Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holidays in the Liquor Biz

Holidays in the liquor and wine biz basically means no holiday at all! Just longer hours and no days off. The staggering demand for alcohol at this time of the year is always amazing.

Posts are happening constantly, just in my head and not online.

Fermenting topics:

Vinturi Wine Aerorators
Diatom Chardonnay
Great Wines at Christmas Dinner
Dogfish Head Palo Santo: Deconstructed
Vergano Chinato
Sean Thackery Pleaides XVII

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smoke of the Peat, Nut of the Barley: Laphroaig Tasting

Fascinating tasting at the store last night with Simon Brooking, Laphroaig's Master Ambassador to the States. The whiskies delivered the goods as always with plenty of peat, but beautifully balanced and self-contained. We tasted several expressions of Laphroaig as well as Ardmore, a peated Highland Malt, and Teachers, a blended whisky which features a big dose of Ardmore.

My desk is next to the tasting bar in the store and I was catching up on paperwork while Simon was talking to customers when I noticed a smoky aroma. The smokiness didn't dissipate and grew stronger. My first concern was a fire of some sort, but it didn't have that electrical smell, instead it was perfumed like some strange incense. Ben confirmed my suspicions and said that Simon had a couple of lumps of peat and was heating them. Nice. I quickly abandoned the paperwork and went to investigate.

Sure enough, he had two dark lumps of peat. The larger one was the Islay peat used at Laphroaig to dry the malted barley. The smaller lump was Highland peat and is used at Ardmore, the only 100% peated Highland Malt. Peat being organic material compressed over a long period of time, it is composed of whatever grows in the region it is found. It follows that the flavors of the smoke would be different.

The Highland peat produced a sweeter and slightly resinous smoke. The first impression was rich charcoal. It was sweet and earthy with an overall impression of dense smoke. I imagined I was walking into an old barbeque house in Lockhart where they've been smoking all manner of meats for years and years. Simon attributed the sweet resin notes to the heather which native to the area.

The Islay peat was not as dark and smoky, but was more complex and aromatic and was perfumed like an incense. I was reminded of sandalwood, but much darker, with bitter chocolate undertones. Simon said the peat bogs contained a lot of bog cotton and bog myrtle. Bog myrtle is very aromatic with rich essential oils. It is used for medicines and sometimes as a substitute for hops in making beer.

Both the Ardmore and Laphroaig are 100% peated. According to Simon 15% of Laphroaig's peated malt is produced at the distillery, the rest is sourced from Port Ellen. The Islay produces a much peatier whisky. The Laphroaig contains approximately 40 parts per million peat, while the Ardmore is just 15 ppm.

The peat is used to dry the barley after it has been malted. The peat fires produce hot smoke which impart the peaty flavors into the malt. Simon also had a jar of peated, malted barley from Laphroaig, which we chewed. The small grains were nutty with smoky pipe tobacco flavors and aromas with a myriad of salty minerals and iodine from the ocean air. Addictive and delicious, the flavors just hung around on the palate forever!

Oh, we also tasted some whisky! The Teachers was surprisingly smoky and smooth. The Ardmore Traditional Cask was sweet and smooth with fruit and floral aromas floating over the delicate notes of smoky peat. The youthful Laphroaig 10 Year Old delivers the focused beam of smoky, salty pipe tobacco that is the signature of a young Islay. However the whisky is very finely balanced with hints of honey showing through the dark flavors.  

Laphroaig Quarter Cask sees a second aging in small quarter casks that were traditionally  used to deliver whisky on horseback. The second aging in the smaller casks allows the spirit 30% more contact with the wood. The result is a sweeter whisky with notes of creamy citrus intermingled with the dark flavors of smoky peat. The luxurious viscosity is amazing, encouraging the taster to roll the spirit around in the mouth, turning the kaleidoscope of flavors around and around. The 15 Year Old is a mature version of the 10. The focused beam of youth has matured into more refined whisky with notes of creme brulee, nutmeg and burnt orange riding the waves of smoke and peat.

As we were reflecting, Simon pulled a sample bottle of Ardmore 31 year old from his bag of tricks. The spirit was the same color as the younger Ardmore, but the flavors were much more concentrated. Simon guessed that about 60% of the whisky went to help the angels sing.  Intense floral aromatics of heather and honey dominated both the nose and palate, supported by subtle notions of smoky peat. Definitely a treat!

Simon packed his bags and left for his next tasting. We were left with a lingering smoky perfume in the store and salty nutty flavors of peated barley still hanging on our palates. Those flavors were surely there during our short but sweet tasting. Talk about enhancing perceptions of flavor!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Mezcals: Minero and Pechuga

Wow, it seems like forever I've been trying to get this post written. Every time I start it just gets too long, too involved, with way too much information. So I'm going to take a direct method. I've poured myself a touch of both Minero and Pechuga. I started to say, "of each mezcal," but that would be incorrect. The two are both expressions of the same mezcal. They are both imported by Del Maguey Mezcal who brings a number of mezcals from different villages around Oaxaca. They are all outstanding, world class spirits.

