The Flavors of Spirits Past

A counterfeiter of old wines, Rudi Kurniawan, was recently convicted for earning millions selling faked bottles of wine. Such is the value of certain old wines, some of them selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully there is not yet a similar market for old spirits bottles, though it may not be far in the future.

But at this particular moment, old spirits bottles are mere novelty to many, with auction markets and sites only recently including them among their offerings. There is a market nonetheless: among noteworthy bars, Seattle’s justly famed Canon includes tastes of pre-Prohibition whiskies for $100 a shot and more, some bottles scoured from forgotten home bars. Indeed there are probably goodies slumbering in countless basements and unlike wine, time and fluctuating temperatures need not destroy the value and quality of these beverages.

Most spirits are bottled at forty percent alcohol or higher, and they are tough to kill. Their alcoholic strength reflects their very purpose: they will retain their flavor and character nearly forever unless they are exposed to bright lights, air or high temperatures. When someone fishes a bottle of wine out of their grandparents cellar, it’s usually devoid of fruit and good flavor, but when folks come forth with old spirit, chances are good the spirit in the bottle will still be willing.

At a recent tasting, there were several decades-old bottles and all of them seemed no worse for the wear.  Gene Darby, a local enthusiast, had brought in several gems: a Canadian rum and two blended Scotch whiskies. We were mightily impressed by the rum from Gooderham and Worts, a Toronto distillery that closed in 1990, the last of a once proud and robust Canadian rum industry. The pint bottle had its own tin shot cup as its lid, and the bottle was embossed with the facade of a mountain man and his prodigious beard, covering nearly the whole bottle. The rum was quite pleasant, with buttery, somewhat hot, molasses notes. As far as we could ascertain, it dated from the 1920s.

The first of the whiskies was a bottle of Seagrams VO with a tax stamp of 1977, courtesy of Ryan Maybee of Manifesto and the Rieger. It was enjoyable with caramel and chocolate notes, but it was fairly light and short, much as VO has been for as long as I can remember. Indeed this was good evidence that time may have no particular effect on most spirits, for better or worse.

Darby had also brought along Highland Queen Grand 15 blended Scotch whisky 15 year old, and it carried a 1969 tax stamp. This was fairly delightful with smoky notes of peat and iodine, a buttery texture, a nutty intensity with almond and hazelnut, ending in caramel but consistently showing elegance. While a similar Highland Queen bottling is available, this was my first taste and I might seek out some others.

Tasty but perhaps not as exciting was a Dewars Victoria Vat that probably dated from the 1940s. Victoria Vat no longer exists but today you may find Dewars Ancestor to be a similar whisky from the same house. The Victoria Vat offered honey, almonds, and hints of caramel, flowers and seaweed. Throughout it was light and mild, but carried good length.

The excitement of some of these old spirits differs greatly from old wines for which you expect flavors and aromas to have evolved into something heretofore unrevealed. Spirits can go more or less only one direction (down). Unless the spirit has deteriorated, what is exciting instead is the rediscovery of flavors that may no longer be part of the repertoire of a particular brand, as is the case with some old bottles of Chartreuse, a brand that has evolved and changed for centuries.

There may not yet be big money in it, but there is plenty of reason to see what your parents and grandparents have squirreled away in the drinks cabinet. Good hunting!

This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star

The pain and the pleasure

Novelist Jay McInerney once wrote “Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.” While McInerney’s wine writings are too often dewy-eyed panegyrics to the lifestyles of the rich, there is something to the conflation of desire and anxiety, even fear. A strange study in British Columbia last year showed that a group of men crossing a swaying suspension bridge were more likely to a find a particular woman sexually attractive than if they observed that woman on flat, safe ground.

