Articles in Drinking

Harvesting grapes at Domaine de Chevalier, an estate in the Bordeaux appellation of Pessac-Léognan, just south of the city of Bordeaux. Credit: Domaine de Chevalier

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was superlative in so many ways. The weather was a winemaker’s dream: a benign spring gave way to a hot — but not too hot — summer, with hardly any rain. What fell, fell at the right time. That led into an autumn so deliciously mellow that vignerons could amble into the vineyards and pick perfectly ripe grapes whenever they chose. The grapes were small, intensely flavored and with thick skins.

Last month, a decade past that dream season, the 2005s shone at the “Ten Years On” tasting at the London wine merchant Bordeaux Index.

From the first tastings in spring 2006, everyone loved it. Consider what they said then:

Robert Parker, the formidable founder of The Wine Advocate and its influential 100-point wine rating system, thought it “brilliant … one of the most singular years of the past five decades.” The British heavyweights – wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson, MW, and Decanter magazine consultant editor Steven Spurrier – were bowled over. Simon Staples, the epicurean Bordeaux director for London-based wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd, said he was “speechless.”

“It was a truly extraordinary year,” veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch said in the report he publishes after every vintage. “Easy to manage, without complications, and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration.”

Now, as then, 2005 was a very good year

In January, at the Ten Years On tasting, I found that the 2005s were simply delightful, with succulent, rich, seductive fruit, and acidity that dances on your tongue. The wines are pure, but complex. A cornucopia of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is tempered with minerality and spiciness, then high notes of parma violet and florality.

It’s as much a pleasure to describe them as taste them. Every wine of note is underpinned by powerful tannins that give it a structure that will ensure long aging — in some cases, for decades.

There are some clumsy wines — the Merlot in Saint-Émilion was very ripe, with high alcohol and big tannins — and some wines have developed an oaky dryness that won’t sweeten. But they are few and far between.

Unless you’re very unlucky, if you pick a 2005 off the shelf, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

A pricey caveat

The only fly in the ointment is price. Bordeaux knew it had something good, and the first generation of Asian millionaires were beginning to get a taste for fine wine, very expensive­ fine wine. The 2005 was the first Bordeaux vintage that launched its wines into the stratosphere of luxury goods. The top wines are very expensive. At the very top, Petrus is more than $4,000 a bottle, and the dozen top properties — Lafite, Mouton and their fellow first growths, then Cheval Blanc, Ausone and a few others — are never less than $1,500.

But that needn’t concern us. The joy of a really wonderful vintage is its consistency.

There’s an old saying: “In a great vintage, search out the lesser estates, and in a lesser vintage go for the great estates.” It’s never been truer than in 2005. You don’t need to spend three months’ wages on the great chateaux. At every level, from $30 Cru Bourgeois to the humbler Medoc fifth growths, there are some beautiful wines to be found.

If I had to choose one region in a vintage studded with gems, I’d say the wines of the little Médoc commune of Saint-Julien are most consistently lovely. Below are my top picks from 2005, for the priciest and for the best value from Bordeaux:

Two top-10 lists from Bordeaux 2005

Prices are the average per bottle, excluding tax. All wines are available widely at retail.

Top 10, Money No Object

1. Château Petrus, Pomerol, $4,986

The Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

The Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

Discreet smoky nose leading to powerful blackberry, black cherry and minty, spicy tar on the palate. Dry length releasing fresh gouts of juice. Drink 2020-2040+

2. Château Lafite Rothschild, 1st Growth, Pauillac, $1,461 

The bright, lifted blackcurrant and blackberry fruit is sweet and fresh, the tannins ripe, the acidity mouthwatering, the whole complex, charming, assured. A triumph. Drink 2020 to 2040+

3. Petit Mouton, Pauillac $233

Plum skin aroma, then palate has multiple strands of juiciness through the tannins, intense and vibrant sour mash plum. Minerality and power. Drink 2018 to 2030+

4. Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $188 

Sweet and savory, bacon with plum skins, very fresh and open, discreet powerful tannins. Linear, classic, confident. Drink 2018 to 2040+

5. Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $135

Savory nose with minerality, pencil lead, very linear and precise, very fresh, essence of blackberry and damson, fine sophisticated length. Drink 2018 to 2035+

6. Château Léoville Las Cases, 2nd Growth, Saint-Julien, $397 

Fresh, savory, bacony nose, tannins holding blackberry, cassis and coffee flavors in an iron grip; restrained, fruit releases juice, fills the palate. Very fine. Drink 2018 to 2040+

7. Château Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux, $383

Very dark in hue and viscous. Discreet perfumed violet nose, incredibly  subtle but exotic, lovely weight, constant interplay of dryness, juice, tannins and acidity. Drink 2017 to 2040+

8. Château La Lagune, 3rd Growth, Ludon, $102

Lovely complex savory nose, bramble and truffle, crushed coffee beans, superb opulent sweetness. Palate fresh and perfumed with secondary flavors of dusty rose petals and elegant decay. Tannins dry and dissolving to juice. Drink 2017 to 2035+

9. Château-Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, $172

Restrained sour black fruit, fresh-picked plum and hints of sloe. Closed, brooding and tannic. A keeper. Drink 2020 to 2040+

10. Château Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estèphe, $123

Nose very restrained, closed, palate with (at first) dry, austere tannins. Then classic briar fruit, tannins become silky. Very pure, arrow-straight acidity shows how this will mature. Masterful finesse. Drink 2018 to 2040+

Top 10 best value

1. Château Poujeaux, Cru Bourgeois, Moulis, $53

Violet perfume and sweet briar. On the palate damson and cedar, sour plum with cloves. Mouthwatering acidity, soft length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

2. Château du Tertre, 5th Growth, Margaux, $79

Sweet sugared damson and plum with perfume on nose. Palate very open and fresh with lovely tobacco and truffle, tannins releasing great gouts of juice. Drink 2015 to 2025+

3. Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estèphe, $62

The Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

The Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

Cos d’Estournel’s second wine is often more restrained than its big brother. Lovely meaty peppery nose, hint of violet perfume on palate with herb, restrained. Drink 2018 to 2040+

4. Château Gloria, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Julien, $70 

Bacon savory nose with hint of old velvet tapestry. Confident, juicy uncomplicated weight, plum and damson fruit , very nice length, good balance. Drink 2015 to 2025+

5. Château Talbot, 4th Growth, Saint-Julien, $79

Rich mineral, savory nose with great charm. Defined blackberry and coffee, discreet, old-fashioned like the chateau itself, tannins dry but dissolving to sweetness. Drink 2015 to 2030

6. Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estèphe, $59

Fresh peppery notes on nose – very fine open juicy acid on palate, fresh, uncomplicated. Drink 2015 to 2025+

7. Château Malartic-Lagravière, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $82

Very savory beef-stock nose with ripe plum. Tannins release juice and sour-sweet plum and damson flavors. Fresh, defined, not opulent, but fine. Drink 2015 to 2025+

8. Château Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth, Saint-Julien, $85

Fresh sugared blackberry, savory mineral undertones, open and fresh with such suave tannins and juice on the finish. Very fine length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

9. Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, $47

Perfumed briar and tobacco nose. Fine, fresh, mouth-watering acidity and bright cassis. Grainy grip to tannins, juicy and opulent. Drink 2015 to 2020+

10. Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $105

Rich creamy nose, blackberry compote, truffle, licorice. Palate develops fine damson, violet perfume and fresh acidity. Delicate tannins with dry grip. Incredible quality for the price. Drink 2017 to 2030+

Main photo: Harvesting grapes at Domaine de Chevalier, an estate in the Bordeaux appellation of Pessac-Léognan, just south of the city of Bordeaux. Credit: Copyright Domaine de Chevalier

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At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Friends who love wine love to drink wine together. Throwing a wine tasting with friends elevates the everyday into an event.

Wine tastings are easy to organize. The trick is to feature wines that collectively tell a story. It can be a group of wines that are based on the same grape — Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Sauvignon Blancs — or wines from a region, such as California’s Santa Ynez Valley, France’s Rhone River Valley or the Piedmont region of Italy. If you combine the two concepts and taste wines made in a specific region with a particular grape, you can really geek out.

I recently gathered with a group of women who make their livings producing, promoting, selling or explaining wine. Tasting with these generous, curious women was as enlightening as it was fun.

Follow the slideshow to learn their tips for throwing a wine tasting that both novices and experts will enjoy. Our Pinot Noir tasting revealed a surprise that sent us all running to the wine store the next day.

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Our favorite Pinot Noirs:

» Sancerre Rouge
» Domaine Henri Gouges, Nuits St. George
» Domaine Lafarge, Volnay
» Mt. Difficulty, Roaring Meg Pinot Noir
» Elke Vineyards, Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
» Belle Pente Vineyard, Estate Reserve Pinot Noir

 

More from Zester Daily:

» Q&A: A winery chef’s view on food and wine pairing
» Rudy Kurniawan
» Review: The must-haves for wine lovers on your list
» America, land of wine drinkers and producers

Main photo: At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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Wines from Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.

Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.

The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”

As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.

The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.

When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”

Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.

Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

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A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style

“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.

Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.

Producing ice wine a risky endeavor

Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.

The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.

As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.

Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.

The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.

At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.

The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.


To find ice wine suppliers, consult www.winesearcher.com or the LCBO website.

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.

Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style

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The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

The mizzle had become worse. The combination of velvet mist and silky-soft drizzle was fast turning into a full-fledged downpour. In other words, it was starting to chuck it down in the way it only can in the land of the Romantic Poets, of lakes and mountains, fells and rivers, and of silence and overwhelming natural beauty. No matter. Inside the newly opened Lakes Distillery, we were aglow with The One, the Lake District’s latest gift to mankind.

A unique, artisan blend of four British whiskies — from Scotland, Ulster, Wales and England — the pale amber liquid had a touch of smokiness, a long finish and a nutty, spicy-sweet quality that justified the award of a Silver medal in both the 2014 International Wine and Spirit and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit competitions.

Although Scotland will be forever associated with whisky, it is no longer automatically in the pole position. The whiskey list at The Lakes Distillery bistro is a revelation: a premier league roll call from countries as disparate as Japan and Sweden, Tasmania and India. In fact, whiskey can be made anywhere the key conditions can be met, but it is the water used in the distillation process that really gives the spirit its transcendent quality. And water comes no purer than from the fast-flowing River Derwent near Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake District National Park.

Whiskey-producing country

Add to that crisp, clean air, high rainfall, peaty foothills and rugged Cumbrian mountains and it is not hard to see why it is prime whiskey-producing country, said Paul Currie, managing director and founder of the Lakes Distillery. Currie, part of a Scotch whisky dynasty and founder of the Arran Distillery, has been joined in this venture by master distiller Chris Anderson.

It has been a dream come true for the pair to create a new whiskey in a part of England just south of the Scottish border.

Saints, sinners and smugglers all play their part in the history of this spectacular region. Illicit whiskey distilling, in particular, was once widespread: The verdant green hills and valleys provided ample cover for smuggling activity to and from the ships docked at Workington, located about 25 miles away. Rivers such as the Derwent acted as the trunk roads of the day, transporting people and goods. Lancelot “Lanty” Slee was a 19th-century local farmer and smuggler who notoriously supplied the local magistrates with moonshine from his “not-quite-legal” stills.

The new distillery is housed in a renovated Victorian model farm that dates to the 1850s and was built to be both beautiful and functional. The main barn houses the mash house and still house dominated by burnished copper stills, and an old cattle shed has been converted into the warehouse where the spirits mature in high quality casks. The company is proud to be a “green” distillery: The process is entirely natural using only grain, yeast and water and emits no damaging effluent. By-products are used for animal feed and soil improvement.

Lakes Distillery spirits

In two years’ time, the first bottles of The Lakes Single Malt will be ready for sipping. Currie promises the spirits will be lightly peated, more similar to the whiskies from the highlands rather than, say, Islay.

Alongside the signature whiskey, they also distill The Lakes Vodka and The Lakes Gin. The latter contains Cumbrian juniper and a mix of traditional gin botanicals as well as bilberry, meadowsweet, hawthorn and heather — all foraged on local fells — plus, of course, the crystal-clear water of the River Derwent.

I wish I could have been present at the branding meeting when they came up with the name The One. It must have been quite a eureka moment. It may be the distillery’s first, but it won’t be the last.


 Whiskey Notes

  • Increasingly artisan whiskey makers are of the opinion that it is not so much a question of age in a product, but of the quality of the spirit, the skill of the distiller and the nature of the cask in which it is matured.
  • Don’t hesitate to add a splash of water or soda to your whiskey. It may have gone out of fashion, but it opens the flavor.
  • Try “The One” with game, such as pheasant or venison. It makes a splendid match with Rannoch Smokery’s Pressed Game Terrine, according to Rosemary Moon, a specialist whiskey and food writer.

 Main photo: The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

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At the R. Stuart & Co. wine bar in McMinnville, Ore., wine lovers gather to toast the arrival of Bubbly. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

In an era when most wine experts agree how difficult it is to create a truly great sparkling wine in America, McMinnville, Ore.-based Rob Stuart is making one of his personal passion projects look easy. The longtime Willamette Valley winemaker just celebrated his winery’s second release of Bubbly ($28), a 100% Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine he developed for mixing in cocktails or just drinking by itself.

“We knew what we wanted was an everyday sparkler,” says Maria Stuart, Rob’s wife and co-owner of their R. Stuart & Co. winery. “We wanted it to be affordable but to have those characteristics that make Champagne so special.”

Developed over the course of just six months, Bubbly joins a growing roster of sparkling wines emerging from Oregon’s most celebrated vineyards.

Although Oregon has long had a handful of producers with reputable sparkling programs — Argyle Winery in Dundee and Soter Vineyards in Carlton are the most well-known — the state’s love affair with sparkling is a new thing, an idea that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s a romance that’s finally bubbling over thanks to a number of factors. For one, you have considerations of climate. Oregon’s cold climate sweet spot, very similar to France’s, has long been cited as a raison d’être for the wine industry’s existence. Located on the 45° latitude, the state has spent the last half-century establishing itself as a place where terroir, maritime weather patterns and delicate Pinot Noirs rival those of anywhere on earth.

But the barriers to entering the sparkling market are a lot steeper than with Pinot Noir.

“Sparkling is almost impossible to do unless you have the right equipment, and it’s so incredibly expensive,” says Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines in McMinnville. “Just a few years ago you could only think of five people doing it in Oregon — now there are 25 coming out.”

A sparkling industry on the move

One man has made the impossible a reality for Oregon’s small producers. His name is Andrew Davis, and his business, Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, has allowed 16 small wineries to start sparkling programs since he launched in 2013. Davis learned bubbles from the best during his seven-year stint as a winemaker at Argyle, but he wanted to do something personal on a smaller scale.

“I watched, waiting for sparkling to be a thing in Oregon, but there are just too many roadblocks for most small producers,” Davis says.

The process is far from easy. Crafting a sparkling is labor intensive. Consider this: Where a bottle of red might be handled 20 times before hitting the shelves, sparkling gets an estimated 2,000 touches by human hands before reaching the marketplace. Only the most experienced winemakers are really making a go of it. But when they do, they are trying to capture that elusive, lively, complex, refreshing and effervescent nature of France’s Champagne.

With still wine, Davis says, if something goes wrong, you can do something to correct it. But winemakers needed more technical assistance in experimenting with sparkling.

Then there are the financial barriers to entry. Even the most modest equipment for starting a sparkling program can cost more than $50,000 for just one machine.

“You can do manual rotation of the bottles, but it’s extremely tedious,” Davis says.

So Davis, seeing this need, launched a mobile business that assumes some of the more technical aspects of sparkling production, allowing winemakers to focus on crafting the right blend before bottling. Davis goes directly to the producers themselves, helping them to bottle the wine at their own site, add the yeast, crown-cap it, riddle it mechanically, returning to disgorge it when the winemaker decides the time is right.

