Articles in Drinking
It’s probably still premature to break out the Txakoli or Sancerre, or whatever crisp, refreshing white you prefer for summer, but there’s definitely a category of wine that embodies the chameleon-like nature of early spring, especially here in New York, where the weather is a reminder of Robert Frost’s lines.
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You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
– From “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
I find that France’s little-known and oft-neglected Savoie region — a tiny Alpine growing area perched up in the mountains along the Swiss border — delivers just what I’m looking for this time of year. With its versatile range of whites that run the stylistic gamut from playfully brisk to generously rich, and its light-bodied, elegantly lifted reds, Savoie wines offer the perfect way to pass the time while waiting for the first spring greens to appear at the market.
Whenever I drink wines from this part of the world, I immediately envision myself in a landscape that seems to belong in “The Sound of Music,” complete with herds of grazing cattle, sleepy little cottages and a token babbling brook. Technicolor Hollywood fantasies aside, it can’t be denied that, at their best, the area’s wines communicate an unmistakable sense of place, all mountain air and meadow grass and wildflowers.
Although not a whole lot of the area’s wine makes it to U.S. shores, what does arrive is truly worth seeking out. Producers of note include Franck Peillot, Eugene Carrel, Domaine Labbé and the extremely hard-to-find Domaine Belluard, but I’ve recently developed an obsession with a small vigneron by the name of David Dupasquier, located in the village of Jongieux, who makes a gorgeous lineup of wines from such distinctive regional grapes as Jacquère and Altesse (his whites), as well as the red-skinned Gamay and Mondeuse.
Minimalist Savoie winemaker
A fifth-generation winemaker now at the helm of his family estate, Dupasquier adopts a minimalist approach to his work in the vineyards and the cellar. For one, he harvests entirely by hand, which, given the precariously steep vines he tends, must pose a considerable challenge. Among other praiseworthy practices, he also makes a point of fermenting with indigenous yeasts, which better allows the underlying materials of the wine to shine through. For anyone interested in experiencing the high-altitude clarity possessed by so many wines from Savoie, Dupasquier’s efforts couldn’t be more faithful regional ambassadors.
His unusual level of dedication and care is evident across all of his wines, and his profound expression of the Jacquère grape is no exception. While many examples of the varietal are innocuous affairs, best used to quench the thirst of skiers after a long day on the slopes, his version possesses a bright wash of acidity and a stony mineral core that overturns expectations while remaining utterly true to its place of origin. Despite its deceptively lithe and nimble frame, it manages to deliver a sense of weight without being weighty, gesturing toward richness with a fuller, creamier texture than any other expression of the grape I’ve encountered. In this respect, the wine seems to me like an Alpine version of some of the better Muscadet cuvées that have recently raised that region’s profile.
All in all, the wines offer a refreshing dose of seasonal irony. On the richer side of the spectrum, for those chillier April days when, as Frost writes, you feel like you’re still “back in the middle of March,” Dupasquier’s stellar Rousette de Savoie does the trick. Particularly appealing in the recently released 2010 vintage and based on the late-ripening Altesse grape (known regionally as Rousette), it represents just the sort of comforting, deep-yet-chiseled, viscous-yet-fresh white to be enjoyed with the last of winter’s hearty, bone-warming fare: Think roast pork or trout in cream sauce. When the warmer weather comes in full force, however, I’ll gravitate toward his bright and elegant vins rouges. Plunged in the ice bucket before serving, the 2010 Dupasquier Savoie Gamay drinks like a transparent, mountain-grown Beaujolais, chock full of juicy red berry fruit and a clean mineral finish that sings of the rocky slopes in which it was raised. Cue the first spring chicken.
Top photo: David Dupasquier in the fields. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Dupasquier
Sunny Sicily is in the throes of a wine revolution. This rich apricot-and-citrus-toned white, 2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila, is an example of just how much has changed since the island turned from producing industrial plonk to quality wine from native grapes. With a 2,000-year wine history, Sicily is now one of Italy’s most exciting, cutting edge regions — and the source of dozens of current bargains. This is one of them.
Dalila is one of the two blends in the Stemmari portfolio, which also includes single varietal reds and whites made from native and international grapes. The Dalila blend is mostly Grillo, a local Sicilian white varietal used traditionally to produce fortified Marsala. Highly fragrant, with exotic notes of mango, Grillo can be exciting on its own, but the addition of some Viognier, a Rhône Valley grape, gives this wine a round, rich texture and contributes aromas of honey and wildflowers. I’m guessing the wine’s name is supposed to evoke the Dalila (of the Bible and the opera), who renders her former lover Samson powerless by cutting off his hair.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila
Region: Sicily, Italy
Grape: 80% Grillo, 20% Viognier
Serve with: Seafood risotto, soft cheeses
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Stemmari is the Sicilian project of Mezzacorona, a company originally founded more than a century ago in northern Italy as a winegrowers’ association. In Sicily, the company sources grapes from its 1,700 acres of vineyards at two large estates on the island’s south coast, near Agrigento and Ragusa, where winds sweep in from the Mediterranean. The winery is built in traditional rustic villa style.
Considering this is a fairly big project, Stemmari’s commitment to “green” ideas and sustainable winegrowing is commendable. Though the vineyards are not organically farmed, the company uses “good” insects as an alternative to chemical treatments, as well as “sexual confusion” — a biological system that fights destructive bugs by limiting their reproduction. Thanks to Sicily’s hot, dry, windy climate, it’s also relatively easy to use few chemicals here. Solar panels generate the winery’s electricity, wastewater is recycled, and Feudo Arancio even desalinates seawater to keep its reservoirs full.
Sicily’s long winegrowing history began even before the Greeks arrived to colonize the island in 750 B.C. On a wine tour a few years ago, I wandered the ruins of magnificent ancient temples just outside Agrigento that they left behind. The group of eight buildings, strung out along a road of big stones, is deservedly one of the island’s most famous archeological attractions.
For most of the 20th century, Sicily was known for industrial-quality bulk wine. The wine renaissance started in the 1990s, as forward-thinking producers planted international grapes such as Chardonnay and focused on quality instead of quantity. The 2000s brought the rediscovery of fascinating native grape varieties such as Grillo. The 2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila is a tasty, food-friendly blend of the two revolutions.
Top photo: 2013 Feudo Arancio Dalila. Credit: Courtesy of Feudo Arancio
Chianti Classico DOCG is one of Tuscany’s most prestigious wine appellations: Any wine bearing that name must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict regulations about its making. So when the Consortium of Chianti Classico producers announced a change to its categories, wine critics and appassionati took notice.
Chianti Classico’s consortium recently launched a “Gran Selezione” category: a group of wines touted as the pinnacle of the area’s wine pyramid. The Gran Selezione will account for about 10% of Chianti Classico’s annual production of 35 million bottles, for a value of 70 to 100 million euros.
The launch may have taken place, with much ado, in the spectacular frescoed Renaissance hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but the reaction — in Tuscany and beyond — has been mixed. Although 35 of the area’s top wineries have so far bottled a wine in the new category, many others are giving the “Selezione” a wide berth — for now, at least. To understand the reasons for this, it’s worth taking an overview of Chianti Classico.
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The delineated area known as Chianti Classico is located in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, and has long been recognized as one of the region’s best for wine production: It was first shaped in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Modern Chianti Classico gained elevated DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1984 with the “Black Rooster” wines; its consortium now represents more than 600 members.
The overall area for Chianti production is much larger, however. It stretches farther into the provinces of Siena and Firenze, and into those of Pisa, Arezzo and Pistoia. This is confusing for consumers: Although Chianti Classico and appellations such as Chianti Rufina DOCG are recognized for their premium wines, simple, inexpensive — and often not great — “Chianti” wines abound from these other parts of the region.
In Chianti Classico DOCG wines, the primary grape is red Sangiovese. Each wine must contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese, with the remaining percentage made up from other specified red grapes, including “international” varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Until recently, these wines fell into just two groups: Chianti Classico Annata (the “normal” vintage) and Chianti Classico Riserva (aged for at least 24 months), which were considered the appellation’s best wines. (Some producers, however, choose to make their top wines outside of the DOCG rules. These wines are bottled under the IGT appellation, and are the so-called Super Tuscans). Now a third group has been added.
To be admitted into this Gran Selezione, a wine must pass an additional taste test and be aged for a minimum of 30 months, of which three are in the bottle. (Note that “gran” is a shortened version of “grande,” and here means top, not grandmother.) It must also be made from the grapes of a single vineyard or from a selection of an estate’s best grapes. “The idea of this top tier is to help consumers identify an estate’s best wine,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the Chianti Classico Consortium’s president.
There’s the rub. Objectors note that the Riserva system was already in place to do that, and that the new Selezione may increase confusion in the cluttered Tuscan wine map. The Gran Selezione has stimulated a lively debate among the Italian wine world — in Tuscany and beyond — about the pros and cons of the new classification, and about alternative ideas for a change in the appellation’s structure. (Changes must be ratified by law, as the Gran Selezione’s have).
“During the recent economic crisis, the production of Chianti Riserva wines has increased, and they’re competing with Chianti Classico’s higher-level Riservas,” says Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker at San Felice, a leading Chianti Classico estate. Its well-known Riserva, Il Grigio, recently passed the tests to become a Gran Selezione. “We hope that once the Gran Selezione branding is recognized, it will stop the confusion between these two types of Riservas.”
Many cutting-edge wines here come from small estates with forward-thinking winemakers at their helm. Paolo De Marchi, of Isole e Olena, is one. His award-winning, pure Sangiovese Super Tuscan, Cepparello, would qualify for the Gran Selezione, but he’s reluctant to change its status.
“I don’t agree with the Consortium’s vision on this,” he says. “For me, great wines are made by their location and vineyards, not by the hands of men. I’d much rather see us differentiate between the sub-zones within Chianti Classico as a way of emphasizing the diversity of our terroirs.”
The concept of “villages” as used in Burgundy — which would allow the wines’ labels to cite the township within which they are made, such as Gaiole, Castellina or Greve in Chianti — is a hot issue among premium estates wanting to differentiate growing areas within Chianti Classico’s 7,000 hectares (about 17,300 acres) of vineyards.
“The Consortium is beginning to take steps in that direction, but it may be several years in the coming,” says Robert Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono. “The diversity of Chianti Classico’s terroirs is one of its strengths.”
Some producers and wine experts believe the Consortium has missed a precious opportunity to requalify Chianti Classico by limiting its grape varieties to Sangiovese and other native Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo.
“A Gran Selezione of just Tuscan grapes would have made sense by emphasizing the link between these varieties and this specific area,” says Bellaccini. That “first tier” would have been clearly understood by everyone.
Will Gran Selezione wines cost more? “That will be up to the individual estates,” says Consortium Vice President Filippo Mazzei. “We have not imposed price hikes for these wines, though they are of course the estates’ top bracket wines.” The Consortium hopes producers of other high-flying Super Tuscans will be encouraged to reclassify them as Gran Selezione wines, and that the word will spread positively about its latest category.
Top photo: Gran Selezione wines sit on a higher podium than the rest of the Chianti Classico wines at the media tasting in Florence. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Local sourcing is an increasingly mainstream priority for restaurants, chefs and almost anyone producing food or beverages. But it’s not such an easy proposition for craft brewing. Unlike butchers who know their pig suppliers or jam makers who know their berry farmers, craft beer makers have a hard time finding local sources of hops and other beer ingredients.
“Everyone talks about local beer, but probably only the water and the brewer are local,” said Robby Crafton, brewer at Big Alice Brewing, during the recent Brewer’s Choice event at New York City’s Beer Week.
Truly local beer is hard to make. This is not the brewers’ fault. Blame it on a regionalized agriculture system that has centralized areas of grain production and processing.
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New York state used to be a prime hops producer, but humid summers invite fungal predators, so farmers quit growing hops there. In the United States, hops are now grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
Grain production used to be routine in the Northeast too, but climate challenges and westward expansion pushed the crop elsewhere. The last malt in the area was probably made in Buffalo, on the western edge of New York state. Grain processing lingered there because of its great transit location on the Great Lakes. Now, most malt comes from Belgium or the Midwest.
Everyone’s going local
However, a growing preference for local goods is helping change things, and brewers are excited about the flavors they can get from freshly malted and regionally grown grains.
“There’s a beautiful softness and fluffiness from the spelt,” said Joe Grimm, who was pouring Grimm Artisanal Ales’ spelt saison at Brewer’s Choice with his fellow brewer Lauren Carter Grimm.
“Historically, this has been a cool micro-trade show/hangout,” said Kelly Taylor, from KelSo Beer. “It’s awesome that we can take that GrowNYC component and add it to the event.”
Taylor, along with Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43, and Dave Brodrick from Blind Tiger ale house, organized Brewer’s Choice with June Russell, from GrowNYC. GrowNYC is the parent organization of Greenmarket, which operates 55 farmers markets in the city, and Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project.
The organization promotes regional grain in a number of ways. Greenmarket set a minimum percentage of local flour that farmers market bakers must use. The grains project collaborates with other groups on initiatives, such as New York Farm to Bakery, which paired New York City bakers with millers from New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.
This recent collaboration with Brewer’s Choice echoes a 2010 bread tasting at the French Culinary Institute in New York City that put local flour on bakers’ radars and in their mixing bowls. Now local malt is in the hands of regional brewers.
Valley Malt, a pioneering malt house in Hadley, Mass., supplied 6,000 pounds of malt to 20 brewers, who had to use at least 30% local grain. Malt from startup Farmhouse Malt also came to Brooklyn. Other beers at the event featured local ingredients such as honey and apples.
In search of local ingredients
In general, brewers are curious about local grain, but limited availability and high cost keep them from using more of it.
“The fact of the matter is that local grain is three or four times the price,” said Taylor, who uses some local grains at KelSo and also at Heartland, where he is the brewmaster. Although the resulting beers have a certain terroir, the extra layer of flavor is very subtle and delicate. The beers, he said, are not two or three times better than others. “But from a social and economic standpoint, it’s 100% better.”
The value, he said, is in trickle-up economics. When local farmers prosper, the economy grows.
“I think in a couple of years this could be 100% local,” Taylor said.
Part of the problem is that small-scale malts, unlike their big-market cousins, don’t have easily understood or well-known performance characteristics. Their qualities vary and working with them can bring uncertainties for brewers. Russell identified another problem on Carbone’s radio show the night before the event: the processing bottleneck. There are not enough small malt houses in the Northeast.
Since New York state’s 2013 Farm Brewery law linked licensing to use of local products, a number of startup malt houses in the state are beginning to address the need. Like the recent Farm Distillery and Farm Cidery Laws, the new law makes it easier for small-scale producers that use local products to get necessary licenses.
If this was local malt’s debutante ball, her many suitors loved the dance. People kept tipping their glasses for pours even after the lights went up and security started guiding the lively crowd out of the hotel.
“It’s over,” Bill Herlicka, of White Birch Brewing in New Hampshire, told one hopeful drinker after he’d unscrewed the taps on his Bill’s Brown Rye and First Sparrow.
The rye was made with Danko, a Polish variety of the grain. Herlicka described the result as sweet and bready, with an interesting coffee quality. Typically rye makes a beer that is dry, sharp and spicy, he said.
Herlicka said brewers would love to use more local ingredients for a number of reasons, including the fact that customers also prefer it. He would be willing to pay more for local ingredients if he could promote that on his beer’s label, he said.
“I would use more local grain,” Herlicka said.
Top photo: Michelle Crafton, Scott Berger, center, and Robby Crafton from Big Alice Brewing at Brewer’s Choice. Credit: Corey Offsey
Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.
But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.
It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.
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The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.
I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.
Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.
Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.
“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.
“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.
Making bitters at home
I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.
Gentian Root, the star ingredient, actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.
The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.
The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.
According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.
Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.
Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.
But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about. Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!
So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.
Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting
(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)
Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies
1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.
4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.
5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.
6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.
7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.
8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.
Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz
The snow outside has me longing for the beginning of rosé season. But sampling this bright 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado, with its lively flavors of cassis and pomegranate, at dinner recently reminded me that you don’t have to wait for hot weather to enjoy savory, medium-bodied pink wines. This food-friendly example was perfect with grilled pork chops and sautéed kale and would be delicious with tapas like olives and sharp cheese.
The wine’s origin, Lodi, Calif., surprised me, as did the varietals in the juicy blend. Bokisch Vineyards has made a specialty of growing Spanish varietals and two found their way into this wine. Made mostly from Barbera, it includes percentages of Graciano and white Albariño that add notes of dark cherry, smooth tannin and a nice crispness. Graciano is a very old variety in Spain, supposedly dating back before the Romans arrived. Aging in stainless steel preserves the wine’s acidity and fruit.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Clements Hills, Lodi, Calif.
Grape: 86% Barbera, 8% Albariño, 6% Graciano
Serve with: Barbecued chicken or pork chops; tapas; paella
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Markus Bokisch, who owns the eponymous winery with his wife Liz, has a deep family connection with Spain, where he spent summers in Catalonia with his mother’s relatives. He started his career at Joseph Phelps in Napa, but spent a few years working in the wine industry in Spain, where he fell in love with Spanish grapes. When the couple returned to the U.S., they bought land in Lodi, planting varietals such as Tempranillo and Garnacha. Now they farm 1,000 acres, selling the grapes to 40 wineries.
I’ve always thought of the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area), southeast of Sacramento and west of the Sierra Nevadas, as the place big producers such as Sutter Home and Gallo turn to for grapes for their basic, somewhat boring blends. Few realize it has a 150-year-long vineyard tradition; many families have grown grapes — especially Zinfandel and Tokay, used for brandy — for a century or more.
Although Zinfandel is still the most planted grape, a new generation of adventurous growers is branching out. The Bokisches are at the forefront of the experimentation. Many of their vineyards are organic and others are certified green according to “Lodi Rules.” This complicated system includes using solar and biodiesel energy and monitoring the land ecosystem and water, but also permits some use of synthetic pesticides.
The 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado leans toward the bigger, fruitier Spanish style of rosé, which makes it ideal for drinking at any time of the year. So don’t wait for summer to sample its delights over a long brunch or dinner.
Top photo: 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado Belle Colline Vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Bokisch Vineyards
Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.
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Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.
A full range of Riesling
Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.
Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.
The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity. On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.
The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.
And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.
The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.
Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.
Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach
My heart goes out to anyone living in the northern United States and Canada this winter, as the 2014 North American cold snap refuses to release its vise-like grip. But I have to admit to a slightly sneaky delight that these same terrifyingly low temperatures may be helping ensure this year’s harvest of one of Quebec’s finest products: ice cider.
Apples and cider have been part of Canada’s history since the first French explorers arrived in the 16th century. Many of the settlers came from Normandy and Brittany, regions of France with rich apple-growing and cider-making traditions of their own. It’s tempting to suppose that cultivars of the fruit from back home were among the products stowed in the holds of their sailing ships. Some of the resulting apples certainly ended up as rough ciders meant for home consumption.
When Quebec first framed its alcohol laws in the 1920s, cider somehow got left off the list, with the result that it could continue to be made only on a domestic scale and not for resale. Only in the 1970s was this corrected, and cider was once again produced commercially.
C’était pas fameux! [It was pretty horrible],” grimaces Benoit Bilodeau, an artisan cider producer on the Ile d’Orleans, a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and just a short ferry ride from Quebec City. Badly made from unripe fruit, full of chemicals and high in alcohol, these early ciders carried the guarantee of a sore head the next morning. “It was an uphill job recovering from that image,” Bilodeau acknowledges.
Ice cider depends on long, cold winter
Nowadays, several different types of cider are produced in La Belle Province (as Quebec is known locally), both still and sparkling and with varying degrees of alcohol content and residual sweetness. But the most prized drop, introduced in the early 1990s, is ice cider, a deep golden elixir with a tight balance of sweetness and acidity and intensely concentrated fruit.
More ice cider information:
Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau, 2200 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, Canada, www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca
You can find ice cider available for purchase online at www.wine-searcher.com
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If you know a little about Eiswein, the naturally sweet wine made from late-harvested, frozen grapes that was originally pioneered in Germany, you’ll have a handle on how ice cider is arrived at. In the same way that grapes destined for ice wine are left hanging on the vine till the temperature drops well below zero, so also are perfectly ripe apples with high sugar content left to freeze on the tree (or picked and stored in wooden crates), awaiting just the correct conditions of intense, prolonged cold. It’s not something that happens every year, hence my furtive rejoicing at this year’s extreme temperatures.
In this process, known as cryoextraction, the still-frozen fruit is pressed to extract a super-concentrated juice, which then ferments gently for several months in stainless steel vats in a cool cellar or outhouse.
Ice cider is generally a blend of juice from several different apple varieties, each chosen for their distinctive qualities — aroma, sweetness and high juice content. Bilodeau grows more than a dozen varieties of apple from which he selects three for his ice cider, which he has christened Nectar de Glace. McIntosh (Canada’s favorite indigenous sweet-sour dessert apple, discovered in Ontario in 1811), Cortland (“wonderfully sweet and juicy”) and Spartan (“great aroma”) all flavor his ice cider.
Yields for this highly concentrated product are a fraction of those for regular cider: From 20 kilograms of apples, Bilodeau gets about 12 liters of ordinary cider, compared with a mere 3 liters of the precious cidre de glace, or ice cider. This fact, together with the inherently risky nature of the exercise — a sudden rise in temperatures, say, or hungry birds in search of sweet apples — as well as the skill required to make such nectar, is reflected in its elevated price: A 375-milliter bottle will set you back about $20 Canadian.
The Association des Cidriculteurs Artisans du Québec has framed strict standards for this premium product, which prides itself on its quality and authenticity. These include minimum sugar levels in the juice as well as in the finished product and no added sugar or alcohol or synthetic colorings. Most important, the apples must be frozen naturally outdoors — not in an industrial freezer — and at temperatures between 8 degrees below zero and 15 degrees below zero Celsius. No juice concentrates may be used, all apples must be grown on the property and every stage of the process must be executed in-house. The finished ice cider must have a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent and a maximum of 13% and be tasted and judged by a professional tasting panel.
If you are currently shivering your way through one of the coldest winters in living memory, console yourself with the thought of Bilodeau up on a ladder in his snowy orchard, plucking burnished red apples from bare branches at 15 degrees below zero, and all for the sake of those tiny bottles of golden nectar.
Top photo: Benoit Bilodeau’s line of ciders includes ice cider (third from left). Credit: Sue Style