The Obscure Delights Of Sumoll

8 July 2016

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

Gaintus "Radical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaintus "Vertical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Cocktails: 8 Easy And Unusual Recipes

24 June 2016

Cocktail at Vina VikThis time of year, I find it especially satisfying to relax with a well-composed and well-chilled cocktail. There are certainly plenty of summery wines out there, but when the temperatures start heading north of 90 degrees, nothing beats the feel of a frosty ice-cold glass in my hand.

When you have people over, it’s fun to make them a cocktail that’s a little unusual — it makes guests feel special. And, just as important, it makes them feel impressed by your mixology skills. Yet you don’t want to end up struggling with drinks that are time-consuming to make, forcing you to stay glued to the bar for the duration of the party, filling drink orders.

The eight recipes below all are relatively simple to make, and each drink has something of a twist. You likely won’t find any of these on the cocktail list of your local bar. I’ve tested each of these recipes myself, so I can give each of them the Odd Bacchus guarantee of quality.

 

LEMON GINGER MARGARITA

–2 parts Tequila (I used El Jimador Reposado, but any decent reposado or gold tequila should do the trick.)

–1 parts Ginger Liqueur (If you can’t find Koval‘s organic ginger liqueur, Stirrings makes a perfectly tasty substitute.)

–1 part Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (There’s no substitute for this. Use bottled juice or sour mix at your peril.)

–A smidgeon of honey (or agave nectar or simple syrup)

I love, love, love this drink. It tastes citrusy and sweet, with some intriguing spice and floral notes. Juice a whole lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. Combine the lemon juice, tequila and ginger liqueur in a shaker. Add the honey, and stir to dissolve.

You can also use a splash of simple syrup or agave nectar, but I like the additional depth from the honey. In fact, you can make this cocktail without any added sugar and it will taste fine, but honey, simple syrup or agave nectar really does wake it up.

Add ice to the shaker, shake vigorously, and strain into a large martini glass. Garnish, if you’re feeling fancy, with a slice of lemon or a strip of fresh ginger.

 

Campari & SodaMILANO

–2 parts gin (I used Death’s Door)

–1 part Campari

–1/2 part ginger liqueur (we used Koval)

–1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice (do not use bottled)

Popular though Campari and orange juice may be, my favorite mixology buddy and I decided that it was time to come up with something a little more interesting to do with Campari. Inspired by the Negroni, we started with gin and Campari, and eventually settled on the additions of ginger liqueur and lemon. The result tasted very zippy, spicy and sweet, but with a grounding bitterness provided by the Campari. I loved the balance of this cocktail, as well as the pretty pink-orange color.

Combine all the ingredients above in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange. Or not.

 

THE BEST EXOTIC MANGO MARTINI

–2 parts vodka (I like Sobieski — it’s an excellent value for the money — but use whatever brand you prefer)

–1 part mango juice (100% juice if possible)

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

–2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, depending on their size

Small splash of lychee liqueur (I used Soho Lychee Liqueur, which is available at Binny’s for $25)

Juice a lemon, and use that as the measure of one part (one lemon will make two cocktails). Add all the ingredients above to a shaker with several cubes of ice. Be sure not to add too much lychee liqueur — it can very easily overpower a cocktail. Just a tiny splash should do the trick. Shake vigorously, so that the basil leaves bruise and release their flavor. Strain into two martini glasses, and if you want to get really fancy, garnish with a basil leaf. It tastes sweet, tart and vaguely exotic, with whispers of the basil and lychee. It’s just the thing to pair with Asian food.

 

Fentimans Rose LemonadeGIN & ROSE LEMONADE

This cocktail couldn’t be simpler. Just mix 3 parts Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade soda with 1 part gin (I used Death’s Door). This combo smells amazing, with aromas of rose and juniper co-mingling beautifully. Aromatic, tart, not too sweet, complex — this is the whole package. And you can mix one up in about 20 seconds! Many Whole Foods stores carry the Fentiman’s soda line.

