Far Flung Wine Regions

Unknown and exotic wine regionsWine expert Tom Hill looks at far flung wine regions from around the world and discovers exciting new wines from exotic and lesser-known areas in Eastern Europe.

Change is taking place in the wine world at a breathtaking pace, faster than at any time I can recall in my wine experience. Two questions I am often asked are “What’s new and exciting in the wine world?” and “What new wines have you discovered of late?”

I have little interest in drinking yet another Napa Valley Cabernet, no matter how good it is. I am much more challenged by some new region or variety. And there are a lot of new ones out there.
It is a long-held tenet that socialist countries could not make great wines. Meeting production quotas and adhering to five-year plans was the goal; quality was irrelevant. However, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the transition to a free-market economy, many of these countries are attracting outside investment capital, and the quality of the wines is ratcheting up dramatically.
Let’s take a look at some of these new (actually, very old) wine-producing regions that are capturing my attention: Georgia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Macedonia—an arc of countries bordering the Black Sea. Some of their wines are truly compelling.

Wines of Georgia

© Maroš Markovič


Blessed with an ideal grape-growing climate, ancient Georgia was, in fact, the birthplace of grape cultivation and winemaking. Archaeologists have dated grape artifacts there back to 6000 BC. Traditionally, the wines were fermented in large earthenware vessels known as qvevri, buried in the ground and loosely covered. Georgian wines were favored in the former Soviet Union. They typically were red, high in alcohol and sweet—not in line with today’s taste.
Modern winemaking techniques have slowly been making inroads, with a concomitant improvement in quality. However, many Georgian wines still are being made by ancient methods in qvervi. There is, not surprisingly, a small movement throughout the world to revert back to these ancient winemaking techniques and rejecting modern technology. This “natural” wine movement, regarded by some as a lunatic fringe, has its adherents, like wine writer Alice Feiring and the late vintner Joe Dressner, both of whom looked to Georgian wine as their inspiration.
These “natural” wines are very much a mixed bag. Some are technically flawed and undrinkable,
some can only be called interesting and some are actually quite good. The most widely imported brand of Georgian wine is artist John Wurdeman’s Pheasant’s Tears (www.pheasantstears.com). The dry Rkatsiteli has an intriguing orange, figgy character—it’s a bit like a sherry with its slightly oxidized style. A bit more mainstream is the Saperavi Black Wine, not too unlike a late harvest California Zin. The Mtsvane is a bit too weird even for my eccentric tastes.

Wines of Slovenia

© Yan Kit Wong


Slovenia was always one of the more progressive and modern states in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia.
It has always had a very porous border with Friuli, in neighboring Italy, and many of the Friulian winemakers believe the best grapes being grown in the region are from Slovenia.
In Friuli some ten or more years ago, the winemakers Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner adopted ancient Georgian winemaking techniques (clay amphorae, extended grape macerations, no sufur dioxide, additions, etc.) in order to make “natural” wines. Because of the orange or bronze color these whites show, they are often referred to as “orange” wines. They are controversial, sometimes outright flawed, but they command high prices, a fact that’s not gone unnoticed.
This retrograde winemaking has crept back across the border into Slovenia, though in moderation. Some winemakers make their whites with extended skin contact, just as is done with red wines. They feel the skin tannins allow them to reduce the sulfir dioxixide additions needed. This skin contact can sometimes give the wines a tannic bite, oftentimes a bit of an orange tint and a phenolic character somewhat like cider.
The Movia wines of Ales Kristancic are some of the better Slovene wines that can be found here in New Mexico. The Sauvignon and the Pinot Grigio are a particularly good introduction to orange wines. Recently, the Marjan Simcic wines have arrived. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon are authentic orange wines, rather pricey at $60. But Kristancic’s basic Pinot Grigio, around $18, is made conventionally and is as fine a clean, crisp wine as you can find. Lovely drinking.

Hungarian Wine

© Kostyantyn Malinovs’kyy


Hungary was one of the exceptions to the general inferiority of socialist countries’ wine quality. Its Tokaji sweet dessert wine, made from botrytized Furmint grapes, has always been an iconic dessert wine, and its quality did not appear to suffer greatly under the commissars. Since Hungary transitioned to a free-market economy, there has been an expansion of producers making Tokaji dessert wines, primarily of the Aszu level. These wines are cleaner, brighter and even better than before—worth trying.
However, the market for dessert wines is limited. In the last ten years, there has been a strong move to make dry table wines in the Tokaj region, usually from the Furmint grape. They have
a richness and minerality that resembles some of the Friulian whites. The Evolucio Tokaj Furmint, at $13.50, is a particularly attractive example of these new wines. For reds, the Egri Bikaver (“Bulls Blood of Eger”), made from the Kadarka grape, was pretty much the only show in town. (It was pretty miserable under socialism.) Again, there has been a proliferation of new producers, some of which are quite decent—and some really good. Probably, the best Hungarian red grape is Kekfrankos (know in Austria as Blaufrankish). The Weninger Kekfrankos, from the Sopron area, shows well the plummy, earthy, loamy character of that grape.

Wines of Croatia

© Freesurf69 | Dreamstime.com


Croatia, long a winemaking backwater, has a unique claim to fame: it’s the birthplace of California’s
Zinfandel. It was identified by DNA typing some ten years ago as the indigenous variety known as
Crljenak Kastelanski (also known as Primitivo in Italy’s Puglia). Using improved DNA typing on
a desiccated grape leaf in a Croatian herbarium, it was found to be identical to an ancient variety
known as Tribidrag. Since that discovery, there have been a number of “Zinfandels” appearing from Croatia. They are usually rather rustic versions of their California brethren. Plavac Mali, a descendent of Zinfandel, is the most common variety along the Dalmatian coast, and some are quite good.
Famed California winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has returned to his Croatian roots and is now making wines there under his Grgich label. His Plavic Mali somewhat resembles the fine Zinfandels he’s made at Grgich Hills in the Napa Valley.

Macedonia Wine

Ljupco Smokovski


Macedonia has one of the oldest winemaking histories in the region after Georgia. At one time,
it produced over two-thirds of the wine for Yugoslavia, though very little was exported and the focus
was on bulk wine. Most of the wines are made from tongue-twisting native varieties, like Vranac,
Plavac and Zilavka. I had never before seen a Macedonian wine until a year ago when the wines from Tikves Winery (www.tikves.com.mk) showed up here in New Mexico. Tikves is the oldest winery operating in Macedonia, dating back to 1885. Its consulting winemaker is Philippe Cambie, one of the hot winemakers in France’s Chateauneuf du Pape.
My first Tikves was the aromatic, mineral-laden Rkaciteli, which I had at Santa Fe’s Vinaigrette restaurant. Its refreshing character matched well with the salads there. Since then, I’ve also tried the Vranac, a dead ringer for a very ripe California Zinfandel. No surprise there, as that grape is related to the ancient Tribidrag (Zinfandel). Both wines are very reasonably priced, about $11.

Potential Breakout Regions

The area around the Black Sea, the birthplace of Vitis vinifera and winemaking, has a countless
number of indigenous varieties with unpronounceable names that are found nowhere else in the world. Some could potentially, in the hands of the right winemaker, make truly profound wines. It would be an unmitigated tragedy if these areas instead focused on the “classic” grapes: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot. The wine world doesn’t really need yet another Merlot, even if it’s from Herzegovina.
There are a number countries that continue to wallow in uninspired wine growing, for a variety of reasons. Yet their growing conditions are good for making world-class wines, given the right circumstances. I would suggest that Moldova, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey and Albania may very well be future stars in the wine world. Try them when they show up in New Mexico. It will be exciting to watch that unfold … if it does.

by Tom Hill

KGB Spirits

KGB Spirits

story by James Selby
photos by Kitty Leaken

With this issue, localflavor returns to a series chronicling some of Northern New Mexico’s independent entrepreneurs: wine shops and markets and distillers who offer their customers artisanal creations imbued with the integrity of place and craft.

New Mexico is steeped in history. Many scholars, many books, many museums chronicle its rich, complex past. Heritage that we can taste—whether in a bean or a breed or a beverage—makes history much more compelling. It is this link—from ancestor to present, from farm to table—to which we look more and more to sustain our individual cultures, health, life. Recorded history began 5000 years ago modern history as soon as you finish this article. Is a bottle of Taos Lightning whiskey, bottled in New Mexico, a touchstone of history or a portal to the future? According to John Bernasconi, the president and master distiller of KGB Spirits, located near Alcalde, it’s both.

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flirting with rose

Flirting With Rosé


Let me give you some visuals. Any patio setting or comfortable table. A loaf of a thick-crusted bread. A bowl of bouillabaisse peaked with lobster, fresh white fish and tomato, laden with a pungent garlicky aioli, tinted yellow-orange from saffron. Or a picnic with prosciutto and melon, marinated olives, salumi and cheese. A pan bagnat (meaning “bathed bread,” a sort of a Niçoise sandwich drizzled with olive oil; writer Calvin Trillin says when you eat a pan bagnat, the olive oil should run down your wrists). Or a barbecue with sweet, spicy pork ribs and grilled chicken. Or beef and vegetable kabobs accompanied by minty yogurt sauce.

