Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Mezcal Union Uno & Killer Bee Cocktail

Mezcal comes from Nahuatl - the language spoken by the Aztecs - and translates to "oven-cooked agave".

Whereas Mesoamerican priests and elites cooked and fermented the juices of agave plants for a fermented beverage and recent archaeology points to a possible pre-Spanish distillation for religious ceremonies, the widespread distillation of  "oven-cooked agave" didn't occur until the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century.

Over the ensuing centuries, the distillation of agave was codified into the production of Mezcal and its subset Tequila.  There are nearly 200 types of agave plants and Mezcal can be made from more than 40 of these - with the most popular being Espadín -- representing 90% of these spirits. In contrast, Tequila can only be made from the Blue Agave plant. Mezcal can be produced in nine different areas of Mexico with Oaxaca accounting for 85-90% of production. In contrast, Tequila can be produced in only five areas with Jalisco at its core. Finally, to produce Mezcal, the agave plants are cooked inside earthen pits that are lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal before being distilled in clay pots. In contrast, Tequila is typically produced by steaming the agave above ground and distilling multiple times in copper pots. 

My 2021 New Years Resolution included making an effort to drink more Mezcal and thus am starting the year with the Mezcal Union Uno ($37). This is a cooperative of local artisan families in Oaxaca and courtesy of Mezcal Reviews:

Their story says that when starting the company, an old man told them that the future of mezcal would be based on a UNIÓN. That's how they named the company, and that's how they decided to make a mezcal that featured different producer families. Though Pedro Hernandez is their master mezcalero, each bottle is produced by a union of Oaxacan families. There may be slight variations of flavor from batch to batch, but not much, as they are now using a Solera process to ensure better consistency. In February of 2017, Mezcal Union signed a distribution agreement with Diageo. The agreement keeps the ownership of Union in the hands of its founders, while opening the doors to a wider distribution network.

I purchased a bottle labeled with Lot No. HKU124 that's produced from farm-grown Espadin and wild Cirial agave.  The spirit is an unaged mezcal or joven where a campfire smoke character is prevalent on the nose but partially gives way to pine, white pepper, and vanilla.  As for a cocktail, the Killer Bee is a good option where the honey and lemon dampen the smoke and allow a little floral character to arise.

Killer Bee

  • 1 1⁄2 ounces honey
  • 2 ounces mezcal, such as Del Maguey Vida brand
  • 1 1⁄2 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Cross Pollinated Rye Whiskeys from Shmidt Spirits

While driving through my old college quarters I noticed a new distillery in the area, Shmidt Spirits -- located just north of College Park in Beltsville Maryland.  The venture was started by two fellow Terp graduates Arthur Shmidt (President) and Brian Roan (Master Distiller), with Brian available on my visit to discuss the distillery.  They chose Beltsville after not being able to find a suitable location closer to the University and here they distill unique and innovative spirits.

Currently, they offer three spirits, all finished in a cross-pollinating wine or spirits cask. Their Viridian Gin is infused with oranges and lavender with a non-toxic dose of juniper and then finished in a rye whiskey cask. The result is a smooth and approachable gin - flavorful and not overbearing. The Silver Rye Whiskey contains 15% winter wheat in the mash which helps soften the sharp rye. The whiskey is aged for four days in a charred oak barrel and then finished in a chardonnay cask for three days -- further mellowing the spirit to almost zero burn. Expect an oaked chardonnay character -- green apples and butter -- which merge seamlessly with the smooth rye flavor. Their final offering is the Cobalt Rye Whiskey contains the same mash bill as the Silver but is finished in a cask that once housed rum agricole. It is very smooth, almost too lenient on the rye for those who expect a little jolt from rye.  If you find yourself in the College Park area, theCompass Craft Beverage Finder will guide you to this highly recommended establishment. Cheers.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Leaving 2020 behind with a duo of Vilarnau Brut Cava

"Members of Spainish nobility, the Vilarnau family settled in this special place that is Penedés in the 12th century. Vilarnau is a contraction of the latin, Vila Arnau, in other words the Arnau family’s “country house, or Domus”. Formerly it stood within the estate of the Castillo de Subirats (Subirats Castle) where vines were already being grown in the 12th century. Albert de Vilarnau, whose name has been given to what is currently the brand’s most exclusive cava, was the singular character who was responsible for increasing the family’s power back in the 14th century. He was also a patron of the church of Santa Maria de Vilarnau." History of Vilarnau

Our household ended dreadful 2020 on a high with two bottles of Vilarnau brut cava courtesy of Gonzalez Byass USA. This cava house is located within this sparkling wine's home territory just outside of Barcelona. In 1949, "the owners first sold a cava made from grapes that had been grown on the 'Can Petit i Les Planes de Vilarnau' estate, for centuries".  They became part of the Gonzalez Byass family in 1982 which allowed them to modernize operations in 1985.

Vilarnau continues to utilize the “Can Petit i les Planes de Vilarnau” estate which is situated on 20 hectares and protected from the cold Pyrenean winds by the nearby Montserrat mountains. On the east, the vines receive coastal influences from the Mediterranean Sea. Vilarnau also sources fruit from d’Espiells, the highest, windiest part of the municipality of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. Bordered to the south by the coastal Serrelada mountains and to the north by the Montserrat mountains, the vineyard enjoys an exceptional microclimate. 

The two wines we received from Gonzalez Byass are from Vilarnau's Trencadís Edition. These beautiful bottles are inspired by the Trencadís mosaic that was used in the "modernist art movement in Catalonia, created from tiny fragments of broken ceramic tiles, roof tiles or crockery.  The catalan architects Antoni GaudÍ and Josep MarÍa Pujol used “trencadÍs” in many of their designs, the most famous probably being “Parc Güell in Barcelona".  

Vilarnau Brut Reserva NV ($14.99)
As beautiful as the bottle, this is a blend of 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, and 15% Xarel·lo and from grapes grown in d’Espiells. The grapes are fermented separately then blended before the second fermentation in this very complex wine. It's weighty, bready, and has notes of green apples. 

Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé NV ($15.99)
This is an organic blend of 85% Garnacha and 15% Pinot Noir from the “Can Petit i les Planes de Vilarnau” estate. In fact, Vilarnau became one of the first estates in Penedes to plant Pinot Noir back in 1991. Another excellent sparkler this time with textured strawberries with a bready effervescence. 

Cheers to sparkling wine under $16 and a Happy and Healthy 2021. 

Disclosure: We received samples from Gonzalez Byass USA in order to share our opinion about their products, but this isn’t a sponsored post.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The BevFluence #1299Challenge: Wegmans

Last month BevFluence invited a community of wine enthusiasts to select a supermarket or large beverage retail chain and purchase six wines under $12.99 to review. We chose Wegmans since a new store just opened in Tysons Corner. Here are our selections. 

Fox Run Vineyards 2018 Simmons Vineyard Traminette ($11.99)
Special thanks to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and their wine seminar “New York's Heritage & Hybrid Wines with Carlo DeVito” for introducing us to this wine (although they featured the 2019, I found the 2018).  Whereas Fox Run is located on the west side of Seneca Lake, Simmons Vineyard is located on Keuka Lake - specifically the east bank of the west fork. For this Traminette, expect a tropical and melon aroma, complexity on the palate, lychee, stoney, viscosity, and acids almost catching the sugar (1.8%).

Emilia Natura 2018 Carmenere ($9.49)
The grapes are farmed organically in the Colchagua Valley, Chile with 20% of the wine aged 6 months in French oak barrels. The wine expresses blue fruits like plums and blueberries, is concentrated, and provides decent acidity. Wish there was more tannic structure - but at under $10 -  that may be expecting too much. The Natura brand is imported into the U.S. by Banfi Vintners.  

Koenig Pinot Blanc ($10.99)
The Koenig winery became the first Kosher wine cellar in France when it opened in Alsace in 1960.  Specifically, the vineyards are located in Dambach-la-Ville on the eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains. The wines are certified kosher and made under the supervision of the Beth-Din of Strasbourg, a kosher regulatory council, and today, Koenig is part of the Royal Wine Corp family.  This Pinot Blanc starts with limes and stone fruits then giving way to green apples and some weight with appropriate acidity.  It's long gone before you realize it.

Hugl Gruner Veltliner
Imagine biting into an Asian Pear where the flesh has been inoculated with small amounts of lemons and sea salt. That is the Hugl GV, dry, minerally, and freshly acidic. The winery is owned and operated by Sylvia and Martin Hugl who specialize in Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt. In 2013, they combined their two estates, Martin's Hugl family estate and Sylvia's Wimmer family estate, to form Weingut HuglWimmer. 

Fontana Candid Frascati 2019  ($8.49)
The Malvasia Bianca di Candia (60%), Trebbiano Toscano (30%), and Malvasia del Lazio (10%) grapes are grown in volcanic soils in the Frascati DOC in the province of Lazio. Specifically, in the communes of Frascati, Monteporzio Catone, Grottaferrata, Montecompatri, and Rome. Starts with wildflowers, then think textured lemons sprinkled with a few almonds. The biggest surprise yet. 

Vinos de Arganza Lagar de Robla Mencia Premium 2016 ($9.99)
This is "wine from the land of Castilla y Leon", more precisely the D.O. Bierzo and close to the region's borders with Galicia (to the west). That means an Atlantic influence and thus cooler and milder conditions and furthermore, the region is protected from extreme weather events by the Cordillera Cantábrica mountains.  These conditions ensure that "the local Mencia grapes achieve optimum ripeness to produce lively, fruity and often intense red wines".  The Lagar de Robla Mencia Premium was aged in eighteen months in American oak barrels that didn't overwhelm the fruit.  Instead, there's a cherry licorice aroma, chalky - then lively fruit (black cherries and blueberries), and chewy tannins. The downside is that the wine comes across as slightly disjointed and not integrated enough and the finish evaporates quickly. But for under $10, it is worthy. 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Grape Spotlight: Azerbaijani Rkatsiteli

Millennia ago, long before the Caucasus region was divided up into nation-states, people living here were cultivating grapes. An ever-increasing body of archaeological and micro-botanical research suggests that wine was made in considerable quantity over 6000 years ago at sites along the Arpachay River, a valley in Nakhchivan’s Sharur region. Several sites suggest an even older knowledge of wine by the Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture near Aghstafa in what today is western Azerbaijan. Evidently, the South Caucasus region is of the oldest centers of wine-making anywhere on the planet. Azerbaijan Wine Traditions

The Republic of Georgia gets most of the wine attention within the Caucasus region but neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan share many traits from the dawn of winemaking civilization. In Azerbaijan (located directly east of Armenia; southeast of the Republic of Georgia, and directly south of Dagestan Russia) there are three major wine growing regions: the Caspain Shoreline, Ganja and the Lesser Caucasus, and the Shirvan Valley and the Greater Caucasus. One of the largest fruit juice producers in the South Caucasus is located in this last region: Az-Granata.

In 2021, Az-Granata will be celebrating its 10th anniversary and in addition to the juices, they produce a range of alcoholic beverages - 24 million bottles annually - of brandy, raki, vodka, whiskey, and wine. Their vineyards are located in the Adnaly Valley of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, at an altitude of 400-700 meters (1,300-2,300ft) above sea level.  These 500 hectares of vineyards are planted with a mixture of  Caucasian and European grape varieties: Madrasa, Bayan Shira, Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, and Shirvanshahi with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Muscat. The winery also specializes in pomegranate wine as the word "granat" from which the winery takes its name means "pomegranate" in Russian.

But our focus today is on the Agdam Azerbaijani Dry White Wine ($16.99). The wine is 100% Rkatsiteli and its name, Agdam, refers to one of the largest districts of Azerbaijan and located in the center of the Karabakh region. This is an ancient and historical region known for breeding horses with excellent temperament and speed. The wine also has a good temperament with its straw color, weighty stone fruits, and a touch of honey from aging in oak barrels, and adversely loses spiciness and acidity.  It is available in the United States through Winery LLC.  Next, I want to try the 100% Saperavi Baku Dry Red Wine and perhaps the Shusha Semi-sweet Pomegranate Wine.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Hiking with #theCompassCBF: Keys Gap and Loudoun County Wine Country

For those who are interested in a moderate hike in Loudoun County's wine country, then take Route 9 - Charles Town Pike to the West Virginia border and hike the Keys Gap section of the Appalachian Trail. You won't find spectacular views but be comforted that afterward there will be a tasty beer, wine, or cider within arm's reach. 

We started our post-hike tour heading west into Charles Town, WV where Abolitionist Ale Works awaited. The brewery has fared well enough during the outbreak to produce a lineup of 20+ interesting beers - with many brewed for the Christmas season.  These include the  Keg Nog (Bourbon Barrel Aged) Imperial Cream AleWild Wit Christmas American Wild AleLiquid Bread Pudding American Wild AleDirty Santa Beard (Cognac Barrel Aged) Stout - Imperial / Double, and the Abo Xmas Brandy Barrel-Aged Strong Ale. We brought one of each of these home as well as the Dirty Sidecar (Cognac Barrel Aged) Stout - Imperial / Double, the Apple Brandy Barrel West by Quad, the Blackberry Sage Gin Barrel Aged American Wild Ale, and the Abolitionist Ale (1 Year Barrel-Aged) Farmhouse Ale. I opened this farmhouse ale last night and the Brett provides delicious funkiness mixed with tart sour cherries and a little red wine. Expect plenty of updates on social media as we drink through these beers.

Traveling back into the Virginia, Notaviva Craft Fermentations and Bozzo Family Vineyards are the two closest east of the border. Over the years Notaviva Vineyards has expanded beyond wine -- adding beer and cider to their portfolio. I had targeted Notaviva for their "Vierzig" Blaufrankisch ($21) an estate-grown blend of 75% Blaufrankisch and 25% Cabernet Franc. This has been a winning blend in the Finger Lakes and should hold true in Virginia. I also felt I needed a lighter and more traditional craft beer after the Abolitionist visit and chose a 4-pack of their "Fröehlich" Kölsch. I opened a can on my return home and it's very well made with a slightly bready character and enough hops to liven the finish. 

Bozzo Family opened just two years ago and produces all its wines from estate fruit sans their two Petit Manseng where the grapes are sourced from a neighboring vineyard.   I left with a bottle of their Alma ($25), a wine named after their mother, and which is a dry 2018 Viognier.  I also chose one of their dueling Petit Mansengs, a rising commodity in the Virginia wine industry, and in particular the dry style. That was the Lisa & Thad SO ($25 and named after their daughter and son-in-law) and a dry 2017 Petit Manseng which was aged in steel and French oak for 18 months - the ("SO"). The other Petit Manseng is the 2018 Patricia which was fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel for about 5 months. 

Truthfully, I hadn't planned on visiting Walsh Family Wine although Nate Walsh is a prominent winemaker and provided an entertaining and educational tasting series while at Sunset Hills Vineyard. However, in a divine fashion, the Route 9 detour around Hillsboro led me straight to the winery.  Nate interacts with a wide range of grape varieties in there were Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and a collection of red Bordeaux styled wines.  I chose a bottle of their 2018 Walsh Family Wine Viognier ($30) because -- it's a Virginia Viognier. 

While heading to Keys Gap and before Hillsboro I had noticed a new brewery which turned out to be the 3-month-old Harvest Gap Brewery.  There were dozens and dozens of thirsty patrons huddled in small groups throughout the spacious grounds sipping and eating from the inhouse kitchen. For my first real drink of the day, I selected a sampler and found a quiet outdoor table nearer the road.  I went with the Mad Black Cow, Nitro Milk Stout, Heavy "D" Sour AleHappy Pils Pilsner, and the recommended 52 Dakota West Coast DIPA. That was a very drinkable double IPA, with the mango and vanilla providing a bit of a milkshake feel without the lactose. The other three were also solid beers - ready to make Harvest Gap a destination in itself.

The final, and previously planned stop, was to Corcoran Wine & Cider where Lori Corcoran had signaled new ciders were on the horizon.  Over a bottle of a recently bottled PoPo Peach, we discussed family, cider, Loudoun wine as Blu met new friends.  Lori also let me taste the now bottled and released Corcoran Hard Cider, a fresh, tart, and effervescent cider where the apple flavors are prominent. The PoPo is easy drinking with the stone fruit providing a little depth.  With a handful of ciders, I also came took home a bottle of her 2012 Waterford ($40) - a white port-styled wine made from 100% Viognier and aged seven years in whiskey barrels. How unique. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Picaroon Single Barrel Rum from Blackwater Distilling™

Heading to or from the Delmarva beaches leads to the Bay Bridge, Kent Island, and a chance to taste and tour Maryland's oldest post-prohibition distillery: Blackwater Distilling™. They were founded in 2008 and gained traction with their Sloop Betty Handcrafted Wheat Vodka - a vodka labeled "Produced and Bottled by Blackwater Distilling” since they don't actually distill the vodka or the cane sugar (Cachaça) used in this unique blend. 

On the other hand, their Picaroon Maryland Rum is labeled with "Distilled and Bottled by Blackwater Distilling" since the rum is distilled entirely onsite using raw cane sugar based on the French Caribbean tradition. And the cane juice is fermented using a yeast strain that was isolated during a natural sugar cane fermentation in the island of Martinique and at temperatures present on that island.  

Blackwater traditionally releases three versions of this Picaroon Maryland Rum, a White, Gold, and Dark. Interestingly, the Gold is colored using caramel made in-house (the distillery is a stickler for quality).  The Dark is a barrel-aged Picaroon Rum, which has been stored in new, 53-gallon, charred, American oak barrels. During bottling the rum is mellowed by blending in some of the un-aged Picaroon White Rum. 

More recently, the distillery has released a new member to the family -- the Picaroon Single Barrel Rum. As its name implies, all bottles in the series come from a single barrel and each batch is one-of-a-kind, labeled with handwritten barrel and bottle numbers.  I purchased a bottle and am baffled with each sip. Don't misunderstand. It's very good, but the complexity reminds me more of a soft whiskey with a hint of cane sugar sweetness.  The 50% abv is tempered somewhat by cinnamon and other baking spices and overall, a very intriguing rum.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Landing Craft Beer in Lewes Delaware

For a couple years now a neighbor has been bringing home and sharing delicious sour beer from his weekend visits to Lewes, Delaware. Eventually, I found time to see where these beers call home during a weekend at the beach.  In 2018, Big Oyster Brewery was named the Brewers Association's Second Fastest Growing Brewery and their beer is available throughout the Delmarva peninsula and as far north as Allenton and west to D.C. I arrived at the Big Red Barn after the lunch crowd and had a quiet seating to revisit sours such as the Black Lips Blackberry Sour Ale and the Donut Kill My Vibe - Blueberry Lemon kettle sour. Both delicious beers. So was the "Gobsmakced" Hazelnut Porter which is a dry English porter with just subtle hazelnut intermixed with the expected porter flavors. However, my favorite beer was the simplest. The German styled Public Pilsner is a light yet flavorful bready pils where a growler goes well with bing watching college football on a Saturday afternoon.

Crooked Hammock Brewery is located less than a mile down the road which makes a beer tour very convenient.  They have also expanded into Middletown, Delaware and North Myrtle Beach providing easy access to Route 301 commuters and Coastal Carolina visitors. In Lewes, expect a large restaurant, possible live music (finally), and plenty of beer.  I went through a double flight of four and recommend the Lift Ticket Golden Stout for something very interesting (pleasantly less sweet than expected) and the Pass the Sauce Apple Cranberry Cobbler Sour.  Thanksgiving in a beer.  The "5" Hazy DIPA is solid and only 8% abv whereas the everyday beer - particularly during a gold outing - is the Four Tires, Two Friends, and a Radio American Lager.  Grab a six-pack of this beer. 

If you want to add a distillery and winery to your trip, Beach Time Distilling and Nassau Valley Vineyards are nearby, just check their hours before you visit. theCompass Craft Beverage Finder has directions and their contact information. Cheers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Hiking with #theCompassCBF in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains

Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain Park are neighboring state and national parks located in the Catoctin Mountains in Thurmont, Maryland.  They are physically separated by Route 77 and offer trails ranging from easy to challenging with the moderate CMP Wolf Rock and Chimney Trail and the easy CFSP Cunningham Falls Lower Trail the most popular.  Last week we hiked the 3.4 mile Wolf Rock and Chimney Trail and added 1.4 miles by including the Thurmont Vista. Next time we will embark on the Catoctin Mountain Extended Loop Trail that includes all three of these overlooks plus the CFSP Cunningham Falls Lower Trail. And another beauty of these parks is that several wineries have sprung up near their borders. Travel northwest and you arrive at Red Heifer Winery. Head just north of Thurmont to Catoctin Breeze Vineyards. Or drive a little southeast to Links Bridge Vineyards. 

Red Heifer Winery is a 56-acre estate situated at 1,500 feet, an elevation where the grapes are allowed to cool after the hot summer day. The winery had previously been a peach and apple orchard farmed by the current owner's grandparents and the first vines were planted in 2010. These vines are a diverse set of vinifera, hybrids, and a couple native labrusca. Last year I had tasted several of their wines, remembering their 2017 Winemaker's Reserve Cabernet Franc and dry 2017 Vidal Blanc in particular. On this visit, I simply picked up a bottle of their estate-grown 2017 Blaufrankish ($28) -- because it's a Blaufrankish.  The winery has a nice winter covid set-up with bubbles and firepits. However, only 21 and up hikers permitted.

I had to stop by Catoctin Breeze Vineyards for a wine club pickup which featured, once again, a dry Vidal - this time the 2019 Intermezzo Vidal Blanc ($24).  The other wines were the 2018 Concerto Bordeaux Blend ($45) and the 2018 Opera Merlot ($36).  These last two reds wines salvaged from the horrible rainy 2018 growing season where the winery had to drop all of their Syrah and most of their Cabernet Franc.  Catoctin Breeze is a great spot to just hang out with weekend live music, food trucks, and usually an abundant portfolio of wine. 

