A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

At large wine-tasting events, I usually run out of time before I get to try everything I would like. And a recent tasting of Portuguese, Spanish, Argentinean and Chilean wines organized by Winebow in the Pump Room of Chicago’s Public Hotel was no different. With only minutes to spare, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t yet tried one of the wines I was most excited to experience. I dedicated my last minutes to the table of Chilean winery Cousiño-Macul, which, in addition to the expected Chardonnays and Cabernets, presented an unusual Sauvignon Gris.

Cousiño-Macul’s youthful agricultural engineer and chief winemaker, Gabriel Mustakis, manned the table, and he explained that the parents of the current Sauvignon Gris vines came over in 1860 from Bordeaux, arriving just before phylloxera hit France. This pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

The renewed interest in this variety is no doubt due to the fact that these wines can be “much more elegant” (if less aromatic) than Sauvignon Blanc, as Wine Searcher attests, and that Sauvignon Gris can “produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” as the Oxford Companion asserts.

The 2013 Cousiño-Macul “Isidora” Sauvignon Gris, named for the family’s 19th-century matriarch, certainly had no lack of aroma. It smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted the wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

I found an entry on Cousiño-Macul in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The review was quite mixed — it called Cousiño-Macul “Chile’s one-time best winery,” lamenting that the winery “maintained its old-fashioned standards” as other producers overtook them in terms of quality. But this 2007 edition of Sotheby’s goes on to say that Cousiño-Macul “recently relocated to new vineyards, and has started producing fresher, fruitier, better-focused wines since the 2002 vintage.”

Based on this distinctly fresh, fruity and focused Sauvignon Gris and the creamy and exotic 2012 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay I tasted, I’d say my Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is out of date in this case. Cousiño-Macul is clearly back at the top of its game.

Ancient, Rare And Californian

11 October 2014

Inglenook and Duxoup CharbonoI only ever kept perhaps three or four bottles of wine in my home at a time, until one day, when I was about 25, my father acquired some cases of 1975 Inglenook Charbono. In an act of great generosity, he gave me one, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I had a wine collection. Lacking a cellar, I lovingly stored the bottles in my studio apartment in the cinder blocks forming my bookcase, saving them for special occasions. These old bottles were what started my wine collecting habit, and the thought of Charbono still gives me a tingle.

Charbono also stirs my soul because of its rarity and age. Plantings of Charbono predate Cabernet and Pinot Noir in France, according to Duxoup Wine Works. This ancient variety was once thought to be Dolcetto, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but DNA profiling “established that it is identical to the virtually extinct Corbeau of the Savoie region in the French Alps.”

Now, the center of Charbono production is California, half a world away. According to this 2004 article in The Wine News, Charbono arrived with immigrants from northern Italy, who thought they were bringing cuttings of Barbera with them. Since Savoie borders northern Italy, it seems some Charbono got mixed in as well, and it ended up in California vineyards.

Inglenook was the first winery to make a varietal Charbono wine, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, but it no longer continues that great tradition. Francis Ford Coppola bought the winery in 1995, and in an act of supreme anti-romance, he had the old Charbono vines growing in front of the Inglenook chateau torn out and replaced with the more lucrative and popular Cabernet Sauvignon. Inglenook produced its last Charbono vintage in 1998.

Fortunately, other winemakers in California still produce Charbono varietals, and approximately 89 acres of Charbono vineyards remain, according to this 2013 Wine Country Getaways article.

Duxoup makes some of the best. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News. A couple of years ago, I spotted a bottle of 2009 Duxoup Charbono at In Fine Spirits, and despite its price tag of about $20, I couldn’t resist. Here was the first Charbono I’d encountered since I received the case of Inglenook in 2001.

I took the bottle to 42 Grams, an upscale BYOB restaurant tucked away in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. It was a delight, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare, ancient and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. You can purchase the 2011 Duxoup Charbono from the winery’s website.

I still have one bottle of the 1975 Inglenook left. I opened my second-to-last bottle last year — I brought it to a beautiful lunch at the Terlato mansion-headquarters in the northern Chicago suburbs. The lunch wasn’t about this wine, so I only took brief notes: “Raisins, iron, earth — a bit of structure left, by God!”

Yes. That’s exactly how I remember it.

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »