Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Herbal Liqueurs: Zwack Unicum

In 1790, Habsburg ruler Joseph II had a bout of indigestion, and asked Dr. József Zwack, royal physician to the Imperial Court, for a remedy. Dr. Zwack offered the Holy Roman Emperor a sip of an herbal digestive and which Joseph II responded, "Das ist ein Unikum!" ("This is unique!")

I've had my share of indigestion over the years and instead of popping Gaviscon like candy or taking Omeprazole, I've decided to look at herbal remedies - and specifically - herbal liqueurs as a digestive. And there's no better place to start than Hungarian Unicom from a bottle purchased in 2001.  

Fifty years after this encounter with Joseph II, József Zwack founded the J Zwack & Co., and the first herb liqueur made under the name “Unicum” and using the same recipe occurred on May 22, 1883. The round bottle contained the recognizable red circle and gold cross on its belly implying its medicinal value.  As demand increased son Lajos moved the distillery to its present location in 1892. By 1926, Zwack Lajos’s sons, Béla Zwack and János Zwack had both joined the Company. 

During WWII, Budapest was one of the most bombed cities in Europe, and the distillery was completely destroyed. After the war, during which the family lived in a cellar with two unexploded bombs over their heads, János and Béla, completely rebuilt the factory using the most modern technology available at the time. When, in 1948, the firm was finally ready to resume production at pre-war levels, the newly instated Communist government confiscated everything the family possessed with no compensation and "the world as I knew it", to quote Péter Zwack, János's son, "came to an end". János fled to the West with the Unicum recipe in his breast pocket, having bribed the Russian drivers to take him across the border. Béla chose to remain in Hungary and was deported, together with thousands of other "class enemies", to eke out an existence on the Great Hungarian Plain. Péter Zwack took a train to the Yugoslav border and then walked his way to Trieste where, with an overwhelming surge of joy and relief, he saw the British fleet at anchor in the bay.

When János Zwack arrived in the United States he discovered that the Communist State-run company was still exporting products to the USA under the Zwack name. He filed a court case against the importers and the government to retain the right to his family trademarks. In the end, he succeeded: in a precedent-setting ruling the State-run company was no longer allowed to use the name Unicum or Zwack in the West. 

In 1988, Péter Zwack returned to Hungary and then, together with his partner, Emil Underberg of the German spirits dynasty, formed Péter Zwack und Consorten AG and later they entered into a joint venture with the State-run distillery. Four years later they founded Zwack Unicum Plc. after submitting a successful bid during the privatization process and were thus able to buy back the enterprise from the State.  Obviously, my bottle was produced during the Communist management of the distillery.

Unicum is still produced using the same recipe as in 1790 which features over forty herbs. The majority of these herbs and spices come from the Carpathian basin, but ingredients are also imported from Morocco, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Americas, and Australia. The herbs are measured by hand to this day, while some special ingredients, known as the "heart” of Unicum, are personally weighed out by a family member, currently by Péter Zwack’s widow, Anne Marshall Zwack.

In order to produce Unicum, half the herbs are macerated and the others are distilled and sometimes the same herb is both macerated and distilled. During maceration, the herbs are immersed in corn alcohol, a process that provides an intensive, rich flavor, The macerated and distilled herbs are then blended together in a traditional wooden vat. The spirit is then aged in oak casks, just like the 1790 version, and today the distillery employs 500 oak casks located in cellars under the Soroksári Road distillery

And Unicom is complex. I got citrus, sweet orange rind, and pine notes on the nose. The palate is bitter, then turns a little sweet with licorice, ginger, and lemongrass notes. The finish is long, Very long. So far, no need for Gaviscon. Cheers. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

Grape Spotlight: Oltrepò Pavese DOC Pinot Nero and Others

Lombardy is one of Italy's largest and most populous regions and is located in the north-central part of the country. It consists of five DOCG, 21 DOC, and 15 IGP titles with the Oltrepò Pavese DOC being one of the larger and better-known regions. Oltrepò  Pavese refers to Pavia across the Po -- or more meaningful - the area south of the Po River. The region lies in southwest Lombardy and shares many common features with neighboring Piedmont as both regions were once ruled by the House of Savoy.

