Unearthing amphora wines in Las Vegas

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In Georgia, old kvevri are stacked next to the monastery where the wine is made.

Archeologists have traced the origins of wine-making back to 8,000 years ago to the country of Georgia.  Wine was produced – and continues to be produced today – using clay vessels called kvevri. Essentially, fermentation of red and white wine in clay involves prolonged contact with the skins.  In wine circles, the term “amphora” is commonly used to describe this style of wine.

It goes something like this: perfectly mature grape bunches are placed into kvevri that are sunken into the ground, a stone lid secures the top, then it’s opened the next spring or summer to skim the finished wine from the grape bunches that have accumulated at the bottom.

Georgia has been producing natural wines like this, without the use of chemicals, foreign yeasts, or filtration long before it became a stylistic trend. In the last decade, however, winemakers in other parts of the world, especially Italy and Slovenia, have embraced this ancient way to making wine, and they deserve some attention.

Jars in the wine cellar at Azienda Agricola Cos,Acate
Jars in the wine cellar at Azienda Agricola Cos, Sicily, Italy.
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Josh Gravner, of Friuli, Italy, opens a Ribolla 2014 amphorae at the end of the whole skin contact period.
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Graver’s Ribolla 2014 direct from the amphorae.

While amphora wines can be made with red or white grapes, the wines made with white grapes end up with an attractive orange hue.  Typically, these wines have more body and structure than a normal white wine, and may even have noticeable tannins, due to the time spent with the skins.  When in Las Vegas, try them at the following places listed below.  The sommeliers  have provided the dish they’d pair with each one:

Josko Gravner Ribolla Anfora,  Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy  2003
Taste at:  Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Manadrin Oriental
Pair with: Roasted Tomato “Provencal”Ratatouille of  Vegetables, Diced Baby Squid, Saffron Fish Soup

Sommelier’s Notes: “This is a super complex dish with the earthful flavors from the ratatouille, the “sweetness” of the squid, the saffron brings the lightly aromatic flowery thing. All of these you would find in something like Gravner’s wines. Just a whole lot going on.” – Will Costello, Master Sommelier/Wine Director,  Twist by Pierre Gagnaire @ Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas

COS Pithos Bianco, Vittoria, Sicily, Italy 2012
Taste at: B&B Ristorante, The Venetian
Pair with: Grilled Octopus with Fagioli Marianati and Spicy Limoncello

Sommelier’s Notes: “The COS Pithos Bianco has the delicacy to compliment seafood while offering the power to stand up to the flavorful char on the octopus, as well as the spice of the limoncello vinaigrette.” – Kirk Peterson, Beverage Director, B&B Hospitality Group, Las Vegas

Josko Gravner, Ribolla Anfora, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy 2005
Taste at
: Bazaar Meat, SLS
Pair with: Whole Turbot, Josper-Roasted with Olive Oil and Salt from La Coruna, Spain
Sommelier’s Notes: “The Turbot is a large flat fish found primarily in shallow waters close to shore, it has bright white flesh, a delicate flavor and can have a slightly oily texture.  The texture of the fish provides contrast while the simplicity of preparation of the Turbot compliments the flavors of the seafood and wine pairing.”  – Chloe Helfand, Lead Sommelier, SLS Las Vegas

A few more producers:

Luigi Tecce, Campania, Italy
Frank Cornelissen, Etna, Sicily
Adega José de Sousa, Alentejo, Portugal

Orange Wines are Deliciously Gorgeous

Yet here’s another reason why orange continues to be my favorite color – orange wines. I recently had a chance to try this gorgeous copper-hued wine, the 2011 Paolo Bea “Santa Chiara” Umbria Bianco.

Why is it so special? This one hails from Umbria, Italy. Often referred to as the “green heart of Italy,” it’s the only Italian region without access to the sea or international borders. Wines from here are not exactly famous, but they are interesting, delicious and definitely worth seeking. Next, orange wines are generally not widely available. In other words, they are rare treasures. Such is the case of this wine producer – Bea’s wine-making practices focus on high quality artisanal wines, however, their production is low.

Paolo Bea’s “Santa Chiara” 2011 is a fascinating orange wine with a unique field blend of Grechetto, Malvasia, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and Garganega. If these are all white grapes, then what makes the wine orange? To clarify, it has nothing to do with orange fruit. Orange wines are white wines produced more like reds, with prolonged contact of crushed grape skins and seeds. This contact produces the distinctly beautiful hue. Ranging in color from butterscotch to tawny brown, they can also vary from vintage to vintage.

Often made in clay vessels or wooden barrels, this is an ancient wine making style that has recently been revitalized by Italians and Slovenians, and are produced today by enterprising winemakers worldwide.

It’s not easy to describe the “Santa Chiara.” It has a very different and unique aroma and quite generous in flavor – with spice, cantaloupe-like, rustic, earthy good funk going on in the glass.

Generally speaking orange wines often possess the body and tannins of red wines and the fruit and minerality of white wines, which it probably why I like it so much.  They are stylistically unique, and many offer earthy savoriness, with a richly textured mouth-feel.

Some claim orange wines to be a fad, but I think they offer a wealth of virtues. They are quite hard to find, however.

As for trying one out, look for a restaurant with a solid Italian wine list. In Las Vegas that would be none other than B&B Ristorante (The Venetian) and Carnevino Italian Steakhouse (The Palazzo).