Posts Tagged Charleston

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

An Argument Lost At The Cocktail Club

9 March 2013

A Valiant Soldier at the Cocktail ClubThe Cocktail Club on north King Street in Charleston offers an atmospheric place to sip craft cocktails, accompanied occasionally by live music. I had settled in with my drink at the bar when I overheard the young lady next to me ordering drinks:

Woman: “Hi there. I need something for a girl and something for a guy [indicating the fellow next to her].”

The bartender, to his credit, delved further into their taste in cocktails, made some recommendations and got mixing. I felt fascinated — especially after attending a conference dedicated to women and Cognac — to hear her order drinks this way, as if gender had something to do with palate.

Me: “I couldn’t help but hear you order your cocktails, and I wanted to ask — why did you order them that way? I mean, do you think women have different palates than men?”

Woman: “Oh, that’s interesting — I don’t really know why I did that, actually. I’m actually a bartender myself, and I like all sorts of things.”

Me: “Right, absolutely. I mean, what if I’m a guy in the mood for something sweet and spicy, and I see this cocktail on the menu here with cinnamon, chili peppers, chocolate vodka and so forth. I probably won’t order it because it’s called ‘For Her Pleasure.’ But why is it called that? Because it’s a dessert drink?”

Woman: “Yeah, I don’t know. But it’s funny, because I actually ended up with a pretty strong martini, and my boyfriend’s is on the sweeter side. So I’m not sure me ordering the way I did made much of a difference after all. What are you drinking?”

Me: “Ahem. This is a ‘Valiant Soldier.'”

Woman: [Raises eyebrows.]

Oops. And with that, this valiant soldier was forced into retreat!

Laura’s Luscious Loquat Liqueur

6 March 2013

Loquat Liqueur in processI had the opportunity to drink a number of thoroughly delightful tipples while in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the best things I tasted was homemade. If you go to Charleston, and I certainly recommend that you do, give Laura Wichmann Hipp of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours a call. The tour isn’t inexpensive at $100 per person, but it’s worth every penny. She gives you wonderfully personalized, idiosyncratic insights into Charleston that only a lifelong resident could. How else would I have learned that “north side manners” dictate that you don’t linger at the windows on the north side of your home? If your neighbor’s yard and piazza (porch) are on the south side, Mrs. Hipp explained, staring out your northern windows infringes on your neighbor’s privacy.

But more important for the purposes of this blog, Mrs. Hipp also makes her own unique Loquat Liqueur by steeping loquats from her garden in vodka (see right). Now what the heck is a loquat? I thought it might be related to a kumquat, that tiny citrus fruit one eats whole, but the similar names are just a coincidence. Loquats are actually a variety of small stone fruit, which became immediately clear to me when I took a whiff of the liqueur.

It smelled to me like Prunelle, a marvelous plum-based French spirit with a distinctive amaretto aroma shared by the Loquat Liqueur. It tasted floral, sweet and lush, but it wasn’t just a syrup bomb — it had balance, ending with a note of spicy citrus peel. I loved it neat, but it also tasted delicious mixed with some warm apple cider.

For the moment, the only way to obtain the Loquat Liqueur is to head down to Laura’s well-kept Charleston home and pick some up yourself. But Mrs. Hipp has been in off-and-on talks with the owner of Firefly, a local distillery best-known for its Sweet Tea Vodka (mix it with lemonade for a mean Arnold Palmer). The distiller might just be interested in producing this wonderfully unusual liqueur, which would be great news for those of us not fortunate enough to call regularly on Mrs. Hipp.

Until then, I’m glad I brought a bottle home to Chicago, where loquats — in liqueur form or otherwise — are decidedly hard to come by. Every time I take a sip, I’ll be reminded of one of my loveliest days in Charleston.

Galicia’s Answer To Sauvignon Blanc

2 March 2013

She crab soup with sherryUnadventurous wine lists at corporate parties and weddings tend to read something like this: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc tops the list so often because it tends to be fruity and very food-friendly, with fun, juicy acids. But if you’re itching to get out of the Sauvignon Blanc rut — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — I’ve got just the white for you: Godello.

This variety indigenous to Spain’s northwestern Galicia region almost became extinct thanks to Phylloxera, and it languished in obscurity for years. It was only “recently re-discovered,” according to the 2001 edition of André Dominé’s Wine, and the Galician region best known for producing Godello, the rainy Valdeorras D.O., now “regularly hits the headlines of the Spanish trade press.”

All my wine books speak highly of Godello grown in Valdeorras. The World Atlas of Wine argues that it “can yield extremely fine wines worth ageing,” and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “The best [Valdeorras] wineries have now been modernized and are even better than they used to be, particularly for white wines made from the Godello grape.”

Even so, it can be hard to find this “fine white grape variety” (The Oxford Companion to Wine), because Galician vineyards and wineries tend to be small, with necessarily limited production, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. The Galicians know a good thing when they taste it. I felt very lucky, therefore, when I spotted it on the wines-by-the-glass list at Carter’s Kitchen, a delightful casual restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

Carter’s Kitchen offered the 2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello for $8 a glass, one of the least-expensive wines on the list. I needed something with some serious acids to compete with the decadent seafood I’d just ordered, and the Godello proved up to the challenge. It started with some sweet, apply fruit, but this was quickly overtaken by focused, limey acids which carried through to a white-peppery finish. The wine cut right through the richness of a creamy and thick she crab soup (pictured above), and it kept its laser focus against some beautifully fresh fried “doormat flounder” as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again with seafood, pork, chicken, pasta with cream sauce, risotto… Its juicy fruit and tight acids ensure that it can stand up to all sorts of rich foods, clearing the palate to prepare for the next bite. Keep an eye out for Godellos — if you like Sauvignon Blanc, a nervy Godello from Galicia will be right up your palate.

SUMMARY

2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello: Fruity but focused, with tight acids that can shine right through a host of rich foods. An excellent escape from a Sauvignon Blanc rut. Chill well before serving.

Grade: B+

Find It: Williams-Sonoma sells this particular Godello for $15, but don’t worry if you can’t find this specific label. Binny’s, for example, lists nine different Godellos on its website ranging in price from $10 to $50 a bottle. Also check out my review of this Godello from Galicia’s Monterrei region.