Friday, December 29, 2023

Exploring Exotic Spirits at Stoutridge Distillery & Winery

It looks like we will finish 2023 visiting just over 180 craft beverage establishments. A recent sampling of the unique portfolio at Stoutridge Distillery & Winery was one of the highlights of the year. The establishment was founded in 2006 by Stephen Osborn and Kimberly Wagner who converted a historic farm they had purchased five years earlier to a licensed winery. The farmhouse dates back to the mid-1800s and was originally built by Italian immigrants. In 1902, Vincenzo Marino purchased the property and produced wine commercially until his death in March 1919. But, because of Prohibition and neglect, the farmhouse and vineyards were in ruins by the turn of the century. 

The winery started producing natural (without sulfates or other chemicals) wine using locally grown fruit and using a state-of-the-art, gravity-flow system. In 2017, they expanded into distilling small-batch spirits, and not only distilling, but malting and kilning the grain. In fact, "Stoutridge is one of eight distilleries in America to do its own malting and the ONLY Distillery in the U.S. with a traditional Scottish style kilning floor."

During our visit I was tempted to start with their wine particularly since they source interested native and hybrid grapes such as Frontenac, Noiret, DeChaunac, Seyval, and Niagra, as well as a N.Y. Riesling. But then I saw their spirits portfolio of approximately 75 expressions comprised of Rye Whiskey, Malt Whiskey, Corn Whiskey, Bottled-In-Bond Whiskeys, Brandy, Whiskey-Brandy blends, Grappa, Eau de Vie, Vodka, Gin, Fernet & other bitters, Absinthe, Mastic, and Liqueurs.  Where to start? We decided to skip the whisky, vodka, and gin in order to plow into the exotic. 

Vincent Grappa: A traditionally made grappa, distilled from the skins of Hudson Valley grapes fermented for two months. This method produces incredible aromatic intensity (think of perfume) from both the concentrated natural oils of the grape skins and the myriad fermentation flavors. Named after Vincente Morano who made wine on our site from 1901 to 1919.  We purchased a bottle of this spirit because I felt out of all the expressions we tried, it seemed to hold a sense of place combining the wine and distillery operations. It's also a very agreeable grappa with a full mouthfeel and textured finish. 

Slivovitz: 100 proof plum brandy from locally harvested fruit. We use five kinds of plums in making this spirit to maximize it’s complexity. Slow distilled at high proof captures the complexity but yields a clean spirit that’s very smooth even over-proofed.  With an affinity for Eastern European Palinka, Rakija, and Slivovitz we were instantly attracted to this spirit and the plum character starts immediately and the nose and continues until the long, slightly rugged finish. 

Kirschwasser: 100 proof cherry brandy (kirsch) from locally harvested fruit. We use four kinds of cherries, harvested at varying levels of ripeness in making this spirit to maximize it’s complexity. Slow distilled at high proof captures the complexity but yields a clean spirit that’s very smooth even over-proofed. Delightful. The cherries hold up to the alcohol very easily.

The Damascene: We've added the perfect nuances of cardamom, angelica and white sage to our pot distiller locally grown field blend plum brandy. With a touch of sugar the result is a simply spectacular style of Slivovitz. A very interesting take on Slivovitz and very close to a Croatian Travarica.  With a larger budget I think I would have returned home with a bottle. 

Fernet: Our Fernet is a mint bittersweet liqueur in the Italian style. Developed to express our love of wintergreen and spearmint, but also to adhere to classic proportions of an amaro. This Fernet is a great replacement for bitters in any cocktail recipe. We offer this at 92 proof in order to give the spirit an elegance that is lost at lower proofs. I was excited to try this bitter  and I could envision slowly sipping and not just using in a cocktail. Love the mint profile. 

