Barbeito: Tradition Done Differently

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-22-2016

During a trip to Madeira eaIMAG3181rlier this month, I visited six of the eight producers on this volcanic Portuguese island. During each stop, I tried to conceptualize the producer’s individual aesthetic within the context of the larger Madeira puzzle.

D’Oliveiras was the wise elder of the group. H.H. Borges was the precise, focused practitioner. Barbeito was the skillful fighter, full of excitement.

Barbeito has been around since 1946, but in a land so rich with winemaking history, that actually makes it the youngest producer on the island of Madeira. (A new producer is in the works, but hasn’t yet brought any wines to market.) Barbeito is also the most innovative producer on the island, and the firm is offering up a host of options that should entice the next generation of wine-drinkers. Their wines (which total about a quarter-million liters per year) have a common racy appeal and attractive freshness. These wines scream “I’m fortified, but I’m so food friendly!” The colors are lighter, ranging from lemon rind to medium orange, and the labels are playful and bright.

The winery is located way up in the precarious hills above Funchal, a stark contrast from downtown street headquarters of Blandy’s, D’Oliveiras and Borges. This facility, opened in 2008, is steely and modern, boasting top-notch equipment like a robotic lugar (a machine that replicates the old tradition of stomping grapes by foot).

“Here we try to combine tradition with innovation,” Leandro Gouveia, Barbeito’s wine shop manager, told me during my visit. Read the rest of this entry »

Unfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-09-2016


Vineyard views from the north side of Madeira.

Like few other wines in the world, the wines from the island of Madeira are synonymous with their distinctive method of production. For centuries, producers here have fortified their wines with neutral spirits, then aged the wines in cask for long periods of time, oxidizing them and exposing them to heat. The result is one of the world’s winemaking gems — a seemingly indestructible wine that can age for centuries and retain its exotic characteristics for long after the bottle is opened.

After a week-long trip this Portuguese island, I have a whole lot to write about these magnificent wines and the island and people responsible for them. But, first, I wanted to explore the state of the island’s still wines. Yes, they make unfortified, dry, white and red table wines on Madeira. The wines ranged from the eccentric and odd to the refreshing and impressive.

The entire island is home to less than 500 hectares of vines, which cling to unreasonably steep hillsides in tiny, terraced vineyards. And still wine production counts for a mere 4-5% of the island’s total production. So there are not a lot of bottles to go around. The still Madeira wines (which fall under the appellation “DOP Madeirense”) are made in very small quantities, and the majority of the wine stays on the island. But the evolution of the still wine movement in Madeira signifies a desire to adapt and innovate. And that’s notable for a tremendously regulated wine industry on an island typified by a stick-to-your-guns respect for tradition and history.

As a collective group, DOP Madeirense white wines are fresh, vibrant, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and laced with citrus peel and floral flavors. Like seemingly everything produced on the island, the wines exude a sense of sea salt and oceanic vibrancy. As a surfer and lover of all things of the sea, these wines excite me. And they’re perfectly matched to local cuisine like lapas and scabbard fish. The red wines (frequently blends of two to five varieties) tend to have lighter tannic structure, high acidity, crunchy red fruit and plenty of earth and spice elements to go around.

While these wine are quirky, tasty and fit well on the table, it makes little sense for producers of still Madeira wine to export them. Portugal (which everyone here calls the Mainland) produces plenty of Verdelho, for example. And the Mainland has plenty of not-so-treacherous places to grow grapes. Like any major wine category, Mainland Verdelho can be very good, but there are many serviceable wines with large production and moderate price tags, something Madeira producers simply cannot match. A wine competition between the Mainland and Madeira is like pitting a heavyweight against a bantamweight. Madeira winemakers aren’t eager to step into that ring.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to import brisk, fresh white wines that pair wonderfully with local seafood when producers have access to at least some amount of quality white grapes on the island. More than one million people visit Madeira every year, and those people want to eat and drink everything the island has to offer. Madeira already imports a large amount of the food that appears on the restaurant table. Some producers figure they can make still wines for consumption right here on the island. And I’m glad these wines exist. Read the rest of this entry »

Travels in Alsace Part 2: Trimbach

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Uncategorized | Posted on 01-21-2016

For a winery that has been around since 1626, even minor changes feel like a big deal. But for those of us that know and love Trimbach—undoubtedly one of France’s most important wineries, the “first growth” of Alsace—some recent changes don’t feel so small.

