Sunday, December 30, 2012

2008 Recorba White Wine

Producer: Bodegas PradoRey
Name: Recorba White Wine
Varietals: Verdejo 60%; Viura 40%
Region: Rueda D.O., Spain
Vintage: 2008
Tasted: December 1, 2012
ABV: 13%

Rueda - nestled into the southwest corner of Valladolid, along the borders with Segovia and Ávila - has been producing wine since the eleventh century. Originally the Verdejo grape, which practically defines the region, was used to make an oxidized wine reminiscent of a fortified wine. In the late twentieth century, however, collaboration between interested parties from the Rioja region (notably Marqués de Riscal) and foreign oenological expertise (notably Émile Peynaud) resulted in a more approachable wine. Not oxidized, not fortified, just elegant and delectable. In recognition of its newly realized potential, Rueda wines made with at least 50% Verdejo were awarded Denominación de Origen status in 1980.

The Recorba white has paired Verdejo with the Viura grape, often known as Macabeo. Viura is used in whites all over Spain and southern France, and in fact tends to be the main grape in white Riojas. Here, the two blend together to form a vibrant, luscious specimen.

The wine is an even, limpid goldenrod color. Though a tad on the pale side, it is still deeper in hue than most whites. The aroma, at first, is an interesting combination of sweetness, tartness, and introversion. One can get a whiff of honeycrisp apples and canned peaches, but the notes are not bursting forth quite yet. The wine still needs some time to warm up and get ready for its big performance on the palate, which works out just fine because the tasting notes are indeed dynamic. The initial note is of sweet florals. The Rueda is strong now, confident, out of its shell. It offers the flavor of lychee with the crispness of apple. There is citrus around the edges, but where one would expect zest one gets instead a mystifying combination of florals and sweet fruit which glide about each other as they dance around the mouth. Obviously those two notes have some common denominator, but at least one taster is still left pondering just what it is. The wine is now strong and confident, but that is not to say talkative. Expressive, certainly, but in a poetic riddle sort of way. Normally such wines would be a bit on the thick side, but this white is medium-bodied, getting the job done without hammering anything home gratuitously. Thickness, really, would be out of character. Finally, the wine finishes with a note of white table grapes. It is confident as it goes down, but calm, almost mild. But only almost; perhaps the best way to describe it is pungent without even a hint of drama.

After breathing for twenty minutes, the Rueda has not changed altogether too much, just enough to befit a white. The nose has become much sweeter and more vibrant, emitting a delicious scent of apples dipped in honey; florals (mostly honeysuckle) and apples dominate the palate, whose personality has not changed at all; and golden apples have usurped the finish.

To the Moors, who brought Verdejo grapes to Spain from North Africa; to the monks and farmers of Rueda, who have upheld the local viticultural tradition for a millennium (and counting); to the oenologists, Spanish and foreign alike, who revolutionized the region some decades ago; and to Bodegas PradoRey, which has brilliantly blended the Verdejo and Viura grapes just so; to all, a great deal of gratitude is due, for each group was instrumental in bringing it about that today we may at our own leisure sit and enjoy a glass of this delightful white wine. ¡Salud!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bonita Peach Rooibos Tea

Name: Bonita Peach Rooibos Tea
Ingredients: Green Rooibos Plant, Sunflower Petals, Orange Peel, Natural Peach & Strawberry Flavoring
Purveyor: The Spice & Tea Exchange
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 5:00, sipped plain

Tea is what brews from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The leaves can be treated in a way that includes oxidation, creating black tea, or else in a different way that does not, creating green tea (or, of course, in any of a few other ways as well).

Any time that one steeps something not from the Camellia sinensis plant one gets a tisane, more commonly known as herbal tea. Some herbal teas are comprised of cheap plant parts whose only purpose is to hold the myriad artificial flavorings that make them taste so yummy. However, there are also very many species of flora that, though not related to Camellia sinensis, create legitimate brewed beverages in their own rights. Principle among these are hibiscus, chamomile, rooibos, and yerba mate. (The latter, in fact, is even naturally caffeinated, an extremely rare distinction among tisanes.)

Rooibos, naturally non-caffeinated, comes from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis plant, a legume native to South Africa. The word "rooibos" comes from the Afrikaans for "red bush", and its beverage is also known as "red tea" for, of course, its red color. So imagine my surprise to read that I was drinking a "green rooibos". Surely, unless we are describing Christmas decor, this must be a contradiction, either a silly error or a cheap marketing ploy.

No, not at all, in fact. It turns out that what gives standard rooibos its red color is the oxidation that it undergoes during treatment - the same thing that gives black tea its black color. Green rooibos leaves are not oxidized. Avoiding oxidation "results in a grassy, naturally sweet flavor and a lower tannin content," as The Spice & Tea Exchange tells me, and boy is that ever so.

The Bonita Peach Rooibos Tea has the dual benefits of being an authentic green rooibos tea and chock full of some excellent natural flavoring, both at the same time. Observing the dry leaves, one enjoys a complete medley of colors with delightful, almost wood-like tones. The ingredients present as straight little sticks of light green, brown, yellow, orange, tan, and maroon. They fall together in patterns of little square clusters such that, while still packed tight in the bag, they look like the floor of the the Boston Celtics's home court before (or after?) a paint job. Taking in the leaves' aroma, one can smell the peach right away, with a mere wisp of spices and herbs. It is rich, sensual, sweet. If the leaves' colors belong to autumn, then the scent belong right in the heat of August on a hot, lazy day, the kind of day on which one can expect to find oneself biting into a ripe peach and chewing on the soft flesh as the strong, sugary juice allocates itself between one's throat and one's chin.

The tisane brews into a light, golden orange liquid, rich and suave. The aroma is also rich, smooth, a succinct combination of sweetness and spice. Or perhaps more herbs than spice in this case; the orange peel and the floral hints are unmistakeable, and of course the peach is hardly away in hiding. Sipping it brings back a wonderful memory. In many sushi houses - including, at least, the one where I grew up - along with the check come sucking candies, and not just any ol' sucking candies but ones absolutely packed full of the most perfumey peach syrup on earth. Well, take the intensity level down to normal, and there you have the initial layer of flavor of this herbal tea. As it hits the back of the tongue one gets a complex floral note balanced by both the sweetness and the rooibos itself, which is finally emerging from obscurity into a more visible role.

Those who require caffeine in the morning will probably want to stick with Camellia sinensis or yerba mate (or coffee). But otherwise, the Bonita Peach Rooibos Tea fits in nicely at any time of the day. The flavors are lively, the body is smooth, and the sweetness is a real peach. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Costa Rica Tarrazú Asoproaa

Name: Tarrazú Asoproaa

Origin: Costa Rica
Roaster: The Gentle Brew
Roast: Medium-Light
Varietals: (unknown)
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Coffee has long been a key component of Costa Rica's economy, and in the Tarrazú region coffee is especially important. In fact, lately coffee is reported as being Tarrazú's single most important product. It is not a stretch to imagine that there never has been much of anything else in the region that could assume such a recognition. On the other hand, it is also not a stretch to worry that the discrepancy has been stretched too far, and that the bottom could fall out from under a fair chunk of the coffee market.

Starbucks recently made headlines for adopting a Tarrazú crop as its most premium coffee, offering it at a record $7 per brewed cup and goodness knows how much per bag of beans. No doubt Starbucks invested a fair sum into developing a farm or two in the region, or at least convinced someone else to invest in the area with the promise of short-term rewards. Maybe the farmers borrowed or raised their own cash.

But here's the thing: For how long will Starbucks, or anyone else, continue to underwrite coffee farming as much as they have been in recent times? For as long as they expect to continue selling $7 cups of coffee. And for how long is Starbucks going to offer a cup of Tarrazú coffee for almost twice as much as a gallon of gasoline costs? For about as long as people will buy it, which, excepting an aggregate ten or twelve square blocks among New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and London, will not be for altogether too long. Ditto, by default, any fads that develop from serial copy-catting. Surely some of the resources directed towards the farms went to one-time purchases, and just as surely some went to ongoing commitments - employees, planted land, etc. It is inevitable that some Tarrazú farmers will wake up one day to find that their ascent up the economic ladder necessarily includes a subsequent descent. The suddenness and profoundness of the decline - that is in the control of various decision makers.

Hopefully production stays at current levels for a long time to come, because this coffee is brimming with personality.  Gentle Brew did not charge premium prices for their Tarrazú, but it sure does brew into something special. It figures that Royal Coffee (whence Gentle Brew gets their green beans) has product notes, or "coffee cards," for all Tarrazú varieties except for the Asoproaa, and their help staff must all be on vacation for the month, so there is no accounting for the varietal in this review. But that notwithstanding, we have great coffee from a premium region roasted with mastery (and quite keenly brewed, if I may say so myself), so let us see if we cannot find something to say about so dynamic a beverage.

I use the word dynamic advisedly here, for while it is not remarkable for a coffee to have tasting notes, for example, as sophisticated as a wine's, it is quite special to have them pulled together into a level of character as engaging as the spirit. Even the color of the brew is personable: my notes say that it is "an excitable brown, a brown that wants to come out and play." The aroma opens up with a nuttiness, mainly chestnuts, and a bit of earthiness. But it is just playing. Soon there are some florals, entering slowly at first, but before you know it they are dominant. The chestnuts have not gone away, but they are no longer important. A subtle savoriness has become a robust flowerbed with winy undertones and a sweetness dangling on the horizon.

So now it is time to actually taste the coffee. There are the florals again, but they are mild, and an earthiness more becoming a very dark roast casts itself over the whole thing like rainclouds over a meadow. This is it, after all that? Nope - fooled again! "Gotchya!" giggles the coffee. "Why, you little scoundrel!" I reply, but really shame on me for letting it happen a second time, and in any event I am smiling along with the brew as I say it. Who could stay angry at something so delicious and playful? No sooner have I taken my third sip than an orchard of mixed fruits comes out of nowhere and bathes the palate. The earthiness is edged out towards the horizon, kept more for its balancing smoothness than anything else. The florals are still there, as are tannins, wininess, the cornucopia of fruit, and a delightful pungency as they meld together. What is missing, furthermore, is equally important here: acidity, and thank goodness for it. One would think that among citrus notes, wininess, and tannins there would be at least a token hint of astringency, but no. We have the good - plenty of it, really - without the bad.

Tasting the plethora of fruits leads me to believe that I am getting a vicarious mouthful of the local Tarrazú terroir. I certainly hope that that is the case, and that my visions of vast swaths of the region leveled down to make room for extra coffee fields that will soon be rendered vestigal and superfluous are all just paranoid delusions. Any region that can make coffee like this deserves an eternity of prosperity and success.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marqués del Nevado 2011 Malbec Reserva

Producer: Inversiones Corta Hojas Ltda.
Name: Marqués del Nevado
Varietal: Malbec
Region: Valle del Lontué, Valle de Curicó, Valle Central, Chile
Vintage: 2011 Reserva
Tasted: November 16, 2012
ABV: 13%

Chile's rise in the world of winemaking is a wonderful story. European grapes were originally brought to South America by the Spanish colonists, and for many generations Chilean wine was mostly cheap quaffer made for the local yokels. But then an ironic blessing befell the region. When phylloxera struck Europe's vineyards in the late 1800s, scores of prestigious wine professionals found themselves looking for work. It did not take long for word to travel: Chilean (and Argentinian) vineyards were phylloxera-free. To this day, in fact, their vines, which have never been grafted onto North American roots (the cure/prevention which saved European oenology from oblivion), have not been touched by the dastardly vermin. Well, wine experts of all sorts made their way to South America post-haste: grape growers, wine makers, wine blenders, and of course, wine merchants. But through Chilean wine was turned into something respectable in relatively short order, it was still not great.

Then, a few decades ago, Chilean wine underwent a second revolution led by another influx of foreign interest, this one having more to do with capital and operations management than with human resources. The wineries, and the combination of foreign and domestic experts running them, turned their sights northwards. They bet that American consumers would go for an import from their own side of the Pond that was cheaper than even California wine, let alone European stuff. They bet right. Chile still shows the world year-in and year-out that its wines can compete quite handily. The finest Chilean wines command some of the highest prices, and the less pricey stuff, though more expensive than it used to be even in adjusted terms, still flies off of the shelf.

One reason for all of this success, of course, is that Chilean wine has become a high-quality product. The latitudes in Chile in which wine is produced correspond roughly to the Mediterranean, though the winemakers bringing their favorite grapes with them over a century ago came from more northerly places. The most productive winemaking region in Chile is the Valle Central, directly across the Andes Mountains from Argentina's esteemed Mendoza region. Within the Valle Central are a few sub-regions, including the Valle de Curicó. It is in there, finally, that we find the Valle del Lontué, where Inversiones Corta Hojas makes Marqués del Nevado.

The 2011 Malbec Reserva has a wonderful color, rather like a garnet version of red velvet. It looks like it could envelop one in, if not complete luxury, nothing less than head-to-toe comfort lacking nothing. (And heck if that is not luxury!) The wine opens with a mild nose of reds, mainly redcurrant and rhubarb, and also of cedar, though without the punch. The palate is also mild, of red grapes and other reds. It is sweet, not too tannic at all, and medium bodied. Perhaps this Malbec could be a little rounder and fuller; its youth does show sometimes, and I noted while sipping it that I look forward to trying this wine again after some years have passed, to compare and contrast.

But really, the flavors are held up just fine when all is said and done, and it has to do with their ease and lightness. The flavor is tender; it coats the palate gently. Just as a flower petal, no matter how vibrant the color or sophisticated the texture, can naught but brush ever so lightly against the skin as it floats by, this wine, though flavorful and complex, successfully resists the temptation to smack us in the face with sugar or tannins or any other conduit of tasting notes. Instead it maintains confidence it itself for what it is, which is a lively red with delightful flavors, and presents itself simply, honestly, as such.

Yet just like anything humble, the 2011 Reserva wonders of its faults - is its delicateness done to excess? After breathing for twenty minutes it steps its presence up a tad, not too much, not even very much, but enough to let us know that it is open to new ways of expressing itself - and given the flavors present, we can be grateful that it does. The nose is the same as earlier - redcurrant, rhubarb, cedar - but with a degree of pungency. The palate, a little bolder than before, is of strawberry and rhubarb, as is the finish. The body is rounder as well.

Wait years for a change? Silly me. This Malbec has us covered pretty much on the spot. Raise a glass in thanks, and drink it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Organic Jade Cloud Green Tea

Origin: China
Type: Green Tea
Style: Jade Cloud
Purveyor: The Spice & Tea Exchange
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 2:30, sipped plain

I suppose it is only right to open with a disclaimer about labeling this tea as organic: the pouch in which my sample of this tea was packaged at The Spice & Tea Exchange's Newport, Rhode Island, store does not say anything about being organic. However, its website does declare that the Jade Cloud Green Tea is organic. While labels can be old or printed erroneously, websites are easily correctable and updateable. So, I tend to presume that in the event of a discrepancy, the website should be given the benefit of the doubt. But again, a disclaimer is only fair for my kind patrons.

In any event, the Jade Cloud green tea is exquisite. Whatever label the Spice & Tea Exchange puts on it, that soon becomes of quite little interest in the presence of such a charismatic beverage. The dry leaves are, aptly, of a dark jade color, withered down but without curling into the leaf equivalent of the fetal position, as many other teas are wont to do. These Jade Cloud leaves are long, elegant, curvy, almost supple looking from a slight distance. And when getting a sense of their aroma, I was greeted not with a statement but with a question: can an aroma be matte? I do not mean dampened; the fruity tones are wonderfully vibrant. But there is a certain quality to them, almost like a gloss-over except decidedly not glossy - perhaps we can call it a haze-over. It is slight, and gives the aroma (which also includes an undertone of nuttiness) great texture, and in my mind's eye, when I sniff these leaves, that texture is quite distinctly matte. There is no other way to explain it.

That would normally be plenty of character for a tea, but in the case of the Jade Cloud here, we are just warming up - literally, in fact, as the water was boiling to brew the tea as I pondered the dry leaves. When brewed, the tea emerges very light, almost delicate in color. It is pale yellow. The nuttiness comes out much more in the aroma when brewed, and in fact becomes the predominant note. There is also just a touch of maltiness and fruit beneath it all. Could that maltiness be the manifestation of the matte quality that I found in the dry leaves? Could it all really have been just what malt smells like before being brewed? How intriguing.

When sipped the tea immediately shows itself to be quite comforting and cozy, key qualities this time of year. The flavor is subtle; not too tannic, not too malty, just right. The package, which mentions a chestnut flavor, is proven correct on that count. The tea is full bodied, even, and evidently glad to please. There is a bit of fruitness to the finish.

The Jade Cloud Green Tea has plenty of personality, but unlike many beverages brimming with character, it does not heave it at us in a frantic effort to boast of glitz and glam. Rather, it welcomes in anyone who would enter, and explores its own depths with us, sharing the adventure at our own pace. Such keen reserve makes it most ideal as an afternoon tea. In fact, I look forward to another cup of it this afternoon, and encourage everyone else to partake as well.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Puroast Organic Dark French Roast

Name: Organic Dark French Roast 
Roaster: Puroast 
Preparation 1: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black 
Preparation 2: Freshly ground, 5 teaspoons combined with 1.75 cups water and 0.48 ounces (4 packets) of sugar, kept over medium-low flame until ready, sipped without further enhancement

The benefits of a low acid coffee are numerous, and quite as one might expect. Those with sensitive, shall we say, central processing can rest assured that Puroast's coffee will serve them quite well. This might seem like a rather mundane feature, but those coffee lovers who have had to cut back because of pain or health risk ought to take a definite interest. And after all, heartburn, indigestion, ulcers, and other related afflictions are hardly rare.

But the opportunity will not mean very much if the coffee is sub-par, will it? The good news is, while it may not be everyone's ideal coffee, it is quite tasty. And, while I have reviewed here the dark roast, Puroast has many varieties available to suit all preferences.

French pressing the coffee yields a dark, dark brown brew, somewhere between royal mahogany and ebony in hue. The aroma, much like everything else about this coffee, is smooth. There is earthiness in the scent, and did I detect some sweetness? It must be a hint of caramel flavor. In the palate, though, all semblance of sweetness is gone. The coffee is earthy, a little smoky, and exceedingly smooth. The body is medium. There is a mild finish, earthy and buttery; one appreciates how it is unpresumptuous.

I usually dislike acid in a coffee. All of the energy that it gives to the flavors and tannins is, rather than keen and spunky, more like astringent and bleaching. It becomes frustratingly difficult to get a hold of the flavors; they go bouncing off the walls of my tongue and palate in a chaotic rather than playful manner, and heck if I can discern a single tasting note on the first or second pass. Smooth, calm, and steady; that is my thing. Therefore, though my own central processing works just fine (for now; I can hardly wait for time to go on), I very much looked forward to this low-acid coffee. So, on the whole, how did it meet its promise?

On the one hand, it is a little bit as they say: one never appreciates something until one does not have it anymore. This coffee errs on the side of flat. It is smooth as can be, with flavors on wonderful display, but lacking a tad in personality. On the other hand, especially since I was not out looking for an adventure, it can hardly have been more pleasant to have the flavors of a splendidly roasted coffee flow across the taste buds without having to stop and wait for a harsh wave of acid to wash by every other nanosecond. On balance, it is well worthwhile.

And, the Turkish preparation was even better. The coffee comes out dark, dark, and darker: totally ebony. It proffers such strong roasting notes that the full complement of sugar hardly even comes through in the aroma. But one does pick up on some earthiness and florals from the coffee itself, which is very nice. In the palate, there is plenty of sweetness that comes through. It is smooth and full-bodied. Here, the lack of acid does a perfect job of fulfilling its aesthetic promise of letting the coffee round itself out an sprawl about the mouth in a mellow, but not lethargic, way, blanketing the tongue and palate in delight. There are a couple of coffee notes here and there – nuttiness, florals, smoke – but mostly it is earthiness and sugar. There is no doubt that if one were to add other spices to flavor the brew, they would shine wonderfully. This coffee is just right for holding them up without tossing them about, blending them seamlessly without shaking anything around.

Those who suffer from certain internal symptoms, those who dislike acidity in coffee, and really anyone in general, are all encouraged to get some Puroast coffee and make a pot. It is, truly, a delight.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sella & Mosca 2007 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva

Producer: Sella & Mosca
Name: Cannonau di Sardegna
Varietal: Cannonau
Region: Sardegna D.O.C., Italy
Vintage: 2007 Riserva
Tasted: October 17, 2012
ABV: 14%

In a recent newsletter, Kermit Lynch asks his esteemed readership to consider whether Corsica is really French. Yes, of course it is administered by the French government, Lynch explains, but that is a happenstance of history and politics, and a relatively recent one at that. Corsica has been subjected to many conquering nations, and their influences, over the centuries, and really it has more to do with Italy geographically, linguistically, culturally, and, of course, viticulturally, than with France.

Lynch's point, which is well-taken, is that one ought not to confuse political association with gastronomic association. Corsica's grapes, the wineries that grow and ferment them, and the wines that arise from them, are all quite patently Italian in nature, if not in bureaucracy.

What is one to make, though, of Sardinia? Sardinians speak an Italian language, are citizens of the Italian nation, and are proud to call themselves Italian. Yet their wines, or at least the grapes used to make them, can be traced back quite directly to Spanish grapes that Spaniards planted there a few short centuries ago. The Spaniards were at liberty to import these vines, furthermore, because for nearly four hundred years they owned the island, and we can be sure that they left behind plenty of Iberian customs and folklore to go along with all of that oenology that they had established. Cannonau, Sardinia's most important red, can be traced straight back to a strain of Garnacha. The wine made from it – the principle product of a proud Italian province's viticultural tradition – tastes rather Spanish. Again, what ought one make of this?

Let's leave that question for now, and turn to the wine itself. Sella & Mosca's 2007 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva is of a true garnet color. They say that red tones induce energy and agitation, but not this red. It is deep, smooth, relaxing. The aroma is pungent, mostly from the numerous tannins. The main notes are of red berries and plums; some cherries and cranberries make appearances here and there. The wine includes a healthy helping of plum in the palate. There are other miscellaneous reds as well, and plenty of tannins to go around. The level of oakiness is perfect for a wine like this: present, and seamlessly melded into the flavor profile, but so subtle that someone not looking for it will not likely stumble into it, while someone who is looking for it will find that it disappears as soon as a glimpse is caught. One does not need the label to tell that this wine is fourteen percent alcohol, but there is no specific bite to it; it is just a little sharp, is all. Medium bodied, the wine has good structure, quite ideally suited to the flavor profile. The finish is of strawberries, and reds generally.

After aerating for twenty minutes, the Cannonau is not much changed except that it is a little sweeter. The aroma is of plums. The palate, too, includes plums, as well as cherries and even some mild florals. The wine is smoother and boasts a body that, while pleasantly rounder, has no trouble keeping its structure. The finish remains strawberry.

Sometimes wine is a welcome accessory to a relaxing evening. Depending on the food with which it would be paired, this Cannonau may or may not be the right wine for such a context. But quite often, an evening over wine is part of a vivacious and exciting time, and that is really where this would be in its element. This is not to bring up loud or noisy demonstrations of modern collective hedonism, but rather a lively table and a festive event, the kind of atmosphere to set people right among each other. Christmas dinner, or a wedding celebration lasting into the wee hours, are examples that come readily to mind. The Cannonau is bold, fruity, spicy, and delicious, perfect for red meats and a variety of poultry and pasta preparations, and an excellent complement to a bustling congregation of close friends and good company.

Ah, what a beautiful side of life. Quite typical, really, of both Spanish and Italian ways. So, which of those is the most relevant here? We might step back a little, and find accuracy in the broad: the Cannonau is Mediterranean. Indeed, it is so. And yet, that does not really do the trick after all; our finger is not quite on it. The Mediterranean itself, being a bit more obvious of an example, acts as metaphor for why: It is neither European nor Levantine, Anatolian nor African; it is its own entity, greater than the sum of its parts. It would not, could not, be the same without any of them, and yet we do not merely play hopscotch among them in defining it. So, too, ought we take care not to catch ourselves in that paradigm with our Tyrrhenian province here. The Cannonau comes from a small island that entire nations waged war to own; an outpost where classical civilizations sought to build; a little place where emperors schemed big. There is no adjective to do the Cannonau justice, except to read the label right in front of us. It is Sardinian.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

SereniTea Chamomile & Yerba Mate

Name: SereniTea

Ingredients: Chamomile, Yerba Mate
Purveyor: My Tea Company
Preparation: One teabag steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 2:30 (as recommended on the box), sipped plain

"Well, that's curious."

That sounds like an appropriate response to noticing a chamomile-yerba mate blend, does it not? Well, such a reaction has the paradoxical effects of heightening expectations of a good shock, and dampening the chances that anything will actually take one by surprise.

Good news, though: the surprise is there, and indeed it is nice, but as it turns out the flavor and texture are so impressive as to make the entire issue of surprise trivial and, largely, forgotten.

The organic SereniTea, by My Tea Company, brews into one of the lightest teas that I have ever seen, much more befitting a chamomile than a mate. The nose, too, is "dominated" by the chamomile (if that word can even be used with such a tea). The primary aroma is sweetness, and the whole thing can be described as having the scent of a cup of chamomile tea with a spoonful of honey already mixed in.

When sipped, the SereniTea tastes at first just like it smells – mirroring the rich texture and flavor of chamomile with a touch of sugar on the tongue – but then, at the back of the palate, one soon begins to perceive a hint of the yerba mate. And sure enough, on subsequent sips, strains of mate become increasingly apparent throughout the mouth. Still, though, chamomile, no patsy, quite handily maintains its status as the main flavor note in the brew. The tea is brisk and malty, albeit in a unique way, not terribly akin to the briskness and maltiness found in a Camellia sinensis. Vanilla sneaks up on the occasional taste bud, and citrus is absent but still felt – decidedly missed, perhaps – as though the forces carving the flavor profile of the tea included a distinctly citrus-shaped spot in the expectation of that note forming an integral part of the mélange, but then the citrus never did show up. The flavor may be absent, but one cannot mistake the contours of the conspicuous hole. Let that not deter anyone, though; the loss belongs to citrus itself, not to the delicious concoction forced to leave it behind.

The body of the tea is light, but firm enough to give proper structure to the flavor notes. The finish is chamomile, appropriately.

The SereniTea is a wonderfully pleasant drink. It is sweet and cozy as only a chamomile can be, yet healthy and stimulating (yes, it is caffeinated) according to yerba mate's renown. It is a very keen blend, and one that works just right. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mexican Altura Coatepec

Name: Mexican Altura Coatepec
Origin: Mexico
Purveyor: McNulty's
Roast: American
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

In general parlance, to say that "there is nothing special about" something is to offer a negative remark. Usually it is not the most scurrilous of insults, but nobody would mistake it for a compliment.

And indeed, in the case of the Mexican Altura Coatepec from McNulty's, I am not overly enthused. Other than in the nose, which is exceedingly complex - earthiness, florals, nuttiness, smoke, all synthesized into one grand note - there is nothing sophisticated about this coffee. The flavor is mild, with a little acid, and not very particular on any note at all. There is nothing special about it.

But none of that, in this case, is to say that the coffee is not good. First of all, it is quite smooth, and as the sip becomes a swallow, it grows from medium-bodied to full-bodied in a very delightful way. Second of all - and the craft coffee community will kindly resist the temptation to go apoplectic here - most people who drink coffee do not really care about what coffee tastes like. My readers may care, I certainly care, and I even spend a good part of my day encouraging others to care. But most people brewing a potta' Joe in their Mr. Coffee machines or Keurigs or whatever, to have a quick cup with breakfast or to serve with cigarettes and gossip for an afternoon, are more than happy with "it tastes like coffee and it doesn't suck". And why would they not have such an attitude? Such folks are more than likely to load up the cup with so much milk and sugar and fancy-schmancy-mocha-caramel-whatever-syrup and, of course, whiskey and Irish cream that it is amazing that there is any room left for the darn coffee in the first place. And you know what? More power to them. We like coffee; they like whiskey and sugar. And the world keeps on spinning.

Anyhow, the Mexican Altura Coatepec, being as it is not emanating with powerful florals, pungent fruits, or (as in a dark roast) leaden charcoal, makes for a perfect blank slate upon which the sweet-toothed masses can concoct their favorite morning grogs or preferred afternoon drinking candies, and call it coffee. It will be faux coffee - it will taste like anything but coffee - and it will be delicious and make for good times, I am sure.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Onabay Striper White

Producer: Onabay Vineyards
Name: Striper White
Varietals: Unknown
Region: Long Island, USA
Vintage: Unknown
Tasted: September 27, 2012
ABV: 12.5%

For just about my entire life people have said that I am what in Yiddish is called a kvetch, which is to say not just a complainer but a professional complainer, a complainer par excellence, a complainer's complainer. So maybe it is just that side of me coming out, but no matter how delicious Onabay's Striper White is (which is a lot), and no matter how versatile it can be (which is also a lot), I simply cannot get past the fact that they put neither a vintage year nor a varietal list on the label. Not even a year! This is wine, not fruit punch. Some things are just not acceptable.

What we do have, though, is a wonderful white wine to sip. The color is somewhere between pale gold and full straw. The nose is of white table grapes, citrus, and melon, more crisp than acidic. Actually, it almost approaches the nose of a red wine. The palate has a delightful fruitiness to it, like a fusion of tropical berry and tropical citrus. There is the very slightest bit of oakiness around the edges. The acid is there, but it feels very smooth, not acidic at all. One feels a slight bite right on the tip of the tongue - this is alcohol, after all - but mostly it is nice, relaxed, and sweet, reminiscent of lazy tropical days. The finish is of melon and apples. After breathing for twenty minutes, it does not change very much at all.

While Striper White's flavor implies balmy beach bumming, it would actually pair well with a variety not only of foods (chicken or seafood grilled with citrus, or with a tropical marinade like mango or papaya), but of scenes as well. I would be equally comfortable sipping this wine at a hot poolside barbecue or on a boat out on the sound on a cool, breezy day. In fact, this white can easily carry from the summer right through the fall.

But for goodness's sake, put a year on the label!

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Origin: Japan
Type: Green Tea
Style: Gyokuro
Purveyor: The Green Teahouse
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 2:30, sipped plain

China is generally held to be the world's main producer of green tea (and of tea in general), and accurate or not, the conception is understandable given the scope and history of Chinese tea production. But when it comes to green tea, Japan takes a back seat to absolutely nobody. The Japanese have their own tea-producing traditions spanning centuries, and in fact boast the most refined approach to serving and enjoying.

Japan is home to an impressive catalogue of tea grades and varieties. Among the highest regarded of these is gyokuro, which translates alternately as "jade-dew" or "jewel-dew." With a history dating back to prior to the Meiji Restoration, gyokuro continues to stand out among green teas from all over the world to this day. A key part of what makes it different is that it is grown in the shade for two to three weeks prior to harvesting. Certain compounds, including caffeine, amino acids, and various others, increase as a result, and a delectable sweetness is created.

The dry leaves that I got from The Green Teahouse are a deep, luscious forest green. They are flat and straight, not unlike small blades of grass. Actually, at first glance, one gets a real visual impression of evergreen leaves. And they smell exactly like green tea ice cream.

When brewed, these gyokuro leaves produce a light green liquid that is frankly more akin to yellow. It is limpid, simple – it offers the same sensation as a lake or bay that is so entirely transparent that it appears shallow even when deep. The brew's aroma evokes a childhood trot through a wooded area fresh after a rain. The palate is sweet, with tannins and slight maltiness. It is savory, smooth, and full-bodied.

This gyokuro is delicate, delightful, and thoroughly thoughtful. To sip it is inspiring in the same way that being near an old, wise man is: one is moved to calmly let the world outside, and thoughts inside, pass by in a moment of removed, relaxed reflection.

Those who drink green tea can hardly do better.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Toby's Estate Kenya

Name: Yara Estate
Origin: Kenya
Roaster: Toby's Estate
Varietals: SL 34, SL 28
Preparation 1: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black
Preparation 2: Freshly ground, 4 teaspoons combined with 1.4 cups water and 0.36 ounces (3 packets) of sugar, kept over medium-low flame until ready, sipped without further enhancement

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Toby's Estate's coffee is its character, which it undoubtedly gets from the fine ladies and gentlemen in the roasting house in Brooklyn. Your humble servant can say from personal experience that the various traits best associated with good character - cordiality, honesty, generosity, humor, sincerity, modesty, wit, approachability - positively exude from the splendid folks who run that shop. And, as it is well known that true artists and craftsmen pour their hearts and souls into their work along with their exceptional talent and expertise (which was also on full display), one can expect such character to be reflected in the coffee. Hence the remarkable personality of the Kenya.

When I asked their roaster, Deaton Pigot, how Toby's Estate roasts its coffees, he answered, "For the bean." That seems to be the hallmark of many serious gourmet roasters these days, but I was still hoping to get something out of him in the way of an actual shade.

"Perhaps, then, it ends up coming out sort of medium?" I ventured.

"Oh, I should think it comes out rather on the light side, really," Deaton said, interrupting (or, rather, accepting my interruption of) his detailed explanation-and-demonstration of how the temperature-responsive chemical breakdown of complex sugars within the coffee bean over a couple-minute period of the roasting process can affect the flavor enough to make-or-break the entire batch.

"But surely," I followed up, "some coffees might naturally be better suited to a dark roast?"

"There are definitely coffees that can hold the roast better than others," Deaton explained, "but even then you're going for the roasting flavor, not the coffee flavor."

Brilliant. Yes, the preference itself is a matter of taste and reasonable people may differ on which is better to drink, but the elucidation of the distinction in approaches to the roast is positively brilliant. And that quote, which is indeed a direct quote, was uttered as a simple answer to my question, made on the fly in conversation while we had been talking about something else and he was simultaneously roasting a batch of Brazilian in the machine. We are not talking about a committee-churned press statement sent over by e-mail a couple of days later. That is what I meant by exceptional talent and expertise.

Anyhow, at one point in our conversation he had just finished roasting a Kenya. As with all batches, he took a sample right as it was finished, ground it, and put it on the machine to get an Agtron reading. With this one, he handed me the cup of grinds and said, "Here, get a whiff of that." I actually uttered the word, "Sold." Some Kenya came home with me and went into the French press.

What brews is one of the lightest coffees I have ever seen. It is chestnut colored, as well as chestnut scented, though spiciness dominates the aroma with hints of citrus in tow. The palate is light, with dominant fruity notes, tannins, and acidity. There are hints of vanilla and white table grapes. The finish is a little more even, with less spice, and a little bit of smoke.

Talk about roasting for the bean! Everything about this coffee is what is right and good with light and bean-centered roasts. Each flavor of spice and fruit is alive and vibrant. I have never tasted so much of a terroir through a coffee.

I once had a Turkish coffee with cardamom mixed in. It was delicious, and what made it work was simple: the flavor of cardamom blends nicely with coffee, especially as prepared Turkish. Naturally, other flavors can also pair well, and the spice notes apparent in Toby's Estate's Kenya are most definitely among them.

This coffee, when prepared Turkish, results in a very light-colored beverage. It is spicy in the aroma, with a mere touch of citrus zest, and inherent scents strong enough to stand up to the sugar. The taste, too, is an excellent balance of sweet and spicy. That is perhaps a harmony better known in food preparation, but it works quite keenly with this coffee. The body is smooth, mid-level. And the finish offers a consistant smile on the way down.

Character. Conviction. Excellence. These are the things that we love in people, and also things that we love in what we drink. In the case of Toby's Estate, there is no need to distinguish when listing these attributes.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

2009 Ramon Cardova

Producer: Bodegas Ramon Bilbao

Name: Ramon Cardova
Varietal: Tempranillo
Region: Rioja D.O.C., Spain
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: September 19, 2012
ABV: 14%

I have never been to Bodegas Ramon Bilbao, and I have never seen pictures of their vineyards either. But I would be willing to bet that, just as Kermit Lynch tells us (in Adventures on the Wine Route) that René Loyau's grower in Gevrey-Chambertin had a patch of currants growing near his vines, Bodegas Ramon Bilbao has a few cherry trees growing near theirs. Or, at least they did back in 2009. Not that that is a complaint, mind you.

The 2009 Ramon Cardova has so many elements of cherry in it that if I did not know any better I would say that that is what gives it its color. The tint is a nice, deep red, neither on the purple side nor on the orange side – just a dark, cherry color. The wine opens with a pungent nose of cherry and rhubarb. The pungency is itself a think-piece; that which creates it is not readily apparent. It is not acidity, I find, but rather the tannins. The aroma also implies a degree of structure and angles that belies a rather roomy and comfortable palate. The taste has strong notes of cherry and tannins, with a minimal hint of plums embedded somewhere in there as well. The Rioja is light, with a pleasantly medium structure and a smooth, wide body. The flavors are given plenty of room to glide about the taste buds, and yet nothing is left unsupported or chaotic. The finish, comprised of the same elements of cherry and plum, is even smoother still. The wine goes down very easy, almost dangerously so.

After twenty minutes of breathing, the cherry has been exhausted. Perhaps it is only in comparison to the initial sipping, but the wine does not seem to have those notes any longer. The aroma, still pungent and tannic, is mostly of black plums now. The tasting notes are not very specific at all, vague even – some reds, including cherry and half the berries in Iberia, a touch of plum, and even a hint of balsamic. It is light, more smooth and mellow than earlier. The finishing notes are quite ambiguous, more so even than the palate, which is fine because it is still delicious and that counts a whole lot more than the ability to point to something else and say "it tastes like that."

They say that any wine worth writing about will have a personality featured in the discussion. Is the wine sensual? Is it wild? Is it affectionate? Quirky? Steadfast? Silly? Playful? My readers know that I hold no aversion to such angles in describing a wine, but I cannot fathom that a good wine has to make sense in such a discussion. This Rioja simply does not fit into that paradigm. It does not bother with personality; the Ramon Cardova is just an excellent glass of wine. It does not remind me of this or that kind of pal. If I really had to anthropomorphize it, I suppose it would be as a Master Craftsman; while it delivers with businesslike simplicity, it is more approachable than the businessman, and the attention to quality is little higher than one would think economical. It is professional, and not ashamed of greatness, but with plenty of heart to deliver into its craft; indeed it is that, and not facts or figures or marketing material, that makes the Ramon Cardova professional. True, quality craft.

Alright, so I found a fitting entry for this wine into that paradigm after all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

China Keemun Tea

Origin: Anhui, China
Type: Black Tea
Purveyor: McNulty's
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for three minutes, sipped plain

Of the various tales surrounding the origin of Keemun tea, the most ubiquitous is also, perhaps, the most likely. A failed government bureaucrat set out to earn his fortune in the private sector (alright, that part is unlikely) with tea. He learned to make black tea in Fujian province and brought the skill back home to Anhui province, where only green tea had been made up to that point. Having quite the knack for his craft, out hero found a great degree of success, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, Keemun is often an ingredient in English Breakfast Tea, with those blends that do include it being generally more expensive. So successful is this tea, in fact, that it virtually always appears in those omnipresent lists of "Ten Famous China Teas" (no single list is definitive), even though it just came about less than a century and a half ago in a large country renowned since ancient times for dozens of different high-quality teas.

I set out to solve the riddle of its success. This was expressly not difficult - one cup, and the mystery vanished.

The dry leaves I picked up from McNulty's are the color of carob seeds. They are small, mostly straight, and twisted so tight that if I did not know any better I would assume that they were solid twigs instead of flat leaves rolled up. Their aroma is mainly vanilla, with some florals - sweet, sweet florals.

The brewed tea is of a caramel hue and has such visual texture that one would think that a few spoons of honey were already mixed in. The aroma is similar to that of the dry leaves. Some malt also appears, but sweet florals predominate. The taste, much like the sight, is enough to perpetuate the illusion that a plain cup of tea includes a great amount of honey. But now, though the sweetness is so strong, it is joined by other strong elements as well: acidity, tannins, briskness. There is a moderate degree of malt, at least enough to support the other notes, which is important because the body is medium - not weak or thin by any means, but still dwarfed by all of the flavor elements.

And yet this Keemun is not a grab-you-by-the-mouth-and-kick-you-around kind of beverage. It shows its strength but uses it gently. Next time I intent to brew it for only 2:45, and am confident that that will even it out the right amount. Three minutes just let the flavor get a little too big; we are left with gentle giants that occasionally bump shoulders by mistake. But they are still beautiful, playful, even thoughtful, with plenty of instinct for grace (if not quite plenty of room, in my particular cup). They are good for either waking up or calming down; drink it in the morning or afternoon.

On the way down, the Keemun settles back to sweet florals, releasing them with a full body at the back of the mouth. We are brought to the classic question that accompanies all finishes: is it goodbye or a forecast of hello? In this case, definitely both.