Saturday, March 6, 2021

Grape Spotlight: Nagy-Somloi Olaszrizling

The most widely planted grape variety in Hungary is Olaszrizling, also known as Welschriesling to a wider European audience.  In many cases, Olaszrizling wines are rather pedestrian, light, and neutral, where they are favored in boxes, jugs, or as the base for the Hungarian wine spritzer: fröccs.  However, in a particular microclimate with volcanic soils or in specific environments these wines find a more complex expression such as in Magyarország's second smallest wine region -  Somló. This region is only 507 hectares and 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.  

Kolonics Pinceszet is one of these multi-generation family farms and cultivates Olaszrizling on two hectares on the south-east side of the Somló hill -- specifically in the Apátság vineyard.  Károly Kolonics produces several versions of Olaszrizling wine, and each starts with six to 12 hours of skin contact before pressing and fermented using only indigenous yeast. The differences in the styles result from oak aging in various large and old barrels (1,000 or 1,500 liters). In the instance of the Kolonics Pinceszet Nagy-Somloi "St. László" Olaszrizling 2018 ($25), the wine was aged exclusively in the "St. László" barrel -- a 1,500-liter, steam-bent oak cask -- for one year. The wine is rich in tropical fruit and laden with minerals providing a smooth flow to the finish.  We couldn't stop ourselves from finishing the wine in one sitting. Egészségére. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Mezcal El Silencio Espadín and the Taco Bamba Grapefruit - Vanilla Margarita

Continuing our venture into Mezcal, we recently purchased the Mezcal El Silencio Espadín ($30), a very traditional product produced in San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca, and from 100% organically grown Espadin agave. According to the bio, the spirit is made by Pedro Hernández, a ninth-generation Maestro Mezcalero, and double-distilled in small batches. Apparently, in 2019 Constellation Brands took a minority stake in El Silencio which most likely explains how it's available in the local ABC store 

When sipping neat, it starts with the smokey agave aroma that we've come to expect, and then the palate is smooth and textured - with a soft profile.  I then added lime juice which added a little kick and interestingly boosted the aromatics. But we found its most usefulness, was the filler for the Grapefruit - Vanilla Margarita mix from Taco Bamba.  The smokiness added to the cocktail and the vanilla gave the feeling of aged mezcal -- but just to a Reposado. Cheers.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Earning Night-time Driving Hours to Backroom Brewery

One night this week my soon-to-be-driving son asked if we could drive for a couple hours so that he could earn night-time driving hours. Of course, I replied, as long as it includes a stop at Backroom Brewery - over an hour away as shown by theCompass Craft Beverage Finder.  I had been targetting the brewery after several trips to visit the Sip Shenandoah Trail and learning that the brewery was Virginia's first farm brewery.  The operation is an outgrowth of the Sunflower Cottage herb farm where they planted hops in 2012; helped Warren County pass an ordinance to allow farm breweries in 2013;  built out a brewery that following year; and finally, opened an expanded brewery, event center, and tasting room in 2019. 

With that expanded capability BackRoom offers almost two dozen beers in their tasting room, many brewed with homegrown herbs. The perfect example is their flagship Lemon Basil Wheat Ale,  brewed with fresh lemon zest & sweet basil -- and a remembrance of the days twisting lemon juice into Pyramid Hefeweisen.  The Kiss Me Kolsch and Regions Pilsner are solid thirst quenchers and the Backpacker Pale Ale a reminder of the old school pale ales without the hop punch.  However, the two favorites were the Shenandoah Sunset Hazy IPA and the Farmwork  Rosemary Rye Saison -- both just delicious versions of what you would expect from the styles and the ingredients. 

We hope to visit again soon on a weekday to savor more of these beers and try the kitchen. Cheers. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Virginia Wine Chat — A Taste of the Shenandoah Valley

In 1982, the Shenandoah Valley AVA became the first  American Viticultural Area established in Virginia - and for that matter in West Virginia too as the boundaries include both Berkeley and Jefferson Counties in the Eastern Panhandle.  The fruitful valley is bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains to the west.  It is one of the largest AVAs in the country ranging about 150 miles northwest-southeast and 25 miles wide. This leads to several micro-climates allowing for a diverse planting of grapes, but in general, this cool climate region shares a predominate limestone soil and large diurnal temperatures - leading to more acidic grapes. (TTB - AVAs)

On Sunday, February 20th, Frank Morgan ( presented his Virginia Wine Chat on A Taste of the Shenandoah Valley featuring three wines from prominent wineries in that AVA.  This tasting was organized as an afterthought of the 2020 Shenandoah Cup wine competition, which Morgan oversaw, and where Cave Ridge Vineyard was awarded the cup for their 2017 Shenandoah Valley Petit Verdot.  This wine was aged 100% Hungarian Oak and during the chat Cave Ridge owner Randy Phillips discussed his decision to use this treatment -- particularly lower costs without substituting quality.  

As a recap on Hungarian oak, the barrels are made using Quercus petraea, sessile oak, from the Zemplén Hills in western Hungarian. This forest is close to Tokaj and contains the same rocky and volcanic soil that gives the Furmint grape its minerality. Sessile oaks make up over 95% of the acreage because that tree prefers tough conditions where the soils are stony and dry, and where the climate is colder. The tree then grows slower, creating a tight grain which leads to lower tannins and a richer aroma in barrels. This tightness also results in lower evaporation and smaller oxygen penetration.

Here are the descriptors of the wines and readers are highly encouraged to visit the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail

2018 Brix & Columns Virginia Chardonnay ($26)
Allow to warm in glass; creamy lemons aroma, golden delicious apples dominate its profile with a little lychee, creme brulee. Barrel fermented and nine months in new and neutral French oak provides weight and doesn't diminish the lifting acids. 

2017 Bluestone Vineyard Estate Cabernet Franc ($25.50)
The grapes were grown in the highest elevation block of their estate and only free-run juice was fermented and then 40% aged in new French and 60% Hungarian oak. Bright cherry aroma, layers of dark fruit, finishing with firm and chewy tannins. Best feature - lack of vegetable or green peppers characters. 

2017 Cave Ridge Vineyard Shenandoah Valley Petit Verdot ($35)
The fermented wine was aged 100% in Hungarian oak barrels. Very amaro-ish; herbal olive leaf, chocolate coffee, & cherry aroma, chalky velvety character,  dense fruit,  rising acidity, approachable tannins.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Trio of Wine for Old Westminster's 2021 Festival of Saint Vincent

"Each January in Burgundy, France, locals celebrate the Festival of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers. The celebration takes place in a different winegrowing village each year. Saint Vincent celebrations attract tens of thousands of people over the weekend. Visitors pay to tour the village where local winegrowers have opened their cellars for wine tasting, and join in the fun. In the town square, the houses are decorated with paper mache flowers and many of the locals dress up in costumes from eras past. It's quirky. And beautiful. Winemakers pour special bottles of wine and offer samples of future vintages straight from the barrel."  Old Westminster Winery


For 2021, Old Westminster Winery moved their annual Festival of Saint Vincent to a virtual setting with the release of a trio of wines.  These were the 2018 Cabernet Franc, 2019 Syrah, and 2020 Blaufrankish -- pulled young from the barrel and available for purchase for $75.   The wines were delivered with no labels or corks and basically, just the bare fruit. The winery also release a short video (below) 

2018 Cabernet Franc
This was a miserable year rain-wise in the Mid-Atlantic with many wineries completely dumping their red grape harvest. That didn't stop Old Westminster as Drew Baker explains, "Looking ahead, we are mostly concerned about the reds -- ripening is going to be tricky… As a result, we're switching up our program to focus more on carbonic/juicy style reds this season. These styles are much better suited to fruit with lower phenolic ripeness, lower sugar content and higher natural acidity. We've even got a new 1,500 gal foeder to break in with whole-cluster CF next week. " And that was the beginnings of this wine and, yes, it is juicy, with bright red cherries, but there's also backbone with noticeable tannins. I wouldn't say they salvaged these grapes, I'd say Old Westminster made a remarkable wine in its own right.

2019 Syrah
The grapes for this wine were grown in Rising Sun, Maryland - located northeast of Baltimore near the Pennsylvania border.  The juice was fermented with whole cluster fermentation and native yeast with the formal proving more tannins than the whole berry fermentation of the Cabernet Franc. The Syrah starts with big voluptuous dark fruit, then black pepper and the beginnings of structure and tannins - but is not well integrated. Feels like two distinct wines but additional oak aging will enhance the structure and integrate the tannins with the fruit.

2020 Blaufrankish

These grapes were grown in Washington County Maryland - near Hagerstown and fermented using small bins and whole cluster. The wine was aged just three months in barrel before bottling, shows great fruit expression, and is very representative of the grape. Extremely fruit forward right now and appropriate body and spice. Possesses more than enough tannins and acids to grow and fortify in Hungarian or American oak. The whole cluster fermentation was a good choice. 

Cheers to Old Westminster, Maryland Wine, and the Festival of Saint Vincent.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Vicario Liqueurs from Salute!

Last week I was introduced to the Salute! distillery through a tasting kit purchased by a friend. The kit included 14 unique liqueurs created from botanicals and fruit grown on the owner's (Renato Vicario and Janette Wesley) South Carolina farm or Italian estate. Renato Vicario is the author of Italian Liqueurs The History and Art of a Creation, and uses his knowledge of historical recipes in crafting the Vicario brand liqueurs. Some of the herbs grown in South Carolina and used in the various liqueurs are French Tarragon, Cardoons, Artichokes, Lavender and Lemon Verbena, Rosemary, Dittany of Crete, Wall Germander, and Aloe Vera. The tasting kit also included a detailed brochure describe the ingredients and history behind each recipe.  Here are the liqueurs, abbreviated tasting notes, and the distillery notes. Cheers.

Monks Secret Liqueur: an Amaro with the aroma of xmas spices, chalky texture,  warm baking spices, herbs, & mint
"The Cistercians, Benedictines, and Trappists were part of a network of religious houses which exchanged ideas and procedures but also kept a few secrets.  After careful reading of ancient monastic texts, we crafted this maceration of over 15 aromatic herbs and spices and named it after these famous monastic orders. "

Quintessence Liqueur: an aroma of baking spices, firm body, almost root and dirt like with hints of licorice 
"The word Quintessence became synonymous with elixirs, medicinal alchemy, and the philosopher’s stone itself. Conjured by herbs and spices from around the world, Quintessence’s deeply complex characteristics invoke divine satisfaction. Drink it neat after dinner, or hot drink with a piece of lemon peel.  It refreshes in summer when added to a sparkling mineral water over ice. "

Seville Orange Liqueur: candied orange aroma,  velvety oranges,  zesty, no bitterness or sourness
"The spiny evergreen is native to Vietnam, but is now grown throughout the Mediterranean region and the world. Perhaps the most pleasing way to use it is in a cocktail, splashed into Gin and Tonic, or transform a Mojito by replacing the lime with Seville Orange liqueur."

Olive Leaf Liqueur: heavy indeterminate aroma, olive notes, and lifting citrus and spices 
"Created with only the fresh tender emerging leaves from ancient olives, estate grown at our family farm at Villa Sant’Andrea, Cortona, Italy, and finished with lemon in South Carolina,  this fresh and delicate amaro is  versatile and delightful. "

Artichoke Liqueur: artichoke and lemons, slightly chalky and herbal finish
"Prepared for the acute enthusiast Vicario Black Labeled Liqueurs indicate the most indispensable ingredients, above all, the ingredient of time to age to perfection. Artichoke leaves bring a floral, and grassy flavor that dissipates into a persuasive bitterness in this deeply delightful liqueur. "

Dragoncello Liqueur: anise aroma, licorice, depth
"The herb, known to many as French Tarragon, has been cultivated from Ancient Greeks to Thomas Jefferson as it was known for its healing properties for the stomach and liver. Improved immensely by ageing, this exotic liqueur redolent of spices, faint traces of anise and licorice, scented and aromatic, never coy but enticing, is well served after a meal or alongside biscotti or ice creams, and can be used in fine patisserie baking."

