When I got the call to tag along with Shawn to review Ambar’s wine program I was instantly excited for two reasons: one, I’ve never had Balkan cuisine and was immediately intrigued and two, (wine nerd alert) wines from the former Yugoslavia are unique and very hard to come by in the US, especially in DC. In fact, truth be told, I had never had any wines from the Balkans at least not their native varietals and I was more than fired up to sample a few and see what they were all about. And for the record, I drink a lot of wine and go out of my way to try different wines and seldom seen varietals so again, I was pretty fired up.
Quick History Lesson
Wines of the countries of the former Yugoslavia are nothing new, in fact they’re ancient. Wines, wine making and grape growing dates back to the Roman Empire in that part of the world, and with a quick glance at a map its easy to see why. Slovenia shares a border with Italy and all of the territory in the former Yugoslavia was once part of the Roman Empire. As such, the climate, soil and terrain closely mimics that of Northern Italy and grape growing and conversely wine making is somewhat similar to what is found in Italy as well. There has been great debate as to whether the Romans planted Italian varietals in the former Yugoslavia or if these grapes already existed there and they simply modernized (relatively speaking) the cultivation of those grapes as their territory expanded. But regardless, the grape growing and wine making history throughout the Balkans is a long one. Fast forward to the time when the region was under communist rule, especially the 70’s and 80’s and the focus of grape production was on quantity not quality and bulk wine was the norm. After the fall of communism when civil war engulfed the region, the wine industry suffered further and continued to contract for the most part until the late 90’s and early 00’s when fine wine once again became the focus of the wine makers in the region. In the last decade, the Balkans have once again began making some world class wines, that are quite unique and delicious and well worth checking out if you can get your hands on them! So all of that leads us to:
The first wine we sampled while looking over the inventive and intriguing menu was the 2011 Stobi (the winery) Zilakava (the varietal), a white from Macedonia. This was a good way to start off while awaiting our first course. The wine is very light, both in color and body but has relatively high acidity. I picked up oak and minerals on the nose with a little bit of citrus, like key lime. Zilkava is mostly used as a blending grape and as a base for Brandy, and my assumption that this particular example is so light in natural flavors that the oak became necessary to give the wine a little character. The closest thing I could equate this to would be an oaky pinot grigio, which is a bit of an oddball combination. Bottom line, it’s a nice light white but wasn’t my favorite and I’d give it an 85.
The second wine, also a white, was a tremendous upgrade from the first and may have been the best we sampled all evening: the 2009 Ivanovic Tamjanika from Serbia. This was a wonderful glass of wine and has everything you’d want in a white. Despite it being 30 degrees out, this wine conjured up summer time images and would be a great boat or pool wine- light, floral and (pardon the term) expressive. It had very nice aromas and flavors of honeysuckle and cooking spice, like cinnamon and a medium finish with some stone fruit and peach. It had a nice medium body and mild to medium acidity that also lingered very nicely on the finish. This wine was awesome, reminded me of an Aussie Viognier, and I have no qualms about rating it 90+ as a white, more directly a 92.
Next came the reds. We sampled three reds as a flight on the recommendation of our welcoming and knowledgeable proprietor. We tried, in order, the 07 Budimir Triada Prokupac from Serbia, the 08 Enira Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot blend form Bulgaria and 2011 Stobi Vranac from Macedonia.
The Budimir was nice and full bodied and had a pleasant jamminess to it. Flavors of blackberry, black cherry and a little raspberry are pretty distinct and the tannin is present but not overpowering and leads to a nice long finish that gradually ends with a little alcohol burn indicating this has a reasonably high alcohol content. This was a very unique and delicious wine, and comparing it more western styled wines is almost to do it a disservice but if forced, I’d say its got the round, jammy character of a merlot and the fruit and alcohol of a Zinfandel but without a Zin’s spice. Definitely worth a try, 91 points.
The Enira is a more traditional ‘westernized’ style red blend, with many of the usual suspect grapes like Cab and Merlot imparting their mark on the blend. Petit Verdot is the lynch pin here though, and gives this wine its backbone and spice. This is a steak wine, without a doubt. It smelled and tasted of stewed fruit like fig and prune and a little black fruit too – think cooked blueberry and a hint of black pepper. The merlot and syrah help to mellow this blend’s tannin and the medium body and acidity lead to a relatively short finish that shows great balance. 89 points (photo missing).
The best was definitely saved for last though. The Stobi Vranac was worth the wait and I would say if you try one red at Ambar, make this the one. The nose was a little subtle, but it truly fools you. This wine has a lot going on with very distinct flavors of plum and blueberry and a hint of cloves and vanilla. For a young wine, it was phenomenally well balanced with excellent, somewhat aggressive tannin, a full body and a very nice long finish. A very well made, robust and balanced wine – 94 points (photo missing).
Bottom line- I am a huge fan of Ambar’s wine program. Nowhere else will you find these unique Balkan wines in the DC area. They dominate the wine list, and rightly so. The wines we sampled are excellent examples of the region’s fine wines and offer very uncommon yet extraordinary options that are a great departure from most restaurant’s Cabs, Pinots and Chardonnays. The flavors are unique and expressive and go well with the cuisine and comfortable European atmosphere of Ambar. Not feeling adventurous? They still have you covered with some of the stand bys from California and a couple from Italy as well. If you’re a wine lover and treasure new experiences, Ambar’s Balkan inspired wine list is an absolute must. I cannot wait to return to try some more of their unique selections and highly recommend you give them a try as well- Clay Battin