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.