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.

Monastrell: The Wild, Rich Red Of Jumilla

20 May 2016

Juan Gil Conoloco and Silver LabelWhen I visit my Aunt Hannah, it’s easy to choose a wine to bring. She loves Ivanović Prokupac from Serbia, and — a little easier to find — Juan Gil’s Silver Label Monastrell from Jumilla. The latter, a Spanish red, remains relatively unknown in the United States, a fact which baffles me. Well-made Monastrell has such rich fruit and hearty character, it should be a perfect fit for the stereotypical American palate. And just as important, it usually offers a fantastic flavor-to-price ratio. Binny’s, for example, sells the Juan Gil Silver Label for $14.

I suspect the obscurity of Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France) has something to do with the fact that its home base in southeastern Spain produced “lackluster” wines until only recently, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, noting that “Wine is still made that is deliberately strong and sweet, but the best can compete with ‘premium’ super-ripe reds from California and Australia.” Fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz, if you’re looking for something new, Monastrell from Jumilla may be just the thing.

Like Salta in Argentina, Jumilla has an arid climate, a large day/night temperature differential and a relatively high altitude (Juan Gil’s vines grow between 2,300 and 2,800 feet). As a result, the vineyards tend to have low yields and the grapes tend to be thick-skinned, producing concentrated, aromatic and rather tannic reds, often with high alcohol levels. In other words, these wines are big.

And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Monastrell has “…a somewhat gamey, almost animal flavour when young.” That sounds problematic, but in the right hands, that “animal” quality turns into an appealing savory undertone akin to grilled meat, smoke or even bacon, adding complexity to the wine.

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

I had an opportunity to experience the full potential of Monastrell at a recent tasting hosted by Juan Gil in Chicago. The wines ranged in price from $8 a bottle into the triple digits, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. That said, exercise caution with bargain-priced Monastrell. I once had a harrowing experience with $9 Bodegas Volver “Wrongo Dongo” Monastrell, for example, though the resulting puns that flew around the table were some consolation. When in doubt, stick to Monastrell that costs $12 and up.

2014 Honoro Vera Monastrell: This entry-level Monastrell typically sells for less than $10 a bottle, but it tastes more expensive. It has taut and ripe red fruit, a savory undertone, some forceful white-pepper spice and a tannic finish. It all seemed in balance, and my goodness, what a value for the money.

2014 Honoro Vera Organic Monastrell: Surprisingly, the organic version of this wine sells for the same price (Binny’s sells both for $8 a bottle). It tastes different from the other Honoro Vera — it smells heartier, with more of a hint of meat and funk. Full of raspberry jam, it starts with a refined mouthfeel and builds to a big, rather rustic finish. Again, it’s a superlative value.

2014 Orowines “Comoloco” Monastrell: Juan Gil also owns Orowines, which produces another remarkably inexpensive Monastrell (Binny’s sells it for $8 a bottle). This example sees no wood, and though stainless steel highlights pure Monastrell fruit, I prefer a touch of oak. The wine smelled of dark red fruit and black pepper, and its fruit felt pleasingly fresh. The savory note and spice were both there, but I missed something in the midsection. Even so, considering the price, you’re still getting a lot of flavor for the money.

Juan Gil's 100th anniversary cake

Juan Gil’s 100th anniversary cake

2013 Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell: Aged 12 months in French oak, this wine costs more (about $14), but for that money, you’re getting a richer, darker wine, with no absence in the midsection. For years, the Silver Label has been one of my go-to reds.

2013 Juan Gil 18: If you have between $25 and $30 to spend, spend it on this. The 18 is a blend of 60% old-vine Monastrell, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah, all aged 18 months in French and American oak. The dark, rich aroma seduces immediately, and any Parkerized American will love the big, jammy fruit. A shaft of spice shoots right through it, keeping the wine balanced, and I loved the green tobacco note on the finish. This is a gorgeous wine, and a great value even at $30.

2013 Juan Gil “Aniversario” 100: Created for Juan Gil’s centennial, the “Aniversario” blends 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet and 25% Syrah, and it sells for just a bit more than the 18 (if you can find it). It sees El Nido Clio23 months in French and American oak, and it’s big, dark and rich. The fruit feels opulent but tightly controlled, and the focused spice keeps going and going. The wine slowly unfolds, growing and developing to a big finish of spice and fine-grained tannins. This is a delicious, elegant and powerful wine, but if I had the choice between the 100 and the 18, I would pick the 18.