Silly news? Perhaps. But with Valentine’s Day as background, could we dare to move beyond our safe choices into less charted territory, and if we did so, would that add to the excitement? Instead of the usual Prosecco or Cava for bubbly, what if true Champagne were the tipple? Yes, it’s expensive (likely to be forty or fifty dollars) but you and your companion might discover the remarkable mix of yeast, toast, fruit and effervescence that exemplifies the best of bubbly. Try Billiot ($65), Feuillatte ($45), Gosset $50), Pol Roger ($65) and for the loveliest of pink sparklers, Bollinger Brut Rose ($90)

Oregon Pinot Noir is more talked about than consumed; the 2011 vintage has been completely overlooked: beauties such as Ayres ($28) or Adelsheim ($30) are far too gentle and elegant for most critics. The earthy notes of Rhone wines remind many of bodies in motion: Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2009 is spicy and rich.

The silken juiciness of great German Riesling may offer wine’s shortest path to pleasure. There are plenty of stars in Germany’s firmament: Fritz Haag, Gunderloch, J.J. Pruem, Karthausershof, Moenchhof, Schloss Lieser, Weins-Pruem and Zilliken are just a few. Or you can evoke Greece’s bright beaches with the brilliant sunniness of Sigalas Assyrtiko ($22) or Skouras Moschofilero ($19), both vibrant icons. Chenin Blanc has a mineral, savory character expressed best in the Loire Valley (try Huet’s Vouvrays) or in South Africa: Raats ($14) and Ken Forrester ($16) are easy to highlight.

But if deep red is the color for your Valentine, the extravagance of Italy’s Amarone is hard to top: Masi Costasera ($65), Tommasi ($70) or Zenato ($75) are deeply generous in spirit.

When your intention is to demonstrate your ardor, then ardent spirits may be just the right drop. Sure, you know Cognac, but there are other brandies to explore: I can ardently recommend its wilder sibling Armagnac (there are not many in this market, sadly) or California’s Germain Robin Craft Method Brandy ($55). As for me, I’ll give my Valentine her choice of all of these. She knows I’ll be content with any of them, along with a copita of head-spinning Del Maguey Mezcal, as good a mix of fear and pleasure as any.

 

This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star

 

 

What I Drank Tonight (and quite enjoyed)

Ackerman Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Napa Valley – After the relative elegance of 2002, I found many 2003 North Coast reds to be a bit brutish, and I have a strong affinity for wines that whisper more than shout. I would also have to admit to a prejudice regarding such wines, at a minimum, believing the elegant wines to be more likely to age gracefully. But the damning admission would be that I am as often wrong as right about the ageability of some of these wines with big tannins and warm fruit. The 2003 Ackerman strikes me as such a wine: the label says 13.5%; I find that rather unlikely. The tannins have some grit to them; there is an earthy element that is more humus than stone. But the fruit is ample (if a bit warm and stewy), the oak deft and compelling. If I am suggesting that this wine is not particularly elegant, I can also state (perhaps confusingly) that it is aging very elegantly. But this drives to the crux of the biscuit as I admit to a frequent misapprehension of Napa Cabs such as this: instead of hanging on to its hard edge, it has perceptively softened and widened its layers of flavors. A touch of spearmint, black plums and black cherry compote, elegant spice and barrel elements in the moderately long finish. Short version? I would gladly serve this to my European friends who doubt California’s ability to be true to their traditions and to make lovely ageable wines nonetheless. 

Imagining Better Wine Communications in Logrono, Spain

Winery in Spain

At the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Spain, a keynote talk was given by one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, Clark Smith, a winemaker and winemaking gadfly. It would also be true that he is amongst the most vexing. To some degree, that’s by design. He wants to challenge our notions about wine and wine “purity” whatever that is.

Clark’s biggest complaint is wine writers; fair enough. He correctly denigrates many of the prejudices today’s wine press and bloggers bring to wine: the use of sulfites (must be bad, right?), additives (sounds terrible) and most annoying to him: manipulation. Writers will tell you: wine manipulation is bad. But as Clark points out, “wine does not make itself. Benign neglect is not high moral ground”, he says. “Wine writing is done today by people who don’t understand winemaking.”