Viticulture has been prevalent in Oltrepò Pavese for thousands of years as evidenced by the discovery of a fossilized caràsa, that is, a fossilized vine trunk, 25 cm long by 6 cm in diameter, found near Casteggio (Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese). And why not. According to, "the vineyards of the Oltrepo zone sit among the foothills between the Apennines and the river Po in the provinces of Alessandria, Genoa, and Piacenza. The vines benefit from an excellent microclimate (thanks to its proximity to the Po), well-drained soils rich in clay and calcareous marl, and a terroir often compared to that of Barolo".  In 1884 Oltrepò Pavese was home to at least 225 native vines, but today there are just a dozen that are the most widespread.
Last week I attended a fascinating lunch at Cafe Milano featuring wines from Oltrepò Pavese presented by Carlo Veronese, the director of the Consorzio Vini Oltrepò. Even though there are 20 classifications within Oltrepò Pavese, this tasting focused on the Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero dell'Oltrepo Pavese, and Sangue di Giuda dell'Oltrepo Pavese. And notice that the wines of Oltrepò Pavese are generally named from the vines from which they are made and not just the region.
Pinot Nero dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC
Oltrepò Pavese is considered the Pinot Nero (Noir) capital of Italy as more Pinot Nero is planted there than anywhere else in Italy. Interestingly, the original genotypes of Pinot Noir were already cultivated in the Oltrepò areas by the ancient Romans and may have been the source of Pinot Noir in the south of France. However, the current Pinot Noir vines derive from French selections that were planted after the Phylloxera epidemic. Pinot Nero can be labeled as a vintage wine or a Reserva with a minimum of two years of aging.

The Cantina di Casteggio Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2020 is a lighter style but with noticeable tannins and a little chewy mint.

The Dino Torti Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2019 was perhaps my favorite despite the interesting branding. It's floral with creamy red raspberries and cherries and a viscosity throughout.

The Mazzolino Pinot Nero Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2018 was the biggest of the reds, aged twelve months in oak and offering a tea and pepper aroma, a full-bodied interior, with a firm and lasting finish.

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG
Metodo classico is Italy's version of Champagne's methode classique and Pinot Nero is dominant in all wines made under this title.  The sparkling wine can be made either as a white or rosé and 70 percent or more of the final blend must be Pinot Nero. This percentage increases to 85 percent for wines claiming the varietal title Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Pinot Nero.  Picked at the early stages of skin ripeness, Pinot Nero displays a good balance of acidity and sugar required for these sparkling wines.

The Asburgico Oltrepò Pavese DOCG Metodo Classico Pinot Nero 2018 explodes in the mouth with textured citrus notes.

The Azienda Agricola Quaquarini Francesco Oltrepò Pavese DOCG Metodo Classico Pinot Nero 2014 needed a few minutes to open then the floral, white grapefruit and a little tropic fruit notes rushed out.

Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio DOC
This title applies to still and frizzante white wines containing at least 85 percent Pinot Grigio.

The Vanzini Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio DOC was an eye-opener on the region's richer style and orangish-colored versions of this varietal wine.

Sangue di Giuda dell'Oltrepo Pavese DOC
The title translates to "Blood of Judas" and applies to sweet red wines which can be still, frizzante (semi-sparkling), or spumante. Barbera and Croatina must each account for between 25 and 65 percent of any blend with Pinot Nero, Uva Rara, and Vespolina alone or in any combination, accounting for 45 percent. The intriguing and sometimes controversial name Sangue di Giuda means "Blood of Judah" or "Blood of Judas". 

The Losito & Guarini Sangue Di Giuda Dell'Oltrepò Pavese DOC, C'era Una Volta 2021 is a low alcohol (6%), full-bodied, and fresh wine where the sweetness is partially obscured by the abundant acidity.

Oltrepò Pavese Riesling
The Ca Di Frara Oliva Oltrepò Pavese Riesling DOC also provides a darker copper color with tropical and petrol notes.

Oltrepò Pavese Barbera
The Ca Montebello Oltrepò Pavese Barbera DOC 2020 is fruit-forward, and very friendly with a floral start and a slight mocha tail.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Enjoy Beer, Wine, and Scenic Views from Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Brewery


We can all agree that every winery provides its own unique glorious view of the surrounding countryside and the views from Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Brewery are no exception. Except that it may provide the best mountain and valley views in Virginia, and arguably the entire East Coast.  The 35-acre estate vineyard off Afton Mountain is planted on south-facing slopes ranging in elevation from 800 feet to 1,140 feet within the Monticello AVA. And with amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont valleys.

In addition to the estate vineyard, Hazy Mountain farms 50 acres in the cooler Shenandoah AVA west of Staunton, on the southeast-facing slopes of the west side of the Shenandoah Valley. The Little North Mountain Vineyard also houses their production facility. Thus Hazy Mountain offers wines from two distinct Virginia AVAs - cool climate Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and Pinot Noir from the Shenandoah Valley and Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot from Nelson County and the Monticello AVA.

