Month: August 2014

I Drink, Therefore I am

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The Italians call them vini da meditazioni, or meditation wines, and while the name suggests that a transcendental state might be found at the bottom of a glass, what these wines are really meant for is leisurely sipping, preferably at home in the company of family and friends. They may be wines of great stature, such as the long-lived classics of Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino, but more often they are passito wines, which are made from dried grapes, and can be dry but are often sweet, luscious dessert wines.

In the hills of Tuscany, the wine of contemplation and sharing is vin santo. For centuries this golden, amber “holy wine” was made in minuscule batches and stashed away in private cellars, brought out only for visitors and special occasions. Rarely was the wine bottled and sold; that was what Chianti was for. These days, bottles from quality producers are readily available at any fine wine retailer, but it remains a wine to be sipped with guests, perhaps along with dessert, cantucci, or all on its own into the late hours of the night.

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Which is precisely what happened at a recent dinner party in Edinburgh, where my husband’s cousin and his wife generously opened a bottle of the 2004 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castello di Pomino Vin Santo to serve with a cherry clafoutis (an excellent combination). Frescobaldi is one of the oldest, most prominent families in Florence, where, during the middle ages, they earned distinction as bankers to the royalty of Europe. The winery was founded in 1308 and the wines are said to have been favorites of Michelangelo and King Henry VIII. Today, Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi is one of Tuscany’s largest wine producers, making everything from Chardonnay to Brunello de Montalcino.

Castello di Pomino is one of nine estates owned by the winery and dates from 1500, the year its namesake castle was built. Located 20 miles east of Florence, the Pomino vineyards are planted along the base of the Apennine mountains at 1000 to 2400 feet. This makes for cool nights and warm days, which are critical for retaining that all-important acidity. Atypically for vin santo, this wine is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Trebbiano and a small amount of Sangiovese; more often, Malvasia and Trebbiano are the main grape varieties. Some producers dry the grapes on straw mats, but Frescobaldi hangs them on the vine from attic rafters in a special area called the vinsantaia. There they stay for a minimum of three months. Once the grapes have shriveled to raisins, sometime between Christmas and Easter (hence the name “holy wine”), they are pressed. As one might imagine, extracting liquid from a raisin is a challenge, and the amounts of thick, sweet grape must are tiny.

What must there is is then racked into small, wooden barrels called caratelli, where they remain for four years. Some producers trigger fermentation by adding a madre, a portion of the yeast left from previous fermentations, which is thought to add complexity to the wine, while others use cultured yeast. Naturally some of the wine is lost by evaporation through the wooden staves, and since the barrels are never topped up the wine is exposed to oxygen, resulting in dried fruit and caramel notes.

Styles of vin santo can range from dry and oxidized (almost like a fino sherry) to lusciously sweet with notes of dried apricots and honey. This wine was silky smooth and tasted of raisins, honey, dates and dried figs. A  firm streak of acidity nicely balanced out the sweetness. It was the perfect accompaniment to the candle-lit conversation and added an extra spark to an already special evening, just as the Italians intended. Little did we know, however, that this was a mere prelude.

 End of Part I

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An American In Jerez

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When Alex Russan was a young college student he had his first taste of sherry. In an instant, he was hooked. “It was the most complex thing I had ever tasted. The unique flavors really moved me.” In the following years, the California native worked as a coffee buyer and simply indulged his passion for sherry the way most of us do, by simply drinking a lot of it. As the sherry renaissance began to flourish, however, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and he saw an opportunity to turn his passion for sherry into a business. The result is Alexander Jules, a line of limited production, barrel-selected sherries, which made their debut last fall.

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Sherry business is an old business, dominated by big shippers who can often trace their lineage back to the early 18th century. Many of them have been British—Harveys Bristol Cream, Byass of González-Byass, Sandeman—but Russan is the first American to bottle Jerez sherries. One of the factors that makes this possible is the fragmented structure of the industry. Rarely do the producers, who age and bottle the wine, own their own vineyards. Most buy their base wine from growers or an already aged wine from an almacenista. Traditionally, the goal for many of the sherry houses has been to maintain consistency, which is accomplished through blending the different barrels in their soleras, which are themselves blends of vintages. Beginning in the 1980s, however, Lustau recognized a market for smaller, more artisanal sherries and began bottling wines from individual almacenistas and featuring their names on the label. More recently, Equipo Navazos entered the market with their La Bota series, sherries from selected barrels that they thought expressed unique character but weren’t being bottled and sold. Bodegas can have hundreds of barrels (González Byass is the largest with 80,000), but inevitably not all are commercialized. This is where Equipo Navazos, and now Alexander Jules, have stepped in.

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Having honed his palate over the years with specialty coffee (there are many similarities with wine) and recognizing that the interest in sherry was only growing stronger, Russan took the leap and, in August of 2012, began contacting the Jezez bodegas. The owners were all open to his proposal. “I was pleased with how receptive people were.” During his first trip to the region he tasted through barrels at 15 bodegas. “Once I have a sense of the spectrum of variation in the solera, I have an idea of what I’d like to focus on or accentuate in that solera. I’ll search for the barrels I feel represent that and will work well together. I look for complexity, cleanliness, precision of flavor, depth and elegance.” A few thousand emails and calls later, he bottled his first wines in May 2013.

In the last few years sherries have been increasingly bottled en rama, which means with minimal or no clarification or filtering before being bottled. This keeps the wine’s inherent characteristics as intact as possible and adds to the complexity and body. It’s as close to tasting a sherry in barrel as possible. Although Russan’s sherries are not labeled as such they are minimally treated. “Before en rama bottlings were common, most Finos and Manzanillas seemed fairly lean, austere wines, however, tasting them from the barrel they are often weighty, lush wines.” These in-barrel qualities are what he seeks to preserve in bottle.

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Having tracked down a bottle of the 6/26 Amontillado at Slope Cellars, a wine store in Brooklyn, I can say that the sherry delivers in spades. This particular wine comes from a 26 barrel solera from Bodega Argüeso in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a city on the Atlantic coast and the home turf of Manzanillas. The wine spent five years under flor followed by another five years aging oxidatively. Out of those 26 barrels Russan selected wine from 6 of them to be bottled, hence the 6/26. Per Russan’s instructions I sampled it over the course of four days. Initially this golden wine smelled of roasted almonds and camomille, a distinctive quality found in Manzanilla sherries. On the palate it was bone dry and crisp but with a soft, creaminess to the body. Flavors of mushrooms, raisins, baguettes, and brine went on a surprisingly long time. A day later the smell of butterscotch rose to the fore before receding the next day. By day 4 the butterscotch had been overtaken by scents of mapled walnuts and raisins. On the palate it remained crisply dry and creamy and tasted of camomille, almonds and olives. I did as the Spanish do and paired it with Iberico ham, Marcona almonds, and Manchego cheese.

In addition to the Alexander Jules 6/26 Amontillado, 500 ml, $40, Russan currently has two other sherries on offer:  Alexander Jules Manzanilla 17/71, which comes from a nearly 200-year-old solera at the same bodega as the Amontillado and is bottled en rama, and Alexander Jules Fino 22 /85 from the Fino Celestino solera at Sanchez Romate in Jerez de la Frontera. These wines are aged an average of eight years and also bottled en rama.

His future plans include another release of the Manzanilla and Amontillado as well as a new Fino, but the real highlight, he says is an “old Oloroso from barrels that were untouched for about 40 years, after having been essentially lost.”  These barrels were initially filled with about 500 liters (of already old wine). After 40 years there’s been significant ullage, leaving about about 200 liters.  “A really intriguing, concentrated wine and a unique story.”