2013 Bodegas El Nido “Clio”: Juan Gil also owns El Nido winery, a “…partnership between the Gil family and Chris Ringland, one of Australia’s best winemakers,” according to El Nido’s website. The Monastrell vines are “very old… almost centenarians,” and they produce some incredible fruit. This blend of 70% Monastrell and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon sees between 22 and 26 months in oak, and it was my favorite wine of the entire tasting. It had an aroma of rich, dark, almost jammy fruit, in the range of black cherries and plums. On the palate, the fruit felt sumptuously lush and clear, with a laser beam of white pepper spice streaming through it. The tannins on the finish were big but very refined. Binny’s sells the “Clio” for $40, and it’s worth every penny. A wine like this from Napa would easily be twice the price.

Torrontés Reconsidered

7 May 2016
Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

I had my last glass of Torrontés about 10 years ago. A cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Mission (Criolla Chica), the signature white wine of Argentina, as I remembered it, felt a little off-kilter. I recalled an overabundance of flowers and a rather bitter note on the dry finish. It lacked balance. And though Torrontés may be much more obscure than Chardonnay, with so many delicious Chardonnays now coming out of Mendoza, it seemed foolish to opt for a Torrontés instead.

On my recent trip to Salta and Cafayate, I had little choice. Even the “wine bar” in my resort offered only one still white wine by the glass: Torrontés from the surrounding estate. In the high-altitude vineyards here in the Calchaquí Valley, Torrontés has few white competitors.

Vineyards at Piattelli

Vineyards at Piattelli

Seeing the actual vineyards didn’t fill me with confidence, I must admit. Although scenically spectacular, with a backdrop of rugged mountains in every direction, the sandy vineyards are home not only to grapevines, but the occasional cactus as well! Vines are supposed to have to suffer to produce great wine, but this seemed a bit extreme.

Nevertheless, the conditions in the Calchaquí Valley can foster wines that are truly world-class. Vineyards receive some 300 days of sun each year, and as I can attest, the winds blowing through the valley ensure that the grapes remain free of mold, mildew and fungus. Elevation is an even more important consideration, as The Oxford Companion to Wine 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.

I certainly tasted no shortage of sensational Malbecs, as well as the occasional superb Bordeaux-style blend. They were rich, ripe and sometimes even chewy, with lush fruit, velvety tannins and frequently impressive focus. If you have yet to taste a red wine from Cafayate (Salta), I encourage you to set aside your other plans and drink one immediately.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

But I couldn’t keep eating beef at every meal, and I didn’t want to drink a rich, chewy Malbec with a dish of local trout. I finally capitulated and ordered a glass of Torrontés. I was in the restaurant of the House of Jasmines, a Relais & Chateaux member which should theoretically have a restaurant of high quality. It was with some surprise, then, when I saw the waiter bring over a bottle of Torrontés with “16/4” written in pen on the label. I realized that those numbers indicated the date the wine bottle was opened, which meant that it was a week old! I requested that he uncork a fresh bottle.

The food at House of Jasmines matched the service in its mediocrity, but the (newly opened) Torrontés was a delight. The 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Torrontés had a clean, crisp and exotically spicy aroma. The pear/apple fruit tasted ripe and taut, and I appreciated the ample lemon/lime acids, which were followed by some gingery spice. It felt quite balanced, this Torrontés — it wasn’t at all the flower bomb I feared.

Piattelli's winery and restaurant in Cafayate

Piattelli’s winery and restaurant

Nor were any of the other Torrontéses I tried. The organic 2015 Nanni Torrontés had delicious melony fruit undergirded by zesty acids and more of that fine gingery spice. An unusual 2015 Amalaya “Blanco Dulce de Corte” Torrontés/Riesling blend had notes of sweet corn and hay, forceful orangey acids and a surprisingly dry, ethereal finish. And a fresh 2015 Piattelli Torrontés Reserve had wonderfully round fruit shot through with sharp acids and warm white-pepper spice.

I had a chance to chat with the winemaker of Piattelli, Alejandro Nesman, shortly after I tried his Torrontés. I mentioned how I barely recognized the examples of Torrontés, I tried, such was the leap in quality. He told me that things really started to change in Cafayate only recently. “That [high-quality] Torrontés started five years ago,” he said.

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

The last winery I visited was El Porvenir, where I had the chance to sample the 2016 vintage straight from the fermentation tank. Still cloudy, it felt rather rowdy and rough, but the component parts — tropical fruit, racy acidity, sharp spice and floral overtones — were all there.

But the wine I’ll never forget was the 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Oak-Fermented Torrontés. Unlike the similar wine I had at House of Jasmines, this Torrontés ferments for one month in oak barrels. It had a huge aroma of both flowers and buttery oak. “I’ve never smelled anything quite like it,” I exclaimed.

“It’s very strange,” the export manager remarked, with admirable candor. The flavor was absolutely fascinating — a combination of tropical fruit, butter, cream, flowers and green peppercorn spice. I really liked it. Who would have ever guessed that you could successfully oak Torrontés?

Vineyards in SaltaSomething truly exciting is happening in Cafayate. If you have long ignored wines from Salta and the Calchaquí Valley, as I have, consider giving them another try. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottle for more than $30, and most retail for $15 or less. They’re fantastic values for the money. They’re making great wine in those sandy, cactus-riddled vineyards, and I have a feeling that it won’t remain under the radar for much longer.

Legui: Argentina’s Best Digestif

24 April 2016

La Esquina de MertiAfter traveling in Argentina for a week or so, finding luscious Malbecs seemingly on every street corner, I began to wonder what sort of liquors the country produced. It was around this time I found myself in the town of San Antonio de Areco, a center of gaucho culture about 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires. This town did not strike me as a place to order a glass of wine.

I strode into an atmospheric bar called La Esquina de Merti, with art nouveau display cases along the walls and shelves laden with ancient bottles of unfamiliar spirits. It probably would have felt touristy in another town, but here, it was exactly what I was looking for.

Behind the bar, I spotted a shelf of local-looking spirits. “Esta licores — esta licores Argentinos?” I asked in my not-very-good Spanish. “Que me recomienda… una licores Argentinos?” The bartender looked a little puzzled. I pointed to a promising-looking bottle. “Esta Legui… Esta bien? Recomienda esta?” She said something that sounded very positive. “Bien. Uh, bebida esta con hielo? No? Solo? OK — perfecto. Una Legui, porfavor.”

LeguiShe somehow managed to understand me and served me quite a large shot of Legui, which is named after a notable jockey, Irenaeus Leguizamo. He won, according to this website, some 3,200 races in Argentina and he ranks among the greatest jockeys in history. Legui, it turned out, was the perfect drink to try in this center of Argentine horse culture.

I took a sniff, and I can’t deny that I recoiled. This liqueur of herb-infused alcohol and sugar reminded me of cough syrup, a certain yellow cough syrup that disgusted me in my youth. And indeed, it had the same yellow-green hue. I might charitably describe the aroma as herbaceous and bitter, with a note of anise. With great reluctance, I took a sip.

The Legui started sweet, moving on to cinnamon spice and green peppercorn. There was little bitterness; in fact, it tasted quite balanced. And because it has only 29.9 percent alcohol, I felt little alcoholic burn. Indeed, drinking it felt quite soothing.

If, after dinner in Argentina, you’re looking for a digestif — and after the uninterrupted meat parade I’ve experienced here, I certainly was — Legui is the liqueur to order. It doesn’t seem to be available in the United States, according to Wine Searcher, but in Argentina, it’s certainly worth seeking out.

And don’t worry about trying to down it like a shot. The cowboys here wear berets, after all, so you can feel free to drink your Legui in civilized sips.

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

A Tasting Of Trump

1 April 2016

Trump Winery EntranceWith the presidential primaries in full swing, I decided to pay a visit to the Trump Winery in Albemarle County, Virginia. I’ve written before about Virginia wines, and I had high hopes that the wines of Trump would display the same finesse and elegance with which he has run his campaign.

