Tuesday, January 16, 2024

World Drinks Award Road Trip 2023

While in Washington D.C. to judge in the Whiskey and Gin Categories for the World Drinks Award, we spend several days visiting wineries, distilleries, breweries, and cideries in the Metropolitan area. Interestingly, while traveling from Frederick Maryland in the northwest to Fredericksburg Virginia in the south and to Leonardtown, Maryland in the East, our tour evolved into a journey back in time when America was the center of Rum production. Along the way we visited four distilleries that focus exclusively on distilling Rum as well as excellent Rum expressions at two other distillers. In addition, we visited three other Maryland distilleries as well as other friends in the cider, beer, and wine sectors.

Cotton & Reed is a distillery and cocktail bar located in Washington D.C.’s Union Market where they have been producing award-winning rum for the past seven years. Their rums are made using cane syrup and molasses from one of only two BONSUCRO-certified sugar refineries in the United States. Bonsucro is a global sustainability platform and standard for the production and use of sugarcane. During this visit we sampled through their standard expressions as well as a vertical tasting of their Solera Scorpio sherry finished rums. These are very clean and well-made products, starting with the White Rum and a slight grassy profile. The Gold Rum spends a year in used bourbon barrels and provides honey and vanilla notes.

The PX Dark Rum rests 18 months in new American Oak barrels before finishing in a re-seasoned 500L PX Sherry Butt. This is very complex, with a full mouthfeel of various flavors from dried fruit, nuts, vanilla, and sweet honey. The Coconut Rum is one of the best we’ve tasted. Instead of chemical coconut, the rum leaps with fresh toasted coconuts based on the dried organic coconut flakes. Next, we moved to the vertical of Solera rums — the 2020, 2022, and 2023 Solera Scorpio. In general, the rums were aged up to two years in used bourbon barrels, then moved into PX Sherry-seasoned barrels, and finally blended into a giant 450-liter Armagnac cask for a year. They all share a nuttiness and honeyed fig profile with varying degrees of intensity. If any of these are within your budget, they are highly recommended.

Thrasher’s Rum is produced at the DC’s District Wharf and served upstairs at the Tiki TNT bar. The distillery was founded by Todd Thrasher based on his love of Guyanese-style rum. (Guyana rums are very fruity and rich – among the fullest in body of all Caribbean rums. The area is known for the famed Demerara River where the rich Demerara sugar is renowned for its high quality and contributes a unique caramel-like sweetness to the rum.) Along with Justin Owens, the duo produces an interesting range of rums by fermenting equal parts black strap molasses and raw turbinado sugar (sourced from Louisiana) and distilling using a pot still. Depending on the recipe the rum is distilled a second time through a column still and adding a botanical basket if necessary. The rum is proofed down to 40% ABV using a steady drip from their water filtration system.

White: This is a very clean rum, grassy and cane aromas leading to a honey profile. Spiced: The White Rum is steeped with star anise, clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange peels. The baking spices and vanilla stand out with a long pleasant finish. Green Spiced: Thrasher’s Green Spiced Rum is a one of a kind spirit creatively infusing botanicals and spices using a botanical basket. These include lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon balm, mint, green cardamom, and lime peels, and builds a juniper-less spiced gin profile. Looking forward to experimenting with several cocktails. Coconut: This rum is created by steeping 60 pounds of raw coconut in the White Rum overnight, then loading the botanical basket with five pounds of toasted coconut for a column run Then an additional five pounds of dehydrated coconut is steeped for four more days. The toasted and fresh coconut flavors are unreal. Excellent. Gold: This rum is made by aging the White Rum for sic months in medium char, medium tasted New American Oak barrels. A solid offering.

Copper Compass Craft Distilling Co. is the handiwork of cousins Board-certified pediatric dentist April Toyer and retired U.S. Navy command master chief Herb Banks. The distillery is located outside of Waldorf Maryland in White Plains and focuses on craft rum – a very suitable decision based on Banks’ Navy career. The name “Copper Compass” also combines this career with the history of our American predecessor’s distilling operations. Herb also built out most of the facility from the beautiful wood bar made from wood reclaimed from a 200 year old barn to the graphics displaying the distilling process.

