When To Decant, When To Aerate, And When To Just Back Off

15 October 2016
My empty, dusty decanter

My empty, dusty decanter

Dinner last week at my parents’ house got me thinking about decanting. I brought a 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, to pair with the beef tenderloin my father was whipping up. We opened it and poured ourselves small tastes, not only because of the wine’s youth (seven years, while old for most wines, is fairly young for a Brunello), but because wine streaked the cork from top to bottom. Air might have come into contact with the wine, oxidizing it.

Fortunately, the wine remained intact, but the tannins still felt tough and the fruit tasted tightly wound. Because we planned on eating in about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to decant. Or, more accurately, since my parents don’t own a decanter, we decided it was time to attach a little plastic nozzle to the bottle which helped aerate the wine as it was poured.

The wine unwound a little faster than it would have just standing in the bottle, and it ended up pairing beautifully with the beef in mushroom gravy. The ample but taut red fruit combined with lively spice and somewhat softened tannins to clear the palate after each rich, beefy bite.

I follow this procedure — tasting a little bit first — with any wine that I suspect might still be in the throes of youth. There is no other way to determine whether a wine needs to be decanted or not. You may very well find other wine writers who tell you that such-and-such wine always needs to be decanted, but don’t believe them. Even if they have an authoritative-sounding book.

Wine Folly CoverLast year, for example, when I reviewed the otherwise commendable book “Wine Folly” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, I discovered, in large font and all capital letters at the top of page 27, the title, “AERATING WINE TO IMPROVE FLAVOR.” The introductory paragraph described decanting as “magic,” and farther down the page, there was this criminally misleading assertion: “All red wines can be aerated.”

This is nothing short of absolute nonsense. Decanting an old wine is the vinous equivalent of asphyxiating your grandmother with a pillow. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle, and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle.

But it’s not just old wines that will suffer from decanting. Try decanting this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau, and you’ll get an even nastier surprise than usual when you taste it. In the unlikely event that it had some structure in the first place, you’ll have aerated it into oblivion. You also won’t do yourself any favors by decanting an expensive but delicate Pinot Noir, nor that unoaked red that precisely maintains its balance.

Taste first. If the wine tastes unpleasantly tight — if it makes you pucker a bit and/or the tannins rasp the buds right off your tongue — decant if you’re in a hurry, or simply let it stand open a bit. If you automatically decant, you’ll miss how the wine develops and changes in the glass over time, and that’s one of wine’s great joys.

VelvThe decant-first-ask-questions-later philosophy is so insidious that entire companies have devoted themselves to finding ways to introduce ever more oxygen into your wine, as I discovered at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. The latest aeration contraption, demonstrated for us at the conference, is called Velv™.

(Full disclosure: Velv™ sponsored a lunch for conference attendees.)

As the Velv™ website describes, “Unlike decanting and aeration methods that rely on ambient air, Velv™ Wine Oxygenator uses 99.5% pure oxygen to bring wine to its flavor peak in just minutes.”

It’s not actually air that changes a wine’s flavor profile. Oxygen, specifically, is what causes the chemical reaction in the wine. But air is only 20.95% oxygen, which suddenly makes a decanter seem wildly inefficient compared with the pure and ruthless Velv™.

This wand-shaped device has a canister of oxygen in the handle, and at the tip, a “micro-diffuser” that you stab into your glass or bottle of wine. The machine forces tiny bubbles through the diffuser, ensuring that the wine has maximum contact with the oxygen.

I observed the Velv™ in action at the conference, and as I watched, I heard the sales representative say the most remarkable thing to one of my fellow bloggers: “After six minutes, [the Velv™] took all the gravel and the dirt and the ugliness out of a Bordeaux.” I stood there, mouth agape, as I transcribed the conversation in my notebook. I wonder what that Bordeaux winemaker would think about all that “ugliness” — some might call it character or complexity — being removed from his or her wine.

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

I later related the conversation to a friend at the conference, who asked, “Why would you want to turn a Bordeaux into a California Merlot?”

California wines, incidentally, did not escape the violent bubbles of the Velv™. The sales representative went on to enthusiastically describe how the machine “…can also blow the oak and butter out of a big Chardonnay.”

Of course, the other way to avoid oak and butter flavors, which some people legitimately dislike, is to purchase an unoaked Chardonnay. Most wine shops carry at least one these days. Then you’ll be able to taste the wine as the winemaker intended it to taste, and you’ll have saved yourself $250 to $300.

The Velv in action, inserted into a Menage a Trois

The Velv in action, inserted into a Ménage à Trois

Distressing sales pitches aside, the only way for me to determine the effect of the Velv™ was to experience it for myself. The sales representative poured me two tastes of a 2013 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, one velved and one not.

He recommended trying the velved version first. It still had lots of dark fruit to it, and more surprisingly, the tannins still dried my tongue right up. I thought they might feel a bit softer after all that oxygen.

Then I tried the non-velved Cabernet. Wow. The fruit was all there and the tannins felt similar, but the wine tasted spicier. The Velv™ had removed that key component of the Cab — the spicy quality in the middle — and with the spice intact, the wine felt more balanced. I much preferred the Mondavi with its midsection not blown to bits with the Velv™ blunderbuss.