Ok, a few basics so all readers are up to speed. Mezcal is the generic name for any distillate produced from any agave. Mezcal is produced from about 120 different varieties of agave in many different regions in Mexico. Tequila is a name-controlled region around Jalisco and must be made from the Weber 'Blue' Agave native to that region. Thus, all tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

By far the most mezcal is produced from agave grown in the mountains around Oaxaca. Much of the mezcal is produced in artisanal fashion with the starchy stems (called pinas which can weigh up to 125 lbs) roasted in earthen pits over hot rocks which have been heated in oak fires. The pits are covered with moist fiber from the plants, or in some villages banana leaves. The pinas are typically roasted for 3-5 days. They are then covered and allowed to sit to absorb yeasts before being crushed by large stones turned by mules or tractors. The pulp is mixed with water and allowed to ferment. It is then slowly distilled. The resulting mezcal has a characteristic smoky flavor.

Minero is made is the true artisenal fashion. The mezcal is double distilled in clay pots with bamboo tubing.  Pechuga is a third distillation that takes place when the fruits ripen on the trees. 75 liters of Minero is placed in the still along with 25 pounds of wild mountain apples and plums, red plaintains, pineapple, a handful of almonds and a few pounds of rice. Over the liquid is hung a washed and skinned (but still on the carcass) chicken breast. The vapors pass over the chicken breast before condensation. They say the chicken serves to take the edge off the fruit flavors. Production is exremely limited. Just 350 bottles of the current 2007 vintage was released in February 2008.

Late one Saturday night (Sunday morning), after a long day at the State Fair of Texas, I sat down with my son Travis to do some serious analytic tasting. The mezcals were accompanied by toasted pine nuts dusted with heirloom Chimayo red chile.

The Minero shows an initial aromatic hit of smokiness which is followed by complex notes of banana, honey, citrus, some weird alkaloid herbal shit with refined 'jet fuel' aromatics providing a long finish with a steely minerality. It is very difficult to find words for the complex set of flavors encountered when the thick, viscous liquid coats the tongue. A kaleidoscope of flavors emerge from the initial smokiness as the mezcal is rolled around the mouth. Bitter lemon zest, resin, herbs and alkaloids are followed by smoky honey with hard rocks and pepper on the long desolate finish.

My sister Mary is a professional food writer. When she first encountered Minero she wrote the following:  "This mezcal was a whole new kind of tasting experience for me: it was almost entirely olfactory. Maybe this is how a lizard “tastes,” by just flicking its tongue. As well as savoring a sip every few minutes, I stuck my nose in the glass and just inhaled every few minutes. The aroma was a lot more complex than anything my tongue’s taste bud receptors were designed to recognize. It had a "flavor" designed more for the limbic brain than the mouth. Other extremely volatile drinks (armagnac, cognac, old whiskey) have at least one or two comfortingly identifiable taste connections--sweet, acid, bitter. This mezcal had cut all the kite strings attached to the usual contents of the sensory memory bank. And I tend to think that’s part of the enchantment."

I had to look up limbic. "The limbic system includes the areas in the brain involved in emotion, motivation and emotional association with memory. It influences formation of memory by integrating emotions with stored memories of physical sensations." The limbic system is descended from the olfactory bulb of the brain and provides an evolutionary basis for the union of emotion, smell and memory.

So, to make Pechuga they take the intense complex flavors of Minero, add all the fruit, nuts and rice, and run the vapors over a chicken. What the hell do you get from that?

The aroma features a much milder smokiness followed by buttery, yeasty, liquified bananas reminiscent of the 'Elvis fried PBJ + Banana Sandwich' we had eaten earlier at the Fair. Fine fruity alcoholic aromatics reminiscent of a super-refined European Eau de Vie float to the forefront. The complex herbal aromas that dominated the Minero are still present, but are lurking beneath the fruit and cool refreshing notes of fresh aloe vera. One has the sensation of being very lost in a very rich and complex thing. Navigation is difficult.

Amazing viscous textures coat the palate like a lip balm. Notes of honey, complex fruits and smoke emerge in that order. The overall impression is that of the finest, cleanest, richest silver agave you could imagine. The rich spirit is tender and delicious like the best roast chicken. The finish is extremely long and complex with dark, bitter undercurrents of raw chocolate and black pepper intertwined with smoky honey.

In conclusion:  Where the Minero leaves you alone on a desolate but contemplative metaphysical plain, Pechuga wraps you in a safe, warm spiritual place, safe from any storm
Difficult to find, but worth the search. We occasionally have them at Sigel's, but they don't last long!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lots of Friends When You're Pouring Krug, Dom, Grande Dame....