 

PINK PIGEON DAIQUIRI

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum (a vanilla- and orchid-infused rum from the island of Mauritius, available at Binny’s for $30 a bottle)

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

–Very small splash of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water, also available in bottles at liquor stores)

A classic daiquiri has summer written all over it. As always, fresh lime juice is important — do not substitute bottled, which tastes quite different. Combine all of the above ingredients in a shaker. If you don’t have simple syrup, just add a small pinch of sugar to the lime juice and rum before you add the ice, and stir to dissolve. Add some ice, shake, and strain into a lowball or martini glass.

Ordinarily you would use more simple syrup in a daiquiri, one of the simplest and best rum-based cocktails, but because Pink Pigeon already tastes sweet, only a touch of additional sugar is necessary to balance the tartness of the lime. The resulting drink is refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla. It has an almost Dreamsicle-like quality.

 

White Lion ArrackLION’S TAIL

–2 parts White Lion VSOA (available at Old Town Wine and Spirits for $25 and at Binny’s for $28).

–1 part coconut water

–1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice

–Splash of simple syrup

VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” not to be confused with anise-flavored arak from the Middle East. This Sri Lankan spirit, distilled from coconut flower nectar, tastes more like Cognac.

As before, use the amount of juice you get from your lemon as the measure of a part. Combine the ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass, or — why not — into a coconut shell. This mix has a uniquely savory flavor which is not at all unpleasant. You can omit the simple syrup, but I found that it brightened the citrus notes considerably.

 

Nectarini Bellini MartiniNECTARINI BELLINI MARTINI

–Two white nectarines, cut into large chunks (you can cut up a bunch in advance to have at the ready)

–1 1/2 parts vodka

–1/2 part Triple Sec (I use Stirrings)

–Ice cubes

Making a Bellini, a classic Venetian cocktail of white peach purée and Prosecco, is a royal pain in the ass. Harry’s Bar, which made the cocktail famous, suggests hand-grating the peaches (a food processor aerates the fruit, giving you a foamy mess when you add the Prosecco), but who wants to go through all that? So forget the Prosecco.

And let’s change out the peaches as well. With peaches, you can either have little bits of furry skin floating in your drink, or you can peel them. Screw that. No peeling. Instead, secure a supply of ripe white nectarines, which have thin, non-furry skin. White nectarines are a must in this cocktail. In addition to tasting sweet and fruity, white nectarines have a wonderful perfumed quality you simply don’t get from the yellow variety. They also look gorgeously pink when you blend them up. This drink would surely taste OK with yellow nectarines, but I promise you, white nectarines make a huge difference.

Add the nectarines to the blender, followed by the vodka and Triple Sec. With my average-size fruits, I found that the cocktail tasted balanced with one ounce of booze per piece of fruit. If your nectarines are unusually small or large, adjust the proportions accordingly. The amount of ice cubes you add should approximately equal the amount of fruit.

Blend until very smooth, at least 30 seconds. Serve in champagne flutes (these are still Bellinis, after all). Two nectarines should get you about five or six full flutes of an unusually refreshing and fragrant cocktail.

 

FANCY CHERRY LEMON STUFF (suggestions for alternative names are welcome)

–One can of club soda

–One lemon

–One ounce tart cherry juice

–Orange slice

Most of us have at least one friend who chooses, for whatever reason, not to drink alcohol. I want my non-drinking friends to feel like they’re drinking something as fun as everybody else, and so I like to serve them perhaps the most unusual drink of all: The Non-Alcoholic Cocktail. This example is one of my favorites.

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 tastes complex and sweet, but not too sweet. Again, the orange garnish adds another layer, its aroma mixing beautifully with the flavors of the drink.

The Concentrated Malbec Of Salta

16 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Esteco "Elementos" Malbec at Legado Mitico

El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec at Legado Mítico

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

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

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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