Articles in Drinking

Adi Badenhorst checks vines at his South African winery. Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines

South African wine has arrived. Smart wine buyers seeking good values and wine geeks looking for exciting discoveries are making their way to the rapidly expanding South African section of their wine store.

For the first time in, well, forever, delicious, distinctive South African Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs are showing up in U.S. wine stores at prices that are as surprising as the wines: $10 to $18 a bottle. Even South African Pinotage is making a comeback, this time without its notorious barnyard-in-a-bad-way funk.

What’s changed in South Africa? Everything. The new wines represent a massive transformation of the country’s insular, low-quality, high-volume wine industry that began two decades ago after the end of apartheid.

Young winemakers working with ancient, abandoned vineyards kicked off the revival. Devoted to organic, dry-farmed vineyard management, their wines showcased the potential buried in South Africa’s arid coastal climate and varied soils.

New generation of winemakers emerge

Following their lead, a new generation took the helm of the large, established wine houses and rose to the challenge of meeting international standards for wine quality. The combination is enabling the oldest non-European wine region in the world to rise above its plonky past.

“A lot of things have come together for us,” says Eben Sadie, a leading winemaker working to revive the coastal Swartland region north of Cape Town. With 15 vintages under his belt, Sadie Family Wines is producing some of the most celebrated wines in South Africa’s 400 years of winemaking. Even though he limits his production to 4,000 cases a year, many of his wines are priced close to $60 a bottle, near the top of the market for South African wine.

“We don’t want to push prices up too high,” Sadie says. “South Africa has a place of its own on the wine shelf now. Even our most commercial bottlers — wine companies producing 500,000 cases — are making much better wine. There are great South African wines, amazing wines, for $20.”

Although wine writers are applauding the new South African wines — Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson christened them a “new era” for the country — few of them made it to the U.S. In 2014, South African wine exports to the U.S. surged 37% and are still climbing.

“There is a ton of good stuff here now,” says Ryan Woodhouse, the South African wine buyer for San Francisco-based K&L Wine Merchants. “The wines from South Africa’s old vineyards are liquid gold.”

Ginny Povall from Botanica wines in her “Skurfberg” Chenin Blanc Vineyard. Credit: Pascal Schildt

Ginny Povall from Botanica wines in her “Skurfberg” Chenin Blanc Vineyard. Credit: Pascal Schildt

Selling it, however, is an uphill battle. Many producers, including DGB of South Africa, one of the country’s largest wine companies with an extensive collection of properties, are entering the U.S. market for the first time. They have to build awareness of their brands from scratch. “It a big challenge,” says Niël Groenewald, chief winemaker at DGB’s Bellingham Collection. No one in the U.S. has ever heard of his wines. Still, Groenewald says, the company is “grabbing the opportunity.”

This is a pivotal moment, says Pascal Schildt, a U.S. importer specializing in the new South African wines. As a whole, South Africa hasn’t expanded its overall vineyard acreage, he says, with most vintners focusing instead on improving their farming and winemaking. If wine drinkers are disappointed this time around, they may not give South Africa another chance. “No one wants South Africa to just be a flavor of the month,” Schildt says.

Sadie isn’t worried. “We aren’t going backward from here.”

Shopping for new South African wines

Good value South African wines are easy to find if you shop at a trusted wine shop where the people behind the cash register understand the wines they sell. But beware of discount bins. Junk South African wines haven’t disappeared.

Top regions. Swartland is the hot spot; the wines of Western Cape, Paarl, Hermanus, Citrusdal Mountain, Stellenbosch and Walker Bay are also gaining acclaim.

Rising stars. South Africa’s best producers have made a decision to over-deliver, to produce wines that exceed expectations for the price. Look for Sadie Family Wines, Badenhorst Family Wines, Mullineux Family Wines, The Three Foxes, Fram Wines, Hederberg Winery and Botanica Wines.

Leading importers. Two companies stand out for their selection of top quality producers. Look for wines imported by Pascal Schildt and Broadbent Selections Inc. Also retailer K&L Wine Merchants is directly importing some choice South African wines available only in its stores.