And yet, when I met with Jean Trimbach at the Trimbach estate in Ribeauville shortly before Thanksgiving, everything felt like business as usual. Classy and cool, Jean made these relatively big changes feel seamless and natural. Above all, of course, the family remains dedicated to continuing to make the world’s best riesling. Jean quipped, “After riesling, there is nothing. And after that, there is chardonnay.” He then paused before adding, as if making a difficult concession, “or Sauvignon Blanc.”

So true!

IMG_2738Everything about Trimbach, from its charming estate to its sleek wines to the family that makes them, is elegant, understated, and classic. Like Vermeer’s paintings, the wines’ colors shine brightly through sometimes stern, always elemental, backgrounds. The domain itself, directly under hills laced with vines and capped by a crumbling medieval castle, feels invitingly simple, bespeaking a sense of taste and proportion that make the monstrosities in, say, Napa, appear as shamelessly tacky as a suburban McMansion.

When my wife and I visited the domain for the first time on our honeymoon, a stork took flight from its massive nest across the ancient grain silo across the street. The nest was, of course, still there on our return some twelve years later.

Trimbach is history that never feels old; while some other classists in the region can feel outmoded or musty, Trimbach reflects the timelessness of perfection. Over the years they’ve resisted trends, such as the biodynamicism that swept through the region, for all the right reasons; why make changes when you got it right at the outset?

Instead, Trimbach has made gradual, precise changes to its vinification—changes that sometimes belie trends and conventional wisdom about quality, such as increasing yields to lower alcohol percentage in the face of climatic warming—drawing on the uniquely profound experience with vineyards and wines by a family that has studied them for generations. Seemingly old-school and decidedly untrendy practices—like refusing to hand sort grape bunches, choosing instead to pay professionals to hand select on the vine—define Trimbach’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach.

The Trimbach’s are not renegades, mavericks, gurus, earth dogs, or demagogues—they’re wine intellectuals.Alsace1

But of course, the world around them changes. In Alsace, it seems to get warmer by the year. And there have been long standing debates about the Grand Cru system first established in 1975. Trimbach, an important thought leader both in Alsace and France in general, has long been known for opting out of the system. The problem? Not all Crus are made the same.

When the politically motivated bureaucrats first drew up the Cru boundaries, they painted with broad brushes; many Grand Crus, such as the popular Hengst and Schlossberg, include parcels that are both undeniably world-class and parcels that are totally mundane. Why, Alsace2then, would Trimbach want to participate in a system that has failed to recognize the specialness of their unique holdings—especially, of course, the famed 3-acre Clos Ste. Hune in a privileged part of the Rosaker Grand Cru? The Clos Ste. Hune, reflecting the incompoerably complex terroir of Alsace, has the areas’ highest percentage of limestone, the same degraded seashell, ocean-bed character that distinguishes the finest vineyards in Chablis.

So what has changed? First of all, Trimbach has, against all odds in an area where nobody wants to sell, procured important new vineyards: the recent first bottlings from Grand Cru Geisberg will soon be joined by wine made from a 1.6ha parcel in the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg. In addition, as of ten days before my arrival, they significantly increased their Ribeauville holdings by purchasing a fully biodynamic vineyard. They’re going to keep it that way—so be prepared for Trimbach’s first truly biodynamic wines. And new family members, now in the 12th generation, are taking on expanded roles, from designing labels to making the wines. After 36 of his own, Pierre Trimbach’s son has now participated in his second vintage.

IMG_2739While Trimbach exudes class and restraint, the tasting, lead by Jean Trimbach, was downright opulent. We tasted through much of their large range of wines, beginning with the “classic” bottlings ranging from the 2015 Pinot Blanc to the 2013 Riesling—Jean corrected me when I called them “entry level,” and given their quality, I take his point. All were good or better, and many ridiculous values. If you are a wine purveyor appealing to a value-driven consumer base, why are you not selling these wines?

Overall, unsurprisingly, what stood out at the tasting were the dry wines. To make great dry white wines is no easy feat, and given their successes it’s not hard to see why Trimbach is the darling of France’s Michelin-starred restaurants. More than just dry—after all, Trimbach makes excellent, restrained sweet wines too—Trimbach’s wines are full of character, class, and, above all, balance.

The 2012 Riesling Reserve, produced from an area next to the grand cru Osterberg that will soon itself be classified, was a standout for its purity, expressiveness, and undeniable value. This is the kind of wine that I like to cellar—I’m recently drinking the 2002, which I thought would never come around. It did.

As I gushed over the 2008 Clos St. Hune, Trimbach’s flagship wine, Jean stated in his dry, understated way, that Trimbach has a “solid image for riesling.” True. The 2008 is an early bloomer, drinking perfectly well already. I doubt that this will be the one to go 50 years, but I don’t mean this as a slight to its obvious quality.