Clark begins his argument by noting that the word “manipulation” has dual meaning: it might describe “shrewd or devious management by artful, unfair or insidious means.” Or it might mean “treatment or operation in a skillful manner.” When it comes to wine, the term manipulation is itself not so subtle manipulation of the reader’s prejudices. But wine is food (grape juice). Food is supposed to be natural, so isn’t manipulation in itself bad? Winemaking, as Clark likes to say, is just cooking. Would these writers insist that a chef is a devious manipulator of foodstuffs when they transform wheat into pasta and tomatoes into marinara? Beef into meatballs?

Winemakers, like chefs, ought to use all the healthful and beneficial tools in their toolkits to make the most delicious wines. Some of those tools include the addition of water, sugar, powdered tannins or tartaric acid (basically ground up parts of wine grapes), sulfur (used for centuries and in far greater proportions in bagged and dried fruits), and micro-oxygenation (just getting some air to wines), among other tactics.

There are some techniques that may be particularly confusing or unsettling, such as the addition or removal of alcohol or other compounds by fairly complicated processes. But I’m not sure I understand precisely what is happening when a chef magically creates that marvelous transformation from egg yolks and butter into hollandaise. That doesn’t mean something evil is happening.

Now, I am decidedly not arguing for wine to be something other than the fermented grape juice that it has been for millennia. Ideally, I’d like it to be affordable; and I’d like it to speak of the place in which it’s grown. I want it to remind me of human culture too. And winemakers are always coming up with some ideas for improving their own particular wines. We can argue plenty about whether or not the wines are in fact better as a result. But today, there are words and practices that frighten consumers. As Clark says, “You [in the wine press] have made honesty too expensive.” So instead we pretend nothing has happened at all. And that’s a bad strategy for wine improvement and consumer understanding.

People Drink What They Like

With the U.S. the largest single wine market, there are outsized trends for which we must bear responsibility. First up: Moscato, a gentle, (usually) sweet, (often) low alcohol white wine that has rather surprisingly been adopted by the hiphop community. Drake likes it and so do lots of other people, some of whom make records and hold microphones very close to their mouths.

But should this really surprise us? Wines with distinctive sweetness have historically been consumed in greater number than dry wines unless, of course, you are a wine snob, er, expert. Those who embrace wine with fervent passion are often dismissive of people who want their wines to have some sweetness. The people who consider themselves wine-knowledgeable can be downright rude about wines like Moscato. Too sweet, they sniff. Too simple, they snort. Apparently, at least in my telling of it, they make lots of noises with their noses.

The people who like sweetness in their wines are understandably put off by all this sniffing and snorting. Neither group has the faintest idea why the other group can’t see reason. But there’s the problem: each is having a different experience with these wines. Those whose palates prefer sweet wines are often reacting against the bitterness, astringency and tartness of dry wines. Their bodies, in effect, are telling them not to like these wines.

The people who drink these “bone-dry”, “earthy”, “powerhouse” wines (and all the other odd descriptions we wine people generate) are just as perplexed because our bodies are telling us these wines taste good. Most of us wine people aren’t very sensitive to tartness, so we often seek out things that are tart: “dry” wines are just our thing. People who lack sensitivity to bitterness like the aforementioned big, astringent wines; they figure those who don’t haven’t yet learned how great these wines are. The sweet wine drinkers have, they will say, “uneducated palates”.

What a crock.

It’s personal, as taste should be. We are not supposed to agree on what tastes good and what doesn’t. But I’ll tell you this much, more people like the sweet, mild character of Moscato than the wine snobs will admit. You go, Drake.

 

Loire Valley Love

Angers, FranceAngers, France – It’s quite a contrast; the university town of Angers and the countryside around it. From a tidy, nearly shiny, university town exuding white washed, business-like utility to rolling vineyards along wide and lazy rivers overseen by magnificent chateaux depicting a gilded age. These remarkable edifices, confidently bold, were once the seasonal homes for royalty and their treasurers. Today they might be held and maintained by the state; some still remain the possession of the uber-wealthy. A few centuries ago, Ben Franklin famously wiled away his ambassadorship chasing skirts in one of these castles, to the enduring distaste of John Adams. Today, these monuments still rule over the vineyards and grain fields stretching in every direction.

