Friday, August 31, 2012

Choice Organic Teas Oothu Garden Green

Origins: India
Type: Green Tea 
Purveyor: Choice Organic Teas
Preparation: One teabag steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 2:30 (as recommended on the box), sipped plain

Now here is a pleasant cup of tea. More and more often lately, tea purveyors try to make a cup of tea into more than just a cup of tea. And that collective endeavor certainly has its merits. New places are planted with tea, new styles of tea arrive, new blends and flavors are offered, and so on. Imagine if instead of the fast-paced world of tea we have now, we had a world in which the menu had not been augmented in a couple of centuries: a handful of black teas, a couple of greens, an oolong, and maybe a couple of herbals; and nothing else. Instead the tea drinking world is vibrant, growing, experimenting - in a word, thriving. I am glad that I live in this world and not an alternate.

However, nothing is perfect. There are some drawbacks to the fast pace, and notable among them is the fact that it becomes difficult sometimes to just get a nice, simple tea. Very often nowadays, a tea list will include a few standard varieties hidden among dozens and dozens of zany flavors and odd roastings, strange combinations and weird herbs. Those are all very nice, and many of them have people who think they taste good, but can't tea purveyors pay at least as much attention to tea-flavored tea?

Choice Organic Teas's Oothu Garden Green opens with a somewhat sweet nose, fruity and tannic. The palate is also tannic. It is smooth and buttery (that is to say, both rich and light), with a somewhat mild finish. This is not an intense tea. It is not malty, it is not brisk, it is not packed with a million different elements, and it is not trying for anything in particular. It is just a good brew, sort of like that one great friend who is always relaxed, level-headed, a good listener - the one who has plenty of fun but does not always feel the need to be wacky about it. When sipping the Oothu, I thought to myself how nice it is that I can have a cup of tea that I do not have to "deal with;" I can just sit back and enjoy it, letting the mind unwind and thoughts pass by without interference from all sorts of elements in my beverage.

A rare treat in a crazy world.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stumptown Organic Indonesia Gajah Aceh

Type: Organic Indonesia Gajah Aceh
Origin: Sumatra
Roaster: Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Varietals: Bourbon; Catimor; Jember; Typica
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

There is bucking norms, and there is bucking norms. You know what I mean. Some people are smashers, looking to destroy the order of things from within so that they can lie to the world and to themselves about the comparative worth of whatever it is that they have to bring to the table. Others seek not to tear down but to build up, to expand, to augment. Eager and sincere, they are careful not to destroy, at least not wantonly, but they have no qualms about forcing the status quo to engage in honest competition. This is, generally speaking, a good thing.

The folks at Stumptown Coffee Roasters are serious coffee people. They travel to all corners of the earth (literally) sourcing beans, roast them great, and have found much success doing so. What makes them different? They do not roast light, dark, or anywhere in between. It is a different approach entirely.

I was skeptical at first. "All our coffee is roasted for the coffee itself. It's not necessarily defined as light, medium, or dark," the gentleman in the store told me when I asked about what I was buying. It sounded like either new-age nonsense or he had no idea what he was talking about (or both). In actuality, he was being quite helpful: there, in a very neat nutshell, is Stumptown's approach.

It was described in more detail in an e-mail from Stumptown. "Our guide for roasting coffee is flavor," they explained. "Each coffee is roasted to bring out the aspects inherent in the bean which we would like to accentuate for the optimum drinking pleasure. We don't like to impart a fingerprint or a roast signature on the coffee. Instead, we prefer to highlight what makes that particular varietal or farm exciting."

I still did not quite get it. So they have different criteria than others when roasting the coffee. Surely once the bean is roasted it still fits into one or another roast profile - perhaps not the usual one, but one nonetheless? Indeed it does, in this case a medium-light. But to fixate on that is to miss the whole point in the first place. Yes, when the beans emerge from the machine they are roasted at a certain level. But that is a post-hoc observation only. Many roasters - most, I daresay - decide on a level of light, medium, or dark, set the roaster, and send the beans through. Stumptown does not care what hue of brown the beans end up. How long should this bean, of this variety, from this origin, be roasted? What flavors does it have? How can we maximize the good ones, marginalize the bad ones, and coax out some new ones? How long before some of them are lost? Can we adjust to make sure that the texture is just right? And so on and so forth.

So yes, the beans end up ochre or burnt-sienna or whatever. Big deal. They end up right. That is the point.

And indeed, the coffee is delightful. The organic Indonesia Gajah Aceh brews into a light brown liquid with a tinge of orange. It has a fruity, nutty aroma, but the palate is quite different: earthy, smoky, slightly bitter around the edges, and rather non-acidic. The coffee is on the thin side, but smooth and consistent, and it gets thicker on the finish as it goes down nice and easy.

It really does make the experience more special when I learn not just of a new coffee, but also a new thing about coffee. I suspect that the same is true for most coffee aficionados, so I encourage everyone to get a packet of Stumptown, and consider the unique mindset that went into roasting it while sipping the brew. It will not be a disappointment.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

La Kiuva 2009 Arnad Montjovet

Producer: La Kiuva
Region: Arnad Montjovet, Vallée d'Aosta D.O.C., Italy
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: August 26, 2012
ABV: 12.5%

The 2009 Arnad Montjovet from La Kiuva is an excellent embodiment of the Vallée d'Aosta. Just as the picturesque valley is caught between cultures, this Arnad Montjovet cannot quite decide between personalities.

Though the Vallée d'Aosta is Italian by political tradition, the culture is particularly Alpine, more comparable to Switzerland than to anywhere else. And for good reason: the region, nestled as it is between France, Switzerland, and the rest of Italy, includes slopes of such icons as the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps), and many others. About seventy percent of the people speak French, some speak Valdôtain (a distinct Romance language native to the area), and there is even a minority of Walser German speakers. These people really pay taxes to Rome and not to Bern? On the other hand, everyone speaks Italian and the region is no further from the Ligurian Coast than Manhattan is from Montauk. Alright then.

In accordance with Italian DOC regulations, Arnad Montjovet is about seventy percent Nebbiolo with a great miscellany of grapes comprising the rest. The 2009 from La Kiuva errs on the transparent side of red – limpid, almost – and with a slight but unmistakable purple tinge when viewed from the right angle. Let's call it carmine. It opens with a nice, deep berry scent. One can just smell the tannins, and some spice. When sipped, the wine proceeds to offer two versions of itself at once. It is light, fluffy, and mellow on the tongue, the way that a wine from a Mediterranean country should be. And it is spicy, very biting, on the palate, the way that a wine from a harsh, mountainous region should be. Well, which type of wine is it? Whence does it wish to come? Silly questions. It does not have to make any kind of definitive choice any more than the Vallée d'Aosta herself does, and one can be sure that neither is in any hurry to settle the question one way or the other.

The flavor notes are of fresh fruit, particularly citrus. There is a little tang to the wine, and a little sweetness as well. For the finish, the red fruits appear, as do tannins. Some bite appears on the way down; clearly, the wine does not wish to go quietly into the night, and its Alpine side is putting up a valiant struggle, but to us higher mortals it manifests as a mere amusing hint of spice.

After aerating for twenty minutes, the Arnad Montjovet has mellowed out. The easygoing side wins; evidently, even hardy mountain folk need a Mediterranean vacation after a while. The nose remains unchanged but the palate has lost its bite. The flavors and tannins float around smoothly. The finish, too, has turned pacific.

One of the benefits of a wine that cannot make up its mind is a great versatility in pairing. (One might fear that the inverse can lead to a downside, but it works out the good way with the La Kiuva.) The three dishes with which I came up are chicken parmigiana, rack of lamb, and tortellini bolognese. But truly, this Arnad Montjovet can work great with most any meat, poultry, or red sauce dish. I encourage my dear readers to discover as much for themselves.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Choice Organic Teas Celtic Breakfast

Origins: Assam; Ceylon 

Type: Black Tea
Ingredients: Assam; Ceylon
Purveyor: Choice Organic Teas
Preparation: One teabag steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 4:30 (as recommended on the box), sipped plain

Choice Organic Teas promises that, with a "rich touch of malt from Assam," and "smooth yet striking" notes from Ceylon, the Celtic Breakfast blend will be "delightful whenever a strong cup of tea is the favored refreshment." Yes, that is certainly true.

The tea opens with a tannic and very brisk aroma. It is not fruity, and yet one gets the sense that a lemon has already been squeezed into it. The color of the tea is a very rich caramel. The first thing noticed when sipping it is a thin body, but that should by no means be misconstrued for weakness. It has a very deep, rich flavor of malt with hints of citrus, much briskness remaining from the aroma, and the tannins just keep coming. The flavor is balanced by a light and buttery texture, which is good because if it were any thicker I might have choked on all that flavor. But, the harmony works out just right.

On a whim I brewed the same teabag a second time. The tannins are mostly gone now, having used themselves up with reckless abandon the first time around, but the flavor remains strong with a brisk aroma and malty taste. Let there be no doubt: this tea is rough and tough. It has earned its tag of "a malty tea of strength."

The Celtic Breakfast blend does indeed make for a good breakfast tea. It stimulates, encourages, holds up, gets the back. It is thoroughly reliable. And thoroughly tasty. Go try some in the morning.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Equal Exchange Organic Full City Colombian

Type: Organic Full City Colombian
Origins: Colombia
Roaster: Equal Exchange
Roast: Full City Roast
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black 

Now here is a coffee with some spunk, a personality all its own. The last coffee reviewed has flavor notes of a dark roast and the body of a medium; in that sense, this is the inverse. It plays out quite wonderfully.

Equal Exchange claims that the Organic Full City Colombian is "complex & bright with citrus notes," and that promise was fulfilled immediately as I opened the bag and got a whiff of the beans. When the coffee is brewed, its aroma continues with the citric, fruity notes, and also acquires some earthy elements as well. The nose is light but pungent. The coffee is a dark brown, rich, not unlike the color of a chocolate lab I once knew. Light and buttery, the Full City Colombian is dominated mostly by floral notes, with a little bit of nuttiness. But around the edges, lest one were to forget that this is not at all a light roast (Full City is one notch toward dark after medium), there appear touches of smokiness, bitterness, roastedness. The finish repeats the light, citric, floral notes, which is really what form this coffee's heart and soul. 

The keyword here is light. This Full City Colombian is light in aroma, light in body, light in flavor, and light in finish. And yet, one does not get the experience of a light roast. It is, in fact, a dark roast, or at least medium-dark, and the aromatic grizzle that comes from roasting runs along the sides of the tongue every now and then to remind us of the fact. No, there is nothing subtle about this coffee. Its notes are lively, its flavor is bold, and its attitude is robust. And have I mentioned? It is delicious. 

This is not a coffee to mull over in the afternoon. It is good for getting oneself going. This is not in reference to the caffeine (which is at normal levels), but rather to the play of the flavor on the palate, to the air of spunk as the coffee frolics in the mouth and down the throat, all of which manifests a rather contagious strain of get-up-and-go that will inhabit the host and work wonders in stirring the mind and body onward with whatever situation may be at hand.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The White Knight 2010 California Moscato

Producer: The Other Guys
Name: The White Knight California Moscato
Varietals: Muscat of Alexandria 50%; Muscat Canelli 27%; Orange Muscat 3%; Pinot Grigio 20%
Region: Napa, California, USA
Vintage: 2010
Tasted: August 23, 2012
ABV: 11.5%

It is not every day that a proud New Yorker waxes poetic about the West Coast, but as my beloved readers have surely figured out by now, I will take any excuse. Of course, after tasting this wine by The Other Guys, the words flow much more easily.

Ah, California. It sort of has everything, doesn't it? Major metropolises, sprawling suburbs, gigantic farms, and acre after acre of pristine nature. Mountains, valleys, and flatlands; oceans, lakes, and desert. Naturally, this diversity extends to the lifestyles as well, and to dine in California can involve just about any dish, of any food, prepared any style, from any origin, traditional or cutting-edge, served in any setting.

But it will definitely include wine.

California has been making wine ever since the friars first ventured north from Mexico so many centuries ago. Wine is in the land there, in the air, the culture, the people's blood. The one state produces about ninety percent of the wine in the entire United States. If California were its own country, it would be the fourth-largest wine-producing nation in the world. It is emblematic of New World viticulture, and rightly so. And what could be more symbolic of the entire enterprise of California wine-making today than a nice bottle of something from Napa Valley?

Well, actually, Napa accounts for only four percent of wine made in California. But - bother the details! - it is still the most famous region in the state. And, sipping the White Knight California Moscato goes a long way to explaining why. The wine is a very pale, straw yellow, almost clear at certain angles. Its nose quite exemplifies that sweet scent for which we love Muscat. It is citric but not acidic, namely orange in this case. The palate, too, is mostly orange, but also includes some passionfruit and other tropical fruits. The wine is full-bodied; there is a small bite right as it first hits the tip of the tongue, which is the Pinot Grigio saying hello, and then it is all smooth from there. During the finish the wine starts to approach other fruit flavors. It is almost like swallowing one of those pink Starburst candies.