We stuck to the white wines and were very impressed with these cool climate varietal wines. We learned that the 2020 Chenin Blanc was fermented and aged in large French oak puncheons and aged on lees in a barrel for 11 months, providing rich fruit texture and a larger mouthfeel. Great acidity too. As did the 2019 Dry Riesling and 2020 Gruner Veltliner with the Riesling very light in the Kabinett style and the Gruner providing layers of white grapefruit. As for beer, go no further than the German Pilsner. Excellent. Can't wait to visit for a Nelson County Dark Skies night.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Virginia Cider Week & Cider Smackdown: Attack of the Crab

Virginia Cider Week
started last Friday and runs through November 20th and we attended the kickoff event Cider Smackdown: Attack of the Crab at Albemarle CiderWorks. This event was a blind tasting of eight Virginia ciders composed of crab apples and the entries consisted of either Virginia Hewes, Wickson, or Rub Ted Crabapple.

Hewe’s Crab was the most common fruit variety grown in eighteenth-century Virginia. It is thought to be a cross between the native American crabapple, Malus angustifolia, and the domesticated European apple of horticulture. It produces a delicious cinnamon-flavored cider that is both sugary and pungent. Jefferson planted his entire north orchard exclusively with this variety and once wrote that crushing the juicy Hewe's Crab for cider was like "squeezing a wet sponge." Its small, round fruit, which ripens in September in Central Virginia, is dull red and streaked with green. (

Wickson Crab was developed by Albert Etter, an apple enthusiast best known for his work on pink-fleshed and red-fleshed apples. Wickson was the result of crossing two other crab apple varieties. Confusingly Etter refers to them as Spitzenberg crab and Newtown crab in his patent papers, but it is not thought they are related to the mainstream apples of the same names but were crabs developed by Etter himself...Like most crab apples Wickson is very small and is also a hardy and problem-free tree. However, that is where the resemblance to other crab apples ends. Wickson is unusually sweet, but at the same time has a strong acid component. The result is an apple that has a very strong flavor, making it an excellent component for cider blends. (

Ruby Red is a chance seedling that actually originates from the property. The tree was found behind an old cabin at the base of Priest Mountain by John Saunders and after noting the apples' intense flavor and colored flesh, they chose to propagate the apple for commercial purposes. (Troddenvale at Oakley Farm

The Cider Smackdown was a blind tasting where attendees voted on their two favorites or a single favorite getting both votes. Each of the ciders was completely unique even those composed of the same apple varieties, as cellar techniques varied among the cideries. The Albemarle CiderWorks Wickson Crab received the most votes followed by a three-way tie of the Sage Bird Cider Virginia Hewes CrabHalcyon Days Cider Occam's Razor, and Big Fish Cider Virginia Hewes Crab.  I had recognized the Sage Bird Hewes Crab from opening a bottle a few weeks previously when studying for the CCP. Love the fleshy tart and bittersweet notes. My other vote went to the Potter's Craft Cider Wickson Crab (which finished in a three-way tie with the Lost Boy Cider Cellar Series: Hewes and Courthouse Creek Cider Crabtree Falls.  The Potter's Wickson Crab was aged in French oak wine barrels and was able to retain tartness and acidity while providing red currants on the nose and a full body palate.  The Troddenvale Grower Series, Silver Creek Orchards - 2021 rounded out the entries and this was my first taste of a Ruby Red Crabapple cider. There was an interesting farmhouse hoppy flavor combined with creamy lees and a bittersharp finish.

We came home with a bottle each of the Albemarle CiderWorks Wickson Crab and Halcyon Days Occam's Razor but hope to revisit all of these ciders during the BevFluence® New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign. All ciders are welcome for the campaign. Cheers. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

New Perspectives on Wines of Uruguay

Last week the Uruguay Wine Fall Tour landed in Washington DC where 16 producers poured several wines each at  La Cosecha (voted one of America's Top 50 Best Wine Retailers in 2021). The tour was sponsored by Uruguay Wine, the brand used by INAVI - Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura to promote Uruguayan wine around the world. During a previous tasting almost a decade ago, the emphasis was strictly on Tannat -- introduced into Uruguay in 1870 by Basque immigrants and at the time had represented one-third of all wine produced in that country.  And yes, there were several single-varietal Tannat wines and Tannat-based blends poured at this event. However, I was more impressed by the emergence of other grape varietals and stylistic changes. 

Uruguay resides in the same parallels as its neighbors Argentina & Chile, but also South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The soils are mostly clay, there's plenty of sunshine, and the vineyards are primarily situated near the Rios de la Plata (across from Buenos Aires) or near the Atlantic Ocean. Think cool coastal breezes and balanced and structured wines. There's a relatively long wine-making tradition in the county as immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Germany brought their wine-making traditions and wine grapes with them. 

The first new trend I noticed was the expansion of Albariño. The grape was introduced into Uruguay by the Bouza Winery incorporating the family's Spanish roots from Galicia. They also farm several other winegrapes in five vineyards from the metropolitan areas of Montevideo and Canelones to the oceanic-influenced Maldonado region. These are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Tannat. The last three comprise their Mount Vide Eu - a full-bodied and structured wine providing a robust mouthfeel. Yet, it was their tropical fruit and saline-driven Albariño 2022 that piqued my interest in discovering who else was producing wines from this grape variety.

Bodega Garzon was the next station I visited and they poured a coastal and racy Albariño Reserve 2022 that featured grapefruit and refreshing acids and minerality.  In addition, their Pinot Noir Rosé 2022 was very provencal - elegant with layers of strawberries. 

Another excellent example was provided by Familia Deicas and their Atlantico Sur Albariño.  As the name suggests, the grapes are grown no further than 30 kilometers from the coast where the cooler temperatures allow for slow ripening and fresh wine. This version has similar acidity and saline as the Bouza but shows more floral and citrus notes.  Familia Deicas has been very innovative throughout the years by producing the first Sauternes-style noble rot wine in Uruguay, the first ISO 9001 Quality Certification in South America, the first Tannat Liqueur in Uruguay, the first Tannat produced according to the Bordeaux Cru Garage techniques in Uruguay, and many others.

Winemaker Santiago Deicas has continued this innovation through his  Bizarra Extravaganza brand. This project began in 2014 when he started making craft beer and inspiration from the purity of that beverage triggered the concept of producing natural wines. Two of these wines were presented at the tasting: the Vino Natural Amphora and Vino Natural Orange. The former is made from 100% Tannat and aged two months in Amphora and 10 months in concrete tanks. The latter is composed of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng and is aged nine months in used French oak and concrete tanks. Both are truly unique with the Amphora showing fruit-forward Tannat.

Another fruit-forward innovative wine was the Pizzorno Maceracion Carbonica Tannat 2022. The wine was fermented using carbonic maceration in concrete tanks where, in a carbon dioxide-rich environment, most of the juice is fermented while still inside the grape. The resulting wine is low in tannins and showcases the grape's fruit - in this case, rich raspberries and cherries. The 4th generation at Pizzorno Family Estates also poured a very elegant Pinot Noir Reserve 2020 and a sturdy Tannat Reserve 2020 with the grapes from all of these wines grown in the country's largest wine region: Canelones. 

Another new perspective occurred while visiting the table for Bodega Cerro Chapeu. This 10th-generation family started producing wine in Catalonia in 1792 and in Uruguay in 1930. They are located in the Cerro Chapeu of the Rivera wine region which is located in northern Uruguay - very close to the Brazilian border.  This continental region is "characterized by its vineyards on the sides of hills and slopes, around 220 meters high, and its deep red sand soils with very good drainage and the seasons are drier with longer sun hours. Ideal for late-maturing varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia. These are the grapes that form the Castel Pujol Folklore Pet Nat. The grapes are fermented separately and right before complete fermentation, they are blended and bottled. I was not expecting a fun wine like this. They also poured a delicious still version of the Pet Nat, the Castel Pujol Folklore Blanco, with plenty of fruitiness and surprisingly body. Finally, they continued to stretch traditional winemaking with the Castel Pujol Folklore Tinto -- 80% Tannat co-pigmentation with 20% Petit Manseng first press skins. What a mouthfeel. 

A similar co-fermentation occurred with Alto de la Ballena and their 2018 Tannat - Viognier Reserve. This is an 85% - 15% co-fermented blend aged for nine months in American oak barrels. The Viognier softens the Tannat and provides a pleasant floral aroma. This 20-year-old winery is located in the southeast and seaside region of Maldonado and also produces a luscious Cabernet Franc Reserve - silky and juicy in nature

Perhaps the most delicious Cabernet Franc was provided by Bracco Basca and their 2021 Cabernet Franc. Layers of dark cherries, structured, and a long satisfying tail. The winery was founded in 2005 by Darwin Bracco and Mirtha Bosca "but its vineyards have been in the family for 5 generations. Originally from Piedmont, Italy, the family moved to Uruguay and established in Atlántida region to continue the wine tradition".  This winery is also releasing several innovative products such as the first dry Muscatel in Uruguay as well as a Merlot - Ugni Blanc Claret. Fun, fantastic wines. 

Looking forward to visiting all these wineries in person one day. Cheers.