Bergerac: Underappreciated Wines & Controversial Cuisine #Winophiles

14 July 2017

This post is my first of hopefully many as part of the #Winophiles wine-writing group. Southwest France is the focus this month, and you can find links to articles about the region’s fascinating wines and memorable food at the end of this article.

I gripped the steering wheel more tightly, attempting to focus on the road, and not on the names of the Saint-Emilion vineyards I was driving past all too quickly. It was all I could do not to toss my itinerary out the window and stop at ever sign that said “Dégustation.” And therein lies the biggest problem of Bergerac. Neighboring Bordeaux, just down the Dordogne River, is a great black hole of wine, sucking up all the attention. Even I nearly succumbed to its temptations. But I had an appointment.

I turned south off the main road and descended into gorgeously unspoiled French countryside. The pavement narrowed, winding through an exquisite mosaic of vineyards, forests and walnut orchards in full bloom. Near the top of one of the highest hills stood my goal, perhaps the most important winery in Bergerac: Château Tour des Gendres.

Château Tour des Gendres

According to The World Atlas of Wine, “…there is now a critical mass of [Bergerac] producers who produce far more serious wines of all three hues, and in whites, all sweetness levels. Luc de Conti of Château Tour de Gendres, a biodynamic convert, deserves considerable, although not exclusive, credit.” My Oxford Companion to Wine agrees, noting that “…thanks to much more sophisticated use of oak, pioneering producers such as Luc de Conti of Château Tour des Gendres and David Fourtout of Vignobles des Verdots as well as a handful of sweet winemakers, some truly fine wine is being made.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also recommends the winery.

I ascended the driveway of Château Tour de Gendres to discover an ensemble of low stone tile-roofed buildings, interspersed with Aleppo pines and cypresses. There was no grand palace, à la Bordeaux, though there certainly was a pretty tour (tower). I was the only visitor on that cool, sunny March afternoon, and Martine de Conti, Luc’s wife, walked out to meet me.

Amphorae and foudre (large casks) at Château Tour des Gendres

She dressed simply and sensibly, but she wore her pink scarf, green puffer jacket and blue pants with elegance. Her English was limited, and my French isn’t exactly parfait, which meant our conversation was halting at first. But as she poured me samples of the wines made by her and her husband, and my enthusiasm for them became clear, we started to connect.

This is a classic cliché of wine writing, the wine transcending the language barrier. It’s almost embarrassing to relate the experience. But I can’t deny that connecting with Martine and Luc over their wines left me feeling rather elated.

I tried 11 wines at Château Tour des Gendres, all of which I enjoyed, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll describe only the ones that really knocked my socks off. These give you an idea of the great potential of Bergerac:

2015 Conti-ne Périgourdine: What a joy. This Muscadelle had a round aroma of apple and stone fruit, and flavors of apricot, elegant spice and a subtle note of buttered popcorn. Luc later told me that this wine was his favorite, and I can understand why. At the end of the tasting, I tried to buy two bottles, but Martine insisted I take them as a gift. If any importers are reading this, I’ll happily pay for a couple of cases!

2014 Anthologia: The grapes for this Sauvignon Blanc come only from Monbazillac, and the wine is produced only in exceptional vintages. The 2014 had an aroma of honeydew and a bit of popcorn kernel — very enticing — and the flavor development was magnificent. I can think of few more elegant expressions of Sauvignon Blanc. Perfectly calibrated and focused acids balanced out the rich, ripe fruit, and the finish lasted long after I expected it to stop. The minerality of this wine positively rang.

2014 La Gloire de Mon Père: “The Glory of My Father” blends 53% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, with half the wine aged in barriques (small barrels) and half aged in foudre (large casks). This wine was deep and gorgeous, with an aroma of ripe cherry and vanilla, marked with a touch of something savory. On the palate, a pop of acids quickly overtook the fresh, plummy fruit, followed by refined white pepper spice and a deliciously salty/buttery note. La Gloire indeed.

