Santa Fe’s Accidental Distillery

24 August 2013
Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan, founder of Santa Fe Spirits, didn’t set out to be a distiller. He worked for years as an architect, and was working as such on a local property containing an apple orchard. The deal fell through, fortunately for us, and Keegan and his wife ended up buying the home themselves.

Faced with a surfeit of apples, Keegan pressed his harvest into juice, which he then pressed into the hands of as many friends and neighbors as he could. He did not succeed in getting rid of all the juice, however, and he tried his hand at making hard cider. But even then, there was still too much cider to store, and Keegan distilled the remainder into apple brandy.

When the economic downturn hit, Keegan decided it was time to reevaluate. Because of his success with his apple brandy, he turned his hand from architecture to full-time distilling, and Santa Fe Spirits was born.

Now, Keegan has expanded into a building he owns in downtown Santa Fe, the former site of a nail salon. It offers a range of intriguing cocktails created with the various Santa Fe Spirits spirits, as well as tastings of their entire line of products. After chatting with the personable Mr. Keegan, I got down to business. Would Santa Fe Spirits compare favorably to Koval, Few and North Shore, my favorite hometown craft distilleries?

Expedition Vodka: Talk to almost any distiller, and you’ll find that vodka is not their passion — vodkas on their own have little flavor. But the distributor of Santa Fe Spirits suggested a vodka was needed to round out the product line, and Keegan obliged with this six-times distilled corn-based spirit. (Santa Fe Spirits actually purchases a vodka that has been distilled five times, and distills it once morethemselves.) The result has a clean and lightly fruity aroma, with a very smooth texture. The alcoholic bite takes its time to build, increasing slowly and steadily. A very classy vodka, and surely a fine neutral cocktail base. If I had to assign it a flavor, it reminded me, subtly, of honeydew melon.

Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey: I am generally not a big fan of white (unaged) whiskies. I find them fascinating to taste, but the idea of an entire glass usually seems like a bit much. This 92-proof malt-based spirit changed my mind. Keegan pointed out that 100% of the distillate for this whiskey is intended only for this whiskey — none of it is diverted into aged products. That means only pure hearts (the best part of the distillate) end up in the Silver Coyote. It has a round and fresh aroma, and an appealing caramel note on the palate followed immediately by a burst of spice.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. It definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Apple Brandy: The spirit which started the company ought to be memorable, and it proved to be one of my favorites of the tasting. I enjoyed the aromas of vanilla and overripe apples, and I loved rich texture leavened with a bang of zesty spice. A worthy calvados competitor.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

That’s five for five. What an unexpected pleasure, to taste these well-crafted spirits which exhibited real local character.

Road Trip: New Mexico

21 August 2013
En route to Ruidoso

En route to Ruidoso

While New Mexico may be known for its glorious landscapes and tasty green chile, New Mexican wine is not often a sommelier’s first recommendation. But Gruet‘s sparkling wines taste quite delicious, and there are numerous other wineries scattered around the state. Something must be happening down here, and I’m going to find out what.

A Romantic Sparkler From The Traisental

17 August 2013

Huber's Hugo Sparkling RoseOn a cool late-summer evening, is there anything more romantic than popping open a bottle of fine sparkling rosé? I love sparkling rosés, and I don’t drink nearly enough of them. It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered a bottle of sparkling rosé not from Champagne (which can be ruinously expensive), but from Austria.

This little central European country is known by American wine drinkers, if at all, for its zippy and food-friendly Grüner Veltliners, not its sparklers. Upon further inspection, I noticed that this bubbly was a blend of Pinot Noir (commonly used in Champagne) and Zweigelt (most definitely not used in Champagne). How could I resist? I snapped up a bottle of the 2012 Weingut Huber “Hugo” Sparkling Rosé.

I could find little general information about Austrian sparkling wine in any of my wine books. It was usually but a footnote, and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was positively dismissive. Here is its summary, in full, of the state of Austrian bubbly: “Austria’s best-known sparkling wine is the bottle-fermented Schlumberge, produced in Vienna, but it seldom exceeds in quality.” Well, I must respectfully disagree — the Austrian sparkler I see most often is Szigeti‘s sparkling Grüner Veltliner, which is actually quite delicious.

Zweigelt, also known as Blauer Zweigelt, is one of the most popular red varieties in Austria, a country which does indeed make delicious red wines (for more about Austrian reds, see this post and this post). This popularity belies Zweigelt’s relative youth — this cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch was created less than a century ago, in 1922. Capable of “serious, age-worth wine” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Zweigelt can now be found in every wine region of Austria.

Huber’s Hugo, a blend of Zweigelt and Pinot Noir (the wine’s fact sheet omits the proportions) comes from the Traisental, a wine region of just 1,730 acres straddling the Traisen River. The soil of the vineyards here is a limestone mix, according to the Huber website, which made me think of the chalky soil of Champagne — an encouraging parallel.

Even so, I didn’t get all that much minerality out of the Hugo Sparkling Rosé. It had aromas of berries, wood and yeast, deliciously juicy acids, and a dry finish with strawberry notes. Although this wine was not bottle-fermented, the ample bubbles felt impressively small — even pointy. Paired with a decidedly un-Austrian chicken burger, the juicy acids felt broader and more orangey, and the strawberry notes became clearer. Not too shabby for a $15 bottle of bubbly.

Austrian sparkling wine may have long been rather dire, but if the Hugo and the Szigeti are any indication, I’d say Austrian bubbly is worth another look.

From The Alsace To Oregon

14 August 2013

Youngberg Hill Pinot BlancI still remember the first time I tried a Pinot Blanc. Some fellow students and I biked across the Rhein from Breisach, Germany, to Colmar in France’s Alsace region. After seeing Grünewald’s startlingly expressive and distressing Isenheim Altarpiece, we made our way to a grocery store, which, to our delight, was hosting a wine tasting. I tried a Wolfberger Pinot Blanc, among others, and was immediately hooked. We bought some bottles and sat down to consume them on the lawn in the square in front of the Unterlinden Museum. As we drank our wine and became a little tipsy, we decided it would be smart to (rather loudly) sing German songs. That way, no one would guess it was a group of Americans getting drunk in public and making a spectacle of themselves. We surely had everyone fooled.

Since then, I’ve rarely passed up the opportunity to try an Alsatian Pinot Blanc or a Weissburgunder (the German synonym for Pinot Blanc). But I’ve had very few domestic examples, most likely because, as The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, aside from about 700 acres in California, “Elsewhere in the New World, Pinot Blanc is largely ignored in favor of the most famous white wine grape.” (That would be Chardonnay.)

It was quite the treat, then, to receive a complimentary sample of  2012 Youngberg Hill Pinot Blanc from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I’d never tasted an Oregon Pinot Blanc before, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. Surely Pinot Blanc, which flourishes in the rather cloudy and cool Alsace region, could also flourish in Oregon the way Pinot Noir has. The bottle did not sit long in my rack.

I did give myself a little time to read the press kit of the winery, and I was very pleased with what I discovered. The winery farms the Youngberg Hill vineyard, which is located just 25 miles from the coast, in organic and biodynamic fashion. Indeed, owner Wayne Bailey claims to go “beyond biodynamic,” working the land in a “seriously organic, holistic” manner. Healthier grapes make better wine, according to Bailey, and who could argue with that? In addition, the vineyard site seems primed to make excellent wine. Its proximity to the coast, according to the press kit, paradoxically provides it more rainfall than the rest of the valley as well as more sunny days during the summer season.

The care Mr. Bailey takes with his vineyard pays off in the bottle. This Pinot Blanc could go toe to toe with just about any from the Alsace. It smelled “fruity and floral” and “crisp and clean,” as two fellow tasters noted, and I detected some pear, apple, and even a little earthy funk  in the aroma (that’s a good thing). It tasted fruity, with a lush texture balanced by zesty acids which gave way to some focused gingery spice. It left me with a chalky aftertaste in the back of my throat, completing a most pleasant journey. Not at all a bad value for $20 a bottle.

The Alsace has a reputation for making the best Pinot Blanc in the world, but as this wine demonstrates, Oregon could give it some serious competition.

Note: This wine was a complimentary sample.

An Ancient Delight Rediscovered

10 August 2013

Planeta CarricanteOver the years of writing this blog, I’ve tasted a lot of unusual wines and spirits, but I can’t recall ever finding a wine made from a variety which does not appear in my 2006 edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. If a grape isn’t listed in that weighty tome, it must be seriously obscure.

But I can’t really take the credit for “finding” this wine — it found me. A colleague was traveling through Sicily, and while drinking wine with the general manager of Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort on the southern coast, she brought up my blog. The thoughtful manager gave her a special bottle of Sicilian wine to bring back for me to taste, which she packed in her bags and presented to me upon her return. I finally opened it over dinner last Sunday. It made me want to jump on a plane then and there to thank that hotel manager personally.

The 2010 Planeta Carricante blew me away, but what is it? I was at least familiar with its homeland of Sicily, an island celebrated for its wines since ancient times. But between 1960 and 1987, the Oxford Companion notes, misguided governmental subsidies encouraged producers to focus on quantity over quality, leading to overproduction and declining prices. Things began to turn around in the last 20 years thanks in no small part to the very winery responsible for this Carricante.

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, after Planeta established its winery in 1995, “the wines started to attract attention and growing respect in the  early 2000s, and Planeta is now not only the island’s top producer, but also one of Italy’s greatest.” The World Atlas of Wine agrees with this history, noting that “The regional wine institute, under the direction of Diego Planeta and through the innovative and savvy Planeta family winery, has put modern Sicilian wine on the world map.” If anyone could make a good Carricante, then, it would surely be Planeta.

But what is Carricante, this mysterious variety absent from the Oxford Companion? The World Atlas of Wine at least mentions Carricante, calling it Sicily’s “tartest” variety and noting its capability to “age gracefully for up to 10 years.” The Wine Searcher website delves further, noting that this grape is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” going on to describe the growing conditions and vinification techniques ideal for this “ancient” variety. Wine Searcher also warns us not to mistake Carricante for its common blending partner Catarratto, “a variety for which (somewhat confusingly) Carricante is often confused.”

If you can make it past this confusing confusion, I highly recommend seeking out a bottle of the Planeta Carricante (the 2010 was 100% Carricante, but the current vintage contains 5% Riesling). Its wonderfully seductive aroma had notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and zestier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

The Planeta Carricante might be hard to come by, but it’s certainly not unlikely that you’ll run into another wine by Planeta. If this Carricante is any indication, it’s a winery worth remembering.

Note: This wine was provided free of charge by Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort.

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