I recently picked up a 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland. The initial fresh, light fruit flavors quickly dissolved into a rich complexity that lingered far longer than I had any right to expect for $13.

Another gem was a 2012 False Bay Pinotage from a region slightly south of Swartland on the West Cape. It also was a fresh tasting, balanced wine. The bonus this time was a sophisticated earthiness that made it a steal at $15.

Main photo: Adi Badenhorst, one of the new generation of winemakers at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa.  Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines

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Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

This year, I toasted the end of the Colorado mushroom season with a cocktail made with chanterelle-infused syrup. A mushroom drink may sound unusual, but the floral and fruity tasty of chanterelles lends them well to cocktails, and it provided a fitting end to what be recorded in my journal as the Year of the Chanterelles.

While mushrooms of all kinds can be found during the warmer months in Colorado, the bulk of the choice edible species grow in the mountains during a brief window at the end of summer. My heart normally belongs to porcini, the hidden jewel of the Rockies. For some reason, the porcini were not as abundant as usual this year. Some speculate that the ground was too cold, others that spring ran too long, or that the rains came too early for a good fruiting. Whatever the reason, the forests that normally boom with porcini were largely silent. I was forced to spend my time outside of my tried-and-true spots, to explore new trails.

Mushroom hunters are funny. When we aren’t finding many mushrooms, we try to convince ourselves that we do it just for the pleasure of being outside, or learning to identify new species, or to go home with just enough mushrooms to make one nice meal. But the thing that raises mushroom hunting to the heights of an obsession is the rare moments when one can find mushrooms like gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a rush. To find a jackpot cache of mushrooms always reminds me there is magic in this world.

As with most of my best finds in the forest, this year I stumbled upon the biggest cache of chanterelles I’ve ever seen when I stepped off the trail to take a bathroom break. While tip-toeing through the kinnikinnick, I noticed the unmistakable ruffles of orange at my feet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I excitedly whispered, “chanter-stinking-elles!” As my eyes scanned out across the mixed pine forest, I saw waves of chanterelles floating out as far as I could see. There were enough mushrooms in that one spot to enjoy for weeks without having to worry about over-harvesting.

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Wild chanterelles. Credit: Wendy Petty

I’ve not had the best luck hunting chanterelles in the past, which may be partly due to my porcini obsession and the fact that porcini and chanterelles grow in different types of forests. There is a certain point in learning to hunt a mushroom when their pattern firmly sets in your brain, and that’s when something shifts. All successful foraging is about pattern recognition.

This was the year that chanterelles became firmly fixed in my mind. Almost instantly, and even from a distance, I can now spot their particular tangerine beige, the uneven curl of their margins, as well as their doughy feel in my hand. Most important, though, is their scent. The fragrance of chanterelles is unlike anything else. I’m quite certain that for the last course of my death row meal, I’d like to finish with a facial steam of the scent of chanterelle mushrooms.

Some people say that chanterelles smell of apricots. I have a friend who swears that they smell exactly like Sweden. Do a quick search on the Internet and you will quickly see that the most common adjective to describe chanterelles is “earthy.” Welcome to meaningless food words 101. Earthy, second only to nutty in uselessness for describing the taste of a food. I will concede that all mushrooms have flavor elements of dirt and decomposition. But chanterelles possess none of the heavy crumbling wood and peat tastes of morels or porcini. Chanterelles are light and bright, fruity and floral. Have you ever been deep in the woods and caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, maybe a sprite or fairy? Yeah, that’s chanterelle. It’s the fine French perfume of the forest, refined and fancy, a celebration, a high note. To my nose, chanterelles smell of a sweet potato that has slow-roasted in the oven until its sugars start to ooze. They also have something waxy about their aroma, like a box of crayons sitting in the sun.

This was the first year that I’ve found enough chanterelles to eat them every night for weeks, pack loads of them into the freezer, and also experiment with them in cooking. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around with an ingredient. I went a little crazy, made chanterelle crème brulee and a chanterelle cake with chanterelle buttercream and candied chanterelles on top. Did I go off the deep end into the orange? Yes, perhaps. But I got to see some of the potential of chanterelle mushrooms beyond just eating them sautéed in butter, which remains my favorite way to eat them.

Chanterelles have their own spirit

The biggest success of my chanterelle experiments was the candied chanterelles. This strikes me as particularly odd since I’ve no real love of sweets. Of all the recipes I made, those candied chanterelles best held that magical fragrance of freshly picked mushrooms. And they came with a bonus, the perfumed syrup that they cooked in, which I wasn’t about to throw away.

What do most people I know do with a novel syrup they’ve welcomed into the kitchen. The friends in my crowd aren’t really pancake people. They’re more the type to dump syrup into a cocktail, so I followed suit.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — a mushroom cocktail? It sounds rather extreme. But remember how some people describe chanterelles as smelling and tasting like apricots? Now, give the idea of the cocktail another try. You can make it doubly flavorful if you use vodka that you’ve infused with chanterelles as well. If you still can’t move beyond the idea of fungally-infused cocktails, you might prefer to try the syrup and candied mushrooms atop some really good vanilla ice cream.

One final note of caution. Chanterelle mushrooms do have toxic look-alikes. As always, only eat mushrooms that you’ve identified with 100% certainty. If you are new to mushroom hunting, consider seeking out your local mushroom club, where you can go on mushroom forays with more experiences guides.

Candied Chanterelles

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 12 hours

Ingredients

½ cup tiny perfect chanterelles, or larger mushrooms torn into small pieces

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

Directions

1. Use a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife to pick or scrape any dirt off the mushrooms.

2. In a small pan, stir together the sugar and water, and gently heat them on medium until the syrup starts to bubble.

3. Add the mushrooms and use a spoon to stir and turn them so that every surface is touched with the hot syrup. After one minute, turn off the stove and let the mushrooms and syrup sit at room temperature overnight.

Because of the water content of the mushrooms, both the candied mushrooms and the syrup need to be refrigerated.

Chanterelle Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 ounce chanterelle syrup

1 ounce vodka

3 ounces cold sparkling water

1 candied chanterelle

Directions

Gently stir together the chanterelle syrup and vodka. Add the sparkling water, and stir the cocktail together one more time. Serve the chanterelle cocktail with a candied mushroom bobbing about in the bubbles.

Main photo: Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

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The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver's BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.

Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.

The patio pounder

For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.

Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:

Humboldt Hibyrrhnation

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

A Byrrh cocktail from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Byrrh Martini, left, and Black Spring from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

2 ounces Byrrh

¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Club soda

Directions

1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.

Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”

To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.

The neo-martini

At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.

And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:

Byrrh Martini

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces dry rye gin

1 ounce Byrrh

½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist

Directions

1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The rye sidekick

You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:

Black Spring

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

1½ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Byrrh

1 ounce amaro-style bitter

2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer

Luxardo cherries

Directions

1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”

Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”

Deshler Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Ingredients

1¼ ounces high-proof rye

1¼ ounces Byrrh

¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters

1 teaspoon Cointreau

Orange twist for garnish

Directions

1. Chill a small cocktail glass.

2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.

Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

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The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry. Credit: Owl's Brew.

Halloween may mean trick or treating for the kids, but as adults we also like to get into the holiday spirit (or spirits, as the case may be). If you are thinking of hosting a fun cocktail party for your friends, how do you really blow them away? With delicious treats and cocktails, of course. Anyone can serve wine, or a simple vodka soda, but these fun and festive drinks will leave a lasting impression on your guests.

The liqueurs below easily pair with a few other ingredients to give your guests a great treat this Halloween.

Owl’s Brew is the first ready-to-pour tea mixer — it is fresh brewed in micro-batches and all three flavors are designed to pair with a wide range of spirits, as well as beer and wine. This “tea crafted for cocktails” is making craft cocktails accessible to the at-home mixologist.