But the contrasts don’t end there. The Loire Valley’s agricultural lands are marked only by tawny roads, often straight, often following the contours of the gentle slopes, adding to the measured look of vast order. There is a distinct lack of visible buildings. Here in the midway point of the river’s languid flow to the Atlantic, many of the wineries utilize caves for their wine storage – ancient, humble caves carved from the soft tufa. A friable, sandy soil bound together by sticky limestone, tufa provides a distinct soil underpinning the Loire’s venerable vineyards. These caves have held not only wine, but people too. For millennia, these inhabitants of these porous dwellings have been called troglodytes. It’s not a loaded term here; it’s merely a description of a way of existing, and some caves still provide shelter for the downtrodden or even a few seeking a simpler way.

Instead I’m touring caves where wine is made and stored for sale in international markets. In these parts, Chenin Blanc is the white grape of choice for most.  For enthusiasts like me, it’s a grape capable of greatness primarily (if not solely) in this part of France.

In the central part of the Loire Valley, Chenin rises to remarkable excellence; often on the tufa soils, but other times with slate underpinning the best vineyards, especially with wines such as Savennieres, dry, earthy and powerful. But ubiquitous in American stores are Chenin Blancs labeled as Vouvray. Some are dry, most are slightly sweet and some are even produced as sparkling wines, sappy and refreshing, without all the bombast and richness of classic Champagne. That gentle character may explain why Sparkling Saumur and Cremant de Loire, as these bubblies are labeled, have never been a big factor in the U.S. market. It can’t be the prices; they’re quite reasonable.

That’s true of all Loire Valley wines: from the tart, bracing Muscadets made at and near the Atlantic coast to the fragrant, nearly lusty Sauvignon Blancs produced near the other of the river in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume (the 2012 vintage is particularly fat and lush). Aside from a few cultish brands, none of these wines will set you back much (see prices below).

It’s part of the reason I was keen to visit. But as usual, I learned far more than I expected: I thought Muscadet a pleasant wine, even interesting at times. It’s usual devoid of personality, or so I have foolishly thought over the years. It’s subtle stuff, yes, but I found here great Muscadet, even though I would have scoffed at those words before my visit. Made from a grape that announces its ├⌐migr├⌐ status in its name, Melon de Bourgogne (of Burgundy, that is), it’s more at home along France’s sea-sprayed northwest coast. Notes of salt, lemon, lime skin and tart, green apple prevail. With the region’s oysters, mussels and other shellfish, it’s as if a simple lemon squeeze has been transformed into a sauce, a garnish and a counterweight.

Even this breadth of grapes and places doesn’t begin to describe the variety of wines the long Loire Valley produces: spicy, tart red wines, tangy roses, and the most lush and unctuous of dessert wines. Despite stark contrasts between wines and styles, the wines all represent excellent value and if you thirst for some crisper and lighter styles in wine, you need to slake that thirst with some of these.

Another Great American Riesling (meaning what?)

Red Newt Lahoma Vineyard Riesling 2009 is a surprising drink, not merely because this is a great American Riesling. “Great American Riesling” has, for much of our vinous history, been damnably faint praise. Moreover “surprising” isn’t a term I would likely apply to American Riesling. Satisfied (often)? Sated (frequently)? Surprised. Hmm.

There are lots of beachheads for the grape here. While the Left Coast may have a significant head start, it’s back east that the many of the best are found. You have to like some delicacy in your Riesling, but if you do, you will find stunners in Michigan and particularly in New York. I know that there will be some fat but nonetheless fine examples from California, north to south. But nearly none have that rasp of acidity that gives Riesling its distinctive shape.  Oregon and Washington can do that. Sometimes they can get some soil notes in their Rieslings, but more often not, the wines don’t repay aging the way I wish they would.

Cross the border into BC, the odds might be even better and often are. Along the East Coast, things get uneven until you get to Long Island, head up the Hudson and drive over to the Finger Lakes.

Here, you are more likely to find excellent Riesling than not. In fact, you’ll have to work at it if you want to find something boring or bad (your time could be spent in more productive pursuits). The Rieslings that have some sugar to them are more piercing than lush, and that’s exciting. The drier wines are sometimes easy to overlook, like the quiet girl at a party. I pity the fool who doesn’t see her, but then I always figured my job was to look at them all. That’s how I approach my wines.

So each place has its style and for the most part that’s what you get. Or so I can convince myself for short stretches, and then something like this comes along. Yes, it has some sugar, and it has some bite. But it’s not only that it has considerable teeth to that bite, it that it’s unruly. That’s not the way of Finger Lakes Riesling. Indeed, that’s not what I expect of American Riesling. With a sort of peachy, even apricot, basso profundo, there is more fat than I get from any Riesling this tangy. It’s IRF rated as somewhere between Medium Sweet and Sweet, but that will not help you know how this wine tastes.

How does it taste? Like grapefruit pie. Yep, grapefruit pie (whatever that is, but go with me on this), especially if you threw white peach and mangos slices on top of it. The “bite” explains this wine, just as the best of all Rieslings are defined. But what makes the best Riesling so damned exciting is when, in spite of fulfilling these demanding but often achieved standards, it surprises. That this wine can be so robust and so delicate is a patent surprise. Thank you, Red Newt.

I Love Alcohol, Despite Reports to the Contrary

Okay, I get the diatribe against high alcohol wines, and I often agree. Alcohol is nonetheless an integral part of wine's character: its weight, body, presence, mouth feel, part of what lifts its aromas, generates its flavors and keeps them all stable, at least for a time. And I like the buzz; I have no problem admitting that. On the other hand, I like wine too much to be satisfied with high alcohol wines; too much alcohol in a wine, and I won't be able to drink as much. And that's not good, dammit.

I will defend Darrell Corti's right (or anyone else) to refuse to purchase wines above a certain alcohol limit, say, 14.5% alcohol. I will assert his intelligence in all things wine, but I don’t have to agree with him. I don't think an arbitrary number (such as 14.5%) is particularly illuminating or insightful; it's more or less random. Some 14.2% alcohol wines taste warm, or even hot. Some 15% alcohol wines taste just fine. I'll offer as evidence last night's delightful drop: Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Jenkins Ranch 2009. It's listed as 15.9%; I'm not even sure that's an honest number. But here's the thing: it was great.

Let me set the scene: I've been working from 6 am to 4 pm in New York City, running tastings and lecturing. I head to the airport in hopes of getting an early flight home (yeah, right, the day before 9/11, when some people are still scared to fly), since my ticket isn't getting me out till 9:45 pm. Eight hours later, I'm still waiting to get on my plane. I finally arrive at my house at 3:55 am; my wife is awake. Bizarre; she can't sleep. She wondered why I was many hours late; she wants a drink. I want a drink. We share that bottle of Patz & Hall and, like I say, it was delicious. It didn't taste like 16% or so alcohol; it didn't even occur to me to think about the alcohol level, other than to be thankful that alcohol was serving its calming purpose.

I'm still surprised about that alcohol level; I may be critical of high alcohol table wines, but I'm usually downright hateful about high alcohol Pinot Noir. Was it poor judgment at 4 am? Gratitude for a tasty sedative? Well, you can think as you like. I thought it just tasted great, I found the fruit to be exuberant but not obnoxious, the oak to be intriguing but not intense, and the alcohol level simply amped up the fruit, the weight and, for me, the pleasure.

 

Disclaimer: I was sent this bottle as a press sample. So on some level you can question my impartiality. But if you read me regularly, you know I have no trouble ignoring the mountains of dull samples that I receive and taste, and I only write about a wine I believe in.

Face the Music…

In a recent article, I was asked to answer a few questions about how music and wine might interact. And I found myself unable to limit my words on the issue, even if I was primarily focused upon answering the questions. Here’s what I wrote to the author:

Question 1 – Do you think that there exists a direct relation between music and the simultaneously consumption of wine?

I am obsessed with music, such that I have music playing in my head, playing in the car or at my computer almost continuously. It sounds a bit crazy but it’s my world. I don’t generally try to match music and wine together but they seem to be able to generate similar rhythms and similar moods even if music itself seems to me to be devoid of smell and taste. Wait, that’s not true.

