Articles in Drinking
This year, you can transform your ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into an extraordinary one — not with food, but with drink. Shake up cocktail hour with shochu, a delicious distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan that’s caught the fancy of American bartenders.
Shochu is often wrongly described by Americans as a kind of vodka. Although it comes in a variety of flavors, it is lower in alcohol and calories than vodka or other distilled alcoholic beverages.
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Shochu production in Japan began around the 16th century in certain regions. The famous production areas include the large southern island of Kyushu and the neighboring small islands of Amami, Okinawa and Iki. The warm winter climate in these areas is not well-suited for producing good quality sake, as this rice wine requires very cold winter months for proper fermentation.
Shochu production involves two steps. The first step is to produce alcohol in a way that is very similar to that of sake. Koji, the magic mold that creates flavorful enzymes and sugars from starch, is inoculated into steamed rice to produce a fermentation starter. The starter is mixed with yeast, spring water and the selected and cooked main ingredient: usually rice, barley, sweet potato, potato, buckwheat or sugar cane. It is left to ferment for about 14 days. This is half the fermentation period for sake, and so this brewed batch is very rough and wild in taste, texture and aroma. The second step, distillation, removes all sugars and roughness from the brew, and transforms it into a clean, clear and elegant alcoholic beverage.
Top-quality shochu is distilled only once. This is called Honkaku shochu. Single distillation leaves each shochu with a delightful hint of the distinctive taste and fragrance of its base ingredient. After distillation, the alcohol content approaches 80 proof (40% alcohol). Then, it is diluted to about 50 proof (25% alcohol). Honkaku shochu can be served straight-up or on the rocks in order to enjoy the full flavor of each variety.
Another less expensive type of shochu is usually made from lesser quality ingredients and goes through multiple distillations. The resulting shochu is deprived of the unique and sometimes funky taste and fragrance of the real thing. After multiple distillations, the alcohol content approaches 160 to 180 proof (80% to 90% alcohol). This is then watered down to around 72 proof (36% alcohol). In Japan, it is this less expensive shochu that is used to make cocktails at bars and restaurants.
But craft-conscious bartenders in the United States are taking a different approach. Jesse Falowitz, founder of Nehan Spirits LLC in New York, manages the production of his own award-winning brand of barley-based shochu, Mizunomai, in Japan and imports and markets it in the U.S. For this breed of bartenders, Falowitz says, “it is important to preserve the unique flavor of each spirit. whether it be shochu, whisky, brandy or gin, in the cocktails that they craft.”
For your Thanksgiving gatherings, reach for Honkaku shochu to enjoy the wonderful flavors of high quality shochu alone or in delightful cocktails. Here are the flavor profiles for some types of high quality shochu.
Imo-shochu, made from sweet potato, comes from Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island, a major sweet potato producing area. When you sip Imo-shochu, you can’t miss the hint of slight funky, sweet potato flavor and fragrance. Once you are hooked, you will love it.
Kokuto-shochu, made from sugar cane, comes from the small Amami Islands south of Kyushu Prefecture toward Okinawa. Kokuto-shochu will remind you of good-quality rum, but on average it is 12 percentage points lower in alcohol. Kokuto-shochu has a round mouth-feel and a subtle sweetness. It also is unique in being slightly alkaline, while all other distilled alcohol has a neutral pH. The sugar cane grown in the Amami Islands’ coral-rich fresh water is responsible for this unusual characteristic.
Kome-shochu, made from rice, comes from Kumamoto Prefecture. Kome-shochu presents a flowery and rich flavor similar to what you find in some sake.
Omugi-shochu, made from barley, may surprise you with a hint of banana, cantaloupe and caramel flavor.
Finally, if you are not a cocktail person, this is how we enjoy Honkaku shochu in Japan.
1. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts cold water. This is called mizu-wari.
2. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts warm water at about 98º degrees F. This is called oyu-wari. Warming shochu in this way allows the fragrant aroma to burst forth.
3. Or, try it simply on the rocks or straight up.
However, I encourage you to get creative with shochu cocktails, such as the following recipes provided by Jesse Falowitz.
Ringo, I Love You
This will be a smash hit for your Thanksgiving party, and for any gathering in deep autumn. This cocktail is characterized by a crisp and refreshing character with a delicate sweetness and hint of spice. Ringo in this case is “apple” in Japanese, not a member of the Beatles.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1/2 red apple, plus a few thin slices for garnish
2 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce maple syrup
1 dash of cinnamon powder
1. Core and cut the apple with skin into coarse pieces.
2. Add the apple half, shochu, lemon juice and maple syrup into a cocktail shaker or tall glass. Press the apple with a muddler, like the one used for making a mojito, to extract the most juice.