Those 16 wineries throughout Oregon that have taken on the challenge of sparkling with Davis’ help include Ponzi Vineyards, Elk Cove, Raptor Ridge and Sokol Blosser. Some have already thrown their names into the American sparkling wine ring while others will be doing so over the next few years, with the bulk of the efforts expected to emerge in 2017.

Bubbly on the menu

R. Stuart & Co. is perhaps best known in the United States for its Big Fire Pinot Noir, which sells all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. For Rob Stuart, who has been making wine for the better part of three decades, sparkling was always on his mind. On a 1971 trip to visit his brother, who was studying in England at the time, the then-17-year-old had his first taste of Champagne, a 1961 Bollinger served on a silver tray in elegant flutes. Ever since, sparkling has been a passionate side project.

As a student, he sterilized bottles for experiments in sparkling in his bathtub. At every vineyard he worked at thereafter, he asked a lot of questions about the process, experimented, tasted and refined until he knew exactly what he wanted to make.

“I always say when I make any wine it’s like a Holy Grail project,” Stuart says. “I know what I’m looking for; it’s just about finding my way there.”

His first sparkling for his own winery, Rosé d’Or, launched in 1999, is a gorgeous rosy sparkling based on a highly complex process. It’s made according to traditional Champagne-making methods, but for one exception. As a nonvintage wine, it consists of a blend of several years’ vintages in one bottle. With each new vintage, Stuart adds the new wine to the base wine and bottles it, with each successive year including both new wine and the reserve base wine.

“It’s kind of like using a sourdough starter,” Maria Stuart says. “This is the thinking person’s sparkling — it makes true Champagne lovers swoon.”

Bubbly, first released in 2013, came to be out of a direct need. Maria Stuart, who runs the Life and Times of a Pinot Mom food website, had out-of-town friends visiting one summer and wanted to serve crème de cassis, a classic French cocktail combining black currant liqueur and sparkling wine.

“I said, ‘Rob, I really need you to just make me a good sparkling wine that pairs with cocktails,’ ” she recounts.

Within six months, the couple released their first edition of Bubbly, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes from Courting Hill Vineyard.

“When you’ve been making wine for more than 25 years you don’t have to make all of the same mistakes again,” Rob Stuart says.

The process for Bubbly is a little more straightforward, and the result is a wine the Stuarts expect to be a favorite at wedding showers, brunches and in cocktail pairings. It is just as accessible and lovely as intended, with lemon and pear flavors with Honey Crisp apple on the nose, dry and light, but with creaminess on the mid-palate. Like many sparkling wines, it pairs nicely with all types of fish and crab and smoked salmon, but the Stuarts see Bubbly as something of a social mover-and-shaker — hence the butterfly on its label.

“It’s not easy to make sparkling wine,” Rob Stuart says. “But this one isn’t really that serious — it’s simple, fresh, lively and free. It’s our party wine.”

Main photo: At the R. Stuart & Co. wine bar in McMinnville, Oregon, wine lovers gather to toast the arrival of Bubbly. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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A proper gin and tonic. Credit: © Seth Joel

It’s 1715 and gin is in! Genever, anglicized from the Dutch as “gin,” was introduced to the British in 1688 by William the III and quickly became known as “Mother’s Ruin” or “Dutch Courage.” The mass production of cheap gin in London had unleashed an epic 50-year street party of drunken debauchery and moral depravity.

Now it’s 2015, and gin is in once again. This time we can avoid the turpitude by taking guidance from Daniel Kent, dean of beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Los Angeles. The institute teaches simple food- and beverage-production techniques, some long forgotten, for do-it-yourself enthusiasts.

A spirited introduction

The workshop is set up around a mammoth pool table in Greystone Mansion, a faux-château set in formal gardens above Beverly Hills. The vaulted billiard room is just off the bowling alley, which many might recognize from the 2007 movie “Let There Be Blood.”

Eschewing cocktails such as the Gin Fizz, the Fluffy Duck and the Hanky Panky, Kent plans to dismantle what the Brits would call a “bog-standard G and T” and rebuild it into a sublime, sophisticated multilayered beverage using craft American gin, homemade tonic syrup and perfectly clear ice.

Joseph Schuldiner, director of the institute, begins the afternoon by asking the 24 students to identify themselves by first name only and to relate a “drinking story.” (This is awkwardly reminiscent of an AA meeting, but judging by the hilarity that follows, no one in this room needs a drink to relax.)

Kent, a former actor, cannot resist a theatrical flourish and starts the class with a reveal: a secret bar hidden behind the oak-paneled walls. This elicits gasps from his audience, as does the statement that gin is just juniper-flavored vodka. He explains the complex process of flavoring neutral spirits with a vapor infusion of juniper berries during the distillation process to produce a subtle and aromatic spirit.

The tasting process

Our tasting starts with a sample of Junipero, made in San Francisco by the Anchor Distilling Company. This 98-proof gin is flavored with dried juniper berries and a secret mix of herbs and spices, described as “exotic” botanicals.

The second gin we try, the Botanist Islay Dry Gin, comes from Bruichladdich, a Scotch distillery that is also using its stills to produce a 92-proof gin flavored with 22 wild plants foraged on Islay Island in the Inner Hebrides. The result tastes less of juniper and more of myrtle, heather and the moss that grows on peat. (As Kent says, it tastes of things that grow close to the ground.)

The third gin sample is Terroir from St. George Spirits. This is a 90-proof aromatic gin “wildcrafted” from California plants including Douglas fir and bay laurel, which provide its distinctive flavor. Kent uses the word “woodsy” to describe it, echoing St. George’s own description: “a forest in your glass.”

Handcrafted tonic

Then we move on to making the tonic syrup. The medicinal qualities of the key ingredient, Peruvian cinchona bark, were observed by Jesuit priests in the 17th century. By the 1860s, it was known that quinine was the active ingredient that suppressed malarial fever, so the British and the Dutch planted cinchona trees in their growing colonies in the East. The officers of the Royal Navy began adding the unpalatable quinine tincture to their daily ration of gin, and the new British cocktail became instantly popular in malaria-free London drawing rooms.

Reminding us there is no quinine in commercial “tonic” water, Kent creates a quinine tincture, steeping powdered cinchona bark in spirits while the class juices and zests limes and grapefruits. (He credits “The Bar Book” by Jeffrey Morgenthaler for the basic recipe but says he has jazzed it up a bit.) We all help by adding the zest and fruit juices to heating water, along with carefully measured coriander, anise and allspice. The mixture is mulled for 20 minutes, then left to cool as the orange water, quinine tincture and sugar are stirred in.

The finishing touches

On to the ice. Daniel explains that good ice is just a matter of physics: Rip the lid off a six-pack Igloo and then fill the cooler with water, and it will freeze from the top down like a lake, pushing air bubbles and impurities to the bottom. Using a block of ice he has already prepped, Kent starts tapping his serrated bread knife gently with a hammer, scoring a line where the clear ice and the cloudy ice meet. Suddenly the block splits into two layers, and Kent triumphantly holds up the top layer, as clear as any self-respecting mixologist could ever want.

When we are ready to mix the new gin and tonic, Kent schools us on technique, putting the ice in last to create extra fizz. The results are interesting. Junipero, with its more traditional flavoring, was a class favorite during the tasting, but when mixed with the fragrant tonic, it seems too complex. The Terroir, with its more balanced blend of botanicals, marries well with the tonic, but scores low because it does not have the kick that we attendees crave. Meanwhile, the Botanist, only moderately popular at the tasting, becomes the crowd favorite in the mixed drink. This cocktail, with its damp, earthy tones, is as far from artificially flavored gin and chemically manufactured tonic water as you can get.

The class ends with an inkling of what’s next for Kent. He is obsessed with pruno. What is that? Let’s just say pruno, a.k.a. jailhouse hooch, is immortalized in a poem by Jarvis Masters that ends with the line “May God have mercy on your soul.” When one of the workshop participants, a judge by profession, reveals his experience with authentic prison-made pruno, Kent blurts out, “Can you get me in?” Really, Daniel? There must be an easier way.

Main photo: A proper gin and tonic. Credit: © Seth Joel 

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Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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