29 November 2010

Cameron Hughes Online Tasting

This is the second time that I've received a sample set of 50mL bottles packaged by TastingRoom.com. While this particular set isn't available for sale, it was a very convenient way to zip through six wines during a recent online tasting. I still prefer to sit with a single, full-sized bottle and try it with some food, but for some of these events that involve half a dozen or more wines in the space of an hour, this packaging method is a lot more convenient and reduces the amount of wine that gets poured down the drain.

Cameron Hughes is a négociant who buys excess grapes or finished wine from wineries around the world, and then blends and packages them in various ways. It's a great way to make wine without owning actual real estate, and is also helpful for the farmers, who have a market for their extra capacity. Because the lineup is going to be a bit different every year, and has expanded into international wines, the bottles are released with lot numbers instead of nicknames. In general I dislike this because if you look at a bottle of Bin 458 or Lot 103, those numbers don't tell you anything useful. And you could have separate wines from two different producers that were both Lot 150, but one would be a Chardonnay and the other would be a Merlot. As the selection grows over time, the numbers can run together for consumers--Cameron Hughes is up to around Lot 240. This is an area where some detailed information on the back label is crucial to help differentiate the wide range of products.

As well as their online store, these wines are sold in Costco and Sam's Club throughout the country, as well as other grocery stores in those states where such sales are permitted.

2009 Lot 151
Columbia Valley
70% Riesling, 30% Chenin Blanc
Crisp and fruity aroma, medium sweetness with a pineapple character. This is the only Washington wine out of the group, everything that follows is from California.

2008 Lot 176
Los Carneros
95% Pinot Noir, 3% Tempranillo, 2% Syrah
Light strawberry aroma, mild, low tannins. Refreshing but not a lot of complexity.

2007 Lot 175
Napa Valley
100% Merlot
Black cherry, plum, a little black pepper.

2007 Lot 179
Napa Valley
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah
Big and meaty, with some cedar and black plum.

2007 Lot 161
Sonoma County
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot
Light red cherry, extremely mild and light. Little brambles on the finish.

2007 Lot 172
Atlas Peak, Napa Valley
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec
Touch of bacon fat, cedar, black cherry, firm tannins, little licorice and black tea. Really want to see this with more age.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

26 November 2010

Cupcake White Wines

When it comes to California and Cupcakes, my first thought isn't wine, but rather Google VP Marissa Mayer, also known as the Cupcake Princess. That has absolutely nothing to do with the wines below, but I thought I'd share.

2009 Cupcake Chardonnay
Central Coast, California
$12, 13.5% abv.

Apricot and pineapple, touch of sweetness with a big fruit profile. After some breathing the fruit settles down somewhat, and you're left with a soft, round wine. Not a lot of oak. It's the kind of wine I'd serve with a salad and a croissant/chicken salad sandwich on a warm afternoon.

2010 Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc
Malrlborough, New Zealand
$12, 13.0% abv.

Grapefruit pith, tart acidity, touch of lime curd, bright and clean. Serve with any shellfish and you're in business.

Funny thing with this one: I always taste wines as blind as possible. This means that I don't read the labels, don't read the paperwork, or look up anything about the wines beforehand. I'll take a look at all that later. When it comes time to taste, I'll just pull red or white as needed, and jot down notes while I'm tasting. I don't want to be influenced by price or composition or anything else. Obviously I'll have some idea based on region and grape, but it's the best I can do to ensure a level playing field in the absence of a fleet of attractive young interns who will catalog, open, and decant said wines so that I may try them truly blind. (Ladies interested in an unpaid wineblogging internship, let me know.)

While trying the Sauvignon Blanc, I kept thinking, "This really doesn't taste like California." I'm not an expert on these things, but I've tried a few wines... a few thousand at this point, I've lost count. And then I actually looked at the label and discovered, "They snuck in a Kiwi wine here!" I had just assumed that Cupcake = California, and hadn't thought that they might be producing international wines under that marque. A cautionary tale? A lesson? Not really, just that sometimes your nose and tongue will surprise you when the brain isn't paying attention.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

24 November 2010

AGWA de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur

Every year around Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn towards the foods that are native to the New World. Cranberries, potatoes, turkeys, corn, squash, even chiles, peppers, and tomatoes. For your holiday entertainment, let's take a look at another native New World crop that doesn't often show up on the Thanksgiving table.

* * *

Back when I was a kid, and the Just Say No campaigns were in full force and Miami Vice featured cocaine plots and embarrassing pastel shirts on a regular basis, there were those whispers around the playground. "You know, Coca-Cola has cocaine in it!" "No it doesn't, it used to, but it doesn't anymore." "Yeah, but if you buy the stuff in the bottles it totally has cocaine in it. My cousin told me." "Your cousin is full of crap." Before the Internet, such arguments were settled by throwing pine cones at each other.

Since the current recipe is a secret, we don't know how much safe, denatured coca leaf extract remains in modern Coke, but for a history that goes past classic American soft drinks, you have to look at the coca-based herbal liqueurs of 1820s Bologna, produced and distributed by the powerful de' Medici family. Before that, the leaf had been cultivated, chewed, and steeped in South America for some 3000 years.

So it was with an interest in history that I approached the mini-bottle samples of AGWA de Bolivia Coca Leaf Liqueur. $35 for a standard 750mL bottle. Yes, it's approved for sale in the EU and the US, and it does not contain any cocaine. And at only 60 proof, it's actually lighter in alcohol than many other cocktail ingredients.

I first tried this over ice. Light (but artificial) green in color, and an unmistakable aroma. I opened up a can of Coca-Cola next to this, and it was amazing to isolate that particular ingredient. I expected it to be sweet (in the tradition of oddly colored, unusual liqueurs), but there's only a touch of sweetness involved. There's something that makes the back of your mouth tingle, and sort of a grassy, almost minty finish. There are over 30 other components in this herbal liqueur, including green tea and ginseng. At the end it reminds you of an iced glass of herbal tea, and is quite nice.

Later I tried one of the suggested cocktail recipes, making a traditional 3:2:1 margarita with AGWA in place of the Triple Sec. While there was nothing wrong with the finished cocktail, I felt that the tequila and lime juice completely overwhelmed the more delicate flavors and thus it was not an ideal showcase for it.

The coca is grown and packaged in Bolivia, but is processed, blended, and bottled in the Netherlands. Why? Up until 1931, the Dutch were manufacturing industrial levels of cocaine thanks to their coca plantations on the Indonesian island of Java. They have some experience in this regard, and while the cocaine is extracted for medical purposes, the remaining byproduct can be used as a flavoring in beverages like this. (In the US, coca is processed in the same fashion at a factory in New Jersey to produce the flavoring for Coca-Cola.)

There's an illusion of an illicit thrill that's being attempted on the marketing front, an alternate green beverage for those that have tried but hated Absinthe. Some of the ads feature a humorous warning sign stating that it contains coca leaves, and when you mention Bolivia and Amsterdam together like this, most people aren't thinking about llamas and wooden shoes.

Note: This spirit was received as a sample.

22 November 2010

New Products from Fee Brothers

When I first got interested in bitters, I purchased a sampler set of Fee Brothers bitters from Amazon and wrote about them. I was contacted by some of the family that still operates the 150-year old company, and based on my interest and experimentation with cocktails, I've had the pleasure of receiving samples of their new products over the past two years. I don't receive any financial compensation for this, and there's no quid pro quo involved, but I like the fact that a company is resurrecting very old cocktail ingredients while also pioneering new ones.

Fee Brothers Plum Bitters are out just in time for Christmas, with a flavor profile based around an English plum pudding. When VP/Production Manager Ellen Fee makes a new bitters recipe, it's not just a matter of throwing some fruit in alcohol for a while. Fruits have different flavors in the skin, pith, flesh, and seeds. These elements have to be balanced, but beyond that the natural fruit aromas and flavors are combined with proprietary blends of herbs and/or spices much in the same way a perfume or secret BBQ sauce is blended. Here, the aroma is like a plum liqueur combined with a little cinnamon, cloves, and other holiday scents.

While I don't know if plum or prune bitters are an old tradition (references are scant), the execution is definitely old school. I found that it made for a rather festive Manhattan that is perfect for the winter months. I'd also suggest a dash or two in a cup of hot tea, and based on the tradition of Korean/Japanese plum liqueurs, there might be an option for some interesting Asian fusion cocktails. (As I'm not a fan of sake and don't have access to soju, I leave this as a suggestion for other mixologists.)

Years ago the Dirty Martini came into fashion, and folks everywhere were splashing some olive brine into their gin or vodka. More recently, individual bottles of olive brine have shown up so that you don't have to worry about drying out your olives.

But fads move along quickly in the cocktail world, and one of the new trends is based around pickle brine. This is something with a long but odd history. Drinkers of pickle brine were either weird old guys or star athletes. (Indeed, before Gatorade, pickle brine was common for some football teams and is still recommended for avoiding muscle cramps.) The traditional method of bar consumption is the Pickleback: down a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine. I really dislike doing shots--I prefer to savor what I'm consuming, but I gave this a try. Between the two varieties shown here, I much more preferred the Zesty Deli Dill Pickle Brine over the Sweet Midget Pickle Brine. (This goes along with my preference in actual pickles--I like them sour, salty, spicy, and sometimes hot, not sweet and mild.)

Performing the Pickleback with the Zesty Deli was interesting but surprisingly tasty. Some sweetish Canadian whisky followed by the hot spicy brine. It will definitely open your eyes, and between the two liquids, your palate gets to experience practically everything possible in a few seconds. The Sweet Midget did not work as well; again, much of this is based on my personal tastes. I also tried a splash of the Zesty Deli in a martini where it provided a unique zim zam zoom! Cold gin really brings out some of the cucumber flavor, and the only odd thing is that the flavor combination makes me crave hard boiled eggs. That would make for an ugly garnish, but a little dish of deviled eggs, celery sticks, and some cheese cubes would be great here.

This blurry screenshot will take a little explaining. Jean Shepherd was the writer and radio personality responsible for the classic 1983 film A Christmas Story. (In 2008 I visited the house where the movie was filmed.) There were two other semi-fictionalized movies based on stories of his childhood, and all three feature entirely different casts. Few have seen It Runs in the Family (My Summer Story), and I think even fewer have seen the source of my screenshot, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. In OHHOB, the main character Ralph is played by Jerry O'Connell (Stand By Me, Jerry Maguire). His father--The Old Man--is played by James B. Sikking (Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, M.D.).

It is mentioned that The Old Man liked to drink pickle juice from the jar, both because he liked the flavor and felt that it warded off colds. In this scene, the family is having a picnic while the car's radiator cools down, and in his agitated state he demands the pickle jar for a quick pick-me-up. Based on that scene, I remember taking a swig from the pickle jar every now and then when I had a craving for something sour and salty. Yes folks, TV can make kids drink pickle juice. Call your congressman today.

Note: These products were received as samples.

19 November 2010

Cru Beaujolais Completion

I'm skipping the Beaujolais Nouveau this year. I'm not angry, I'm not making a stance about the issue, but I've been disappointed the past two years, and recently I've tasted eight great Crus, all with a couple of years' worth of age on them. If I'm at a party and someone pours me a glass of Bojo Novo? I will accept it happily and drink merrily in the spirit of friendship. But instead of the usual posts this time of year about the Nouveau, I'm delighted to be able to write about some amazing wines that are from the same grape, region, and cost only a few bucks extra, but taste incredible.

I was happy to participate in another TasteLive event showcasing Beaujolais, but honestly one part of this really drew my attention. I finally got the chance to try the last of the 10 Crus... After digging around in bins and shelves for years, in six different states during various travels, the Côte de Brouilly shows up on my doorstep as a sample. Many good things have happened to me because of my scribblings upon this site, but finishing off the Beaujolais region was particularly special.

2006 Christophe Pacalet Côte de Brouilly
$17, 13% abv.
Wild strawberries, very light aroma, equally delicate body, and a finish that's almost gone before you realized you took a sip. This isn't a criticism--sometimes I like a wine that lasts for hours after one taste, and sometimes I prefer one that disappears like a shooting star.

2005 Pascal Granger Earl Juliénas
$24, 13% abv.
Tart raspberries, decent tannic structure, a bold wine. I've generally been happy with the Juliénas I've had in the past, and fortunately it is one of the Crus that is more well known and easy to find around the country. Trivial note: this region is named after Julius Caesar, a reference to the development of the area as a wine region during his reign.

2007 Louis-Claude Desvinges Morgon
$20, 13% abv.
Surprising dark plum aroma, full dark fruit flavor. Little smoky, touch of raw beef. The theme of this tasting was to highlight the "masculine" side of Beaujolais, and this was perhaps the best representative of that style.

2008 Domaine Diochon Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent
$21, 13% abv.
Plum and ash, light, with a touch of tartness on the finish. Very short finish, mild and mellow overall. This is one of those melt-in-your-mouth wines that disappears quickly, leaving only a trace of acidity. I've read that the wines from this windmill-named region can last ten years or more, but I was pleased with the performance of this one at such an early age.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

17 November 2010

Redmon Wines

I recently had the pleasure of attending a private wine tasting at the home of Bill & Juli Eck, a pair of wonderful people that I've just recently met here in my home town of Memphis. My initial encounter was through Juli commenting on my food posts and my admiration for her photography. For years the Ecks have been friends with a pair of Napa Valley winemakers, and finally managed to get them to come here for a visit. What followed was an unforgettable evening of food, wine, and fellowship. Lady A and I stayed until nearly eleven, but I have a feeling things could have run until the wee hours of the morning.

Redmon Wines is run by the husband-wife team of Lisa Redmon-Mangelson and Scott Mangelson. It's one of those uniquely American stories: her family ran A&W hamburger joints in Napa and bought some local property, his family ran dairy farms and orchards in Orem, Utah. Starting with a 1999 garage wine, they began making high-end Cabernet that earned a 97 from Wine Enthusiast with the 2006 vintage. Lisa joked that her family was the only one that moved to Napa to get into the root beer business, and Scott joked that there aren't many graduates of Brigham Young University that have gone into winemaking.

Their philosophy is small, high quality production, with only as much expansion as they can personally handle. While they do not currently have an organic certification, they do engage in sustainable viticulture and are incorporating organically-grown grapes into their upcoming releases. They employ a double sorting process, in which the grape clusters are hand-picked to remove anything that's not a grape or stem, and then the clusters are run through again for a second round of manual inspection. And those are only the grapes that have survived to the picking process--they allow the weaker grapes on their 40-year old vines to fall off naturally, and only produce wine from the strongest clusters. Because of the limited quantities of these wines, you're probably not going to see them on the shelves of your local shop. Instead, your best bet is to order through their online store.

Briefly, I must mention the appetizers that Juli sent out in waves during the tasting: deviled eggs topped with salmon roe, crab cakes with remoulade sauce, pinwheels stuffed with a bratwurst-mustard filling, dates stuffed with bleu cheese and wrapped in bacon, individual Beef Wellingtons in puff pastry, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something... It was all incredible.

2008 Redmon Chardonnay
Carneros, Napa Valley
$35, 14.5% abv., 185 cases

This is not a heavily oaked wine, and certainly not the caricature that many California Chards have become. On the other hand, it's not a clean and crisp unoaked wine. Instead, they've established a harmonious balance that reminded me of Pouilly-Fuissé. There's a touch of buttered popcorn, and some toast and toffee, but none of these are overpowering. The acidity is balanced, and the wine has a bit of that elusive "old church" aroma that I think will develop with another couple of years.

2007 Redmon Cabernet Sauvignon
St. Helena, Napa Valley
$65, 14.5% abv., 254 cases

Pure Cabernet Sauvignon here, with dark plum aromas. Smoky, spicy, with firm tannins. There's lots of black fruit, and it has a deep, rich structure with a long finish.

The 2006 Redmon Cabernet Sauvignon is, I believe, sold out, but we got to taste one of the remaining bottles.
St. Helena, Napa Valley
$50 on release, 14.5% abv., 354 cases

My favorite of the evening, full of figs and tea and with a remote hint of green bell pepper. There are great blackberry flavors present without being overly fruit-forward. This is one of those wines that you can sit with for a while and contemplate with each sip, and very Bordeaux-like in its execution.

2008 Redmon Cabernet Blend
Rutherford, Napa Valley
$49, 14.5% abv., 249 cases
81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.5% Cabernet Franc, 9.5% Merlot.

A new project from the winery, this particular bottle was a barrel sample and was decanted for some time prior to serving. Too early for me to evaluate, but I did enjoy what the Cabernet Franc is bringing to the mix, and it's a classic Bordeaux blend.

During the Q&A session, I commented on the clean, minimalist design of the label, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon with a red logo and red and white text printed directly on the glass. The dotted "r" design stands for Redmon but also describes their early head-trained vines, that cascaded over on one side to maximize exposure to sun depending on where the vine was planted. The design you see today has evolved from some earlier labels, and reflects their own concepts and ideas combined with the efforts of a talented graphic designer.

15 November 2010

Soave and Thanksgiving

Around this time of year, every wine writer feels obliged to write the Thanksgiving Recommendation List, and every publicist amends their press releases to say, "This wine would be great with Thanksgiving dinner!" Frankly anything will work, and everything will fail in some way. If only you care about wine, bring something you want to drink. If your family doesn't care, don't force a vertical tasting on them. If there's a little curiosity in between, I still stand by my 2008 advice: Think PIGS. Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. And with that in mind, I do think that Soave from Italy's Veneto region does go pretty darn well with turkey, ham, stuffing, and even your aunt's green bean casserole with the fried onions on top.

Made primarily from the Garganega grape, I've always enjoyed Soave. It's nothing like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, the two most common white grapes you'll encounter. It's easier to pronounce than other Italian whites like Verdicchio: so-AH-vay.

The other thing that is crucial for Thanksgiving is that these wines are not hard to find. You should be able to find a Soave in any decent wine shop for $10-15. And if you decide not to take it to the family gathering with you, it is even better late Thursday night with leftovers.

2009 Montresor Capitel Alto Soave Classico
80% Garganega, 20% Trebbiano di Soave
$15, 12.5% abv.

Orange blossom with a touch of grass, light citrus flavors, a round body, and a short finish. Mild and delicate. Beyond poultry and associated dishes, Soave goes very well with mildly seasoned seafood. If you buck tradition and serve a big roast salmon instead of a turkey, this will still work.

The second Soave of the lineup is a little stronger...

2009 Fattori Giovanni Motto Piane Soave
100% Garganega
$15, 14% abv

Tropical fruit, flowers, firmer, stronger, a touch of minerals, with a nice round mouthfeel. Fermented both in oak and stainless steel. Between the two, consider this one if you prefer bigger, bolder flavors, but it's still a relatively light wine.