Amore Mio Aperitivo Liqueur: mint, some grapefruit,  herbal finish
"Erontades, or “love seekers” in ancient times, took great risks to gather the pink blossoms of Dittany, a flowering origanum of the mint family on the rocky terrain of the White Mountains and chasms on the island of Crete. Tenderly made with several estate grown aromatic herbs, including Dittany of Crete, Amore Mio Aperitivo follows tradition, but the reddish color comes from the Roselle blossoms, a hibiscus native to West Africa, not artificial colors. Historically, the aperitivo custom dates back to the Egyptians and Romans..."

*Nocino Walnut Liqueur: dense walnuts,  sizzling slow burn, overall favorite
"Every year, in the month of June, as tradition prescribes, unripe green walnuts coming from the best walnut orchards in Italy create an infusion fit for the gods.  According to the Romans, the gods feasted on walnuts, and therefore, walnuts were thrown by the groom to wedding guests to bring good health, increase fertility, and to keep disease away."

Mirto Liqueur
: Mirto berries, sour finish, delicious 
"The liqueur’s origin may really be found in ancient Egypt, as Egyptians used to crush the leaves of the myrtle and add them to wine to treat fever and infection. There are two varieties of this drink: the Mirto Rosso (red) produced by macerating the berries, and the Mirto Bianco (white) produced from the leaves. There are many different local preparations for Mirto, with many regional and family variations and in fact many different names for Mirto according to various dialects. The best Mirto is made with berries gathered from either wild or cultivated plants which grow without the help of pesticides or fertilizers, combined with few leaves in the batch. "

Coffee Liqueur: dense coffee espresso shot; stressing the dense - drink with a little cream
"Obtained from well roasted Arabica beans, the distinguished aromas of the Vicario liqueur blends coffee, vanilla, and earthy spices, into a persistently well-balanced after dinner drink, a congenial complement for desserts or cocktails. "

Licorice Liqueur
: not at all like the candy, strong clean finish. Slight rootsy flavor 
"Licorice, a legume with sweet roots, is long and delightful as a liqueur.  The taste is far removed from commercial impostors. Empty your mind of preconceived ideas of the taste of licorice, and let the true authentic flavors envelop a new beginning with the "Black Soul" as this liqueur is called in Italy."

Quinoa Liqueur: aromatic, baking spices, caramel 
"Historically, the traditional medicinal extract was made with chinchona bark and a blend of aromatic herbs as per the ancient recipe against malaria and other ailments, Quina has a spicy aroma with notes of coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and caramel. Our liqueur, made with carefully monitored quantities of chinchona bark, and with citrus, aromatic and balsamic flavors, and can be enjoyed neat, at the end of a meal, on the rocks for summer pleasure or hot with a twist of lemon to fight winter colds."

*Savage Cherry Liqueur: intense sour cherries, so sorry to see it gone
"Viscole, or Cantiano Cherry, an antique variety of wild sour cherry, grew wild on the farm property at Villa Sant'Andrea, in Cortona, Italy.  Working with Isabella della Ragione of Archeologia Arboria, we sought to create an orchard of these marvelous fruits.  On the verge of disappearing, the  viscole variety used to be very appreciated on homestead farms or wild harvested, as it was convenient to pick and eat the fruits or create jams or liqueurs all in the same day.  "

Sorcerer's Song Liqueur: Amaro, bittersweet is correct, chalky herbal finish 
"Enchantingly musical, this captivating amaro begins with a  special blend of roots, barks and herbs. Sweetened with organic Appalachian Mountain honey, it is opalescent, warm, and delightful. An intensely  bitter-sweet tonic taste leads into an aroma of white currents, rhubarb, and spices that create the crescendo while the tannins persist like a bass drum. At the conclusion, the  aromas of fruit, chestnuts, vanilla and coffee create an incredibly long finish."