Pick Your Poison

2 parts Owl’s Brew Pink & Black

1 part white rum

Garnish: Orange slice and strawberry

Brew-Haha

2 parts Owl’s Brew The Classic

1 part tequila

Shake with jalapeño slices

Spooky Garnish: Green sugar rim

If you are looking to put your mixologist skills to the test and want some nontraditional recipes and new spirits to try, we have pulled together some other interesting recipes. Cachaça is one of the fastest growing spirits in the country, so why not test these recipes during a fun holiday. Everyone will be impressed with your newfound skills this Halloween.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl's Brew.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

Witches Martini

2 ounces cachaça (Cuca Fresca Prata used here)

2½ ounces fresh apple cider

½ ounce elderflower liqueur

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Jack-o-Potion 

This amazing cocktail is simple, but definitely a crowd pleaser. It is deliciously light and also very aromatic. Light the tip of the rosemary garnish for extra flare!

2 ounces cachaça

2 ounces cranberry juice

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a fresh piece of rosemary with a fresh cranberry on the end.

Mama’s Bite Margarita 

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl's Brew.

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

If you are really interested in kicking it up a notch, this drink is from Mama’s Boy brands. Its tequila not only tastes smooth, but has a nice kick and flavor to it since it’s infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers.

2 ounces Mama’s Boy tequila

1 teaspoon agave

½ ounce pineapple juice

½ ounce lime juice

Shake and strain over ice with a  sweet and spicy chili rim

Main photo: The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

 

 

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In London Cru's urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.

London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.

He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.

A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”

From warehouse to urban winery

They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé  includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.

“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.

So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely —  more than double the going rate, in some cases.

The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.

A long journey by refrigerated truck

When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”

Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.

It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.

London Cru wines

All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.

SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.

SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.

SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.

SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.

Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

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Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as ad flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

With the continued interest in fermentation and increased popularity in drinks such as kombucha on the rise, other types of unusual beverages are getting attention. One of these is shrubs.

Ever since a meal at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, revealed my adoration for drinking vinegars (aka shrubs), I’ve been on the lookout for the tarty, fruity concentrate wherever I’ve roamed. Finally, at a recent San Francisco Bay area food event, I saw a demure woman standing in a corner pouring tiny tastes of her homemade shrubs.

Christina Merkes, a classically trained chef and entrepreneur, had hit on some winning combinations of fruits, herbs and vinegar that drew a crowd to her like bees swarming the hive. The fig vanilla shrub had the deep flavor of that fall fruit, while the blood orange cardamom was a spicy citrus mouthful. and the cabernet was a smooth wine-country symphony. Merkes has a knack for unusual combinations of local, seasonal fruits and herbs. And she is onto something, as more and more mixologists, bartenders and home cooks explore the age-old process of making drinking vinegars and shrubs.

Shrubs started as means of food preservation

The custom began before the age of refrigeration, when fruit was mixed with sugar and vinegar for preservation. The resulting drink was served for medicinal purposes, as a fever reducer and blood thinner, and used as a replacement for alcohol as well as a mixer for cocktails. Smugglers added fruit and sugar to tainted barrels of rum they had hidden in the ocean as a way to mask the seawater flavor, and colonialists mixed fruit and sugar with vinegar as a way to preserve the harvest.

Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where drinking vinegars are a commonly quaffed beverage, and he put them on the menu at his restaurant. He felt the tart tonics would be the perfect foil for his spicy Thai street food, and they’ve proved wildly popular. He is most frequently credited with starting the shrub and drinking vinegar trend in the U.S.

Merkes was inspired to try her hand at making shrubs after a friend raved about a cocktail she’d had at a bar in wine country that contained pomegranate shrub mixed with bourbon and jalapeno. So Merkes embarked on a path of discovery, testing and mixing, balancing tart and sweet, and using her chef’s sharpened palate to come up with unusual and flavorful fruit, vegetable and herb combinations. She found basic recipes online, then followed her taste buds for new flavors to create.

One such recipe heats the vinegar for the infusion with fruit and the other uses a cold method. Merkes prefers not to use heat, saying the fresh fruit or vegetable flavor comes through better without it. Here are a few other tips from her for a successful shrub brew:

  • Sterilize the container before adding the shrub mixture.
  • Use white balsamic or apple cider vinegars or a combination of the two.
  • Use organic sugar, either white or turbinado, depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable.
  • Use only fruits or vegetables that are in season.
  • Store the shrub in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a year.
A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a "soda" with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a “soda” with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Drinking vinegars are incredibly versatile, beyond a refreshing thirst quencher or cocktail mixer, although that is what they are best known for. You can use them to make a soda by mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons of shrub into a glass of sparkling water and adding lots of ice, or add berry- or ginger-flavored shrubs to perk up iced tea. You can also swirl them into a glass of wine or sparkling wine for a riff on kir royale or wine spritzer. And shrubs are a natural in cocktails; barkeeps in the U.S. are coming up with all kinds of creative concoctions. For ideas, see what they are trying at Whiskey Soda Lounge at Pok Pok.

Merkes has come up with several cocktails, including one that is layered with bourbon on the bottom and top and black cherry and apricot basil shrubs in the middle and another that is a take on the original inspiration for her shrub business called The Marin Cruiser: pineapple melange shrub with vodka, lime, cilantro, jalapeno and sparkling water.

Other uses for shrubs include in salad dressings; whisked into mayonnaise for a sauce on fish; as a topping for ice cream, fresh fruit and cakes; and as a finishing sauce for grilled meat and poultry. Just as they used the technique in early America, drinking vinegar is a great way to capture the bounty of what is in the garden or at the farmers market right now before winter is upon us.

Merkes is still perfecting her recipes but expects to have her products available for sale in the next year. Pok Pok sells its drinking vinegar online, so if you don’t feel like making your own, check out one of their flavors.

As drinking vinegars continue to catch on, keep an eye out for them at local bars and specialty food shops. The flavors they can add to your favorite recipes will surely have you coming back for more.

Photo: Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as add flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

As a food writer first and foremost, I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival for the booze so much as for the grub in the booze.

Pretzel stouts, macadamia nut porters, kiwi and taro-root India Pale Ales, a kumquat-honey double wit and a Märzen made with grits — for me, the Brewers Association’s flagship event, held annually in the fall in Denver, is a multicourse banquet writ liquid.

Granted, the more experimental the adjunct is, the harder the beer generally is to make and/or sell. Take Two Roads’ Urban Funk, a zingy wild ale the Connecticut brewery made with yeast that the Sacred Heart University biology department captured during Hurricane Sandy, of all things. Most of the following, then, are one-offs or highly limited releases with little to no distribution. So consider this your inspiration for adopting the slogan “Must-Have Beer, Will Travel.”

The meat and seafood counter

Champion Clam Bake Gose and Mas Cerveza: Here’s Gose in a nutshell: a sour wheat beer originating in Germany that’s brewed with a touch of salt as well as coriander. Here’s Gose in a clamshell: delicious. Down in Charlottesville, Va., Champion head brewer Hunter Smith starts with the recipe for his Face Eater Gose but eschews the pink Himalayan sea salt he usually adds to the kettle in favor of whole Rappahannock Olde Salt clams, which lend a briny grace note to the light-bodied, gently tart base. Just for kicks, there are hemp seeds in the mash too.

Smith has also collaborated with chef Tomas Rahal of Charlottesville’s Mas Tapas to make a beer tinged with the flavors of Spain — specifically the bones from one of the world’s great hams, jamón ibérico, and smoked pimentón (paprika) as well as smoked gray sea salt. The result: a distinctly savory and, yes, smoky but smooth ale that, at the festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion, beautifully complemented pan con tomate topped with sliced octopus, courtesy of Boulder, Colo., restaurant Basta.

