Flying High With Pink Pigeon

27 September 2014

Pink Pigeon RumRum ranks among my very favorite spirits. The best rums, such as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa Sistema Solera 23 and Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña 12-Year Centenario, sip as elegantly as fine cognac or whiskey. And what a wonderful base for cocktails! Rum’s sweetness balances beautifully with the acidity of citrus or the sharp spice of ginger.

Most rums I encounter come from countries in Central America and the Caribbean, which have plenty of local molasses and sugarcane juice ready to be distilled. How could I resist, then, a rum from exotic Mauritius? This tropical speck lies well to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and until recently, I associated the island mostly with extravagantly sybaritic resorts. It never occurred to me that it might have a talented distiller or two, until I received a free sample bottle of Pink Pigeon Rum from Wine Chateau.

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the “fertile volcanic soil” of the Medine Estate on Mauritius, and according to Pink Pigeon’s website, the Medine Distillery is the oldest on the island, dating back to 1926. Because the surgarcane is grown on the estate, and the molasses is distilled on the estate, and the resulting rum is bottled on the estate, Pink Pigeon Rum certainly qualifies as a “single-estate rum,” as the website attests.

Even so, those looking for a taste of Mauritian terroir might have to look elsewhere. Pink Pigeon uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.” The rum may be single-estate, but the infusions come from two other islands entirely. I would be curious just to taste the rum on its own, without the infusions.

The infusions, however, certainly make Pink Pigeon Rum unique. I tried it first at room temperature, at which it has enticing aromas of vanilla cake, candied orange and tropical fruits. It felt syrupy on the palate, but the alcohol (80 proof) cut through the vanilla- and molasses-tinged sweetness. I sampled the rum after it spent a day in the freezer as well, and when tasted ice-cold, both the syrupy texture and the sharpness of the alcohol felt surprisingly heightened.

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, the Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails a delightful Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.

PINK PIGEON DAIQUIRI

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

–1 very small splash of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water, also available in bottles at liquor stores)

As always, fresh lime juice is important — do not substitute bottled, which tastes quite different. Combine all of the above ingredients in a shaker. If you don’t have simple syrup, just add a small pinch of sugar to the lime juice and rum before you add the ice, and stir to dissolve. Add some ice, shake, and strain into a lowball or martini glass.

Ordinarily you would use more simple syrup in a Daiquiri, one of the simplest and best rum-based cocktails, but because Pink Pigeon already tastes sweet, only a touch of additional sugar is necessary to balance the tartness of the lime. The resulting drink tastes refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla.

Pink Pigeon MojitoPINK PIGEON MOJITO

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 1/2 parts fresh-squeezed lime juice

–6 or 7 fresh mint leaves

–1 small pinch of sugar

–4 parts club soda

Wash the mint, but don’t pat it dry. Add the mint and the sugar to a highball glass, and muddle with a spoon. You’ll bruise the mint, ensuring that its flavorful oils will be released into the cocktail, and the sugar will dissolve into the bit of water clinging to the mint. Add a few cubes of ice, the rum and the lime juice, and stir. Top off with club soda, give the cocktail one final stir, and if you like, garnish with the top of a mint sprig.

What a lovely, refreshing and well-balanced cocktail! Again, the lime and Pink Pigeon combine to create a Dreamsicle-like flavor, leavened this time with the bubbles of the soda and the coolness of the mint. A delicious twist on a classic.

I received my bottle of Pink Pigeon as a free sample, but it’s not all that expensive to buy. You can find it at Wine Chateau or Binny’s, for example, for about $30 a bottle. If you’re a fan of Daiquiris or Mojitos, Pink Pigeon definitely deserves a place in your liquor cabinet.

Grey Pinot Noir

19 September 2014

Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin GrisWith the exception of sparkling Blanc de Noirs, I’ve always thought of Pinot Noir varietal wines as, very simply put, red. One does not tend to go to the white wine aisle in search of a Pinot Noir. But white Pinot Noir does indeed exist, as I discovered on a recent visit to my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits.

There stood a bottle on the shelf, white as could be, but clearly labeled “Pinot Noir Vin Gris.” What was this stuff? Vin gris, which translates literally as “grey wine,” is wine made from dark-skinned grapes but without any skin contact after pressing. The pulp of most red grapes tends to be much lighter in color than the skins, which means if little or no skin contact is allowed during fermentation, the resulting wine will be white, pinkish or orange — not red. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, vin gris is a specialty of the Côtes de Toul in Lorraine, some wineries in the Loire and a number of producers in the Midi near the salt flats of the Camargue.