Another spot to hangout, particularly on their patio on the Monocacy River is Links Bridge Vineyards. These long-time growers usually for Old Westminster Winery moved into the winemaking space a few years ago and are known for fantastic estate-grown Cabernet Franc. On this first time visit, we sat at a table next to a fire pit and enjoyed a fall tasting flight. The 2016 Cabernet Franc Bin 10 ($28) is made from grapes grown on their Riverside Vineyard where the oak doesn't overwhelm the fruit. Once again a dry Vidal was available - this time the 2016 Dry Vidal ($18) which is a good example of how Maryland winemakers are able to coax plenty of flavor and acidity from complete fermentation. The 2019 Chardonnay ($25) was also a solid wine, composed of grapes from both the Hillside and Riverside vineyards and with a fruit-forward and fresh profile.  Can't wait to return in the spring for some fishing and wine. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Grape Spotlight: Somló Juhfark

Courtesy of Kolonics Pinceszet
At 507 hectares, Somló is Hungary's second smallest wine region with Tihany being the smallest. Somló is basically a single hill that was an active volcano millions of years ago when the Pannonian Sea covered what is now central Europe. Today the hill is populated by multi-generational small family farms that were not confiscated during communism. Collectivized and socialist agriculture never gained a foothold in Somló thanks to its small size and the hill's steep slopes. These were inaccessible to machines and large-scale agricultural methods.

Many of these small farms are vineyards planted in the rich volcanic black basalt soil that helps winemakers create minerally driven wines. The soil also helps warm the grapes during chillier days by absorbing heat and then radiating it back towards the vines. Juhfark, in particular, requires this warming because it's thin skins are prone to rot and are very sensitive to frost. It also needs plenty of sunshine to fully ripen which tends to occur on the south-facing slope. For these reasons, Jufark is the "iconic variety-of-choice" for local winemakers.  Its name translates to "sheep's tail", "juh" translating to sheep and "fark" to tail and describes the shape of the dangling grape clusters. 

The origins of Juhfark are unclear. Some believe it was conceived on this hill. Others believe Styria, in neighboring Austria, is its homeland.  Regardless, Somló Juhfark is known for being elegant, balanced, and full-bodied. One such wine is the 2018 Kolonics Winery Somló "Nimrod" Juhfark ($25) available from Taste Hungary. The grapes come from southeastern facing vines that were aged in the 1,060 liter "Nimrod" barrel made from new Hungarian oak. Winemaker Karoly Kolonics names his wine after the barrel in which they aged. This Juhfark reminds me of Fall, a little rustic; with some stone fruit and apple notes, minerals, and smoke; and lifted slightly by a fresh finish. The wine also has plenty of depth and soaking on its skins for 6-12 hours after pressing and from oak fermentation. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Grape Spotlight: Malvasija Dubrovacka

Previously believed to be distinct cultivars Malvasia delle Lipari, Malvasia di Sardegna, Greco di Gerace (Italy), Malvasia de Sitges (Spain) and Malvasia dubrovačka (Croatia) displayed an identical molecular profile when analyzed by 15 SSR markers. Ampelographic comparison supports the genetic analysis indicating that they are all the same variety; they do not differ in any important morphological trait. This genotype is scattered all over the Mediterranean area and as far as the Canaries and Madeira. -- Malvasia delle Lipari, Malvasia di Sardegna, Greco di Gerace, Malvasia de Sitges and Malvasia dubrovačka  - Synonyms of an old and famous grape cultivar

As its name suggests, the Croatian synonym for this grape, Malvasija dubrovacka, is dominant near the southern Dalmatian city of Dubrovnik. Malvasija dubrovacka is an ancient grape with the earliest written documentation dating back to 1385 (Archive of the Republic of Dubrovnik). Andro Crvik (Crvik Vinogradi & Vinarija and third generation of winemaker) says the wine was "used to honor the 'most excellent' visitors to the Republic of Dubrovnik and was served as a diplomatic wine". South of the historic walled city, in the village of Konavle, these vines are planted from 550 to 3,300 yards from the Adriatic. Crvik continued, "... the small berries and loose clusters usually produce wines with higher alcohol. In good years, the wine can be stored for 15 to 20 years, in some situations even longer".

When in Dubrovnik, examples of Malvasija dubrovacka, like the Crvik Tezoro, are available at the Malvasija Wine Bar. Or you can travel just south of the Dubrovnik airport to visit Crvik Vinogradi & Vinarija and the small karst fields on the south side of Konavle where their Malvasija dubrovacka vines are planted. Karst fields are formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks like limestone meaning well-drained soils. Combined with abundant sunshine and tempering effects from the sea - they create an ideal grape growing environment.

I received this 2019 Crvik Tezoro Malvasija Dubrovačka ($29.00) from Croatian Premium Wine Imports and plan to stock on more in the near future. The senses are immediately stimulated by the floral and orange blossom aromas which are followed by a complex mixture of lime and buttery depth and ending with a slowly rising finish. Plus, the 14.3% abv feels more like 12%. An excellent wine.

Disclosure: We received samples from Croatian Premium Wine Imports in order to share our opinion about their products, but this isn’t a sponsored post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Miss Vicky Wine from Château des Moriers, Fleurie, Beaujolais

After a hiatus, we are continuing our Hopwine series from samples received over the summer and highlighting excellent Gamay wines made at Château des Moriers in Fleurie, Beaujolais and branded as Miss Vicky Wine.

Beaujolais is located in eastern France, immediately south of Burgundy, and is best known for its Gamay wines through Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais Nouveau, and the ten Beaujolais crus - subregions recognized as the finest in Beaujolais. One of these outstanding areas is Fleurie often referred to as "The Queen of Beaujolais".  

"Fleurie is in the center of the ten Beaujolais crus. It lies just south of Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas and to the north of Morgon. Chiroubles lies just to the west. Vineyards face south and southeast overlooking the Saone River valley and are shielded from cold northwesterly weather systems by the hills to the west of the Beaujolais region. The region receives abundant sunshine hours as the grapes are slowly cooled by gentle influences from the Mediterranean Sea in the south. This ensures that ripening is slow and steady, leading to a balance of acidity and flavor in the grapes.  