Between the excellent 2008 and 2009 Fredric Emiles, I don’t know which I preferred. The 2008 needs age to round out its sharp acidity, and was relatively closed. The 2009, on the other hand, considered by some the best wine made in Alsace that year, was far more open and can be drunk now or later. Of the two, I’d put my money on the 2008 aging longer, collectors.

In a tasting like this, the non-blockbusters can get lost in the mix. But why not point out that the inexpensive 2014 Pinot Blanc—the 2nd vintage under screw cap, another change for Trimbach—was fruity, clean, a lovely aperitif. The 2012 Riesling Selection de Vieilles Vignes, a new wine for me, juicy with blood orange and tangerine, is another worthy mention.

Of the late harvest and dessert wines, the 2008 Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre was stunning, with excellent acidity and purity—a reminder that Trimbach is far more than a one trick pony. And as for the 2007 Gewurztraminer Hors Choix SGN… my god.

After the tasting, I was in need of a nap. But why not go wander around Strasbourg instead? First, I’d have to over-pack my cumbersome luggage with some Trimbach bottles, including an awesome Frederic Emile magnum, that I could then haul all over creation for the next week.

Already looking forward to my next visit, I’m excited to see what Trimbach does—and doesn’t do—next.

Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-20-2016

What is the future of classic wine regions that are neither associated with the more insidious effects of Parkerization, nor with the rarefied wine auctions of aristocratic collectors, nor with, exactly, the recent trends embraced by hipsters? I’m talking about regions like Brunello, Rioja, and, the subject of this writing, Alsace. How do these regions gain a market over and above the idiosyncratic preferences of individual consumers? Can they ever become regions automatically identified with obvious collectability? Can they gain wine geek street cred?

In a recent issue of Tong, editor and publisher Filip Verheyden raves: “I love Alsace.” A recently published posthumous book by philosopher Jacques Derrida announces, essentially, the same thing. Now more than ever, after a recent, late-November trip, I know why.

IMG_2700In the wake of a difficult period marked both by Parkerization and by global warming, a period that was becoming difficult to defend as a collector of Alsatian wines, Alsace is once again demonstrating that it produces the world’s best Riesling. In my opinion, now that the region has moved beyond its slavish appeal to collectors by featuring rare and sweet wines, ironically, the wines of Alsace demand the attention of serious wine collectors.

 In the Tong piece, Verheyden speculates, “Alsace breathes the same deep history as Burgundy.” Not only this, but to my palate, it produces wines that are Burgundy’s equal. Riesling, of course, but also a handful of Pinot Noirs, such as the ones I tried at Albert Mann, that—it’s time to admit—are truly excellent and much stronger QPR wines than you’ll find in Burgundy.

Austria, don’t get me wrong, I respect you; I forgive the antifreeze incident and your wines get better all the time and your most important city is named after wine. But the beautiful villages of Alsace, characterized by the half-timbre mansions of wine merchants, speak to an even longer and even more profound history of experience with fine wine. For god’s sake, Hercules left his shield in the Rangen vineyard after over-imbibing on Alsatian wine!

Germany, you’ve got the stronger claim to my affection. But for all of your staggeringly steep slopes, even you can’t match Alsace for sheer terroir diversity (don’t be jealous, nobody else can either, except perhaps Burgundy, and maybe not even them). Plus, as much as I nod in agreement at just about everything Terry Theiss has to say, I just don’t find your pretty, delicate wines as versatile—or, I have to say, as easily likeable—as their heartier siblings from Alsace. I concede that I may be a philistine, an oaf.IMG_2715

 Yet, despite my affection, the region continues to be little more than an afterthought among American consumers, collectors (with the important exception of Trimbach and also some rare, sometimes silly, SGN wines), and the wine geek crowd. I already hinted at some of the reasons for this. Despite the celebrated innovations of thought leaders in organic wine making at wineries such as Zind Humbrecht, JosMeyer, and Marcel Diess, Alsatian wine in the oughts was often too big, too sweet, too blowsy—even among, and sometimes, perplexingly, especially among, the regions’ most innovative biodynamic producers. (One important exception: during this time, Trimbach, of course, never bowing to trends, remained a stalwart producer of predictably excellent, collectable wine.)

Indeed, even the bad times were marked by plenty of forward-thinking, cutting edge viniculture; Alsace was a, maybe the, thought leader in the organic wine movement. But great ideas weren’t enough. Blowsy, alcoholic wines were never going to win over the wine geek crowd, no matter how “honest” or terroir-driven. And, as I pointed out already, collectors—the market that likely drove the trend towards sweetness—liked the points those sweet wines got, but mostly shrugged.