Friday, February 12, 2021

How Its Made: the El Mayor Blanco Tequila

I generally prefer Reposado or Anejo tequila because the American oak imparts various flavors and nuances into the spirit. However, a Blanco tequila better expresses the actual growing conditions and distillation process for that brand, and for this reason, I recently purchased the El Mayor Blanco Tequila ($27).  This family-owned distillery is now in its 4th generation of distillers and is located in Tequila's heart: Jalisco.  Specifically, they cultivate the Weber Blue Agave plants at about 7,500 feet above sea level in Jalisco's rocky lowlands. 

The distillery also follows traditional methods for producing its tequila augmented by specific procedures acquired over years of experience. At least seven years after the agave plants were planted, the jimador individually selects each plant for harvest, prunes to the heart, and leaves the scraps as compost. These hearts are then slow-cooked for 24 hours in stainless steel ovens with the cooked agave gently pressed afterward. This agave juice is then fermented using a family-owned yeast strain which is then double distilled in copper-lined pots.  The distillery uses a combination of heat and pressure that they assert "extracts the richest part of the spirit". This is the El Mayor Blanco Tequila.

The spirit is very smooth, with some smoke on the nose, and the expected agave flavors speckled with black pepper and white pine. A very satisfying tequila that I would hate to waste mixing into a marguerita but their Antigua cocktail recipe retains the base tequila profile and balances with bitters.  

  • 2 oz. El Mayor® Añejo Tequila
  • 3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 1 Demerara Sugar Cube
  •  Orange Peel and Cherry, for Garnish

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Grape Spotlight: Pelješac Peninsula Rukatac, Pošip, and Dubrovnik Malvasia

In a previous Grape Spotlight, we focused on Malvasija Dubrovacka - and specifically those grown in southern Croatia as opposed to its planting in northern Croatia's Istria.  One of its autochthonous regions is also the Pelješac Peninsula - a wine region on the Adriatic coast of Croatia between Split and Dubrovnik. It is a mountainous peninsula with peaks of 3,150ft (960 meters), bright sunshine, and vineyards planted on steep slopes of karstic limestone. It is also narrow, 40 miles long but only four miles wide, and the name Pelješac is that of a hill above the town Orebic. The peninsula is also home to Dingac, Croatia’s first appellation that was created to showcase Croatian Plavac Mali.

Two more autochthonous Dalmatian grapes are Rukatac (Maraština) and Pošip. Rukatac is now planted throughout the Mediterranean and is noted for its fragrance and deep stone fruit profile. It is also generally low in alcohol content and acids which is why it's an obvious candidate to be blended with the more acidic Pošip. This grape originated in the neighboring island of Korčula and can also provide more citrus and apple notes to the blend. 

The Marlais Winery is located near Ston, close to where the peninsula meets the mainland and was founded by a family that now consists of seven generations of grape growers and winemakers. The family owns three separate vineyard sites on the southern slopes of the peninsula, planted on sandy soils and with a slope where they build drywalls to limit the soil erosion resulting from heavy rainfall. The grapes are hand-harvested since the slopes are too steep and the soils too gravely for machines. A few of their wines are available from Croatian Premium Wine Imports -- one being the Dišpet.

Marlais Dišpet 2018 ($25)
This blend consists of Rukatac (70%), Dubrovačka malvasija (15%), and Pošip (15%) and is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel.  The wine is delicious where the acidity immediately captures the palate and when the effervescence subsides a velvety coating of orange peel and pineapple remain. 

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.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

A Visit and Conversation with Dry Mill Vineyards' Winemaker Karen Reed

Even though Dry Mill Vineyards & Winery is one of the closest Loudoun County wineries to the Washington Beltway, in the past few years I seemed to have traveled past it while visiting that county's wine and beer trail.  But not last weekend when we targeted Dry Mill specifically because of its proximity to DC. My remembrance was solid wines particularly their Viognier and Chardonnay and on our arrival, we started with the 2017 Virginia Viognier ($29) - as well as cups of wine augmented mulled cider. 

We finished the Viognier in their courtyard patio, braced from the winery winds by side coverings and heat lamps. The wine was as pleasant as the environment, stone fruit dominated the citrus starting with peaches then ending with lifting lemony citrus.  

Next, we turned to their off-dry Mead ($25) - quite flavorful at 1.7% RS. What was lacking was a little lift in the tail, so I blended a bottle at home with the Supreme Core Pounda Gold to see if this livens the finish. This concept is a switch-hitter in the sense that either the hard cider or mead could be the dominant partner, and in fact, each side of the plate worked well. Augmenting the cider with a little mead added body and depth whereas adding cider to the mead did add more effervescence. But my tastes indicated a 50-50 blend - where both profiles contributed equally. 

It was at that point that I learned that winemaker Karen Reed was working in the tasting room, and to my ignorance, was hired a decade ago by Dry Mill after previous engagements at White Hall Vineyards, Clos Pegase Winery in Napa, Hillsborough Vineyards - and with a Masters Degree in Viticulture from the University of Adelaide, Australia.  I duly noted to follow up with Reed concerning her background which led to an email exchange this week learning more about the winery and herself. 

In particular, she is passionate about her Merlot and the fruit sourced from Russ Mountain Vineyard in Bluemont. Reed related how that vineyard specializes in Merlot and it is some of the best in the state, "if you blind taste my Merlots with anything from the right bank of Bordeaux, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference".  Thus Merlot is the star of their cellar with the 2017 Merlot the current - and last release - as they lost the contract that year. 

Ms. Reed is also excited about her 2017 Chambourcin. She relates, "it's not a grape that I was familiar with until moving to Virginia and it's always been a bit of a conundrum to me.  Most wineries try to get a lot of tannin extraction from it, and then put a lot of new oak on the wine.  However, when I tried this technique in previous years, I always felt like I was fighting with the wine -- trying too hard.  And it always ended up having that traditional "Virginia red flavor" which you used to find in a lot of wines from the 1990s.  In 2016, I made the decision to let the wine be what it wanted to be, a food-friendly, fruit-forward, easy-drinking wine.  The result was a wine reminiscent of a Barbara d'Alba... slightly higher acid, easy to drink, goes with every meal, but still sporting some rich fruit characteristics.  I love it.

And a lesson I learned is to reach out with these conversations before the visit so that I could taste these recommended wines on that visit and not have to plan a second outing.  We did return home with the 2017 Barrel Chardonnay ($27) which owner Dean Vanhuss had recommended when he stopped by our table to thank us for visiting.  Spicy butter and vanilla are the dominant notes for this wine with layers of green apples slowly evolving as the wine warms.  And the finish engages quite a while; a nice recommendation. 

Cheers to Karen Reed and Dry Mill -- until our next visit.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Milicevic Family Vineyards: Wine from Louisiana and Herzegovina

While conducting a review of craft beverage establishments by state for theCompass Craft Beverage Finder, I noticed a new winery in Louisana with ties to a unique wine region: Herzegovina. In 1950, Milicevic Family Vineyards opened in the Croatian area of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and as a young man, Ivan Milicevic worked on his family-owned vineyards. He immigrated to the United States in 1989 settling in Louisiana where he eventually purchased land in Abita Springs. In 2015 he planted a vineyard on this property in order to open a U.S. version of Milicevic Family Vineyards. This vineyard included Blatina and Zilavka, two grapevines that exist only in his native Herzegovina.  This decision presented two challenges. Can these vines prosper in the Bayou State's extreme humidity? And could the female Blatina grapevine be pollinated by the other grapevines planted in the vineyard?  