Fleurie vineyards are generally planted on pink granite soil. But variations in textures and additional soil components give rise to different styles of wine. On the higher slopes within the appellation, the soils are made up of coarse, dry sand. This absorbs and reflects heat, aiding the ripening process. Wines produced from these vineyards are known for their delicate aromas. Vineyards lower down the slopes tend to have a higher proportion of water-retaining clay. This gives wines from these sites a slightly denser, more-structured style of wine." (1) 

Vines were first planted in Fleurie by Benedictine monks during the early Middle Ages. More recently, in 2005, Gilles Monrozier took over the nine-hectare family vineyard  -- a plot of sand and pink granite first planted with grapes by his ancestors 200 years ago and located in far northern Fleurie bordering Moulin-à-Vent.  More recently Gilles' daughter Anne-Victoire, a wine blogger, developed the Miss Vicky Wine brand in order to first highlight her family's wines and eventually other French winemakers and regions. 
Fleurie o Joie 2018
The wine is 100% Gamay from grown in different lots in the vineyard in front of the château.  Floral and fruit-forward.

Fleurie Fleurs des Champs 2018
The wine is 100% Gamay from grown in different lots in the vineyard in front of the château. It contains bright floral notes with earthy cherries with a dose of minerality.  One easy-drinking, delicious wine. 

Fleurie La Brirette 2015
The grapes derive from a one-hectare lot called La Brirette which is within the  Les Moriers sub-region. These wines are known for their bigger structure, depth, and spiciness and the La Brirette 2015 does not disappoint. It is dense with a plethora of spices which somehow lead to an elegant wine. 

Moulin-à-Vent Vielles Vignes 2014
This is a blend of two vineyard sites just over the border into Moulin-à-Vent. One sits on granitic soils, the other on sandy clay. The juice is fermented and aged in 400L barrels for about one year leading to complexity and a velvety texture. This wine melts in the mouth. Exceptional.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Celebrate Martinje Virtually at the Croatian Embassy

November 11th (12th in the Eastern Church) is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, and although he is the patron saint of France, St. Martin still receives devout reverence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He was born in Pannonia (present-day Szombathely, Hungary) in the early 4th century and after being baptized into the Catholic community and leaving the Roman army, Martin became a missionary in the provinces of Pannonia and Illyricum (now in the Balkan Peninsula).  Staying true to the Nicene Creed, he was forced out of Illyricum by the Arians and eventually returned to Gaul where he was made bishop of Tours.

During his years as Bishop, Martin nurtured an immense love for wine and began blessing the beverage in order to make it more popular among laypeople. Throughout Europe, this tradition has continued with winemakers giving thanks to St. Martin for a good harvest - and especially in Croatia, where Martinje celebrates the day that must, or young wine matures into wine fit for drinking.  But before indulging the wine must first be baptized and turned into chaste wine, since must is considered impure.

This year the Croatian Embassy in Washington D.C. along with Croatian Premium Wine Imports (CPWI) are celebrating Martinje through a virtual tasting on November 5th, 2020 at 6PM E.T.  The event will start with a conversation regarding the winemaking tradition and the blessing of the wine followed by a virtual wine tasting of wines from the Croatian Uplands, Istria and Dalmatia. The guests include the Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia, His Excellency Pjer Šimunovic, three-time Croatian National Champion and wine judge, Siniša Lasan, and the winemakers from Medimurje, Istria, and Dalmatia. They will be tasting two white and two red wines: Štampar Pušipel, Hažic Graševina, Ritoša Teran and Terra Madre Barrique Plavac Mali.

I will be participating in a little different scope. I will be comparing the Terra Madre Barrique Plavac Mali ($19) with the Wines of Illyria Plavac Mali ($20). The grapes are grown in a similar area -- the Komarna AVA in Croatia vs Herzegovina Bosnia. Plavac Mali wines are high in alcohol and tannins, has excellent aging capabilities, and is the offspring of Crljenak Kastelanski (Tribidrag - Zinfandel) and Dobricic. The latter is an ancient grape and may have been available during Martin's retreats to the Dalmatian coast.  Both Komarna and Herzegovina enjoy a Mediterranean climate with the Terra Madre grown directly on the Adriatic and the Illyria further inland from the sea between Mostar and Medugorje. 

Cheers to Martinje, Croatia, Herzegovina, and St. Martin of Tours. 

Note: Although it is too late to have the wines shipped to you in time for this event, CPWI will continue to honor through Saturday 11/7 a discount of 20% off for those wines. Go to CPWI, and when checking out enter the discount coupon code MARTINJE20 for home delivery to most states in the USA. Please allow about a week for delivery.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Gonzalez Byass Sherry & Candy - A Halloween Treat

Who likes Halloween candy and wine? Or in this case, sherry? Our friends at Gonzalez Byass wanted us to explore this concept through three of their sherries: Alfonso Oloroso, Nectar Pedro Ximénez, and Harveys Bristol Cream. These wines were all produced at their Jerez distillery in Spain which we visited in August 2019 in A Family Visit to Gonzalez Byass for Tio Pepe.  Please read this post as a refresher on sherry regarding the region, the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (PX) grapes, production, styles, and the solera systems.

On their own, these are three enjoyable wines. The Alfonso Oloroso boasts pecans and walnuts within its dry profile. The Harveys Bristol Cream has a milder aroma, more body (nuts and caramel), and suitable acidity to balance the sugar. And the Nectar Pedro Ximénez is all figs within a savory and complex core which also includes caramel and nuts.

With the candy, we conducted two tastings featuring different candies. The first sitting paired the three sherries with Milk Duds, Reese's, Payday, and Butterfingers. The Butterfingers worked best with the Harveys Bristol Cream by adding even more nuts to the palate. The Milk Duds paired nicely with the Nectar Pedro Ximénez as the chewy caramel worked into that wine's depth. The Reese's was a huge hit with the Alfonso adding chocolate and bringing forth some orange from the wine. And the salt from the Payday helped the peanuts blend into the Alfonso.

