Kagor is traditionally a fortified dessert wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Saperavi, and other varieties of red grapes in the coastal area surrounding the Black Sea. Kagor was originally made for the Russian Orthodox Church as a sacramental wine. Finding American-made Kagor can be very challenging and finding a well-made one is like finding the proverbial “Needle in a haystack”.
Jim Baker owner/winemaker at Chateau Niagara is making an award-winning Kagor from his estate-grown Saperavi. When I say award-winning, I mean that Jim brought home a medal for his Kagor from the prestigious Saperavi World Prize competition held in the Black Sea city of Tbilisi, Georgia plus numerous other awards. While Jim doesn’t fortify his Kagor, he does ferment it up to 15% ABV.
Opening the bottle is just the beginning of enjoying your Chateau Niagara Kagor, there is a method to tasting this unusual and extraordinary wine. I could attempt to explain it but I think there is no one better suited for the job than Jim Baker, so here is how to experience all that Chateau Niagara Kagor has to offer in Jim’s own words.
“Take a taste and swirl around once or twice in your mouth, coating all the taste buds and then stop. Let the wine take over. It will take you a journey, with flavors rising and falling. You want to go until they stop changing, and for most people it’s more than a minute. After that take a bite of a good chocolate truffle and when that is partially melted, taste the wine again, swallowing both together. They effect will be almost immediate with a burst of cherry cordial flavors.”
I asked Jim why he decided to grow grape varieties that are associated with Eastern Europe and make classic Eastern European wines from them. Here is what he said:
“We decided to make the Kagor as part of our Eastern European wine series. We discovered a number of little know Eastern European wines that we thought were pretty cool, and would allow us a little niche to specialize in. This includes a Hungarian Bulls Blood, our Saperavi, a Georgian style skin-fermented Riesling Chardonnay blend called Du Monde, and our Kagor. We planted a new Romanian grape last fall called Feteasca Neagra, but we will be calling it by the way cooler English translation of “Black Maiden”!”
Chateau Niagara will be doubling the size of their Saperavi vineyard to just over an acre of this versatile grape.
If you are interested in trying Jim’s Kagor or any of his other wines they can be found on his website http://chateauniagarawinery.com or by visiting the winery at 2466 West Creek Rood Newfane, NY. Please call before visiting. (716) 778-7888
Let’s play a game. Close your eyes and imagine your favorite Italian winemaking region. Next, conjure up images of its beautiful landscapes, vineyards, and signature architecture. Finally, remember how wonderfully the wine reflects its terroir and expresses the true characteristics of the land. Now, open your eyes and tell me was it Alto Adige? No, then let me tell you about this spectacularly grand alpine province which includes parts of the Dolomites and is also known as South Tyrol. This enchanting Italian wine region is nestled between Switzerland to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria to the east.
Alto Adige is home to Elena Walch wine estate. The Elena Walch wine estate is among the elite of Italian
The Walch’s ( L. to R.) Julia, Karoline, and Elena. Photo Credit: Elena Walch
wine producers and has been the standard-bearer for quality and innovation under the guidance of Elena Walch and now her daughters Julia and Karoline. The estate’s philosophy toward winemaking has always been defined by its dedication to the land and terroir. Elena Walch wines are a direct expression of their soil, climate, and care in the vineyard. The disciplines of sustainability and care for the land are strictly adhered to and passed down to future generations. Julia and Karoline Walch have steadily advanced and evolved the viewpoint of their mother since taking over as General Managers of the estate in 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Karoline Walch about how they are carrying on that commitment to excellence and how you can taste it in their wines.
Elena Walch wines have always been faithful to the ideology of respecting the land and the environment so your wines are a direct reflection of the terroir. How do you see your commitment to that principle manifest itself in your wines?
