Samos Anthemis wine with Gulab Jamun Cake
Let’s be clear from the outset, Gulab Jamun isn’t cake. But a Gulab Jamun Cake is. Hence, this article pairs this cake with a famous and fabulous sweet wine from Samos in Greece. It also involves a couple of Greek philosophers, albeit tangentially.
It’s time to tell all.
Who can resist Gulab Jamun? Whether as the dessert of choice in a curry house or bought from a Sweet Centre, these intensely sweet deep-fried dough balls are a real treat, whether hot or cold.
I’ve seen them described, more than once, as doughnut holes on crack. But never as cakes.
Sugarcane has been grown in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, and the art of refining sugar was invented in the Indus Valley some 8,000 years ago. Since then, the various cuisines of the Indian subcontinent have created numerous sweets, including Gulab Jamun.
Traditionally, Gulab Jamun is made from milk solids known as khoya, though milk powder is now often used instead. This is skilfully kneaded into a dough, then shaped into small balls and deep-fried in ghee until golden. Then they are soaked in a sugar syrup flavoured by cardamom, rose water and saffron. As a result, they are intensely sweet and irresistible. And dangerously calorific.
Gulab Jamun Cake
Gulab Jamun Cake is a fusion of Western baking with Eastern flavours. I’ve seen some examples where Victoria sponge cakes have Gulab Jamun plopped on top. For me, that’s an automatic Red Card. That’s not a fusion; it’s a collision. Instead, the conception should create something new from the ideas of two distinctive cuisines. Hence there’s a recipe by Hetal Vasavarda here.
Now find a sweet wine to match—ideally, one with an ancient history.
Let’s visit the Greek Island of Samos, just 1.6 kilometres from the Turkish mainland. It’s a sizeable mountainous island covered by vineyards mainly devoted to the Muscat grape.
Samos was a centre of Ionian culture and luxury in classical antiquity, renowned for its wines and pottery.
The philosopher Pythagoras (570-495 BC) was a Samian credited, to the dismay of most school kids, with a well-known mathematical theorem. It states that for all right-angled triangles, the area of the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the area of the squares on the other two sides. Two remarkable High Schoolers proved this theorem in April 2023*!
The Samians were great traders and seafarers; by the seventh century BC, Samos was one of the great commercial centres of ancient Greece. Their wines travelled well in amphorae, and their fame spread. Legend has it that it was Dionysus himself that taught the Samians winegrowing.
Of all the various varieties of Muscat, it’s Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains that grows here. This is the classic ancient variety known in Greek as Moschato Samou. It’s the oldest of all the Muscat family and a parent to many of them. In Samos PDO, it makes dry, “natural”, sweet and fortified wines. These wines must be 100% monovarietal in this appellation, so the grape variety doesn’t have to be shown on the label.
The PDO vines grow mainly on the north-facing slopes of Mount Ampelos at heights up to 900 metres, frequently on hillside terraces called Pezoules. These terraces can be so steep that they may only be wide enough to fit one row of vines! Many of these are ancient structures, and old vines are commonplace. Rain is mainly in winter. There are no rivers or streams on the island, so the vine roots go deep in their search for water. The north-facing slopes and altitude help keep freshness and ensure long, slow ripening, with large diurnal temperature swings preserving acidity. Harvests are necessarily by hand, and this takes weeks.
Individual holdings are tiny, and yields are small. The United Winemaking Agricultural Cooperative of Samos (UWA) controls most wine production, totalling some five million litres annually. It’s organically certified, has two wineries and is one of the oldest in Greece. Additionally, some cuvées are from biodynamic grapes.
Founded in 1934 by Samian growers and farmers, UWA has preserved the island’s viticulture and traditions while protecting growers’ income. Indeed, there are 2,200 members with 1,600 hectares.
Union Winemaking Agricultural Cooperative of Samos, Anthemis, PDO Samos, 2016. 15%
Anthemis is a Vin de Liqueur, employing a fortification process known in French as Mutage. This is where the neutral grape spirit is added early to the fermentation. This stops it and leaves the resultant wine full of residual sugar (typically 200+ g per litre) with primary grape aromas and flavours. In short, it’s a process similar to Port production, though it predates it by centuries.
At this stage, the wine is fiery, even at 15%, so long maturation in wooden barrels helps to tame it. This example gets five years, so the wine mellows and develops tertiary aromas and flavours as it does so.
Pull the cork and serve the wine with a light chill. It’s no longer white but a striking deep orange in the glass, flecked with bronze. The aromas are complex and inviting, with new scents appearing in the glass at each sip. You’ll find honey, butterscotch, caramel, cocoa and chocolate.
On the palate, there’s still freshness from the acidity, which also ensures balance and means the wine avoids cloying, despite being luscious. There’s a slight oxidative quality underpinning dried fruits and flowers, honeycomb, tobacco, nuts and cocoa on a long and memorable finish.
Of course, Anthemis goes well with all kinds of desserts, not just Gulab Jamun Cake. Try Bakewell tart, chocolate, and ice cream, perhaps not together. Alternatively, nuts and blue cheeses make great partners.
This is also among the world’s most outstanding value wines. A 500 ml bottle is £9.99 at The Wine Society.
Epicurus (341–270 BC), another famous ancient Greek philosopher, was also born in Samos. According to Epicurus, the ultimate human achievement was Ataraxia or happiness. Furthermore, the key to attaining it was based on self-sufficiency, pleasure, simplicity and friendship. So pairing Gulub Jamun Cake with this Samian wine fits his philosophy perfectly!
*And hats off to Calcea Rujean Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, who announced their solution to the theorem in April 2023 (this month)! This one’s for you.
United Winemaking Agricultural Cooperative of Samos