Mexico

Postcard From Mexico – Fine Wine (??)

15 August 2014
Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

It came as a surprise to me as much as anyone that Mexico is capable of making perfectly lovely wines, both red and white. But after being here for a couple of weeks, roving the central highlands where evenings can be positively chilly, even in August, it started to seem more reasonable that wine grapes could grow and even thrive here.

While on this trip I tasted an array of wines, ranging from cheerful Chenin Blanc/Colombard blends to hearty, meaty Shirazes, and rarely was I disappointed. The Mexican wines I tasted tended to be well-balanced, with lush fruit and focused acids and spice. I never had one that felt overblown or overheated — there was a coolness and restraint to most wines which I found quite appealing.

Mexican wines only occasionally appear on U.S. store shelves, but if you travel here, you’ll have no trouble finding at least one or two local options on most wine lists. And you should travel to Mexico. The people are exceedingly friendly, the colonial cities are exceedingly beautiful, and the State Department’s travel warnings seem to me to be exceedingly overblown. Surely there are trouble spots — just as there are in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — but I never once felt to be in any sort of danger, even in the deepest Michoacán countryside (see photo above).

Watch for Casa Madero, Chateau Domecq and Monte Xanic labels in particular. Wines from these producers tend to be easy to find and quite delicious. Salud!

Postcard From Mexico – Sotol

9 August 2014

Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo SotolFew drinkers are unfamiliar with tequila, that famous Mexican spirit distilled from blue agave which makes its way into margaritas and tequila sunrises. Smoky mezcal, which can be distilled from a range of different agave species, has also become relatively famous in recent years. I even had a delicious Negroni in faraway Vienna recently, in which the creative mixologist had replaced the gin with mezcal. But I had certainly never heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila.

Sotol comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila in Guadalajara, other varieties such as duranguensis, palmeri and acrotiche agave can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and each plant yields only one bottle of sotol. So it’s no surprise that shelves in liquor stores aren’t overflowing with the stuff (blue agave plants can yield up to 10 bottles of tequila or even more).

Because sotol is produced in a manner similar to mezcal — smoking the hearts of the agave plants in an open pit and then fermenting the juice before distillation — there are similarities in flavor. The desert spoon agave, however, makes sotol unique in the same way that blue agave gives tequila its own special flavor.

I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo (like tequila, añejo sotol must be aged at least one year in oak), and it was a delight. A light green-gold color, it looked like it could have been a Sauvignon Blanc. The lovely vanilla aroma along with notes of smoked paprika indicated otherwise, however! When I took a sip, I thought it was going to hit me with a bang, but it proved to be quite smooth. The sotol started lush and rich, with some sweet flavors that slowly developed into gentle smoke and red-pepper spice flavors.  Very elegant, and surprisingly easy to drink neat.

Sotol comes from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, but bottles filter down to specialty bars such as La Tequila, and I found at least one or two shops in the U.S. offering bottles. But it’s rare, so if you do happen to see a bottle, don’t miss the chance to snap it up.

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch “Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

Don’t You Mean Tequila?

3 November 2012

My trip to Cuernavaca and Acapulco last month shocked a variety of people for a variety of reasons. Most of my family was convinced I would be kidnapped, beheaded, or shot. My colleagues questioned the worthiness of Acapulco as a destination. And everybody thought I was crazy when I said I was excited to try Mexican wine.

Well, despite the best efforts of the drug cartels, I managed to escape unharmed. Acapulco was gorgeous, and by golly, there are some excellent Mexican wines. You read that right: Tasty Mexican Wines. It’s not all Jose Cuervo and Corona down there.

Mexico, in fact, boasts the continent’s oldest wine industry, dating back to the early 16th century and Hernán Cortés, who saw no reason to forgo wine in the New World. Mexican wines might be more well-known, but the country lacks a wine-drinking culture, and those that do drink wine tend to drink imports. Nevertheless, some wineries make some impressive stuff in this unexpected country. As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “Mexican taste and drinking habits have for long lagged behind the increasingly exciting achievements of Mexico’s modern vineyards and wineries, although this is slowly changing in the major cities and tourist areas.”