I tasted a range of unusual cuvées during my visit:

Great Wall Blanc de Blancs: As you may have surmised from the name, this sparkling wine contains only white grapes. I found it to be bland and lacking in complexity, but a surprising number of people in the tasting room seemed really excited about it. This wine is not a collaboration with Great Wall Winery in China, which manipulates its grapes in an unfair way according to Tiffany, who was pouring the wines. The locally grown grapes were in fact funded by Mexico, though she couldn’t explain why they would do such a thing.

Aloha Blanc: Trump bucks conventional wisdom with this wine, making it with pineapple instead of grapes. Tiffany confided that although the label states in no uncertain terms that the pineapple used in the wine comes from Hawaii, it actually comes from Kenya.

Trump Winery tasting room

Tasting room at the Trump Winery

Mexican Red Blend: Another collaboration with Mexico, this lively wine includes too many grape varieties to list here. It tasted multi-layered and rich, and it struck me as an excellent value. I was therefore surprised to hear Tiffany tell me that Mexico didn’t send its best grapes. “They have lots of problems, and they’re bringing the problems to the wine,” she explained. I responded that I actually quite liked the blend, and she admitted, “Well, some of the grapes, I assume, are good.”

Good Brain Grenache: “This wine says a lot of things,” Tiffany explained enigmatically as she poured. I looked forward to tasting something nuanced and well-structured, but it tasted underripe and overly aggressive. The mid-section sagged. Even so, the finish, by some strange circumstance, was very strong. I certainly wouldn’t purchase this wine, but I saw a number of people in the tasting room gulping it down and begging for more.

Muslim Terroir Blend: Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to try this wine. It seems a small minority of the bottles were labeled “Terror” instead of “Terroir.” Instead of sorting those out, Trump Winery decided to turn away the entire shipment. Previous vintages that did make it into the U.S. are being rounded up and interned in secure offsite cellars.

Five-Year-Old Tawny Port “Cooper Cuvée”: I took a sip of this last wine and remarked, “With all due respect, it seems awfully young, doesn’t it?” Tiffany retorted, “No it’s not!”

April Fools! To read about what the wines of Trump Winery actually taste like, click here. And to read my scathing review of The Terrace at the Trump, a restaurant in the Trump Hotel Chicago, click here.

Czech Wine: An Unpronounceable Delight

24 March 2016

Duck and St. Laurent at U Modre KachnickyIt wasn’t until my third visit to Prague that I tried my first glass of Czech wine. That is partially because in 1998, when I first set foot in this jewel of a Central European city, the country’s wineries had yet to shake off the depredations of communism. And it’s partially because large glasses of local beer could be had for about a quarter.

By the time of my latest visit in 2007, the city had been overrun by British stag parties, beers cost $5, and sizeable sections of restaurant wine lists were devoted to Czech bottlings. We had our first dinner of the trip at the atmospheric U Modré Kachničky (The Blue Duck), in the relatively quiet Malá Strana neighborhood on the castle side of the river. I ordered duck in plum brandy sauce with potato pancakes, and after consulting with the waiter, a glass of Svatovavřinecké to pair with it. I memorialized the meal with the blurry photo to the right.

I still can’t pronounce Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent), but I remember that dinner — the worn frescoes of wisteria glimmering in the candlelight, the savory duck with crispy skin, the surprisingly rich St. Laurent. Moments like that stay with me.

It will doubtless surprise some readers that the Czech Republic makes wine, let alone wine of quality. Most of its best vineyards are in Moravia, immediately north of Austria’s Weinviertel. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Because of their position north of the Danube, most of the slopes face south and are protected by higher land in the north.” And just as important, “Winemaking techniques have fully recovered from the communist era,” the Companion goes on to say.

That’s all well and good, but quality aside, it remains quite difficult to find Czech wine outside the country, as The World Atlas of Wine notes: “Little [Czech wine] is exported yet, but the potential is there.” Very, very little Czech wine crosses the Atlantic. I never spotted one until about a year ago.

Vino z Czech St. Laurent by Vino MarcincakI was browsing the egregiously disorganized wine section of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, which never fails to irritate me. But sometimes I unearth a gem before my patience wears out. As my eye drifted along the jumble of wines on the shelves, a label with an Alphonse Mucha print caught my attention. “Vino z Czech” were the words beneath, and for the first time since 2007, I found myself purchasing a Czech wine.

