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