Articles in Drinking

Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

My father’s home of Trinidad & Tobago is filled with astounding diversity — its ecology, its people and, not least of all, its food. Featuring a cuisine that is a mix of African, East Indian, Chinese, Native Islander, Spanish and Portuguese influences, holidays in the twin-island nation run the gamut of cultures.

At Christmastime, Spanish pasteles made by the dozens by some families are sold by street vendors, and costumed bands sing parang or, really, paranda — that is, Spanish ballads — door to door. A rummy fruitcake descended and evolved from the original made by 18th-century Irish indentures is a must have, as is sorel, a punch made from steeped Roselle hibiscus flowers native to West Africa that came to the Caribbean and Latin America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Sorel drinks, like peanut punch and a wide canon of Trinidadian recipes, have a strong foundation in the cuisine of West Africans brought as slaves to the island in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.

Sorel can be used in alcoholic, nonalcoholic drinks

Sorel is made from the calyxes of Roselle hibiscuses. Naturally tart, the flower mixture is sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with cinnamon and clove. In Trinidad, where it has become popular year-round, bay leaf is also added, while ginger is a common addition in other island nations such as Jamaica.

Sorel is most often made at home during the holiday season, and then rum or gin can be added as desired. In the United States, Jackie Summers, a former publishing executive from Brooklyn, began bottling Sorel, a premixed alcoholic version of the drink, in 2012.

“My first encounter with sorel was around (at) 5 years old at the annual West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn,” said Summers, who often refers to himself as “the Liquortarian.” “There was dancing and floats and steel drum music and beef patties and this delicious tart drink that tasted like nothing I’d ever had.”

As an adult, Summers tinkered with making Sorel in his home kitchen, eventually bottling an alcoholic version of the drink for family and friends.

“I’d been making Sorel at home for friends and family for almost 20 years with no commercial aspirations,” he said. “Then four years ago I had a cancer scare. When I was lucky enough to come out of surgery and found that the tumor on my spine was benign and I found out I was going to live, I knew I couldn’t go back to my old life in corporate America.”

After a promising start in 2012 and then devastation of his Red Hook facilities during Hurricane Sandy later that year, Summers rebuilt what is now an award-winning brand. You can find where Sorel is sold near you using this locator.

Summers’ version of the traditional drink is smooth yet complex, proving itself an ideal mixer for all manner of holiday cocktails. Moroccan Roselle hibiscus is mixed with a pure wheat alcohol that is both certified organic and kosher then spiced with Nigerian ginger, Indonesian nutmeg, cassia and Brazilian clove.

Sorel works particularly well with sparkling wine or in the Crown Heights Negroni (see recipe below), developed by Summers. The liqueur’s rich red color adds vibrancy to yuletide or New Year’s cocktail gatherings.

Whether making sorel at home with the recipe below or buying Summers’ variety, home mixologists will find this sweet-tart ruby elixir an indispensable twist for holiday entertaining.

Homemade Sorel

This traditional version of sorel is nonalcoholic and can be served as a refreshing punch for all or spiked with a little rum, vodka or gin. It is particularly nice mixed in equal parts with sparkling wine. The addition of ginger varies from island to island — it’s always used in Jamaica, for example, but never in Trinidad. Add it or not, according to your tastes. This drink can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 30 minutes

Total time: About 35 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (available in Caribbean and Middle Eastern markets) or 4 bags pure hibiscus tea (for example, Yogi)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 teaspoon grated ginger (optional)

7 cups water, divided

Directions

1. Combine the hibiscus flowers or tea bags, sugar, cinnamon stick, clove, ginger (if using) and 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced by half.

2. Remove from heat and cover the pan. Allow to steep for 1 hour, then strain. Add remaining 4 cups of cold water and let chill.

Sorel-Coconut Vodka Martini

Coconut is mild and naturally sweet, while the sorel is tangy and bright with a gorgeous ruby-red hue. The two flavors combine beautifully in this drink enhanced by the warm spices in the hibiscus tisane.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 2 cocktails

Ingredients

1/4 cup coconut palm sugar

2 curls of lime rind, about 3 inches long

2 cinnamon sticks

4 ice cubes

4 ounces coconut vodka (for example, Pearl), plus extra for rimming

1 ounce Rose’s lime juice

4 ounces homemade sorel

Directions

1. Place the coconut palm sugar in a shallow bowl or saucer and set aside.

2. Wet a folded, clean paper towel with some of the coconut vodka and wipe around the rims of two large martini glasses.

3. Holding the glasses by the stems, tip the rims into the sugar, twirling to coat evenly.

4. Curl the lime rind loosely around each cinnamon stick and carefully place the cinnamon sticks in the glasses; set aside.

5. Pour the ice cubes, coconut vodka, Rose’s lime juice and sorel into a martini shaker. Shake until the outside of the shaker is cold.

6. Pour the cocktails into the prepared glasses.

Crown Heights Negroni

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit:  Maya Guez

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit: Maya Guez

This gorgeous winter cocktail was created by Jackie Summers, creator and maker of Sorel hibiscus liqueur.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces gin (for example, Tanqueray Malacca)

2 ounces Sorel

2 ounces sweet vermouth (for example, Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth)

2 ounces Campari

1 cup ice (optional)

4 dehydrated orange slices for garnish (fresh may be used, too)

Directions
1. Combine the gin, Sorel, vermouth and Campari in a pitcher with the ice (if using). Stir.

2. Garnish four martini glasses with an orange slice and divide the mixture evenly among them. Serve.

Hot Buttered Sorel

Brewed with warm spices, sorel is a natural, if surprising, twist on hot buttered rum. This recipe, from Jackie Summers, makes for a cozy drink on a chilly winter’s day.

Prep and cook time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 cocktails

Ingredients

4 tablespoon butter

8 heaped tablespoons brown sugar

12 ounces Sorel

2 ounces spiced rum

4 thin lemon slices

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

1. Melt the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan, then add the brown sugar. Whisk well and continue to whisk until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize, about 2 minutes.

2. Stir the Sorel into the caramel mixture, whisking well.

3. Divide the mixture among 4 mugs and add an equal amount of the spiced rum to each.

4. Garnish each mug with a lemon slice and a pinch of grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Serve warm.

Main photo: Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

Read More
Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

Read More
Vin d'Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels - orange, lemon and lime - brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

As I watch the sun, feeble in the morning skies at this time of the year, I think of the sunshine-yellow oranges my parents always brought to me from their little citrus grove in central Florida. Even though I live in the American South, cold weather and thick quilts lull me to sleep many nights. What on earth could I do to preserve a bit of sunshine as the shadows close in, foretelling the shortest day and longest night of the year?

Why, I could make vin d’orange, a French apéritif, perfect for the holiday season.

Vin d’orange is easy to make, requiring just a few minutes and some basic ingredients from the grocery store. Essentially, it just requires adding orange peel and sugar to dry white wine. It is especially delightful when combined with the 13 Desserts of Provence that are traditionally served at the end of Christmas Eve dinner.

Vin d’orange is also an example of interconnecting links so rampant in the world of food.

First, let’s look at a bit of the history that comes along with this aperitif.

Flavoring wines a centuries-old practice

The practice of infusing wine with herbs, fruits, and nuts is an old one, dating back for centuries. Most infused wine began as medicine, either to prevent or to cure illness. For example, the Egyptians flavored their wines with celery, juniper, or frankincense. The Romans added herbs to their wine, also for medical reasons. And the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, created ”hippocras,” a bitter digestive, useful (he thought) for settling stomach upsets. And medieval monks are well known for the aperitifs they created, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Georgeanne Brennan’s book, ”Apéritif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style,” (1997), hints at the wide variety of flavorings that cooks used to pep up their wine: yellow-flowered gentian, cherries, green walnuts, peach leaves.

So vin d’orange is likely the result of this long history. Seville oranges (bigarades) define the wine’s basic character, since originally people used these bitter oranges brought to Spain by the Arabs. Variations of vin d’orange appeared in southern Italy, France, and Spain, where citrus fruits flourished. And as Europeans left their homelands and settled the New World, they brought these ancient techniques, most of which reflected the seasons of the year. There, as in Europe, cordials resulted from that age-old meeting between herbs, fruits, nuts and wine.

