Albanian Surprise – Çobo Winery, Berat, Albania

Some kilometres outside Berat you think you’ve landed in a real dump with nothing much to offer than a statue in the centre of town and the ubiquitous cafés surrounding it. The place is called Ura Vajgurore and this is where the gem is to be found.

Çobo Winery in Ura Vajgurore, near Berat, Albania

The winery consists of a huge house attached to the cellar, bottling plant and tasting room. A charming gentleman steps forth and introduces himself as Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker and marketing director. He knows how to do all three of these things well. Here’s why.

Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker, marketing director

Taking us through the cellar which produces no more than 100 000 bottles per year, he tells us that the grapes are sourced from their own vineyards and others that they buy in. The stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation look pretty new and shiny and then there’s the room where all the vats are kept most of them new Barriques and some older large ones. I notice the riddling board where several bottles of sparkling are awaiting a turn and he tells me it’s his new baby, making a bubbly out of Puls, a white wine grape only found in this region. Everything is done by hand and carefully monitored by Muharrem himself. His first batch of Shendeverë, the name of the fizz suggesting the good life, has been sold out except for a few bottles kept for tasting.

An impressive tasting room

Our next stop is the tasting room, a fabulous facility where you’re able to indulge in the line-up of wine as well as have some bread, cheese and olives to go with it. Shesh I Bardhe is an example of a traditional Albanian white wine, kept as pure as possible to its traditions without too much interference. It’s got a strange flowery nose almost like honeysuckle and has some gooseberry on the palate with good acidity and something slightly bitter but not offensively so, on the finish. Shesh i Zi reminds me of Pinot Noir which I find out later is in fact true. It’s acidic, bright and fresh with berry fruit on the palate. But it’s Kashmer that gets my attention. The name is made up of the 3 grapes it contains viz. Cabernet (Kabernet) Sauvignon, Shesh i Zi and Merlot. This is an earthy wine and tells the story of its terroir. There’s enough fruit and acidity to keep it interesting right through the finish which is medium. The flagship is next up – E Kugja e Beratit meaning ‘the red of Berat’. This grape varietal is also called Vlosh and has seen the inside of small oak barrels for 6 months and 4 months in big ones. It comes from a small parcel of land measuring 2 hectacres. It has a deep nose of horse, leather and covers the palate with thick, velvety tannins that are not overwhelming. The finish is looong and satisfying. Put it together with a meaty dish on a cold winter’s night and life’s complete.

The reds got my attention
Muharrem’s new baby – a sparkling made from an original Albanian grape called Puls.

As I said before, Muharrem knows what he’s doing. The pricing is somewhat more than you would expect from Albanian wines but the quality is all there and for a small set-up like his, paying €30 for their E Kugja e Beratit is not unthinkable. It might be difficult to sell this to a consumer after import taxes, transportation, etc. but production is so little that he probably doesn’t have a lot to export anyway.

What a surprise to find a top class winery in the wilds of Albania that understands the international market and sticks with what it knows best i.e. grapes from the area that speak of the oldest winemaking tradition in Europe.

Links:

Çobo Winery

Ackerman Winery – Saumur, Loire Valley

The more you read about this company, the more you like it. From the word go, Jean-Baptiste Ackerman, understood the principals of local and locality. He did his homework well and then transferred his store of knowledge applying it in a new place.

Ackerman Winery, Saumur, Loire Valley

From the caves of Champagne where this wealthy banker’s son from Antwerp, learnt the tricks of the trade, Ackerman proceeded to Saumur in the Loire Valley in 1810. His vision was to recreate those fine bubbles of mousse rising steadily to the top of the glass using the grapes of the area. He bought some of the best tracts of underground galleries consisting of cool, limestone caves and started implementing his ideas. Instead of importing experienced workers, he decided that local was best and launched forth in educating the people around him teaching them the ‘méthode traditionelle’. He even married locally. His bride was the daughter of a rich banker carrying the name of Laurance and hence the brand name Ackerman was extended. His sparkling wine, which he labelled ‘champagne’, a mistake that would cost him dearly, received high acclamation from a wine-tasting jury spurring the company on to export. Due to his efforts, an addition to the railway line from Paris to Rennes and Angers, ended up in Saumur and from there Saumur Brut became widely known in England, Russia, Sweden, Germany and Belgium.

