Sunday, 23 November 2014

Some Like It Cold

Although Prohibition was repealed just over 80 years ago, it still affects American life today. Even last week, a number of Sacramento wineries and breweries were accused of breaking a law dating back to Prohibition. Having spent the last few months in California, I've become increasingly interested in how Prohibition influences American drinking culture as well as wondering what brought the entire nation to vote for a ban on alcohol.

Prohibition's influence today

The high taxes on alcohol, attitudes towards drink, and the strange, Byzantine laws result from the period. Prohibition explains American drinkers' habits, from under-21 students partying in foreign cities to a preference for Scotch - it also explains why on earth Americans drink Canadian whisky. The popularity of light, low-alcohol beers comes from the moralistic attitude that led to Prohibition, while making wine at home led a generation and more to prefer sweeter wine. Because of Prohibition, states have different laws on alcohol, which is why it's impossible to get alcohol on a Sunday in Indiana but possible to get some over the border in Ohio. These laws also make shipping alcoholic beverages from one state to another bureaucratically tortuous. If it weren't for Prohibition, Bourbon could well be the world's leading whiskey and California the world's leading producer of wine.

reasons for Prohibition

The period from 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, until its repeal in 1933 seems now a crazy time in American history, when an everyday activity was outlawed, the law routinely broken, and organised, violent crime became ordinary. Prohibition resulted, however, from many factors which still resonate today. Prohibition happened not just because of anti-alcohol sentiment - which was arguably still in a minority when Prohibition came into effect - but due to a wide-ranging and still on-going debate about what it meant to be American.

Anti-Saloon League slogan: perhaps not the deterrent intended

temperance movement

Dominated in large part by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Methodists, and Baptists, the temperance movement was a reaction to the chronic alcoholism it saw afflicting the US. Similiar movements existed in Canada and northern European countries, where forms of Prohibition were introduced in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland. The UK also had its own movement, with Temperance Bars scattered around the country and a restriction on pub opening times enacted during the First World War, restrictions only fully lifted in 2003.


Those initially most concerned with the nation's drinking problem were women, who saw the damage their fathers' and husbands' alcoholism could have on the family income and well-being. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in 1874 by Frances Willard and 34 other women, and was an instrumental organisation in the campaign for limits on the sale of alcohol. This campaign became directly linked to the right for women to vote, in the tactical belief that any form of Prohibition would only be enacted if women were able to vote on the issue. The Eighteenth Amendment of 1919 brought in Prohibition, the Nineteenth of 1920 gave women the vote. 

income tax

The tax returns on alcohol were so high that proponents of Prohibition had to come up with an alternative revenue should alcohol be banned. The answer was federal income tax. Unlike the Eighteenth Amendment, the Sixteenth Amendment of 1913 introducing income tax has never been repealed. Ironically, the federal government later used Prohibition gangsters' unpaid income tax bills to imprison them.

the role of the government

Income tax was seen by its opponents as a trangression on an individual's rights: no government should have the right to impose a levy on an individual's wealth. The relationship between the federal government and the individual was, and still is, one that goes to the core of how America perceives itself. Not only did the imposition of Prohibition and income tax demonstrate a central government willing to intervene in the lives of its citizens, so did the methods, such as wiretapping and stop and search, used to combat criminality during Prohibition.


30% of federal revenue came from taxes on alcohol in 1910, much of it from beer. This was the period when national breweries began to dominate the industry, including Anheuser-Busch, still a giant conglomerate responsible for Budweiser. Most of the major breweries were German, and their customers German and Irish. The associated rise of the male-only, heavy-drinking saloon gave rise to the name of the most powerful Prohibition lobby, the Anti-Saloon League.


Anti-Saloon League poster
The object of Prohibitionists' ire were recent immigrants, in particular Jews and Catholics. The Irish and Italians, who viewed drinking as an everyday part of their culture, were attacked for their drinking habits, while the German brewers - such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller - were viewed as un-American as the First World War approached. (The founder of Anheuser-Busch was best friends with Kaiser Wilhelm.) Some of the language was extreme towards "the scum of the Old World" (Frances Willard) and continued well into Prohibition; the 1928 Presidential candidate, Al Smith, lost the election due to a stream of anti-Catholic rhetoric as much for his anti-Prohibition stance. Meanwhile, the gangsters who emerged in the 1920s were often young European immigrants (over 6m arrived between 1900 and 1915), using Prohibition to establish a foothold in the US.