For those of us that began collecting wine in the early oughts, we were already priced out of the Burgundy market and were about to be priced out of Bordeaux too. Worse, we also found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Parkerization movement. For these reason and others, the wine geek crowd, after much soul searching, began seeking out wines from less trammeled regions—Loire, Jura, even Sicily—where winemakers were producing “honest” wine from often obscure, indigenous grapes. We can say now that this movement, orchestrated New York and San Francisco sommeliers, gathering strength on “underground” wine boards like winetherapy, changed the industry.

IMG_2708Turning away from Parker and the point-driven collectible market not only opened up a world of good, affordable wines, but also made us feel like rebels. Only squares bought $300 bottles of Burgundy when you could get a $20 Arbois. We had disrobed the emperor, and, like good hipsters do, we could look down on those “pointy people” as pretentious, uninformed sheep. Sure some of the wine was good, even great, but that was hardly the point: obscure, organic producers were, above all, cool.

It’s too easy to write an article like this as a gentle rumination on Alsace’s fairy tale villages, warm people, and unparalleled history. But there’s a flipside to this. It’s true: there is nothing cool at all about Alsace. Sometimes, standing in its swirling cobblestone streets, I need to shake the image of twee Hummel figurines out of my head, images of puffy-faced white children fishing, holding umbrellas, bathing in wooden slat washtubs. I loathe those things. It’s not so much that I hate twee, exactly, as much as that I instinctively distrust it. It is too cozy, domestic and, frankly, bourgeoisie.

The type of people that like to dwell in an imagined long ago time when it made sense for white children to push carts with flowers in them without having other scary races there to steal them are no doubt the same people that want to “make America great again.” But I digress.

At its worst, Alsace seems like the kind of place meant to attract the lumbering schools of aging British and German tourists that, in fact, it does attract. And for us ever-cool, idiosyncratic, compulsively-individual wine geeks, working the oddball perimeters of wine consumption, deconstructing the industry’s dominate narrative and values, Alsace’s traditions can make it seem too stuffy, too on-the-nose, too boring.

Like so many fluted bottles precariously stacked in my cellar, waiting to leap out and crash atop my head, Alsatian wines just don’t seem to fit in. To many French, Alsace is not French enough. To many Americans, Alsace is not red enough. To wine geeks, Alsace is not cool enough. In all cases, Alsace doesn’t conform to the wine world’s vision of itself.

But I think that, among those of us that sought out alternatives to Parker’s vision of the wine world, regions like Alsace, written off as uncool, were too easily overlooked. This is because we valued cool even over quality.

But I’m ready for quality. And Alsace has what just about no other wine region does: ancient traditions that guide an unparalleled commitment to quality. In Alsace, the timeless value of quality makes our postmodern appeals to coolness seem shoal and insipid.

Indeed, I love Alsace because it frees us from the requirement of coolness, valuing excellence instead.

And the fact that its wines are both of impeccable quality, and considered uncool by many American consumers, makes me love it even more.

My most recent trip to Alsace included visits to wineries such as Leon Beyer, Albert Mann, and Trimbach. I highly recommend each. But in the next section, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite winery in my favorite wine region and one of the best in world: Trimbach.

Sommakase, At Your Service

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 12-21-2015

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

o·ma·ka·se (ōməˈkäsā,ōˈmäkəsā/): (in a Japanese restaurant) a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef.

“we had the five-course omakase”

In Japanese, omakase literally translates to “I leave it up to you.” It’s a way of turning control over to the chef, trusting that he/she will read you and orchestrate the ingredients and courses in the most sublime succession for your dining experience.

Borrowing from this concept, Caleb Ganzer, Head Sommelier of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, has introduced a cleverly named, “Sommakase” option to his wine list. Guests sit back and let Caleb and his team do all the legwork of choosing wines for them – based on price points of $30 / $60 / $90. Caleb tells me there is no set formula or prescription to follow; the staff tailors a truly bespoke experience, pulling from the ~50 or so bottles they have open or can Coravin at any moment. More details and my interview with Caleb are below.

And with that, “I leave it up to you” to visit La Compagnie and enjoy this innovative and fun concept. I highly recommend.

Tell me how this idea all came together. All the details!

Caleb: This idea has been laying nascent in my sub-consciousness for many years during my experiences in the previous restaurants where I’ve worked. I’ve been simply waiting for the freedom in a program to bring this to the forefront and shine a light on it by putting it directly on the by-the-glass menu.

It’s the kind of thing that sommeliers have been wanting for years. Essentially it’s the opportunity for (a) the guest to be given an experience at a comfortable, preordained price point and (b) the sommelier to be given the trust and control to bring the guest wines he or she will enjoy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have a stronger ally in a food & wine establishment than a sommelier. A sommelier is always & forever on the guest’s side. That’s not to say that any other position in a restaurant isn’t on his or her side, but we have a lot of face time with the guest and we have a vested interest in sharing our food & wine knowledge in such a way to ensure the guest can have as an amazing of a time as possible in our establishment.

The Sommakase opportunity helps initiate a conversation between the guest and the sommelier and immediately creates an even stronger bond of hospitality whereby the sommelier wants to go above and beyond to show the guest a truly remarkable time.

What has the reception been? Do people understand what it is?

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Caleb: Despite the field of wine becoming ever more democratic and inclusive, there is still a lot of stress in making wine decisions for most people. We mostly just have to reassure guests that the Sommakase offering is what they think it is. They are usually pretty stoked in asking us about it and when they are finally told that, indeed, “we just bring you some wines that we know you will love based on your tastes, preferences and mood,” it’s amazing to watch the joy enter their faces and the relief they experience. To be able to relinquish control in the sommelier’s hands at a preordained price-point…it’s kind of a win-win for both parties.

Can you give me a couple examples of what you’ve served people and why?

Caleb: The beauty of Sommakase is that it’s completely bespoke. We don’t have “scripts” that we pour from.

Sometimes people want to see only the geeky stuff that we’re jazzed about at the current moment. I once brought exclusively Chardonnay to one guest who asked for this style of tasting experience. But not the typical oak-influenced Chardonnay one might expect. I started with super sharp Grongnet Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Côte des Blancs and one of the raciest producers I’ve tasted in a long time. Then I brought Ganevat’s 100% Rien Que du Fruit, a surprisingly clean, albeit unfiltered, “glou-glou” style of white from the iconic Jura producer. Finally I brought Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile – this is a very sherry-like wine from the Jura region as well. One foot in flor-aged aromatics and another foot in Burgundian texture. Three completely unique examples from one well-known, but often misunderstood grape.

Other times people leave it up to our sommeliers to put together a “full-bodied discovery red flight.” I’m happy to have a team who has the knowledge – and a list that has the flexibility – to please almost any palate. For this we started with a mineral, yet ripe Carignan blend from Domaine des Enfants, l’Enfant Perdu 2012 from Côtes Catalanes. Then we did Franck Balthazar’s Côtes du Rhône 2014, a unique Grenache-heavy blend from fruit Franck gets from Seguret in the Southern Rhône. Finally we introduced them to a Biodynamic Bordeaux by Alain Moueix at Château Mazèyres 2011 — uber-polished Merlot from Pomerol with a weight associated with this iconic appellation and a vivacity typical of the viticulture practice.



Tasting by Shape and Feel

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-05-2015

While attending a New Zealand wine seminar last year, I tweeted:

Nick describes his Rippon 2009 Pinot, “It has layered, linear feel & phenolic drive forward.” #nzwine Tasting by ‘shape & energy’ is #hard.

Nick Mills, owner & winemaker at Rippon in New Zealand, was discussing how he likes to think about his wines beyond descriptions of flavors, but rather consider the shape, feel, and energy of the wine. Throughout the rest of the tasting, I made a concerted effort to observe and think about the texture and energy of the wines I tried. I struggled. Finding the vocabulary to express the “life” of a wine in that specific way really is hard.

Like many curious drinkers, I first learned to taste by attempting to copy the flavor and aroma profiles detailed in the oft obscure language of wine reviews and publications. E.g., “Toast and brown sugar notes frame crisp black cherry and plum flavors…” is a description used to review one of Rippon’s wines in the Wine Enthusiast.

I then moved on to the more structured, deductive language of WSET tasting notes – dry with medium acidity, medium tannin, light body, and flavor characteristics of [insert WSET approved floral/fruits, spice/vegetable, and oak/other notes here].

These methods are both useful in that they provide a familiar and somewhat common language for people to use when describing wine. They also require a degree of mindfulness, which Laura Mowrey recently notes, is a beautiful and valuable thing when tasting wine.

Another important way of tasting and remembering wine is, of course, through experience. For example, when I smell a Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, I’m brought back to my sister visiting me at my first apartment in New York. Or as David heard a participant express in a seminar, wines can be likened to people or art…or to characters, music, or places. This way of talking about wine adds a memorable and personal dimension to what we taste.