Ackerman and Laurance, a formidable pair

Today, Ackerman has not lost the vision and passion that Jean-Baptiste Ackerman had for the product and the company. They operate sustainably, making sure that waste is separated, water re-used and their footprint minimised. They’ve been able to reduce pesticide-use by 40% without losing production, cut down the amount of water that is used mostly for washing the bottles and have encouraged their growers to plant grass in between vineyards which works against soil erosion.

The cellar master’s chilly office at 12C

Taking care of their labourers is high priority. The average age of their 150 workforce is 45 years, an ageing population and hence training in load carrying is vital. Planning for retirement with mentor-based training is another way this way company looks out for its own. Disabled people are employed in bottle-conditioning.

The products from this winery are held up as benchmarks for the rest of the region. In 1956, they joined forces with Rémy Pannnier and have gone from strength to strength in quality and quantity. Both still and sparkling wines are produced from the highest quality of grapes grown in the Loire Valley creating tannic, earthy Cabernet Franc from Chinon, delicate sparkling wines using Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and even Pinot Noir in their cuvées and nutty, intense Chenin Blanc.

Creamy crémant

The iPad guided tour takes you on an informative, delightful journey through the caves including an installation art exhibition with a writhing python, a beautiful blonde and a spider web stretched across a huge hall. The whole tour costs a meagre €5 including a tasting of their entire extensive range, if you so wish. When the personnel are chatty and genuinely friendly, you know you’re in the Loire Valley and not in Paris or some other renowned regions where egos outstrip generosity and kindness. The service here is superlative and when you can walk away with a stash of outstanding bubbly and a few robust stills, most of them for under €10 per bottle, you count yourself lucky.

Kosmos Restaurant

THE PLACE 8/10: A grande old dame in the centre of Helsinki, this place has seen many a politician, artist and journalist. The Art Deco interior has embossed wooden booths and chandeliers.

THE FOOD 7/10: Traditional Finnish/Russian. If you’re into offal, the sweetbreads are crispy and juicy and lamb kidneys are a favourite too. The usual fried Baltic herrings and Wiener Schnitzel also make their appearrance.

THE DRINKS 6/10: Dull wine menu, nothing really special. They promote the Finnish producer in France Chateau Carsin which is ok but lacking in imagination.

THE SERVICE (7/10): The serving staff have had years of experience and it shows. Could be more personalised but that would be so un-Finnish.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Even though it’s had several face-lifts, it still retains its former elegance and atmosphere.

THE PRICE (7/10): Above €50/head – expect no less than €60 for 2 courses and a couple of glasses of wine.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): A must for tourists.

Veal and sweetbreads at Kosmos

Link: Kosmos Restaurant, Kalevankatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Sea Horse Restaurant, Helsinki

‘Riimihärkä’ – Finland’s version of Beef Carpaccio

THE PLACE 8/10: Dating back to the 1930’s, the walls have seen it all from sailors to musicians to artists and drunks. It’s cleaned up its act and nowadays it still has some interesting clientele, but there are no more cigarette stains on the tablecloths.

THE FOOD 7/10: Traditional Finnish. Famous for friend Baltic herring, meatballs and vorshmack. The standard is ok but the menu tends to get a bit boring after too many visits.

THE DRINKS 6/10: Dull wine menu, the usual beer and some cocktails prepared with Finnish gin Napue (about the only exciting drink).

THE SERVICE (6/10): Not very personalised and I even heard the waitress shout across the room at some guests who didn’t know they had to wait to be seated.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): It still has that old world charm about it, especially in the tiny bathrooms with brown tiles. The people make the place.

THE PRICE (7/10): Prices have been steadily rising but you can still get a large plate of fried Baltic herrings for under €20.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): It’s fun, once a year.

The painting of a sea horse has been there forever.