The Ku Klux Klan, refounded in 1915, initially vented their racist rhetoric against Catholics and Jews, but others were happy to push their views on race on to arguments in favour of Prohibition. A Nashville newspaper stated that, "The Negro, fairly docile and industrious, becomes, when filled with liquor, turbulent and dangerous." The black population did not have the vote at the time, but any political power they might gain was of concern. Frances Willard of the WCTU feared that, "the grogshop is the Negro's center of power." It wasn't just the Drys who used such objectionable language: a St. Louis distiller marketed a so-called "nigger gin" with the name, "Black Cock Vigor Gin." 

organised crime

Lucky Luciano
Organised crime wasn't invented with Prohibition, but it saw a new generation of mobsters form city-wide units able to distribute alcohol across the country. Although these informal organisations were bloody and brutal, they still managed to maintain a nationwide bootlegging network that was able to assuage the thirsty drinkers of Prohibition America. Annual sales of illegal liquor were estimated to total $3.6bn in 1926, and all untaxed. Chasing down the gangsters, who included such infamous names as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano - proved impossible for underfunded, undertrained, and often corrupt Prohibition and judicial officials - US attorneys spent 44% of their time prosecuting Prohibition offences, mostly by the ordinary drinker rather than the mobster.


Although there were enough stills producing high-strength alcohol of dubious quality around the US, plenty of alcohol was smuggled into the country. Neighbouring Canada, despite having watered-down Prohibition laws of its own, benefited greatly - legal whisky exports to the US rose from 8,335 gallons a year before Prohibtion to 1.1m by its end. Compensating for a decline in British whisky consumption, the Scottish whisky industry used its Canadian connections to establish a strong presence in the US, although the Caribbean was another starting point for smuggling - the 914 gallons of Scotch sent to the Bahamas in 1918 had already risen to 386,000 in 1922. The Bahaman tourist industry dates from Prohibition, due to the number of American tourists travelling there in search of a drink (also the origin of the cruise ship holiday).

the drinks industry

Only a handful of brewers made it through Prohibition - those large enough to maintain alternative production of ice-cream and, more relevantly, malt syrup for home brewers. At Repeal, they were ideally positioned to gain control of the new, legal demand for low-alcohol beer. These brewers were Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller, and Coors, who still dominate American beer today.

The wine industry at first benefited from Prohibition. The necessary fashion for home-winemaking meant that the demand for grapes rose hugely, and the price of grapes in Napa and Sonoma hit record highs. The number of people drinking wine doubled in the first years of Prohibition, most of it made at home. As a result, quality was hit: plantings of Alicante Bouschet, which produces simple, boldly-coloured wine, overtook quality grapes and winemaking knowledge was lost, to the point that Californian wine did not regain its standards until the 1960s.

The taste for spirits had been in decline for some time before Prohibition. Even before national Prohibition, Jack Daniel's had been forced to move from its home in Tennessee to St. Louis. It moved back in 1938, where it is still based in a 'dry county.' 

drinkers' habits

Women entered Prohibition supporting it and left it opposing it. Prohibition made drinking an equal pastime, allowing men and women of different backgrounds to socialise together openly. Social, cultural, and racial divisions had been broken down - thanks to Prohibition, everyone was a drinker.

celebrating the end of Prohibition



Drinking actually went down after Prohibition, although this was due in part to the poverty of the 1930s and the war of the 1940s. But making drinking legal meant that the government could directly benefit from drinkers' habits, rather than try and punish them. Prohibition led to widespread social drinking, the popularity of cocktails, and a tendency towards sweetness in alcoholic drinks, but it's the broader social and political effects that perhaps have had more consequences: for instance, the increased role of federal government. Arguments over that role and attitudes towards immigrants continue today. Despite the failure of Prohibition, which led to hardened drinking and increased crime, various governments around the world still believe it to be the correct policy to adapt towards drugs.