Dogfish Head Choc Lobster: Its reputation for nuttiness notwithstanding, this Delaware pioneer hardly broke virgin ground when it began dropping Maine lobsters and cocoa powder into the boil for a robust porter two years ago. After all, chocolate porters and oyster stouts made with their namesake ingredients aren’t unheard of, and neither are dishes that pair shellfish with sweet elements like vanilla. That said, this summertime brewpub exclusive isn’t sweet at all. Imagine adding a splash of cocoa to some watered-down coffee and then drinking it in the proximity of sea spray. Somehow — and I’m honestly not sure how — it’s better than it sounds.

Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout: Speaking of oyster stout — this isn’t. Denver’s craft granddaddy took to brewing with roasted bull’s balls as an April Fool’s joke in 2012, and the response was such that it now produces a small batch once or twice a year. The bourbon barrel-aged version I tried at the festival had all the roasty, toasty, moderately creamy qualities you’d expect, with the bonus of a mellow yet unmistakable meaty savor.

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The garden

Moody Tongue Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian: What Jared Rouben, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind Chicago’s few-months-old “culinary brewery,” calls the “tropical fruit of the Midwest” — the indigenous, commercially scarce paw paw — rightly elicits comparisons to mango and papaya. In this ale, however, it shows as more crisp than juicy, more fragrant than downright fruity. (Better yet, Rouben’s also about to release — get this — a Shaved Black-Truffle Pilsner.)

Piney River Sweet Potato Ale: If you’ve had it up to here with pumpkin beer, this Missouri-made alternative could be your new jam. Forget candied “yam” — the palate is freshly rootsy rather than overly reliant on baking spice, while the initially creamy mouth feel finishes as crisp as the roasted skin of the real thing.

Jailbreak Made Wit Basil: Basil seemed to be the herb du jour at the festival, popping up at several booths, but this Laurel, Md., newcomer owned the stuff, loading a Belgian white with fresh, sweet, green notes without sacrificing the subtleties of wheat, citrus and coriander.

10 Barrel Cucumber Crush: Nabbing the gold medal in the Field Beer category, this Oregon- and Idaho-located brewery’s twist on a tart wheat Berliner Weisse absolutely bursts with lemon and cucumber, enhancing the effervescence characteristic of the style.

The wilderness

Scratch 105: The farm, the field, the forest: This Ava, Ill., outfit is leading the return to growing and foraging for ingredients, brewing one-offs that evoke their terroir as thoroughly as any wine. This year, Scratch brought only gruits — hopless, plant-based concoctions — to the table, including one that contained, yes, 105 ingredients, from several types of mushroom to wild bee balm and other flowers to various roots, yielding a gingery, savory, musky, wonderfully complex sensation.

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Forbidden Root Shady Character: Like Scratch, this 3-month-old Chicago operation derives its inspiration from historical brewing practices, pledging allegiance to its botanical ingredients rather than conventional style. Take its porter, made with black walnuts and roasted chestnuts as well as licorice, star anise and black pepper — all of which express themselves in earthy, spicy harmony.

The complete dishes

Right Brain Thai Peanut: Heirloom beets, grilled asparagus, Mangalitsa pig heads. Traverse City, Mich., brewer Russell Springsteen will put just about any edible thing into his beer, but my favorite was this dead ringer for cold soba noodles. Made with peanut butter, Thai chilies, coconut oil and cilantro, it delivers a sharp kick in a velvet boot.

Short’s Bourbon Carrot Cake: I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that this Bellaire, Mich., brewery was the only one pouring three different beers made with marshmallows this year. Though its Key Lime Pie scored the gold in the experimental-beer category for its limeade-meets-lactose zest, the medal in my head went to the Bourbon Carrot Cake, with aromas of baking spice and dried fruit giving way to a mouthful of oak laced with cream — a boozy doozy.

Main photo: The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

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Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., are a great way to educate yourself and learn about harder-to-find, small production wines. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

It’s a moment that happens often in the life of a wine lover. You taste a bottle of Pinot Noir that might be called life-changing, and you decide to set out on a new path: seeking out nano-wineries, those smaller, harder-to-access producers who are making something truly exceptional.