Link: Sea Horse Restaurant, Kapteeninkatu 11, 00140 Helsinki

La Dolce Vita – The Sweet Life in Helsinki

Wine and food fairs are a menace. You never get to drink a full glass and you never seem to be able to fill your stomach on all the snacky portions available. You usually come away feeling dehydrated and slightly ill. Nowadays, I make it a habit of going to a fair not just to see what’s available but with a particular mission in mind, a quest for what is different and new.

At this year’s Italian celebration of their fabulous fare, held in the gorgeous setting of the Old Student House or Vanha Ylioppilastalo as it is known in Finnish, I’m on the look out for some grape varietals I’ve never tasted before. Not as easy as you might think…. Not because I’ve tasted so many wines in my lifetime but because the standard and generic is in your face all the time and it’s hard to sift through the stuff that you always come across.

Benanti’s Marketing and Export Manager Agatino Failla

This time I’m in luck when I stumble upon the Benanti wines from Sicily. Their Marketing and Export Manager Agatino Failla, has a wicked sense of humour and before you know it, you’re tasting some products that grab your attention. Benanti Etna Bianco 2014 is made from Carricante grapes. I try not to look too stupid. It’s full of mineral and flint, slightly spicy and plays games with your taste buds resulting in a long, extended finish. When I do a bit of research, I find out that Carricante is an ancient grape that thrives on the slopes of Mount Etna’s volcanic soil and is prized for its acidity. The vines inherited by the Benanti family are old, really old between 80 and 120 years I am told. The complexity in all their wines are testament to these struggling growths digging deep to find water and hence survival.

This brings me to the reds and again I’m trying not to show my ignorance. Benanti Etna Rosso is a product of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio both of which have been around forever, both of which are intriguing in their profile. It reminds me a bit of Pinot Noir with its fruity intensity without losing that trademark minerality of all Benanti wines. It could be my imagination but do I really taste the terroir here? Then the 100% Benanti Nerello Mascalese. We’re talking tannins and sour cherry, cranberry and some hints of a flower, violets perhaps? It’s medium-bodied and stuffed with all kinds of intricate flavours that keep you talking and sipping.

With diurnal temperatures sometimes ranging as wide as 20 degrees at certain times of year, these vineyards have to fight for their very existence. Growing ancient grapes on an active volcano is not for sissies. The Benanti family intend to hang in there and judging by awards, they’re reaching for the stars and getting there.

Alko stocks 2 of their wines: Benanti Etna Bianco 2014 and Benanti Nerello Mascalese 2013.

Barolo, Barbaresco, King and Queen?

Let’s get down to the earth. If you read what it says on the websites, it’s all in the soil but should one be considered better or lesser than the other, is another question.

Perjantaiparlementti or Friday Parliament is what the Minister of Wine, Veli-Antti Koivuranta calls the Friday wine tastings where he pulls out all the stops and goes for the top of the range stuff. Here’s a chance to taste wines that you might never buy yourself but that you’d love to try.

The Minister of Wine. Veli-Antti Koivuranta

North-West Italy is where these wines originate. The region is divided into four areas viz. Piemonte (Barolo and Barbaresco; Astia, Alba; Gavi), Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia and Liguria. Now that we know this, we understand that Barolo and Barbaresco are areas, not grape varietals and that the fruit is called Nebbiolo. But the devil is in the detail and here it is: soils in Barbaresco are more nutrient and hence produce less tannins than what you might find in Barolo. Both produce wines that smell of flowers and perfume and both have a long finish. But on the palate is where you’ll find the difference, less of a chalky mouth-feel on the Barbaresco. Then there is also the question of cellar time. Barolo stays in barrel longer because of its tannic qualities but it also changes the flavour profile.

Three favourites

We always kick off with a sparkling of some kind and this one is a Frizzante from Lombardy. It’s a good way to get the palate going and freshen it up. Seven wines to follow and every single one is an explosion of flavour.

Barbaresco Gallina 2012 from Ugo Lequio which smells like cherry, a hint of liquorice and rose petal. It’s nuanced with great balance between soft tannins and sweet berries. (Alko €28,39).