Most wineries cluster at the northern end of the Baja Peninsula, which produces 90% of Mexican wine. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “vines can thrive in the Mediterranean climate, not unlike Napa and Sonoma’s with its Pacific influence, wherever irrigation water can be found.” The highlands north of Mexico City have also proven to be fruitful territory, with hot days but cool nights.

I sampled a number of Mexican wines on my trip, and I have to say there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. I expected overheated fruit bombs, but everything I tasted exhibited focus and restraint.

2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard: A blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard, this wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos. Monte Xanic is cited by a number of my books as a notable winery, and I can see why.

2011 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Chardonnay: This winery, in the high-altitude Valle de Parras just north of Mexico City, is either the oldest or the second-oldest winery in the Americas, depending on whether you believe the Oxford Companion or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Both agree it makes high-quality wines, and this Chardonnay is no exception. It starts rich, with some butter and oak, but these flavors are leavened by tight acids and a bright finish. Well-balanced and delicious.

2008 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine had a red, meaty, raisiny smell, along with something spicy like cinnamon. I was impressed by its focused dark fruit, which gave way to something herbal, some white-pepper spice and ample tannins. Surely tasty with a steak.

2010 Casa Madero Shiraz: Another winner from Casa Madero — fruity, earthy and spicy. As I drink it, I could picture the vineyards growing in a clay-rich soil. Powerful but restrained, as a good Shiraz should be.

I stopped in a wine shop in Acapulco and came away with bottles of Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Domecq Chardonnay/Viognier. We’ll see if they can follow in the rather formidable footsteps of the wines I tasted above.

Mezcal, Vegetarian And Non-Vegetarian

27 October 2012

Although it’s started to have a following in the United States, mezcal has yet to invade the popular consciousness the way tequila has. Everyone knows tequila, whether they like it or not, and almost everyone who drinks has tried a margarita at least once in their lives. But what does mezcal taste like? And what’s the signature mezcal cocktail?

The answer to the second question is easy: There isn’t one. At least, not yet. And that’s because of the answer to the first question. Mezcal has a much smokier, less cocktail-friendly flavor than tequila, because the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days. (The piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted, and they come only from the blue agave plant.)

While staying in Acapulco recently, I had hoped to explore the world of mezcal more deeply. But as a single traveler staying at a property well outside of town, it felt uncomfortable and inconvenient to bar hop in the city itself. Fortunately, my hotel had an excellent mezcal for me to sample, an Amores Reposado made in Santiago Matatlán (in Oaxaca) from espadín agave. As with tequila, “reposado” indicates that the spirit was aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months.

Amores distills its mezcal reposado three times and ages it for eight months, instead of just two, and the extra care shows. It had a red, smokey aroma, and it felt strong but surprisingly smooth, with smokey notes tempered by something sweet. It tasted particularly good paired with orange wedges dipped in chili powder.

Unfortunately, I failed in my quest to sample mezcal pechuga, which is mezcal distilled with a variety of fruits as well as a breast of chicken suspended in the still (you can read more about the process here). I found a bottle of Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga in a liquor store in Acapulco, but it cost an eye-popping 1,950 pesos, which works out to about $150! Even for a mezcal distilled with a chicken breast, that seemed a little steep. I consoled myself with some bottles of wine from Baja instead.

Mezcal won’t appeal to everyone, but if you happen to like tequila, it’s definitely worth a try. Fans of scotch, which can also be a bit smokey, should also consider investigating mezcal. Your liquor store should carry at least a few examples. Go for a reposado or an añejo (aged one to three years in oak). A quick search of Binny’s website revealed 36 options priced anywhere from $18 to $230 per bottle. And hey, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to send to Odd Bacchus, Binny’s carries the Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga for a cool $200.