3. When the juice has been pressed out from the apple, close the shaker with the shaker top and shake vigorously.
4. Remove the shaker top and strain the cocktail through a cocktail strainer into a rocks glass in which you have placed a large piece of ice or two.
5. Garnish the cocktail with thin slices of apple. Lightly dust the apple with cinnamon powder and serve.
Neguloni, a Shochu Negroni
This is a Japanese twist on the Italian classic. This satisfying cocktail has smooth texture, a tinge of bitterness, sexy deep-dark red color, and pleasant buttery texture. You can make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, but it enhances the flavor of the cocktail, and the inclusion is highly recommended.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
3/4 ounces sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Campari
3 drops grapefruit bitters
1 peel of grapefruit skin
1. Pour the shochu, sweet vermouth, Campari and grapefruit bitters into a rocks glass in which you have placed a one large ice cube.
2. Stir the glass with a cocktail spoon for 10 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the alcohol.
3. Remove a long grapefruit zest from the grapefruit with a peeler and lightly squeeze the oils over the cocktail.
4. Garnish the drink with the grapefruit zest twist and enjoy.
Main photo: The Ringo, left, and Neguloni cocktails. Credit: Jesse Falowitz
In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.
With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.
When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.
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But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.
Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.
Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.
People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.
Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.
Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.
Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.
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The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.
“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”
Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”
Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)
Yield: Serves 4
For the boudin mixture:
1/3 pound white boudin with pecans
1/4 pound black boudin with raisins
A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)
For the apple compote:
2 cooking apples
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
For the mead sauce:
2 cups veal stock
1 1/4 cups mead
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)
1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.
2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.
3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.
5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:
- 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
- 1 tablespoon mead sauce
- 2 tablespoons cold compote
- 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.
Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte
It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.
Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.
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Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.
California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.
“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”
There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.
The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”
Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.
His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.
“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.
That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”
Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.
How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.
Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.
Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs
* * *
Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:
Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.
Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.
Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.
Now is the season of quinces: Fruit that is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, is easily preserved, and one that enhances a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance. Just two years ago, quinces seemed to be the forgotten fruit: They were difficult to buy, considered hard to cook, and few people grew the trees. Happily, at least in Britain, this seems to be changing.
Although still not common, quinces are now reasonably easy to buy in season and nurseries are seeing increased interest in the trees. For many hundreds of years in Britain, quinces were more popular than apples because cooked fruit, in general, was regarded as safer to eat. This was because the glut at harvest time led people to overindulge and become ill.
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Quinces may never recover their place at the top of the table, but they do deserve to be more widely used. (This piece’s co-author, Jane McMorland Hunter, co-wrote “Quinces, Growing and Cooking,” just published by Prospect Books.)
The best way to ensure a supply of quinces is to grow your own. The trees are attractive, with beautiful blossoms in spring, and compact enough to fit in most gardens. Failing that, the fruit can be bought from greengrocers, farmers’ markets and even the better supermarkets. Quinces’ appearance can vary wildly, from huge immaculate fruits from the Middle East to small, misshapen and blemished specimens. The latter may not look so appealing, but they will probably have come from a local grower and the flavor could be even better. You should avoid fruit that is obviously bruised, but a few blemishes on the skin rarely matter.
A secret weapon for stewed meats
Quinces usually need to be cooked before they are eaten. The raw fruits tend to be rock solid and sharp tasting, but cooking softens the flesh and gives it a pinkish hue. The natural acidity is easily tempered and is actually an advantage in many dishes.
It counteracts the greasiness found in fatty meats, game in particular; quinces can be served in slices with the meat or as an accompanying sauce. In Britain, quinces were traditionally served with partridge, and in Germany and South Africa, quince sauce is served with pork and mutton instead of apple or mint. The fruit complements Middle Eastern tagines and stews and also goes well with cheese — not just as the well-known combination with Manchego, but blue cheeses and the sharper goat’s cheeses too. Membrillo, or quince paste, is the most widespread preserve, but quince jam, jelly and even curd is delicious.
In puddings or cakes, they can be used to replace or supplement apples or pears in almost any recipe, bringing a deliciously different taste. Equally, if you don’t have enough quinces for a recipe you can always make up the difference with apples. The quince’s sharpness means you can make wonderfully rich desserts with no danger of the sweetness becoming cloying.
There is a surprising amount of juice in the fruits, and drinks made from quinces range from delicious cordials to potent liqueurs and even wine. You can round off any meal with quince confections. They can be made into delicate, subtle chocolates or rich, gooey sweets.