The Gemma Giblin Barolo 2008 reminds me of creosote, leather and smoke and yet has heady notes of roses and spice. (Alko €58,40).

Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato 2012 ranges in scores from 98 by James Suckling to 89 from Wine Enthusiast. With spice, ash, raspberry on the nose and then more violets and sour cherry on the palate, the finish is tannic. It’s robust and big and it’ll take a well-matured steak or truffles to stand up to its powerful flavour. Be warned, this is not for sipping. (Alko €92).

Friday Parliament – a wine tasting with top-tier stuff

To join us for well-priced, top quality tastings at Nomad Cellars, see Viiniministeri.fi and for info in English, call Veli-Antti Koivuranta at +358 40 4143705.

What a Kombo

Sini was invited to a party in Madrid, Christian was too. Serendipity played its role in the meeting of this Finnish woman with this Spanish man and olé, it worked! Dovetailing their talents, they now have the cutest eatery in Sörnäinen, a tram ride away from the heart of Helsinki.

The buzz at Kombo starts at around 7pm and by 7.30 every table is taken. Grant it, it’s not big with covers for around 25 -30 people but for a place that spends zero on advertising, word of mouth has done its job and customers come from far and wide.

Christian is down on his haunches at the table, explaining the food on offer which basically consists of a variety of tapas that comes in 4 sizes from a snack to a hearty portion. The wine is palate-picked ranging from lighter red to heavy-duty stuff. And of course there’s white and cava too but on a miserable winter’s night, it’s the red that pulls and what a combo (sic!) with the food.

dsc05489It’s the Grenache Noir of La Fontaine des Loups from Languedoc that takes my fancy and delivers well when it comes to the winter salad, duck rillettes and Spanish omelette on my plate. Every mouthful is a treat with the pomegranate popping in my mouth, speaking to the black currant and plum flavours of the wine.

dsc05494The generous cheese plate arrives and my choice is the Artigazo’s blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that gives you that nice, toasty feeling and leaves a trace of balsamic behind. The aged Manchega cheese has a partner in the form of red capsicum jam, a first for me.

Kombo is all about matching combinations. While Christian handles front of house, Sini does her thing in the kitchen and they both do their job with aplomb. The food hits the spot and the wine just takes it to another level. They’ve thought this through carefully and come up with a winner and even your wallet survives the experience.

For bookings: http://www.kombowinebar.fi/Kombo.html

Whiling away the time in Kotor, Montenegro

Just looked at the stats – 653, 747 in population. Kotor – 13,150. It’s a small place, a small country and it doesn’t have much in its favour. The mountains surround you and there is not much arable land to cultivate crops. Make the most of tourism? Then you have to have something that’ll make you stand out in the crowd. Here’s why I would come back:

Euro – even though it’s not part of the European Union yet, it employs the currency which could or might not work against you but at least it’s easy if you’re from the Eurozone or visiting many parts of it.

Fjord – perhaps you’ve heard this before, but it’s the only one in Europe, Norway counting as a Scandinavian destination. And totally stunning from every angle.

Beautiful Bay of Kotor
Beautiful Bay of Kotor

Galion Restaurant – fine dining, expensive by Montenegrin standards but the finest of fine dining to be found anywhere in Europe. The waiting staff understand what you’re on about, like after a white wine (which you can’t taste before ordering, minus points), ordering it anyway and then the waiter suggesting the red Vranac which is a whole lot better with your tender lamb infused with morel mushrooms lying on a bed of roast veg and creamy mashed potatoes. Cost for 2 €78 incl. 1 starter, 1 bottle of Krstac (white, better with food but quite acidic on its own), small bottle of Vrnac (red, recommended), 2 mains.

Galion Restaurant floats on the sea
Galion Restaurant floats on the sea
Lamb at its best at Galion Restaurant
Lamb at its best at Galion Restaurant

Fortress of Kotor – even an old 60-year-old bat like me can do it! 1200 m above sea level, 1350 steps with a bruised toe and a dizzy head. Really, I mean it, it’s so worth it. Every lookout point has another viewpoint and there are ‘angels’ on the way sitting under their umbrellas selling cold, cold water, coke and beer at reasonable prices. Even a rip off would have made me buy.

Almost there, not!
Almost there, not!

DSC04991

Old Town – I know, seen so many of these in your time but this one is brimming with churches both Orthodox and Catholic, no mosques unfortunately even though it has the 2nd most devotees in the country. The prettiest one has to be St. Triphon’s Cathedral with twin towers and a wonderfully restful pale pink/beige interior. The upper floor houses a museum of relics and a view over the piazza.

St. Triphon's Cathedral in all its pale pink and beige glory
St. Triphon’s Cathedral in all its pale pink and beige glory

DSC04953

Wine bars – abound, where the local drop of red (again, recommended) can be had for as little as €2/10 cl. At Bokun, the cheapest one was full of a cow’s milk nose, pleasantly so even though the malolactose might get to some. The flavour was full of prunes and plums and mocca. Delectable for sipping. At The Old Winery, the rosé is a bit more upmarket at around €4 incl. service. Delightfully refreshing, light and a no-brainer for a hot Saturday afternoon.

Me sipping wine, how unusual!
Me sipping wine, how unusual!

The Market – we’re all in love with markets thinking that we’re going to pick up a bargain here or there. Be warned – not always the cheapest since most vendors have already caught up with the trend. But do try the local Prsut (prosciutto), air-dried and deliciously succulent without being stringy, and ‘the best cheese in the world’ according to the lady behind the counter, Katunjanka from Čevo, high up in the mountains and a success story of small producers making their presence felt. Both come at reasonable prices.

Take your pick at the market
Take your pick at the market
A selection of Rakije, not Raki as in aniseed as in Turkey, but fire water with a flavour
A selection of Rakije, not Raki as in aniseed as in Turkey, but fire water with a flavour

Montenegrins – come with a smile albeit a non-knowledgeable one. Their language skills in English are somewhat limited and this could be the reason. The first question you’re asked is ‘Where do you come from?’ Taking the conversation further becomes problematic. Ask them where the nearest bike rental place is and they can’t tell you. Come on! It’s a small town and even I discovered it 2 minutes later 100m away. Some scenes however, give you an insight into their characters : one car rear ends another during a full-on traffic jam. You think to yourself, ‘how totally unnecessary’ and the next minute the drivers of both cars are shaking hands and getting on with life.

Dukley Design Montenegro – artists in residence use the environment to come up with some wildly interpretative images made in cloth, wire, paper, paint and whatever else comes to hand. Visit it on a Sunday and you get it straight from the artist’s mouth, as it were, with their explanations and musings on the works they’ve created.

Let's talk!
Let’s talk!

DSC05017

Cherry on the top – take a dive into the clear waters, float on your back, peer up into those mountains and allow them to speak to you.

DSC05016Links:

Kotor

Galion Restaurant

Fortress of Kotor

Dukley European Art Community

 

Long Live the Classics – Elite Restaurant, Helsinki

Phew! A sigh of relief when you enter a restaurant that’s been a true icon for the longest time, then undergoes a renovation and you hold your breath thinking that they’ve just ruined the whole atmosphere by turning it into something hip. Thank goodness this is not the case and the only change you notice is the smell of fresh paint, in the same Art Deco colours, I might add. All the paintings are still in place and the interior has been pretty much left the way it was before.

A lick of fresh paint, but the rest is still there.
A lick of fresh paint, but the rest is still there.

We are pleasantly greeted by Vova, aka Vladimir Gusevin, who has guarded the door of the entrance for longer than most of us remember. The waiting staff have also kept their jobs there and it’s only the restaurant manager, now Tiina Partti, and the head chef Petri Rissanen, that are relatively new. The classic menu is still in tact and never in a month of Sundays are they going to get rid of ‘läskisoosi’ or ‘sauce with plenty of pork fat, or Tauno Palo’s steak, a favourite of the artist’s consisting of rump steak with an onion and cream sauce.

Vova's Vorschmack
Vova’s Vorschmack

Other Finnish staples include vorschmack, Vova’s version of it, with minced meat and I do believe some anchovies mixed in served with sour cream and beetroot salad. Perfectly fried white fish comes in a soup bowl, that familiar ‘kesäkeitto’ or summer soup, a milky mix of colourful, fresh summer vegetables and for afters, lemon pie in a decidedly delicious shortcrust pastry with a spoonful of raspberry sorbet on the side.

Whitefish in 'summer soup'
Whitefish in ‘summer soup’
Good old-fashioned lemon pie
Good old-fashioned lemon pie

One thing that has been vamped up, and it’s about time too, is the wine list. Their own artsy label painted  by Senja Vellonen contains a zippy blend of Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo and the red is not too shabby either with its full-bodied, balanced tannins in the Garnacha, Syrah, Carinena and Merlot. Both of these are a safe bet and can be ordered without reservations. Wine prices are never low in Helsinki and the €48 you’re going to fork out for it, is well spent in a restaurant of this calibre.

Artsy wine with backbone
Artsy wine with backbone

Just goes to show, not every joint under the sun needs to make room for the modern or the trendy. Some places are just left as they should be and the charm of this drinking and dining favourite amongst the artists, musicians, dancers and hangers-on in the artsy world of days gone by, still lures you in and plays its magic on you.

04 2016
Art Deco at its finest

Casale del Giglio – Wine Innovation in a Valley

They took a long, hard look at the terroir in the Agro Pontino Valley, 50 km south of Rome in Lazio, and made their decision. The maritime climate had a say too. Hence, the choice of grapes.

With sandy, mineral and alluvia dark volcanic soils similar to those of Bordeaux, they use French and Spanish varietals to create their magic. But one grape that’s neither of these and completely new for me is Bellone, meaning ‘handsome’, a full, beautiful bunch that the Romans discovered (although this is contested by some) and that has frequently been used by farmers for their own consumption.

Bellone 2014

Nose: A tropical fruit nose somewhat reminiscent of Viognier but more guava, grapefruit, perfume

Palate: In spite of what is normally said of this grape lacking zing, a slight tingling on the tongue, guava, apricot, peach, mango, hint of grapefruit

Finish: Slightly bitter, tingling and medium length

My verdict: It’s easy drinking and tempts you to sit on the beach and sip away.

Shiraz_NF

Shiraz 2014

They decided to go with the original name from ancient Persia with the eponymous city.

Nose: leather, smoke, violets, spice, anise

Palate: Beautiful acidity, just enough to transform it from a jammy wine to an elegant mouthful of spice and dark berries

Finish: Medium length but lingering tastes of cardamom and blueberry

My verdict: This is a wine to watch. Still a bit green (2014) and 6 months in oak, the acidity and flavours that are holding back right now, will develop into a world-class wine in 3 to 5 years. I vote for 5. Lamb, grilled tuna, roast chicken.

 

Paolo Tiefenthaler - winemaker at Casale del Giglio
Paolo Tiefenthaler – winemaker at Casale del Giglio (Credit: Tehcnosoc)

Tempranijo 2013

This Spanish varietal (spelt in the Italian way) is usually a strong tannin wine. To minimise this, it was picked late allowing the grapes to slightly shrivel on the vine. In keeping with its characteristics, it was aged in big barrels of cherry oak.

Nose: Wow! Strong, serious molasses, raspberry, blackcurrant

Palate: Rounded – they did a good job of calming down those tannins, luscious, full and slightly sweet with lots of fruit

Finish: Long and fruity

My verdict: Big wine with plenty of layers to experiment with when it comes to food like stews, especially game, roast duck and strong charcuterie like Parma ham.

Oenologist Paolo Tiefenthaler is adventurous and innovative and loves experimenting with varietals that are not that common in Italy. They produce 18 wines with care and quality in mind.

Links:

Casale del Giglio

Available at:

Winesearcher

In Finland:

Viinitkotiin

In Estonia:

Veinidkoju Shop – Lootsi 14-2, 10151 Tallinn (opposite Terminal D, Tallink terminal)