Vintage cookbooks offer hints of these ancient practices, as do modern ones.

Consider M. F. K. Fisher’s ”A Cordiall Water” (1961). She touts the virtues of something called Arquebuse, made in a remote area of France with 33 different herbs. The best part about this concoction, it seems to me, is Fisher’s comment that it soothes nervous travelers “before embarking, especially for a plane trip.”

Southern chef Bill Neal writes of cordials in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (1985), pointing out that oranges grew in Louisiana and South Carolina long before Florida became the hot spot for citrus. He includes a recipe for orange cordial very similar in construction to the recipe that follows here, except that bourbon takes the place of wine. Very likely, Sarah Rutledge inspired him with her recipe for orange cordial in “The Carolina Housewife (1847).

French influence on Southern cordials

Considering that many French Huguenots settled in South Carolina, the existence of such cordials is not at all surprising. In fact, at one point, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana supplied the Memphis-based Robilio liquor brokerage company with orange wine. Robilio’s son figures some homesick Frenchmen rustled up batches of this sunny wine and bottled it.

The following simple recipe requires a clean glass quart-size bottle. Note you can use the same wine bottle, preferably one with a screw-on lid. If you find Seville oranges in your market, by all means use them. The addition of lemon and lime zest attempts to mimic the flavor of those sour oranges. If you want to get fancy, add some coriander seeds or maybe a stick of cinnamon or a vanilla bean.

But remember one thing: Just be sure that you drink about a half cup of the wine before proceeding, so as to fit all the ingredients into the wine bottle.

Vin d’Orange (Orange-Flavored Wine)

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d'orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d’orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus one week for wine to macerate in the refrigerator, so plan ahead.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

Peel/zest of 1 large sweet orange (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lime (preferably organic), in strips

1 (750 millileters) bottle of dry rosé or dry white wine

1/3 cup cognac

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/3 cup sparkling water (sodium-free)

Directions

1. Use only the skins of the fruits, making sure to exclude the pith (white part), as it will make your vin d’orange exceedingly bitter if you don’t.

2. Mix all ingredients together. Push the citrus peels into a quart-size glass jar or bottle, and then use a funnel to add the wine, cognac, sugar and sparkling water. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for one week or longer.

3. When ready to serve, strain wine through a sieve and serve with some (or all!) of the 13 Desserts of Provence. Or just serve the wine with any other sweets. Try vin d’orange with sharp cheeses and different dried sausages for something different.

Main photo: Vin d’Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels — orange, lemon and lime — brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Read More
The Bachelor cocktail from Bachelors Lounge in Beaver Creek, Colo. Credit: Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge

Take it from this staunchly indoorsy Coloradan: You don’t have to ski here to drink as though you do. The following cocktails, all featuring local products, come straight from the bars of some of this state’s most beloved wintertime destinations. Just whip them up, serve them before a crackling fireplace and — voilà — your living room may as well be a resort lodge overlooking the snow-capped Rockies.

The Bachelor

Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge, The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, Beaver Creek, Colo.

The bartenders use bourbon made exclusively for the Ritz by Breckenridge Distillery, but any label will do.

Prep time: 3 minutes

Total time: 3 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce blood-orange liqueur (for example, the Solerno brand)

3 to 4 dashes aromatic bitters

1 sprig rosemary for garnish

2 blackberries for garnish

Directions

Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Stir and strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with rosemary and blackberries.

Feisty Winter Warmer

Feisty Winter Warmer. Credit: Courtesy of The BARLey

Feisty Winter Warmer. Credit: Courtesy of The BARLey

Courtesy of The BARLey, Steamboat Springs, Colo.

This one’s for the serious home bartender, as it requires a 3-liter mini-barrel for small-batch aging. You can purchase one online, but be sure to cure it according to the manufacturer’s instructions first. Feisty Rye, made in Fort Collins, may be hard to come by outside of Colorado, so feel free to experiment with brands you like. You can purchase the DRAM bitters used in this recipe on the Silver Plume company’s website.

Prep time: 3 to 4 minutes, plus 3 to 4 weeks for aging

Total time: Less than 5 minutes, once aging is complete

Yield: About 26 servings

Ingredients

2 bottles rye

1 bottle spiced-apple liqueur

2 ounces honey chamomile bitters

1 ounce sage bitters

Cinnamon sticks for garnish

Directions

1. Add all the liquid ingredients to your aging barrel and let sit for at least three weeks, sampling the rye mixture daily thereafter to taste. (Kara Kahn, assistant manager at The BARLey, finds that “it’s like dessert” after about four weeks.)

2. Once it has mellowed to your liking, store in a Mason jar. When ready to use, add a large ice cube to a toddy glass, measure in 3 ounces of the cocktail and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Snow on the Fruits of Fall

Courtesy of Frost at The Sebastian, Vail, Colo. The CapRock Organic Pear Eau-de-Vie used here comes from Peak Spirits in Hotchkiss, Colo., which has some out-of-state distribution. If you can’t find it, though, many substitutes exist.

Prep time: 5 to 6 minutes

Total time: 5 to 6 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

4 1/2 ounces apple cider

1 1/4 ounces whipped cream-flavored vodka

1 1/4 ounces spiced rum

1/3 ounce pear eau-de-vie

1/3 ounce butterscotch schnapps

Pinch of ground cinnamon

Whipped cream for garnish

1 thin slice of pear for garnish

1 cinnamon stick for garnish

Directions

1. Combine the cider, vodka, rum, eau-de-vie, schnapps and cinnamon in a small saucepan; set it over low heat until warm.

2. Use a small dab of whipped cream to adhere the pear slice to the cinnamon stick. Pour the cider mixture into an Irish coffee glass and carefully place the stick inside the drink so the cream does not touch the liquid (the garnish is more for visual and aromatic effect than flavor). Serve.

Ullr’s Nightcap

Ullr’s Nightcap. Credit: Jessie Unruh/GoBreck

Ullr’s Nightcap. Credit: Jessie Unruh/GoBreck

Courtesy of Modis, Breckenridge, Colo., which showcases Spring 44 vodka.

Prep time: 3 minutes

Total time: 3 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

1 ounce vodka

1/2 ounce Branca Menta

1/2 ounce coffee liqueur

2 dashes chocolate bitters (for example, Fee Brothers, Scrappy’s or The Bitter Truth)

Heavy cream

Candy cane for garnish

Directions

Combine the first four ingredients in a mixing tin over ice and shake. Pour over ice into a double rocks glass, add a splash of cream and serve with a candy cane for stirring.

Glühwein

Glühwein. Credit: Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo.

Glühwein. Credit: Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo.

Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo. The resort has featured wine from Paonia’s Azura Cellars, but your favorite Cabernet will work just as well.    

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 to 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 cup orange juice

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

8 whole allspice berries

1 star anise pod

2 oranges

10 cloves, whole

8 juniper berries

1 lemon

1 1/2 bottles Cabernet Sauvignon

Orange twists for garnish

Directions

1. Combine orange juice, sugar, cinnamon sticks, allspice and star anise in a pot with 2 cups water over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower to a mild simmer.

2. Cut the oranges in half and squeeze juice into simmering liquid. Stud the squeezed halves with the cloves and gently place into the pot. Add juniper berries. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the simmering liquid, then place the halves in the pot.

3. Reduce mixture to half of its original volume. Add the wine and heat until just below simmering. Ladle into glass mugs and garnish each with an orange twist.

Main photo: The Bachelor from Bachelors Lounge in Beaver Creek, Colo. Credit: Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge

Read More
Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Chenin Blanc is like the name of a woman you met at a club a couple of years ago: It rings a bell, but you can’t remember much else. That’s been a problem for wine producers around the world for most of the past century. The white grape delivers a big crop but usually makes for a pretty average wine, be it from California’s Central Valley or South Africa.

Chenin Blanc is native to France’s Loire Valley, where vintners in Anjou and Touraine still regard it with the glowing eye of a proud parent, probably because they understand its heart of gold and true potential. When you raise it in the disciplinary schist and limestone soils of the Loire, you get a respectable wine, something with breeding and class. It can even age extraordinarily well.

What’s more, Chenin Blanc is a remarkably flexible grape that knows how to party. It becomes a great dry or off-dry white in Vouvray, a long-lived dry white in the tough schist soils of Savennières and a dessert wine in Coteaux du Layon. Pick it early, as they do in Saumur as well as Vouvray, and it can make a great sparkling wine, especially when blended with some Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay. Look, for instance, to the superb Domaine Langlois-Château (owned by Champagne house Bollinger) or Bouvet Ladubay, both in Saumur, or Château Montcontour in Vouvray. Priced between $10 and $20 per bottle, Crémant de Loire is an affordable alternative to Champagne for holiday get-togethers.

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Saumur

Langlois-Château’s wines aren’t the cheapest from this region, but the estate controls the production process from beginning to end. The grapes are crushed at the winery and the pressed juice separated to be vinified and later blended, just as is done in Champagne. Frankly, the quality as compared to that of other Loire bubbly is evident. “It is slightly higher priced, but in the end we propose something different. We try to intend quality from the beginning,” general manager François Regis de Fougeroux said.

Bouvet Ladubay makes some terrific sparkling Chenin Blanc from vineyards situated on top of vast, old limestone quarries. This central part of the Loire Valley is popular with cyclists, and Bouvet offers a 2.5-kilometer (about a mile) bicycle tour of its wine caves. “Chenin Blanc has a very good expression here for sparkling wine,” deputy managing director Juliette Monmousseau said. “It is very minerally and has good acidity, which encapsulates what we need to make good sparkling wine.”

“Historically, the Loire was the highway to transport goods in a fast way from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean,” she said. “We really have no major industries other than tourism, wine, cheese and great food.” If you’re looking for some evidence of that great food, you’ll want to check out Juliette’s sister’s restaurant, La Route du Sel in Thoureil, a tiny town overlooking the river. You can’t beat the waterside tables for an outstanding outdoor lunch of local cuisine with wine.

Vouvray

A bikeable distance to the east is Vouvray, where estates such as Château Montcontour make sparkling and still whites from Chenin Blanc. “In France, when people think of Vouvray, they think of sparkling wine,” export manager Thibaud Poisson said. “In the U.S., they think of off-dry wines. But now dry, still white wines from Vouvray are becoming more popular.”

To the west of Saumur is Anjou, where Chenin Blanc remains the lead white grape. Here, however, the soils change to a rocky mix of granite schist and quartz, which naturally limits the productivity of the vines to net concentrated, very minerally and, in some cases, long-lived wines with exotic tropical fruit and citrus flavors.

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Anjou

Anjou/Savennières winemaker Patrick Baudoin said that while the Loire Valley east of Saumur features white, limestone-based soils, the parts to the west are known for “Anjou noir” soils, named for their darker schist makeup. That soil difference resonates in the character of the wines. Baudoin’s are more concentrated and taut than those grown in limestone soils, with profound stone-fruit, pear, lemongrass and green-tea notes. And they’re built to last, with vibrant acidity, good body and just enough white grape-skin tannin to give them some longevity.

There are some great examples from California, such as Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dry Chenin Blanc, which displays a certain amount of class. But it’s not the ideal place to raise the grape. If you’re looking for more terroir-driven wines and greater variety, look to the  Loire Valley.

Main photo: The beauty of the Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Read More
Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog. In the Spanish version, ground almonds are included. Credit: iStockphoto

Our ancestors knew a thing or two about how to enjoy the festive season without paying the penalty for overindulgence.

It’s no accident that many of the traditional recipes for festive refreshment include cream and eggs. And that’s why three of my favorite midwinter warmers — English, Scottish and Spanish cocktails — double up as hangover cures. It’s two for the price of one!

Lamb’s Wool Wassail

Wassail is an elision of the Saxons’ merry toast, was haile, or “your health,” hence “hale and hearty.” It’s wise, according to the old wives’ tale, to serve it from an apple wood bowl to discourage witches from joining the party. This has something to do with an ancient tradition of going out into the orchard at midnight on Christmas Eve and banging drums or firing guns to scare away evil beasties that might stop the apple trees from fruiting. Sounds reasonable. And anyway, apple trees are host to mistletoe, and everyone knows where a kiss under the mistletoe can lead.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 cinnamon stick

Small piece of ginger

6 cloves

2 pints mild ale or hard cider

4 to 6 small, hard apples, pricked with a fork

1/4 pint thick cream

2 egg yolks

4 tablespoons sugar

Grated nutmeg

Directions

1. Set the cinnamon, ginger and cloves in a small cloth that can be tied closed.

2. Put the ale or cider in a pan with the spices and warm very gently.

3. Meanwhile, roast the apples until soft on a baking tray in an oven heated to 400 degrees F (200 C or Gas6). Alternately, you can turn them on a roasting fork in front of a fire until the skin is nicely toasted and the flesh is soft. Keep them warm till you’re ready to serve.

4. Beat the cream with the egg yolks and sugar until smooth and well blended.

5. Increase the heat under the ale or cider pan and remove just before it comes to a boil. Take out the spice-bag and whisk in the cream and egg.

6. Transfer to a warm bowl (apple wood or otherwise) and float the apples on the surface.

7. Finish with a dusting of nutmeg.

Note: If you need to reheat, don’t let it boil or the egg will curdle. If so, blame the witches, scoop out the apple flesh, whiz everything together and pretend it was your intention all along.

Warm winter cocktails can make your holiday celebrations festive. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Warm winter cocktails can make your holiday celebrations festive. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Athol Brose

This is the traditional Scottish welcome to a first-footer at Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve. A first-footer is the first visitor to step over your threshold after the stroke of midnight. Fair exchange is a lump of coal for the fire, and you hope that your first-footer is dark-haired and friendly rather than a blond-haired, blue-eyed Viking up for a bit of pillaging. Christmas north o’ the border — the line drawn between Scotland and England, which roughly follows Hadrian’s Wall — is an altogether quieter affair than it is south of the border. Whisky never has an “e” when it’s Scotch. Now you know it all.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 bottle Scotch whisky

12 ounces runny honey

12 ounces thick cream

1 heaped tablespoon porridge oats

Directions

1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream.

2. Stir the oats into a pint of cold water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes to thicken.

3. Whisk the whisky mixture into the oats and serve hot.

Note: Garnish ideas include a little nutmeg sprinkled on top or any extra swirl of cream.

Ponche

Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog for which similar recipes are found throughout Europe. The Spanish version is thickened with ground almonds, a traditional Christmas ingredient. Serve it warm on a cold night with something sweet and crisp for dipping.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pint thick cream

4 ounces ground almonds

2 ounces sugar

4 egg yolks

1/4 pint brandy

Directions

1. Combine the cream, ground almonds and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat the mixture till just below boiling.

2. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks until light and fluffy, then beat in the brandy.

3. Pour the hot cream in a thin stream into the yolk mixure, whisking steadily.

4. Serve immediately, or bottle it up, cork securely and store in the fridge — you’ll need to shake it up before you pour.

Main image: Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog. In the Spanish version, ground almonds are included. Credit: iStockphoto

Read More
Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.

In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.

But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.

But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.

But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.

Monastrell grapes in vineyard

Monastrell grapes in Bodega Castaño’s vineyard in Yecla, Spain. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.

Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.

Experiencing Monastrell at its source

During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.

As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.

Monastrell wine. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Bodega Castaño’s flagship Monastrell blend, Casa de la Cera. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50%  Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.

Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.

Main photo: Monastrell grapes.  Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Read More
Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon's Scott Wright says,

On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”

He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.

“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”

David Baker's documentary "American Wine Story" is available on iTunes, cable pay-per-view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

David Baker’s documentary “American Wine Story” is available on iTunes, cable pay per view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.

Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.

Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.

Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.

Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.

A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases — then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases, then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”

Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?

“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”

Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.

Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.

A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’

Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.

A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.

The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.

New vineyards like those of Oregon's Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

New vineyards like those of Oregon’s Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.

Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.


You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.

“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”

We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.

Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.

Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.

At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”

A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”

Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker

Read More