However, Nick’s concept of tasting by the actual shape or energy of a wine was something foreign to me, especially when I tried to do it while removing all the other ways I’d previously learned to taste wine. And upon further thought & conversation with Nick, I realized this exercise was silly anyway. It’s about the whole, and about expanding the way we taste, vs. one prescriptive formula. So, let’s get a little geeky and expand. See my interview with Nick below the fold.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 2/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-28-2015

IMG_1276Before reading, please check out the first part of this piece.

Many of the agave distilleries, which are essentially farms (known as palenques), function as they have for generations. Simple, rustic structures, each unique but similar, shield the distillery operations while remaining party exposed to the elements. Here, nothing goes to waste: the bricks of the scant distillery structures are made from byproducts from the distillation.

Depending on the work happening that day, you’ll end up with very different photographs: a strangely simmering pile of dirt topped by a cross to ward off devils, under which the agave piñas bake and take on their characteristically smoky flavor; a donkey walking in languorous circles, turning a large stone (the tahona) wheel over a cement well to mash the agave, recently broken down by hand with a machete.

Getting to know the product itself involves wrapping one’s head around endless contingencies. There are at least eight species of agave used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca. Blending is common. While it used to be the case that the only single variety mezcals on the market were espadina and tobala, it’s increasingly common to see successful producers offering examples of the entire range, in addition to their blends, so that you can discover the pleasures of each through comparison. And while some plants are cultivated in rows, others grow wild; many producers celebrate this fact with bottlings of only the wild agave.

In addition to the complexity of the crop itself, there are a few different production methods, such as the common copper pot distillation and the more traditional, and rare, clay pot distillation. Add to this all of those variables familiar to wine production—differences in soil, elevation, and ripeness, as well as the vicissitudes of the native yeasts used in fermentation and, of course, age—and the potential differences increase exponentially.

IMG_1247These differences are readily available to taste, too, offering intellectual interest to the appreciation of mezcal. To really experience mezcal, just about everybody agrees that you need to drink the purer, un-oaked (blanco) varietals. And indeed, Mezcal has brilliance and the impression of a transparency familiar to wine drinkers that favor the expression of terroir. Unlike tequila, which I believe is at its best and most expressive with at least some oak regimen, oak tends to undermine mezcal. While great tequila is fruity, often oaky, and smoothly polished, great mezcal is transparent, pure, essential.

As a whole, the mezcal is complex on the nose and palate, with subtle fruit, smoke, vegetal, and spice notes. As opposed to those other spirits privileged enough to be called refined, such as scotch and brandy, mezcal, equally complex, is brazenly elemental. It’s rugged earth and explosive sunshine captured in liquid form.

My favorite example was a blend from the one traditional clay pot distillery we visited. I don’t know that this resulted from the clay pot itself, but as with wine makers that favor traditional methods, reflecting a certain sensitivity to their work, I wonder if this rare approach reflects a sensibility conducive to increased care and attention. Brightly fruity, minerally, and only slightly smoky, with a pleasing vegetal edge, this example stood out because of its transparency. It tasted just as good when I tried it back home. The worst examples had overtones of sherry—perhaps partly oxidized. In the lesser examples, I also tended to find a cheesy, lactic flavor.

Concerning the question of terroir transparency, I confess I’m of two minds. The purity of mezcal is real. But does it speak to a specific place?

On the one hand, at least painting with a broad brush, it’s clear that it does. I doubt that any spirit better reflects whether or not, for instance, the crop was grown in a more or less cool place. Therefore, there are clearly large-scale regional differences to attend to, as well as more subtle differences that result from, for instance, elevation—it’s not hard to believe that wild plants growing high up on the side of a Oaxacan mountain will taste altogether different than plants that see direct sunlight on the valley floor.

IMG_1240On the other hand, I have it on good authority that the implication made by Certain Famous Artisanal Mezcal Producers that label the bottles like wineries do, with the name of the region, village, or farm, have a lot of latitude in that labeling. In fact, those labels reflect mostly only where the mezcal is made—not where the agave is grown. Experientially this rings true. Trucks with loads filled with agave piñas were common; not that I think this settles the issue.

But it’s not just this. Again, experientially, even though I concede that, just as with mezcal, there are endless variables that eternally muddy the issue of terroir in wine, I’ve discovered in my life more than a few obvious examples of transparency to soil between varietals in a winemaker’s line that I’m left with no doubt.

In some limited sense, just about everything reflects terroir. In the end though, my belief is that the grape is a privileged vessel, almost uniquely suited to conveying subtle differences in environment.

In my experience only the oyster, which so perfectly reflects its place of origin, is comparable to the grape. And this is why both are, as we all know, favored by the gods themselves.