After breathing for twenty minutes, the wine becomes slightly altered, but is still mostly orange and very smooth. The nose acquires a hint of watermelon scent. The sipping notes are still very sweet, but the tropical flavors have left, leaving the taste more citric and a little more tart. The finish is diminished, but there are still some notes of fresh citrus, apple, and pear lurking about.

So maybe next time The Other Guys can use fifteen percent Pinot Grigio instead of twenty. Anyone not looking for such trivia will not even notice, and it is all a matter of taste anyway. The bottom line is, this sweet Muscat is absolutely delicious. Sip it lakeside in the sun; sip it where the rivers run. Sip it on a farm with hay; sip it brunching by the Bay. Sip it on a mountain summit; sip it on the beach and bum it. Sip it over in the Valley; heck, sip it anywhere in Cali. Or anywhere else, for that matter. One can hardly go wrong.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Organic Hairpoint Green Tea

Origin: China
Type: Green Tea
Style: Hairpoint
Purveyor: McNulty's
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 2:45, sipped plain

Of all the tea varieties, green tea is my favorite. It has the perfect balance of flavor, tannins, and body. It is healthy, delicious, and good for any occasion. The organic Hairpoint from McNulty’s is a great specimen; it tastes and feels the way a green tea ought to.

The dry leaves are a curious rendition of green. The closest hue that comes to mind is a sea green, but having endured, as tea leaves often do, a substantial extent of physical strain (steaming, rolling, drying), many of the leaves have either deepened or lightened in shade. The have not balled up, but rather twisted and curled themselves, simply unable to withstand the stress of their treatment remaining straight. Still, wrinkled and gnarled though they are, one can see that these were (and remain, where it counts), lush, healthy leaves with much to offer. Even their aroma betrays the quality of the brew to be made with them: a hint of malt, just a tad of salinity (grown near the sea, perhaps), and all of it underlined with sweetness.

When brewed, the color of the liquid is a delicate yellow with plenty of green tinge – lemongrass, one might say. The aroma is a malty sweetness, not quite that of green tea ice cream, but not far from it either. Medium-bodied, the tea is tannic, as a green tea should be. There is the slightest iota of citrus around the edges – unless that is just some more sweetness from the aroma mixing with the tannins. As green teas go, this Hairpoint is a little on the brisk and malty side. But then, it casts some lovely floral notes back to the palate as a surprise farewell token before plunging down the throat.

This is the first organic green tea that I have sipped. Whereas I certainly look forward to trying the rest of them, I am already so satisfied as to convert to this Hairpoint as my standard green tea for now. And I am glad to recommend the same to my kind readers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Buenos Días Dixon Blend Coffee

Type: Organic Buenos Días Dixon Blend

Origins: Nicaragua Segovia 50%; Timor 50%
Roaster: Taos Roasters Coffee
Roast: Medium-Dark
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Taos Roasters Coffee is a roasting house that takes special pride in the high-altitude environment in which it roasts the coffee. What difference could the elevation make? According to their website, "Taos' high-altitude setting [approx. 7500ft], with its lower barometric pressure and lower boiling point, reduces the risk of scorching and preserves all of the beans' subtleties and complexities, maximizing the flavor and aroma." That sounds likely enough on the surface, though a skeptical consumer might like some proof. Good news, skeptics: I have had such proof in the form of their Buenos Días Dixon blend.

The beans have a winey aroma to them. After they brew in the press, the liquid is a delightful chocolate brown in color. The coffee offers a fruity and floral nose. It is a little smokey, but not earthy. The aroma, though not spicy, hits with a bit of pungency. Then, when I sipped it, the first thing I wrote down was, "Now we're getting down to business." The coffee, evidently having used up all of its flora in the nose, emits earthy notes onto the tongue with a vague air of bitterness. I searched for hints of fruit - none. I searched for hints of florals - nope. I searched for hints of nuttiness - nuh-uh. So, what does it taste like? Coffee. It is smooth, medium-bodied, with very low acid, and it tastes quite quintessentially like coffee. There is some nuttiness in the finish - an earthy nuttiness.