Finally, a word of warning before you start cooking. Quince seeds, like apple seeds, are poisonous, containing tiny amounts of cyanide. You would need to eat an awful lot to actually do yourself any harm, but you should remove them at some stage in cooking.
Look in almost any reference book and you will find a different definition of ratafia: a spirit infused with almonds or fruit used to toast a deal or bargain, a 19th century English biscuit or a French aperitif made from grape juice and brandy. It frequently appears in Georgette Heyer’s original Regency romance novels, where it is a drink enjoyed by the ladies, but scorned by the gentlemen of the time.
Even the origins of the word are obscure, attributed variously to French Creole or Latin. The definition we like best is that it was the liqueur drunk at the ceremonies ratifying European treaties from the 15th century onward. The name could come from the Latin rata fiat (let the deal be settled). The liqueur usually consisted of fruit juices, kernels or nuts soaked in a sweetened brandy base, with almond flavoring being particularly popular. The recipe below is based on one in “The Modern Cook,” written by Vincent la Chapelle in 1733.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes, plus cooling and steeping time
Yield: 750 milliliters
2 large, ripe quinces (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup caster sugar
Pinch of cinnamon
1 whole clove
1 whole white or black peppercorn
1 1/2 cups brandy
1/2 cup almonds, blanched for 2 minutes and skinned
1. Cut the quinces into quarters or eighths lengthwise, depending on their size, and put through a juicer. The original recipe suggests that you grate the fruit, put it in a cloth and “squeese it with all your Might,” but this is extremely hard work. If you end up with much less, or much more, than 1 1/2 cups of juice, simply adjust the other ingredients in proportion.
2. Put the juice in a pan, bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
3. Put the sugar, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn into a pan with ¼ cup water and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
4. Pour the juice, brandy and sugar solution into a bowl and stir so that the three combine. Add the almonds, if using. Pour into a jar, seal and leave in a cool, dark place for two to three months.
5. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Do not squeeze the cloth, as you want the liqueur to be as clear as possible. Finally, decant into a bottle and seal; as Vincent la Chapelle puts it, “bottles stopped very close” will keep almost indefinitely.
Main photo: Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock
Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.
They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.
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But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).
The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.
Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.
Puglia wines are relative newcomers
The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.
Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.
Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.
Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.
Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George
In the early ’90s, I worked in a trendy London pub that served beers from around the world. One of those brews, served in bottles, was Anchor Steam. I had never heard of this so-called San Francisco beer and had my doubts that it actually had distribution in the United States. I was wrong, of course. Under various names, Anchor Brewing Co. had been around for more than 100 years by the time I “discovered” it.
America’s beer landscape was just beginning to shift in those days, from a country with only a few hundred breweries to one with an exploding microbrewery scene. (The revolution was sparked by Fritz Maytag, who rescued Anchor from bankruptcy in 1965 and revived America’s craft brewing industry.) By 1996 there were more than 1,000 breweries in the United States. Today there are nearly 3,000, and the surge shows no sign of abating.
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Beer tastes have changed a lot since the ’90s, with hoppy brews taking center stage. While I enjoy the occasional IPA, I find many to be over-the-top hoppy, akin to over-oaked Chardonnay. I usually gravitate toward English or German-style beers. They’re flavorful, but also balanced, and low enough in alcohol that I can drink more than one and remain upright.
In my quest for flavorful, well-balanced beers, I recently rediscovered Anchor Steam. How had I forgotten it? With its creamy head, deep caramel color and malty flavor, it’s practically the perfect beer.
Making steam beer
Anchor’s iconic “steam beer” was introduced in 1896, but it wasn’t sold in bottles until 1971.
During a recent tour of Anchor Brewing Co., I was told that the beer was named for the steam that rose from the brewery’s rooftop as San Francisco’s night air cooled the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.
Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined the brewery the same year Anchor Steam made its debut in bottles, offered another explanation.
“Steam beer is just a funny name given to this beer that was developed on the West Coast at the time of the Gold Rush,” he said. “With the Gold Rush came a huge influx of northern Europeans and these guys wanted beer. So brewers started setting up crude little breweries. Some wanted to make lager beer, and one of the features of lager was that it was carbonated.”
This was done through a process called krausening (“KROY-zen-ing”), in which an actively fermenting beer is added to an older one to bring about a secondary fermentation. “It carbonates the beer, and it also has an influence on its flavor,” Carpenter said. When these highly carbonated beers were brought into bars where there was no refrigeration to temper the carbonation, they produced a lot of foam when they were tapped.