With the agave plant, I have so many doubts. I have doubts related to the violence of the distillation process; I have doubts related to the sheer mass of the plant. Also, there remains questions about the extent to which there is even the kind of soil variation in Oaxaca that would make it interesting to map in the first place—is there reason to think that Oaxaca has the soil complexity of Burgundy, Alsace, or even Virginia? In any event, the point is moot: as far as I know nobody has made even a basic overture towards tracing mezcal flavor to soil type.

So what do we mean when we speak of terroir in mezcal? Perhaps we mean it only in the limited sense. Yet, there seems to be more to it.

Questions remain. I suggest travelling to Oaxaca to answer them for your self.

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 1/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-27-2015

IMG_1279Mezcal is commonly called the “next big thing” in the spirit world, largely because of its supposed ability to transmit terroir.

But because it’s produced in small batches through traditional, even ancient, farming practices — and scarce here in the States — it’s expensive. In Oaxaca Mexico, however, even great examples are dirt cheap and readily available. This is why you need to go to the source, where you’ll discover a world of cultural, environmental, and gastronomic interest that rivals even even the best wine regions.

Terroir is an imprecise word used too freely in the wine world. Of course, it wasn’t long ago that the term was actually underused here, and it’s no doubt a good, enlightened thing that the concept serves as the philosophical center of the post-Parker wine world. But as is always the case with philosophical centers, at the point they become centers, which is a kind of blind spot, there is a cost. Terroir is now omnipresent in wine marketing — now used to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting, now used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.

Indeed, the vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.

Successful marketing campaigns work across industries. The rebellion you purchase when drinking a fun, young Pepsi product is the same rebellion you purchase when you “express your individuality” by choosing a Mac over a PC.

So it was only a matter of time before terroir would be used to describe beverages other than wine. And of course, beverage experts, like Michael Jackson in his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, have long made the argument that great spirits, opposed in his formulation to those that are merely corporate products, reflect their place of origin.

They have a point. But as a wizened wine geek, it is with some good healthy skepticism that I approach the claims by the spirit industry about terroir expression. Read the rest of this entry »

Drinking Lessons from Harvest

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 12-18-2014

From Naked Mountain Winery.

From Naked Mountain Winery.

Note: This is a guest post from Aaron Menenberg, a wine enthusiast who has worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery in Markham, Virginia.

We were hosting a wine critic. So early in the morning, the winemaker and I met up to decide which wines to pour — and open the bottles that needed air. When we poured one of our top-selling whites, the nose seemed fine. On the palate, however, I noted a hint of sherry.

“You taste the sherry?” the winemaker asked me. “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “This bottle is oxidized.”

“Glad we opened it now,” I thought. I had smelled and tasted sherry on wines previously and thought little of it. Until that moment, though, I didn’t realize it was a flaw.

In another instance, the winemaker and I were in the crushpad tasting samples that had spent about a week in tank. On one wine, we detected sulfur. I was told that while this was unfortunate, it was both fixable and not uncommon. The winemaker then pulled out a shiny, clean penny and told me to drop it into my glass. After about 60 seconds, the sulfur had vanished.  News to me.

“This variety has a tendency to get contaminated with hydrogen sulfide in our state,” the winemaker explained. “It can happen for a number of reasons — too many sulfites, wrong nutrients, bacterial contamination, bad or wrong yeast.”

I knew it wasn’t contamination — the winemaker is meticulously clean. And he has a good track record of yeast selection and nutrient provision. I’m not sure how it was ultimately fixed — he ran the wine through a few tests on a day I wasn’t there before deciding how to fix it. But by process of elimination –and knowing the winemaker’s skill — I imagine it had to do with some purchased grapes that had probably received too much sulfur while on the vine. Now I keep a few sanitized pennies in my kitchen in case a wine smells like rotten eggs.

These are just two examples of how learning to make wine has impacted how I drink wine. I’ve appreciated wine since before I was allowed to buy it, and I’ve been filling an ever-expanding cellar since I was 25 (I’m now 31). It’s full mostly of wine from my home state of Washington, along with some offerings from Burgundy, Chablis, Rhone, Jumillia, Barossa, and Israel. There are usually a few bottles of Virginia wine hanging out, too.

I decided to learn how wine was made last summer. I had been to many wineries before — strolling vineyards and visiting winemakers — but that wasn’t enough. I needed to learn by doing. So I spent a few weekends traveling to wineries within an hour of my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, before deciding which to approach for a part-time internship. I couldn’t work more than one or two days a week, so I approached a small winery and offered to work for free.