In short, should you decant your wine? Probably not. Should you spend $250 on a device to literally gas your wine? In the name of all that’s good and holy, no.

I’m sorry, Velv™ sales representative. I guess I owe you lunch.

Japanese Whisky And The Problem With Food Festivals

29 September 2016

Suntory Whisky Toki and miso-glazed chickenI had planned on helping to weed the nearby community garden on Saturday, followed by some light packing for my trip to Vancouver. But before bed on Friday night, something told me to check my email. “I’ve been able to secure a ticket for you for Saturday!” a message from a PR firm read.

I felt a most extraordinary and peculiar sensation: disappointment that I would have to forgo weeding in order to attend Chicago Gourmet.

Before I delve further into my perversely skewed priorities, duty requires that I spend a moment describing the delights of Suntory Whisky Toki, a Japanese whisky released this past June. Suntory’s PR firm organized my Chicago Gourmet media pass in spite of sell-out conditions on Saturday, and even went so far as to procure me a “Staff” bracelet when my media pass was stolen from the PR rep.

The very idea of Japanese whisky was met with grave skepticism even just a few years ago, according to Gardner Dunn, the Suntory Japanese Whisky Senior Ambassador. “Eight years ago, I had to convince people it wasn’t made from rice,” he said, as we chatted in Suntory’s shoji screen-clad tent. (The whisky is made almost entirely from corn, with a touch of barley added for its enzymes.)

Oddly enough, this whisky hasn’t yet been released in Japan. I asked Dunn why, and he said, “We think it’s good enough, and maybe we’ll release it there in 2018. We’re not sure.” In the meantime, this Japanese whisky is available only in North America, the market for which it was tailored. “We know what the U.S. consumer wants,” Dunn explained. “I’m seeing a craze for bourbon, rye… sweeter whiskies. That’s why this whisky has a little complexity but is easygoing.”

Suntory Whisky TokiHe’s exactly right. I tried this blended whisky neat, and though it had a fresh and light aroma undergirded with some wood, it felt lush on the tongue. That initial richness quickly gave way to big spice and some fresh tobacco on the finish, and on the whole, it felt very well-balanced. Peat-phobes need not fear this whisky.

It’s pleasant enough neat, but really, it was intended to stand up to dilution in a highball, a cocktail which is reportedly wildly popular in Japan. In fact, I met a man dubbed “Mr. Highball” in the Suntory tent, and he told me that though highballs were an American invention (“Be sure to write that they’re an American invention,” he said), they have become exceedingly popular in Japan, where people drink the mix of whisky and sparkling water with food, “like a beer.”

The Suntory Whisky Toki is big enough and spicy enough that it doesn’t entirely lose its character when mixed with sparkling water, as some whiskies do. With a twist of citrus, it makes an exceedingly refreshing (and low-sugar) cocktail, and it indeed works well with food, as I discovered when I paired it with some savory and bright miso-glazed chicken with Fresno pepper and burnt lemon. “You need to have a soda water with big bubbles,” a companion of Mr. Highball explained. The best, according to her, is Fever Tree.

The whisky costs about $40 a bottle, which doesn’t seem at all a bad value, particularly in comparison to other Japanese whiskies, which typically cost upwards of $70. A search of Binny’s selection revealed only one less-expensive Japanese whisky, the Mars Whisky Iwai.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese whisky, you certainly couldn’t go wrong by starting with some Suntory Whisky Toki.

Chicago Gourmet 1With my duty complete, I turned from the Suntory tent towards the heart of Chicago Gourmet, a sea of tasting booths and hungry people. And tasting mean one thing to me: work. Weeding is like meditation. Tasting I’ve turned into work. It’s pleasant work, to be sure, and I love that it’s part of my work. But delightful though the work may be, it’s still work.

I looked around at all the people who weren’t working, and I can’t deny that I felt a bit baffled. Chicago Gourmet ranks among the city’s most expensive events. Tickets this year cost $185 per person, plus a shameless $22.27 ticketing fee charged by Eventbrite. That totals an insane $207.27 per person.

Unless, of course, you want to spring instead for a Grand Cru ticket. And at this point, why not? Those will set you back $229.57 per person, including fees. That price doesn’t necessarily include seminars such as “The Tao of Tacos,” however. That run for the border costs an additional $106.92.

Chicago Gourmet Line 2You then get access to a beautiful park full of tents offering all-you-can-eat nibbles from notable restaurants as well as numerous all-you-can-sip tastes of various wines, spirits and cocktails. It’s all very fancy.

You also get access to lines. Long lines. And it’s hard to feel fancy when you’re standing in a line — several of them had amusement park-style switchbacks — with an empty plastic plate in your hand. The line for the seafood pavilion alone easily held more than 100 people.

I decided to try a little experiment. I selected one of the shortest lines, the line for Tasting Pavilion #8, to see how long it took to get something on my plastic plate, and whether that something was worth the wait. There were no switchbacks. Switchbacks make me feel like I’m waiting in an airport for my luggage to be searched and my body to be backscattered. Just a line.

