Thursday, October 27, 2022

Grappa, Brandy, Vidal, and Sangiovese at Maryland's Fiore Winery & Distillery

Since attending my first Maryland wine festival about 20 years ago and through various festivals and trade tastings over the successive years, I've wanted to visit Fiore Winery & Distillery. Yet its relatively remote location with its back to the Pennsylvania border in northeast Maryland hindered that effort. Fortunately this past weekend we traveled to visit relatives in Harford County who live only minutes away from the Free State's 12th bonded winery.

This year Fiore Winery is celebrating its 36th anniversary which doesn't include the many earlier years when founder Mike Fiore joined the Maryland Wine Association and planted two acres of 150 Vidal Blanc vines. After making the difficult decision to become bonded they expanded the plantings with more French hybrids such as Chancellor and Chambourcin and it was a bottle of an aged Reserve Chambourcin that drew my attention to the winery and the wine I would seek out at future tastings and festivals. The family added several vinifera grapes to their portfolio including a uniquely Maryland Sangiovese to honor Mike's Italian heritage. And eventually seeing the popularity of craft distilling on the horizon, they incorporated distilling and warehouse operations into the farm.

Their current lineup includes a large range of dry to sweet wines and traditional spirits to flavored moonshine. The three of us shared two wine flights of seven wines each and a spirit flight of four samples. For the spirits, I chose the Bourbon Whiskey ($34.99), Straight Rye Whiskey ($29.99), Apple Brandy ($29.99), and Grappa Nicholas Reserve ($39.99). The two whiskies were excellent representatives of their genres with the Bourbon rounder than the Rye, but both having a dry lasting finish.  The Apple Brandy is a solid spirit where the apple fruit dominates the palate and ends with a clean pomme finish. Fiore produces two grappas by distilling the leftover pomace from their estate-grown grapes. The Reserve is produced by aging a portion of that spirit in specially designed 30-gallon oak casks for a minimum of two years. This rounds out the intense profile of the grappa providing roundness, nuts, and honey. Nicely done. 

We stuck to mostly their dry wines and for the whites, their traditional dry Vidal Blanc ($14.99) being the consensus among our party. The wine provides plenty of tropical and stone fruit notes and refreshing acidity -- excellent for a sunny, autumn day. Their Chambourcin 2016 ($19.99) is still one of the best produced in the Free State, aged two years in oak, and shows loads of dark fruit (without the jamminess) with a round slightly tannic finish. We tried the single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot but these grapes are better represented in the Proprietor's Select Meritage 2014 ($39.99) -- a proprietary blend aged two years in new Hungarian oak barrels.  A mouthful of structured fruit and a lasting tail. Fiore is an east-coast pioneer in planting Sangiovese and offers two versions in their tasting room. The Sangiovese 2013 ($19.99) is a fresher wine whereas the Proprietor's Select Sangiovese 2014 ($39.99) is aged longer in new Hungarian oak barrels which helps create a fuller character with some earthiness and chocolate mixing with the dark fruit. The final wine was the Green Apple Riesling ($12.99) which is also canned and a little sweeter than the others. However, the tartness of the apples and acidity from the Riesling helps alleviate that sensation for a refreshing palate cleanser. 

During the visit, we learned more about the area and hope to return soon to visit the neighboring breweries (in both PA and MD) and hike to Kilgore Falls --  Maryland’s second-highest free-falling waterfall. See what other craft beverage operations are in the area using theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. Cheers. 

Friday, October 21, 2022

Studying for the Certified Cider Professional Level 1 Exam with Sage Bird Ciderworks Virginia Hewe's Crab

I finally began preparing for the Certified Cider Professional (CCP) exam this week as part of the BevFluence New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign and thought that the Sage Bird Ciderworks Virginia Hewe's Crab would be an appropriate study device. The American Cider Association (ACA) presents two levels for the CCP, " Level 1 CCP is designed for people who would benefit from a deeper but still introductory level of cider knowledge. The more advanced Certified PommelierTM test covers more in-depth cider knowledge, including sensory evaluation". 

The Level 1 CCP exam focuses on seven categories (1) Apples, the Orchard & History; (2) Cidermaking; (3) Evaluation; (4) Families & Flavor; (5) Keeping & Serving; (6) Food & Cider; and (7) Social Responsibility. I will now present the Virginia Hewe's Crab cider in terms of reviewing for the CCP. 