The Oxford Companion does not mention vin gris as a specialty of Michigan, however. Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering if any good wine of any kind comes out of the northern Midwest. But the lakes surrounding this state mitigate the climate enough to allow for the growing of wine grapes, and The World Atlas of Wine calls the vinifera vineyards of Michigan “promising.” That distinction, though, is important — many of Michigan’s vineyards are planted with American grape varieties or hybrids.

Chateau Grand Traverse, the producer of my bottle of Pinot Noir vin gris, has never planted anything other than vinifera grapes in its vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula, the finger of land extending north from Traverse City. In fact, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates, the owner of Chateau Grand Traverse was the first to attempt growing vinifera varieties in the area starting in 1974:

Ed O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse… is the only person in the entire Michigan wine industry who has been 100 percent committed to vinifera from the very start. His constant arguing of his case did not make him many friends among his fellow winegrowers, particularly those of the old school who were clinging on to their hybrids, but he was right, and in the end he did everyone in the Michigan wine industry a big favor.

I’ve had other Chateau Grand Traverse wines before, and I found its dry wines to be quite tasty. But why attempt to market a vin gris of Pinot Noir? Surely that can’t be the easiest wine to sell. On the chateau’s website, the winemaker explains: “Vin Gris is the outcome of a pet project of exploring a white(ish) wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Since 2001, I’ve been looking at the differences between reds and whites, in a quest to merge the two.”

I felt very interested to find out the results of this quest, and recently opened my bottle of 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin Gris to pair with some risotto I’d made. A beautiful rose-gold color, the wine had a fresh, green aroma marked by some dried herbs. There was some pétillance (spritz) to the mouthfeel, and when it first came out of the fridge, the wine felt very bright and tight, with tart, appley fruit, prickly acids and a dry finish. As the wine warmed slightly, it developed a riper, rounder mouthfeel, and lovely undertones of berries. The acids of the wine cut right through the richness of the risotto, making for a fine pairing.

If you can’t make it over to In Fine Spirits, the Chateau Grand Traverse website sells the Pinot Noir Vin Gris for $14 a bottle. For such an unusual and food-friendly wine, that seems like a bargain to me.

Go For Emerald Green

30 August 2014
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna's Palmenhaus

Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna’s Palmenhaus

These last lazy days of summer call for a full-bodied but zesty white, lively enough to feel refreshing on a warm night and serious enough to merit a little quiet contemplation. On a trip to Vienna, I discovered just the thing: Grüner Veltliner Smaragd.

Grüner Veltliner, you might justifiably argue, is not exactly a discovery. In the last decade or so, the Austrian variety has become quite popular with sommeliers for its food-friendly acidity and peppery spice, and it’s not at all uncommon nowadays to find examples on wine lists. In fact, I had more or less stopped drinking Grüner in favor of more obscure varieties. It took a little green lizard to get me back.

Austria’s most famous wine region is the Wachau, a surprisingly small region along the Danube west of Vienna. In addition to classifying wines using terms familiar to German Riesling drinkers (Kabinett, Auslese, Spätlese, etc.), the Wachau complicates matters by often substituting its own unique system, as The World Atlas of Wine explains:

Steinfeder is a light wine up to 11.5% alcohol for early drinking. Federspiel is made from slightly riper grapes, 11.5-12.5% alcohol, good in its first five years. Wines labeled Smaragd (after a local green lizard) can be seriously full-bodied, with alcohol levels above — often far above — 12.5%; they repay six or more years’ aging.

Most Grüner Veltliners I see don’t carry any of the above designations, which isn’t a comment on their quality. But if you see a Grüner labeled Smaragd, which literally translates as “emerald,” snap it up. They are harder to find, but they repay the effort. As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, the Smaragd designation indicates “the most valuable category of white wines made from the ripest grapes on the best sites of the Wachau.”

At vegetarian Tian in Vienna, we ordered a 2012 Tegernseerhof “Bergdistel” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, which blends grapes from Tegernseerhof’s various vineyards. I knew I would like it as soon as I smelled its enticingly creamy green aroma. It had deliciously creamy fruit on the palate as well, with restrained spice and beautiful balance. It felt very classy, this Grüner, and as many Grüners do, it paired wonderfully with a range of vegetables.

I also found an example at Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house, which has an excellent selection of Austrian wines by the glass. The barrel-vaulted glass roof makes for a gorgeous interior, but the weather was simply too fine to sit indoors. I found a table outside overlooking the leafy Burggarten and settled in with a glass of 2012 Graben Gritsch “Schön” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd. “Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau near the town of Spitz.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping outside the palm house of the palace of the Habsburgs.

Tasty Grüner Veltliners are produced in many of Austria’s wine regions — the grape occupies no less than a third of the country’s vineyards. But Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines are special. Seek them out. They are a worthy pairing with summer’s last few precious days.

Ice Bucket Challenge (With Sparkling Wine, Of Course)

26 August 2014

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Last weekend two people challenged me to this ice bucket ordeal, in which one either donates to the ALS Association (or another charity) or dumps a bucket full of ice water over one’s head.

I elected to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists veterans injured on the battlefield once they return home. It’s one of the worthiest causes I know.

You can see my video here, in which I put an ice bucket to proper, civilized use.

Postcard From Mexico – Fine Wine (??)

15 August 2014
Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

It came as a surprise to me as much as anyone that Mexico is capable of making perfectly lovely wines, both red and white. But after being here for a couple of weeks, roving the central highlands where evenings can be positively chilly, even in August, it started to seem more reasonable that wine grapes could grow and even thrive here.

While on this trip I tasted an array of wines, ranging from cheerful Chenin Blanc/Colombard blends to hearty, meaty Shirazes, and rarely was I disappointed. The Mexican wines I tasted tended to be well-balanced, with lush fruit and focused acids and spice. I never had one that felt overblown or overheated — there was a coolness and restraint to most wines which I found quite appealing.

Mexican wines only occasionally appear on U.S. store shelves, but if you travel here, you’ll have no trouble finding at least one or two local options on most wine lists. And you should travel to Mexico. The people are exceedingly friendly, the colonial cities are exceedingly beautiful, and the State Department’s travel warnings seem to me to be exceedingly overblown. Surely there are trouble spots — just as there are in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — but I never once felt to be in any sort of danger, even in the deepest Michoacán countryside (see photo above).

Watch for Casa Madero, Chateau Domecq and Monte Xanic labels in particular. Wines from these producers tend to be easy to find and quite delicious. Salud!

Postcard From Mexico – Sotol

9 August 2014

Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo SotolFew drinkers are unfamiliar with tequila, that famous Mexican spirit distilled from blue agave which makes its way into margaritas and tequila sunrises. Smoky mezcal, which can be distilled from a range of different agave species, has also become relatively famous in recent years. I even had a delicious Negroni in faraway Vienna recently, in which the creative mixologist had replaced the gin with mezcal. But I had certainly never heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila.

Sotol comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila in Guadalajara, other varieties such as duranguensis, palmeri and acrotiche agave can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and each plant yields only one bottle of sotol. So it’s no surprise that shelves in liquor stores aren’t overflowing with the stuff (blue agave plants can yield up to 10 bottles of tequila or even more).

Because sotol is produced in a manner similar to mezcal — smoking the hearts of the agave plants in an open pit and then fermenting the juice before distillation — there are similarities in flavor. The desert spoon agave, however, makes sotol unique in the same way that blue agave gives tequila its own special flavor.

I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo (like tequila, añejo sotol must be aged at least one year in oak), and it was a delight. A light green-gold color, it looked like it could have been a Sauvignon Blanc. The lovely vanilla aroma along with notes of smoked paprika indicated otherwise, however! When I took a sip, I thought it was going to hit me with a bang, but it proved to be quite smooth. The sotol started lush and rich, with some sweet flavors that slowly developed into gentle smoke and red-pepper spice flavors.  Very elegant, and surprisingly easy to drink neat.

Sotol comes from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, but bottles filter down to specialty bars such as La Tequila, and I found at least one or two shops in the U.S. offering bottles. But it’s rare, so if you do happen to see a bottle, don’t miss the chance to snap it up.