further reading: "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" by Daniel Okrent (2010)

Monday, 17 November 2014


One of my tutors on the WSET Level 3 summarised students' appreciation of Riesling: "When you study Level 1, you just don't get Riesling. At Level 2, you realise it's important but you don't understand why. By Level 3, you begin to appreciate it more but still don't quite understand why everyone goes on about it. It's only when you study the Diploma that you realise it produces the greatest white wines of the world." Likewise, the Oxford Companion to Wine describes Alsace Riesling as "one of the most difficult varieties for beginners, but one of the most rewarding wines for connoisseurs."

This may seem a snobby, off-putting way of viewing wine - 'you can only appreciate it if you know what you're talking about' - but Riesling does not have the broad appeal of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. Its flavours are varied and complex, it develops difficult petrol-like aromas as it matures, it's a demanding grape at its best in cool-climate areas, and it's difficult to grow well and economically. Riesling is not so much a drink for connossieurs, but it is one for those - both winemakers and drinkers - willing to dedicate some time and effort to it.

It's also suffered from the whims of fashion. The popularity of Blue Nun and other low-quality German wines in the 1970s and 80s caused the reputation of both German wine and Riesling to fall, even though many of those wines were made from Müller-Thurgau. It's taken a very different style of Riesling from Australia to help regain the grape's reputation.

where it's grown

Riesling's heartland is in the cool areas of Germany around the great Rhine and Mosel rivers. The vines grow on slopes that steeply rise from the river on difficult soils. Particularly in the cool climate of the Mosel, Riesling has to work incredibly hard, which is why the wines are so austere with high acidity. Riesling is also one of the 'noble' grapes in neighbouring Alsace, the only area of France where the grape is able to be grown. The wines are lightly floral when young, gaining a gunflint complexity as they mature.

Despite Australia's reputation as a blisteringly hot country making big, fruity wines, it has gained standing for its Rieslings. In the high altitude areas of Clare Valley and Eden Valley near Adelaide, the wines are fruitier (zesty limes) and more giving than their Alsatian and German counterparts. It is these bone-dry Rieslings, with characteristically high acidity, which have turned drinkers back on to the grape.


The great Rieslings of Germany are known for their sweetness. The regulations and terminology of German winemaking are convoluted and labyrinthine, and it can be difficult to know what level of sweetness to expect. However, the lower the alcohol (and it can be as low as 7-8%), the sweeter the wine. As sweet German wines have fallen out of fashion, more producers are making dry Rieslings (labelled "Trocken") to follow the popularity of Australian wines. Alsace, on the other hand, has always made bone-dry Riesling.


I conducted a blind tasting of three Rieslings, from the Mosel, Alsace, and Napa, an area certainly not known for its Riesling.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2013 ($25)

The US in general has yet to master Riesling. It is the second most-planted white grape in Washington State, where Chateau Ste Michelle is the world's biggest producer of Riesling, but the wines lack depth and complexity. Oregon, cool and rainy, ought to have the potential to produce interesting Riesling, but producers stick to Pinot Noir - only 718 acres of the grape are planted (compared to over 15,000 acres of Pinot Noir). If you can, try Chehalem's Rieslings. Finger Lakes in New York is cool enough for Riesling, although the wines are still too expensive for what they are. A good example of Finger Lakes Riesling is the Tierce Dry Riesling, made by three of the area's top producers.

California, meanwhile, is just too hot and sunny, but there are a small band of producers that battle through regardless. The cool hills of Santa Rita offer potential for the grape, but only a handful of producers dare tackle it in Napa and Sonoma; in my tastings, I've only encountered Riesling from three producers - Scribe, Chateau Montelena, and Trefethen. In The Wines of the Napa Valley, Larry Walker describes Trefethen's Riesling as "consistently at the head of the class for California," although that's a very small class. Dry, with green apples and a lemon and lime zest, the wine has a nice acidity and the characteristics of Riesling. It lacks complexity, however, its flavours pleasing but somewhat one-dimensional, demonstrating the difficulties winemakers in California have in making truly memorable wine from the grape.

S. A. Prüm Graacher Domprost Estate Bottled 2009 ($31)

From a famous vineyard on the steep slate slopes of the Middle Mosel, this is a superb example of Riesling at its most complex, although not quite as sweet as the classic style of Mosel wine. A wet, farmyard nose with orange peel and apricots, spicy butterscotch, and a whiff of petrol, the wine is maturing nicely at five years of age. Despite that age, the acidity on the palate still gives the wine plenty of structure. The fruits on the palate are a little fresher and more citrus-based than the nose, suggesting that the wine has a few years left yet, and the long finish has a slightly sweet, cinnamon, and white pepper feel. An outstanding wine at an astonishing price, from San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants.

Domaine Ostertag Heissenberg Alsace AOC Riesling 2011 ($36)

Ostertag are one of my favourite producers. Biodynamic, the wines are of a guaranteed quality but also individuality. Slightly younger than its German counterpart but from rich, mineral soils, this Riesling still has a developing, petrol nose with strong orange-citrus flavours. Floral too, with a dry, spicy finish. The rich flavours of the wine make it an ideal accompaniment to an oily, acidic dish such as salmon. As good a wine as this is, however, it lacks the long complexity of the Mosel.

No surprises that the Napa Riesling could not compete with Alsace or the Mosel. I was surprised, however, by how much quality was packed into the latter wine at the $30 mark. The Mosel, with its steep slopes and small vineyards, is a difficult area in which to make quality wine, yet this wine was a complex, sophisticated wine at a very reasonable price. Proof that the best wines of Germany are not always at an off-putting price and evidence of the quality German wine often reaches.

Friday, 14 November 2014


I've recently been having fun putting cocktails together, experimenting with different ingredients, discovering combinations that work together surprisingly well. I had never been much of a cocktail person - finding them too strong and expensive - but when I worked at hangingditch I became fascinated with the different spirits, liqueurs, and bitters that people would come in specifically asking for. Now I'm already becoming one of those people, searching out obscure ingredients that will provide a subtle but vital fix to the recipe.


Cocktails date from early on in the nineteenth century, when they were a mix of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. They gradually became more complicated, with liqueurs added to the mix. Their height in the US was during Prohibition, often to cover up the dubious quality of spirits. Gin was a popular base spirit - as in eighteenth-century England, an easy spirit to make, easy to make badly, and easy to get drunk on. After the Second World War, gin was replaced by vodka, a neutral spirit to which many flavours could be added. After a lull in the 1960s and 70s in the US (though in the UK they became popular with the rise of middle-class dinner parties), cocktails returned to fashion in the 1980s, particularly in New York. This was also the point when Bourbon, which hadn't really recovered from Prohibition, was embraced back into American drinking culture through cocktails like the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned.


Historically created for their health-giving properties, bitters are alcoholic liquids with bittering agents added, such as quinine, angelica, orange, or rhubarb. Those bitter flavours can also be aromatised by the further addition of clove, vanilla, coriander, or ginger.

Many of the great bitter drinks originate from central Europe, in particular northern Italy where they are called amaro. A famous amaro apertif is Campari, which is used to give colour to cocktails; its bitterness tempered with a sweet edge, it's made from bitter orange, quinine, and rhubarb. A lower strength, less complex, more herbal alternative is Aperol.  

Amaro can also be drunk as a digestif. Italy's top-selling amaro is Averna, which is sweet and made from herbs, bark, and botanicals. The Czech Republic also produces another famous sweet, herbal digestif, Becherovka. Other digestifs are overtly and intensely bitter, designed to be drunk in small quantities. A famous example is Fernet Branca, made from rhubarb, saffron, aloe, myrrh, iris, bitter orange, and cinnamon. More notorious is Jägermeister, made from 56 different herbs.