Currently the distillery offers four styles of rum starting with a very clean yet funky Platinum rum made from home-made molasses. The Coconut Rum starts with the Platinum as a base and then is seeped with real toasted coconut. This is evident by the pure coconut flavors as opposed to any chemical solution. The Whiskey Barrel Spiced Rum is another expression that is complex without any artificial characteristics. Their Platinum Rum rests in a spirit tank and spiced with seven different natural spices along with staves from a Charred Oak American Barrel. The spices are all of the place (vanilla, clove, ginger, orange peel, all spice, black pepper, star anise, and cinnamon spice) with the oak imparting more vanilla and accentuating the cane sugar sweetness. Looking forward to trying this one at home. Finally, they offer the Lemon Drop Rum made with natural lemon flavor. This expression is definitely refreshing leaving a clean sweet finish.

Pitorro is Puerto Rican moonshine — sometimes an artisan rum produced by distilling sugar cane and traditionally cured with fruit and buried for several months. This process helps to balance the high alcohol volume. And Puerto Rico’s unofficial national spirit is now available in the Old Line State courtesy of Frederick’s Puerto Rico Distillery. The distillery is led by the father-daughter team of Angel and Crystal Rivera and their portfolio starts with an unflavored pitorro weighing in at 100 proof. This spirit is distilled from sugarcane molasses and has a funky character. They are also aging batches infused with coconut, coconut chai, pineapple, pineapple ginger, almond, butter pecan, coffee, and kiwi. Loads of interesting expressions especially their Traditional which is a Puerto Rico tradition infused with raisins, prunes, and cranberries. Imagine all the cocktail recipes…

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery has a long history in Northern Virginia, starting when A. Smith Bowman moved to what is today’s Reston and started Sunset Hills Farm in 1927. This 4,000-acre farm employed 150 people and was a self-sufficient community. In 1934 he created a distillery to distill the excess corn and the spent grain was used to feed the cattle. The farm and distillery became a local tourist attraction along the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Line. Bowman’s two sons took over the operations when he died in 1952 and they expanded production and distribution with a peak in 1970. Eventually, the Bowman family sold most of their estate to Robert E. Simon, who used proceeds from selling Carnegie Hall to create the planned community of Reston. As the area became more urbanized, in 1988, the distillery moved south to Fredericksburg. Over time the distillery was purchased by various companies leading to today’s ownership by the Sazerac Company.

We tasting four well made spirits starting with the Deep Run Vodka, distilled seven times from a corn mash and charcoal filtered. Clean, peppery, and grassy. The George Bowman Colonial Era Dark Caribbean Rum is named for A. Smith’s German immigrant relative who first migrated to the Shenandoah Valley. This rum is distilled in Guyana using a pot still and local molasses and then imported and bottled in Fredericksburg. It’s a fantastic rum, honey, and nuts, with a chewy texture, and lasting finish. The Isaac Bowman Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey Port Barrel Finished is very complex showing baking spices, vanilla, dark fruit, nuts, and an approachable finish. Finally, we tasted the Mary Hite Bowman (George Bowman’s wife) Caramel Bourbon Cream Liqueur where the caramel is complimented by baking spices such as nutmeg and finishing with a pleasant kick.

Just like Puerto Rico Distillery, we’ve visited Dragon Distillery several times (easy since they are practically next door to each other) and am still savoring their Free State Collaboration with Flying Dog Brewery in the Dragon Dog Frederick Rye Whiskey. Dragon Distillery was the first East Coast distillery to launch an RTD product and two that we go to often are the Dragon’s Mule and Dragon’s Draft Bourbon & Cream Soda. For spirits, they have a very interesting and unique portfolio ranging from moonshine to rye and bourbon through gin and rum into infused spirits. One of these is the FigZilla Fig Infused Whiskey. Despite the name, vanilla overtakes the subtle fig which is most noticeable on the nose. A very smooth, drinkable whiskey. The Dwarven Morning Blend is for the rum-coffee lover as is the Sultan’s Surprise Toasted Coconut Rum which provides plenty of toasted coconut. Also, try the Snallygaster Blended Whiskey (Bourbon & Rye Blend) and the Joust Gin.