Drink Like The Czars – Barta Pince

25 July 2014

Barta PinceIn addition to touring the wonderful Erzsébet Pince while exploring Hungary’s Tokaj region, I had the fortune to visit the equally delightful Barta Pince in the tranquil wine town of Mád. Barta Pince (“pince” is Hungarian for “cellars”) moved into its current home only in 2009, but the building itself dates back to the 16th century, with a newer second floor added in the 18th. This floor had yet to be fully renovated as of my visit (see right), and it retained its supremely atmospheric vaulted ceilings covered with faded, flaking paint above deeply worn wooden floors.

The winery gets its fruit from the Öreg Király dűlő (Old King vineyard), which is the second-highest vineyard in Hungary, according to Barta’s sales manager, Anita Balogh (below right). This vineyard produced some of the best fruit in the region, but the communist authorities were not impressed by the vineyard’s steep, difficult-to-work topography. They “barbarically” chopped down the vineyard, Balogh related with understandable emotion, and let the land return to scrub brush and eventually forest. Not content to leave well enough alone, the communists turned the other side of the hill into a quarry, an atrocity akin to converting one of Burgundy’s top vineyards into a strip mine.

Anita BaloghThe owners of Barta Pince bought the Öreg Király vineyard in 2003 and slowly reclaimed it from the forest. They discovered that about three quarters of the original stone terraces remained miraculously intact, and the Furmint and Hárslevelű vineyards make use of these ancient terraces today. The height and grade of these 100% organic vineyards requires that most work be done by hand, just as it has been for centuries.

I sat down with Balogh in the elegant dining room of Barta Pince, just off the complex’s shady garden courtyard. The wines proved to be packed with vibrant fruit and racy acids. After my tasting at Erzsébet Pince the day before, I had expected nothing less.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: What a delightful, elegant wine. It had bright aromas of honey and white pepper, a luscious texture and honeyed apple fruit. Beautifully controlled, the wine maintained balance with refined white-pepper spice that slowly gave way to a mineral finish.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: The following vintage had an open nose of honey and green peppercorn along with some citrus. It still felt lush on the tongue, but it seemed much drier, with an almost saline quality. It didn’t feel as exquisitely refined as the 2011, but perhaps it just needs another year in the bottle to mature. These are quibbles though, arising only because the 2011 was so clearly at its peak.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Hárslevelű: Barta made only 900 bottles of this complex varietal wine, which had ripe, full aromas of peaches leavened with stone. It felt big and round, but the fruit resolved into tart acids and a dry finish of minerals and even a touch of wood. Quite a journey.

2012 Egy Kis Édes Furmint: Bottled just five weeks before I tasted it, Barta’s least-expensive wine smelled enticingly floral. It tasted sweet and fruity, but lemony acids and floral overtones kept things well in balance.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: A blend of 60% Muskotály (Muscat) and 40% Furmint, this late-harvest wine had an entrancing aroma of perfumed white flowers and peaches. Ripe and rich, it was redolent of white peaches, with softly limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Barta Tasting2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: In 2012, Barta tweaked the blend to 50% Muskotály and 50% Furmint. It had a fresh, spicy, floral aroma, but the flavor was a little darker. Lovely orangey acids balanced out tones of honey, dates and figs.

2010 Öreg Király Dűlő Late Harvest Furmint: Barta had to wait later than usual to harvest the grapes for this wine because of the rains. Balogh called the aroma “pure quince.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to some of us (I must admit that I don’t encounter quince on a regular basis), so I’ll describe the smell as peach pie with a hint of green peppercorn. Very sweet and honeyed, this wine had well-balanced orangey acids and notes of green tobacco giving it a lift.

2008 Öreg Király Dűlő Szamorodni: This sherry-like wine is aged in barrels for 20 months, and the botrytis-affected aszú grapes are not removed, deepening and concentrating the flavors. After tasting it, I can understand why a Hungarian president once ordered 1,500 cases of the wine. I loved the nose of honey and old wood, and though the wine exhibited fantastic richness, it was perfectly balanced. I must sound like a broken record by now, with all this talk of lush richness balanced by zesty acids, but that combination never gets boring. Flavors I noticed included pie crust, wood, peach and fig.