2008 Parcelle Les Gendres: This wine comes from a single parcel of Merlot aged in large casks, and that must be one heck of a parcel. A transparent brick red, this wine had a big, wonderful aroma of raspberry jam. And the flavor! The clean, clear red fruit exploded in my mouth. Ample white pepper spice kicked in, followed by obvious but supple tannins, and a note of mocha on the finish. I defy anyone to declare that they don’t like Merlot after trying this beauty.

2015 Le Saussignac: Like Sauternes or Monbazillac, Saussignac is a sweet wine appellation, but as the World Atlas says, the “distinctive” and “glamorous” wines there are “made in dispiritingly small quantities.” The de Contis don’t make Le Saussignac every year — it depends on whether botrytis (noble rot) affects the grapes. If you can find a bottle, snap it up. This wine completely seduced me. Honeysuckle, exotic spice, bright orangey acids, and a finish that felt quite dry, almost tannic. Magnificent.

Tasting that last wine made me wish I had some foie gras to pair with it. Foie gras is a classic match with Sauternes and Sauternes-like wines, but few foods cause as much controversy as foie gras, the fattened liver of a goose or duck. Residents of California, where the product is currently banned, may find it something of a shock to visit the Dordogne, where foie gras appears on almost every menu, often in multiple dishes. At its best, it’s sensationally rich but also somehow light and airy. I adore foie gras, but I decided that if I were to continue eating it, and recommend pairing it with wine on this blog, I should see for myself what its production was like.

Ducks at Domaine de Barbe

My hotel in the Dordogne arranged for a tour of Domaine de Barbe, a foie gras farm nearby. Its 100 acres support about 1,300 geese and 5,500 ducks, as my tour guide, Noemie, explained. The animals spend four or five months “free range” in grassland pastures, grazing and growing, before moving into group cages for the gavage (force-feeding). Individual cages are now illegal.

Force-feeding enhances a natural fattening of the liver in fall, when the birds gorge in order to have enough reserves for migration. Ducks and geese experience the gavage quite differently than a mammal would. The birds have esophagi prepared to accept large whole fish, and they can breathe when the feeding tube is inserted. Feeders do their best to avoid stressing the animals, because stress, according to Noemie, reduces the quality of the liver. After 15 days of force-feeding ducks or three weeks for geese, the animals are anesthetized and slaughtered.

Geese awaiting feeding

The pastures looked tranquil and spacious, and the cages, while not paradise, didn’t look to be causing the geese I observed any obvious distress. I can’t say with any certainty what the animals feel about force-feeding, whether it’s uncomfortable or just another meal. But the Domaine de Barbe clearly treats its animals better than an industrial farm in the United States. If you’re comfortable eating meat in an average American restaurant, you need feel no qualms about eating foie gras in the Dordogne.

The only question is, do you pair it with Saussignac, Monbazillac or Sauternes?

For more about the wines of Southwest France, check out these other articles by my fellow #Winophiles:

–Jill at L’occasion shares “Périgord Wines: Bergerac and Duras

–Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Southern France at a Midwest BBQ

–Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Pistachio-Armagnac Sabayon with Strawberries and Meringues

–Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “#Winophiles Showdown: Madiran vs Applegate Valley

–Martin from Enofylz shares “Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac? Oh My!

–Olivier from In Taste Buds We Trust shares If it makes you happy…

–Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “Cooking to the Wine: Paul Bertrand Crocus Malbec de Cahors with Lavender-Herb Ribeye and Grilled Veggies

–Lynn from Savor the Harvest shares “Basque-ing in the Sud-Ouest: Wines of Irouléguy

–Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Toast #TDF2017 with Wines from the Côtes de Gascogne

–Gwen from Wine Predator shares “Finding and Pairing Southwest France Wine Cheese & Spirits for French #Winophiles

–Mardi from Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shares two posts (!) “Clafoutis, Southwest France style” and “Armagnac: A Primer

–Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares “Exploring Madiran with Vignobles Brumont

Join our chat on Saturday, July 15, at 10-11 a.m. CDT (11 a.m. EDT, 8 a.m. PDT, and 17.00 in France)! See what we think of Southwest France, and tell us about your experiences with the wine, food, or travel in the region. To join, log into Twitter, search for the #winophiles tag, and you’re in!

A Revolution In Israel: Fine Wine In The Holy Land

23 June 2017

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

At present, Israel may well be the most misunderstood country in the wine world. What comes to mind when you hear the words “Israeli wine”? All too many of us still think of syrupy-sweet Ruby Port-like bottlings that people sip at Passover, and studiously ignore for the rest of the year.

And yet, Israel “lays claim to being the cradle of the world’s wine industry,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. “The southern Levantine wine industry, beginning c.4000 BC, had matured to such a degree,” the Companion explains, “that by the time of Scorpion I (c.3150 BC), one of the first rulers of a united Egypt, his tomb at Abydos was stocked with some 4,500 liters of wine imported from southern Canaan.”

Wine production in Israel continued for approximately 5,000 years, until AD 636, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards,” according to the Oxford Companion. “…[W]ith the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Israel started to rediscover its wine heritage.

Micha Vaadia

“Israel is an ancient wine region, but we lost all the knowledge because of religious reasons,” winemaker Micha Vaadia of Galil Mountain Winery explained to me at a recent tasting. “But in the last 30 years, we’re reclaiming it.” In recent decades, wineries have reduced production and sought out better vineyard locations, leading them to the higher, cooler elevations of the Golan Heights. Vaadia showed me some photos of his vineyards, lush and green in summer (above) and sometimes blanketed with snow in winter (below).

“In the last 30 years, we learned to make good wine,” Vaadia told me, “and now we’re finding our personality.” Unlike in, say, Greece or Portugal, that personality will be expressed with international grapes. Israel’s indigenous varieties were destroyed about 1,400 years ago. I expressed dismay when Vaadia reminded me of this fact, but he shrugged. “People like to look at the world with international boundaries,” he said, “but biology doesn’t work like that.”

It’s become a defense mechanism, I suspect, for Vaadia to ignore international boundaries. His vineyards stand in the far north of Israel, a tough neighborhood a few miles from both the Syrian and Lebanese borders. I overheard another taster ask him if he’s encountered any problems because of that location. “I live in denial,” he replied.

Vaadia has worked in highly regarded wineries all over the world, including at Jordan in Sonoma, Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and Catena Zapata in Argentina. He returned to Israel and helped Galil Mountain branch off from Golan Heights Winery, one of the first wineries in Israel to win international acclaim, according to the Oxford Companion. Galil Mountain separated in order to better focus on different terroirs, and Vaadia has helped make the winery truly world-class.

I tried nine of his wines, and there wasn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy. A far cry from cloying Manischewitz, these wines all had ripe fruit balanced with freshness and liveliness. They were never ponderous or heavy. I would buy any of the following with my own money:

2016 Galil Sauvignon Blanc: The aroma was big and citrusy, and the wine was no grass bomb. It had taut fruit, pointy limey citrus and a finish which moved from juicy to slightly chalky. Notably sharp focus. I found this wine on sale for $13, which is a downright steal.

2016 Galil Mountain Rosé: Vaadia poured a taste for me and said, “Lately a lot of rosés are like white wines; this rosé keeps the memory of it being red.” An unusual blend of Sangiovese, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Barbera, the wine had a beautifully shiny, deep pink color. It smelled of fresh strawberry, chalk and orange, and it tasted of watermelon candy. Slow-moving tart citrus kept things balanced, and the wine sharpened up into a dry and surprisingly long-lasting finish. This is a rosé that’s serious at heart but knows how to have fun. For $14 a bottle, it’s another excellent value.

2016 Galil Mountain Merlot: The wine smelled of dark plummy fruit and a little vanilla, but it felt incredibly zesty on the tongue. Fresh and ripe dark fruit gave way to bright acids, black pepper spice and very soft tannins. I found it for $11 a bottle, marked down from $14. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Merlot of similar quality for that price.

Appetizers at Ema in Chicago

2015 Galil Pinot Noir: When I heard a rumor that Vaadia is seriously considering discontinuing the Pinot Noir, I nearly choked on my hummus. His Pinot has a big, lovely aroma of cherries leavened with a bit of earth, and it had a wonderful zing on the tongue, with big and taut cherry fruit, broad and juicy acids and refined black pepper spice. “Compulsively drinkable” is a wine-writing cliché, and I don’t like to use it except when I really mean it. I really mean it. And it’s a real value for $19 a bottle. Oregon and Burgundy sell Pinots of similar quality for twice the price.

2015 Galil Mountain Syrah: This wine had an enticingly rich, dark aroma with some raspberry and blackberry jam, as well as a touch of vanilla and something savory underneath. It tasted rich and ripe, but again, the wine was strikingly light on its feet. Lively and focused acids balanced the cool and clear dark fruit. The spice slowly expanded in power before evaporating, leaving a crisp finish. What a pairing this would be with some kofta or falafel! The 2014 Syrah can be had for $11, marked down from $15. That. Price. Is. Insane.

2016 Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: No monster Napa Cab, this. It smelled of dark fruit, mint and vanilla, and through there was plenty of big fruit on the palate, sharp acids and white pepper spice made the wine feel quite bright and fresh. Nor was it tannic; the finish felt surprisingly soft. Very approachable, and a very fine value for $16 a bottle.

2014 Galil “Ela”: I can’t recall ever tasting a blend of Barbera, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, a mix of Italian, Rhône and Bordeaux grapes, respectively. But it certainly works in this case. The blackberry jam aroma had a note of oak in it, the first time I’d detected any woodsiness in Galil’s wines. It tasted gorgeously ripe, almost jammy, but focused acids and spice more than balanced out the fruit, as did a lift of eucalyptus-like freshness. Some wood on the end felt rather luxurious. The price is higher at $22 a bottle, but even so, it’s worth every penny and then some.

2013 Galil “Alon”: My favorite wine of the tasting, the “Alon” blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It smelled of dark fruit with a savory undertone, as well as something fresh. There was that wonderful combination of ripe dark fruit and bright acids again, and in this case, the acids and refined spice developed with slow, even confidence. The tannins on the finish, too, felt supple and elegant. This wine is one classy customer, and it’s an astonishing value at $20 a bottle.

2013 Galil “Yiron”: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the “Yiron” is one of Galil’s flagship wines. It had a rich aroma of dark chocolate-covered cherries and vanilla, and it felt lush and forceful on the tongue, with ripe, jammy fruit, ample acids and a rather sudden pow of tannins. All the parts are there, but the wine still feels young. In a couple of years it will surely taste more integrated, and I’ll be very curious to try it then. It’s not inexpensive at $32 a bottle, but even so, the wine seems underpriced.

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

When I mentioned the elegance of the “Alon” to Vaadia, he smiled and said, “Our seasons are so intense. The name of the game is taming the beast. It’s a lot of work introducing finesse.”

These wines hearken back to a winemaking tradition some 5,000 years old, a tradition that was obliterated thanks to a misguided religious edict. Now, Israeli winemakers like Vaadia have rebuilt that tradition from next to nothing, crafting wines of real interest and character. Israel is experiencing nothing short of a wine revolution, and it’s a great story.

But more important for the wine consumer is the excellent quality-to-price ratio. Because Israel’s reputation hasn’t caught up with the quality of its wines, bottlings like the ones above sell for far less than comparable examples from more famous wine regions. My wine rack can expect to see a regular rotation of Galil from now on.

The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

The Wonderful Whites Of Cahors

14 May 2017

If you think of Cahors at all, you likely think of big, tannic reds. Stretched along the Lot River in southwestern France, this region is the original Malbec country. Argentina can claim responsibility for Malbec’s renaissance — even Cahors winemakers admit this fact — but the grape variety was born in France. All AOC Cahors wines must be at least 70% Malbec, with the remainder a blend of Merlot and/or Tannat. Cahors white wines do not exist.

Which is not to say that white wine is not made in Cahors. Indeed, Cahors winemakers produce gorgeous white wines, made mostly from Chardonnay, Viognier and/or Chenin Blanc. But they are not Cahors. After tasting delicious white after delicious white, it struck me that the powers that be in the Cahors AOC have made quite the oversight.

And they’re not the only ones. I can find no reference to the white wines of the region in any of my usual resources, The Oxford Companion to WineThe World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. My pre-trip research gave me no reason to expect that I would encounter a single white in Cahors during my stay.

So you will, I trust, forgive my surprise when the sommelier in the restaurant of the Château de la Treyne hotel first confronted me with a Viognier/Chardonnay blend by Clos Triguedina, one of the most important wineries in Cahors. When I tasted it, I was positively shocked: ripe and rich, with stone fruit and pineapple notes, sharpening into orangey, gingery spice and a dry finish. Well balanced and classy.

Countryside south of the Lot River

I tasted this wine again at Clos Triguedina itself, hidden in the countryside just south of Puy L’Évêque, a medieval town rising steeply from the Lot. Olga and I had a tasting in the cozy old tasting room, lit by stained-glass windows (a new minimalist tasting room is under construction). We tasted the soon-to-be-bottled 2016 rosé of Malbec together. “This is like a bon-bon,” she exclaimed. And indeed, it had plenty of watermelon and strawberry fruit, but it tasted dry and spicy nevertheless. As with the Chardonnay/Vioginier blend, this rosé cannot be labeled as Cahors.

Owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Baldès worked for a time in Barsac, which, like neighboring Sauternes, produces sweet botryrized white wines. And, somehow, he has found a way to produce a botrytized wine in Cahors as well: a Chenin Blanc. The 2014 tasted lush and sweet, with ample dark honey, stone-fruit flavors like apricot, and orangey acids that slowly grow, ensuring that the wine remains balanced.

Sabine Baldès

His wife, Sabine, led me to the vineyards behind the tasting room and estate house, where her mother-in-law lives. The vines occupy a gentle but distinct rise in the land, affording panoramic views in almost every direction. This pebbly hump counts among Cahors’ finest vineyard locations, and in the coming classification, I would be surprised if it weren’t awarded Grand Cru status.

But the slope of the Pigeonnier vineyard spilling down from the 15th-century Château Lagrézette gives Clos Triguedina some serious competition. Led by Sales Administrator Yannick Druon, I toured the winery, built right into the hillside. He explained that when workers dug out the space for the winery in 1992, they preserved each layer of soil individually, so that the terroir might be restored to its former condition once construction was complete.

I won’t soon forget the 2015 “White Vision” Le Pigeonnier Viognier. It was wonderfully fragrant, with aromas of jasmine and white peach. It tasted full and fat, but not blowsy — oodles of focused spice and orangey acids gave the big, bold wine some firm boundaries. Nor was the less-expensive 2010 “Dame de Grézette” Chardonnay any slouch. It smelled fresh and fruity, not oaky, and though its fruit was deliciously creamy, this wine had no buttery or woodsy notes. Zesty spice built and built, and the wine ended dry. Very refined.

In fact, I didn’t have to travel any farther than my hotel to find a winery producing a notable Cahors white. Under the front garden of the Château de Mercuès is a well-designed contemporary winery which seems to play second fiddle to the owner’s more famous winery, Château de Haute-Serre. Nevertheless, the 2014 Château de Mercuès Chenin Blanc was a delight. It had a clear, pure, fruity aroma, and it tasted of ripe pear and lemon peel. Refined spice tightened into quite a long finish. I also had the chance to try the 2014 Château de Haute-Serre “Albesco” Chardonnay, which blew me away.  I loved its dewy aroma with notes of buttered popcorn, and its rich, buttery flavor that maintained balance with focused orangey acids and gentle spice. It might have been Burgundian.

Château Lagrézette

So far, I have found just one book that talks about the whites of Cahors more than in passing. But even in Michael S. Sanders’ Families of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France, the whites aren’t taken very seriously:

“…Many winemakers then complete their lines with the fruit of their playtime — rosés and whites made in small quantities because, quite simply, it amuses them to turn their hand to something different.”

The whites I tasted were more than playtime. They were often quite refined and elegant, and they were always delicious. Perhaps its time for Cahors wine laws to recognize what is already happening in the AOC. It’s silly that such well-crafted wines must be labeled as Vin de Pays.

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