Fortified Wines

Find Your Ideal Wine: A New Year’s Resolution

28 December 2016

I’ve stopped making New Year’s Resolutions. I got tired of punishing myself each year when my plans for self-improvement failed to come to fruition. Now, I look forward to January, knowing that I don’t have to change a damn thing. But some people seem to find value in the resolution ritual, and I suppose some of them must have some success, bless them.

If you’re one of those people who don’t regard resolutions as an exercise in futility, consider resolving to do something a lot more fun than trim your waistline: Get to know what wine you like best.

It sounds silly, perhaps, because if you read this blog, you almost certainly drink wine, which means you probably already have a sense of what you like. Or, at least, what you don’t like. When I talk to people about their wine preferences, they most frequently use negative terms — they don’t like sweet or dry or oaky or heavy, or whatever it is. Fewer people tell me things they actually enjoy tasting.

It takes more guts to say what you like. Saying that you don’t like something is essentially free from risk, but taking a stand in favor of certain flavors is a little dangerous. Some of the people you tell are sure to disagree with you, and some of them will try to make you feel wrong. It happens to me all the time. But you’re not wrong; they’re feeling threatened.

In the tasting room of Palumbo Wines, Temecula, CA

Why take the risk at all? If you can articulate what you like in a wine, your sommelier or wine shop clerk will love you for it. They’ll be much better able to guide you to something in line with your taste. They’ll feel like they’re doing a great job, and more important, you’ll get a wine that you’re more likely to love.

To figure out what you really like, the best thing to do is to taste a lot of different wines. Most wine shops have complimentary tastings from time to time, and they’re a great risk-free place to try something out of your comfort zone. I know some people avoid these tastings because they don’t want to say something “wrong” about the wine, because the person pouring it might judge them. Of course, no one likes to be judged. Just remember — you don’t need to expound at length on the wine. If you aren’t sure what to say after you taste something, a simple “Very nice” will always do the trick.

You’re sure, even by simple chance, to find something you really, really enjoy at one of these tastings. If you do, take another sip and pay careful attention to it. So often we forget to actually pay attention, because wine is such fun to drink. But even the most beautifully crafted wines usually don’t hold up flavor profile billboards. “I taste like RASPBERRIES!” No. You have to pay attention and consider the wine on your tongue it in order to see what it has to offer. I find that the flavors and the structure of a wine are clearest to me during the first two tastes. By the third, I’m just drinking.

An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

The more you taste (and smell) and pay attention, the easier it will become to identify the qualities in wine that you like. Those qualities will almost certainly change depending on the type of wine, the season and your mood. Some examples:

Sparkling Wine: With New Year’s Eve approaching, this might be the most important category to consider, though I must admit I don’t usually serve my favorite sparkling wines at parties. I love toasty, yeasty smells and flavors, qualities most often found in Champagne. You, however, might prefer crisp flavors like green apple or lemon, or floral notes as in Moscato, or berry flavors, as in certain Blanc de Noirs and sparkling rosés.

White Wine: I enjoy all sorts of different white wines, but if I could have just one to drink before I died, it would display rich fruit, some butteriness and/or creaminess, very focused acids, and, why not, some minerals on the finish. Alas, it’s a rather expensive flavor profile, exemplified by top white Burgundy. You might hate butter in your wine, preferring instead something crisp and light, or something redolent of tropical fruit, or something tart, or something chalky, or something perfumed and aromatic. I’m also a fan of exotic spice notes like ginger and incense, as in some Hungarian dry Furmints.

Rosé Wine: My very favorite rosés are very fruity but very dry, with plenty of juicy acids. To me, they taste like summer. You might prefer a rosé that’s a little sweeter, because, after all, they’re delicious too. Or perhaps you like your rosé more esoteric, with more of a savory note.

Bottles of Tokaji

Red Wine: Again, I find all sorts of red wines delicious and enjoyable, but my very favorites tend to have either a note of mocha or tobacco. Reds with rich, dark fruit combined with some wood and tobacco and spice really make me curl my toes. Maybe for you, it’s a note of earth that really gets you going, or fresh cherry fruit, or jammy raspberry fruit, or brooding plummy fruit. Some reds have a black pepper flavor that people love, but others prefer less aggressive white pepper. You might even like a note of meat in your wine — bacon or beef can be delightful.

White Dessert Wine: Many people nowadays turn their noses up at sweet wines. If you’re someone who thinks sweet wines are just for wine novices, I encourage you to try a Sauternes or a Tokaji. Tasting great Sauternes and Tokaji rank among my most cherished wine memories. I love honeysuckle richness leavened with laser-focused acids and exotic spice, along with a little mint or tobacco freshness to round out my ideal version of this wine. Others might appreciate round, orangey acids, voluptuous ripe peach or tropical fruit flavors, or caramel or butterscotch notes. Oo — I really need to drink more of these wines in 2017.