Thankfully, the winery said yes. I’ve now worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery processing grapes, monitoring fermentation, doing punch downs, filling tanks and barrels, and racking. I’ve also poured in the tasting room and for two critics.

The experience has been amazing. It takes me out to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I get to work with my hands and make something, and I’ve formed great friendships with the winemaker and the winery staff. But it has also affected how I drink and buy wine, all for the better.

Apart from the two lessons described above, the experience has expanded my appreciation of a winemaker’s style. On one end, there are the winemakers who pay homage to Mother Nature by intervening as little as possible. On the other end are winemakers who use all sorts of additives –clay, gelatin, charcoal, eggs, casein (a milk protein), and even isinglass (fish bladder extract) — to construct their wines.

Unsurprisingly, larger producers tend to intervene more. Mother Nature will leave her mark on a wine no matter how much it’s doctored, but there is much a winemaker can do to alter what Mother Nature gives him.

Some observations to the wine enthusiast based on my experience. Here are three:

If a wine’s flavors are too exact — you take a sip and swear you have a mouthful of strawberries — it probably isn’t coincidental. The winemaker probably made adjustments to minimize some flavors and spotlight others.

Second, winemakers who take a less obtrusive route to making wine — the anti-interventionists– run the very real risk of making some terrible wine. Sometimes Mother Nature gives you a perfect growing season, beautiful and healthy fruit, and you do your best to do right by her and let the wine make itself — and you screw up and inadequately monitor the cleanliness of the fruit and the whole lot becomes tainted with Brettanomyces in the tank.

Finally, you can and should at least try to appreciate each wine for what it is. Even if you prefer “natural wines,” it’s still quite a challenge to make a really good doctored wine.

I may never be a professional winemaker. But I intend to keep working at Naked Mountain Winery for as long as I can, because every day I spend there makes me a better wine drinker and smarter consumer.

White Rioja and Red Sancerre

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-12-2014

White Rioja on ice at an event 07/2013

White Rioja on ice at an event in NYC, 07/2013

The joy of discovery and the unexpected is one of the great delights in drinking wine.

Rioja typically conjures up images of luscious, oak-aged red wines made from Tempranillo. And, of course, Sancerre immediately brings to mind refreshing, lively, and mineral-driven white wines. Rightly so given that 85% of wines made in Rioja are red and 80% of the volume in Sancerre is white.

However, both Rioja and Sancerre have fun surprises in terms of their lesser known, respective white and red counterparts.

White Rioja

As the prevalence of Rioja wines grows in the U.S. (45% increase in Rioja exports over the last three years, according to Vibrant Rioja), consumers may see more and more white varietals on the market. Be prepared: there is a vast amount of diversity among the whites of the region – ranging from mellow and lightly herbal to powerful and smoky.

I attended a tasting of Riojas Blancos sponsored by Vibrant Rioja and discovered whites across the style spectrum. Some are great for lighter fare and some demand weightier and richer dishes of the fall’s cooler months. (Note: The whites of Rioja follow the same categories as the reds with Young, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, but with slightly different aging requirements).

Tasting notes of the wines, including a couple white Tempranillos, are below:

  • Muriel Blanco, 2012 Bodegas Muriel, $11/bottle: 100% Viura. Pale colored; lightly herbal with notes of lemon-lime and white peach. Mellow and easy sipping.
  • Dinastia Vivanco Blanco 2012, Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco, $12/bottle: Blend of Viura, Malvasia, and Tempranillo Blanco. Green-tinged and pale; strongly herbaceous and grassy (like “grassy” grassy, if you know what I mean) on the nose. On the palate, apple, sweet herbs, and fresh-cut grass.
  • ‘Inspiracion Vademar” Tempranillo Blanco 2011, Bodegas Valdemar, $23/bottle: 100% Tempranillo. Intense yellow in color; tropical peach, pineapple, and honeysuckle. Papaya, sea salt, and peach cobbler finish.
  • Placet Valtomelloso Blanco 2008, Bodegas Palacio Remondo, $25/bottle: 100% Viura. Reminiscent of oak and smoke on the nose; vanilla cream on the palate held in tension with the grassy, limey characteristics typical of Viura; texturally thick and oily; long finish.
  • Marques de Murrieta Capellania Reserva Blanco 2007, Bodegas Marques de Murrieta, $23/bottle: 100% Viura. The nose gives the impression of a slightly oxidative wine; nutty and waxy on the palate with a salty finish. A little like a Fino Sherry in profile.

Red Sancerre

When there is no Beaujolais to be found, or I should say red Bojo, since the region does make a small amount of white wine (~1% of production), red Sancerre is a lovely alternative. Read the rest of this entry »