For 7 years, McClintock Distilling Company has operated in downtown Frederick MD producing a wide range of spirits from Maryland Rye Whiskey through bourbon and then vodka, gin, and cordials & liqueurs. They source organically and locally as much as possible and are the only certified organic distillery in Maryland. Their whiskeys are made from locally sourced heirloom grains whereas the gins and vodkas are made with only organic ingredients and the gins use non-GMO botanicals with no concentrates or extracts.

The Bootjack Rye Whiskey is made using 75% Danko Rye in a pre-prohibition mash bill, aged in white American oak barrels. It has a spicy rye profile up front which leads to a sweeter bready finish. The Matchstick Straight Bourbon Whiskey is set at exactly 51% corn (30% red fife wheat and 19% Danko Rye) and aged at least 2 years in oak. This is an intense bourbon, layers of honey, figs, tobacco, and a sweeter character at the tail. The Old Etzler Straight Rye Bottled in Bond whiskey spent five years in oak and has a sizzling profile with noticeable baking spices, vanilla, and black pepper. We tasted three gins, all made using a vapor infusion process. The Forager Gin is made using 21 botanicals inspired by native herbs found in the Appalachian Wilderness. The Gardener’s Gin differs in that it is aged in Madeira Wine Casks which provides a unique color. McClintock’s Reserve Gin is noted as the first American gin to be aged in Cognac barrels but this treatment doesn’t diminish the pine and citrus profile. And ask about their collaboration with Monacacy Brewing where they distill spent grain from various beers. The Brewtus Aged Spirit is made from the spent grain of a Monacacy Coffee Stout where the coffee aromas are compelling and chocolate on the finish. The Riot Rye IPA Aged Spirit is funky and a bit fruity.

Tenth Ward Distilling Company was founded in 2016 by Monica Pearce and is located in what used to be the Tenth Ward of downtown Frederick, Maryland. They have a unique lineup that includes Absinthe Nouvelle, Genever Gin, Maryland Rye Whiskey, Smoked Bourbon, seasonal liqueurs, and canned cocktails. Their whiskey selection is distilled in-house, aged in Frederick and the grain base is 100% sourced from local farms. We need to start by discussing Maryland’s first and only absinthe — Absinthe Nouvelle. It is distilled with anise, fennel, grand wormwood, star anise, chrysanthemum, and mace and then naturally colored with petite wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, and bergamot orange. It is excellent – no need for sugar just a little water. The Smoked Bourbon is a blend of 80% smoked corn and 20% malted barley aged in char #3 medium toast American White Oak barrels. It is another unique spirit = the smoke provides a peat-like character with a little campfire caramel. The Genever Style Gin is distilled from malted rye and cane spirit then vapor infused with juniper, angelica root, orris root, cardamom, elderflower, ginger root, persimmon, chicory root, and orange peel. Pine characters are prevalent finishing with bitter roots. I can envision a Negroni here. The final year-round spirit is the Maryland Rye Whiskey with 100% rye grown and malted in Frederick. This fits perfectly into the #mdryerevival happening now that highlights the historic nature of Maryland Rye Whiskey. There’s definitely a malty character intermingled with spices and pepper.

“The Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative (SMWGC) cooperative was formed in 2007 as the region began to transition away from tobacco production to other agricultural pursuits…The SMWGC formed as the first agricultural cooperative in the state of Maryland leading the way for viticulture and future wineries. In 2009, the SMWGC officially opened the Port of Leonardtown Winery making it the first commercial winery in St. Mary’s County.” They may also be the only winegrower cooperative on the East Coast. The cooperative consists of 12 vineyards from St. Mary’s, Calvert, and Charles counties but they also source grapes from western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. In total, they source from 28 vineyards which help produce a wide range of wines from dry whites, reserve reds, sweet wines, port-styled wines, and apple wine – which they were fermented on our visit.