Fortified Red Wine: Port and Port-like wines always feel wonderfully satisfying and comforting to drink, especially in winter. Here I love luscious blackberry jamminess balanced with big spice and a whiff of wood or tobacco. If you haven’t tried a Port in a while, now is the time to buy a bottle. Start with a Late Bottle Vintage Port, which offer a lot of flavor for the money. You need not drink it all in one sitting. Even if you make no preservation efforts, the wine will remain tasty for a week or longer.

If you’ve already figured out what flavors you love in wine, I encourage you to write them down — it’s a fascinating exercise. And if you aren’t yet able to name your favorite flavors, lucky you. If you choose to make discovering your favorite flavors a New Year’s Resolution, you’re in for a really fun 2017.

The Best Things I Drank In 2015: Spirits & Cocktails

7 January 2016

Xoriguer Gin & Lemon in MenorcaAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2015″ lists. I love a good list, and making a few myself has given me the chance to reflect on the past year. I certainly did not go thirsty.

Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails, too, have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.

Nor are these trends confined to the United States, as you can see from the short list below. How fortunate, to have been able to experience such an array of delicious drinks in such a variety of memorable bars!

Here are the best spirits and cocktails I drank 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

Adlerbrennerei Wildhimbeergeist

ADLERBRENNEREI M. PIRCHER WALDHIMBEERGEIST

The Adler distillery, in a small town a little north of Nuremberg, Germany, produced this delightful Obstbrand (fruit brandy) from wild raspberries. The words “fruit brandy” don’t necessarily inspire confidence, but nowadays, Germany boasts quite a few distilleries dedicated to producing high-quality small-batch spirits from a range of gorgeous local fruits.

I tried this example neat (as is traditional) in the clubby bar of Berlin’s Regent hotel. It smelled like creamy raspberries, and it had a remarkably smooth texture, with very little roughness or burn in spite of its alcoholic strength. I loved its warm and fruity character, light texture and spicy finish.

 

Brennerei Rochelt Williamsbirne

BRENNEREI ROCHELT WILLIAMSBIRNE

I couldn’t help but put another Obstbrand on this list, and honestly, there are two or three others that I would have added if space permitted. If you find yourself in Germany or Austria (or in a particularly well-stocked liquor store), seek out high-quality Obstbrand. It rewards the effort and then some.

This example, made by the Rochelt distillery in Austria’s Tyrol region, clocked in at a high 50% alcohol. Even so, the nose smelled of Williamsbirne (Poire William, or Bartlett pear), not booze. I can’t deny that the first taste knocked my socks off — the alcohol hit a little hard — but on the second try, with my palate properly primed, it tasted far more balanced.

Ripe pear flavor filled every nook and cranny of my mouth, and it kept developing and changing from there, moving from ripe fruit to pear skin to focused spice to alcoholic heat.

Sipped at Berlin’s Hotel de Rome, this exquisite digestive wasn’t inexpensive at €40 a glass — fortunately a food-and-beverage credit covered the charge — but my word, it was certainly memorable.

 

BUDDHA’S HAND DAIQUIRI

I came up with this cocktail myself, and it proved to be one of my all-time favorite inventions. The recipe is easy, as long as you can find a Buddha’s hand, a seductively fragrant alien-shaped citron in season for about two weeks each year.

First, prepare some Buddha’s hand simple syrup: Zest about half a large Buddha’s hand (being careful to avoid the pith) and muddle the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, mix the sugar and zest with a cup of water and heat on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cools, strain the mixture to remove the peel and store the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator. It keeps for about a month.

With the syrup prepared, keep to a traditional daiquiri recipe, mixing two parts rum (either white or aged can work, depending on if you prefer a fresher or mellower flavor), one part fresh-squeezed lime juice and a half-part simple syrup.

The Buddha’s hand simple syrup makes for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum.

 

Cocktail at Vina Vik

COCKTAIL OF THE DAY AT VIÑA VIK

As you might guess from the name of this hotel, Viña Vik is far better known for its wine than its cocktails. But this design-heavy resort in Chile delighted me with its “cocktail of the day” the last evening of my stay.

As far as I know, it didn’t have an official name, but this drink certainly deserves some sort of title. The mix of vodka, Aperol, fresh watermelon juice, fresh lemon juice and fresh ginger tasted refreshing, complex and beautifully balanced. In a high-wire act of mixology, the sweet watermelon, tart lemon, bitter Aperol and spicy ginger worked together with impressive grace.

 

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in Fiji

Tila bleaching hibiscus blossoms

HIBISCUS BLEACH

Tila, the vivacious bartender at Nanuku, a resort in Fiji, made this rather distressingly named cocktail for me. “Tila Tequila,” as she is affectionately known, did indeed bleach five hibiscus blossoms in the course of making this drink, draining them of color as she steeped them in hot water. This fresh hibiscus tea, when combined with honey, fresh lime juice and Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum, makes for a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail. But what a difference from the sickly-sweet concoctions people carry around in plastic cups in New Orleans! You can see the full recipe here.

 

Rum House

Rum Old Fashioned (right)

RUM OLD FASHIONED AT THE RUM HOUSE

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the Manhattan bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

In particular, my Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked absolutely beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish.

 

Up next: The Best White and Sparkling Wines of 2015

A Remarkable Port Hiding In Telluride

12 October 2013

Barros 1988 Colheita PortMost of the time, people ignore the “Dessert Wine” section of a wine list, either because they aren’t ordering dessert or they think they don’t care for sweet wines. But if you pass over that list every time, you’re denying yourself some of the world’s greatest wines, and sometimes some of the greatest wine values.

Port, for instance, usually ends up at the tail end of a wine list or on the dessert menu itself. That ensures that very few people will order it, which is a shame. I can think of few better ways to cap a meal than with a glass of port. It never fails to settle my stomach and engender a feeling of relaxed well-being.

I found myself in need of a good digestif after overdoing it at the Cosmopolitan restaurant in Telluride, and I was delighted to discover a real gem of a port on the menu — a 1988 Barros Colheita, priced at $16 a glass.

$16 may seem expensive for a glass of wine, and certainly that’s more than what I’m used to paying. But it seemed like a bargain for the opportunity to try a 25-year-old vintage port, which would easily cost more than $50 a bottle retail if you could even find it.

Good port tends to age quite well because of its relatively high alcohol content and ample tannins. In fact, many discourage drinking vintage ports until they’re at least 10 years old, because the tannins will otherwise be too tough. I don’t like to wait that long (or pay the high price of vintage port), so I typically purchase “late bottle vintage” port, which, like vintage port, is also from a single year, but ready to drink upon release. It’s also usually a heck of a lot less expensive, because vintage port is made only in “declared” vintage years, and only from the very best fruit of those years.

Colheita port is an even more complicated animal. Although it is a port with a vintage, it tastes very different from vintage port, which is typically concentrated, ripe and raisiny. Colheita is more akin to a tawny port, which can be anything from brown-tinged inexpensive port made from lighter grapes aged in wood, to port aged 10, 20, 30 or more years in fine oak made from high-quality fruit in undeclared vintage years. I think of tawnys as brownish in color, with caramel, oak and sometimes some oxidative sherry-like notes.

But Colheita port is a more clearly defined and restricted category than tawny port. The Oxford Companion to Wine offers this concise explanation of colheita:

Colheitas are best understood as tawny ports from a single year, bottled with the date of harvest on the label. The law states that colheita ports must be aged in wood for at least seven years, although most are aged considerably longer.

There are yet more styles of port besides colheita, tawny, vintage and late bottle vintage port. It’s a ridiculously complicated beverage. And yet so irresistible. The 1988 Barros Colheita Port had a reddish caramel color and a bouquet that expanded far beyond the rim of the glass. It smelled very enticingly of wood, dark-red fruit, caramel and vanilla. Though my eyes were wide with anticipation at this point, the flavor did not let me down. Kapow! The forceful, driving flavors of wood, apricot, dried fruit and zesty spice seemed remarkably young, especially considering that the port was a quarter-century old.

Lively, gorgeous and exciting — well worth the $16 price tag. More evidence that the wines on the dessert menu can be some of the best in a restaurant’s collection.

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

A Nice Cool Byrrh

27 February 2013

ByrrhI love drinks ressurected from the grave, such as the violet-flavored Crème Yvette or Old Tom Gin. The aperitif called Byrrh (pronounced “beer”) wasn’t dead, exactly, but for years you couldn’t find it in the United States. France stopped exporting it to the U.S. during Prohibition, and for some reason never started again. And so we were left bereft of Byrrh, because as charming as it is to travel to France for a little aperitif shopping, it can get a little impractical.

I had heard of the sweet vermouth-like Byrrh, but I had never tasted it because my aperitif shopping tends to be limited to the northeast side of Chicago. Then one day, there it was! Just standing on a shelf in Binny’s, like nothing had happened. I snapped up a bottle posthaste.

I couldn’t wait to try it, because although at first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even Port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

I tried it first at room temperature, though it’s traditionally consumed chilled. It had a Porty, richly fruity aroma with something herbal in there as well — a bit of parsley perhaps. I loved the round, luscious mouthfeel which slowly developed into orangey acids and the barest hint of menthol on the finish.

After that taste, there was no question — I needed to see what it would do for a Manhattan. I shook two parts Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, one part Byrrh and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters with ice, and strained it into a martini glass. It proved to be a balanced but very bright and lively Manhattan. It seemed to end with a deep note from the bitters, but it jumped up again at the last second with a little cedar and mint.

Fun to drink on its own, and fun to mix in a Manhattan — I’d say Byrrh is a winner. And it’s not even that expensive. I picked up a 375 ml bottle at Binny’s for $13. So by God, go out and get some Byrrh!

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