Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

There's no doubt that wine is romantic, and that this romance inspires and motivates consumers and producers alike, especially in the new world, where wine as a profession and wine as a beverage are adopted, rather than hereditary. The popular discourse of wine remains so littered with near-mythical stories of people following their passions to create great wines and great wineries, that we all too easily forget that basic principles of economics always apply. No amount of passion can compensate for wine that consumers just don't want to buy, or that a winery owner can't figure out how to sell (as they are different but often related problems).

All of that, by way of introduction to a winery named Vinoptima, in the out-of-the-way wine growing region of Gisborne, on New Zealand's North Island. Started by wine industry veteran Nick Nobilo in 2000, Vinoptima may be one of the world's most unique wineries, given its dedication to a single grape variety. Now, there are wineries around the world who make only Cabernet. Some who make only Riesling. But as far as I know, Vinoptima is the only winery dedicated solely to Gewürztraminer.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

Nobilo, you see, has something of an obsession with the grape, which began as far back as 1972, when he planted the very first vines of the variety in New Zealand. After working with it for three decades (and falling deeper in love with it in every passing vintage) Nobilo established Vinoptima in 2000 with the planting of a block of Gewürtztraminer in Gisborne, which he harvested in 2003 for the winery's first vintage.

Gewürtztraminer is a grape made famous in the Alsace region in France, which has somewhere around one third of the roughly 20,000 acres that are planted around the world. The grape is of ancient origin, and is actually one of three primary variants of Savagnin, which is a genetic parent to many, many modern grape varieties, not least of which are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc (and therefore Cabernet Sauvignon), Trousseau, Grüner Veltliner and Verdelho, among others.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

The other main regions producing Gewürtztraminer (also known in places as Tramin, Traminer, or Savagnin Rose) include the United States, Italy, Germany, Australia, and Hungary. It is one of the most distinctively aromatic grape varieties on the planet, with an unmistakable, often heady perfume of lychees, rose petals, and orange blossom water. The grape also has a natural bitterness, and is therefore often made with a bit of residual sugar to offset this bite. Made well, which in my book usually involves maintaining the often elusive acidity it may possess, Gewürtztraminer can be mind-bendingly aromatic and incredibly complex. The best dessert-style wines made with the grape (n.b. Domaine Weinbach in Alsace) are ambrosia-like and otherworldly.

At Vinoptima, Nobilo farms about 20 acres of the grape in the township of Ormond just north of Gisborne, and produces several styles of Gewürtztraminer, from off-dry to a deeply sweet botrytized version, in his immaculate winery that he says is "custom designed from scratch to be run by just two men." His modest goal? "To make the world's best Gewürztraminer."

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

I'm not sure he would ever be able to reach the heights to which the grape has been elevated in Alsace over the centuries, but the wines have consistently won awards and received scores in the 90-point range from critics (my own tasting notes on a number of vintages follow below.)

But there's just one problem.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

"No one wants to buy Gewürztraminer," said Nobilo, when I visited him in 2017. "Not even the people who used to drink it all the time," he continued.

When I met with him, the congenial, ruddy-cheeked and white-haired Nobilo struck me as a man who had done reasonably well for himself after five decades in the wine industry. I privately speculated that his was a passion project that could potentially weather the lack of demand for some time.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

But one unavoidable truth of the wine industry is that unsold wine gradually becomes a serious problem. And so it seems to have become for Vinoptima. I read with some sadness this week that with 100,000 liters of unsold wines in vats (roughly two vintages worth), Vinoptima has gone into receivership, which is what passes for bankruptcy in New Zealand.

It's a sad ending for a project begun and maintained with such singular passion, and a cautionary tale for those who believe that merely making excellent wine is the key to success in the wine industry.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

Here are my notes on several of Nobilo's vintages.

2004 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of orange blossom and lychee and honey. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of orange peel, lychee, and honey have a slightly spicy aspect, coating the palate and lingering with butterscotch notes in the finish. Has 20 grams per liter of residual sugar but finishes fairly dry. Moderate acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. click to buy.

2006 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of orange peel and rose petals. In the mouth, weighty, silky flavors of orange peel and rose petals and honey with hints of lychee and a touch of lemongrass lingering in the finish. Despite moderate sweetness up front, the sugar doesn't linger on the palate. 13.5% alcohol. 18 grams per liter residual sugar. Score: between 8.5 and 9. click to buy.