Agnolotti, crudo, burger and pork croquette at Chicago GourmetIt took me exactly 15 minutes to make it through, and for my effort, I was rewarded with some overcooked butternut squash agnolotti (actually an agnolotto) with a pomegranate/balsamic reduction, serviceable shrimp and scallop crudo with cilantro and Fresno pepper in a citrus marinade, a decadently rich burger of braised short-rib with peppercorn aioli and baby arugula, and a savory pork croquette with sweet-and-sour cabbage atop a celeriac/truffle oil purée.

I adored the burger. But I know other adorable burgers that can be had for about $15. With fries.

The wine and spirits booths also proved to be hit and miss, and the hits tended to have lines as well. The Prisoner sentenced people to waits of about 10 minutes, by the look of things. But to be fair, those unwilling to wait for Roederer, for example, could walk right up to the Prosecco booth.

I felt unwilling to wait for Roederer, and I didn’t even have to pay for my ticket. How did people who plunked down more than $200 to attend Chicago Gourmet feel about queuing for their Champagne? I just don’t see how it’s worth it, paying that kind of money to access food and drink — after a wait — that’s presented, in many cases, as if it were part of a sales pitch.

Do any of you pay to attend food festivals like Chicago Gourmet? Why not just have a fabulous dinner for $200 a person somewhere? Somewhere that serves food not on plastic plates.

Obviously I’m missing something, because Chicago Gourmet sells out every year. What am I missing? Write a comment and fill me in.

The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

13 Notable Quotes From Lodi’s Wine Bloggers Conference

20 August 2016
Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

I just returned from 2016’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, and as you might expect, people had all sorts of insightful things to say about wine, food and life in general. I gathered up my favorite gems, so that you, too, might learn from our collective wisdom.

The most important 13 quotes of the conference, in no particular order:

1. “This is your wine now. You know, you can come and stroke it or whatever you have to do.”

2. “They love the winemaker. I’m crap, but they love the winemaker.”

3. “Gewürztraminer is the Pamela Anderson of grapes.”

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can't remember which)

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can’t remember which)

4. “Riesling is not Kleenex.”

5. “Can you waterboard someone if they’re OK with it?”

6. “It tastes good for Chardonnay.”

7. “I’m going to extend my arm.”

8. “This would go great with some goat ragù.”

9. “After six minutes, [this aerator] took all the gravel and dirt and ugliness out of a Bordeaux.”

10. “Do you have your syringe?”

11. “Gary [Indiana] has that drive-by feng shui.”

12. “Lisa is our tasting room entertainer. …Man, she is really good.”

13. “I think it’s fundamental to remember that we all love alcohol.”


If you were there in Lodi and have a quote or two of your own to share, feel free to do so in the comments section!

Red Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 2

14 August 2016
Wine photographed not during speed blogging.

Wine photographed not during speed blogging

In one of the Wine Bloggers Conference seminars, a presenter admonished the audience about the previous day’s speed blogging performance. “I saw a lot of you taking random photos during speed blogging,” she observed, during her talk about Instagram. “Make sure you have a nice background.”

I took an instant dislike to this woman, who, though she had attended the speed blogging session, had clearly not experienced it. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite parts of the Wine Bloggers Conference, because it’s such a challenge. The seven or eight bloggers at each table are trying to get as much information out of the wine presenters as possible, while simultaneously assessing each wine and writing something intelligent about it, all within each five-minute wine speed date. Composing fluffy bottle shots with flowers and candles and such is not within the remotest realm of possibility.

And it’s no picnic for the presenters, either. They’re faced with a table of stressed bloggers who don’t make eye contact (we’re buried in our laptops and phones). We shout a barrage of questions ranging from the simple (Vintage?!) to the irritating (What’s your Twitter handle? Wait — what’s your Twitter handle?) to the borderline rude (Who are you? Who? Oh, the owner?). Meanwhile they’re trying to pour the wine, explain the wine, pass out information sheets about the wine, and give us each a chance to photograph the wine, ideally with a nice background, of course.

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi's Rous Vineyard

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi’s Rous Vineyard

In short, it’s barely controlled chaos, and I absolutely love it. In order to successfully speed blog, I have to find a place of serious focus, shutting out all the noise and confusion around me in order to give each wine the attention it deserves. Learning to focus that way has helped me in all sorts of loud, overcrowded tastings (one of the most common kinds).

After having been in Lodi since Wednesday evening and trying dozens of local reds, this speed blogging event was not particularly surprising. But it was particularly delightful. The reds here tend to be richly fruity and concentrated, with enough spice, acids and tannins to balance. It can be a truly gorgeous combination.

2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard: Lizzy James really is an old-vine vineyard — it was planted in 1904, sixth-generation winery owner Kyle explained. Aged in 100% French oak, this Zin has a gorgeously rich raspberry and vanilla aroma, cool and clear fruit, with forceful white pepper and plenty of heady alcohol. Ah yes — it’s 15.5% alcohol! And yet it’s balanced. It’s a bit of a monster, this wine, and I love it. At $36 it’s not inexpensive, but now I regret not buying a bottle at the winery when I had the chance.

