Top Spirits & Cocktails Of 2014

26 December 2014
A fresh and herbaceous Savant Sour at Chicago's CH Distillery

A fresh and herbaceous Savant Sour at Chicago’s CH Distillery

At this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2014″ lists. I love a good list, and making one myself has given me the chance to reflect a bit on the past year. I 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 in this country, 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.

What luck, to experience this spirits and cocktail revolution first hand! I had quite a few memorable drinks in 2014, and here are my very favorites, in alphabetical order:

 

Clover ClubCLOVER CLUB

Set in a brick arch beneath some railway tracks north of Vienna’s Altstadt stands one of the finest cocktail bars in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Halbestadt. Proprietors Erich and Konny focus on classic cocktails, including many almost-forgotten gems popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But they also stock the largest selection of mezcal in Vienna, and they’re not afraid to use it to create some truly unusual and cutting-edge cocktails.

Erich made me a stupendous Mezcal Negroni, as well as a delightful Clover Club (above). This little-known cocktail pre-dates Prohibition, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and it’s high time this delicious drink of raspberry, lemon, sugar, egg white and gin had a revival. Erich and Konny use only fresh fruit in their cocktails, ensuring that there was nothing cloying or artificial-tasting about this Clover Club. It was tart and fruity, with a bit of juniper from the gin. What a beautifully balanced cocktail.

 

Corozo 75 at Carmen in Cartagena

COROZO 75

One of my favorite Colombian fruits is the corozo, a red berry which on its own tastes somewhere between a blackberry and a cranberry. I tried it in a couple of cocktails during my trip there, and the most successful by far was the Corozo 75 at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá in Cartagena. What a revelation.

This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.

 

Lulo MartiniLULO MARTINI

I sat down at the stylish El Coro bar in Cartagena’s Sofitel Santa Clara and asked the energetic bartender, Jhon, if he
could make me something with local ingredients. He had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the conscientious bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

 

Pink Pigeon RumPINK PIGEON RUM

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the volcanic soil of the Medine Estate on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The distillery uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.”

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails an enticing Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.

 

Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo SotolHACIENDA DE CHIHUAHUA AÑEJO SOTOL

Before traveling to Guadalajara, Mexico, I had never even heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila. It comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila bar in Guadalajara, other varieties can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, 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).

I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo sotol (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.

 

They Call it Duck a lOrangeTHEY CALL IT DUCK A L’ORANGE

Served at The Drawing Room in Chicago, this cocktail tastes, oddly enough, almost exactly like it sounds. It combines Cointreau Noir, Peychaud’s Bitters, and “scotch washed in duck fat,” according to head bartender Azrhiel Frost. I have absolutely no idea how she and fellow head bartender Will Patton came up with the idea for this recipe, but it worked astonishingly well. It had a pleasantly dusky orange aroma, and complex sweet, bitter and citrusy flavors. I could taste the duck, but it was a well-integrated savory undertone, rather than an aggressively meaty flavor.

If you want to try this cocktail, head to The Drawing Room before the end of the year. This excellent basement bar recently lost its lease. The Urban Outfitters store above it wants to run an elevator through the beautiful space and use the rest of it for storage. What a scandal. I think this calls for an Urban Outfitters boycott.

A Festive Sparkler From The Holy Land

20 December 2014

Gilgal BrutToday marks the midpoint of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just days away. What better time, then, to celebrate with a bottle of sparkling wine from Israel?

Many people still associate sickly sweet Maneschewitz-like wines with Israel, but in recent decades, the country has quietly undergone a quality revolution. “It was the late-1970s planting on the volcanic soils of the Golan Heights, from 1,300 feet above the Sea of Galilee up to 4,000 feet towards Mount Hermon,” The World Atlas of Wine explains, “that signaled a new direction.” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “Planting vineyards with noble varieties in cooler, high-altitude areas, combined with internationally trained winemakers and expertise… had dramatic effects.”

But winemaking in Israel dates back thousands of years, and wine appears frequently in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. That tradition continued under Roman and Byzantine rule until AD 636, the Oxford Companion relates, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards.” Crusaders started wine production again in about AD 1100, but maintained it for only about 200 years: “With the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.”

As Jewish people returned from the Diaspora centuries later, winemaking began once again. Galilee in northern Israel is the best-quality region, according to every resource I’ve consulted, its high-altitude vineyards offering a beneficially cooler climate than the coast. Jesus grew up in this region, in Nazareth, and it makes sense: If you’re the son of God, of course you would choose to live in the best wine region you could.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in Israel, and it helped lead the quality revolution by planting vineyards of noble international varieties in the Golan Heights in 1976. The winery’s 28 vineyards “range in altitude from 400 meters (1,300 feet) at Geshur, up to almost 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) at Odem,” according to its website, and these vineyards are further divided into 400 separate blocks. The grapes from each are stored and handled separately throughout the winemaking process, allowing Golan Heights to get a real feel for each parcel’s terroir and determine which varieties grow best where. I was also excited to see that Golan Heights was the first winery in Israel to grow its grapes organically.

I picked up a bottle of its NV Gilgal Brut, a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend named after the Gilgal Refaim, an enigmatic 5,000-year-old assemblage of some 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles located near the winery. This light straw-colored wine proved to be delightful, with aromas of red berries, yeast and round, orangey citrus. It felt full and ripe in the mouth. The berries and yeast were there, along with zesty acids and a froth of prickly bubbles. The finish was quite tart, with pronounced notes of green apple. I tried it again after it sat open in the refrigerator for two hours, which gave it time to develop a rounder note of vanilla.

What a fun, cheerful sparkler, and food-friendly, too. Its racy acids paired especially well with some crab Rangoon, cutting right through the richness. The Gilgal Brut would surely do well with just about any cheese or cream-based dish, making it ideal as an apéritif with cheese and crackers. I really want to try it with cheese fondue.

Making a sparkling wine in the Champagne method with traditional grapes requires great effort and significant investment in infrastructure. But it makes sense that Golan Heights would want to dive into such an elaborate project. The head winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, worked at Jacquesson, a 200-year-old Champagne house in France, before he joined Golan Heights. His Gilgal Brut clearly reflects that experience.

I purchased the Gilgal Brut at Binny’s for about $14, which is quite a value for the money. If your wine shop has a Kosher section, you might also find it there (it’s Kosher for Passover).

There are any number of wonderful wines you can serve during Hanukkah and Christmas, but I found it particularly satisfying to sip the Gilgal Brut, which has a direct connection to the Holy Land. It’s a very fun and festive wine, but it offers an opportunity for reflection as well.

Exploring The Terroir Of Chile

12 December 2014

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard CarmenereSingle-vineyard wines are nothing new. Burgundy has perhaps the most famous examples, and in recent years, vintners in the U.S. have also started marketing vineyard-designated bottlings. But it’s still relatively rare to see single-vineyard wines from anywhere in South America, which has a shorter history of high-quality winemaking.

Vinous excellence is certainly no stranger to South America now, however, as illustrated by this recent tasting, and this one, and this one. It makes sense that ambitious winemakers would now want to take things a step further and start delving into the subtleties of terroir.

The word “terroir” refers to all the factors affecting a certain patch of land, be it soil composition, exposure to light or wind, elevation, rainfall, etc. Wines lose their sense of terroir in direct proportion to the size of the geographical area from which their grapes were harvested. A Sonoma Coast wine will have, in theory, more of a sense of terroir than a wine labeled simply “California,” even if the Sonoma Coast wine comes from more than one vineyard.

This concept sounds esoteric, and you may very well be wondering, who cares? And it’s true that a single-vineyard wine does not guarantee quality, nor does a blended wine necessarily suffer in any way. Some of the world’s very best wines are blends. But single-vineyard wines most often come from vineyards that winemakers regard as special. Setting the grapes from this vineyard aside allows them to display all of what makes that particular site great. A single-vineyard wine also connects the taster to the land in a way that a blend, however grand, simply cannot.

Lapostolle Carmenere Gift BoxI was very excited, therefore, to learn about Lapostolle‘s single-vineyard Carmenères and Syrahs. I can’t recall tasting single-vineyard Chilean wines before, and I’d never tried a single-vineyard Carmenère from anywhere. This variety was popular as a blending grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but it slowly fell out of favor for various reasons, and now it rarely pops up in its homeland. The grape arrived in Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century, where it was mistaken for Merlot until 1994. Now, just 20 years later, Carmenère has become the signature variety of Chile.

The country may be extraordinarily narrow, but the terroir varies as much east to west as north to south because of the effects of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It was absolutely fascinating, then, to taste single-vineyard Carmenères from Marchigüe, near the Pacific, Apalta, in the middle of the country, and Portezuelo, closer to the mountains (as illustrated by their labels).

Each was a delight. The 2010 Marchigüe smelled of plum jam, and it had dark fruit leavened by bright green peppercorn spice. The 2010 Apalta had a heady, jammy aroma and flavors of ripe dark-red fruit and big but focused white peppercorn spice. The group favorite, however, was the sexy 2010 Portezuelo Carmenère, with its creamy raspberry aromas and big, dusky fruit. Some smokiness and meatiness undergirded the fruit, and despite the ripeness and sultriness of the wine, it maintained impressive focus. Though each wine came from the same grape, the same vintage and the same producer, each had its own distinctive character.

Lapostolle Pirque SyrahI also had the opportunity to try two of the six Syrahs, which come from vineyards running north to south. The 2010 Pirque and the  2010 Las Kuras both came from vineyards relatively close to the Andes, but the Pirque vineyard is in Maipo, and Las Kuras is in the Cachapoal Valley, the wine region immediately to the south. The Las Kuras Syrah smelled of chocolate and violets, and its bright acids and black pepper spice kept its dark fruit well in balance. The Pirque also had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma, but it felt silkier on the tongue and revealed itself more slowly than the Las Kuras. It had a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. It felt sexy and very classy, whereas Las Kuras was more of a “punch in the face — in a good way,” as a fellow taster noted.

Either the half-case of Syrah or the half-case of Carmenère would be an ideal base for a wine-tasting party. It’s great fun to try the wines side-by-side to compare them. The boxes also make a beautiful gift for a wine lover you would like to impress. Each half-case costs $200, and you can purchase them at uncorked.com. The Carmenère box includes two wines from each of three vineyards, and the Syrah box includes six different wines.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more single-vineyard wines like these coming out of South America, and if these thoroughly delicious bottlings are any indication, we’re in for a treat.

Note: These samples were provided free of charge by Terlato Wines.

Anselmi’s Super Soave

5 December 2014

Anselmi Capitel CroceThe word “Soave” does not tend to stir the heart of the oenophile. This white-wine country in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region started out well, when vineyards were confined mostly to hillsides. But after Soave received DOC status in 1968, it enjoyed  “an export boom, so production flowed off the small hilly zone onto the alluvial plain of the Adige river,” explains The Oxford Companion to Wine. Plains tend to produce far less interesting grapes than hills. Yields increased, leading to less-concentrated wines, and productive (but bland) Trebbiano Toscano began to invade the vineyards.

The World Atlas of Wine illuminates yet another important problem in Soave: “Almost 80% of the vineyards are cultivated by growers who deliver their grapes straight to the local co-op with no personal reputation for quality to uphold.” And, in its usual laconic style, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia flatly states that “Most Soave is still overcropped, thin and acidic.”

It makes sense that producers devoted to quality would want to distance themselves from the Soave DOC, “…and in 2000,” as Sotheby’s explains, “Roberto Anselmi took his greatly admired wines out of the Soave appellation in protest.” He had tried for years to reform the Soave DOC without success, and he finally had enough. He wrote an open letter to Soave announcing his break:

I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom. Freedom to improve, to make a great wine without inhibitions, to fly onto outstanding varieties, with better training systems, to relate to world viticulture with no boundaries, rules, bureaucracy, to create an honest market for a great white wine from my terroir, from a terroir after my own heart, where passion and imagination will no longer be obstructed. –Roberto Anselmi, as translated on the Terlato website.

Now, Anselmi classifies his wines under the much broader Veneto IGT, making his wines akin to the Super Tuscans, which also don’t necessarily follow DOC rules.

Liz Barrett, vice president of corporate communications and PR at Terlato Wines, brought two of Anselmi’s single-vineyard Super Soaves to a BYOB dinner at Tango Sur in Chicago. Both vineyards, Capitel Croce and Capitel Foscarino, are high on south-facing hillsides, far from the alluvial plains disparaged in The Oxford Companion. And the wines are entirely or almost entirely Garganega, with no bland Trebbiano to intrude.

