June 2, 2010

What Would Tsar Nicolas II Drink?

It's been a while since we've ventured into the past.

But as we organized the Lab's cellars for transfer to Guangzhou, I found an odd bottle gathering dust on a tasting table.

A non-vintage, red dessert wine, called Kagor (Russian for Cahors), this is a wine with a storied past.

It's from the Massandra Winery, a Crimean winery also with a storied past.

Situated near Yalta on the Black Sea, Massandra was originally established to provide wines for the Tzar's summer dacha. Luxuriously managed by Prince Vorontsov -- who turned 4000 of his troops into 300 whilst "successfully" battling Napoleon -- the property includes a massive chateau in the style of Louis XIII and seven 150 meter-long tunnels used as cellars. Thanks to the dedicated oenophiles who hid the assembled bottles from the Nazis in 1941, the Massandra cellars reportedly hold one of the most extensive collections of antique European wines in the world.

Wines from the collection, as well as wines from the winery are rare, occasionally some come up for auction and often fetch prices in the thousands of dollars. So I was quite astonished to find this, a recent non-vintage bottling, for sale for about $50.

I bought it and promptly forgot about it.

So like a guy with head trauma, I was thrilled a second time when I found it in storage at the soon to be relocated Lab.

The wine itself is a blend of Superavi, a traditional grape of Georgia and Cabernet Sauvignon. And it was surprisingly good. I don't drink much Port, mostly because I don't like most Ports. But I really liked this. I was wary at first as it smelled just like Port, but then seemed to magically morph into a Cherry Coke and then changed again into a rich cafe au lait. The wine was seamless on the palate. Some residual sugar (again like Port) but not cloying and in balance with the gentle acidity. It was a mix of cherry, prune, allspice, white pepper and espresso. It wasn't as complex as the list of descriptors suggests, but it certainly had some dimension and an amazing, teeth-staining finish that lingered for what seemed a Russian winter.

I mentioned the wine had a storied past. But it's hard to get a straight answer (from Google) about the stuff. But Kagor seems to be made by heating the crushed grapes, before fermentation, which, I suppose, concentrates the sugar. There seems to a mix of opinion about whether the wine is fortified. I'd say no, but Cellar-Tracker says yes. Most awkwardly, Cahors is made from mostly Malbec which doesn't appear in this wine at all. I found a suggestion that Kagor was originally made with Malbec (Auxerrois, as Malbec is known in Cahors) but at some point the recipe was changed. Peter the Great was a fan of Cahors, and perhaps for that reason, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted Kagor as its sacramental wine. Unable to get adequate supply, maybe they tried to pass off a blend of local grapes as the original. You know how sneaky Church people can be.

So that's a lot of information about a wine you'll probably never see. Unless you're in Latvia. They still drink buckets of the stuff in Latvia.

Up next: The Lab has a Yard Sale, then takes a field trip to the beach...

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