The second tasting confirmed some of the lessons learned from the previous sitting. In general, the complex and rich Nectar Pedro Ximénez requires a candy with either complexity or chewiness. And candies with chocolates and nuts work well with the Alfonso Oloroso and Harveys Bristol Cream. 

Specifically, the Almond Joy and Tootsie Roll paired best with the Nectar, particularly the Almond Joy where the coconut added even more nuances to that sherry. Same for the 100 Grand bar - the caramel blended into that wine's depth.  The Hersheys wrapped around both the Alfonso and Harveys tasting like a chocolate nugget with nut filling. The Crunch bar was similar. The Baby Ruth worked best with the Harveys with the chewiness elevating the wine. And finally, the Whoppers didn't play well with any of these sherries. The sensation was disjointed with one sensation of candy then wine or vice versa.

Finally, a stand-alone sitting showed to use KitKats with the Alfonso Oloroso. 

Disclosure: We received samples from Gonzalez Byass in order to share our opinion about their products, but this isn’t a sponsored post.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Serbian Rakija: Zaric Šljivovica & Hubert 1924 Quince

Rakija is an eau de vie styled fruit brandy popular in Slavic and Balkan countries and in Hungary where it is known as Palinka. It is the national drink of Serbia and the plum variety (Šljivovica) is actually a registered trademark with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Rakija is also distilled from other fruits such as apricots, grapes, pears, and cherries where the fermented fruits are "baked" and not boiled in the distillation process. The first distillation is referred to as "soft brandy" whereas the second distillation is called prepecenica -- or "double-baked".  Plums are double-baked whereas apricot, quince, and pear brandies are often soft brandies in order to retain the fruit fragrance.

Historians claim that the spirit arose in the Balkans in the 16th century as a result of the Turkish invasions of the 14th & 15th centuries. However, there is now three separate archaeological evidence that Rakija was being distilled in Bulgaria in the 11th century.  Regardless of origin, rakija has been and still is a family staple throughout Eastern Europe. 

With Šljivovica, producers use different plum varieties and blend these together -- either combining before fermentation or after distillation. Three of the most popular plum varieties are Požegaca, Crvena Ranka, and Trnovaca. The latter is an older cultivated species of plum which are small and round and provides rich fruit. Crvena Ranka is another ancient species that is larger and thrives in poorer and drier soils. It is also sterile and thus needs to be pollinated by another plum species - often  Požegaca or better known as Damson.  However, this plum is very sensitive to frost and the Plum plox virus (a viral disease), thus vigilant care is taken in the orchards. 

Besides varietal differences within a rakija spirit, there are also geographic differences. For instance, in the Kosjeric region of western Serbia, fruit ripens late in the growing season due to the area's higher altitude. This translates to a ratio of sugars and acids and higher quality fruit sought by distillers.  In the Vojvodina province on the Carpathian Basin -- the plain that remained when the Pliocene Pannonian Sea dried out -- is full of rich and fertile loamy loess soils.  As a result, agriculture dominates in Vojvodina as the soil ensures a good supply of plant-available water, soil aeration, and various minerals. I recently purchased two Serbian Rakija from each of these areas. 

The Zaric Distillery operates in Kosjeric and produces numerous rakija from local fruit including the Zaric Distillery Kraljica ($52). Kraljica translates to Queen, is PDO protected, and is a prepecenica Šljivovica produced by the three plum varieties discussed above: Požegaca, Crvena Ranka, and Trnovaca. After the second distillation, the spirit is aged for a minimum of seven years in oak,  converting the clear Rakija into a style similar to cognac.  Even with the oak aging, plums leap through the nose and remain on the palate with a layer of smoke that lasts in a low burn setting (42% abv). I really like the smokiness as it doesn't overpower the fruit. 

Destillerija Hubert 1924 is located in Vojvodina - specifically in Banatsko Veliko Selo - near the Romanian Border. The family distillery was founded in 2007 but the building that houses the distilling operations was built in 1924, hence the name. They produce six brandies (Quince, Apricot, Apple, Plum, Pear, Cherry) using an old family recipe and the traditional double distillation in copper cauldrons. The fruit is sourced from the 15 hectares family orchard estate. Since quince is not fairly known in the U.S., I grabbed a bottle of the Dunja Quince Brandy ($44). Quince (Dunja in Serbian) is a pome fruit, related to apples and pears, that when ripe is bright yellow and looks like a fuzzy, short-necked pear. As a raw fruit, it is too sour and astringent to eat so is most often used in jams, cakes, and rakija.  It also has a relatively low sugar content in that 70 kg of fruit is necessary to produce 1 liter of brandy and fermentation occurs from autumn to spring. The flavor profile of this rakija is quite interesting with strong tropical aromas like pineapple but a more subdued pear inspired core. And very smooth at 40% abv.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Organic Wines from Chile's Veramonte Vineyards

Wines of Chile list 16 valleys noted for wine production and for a quarter of a century, Veramonte Vineyards has been farming in the "the trailblazing cold-climate wine-producing region of Chile":  the Casablanca Valley. Over time they also set roots in the Colchagua Valley which has "evolved over the last twenty years from being a calm stretch of farmland to becoming one of the largest and most active wine-producing regions in the country." Today the wine is part of the Gonzalez Byass family and produces seven organic varietal wines from these two appellations.

The Casablanca Valley is "known for the marine influence of the Pacific Ocean that cools off its climate, the morning fog that settles into the valley, and the old, granite-clay soils that create a rich tapestry of terroir. All these factors play a part in making this valley one of the main producers of white wine in Chile. The higher, warmer altitudes free from frosts are ideal for red varieties such as Merlot and Syrah, while the lower and cooler areas are favorable for vibrant white wines with a signature minerality that cause Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to be the most iconic varieties of the Casablanca Valley".