2008 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of orange blossom water and lychee. In the mouth, strong lychee fruit mixes with orange peel and pomelo pith, lingering slightly bitter on the palate, along with a striking wet chalkboard kind of minerality. The wine starts off sweet, but doesn't coat the palate. 14% alcohol. 15 grams per liter of residual sugar. Score: around 9. click to buy.

2010 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of exotic flowers like tuberose and orange blossom. In the mouth, lithe flavors of pomelo and mandarine orange mix with lychee and very pretty minerality. Only faintly sweet, the wine has a wonderful wet chalkboard finish scented with lychee. 13.5% 13 grams per liter of residual sugar. Score: between 9 and 9.5. click to buy.

2007 Vinoptima "Noble" Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light to medium amber in color, this wine smells of a touch of chamomile flower, candied orange peels, honey, and dried apricots. In the mouth, silky, thick, very sweet flavors of apricot and butterscotch and tinned peaches still have a slight grip on the palate and a remarkable wet chalkboard character that emerges on the finish that leaves the mouth feeling rather cool and refreshed, instead of coated with sugar. Quite pretty. Not picked until the middle of June, when the select rows of grapes are fully botrytized with noble rot. 110 grams per liter of residual sugar, 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. click to buy.




Sweet Wines, First and Foremost, Are Wines

I’d like to point out the obvious: sweet wines are wines, too. I had this brilliant thought while attending Wine & Spirits “Top of the List” event. I tasted a breadth of excellent wines from all over the globe, but a sample of the Domaine des Baumard Quarts du Chaume stood out. It’s a Loire Valley wine made from Chenin Blanc and has a noble sweetness to it as well as a refreshing finish that keeps you going back for more…and more.

Sweet Wines Beyond “Dessert” Wines

It’s unfortunate enough sweet wines are often called “dessert” wines as it relegates them to single-tasker status. (Channeling Alton Brown and his loathing of “unitaskers.”) Try a wine like the Baumard with blue cheese, or anything similarly pungent, at any time of the day and get that “wow” feeling. It’s a nice wine to sip in the evening as you read a book. Or with a fruit-based pastry for brunch or, hell, breakfast if your day is one of leisure.

My point is, enjoy drinking sweet wine beyond the constrictive window of time between after your entrée and before you leave the restaurant.

When I think about the best wines I’ve ever had, I am transported back to the first (and only) time I tasted the Dal Forno Romano Recioto di Valpolicella. This was in Seattle. My first thought was, “Damn, this is the best sweet wine I’ve ever had.” But why compartmentalize it? On further contemplation, I concluded, “This is one of the best WINES I’ve ever had, PERIOD.”

Then I Gronk-spiked the blue cheese onto a baguette, and everyone rejoiced. TRUE STORY.

via GIPHY

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The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

I returned to Hungary this past Spring, and on my brief visit to the Tokaj region, I didn't miss the opportunity to stop in and visit with the guy I consider to be perhaps the single best winemaker in the country. When I last spent the afternoon with Zoltan Demeter, he was showing off his newest pride and joy, a renovated tasting room, while humbly offering his latest vintage to taste, the third since he stopped all other activities to focus only on his own wines. It was a vintage that he saw as an important step in his journey of understanding.

"I'm studying. Collecting experience. I'm studying winemaking, and my terroir. I'm getting to experience each vintage, to see what I'm going to change for the next one. I'm studying myself, and teaching myself, but the wine is teaching me. That is the main target to catch the right position in the center of terroir. I really believe that a winemaker has only two decisions to make. One is when they are going to cut the branch -- to know when to cut , you have to know what ripeness means in a certain terroir -- and with this cut you decide everything. There is another small decision, which is when to bottle. Everything else is a gift. We have to listen to how the wine is born, and make sure it doesn't go in the wrong direction."

I was quite excited to see how his understanding was progressing as I stepped through the gate into his sanctuary of a garden this past April.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When the wall came down, Zoltan Demeter was a Hungarian student, dreaming of a future as a winemaker. Before 1989, that future in Hungary would have involved working for one of the huge state-run winemaking companies whose primary mission was supplying the Soviet Union with wine, and lots of it. But after 1989? Well, that was anyone's guess. So Demeter, like so many others of his generation, designed his own future on the blank slate of a new nation.

Demeter completed his college studies in Budapest and then decided he needed an international education in winemaking, something that had been inconceivable just a few years before. He traveled first to Virginia, where he says most of his time was spent learning English, and preparing for a six month stint at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. From there, with rapidly improving English, and an ever deepening understanding of wine, Demeter got serious and went to Beaune to studied Viticulture and Enology, and then went on to Brighton in the U.K. where he studied wine marketing.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When he returned to Hungary in 1993, he was 27 years old, and with all the fire you'd expect in the belly of a young man at the time, he set about helping to remake an industry that for all intents and purposes had been completely destroyed by fifty years of Communist rule.

"We had to figure out the direction of the wine, and what quality was moving forward. It was a beginning for our region. Even though we have 500 years of history, we had to renew it and re-discover the wine, the vine, and the quality" says Demeter.

Demeter worked first for a French company, and then for Grof Degenfeld, an aristocratic German-Hungarian family who, like everyone else, lost their family's holdings in the Tokaj region after the second World War when the Communists took over. The Degenfelds were keen to return to the Tokaj region and reclaim their winemaking legacy, and they hired the young Demeter to help them do everything from buy buildings to farm the vineyards. From Degenfeld, Demeter moved to a new winery project called Kiralyudvar, where under the direction of manager Istvan Szepsy and owner Anthony Hwang he helped establish what has become one of Hungary's most famous and pioneering wineries of the modern era.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

At Kiralyudvar Demeter and Szepsy (who must get equal credit) first began making dry white wines from the traditional grapes used to make the world-famous Tokaj sweet wines, a move that pointed towards a future for Hungarian wine that is still evolving, but has proved quite fruitful.

Demeter began making wine under his own name in 1998, but it was not until 2008 that he decided he was ready to focus on his own wines on a full time basis.

Known to his friends as "Zoli," Demeter has the practiced ease of someone who is very comfortable in his own skin. His receding brown hairline is a bit more gray than last time I saw him, but he still has the same mischievous crinkle to his eyes and his hands and boots still show the wear that comes from spending a lot of time in the vineyards.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When I visited last, Demeter was still literally doing almost everything himself at the winery. Now, as he walks me around his newly renovated winery floor, complete with mood lighting and couch, I see several employees at work labeling wines. Demeter's success has allowed him to add some help behind the scenes, but other than that, not much has changed about his operations. He still farms 7 hectares (17 acres)across 9 different areas and five different villages because "That's how much I can control." These vineyards have the oldest possible vine stock with an average age of 40 years or more, with all replanting done from a massage selection of cuttings from his best vineyards. He doesn't use pesticides or fertilizers, plows his vineyards by horse, and applies sulfur by hand, and continues to eschew any particular label such as biodynamic or organic.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

Demeter's winemaking regimen has not remained completely static since last we met. He still harvests carefully in multiple passes, but has been experimenting with how his wine ferments and ages.

"There is a line of evolution for my dry wines," he says. "I feel that I started to move the direction of the German style. A fresh feeling to the wines using inox [steel tanks], and more of a a reductive way, but not forgetting Tokaj dry wine in a barrel. So I am not accepting just using barrels 100%. I have arrived at a situation where I am using a good mix of inox and wood. I still experiment with the right barrel size and barrel type, and how many parts of the wine go to inox."

"Also important," he says, "I have decided that Tokaj dry wine is better with slight residual sugar." He now leaves something close to 4 grams of residual sugar in most of his dry wines, a practice which has become more common since my last visit to the region, and which I believe has resulted in generally better wines across the board.

Not content to merely fine tune his production, Demeter has also been doing some more radical experiments, including the creation of a sparkling Furmint using the classic methods champenoise fermentation on the lees in bottle. To be expected from a guy who takes his work seriously, this has entailed several visits to Champagne, and at least one visit from Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis to Demeter's cellars in Tokaj. "It is important to ask good questions,' says Demeter. "If you are going to go deeper and deeper into a subject you get more detailed questions."

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

At our last meeting, Demeter spoke like a man on a mission to catch up to a past that he felt was lost behind the iron curtain. "There is no time for us to waste. We cannot make mistakes," he said. "We have to get rid of the last 60 years and we have little time to advance and catch up. It was too much time, and we broke the chain between grandfather and father -- we can't catch each other's hand. We have to do something quickly, something that surprises people, and we have to live through quality. There is no place for mistakes because we have only one time per year where we can ask questions and collect answers. I have only 20 or 25 harvests where I can collect these answers."

Now with four more years under his belt, Demeter continues to be thoughtful about his work.

