Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Grape Spotlight: Herzegovina Blatina

Most cultivated grapevines are hermaphroditic -- meaning that their flowers are both male and female and thus, can self-pollenate. These grapevine flowers have no petals and grow on stem clusters that will eventually turn into grape clusters (1).  However, some grapevine flowers are completely female and require cross-pollination. In these cases, the vineyards are interplanted with other grape varieties that then pollinate the female vines. Natural pollination is a fickle process so over time yields from these female grapevines are very unstable. As a result, these grapes are generally obscure and only planted in regions where the grape has historic significance (2).

Blatina (Blah-tee-nah) is one such female grape and only in Herzegovina -- specifically south of Mostar Bosnia around the towns of Čitluk, Međugorje, Ljubuški, and Čapljina.  Blatina vineyards are interplanted with a few vines of either Alicante Bouchet (Kambuša), Merlot, and Trnjak in order to cross-pollinate.  When pollination does take effect the fermented wine is generally full-bodied with juicy dark fruit. This Wines of Illyria Blatina ($10) is definitely full-bodied with juicy plum and blackberries and uniquely a little chocolate dirt. Very old world. The recommended food pairings are grilled red meats, chicken, sausage, or seafood paella made with red peppers and onions and we confirm the grilled red meats (mititei or cevapi).

(1) How to Tell a Male Grapevine From a Female Grapevine
(2) Female Grape Varieties

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Key West: A Craft Beverage Destination

Key West is known for its many interesting features such as home to the Southernmost Point in the Continental US, Truman's Little White House, Hemingway's House & the six-toed cat, roosters, and drinking. Yes, this is mostly the irresponsible variety but for those who are more responsible, there are five craft beverage establishments on the key that are worth a visit.

Key West was also home to America's first overseas air transport flight when on October 19, 1927, a Pan American World Airways Fairchild FC-2 floatplane delivered mail from Key West to Havana.  From that date until its "collapse" on December 4, 1991, Pan Am was the principal and largest international air carrier in the United States. In Key West tickets were sold out of their building on 301 Whitehead Street and since the company's closure has operated as a brewpub first under the ownership of actress Kelly McGillis (Kelly's Caribbean Bar Grill & Brewery) and now as First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery. This brewery has a core lineup of beers that cater to the tourism market - an Amber, IPA, and Wheat ale; but they also produce a limited release series where the best action occurs. The Czech Engine Pilsner is spot on and their Beach Day IPA is a juicy blend of tropical fruits. For dessert hope the Midnight Landing Honey Porter or Nuts & Bolts Chocolate Peanut Butter Ale are on tap.

As its name implies, The Waterfront Brewery overlooks the Key West Historic Seaport and Bight and operates as a brewery, restaurant, and a licensed wholesaler of Florida Keys finfish and shellfish. The brewery offers a strong portfolio ranging from an Island Life Lager to the TruMan Double IPA. Both of these are well made, the first a refreshing quaffer, the second a rather smooth and complex offering. However, our two favorites were the Key Lime Gose and Lazy Way IPA - both provide tropical flavors with the kettle-soured Gose tart and refreshing while the Lazy Way is a juicy, juicy IPA.

Being so close to the Caribbean Key West is practically synonymous with rum and the first place to imbibe is the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery -- opened in 2012 by Chef Paul Menta and Tony Mantia.  The distillery is housed in a building built in 1900 that was the original location of Jack's Saloon and once a Coca-Cola bottling facility. Today the building houses distilling equipment that cranks out several styles of rum from a clean white to flavored to a high octane 105 Simonton Rum.  The rums are produced by fermenting sugarcane juice which is then generally distilled six times. If the rum is aged they use salt-cured barrels and when flavored they utilize locally-sourced food flavors.  Our overall favorite was the Aged Key West Raw and Unfiltered Rum ($63) aged in new American oak barrels. The distillery never uses previously used barrels and instead purchased #3 charred barrels which they fill with fresh seawater. Overnight the barrel expands and in the morning the water is drained and the barrels cure in the sun. The salt residual opens the pores of the wood allowing the rum to soak up more of the wood nuances such as fig, plum, vanilla, and pepper. This raw and unfiltered rum definitely has these characteristics as well as a bit of funk - that makes it truly unique. This make is compatible with a Dark and Stormy and even more compatible by adding grapefruit juice to that cocktail plus a little lime. The other rum we purchased was the Cuban Coffee Rum ($35) where dark roasted coffee beans are aged in rum barrels to create a coffee extract. Then  Demerara sugar is toasted and added to the coffee in order to create a "true Key West Colada Cafe". The rum is savory and we've used as a morning quick start or an evening dessert.

The island also features two other distilleries that we were unable to visit. Papa's Pilar Rum is also located on Simonton Street and concentrates on one iconic rum brand named after the famous author and his fishing boat.  Key West Distilling just moved to the Stock Island Marina Village and goes beyond rum by also producing whiskey, vodka, and gin -- the latter two using Florida sugar cane. Next trip to the Keys. Cheers.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Grape Spotlight: Montenegro & Herzegovina Vranac

Last October, the Embassy of Montenegro poured an excellent Plantaze Vranac ProCorde Special Reserve Dry Red Wine wine during an International Club of DC dinner. For many of us, it was the first time sampling this ancient grape that is indigenous to this relatively dry, mountainous, and Mediterranean climate. Specifically, the grapes for this wine were grown in the Podgorica subregion, Montenegrin basin of Lake Skadar - the largest lake in Southern Europe and shared with Albania. This Vranac was a dense wine with dark fruit, firm tannins, earthiness, and abundant acidity - the latter being retained by the cooler climate.  DNA  evidence also suggests that Vranac is related to Kratosija - the local synonym for Tribidrag-Crljenak Kastelanski, Primitivo and Zinfandel.

From Montenegro, Vranac spread to southward into the Macedonian Republic which has the largest plantings of this blacked skinned grape and northward into Bosnia-Herzegovina which has the third-largest planting.  In Herzegovina, plantings are clustered around Mostar which is a much hotter Mediterranean climate than Montenegro - yet Vranac is still able to retain its acidity even in warm climates. This was evident by the 2012 Wines of Illyria Vranac ($17) which resembles Italian Primitivo rather than American Zinfandel as this Black Stallion has disciplined juicy dark red fruit and layers of acidity. It finishes with a hint of bitterness and saline.  This and other Illyria wines are available on the East Coast and hopefully soon in the DC area through Siema Wines.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Extreme Viticulture: Sanctuary Vineyards Dorian Release

On September 6th, 2019 Hurricane Dorian made landfall in North Carolina causing widespread destruction particularly in Ocracoke due to reverse flooding from the Pamlico Sound. On that day in Jarvisburg, Sanctuary Vineyards scrambled to harvest and crush their remaining grapes -- succeeding up until they lost power late in the evening. These Tannat and Petit Verdot grapes then received the equivalent of a two-day cold soak maturation until power was restored a couple days later. After fermentation, the grapes were aged in new American oak and blended and bottled as Dorian.

In normal times viticulture is extreme in the Sandhill region of North Carolina - and not only from the threat of hurricanes - and particular for vinifera grapes.  Humidity, pests, and soil composition provide additional obstacles.  Pierce's disease is a struggle brought on by pathogenic bacterium fueled by humid conditions. The vineyards are planted on ancient sand dunes providing excellent drainage and some resistance to phylloxera but Sanctuary's vineyards receive additional nutrients from clam shells initially used for crop cover.  The Outer Banks also experiences intense heat and sunshine -- optimal for ripening grapes -- but require the breezes from the nearby Atlantic to cool the grapes at night.

The Dorian wine was officially released this last Saturday (July 11, 2020) with owner John Wright donating a portion of these sales to the Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team. In Ocracoke, the wine is available at Zillies and most likely enjoyed during the amazing sunsets across the sound. Actually, the wine would benefit from a couple years aging, but for those opening young there is sufficient tannic structure to complement the dark berry and smoky fig profile.  Sanctuary Vineyards also producers a range of other estate-grown vinifera wines using Tempranillo, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Syrah.

Friday, July 10, 2020

COVID Re-Openings in Virginia at Four Tasting Rooms

Through July 4th weekend my family visited four Virginia tasting rooms primarily just to get out of the neighborhood but it also allowed us to access new releases and COVID re-openings.  These visits started while fishing in Front Royal and a stop at Chester Gap Cellars. This winery provides one of the most picturesque views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, situated at over 1,000 feet elevation and with a trailhead to the Appalachian Trail nearby. Our visit coincided with the release of their 2019 Rosé ($26) -- a blend of Merlot and Cabernet France and presenting a creamy strawberry character. And if you are a fan of the true character of Roussanne, check out their 2017 Roussanne ($32) which is aged in French oak for 10 months that enhances the grape's unique profile. Upon arriving we were greeted immediately by a staff member who explained the seating options and wine-food options and let to a table on their open-air tasting patio. From that vantage point, we enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, the views, and the staff sanitizing tables and chairs as they became available.

The next day we visited two tasting rooms in Delaplane, Virginia: Valley View Farm and Three Fox Vineyards. The historic Valley View Farm recently partnered with Philip Carter Winery to sell wine and hard cider and for the winery to produce wines using grapes from the Strother Family Vineyards located on the property.  The Strother Family has "served as stewards" of the farms for five generations with Philip Carter Strother, owner of Philip Carter Winery, the current steward.  The views of the Piedmont are equally impressive and are captured in the artwork of artist Andrei Kushnir and featured on the label of the Philip Carter 2017 Valley View White Table Wine ($24).  The wine (Chardonnay and Vidal) was very pleasant as we sat at a table on their porch - 100 feet from the nearest visitor.

Three Fox Vineyards is located a few miles down Route 17 and was recently purchased by Tim and Emily Faltemier. Original owners John and Holli Todhunter had opened the winery way back in 2002 and named the vineyard Three Foxes after seeing three of these Vulpes playing in the meadow.  The Todhunter's also established an Italian centric focus planting Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Pinot Grigio which will continue under the new ownership based on Emily's Italian roots. That being said we covet their La BohemeViognier ($29) sourced from Middleburg Virginia.  When we arrived we noticed a tasting tent and tables set up along the banks of Crooked Run, a response to the pandemic but hopefully a future feature.  Kids and adults were sitting in the creek or playing ball in the field and golf carts were busy transporting wine or visitors to and from the tasting room or parking lot. In between cleaning teams and selling wine, Tim also mentioned that they are adding a brewery to the premises which they hope to have functional once the proper licenses are received.

Finally, we returned to Fleetwood Farm Winery, which had been the last winery we visited right before the lockdown. Like Valley View Farm, this is a historic farm -- established in 1745.  The winery was also hosting a Fleetwood Rosé All Weekend special where the two new rosé wines were priced at $20. Our group went with the 2018 Virginia Rosé is a saignée blend of various grapes with a dark, full-bodied cherry profile with refreshing acidity.  On our previous visit, we favored the 2018 Virginia Viognier ($32) which matched the juicy stone fruit characters we were expecting.  The winey offers amble indoor, outdoor, and patio space for distancing with masks required while walking inside the tasting room.

Monday, July 6, 2020

St. Augustine: A Craft Beverage Destination

For two decades now, while driving to South Florida, we have been inclined to include a detour into St. Augustine to visit the historical sights such as the Old Town, the Spanish Quarter, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Lighthouse, and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine.  These visits also included a stop at the city's only craft beverage establishment - San Sebastian Winery - as we had become fans of their Blanc Du Bois and Port styled wines. They also provided an excellent tour of their facilities as well as a rooftop pavilion with satisfying glasses of white sangria.

In the past few years, other craft beverage outlets joined San Sebastian along the Trolley Tour Route such as St. Augustine Distillery - situated only a couple blocks away in the Historic FP&L Ice Plant (the first commercial enterprise to produce block ice in Florida over 100 years ago). The distillery is a business collaborative of 28 local entrepreneurs who utilize local sugar cane, wheat, corn, and citrus to produce whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin. They also contacted the world’s leading distilling experts to assist in crafting the spirits recipe and local bartenders on drafting recommended cocktails. They also emulated San Sebastian's tour design and provide one of the most insightful free walking tours of a distillery. Each station includes a free cocktail sample and the museum provides a history of block ice production as well as a legality neutral history of distilling in The Sunshine State.

For this trip, we intentionally targeted the distillery in order to purchase a bottle of their Port Finished Bourbon ($80, 102 proof).  This whiskey starts as their Florida Double Cask Bourbon which is made from a mash bill of 60% regional corn, 22% malted barley, and 18% regional wheat that is then finished in used San Sebastian Port barrels. For both the Florida Double Cask and Port Finished bourbons, distiller Lucas Smith worked closely with the late Dave Pickerell on the first blends and barrel selection as well as the final proof. Interestingly, the Florida Double Cask weighs in at on odd 93.8 proof as that was the proof that all "blenders" agreed upon.  The Double Cask refers to the use of initial 25-gallon barrels in which the spirit was then transferred to seasoned 53-gallon casks in order to slow the maturation process. The result is a phenomenon whiskey
and with the additional Port finishing imparts a slight sherry profile along with the raisins and cinnamon.

We also left with a bottle of the Pot Distilled Rum ($45, 90 proof) and the Florida Cane Vodka ($28, 80 proof). The rum is produced from regional sugarcane syrups and molasses and aged in used St. Augustine bourbon barrels. The spirit is straw-colored with a surprising coconut and baking spices profile. There's a mild dose of heat but the finish is very smooth and clean. The vodka is pot distilled from 100% Florida-farmed sugar. This provides a subtle molasses character with a clean finish.  The Florida Mule was its primary purpose and here are several other recommended cocktails:

•  2 ounces Pot Distilled Rum
•  1 ounce honey syrup
•  1 ounce lime juice
•  few dashes of bitters
Garnish with orange peel.

The Lolita
•  1.5 ounces Florida Cane Vodka
•  0.5 ounce fresh lemon juice
•  0.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
•  0.5 st. germaine
•  0.25 ounce simple syrup
•  3 dashes of peychauds bitters
Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
•  2 ounces Pot Distilled Rum
•  0.75 ounce lime juice
•  0.75 ounce simple syrup
•  10 leaves of fresh mint
•  top with soda water
Garnish with fresh mint.
The Florida Mule
•  1.5 ounces Florida Cane Vodka
•  1.5 ounces ginger-lime simple syrup
•  Top with soda water
Garnish with fresh mint leaves.
Classic Vodka Collins
•  2 ounces Florida Cane Vodka
•  1 ounces simple syrup
•  1 ounces lemon juice
•  Top with soda water
Garnish with a lemon peel

During this visit, we also stopped into two of the four craft breweries that have surfaced in the last couple of years. Ancient City Taphouse is located next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and the two standouts were the Castillo Coconut Porter and Brazilian Pepper Tree Honey IPA.  Old Coast Ales is located a short walk or drive over the Matanzas River and we walked out with crowlers of Salt Run Gose and the Hopper 2.0 N.E. IPA. Both nice beach beers.  Another solid beer is the Dog Rose Brewing Co. Palace Pale Ale which I had with lunch at the A1A Ale Works Restaurant & Taproom where Dog Rose owner and brewer, Doug Murr, used to brew. And finally, Bog Brewing Company and City Gate Spirits will have to wait until our return visit to America's oldest city.