Ontario native Lauren Zimmerman has been the winemaker for the past eight years and has consistently produced innovative and award-winning wines. These include a dry Vidal Blanc, Albarino, and Governor’s Cup winning Chambourcin Reserve. In fact, 30% of the winery’s production is Chambourcin which goes into various blends, a lightly pressed Rosé, their Port of Leonardtown, and Chambourcin Reserve. During our visit we started with a tank-drawn Viognier and Chambourcin Rosé which led to a vertical of their Old Line Red Bordeaux blend which demonstrated the aging ability of these wines. In the tasting room, we started with a floral and surprisingly tannic dry 2022 Vidal Blanc eventually followed by a very delicious, medium-bodied, and complex Barbera Reserve. They also produce interesting 5-varietal blends like the 2022 Blanco Loco, the McIntosh Run apple wine, and various dessert wines. A wine for all palates. Since 95% of the wine is sold out of the tasting room, plan a long excursion into historic St. Mary’s County.

Mully’s Brewery is a family-owned and operated brewing facility that is a testament to hidden gems available throughout the American countryside. The brewery was started by Cindy and Jason Mullikin in 2012 and features a range of beer styles from lagers through sours to dry stouts. During our late November @BevFluence tour of southern Maryland, we visited and tasted through two flights of beers grasping the breadth of their portfolio. One of the most interesting was the Brunch Crunch – a Golden Ale brewed with coffee and cinnamon. Think of cinnamon toast with subtle coffee and a balanced finish. The Backstop Kolsch was very refreshing and clean as was the Not Forbidden Apple Cider. The Mowlawner Pils is a solid German Pilsner showing bready notes, while the Chin Czech Pilsner is weightier with more hop bitterness. The biggest surprises were the very well-made Red Squirrel Vienna Lager and Dunkel Buck Munich Dunkel. These beers were malty but sweet, and very balanced with the Dunkel providing a mocha and dry finish. Can’t wait to revisit a few of these with the mixed six-pack we purchased.

Lost Boy Cider is northern Virginia’s first urban cidery, serving Alexandria with a unique array of ciders from single varietal heirloom apples to cocktail inspired recipes. There’s usually at least 20 ciders on tap with pre-configured flights presented on the tasting board. We tasted through two flights starting with a Heirloom Series of the Wild Virginia (Albemarle Pippin, Arkansas Black, and golden russet apples), Small Apples (Hewes, Wickson, Ashmeads Kernel), Green and Gold (50% Rhode Island Greening and 50% Golden Delicious), and the Virginia Cyser (Apples, Wildflower, Clover Honey). With these ciders, you are presented with excellent representatives of the apple’s textural character ranging from sharpness to bitterness (tannic). The second flight was a mixed bag starting with the Pashionista (passion fruit and lemongrass) which was obviously tart with the soft lemon on the tail end. The Pura Vida (pineapples and spices) is very refreshing and we envisioned augmenting it with the Cotton & Reed Coconut Rum for the full expression. And the Spritz was the most pleasant surprise — made to replicate an Aperol Spritz with currants and house-grown bitters — and much better than my homemade blend of their Lost Boy Cider with a shot of Campari.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Grape Spotlight: Cortese di Gavi DOCG from Riva Leone

The Gavi or Cortese di Gavi DOCG is an appellation covering still and sparkling white wines produced from the indigenous Cortese grape grown in and around the town of Gavi in southern Piedmont, Italy, roughly 50km (30 miles) due north of Genoa on the shores of the Mediterranean. -- wine-searcher.com

The designation of origin Gavi or Cortese di Gavi DOCG was established in 1998 based on a pre-existing DOC created in 1974. The DOCG area is a predominantly hilly area and vines are planted within 11 municipalities in the southern part of the province of Alessandria. The soils are primarily alluvial, calcareous, and limestone resulting in low yields and decent minerality. It's climate contains elements of both Continental and Mediterranean with abundant winter rainfall followed by hot and dry summers. The summer conditions are tempered by the influence of winds from the sea with abundant sunshine allows the grapes to slowly ripe. And the high diurnal temperature range between night and day allows for the grapes to retain acidity and boist the aromatics.

Cortese is a white grape variety most famously associated with the crisp, lime-scented wines of Gavi. The variety is known for its bracing acidity and its ability to retain freshness even when grown in warm environments. The variety has been grown in the southeastern part of Piedmont for hundreds of years with documents on Cortese dating back to the beginning of the 17th century (wine-searcher.com). The thin skinned grape can be very rigorous and vines and grapes must be pruned and dropped which also helps prevent rot by allowing more airflow. And the warn environment in Gavi allows the grapes to ripen fully balancing the high acidity.

Mack & Schuhle offers a Riva Leone line of wines from the Piedmont which includes the Riva Leone Gavi 2021 ($14.99). According to the Consorzio Tutela del Gavi, 2021 provided conditions in which "the grapes revealed a slow maturation ... stands out compared to previous years, with a better stability of the malic acid which suggests an excellent qualitative potential for the 2021 Gavi DOCG". For this wine, the grapes were lightly pressed and the must fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel vats. This is a delicious wine, starting with powerful aromatics of pineapple and pears leading to a lemon-lime profile, texture and minerality, finishing with racy - fresh acids. A complete bargain. 

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. Wine-searcher.com 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. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Grape Spotlight: Anderson Valley Pinot Noir through Crosby Roamann

The illustrious Anderson Valley is located in the rolling hills of the northern California coastal region of Mendocino County, 110 miles northwest of San Francisco. It is the wine country we all used to know – approachable, intimate, uncrowded, and primarily owner-operated. -- Anderson Valley Wines

The Anderson Valley AVA encompasses a very narrow, low lying region situated ten miles from the Pacific and at the very northern end of California's prime winegrowing area. It is only one mile wide and 15 miles long covering approximately 57,600 acres (23,300ha) of vines. It is amongst the coolest of California's wine regions where the valley is positioned to allow ocean breezes and fog to cool the area. Rain is plentiful, particularly in the cooler months of November through to March. These conditions forced early commercial wineries into planting Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling where in 1982, these three grapes accounted for 400 of the 582 acres then planted.  However, during the next decade and into the new millennium, growers increasingly experimented with Pinot Noir clones and soon that variety became a dominant force within the AVA. These clones could ripen reliably in the cool Anderson Valley climate particularly during it's hot days and cold nights.  

Crosby Roamann is a Napa Valley with an estate in Los Carneros but that also source's grapes from a range of AVAs for their Single Vineyard label.  The winery was founded by vintners Sean and Juliana McBride who produced their first Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2007 at a custom crush facility. Soon Sean was working harvests at White Rock Vineyards and learning winemaking under Christopher Vandendriessche. He spent five years at White Rock while simultaneously making wine at Michael Mondavi’s FOLIO winery for three of these years. In 2015, the couple opened Crosby Roamann in the Crusher District with the estate in Los Carneros.

While sourcing fruit from other regions, the playfully "redub" the vineyard's name to reflect ancient and modern Irish girl names based on Sean’s Irish heritage and their twin daughters. For instance the "Fiadh" for the Fiadh Vineyard in Anderson Valley refers to an Irish girl's name meaning "wild" and "untamed".  This "one-acre block of Dijon Pinot Noir clones is just outside the town of Boonville on the south end of the valley – a warmer climate for Pinot. Biodynamically farmed, the vines grow in a wild yet zen spot on clay silt loam, and grapes are harvested in early September". 

The 2019 Fiadh Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($38) is a bright and medium bodied wine starting with a sweet cherry aroma with a bit of black pepper that leads to a pleasant herbaceous and dark cherry profile.  The oak influences of vanilla are present but allow the fruit to dominate.  The finish provides enough tannins and acidity to lift the wine and allow for a lingering finale. A very nice wine. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Grape Spotlight: Catalonia Cariñena (Samsó)

Carignan (Cariñena in Spain) is a black-skinned wine grape variety, most likely native to Aragon. The variety is found in wines along the Mediterranean coast, particularly in northeastern Spain and in France's Languedoc-Roussillon region. It is used most commonly for blending with many of the region's other key varieties – most famously Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. In Spain the best Cariñena wines are found in the acclaimed Priorat region and in Catalonia it is often labeled as Samsó. Often found blended with the more plush Garnacha, Cariñena makes up just under a quarter of plantings (of red wine varieties) in the area.

Carignan prefers warm, dry climates when the grape can express high tannins, acid and color. This makes it an excellent addition to red wine blends that have plenty of aroma and flavor, but lack body and depth of color. Carignan is only rarely made as a varietal wine, but the best examples can show characteristics of dark and black fruits, pepper, licorice, and spicy and savory accents.

Carignan is usually grown as bush vines, many of which are very old and require hand-harvesting as the vines' stems are too tough for machines. It is a late-ripening variety that is known to produce high yields if not properly cropped. This was once considered an attractive attribute of the grape but, as this can make it difficult to achieve good flavor concentration, it also led to it falling out of favor. (wine-searcher.com)

For a broader view of Catalonia Wines please read Catalan Wines USA Master Class -- Catalunya's Grapes, Designations, and Wine-making History.  During this tasting there were three expressions of 100% Cariñena poured all representing a different Catalonia appellation. 

Cellar Masroig is a century old winery located in Priorat County in the DO Montsant. This is a mountainous region known for their red wines and the owners of Cellar Masroig asserts that Cariñena is the foundation of their wines. Their Cellar Masroig Sola Fred 2022 ($15) is 100% Carignan and aged six months in stainless steel showing a bright fruit, very fruit forward, with a vibrant mouthfeel and refreshing acidity.  

Molí Parellada was founded in 1987 in the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia (near Barcelona) as El Xamfra -- specializing in cava production. In 2016, they opened a second winery in the town of Torrelavit in the DO Penedes. Since the new winery was built within an old paper mill, the new cellar was named Molí Parellada.  Second generation Francisco Domínguez is now the winermaker and CEO and has envisioned the large expansion of production in both cava and still wines. The Molí Parellada Alabrent 2022 ($36) - is one of these still wines, made from 100% Samsó which is interestingly aged six months in a locust tree barrel. The wine has a chewy structured mouthfeel full of slightly spicy sour cherries and other red fruit which carries through the long finish. Imported by 

In 1985, Tomàs Cusiné Barber started making wine at the family-owned Castell del Remei winery, started the Cérvoles winery in 1997, and the Tomàs Cusiné winery in 2003.  All three within the borders of the DO Costers Del Segre. This is a dry, semi-arid Continental climate featuring limestone and clay spoils and Catalonia's northernmost DO. The 30 hectares of vineyards he manages are organically or biodynamically farmed. These vines are planted in high elevations and result in the slower ripening of grapes, thicker skins, optimal acidity, and vibrant colors. This is the situation regarding the Finca Barqueres Carignan 2018 ($53)  -- 100% Cariñena harvested from a 1.5 hectare plot of old vine Cariñena. After fermentation, the wine is aged twelve months in French oak barriques. The wine is delicious, layers of stewed plums and tobacco, some spice, and an approachable finish. Excellent. Imported by Valkyrie Selections.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Grape Spotlight: Louisiana Blanc Du Bois from Landry Vineyards

Pierce's disease is a bacterial disease caused by Xylella fastidiosa, which lives in the water-conducting system of grapevines and is spread from plant to plant by sap-feeding insects. Glassy-winged sharpshooter, an exotic plant pest, is a key vector. Symptoms of Pierce's disease in grapevines include leaf scorch, where leaves become yellow around the leaf margins or between the veins, and the outer leaf area may dry suddenly while the rest of the leaf remains green. Affected leaves are less vigorous and smaller than healthy leaves. 

Grape growers in the Southeast and Texas are susceptible to Pierce's disease primarily because of their humid climate. Native muscadine grapes are mostly resistant to the disease but not Vitis Viniferia or French Hybrids. Enter Blanc Du Bois. Researchers at the University of Florida’s Leesburg Research Station, began a program to create a new grape that was fully resistant to Pierce's disease. Led by Dr. John Mortenson, in 1968, the team was able to develop a complex hybrid grape from crossing a Florida-developed muscadine hybrid (Florida D 6-148) with the Cardinal (a Vitis vinifera L.) table grape. They called this new white grape Blanc Du Bois, after Emile DuBois, a noted grower who emigrated from France to the U.S. in 1882.  As a wine grape, it is known to create white wines with floral and citrus flavors with decent acidity. 

Blanc Du Bois is now found in parts of Texas as well as Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. In the Pelican State, Jeff Landry has been cultivating Blanc Du Bois since he founded Landry Vineyards in 1999. The winery and estate used to be located in eastern Louisiana, but moved post-Katrina to West Monroe, in north-central Louisiana, where the soils, hills and climate are more suitable to growing wine grapes. In the new estate, they cultivate 16 acres of vines, specializing in Blanc Du Bois, Lenoir/Black Spanish and Crimson Cabernet (I envision a few more spotlights).  Over the past 20 years, they have improved the quality of the their grapes through canopy management, cover crops, composting, leaf pulling, and other vineyard practices -- many from recommendation from Viticulturist, Fritz Westover.

I purchased this Landry Vineyards Louisiana Grown Blanc Du Bois ($13) while in Lafayette and this Louisiana Certified Craft Beverage is dry and flavorful with a floral aroma and citrus profile. There's also depth which hints at some type of oak treatment. Would only ask for a little more acidity - otherwise a pleasant wine at a very reasonable price. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Catalan Wines USA Master Class -- D.O. Cava

There was plenty of sparkling wine on display during the Catalan Wines USA Master Class & Wine Tasting last month.  For an overview of the region and Master Class, please see Catalan Wines USA Master Class -- Catalunya's Grapes, Designations, and Wine-making History. Here, we will focus on D.O. Cava and the many expressions poured at the event.

D.O. Cava encompasses multiple areas within Catalonia but is almost 95% within Penedès. It was established in 1991 and highlights the traditional home to this sparkling wine, although today Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, Pais Vasco, Valencia and Extremadura have specific Cava demarcated areas.  The traditional grape varieties used in Cava were Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now also being used. "Macabeo makes up around half of a typical Cava blend – not because of its flavor (it is quite bland), but because it represents a viticultural insurance policy. Macabeo vines bud relatively late in the spring, ensuring that their flowers and grapes are safe from early frosts. The interesting, slightly earthy flavors that distinguish Cava from most Champagnes are generally attributed to Xarel-lo grapes".  -- wine-searcher.com

Finca Ca n'Estella is a small, third generation operated, and family owned winery located northwest of Barcelona and based out of an 1800 winery and farmhouse. The estate is protected from the north winds by the Montserrat mountains and its proximity to the Mediterranean sea provides a temperate climate.  They poured the Cava Rabetllat i Vidal Brut Nature ($20) which is composed of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Macabeo, and 20% Xarel-lo. Winemaker Miquel Medall allowed this non-vintage Cava to mature two years in the bottle. The bready - yeasty aroma leads to tight effervescence due to the fine bubbles and a delicious dried fruit profile. 

Canals & Munné is another small winery located just outside of Barcelona that was founded in 1915 by Josep Canals Capellades, great-grandfather of the current oenologist Òscar Canals.  The winery's name arises from the union of Josep's son, Josep Mª Canals Casanovas and Dolors Torres Munné -  the parents of current manager Montserrat Canals Torres. They operate two wineries, the original 1915 facility dedicated to weekend wine tourism, and a newer facility located between the vineyards.  They poured a trio of sparkling wine starting with the Insuperable Brut ($16). This is a fresh and textured blend of Macabeu 40%, Xarel·lo 30% & Parellada 30% aged 25 months with a floral nose and a yeasty dried nuts profile. The Dionysus Brut Nature  ($18) is a blend of 30% Chardonnay, 60% Macabeo, and 10% Xarel-lo aged 22 months with another floral nose and a lengthy dry profile. Finally, the Lola Rose Pinot Noir – Brut ($25) is 100% Pinot Noir aged 20 months and has a delicious concentration of red fruits balanced with delicate and persistent bubbles. 

Castell d'Age poured a single Cava in the Anne Marie Brut Nature Reserva ($20). This is a non-vintage blend of 40% Xarel·lo, 40% Macabeu, & 20% Parellada that is aged a minimum of two years. The fruit from this delicious sparkling wine are grown in slate and clay-limestone soils from three estates located in the D.O. Penedès and situated on the southern slope of the Montserrat mountains. The winery is the result of three generations of woman, Aurèlia Figueras, daughter Anne Marie Comtesse who pioneered the introduction of organic farming, and granddaughter Olivia Junyent.

Covides is a cooperative that was founded in 1963 and is comprised of 600 grape growers across the Penedès region. These estates amount to over 2,000 hectares of vines spread out over 50 municipalities. The cooperative operates three winery facilities distributed evenly through Penedès to ameliorate the distances, means of transport, and transit time for the member growers. Since 2013, most of the vineyards are organically farmed and these vineyards cover the four major sub-terriors: Coastal Vineyards, Massif Vineyards (high active lime content ), Vineyards of the Plain, and High altitude vineyards. The Covides Vineyards Elocuente Brut ($12) is an excellent entry level sparkling wine, aged 13 months, with tight persistent bubbles providing a bready and fruity profile. The Covides Vineyards Elocuente Rosé ($13) is 100% Trepat -- an indigenous grape that is known to make fresh, berry-flavored sparkling wine. Exactly.  Duc de Foix is the Covides premium brand and the Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2017 ($50) is a stately blend of mostly Xarel·lo with lesser amounts of Macabeu and Parellada that is aged a minimum of 30 months in the bottle. There's abundant texture of toasted nuts with candied fruit and a long effervescent finish. 

One of my favorite sparkling wines was the Panot Gaudi Reserva Brut ($19) from Ferrer Wines. This is a blend of 40% Xarel·lo, 20% Macabeu, and 15% Chardonnay aged at least 18 months. It's intoxicating and not from the 11.5% alcohol; complex, tight bubbles, and lasting fruit and toasted bread.  This is probably what one would expect from Pedro Ferrer Noguer and one of the oldest wineries in the D.O. Cava -- Cavas Hill founded in 1887.

The final Cava wines, and apologies to any that I missed, were the premium trio from Agusti Torello Mata. This winery was born in Penedès in 1955 by the winery's namesake and today produces over 500,000 bottles of Cava each year. They source from 150 organic vineyards in the Valls d'Anoia-Foix where the grapes are hand harvested from at least 30-year-old vines. Today the winery is operated by his children -- Àlex, who is the winemaker, technical and viticulture director, and Gemma, who is the lawyer and administrator of the company. Their Rosat Trepart 2021 ($29) is 100% Trepat from 30 year old organic vines from the Obach Estate in Mediona, located 800m high with clay and slate soils. The wine is aged 19 months in the bottle and is dry with a charming red fruit profile with lasting effervescence. The Barrica 2018 ($50) is 100% Macabeu that was vinified six months in French oak and then aged four years in the bottle. It provides plenty of  a floral and fruity aroma, yeasty toasted notes, with a textured and creamy body, and lasting finish. The Kripta Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2016 ($130) is their flagship cuvee bottled in a distinct, amphora-shaped bottle. It is a blend of 45%, Macabeu (from Vinya Vicari planted in 1962), 35% Parellada ()from Vinya Lola planted in 1969, and 20% Xarel·lo (from Vinya Mercader planted in 1974). Each bottle is hand-riddled and disgorged and spends 84 months on the lees. Yes, seven years. The wine starts with fine and persistent bubbles leading to a complex nature and a silky texture. Expect a very long finish.