In Oregon, that’s where you encounter your first problem. Of the 545 registered wineries in the state, roughly half of those could be considered nano-wineries, or wineries producing fewer than 350 to 400 cases annually. Where do you even start?

“It’s not that small batches of wine are better,” says Jeff Woodard, a wine consultant for the industry and proprietor of Woodard Wines, an independent wine boutique in McMinnville. “It’s more about the people making these wines, the ones who are doing it out of passion.”

Indeed, people make wine in small batches for different reasons. For some, the limitations are financial. For many, it’s time constraints — they have full-time jobs, families and other commitments. But the wine bug doesn’t let up when you have a vision. Here, we’re talking about the winemaker as an artist, not necessarily tailoring a wine to fit a market but adjusting the inputs to wine-making based on what is interesting to them. For this subsection of winemakers, it’s more helpful to seek out the higher-level winemakers who are doing wines as a side project, developing their own labels alongside their careers in the industry, or who are small-batch by choice, because it’s the best way to oversee the process.

“There’s not any money in wine at this level,” Woodard says. “These people are doing it out of sheer passion for wine.”

Smaller producers face a number of challenges in finding you. For one, the finances are not always there to advertise. Access to customers is difficult. Very few have tasting rooms. And then there are the numbers. Distributors often won’t touch them —  it’s generally not worth the time to put smaller productions on their list.

So the answer is to go to them. Here are seven Oregon nano-wineries that are making dynamite wine, especially Pinot Noir. These are wine-makers well worth tracking down.

Antiquum Farm

If there is anything such as Slow Wine, Antiquum Farm is it. Farmed in Junction City by Stephen Hagen, who uses old-school farming methods, the vineyard’s grapes are processed by Drew Voit, an associate winemaker at Domaine Serene. The result is a Pinot Noir that is rigidly lively and intense, with a character that is completely its own thing, neither of California nor Oregon.

Matzinger Davies

Matzinger Davies is a wine about a marriage of two great winemakers: Anna Matzinger, the longtime winemaker and co-manager who helped bring Archery Summit’s Pinot Noirs to the top of every wine list, and her husband Michael Davies, the winemaker for A to Z Wineworks and for Rex Hill. Seeking to make wines with vibrancy, authenticity and integrity, the couple sources exceptional fruit from the Eola Hills to make an outstanding Pinot Noir.

Éleveé Winegrowers

Éleveé Winegrowers brings place-driven wines from a handful of micro-sites in the Willamette Valley. Married team Tom and France Fitzpatrick epitomize the ideals of the artist winemaker, growing grapes and embracing many of the unknowns of a changing climate in winemaking to create Pinot Noir known for its exceptional expression of terroir.

Thomas Bachelder

Thomas Bachelder is perhaps unique in the industry — a winemaker with his fingerprint in three grape-growing regions: Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. In Oregon, where he worked for both Ponzi Wines and Lemelson Vineyards, Bachelder makes a lacy, densely textured Chardonnay with great minerality and tang.

Retour

Founded in 2005, Retour, a project of Lindsay Woodard, has been winning accolades through its hands-on approach to working with 40-year-old vines, with winemakers taking a meticulous approach, often choosing exact times of day to the minute to pluck grape clusters, sometimes with tweezers. The result is a Pinot Noir of the highest echelon, hailed for its explosive palate and succulent mouth-feel.

1789

Isabelle Dutarte had a career in the French wine industry before she started commuting between Oregon and France in 1993. She released her first wines under her 1789 label, a nod to the French Revolution, in 2007. Her Pinot Noir vintages frequently score high for their expressive red berries and delicately perfumed noses, as well as their ability to evoke a feminine harmony in terroir.

Copper Belt Wines

Originally called MotherLode Cellars, Copper Belt Wines, is a rare eastern Oregon winery based in Baker City, one that sources its much of its estate grapes from the highest elevated vineyard in Oregon, Keating Valley Vineyards. Its winemaker, Travis Cook, who works for Advanced Vineyard Systems, a vineyard management company in the Willamette Valley, makes standout big, bold reds.

Main photo: Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., offer small batches of high-quality wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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