Had well over 500 of our closest friends in the store last night. Poured 13 different Sparkling Wines. Had over 100 empty bottles! Thanks to Ed and our good friends with Moet Hennessy for putting on a fabulous tasting.

We started with 4 selections from Domaine Chandon. The Brut and Blanc de Noir were their usual delicious selves, really good quality bubbles at very reasonable prices. Etoile was delicious, but I thought the Etoile Rose was stunning. Delicious sparkling wine at the base with just a touch of strawberries and a finishing slip of honey down the back of the tongue.

Moet Chandon showed their rich and delcious Grand Vintage 2000. Basically made with the wine that doesn't go into Dom Perigon, there is no other wine in the portfolio between the Grand Vintage and Dom. The Vintage 2000 represents an amazing value. Imperial Brut Rose has a bold touch of cherries and the Nectar Imperial has its reliable rich touch of sweetness. The Nectar has been my favorite dessert bubbly for many years.

Clicquot Brut was Clicquot Brut, full and very toasty. The Vintage 2002 was a winner as was the Rose, made for a summer Sunday watching Wimbledon with its strawberries and cream!

Of course the big table featured the tete de cuvees. Dom Perignon 2000 was fresh and crisp with stone fruits, honey, minerals and sparkling acidity. Grande Dame 1998 featured hints of toast and hazelnuts with complex fruits and honey.

Krug's current Grand Cuvee was very interesting as it is nowhere near as nutty and toasty as previous releases. They use 7 vintages to blend the wine and they have used the same barrels for fermentation for many years so the barrels are essentially neutral. They use the same vineyards and the  same family has blended the wine for many years. The only variable is vintage variation. Ed suspects there is a large dollop of the 1995 in the blend. Of the different vintages of Krug he has in his cellar, the 95 is the least approachable and he's still waiting for the acidity to calm down, which would account for the crisp attack of the wine. That being said, it is quite delicious and the current blend with its crisp attack on top of the nutty complex of fruits and honeys is my favorite style of white Burgundy. Only Krug has bubbles which just makes it that much better!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chris Ringland Shiraz Tasting with Chris Ringland

As was mentioned in the previous post, the R Wines tasting was a great success. The event was very well attended, as it should be when a world famous winemaker is in the store. The wines showed very well, and best of all, sales were very brisk. In addition to selling wines with 'everyday' pricing, we took a large number of pre-sale orders for the rare and exceptional limited production shiraz's.

But the real treat was at the end of the tasting. Chris had with him a four year vertical selection of the legendary Chris Ringland Shiraz, which he had opened for a private tasting earlier in the day. And in a moment of extraordinary generosity, he shared the wines with the wine staff who had worked the tasting.

A little back story is in order. Chris Ringland Shiraz is a tiny production wine made from the Three Rivers Vineyard, located at the top of ridge in Barossa. The vines were planted in 1910. Yields are miniscule, generally around 1 ton per acre, extremely low for the Barossa Valley. Production typically is 750 to 1100 bottles, depending on the  the vintage. Intervention and manipulation of the vineyard is minimal.

Chris said he throws bird netting over the vines after the grapes change color at veraison and rarely goes under the nets until it's time to harvest. "I used to be fairly obsessive about checking the progress of the grapes," he said. "But now I just throw on the netting and let it go. When you really know the vineyard, you can usually tell what's going on just by looking at the grapes. Now, when I think it's about ready, I go under and taste the grapes and maybe test the sugar. Usually it's about a week or so before they're ready to harvest and sometimes, it's 'Oh shit, we need to get these grapes in now!'"

The winemaking is equally minimal. The grapes are crushed, the juice is fermented and aged in new French oak for around 40-42 months. It is then aged in bottle for another couple of years before release. The bottles are wrapped and packaged in individual wooden boxes with lead seals. Buyers beware, there's no checking the fill level of these bottles! Generally about 1/3 of the production is sold in Australia, the rest in the States. Any wine sold in Europe is via after market transactions. Needless to say, it is not cheap.

And, needless to say, the wines are amazing. We tasted the 2001 and 2002 vintages which have been released, as well as the 2003 (about to be released) and the 2004, which is still a year or so away. The wines all show a remarkably consistent flavor profile and identity. There is vintage variation, but it doesn't come close to overriding the singular flavor of the wine produced from this exceptional vineyard.

Aromatics are deep and dark, redolent of any black fruit you can name, licorice, creosote, earth, smoke. Intensity of floral perfumes seemed to vary by vintage. The dense, dark wines bring flavors of deep, dark intensity. Notions of black fruits tend to be swallowed by soy, hoisin, smoked meats and provencal herbs before those are devoured in turn by dark minerals, asphalt, truffles, earth, integrated tannins and surprising acidity which keeps the flavors turning on the palate through the long extended finish. Alcohols tend to be massive, even by Australian standards, but totally unobtrusive. You would never even think about alcohol unless you looked at the label.

Even against this massive tapestry, each vintage presented unique characteristics and it seemed that every taster had a different favorite. The 2001 (100 pts- Robert Parker) had a dark snarl to it, reminiscent of V-8 engines and glass-pack mufflers. The 2002 (100 pts - Robert Parker) had rich, opulent fruits and was showing a seamlessly silky profile. The 2003 (97 pts- Robert Parker) showed expressive elegance and rich, exotic perfumes. The 2004 (not yet rated) was just a monolithic mass of flavor and fat baby fruit. Yet despite their differences, each wine was just a different expression of the vineyard.

(Different Expression. The term is thrown around with increasing frequency these days. Whisk(e)y folk use it all the time. This tasting gave real meaning to the expression.)

I want to express my thanks to Chris for the entire evening. He is easy to be around, to work with and to talk to. He was great with the customers and signed many, many bottles. It was an overwhelming treat to be able to taste the Chris Ringland wines at all, let alone sit around a table, taste and discuss them with the winemaker. Let me just say that it was up there as far as experiences go for wine guys like me and my colleagues. Needless to say, we wore big grins for the next few days!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

R Wines Tasting with Chris Ringland

It was a real treat to have Chris Ringland in the store a couple of weeks ago for a public tasting of some new releases. Chris makes the wines for "R" Wines, a partnership with Dan Philips and the wines are imported through The Grateful Palate. Over the past few years, Chris and Dan have been focusing on securing leases on some of the choicest vineyards in Australia and are producing a multitude of wines of amazing quality that are selling at amazingly affordable prices. Of course the upper tier wines will still knock your socks off!

It was my first opportunity to taste the 2008 Marquis Philips Riesling 44. Classic riesling notes of rich apricot and petrol waft from the glass, followed by crisp, mineral laden riesling that is bone dry. Very Alsatian in character.

Next we poured the 2008 Bitch Grenache. The response to this wine has always been the same. People buy the wine for the novelty of the label and then they come to buy more. The recipe is very simple: pick ripe old-vine fruit, let it ferment and put it in a bottle. No oak, no manipulation, just ripe concentrated fruit-driven wine.

2008 Permutations Pinot Noir and 2006 R Wine "Little R" Cabernet are both well-made and varietally correct, which is a big statement when you are talking about these prestigious grapes and the affordable prices these wines command.

The star of the evening was the 2007 Chris Ringland Ebenezer Shiraz. And what's not to like about this wine? Beautiful silky black fruits are robed in veils of vanilla and toasty oak. It just tastes too good and is way too easy to drink. Surprisingly, Chris says this wine is just a baby and recommends using a Vinerator wine aerator or double-decanting the wine to see all the comlexity. People seemed to like it straight from the bottle as we sold every bottle we had in the store.

And then they went to the table with the big-boy wines!

First up was the Chateau Chateau 2007 David and Goliath McLaren Vale Grenache. The Chateau Chateau series features small lots of exceptional single vineyard Grenache. The spectacular labels are designed by the Hungarian Artist, Istvan Orosz, who creates images with impossible objects, optical illusions and double-meanings. The David and Goliath, 100 cases produced from 80 year old vines aged in neutral barrels, featured layers of richly perfumed red fruits, spices, minerals and leather.

The next three wines were extremely limited expressions of Shiraz and were only available on a pre-sale basis. Evil Incarnate 2004 and The Wine 2004 are both sourced from the Hoffman Vineyard in Ebenezer, but the barrels selected for each wine were selected for their unique characteristics. Evil Incarnate was aged for 36 months in French hogsheads. The multitude of pure black fruits were precisely etched, with soy and truffles leading down a dark path of smoky earth and finely integrated tannin. The Wine saw the same barrel regimen, but the fruits are richer and more opulent and are graced with notes of soy and hoisin before dissolving into a long finish with fine tannin and dark chocolates.
Anamorphosis 2006 is sourced from Kalimna and was aged for 30 months in new French oak barrels made from four of France's finest coopers. The wine explodes on the palate in a dizzying array of red and black fruits. Imagine berries of pomegranate, huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry, red currant, black currant and cranberry all popping crazy on your palate simultaneously. Something like that. And then it just slowly dissolves into infinite inky blackness. Nice.

It so happens that the word 'anamorphosis' has a very specific meaning. (I had to look it up!)  An 'anamorphisis' is a drawing that presents a distorted image which only appears in its natural form under certain conditions, say, viewed in a cylindrical mirrored surface, like a wine bottle. Istvan Orosz specializes in such things. The wine comes in a special box with the bottle (in a black fabric bag to protect the mirrored finish) and the poster with the inscrutable drawing of a forest floor on which to place the bottle to reveal the image.