As well as finding unusual wines in unexpected places on our travels this year, we tasted notable gins in Belgium and a range of remarkable sakes in Japan.
If I could recommend just one of the several superlative wineries I visited in Croatia last spring, it would be this gem, Vinarija Krajančić, tucked into a seaside village on the exquisite island of Korčula. In what seemed to be an unremarkable townhouse in Zavalatica, I met one of Croatia’s top winemakers, Luka Krajančić, who led me to the tasting room’s beautiful harbor-view balcony.
The soft-spoken Krajančić led a splendid tasting of refined Pošip, the most important white grape that no one has heard of, and Plavac Mali, a hearty local red. I especially adored the 2015 Sur Lie Pošip from a 55-year-old vineyard, which rose to the heights of white premier cru Burgundy. And many Plavac Malis can feel a little unruly, but this example seemed both powerful and carefully controlled. Krajančić also assembled plates of local cheese, charcuterie and langoustines so that I might try some food pairings. The wines were a revelation, only enhanced by the gorgeous setting and memorable company.
I did numerous tastings in Georgia, trying the country’s unique and delicious wines in historic mansions and atmospheric vaulted cellars and on gorgeous vineyard-view terraces. But my favorite tasting was completely unplanned; our disorganized guide gave the proprietor just 15 minutes’ notice of our arrival. The owner, Giorgi, showed us the qvevri (large, amphorae-like vessels buried in the earth) in which he ferments grapes in the traditional Georgian way, using a technique similar to that employed by local winemakers some 8,000 years ago.
Each of the five wines we tasted was delicious. The spritzy pétillant naturel Rkatsiteli was both perfumed and tannic. A peachy blend of Mtsvane Manavi and Rkatsiteli tasted round and juicy. And I loved the raisiny Saperavi, kept lively with sour-cherry acids and well-integrated tannins. Meanwhile, despite the short notice, Liana, Giorgi’s wife, had somehow managed to assemble a feast. The food paired beautifully with Giorgi’s wines, and our increasingly tipsy guide provided congenial, boisterous company.
In the medieval heart of Ghent, this recently opened tasting room and shop showcases the revival of locally distilled gins in Flanders. Gin (jenever in Flemish and Dutch) was invented in the Low Countries during the 13th century and steadily grew in popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the end of the 19th century, it had become so popular in Belgium that it was having a disastrous effect on worker productivity, which resulted in an 1880 law banning its sale. This law, which had a calamitous effect on Flemish gin distilleries, wasn’t repealed until the 1980s, by which time only a single gin distillery remained.
Now a new artisanal gin movement has developed. The two outstanding Flemish gins are Ginderella, which is seasoned with wild herbs gathered from parks in the city of Ghent, and Save the Queen gin, which is flavored with honey. The friendly owners of Proof are happy to set up a tasting of the local spirits and to explain them further. This is a both a great experience and a memorable lesson in connoisseurship.
I’ve long enjoyed drinking sakes, but I’d never before been exposed to the full range of flavors that real Japanese rice wines can provide. On my recent trip to Kyoto, Sake Bar Yoramu curated an exquisite flight of unpasteurized small-batch sakes that are nearly impossible to find back home. My partner and I tasted sakes that displayed effervescence, as well as flavors that ranged from melon to hints of blue cheese. We conversed with the Israeli proprietor, whose passion for sake, despite a subdued demeanor, shone through. The drinks were an education and also provided that exhilarating sense of discovery you get from an unexpected travel experience. The bar is popular with both locals and visitors alike and has counter seating for only eight or nine people, so try to visit outside of peak hours.
Located about 60 miles due west of Santiago, the Rosario Valley is one South America’s richest wine regions. The primary grapes are Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, which flourish in a Mediterranean-like climate. I visited Matetic Vineyards, which is owned and operated by a family whose ancestors first came here in 1892 from present-day Croatia. After a tour of the facility, which included a stroll through a modern cellar in which some 1,800 barrels are stored, I made my way to a terrace overlooking rolling, brown-blond meadows and stretches of vineyards.
There I sampled some offerings from Matetic’s higher-end line, EQ, which is short for “Equilibrio,” or “balance.” The Sauvignon Blanc had hints of pineapple and peach and just a touch of salt, which spoke to the nearby presence of the sea. From there, we moved on to a Pinot Noir that my guide, Justin, praised for its depth, adding that it went well with “good food, good friends and good music, Pink Floyd in particular.” Next, we tried what turned out to be my favorite, a Syrah that contained notes of pepper and plum. I was so smitten that I purchased two bottles and declared an intention to open one there and then. Justin smiled and handed me a corkscrew.