“Somebody said it looked like they were trying to tap a keg filled with steam,” Carpenter said, and a nickname was born.
Anchor still makes its steam beer in the traditional way, boiling wort and mashing malt in huge copper kettles.
Although the brewery’s production has increased over the decades and its offerings have expanded, Anchor hasn’t outgrown its artisanal methods. “We only use whole hop flowers,” Carpenter said. “We don’t use extracts and we don’t use pellets. Most small breweries these days do.” Another distinction, he added, is that the brewhouse is run “by people, not computers.”
Expanding and innovating
Carpenter does not expect much to change next year, when Anchor opens a second brewing facility at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The new brewhouse will nearly quadruple Anchor’s annual production capacity from 180,000 barrels to 680,000.
“Wherever it’s better for the beer for us to go high tech, we do,” he said. “For instance, our fermenters now are stainless steel, but originally those would have been pitch-lined redwood — just a nightmare to keep clean. So when it’s better for the beer, we do go modern. Otherwise, we try to stick with simple and traditional.”
Even so, Anchor is not stuck in the past. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010 and sold the business, the new owners asked Carpenter to start developing new beers for the line.
“When I started with Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam Beer,” Carpenter said. “Then we developed our Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine, our Liberty Ale — and many of those were the very first of their varieties in America. I think we’re still innovating.”
One such innovation was Anchor’s Zymaster Series. “The idea was that we would do these one-off beers from time to time and just see how they were accepted,” Carpenter said. “It’s a fun thing that shows our creativity. Not every beer has to be a winner.”
The series has included brews such as Mark’s Mild, Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale, Saareemaa Pale Ale, and (coming soon) Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA.
With the wild popularity of hoppy beers today, one might be tempted to think that Anchor is jumping on the bandwagon with its Zymaster Series IPA. Not so; the brewery’s Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition. At the time, Carpenter wondered if the public could handle all those hops. “Lots of people, including us at the brewery, wondered if anybody would drink it,” he said. “That was considered a brutally hopped beer when it first came out. Now it’s mainstream.”
Although he says IPAs are here to stay, Carpenter predicts that the style will become less extreme. “I think they will be a little lower in hops and have more body,” he said. “I think those types of beers are going to be around forever.”
His favorite beer, however, is still the classic Anchor Steam, and this beer drinker is inclined to agree.
Main photo: Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.
Chambord is a luscious, expensive French liqueur made from black raspberries. Shambord, made from blackberries and bourbon, has a similar flavor but with a rowdy American edge, and it’s a lot easier on the pocketbook. Also, if you care about such things, you can pride yourself on its being locally sourced (if you can get local blackberries).
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I first encountered the idea — not under that name, which I just made up — about 15 years ago in Kentucky, where a chef had created a sauce by marinating blackberries (as well as strawberries and blueberries, I believe) in bourbon. Black mulberries, which lack the faint bitter edge of blackberries, would be good too — if you can obtain them; they’re scarce in the U.S. In fact, I suppose just about any berry would be good with bourbon: raspberries, huckleberries, possibly even beebleberries.
Naturally, it’s best to make Shambord with fresh blackberries, but frozen berries are acceptable. As for the bourbon, it needn’t be Booker’s or 17-year-old Eagle Rare. Basically, you want any bourbon with a good heady aroma of vanilla and caramel, which goes particularly well with berries.
The Kentucky chef put his sauce on ice cream and fresh fruit, as I recall, and Shambord is good served that way as well, but I like it in wine cocktails. You can add it to sparkling wine as you would crème de cassis to make a Kir cocktail. And because it’s denser than wine, you can layer it with white wine to make a sort of two-tone pousse-café — a silly idea, and possibly more fuss than it’s worth, but a fun one.
Shambord is also excellent on its own as a liqueur, but in that case I’d consider increasing the quantity of whiskey in the base recipe a little, from ¼ cup up to as much as ⅓ cup.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Total time: 3 minutes
Yield: About 1½ cups
12 ounces blackberries
¼ cup bourbon
½ cup sugar
Put the blackberries, bourbon and sugar in a food processor and puree until smooth. Sieve the liquid from the seeds and store it in a lidded container. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month.
This is just a fake Kir cocktail.
Prep time: 1½ minutes
Total time: 1½ minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
⅔ cup sparkling wine
⅓ tablespoon Shambord
Put ⅓ cup wine into a champagne flute. Carefully spoon in the Shambord, making sure that the champagne doesn’t bubble over. Add the remaining wine. When the bubbles subside, gently stir to mix.