Sage Bird Ciderworks is located in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia and opened a couple years ago due to the persistent hard work of Zach and Amberlee Carlson. This is the first cidery in the home of the Dukes and they offer a wide array of various styles and apple varieties including Hewe's Crab from their Age Old Apples series. 

Hewe's Crab was once the most popular apple variety in Virginia and is thought to be a cross between the native American crabapple, Malus angustifolia, and a domesticated European apple. The Hewe's Crab apples for this cider were harvested from orchards in the mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley. These are most likely low-density and freestanding orchards with relatively wide spacing between the trees.  Each individual tree is also most likely a graft of a Hewe's Crab scion fused to a rooted tree. 

The Hewe's Crab apple itself is considered Bittersharp with the bitter implying high tannins (polyphenols) and the sharp implying high acidity (malic acid). This is based on the Long Ashton Research Station (LARS) classification. The tannins and acidity can provide this cider the capability to age.  The apple's flesh is white so makes a clear cider as opposed to some cider apples with pinkish flesh which can add a little color to the cider without having to macerate on their skins - unlike red wine grapes. However, I believe this cider was aged several months in oak which will impart color and other flavors. 

Let's look at this particular cider bottle. Since the cider is over 7% abv, its label is regulated by the TTB, whereas labels for ciders under 7% are regulated by the FDA. The TTP requires the ABV, total volume, name and address of the producers, and whether the cider contains sulfites. You will not see vintages or designated geographic areas like the wine AVA system. This label provides additional information stating its sweetness level (dry) and composition -- 100% Virginia grown, single heirloom Hewe's Crab Apples. 

This Virginia Hewe's Crab cider is made from 100% apples and thus falls into the cider category as opposed to the Perry, Fruit Cider, Botanical Cider, or Dessert Cider categories. The ACA uses five commonly accepted flavors that we can taste so let's examine this cider in terms of sweetness, acidity/sourness, bitterness, salt, and savoriness. This is a caramel-colored cider, completely dry, with a tart, tannic, and full-bodied. There is a general savoriness I think both from the flesh and the oak treatment. The cider also provides an interesting array of pineapples, raisins, and a little saltiness or saline. 

The ACA recommends several food and cider pairings - particularly with a Bittersharp cider apple like this Virginia Hewe's Crab.  The acidity has a cleansing quality that cuts through fat and rich flavors and thus refreshes the palate. High tannins can have a similar effect. Think beef short ribs, pork schnitzel, sausage,  nutty and mushroom flavors, and dense cheeses. And because of the cider's rich tannins, it can be paired with similar intense foods and not be overwhelmed.

The preparation for the CCP sure increases the amount of information to process when evaluating a cider. Cheers. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene by Vins du Languedoc

Recently I attended a seminar and wine tasting titled Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene and presented by Vins du Languedoc. I thought I knew a lot about the region but in reality - not so much. Thank you Erik Segelbaum. Particularly for informing us of the History of Innovation in Languedoc starting with fortified wines in 1295, sparkling wines in 1544, grafting in 1873, and the recent research into organic and heat-resistant grapes. (more to follow on these innovations)

Languedoc is located in southeast France on the Mediterranean and is comprised of 20 AOPs representing 90k+ acres of vines. These vines - representing 26 main grape varieties - receive more than 300 days of sunshine each year and are planted in generally limestone soils along with low-lying scrub and herbal vegetation. The region can be divided into three growing zones: Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Hills & Mountains.

The Mediterranean or Coastal Plains zone is the warmest with abundant sunshine and mild, wet winters. The soils are mostly limestone with mineral-rich clay and sandstone. Indigenous grapes such as Piquepoul, Bourboulenc, and Clairette thrive in this zone.  And that was evident by the Villa Noria La Serre 2021 ($30) - made from 100% Piquepoul farmed organically in the AOP Picpoul de Pinet region. This wine has more body than others as it is matured on its lees but retains freshness and a strong citrus profile.

The Atlantic Zone is much cooler and moist and is shaped by two winds -  the crisp and dry Atlantic wind from the west and the warm Mediterranean wind from the east. The coky soil of sandstone and limestone also assists in creating a very distinct terrior. This zone is widely planted with several better-known French varieties, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Malbec as well as the local Mauzac used in sparkling Limoux wines. Several domains stood out starting with Domaine de Brau in AOP Cabardès. Their Cuvée Château 2020 ($14)  is a fresh, but luscious blend of Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. And their Etymologie 2020 is a more structured blend of the same grape varieties. An excellent wine.

Finally, the Hills & Mountains zone has a dry and hot climate with longer diurnal cooling. The soils are mostly sandstone and limestone and the higher elevations and volcanic subsoils lead to more mineral-driven wines. The grape varieties planted here are shared with its southern Rhone neighbors - Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Carignan. Most of the wines poured at this session were from this region and the red blends were in general structured with a fresh, full mouthfeel. 

Calmel & Joseph poured a few wines with the Entre Amis 2020 ($39) from AOP Languedoc Pézenas as a standout. It is a blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre, & 20% Grenache and think blackberries and figs followed by herbs and a structured finish. The Terre des 2 Sources Empreintes 2020 had a similar structure and freshness with more red fruit.  And their AOP Terrasses du Larzac Caprices 2019 is a blend of predominately Syrah, then Grenache, and Carignan and has a fresh mouthfeel and brings us back to dark fruit and savory spices. The Domaine Saint-Martin d'Agel Pèlerin 2020 is a fabulous blend of  45% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 15% Carignan, & 10% Mourvèdre that has velvety red fruit and noticeable minerality.  Finally, Château de Lascaux is a multi-generation family winery - we are talking 14 generations of winegrowers. Today they farm 85 Demeter-certified hectares in AOP Pic Saint-Loup. Their Carra 2020 ($22) is a GSM blend of 70% Syrah that is plainly delicious with a vibrant mouthfeel and juicy red fruit.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Grape Spotlight: AOP Limoux Blanquette de Limoux Mauzac Blanc

Blanquette de Limoux is considered to be the first sparkling white wine produced in France and it was created long before the Champagne region became world-renowned. Although the vineyards date back to the 5th Century BC, introduced by the Greeks, this particular wine was discovered in 1531. A hundred years before Dom Perignon, some Benedictine Monks were fermenting a white wine at the Abbey in Saint-Hilaire.  It was produced in cork-stoppered flasks (the cork oak forest south of Limoux was an important factor). To this day an age-old tradition is followed to bottle at the time of the full moon in March ready for the warmer weather to start the secondary fermentation that produces les bulles (the bubbles) and the fabulous sparkle within the bottles. -- The Good Life France

This fact was highlighted during a recent seminar I attended titled Languedoc: The New French Wine Scene and presented by Vins du Languedoc. This region is located in southeast France on the Mediterranean and is comprised of 20 AOPs representing 90k+ acres of vines. AOP Limoux is a sub-regional appellation located close to the Pyrenean foothills and includes three sparkling wine AOPs: Crémant de Limoux, Limoux Blanquette de Limoux, and Limoux Méthode AncestraleMauzac Blanc is the dominant grape with each region allowing different percentages. Limoux Blanquette de Limoux and Limoux Méthode Ancestrale both obtain secondary fermentation in the bottle with Limoux Blanquette de Limoux using dosage and Limoux Méthode Ancestrale being bottled when the must reaches 5-6% abv.  

The AOP Limoux and three sparkling AOPs share similar growing conditions affected by the two main geographic influences: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. These are a cool, moist climate affected by the crisp and dry Atlantic wind from the west and the warm Mediterranean wind from the east.  In addition, the region's vineyards are higher and thus cooler than others in the general Languedoc appellation. The soils are rocky, mostly sandstone and limestone, providing excellent drainage. 

The Limoux Blanquette de Limoux AOP requires 90% Mauzac Blanc (plus no more than 10% Chardonnay and/or Chenin Blanc) with "Blanquette" representing the grape's local name. Mauzac prefers the region's limestone soils and cooler temps as it is a late-ripening variety and requires slow ripening.  The grape's dominant profile is honey and green apples. 

The most popular Limoux Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine in the U.S. is most likely the Saint Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux with its recognizable yellow-orange label and honors the Benedictine Monks from the Abbey in Saint-Hilaire.  The 2019 vintage is composed of 95% Mauzac and 5% Chenin Blanc and is extremely clean with a dry and crisp green apple profile. Love the yeasty aromas and the creamy texture that proceeds the effervescence.