For use in cocktails, there are many specifically flavoured bitters which have been reduced to their essence. The most famous are Angostura's aromatic bitters, a secret recipe made from herbs and spices. Originally a medicinal drink for the army of the great Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, these are an essential element of any cocktail bar. A classic cocktail featuring them is a Pink Gin, which dates from the days of the British Empire in India. A favourite of Ian Fleming, it's made with 2½ ounces of gin and 4-5 dashes of Angostura, with a lemon twist.

Another historic producer is Peychaud, from New Orleans, whose bitters are more aromatic and sweeter, and the key ingredient in a Sazerac cocktail. Other great producers include Bob's Bitters and Bittermens, and many new companies are emerging as cocktails once again become popular. My good friend Matt Hemeyer makes spiced bitters at addition, a fine example of the imagination and experimentation behind every great cocktail.


Dating from late-eighteenth-century Turin, vermouth is a vital ingredient in classic cocktails such as a Martini, a Manhattan, or a Negroni. Vermouth is wine with herbs, bark, and roots added to it and can be either sweet or dry. Famous brands are Punt e Mes, from Italy's Carpano family who also produce Antica Formula, a richer, fuller high-quality vermouth, Cinzano, and Martini & Rosso.


A liqueur is a spirit flavoured, infused, or distilled with herbs, fruits, or flowers and often with a sweet syrup added. The complex, intense aromas make them ideal for adding to a cocktail. Crème de Cassis is a liqueur made by soaking blackcurrants in alcohol; added to white wine it makes Kir and to Champagne a Kir Royale. Other similar liqueurs, which will make a profound difference to a cocktail with just a small amount, include Crème de Cacao and Crème de Menthe. Another famous liqueur is Grand Marnier, which is Cognac flavoured with the distilled essence of bitter oranges, while Cointreau is another orange-flavoured liqueur from sweet and bitter orange peels (non-branded alternatives are called Triple Sec). Amaretto, meanwhile, is flavoured with almonds. The list is endless.


Here are some cocktails I've made recently which I've enjoyed, arranged by the core ingredient.


Although Cognac would be the preferred base, a good brandy will suffice. Likewise with fruit brandies - good Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, is expensive and Laird's Applejack does the job.

Corpse Reviver

As the name suggests, this is a hangover 'cure' - at the very least, it will wake you up. There are a number of different recipes each called the Corpse Reviver; this one is brandy based. An equal combination of three ingredients - 1oz each of brandy, applejack, and sweet vermouth.


It may seem sacrilege to corrupt a drink as fine as Champagne with other ingredients, but it nevertheless makes a superb base for complex cocktails.

Jumping Jellybean

Add 1oz each of tequila blanco, Grand Marnier, and fresh lemon juice to a chilled flute, and then top it up with Champagne. The result is a refreshing, citrusy, salty drink.


For some base drinks - for example, white rum - the quality of the spirit doesn't matter too much, but with a spirit like gin it's essential. The mix of botanicals will impart vital flavours to the drink. The classic gin cocktail is the Martini, a combination of gin and dry vermouth.

Alfonso Special

Mix and shake 1½oz of Grand Marnier, ¾oz each of gin and dry vermouth, and ¼oz sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Angostura to create a bitter, spicy cocktail.


White rum, which has fairly neutral flavours of tropical fruits, is a great base for cocktails as it adds some but not too many flavours to the mix. It's what else goes into the mix that counts.

La Floridita

Mix and shake 1½oz white rum, ¾oz sweet vermouth, ¼oz crème de cacao, and 1oz of fresh lime juice, with a dash of grenadine. That touch of crème de cacao gives a strong chocolately finish to the spicy, herbal, cherry-like vermouth.


Although darker versions of tequila can be used, it's tequila blanco that's most common - most famously in the Margarita. Always use good-quality tequila that's been made from 100% agave.

Tequila Mockingbird

Mix and shake 2oz of tequila blanco, ½oz of white crème de menthe, and 1oz of fresh lime juice. Float a sliced lime wheel on top. A beautifully coloured, salty, minty drink.


A neutral-tasting spirit, vodka nevertheless comes in different guises, made from a range of base materials including grain, potatoes, or grapes. Increasingly fashionable now are flavoured vokdas such as vodka citron.

Agent Orange

Everything about this cocktail is orange, flavouring the neutral flavour of the vodka: 1½oz vodka, ¾oz Grand Marnier, ¼oz Cointreau, and ½oz fresh orange juice. 


Many whiskey-based cocktails use Bourbon (such as the Old-Fashioned) or rye whiskey (Manhattan, though some prefer Bourbon). Others use Canadian whisky, perhaps because so much whisky came from Canada during Prohibition, when cocktails were all the rage as part of the Roaring Twenties.


1½oz of Bourbon, ¾oz of crème de cacao, and ½oz of fresh lemon juice. The flavours here are strong and powerful - great if you have a cold.

serving cocktails

There are different glasses for different types of cocktails. A Martini glass has a long thin stem with an inverted conal glass; a Margarita glass is similar but more like a goblet. An Old-Fashioned glass is a stocky tumbler, which is used for serving drinks over ice. The other classic cocktail glass is a Highball, tall and straight and to be filled with ice. Even if a cocktail isn't served with ice, it's usually mixed and shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker.

Cocktails are fun. They do require quite a stash of alcohol at home to make, which is fine if you're a collector like me. They work as aperitifs or as a pick-me-up after a hard day's work; they're also a great way of exploring spirits and discovering the world of obscure European drinks that survive because of the inventiveness of bartenders around the world.

Monday, 10 November 2014


One of the great wines of the world is Tokaji: an historic, complex, lusciously sweet wine from the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in the north east of Hungary (the area is called Tokaj; the sweet wine is usually referred to as "Tokaji" - literally, "from Tokaj"). Hungarian wine suffered hugely under Communist rule and Tokaji was in a state of seemingly terminable decline. On the collapse of Communism in 1989, wine author Hugh Johnson helped found the Royal Tokaji Company in order to revive the great drink; such has been its success that standards of Tokaji have risen to where they once were, and the region has seen further outside investment, including from Vega Sicilia.

Tokaji is made from three different grapes: Furmint, Hárslevelű , and Sárga Muscotály (known elsewhere as Muscat). Hárslevelű gives intense smoky flavours, while Sárga Muscotály is more aromatic. The most important of the three grapes is Furmint, from which nutty, honey aromas develop as the wine matures.

The international standing of Tokaji is allowing a young generation of Hungarian winemakers to make wines in a more modern style, in particular from the Furmint grape. Rather than the traditionally sweet wines made from the grape, these wines are dry and come from vineyards planted at higher altitudes to avoid humidity. Although it's taking a while for the rest of the world to take notice, they can be quite extraordinary. 

Representatives of twelve different producers are currently visiting the USA to promote their dry wines made from Furmint, and I got a chance to taste their wines in Sonoma. Almost none of these is available in the country yet but I would have loved to have taken a bottle of each home with me.

these winemakers could not be present in person, but their studio portraits could

the grape

Focusing on Furmint to produce single-varietal dry wine is a recent phenomenon, only beginning in 2000 with a wine from American-owned Kiràlyudar. It's quite neutral in flavour but the wines develop pronounced nutty aromas - I found marzipan in many of the wines. It grows vigorously, ripens late, and is noticeable for a pronounced acidity and a "minerality" - not a word I like to use to describe a wine, but which denotes a dry, steely, stony quality which can't be summed up with any other word. It has long accounted for 70% of plantings in the Tokaj region, where it is still mostly grown.

All wine from Tokaj is great with food, with wines ranging from dry to the impossibly sweet Eszencia. The wines I tasted had two distinct qualities - they were either dry or off-dry and had been aged in stainless steel or for a short period in a mixture of new and old oak. This results in a range of flavours, which means that the following wines could be a perfect match with cold meats, grilled cheeses, duck breast, or even something as strong as barbequed ribs.

the wines

The tasting was divided into four flights of three, each getting progressively more complex.

flight one

good examples of Furmint without any ageing: citrus and nutty aromas
1. Kvaszinger Winery Kanyargós Furmint 2012
Fresh citrus (lime zest) with a creamy, off-dry mouth. Nice, immediate flavours with good structure.
2. Paulay Tokaji Bitangjó Furmint 2012
Pronounced, stark flavours of citrus, spice, and marzipan.
3. Tokaj-Hétszóló Vineyards Tokaji Furmint Selection 2013
Clear citrus aromas with a bit of almond nuttiness.

flight two

slightly more complex, with richer, creamier flavours and, in the case of wine 5, a touch of oak
4. Gróf Degenfeld Tokaji Furmint Zomborka 2013
Mineral citrus aromas on the nose, backed up with a peachy ripeness on the palate. Off-dry (7.8g/L), that slight sweetness coming through in the peachy flavours but off-set with a high acidity.
5. Sauska Tokaj Winery Furmint Birtok 2012
Creamy - 50% of the wine was aged in oak - and nutty, with a dry, stony, spicy palate with bitter white chocolate.
6. Basilicus Tokaji Furmint Mestervölgy Vineyard 2012
A zesty citrus nose with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc to it, but much richer on the palate with vanilla spices.

flight three

single-vineyard wines which are always aged in a mixture of new and old oak
7. Bardon Omega 2012
Rich, sweet creaminess with a marzipan nuttiness and bitter white chocolate.
8. Erzsebet Cellar Király Dúló 2012
Stinky, farmyard nose, with spices, tropical fruits, and a little bit of candied fruit. Very good acidity on the palate, with a long ripe finish. My favourite wine of the tasting and one that would be interesting to insert into a Burgundy line-up.
9. Gizella Szil-Völgy Furmint 2012
More mineral than the previous wine, with grapefruit and a creamily vanilla nose. Complex, long finish to a balanced, subtle, almost austere wine.

flight four

complex, deep expressions of single vineyards with ageing potential
10. Majoros Tokaji Furmint Agyag 2009
The oldest wine of the tasting, giving a hint of what dry Furmint tastes like with a bit of age. A rich golden colour, with developed, dried fruits (figs and prunes) on the nose; smoky, bitter, and nutty on the palate. And - not a word normally positively associated with wine - vinegar: but vinegar as an extremely complex expression of the base wine.
11. Balassa Winery Betsek Furmint Riolit 2013
Pronounced citrus and peach flavours: like a deep, oaky Sauvignon Blanc.
12. Barta Winery Old King Vineyard Furmint 2012
An incredibly nutty, pronounced nose, with a rich, round marzipan mouth and a pepper spiciness. Already some maturity to the wine; with that amount of complex nuttiness already, it's not clear where this wine will go.
"multi-faceted, pure excitement." - Barta Winery's owner Károly Barta

Furmint on a sunny afternoon

I've tasted dry Furmint on a couple of occasions before and been excited by the wines, but this was my first prolonged tasting of the grape. The quality was very high; the wines had a uniformly impressive acidity with a complex, nutty texture regardless of whether the wine had been aged in oak or came from a top vineyard. The Furmint grape is neutral enough in flavour to allow the character of both the winemaker and the vineyard to shine. Although I would not wish attention to be drawn away from the historic sweet wines of the region, these dry wines can give Tokaj - and Hungary - a new audience.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Pinot Noir Blind Tasting

I've been tasting lots of Californian wine over the last three months, but it's time I got back into Diploma mode with a blind tasting flight of three wines from around the world. The final Diploma exam on 'Light Wines of the World' isn't till next June, so it's hard to focus on studying for it - but this is such a big subject that I can't put it off too long.

The exam is broken down into two sections: theory and tasting, both lasting two hours. The tasting exam has four flights of three wines, all tasted blind and which might be arranged by theme - grape variety or region, for example - or randomly. Twelve wines in two hours leaves ten minutes to assess each wine - describe the appearance, nose, and palate, and reach a conclusion on the quality of the wine.

For this blind tasting, I knew the theme - all the wines were from Pinot Noir - but didn't know the wines themselves. The key to blind tasting is not to try and second guess yourself: analyse the wine for what it is, not for what you think it might be, and let the wine speak for itself.

The WSET has a "Systematic Approach to Tasting," which breaks down flavours into different categories and forces you to analyse each technical aspect of the wine - acidity, tannins, alcohol - using uniform language. This can be a frustrating, formulaic way of approaching wine, but it does provide consistency to what can be an inconsistent exercise.

As you can see below, these are not the sexiest of tasting notes, lacking the florid poetry that journalists use in wine reviews. However, they should make clear the nature and style of the wine and its quality - rather than the subjective vocabulary of a review, the notes are designed to be objective. Here are my tasting notes as the WSET would expect to see them in the exam:

Wine 1

Clear, medium ruby colour, with legs.
Clean, pronounced intensity, and developing.
Raspberry and cherry red fruits, with toast, smoke, and vanilla from the oak ageing, with sweet spices cinnamon and nutmeg. Floral notes of violets and rose petals.
Dry, high acidity, with medium, soft tannins. Medium + alcohol, medium + body, with a pronounced flavour intensity and a long, lasting finish.
As with the nose, raspberry and cherry red fruits, as well as strawberry. More herbal on the palate, with rosemary and sage; also rose petals. Backed up by toast, smoke, and vanilla from the oak.
Outstanding: complex balance of fruits, oak, and herbal/floral aromas, with ageing potential due to the good tannins, high acidity, and clear fruit flavours.

The best way to draw a conclusion on a wine is, by using your tasting notes, to follow the acronym BLIC - Balance, Length, Intensity, Complexity - analysing the balance of acidity, tannins, fruits, and oak; the flavour and intensity of the finish; the intensity, depth, and range of flavours; and the overall complexity of the wine.

Wine 2

Clear, medium ruby colour, with legs.
Faulty - medicinal, smells like cough sweets.

A faulty wine will not be poured for the exam - students can assume that the appearance of each wine is "clear" and the nose "clean." This is because there isn't enough to write about a faulty wine - it tastes wrong, and that's about it - and there's no way you can form a conclusion about its quality.

Wine 3

Clear, medium ruby colour, with legs.
Clean, medium + intensity, developing.
Red fruits flavours of strawberry, cherry, and jammy plums, with some black fruits coming through too - blackcurrant, blackberry. Dried fruits too, particularly figs. Use of oak, giving vanilla and smoke.
Dry, high acidity, with lightly gripping, drying medium + tannins. Medium + alcohol, medium body, with medium + flavour intensity and a medium + finish.
Juicy, jammy red fruits of strawberry, cherry, plums with black fruits - blackcurrant, blackberry - and dried fruits - figs. As with the nose, smoke and vanilla from the oak, as well as pepper.
Very good: an intense, dark wine with forward fruits and integrated use of oak; a wine of balanced complexity but lacking a certain subtlety and elegance.

Describing the flavours of the palate can be repetitive - there's not likely to be much different from the nose. That's why the nose is so important, the taster's first, immediate analysis of the aromas, while the palate is more about the technical details - acidity, tannins, alcohol, body.

so what were the wines?


Wine 1 - Cartograph Floodgate Vineyard Russian River 2011 ($44)

Continuing my burgeoning love affair with Sonoma Pinot Noir, a wine of real complexity and depth of flavour.

Wine 2 - Domaine Odoule-Coquard Chambolle-Musigny 2011 ($47)

It was devastating to discover that the corked wine was from Burgundy: its flavours were flat and medicinal, with no hint of its quality.

Wine 3 - Domaine Ostertag Vignoble d'E ($27)

For a wine from cool Alsace, this was a surprisingly full, fruity, dark wine. Its fruits were just a bit too jammy to rank as outstanding.

Tasting wines blind also challenges preconceptions: the most complex and cool of the wines was from California while the wine from Alsace was the darkest and most intense in colour and taste. Three wines from the same grape pushes the taste buds: the flavour profile of each wine is bound to be similar, but the balance, intensity, and complexity of those flavours different. Rather than simply describing the fruits in a wine, it's the latter qualities that matter.