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.