Garganega, according to The Oxford Companion, “can produce fine, delicate whites redolent of lemon and almonds which give Soave a good name.” But Garganega reaches its potential only in the Soave Classico zone (in hillside vineyards), “with yields kept well in check, and where it is allowed to ripen fully.” Anselmi is doing everything right, by the sound of things, and his care is reflected in his compelling wines.

We started with the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Foscarino, a blend of 90% Garganega and 10% Chardonnay from a vineyard composed mostly of volcanic tuff. The aroma had notes of grapefruit and minerals, and Barrett detected some peach. It tasted tart, but the smooth fruit and ample minerality kept things well in balance — a delicious combination. The acids ensured that this wine paired well with our appetizer.

Barrett liked the Foscarino best, but my favorite was the 2013 Anselmi Capitel Croce. This 100% Garganega comes from a vineyard with more limestone in the soil, which clearly affected the flavor. It had a sweeter aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

A quick internet search revealed that the Foscarino costs around $19-$22, and the Croce runs for $21-$25 (Barrett provided the samples to me free of charge). At these prices, such perfectly balanced and carefully crafted wines are an excellent value. I rarely pay more than $20 for a bottle, but these single-vineyard Super Soaves are now on my short list.

The Unusual Reds Of El Enemigo

26 November 2014

El EnemigoTwenty years ago, the wines of Argentina barely made a ripple on the vinous seismograph. Now that quality has dramatically improved, wine store shelves heave with bottles from this South American nation, and Malbec, formerly just an obscure Bordeaux blending grape, reigns as its signature variety.

But Malbec, as you might expect, is not the whole story. Lettie Teague recently praised the Cabernet Sauvignons of Mendoza in this Wall Street Journal article, and indeed, I sampled several beautifully fruity and focused Argentinean Cabernets at a recent tasting at Chicago’s Public Hotel. A well-balanced 2013 Tilia tasted fresh, ripe and spicy, and Catena Zapata, Argentina’s most storied winery, presented two big and lush Cabernet varietals and two wonderfully elegant Cabernet-based blends.

The winemaker of Catena Zapata, Alejandro Vigil, started his own project together with Adrianna Catena, focusing on “smaller varietals in Mendoza,” according to the press materials I received. They named this side label “El Enemigo,” which refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung, who manned the tasting table. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc is another variety frequently used in Bordeaux blends, and it is the dominant grape in the Loire’s red Chinon wines. I’ve also tried it from all sorts of other regions around the world, and Cabernet Franc makes a mean varietal in New Mexico and Virginia, oddly enough. But as far as I can remember, I’d never tried any Cabernet Franc-based blends from South America. The trouble with this grape is that it can sometimes take on some vegetal character, with potentially off-putting notes of green pepper. But that wasn’t a problem here. El Enemigo’s wines proved to be thoroughly ripe and vegetable-free:

2011 Cabernet Franc: This blend of 92% Cabernet Franc and 8% Malbec takes on a beautiful magenta hue, because the high altitude and cool climate of the Gualtallary vineyard from which it’s sourced cause the grapes to develop especially thick skins. A big and cheerful wine, with ripe fruit, bright acids and supple tannins.

2010 Gran Enemigo: Vigil seeks to emulate “the old Pomerol style,” according to the Enemigo website, with this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. I can’t afford to drink Pomerol with any frequency, so I can’t compare this effort to its French inspiration. But if this wine is any indication of the character of Pomerol, I might have to splurge once in a while. It had a fresh, raisiny aroma and loads of red fruit, with big and focused white pepper spice. The finish went on and on. A delight.

 2010 Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard: Here Vigil forgoes Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, blending 85% Cabernet Franc with 15% Malbec. Again, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.

2010 Gran Enemigo Agrelo Single Vineyard: This wine combines Cabernet Franc and Malbec in the same proportions as the Gualtallary Single Vineyard, but because of the Agrelo vineyard’s lower altitude, it has a noticeably different character. It had notes of creamy red fruit, and it displayed impressively elegant restraint despite its obvious power. Very classy.

2011 Malbec: I did succumb to a traditional Malbec as well, and I’m glad I did. A gorgeous violet color, it smelled of perfumed dark fruit. It tasted big and beautiful, with the traditional dark cassis (currant) flavor, black pepper spice and some soft tannins on the finish. This Malbec, blended with 6% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, served as a reminder of what makes Argentina’s signature grape so wildly popular.

These wines aren’t especially inexpensive, nor are they all that easy to find (online retailers are the best bet). But if you’re looking for a nice gift for a creative wine lover in your life — someone who just needs to vanquish those enemies within in order to do something amazing — any of the above would be a fine choice.

The 100 Best Wines Of Slovakia

15 November 2014

Slovak Cabernet in the Arcadia HotelFor most people, the words “Slovak wine” do not inspire visions of grand châteaux or even charming tasting rooms. Slovak wine is not something most of us (any of us?) seek out. When I mention to friends that I did a tasting of Slovak wine, they usually respond uncertainly, carefully — as if they’re about to be the butt of a joke. And who can blame them?

My older wine reference books have few kind words for the wines of Slovakia. The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine minces no words: “When [Slovakia] voted to split from the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, it failed to privatize its wine industry successfully.” The 2007 edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is even less encouraging: “Most Slovakian wine is classified as lowly table wine, which would be a good thing if this were the result of a quality-conscious culling of the total production to produce stunning quality top wines, but that is not the case — the wines are naturally of a dismal quality.”

Slovakia hadn’t achieved widespread vinous acclaim even before the communists took over, and when they did, “centralized processing… obscured whatever local reputations there were and cast a gray shadow over any individual efforts, as the vineyards were replanted high and wide for mass production,” Sotheby’s explains.

And even if, for some reason, we still wanted to drink Slovak wine, we wouldn’t be able to find any. Almost the entire production is consumed within Slovakia, except for a small amount exported to Poland and the Czech Republic. Nor does it help that the total vineyard area in Slovakia fell from about 62,000 acres to just 35,000 acres as of 2002, according to the Oxford Companion.

But now, something is happening in Slovakia. “Progress — bringing, for example, malolactic fermentation, oak aging and lees contact — is changing the picture,” my 2013 edition of The World Atlas of Wine declares. Winemakers are experimenting with an array of unusual crossings bred to “ripen early with high sugar levels and full flavors,” so that vineyards are less at risk for frost, the Atlas continues. There are still a handful of industrial-sized producers, the Atlas explains, and plenty of tiny winemakers who consume all they make. The real action is with medium-sized producers, which have the budget for higher-quality equipment and talent.

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado (right) in the Národný Salón Vín

But really, are Slovak wines any good, even with the progress that’s been made? On a recent stay in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, I visited the Národný Salón Vín to find out. This cellar in a rococo palace assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings. If fine wine is being made in Slovakia, this was the place to find it.

Find it I did. I sampled a broad cross-section of wines — white, rosé and red — from a range of different winemaking regions. Some of them were simply well-crafted and delicious, but many of them were truly surprising and unusual and even compelling. Nothing about any of the wines said “centralized processing.”

2012 Skovajsa Veltlínske Zelené: This Grüner Veltliner had a fresh, spring-like aroma with notes of white flowers and fresh-cut grass. Its juicy and focused acids would surely work well with food.

2011 Janoušek Rizling Rýnsky: Located northeast of Bratislava, the Janoušek winery produced this charming Riesling, which had a powerfully spicy aroma undergirded by something savory. It exhibited ripely sweet fruit, broad lemony acids and a touch of something floral on the finish.

2012 Juraj Zápražný Pinot Gris: What a delight. Like the Riesling above, this wine comes from the Južnoslovenská region, which is surprisingly “warm and sunny,” according to Sotheby’s. The wine had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance. I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere.

2012 Vins Winery Devín: Devín is a relatively new grape variety developed for the Slovak terroir, a crossing of Roter Veltliner and Gewürztraminer. It had a completely unexpected aroma of roses and black pepper. Floral overtones continued on the palate, which had notable spice and a pop of sweet fruit, followed by a dry finish. If you like Viognier, you’ll probably like Devín.

IMG_83192012 Modra Elesko Petit Merle Rosé: A beautiful watermelon color, this rosé of Merlot had everything I like in a pink wine — ripe strawberry fruit, a perk of white pepper and some chalky minerals on the finish. Fruity, but well-balanced and dry. This is what I would bring to a picnic on the bank of the Danube.

2012 Dubovský & Grančič Dunaj: Named after the Danube River, Dunaj is a red crossing of Muscat Bouchet, Portugieser and St. Laurent (called Muškát Bouchet, Oporto and Svätovavrinecké in Slovak). A lovely dark magenta color, this wine had aromas of deep raspberry jam. I loved its round, ripe fruit, elegant tannins and spicy black-pepper finish. Focused and powerful, this wine would likely please fans of Zinfandel.

2009 Michal Sadloň Svätovavřinecké: Svätovavřinecké is better known (and more easily pronounced) as St. Laurent, a grape variety capable of making some truly sexy red wines. This expression had a tight, savory aroma marked by earth and green wood. On the palate, its red fruit was mixed with notes of vanilla, tobacco and green peppercorn spice. Controlled, velvety, and indeed rather sultry.

Bratislava

Bratislava

2012 Modra Elesko Rosa: Another uniquely Slovak grape, Rosa is a new crossing of Picpoul Noir, Blaufränkisch (Lemberger) and Gewürztraminer. The resulting wine is, as you might expect, quite unusual. Although it’s a clear cherry red, it has a highly perfumed nose redolent of heady flowers like lilacs and lily of the valley. Smelled with my eyes closed, I would have guessed it was white! Its cherry blossom flavor focused into a dry finish, which, along with some subtle spice, helped it to maintain balance. If dry, floral whites are what you typically enjoy, this is the red for you.

As I said, you’re almost certainly not going to find any of these wines unless you go to Slovakia.* Which is something I highly recommend you do. Bratislava is an absolutely enchanting city, and it’s only an hour by car, train or river ferry from Vienna. Stroll its pedestrianized old quarter, dine in the retro-futuristic UFO restaurant perched above the Danube, and visit Národný Salón Vín. That’s the best place to discover the exciting and delightfully unusual wines now being crafted in Slovakia.

*Centeur Imports will soon be bringing some Slovak wines to New Hampshire, and then hopefully the rest of the U.S. See the comments below.

Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

Oriol Gual of Juve y CampsIt is unquestionably celebratory to hear that most beautiful of all sounds, that of a cork pop, and bubbly deserves its status as the most festive of all wines. Prosecco appears at parties more frequently now, and Champagne corks whiz through the air on New Year’s Eve. But considering all we Americans have to celebrate, we serve sparkling wine relatively rarely. This is an error.

First, sparkling wine goes well with such a wide variety of foods, it’s quite difficult to screw up a pairing. When in doubt, go with the bubbles. Second, guests love sparkling wine, regardless of the occasion for their visit. It makes them feel special. Third, it can be a fantastic value for the money. It’s not affordable for most of us to drink Champagne any time we feel like it, but there are plenty of other fine sparkling wines available for weeknight prices. Cava is one of them.

I recently tried six superb Cavas produced by Juvé y Camps, which, according to the promotional materials I received, uses fruit only from its own vineyards (most Cava producers, like those in Champagne, buy fruit from independent growers). Juvé y Camps also hand-riddles all its bottles, a labor-intensive process now performed by machines in most wineries, and it uses free-run juice, collected without pressing the grapes. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, free-run juice “is generally superior to, and much lower in tannins than, juice or wine whose extraction depends on pressing.”

In the 2007 Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, author Tom Stevenson is more than usually grumpy about Juvé y Camps, writing, “I have failed to discern any of the intrinsically superior qualities in these wines that some Cava-infatuated critics have found. However, I do hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the wines of this respected, traditional family firm.” I’m no Cava-infatuated critic — I rarely buy them, as a matter of fact, because I (rightly or wrongly) associate Cava with large bubbles. But I thought Juvé y Camps’ Cavas were quite delicious and elegant, whatever Mr. Stevenson has to say.

2010 Reserva de la Familia: You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky; as Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.” Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

2009 Gran Juvé Reserva Brut: Aged 60 months on the lees and made only in the best vintages, this Cava includes the unorthodox variety of Chardonnay in with the traditional Spanish blend. It felt very classy, with a toasty, citrusy aroma, sharp bubbles, and a dry but perfumed quality — there were notes of orange flowers and stone fruits. Delicious and refined.

2010 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva: Unusually for a Cava, or any sparkling wine, for that matter, this bottling blends 90% Pinot Noir with 10% Xarel·lo (Cava producers have been experimenting with the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in recent years). This romantic sparkler had a tight aroma of candied berries, or as one fellow taster exclaimed, “It’s like that dust in straws!” (he meant Pixy Stix). Spicy but elegant, it had tiny, pointy bubbles, some subtle red-fruit undertones and chalk on the finish.

NV Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir had a lovely watermelon color and aromas of berries and orange zest. It was fruity but dry, with orangey acids and very small, classy bubbles. An excellent choice for date night — I could easily picture snuggling up by the fireplace with this one.

NV Juvé Sweet: During my time at the Juvé y Camps tasting table, several people expressed skepticism about this Cava. A lot of experienced wine drinkers look down on sweeter wines, regarding them as uninteresting or simply for amateurs. They may be unfashionable, but by ignoring them, you deny yourself an entire range of beautiful and well-balanced wines. In this case, I enjoyed Juvé Sweet’s fresh, cheerful aromas of white fruits, and its sweet but non-cloying character. It had balanced acids, a bit of perfume and small, refined bubbles. This Cava would make an excellent aperitif — it’s a more sophisticated alternative to Moscato d’Asti.

Many of these wines cost far less than you might expect, considering the quality and the labor required to craft them. Binny’s, for example, sells the Reserva de la Familia and the Brut Rosé for $15 a bottle. I think that’s cause for some celebration.

Unusual Australian Shiraz

31 October 2014

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier L Block ShirazMy first instinct, when offered two complimentary samples of some Australian Shiraz, was to decline them. Australian Shiraz is one of the least unusual wines I can think of, right up there with Napa Cabernet. But these were from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, and that winery’s 2012 Shiraz-Viognier ranked among my Top Red Wines of 2013. Just as important in my decision to write about the samples, these Shirazes weren’t from one of Australia’s more well-known wine regions. They came from Pyrenees.

I think of “the Pyrenees” as the rugged mountain range dividing Spain and France, but it is also “the (ironic?) name of the rolling landscape to the east of the Grampians” in Victoria not far from Melbourne, as The World Atlas of Wine explains. “Formerly known as the Avoca district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Pyrenees is “…red-wine country, making wines of a distinctive and attractive minty character.” The Oxford Companion to Wine is even more complimentary of the region, arguing that “The Pyrenees on the eastern side can provide Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as sumptuous as that of Heathcote or Bendigo…”

Acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier visited the area in 1998, and he was immediately taken with a certain undeveloped stretch of land that received ample sunlight mitigated by cool breezes. Already in a beneficial business relationship with Anthony Terlato, Chapoutier telephoned him, exclaimed something to the effect of, “You gotta see this!” and exhorted Mr. Terlato to get on the next plane to Australia, as Liz Barrett, Terlato’s Vice President of PR, related to me over a recent dinner. Anthony’s son Bill flew down, and Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier was born.

Over the next two years, they planted mostly Shiraz in what became known as the Malakoff vineyard. Notably, these vines grow on their own ungrafted rootstock, since Pyrenees is unafflicted by phylloxera. This destructive louse requires most of the world’s vineyards to be planted on American rootstocks, making the Malakoff vineyard unusual indeed.

Barrett and I tasted two of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier’s wines over a delicious steak dinner at Chicago’s Tango Sur, and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to the beef. First, we tried the 2011 Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz which runs about $50 a bottle. It smelled of deeply dark fruit, and there was a meatiness to the aroma. Barrett exclaimed, “Raisinettes!” and she was quite right. This is a masculine, muscular wine with ample ripe fruit, lots of black pepper spice and some underlying freshness, all under very tight control. That control is what elevates this wine above many other Australian Shirazes I’ve tasted, and justifies the price tag.

We also sampled the 2009 L Block Shiraz, named for a certain L-shaped section of the vineyard with more slate and iron in the soil. It smelled big, deep and juicy, with notes of hearty black cherries. Barrett took a sip and remarked, “It’s a he-wine,” and indeed, there was something masculine about this Shiraz as well. It had ripe raspberry-jam fruit, black pepper spice, strong but supple tannins and raisins on the finish. It was big and ripe but wonderfully light on its feet, with a lively mouthfeel. I could see why this wine fetches around $60 a bottle.

If you’re planning a special dinner for your partner, or just want a really beautiful wine to cozy up with on a chilly autumn evening, either of these unusual Shirazes would be an excellent choice. If $50 is beyond your budget, opt for the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier instead. For about $18, it’s one of the best red-wine values available anywhere.

A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient, Rare And Californian

11 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. That’s exactly how I remember it.

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