Lange Twins Nero d'Avola2014 LangeTwins Nero d’Avola: Joe Lange himself poured this Italian varietal, and it’s unfortunately the second-to-last vintage. The Lange family had to rip up the vines after the 2015 harvest because of a couple of serious vineyard diseases. What a lovely dark cherry aroma, enhanced with some purple flowers. There’s a nice calm characteristic to the fruit, and classy, restrained spice with enough oomph to balance. It’s a steal at $20, and based on what I’ve tasted at the conference this week, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any LangeTwins bottling of any of the 23 or 24 varieties they make.

2013 Prie Winery Cabernet Sauvignon: This Cab comes from the east side of Lodi (they talk a lot about east side and west side here, which have sandy loam and loamy sand, respectively). The aroma smells of pure, clean fruit, and indeed the fruit comes through loud and clear on the palate, but it loses some power after that, fading slowly into spice and surprisingly soft tannins. I haven’t found the Cabs of Lodi especially compelling, I must admit, and this one hasn’t convinced me otherwise. $29

Paul pouring Inkblot

Paul pouring Michael David’s Inkblot

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc: The first Cabernet Franc of the conference! Each vintage of Inkblot showcases a different variety that wine drinkers might not expect, such as Petit Verdot or Tannat, or in this case, Cab Franc, as the marketing manager Paul explained. It contains 10% Petit Sirah to round things out, and my goodness, it works. The aroma is heady and dark, the fruit is big and lush on the palate, and it moves to a blast of tannins followed by an elegant shaft of spice on the finish. It’s certainly drinkable now, but I would love to lay a bottle down for five years to see what happens. The $35 price seems perfectly reasonable.

2013 Peirano Estate “The Other” Red Blend: A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine has an unexpected aroma, with almost jammy dark fruit combined with an underripe green-pepper quality. Though now that it’s been in my glass a few moments, the fruit has started to overpower the vegetable. There’s plenty of rich fruit — even in a $12 wine from Lodi, there better be, followed by black pepper spice and soft tannins. It’s perfectly drinkable, and not at all a bad value for $12.

2014 Klinker Brick Cabernet Sauvignon: Steve Feldman, the winery owner, shared with us Klinker Brick’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, which retails for $19. It has a deliciously rich aroma of dark fruit, a midsection of classy spice and firm but not aggressive tannins on the finish. This is a Cabernet I can really get behind — the first Lodi Cabernet I’ve really loved. It coats the mouth with ripe, chewy fruit, and it’s a superlative value.

Now that's what I call a background. The OZV red blend and the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

Now that’s what I call a background: the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

2013 Cultivar Cabernet Sauvignon: I don’t usually write about Napa Cabernets, because they are exactly the opposite of unusual and obscure, so it’s a nice change of pace. I like its heady dark fruit aroma and up-front fruit on the palate. It makes a quick pass through some spice in the midsection before giving me a slap of tannins, followed by some slow-developing black pepper spice. I suspect it needs another year or two to round and soften. I quite like it, but I would much rather spend $19 on the Klinker Brick than $29 on this one.

2013 Oak Ridge Winery “Moss Roxx” Ancient Vine Zinfandel: Steve, the international marketing manager, poured some the OZV red blend before this, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to taste. I can barely handle one wine per speed taste in this event. Two, for me, is an impossibility. I skipped the OZV in order to move right to this Zin from vines which average 105 years in age. I love the rich red-fruit jam aroma, cool ripe fruit on the palate, classy white pepper spice and notable tannins on the finish. A delight for $22.

2013 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship Cabernet of this Napa winery, with fruit from St. Helena. It’s actually 85% Cabernet with 5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. I loved the perfumed dark red fruit aroma, ample but classy white pepper spice in the middle and clear but supple tannins on the finish. It’s beautifully made, and if I were rich, I might even consider buying it for $110.

2014 Troon Vineyard Blue Label Malbec, Rogue Valley: Troon Vineyard is not located in Argentina, as you might have guessed, but in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Oregon gained fame for its Pinot Noir, but those grow mostly in the Willamette Valley — the Rogue and Applegate valleys are near the California border in a relatively dry area at 1,600 feet of altitude. The wine certainly smells ripe, with ample dark fruit and a touch of vanilla, and it tastes rather delicious,with ripe dark fruit, plenty of spice, notable tannins and some underlying freshness. I would never have guessed that a Malbec could work in Oregon, but Troon Vineyard has proved, without a doubt, that it can. $29

Read about Speed Blogging session #1 — Lodi whites, rosés and bubblies — here, or for more red wine Speed Blogging action, read last year’s red report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

White Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 1

13 August 2016
Viognier grapes in Lodi

Viognier grapes in Lodi

“Where are you off to now?” a car valet in Napa Valley asked. I told him. “Lodi? Ah yes,” he said. “They have the quantity, but we have the quality,” he replied, with palpable hauteur. Ever since a Napa wine won the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Napites have just been insufferable.

I jest. Sort of. And, unfortunately, the valet has a point: Lodi is the biggest grape-growing region in the U.S., with some 100,000 acres of vineyards. That’s more than Washington and Oregon combined. And, unfortunately, the valet is also correct that much of that production does not go into fine wine.

That does not mean, however, that fine wine is absent in Lodi. I’ve been here just a couple of days, and already it couldn’t be clearer that Lodi has immense potential. Indeed, numerous wineries here are already fully exploiting that potential, producing richly ripe, balanced bottlings with real class.

If you have had a fine wine from Lodi, there’s a good chance it was a red Zinfandel, the grape for which the region is most famous. I like to think of myself as a very in-the-know, anti-Parker kind of guy, who prefers earthy, austere Old World wines. But in those rare moments I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a sucker for rich fruit. The Zinfandels here have that in spades.

Lodi vineyardBut they’re not the only wines that do. The whites have been a revelation. The best have ripe and lush fruit, elegant acids and spice, and a mineral finish, which sometimes feels like dustiness (which makes sense — after walking through the vineyards, I practically needed a vacuum to clean myself up).

The recent speed blogging event hosted by this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference confirmed that Lodi is capable of producing truly world-class white wines, not just Zinfandel fruit bombs. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite conference activities. Here’s how it works: Winery representatives move from table to table around the room, spending five minutes at each pouring and describing their wines.

It’s wild and wooly, and I always discover some fascinating stuff:

2015 Klinker Brick Rosé: According to pourer Farah, this Rhône-style blend of Carignane, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre — only Klinker’s third rosé vintage — is vinified in a more “French” style with plenty of acids. It’s a lovely pale peach, and indeed, the acids are there. It’s not just strawberry candy. There’s light strawberry fruit, some juicy and tart orangey acids, and a bit of minerality and spice on a finish. A very fine deal for $15.

2015 Oak Ridge “Old Soul” Chardonnay: The oldest operating winery in Lodi, with Tasting Permit #1, touches this Chardonnay “lightly with French and American oak.” There’s plenty of stone fruit like apricot in the nose, with a hint of cream from that oak, I dare say. It starts well, with some ripe apple and peach fruit, with almost enough orangey acids to balance, and some vanilla and just a bit of wood on the finish. Not my ideal Chardonnay, but at $12, it feels churlish to complain too much.


Marcus pouring Jardesca

Jardesca: This aperitif is a blend of three different white wines, notably Viognier (the founder Marcus wouldn’t name the other two). Then they add alcohol and botanicals like pink grapefruit, pink peppercorns. Served on ice, it has a rather voluptuous flavor with lots of fruit, and the pink peppercorn spiciness comes through loud and clear. Marcus tossed a peach chuck in my glass, which added a lovely aroma to it, and he came around again to clap some mint in as well. Against my better judgement, I kind of like it. But I don’t $30-a-bottle like it.

J Winery Brut Rosé: This peachy-colored sparkler from the Russian River Valley is a traditional Champagne-style blend of 66% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 1% Pinot Meunier. I liked the rich aroma of orange peel and strawberries, and it has an interesting savory quality. Prickly, teeny bubbles; bright orangey acids (tangerine, if you’ll allow it), and a surprisingly long finish. Very tasty.

2014 Concannon Vineyard Assemblage Blanc: This Livermore winery made it through the horrors of Prohibition, and I’m glad it did. I had a glass of its ripe Petit Sirah earlier, which I enjoyed, but this wine, a blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon is quite the opposite: the aroma is light and mineral, with a bit of swimming pool to it. It starts a touch flabby, but it tightens up into white pepper spice and some chalk. It’s $22 a bottle, which I don’t think I’ll be paying.

2014 Peirano Estate “The Other” White Blend: The grandfather of Lance, who poured this wine, started the vineyard in 1879, and Lance is a fourth-generation grape grower. He knows what he’s doing — the wine has a pleasant aroma of dried herbs and apple/pear fruit, lush white fruit flavor, just enough acids and spice to keep things balanced, and some appealing oak on the finish. I wish there had been a bit more acid and spice to balance the fruit and oak, but again, at $13, I don’t feel I can complain too vociferously.

Colcannon Assemblage Blanc. We were all a little shell-shocked by this point in the speed blogging event.

Colcannon Assemblage Blanc. We were all a little shell-shocked by this point in the speed blogging event.

2014 Kenefick Ranch Pickett Road White: Chris Kenefick’s father started this vineyard in 1981, and like many grape growers, he sold all his fruit, but they now make their own estate wines. The Pickett Road is another Rhône-style blend, composed of 75% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne and 5% Viognier. It’s a lovely rich green-gold color, and it has a taut, spicy aroma. The fruit is fresh, clear and cool on the palate, followed by some light limey acids and a little honey on the finish. There’s a flabby quality in the midsection, though, so I don’t much feel like paying the $24 price tag.

2015 Left Coast Cellars White Pinot Noir: The ownership is mostly left-handed, which influenced the name, but of course the name also references the politics of this misguided section of the country. The juice sees no skin contact, and because the flesh of the Pinot Noir grape is light in color, the wine has a surprisingly pale straw color. It has a nose of spice and dried herbs, not the usual cherry fruit and earth of a Pinot, and an attack of apple and pear flavors. It moves quickly to some lively spice and a mineral, almost chalky finish. It’s quite delicious, and in an extravagant mood, I might well buy it for $24.

And… Table 1 has no wine. This is, unfortunately, a typical problem of speed blogging in recent years. Whatever is coming next, it better be good. Ah, the pourer, Craig Camp, just found us. Ah, and he’s walking away. And he’s coming back. Slowly. Argh.

2015 Troon Vineyard Blue Label “Longue Carabine” Applegate Valley: This Willamette wine is quite good, with ample fruit and spice, and Craig said something about natural winemaking. It must make a difference — this wine had excellent balance. I wish we’d had more than 30 seconds with it.

2015 Corner 103 Sauvignon Blanc:  Corner 103 has been in business for just 16 months! I’m amazed, considering the quality and finesse of this Sauvignon Blanc. It has a pretty grapefruity aroma with an overtone of grass, and flavors of bright citrus, apple, pear, and a little minerality on the finish. It’s not big, but it’s quite graceful. Its hillside vineyard in the Kenwood section of Sonoma is obviously a great location — I would certainly pay $25 for this one. Good to end on a high note!

Read about the sensational reds I tried in Speed Blogging session #2 here, or if you prefer more whites and rosés, check out last year’s Speed Blogging report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

The Most Unusual Wine Of Gevrey-Chambertin

28 July 2016


As we drove along Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus, each sign we passed sent a shiver of excitement up my spine. Vosne-Romanée… Chambolle-Musigny… Morey-Saint-Denis… And finally Gevrey-Chambertin, our destination. Even to this old goat of a wine blogger, the thought of doing a wine tasting in Gevrey-Chambertin had me tingling with anticipation.

We pulled up to the Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet (which also makes wine under the name Domaine François Trapet), a relatively modest stucco house on the edge of the village with a tractor parked in front. This is a family winery, and the son, Laurent greeted us at the door. When you picture the scion of a winemaking family located in one of France’s greatest wine towns, you might imagine some sort of grandee in a flawlessly tailored sport coat and trousers and name-brand loafers. But here, in unpretentious and informal Burgundy, Laurent wore a blue athletic shirt, red shorts and hiking boots. He had been working in the vineyards.

Winemaker Laurent Trapet in his family's cellar

Winemaker Laurent Trapet-Rochelandet in his family’s cellar

The cellar served as both a functional winery and a tasting room, though it clearly was much more the former than the latter. Laurent led us through a fascinating vertical tasting of Trapet’s Le Carougeots, from a village-class vineyard kitty-corner to the La Perrière Premier Cru vineyard and just south of the village itself. We started with a taste right from the barrel.

The 2015 Le Carougeots tasted “noisy,” as Laurent remarked, with youthful acids that still felt a touch overpowering, but this was not at all a bad sign at this point in its life. There was plenty of ripe fruit, too, and I have no doubt the wine will be delicious by the time it’s released. The 2012 had wonderful dark fruit, gentle spice and velvety tannins on the finish, but it was the 2008 that really seduced me, with its sumptuous aroma and flavor of cassis (currant), a note of violets and more forceful tannins. Both vintages were difficult, Laurent explained, but both these wines were delicious, as was the 2007, which had an earthier, more savory character along with stronger spice. Tasting these wines together made it perfectly clear why vintages in Burgundy are so important — each wine had its own distinct character.

Laurent also poured us a taste of the 2013 Les Champs-Chenys, the first vintage of this wine, also made from a single village-class vineyard. Les Champs-Chenys has Grand Cru vineyards bordering it on two sides, which made Laurent think that its fruit might be worth vinifying on its own. He was right. The wine was deliciously complex, with ample dark fruit lifted by notes of fresh hay and vanilla, and after a shaft of white-pepper spice, the finish felt minerally — almost saline.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Bel-AirThe two Premier Cru wines we tasted, the 2012 Petite Chapelle and the 2013 Bel-Air, each offered a notable increase in finesse. I loved both — the dark fruit, fresh herbs and peppercorn notes in the Petit Chapelle, and the rich cassis and long finish of the Bel-Air. But I felt truly smitten by the rich Bel-Air, a funny little Premier Cru located just above the hillside from a Grand Cru. Usually Grand Cru vineyards occupy the highest parts of the hills, but because the soil in Bel-Air is so rocky, the vines are “too stressed” to make Grand Cru-level wine, Laurent explained.

Then Laurent absolutely floored me. He produced a bottle of sparkling wine; a bottle of sparkling red Pinot Noir, in fact. “What?!” My voice went up about a dozen decibels and at least an octave, and it echoed briefly in the cellar. “This is a sparkling red Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in Gevrey-Chambertin?” I asked, again a little too loudly. I had no idea such a thing existed. Who on earth makes sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin?

Laurent didn’t seem entirely surprised by my reaction. “It is unusual. Actually, this kind of wine was popular in the late 19th century,” he explained, as I listened wide-eyed. He thought it would be interesting to resurrect the style. And indeed, sparkling red Burgundy is officially recognized, as evidenced by the words “Appellation Bourgogne Mousseux Rouge Contrôlée” on the back label. The grapes come from village-class Gevrey-Chambertin vineyards, but because Trapet has no sparkling wine production facilities, a winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune vinifies and bottles it.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Petill' RougeThe 2014 Petill’ Rouge was most definitely a red sparkling wine, not a Blanc de Noirs, the much better-known bubbly made from Pinot Noir. It looked brick-red in the glass, and it smelled of cherries and earth, as many non-sparkling Pinot Noirs do. The flavor was juicy and earthy, with elegantly small bubbles and some delightfully surprising tannins on the finish. I bought a bottle for about $16 (try finding a Gevrey-Chambertin in your local wine shop at that price).

I think of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or as one of the world’s most settled wine regions. For centuries, its terroir has been studied and carefully classified, and now its wines, while gorgeous, seemed more or less set in stone. Yet here stood Laurent, pouring me something I’d never even heard of, a wine he wanted to try making just to see how it would turn out.

The Côte d’Or, as I discovered first hand, is not entirely ossified after all. And it won’t become so, as long as winemakers like Laurent continue to take risks and experiment.

The Obscure Delights Of Sumoll

8 July 2016

Sumoll, minor Catalan red wine grape usually blended, known as Vijariego Negra on the Canary Islands.

Gaintus "Radical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll

Thus reads the entirety of The Oxford Companion to Wine‘s description of Sumoll, which ranks among the shortest entries in the volume. If even the Oxford Companion can’t muster enough energy to make a single complete sentence about a grape variety, you know it’s really, really obscure. I was therefore amazed to learn from DeVinos that there used to be more Sumoll in Spain than Garnacha (Grenache), a variety which now counts among the country’s most ubiquitous grapes. What happened?

The 19th-century phylloxera plague took its toll, DeVinos explains, and according to Wine Searcher, most of the remaining vineyards were uprooted “in favor of less temperamental varieties.” The website of the Heretat MontRubí winery calls Sumoll a “delicate variety and so difficult to grow.” Wine Searcher agrees, noting that “The variety gives large grapes but low yields and is quite difficult to work with.” It’s not difficult to empathize with farmers who, faced with phylloxera-devastated fields of Sumoll, decided to grow something just a little bit easier and more internationally popular.

Sumoll RoseFor much of the 20th century, the only people with any interest in Sumoll, it seems, were Australians. For all its fussiness, Sumoll is “particularly drought-resistant,” according to Wine Searcher, and wine growers Down Under created four hybrids using the variety: Rubien, Cienna, Tyrian and Vermillion (Cienna merits no fewer than three sentences in the Oxford Companion). But aside from some Australian ampelographers, few cared all that much about Sumoll.

The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in local, indigenous varieties that arguably better express the personality of a wine region. This fashion may just have rescued Sumoll from extinction. Current plantings only cover about 300 acres, but a handful of dedicated wineries are giving the grape some much-needed attention.

This underdog variety captured my attention at a recent Catalan wine tasting, and I could hardly pass up the chance when a winery offered to send me four different samples of wines made from the variety.

Heretat MontRubí stands in Penedes, the heart of Spain’s Cava country, but the winery produces only small-production still wines — nothing sparkling. It released the first varietal Sumoll in 2001 (at least the first seen since phylloxera hit), and the winery now bottles three, a rosé and two reds, in addition to a Sumoll-based blend. Finding one Sumoll is rare enough, but to taste four side by side in one evening? That’s like winning the Odd Bacchus lottery.

Gaintus "Vertical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll

Should you encounter a Sumoll yourself, and it’s not out of the realm of reason, here is what to expect:

2015 Gaintus “One Night’s Rosé” Sumoll: This wine has a lovely pale peachy-pink color and ample red fruit on the nose, along with some citrus like grapefruit and lemon. Surprisingly, it doesn’t taste especially fruity, feeling more tart and lean. But sampled with some roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, it filled out nicely. This is a rosé you want to drink with food.

2014 Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll: I quite liked the aroma of vanilla, chocolate and peppercorn, and its color looked enticing as well — a Pinot Noir-like transparent garnet. My dinner companion remarked, “It tastes young,” and I sensed that as well. There was a green peppercorn note intermingled with the ripe black-cherry fruit. The finish felt tannic but certainly not harsh, and with some tagliatelle Bolognese, the acids came more to the fore. Again, it was with food that this wine really sang. I’m of a mind to buy a bottle or two and see what happens in five years, after it ages a bit longer.

2007 Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll: The Vertical Sumoll sees more time in wood — 14 months in new French barrels compared to the Radical’s six months in second-use barrels — and it’s aged an additional 24 months in the bottle before release. Its aroma smelled like a more subtle version of the Radical, again with the notes of vanilla, chocolate and a bit of pepper. But this time, the peppercorn flavor tasted more black than green. The dark cherry fruit was there, as were more than enough acids for balance. Indeed, it tasted a little too acidic for my taste, but some chicken with tomato sauce tamed the acids beautifully. As with the wines above, the Vertical was at its best with food.

Durona Red Blend2009 Durona Red Blend: A blend of 50% Sumoll, 25% Garnacha and 25% Samsó (a “confusing Catalan name used for both Carignan and Cinsault,” according to the Oxford Companion), this wine had a totally different character from the Sumoll varietals. It smelled big, ripe and rich, with lots of fruit and a vanilla overtone. My friend took a taste and exclaimed, “Oh, I love that.” I did, too. The flavors felt deep and powerful, with ample dark fruit, a shaft of white-pepper spice and a well-balanced note of wood underneath. If you like high-quality Cabernet Franc, I suspect you’ll like this wine a great deal. With the chicken, it became more taut and spicy, but I would happily drink the Durona all on its own.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a Sumoll aisle in your wine shop any time soon, but should you come across one of these wines while shopping for something to accompany dinner, don’t hesitate to pick it up.