Through VinoShipper, I thought I had purchased wines from this estate vineyard in order to answer these questions; but instead, the wines were actually produced by the MFV in Herzegovina. In this regard, they were a little overvalued - but very well made and enjoyable.  After a little research, I think these wines are from the Citluk Winery, the largest winery in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and also the source of a similar wine - the Wines of Illyria Blatina.  

Milicevic Family Vineyards Red Table Wine ($28)
This is 100% Blatina which closely resembles those I had previously sampled. Think dark cherries and black raspberries and traces of mint, chocolate, and toffee. It also provides a very smooth finish with easy tannins. 

Milicevic Family Vineyards White Table Wine ($28)
This wine is comprised of 85% Žilavka (Zhi-luv-kah) with 15% Bena with the former providing the robust flavor and alcohol and the latter acidity.  Žilavka also contains a slight nutty profile which is more prevalent in this wine's aroma. The core is fresh grapefruits and lemons with a chewy and acidic boost at the tail 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Grape Spotlight: Croatian Vugava

"On the island of Issa is a wine produced that no other wine equals". -- ancient Greek historian Agatharchides of Cnidus (2nd Century BC) 

Brac and Vis are two of several islands in the Adriatic Sea, lying just off the coast from Split on Croatia's central Dalmatian Coast.  For two and a half thousand years, the islands have been home to Greeks, Romans, and now southern Slavs with viticulture a common thread. The Greeks began cultivating the Vugava grape variety on Vis (known then as Issa) between two and three thousand years ago - either by propagating a wild species or by importing the vine from another area. That is why Agatharchides may have been referring to Vugava in the quote above.  The grape is also planted in Brac and a few other neighboring islands and sources claim that the wines can be quite different.

 According to Total Croatia News, "the variety ripens rather early and needs to be picked during a very narrow window of time, usually fully by hand. The grapes tend to have very high sugar content and relatively low acids and somewhat overripe aromas, and traditionally have been used to create dessert wine prošek or to be blended with varieties with lower sugars and higher acids, but nowadays some fresh dry varietal wines are also being made".  

Stina means ‘stone’ in the local Brac dialect and reflects the crushed limestone soils on that island.  It also became the name of a brand for the Jako vino d.o.o. Bol that opened in 2009 when Jako Vino rented the historical Agricultural Cooperative building in the harbor of Bol. This structure housed the first Dalmatian Wine Cooperative when it was constructed in 1903.  

When the winery first opened they sourced Vugava from Vis and Emil Mehdin, Jako Vino's Marketing & Sales Director says the "even then Stina Vugava was considered different than Vugava from Vis island producers although the terroir was just the same". This was due primarily to their winemaking techniques such as keeping the wine on its lees for approximately 6 months before bottling.  In 2014 the differences between Vis and Brac Vugava became even more pronounced when the winery's Brač Vugava vineyards matured and reflected the island's crushed limestone soils as opposed to Vis' sandier soils. 

Furthermore, Mehdin stressed that in the vineyard their idea is to reach full phenolic ripeness, and as soon as that point is reached they start to harvest in order to preserve as much freshness as possible in grapes. In contrast, delaying the harvest leads to "very high sugar levels and consequently high alcohol and lack in acidity as well as overripe honey notes".  Now that tastes more like many Viogniers in my past.  And since limestone soils encourage acidity (the hardness and water retention of this rock vary, but being alkaline it generally encourages the production of grapes with a relatively high acidity level --  Tim Atkin - Master of Wine) expect we should expect the Stina Vugava to be fresher than its Vis counterparts. 

Stina For Inspiration Vugava 2018 ($34)
The fact that this wine matured for 6 months in steel tanks sur lie is readily apparent from its depth which consists of a whirlpool of grapefruit, apricots, and minerality. The acidity is even more than expected and lifts the wine to a crisp finish.  Excellent.

This wine and other Croatian wines are available in the United States through Croatian Premium Wine Imports.

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.