Since the beginning, my mother wanted to produce wines that are a true reflection of a single site. Our two most important single vineyards are the Vigna Castel Ringberg and the Vigna Kastelaz, both very distinct and unique sites. With a combination of limestone soils and its microclimate given the lake influence, the vineyard Vigna Castel Ringberg is farmed sustainably to best adapt to the characteristics of the site. It is finally the salinity and depth that distinguishes it from many other wines within that category. The Vigna Kastelaz, on the other hand, is one of the very few vineyards facing completely South, and hence, benefitting from very sunny and dry growing conditions. Not only, it is extremely steep and due to its proximity to the Mendola mountain ridge, the temperature fluctuations are huge. This allows us to develop the primary aromas to the full spectrum, yet retaining the acidity. Not surprisingly, this is our icon site for Gewürztraminer. Finally, to further highlight the importance of those two vineyards, since 2014 our wines that grow on those two sites, carry the prestigious denomination of Vigna – It is an additional mention of a smaller geographical origin and designs the smallest historical/geographical unit of a vineyard. Every single Vigna must be officially admitted and registered within the regional government. It expresses the ultimate thought of terroir philosophy with the idea of a parcel wine from an exact plot and hence having a historical or traditional name.
How does your state-of-the-art fermentation cellar help you in accentuating all the unique terroirs of your diverse vineyard sites?
Our estate’s philosophy is inherently connected to terroir – the idea that the wines are an individual expression of the vineyard’s soil, climate, and cultivation. We start with quality in the vineyard, but the way the grapes are handled at the winery is an important step in how the finished wine expresses its sense of place. Our new, high-tech cellar allows us to be flexible and adjust to the requirements of both single vineyards and individual varieties.
With the new cellar, there are three important changes: the option between whole-berry or whole-bunch fermentation; the strict use of gravity to process the grapes as gently as possible; and four different points of quality control before the grapes reach the fermentation tanks. The aim is to create wines that have more structure, more fruit, and soft, supple tannins with great aging potential while being more elegant and refined at the same time. KW
Elena Walch set sail into uncharted waters when she built her winery on the idea of producing the highest quality wines that are terroir-driven and sustainably grown. Her daughters, Julia and Karoline, are continuing the journey she started but are always adding their own contemporary interpretation to their winemaking.
We can talk about how Elena Walch wines express their terroir and how producing wine sustainably can be tasted and experienced in a tangible way but it is impossible to truly understand what Elena Walch wines are like without tasting them for yourself. I feel quite confident that after reading Karoline Walch’s perspective on how she approaches making wine that you have a desire to taste her wine just to see for yourself why it is so special. The only question that remains is which one to try first. Luckily for us, Elena Walch wines are superior wines so you can’t make a mistake. Since Alto Adige is the northernmost region in Italy the Germanic grape varieties tend to be prevalent but that is to be expected since it is so close to Germany that 70% of its population speak German while only 25% speak Italian. Elena Walch is known for its white wine, which includes their popular Gewürztraminer and “Beyond The Clouds” but their reds are also top-notch.
When I explore a wine region I am always curious about the wine made from its indigenous grape varieties. When I looked at Alto Adige, Schiava caught my eye. Schiava is an indigenous grape varietal often associated with the region. Schiava typically produces an aromatic light but acidic red wine that is highly versatile when it comes to food pairings. Elena Walch Schiava is a solid choice because it ranks high in quality and taste for this varietal. Elena Walch Schiava 2019 has a cranberry color, mild tannins, and bright acidity with flavors of red fruit and Schiava’s signature tinge of bitter almond on the finish. It is best when served between 60-65ͦ F/16-18ͦ C. This wine pairs well with Mediterranean fare and pasta.
Elena Walch wine estate is only one of the extraordinary wineries in the Alto Adige region of Italy that are
eager to share their enchanting culture and remarkable wines with you.
While scrolling through my Instagram recently I came across a mention of
an Oregon-made Saperavi. It piqued my interest because I wasn’t aware of any Saperavi being made, let alone grown further west than a few newly planted vineyards in Southwestern Pennsylvania. After a quick internet search, I located Golden Cluster and its owner/winemaker Jeff Vejr in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I contacted Jeff to find out if he and Golden Cluster were as unique and cutting edge as they appeared at first glance. The short answer is “YES” plus so much more than meets the eye when you realize what he is accomplishing.
Jeff Vejr, Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster Photo Credit: Laura Domela
The Golden Cluster website goldencluster.com is packed with fascinating information ranging from the uncommon grapes they use in their wine, the wine they make, the history of the area, and Jeff’s story and winemaking philosophy. There is so much information that it can be confusing so I asked Jeff to clarify the structure of his operation. He told me all of his wines are made under the Golden Cluster umbrella but there are some individual wineries that have different themes or points of view. He is the winemaker of all the wine and he makes all of his wine at the David Hill Winery which was originally the Charles Coury Vineyard & Winery. His Saperavi is not grown at the David Hill Vineyards but is grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA of Oregon. The uncommon grapes he sources from David Hill Vineyards were planted between 1966-1972 by Charles Coury. Those grape varieties are Semillon, Savagnin Rose, Flora, Melon de Bourgogne, Sylvaner, Perle of Csaba, and Gouges Blanc (aka Pinot Gouges).
If you find this prelude to my interview with Jeff Vejr owner/winemaker Golden Cluster interesting please read on for my conversation with Jeff. I didn’t believe I could convey Jeff’s passion and vision for his winery better than he did so I am publishing our interview “In his own words”. Enjoy!
1) Why did you choose to make wine from uncommon grapes?
The Semillon grape holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first white wine that brought me out of my “I only drink red wine” ignorance.
In early Spring of 2013, I was visiting the historic David Hill Vineyard with fellow winemaker Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Company. We walked around the vineyard looking at some of the rows of Sylvaner and Riesling grapes that he contracted for. At the end of our walk, we came across these vines that were much larger than anything else we were looking at, so we asked the vineyard manager what they were. We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us that they were Semillon planted in the mid-1960’s.Upon further questioning, we came to find out that the Semillon was picked with the “other” mixed white grapes on the property and blended away. This news brought Barnaby and I considerable pain. On the drive back to Portland, we decided that Barnaby would call up to the winery the next day and ask about the availability of the Semillon for the upcoming harvest. Barnaby made the call to inquire and they agreed to sell him the Semillon.Their only question was why he wanted to even bother with it.
The original Charles Coury Vineyard (now called David Hill Vineyard) is one of the first vineyards planted in the Willamette Valley after Prohibition. For Barnaby and myself, it was a travesty that these historic grapes were not made into a single varietal bottling. To know that these grapes had been here for nearly 50 years without anyone making a stand-alone wine from them was unbelievable to us. Once I received this news, I was keenly aware of the rare opportunity and the responsibility involved. What I did not realize was that this chance encounter of Semillon grapes planted in 1966 would expand into a wider untold story about the famous pre-prohibition Reuter Vineyard and the man who planted these original Semillon vines, both originating on the exact same piece of land.
It was as if Dionysus was sending a message and a mission. It was at this time when opportunity and duty converged and Golden Cluster was born.
In proceeding vintages, I was able to source and make wine from other uncommon grapes from the original Charles Coury Vineyard. Grapes such as Flora and Savagnin Rose. Flora was one of the first American wine grapes to be developed after Prohibition, by the famous grape breeder, Dr. Harold Olmo at UC-Davis. The Savagnin Rose was a grape that had been misidentified for 50 years as Gewurztraminer in the David Hill Vineyard. After trips to Alsace, extensive research, DNA analysis, and most importantly visual identification, I was comfortable in correcting the record in 2016. To my knowledge, it is the oldest known Savagnin Rose in the U.S.A.
In the past 3 years, I have been afforded the opportunity to source other grapes that are not common in Oregon. Grapes such as Saperavi, Bon Noir, Sagrantino, Fiano, Alvarinho, Vignoles, Garanoir, Regent, and Agria, just to name a few. Some of these grapes are the first plantings of these grapes in our state. Oregon is a far more dynamic wine region than what our industry touts and than what the general public is led to believe. From a grape-growing perspective, Oregon is just as diverse as France, Italy, or Spain. Many of our vineyards can be grown non-irrigated, which is the standard in Europe. While most of the attention that Oregon receives is directed towards one grape and one of our wine regions, the most exciting work and resulting wines are coming from grapes that are not “typical” for Oregon. It is within this framework, where Oregon can be appreciated in a wider sense. We are operating with the same commitment, sacrifice, spirit, and hard work that it took the Somer, Lett, Coury, Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Adelshiem, Vuylsteke, and Campbell families to reestablish Oregon wine after prohibition. We have a strong foundation to launch from, thanks in part to their work. The story of Oregon wine continues.
2) Tell me about your wine journey and how it has brought you to where you are today?
I am the stereotypical wine lover who left their previous profession to throw themselves into the wine business I started at the bottom, working in every facet of the wine industry from vineyard work, cellar work, harvest intern, wine buyer, importer, wine educator, and wine delivery driver.
At every step in this journey, I have stayed hungry to learn more. For those that are intellectually curious, the wine world is an incredible place to reside. It encompasses so many other professions; geology, chemistry, language, history, botany, meteorology, biology, music, anthropology, business, art, economics, religion, politics, etc….This is part of the beauty and curse of wine, as it is a galaxy of knowledge that never ceases.The minute you think you know something, you quickly realize that you know nothing. Wine is far more than just an alcoholic beverage.
For me, I have been guided by my own taste. As my palate has changed and as I have learned more, I have come to appreciate diving deeper and deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole.
I am not classically trained as a winemaker or sommelier. I have not taken any classes, nor earned any certificates or credentials in any area of the wine business. This has provided me with an uncluttered headspace to discover my own palate organically. I did not enter the wine world framed by institutional biases.
3) What are your plans for the future both near term and long-range?
My plan has been consistent since I humbly entered the wine industry. The plan is to never quit, never stop learning, never stop exploring, and accept opportunities as they arise. The commitment remains the same because this is more than a profession to me, it is a lifestyle. What is also important to me is to continue to research, unravel, and learn from the twin stories of the Reuter Vineyard and the Charles Coury Vineyard. To unify the histories of the Oregon wines that were grown and made on this hill behind Forest Grove, in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley.
Photo of Reuter daughter in the original Reuter Vineyard circa 1904 Photo Credit: David Hill Vineyard
The story Jeff is writing with his forward-thinking view of winemaking is absolutely just the beginning and where it takes him and Golden Cluster will be thought-provoking to watch as it unfolds vintage after vintage.
In the rolling hills of western North Carolina nestled within the Crest of the Blue Ridge lies the beautiful vineyards and boutique winery of Souther Williams Vineyard. Souther Williams Vineyard sits on the remains of a 10,000-acre farm that has been in owner Ken Parker’s family for over 200 years. The vineyard and winery continue the family’s commitment to the land and their dedication to being responsible stewards as is stated in their motto ”Gargien de la terre” which means “Caretakers of the Earth”.
Souther Williams Vineyard Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard
Ken currently has 8 acres in vines and plans for an additional 5 acres. The vineyards are planted at approximately 2500 feet above sea level in mountain loam soil with a rocky substrate that provides good drainage and mineral content allowing the vines to sink their roots deep into the ground. I originally heard of Souther Williams because of their Saperavi planting, which is the first in North Carolina, but after learning more about their vineyard I became very interested in their choice of grape varieties. They grow wine grapes that originated in Austria, Eastern Europe, Germany, and Russia because these grapes have proven to be reliable and produce quality fruit even when grown at higher altitudes in cool climates with shorter growing seasons. Ken planted one acre each of Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cynthiana, Blaufrankisch, Regent, Saperavi, and Cabernet Franc with an acre of Rkatsiteli to be added in 2022.
Ken Parker and his wife Angela have a wine story that is a familiar one when it comes to people who succumb to the
Sun shining on rows of Cynthiana vines Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard
irresistible pull of time and place by following their hearts home to live the “Winemaker’s Life”. Ken and Angela were professionals in banking and technology when they found their passion for wine. They left those careers to pursue new careers in the retail side of the wine industry but soon realized the only way they could truly fulfill their dreams was to return home to North Carolina and start their own vineyard and winery on the family farm. Souther Williams Vineyard will open its tasting room to the public in June 2021. Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Rkatsiteli, and two Meritage blends will be available for purchase in the winery’s initial offering of wine
Aerial view of Gruner Veltliner and Vidal Blanc vineyard Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard
Winemakers in Australia and South Africa are facing a crisis. Australia is embroiled in a trade dispute with China in which China has halted the purchase of Australian barley, most beef, seafood, coal, and yes,wine. By early December 2020 Australian wineries had lost 1.2 billion in sales. South Africa has banned all alcohol sales as it battles a resurgence of Covid-19. You can help by buying a bottle or two of Australian and South African wine when you visit your wine shop. This is a perfect opportunity to revisit an old favorite from these countries or explore something new, either way it’s a win/win situation.