Articles in Drinking
“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
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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.
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.
- 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
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.”
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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
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.”
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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.”
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
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.
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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.
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
This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.
It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.
I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.
The Vérité project
The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.
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Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.
The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.
They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”
The ‘micro’ approach
Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”
Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.
Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”
In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.
Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.
A few favorites
Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.
And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.
Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan
Hangover cures — they’re never there when you need ‘em. Not that you (or I) are of in need for yourself — perish the thought.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of post-festive brotherly love, a recommendation or two might come in handy for those who — ahem — might have been on the wrong side of a midwinter indulgence and are looking for a simple restorative mouthful, liquid or otherwise.
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The bullshot — boiling beef consommé cooled with a generous measure of vodka — comes well-recommended as the morning pick-me-up on England’s Yorkshire moors in grouse season, while Scotland’s heather bashers consider the oatmeal caudle — runny porridge with cream and whiskey — more geographically appropriate.
Which is not to overlook those who swear by yak butter and hot tea as the antidote to overindulgence in fermented mare’s milk when traversing the Khyber Pass, or those intrepid 19th-century travelers through the wilds of Africa who reported termites toasted in an earth oven as the only way to cure a hangover induced by overindulgence in fermenting baobab fruit.
To each her own.
Soupe a l’oignon
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald cured a Parisian hangover with onion soup with the porters in Les Halles, the central produce market in the good old 1930s, when men were men and women were — let’s just not go there.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes
Total time: 40 to 45 minutes
Yield: 2 servings (You should never hang over alone.)
3 large onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil or (better yet) goose fat
1 pint beef broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Sliced baguette, toasted
Gruyere or cantal cheese, grated (optional)
1. Fry the onions very gently in the oil or goose fat in a soup pan until soft and golden but not brown. Stir regularly, allowing at least 20 minutes.
2. Add the beef broth and allow to bubble up. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.
4. Ladle over slices of toasted baguette in bowls. You can also place the bread on top of the soup, sprinkle with grated cheese and slip the bowls under the grill for the cheese to melt and brown.
A beef and potato salad is the hangover cure in the new wineries of Vienna. Try to remember to put the meat into its marinade the night before so it’ll be ready in the morning.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Resting time: 3 to 4 hours or overnight
Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting
Yield: 2 servings
For the dressing:
4 tablespoons seed or nut oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon mild mustard
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
For the salad:
2 slices cold boiled beef, cut in matchstick-sized pieces
2 cold boiled potatoes, sliced
1 pickled cucumber, chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons beef broth (optional)
1 egg yolk
Chili powder or hot paprika
1. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.
2. Dress the beef, potatoes and cucumber with half the dressing. Allow the mixture to marinate for a few hours or overnight.
3. Whisk the rest of the dressing into the egg yolk to make a thick emulsion, dilute with a little beef broth or warm water to a coating consistency and spoon over the beef mixture.
4. Finish with a generous dusting of chili powder or hot paprika. There’s nothing like the fiery capsicums to set a person’s metabolism back on track.
An oil-and-garlic broth flavored with sage and fortified with egg yolk and pasta serves not only as a remedy for overindulgence but as cure-all and stomach-settler for pregnant women and babies. L’aigo boulido sauvo la vido (Garlic broth saves lives), as they say in Provence.
Prep time: 10 minuntes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
4 fat fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 sprig of sage
1 level teaspoon salt
5 teaspoons (25 grams) vermicelli or other thread pasta
1 egg yolk
1. Simmer the garlic and olive oil in 2 cups of water for a half-hour, or until the volume is reduced by half.
2. Add the sage and bubble up until the broth turns a pretty yellow.
3. Add salt and vermicelli and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, fork up the egg yolk in a small bowl, then whisk in a ladleful of the hot broth. Stir the broth-yolk mixture back into the pot so the egg sets in strings. Bon appétit.
Italy’s version of restorative eggnog — basically, egg and wine combined to make a spoonable fluff — was a remedy long before it became an elegant dessert. No need to cook it if you’re going to eat it right away. The usual strictures on raw eggs apply, but I guess you know that anyway.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
4 level tablespoons caster sugar
4 tablespoons sweet wine (such as Marsala, Madeira or Valencia)
2 to 3 almond macaroons (optional)
1. Whisk the egg yolks and whites together until fluffy.
2. Sprinkle in the sugar gradually until the mixture is white and light.
3. Continue whisking as you trickle in the wine.
4. Pour into two tall glasses over crumbled macaroons — or not — and eat with a long spoon without delay or the eggs and wine will separate. If this should happen, no need to panic. Simply whisk the split mixture into another egg yolk in a bowl set over simmering water and it’ll cure itself.