Quartarium Seed: Our venture into Absinthe production was the inspirational seed of so many flavor projects! Here we celebrate our success in competitions with a Swiss style 'Verte' made from 100% grape spirits in a wooden pot still of our design. This one has more hyssop flower and less artemis pontica.  This really incentivizes an exploration into Absinthe particularly through the several expressions available at Stoutridge. Just a few drops of water and the flavors pop. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The 'A's of Alentejo Wine Masterclass

is Portugal's largest viticultural zone and covers much of Portugal’s southern half, spanning the flatlands below the Tejo River down to Portugal's southern Atlantic Coast. It accounts for 13% of Portugal's area under vine and 18% of wine production. Alentejo incorporates eight sub-viticultural zones (from north to south: Portalegre, Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira, & Moura). 

The climate is hot and dry with both a Continental and Mediterranean climate with winters exceptionally cold whereas spring and summer are dry and hot. The region experiences high levels of sunshine in the growing season -- over 3,000 hours annually. also shares that the "Alentejo is broadly flat with hilly areas dotted across its zone. Major mountainous or hilly regions across the area include the Serra de São Mamede (1025m) on the border with Spain at the very northeastern end of the area, and the Serra de Portel (421m) and the Serra d’Ossa (649m), both in the central east".

Portugal has one of the most expansive number of native grape varieties at close to 250, which is the highest density of native grapes per square mile of any country in the world. These grapes are also reflected in Alentejo with the native Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Alfrocheiro joining the international varieties Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet as major players. 

These Alentejo wine facts were stressed during a recent Masterclass presented by Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein titled The 'A's of Alentejo. During the presentation we sipped six wines, each representing an "A" fact about the region. The wines were part of a Master the World wine kit of small bottles.

Antão Vaz - The Grape
This is the most dominate white grape in Alentejo and most prevalent in the Vidigueira and Reguengos sub-regions. The berries are loosely clustered and thick skinned providing disease resistance and they are also able to cope with drought-like conditions. In general it can provide stone and tropical fruit notes, various nuts, minerality, and ripe citrus. These characteristics were prevalent in the Herdade de Malhadinha Nova Antão Vaz da Malhadinha Branco 2022 ($30) with tropical, tangly lemons, cashews, and racing minerality. 

Although Alentejo is predominately flat, there are areas of significant height that provides important micro-climate benefits. In the northern region of Portalegre, vines planted on on steep slopes at close to 2,500 feet in the Serra de São Mamede benefit from lower temperatures and higher levels of humidity, yielding fresh, elegant wines.  This was evident in the Quinta da Fonte Souto Branco 2021 ($29), a blend of 75% Arinto and 25% Verdelho and aged in various oak treatments. The grapes were harvested from two vineyards located at 1,640 feet. The wine is excellent with a creamy, generous mouthfeel; stone fruits; and a lasting somewhat chewy and tannic finish.  

The Phoenicians introduced viticulture into Portugal 2,500 years ago as well as the use of clay pots in the winemaking process. These talhas de barro or amphorae hold up to 520 gallons of wine and can be as large as seven-feet in height, and weigh a ton. The clay pots are lined with Pez - a mix of pine resin and beeswax to make the clay impenetrable. Unlike the Georgian process, amphora in Alentejo are stored above ground and are moistened during the fermentation process to lower temperatures.  During this segment we sampled the Jose Maria da Fonseca Jose de Sousa 2017 ($19), a blend of Grand Noir, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.  It is dry, jammy with cherry and plums and a jolting tannic structure that mellows as the wine settles in the glass. 

Alentejano Blends
Red blends comprise a large percentage of Alentejo output and the Fitapreta Tinto 2021 ($27) was appointed as their representative. This wine was fermented using native yeasts an is a blend of four grape varieties featuring primarily Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet. Expect a dry wine with loads of dark plum flavors interspersed with earthy tones and a chewy-tannic finish. 

In 2015, the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP) was created to identify and certify sustainable farming and winemaking practices. Today the certification includes 171 criteria which 651 members have met. These criteria include reducing pesticides and other chemicals, conserving water,  soil management, and worker wellbeing. Casa Agricole Alexandre Relvas is WASP certified and dedicates a portion of its land to preserve local endangered plant species.  We sipped a wine from their first label, the Herdade de São Miguel Colheita Seleccionada Tinto 2018 ($16). This another four grape red blend dominated by Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional and is fresh and vibrant with a bright cherry nose, fresh fruit, and a long acidic finish. 