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The Spirits of Don Quixote

Don Quixote DistilleryYou want to talk handcrafted? At the Don Quixote Distillery & Winery in White Rock, New Mexico, Ron and Olha Dolin take the term literally.

Yes, they craft their liquors, grappas, brandies, ports and wines by hand from local grain and fruit.  Yes, Olha draws the labels and etches bottles herself. Yes, Ron, on days off from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built the tasting room at their home, where you will see flashes of their two young children, and, in slower motion, Max, the cork-chewing Labrador. And, yes, Ron also designed and built the backyard distillery, which, in 2005, was the first to be licensed in New Mexico statehood. All these things easily establish the Dolins’ bona fides in the realm of local handcrafted goods.

On a cornflower blue Sunday, I arrive early for my appointment and take a ten-minute drive through the residential streets of White Rock. We aren’t in adobe land anymore. These homes—kempt, comfortable and well maintained—could be in Naperville, Hillsborough, or a modern-day Bedford Falls. But winding around the plateau on Rio Bravo Drive above Bandelier puts me in my place.

Settled on the patio in front of the tasting room, the Dolins and I chat over coffee. Ron, whose black hair spikes, one assumes, because of a pillow and not a gel, has the chiseled features of his Central European ancestors who settled in Chicago. At the time, “Big Al” Capone had cornered the market on distilling and bought hard candy at the store owned by Ron’s grandfather.

“When I built my first copper still, a sheet of copper cost $500,” Ron says. “For the fifth, the last I plan to build, the same sheet cost $1500.”

I ask how one transforms a sheet of copper into a still shaped something like an onion dome atop a Russian church. Ron says, as if explaining to a handyman skill–challenged writer how to hammer a nail, “You have to configure how much you need to create the shape, cut it out and weld it.”

Oh, like a dress pattern?

“Yes,” says Ron with relief, “same thing.”

Alembic stills available for purchase—like those from Portugal, where, according to Ron, the best ones are produced—are designed to be used at sea level. The higher the altitude, the lower the atmospheric pressure, so liquid doesn’t have to get as hot to boil. “My stills are designed to use at our altitude,” says Ron. “It’s a much gentler process and results in a smoother spirit.” That spirit, the base of Don Quixote vodka and the newly released bourbon, is distilled of organic blue corn from eastern New Mexico, to put the locale in local.

Olha Dolin (pronounced Ol-yuh) strides from the house and plops comfortably into a chair.  She is Ron’s wife and the master distiller in the family. Ringlets of hair mirror the roundness of her eyes and face; her expression reflects an assurance of someone born into one culture and having adopted another. She is articulate, her English clear with a telltale Slavic accent. The couple’s meeting was straight out of a Tom Hanks romantic comedy. While corresponding with a Ukrainian engineer during a project for the lab, Ron suggested he and the engineer get together while he vacationed in Kiev. A sly note was returned to say that the engineer, knowing no English, had been employing an interpreter, Olha, to carry on his correspondence. It was she who was writing. It was she with whom Ron was carrying on. It wasn’t until a year into their marriage they discovered both had experience distilling, Ron as a science geek in his dorm and Olha growing up in the river port city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, where her father and grandfather were distillers.

“We distill the Old World way,” says Olha. “The Russian way is like American: Grains are cooked in a mash, and it is very much harsher. We use the Ukrainian way. We malt our blue corn, like they do in Scotland with barley.” (Malting is the method of sprouting live grain by adding warm water and turning it by hand frequently over a period of several days.) “It is a slow process, but the blue corn has beautiful flavor and texture that reflects in the spirit,” says Olha.

In the distillery, a small laboratory with interior windows looks onto the main floor where an open tank the size of a large hot tub sits empty. A burlap sack of barley rests beside it. “This is where I malt grains,” says Olha.

Asked where they sourced their barley, Ron says, “Local feed store.” Along one wall, the handmade copper stills are partially encased in bases of white and blue tile. These act as insulation to hold in heat, just as a square Delft oven would. There is a tall rack with two kinds of barrels. While makers prefer to age bourbon in used, rather than new, French oak barrels because they are “neutral” and impart less vanilla flavor and color, initially, by law, it has to go into American oak casks. These whiskey versions are rudimentary country cousins to the French but are only a fifth of the cost. The difference in quality of the barrels is as striking as between a Range Rover and a delivery van.