Cellars at Barta Pince2008 Öreg Király Dűlő 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú: Tokaj became famous in the courts of Europe for its aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one. You can find Tokaji Aszú ranging anywhere from 3 to 6 puttonyos, and basically, the higher the number of puttonyos, the richer and sweeter the flavor. This extraordinary wine has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter. With all that sugar, could it possibly be as balanced as the wines above? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

That’s two spectacular tastings in a row! And I found yet more on my tour of Tokaj, tasting wonderful wines at Gróf Degenfeld and Szent Tamás. But after reading about Erzsébet and Barta, you get the idea. The wines of Tokaj, to put it simply, rank among the very best in the world. I don’t mean that they rank among the best in their price range, or that they rank among the best in Central Europe. Tokaj’s wines are some of the world’s most beautifully crafted and extravagantly delicious. Period.

And what a joy and privilege to taste them in Tokaj itself! The wines of Tokaj have been famous since at least 1700, when the region was classified. But the region feels undiscovered, which makes visiting it an unusual and singular delight. If you have the means, go. Go.

Drink Like The Czars – Erzsébet Pince

12 July 2014

Vineyards near TarcalEastern Europe has only one historically great wine region. Many parts of Eastern Europe are capable of producing top-quality wine, certainly, but Tokaj in Hungary stands in a class apart. Its vineyards were classified some 150 years before those of Bordeaux, and its wines were coveted by the Russian and French royal courts for generations.

But Tokaj had a rather rough 20th century, to put it mildly. It had yet to fully recover from phylloxera when World War II hit, and when peace finally came, the communists took over, nationalizing wineries and putting quantity far ahead of quality. Fortunately, some winemakers in Tokaj stubbornly stuck to tradition, producing excellent wines against all odds and passing down their knowledge to the next generation.

Nowadays, Tokaj is no longer recovering from phylloxera, nor war, nor the depredations of communism. Tokaj has unquestionably returned to full, triumphant health. If I learned anything during my two-day stay in Tokaj, I learned that. Tokaji wine is no longer the “legendary” wine of the czars. There’s nothing legendary about it anymore. The wine exists. It is there, in all its regal glory, ready to be tasted by anyone willing to visit.

Erzsebet PinceWine lists in Budapest typically have several options from Tokaj, but nothing compares with going straight to the source. I started with a winery named for Czarina Elizabeth, Erzsébet Pince.

Its cellars, built into a hillside in the town of Tokaj itself, date back to at least 1743, but just five houses down, the cellars bear an inscription dating back to the 16th century. They smell of sweet, old wood and are caked in layers of beneficial black mold, which helps maintain a constant level of humidity, explained owner Hajni Pracser. Her parents started work for the state wine company in 1974, and they founded Erzsébet Pince in its current form in 1989 (its first vintage, however, was not until 1993). They now produce about 10,000 bottles per year, and plan on working up to a maximum of 20,000.

If you can find an Erzsébet Pince wine, don’t hesitate to buy it. We sat down to a tasting on the terrace of Pracser’s winery/home, and each of the wines I tried was a delight:

Erzsebet Pince Cellars2012 Lunée: This cheerful 100% Muscat Blanc had aromas of honeydew and orange peel. There was the expected sweet Muscat fruit on the palate, but it was very light on its feet, with tart, lively acids.

2011 Zafir Dűlő: A blend of 60% Hárslevelű and 40% Furmint, which are classic blending partners in Tokaj — the Hárslevelű adds perfume and softness to the spicy, fiery Furmint. Its name refers to the Zafir vineyard (dűlő), set on a south-facing hillside near Tarcal. This privileged location yielded a predictably excellent wine with a nose of fresh wood and peach pie. It had honeyed fruit, focused acids, some white pepper and notes of oak. I wrote, “Scallops, please!”

2012 Zafir Dűlő: The following vintage had more of a pie-crust smell topped off with citrus, and the flavor had a more distinct orangey note. Again, balanced and zesty.

2012 Estate Furmint: This brilliantly light-gold 100% Furmint comes from the top-quality Zafir and Király vineyards. There was that lovely citrus in the nose again, along with brioche and something floral. It felt very elegant, with notes of bread and fresh white fruits. Sharply focused acids kept everything tightly in balance.

2011 Betsek Dűlő: The Betsek vineyard outside Mád is very stony, in contrast to the clay-heavy Király vineyard. That minerality appears clearly in the finish of this wine, a blend of 90% Hárslevelű and 10% Kabar, a new crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier. It smelled rich and round, with an unusual note of caramel. Aromatic and fruity, the wine felt round and juicy, with lemony acids, a bit of funk and something that reminded me of a baked good, like a danish. The stony finish left no doubt, however, that this is essentially a dry wine.

2012 Király Dűlő: Király is one of Tokaj’s top vineyards, and it shows in this 100% Furmint. It had a light brioche and lime aroma, and notes of white flowers and honey. Bright acids maintained strict balance, and the finish kept going and going. A delight.

Tasting at Erzsebet Pince2011 Late-Harvest Kövérszőlő: This variety, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like Erzsébet produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine. 

2004 Szamarodni: Aged for four years in a 500-liter oak barrel, this wine takes on an oxidized, sherry-like character. It smelled of honey and wood but tasted very dry, with lemony acids and more notes of wood. Woodsy, yes, but balanced nevertheless.

2010 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: Very simply, the more puttonyos in a sweet, Sauternes-like Aszú wine, the higher the sugar content and the richer the flavor (see more specifics here). Six is the maximum, and as of very recently, five is now the minimum (you can still find three- and four-puttonyos wines from past vintages, however). This wine saw two years in new oak, but it retains a very light color and most important, an underlying freshness. It had the classic green honeyed aroma, and richly honeyed fruit balanced by orangey acids. Even so, as Pracser noted, “Your palate is left dry.” No mean feat, considering the sugar content. If you think you don’t like dessert wine, this one might just convert you.

2003 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: A vibrant amber, this vintage had a darker honey aroma, but it was leavened by some freshness underneath. Thick and rich, the wine had notes of butterscotch, cream, tropical fruit and apricots, kept somehow in balance with prickly acids. Fantastic.

1999 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: At this age, the wine had turned a shiny caramel color, and the aromas had turned towards brown sugar, burnt caramel and molasses (Pracser also pointed out leather and plum jam). Flavors, too, became more complex — orange marmalade, tobacco, even mint. The wine felt rich and deep, yet still very light on its feet. What a joy to drink.

1993 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: This wine, from Erzsébet Pince’s very first vintage, had mellowed in its age, with dark, dusky flavors of caramel and candied orange. Yet it was still quite lively, with round acids and some soft tannins on the finish. Even after 21 years, the wine still felt wonderfully alive.

Wine writers who discuss Tokaj love to relate how the czars defended their shipments of Tokaji wines with special detachments of cossacks. But really, when you’ve got wines like these, is it any wonder?

Encounters With Unicum

5 July 2014

UnicumI figured at some point during my stay in Hungary it would rear its head, but I was quite taken aback to be offered a shot of Unicum Zwack at 10:00 a.m., right at the beginning of my food tour of Budapest. Unicum is not my preferred morning beverage. I held the glass with equal measures of trepidation and resignation.

I first encountered Unicum in Budapest in February of 1999, where I bought a bottle having no idea of the nature of its contents. Even then, unusual wines and spirits interested me. I brought the distinctively spherical bottle home and tried a glass after dinner with my parents. It reminded me too much of bitter, cloying Jägermeister for me to drink more than half a shot. My mother quite enjoyed it, however, and I recall she kept the bottle on her nightstand for a time, taking a medicinal sip before bed.

And indeed, Unicum started out as a health tonic, created by Dr. Zwack, physician to the Habsburg Imperial Court, “to alleviate the royal family’s digestion problems,” according to Food, Wine, Budapest by Carolyn Bánfalvi. It increased in popularity until World War II, when the factory was destroyed. The Zwack family rebuilt it, just in time to have it expropriated by the communists in 1948. “Péter Zwack returned to Hungary in 1989 to rebuild the family business,” Food, Wine, Budapest goes on to say, “and he was among the first in Hungary to buy back a business from the government.”

Since then, Unicum once again has been produced with the true recipe (the communists had a fake), which involves a secret (of course) blend of some 40 herbs and spices. Or maybe more.

Which brings us to the present, with me holding a glass of the stuff at 10:00 a.m., having eaten nothing but some runny scrambled eggs and a paprika-spiked breakfast link. I hoped that the rumors of digestive benefits were true, and gingerly took a sip. And hey, it wasn’t so bad after all! Yes, it tasted bitter and felt syrupy, just like Jäger, but it tasted spicier and more citrusy. Indeed, it almost felt balanced. Despite the early hour and the dubious contents of my stomach, I happily downed the rest of the shot.

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Aware that its flavor won’t appeal to everyone, Unicum has recently come up with two alternative versions of the spirit which don’t taste as bitter. I didn’t try either one on its own, but I did discover that a daring mixologist at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace had created a cocktail showcasing Unicum Szilva (Plum). How could I resist?

A mix of Unicum Szilva, plum pálinka (a plum brandy with a grappa-like mouthfeel) and lime, the Sza-Szi cocktail tasted very purple and dusky, but citrusy notes from the lime somehow managed to keep things balanced. It’s not a cocktail that will appeal to die-hard Manhattan or dry Martini drinkers, but I had no qualms about finishing it off. If you find yourself in Budapest, by all means order one. The bar is spectacular, and you’ll be drinking something you won’t find on any other cocktail menu in the world.

In the meantime, you can find Unicum Zwack at certain large wine and spirits stores in the United States, like Binny’s, where it’s labeled simply “Zwack.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bottle on my own nightstand sometime soon — for medicinal purposes only, of course.

A Sensible Napa Red

28 June 2014
Horror Show 3

Label photo courtesy of Vending Machine Winery

Readers of this blog could be forgiven for feeling at times frustrated, because after I extol the virtues of Somló Juhfark or Slovak Furmint, I frequently write something like, “You’ll have trouble finding this anywhere other than Bratislava.” And let’s face it, Bratislava is just not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. So let’s break from obscure Eastern European wines for a moment, and consider a nice red from a winery in Napa.

Napa does not figure prominently in this blog — Arizona has more entries — but that’s not to say there aren’t enticingly unusual cuvées coming from America’s most famous wine region. As a gift for watching their cats, some thoughtful friends recently brought over a Napa red (or more accurately, a Lodi/Sierra Nevada Foothills red) which turned out to be one of the most unusual blends I’ve ever encountered.

The label (right) already indicates that this wine won’t be your usual Cabernet. The 2011 Vending Machine Winery “Horror Show” is in fact an absolutely insane-sounding blend of Sousão, a red Portuguese grape figuring prominently in Port; Montepulciano, an Italian variety planted mostly in central Italy; and Tannat, which originated in southwest France but is more well-known as the national grape of Uruguay. How on earth did these three disparate varieties come to live in the same bottle? I telephoned the winery to find out.

Neil Gernon, who owns the winery with his wife, Monica Bourgeois, answered my call. He explained that “Horror Show” is a slang term used in the film A Clockwork Orange to indicate “dark, brooding fun.” And who wouldn’t enjoy a wine that tasted like that? So Gernon and Bourgeois got to work, thinking about dark grapes to include in a potential Horror Show blend. They hit right away on Sousão, because it “makes Petit Sirah look light,” according to Gernon. And Petit Sirah seemed a little too obvious in any case.

IMG_6778Building from brooding Sousão, they hit on Montepulciano, which is “dark in color but with bright, red-berry fruit,” Gernon explained. But the blend still needed something else, some undergirding of earth. Bourgeois and Gernon settled on Tannat, which adds “earthy, funky” notes and some tannic power. So there’s the initial fun fruit of the Montepulciano, the brooding mid-palate of the Sousão and the dark, powerful finish of the Tannat. After Gernon explained it, this extremely unorthodox blend sounded like the most sensible thing in the world. 

And it works! I recently brought the bottle to my parents’ house for a stir-fry dinner on a cool evening, and the wine’s dark, meaty fruit and rowdy acids paired deliciously with the beef. The wine had rustic red fruit, notes of iron and earth and a lovely aromatic quality on top balancing its sense of thickness. The wine wasn’t fussy, as you might gather from the description of its finish on the website: “Just when you feel safe, the thrill ramps up like a graveyard shovel hit to the mouth.” 

I wouldn’t describe this wine as refined, but I certainly enjoyed it in any case. If you’re in the mood for something big, bold and rustic, with lots of fruit, lots of acids and lots of earth, Horror Show is an ideal choice. And its beautiful but distressing label, which changes every year, makes this wine perfect for Halloween. Dark, brooding fun indeed.

You can find Horror Show and other Vending Machine Winery bottlings at the stores and restaurants listed here. Horror Show retails for about $28; not inexpensive, but a reasonable price for the flavor it delivers.

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