I assumed Vino z Czech, which translates as “Wine from the Czech Republic,” was the rather uncreative name of the winemaker. It actually encompasses an entire collection of wines made by different Moravian vintners and assembled by Czech Wine Imports for sale in the United States. “Most of these wines are from small wineries,” according to the Vino z Czech website. “Annual production of our varieties range from 180 cases to just under 2200 cases.”

This particular wine, a 2006 St. Laurent, comes from Vino Marcinčák, the Czech Republic’s largest organic winery, headquartered in the Mikulov region of Moravia. Its vineyards “…have excellent locations in the warmest region of the Czech Republic,” if Vino Marcinčák’s website is to be believed, and the winery seeks to produce “…wines with character, intended for the most discriminating wine lovers.”

It all sounded very promising, but I did have some concern that this 10-year-old wine might be past its prime. The Oxford Companion asserts that St. Laurent is “…capable of producing deep-coloured, velvety reds with sufficient concentration — provided yields are limited — to merit ageing in oak and then bottle.” Even so, I poured a glass for myself with more hope than confidence.

Before my nose arrived at the rim of the glass, I could detect the wine’s enticingly dark, purplish aroma. I loved the generous fruit flavors of plum and prune, overlayed with a floral, violet note. The wine moved from cool, dark fruit to rather rustic acids, which morphed into a low-grade but lengthy hum of white-pepper spice. There was a pleasant duskiness throughout, likely because of its age.

My husband decided not to drink that evening, and I managed to finish only half the bottle. I used some inert gas in an attempt to prolong the wine’s life, and put it in the fridge. Two days later, it was time to cook Sunday dinner, and I uncorked the bottle, fully expecting the fruit and acids of this decade-old codger to have flattened or disappeared altogether. It was quite a shock, then, when I took a sip and found the wine to be perfectly lively. I happily finished off the other half of the bottle as we prepared some white bean soup with kale and kielbasa. For $17, this wine struck me as a very fine value.

You won’t find Czech wine in most wine shops, regardless of the extent of their selection. But Vino z Czech does distribute its wines in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Texas and Illinois (see a full list of stores and restaurants here). If you live in one of these states, by all means, visit an establishment that sells these wines and try one out.

And if you go to Prague, which I still recommend doing in spite of the crowds, don’t limit yourself to beer, as I did on my first two visits. The local wines may be difficult to pronounce, but they certainly aren’t difficult to enjoy.

If you prefer cocktails, this Czech concoction is one of my favorites.

Cocktails In Belize

12 March 2016
A "Spicy Mayan" cocktail at Belcampo Belize

A “Spicy Mayan” cocktail at Belcampo Belize

I must admit that I didn’t expect to enjoy much fine drinking in Belize. I knew the country made rum, and, for better or worse, cashew wine, but that certainly wasn’t the reason I visited. What drew me was the uncrowded Mayan ruins and sensational snorkeling. I didn’t have hopes of finding unique craft cocktails in remote jungle lodges.

Nevertheless, there they were:


My first stop in the country was Belcampo Belize, a jungle lodge near the coast with a very creative barman, Tim. He created the best thing I drink in all of Belize, the “Spicy Mayan.” Fortunately, Tim put a lot more thought into the cocktail itself than he did the name. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it.

First, he muddled some fresh allspice leaves in a shaker, releasing their oils. Ancient Mayans, a guide told me, used to chew allspice leaves in order to numb their mouths before dentists embellished their teeth with jade dots or performed other dental procedures. I tried chewing an allspice leaf, and while I did notice a numbing sensation, the leaf did not strike me as an adequate substitute for Novocaine. As a nibbled the leaf, my guide said something insane about ancient Mayans using molten jade to decorate their teeth, and I took a moment to heartily thank God for modern dentistry. But I digress.

Tim muddled several allspice leaves, shaking them with a mix of white rum, lime, simple syrup and Casa Mascia Apothecary Culantro Elixir, a liqueur made from cilantro’s wild cousin. The result, served over ice and garnished with an allspice leaf, had an inviting aroma of cilantro. Sour, sweet and herbaceous flavors balanced each other beautifully, and the slight numbing sensation of the allspice enhanced the cocktail’s general feeling of freshness. This drink, in short, was absolutely superb.

Watermelon Smash at Belcampo Belize


While staying at Belcampo Belize, I also tried a delightful Watermelon Smash. Fresh watermelon, I find, makes a delicious and versatile mixer, and I would love to see it used more often in U.S. cocktail bars. In this drink, it was combined with bourbon, fresh lime juice, mint and Peychaud’s Bitters. It was sweet, a little tart, and far too easy to drink. I rather loved it.

Planters Punch at Victoria House


My lunch at Victoria House, one of the most highly regarded properties on Ambergris Caye, was not a success. The seared grouper had obviously emerged straight from the freezer, not the sea, which is unconscionable considering that countless numbers of the fish swim along the reef within sight of the hotel. I played dumb and asked my waiter where the Victoria House got its grouper. Pointing to the ocean, he exclaimed, “Right there!” But he gave the game away when he continued, “We get it from local fishermen every Tuesday and Thursday.” (I dined there on a Sunday.)

Fortunately, my Planter’s Punch tasted much better than the bland, gummy fish on my plate. The bartender modified the standard recipe a bit, using both white and dark rum instead of just dark, and omitting the grenadine. I didn’t miss it, however. The drink tasted of pineapple tinged with a hint of molasses, and though it was fruity, it didn’t feel overly sweet. It was a pleasure to sip it as the palms along the beach swayed in the breeze.

Edward the Cucumber at Ka'ana


The photo above makes this unusually named cocktail look like something sent from heaven, but this drink was more of a taste of purgatory. I ordered it at Ka’ana, a jungle resort near the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich. It sounded perfectly lovely; the menu described it as a fairly straightforward mix of vodka, cucumber, mint, lime and ginger. But what should have been refreshing, cool and complex tasted almost unbearably tart, and when that flavor had finished bashing in my palate, some overbearing ginger spice gave it an extra kick for good measure.

My waitress confided that very few people actually like the drink. Who would? But why Edward the Cucumber continues to dishonor the menu with his presence remains a mystery.

Hibiscus Daiquiri at Ka'ana


Ka’ana’s bartender redeemed himself the next night with this cocktail, an attractive Hibiscus Daiquiri. A standard Daiquiri is one of the simplest and loveliest of cocktails, a perfect mix of rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Here, the bartender steeped fresh hibiscus flowers in hot water and used the resulting infusion to make the simple syrup. The drink tasted tart and sweetly rummy, as it should, and just a touch floral. Delicious.

Belize, it turns out, isn’t just good for ancient cities hidden in the jungle, or eye-popping coral reefs inhabited by purple sea fans, acid-green eels and turquoise parrot fish. The compact country has more than its fair share of bartenders mixing up superlative cocktails. And there’s something especially wonderful about sipping something as civilized as a well-crafted cocktail while surrounded by unspoiled nature.

The Central Coast’s Italian Side

6 March 2016

Mosby WinesI recently mentioned to a Los Angeles resident that I write a wine blog, to which she responded, “Oh, you must get out to California all the time!” But I don’t. The state produces no shortage of beautiful wines, but bottlings that qualify as unusual or obscure are a little harder to find.

That’s why it was with some excitement that I read an email from a wine marketer offering to send some samples from Mosby Winery, set in the Central Coast’s Santa Ynez Valley, not far from Santa Barbara. Many wineries in the area concentrate on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter made famous by the film “Sideways.” But Mosby, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia describes as “interesting” and “sometimes provocative,” focuses instead on a range of Italian grape varieties.

You might well wonder how grapes from sunny Italy could successfully grow near cool-climate Burgundian varieties, but Italy has its share of cool wine regions, too. Some of the country’s greatest wines come from northern areas like Piedmont and Alto Adige. Nor is the Santa Inez Valley a cool-climate monolith. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Although far from being the only schizophrenic AVA in California, the Santa Ynez Valley comes close to being the extreme case.” Parts of it grow Pinot Noir well, but other warmer sections, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are perfectly at home.

I had planned on cooking some sort of Italian feast to accompany the six wines I received, but I must admit my grand visions of fresh-made tagliatelle with porcini and osso buco with polenta never quite came to fruition. Instead, one of my tasting crew offered to bring a salad, and I ordered pizza. The food may have been simple, but the wines, by and large, proved delightful.

Mosby Cortese and Traminer2013 Mosby Cortese: According to the Oxford Companion, wine made from Cortese — most commonly Gavi from Piedmont — is, at its best, “clean and fresh.” This example had a heady, rather sweet nose of honeycrisp apple, but it tasted quite dry, its ripe fruit quickly overtaken by tight acids and a hint of something smoky or even burnt. Two friends immediately dismissed the wine, but a third taster defended it. “I like it,” he said, “but then, I like funky, Old World-style wines.” I rather do too. In any case, this wine needs food — I wouldn’t drink it on its own. With the salad of fennel, grapefruit, beets and goat cheese, it felt crisp, clean and balanced. $19

2014 Mosby Traminer: Many wine drinkers are familiar with Gewürztraminer, grown with particular success in the Alsace. Traminer is a clone of this famous variety, which quite possibly originated in the village of Tramin in Italy’s Südtirol/Alto Adige region. The Oxford Companion calls it “non-aromatic,” but this wine certainly couldn’t be classified as such. It smelled of white flowers, like lily of the valley or jasmine. The fruit felt lush on the tongue, but the wine was essentially dry, and it finished with a pop of spice. Dry, floral wines aren’t for everyone though, even when well-balanced, and the Traminer, like the Cortese, proved controversial among my tasting group. $20

2012 Mosby Dolcetto: This grape, which tends to produce relatively soft and fruity wines (“dolce” means “sweet” in Italian), grows most commonly in Piedmont. Dolcetto ripens early, and most Italians plant it in vineyards where other grapes don’t tend to reach maturity. But I have a feeling that Mosby’s Dolcetto grapes receive plenty of sun, because the red fruit flavors in this wine were delightfully rich, balanced by plenty of black pepper spice. Another taster exclaimed, “Asian salted plum!” and indeed, this wine had a pleasant saline note in its finish. The sausage-topped pizza tamed the black pepper notes, which had at first been too prominent for my taste. $28

2011 Mosby Teroldego: Unfamous Teroldego grows mostly in Trentino, a region in Italy’s far northeast near Slovenia. The Oxford Companion makes it sound like an Astor or Rockefeller of the wine world, describing it as an “old, well-connected grape variety.” In the hands of Mosby, it produced a wine universally popular with the group. “Teroldego is the winner so far,” one taster remarked, and I can’t deny that I loved this wine. It had an inviting aroma of dusky, dark cherries. The dark red and purple fruit flavors were very ripe and round, shot through with focused white pepper spice. Soft tannins gave the wine an elegant finish. Superb. $32

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

2011 Mosby “La Seduzione” Lagrein: Most commonly found in Alto Adige and Trentino, little-known Lagrein has quite the pedigree as well. According to the Oxford Companion, this grape is “a progeny of Teroldego, a grandchild of Pinot, and a cousin of Syrah.” That heritage qualifies as royalty in my vine peerage. The wine smelled of ripe dark fruit and mocha, and it tasted rich and full. Lots of up-front fruit gave way to a chocolate note and slow-building spice, with a finish of supple tannins and a raisin tone. It felt even bigger when paired with some pizza. I certainly was seduced by this thoroughly delicious wine, and I was left wondering why more people outside of northeastern Italy don’t produce it. $32

2011 Mosby Sagrantino: Mosby claims to have produced the first domestic Sagrantino in 2006, and the winery is surely still one of the very few outside of Umbria growing this variety. It appears mostly in wine from Montefalco, where “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication… is not high,” argues the Oxford Companion. But the variety “shows promise,” it says, and Mosby’s version illustrates that fact. The wine had an enticing, rather brooding aroma of dark fruit. It felt beautifully balanced, with ripe blueberry jam notes leavened with sharp, persistent spice, leading to a dry and softly tannic finish. $38

As evidenced by the polarized reactions of my friends, Mosby’s white wines aren’t for everyone. Buy them only if you’re a fan of Old World-style whites. The reds, however, were quite popular with everyone, including me. Mosby may be provocative, but its wines have real substance to back up their novelty.

Chianti Reconsidered

22 February 2016

Andrea Cecchi Chianti ClassicoFor many of us of a certain age, the word “Chianti” evokes fat bottles in straw baskets, bought not for the cheap wine inside so much as for the bottle, which made a great candle holder. Even today, that stereotype has yet to entirely disappear. Those in search of a great wine might pick up a Super Tuscan, perhaps, but I suspect fewer would look to a wine labeled Chianti Classico. Chianti may be Italy’s most famous wine region, but its name is not necessarily synonymous with fine wine.

The Italians have only themselves to blame for that, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the government updated the DOC regulations for Chianti Classico, the traditional heart of Chianti and the source of most of the region’s best wines. The bureaucrats of the time decided that the best way to promote the economic health of Chianti Classico was to increase the quantity of wine produced and sold. Quality was of secondary concern. Whereas regulations previously allowed a certain percentage of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes in the Sangiovese-based blend, now the rules required that the blend include 10 to 30 percent of the white grape juice. Fortunately, a number of growers decided to focus on quality instead, planting international varieties and selling what proved to be critically acclaimed (and expensive) wines as lowly Vino da Tavola.

The topsy-turvy situation was a bit of an embarrassment to regulators, of course, and finally in 1996, Chianti Classico became its own DOCG region as opposed to just a sub-region of Chianti. Yields were restricted, the required percentage of Sangiovese was increased, and the white-grape requirement was scrapped. But it wasn’t until 2006 — just ten years ago — that white grapes were banned from Chianti Classico, as the World Atlas of Wine explains.

Andrea Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di FamigliaI relate all this at length because I suspect that many people remain unaware of the recent changes in Chianti Classico. The wines now coming out of this region merit serious attention, a point that was driven home to me at a recent tasting with winemaker Andrea Cecchi.

I had expected to write only about his wines from Maremma, a region with far less fame than Chianti Classico, and therefore more appropriate for this blog dedicated to the unusual (you can read that post here). But the Chianti Classicos Andrea poured proved so surprisingly delicious, I felt bound to write about them.

His Chianti Classico is his winery’s best-seller in the United States, and after trying it, I can see why. A blend of 90% Sangiovese with the remainder composed of the traditional Colorino and Canaiolo varieties, the 2012 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($21) had a bright and cheerful aroma of red fruit, notably strawberries and cherries, and a hint of star anise. The wine filled my mouth with dark-red fruit, but like the other Cecchi wines I’d already tried, this Chianti Classico had distinct dryness to it. Some light spice in the middle led to some supple tannins on the finish. This was no rough-and-tumble Chianti. The wine had real elegance.

Those who prefer their wine with some oak should instead consider the 2009 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia ($41), which is produced only in favorable vintages. This wine, composed of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, sees 12 months of aging in barriques (small oak barrels). It smelled of fresh red fruit, but I also detected a raisin note in the aroma. The fruit felt really rich on my tongue, and thank goodness it did, because it had to balance the ample oak that followed. The tannins were wonderfully round, in spite of all that wood, and overall effect was quite refined. The oak notes made it an excellent pairing with some savory prosciutto, which also gave the fruit an extra shine.

Andrea Cecchi COEVOLast, Andrea poured the 2011 vintage of his Super Tuscan, a blend of 60% Sangiovese from Chianti and 20% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot from Maremma. The name, COEVO, which translates as “contemporary,” was chosen “because it conveys the value of time,” according to the tech sheet I received. I could tell from the aroma that this was a wine to be reckoned with. The deep, dark-fruit aroma had a striking freshness underneath, conveyed by a tobacco note.

I took a sip of the wine, and Andrea started saying something or other about it that was probably important, but I didn’t hear a word he said. It was just me and this absolutely gorgeous wine. The fruit was positively sumptuous — rich and round — and just enough spice perked up to keep it in balance. The wine moved seamlessly from one flavor to the next, culminating in the slow and steady development of exquisitely fine-grained tannins.

I can just picture it now, as I write this. What a shame I only had a small glass! I’ve never really considered spending $106 on a bottle of wine, but the 2011 COEVO might convince me to do just that.

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