Bowls of snacks sit on the tiled bar in the tasting room. There are plants, artwork, the occasional child’s toy, and self-made shelves that display bottles of Don Quixote and their second label, Spirit de Santa Fe. (Vodka, gin and brandy are sold under this label in 375 ml. bottles, an idea put forth by their distributor to appeal to tourists.) It has the comfortable feel of a rec room inhabited by an active family. Visitors arrive on the dot of noon, and the tasting room comes alive. Ron and Olha pour us samples of Don Quixote Blue Corn Vodka. The label features Olha’s colorful sketch of the man from La Mancha holding a lance, looking dolefully into the distance.

Usually, when I sip vodka, I have the sense memory from childhood of the taste of a thermometer swabbed in rubbing alcohol. Not here. Blue is the sweetest of corn varieties, and that translates to Don Quixote’s vodka. Its weighty mouth feel, like that of poached fruit, has a lingering finish.

Next, is their wheat-based gin, which Ron, in good humor, calls “free range” due to the botanicals—juniper, chamisa, piñon, rose hips—that he and Olha harvest from the Jemez Mountains. It reveals a citrusy hit from infinitesimal strips of lemon zest added during distillation.

Ron instructs us to put our nose in the glass of Blue Corn Bourbon but inhale through our mouths; otherwise, the alcohol overwhelms the aroma. It works, and what comes across is a nutty, sweet scent of maple. The flavor is sophisticated, slightly toasty and smooth. “Corn is gluten-free,” adds Ron. “Bourbon has to be 51% corn. Our bourbon is 75% blue corn, with the balance wheat and a touch of rye.”

If you are considering starting your own distillery, you owe a debt of thanks to the Dolins. “When we began applying for a distillers license, while federal laws were current, New Mexico laws pertaining to distilling had not changed since 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition,” recalls Ron. “Often the two were in conflict. Now both are more or less in agreement, but that’s why it took us three years and a lot of back and forth to finally get ours. Distillers after us got their license within a year.”

“Yes,” says Olha, “it gave us a long time to work on recipes!”

 The Don Quixote Distillery & Winery is located on State Road 4 near Bandelier National Monument, 35 miles from Santa Fe and 19 miles from Pojoaque. In October, the Dolins opened a second tasting room and retail shop in the former Line Camp, a legendary roadhouse on US 84/285 in Pojoaque, NM. 505.695.0817. www.dqdistillery.com.

 by John Selby

Silver Coyote: Santa Fe Spirits

Santa Fe SpiritsSanta Fe Spirits is an artisanal distillery sources local ingredients for their sprits, offering a true taste of northern New Mexico in every sip. Owner Colin Keegan talks with Local Flavor about the inspiration, growth and future of Santa Fe Spirits:

Like his countryman Sir Isaac Newton before him, Colin Keegan came to a very good idea while lazing in an apple orchard. This orchard was behind Keegan’s house in Tesuque, New Mexico. As he contemplated what to do with his bumper crop, a young local brewer named Nick Jones paid him a visit, and their conversation led to a plan: apples to brandy. The seed was planted, so to speak, and in 2010 Santa Fe Spirits joined a burgeoning industry of some 400 craft distillers across the nation, small-scale, nimble operations similar to microbreweries that quench a thirst in the marketplace for local artisanal products.

Until Prohibition in 1920, the United States had over 10,000 distilleries. With its 1933 repeal, the business of booze came back in the form of a couple dozen large corporations. Now, nearly 80 years later, Keegan and Jones have opened Santa Fe Spirits, one of only three fully licensed and bonded distilleries in New Mexico. (The first, Don Quixote in Los Alamos, began in 2005, and the newest, KGB Spirits, just released their inaugural bottling in September of single-barrel Taos Lightning Rye Whiskey.)

In a light industrial area tucked into a cul-de-sac off Airport Road, not far from the 599 bypass, Santa Fe Spirits occupies a tree-shaded modern building. Make an appointment to step into its cozy tasting room, and you will be surrounded by the clubby comfort of tangy scents of fermentation, a wooden bar bent like an elbow, and still-life paintings hanging on the walls. Keegan, a former architect of middle years and Polo good looks, offers a welcoming grin and warm handshake, but it’s his voice a visitor notices first. The North of England accent, mellowed from years in London and the United States, has a confident timbre more reminiscent of Jude Law than The Full Monty.

If you’ve walked into a local liquor emporium, you may have seen a bottle of Keegan’s Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey and mistakenly thought it was tequila. The distinctive barrel-like bottle, made of clear glass, boasts a cork closure, a sterling label ringed in barbed wire, indigo Western font, and a sprinting coyote. The liquor inside is as limpid as water. “This is New Mexico’s first whiskey,” explains Keegan, “distilled from malted barley and bottled straight from the still. Unlike Scotch we normally see, with a caramel color, Silver Coyote sees no barrel, no peat. This is unadorned spirit. Flavor is extracted from malted barley and yeasts, period.” (Malting is a process wherein grains are made to germinate by being soaked in water. The germination is halted by drying the grains in hot air, and specific yeasts are chosen to turn sugars into alcohol.)

“Before we taste, perhaps you’d like to see where it all happens,” suggests Keegan.

Glassed off on one side of the tasting room, in a high-ceilinged space slightly larger than a racquetball court, is an immaculate state-of-the-art facility, replete with a copper hybrid pot still from Germany; all the requisite tanks, valves, vapor columns, and catalyzers; a dephlegmator (to separate the water); the gauges and safety features required by state and federal regulators; and—perhaps equally as important—those insisted upon by Keegan and Jones. Basically, the distillation process consists of three steps. First, a pot of substances is heated to a point where vapor is emitted; then that vapor is cooled. Finally, the resulting condensation is collected. This collected liquid will have concentration and purity of flavor. “This is a more sophisticated version of what a lot of folks used to do in the backwoods,” says Keegan, “but, essentially, the idea is the same.”

Back in the tasting room, Keegan puts up a few glasses and pulls the cork from a bottle of Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey. In the nose, there’s a subtle, fruity note, with a soupçon of Good & Plenty. Sipping brings a piquancy of alcohol that quickly transforms into a sake-like roundness of Bosc pear, anise in the mid-palate, and a pleasantly smooth finish. Keegan thinks it is well suited to citric mixers or (appropriately enough, given the heritages of the liquor and the cocktail) as an element of a Bloody Mary. Laurie and Al Lucero, owners of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, dubbed “the mother lode of American margaritas,” plan to create a Whiskeyrita.

“There is a natural sweet note imparted from the distillation of the barley that doesn’t require fruit juice,” says Mark C. Johnson, beverage director for Amavi and Junction restaurants, weighing in on Silver Coyote. “We’re planning to put it into small oak casks on the bar, add our own botanicals and make barrel-aged cocktails.”

According to Michael Stein, owner of Tesuque Village Market, who sells Silver Coyote both retail and over the bar, “The bottle has legs. People love the package and that it’s local.”

Over the course of a week, I try to determine for myself where this naked whiskey fits into the canon of the spirit world. After several game attempts at mixing, I decide I like Silver Coyote by itself, with a splash of water.

For those who want traditional flavors of smoke and wood in their malt whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits also has something aging in a cask. On the opposite side of the bar from the distillery is the barrel room, where the temperature is kept at 80 degrees and humidity at 50 percent; otherwise, New Mexico’s climate would dry out the porous wooden barrels and allow too much of the precious liquor to be given over to the “angel’s share,” a natural evaporation that occurs as whiskey ages. Stacked to the roof in new and requisite used barrels (Scotch is typically aged in used sherry or bourbon casks), is a whiskey Keegan and Jones will age for a minimum of two years before bottling, with the eventual release of five- and ten-year-old versions. The barley for this liquor is smoked, not with peat as in Scotland, but with mesquite. Tentatively, it will be named Glenkeegan Single Malt Whiskey.

Getting back to the apple that started it all, Jones, a young man with a round, expressive face, is excited about the release of Santa Fe Apple Brandy made from New Mexico apple cider. “The French have been making Calvados from apples since, well, the 12th century, when the distillation process found its way there from the Middle East,” says Jones, whose interest in distilling began when he was a student at St. John’s and led to work at Santa Fe Brewing Company. Samples are poured from a bottle up on the bar, boasting a painting of red apples on the label by Keegan’s wife, Suzette. Aged in small oak casks, the brandy has a tawny amber color and smells of spice and apple. It is not at all a sweet liqueur, but the fruit flavor is foremost,and there are hints of cinnamon and vanilla. It has a full-throttle warming appeal that makes you want a second sip. Watch for its local release around the holidays.

Along with passion, a huge leap of faith is required for the most determined startup distiller. State and federal laws and regulations are perplexing and knotty. Paperwork and fees  can be daunting, and equipment expensive. Though, for Colin Keegan and Nick Jones, it is simply the way of enterprise, and Santa Fe Spirits itself is part of a revival—not only of an artisinal craft, but also of pride of purpose and self-determination, which many, in our corporate-dominated world, have relinquished. “I wish there were more hours in the day,” says Nick, “to do all the things I dream of doing here.”

 by James Selby

Santa Fe Spirits is located at 7505 Mallard Way, Unit I, in Santa Fe. 505.467.8892.
Their downtown tasting room is located at 308 Read Street in Santa Fe 505.780.5906