But music is more universal an experience than smell and taste is to me; because smell and taste are very, very specific to some particular place and time. Some music will bring me back to a certain spot at a certain date, but the stuff that I love is far more transformative.

Wine is more temporal than music, but wine has rhythm; I honestly think it does or at least it can if you have music in your head nonstop as I do.

Question 2 – Did you make correspondent experiences [by that, I think the author wanted to know if I match them up] by yourself?

In general, no, but that’s because I appreciate counterpoint more than synchronicity. So I don’t want music and wine to match up; I want them to talk to each other. They may agree; they may argue. Sometimes they don’t speak at all; they just yell past each other. That’s cool too. I like the complexity. But I listen to a fair amount of pop music (in between the Japanese noise bands, the early country, the bebop, the garage bands, the postpunk, whatever), and there is no music that corresponds to pop for me. Everything else seems to have a correlation but not pop music.

Question 3 – Would you say (or would you say not) that specific grape varieties do accord with specific styles of music?

No, it’s more a matter of style of wine. What grape you use to make it is immaterial. Of course, styles are based upon certain grapes and certain regions, but the region and style play a lot more into what describes any particular kind of music than what grape you might have used to make that style of wine. California Merlot is very, very different than Merlot in Bordeaux. White Burgundy is a different sort of animal to California Chardonnay. One is incredibly complex and even wild (think Ornette Coleman); but big, buttery California Chardonnay is more like John Philips Sousa.

Question 4 – Which style of music (or exactly: which song) harmonize best to:

Riesling – think string quartets, Baroque to 20th century. Okay, sure, there’s more to consider but I think that string quartets are a remarkable art form.

Silvaner – - I have no idea. Okay, maybe, the Velvet Underground. Attitude, attitude, rhythm and more attitude. Great lyrics too. Oops. I’m off subject.

Chardonnay – as above; it depends upon where you grow it and hence what style it is

Rosé - again, which rose? But this is as close to a boy band as any wine I can imagine.

Pinot Noir – again, which Pinot Noir? Oregon is almost muscular; sure it’s fruity, but there is a certain muscle behind it so I think Texas blues or Southern rock (maybe there’s a Kings of Leon connection I’ve never considered before). New Zealand is so delicate that it can be like a bird song; like a happy Meredith Monk tune, although I’m more in love with Meredith Monk’s wounded, unhappy songs, but that’s off subject. As with white Burgundy, red Burgundy is a wine that makes me think of orchestral music. This time, it’s not a quartet but a chamber orchestra. Sometimes it’s Vivaldi; sometimes it’s a lot more aggressive.

Syrah or Shiraz – at my own peril, I’ll ignore California Syrah (can be lovely; can be boring), Washington Syrah (which is often damned special but it’s too soon to characterize it in the way the editors are requesting) and even those marvelous examples from New Zealand, South Africa, Spain or Italy. So let’s talk that herbal, peppery fruit leathery thing that is the northern Rhone. If Parker or Dizzy had played French bistro music (dream on, Jacques Brel), they might have made these wines.

Merlot – Sure I said that wine isn’t pop music. But Merlot, like Champagne or sparkling wine, can come damned close. Merlot can produce wine that is somewhat silly, maybe even vapid, but sure of itself nonetheless, sexy, or at least about sex, youthful, and if over-confident, demanding that you take it seriously too. Like pop music. But I can also imagine Merlot as soul music; which I think of as pop with blues shined up by funk.

Cabernet Sauvignon – this is a formal music though it can be any kind of formal. Of course, you think of Bach but you also think of Astor Piazolla, another formal music straining at its limitations. Without those limitations, it would be seem untethered, ill-defined.

Grenache – nothing but folk music, though folk music from anywhere, so it could be salsa, it could be Blind Willie McTell, it could be Iraqi love songs, hell, it could be Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It could be from Cuba, from Appalachia, from South Africa, from Latvia, from Nigeria, well, you get the idea.

Sweet wine – girl bands for some of them, Christmas carols, songs of simple joy.

But maybe it was just the Riesling talking…