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Total time: 2 to 3 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
2 tablespoons Shambord
1½ cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
Pour the Shambord into a large wineglass. Suck up some of the wine in a bulb baster and, while holding a spoon under the flow to slow it down, drip it onto the inside of the glass. The Shambord is so much denser than the wine that it will tend to remain at the bottom. Repeat until all the wine is transferred into the glass — as the layer of wine thickens, you will be able to work faster.
Serve, and when your guest is adequately impressed, stir the Shambord lightly into the wine.
Main photo: Liqueur in martini glasses. Credit: iStock / IJzendoorn
One often hears it said that place is the most important factor in a wine’s identity. Or, to echo a silly cliché, that wine is made in the vineyard. But the quality and the character of the top wines from Penfolds, Australia’s iconic wine company, suggest something else. Multi-vineyard and in some cases multi-regional blends, they are true to a vision, not to a place.
A meeting a few weeks ago with Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, brought home the importance of stylistic vision in the production of truly distinctive wines. The occasion was the release of new vintages of some of Penfolds’ most renowned wines, including Grange, St. Henri Shiraz, and Yattarna Chardonnay. Though suffering a bit from jet lag, Gago was his usual gregarious self, an equal mix of witty cheer and insightful wisdom. The topic dominating our conversation was the significance of style.
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Penfolds, founded in 1844, is one of the oldest wine companies Down Under. It began to rise to its current place in the Australian pantheon in the 1960s, when the national market for fortified wines slowed down and interest in table wines increased. The winemaker at the time was the now legendary Max Schubert, who inaugurated the style that his successors, including Gago, have emulated and refined over the years.
That style marries exuberance with finesse — a paradoxical but, when successful, enthralling combination. It came in part from the natural growing conditions in South Australia, and in part from Schubert’s desire to make wines inspired by a European, especially a Bordeaux, model. Since South Australia tends to be hotter and drier than Bordeaux, the grapes grown there will ripen more fully, yielding wines with more flamboyance and power. To fashion the sort of wines he wanted, Schubert thus needed not only to respect the vineyards he used in his blends, but also to tame the fruit that grew there.
In the subsequent decades, this style became what Schubert and the winemakers who followed him strived to achieve. It is, Gago freely acknowledges today, the company’s “house style,” and he thinks of himself as its custodian.
Good grapes are just the beginning
This emphasis on style does not mean that vineyard sites are unimportant. “You can’t make good wine without good grapes,” he told me, “and good grapes come from good vineyards.” That, however, is just the beginning. Being true to a style means being able to blend wines from various barrels, lots and cuvées in order to achieve the desired result. The more options the winemaker has to choose from, the better his or her chance of success. Thus Gago uses grapes from separate sites, vineyards and even broad geographic areas to craft the wines he wants. Due to different weather conditions in different years, the sources vary from vintage to vintage. That’s because Gago’s goal remains “consistency above all.”
Penfolds has had its house style for nearly half a century. Given the myriad of advances in grape growing and winemaking over that period, as well as the many shifts in consumer preference, it has evolved subtly with the times. The changes have been gradual, but the result has been a stylistic vision that testifies to the value of a living tradition.
Many of world’s best wines are blends
This emphasis on style and the winemaker’s vision may contradict what many vintners (and critics) say about wine today, but it actually is in accord with what happens with many, if not most, of the world’s finest wines. These too are blends, often of different grape varieties and different vineyard plots. Bordeaux and Champagne are obvious Old World examples, but even in Burgundy, where vineyard holdings tend to be quite small and single varieties are the norm, many producers blend barrels or lots to create their best wines. And what defines their best if not an awareness of style?
Of course, such awareness depends upon a knowledge of past vintages of the wine in question as well as many other wines (and not just those made nearby). That knowledge is something that far too many contemporary winemakers lack. It is not something taught in schools of oenology, and it cannot be acquired through scientific analysis. Ironically, its absence helps explain why so many winemakers contend that their wines reflect the character of their vineyards rather than decisions made in the winery.
Great wine clearly begins in great vineyards. It achieves true distinction, however, in the winery, where the skills of talented men and women transform nature’s gifts into human art. And one of the winemaker’s most important skills is identifying the style that he or she wants to realize. As Gago insists, he and by extension any winemaker who aims to craft wines of true distinction have a responsibility “to build upon the legacy of winemakers past.” Put another way, regardless of where the grapes come from, great wine is rare if not virtually impossible without a stylistic vision that has its source in the winemaker’s own awareness of the value of tradition and style.
Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds