Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Half Full Glass - January 31st, 2013

I'm going all wine this week. I'll circle back on a few other items folks who were at my house might (or might not) remember. I'm without power as I write this, but with the generator humming away I can both work AND share my beverage adventures in the wonderful ambiance that is New England weather!

Wines from Trione

Before Christmas Lori from Trione reached out to me to ask if I was familiar with the wines from Trione Winery, a relatively new winery (7 yrs) from a family of long-time grape growers and farmers in Sonoma County, CA. I replied that I was not and a few weeks later I got a sampler with six different wines to sample. Thank you Lori!

The sampler included whites and reds which were organized in the following order:
  • 2010 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay
  • 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Russian River Valley Syrah
  • 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2007 Alexander Valley Red Wine
My favorite red was the "Red Wine", a Meritage/Bourdeaux style blend that is put together nicely. It was rich and full and plenty earthy. While a very tart wine, the long finish was slightly sweet. The fruits trended from bright red to purple/black and the nose was slightly herbal.

Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were notable for the lighter style wines. The Chard is oaked, but does have a nicely balanced grilled fruit palate. The Pinot is tart, abundantly fruity with a smooth finish.

All the wines were well made, and any of them would be expected to show well in more recent vintages, something needed by the taster to help sharpen focus and understand of the house style.

Update on the Ancient Fire Spiced Wine

The spiced wine I made on a whim in the Fall has turned out to be more versatile and interesting than we thought. My initial review didn't have say a whole lot, and certainly nothing that would get a reader to jump at trying it unless no other options existed. The tartness in one of the bottles I sampled had me worried that I was going to need to doctor this wine for service. Well, that is sort of the point to how it came to be in the first place, so why did I mention this again?

Because a second and third bottle were sweet, spicy and exactly what I was hoping for. But that doesn't mean doing something even more "non-traditional" with this wine shouldn't be attempted.

But "non-traditional" where and to whom? Maybe to some people in parts of the United States, but what I'm about to do isn't non-traditional in many places around the world (Spain for example) and since it is also so good I highly recommend it! Let's drink us some red wine and cola!

I first saw the concoction on an episode of No Reservations when Anthony Bourdain was tracing his family roots to Uruguay.

Ancient Fire Spiced Wine Soda
  • 1 pint glass
  • 8 oz Ancient Fire Spiced Wine
  • 8 oz Original Coca-Cola
Spiced wine on tap is the first thing that comes to mind. It really is delicious. I wouldn't do this with expensive wines, unless they had been open a couple days already, and wines that aren't balanced on their own might not  blend well with the Cola.



Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Valentine’s Day in Three Beverages

Valentine’s Day is three weeks from tomorrow. I proposed to my wife of over 15 years on Valentine’s Day weekend back in 1996 so we joyously celebrate the occasion each year. This year our public celebration will be done in three drinks, each inspired from our home fermentations, beverage adventures and the romantic themes of the holiday. This week I am sharing drink number one, a mead/beer cocktail. On each of the next two Wednesdays the romantic beverage tour will continue.  Enjoy!

What would Valentine’s Day be without chocolate? I always think of fruity, sweet chocolate treats for this day and that is the theme I am going to apply in this week’s drink. Beer cocktails or beer blends aren't a new idea. The very classic one is the black and tan. Imperial Stout and cherry flavored hard cider is the version I've made most often. Generally 50/50 beer to cider. I call them Cherry Bombs!

I’ve riffed on this concept a number of times with both cider and mead.  In honor of mead, Romance by the Glass and our friends at Moonlight Meadery I will be using a mead this time.

Friends & Lovers

8 ounces of Margot's Chocolate Stout from 2012
8 ounces Moonlight Meadery Paramour
pint glass

The flavors of red & black fruits wrapped in bitter chocolate and bubbles is pretty damn sweet! This is a two-fer in a drink. A well made chocolate stout will attract beer drinkers. The explosion of fruit flavors and gentle sweetness from the mead softens the beer for some and amplifies the creation to a cocktail for others! Everybody has something to love!

Go find somebody to love and give them a squeeze!


p.s. Try Moonlight Meadery Wicked with a rich, chocolaty stout as well. Check out the cocktail and pairing ideas at the Moonlight Meadery web site for more ideas. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Adventures in Fermentation - Scrumpy

I've been reading about cider lately. Hard, sweet, made with dessert apples versus cider apples, how cider vinegar is so good for humans and that we should consume it more, and so on. Lots about cider. Why this is will become more apparent as projects fire up later in the year, so until then who knows what little gems might show up here.

In my reading I came across the term "scrumpy". It was used to described an "old-school" style of cider which contained fresh sweet cider, sometimes additional sweetener, and yeast mixed together and fermented for just a few weeks; designed to be consumed young and very much alive. In further research I found the term has several applications and potential derivations, and it is still very much in use to describe small batch ciders made in some counties in England. The obsolete term "scrimp", meaning withered apple, may have been a precursor and the term "scrump" when used to describe the act of stealing fruit also has a history here.

The description when used to describe cider is what really caught my attention. With basic ingredients thrown together for a short while and without allowing time for it to clear, a scrumpy is a bit different than what I am used to making. A few weeks into a ferment a scrumpy is going to be cloudy, somewhat sparkling from continued fermentation and potentially a little rough compared to finished ciders. Fermented to completion they might only be pettilent and of course a measure stronger still! Interesting. I figured I had to give it a try.

One of the local farms (Mack's Apples) is still pressing cider so I was able to get two day old cider that had not been treated in any way. I poured 3/4 of gallon of the cider into a 1-gallon glass carboy and to that I added 12 ounces of local honey. I mixed/aerated the cider and honey well before moving to the next step. I sprinkled 1/2 of a satchel of S-05 beer brewing yeast over the cider and affixed a water airlock to the top. Fermentation began within 24 hours and proceeded strongly for at least a week. I also made a perry version of this using 3 quarts of organic pear juice. It is recommended that you give a scrumpy 2-3 weeks for a complete fermentation, although depending on how much initial sugar you have that may not be long enough for some residual sugar to remain, something I was actually desirous of.

After the initial fermentation period classic farmhouse style scrumpys will have a small measure of fresh cider added to flavor the beverage before serving. I used 6 ounces of apple juice concentrate. Adding this now, and not racking the cider off the gross sediment, will ensure additional fermentation because the yeast is very much active. Technically you can propagate a scrumpy fermentation like this for quite a while (several months) if you make use of yeast nutrient to help keep the yeast colony vital.

I poured a glass of the scrumpy last night. Wow! Having given it only two weeks to ferment the apple character of the cider is still very much present. It is spritzy, but not carbonated, sweet but not cloying and there is nothing harsh or rough about it. I stopped at a second glass because I want to enjoy this batch for another week or two before starting another. It tastes like the commercial ciders you would recognize and being careful not to get any of the sediment or yeast in the glass meant that I couldn't really tell it was cloudy or unfinished without actually seeing it.

The perry had gone a week too long and picked up a tinge of off fermentation aromas. With a little apple juice concentrate and some yeast nutrient and I will likely be able to net a similar outcome to the scrumpy. It was drier as expected, very crisp but not nearly as flavorful. Food for thought for the next time. But for now, the scrumpy has my attention!

So what I just said and did was make fresh hard cider, designed to be consumed young without manipulation. And so easily! This simple home fermentation is a very significant act in honoring food preservation, the history of fermentation and more broadly the history of America. Learning what a scrumpy is firsthand, as an example, is one of the reasons I started fermenting at home and the leading reason why I continue to enjoy it!



Friday, January 25, 2013

My Half Full Glass - January 24th, 2013

Celebrating Cabernet Franc

Celebrating Cabernet Franc on #WineWednesday. Except that I didn't or not at least with the rest of #winechat gang I had planned on joining in with. Between a busy workday, home winery/brewery tasks after that and lingering allergy symptoms I was asleep before #winechat even started! But I did enjoy a glass of Cabernet Franc with dinner that night and then finished the bottle after a winter hike in Vermont a few days later.

I opened something I had only tasted once during the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference in Virginia, the Barboursville 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve. I recalled it being particularly elegant and polished with an inviting nose. It was mellow with plentiful flavors in each sip. Did my recollections hold up?

Yes, and both my wife and I very much enjoyed that elegance and polish with our post-hike snacks (cheese, bread, fruit, nuts) this past weekend. The wine is moderately full bodied but finishes dry. Both the aromas and flavors are dominated by red fruits and a balanced dose of spices and other notes from wood aging.
Of course I checked and found that I had only ordered one these, and it is a lucky thing that I didn't drink it soon after I got it in 2011. With so much wine on hand I won't be placing an order with Barboursville again soon, but I would definitely include the Cabernet Franc Reserve if I did!

Tito's Handmade Vodka

I'm not a vodka guy. I just never developed much of a taste for it. Most of the occasions where I have consumed it the vodka was all dressed up in some cocktail and lost in the shuffle of flavors. There may have been a few part-vodka martinis in there, but I can say with surety that I never really paid that much attention to the vodka. Why am I telling you all of this? Because I bought a bottle of vodka with the specific plan to try some of it straight to see what all the fuss was about.

I've seen the advertisements for Tito's Handmade Vodka in beverage magazines for years. Not being much of a vodka guy I didn't pay much attention to them, but I kept seeing them everywhere. After I recently emptied a couple partial bottles of vodka to make two tinctures I put vodka on the shopping list for the next trip to the liquor store. I checked the current price list, as I typically do, for the state store before I went and lo and behold Tito's was on sale. So I bought it.

This vodka is smooth! At 80 proof, normal strength for vodka, I expected a little burn but there really wasn't any. I'm not sure what vodka is supposed to taste like, yes I know it is supposed to be neutral but that doesn't mean completely tasteless, so all I can say is that it is delicious. A little sweet, likely from the corn, with no harsh or bitter flavors at all.

I also made a vodka tonic with it, something I don't think I have ever made for myself, and it really was one of the best tasting simple, white liquor cocktails I had ever had. So I guess you could say I am now a huge fan of Tito's Handmade Vodka.

Tito's is made in Austin, TX from 100% corn. It is distilled six times and is gluten free.



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Session-able Beers

After I selected a couple beers to enjoy while I was working on bottling several batches of wine, mead and beer it occurred to me that part of my selection criteria might make for an interesting blog post.

Two of the bottles I picked out were filled with the Ancient Fire 2012 Mild English Ale. This beer was my first attempt at this style, a Mild and in sub-category 11A of the BJCP style guidelines for those familiar with the BJCP program, a style that when made correctly should have an ABV of 2.8% to 4.5%. Mine came in somewhere between 3.75% and 4% when it was finished. That alcohol content potentially qualifies it as a session beer, a term that is warmly debated in some circles, although before I claim victory for that designation to be applied to my beer let's explore what a session beer actually should be more broadly.

I like the definition of a session beer from the folks over at the Session Beer Project.  It is packaged neatly as a set of bullets and covers both objective AND subjective concerns about a beer you might find in your glass. They say that a session beer should be:
  • 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced
I've got the first bullet covered with my Mild. The next three are subjective and all I can say is that my English Mild is somewhat interesting, easily quaffable by the pint or three and has in fact inspired conversation amongst several kinds of people including some in my brew club as well as others that are typically light American beer drinkers. The last bullet applies only in that I made the beer myself and it does turn out to be pretty cheap in the homemade, small-batch context. Would others call it a session beer? Maybe. I do.

Where did the term session beer originate?

The term originated in Britain and was quite literal, meaning a beer that could be drunk in sizable quantity during a session, e.g. a social event, workday break, etc., without the onset of intoxication. The honest origin is that alcohol was taxed so creating lower alcohol, but flavorful and drinkable, beers was more advantageous for brewers. Many of the contemporary British beers commonly associated with this definition do in fact contain alcohol of less than 4% ABV, although such beers are harder to find being made in the US. Historically even the premium ales (the next step up in British beer parlance) would have likely topped out around 4% ABV, but would have been considered too strong for a session beer. The Fullers line of pub beers, including the Chiswick Bitter (3.5%) , London Pride (4.1%) and ESB (5.5%) are a close approximation of the classic session, premium and strong tiered British beer scale.

Why did I select my Mild for my "work" beer? Well, mostly because of the lower alcohol content, but also because the flavors are mild and won't wreck my palate so that I can't properly taste the products I am bottling. At bottling time a solid taste is the last line of defense in making sure what goes in the bottle is as good as it can be. A last minute adjustment, sugar or acid perhaps, might be called for based on how the product smells and tastes. And a beer that won't overpower my senses, and who really wants to drink water while they do this work anyway, is a solid fit here.

When you are out and about what beers might you find that would fit all five of the bullets above, making it a true session beer?

You may find the Fuller's beers at some bars, including the British Beer Company, but both the bottled and kegged versions for import to the US are generally above the 4-4.5% ABV mark. Guinness on draft is typically about 4.3% ABV, but I personally don't find it interesting enough for a "true" session beer.

The beers from Notch brewing, brewed in several locations in New England, range from 2.8% to 4.5% ABV for the bottled versions and in the high 3's for their cask series. I've had the Notch Session Ale (4.5%) before and do think it is an interesting beer, although it is right at the cutoff for the alcohol content.

There are others session-able beers out there and at beer bars and brew pubs that serve cask ales you might actually find more than one version to try at any one time. Check the beer menu at any new bar you visit, most will have the ABV noted making it easy to find something session-able if desired.



Session Beer References 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Half Full Glass - January 17th, 2013

The source for kosher wine online at great prices!

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon

This was one of the bottles of whiskey I picked up for my whiskey bar during the first of our two holiday open houses late last year. I like the everyday Knob Creek as a solid sipper so when I saw this bottle of Single Barrel Reserve I figured I should give it a spin.

The initial aromas give up dried fruits, caramel, vanilla and hints of charcoal or smoke. In the mouth it is sweeter than I would have expected and an element of black pepper spice is pretty accessible. The wood notes are also pretty forward, especially after a few swirls. 

At 120 proof this Bourbon doesn't mess around, the heat comes in strong and lingers, but not to a fault. This whiskey is a bit stronger than I really like and for that reason I don't think I would buy it as a sipper again. That said, when making a Sazerac or Old Fashioned cocktails the flavors of this Bourbon continue to shine and the heat is moderated to a level much more aligned with my palate.  Of the four or five of us that nearly killed the bottle, as you can see in the picture, nobody had anything bad to say, although the heat and strength of it was noted by all.

Castello D'Albola Le Ellere Chianti Classico

To some people Chianti can often be pedestrian and boring. I've had my share of flamboyantly boring examples of it over the last few years, and because of that I don't often purchase a bottle unless I have a solid personal recommendation. Boring was not the case this time, and I'm happy to say I'm actually in a position to make a recommendation worth following the next time Chianti would be a good fit for a wine purchase. I received this bottle of Castello D'Albola Le Ellere Chianti Classico as a sample from the wine lovers at Zonin

Other than the fact that the cork disintegrated while trying to open it I can't say anything bad about this wine.

The nose was vibrant, pushing forth cherry, currant and tart red fruits. The wine smells clean and friendly. In the mouth the flavors of cherry and currant were predominant  for me. Wood notes were subtle and a hint of vanilla was found after a bit of concentration. The finish is long and for an otherwise dry wine the dryness doesn't accelerate through the finish, mellowing a bit as it goes. 

I enjoyed this wine before dinner and then experienced a good match for it with Margherita pizza. I could see the pairing potential of this wine to extend to other Italian classics and hope to try it again with a cheese & charcuterie plate where I also think it will work well. I would definitely buy this wine. The average retail price seems to be somewhere between $20 and $25.



Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The World of Wine Comes to Boston

In just about one month the Boston Wine Expo, now in its 22nd year, will be held at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. The world of wine is vast and the Boston Wine Expo is a great opportunity to sample an exciting cross section of what that world has to offer. Combining commercial wines from all over the world with some of the big names wine aficionados follow and a dose of locally produced wines as well as spirits and food, there truly is something for everyone.

In the past I have quipped that it is possible to travel the world one bottle of wine at a time, and attending festivals and events like the Boston Wine Expo is one of the ways to be exposed to wines and regions that are new to you and that you might not easily find otherwise. These types of events can be busy so getting more than a couple seconds to ask a question or learn more might be hard. You should however be able to get a taste and spend as much time with it as you need, letting it tell you the story and take you to where it is from. One recommendation I make with regards to large format festivals like the Boston Wine Expo is to list out some places/wines you would like to explore in advance and then consult the festival guide when you first arrive to develop a plan for part of your time there. An early peek at some of the wineries and wines that will be available at the expo can be found at the Expo Winery page.

During the expo there are also seminars (for an additional fee) that delve more deeply into specific regions, or focus on a particular producer and provide tastings of other beverages, like Bourbon. As I was perusing the seminar schedule I noticed a seminar entitled “Bourbon Masters: Buffalo Trace’s Master Distiller, Harlen Davis Wheatley”. Readers who know me personally know that I enjoy a good glass of bourbon and Buffalo Trace is certainly one of the best out there. So I signed up. I look forward to sharing what I learn and my impressions of the samples I get to enjoy during the session!

I have not yet fully developed my own tasting strategy for the expo, but I’m sure I’ll be scouting for wines from regions I am not familiar with, like those from Cantina Produttori Cormons, Comelli Paolino and Torre Fornello in Italy, and checking for new releases from a few producers, perhaps from the Finger Lakes in NY State, that I do know. As a blogger ambassador for the event I will be sharing not only my own stories but those of others I interact with. While I roam the expo floor I will be looking for smiling faces and excitement, and I’ll want to know what you are tasting, what you think of it and your overall impressions of the expo. I’ll also be scouting for tips on wines to try that might not have hit my radar.

If you haven't purchased your tickets yet, you are in luck. Use the promo code "wineblog" to get $10 off Grand Tasting tickets for either Saturday or Sunday.

See you at the Boston Wine Expo next month!


Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Half Full Glass - January 10th, 2013

Wagner Sparkling Riesling

I opened several different sparkling wines over the holidays. Knowing my guests would be in the mood for something celebratory, I used the bottles in that very stereotypical way. I'll raise a glass of bubbly anytime, but not everyone has evolved to that sensibility.

One of the bottles we opened was the Wagner 2010 Sparkling Riesling, part of an order I placed with Wagner Vineyards during my last visit in 2011. I had only tasted it once, but being a great value AND something a little different in the sparkling category I knew the right moment to share it would come along soon enough.

It pours the color of dry straw with abundant carbonation. It is very gently sweet and I believe the restrained sweetness is a huge asset. It is unmistakably Riesling from the first fruity whiffs coming off the glass. Citrus is the driver, and felt both lemon and orange were present.  Some ripe peach comes through in the mouth and overall it does have a subtle fruit salad characters to it. The whole package is crisp and clean and the gentle sweetness fades through a lengthy, tart finish.

Margot, my mother and I finished this bottle off with cheeses and snacks on Christmas Day. The balance of fruit and sweetness was fitting for a lazy day, actually the first day of that holiday weekend where we neither had to go anywhere nor host a house full of people!

Ancient Fire Malbec 2010

If there is one thing I've learned from my wine-making activities, it's patience.

I've had mixed feelings about this wine since it went into the bottle in 2011. It was my first 100% grape wine using the full process of cold soaking, crushing, pressing, malo-lactic fermentation and extended bulk aging. The press cake from the first half of the batch is in the pic to the left. Up until I inoculated it with the malo-lactic culture the wine had been trending much like many others I had made. I have always felt like something took a turn after that, and not only because of this batch of wine. I made Cabernet, Syrah and a couple blends at the same time, with the same method and the same grape source. The Cabernet fermented fine but then continued to bubble into a stinky mess that ended up getting dumped. The Syrah and Cab/Syrah blend turned out OK, but the Cab/Syrah blend and Malbec always seemed a little acetic (vinegary) to me. The Syrah was the best of the bunch and I think we've succeeded in drink all of it already! I believed I had come in contact with some type of spoilage bacteria and when an unrelated new batch of wine went south I proceeded to replace all my plastic and hard-to-clean equipment in hopes of getting rid of the bugs.

I was pretty happy when I opened a bottle of the Malbec recently and found that the acetic component had faded considerably and a measure of earthiness was now detectable. It still has some mild flaws, but I'm alright with that. The fruit and non-fruit facets of the wine are balanced fairly well, and the additional body in this wine when compared to some of my juice based wines is nice to be able to identify. It is unmistakablely a Malbec, but I don't have enough experience with Chilean Malbecs to compare it to those wines from the region where the grapes came from. I didn't immediately pick up any other funkiness so I am hoping that the time I allowed this wine to sit around undisturbed has been beneficial. I hadn't been making enough red wine up until 2010 to really know what a year or two (and more) of aging would do to homemade wine firsthand. Finally being able to have that experience does bring a reward in knowledge and considerations for future projects.



Friday, January 4, 2013

My Half Full Glass - January 3rd, 2013

White Birch Tavern Ale

For those not familiar with White Birch Brewing, they are a nano-brewery based in Hooksett, NH. They are also one of a few local breweries that resonate with my tastes, and in the case of the Tavern Ale, my wife's tastes as well.

Margot and I were on hand when Tavern Ale was first debuted, and the story that went with it, which can be found at the WB Tavern Ale page, is interesting; connecting the beer to the history of tavern's in New Hampshire.

I am not in general a fan of smoky beers, I find the overt smokiness in many of them to be too much for me. The Tavern Ale presents a more subtle and restrained smokiness, one that doesn't keep building as you continue to drink the beer. With the addition of rich malty accents, hoppy notes and a pronounced chocolate flavor, this beer comes off very balanced and smooth. Margot and I killed two growlers of this BEFORE Christmas!

Bellwether No. 4 Cider

Nose is subtly of tart, cider apples. Slightly sweet with a funky apple flavor that comes in mid-way and lingers through the finish. Very polished and clean. This cider is made with Northern Spy apples and if you know that apple variety you will pick up the flavors straight away. An example of a mellow, understated cider. This is not the best from Bellwether (Trumansburg, NY) that I've had, and if you've never enjoyed their ciders I recommend a visit! When I last tasted at Bellwether I most enjoyed the Cherry Street and King Baldwin. I know I took the Cherry Street cider to a bachelor party in the fall, but no tasting notes survived the night!

One more note. This cider is a perfect stand-in for sparkling wine for a drinker who isn't a wine person. It has the sparkle needed, but presents all-together different flavors and might appeal to beer drinkers that you might be hosting.