"My dream is very clear," he says with a smile. "I am finding more and more the direction and the job for each individual vineyard. I'm pretty sure you have to dream the wine first. I have to know what I would like, and I get closer to understanding my terroir every year. That is not so fancy, but it is what I see in myself. It is very nice to reach this kind of place, and to progress towards my dream of what this region can be. If someone can't reach their dream, they lose all their life. Life goes fast. This year I will be 50 years old, and I can say calmly that I am at the place where I am born and where I came back to. I am in the good place and I can find meaning of the life here through the region. This is very important. If it does not exist like that you can't calmly do creative work, you can't create anything."

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

Tasting through Demeter's 2015 vintage, a vintage that he says allowed him to "do everything I wanted" I am struck, as I was on my first visit, with the poise and precision of his wines. They have the effortlessness that many of the world's great wines bring to their expression. When I try to explain this to Demeter, he shrugs and says, "I think we really can make intelligent wine from Furmint. What will happen with this intelligent Furmint? There will be a dimension of deepness. You know it is an intelligent wine when you close your eyes and you are happy that you are living."

By that measure, Demeter's wines are surely genius.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

TASTING NOTES:
Sadly, only a few of Demeter's wines make it into the US and they tend to be snapped up pretty quickly, resulting in very little availability, especially of current vintages online. If you see these wines, buy them.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Estate" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, bright apple and pear flavors mix with wet stones and a little faint sweetness. Good acidity and balance. Contains 5 g/l residual sugar. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Veres" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and green apples. In the mouth, super juicy green apple, white flowers, and wet stones are delivered on satin bedsheets, with a hint of lime in the finish. Fabulous acidity and balance. This is the best located vineyard for dry Furmint according to Demeter, with a predominance of white rhyolite tuff and 30-year-old vines. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Hold-Volgy" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of greengage plum, star fruit, and white flowers. In the mouth, juicy star fruit and white flowers have a filigreed acidity, and beautiful silky texture. Deeply stony in quality with a deep rainwater flavor that is very compelling. Comes from south-facing 40-year old vines in Ratka village. The vines have very small branches and what Demeter describes as a "special clone" of Furmint, making this the place where he sources all his cuttings for replanting. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Szerelmi" Harslevelu, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon and white flowers. In the mouth smooth and silky melon and apple flavors mix with wet stone and white flowers. Long finish and great acid balance. Aged partly in barrel and partly in steel. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Boda" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and asian pear and white flowers. In the mouth gorgeous minerality makes stony asian pear flavors seem to be delivered through a wash of rainwater scented with white flowers. Tiny notes of pear skin and herbs linger on the finish. Fermented and aged in oak. Made from 100 year old vines grown on hard, stony soil on an east-facing slope. Stunning. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Ozy-Hegy" Sarga Muskotaly, Tokaj, Hungary
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of melon and orange peel and white flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of orange blossom water are gorgeous and bright with fantastic acidity and deep mineral depth. Phenomenally floral and long. I'm not a huge muscat fan but I'd drink this wine all day long. Quite possibly the best yellow muscat I have ever had. Fermented in tank. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

2011 Demeter Zoltan "Eszter - Tokaji Cuvee" White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Light to medium amber gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and honey and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, stunning honey and apricot and peach flavors have a wonderful crystalline quality and a deep stony acidity behind them that leave a clean wet stone flavor in the finish scented with honeyed apricots and white flowers. The flavors soar for minutes Incredible. Moderately sweet. A blend of Furmint, Harslevelu, and Sarga Muskotaly. Selected for about 60% botrytized fruit. Destemmed, crushed and then left overnight before starting fermentation. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

2008 Demeter Zoltan "Tokaji Aszu - 6 Puttonyos" White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of candied apricots and honey. In the mouth, honey and apricots have a bright juicy quality, with a silky texture and fantastic clean ambrosia character. The acidity is somewhat softer than I would like, but nonetheless, a minerality manages to shine through the liquid sunshine. Very sweet. A blend of Furmint and Harslevelu from all of Demeter's vineyard sites. 305g/l residual sugar. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter



Harbes Vineyard 2013 Chardonnay Ice Wine

At the end of 2015, I promised myself that I’d make an effort to taste as much Long Island chardonnay as possible this year. A string of mediocre wines a few years ago convinced me to more-or-less ignore the category for a while, but that’s not fair. It’s time to take another look, and I’m working on a 2013/2014 chardonnay tasting report for an upcoming issue of Long Island Wine Press. Those reviews will trickle out here on the site over time, but today let’s talk about Harbes Family Vineyard 2013 Chardonnay Ice Wine ($35). It’s not real ice wine —…