Fortified Wines

A Nice Cool Byrrh

27 February 2013

ByrrhI love drinks ressurected from the grave, such as the violet-flavored Crème Yvette or Old Tom Gin. The aperitif called Byrrh (pronounced “beer”) wasn’t dead, exactly, but for years you couldn’t find it in the United States. France stopped exporting it to the U.S. during Prohibition, and for some reason never started again. And so we were left bereft of Byrrh, because as charming as it is to travel to France for a little aperitif shopping, it can get a little impractical.

I had heard of the sweet vermouth-like Byrrh, but I had never tasted it because my aperitif shopping tends to be limited to the northeast side of Chicago. Then one day, there it was! Just standing on a shelf in Binny’s, like nothing had happened. I snapped up a bottle posthaste.

I couldn’t wait to try it, because although at 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.

Fun to drink on its own, and fun to mix in a Manhattan — I’d say Byrrh is a winner. And it’s not even that expensive. I picked up a 375 ml bottle at Binny’s for $13. So by God, go out and get some Byrrh!

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch “Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

Drink the Brown – Part 2

26 September 2012

Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, ages in an equally odd fashion as sherry (see the previous post). The best madeiras end up ageing for years, usually decades, in the attics of lodges in Funchal, cooked by the warm Madeira sun. This method is called canteiro, as opposed to the less-time consuming estufagem process which involves artificially heating the wine.

Exposing wine to high heat and wide temperature swings for decades at a time is exactly the opposite of how I was taught to treat fine wine, but it seems to work quite well for madeira. In fact, after suffering through summer after summer in a semi-tropical attic, Madeira becomes quite resilient. After all, what else can you do to the stuff? It can last in the bottle for decades or even centuries.

You’ll see standard madeira blends classified by flavor profile (dry, medium sweet, etc.), but if you’re going to buy some madeira, spend a bit more and go for one with a more specific classification, such as Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, which indicate the predominant grape variety as well as the level of sweetness. Sercial is the driest, and Malmsey the sweetest (you can read more information about these styles here and here.) These categories are then further subdivided by age.

At Stella! in New Orleans, I had a Rare Wine Company “New York” Malmsey Special Reserve, produced by Vinhos Barbeito. “Malmsey” on a madeira label indicates that it’s made from Malvasia grapes, and the words “Special Reserve” guarantee that the youngest wine in the blend is at least 10 years old. Although this is among the sweetest styles of madeira, I didn’t have it with dessert. The creative sommelier, Marc J. Doiron, paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk.

Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but amazing bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

I don’t currently have any madeira at home, but you can bet it will be on my Christmas list. I could imagine it pairing well with some roast pork with sweet potatoes, or perhaps turkey with stuffing. Indeed, madeira was quite popular in colonial America, making it a thoroughly appropriate choice for Thanksgiving. Get a bottle now, give it a try, and if you can manage to avoid drinking the whole thing, you can serve the rest to the more adventurous palates at your Thanksgiving table, assuming you have a few.

If you don’t, then I say forget hosting dinner and head to Stella! instead. It’s not inexpensive, but my goodness, the food and wine is sheer delight.

Stella! on Urbanspoon

Drink The Brown – Part 1

22 September 2012

When considering what wine to pair with a meal, most of us consider whether a red or white would work best. A smaller percentage also toss sparkling and rosé wines into the mix. But precious few of us, myself included, give even a fleeting thought to “brown” wines, such as sherry or madeira. If any of you happen to own a bottle of one of these fortified wines, it’s likely standing next to some seldom-poured liqueurs, collecting dust, waiting to be sipped with a slice of fruitcake or something. That’s the sad state of my nine-year-old bottle of Pedro Ximinez, certainly.

A dinner at New Orleans’ fabulous Stella! showed me that it need not be so. I ordered the four-course tasting menu with the accompanying wine pairing, and I must admit it came as a bit of a shock to see a sherry paired, not with dessert, but with my first course of octopus, and then a madeira paired with my second course of veal sweetbreads. And by golly, they worked pretty darn well!

Both sherry and madeira require rather unorthodox production methods. Sherry, produced in and around the southern Spanish city of Jerez, ages in barrels, like many wines. In the case of Fino-style sherry, these barrels aren’t filled to the brim. Partially filled barrels allow “flor,” a layer of yeast, to form on top of the wine. This flor protects the wine from oxidation and also changes its flavor profile. (More strongly fortified Oloroso sherry is vinified without flor, but that’s for another post.)

The particular sherry I tasted was a Manzanilla Pasada produced by Bodegas Hidalgo from a single vineyard called Pastrana (one of the best sites in the Jerez Superior District, according to the Hidalgo website). “Manzanilla” indicates that the sherry was produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a seaside town cool enough for the flor to flourish all year long. “Pasada” indicates that the sherry has been aged longer than a Manzanilla but not as long as an Amontillado.

A straw/gold color, the Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada “Pastrana” had enticing aromas of caramel, pear and a little funk. It tasted dry as a bone, with a nutty flavor, some eye-opening saline notes and prickly acids. The acids and the hints of salinity were what really made the pairing with the rich octopus work. My stars and stripes, I could practically feel the sea spray on my face! This wine won’t appeal to everyone, but if you do like the nutty flavor of sherry, this startlingly dry version would make a great choice for an autumn dinner of fish with root vegetables.

UP NEXT: Aging wines in a sub-tropical attic instead of a cellar? It should be a recipe for disaster, but it works for madeira.

« Previous Page