Something that I think is crucial when it comes to a party or big dinner situation is that Soave continues to be balanced even at room temperature. There are some inexpensive Chardonnays, for instance, that become sour and almost painful to consume as they warm up, and can turn off people who don't try a dozen different wines every week. You're not going to have that problem with a lighter wine like this, and it will be an interesting change of pace for those relatives that are scared to venture beyond Pinot Grigio.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

12 November 2010

2008 Golan Heights Winery Cabernet Sauvignon

The Golan Heights is one of those parts of the world that is mainly known from news reports about war, treaties, and ceasefire negotiations. Formerly part of Syria, it's been part of Israel since 1967. I'm not going to get into politics here, but the whole of modern Israel has been occupied by dozens of civilizations over the years. There have been warring factions of Ancients and Romans and Jews and Christians and Muslims since...forever. The waves of Ottoman occupation over six centuries (up to WWI) tended to disrupt wine production, and in general, war is bad for wine--see France during a few troublesome decades in the 20th century. That's why the Israeli wine industry is both very old and very young. The modern vineyards of the Golan Heights were first planted in 1976. Lebanon is in a similar situation, with thousands of years of wine history, a few centuries of interruption, and then modern plantings conducted by French winemakers. (Baron Edmond de Rothschild was involved in Israeli vineyard planting back in the late 19th century.)

2008 Golan Heights Winery Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon
Galilee/Golan Heights, Israel
$15, 14.5% abv.
Light, mild, bright raspberry aroma and flavor. Light tannins, a little tart. Overall excellent balance. This comes from the northern part of Israel, and although the climate is hot and dry, they're able to produce mellow wines. As I've said before, folks need to think of wines from Israel and Lebanon as being part of a broader spectrum of Mediterranean wines, rather than as something exotic from the Middle East.

For years, Kosher wine has had a bad reputation as being cheap, sweet, and harsh. Just like with any other category or style of wine, whether it be sparkling or biodynamic or pink, the individual bottle can be good, bad, awesome, or undrinkable depending on how it was made. For households that keep Kosher, as well as for the high holidays, it's nice to keep in mind some producers who make wine that is 1) great first and 2) Kosher second. This one, for instance, is also Kosher for Passover, a higher standard required during that particular holiday. Others who do not hold to the religious dietary laws get the opportunity to enjoy a tasty wine from a region that they might not know very well. We all win here.

i served this with an odd and, alas, not Kosher dinner: mixed grill of beef and lamb, with sides of mushrooms and red onion marmelade... Plus some Brussels sprouts sautéed in bacon. It performed admirably with the wide range of flavors, and it's mild enough that it didn't require any breathing or decanting beforehand. לחיים

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

10 November 2010

Swiss Wines

Michelle writes the Notes from Memphis blog, a showcase of art, architecture, news, and general joy about living in Downtown Memphis. Over the past two years we've gotten together from time to time with other friends to spend an afternoon tasting wine and having fun. She also gets the opportunity to do some groovy international travel, and through a series of odd events she was able to help me complete part of my jigsaw puzzle of Europe with a pair of Swiss wines.

You don't see a lot of Swiss wine outside of the country, and that makes sense when you're surrounded by the powerhouses of Germany, Italy, and France, not to mention Austria. For perspective, Switzerland produces about 1/60th the wine that France does, and 98% of it stays in Switzerland.

I love meeting Swiss people. I know enough bits of German, French, and Italian that we can get along great. In return, they look at me like a dog that is suddenly able to walk on its hind legs and speak human--they have justifiably low opinions of American language skills. If I hear a Schwiizertüütsch accent, I know I can have some fun. Likewise, these labels were sort of from an alternate reality: laid out like German wines, but with French names, and featuring nothing that was recognizable. I found them fascinating and exciting, much like my earlier passion for stamp collecting.

These bottles were produced by Jean-René Germanier, whose family has been in the wine business in the town of Vétroz since 1886. These wines are made in the southern canton of Valais from the Fendant grape, the local name for Chasselas. This region is also home to Visperterminen, the highest elevation vineyard in Europe at 1150m/3800ft. (While impressive, I've had Colorado wine made at 1400m/4700ft, and some Colorado vineyards go up to 2100m/7000ft above sea level.)

2008 Fendant Coteau D'Ardon Classique
Valais AOC
$15, 12% abv.
Bright, clean, strong floral and mineral elements on the nose. Very crisp and dry, and only slightly fruity. The overwhelming experience on the palate is acidity and stone.

2009 Fendant Vétroz Les Terrasses Classique
Valais AOC
$15, 12% abv.
This one is similar in profile, but I was able to narrow down the characteristics a little better. Elderflower and wet granite is the best way I can describe it. While this one is fuller in body, the two wines are very close, and completely different from what I was expecting. Based on the tradition of Swiss winemaking in Missouri and Arkansas I was expecting something honey-sweet and full of giant fruit, but was instead rewarded with a pair of light, restrained, and certainly terroir-driven wines. I can't say that these would be crowd pleasers like a sweet Riesling. I think to properly enjoy these you're going to need some experience with the mild wines of Alto Adige, Alsace, and other sorts of transitional wine regions in colder areas.

Thanks again to Michelle for these wonderful wines, and I'd highly recommend trying a Swiss wine if you're interested in a little adventure. If you are part of a group of wine fanatics and have a wicked sense of humor, slip one of these into a blind tasting. Always fun to stretch the palate a bit, especially when people aren't expecting it.

P.S. Here's my Risk-style map of Europe with the countries whose wines I've tasted highlighted in purple. If we add in beer and spirits I've got most of the continent conquered. The breakup of Yugoslavia adds a bunch of separate states, and tiny countries like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are probably going to require a personal visit. I'm not going to bother with the Principality of Andorra or the Most Serene Republic of San Marino.

08 November 2010

Benito vs. the Cocktail: The Rosewater Rickey

If you order a Rosewater Rickey in a random bar, you're a jackass. If the bartender even knows what it is, you're more likely to get a smack upside the head rather than your intended beverage. I'm not saying that it's a bad cocktail, but it requires some odd ingredients and techniques, as well as some danger. (Kids, be careful with this and other cocktails that involve fire.)

That being said, if you're curious and want to try one, there's nothing wrong with making one yourself. And if a bar actually has this as a special, go ahead and order one. Tip heavily, because the poor bastard on the other side deserves it.

Jamie Boudreau's Rosewater Rickey falls into the category of "molecular mixology", an offshoot of molecular gastronomy. You know, the food fad that involves foams of salmon essence and powdered asparagus. This cocktail has shown up a few times in popular culture, with appearances as punch lines in the short-lived Players and very recently in The Big Bang Theory, though Penny rightly refused to make the drink for Sheldon. Most bars don't have brandied cherries and Angostura Bitters in an atomizer.

In the interest of safety, I warmed my brandied cherries in a Pyrex ramekin and set them on fire while dashing on some Angostura Bitters. To capture all of the caramelized aromatics, I tossed the contents into the shaker and used the gin to rinse out the ramekin.

For the rosewater I finally got a chance to use a sample I received months ago from the good folks at Fee Brothers in Rochester, New York. Their rosewater is fragrant without being overpowering. In addition to cocktails, rosewater can be used in various desserts and Middle Eastern recipes. The aroma reminds me of my late maternal grandmother, who competed in rose shows and who always had a dozen varieties growing in the backyard.

As for the finished product, it is tasty, but not necessarily worth all the effort. Skip the fire, make a Lime Rickey, and add cherries and rosewater if you want that additional flavor.

At the same time I also received a sample of Fee Brothers Celery Bitters. This is a rare and unique ingredient that was much more commonplace during the period between the Civil War and Prohibition. Indeed, many of the recipes from that era are more like soup than what we think of as cocktails. Celery bitters were often combined with chicken stock or boiled turtle meat, for instance. I did try it in a martini--gin, a little light on the vermouth here, maybe a 6:1 ratio. Like this it's... interesting. I can't say it's my favorite for a martini, especially when I have the great Fee Bros. Lemon/Grapefruit/Orange Bitters that I can use instead. Any of the citrus ones really perk up a martini in a beautiful way. (When it's hot outside, I prefer my martinis on the rocks, in a tumbler. This photo is from July, when it was regularly over 38°C/100°F.)

I have used the Celery Bitters in cooking, though. A dash in the beans, a few splashes in the rice to boost the broth, etc. It does have the most wonderful chicken bouillon aroma, and outside of some really obscure cocktails, I think this product is better suited to its original purpose as a kitchen ingredient. Indeed, bitters were never meant to be confined to the liquor cabinet. They served as seasonings, medicines, and all purpose flavorings for a variety of applications. I even have it on good authority that bitters are a great cure for hiccups.

Note: These bottles were received as samples.

05 November 2010

A Quartet of Spanish Reds

There have been lots of exciting developments with wine in the past decade, but one of my personal favorites has been the widespread access of affordable, delicious Spanish wines in the American market. Even though wine has been made in Spain for at least 3,000 years, the region doesn't have the prestige (and associated fear of entry) that you get with France, Italy, and Germany. As always, I have nothing against the major wine producers of Europe, but if you get excited about Spanish wine you can get great stuff for $10-20 and there's no real equivalent of Barolo or Burgundy collectors looking down at you. For your drinking pleasure, here are four recent bottles I've had the opportunity to try:

I'm starting with the lighter, more traditional wines. These would work well with a wide range of dishes, including poultry, sausages, olives, cheeses, etc.

2009 Palacios Remondo La Vendimia
50% Garnacha (Grenache), 50% Tempranillo
$15, 14.5% abv.
This is a deep, rich wine with some wonderful notes to it. Leather, tobacco, pepper, boysenberry, medium tannins. Throw some lamb chops on the grill and don't be afraid of the spices. Side note: I love this label design. It reminds me of some of the great children's books of the 60s and 70s, when there was a lot of experimental art. Sometimes half the fun was trying to figure out what those abstract shapes represented.

2007 Herencia Remondo La Montesa
Blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, and Mazuelo (Carignan)
$20, 14% abv.
This is a great, classic Rioja that is nice and mild. The aroma and flavor is mostly light red cherry. The body is smooth, light, and the tannins just show up on the finish. If ever a wine called for a great pork chop, this is it.

Next up are two wines from Tempra Tantrum, a label of Bodegas Osborne. These are more casual, easy going wines that will work well for cookouts or lots of the casual dinner fare we enjoy here in los Estados Unidos. Consider these wines the same way you would a casual Supertuscan from Italy. In both cases, you're going to want some grilled red meat and some hearty flavors to go along with the wine.

2009 Tempra Tantrum Tempranillo/Shiraz
$12, 13.5% abv.
Very light nose with raspberry, and lots of tart berry flavor. Big tannic finish.

2009 Tempra Tantrum Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon
$10, 13.5% abv.
Black cherry, touch of chocolate, also a big tannic finish.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

03 November 2010

Middleton Family Wines

In the past month I've had the opportunity to taste nine wines produced by Middleton Family Wines. Since 1898 they've been involved in a variety of agricultural pursuits in the Pacific Northwest--starting with lumber, and then later in table grapes. Indeed, they remain a leading producer of the kind of big plump grapes that you buy at the grocery store. I don't think I've mentioned this here, but I'm descended from farmers on both sides of my family. These days it's mainly cotton, corn, and soybeans, and while important to our country, there's not a lot that I have to write about on the subject. If we got too much rain in southeast Missouri or too little in northwest Tennessee, it's a topic already known to the folks that are impacted by such news. Instead, I end up writing about processed fruit from around the world. Odd how things turn out.

In the past decade, the Middleton family has entered the wine business with ventures in Washington, California, and even Western Australia. Nearly everything that I've reviewed has been associated with the Clayhouse line. (See the recent Petite Sirah roundup for two red wines and a rare Petite Sirah Port-style wine.) With the exception of the Cadaretta SBS, all of the wines reviewed in this post are from California.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Rusty and Andy of Middleton at Central BBQ during their recent visit to our fair River City. We spent about two hours shooting the breeze, talking about wine, and enjoying some great smoked pork, chicken, and even fried bologna over a few beers.

2009 Clayhouse Grenache Blanc
Red Cedar Vineyard, Paso Robles
13% abv.

Light aroma of cream and lime zest, like a Key Lime pie without the sweetness or toasted meringue. Soft and well rounded with good minerality. I could swear that this was from France based on the profile--a Côtes du Rhône Blanc or Provençal blend. The fact that the label has a big chunk missing out of the bottom is entirely my fault, trying to grip a chilled bottle and ripping off part of the paper with my thumbnail. Unfortunately, this one is a small production wine only available at the winery, but it's a real winner, and displays the skill and attention that the winemakers are paying toward their products.

2009 Clayhouse Sauvignon Blanc
Paso Robles
$14, 13% abv.

I've had a lot of Sauvignon Blanc this summer, and it's nice to try something that still surprises you. This one has aromas of grapefruit and orange with a touch of vanilla. Soft, not tart, with a short clean finish. Gentle and creamy. Lovely antidote if you're tired of sharp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc. Highly recommended with seafood like trout, salmon, or barramundi.

2009 Cadaretta SBS
Columbia Valley, Washington
$23, 13.4% abv.
78% Sauvignon Blanc, 22% Semillon

Honey, flowers, and just a touch of lemon. Light and delicate, elegant, and certainly enjoyable simply on its own during a quiet afternoon. I don't see a lot of white Bordeaux-style blends from the US, and this one is lovely. Serve this with your best roast chicken, French style, or some very simply grilled shellfish. Washington wines are becoming deservedly popular among many younger wine fans, and this is definitely one that you want to add to your wine rack. The SBS represents everything that is right about Washington.

And now it's time for the red wines...

2008 Clayhouse Malbec
Paso Robles
$15, 13.5% abv.

You don't see a lot of California Malbec--there are plantings throughout the state, but the grape as a single bottling tends to get overshadowed by Argentina and the odd bottle of Cahors. This Golden State Malbec combines elements of buttered toast, a hint of vanilla, deep blackberry jam aromas. Pair this one with game, buffalo, lamb, or any deeply flavored red meat, and I think you'll be happy with how it works.

2007 Clayhouse Cabernet Sauvignon
Paso Robles
90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 4% Petite Verdot
$15, 13.5% abv.

Big cherry and black pepper aroma, with medium tannins. Affordable Cabernet Sauvignons are often terrible, but this is a notable exception. I thought that the wine paired very well with the flatiron steak fajitas I made, shown below. Marinated in spices for 24 hours, grilled to medium rare, sliced thin and served with a tangy salsa verde... That's some good eating.

2008 Clayhouse Adobe Red
Central Coast
40% Zinfandel, 17% Syrah, 13% Petite Sirah, 9% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Tempranillo, 3% Merlot.
$15, 13.8% abv.

There are some heavy hitters in this blend, but overall it is soft and round with light tannins. In place is a big fruit character, dominated by plum and blackberry. With every sniff you get a little something different: ash, spice, jam, flowers, etc. Definitely a great wine for cookouts. Sometimes a diverse blend is just perfect for a situation with a dozen or more different dishes: you may discover that the Petit Verdot brings out the zing in the baked beans, or that the Tempranillo provides the necessary spice to complete Uncle Abner's homemade sausage.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

01 November 2010

Flor de Caña Gran Reserva

Flor de Caña is a Nicaraguan rum whose name means "flower of the sugarcane", and I first sipped the 5 year old version a few years ago at a dinner party. I was impressed by the smooth complexity of it, and how it was an experience much closer to whiskey than what you would associate with rum. I've enjoyed some spectacular aged rums over the years, and just like wine it's interesting to see the differences between different regions. In this case, I'm talking about Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Anguilla, an Island South Of Miami, etc. Mainland rums aren't as frequently noticed but I've always had a soft spot for this one.

I received a sample of the Flor de Caña Gran Reserva, aged 7 years. After harvesting and processing the sugarcane from Chichigalpa on the western point of this triangular country, the distilled spirits are packaged in various ways. Beyond the white rums, you get bottles with 5, 7, 12, 15, or 18 years of barrel time. Nothing wrong with a white/silver rum for mixing, but the good aged brown ones are meant to be savored and enjoyed on their own. As a side note, Flor de Caña carries an OK Kosher Certification, which according to some sources makes them the only rum producer to do so (there are others out there). Interesting factoid to keep around for gift giving. There seems to be very little advertising or publicity around this little curiosity, and while it's not Kosher for Passover, I'd much prefer this over Slivovitz or other traditional spirits if I kept treyf bottles out of the house. L'chaim, amigos!

My tasting notes on the bottled rum: Savory, meaty, almost buttery aroma and flavor, with a silky smooth beginning and a quick, biting finish. It's a velvety rum, and drier and lighter than the 5 year old versions I've had in the past. This rum is 80 proof (40% abv) and retails for around $25 for a 750mL bottle in the Memphis area.

The press release suggested a series of options for making your own spiced rum. I'm not usually a fan of spiced rum, because it tends to be sweet and vanilla-flavored. Taste a few spiced rums and the vanilla tends to dominate the other flavorings. I hadn't ever considered making my own spiced rum before, so I decided to go in a uniquely Benito direction.

I used Telicherry black pepper, Sarawak white pepper, Chinese star anise, and cloves from Madagascar, mainly because these were some high quality spices that were on hand and I was inexplicably out of allspice. I really wanted to use some allspice in this mix.

I had no idea if this was going to work or not, but I decided it was worth sacrificing 250mL of the rum for an experiment. I sterilized an old jelly jar and added the spices, and topped it off with the rum. I kept the jar beside my computer for two weeks, and I would occasionally pick it up and turn it over a few times. I never shook it, but I gave it a turn from time to time, and would sniff it, or pour a dash into a glass for testing purposes.

After two weeks, the spiced rum was pretty fragrant, and a good 50mL had disappeared from a series of sips and tastings. I strained the spices out, cleaned the jar, and returned the spiced rum to its container. The anise is the dominant aroma and flavor, but the pepper hits you in the back of the mouth on the finish. It's rich and spicy, and as much as I love my little creation, I only want a sip or two on its own.

What's the perfect length of time for spicing a rum? Hard to say, because the literature recommends everything between one day to one year. But all sources suggest tasting it along the way, and the good part is that you can always make a highly spiced concentrate and then thin it out with more rum later on, or even adjust the spices along the way. This is actually much more fun than I thought it would be, and the result more enjoyable than I expected. If you have cardamom and ginger and saffron and other interesting spices on hand, give this a try. But what am I going to do with my delicious little jar?

I'm planning on using this in the greatest egg nog ever made. Stay tuned!

Note: This bottle was received as a sample.