Strategies For Bordeaux

25 January 2014
Grands Crus de Bordeaux Tasting

Grands Crus de Bordeaux Tasting

Much to my surprise and delight, I received an invitation to attend the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting held here in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. You may be wondering what Bordeaux wines could possibly be considered unusual or obscure. Bordeaux is, after all, perhaps the most famous wine region in the world, with wines in such demand that top bottles can infamously cost more than $1,000 each. Bordeaux was already famous when Thomas Jefferson traveled through the region, purchasing wine to stock his cellars at Monticello. Indeed, the oldest château, Pape-Clément, has been producing wine under that name continuously since 1305.

I wondered what else could be said about the wines of Bordeaux, and I also wondered how a writer who has “Dedicated to Drinking the Unusual and the Obscure” on his business card would be received by the grape juice grandees at this tasting. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to regard this blog as a direct reaction to overpriced wines and the culture of snobbery they engender. And where, stereotypically, would this culture flower more fully than in Bordeaux?

But Bordeaux is no monolith, and neither are its winemakers. In fact, almost everyone at the tasting was at the very least quite cordial, and most seemed very pleased to meet me. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely interested in learning more about the wines — many people walked up to the tasting tables, held out their glasses with barely a word, and retreated to taste the wines with their friends or colleagues. I observed one woman who repeatedly charged up to a table of dump buckets, emptied her excess wine and literally ran back to the tasting tables. I can’t imagine that she had too many enlightening conversations.

I learned quite a bit from my chats with the winery representatives, especially those from unfamous châteaux. I approached one winery I had in my notes as a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, but the representative corrected me. “In the last classification, we became just Cru Bourgeois.”

“Oh that’s strange,” I replied. “I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that your wines are some of the best values in the Médoc.”

“Well, the last time we didn’t really try,” he answered, rather cryptically. “The classification, eh…” He trailed off.

“I’m sure the classification doesn’t always reflect reality, does it,” I ventured. “I mean, I’m sure there are a lot of powerful interests who influence the classification.”

Chateau PoujeauxHe simply raised his eyebrows at that. Bordeaux classifications, even were they entirely free from political influences, would still be quite confusing and only a rough gauge of quality. Time and time again, Sotheby’s writes of châteaux performing well above their classifications (and occasionally of châteaux resting on past laurels). More confusing for the American wine consumer, different parts of Bordeaux use different classification vocabularies, which, of course, are also different from the classification system of Burgundy and other regions of France. You might understandably feel excited to find a low price on a grandiosely named St-Émillon grand cru, for example. After all, a good deal on a grand cru from Burgundy would be exciting indeed. But a St-Émillon grand cru is just one step up from the most basic St-Émillon.

Another winery representative and I chatted about his wine, which turned out to be one of my very favorites of the entire tasting. I remarked that it was an incredible value for the price. He leaned in close to me, and said, “You know, to be perfectly honest, I never buy wines that cost more than 50 or 60 euro. That’s maybe $100? Anything that costs more than that is bull****. When you buy wines,” he gestured towards the room, “that cost $300 or $800, you are not buying the wine. You are buying the label. I want to buy only the wine.” This felt like a shocking admission from a winery representative standing in the middle of a Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting.

So classification and price are not necessarily true indicators of value in Bordeaux. One final additional complicating factor is vintage. In Bordeaux, unlike in Napa, the quality of the vintage can vary radically from year to year, and worse, the vintage can be wonderful for certain châteaux and dire for others. In 2011, for example, was inconsistent for red wines but excellent for white and sweet wines.

Bordeaux, therefore, defies broad generalizations. I’m tempted to throw up my hands and say the heck with it, I’m not buying anything from Bordeaux. But what a loss that would be. Bordeaux, for all its inconsistencies and wild prices, produces all sorts of thoroughly delicious wines. These are wines that have long set viticultural standards around the world. To ignore them would be to deny yourself great pleasure. It pays to learn a little about Bordeaux and shop as an educated consumer.

If you’ve made it this far in this blog post, you are likely willing to do a little more reading on the subject. An well-written reference book like The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia can be a wonderful resource, describing the various Bordeaux sub-regions, classification systems and notable châteaux in engaging, opinionated prose. Having an overview of how the region is organized is invaluable; you’ll get an immediate sense of which Bordeaux wines are most likely to align with your palate. A trusted wine shop where you can turn for advice is equally invaluable. Learn the outlines of the classification systems so that you won’t be suckered in by grands crus that aren’t necessarily so grand. Don’t bother with anything that costs more than $100 (not usually a problem for me in any case). Get a sense of which vintages in the last five to ten years were excellent (2005, 2009, 2010), and look for more basic wines from these years.

Learning about the vagaries of Bordeaux — red, white and sweet — can actually be great fun. There are Bordeaux wines out there for every kind of palate, and those are wines worth finding. A small amount of reading about the region will pay significant dividends when you’re faced with a large Bordeaux section at the liquor store. Your efforts will be repaid with wines rich in fruit, strong with structure and well-balanced with focused acids and minerals.

And just because it’s Bordeaux, don’t assume it isn’t unusual. The sweet wines of Barsac and Preignac and the elegant dry whites of Pessac-Léognan have little popularity or name recognition in this country. But they deserve it, as I’ll describe in some upcoming posts.

The Rhône Comes To Krk

18 January 2014

Katunar Kurykta AntonWhile browsing the selection at my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits, I asked the proprietor my favorite question: “So what do you have that’s new and unusual?” Noticing the bottle of Serbian Prokupac already in my hand, she pointed out a Croatian Syrah, which at $21 was more than I had planned on spending. But how could I resist? A famous and extremely high-quality Rhône variety expressed through the terroir of coastal Croatia was simply too tempting. I paid the $21, and I am very glad I did.

Like all wine-growing countries ruled by communists, Croatia’s vintners were essentially required to focus on quantity rather than quality. Many fascinating indigenous varieties were therefore cast aside in favor of a handful of higher-yielding grapes which produced drinkable but uninteresting wines. Many vineyards in Croatia also suffered during the breakup of Yugoslavia, damaged by shelling, trampling or even being uprooted and replaced by landmines.

In more recent years, as the Croatian economy incorporated more capitalist principles and peace returned to the region, foresighted winemakers began exploring Croatia’s viticultural roots, restoring nearly lost local grape varieties and focusing again on quality instead of simply quantity. Anton and Toni Katunar are two of those foresighted winemakers.

The Katunar family has made wine for centuries, according to its website (translated from the Croatian by Google Translate), albeit as part of a cooperative during the communist years, “the only possible way of doing business.” In the 1990s, the Katunar winery worked hard to modernize and improve, investing in new Slavonian oak casks for aging and changing its sparkling wine production from tank fermentation to bottle fermentation.

Because the Katunar vineyards already had an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula, these investments have resulted in some very high-quality wines. Certainly the 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious. Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued wine had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.

Katunar Back LabelMy only problem with this wine was its confusing back label. On the one hand, it clearly states that the wine is 100% Syrah. But above that figure, the description notes that the Kurykta Anton blends “Syrah with Sansigot and Debejan, local varietals found only on the island of Krk.” The idea of trying a wine made in part from Sansigot and Debejan excites the Odd Bacchus in me to no end, but it’s as yet unclear to me if I’ve actually done so.

(You can read more about Sansigot here. Debejan is more mysterious. According to Wikipedia and the Wein-Plus glossary, Debejan is a synonym for Gegić, but I can find precious little about either variety.)

In any case, 100% Syrah or not, if you like hearty Côtes du Rhône wines, you will most definitely like Katunar Kurykta Anton. Full-bodied reds like this are perfect for winter dinners, and the acids in this wine ensure that it will pair with a range of robust stews, roasts and pastas. It’s a bit of a splurge at $21 a bottle, but your investment will be amply rewarded.

Beyond Bourbon: A Kentucky Cabernet

15 January 2014

Capital CellarsIt takes a little doing to find local wine in the heart of bourbon country. I’ve been visiting Louisville and the surrounding area annually for the last seven or eight years, and though I’ve toured a number of distilleries, I only just recently tasted my first Kentucky wine. It took a visit to the pretty state capital, Frankfort, to finally find some.

Wineries in Kentucky have a tough uphill battle to fight, and not just because of bourbon’s overwhelming firepower. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, in Kentucky, “Winter freeze may only be a marginal issue, but the hot, humid summers have so far proved discouraging to efforts with vinifera vines.” Vinifera vines include varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot — really any grape of world-class quality, with the exception of Norton and perhaps one or two others. If you can’t successfully grow vinifera varieties, your winery is unlikely to make much of a splash.

Nowadays, it seems some Kentucky wineries have overcome the sultry summers and are indeed growing vinifera grapes of real quality. Capital Cellars, a shop across the street from Kentucky’s old capitol building, stocks an impressive array of local wines, including many made from tried-and-true grape varieties. The service at this shop isn’t great — I had a great deal of trouble getting the attention of the staff, and when I finally did, the first person I spoke with knew next to nothing about Kentucky wine. I was also disappointed to discover that Capital Cellars’ small wine bar served no Kentucky wines by the glass. Nevertheless, I recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, if only to take advantage of the breadth of Capital Cellars’ selection.

MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon ReserveOne of the wines which caught my attention was the NV MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, clearly labeled as “A Kentucky Cabernet Sauvignon.” (I had no interest in buying a wine made from out-of-state fruit.) Set just south of Louisville on 22 acres near Mt. Washington, the winery produces 18 different wines, some of which with dubious names like “Chardonberry.” But there is no denying the high quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

One of my tasting partners for the evening took a sip and remarked, “It’s a lot better than I thought it would be,” and indeed it was. A dark, opaque red, the MillaNova Cabernet had a rich aroma of jammy fruit and chocolate. I was impressed by the clear, bell-like fruit, redolent of plums. Aged in French and American oak for 18 months, the wine felt full-bodied and well-balanced, with big, bold acids, some white-pepper spice and a smoothly tannic finish. I must admit I felt nervous buying a Kentucky Cabernet for $25, but the MillaNova unquestionably lived up to its price tag.

If you find yourself in Kentucky, there’s no need to limit yourself to just the local spirits. As the MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve illustrates, the state is capable of producing perfectly delicious wines as well.

Arcadian Moschofilero

9 January 2014

Tselepos MoschofileroI’ve written before about Greek Moschofilero (also spelled Moscophilero), a white wine which I’ve found both exceedingly charming and slightly off-putting. The origins of this pink-skinned grape variety are “as yet obscure,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and goodness knows I love a mysterious grape variety. Moschofilero also happens to usually taste rather floral and fruity, which made it ideal to pour with the season premier of Downton Abbey. Not so much because of the show, but because one of our guests preferred sweeter whites, and because I thought it would pair well with the chicken pot pie in the oven.

Why open a Moschofilero instead of a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer? For shock value, of course, and because you tend to get a lot of bang for your buck. The 2012 Tselepos Moschofilero cost me just $10 at Binny’s, and really, you’ll be hard pressed to find a well-balanced Riesling at that price.

According to the label, this particular Moschofilero is a “Protected Geographical Indication Arcadia,” which basically means the fruit for the wine could come from anywhere in that central Peloponnese province. Arcadia doesn’t qualify as an appellation, however. That distinction belongs to Mantinia, a high-altitude plateau in Arcadia, which produces wines that can command higher prices (see the Tselepos Mantinia, which costs about $5 more at Binny’s than the Tselepos Arcadia).

Beyond that, the wine is a bit of a mystery. The minimalist importer’s website shines little light upon it, and the Tselepos website doesn’t list the Arcadian Moschofilero among its bottlings. But in any case, at $10, this Moschofilero isn’t much of a risk.

A pale, pinkish yellow, this wine had a heady, sweet aroma of ripe apples, jasmine and incense. It tasted drier than I thought it would, with a bit of a prickly texture, flavors of apples and flowers, and some exotic spice underneath. The fruit was a bit flabby, to be sure, but the wine pulled together some with the pot pie. I wished it had more of a backbone, but hey, for $10, it’s quite an interesting and flavorful wine.

Would I buy it again? I would probably go for the more expensive Mantinia version if I could find it, or if I did want to only spend $10, I would buy the Kyklos Moschofilero instead.

Fine Wines From The Rockies

4 January 2014

Wine in ColoradoThere were many things I looked forward to when I recently journeyed to Colorado, but I must admit local wine was not one of them. I didn’t even bother to check my reference books before I left to see if anything might be happening in Colorado in terms of wine, because my goals were more about hiking, fresh air and steaks from unusual animals like elk and buffalo.

Had I cracked open my Oxford Companion to Wine — always a good idea before heading off on a trip to pretty much anywhere — I would have discovered that “Colorado’s increasing vineyard area (nearly 1,000 acres) and growing number of wineries (over 50) are beginning to provide wines of quality to its major tourist market as well as Denver…”

I suppose after my experiences in Arizona and New Mexico, finding “wines of quality” in Colorado should have been no surprise. However, The Oxford Companion goes on to say that Colorado’s “dry conditions allow healthy vinifera production but varieties have yet to produce characterful wines despite a usefully hot growing season.” Which isn’t especially encouraging, despite the Companion‘s seemingly contradictory listing of grape varieties which “have all produced wines of interest” in Colorado.

I checked my other resources to see if they agreed with this mixed assessment of the state of Colorado wine. The World Atlas of Wine mentions Colorado only on a map indicating the acreage under cultivation and the number of wineries. Nor does the ever-comprehensive Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia have much to add. It simply notes that “The growing season in most of Colorado is too short to permit grape-growing,” and that there is nevertheless an AVA called Grand Valley, located just west of the city of Grand Junction in the western part of the state.

Sutcliffe TrawsfynyddI felt too anxious to reach the mountains to linger in the Grand Valley AVA touring wineries, but I did finally encounter some Colorado wine quite by chance at a resort west of Telluride called Dunton Hot Springs. The property owns a winery called Sutcliffe Vineyards, which has either 22 or 36 acres of organically farmed vineyards, depending on which page of its website you believe, located near Cortez, Colorado, in the Four Corners region (far to the south of the Grand Valley AVA). You can see a map of the location here, along with a hand-drawn map of the vineyards themselves.

According to the “rants” page of the Sutcliffe website, owner John Sutcliffe didn’t originally intend to start a winery. The gentleman who designed his house recommended planting vineyards around it, which he did. The vineyards bore fruit, Sutcliffe decided to vinify it, and Sutcliffe Vineyards grew from there.

What luck that Sutcliffe’s designer recommended planting those grapes. The Sutcliffe wines I tried were quite good, and in some cases quite memorable: Before dinner, a fellow guest planning on proposing to his girlfriend that evening opened some very fine reserve bottles, and he poured tastes for the rest of us at the bar. Here’s a list of what I tried:

2011 Sutcliffe Pinot Gris: The fruit for this wine actually comes from Carneros, an AVA just south of Sonoma in California, making the Pinot Gris the least interesting to me of the bunch. It had a fresh, green aroma undergirded by dried herbs, and a flavor profile of lush fruit contrasted with focused, almost prickly acids. Well-made, but I’m not sure why you would spend $25 on it, especially considering the origin of the fruit.

2012 Sutcliffe Sauvignon Blanc: This Sauvignon Blanc had real character, with a nose of moist, funky grass and flavors that moved from musky to sweet to chalky to tart. It paired well with a bright salad of local greens. $25.

2011 Sutcliffe Riesling: If you avoid Rieslings because you think they’re too sweet, this is the Riesling for you. It had a limey aroma, citrusy fruit on the palate and a dry finish. There was little if any sweetness at all, but I found it refreshing, and the acids would surely work well with food. $25.

2011 Sutcliffe Cinsault: Cinsault comes originally from France’s Languedoc region in the far southwest. It may seem odd to find a grape from southern France in Colorado, but as The Oxford Companion notes, Cinsault “has good drought resistance,” making it a likely candidate for Colorado’s generally dry climate. The last few Cinsaults I’ve tried haven’t thrilled me, and this was alas no exception. I smelled a lot of black pepper on the nose, and the red-fruit flavor became overwhelmed by black pepper notes. It felt unbalanced, this wine, though it mellowed a bit when paired with some scallops in curry sauce. $27.

2009 Sutcliffe Petit Verdot: This variety comes from France’s famed Bordeaux region, also in the southwest section of the country. It’s most often seen in blends, but Petit Verdot varietals make increasingly common appearances, which is no bad thing. This version had a pronounced vanilla note in the aroma, along with some creamy red fruit. It tasted wonderfully rich and tannic, and my goodness, for just three more dollars a bottle, I would much rather drink this than the Cinsault. $30.

Dinner at Dunton2009 Sutcliffe Field Blend: Most blends occur in the winery, with a winemaker choosing so much of this and so much of that. A field blend occurs in the vineyard, blending whatever grape varieties happen to be growing together. This wine “gives the true taste of McElmo Canyon,” according to the Sutcliffe website. I loved its rich, dark-fruit aroma, and there again was that rich, creamy fruit on the palate. It had elegantly soft tannins and a dry finish, and it became even bigger and richer when paired with some “truffle tremor” cheese. $35.

2009 Sutcliffe Trawsfynydd: Named for a village in Wales — perhaps the ancestral home of the Sutcliffes? — this blend incorporates every Bordeaux variety except Malbec, according to the Sutcliffe website. The evening was wearing on, which means my notes became more melodramatic. This wine smelled “dark and mysterious,” I wrote, and there again was that signature dark, creamy fruit. Well-balanced, very controlled, and certainly worth its $38 price tag.

NV Sutcliffe Doce Pecado Port: “Doce Pecado” translates as “Twelve Sins,” according to Google Translate, and it did indeed feel a little decadent to drink this port-style fortified wine. It tasted rich but not heavy, with underlying tones of wood and something savory. A fine match for some cherry pie with cinnamon and ginger. $25 for a half-bottle.

It’s difficult to generalize about all of Colorado based just on Sutcliffe’s bottlings, but clearly these wines show that Colorado has the potential to make some very tasty wines indeed. The state has a long way to go before it becomes known for its wine, but with Sutcliffe, it’s off to an excellent start.

Top Red Wines Of 2013

30 December 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

You’ll note that nary a wine from France made the list below, for example. Everyone knows top Bordeaux and Burgundy taste great, and the prices reflect that fame. Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in California, Italy, Uruguay or British Columbia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2013, in alphabetical order:

 

ART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” RED WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #612):

This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different Californian wines made their way into the mix, including Cabernets from Lake County and Napa, Merlots from Napa and Sonoma, Malbecs from Napa and Dry Creek, Cabernet Franc from Napa and Montepulciano from the Shenandoah Valley.

After reading the list above, you might be wondering what a Montepulciano is doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties. According to winemaker Kat McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and a fantastic value at $18.

 

Cantele2009 CANTELE SALICE SALENTINO RISERVA:

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in Italy’s Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the Cantele certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

 

2008 D.H. LESCOMBES CABERNET FRANC:

This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

 

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

2007 D’ANGELO SETTE COPPA:

This British Columbian blend contains all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties, grown on just eight acres of vineyards. It smells red and surprisingly minerally, and wow, that flavor. It has bright red fruit, focused acids, well-finessed tannins and some metallic earth on the finish. It’s a delight to drink, and a very fine value for $25.

 

2012 DOMAINE TERLATO & CHAPOUTIER SHIRAZ-VIOGNIER:

An appellation of the northern Rhône which never fails to quicken my heart is Côte Rôtie, which produces some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish.

This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

 

2007 GEISEL WEINBAU BRENTANO “R” MARKELSHEIMER PROBSTBERG MERLOT TROCKEN:

I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard Merlot (Markelsheimer Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier, Stephane Thuriot, selected this wine from northern Württemberg in Germany to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

 

2009 PALUMBO FAMILY VINEYARDS SANGIOVESE “DUE FIGLI” VINEYARD:

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

On a quiet side road away from the big wineries in Temecula, this winery was recommended by almost every local I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website.

This single-vineyard Sangiovese was brick-red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Temecula is on few people’s fine-wine radar, but if it can produce wines like this Sangiovese, it’s a region worth keeping an eye on.

 

2005 PISANO “ETXE ONEKO” LICOR DE TANNAT:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia speaks very highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” I also discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed, as you might expect, by a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

 

2010 RUST EN VREDE ESTATE:

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsThis Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region.

The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Jean Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish. The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

 

2007 SKOURAS GRAND CUVÉE NEMEA:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Greece’s Nemea appellation “relatively reliable,” and the Skouros Agiorgitiko I tasted at the Wine Bloggers Conference more than supports that rather tepid assertion. It was memorably delicious, with a beautiful aroma of tobacco and cherries, plenty of bright acids, ample fruit and luscious notes of mocha. Anyone who still thinks Greece is nothing but a sea of Retsina should taste this.

 

And this concludes my awards for 2013! You can read about my picks for top white wines here, and my favorite spirits and cocktails here. Happy New Year, everyone!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” WHITE WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #412):

I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

2008 CHIMNEY ROCK “ELEVAGE BLANC”:

I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

Top Spirits & Cocktails Of 2013

21 December 2013

Slyrs WhiskeyAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2013″ lists. I don’t know if these lists are really all that useful, arbitrary as they are, but compiling them gives me a good excuse to reflect on the past year.

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.

Here are my favorites from 2013, in alphabetical order. And if this list doesn’t convince you that the world of spirits and cocktails has never been better, check out my list from 2012 here.

 

AMBER DREAM AT NOBLE EXPERIMENT:

This speakeasy in downtown San Diego was my favorite bar of the trip. It’s a little complicated to get in — you need to make a reservation in advance (ideally, a week in advance), and you can only make that reservation by sending a text message to 619-888-4713. Once your reservation is confirmed, go to a restaurant called The Neighborhood at 777 G Street. Go to the back by the bathrooms, and you’ll see some beer kegs stacked up against the wall. Push on those, and you’re in!

Bartender Anthony hand-cracked the ice for my Amber Dream, a classic cocktail that I must admit I’d never tried before. It contained Beefeater 24 (in which Beefeater steeps the botanicals for 24 hours, amping up the flavor), Carpano Antica (the sweet vermouth craft bars are going crazy for these days), Yellow Chartreuse (a French herbal liqueur), orange bitters and a strip of lemon zest.

This cocktail took a few minutes to make, and it was worth the wait. It started on a sweet note, but the flavor became more and more bitter. I love the smooth, round texture (achieved with lots of stirring) and the citrusy aroma from the zest. Delicious, complex, and positively delightful.

 

BLOOD & SAND AT TAVERNA 750:

Taverna 750

Taverna 750

At this bar and restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, they’ve devised a simple and elegant solution for keeping that last half of your martini ice-cold: storing it on ice in a little glass pitcher until you’re ready to drink it. Each cocktail comes with this sidecar, whether you order off the menu or not. I started with a Blood & Sand, a concoction which dates at least as far back as Bill Boothby’s 1934 cocktail guide, World Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which calls for scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Taverna 750 gooses up that simple recipe by mixing together Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, housemade orangecello, lemon juice and simple syrup.

My dining companion had a taste of it, rolled his eyes with pleasure and ordered one of his own. It had a creamy bitter-orange aroma, a profile carried through on the palate: rich, sweet and bitter, undergirded by orangey acids. The sidecar kept the second half of my drink ice-cold, with no loss of integrity as I finished the first.

 

BYRRH:

ByrrhAt first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

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

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

 

CHÂTEAU DE BEAULON 7-YEAR COGNAC:

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacThis cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche. Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes. In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano). Finding a cognac distilled from Folle Blanche these days is rare indeed.

The light caramel-colored Château Beaulon had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

 

CYNAR

CynarI would never have guessed this artichoke-based liqueur from Italy would make the list. About 10 years ago, a friend and I were in some small-town café in Umbria, and I spotted the bottle behind the bar. Even then I was interested in trying unusual spirits, and the idea of an artichoke liqueur proved irresistible. With no clue what this thing could possibly taste like, I ordered a glass. It was not to my liking. Aghast at Cynar’s bitterness, I discreetly carried the small snifter to the men’s room and poured the remainder down the drain. 

What a difference a decade makes. There was no sneaking off to the bathroom this time. Tasted neat and well-chilled in the refrigerator, the Cynar had a pleasantly bittersweet aroma and a very bitter, intense flavor profile leavened with a strong dose of caramelly sweetness. It doesn’t taste at all like artichokes — it’s made with 12 other herbs and plants, according to its website — and I certainly didn’t want to pour it down the drain this time. Despite Cynar’s relatively low 16.5% alcohol content, it tasted powerful, bracing and surprisingly balanced.

Check out some Cynar-based cocktails I mixed up here.

 

DARK PASSENGER AT THE BAR AT HUSK:

Dark PassengerHusk restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, is no secret, but it’s easy to pass by the bar right next door. I went in on a whim, and discovered one of my very favorite bars of the year. I ordered a barrel-aged Manhattan from bartender Roderick Hale Weaver, who apologetically explained that this was the first time they had run out of the cocktail. He offered to make me an alternative Manhattan-like drink “with depth,” and presented me with a gorgeous Dark Passenger.

Made with Carpano Antica, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, sorghum molasses and a rinse of Branca Menta, this cocktail tasted supremely satisfying: rich, bitter and complex, with a note of mint on the finish. It was absolutely delicious. If you go, have Weaver or one of his colleagues customize a cocktail for you, and whatever you do, don’t miss the glorious cheeseburger.

 

SANTA FE SPIRITS:

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

This distillery in the capital of New Mexico makes a number of delightful spirits, two of which I found especially memorable.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. Its flavor definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

 

WHITE LION VSOA:

White Lion ArrackVSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” a wonderful spirit from Sri Lanka which is distilled from the nectar of unopened coconut flowers. At room temperature, the VSOA had appealingly fragrant aromas of bright vanilla cake and caramel. If I hadn’t known what I was smelling, I might have guessed it was some kind of sweet cognac. It starts sweet and smooth on the palate, before blossoming into white-peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish of something savory and herbaceous. Fascinating and delicious.

This spirit proved to be quite a versatile base for cocktails — check out some recipes here.

An Earthy Red From Serbia

17 December 2013
Chateau Damjanovic 2009

Chateau Damjanović 2009

A bottle from Serbia sparked this blog, and so I’ll always have a soft spot for wines from this landlocked country in the center of the Balkans. Wines from this country can be hard to find, but I keep running into them here in Chicago largely due to the efforts of Goran Sevic, owner of the import company Vino et Spiritus. His import philosophy is exciting: ”There are plenty of commodity Serbian wines produced in large co-ops that retail in the $7 and under category that are OK, but I really have no interest in importing them.  What I look for are artisanal wines with expression of place, varietal and vintage; terroir.”

I tasted through his portfolio a couple of years ago, and delighted in the Tamjanika, Prokupac, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch and Vranac he served me. But at that time, he hadn’t yet started to import the Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. When I saw a bottle of it on the shelf at In Fine Spirits, and noticed it was imported by Vino et Spiritus, I felt certain it would be a winner and snapped it up.

Chateau Damjanović  comes from Zapadna Morava (south of Belgrade), which used to be the site of imperial vineyards, according to Vinopedia. Further encouragement about the wine came from The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which suggests that “the best potential [in Serbia] is for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot when grown in Južna Morava,” the wine region immediately to the south of Zapadna Morava. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, arguing that “Cabernet and Merlot with intriguing potential can also be ripened, notably [in the Južna Morava region] in the south.” It also sounded promising that Chateau Damjanović has only 7.41 acres of vineyards, according to the Vino et Spiritus website, meaning that the winery certainly doesn’t fall into the mediocre large co-op category.

Chateau Damjanovic 2010

Chateau Damjanović 2010

The Chateau Damjanović sounded better and better. Unfortunately, when I have a wine I’m particularly excited about, it sometimes paradoxically stays in my wine rack much longer than I might like. It’s all too easy to leave it unopened, waiting for just the right occasion. I left my bottle of 2009 Chateau Damjanović for about year, so it seems, because I discovered the 2010 vintage at Binny’s just a few weeks ago. I bought it too, and decided it was high  time for a mini Damjanović vertical tasting.

2010 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I tasted this vintage first, while baking up some smoked gouda and rosemary bread. This Cabernet/Merlot blend had a dark, earthy and slightly funky aroma, which seemed promising. It had a rustic feel to it, with tightly wound red fruit and notes of iron and tobacco. Though the acids were big and rowdy, the tannins were relatively soft, and at the very end the wine finished with a bit of vanilla. It was lively and fun, and spicier when paired with a warm slice of the bread.

2009 Chateau Damjanović Dry Red Wine: I opened this bottle while decorating the Christmas tree on a very cold Sunday afternoon, when something hearty was in order. The aroma of this wine was even more intensely earthy, with strong notes of iron and clay in addition to some red fruit. It tasted spicy, meaty and smokey, making me yearn for some smoked sausage to go with it. Though this wine was a year older, the fruit remained tightly wound, loosening a bit when paired with some Bolognese. It finished with a pronounced metallic note, rather than the vanilla of the 2010.

The Vino et Spiritus website recommends drinking this wine young. Certainly the 2010 is ready to drink now, but the 2009 was equally as good, if not better. Priced at about $13 — a very fine value — it’s an inexpensive risk to buy an extra bottle or two to lay down and see what happens. In the meantime, because the 2010 has such zesty acids, it’s well-suited to the hearty food of the holiday season.

Find It: I purchased the 2009 vintage at In Fine Spirits, and the 2010 vintage at Binny’s.

Cocktails For Your Christmas Party

11 December 2013
Eggnog topped with cinnamon

Santa’s Helper

Festive Christmas parties provide a delightful excuse to serve a special cocktail or two, and goodness knows I love a special cocktail or two (or three or four). Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve come up with a number of cocktails ideal for holiday parties, but I’ve never assembled them in one place.

Here are the recipes of some of my very favorite drinks for the holidays, an array of concoctions using everything from gin and bourbon to mirto and arrack. I developed each of these recipes myself, working hands-on with the ingredients in my mixology laboratory, laboriously testing and tasting. I hope you find the results of my efforts as delicious as I did.

 

SANTA’S HELPER

–4 parts Bourbon, pre-chilled

–1 part Triple Sec, pre-chilled (Stirrings makes an “all natural” version of this orange-flavored liqueur)

–1 part Ginger Liqueur, pre-chilled (a number are on the market, but Stirrings’ is less expensive than most others)

–9 parts Eggnog (1.5 times as much eggnog as alcohol. Use organic eggnog if possible, made from real eggs and cream.)

Pour all the ingredients, ending with the eggnog, in your glass or a pitcher. Stir to combine, and serve in a lowball or rocks glass. Do not use ice at any point in the process (if you’re making a pitcher and wish to keep it chilled, invest in non-melting ice cubes). The eggnog, orange, ginger and bourbon all have their moment on your palate, making for a delicious and surprisingly complex journey.

It’s traditional to top your eggnog with some freshly grated nutmeg, but that’s a pain, and there’s already plenty of nutmeg in most store-bought eggnogs. I prefer a little cinnamon powder on top of my nog. If you want to get fancy, top your eggnog with a touch of cinnamon and a sprinkle of ginger powder. Even fancier, top with a bit of ginger powder and garnish with a whole cinnamon stick.

 

Beton

Beton

BETON

Like a gin and tonic, the Czech Beton (Becherovka and tonic) features aromatic herbal and floral notes as well as a touch of bracing bitterness. But the Beton goes further, with strong flavors of clove, pine and even some cinnamon. A gin and tonic is unquestionably a summer cocktail, but a Beton is Christmas in a glass.

1 part Becherovka (a wonderful herbaceous and bitter spirit produced in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary)

1-1.5 parts Tonic

Gently mix the above in a highball glass with a large cube of ice or two. If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a lime slice or a sprig of rosemary. If the ratio above proves too boozy for you, you can adjust it to your taste, of course.

I usually purchase my tonic at Whole Foods, which sells a corn syrup-free version in inexpensive six packs. But for this cocktail, I stopped at In Fine Spirits to pick up some “craft” tonics. After all, a cocktail this simple calls for quality ingredients.

Both Fever Tree and Fentimans are wildly expensive, but you can eke two cocktails out of the Fever Tree and three out of  the Fentimans. Mixed with the Becherovka, the Fever Tree version hit me with a lusty blast of clove,  juniper and cinnamon. It was a Christmas party in my mouth. The Fentimans Beton still felt very Christmasy, but it tasted somehow rounder and deeper — more like an intimate gift exchange by the fireplace.

Either tonic makes a beautiful Beton, but if you prefer Canada Dry or Schweppes, go for it. You’ll have a uniquely delicious cocktail in any case.

 

WHITE LION SIDECAR

–2 parts White Lion VSOA (A Sri Lankan arrack distilled from coconut flower nectar, White Lion has appealingly fragrant aromas of bright vanilla cake and caramel, like a sweet cognac. It starts sweet and smooth on the palate, before blossoming into white-peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish of something savory and herbaceous.)

–1 part Orange Liqueur (I used Stirrings Triple Sec, but Cointreau or Gran Marnier would also be lovely)

–1 part Freshly-Squeezed Lemon Juice (do not use bottled juice or, heaven forbid, sour mix)

Juice your lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. A standard lemon will make one large Sidecar or two small ones. Combine all the ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. It’s traditional to rim the glass with sugar, but I can’t be bothered with that sort of thing. The cocktail had a luscious aroma of orange and caramel, and its darkly sweet flavors were balanced perfectly by the bright citrus. It’s a smashing drink.

 

Mirto

Mirto

MIRTINI

2 parts Gin (I used Death’s Door)

1 part Mirto (A Sardinian myrtle-berry liqueur. It tastes of ripe cherries and something herbal, like eucalyptus perhaps, with cinnamon on the finish. You can order it online here, or check with a well-stocked liquor store.)

1/2 part Fresh-Squeezed Lemon Juice

Combine the above in a shaker filled with ice, agitate, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon, if you’re feeling extra fancy. The drink starts with bright notes from the botanicals in the gin and moves into the more grounded, darker notes of the mirto before finishing with a flash of brandied cherries and cinnamon. The lemon holds it together, providing necessary texture and enhancing the flavors.

 

And because some people are wise enough not to booze it up every chance they get, I also recommend having at least one quality non-alcoholic cocktail on hand. Here are two of my favorites for this time of year:

 

APFELSCHORLE

(I didn’t make this one up — this is a classic German refreshment.)

–1 part Unfiltered Apple Cider

–2 parts Club Soda (or mineral water, if you want to be really authentic)

I prefer club soda in this cocktail because the larger bubbles stand up better to the apple cider, but Germans traditionally use mineral water, because they seem to be addicted to the stuff. Whichever way you go, fill up a tumbler about 2/3 full with club soda or mineral water, and top off with the apple cider. If you want to get really fancy, you can garnish with a long cinnamon stick.

 

Fancy Cherry Lemon Stuff

Fancy Cherry Lemon Stuff

FANCY CHERRY LEMON STUFF

(Suggestions for alternative names are welcome.)

–1 can of Club Soda

–Juice of one Lemon

–1 ounce Tart Cherry Juice (100% tart cherry juice tastes like rich cherry pie in a glass, which makes some sense, since the juice comes from the same cherries used for pies. But though the juice is sweet, it is by no means cloying or syrupy. If no sugar is added to the juice, it retains its tart punch and complexity.)

–1 Orange Slice

Juice the lemon. Pour the can of club soda over a little ice in a large tumbler. Add in the lemon juice, and a full shaker cap (about one ounce) of 100% tart cherry juice (available at Whole Foods). This cocktail tastes complex and sweet, but not too sweet. The orange garnish is important in this case. It adds another layer, the aroma mixing beautifully with the flavors of the drink.

 

And if you’re feeling courageous, and you have a fire extinguisher within easy reach, you might consider embarking on the adventure that is Feuerzangenbowle. This flaming German punch is too complex to explain in this post — you can see my full recipe and all my safety recommendations here — but it is thoroughly delicious, wonderfully festive, and I try to serve it at least once a year. It never fails to be a hit.

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