Main photo: A hangover cure can help ease the pain next time you over imbibe. Credit: iStockPhoto
Sicily is famous for its distinctive wines and native grape varieties, particularly those that grow on volcanic soils. Nerello Mascalese, today’s most talked-about Sicilian red grape, only flourishes on the slopes of Mount Etna, Italy’s largest active volcano. The lesser-known Malvasia delle Lipari grows instead on the volcanic Aeolian Islands, where it’s made into a delicious and unique dessert wine that also goes wonderfully with cheese.
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Malvasia delle Lipari Passito DOC is made from sun-dried grapes in several versions, from very sweet to drier. It offers orange and floral notes, toasted nuts and rich apricots to the nose and, at its best, enough acidity in the mouth to balance the sweetness and keep it lively and long. The volcanic soils often confer exciting, salty minerality.
The Aeolians are the archipelago that sits between Italy’s “toe” in Calabria and Sicily’s northeastern corner. You reach them by ferry from Messina. The cluster of eight small islands, known as Isole Eolie in Italian, was named for Eolo, the god of wind in Greek mythology. No wonder: The Aeolians are subjected to winds from all sides. The islanders’ rudimentary lifestyle of fishing and agriculture was dramatically captured in “Stromboli,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 black-and-white film starring Ingrid Bergman. It was set on the island of Stromboli, another of Italy’s three active volcanoes.
Islands at a crossroads of culture
Contemporary vine-growing takes place mostly on two of the other islands, Lipari and Salina, but the archipelago has long been linked to wine, as professor Attilio Scienza, Italy’s foremost viticultural historian explains:
“These islands played an important role in the history of wine. As Phoenician and ancient Greek ships traveled the Mediterranean, they stopped off here to stock up on food and this allowed for important cultural exchanges.”
Scienza was speaking at Sicilia en Primeur, the itinerant Sicilian wine event that this year was held on the island of Vulcano.
“We know that grapes were grown and traded here: Grape seeds from 6,000 years ago have been found in archaelogical digs on Lipari. Later, in the 6th century, an unusual sweet wine became famous on the islands. It was made when very ripe, sun-dried grapes were heaped into a high mound whose weight naturally pressed the juice from the berries. This wine was known to keep — and therefore travel — well and its fame spread throughout the Mediterranean.”
The family of vines called Malvasia grows throughout the Mediterranean, but the Malvasia now found on the Aeolian islands has a DNA very close to that of the original Greek Malvasia. Despite facing extinction after the phylloxera attacks of the early 20th century, today Malvasia is being made in sweet and dry versions by a score of producers on the islands.
“Mediterranean peoples have a different, more cyclical, history than other Europeans,” Scienza says. “Life on these islands has hardly changed in 3,000 years. Today, this archaic, heroic viticulture can teach us a lot about how to make wine while maintaining the landscape sustainably.” Malvasia vines are often still grown as free-standing bushes, ad alberello, in steeply sloping vineyards. Their long roots reach deeply down; it rarely rains on these islands.
A much-favored vacation destination
The Aeolians offer some of the Mediterranean’s most sought-after holiday destinations, so if you want to explore their viticulture peacefully, it’s best to avoid the August crush. Winemakers have more time in spring and autumn to show their vineyards and organize tastings. Book your visit ahead, as these tiny estates are usually worked by the owners.
I recently visited seven top Malvasia producers, most of whom are situated on Salina. I made my base at Capofaro, the luxurious resort owned by the noble Tasca d’Almerita family whose historic estate, Regaleali, is located in central Sicily. The hotel is surrounded by vineyards, and you can enjoy their fine wines at Capofaro’s restaurant.
The name most often associated with Malvasia delle Lipari is Hauner‘s, who was the first to revive this traditional wine. Carlo Hauner makes fine Malvasia in sweet and dry versions.
Like Hauner, Fenech and Nino Caravaglio are artisanal Malvasia producers who supplement their incomes with the other plant that loves these arid conditions, the caper bush. Their tiny, salted capers — the plant’s flower buds — are famous throughout Italy. You can sample and buy these producers’ delicious wines and capers from their small cellars. Barone di Villagrande is another enterprising estate on Salina that also makes native reds on Etna.
If you go to Vulcano island, make an appointment with Paola Lantieri to visit her lovely house and vineyard. She makes her passito from grapes sun-dried on the vine and on cane racks. The latest addition to the Aelioan wineries is Castellaro, a large, ambitious project on Lipari. Their state-of-the-art cellar and expanding vineyards promise well for these ancient islands’ continuing viticulture.
Main photo: Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina. Credit: Carla Capalbo