The Concentrated Malbec Of Salta

16 June 2016

Don David MalbecYou may well wonder what a post about Argentine Malbec is doing on a blog about unusual/obscure wines and spirits. Few wines are less obscure than Argentine Malbec. It makes an appearance at almost every BYOB party I attend. At a recent one, I asked a fellow attendee if she liked the Malbec she was drinking. She shrugged and replied, “It’s Malbec,” as if to say, “How good do you think this can get?”

Cheap Malbec is everywhere, which isn’t at all a bad thing — it’s usually fruity and drinkable, at least, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So ubiquitous is cheap Malbec, in fact, that I suspect that many wine drinkers out there would balk at the idea of paying $15 or $20 for a bottle, even though the jump in quality easily matches the jump in price. It’s just Malbec. Why pay those kind of prices?

My recent visit to Salta, Argentina’s northernmost wine region, rekindled my love and respect for the grape. In the right terroir, a conscientious winemaker can work real magic with Malbec. Mendoza makes the most famous Malbecs — and many of them are an absolute delight — but these days, I seek out the gorgeously rich and concentrated Malbecs of Salta.

What’s so special about Salta? According to The Oxford Companion of Wine, the region has “soils not dissimilar to those of Mendoza,” but it has “a mesoclimate that ensures a combination of good sugar levels at harvest… and above-average total acidity, thereby ensuring a wine of depth and balance.” Ample sugar combined with above-average acidity makes for very exciting wines indeed.

Salta’s remarkably high altitude is one of the biggest factors in its success. The Oxford Companion explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

And just as important, the region’s winemaking has recently made a major leap in quality. Alejandro Nesman, the winemaker at Piattelli‘s Salta facility, explained the changes: “When I arrived five years ago, Cabernets were herbaceous and tannic,” he said. “Now they have more balance. Everything is starting to change.”

He noted that winemaking in Europe is “much easier,” but in Salta, “we’re discovering something — we are new. I think there is a lot of future here in Argentina, and especially in Cafayate.” (The town of Cafayate is at the heart of Salta’s vineyards, but you’re much more likely to see “Salta” on a wine label.)

In many cases, the future is already here. These Malbecs were especially memorable:

El Esteco "Elementos" Malbec at Legado Mitico

El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec at Legado Mítico

2014 Bodega El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec: The hotel Legado Mítico welcomes guests with a complimentary glass of this dark, dark wine. It smelled of plums, raisins and something savory. It felt dark and meaty, with an almost chewy texture and some velvety tannins on the finish. It tasted ripe and luscious, but it had notable focus keeping it all together. Available in the U.S. for about $18 a bottle.

2014 Bodega El Esteco Michel Torino Estate “Don David” Reserve Malbec: Again, this wine smelled rich and dark. It tasted very fruity, with lots of plum and blueberry, balanced by plenty of acid, a touch of wood and some light white-pepper spice. I loved how smoothly it shifted from flavor to flavor. Paired with a llama steak, it became even bigger and spicier. Available in the U.S. for about $14 or $15 a bottle, a ridiculously good value.

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

2014 Estancia de Cafayate Malbec: You’ll likely have trouble finding this example, the house wine of the Grace Cafayate resort, but in the event it’s exported to the U.S. in the near future, you can expect a similar rich, dark aroma, but inflected with a bit of chocolate. This Malbec had plummy fruit to spare, leavened with some green peppercorn spice, and a smooth, voluptuous texture. “A feather bed of a Malbec,” I wrote in my notes.

2014 Piattelli Vineyards Malbec Reserve: A lovely opaque magenta color, this wine had an enticing aroma of dark fruit, vanilla and a hint of violets. Again, it tasted of ripe, dark fruit, but the acids and spice were especially zesty. Although not without density, this Malbec felt impressively light on its feet, and even the finish was bright. I craved some steak with chimichurri to pair with it. I had trouble finding somewhere to buy this wine, but if you encounter it, it should run about $15 (not to be confused with the winery’s Malbec from Mendoza).

2014 Piattelli Grand Reserve Malbec: The “best of the crop” goes into this wine, and after drinking a glass with lunch at the winery, I believe it. The aroma was sensationally rich, with notes of blackberry jam, fresh wood and some tobacco. I loved the sumptuous dark fruit, focused acids and gorgeously supple tannins, as well as the whiff of tobacco on the finish. We all have personal preferences when it comes to wine, and this Malbec checked just about all of my boxes. I found a store on the Wine Searcher website selling it for $22 a bottle, which is an absolute steal. (Again, not to be confused with the Grand Reserve from Mendoza.)

Finding Malbecs from Salta requires a little effort even in stores which carry them, because rarely does a wine shop separate those bottles from Mendoza wines. But spend a little time squinting at the wine labels, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

If you like rich, dark fruit balanced with vibrant acids and focused spice, Malbecs from Salta will be right up your alley.

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

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