Monday, May 9, 2011

Domaine Sigalas 9-year vertical tasting

Dare I say it? That center label is Greek to me
Domaine Sigalas is one of the best wineries in Greece. It's on the hot, dry island of Santorini, where the vines grow right on the ground in a circular pattern that looks like wreaths. Founder Paris Sigalas actually came home to the island from Paris to be a schoolteacher and ended up making wine because he knew the local wines could be better.

There are red wines on Santorini, but the island is best known for its chalky, lemony, dry whites, the perfect seafood wines. The wines are so high in acidity that they should be able to age, yet most people think of Greek whites as a refreshing summertime white. That they are -- the 2010 is lovely -- but it was interesting to discover that 10-year-old wines were delicious as well.

Paris Sigalas
I attended the 9-year vertical tasting of Domaine Sigalas wines with an audience of about 50 sommeliers in San Francisco. It was interesting to hear them, and the panelists, try to describe the finish in a way that would induce a customer to buy it. I'm saying "chalky," but I'm not trying to sell wine. Some said "sweet bitterness," which made me think of baking chocolate. One guy accurately said, "The finish goes on and on, and when it finally ends you have to have another sip," which reminded me of crack, and that is a very successful consumer product.

Doug Frost, who led the seminar, said, "I think it's remarkable to have wines that are so strongly of place that they can be somewhat off-putting." Doug is a Master Sommelier but clearly he hasn't worked the floor in a while.

How about this: These are really good wines, surprisingly affordable, from one of the most inhospitable wine regions on Earth. They probably wouldn't be this cheap or this available if the European Union didn't support them as part of its cultural heritage. Thanks, EU. And thanks, Paris Sigalas.

I'll run the tasting notes below, but here's a summary: the wines should either be drunk fresh, or after 5 years. I found wines in the middle to have entered a dumb period. So if you have a 3-year-old Domaine Sigalas sitting around, put it in the back of the cellar.

Please note that these wines were presented in glassware, and we weren't given an opportunity to check the bottles; I got up and wandered into the back room to shoot the bottles I could find. I'm not saying this because I doubt the veracity -- were these wines REALLY born on an island in Greece? -- but because they were described in ways that I'm not sure were listed on the bottles; i.e., barrel-fermented, or single vineyard.

However, once I found the bottles I realized that I couldn't be sure of what was written on some of them anyway. The 2010 lists "Assyrtiko" as the varietal so I did that below, but any Santorini white must have 75% Assyrtiko, which would allow the varietal labeling under US law on all of them.

There's not much point in listing retail prices for the older wines as the will not be easy to find anywhere. Sorry.

2010 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko ($15): A nice, balanced, flavorful wine, with notes of chunky lemon marmalade, oyster shell and a slight saltiness on the finish that makes the lemon seem sweeter. (There is no residual sugar, Paris Sigalas said.) Makes me salivate for grilled white-flesh fish with olive oil and lemon.
Rating: 92

2009 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Kavalieros single-vineyard wine: Just goes to show you that a single-vineyard wine is not always better. It also has the lemon fruit and a definite saltiness, but the aroma is a little closed and the minerality not as acute. Not a bad wine, but not worth a jump in price.
Rating: 88

2008 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: This is the first of these wines to taste old, and for me it tastes decrepit: old paper, chalk, some dried lemon, but no freshness and a little sour. Doug Frost, who was leading the seminar, asked for a show of hands from a room full of sommeliers on which of the first three wines we liked best, and this was the overwhelming favorite, chosen by maybe 2/3 of the room. I have two theories about this: 1) Bottle variation, a problem I've found greater in Greek wines than others, which I think may have to do with the quality of corks, or 2) Sommeliers instinctively prefer the taste of age to youthful freshness. Bothered by being out of step with the group, I retasted this again and again, but it was consistently my least favorite of all 10 tasted.
Rating: 82

2007 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: This wine tasted less old than the '08, yet still old; more like a retired boomer than a WWII vet. The lemon fruit had re-emerged, with some leafiness, some pepper, chalk, and a tannic quality to the finish. Better hold it for another year and see what happens.
Rating: 86

2006 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: After 5 years, apparently, the wine comes out the other side of the aging process and re-emerges with fruit and secondary flavors in balance. It has those old paper/clay age notes, but also dried lemon and lemon marmalade, pepper and chalk.
Rating: 90

2005 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: Drinking beautifully, with dried lemon, pepper, clay, and a lingering chalky finish.
Rating: 92

2004 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel Fermented): Good and bad, the non-barrel fermented wines all tasted similar. Hitting this wine after 6 vintages of non barrel-fermented wines was a shock: It smelled like umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur), with notes of honey and toast and plum juice that weren't in the others. It also tastes sweeter than the others, again reminded me of umeshu, with a soft mouthfeel and notes of honey. Only some chalk on the finish kept it in the family. I really like a good umeshu (don't ask me where you can buy one in the US, I haven't seen one yet; my favorite is at this resort in Hakone) so I liked this.
Rating: 90

2003 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel Fermented): Unlike the 2004, this one tastes more like its non-oaked siblings, with notes of citrus, chalk and white pepper. Very chalky finish.
Rating: 89

2003 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Not barrel fermented): The best wine of the day. It made me regret the wines that Paris Sigalas consigned to barrels that year. 2003 was a famously bad vintage in most of Europe, as extreme heat caused overripe grapes that Europeans had no idea how to deal with. Santorini is always really hot and dry anyway, and Sigalas' production notes say, "No heat waves occurred." It's lively, with preserved and fresh lemon, sea salt, oyster shell and that distinctive chalky aftertaste. I don't know if anybody has this sitting around, but if they do, grab it.
Rating: 96

2001 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel fermented): This one also tastes like umeshu, although it's much saltier than the '04; in fact it's really salty, which means it's probably great with food. The chalky finish links it to its siblings. Still drinking well.
Rating: 90


Christopher said...

I have some 08 Assyrtico from Santorini from my honeymoon, good to know to hold on to it for a few more years before popping the cork (maybe our 5 year anniversary?).

Damn it, now I need to go online to find some 2010 Assyrtico...

Niklas J├Ârgensen said...

What a cool tasting! Thanks for the notes. I had the 2008 recently with food and liked it a lot. But it wasn't as easy-going after the meal, thus i thought of it as a real food wine.

Still, how boring if we all liked the same wines!



Kent Benson said...

With your recent foray into wine credentials, I thought it fitting to point out that Doug Frost is not only a Master Sommelier; he is also a Master of Wine – one of only three (I think) in the world who hold both titles. The other two are Gerard Basset (UK) and Ronn Wiegand (Napa).