Alicante Bouschet
Although not indigenous to Portugal it has found a home accounting for 2% of all Portuguese plantings and ranking #8 for all reds. The grape thrives in Alentejo, particularly in Vidigueira and Reguengos, and is the second most planted red grape after Aragonez. It produced dense wines with dark fruit, pepper, smoke, and abundant tartness and astringency.  The Herdade de Rocim Alicante Bouschet 2021 ($23) is drinkable now but will benefit with more age as the licorice and tart, astringent, and tannic characters mellow into juicy dark fruit. 

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Wines with Altitude: Domaine Bousquet Part II - The Ameri Label

In Wines with Altitude: Domaine Bousquet Part I, we discussed these estate vineyards 4,000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary within the Tupungato mountain range. To repeat, "In this environment, rainfall is scant, sunshine is plentiful, and the desert-like climate creates a massive 59° F day/night temperature differential. The area also has poor stony and alluvial soils that are interlaced with layers of sand and limestone. This diverse combination creates free-draining soils that, due to the already mentioned limited water availability, stress the vines.  The grapes react to these conditions by increasing skin tannins, concentrating flavor, and retaining acidity and aromas". 

Today Domain Bousquet is managed by founder's Jean Bousquet's son-in-law and daughter: Labid al Ameri & Anne Bousquet. al Ameri had joined his father-in-law full time in 2005 helping to build the winery while Anne joined the company in 2008. "In 2009, the couple moved to Tupungato full-time, assuming full ownership in 2011".

We were very fortunate to receive samples of two wines from their premium label, Ameri -- sourced from fruit from the Bousquet Estate Vineyard. Both of these wines are certified organic which has been the case for this vineyard since the winery's inception in 1997. 

Earlier this year the couple started the three-year transition to fully biodynamic farming even though they have also earned the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)™ status from the 501(c)3 Regenerative Organic Alliance. Thus, Domaine Bousquet became one of only four wineries achieve this status to date, and the first outside the United States to meet ROC™’s stringent requirements that pertains to food/produce, fiber, and botanical ingredients. The other three wineries are Fetzer Vineyards (CA), Tablas Creek Vineyard (CA) and Troon Vineyard (OR).

"The California-based Regenerative Organic Alliance (motto: “Farm like the world depends on it,”) has adopted USDA Organic standards as a baseline. ROC™ requires certification in three areas: soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. Sensibly, potential members apply existing certifications from blue chip organizations such as Demeter, Certified Fair Trade, and Certified Humane, among others, to meet requirements. "

To repeat, the fruit for both the Ameri Red Blend and Ameri Malbec are certified organic and from vines first planted in the Bousquet Estate Vineyard in 1998. The vineyard is located in the Uco Valley’s Alto Gualtallery zone at an altitude of about 4,125 feet. The  Ameri Red Blend debuted with the 2011 vintage and bottles have been numbered since 2018. The blend is Malbec dominant followed by different percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot.  According to the winery,  the "Ameri Malbec is a new development, starting with the 2019 vintage when Domaine Bousquet winemaker Rodrigo Serrano determined that the Ameri Red Blend component wines were presenting so well that the time had come to showcase them individually, starting with the Malbec".

Ameri Red Blend 2020 ($37)
The wine starts with an earthy, barnyard, and mint aroma. Blackberries, chocolate cherries, and sharp tannins dissolve into a chewy, pleasant finish.

Ameri Malbec 2020 ($37)
The wine melts throughout the mouth, spreading evenly and relaxes the body. Seriously, a relaxing sensation. Cherry flavors pop with pieces of chocolate finishing with light approachable tannins.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Masciarelli d'Abruzzo Masterclass with Miriam Lee Masciarelli

For the last few months we have been fortunate to receive several samples from the Abruzzo producer Masciarelli and have written multiple posts concentrating on Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and their Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo. Last week we received a personal overview of the winery and their wines through the daughter of the founders, Miriam Lee Masciarelli.  Her father Gianna founded the winery in the early 1980's and we learned during the masterclass that during an early trip to Croatia searching for Slavonian oak barrels he returned with her mother Marina Cvetić instead. When Gianna  died suddenly in 2008, Marina took over the winery's management and today shares that responsibility with Miriam Lee.

Loreto Aprutino Vineyard, Pescara
(photo courtesy of Masciarelli) 

During the masterclass Ms. Masciarelli discussed the history and innovations established by Masciarelli Winery such as the introduction of the Guyot training system in Abruzzo and the use of French oak barrels to age Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Also, the heart of the Cerasuolo DOC lies in a area first sourced by Gianni in 1986 for a Rosato wine. Finally, Masciarelli was also the first winery in Abruzzo to produce a reserve-level Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (1984) which they continue to produce today from the original 12-acre Colle Cave “home vineyard,” dating back to 1930.

We sampled this lineage through the 2018 Villa Gemma Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC Riserva ($98) and quickly understood the sticker shock. The Riserva is only produced in the best of harvests and fermented in stainless steel. The wine is then aged for five to six years in new French barriques, then more aging in the bottle. This is both a luscious and elegant wine with dark fruit, earthiness, and cocoa on the nose. The structured center is full bodied, with dark cherries and slight spice and chocolate. The tannins are very approachable and the finish lingers and lingers....

Masciarelli is also the only Abruzzo producer with vineyards in all four Abruzzo provinces (Chieti, Pescara, Teramo, l’Aquila) and Ms. Masciarelli discussed the geographic attributes of each regarding soil, climate, and temperatures. The southernmost Province of Chieti is their primary source of grapes and is host to the home San Martino sulla Marrucina estate - the source of the above Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC Riserva - as well as three other vineyards.  

San Martino sulla Marrucina Vineyard, Chieti
(photo courtesy of Masciarelli)
"In the northernmost part of the province of Chieti, the landscape is more arid, whereas in the south it is smoother and full of small scattered settlements. A large part of the Majella massif, which is the second highest mountain of the Apennines chain after the Gran Sasso d’Italia, is also located in the province of Chieti. After the limestone peaks, the landscape of the rolling hills at the foot of the Apennines is characterized by extraordinary phenomena, such as the impressive ravines."

The Province of Pescara lies just north of Chieti and is the home of the Loreto Aprutino vineyard, which looks up to the Calderone glacier on top of Gran Sasso. The 2022 Villa Gemma Abruzzo Bianco DOC ($24) is a blend of 50% Trebbiano, 30% Pecorino, 20% Cococciola where some of the grapes are derived from this vineyard and the rest from Chieti. What I find most interesting about this wine is the distinct lime profile that Ms. Masciarelli attributed to the Cococciola grape. The variety also contributed herbaceous to the nose, whereas the Pecorino provides minerality and a fruit/floral balance. A truly unique, refreshing, and satisfying wine. 

Monday, December 4, 2023

Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo DOC with the Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC Superiore

Cerasuolo (chair-ah-swolo) translates loosely to "cherry-colored” in Italian and refers to Italian rosés in general. However the Abruzzo province is one of the few appellations in Italy exclusively dedicated to rosé, the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC. This designation was established in 2010 and mandates that 85-100% of the rosé wine consist of Montepulciano and the remaining percentage be filled with local white grapes. Montepulciano's dark color and tannins give the rosatos body with characters of cinnamon, orange peel, strawberry, rose and a mineral acidity. 

We received a sample of Cerasuolo from Masciarelli, a leading producer in Abruzzo and the producer with vineyards in all four provinces (Chieti, Pescara, Teramo, l’Aquila). The winery has been producing a rosato since 1986 and  Villa Gemma is their flagship line from  winemaker Gianni Masciarelli. The Montepulciano grapes for the Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC Superiore ($20) were harvested from 30 year old vines from the San Martino sulla Marrucina estate in Chieti, destemmed and macerated on their skins for 24 hours, before fermentation in stainless steel.  This rosato has exceptional texture and body with raspberries, pomegranate, and herbaceous aromas followed by a full red raspberry profile enveloped with minerality and subtle mint and finishing with refreshing acids.