The Colchagua Valley is located in the southern half of the Rapel Valley and the "relatively low altitude of the coastal hills allows the Pacific breeze to mingle with the Andean winds, which cools the valley and prolongs the maturation period of the region. This is advantageous for the preservation of acidity in the grapes and helps to generate red wines with excellent coloring, great freshness, and very good keeping qualities. The large majority of wine produced here is red, with a particular propensity for the production of Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Although, the newer plantations close to the coast have also proven to be a region with great potential for cool-climate white wines". 

In both valleys, Veramonte follows organic practices in order to "express the fullest potential of the terroir".  These practices are augmented with in-house compost; row cultivation to minimize erosion; incorporation of animals like sheep to cut grass and act as a natural fertilizer; conservation of biological corridors to ensure a self-regulated ecosystem for healthy vines; pruning and canopy handling that allows for proper ventilation and disease prevention; and undergrowth control that unpacks the soil, generates structure and enhances the life and soil microfauna. 

Veramonte Organic Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($11.99)
Sourced from the Casablanca Valley this was my favorite of the trio and expressed an old-world style in contrast to more popular lemongrass dominated Sauvignon Blanc. Citrus is present, much more subdued, coexisting with considerable depth, and finishing with refreshing acidity.

Veramonte Organic Pinot Noir 2018 ($12.99)
Also from the Casablanca Valley, this is a very pleasant wine with sour cherries throughout. It presents a satisfying balance between tannins and acidity. 

Veramonte Organic Carmenere 2018 ($11.99)
Sourced from the warmer Colchagua Valley this wine expressed blue fruits like plums and blueberries that are rich in concentration with rising acidity.  Would prefer a little more tannic structure.

Disclosure: We received samples from Veramonte in order to share our opinion about their products, but this isn’t a sponsored post.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Redbreast 12-Year-Old Irish Whiskey - Sherry Barrel vs Bourbon Barrel

The highly acclaimed Redbreast 12-Year-Old Irish Whiskey is matured in a combination of Bourbon seasoned American Oak barrels and Oloroso Sherry seasoned Spanish oak butts that provide complex flavors to this light-colored whiskey. The whiskey starts as locally grown barley from the Munster province in southwestern Ireland. The mash bill includes both malted and unmalted barley with the traditional malting process imparting sweetness as the starch is more accessible to the yeast during fermentation. On the other hand, the unmalted barley provides a silky and creamy mouthfeel plus a dash of spice. Once the mash is cooked and fermented, the wort is triple distilled in copper pot stills that increase the alcohol content from 40% after the first run to 85% after the third.  Copper stills are preferred since they conduct heat efficiently, and more importantly, the copper reacts with volatile sulfur compounds to form copper sulfate which remains behind in the still. Furthermore, the large pot stills used at the Midleton Distillery allows for a large volume of heavier congeners to "reflux" back into the still producing a lighter style and higher strength spirit.

This whiskey is then moved into either used sherry or bourbon barrels. The sherry butts -- standard size casks used for maturing sherry -- are manufactured by hand at Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and are made from European oak harvested in Galicia, Spain. Prior to being shipping to Ireland, the casks hold sherry wine for two years. The bourbon barrels are made from American white oak that were manufactured in Kentucky and held bourbon whiskey for a period of 3 or 4 years prior to being shipped to Ireland. The inner linings of both types of casks allow the Irish whiskey to seep in during maturation, and when it withdraws in the cooler winter months the whiskey takes with it the spectrum of either sherry or bourbon flavors hidden within. These characters include nuts and dried fruits from the sherry and vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon from the bourbon. After a minimum of 12 years, and usually longer, the whiskeys are blended and the final Redbreast 12-Year-Old Irish Whiskey is excellent - hints of all these flavors within a lightly bodied sipping whiskey. Sláinte. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Grape Spotlight: Berryessa Gap Durif (Petite Sirah)

In 1880, deep in the Rhone Valley, Dr. Francois Durif released to the world a new grapevine that he discovered created from a natural crossing (most likely due to cross-pollination) of a mystery grape pollen and one of his Peloursin vines. Over a century later DNA analysis identified this second parent as Syrah. This new vine was called Durif in Europe but for more mysterious reasons was called Petite Sirah in California as early as the mid-1880s. This name stuck in North and South America.

The name Petite Sirah may have resulted from the grape's "petite" berries which provide plenty of intense fruit and high tannins. High acidity is another inherent characteristic of the grape - which with the tannins encourages aging. Other common notable characteristics are blackberry, chocolate, and black pepper flavors.

Berryessa Gap Vineyards is located in the Winters AVA and situated in the western corner of Yolo County, located off Route 128 between the town of Winters and the Vaca Mountains. Napa County lies on the western side of the ridge. The Berryessa estate - Coble Ranch vineyard - is planted along the eastern ridge of the Vaca Mountains and benefits from a climate that resembles the hot and dry conditions of Mediterranean climates.  

Durif (Petite Sirah) is one of their many grapevines and the winery releases two versions. Their Berryessa Gap Petite Sirah ($27) is composed of 85% Durif, 10% Primitivo/Zinfandel, and 5% Peloursin and is modeled after the Rhone field blends copied admirably by California's Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma's Lytton Springs.  The Durif in this wine is whole-berry fermented which tones down the tannins and intensity leading to a soft and elegant wine. 

On the other hand, the Berryessa Gap Durif ($32) is 100% Durif, grown in its own plot elsewhere on the estate.  For a sensory descriptor, the wine is juicy, with dense blueberries, slight spice, and friendly chewy tannins. But on a metaphysical dimension, this wine provides deeper sensory pleasure like the feeling after that perfect golf swing or getting the barrel on a baseball.  This is a memorial wine. Great job Nicole.