interesting wines – not wines I necessarily like. Having said that – this does have a certain appeal to me.
What’s interesting about this is that it’s a wine made by a producer in a less trendy region, trying to make wines which fit there, which characterise their place of origin, and which – within those limits – are honest and well-made. And the story is good. Why the ‘Old Ghost’? Because the owner, Steve Felten, went out into the vineyard one foggy morning with his head trained vines barely visible; they peered as apparitions through the mist and it seemed as if a ghostly farmer had been working them. The label is a pretty good representation of this. The wine region is Lodi, in the Central Valley of California, the hot, irrigated centre of cheap wine production in the state (although having said that I remember Robert Mondavi saying that Lodi sits directly in line to a break in the hills leading out to San Francisco bay – so it benefits from some the cooling Pacific breezes swirling through the gap). The point is that here is a producer who acknowledges that what they do best is hot climate, bold, dynamic wines, and within that context wants to make a balanced, representative wine. They are committed to old vines, and it seems that these zinfandel grapes come from stock which is over 100 years old. They are, to their credit, also trying to create some momentum for this approach and for regional identity in their part of California – a cooperative commitment which I admire. They have the standing to do this: the family are fifth generation, having grown grapes since the end of the 19th century.
So, what of the wine? It fits expectations. Quite deep – though not opaque – appearance, which is typical of zinfandel. Very intense brambly red and black fruit aromas, a touch of dusty oak and a bit herbal. Very sweet oak on the palate, only moderate tannins but extremely full bodied with a very warm finish but great length and a hint of bitterness. Powerful and bold are overused wine adjectives – but they are correct for this.
Having said all this, let’s have a disclaimer. The wine is represented by (amongst others) one of my former students, Jacylyn Stokes, who comes from Lodi and is passionate about developing the reputation of the region including her own family’s business. You can use this to dismiss what I say as biased if you want.
One of the interesting facets of the world of wine is the choice grape varieties have had to be travellers or homelovers – a mirror of the recent, nonsensical, socio-political ‘somewhere’ versus ‘anywhere’ argument that apparently underpinned brexit in the UK. The former are happy being in many, exciting parts of the world, the latter are rooted in a specific, secure place. So it is with grapes.
Semillon and chenin blanc were probably in South Africa before 1700 and in Australia soon after 1800; merlot arrived in Italy probably 200 years ago and in Chile 150 years ago. These vines come from the west coast of France – so of course they were shipped around the world, but German riesling also travelled far, to Australia and even to eastern Europe and Russia and zinfandel got to California by 1849. And, of course, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay now bestride the world like a pair of colossi. Yet on the other hand, even within Italy the great nebbiolo has remained limited to the north west (essentially Piemonte) and corvina to the area around Verona.
Slowly, of course, this is changing. Nebbiolo is in the Adelaide Hills, gruner veltliner in New Zealand and albarino near Lodi in California. I have to say, however, that when I’m exploring a traditional wine producing country, I’m not that interested in what they do with international grapes. Chardonnay in Hungary, Merlot in Greece and Cabernet in Georgia don’t really do it for me. So being presented with a touriga nacional from Jezzine in Lebanon was another of those ‘really?’ moments – they have great ‘adopted’ varieties from the 19th century and indigenous ones from way back in the medieval past which are much more interesting and fun. Touriga, from the Douro Valley in Portugal, and traditionally used to make port, is another of the grapes that has only just begun to venture out of its homeland – and I was surprised to find it wash up in the hills south of Beirut.
It’s a dense purple wine; and a very intense nose with black fruit: blueberry and plum. The palate has a very aromatic attack, rose petals and almost Turkish delight – also very spicy. The alcohol is quite high, but the weight of fruit sustains that easily. It has great length. Probably not easy to find – it’s not even listed on their website yet. But when you are next in Jezzine…
I first came across the Tokaj Classic wines over 10 years ago, and bought some of their 2005 and 2003 aszu wines. The wines were stunning, and I still have a few left in my cellar. I’d never met the Hungarian founder of the company before, and when he contacted me in advance of Prowein it seemed like a good chance to find out more, and renew my acquaintance with the wines. András Bruhács is an interesting man. He was a cellist for most of his life (mainly playing at the Wiesbaden opera) but he only settled in Germany when he left Hungary in 1968 as a political refugee. His father had had a small vineyard in the south of the country, and András helped him out. However, after he fled the country his main focus on wines was as consuming rather than producing it. After the fall of the Iron Curtain Hungary opened up slowly, but András had rather lost touch with the country’s wines – if I understood correctly dry red Bordeaux was his focus, and he drunk good chateaux. In 1993 his wife saw a cover of the magazine Newsweek headlining T]tokaj as ‘the uncut diamond of Hungary’; this prompted him to return to his home country and buy a few hectares of vineyard. He was helped early on by one of the great figures in the post-communist revival of tokaj, István Szepsy. His first vintage – in 1994 – was only a few hundred bottles but one the first ever Hungarian Gold Medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition – and successive wines continued to repeat this feat.
I asked András who his favourite composer is. A difficult question – but he said in the end Mahler. That makes sense, for the wines I have in my cellar are bold, intense and very complex wines with great length (though not quite the persistence of a Mahler symphony); perhaps as a winemaker he mirrors the composer – although he said he is now looking for elegance rather than intensity in his wines.
His 2013 szamorodni certainly has elegance. Although not an aszu wine it’s still sweeter than most sauternes, but with beautiful, beautiful acidity providing great balance. There’s lovely aromatic botrytis, and typical apricot jam and marmalade on the palate. Great value, as the price of Tokaj’s more prestigious aszu wines is rising more and more.
The return in mid-May of Prowein in Dusseldorf – the largest wine fair in the world – allowed me to taste lots of new wines, and meet some new producers. As a result I’ll be posting a notes about a number of wines over the next few weeks. Remember though, that this is about wines which have a back story, not necessarily lovely wines (although some of them are). For this blog it’s the background that is important, rather than aesthetic quality.
The wine was given to me in an old prosecco bottle, stoppered with a crown seal. Pale raspberry colour. A ‘striking’ nose (my partner’s description, attempting not to be too rude.) Strawberry jelly served up in old leathery boots down in a cellar. Spritzy (perhaps malolactic fermentation in the bottle). The tannins are not high but are dusty and unpleasant on the finish without being overwhelming. The acid is unpleasantly high (and I write as one who likes nebbiolo). Strawberry jam fruit, again leather and very bitter; acid also dominates on the finish. A horrible wine. Without question the worst that I have drunk since the beginning of Covid. However, the cultural context of this wine, as a symbol of peasant culture, a counter to the elite (and expensive) local wines, a challenge to the Italian viticultural establishment, and a means of crystallising the work and heritage of past generations, makes it a fascinating marker of rural identity. For more on this see here.