At first, before reading Taos Roasters Coffee's notes on elevation, I hypothesized that Buenos Días Dixon is a medium-dark roast, noting that the tasting notes are similar to a dark but the body is just not quite exaggerated enough for it to be a full dark. And indeed, I have received confirmation from the kind folks at the TRC that it is considered a medium-dark. But the Nicaragua Segovia is at 38 on the Agtron scale and the Timor is at 40, making this coffee almost as reasonably called a dark roast as anything else. How can something be roasted at an average of 39 and still have the aroma and structure of something close to a 50? The altitude clarifies everything. The earthy, bitter flavor demonstrates a dark roast, but without the concomitant scorching, the body is able to maintain a level of modesty. The flavor is solid without being off-the-wall. The bitterness is an air and not a center piece. In other words, one gets the benefits of darkly roasted flavor without the drawback of having to sip what in extreme cases can seem like coffee syrup.


Monday, August 20, 2012

A Visit to La Chiripada Winery

The Spanish word chiripa means "stroke of luck." In the traditional dialect of northern New Mexico, the word is rendered chiripada. Some folks came to possess a patch of land in Dixon, NM, in the late 1970s, and decided to plant grape vines. Then they made wine one year. Not up to snuff. They tried again the following year. ¡Chiripada!

The vineyards and winery have been owned and operated by that same family ever since.

I visited La Chiripada in Dixon to remind myself what it is about New Mexican wine that is uniquely intriguing. The answer lies in the land: simultaneously sweet and spicy, rugged at first but friendly before very long, proudly standing up on its own but rich in rewards for those who taste of it. This holds true whether in reference to harvesting any of the scores of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices that grow in great abundance all over the region, or trekking among the most scenic hills and valleys that the country has to offer. This terroir does indeed make its wine, and we can be very grateful for it.

Producer: La Chiripada

Name: Special Reserve Riesling
Varietal: Riesling
Region: New Mexico, USA
Vintage: 2011
Tasted: August 17, 2012
ABV: 11.5%

The staff is very welcoming and the tasting room is a lovely atmosphere to both sip and chat about wine. The first wine that I tried was the 2011 Special Reserve Riesling, an estate wine. The aroma is sweet, fruity. It is acidic without being citric; when sniffing it, I imagined biting into a green fruit such as an apple. The palate does include citrus, though, and a few floral notes as well. It is sweet, and just a tad on the thick side. The finish is a delightful surprise, with notes of nectarine, papaya, and mango. All-in-all, it is quite as a Riesling should be.

Producer: La Chiripada
Name: Primavera
Varietals: Muscat 50%; Seyval Blanc 50%
Region: New Mexico, USA
Vintage: 2010
Tasted: August 17, 2012
ABV: 12%

Next up was the 2010 Primavera. I am told that the Seyval Blanc is a hybrid of Sauvignon Blanc and a strain of Vitis labrusca. The inclusion of a New World variety was intriguing and, it turns out, a keen idea. The Primavera offers a jumpy, lively nose with a full bouquet of flowers and some slight citrus notes around the edges. When sipping it, the mouth finds itself awash in nice, smooth orange blossom, with everything going down easy. The finish is its own elaborate production: the tasting notes take a step back, and then another, and then another, and soon, conspicuously but quite suavely, they have disappeared completely, leaving the taster quite ready to replenish his taste buds’ supply of the good stuff.

Producer: La Chiripada

Name: Río Embudo Red
Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon 10%; Leon Millot 80%; Pinot Noir 10%
Region: New Mexico, USA
Vintage: 2010
Tasted: August 17, 2012
ABV: 13%

With two whites down, I was ready for some red. The 2010 Río Embudo Red, an estate wine, appropriately named for the river running through La Chiripada’s backyard, is billed as a perfect complement to Moroccan-spiced lamb. And is it ever! One can forgive the nose for thinking that a thousand tiny arrows of spice have been launched right at it from the glass. This can be a shock, but never mind, the glass's quiver empties out soon enough, and the nose finishes off with floral tones and a touch of fruit.

It is in this Río Embudo Red that the terroir resonates most. Notes of pine surround flush hints of the local flora: combinations of leaves and flowers, fruit and bark, herbs and spices, all fresh and sweet and harmoniously arranged together in an amazing expression of just how pure and beautiful and rich in earthly delights Dixon really is. The spice and sweetness coexist in a friendly balance, and though a tad dry, the wine is plenty smooth. It tries to specify a couple of particular flavors, rhubarb and hibiscus, for itself in the finish, but not before one has romped about in the hills and valleys of the Río Embudo and tasted of all that they have to offer.

Producer: La Chiripada

Name: Vintners' Reserve Red
Varietals: Ruby Cabernet 37%; Tempranillo 63%
Region: New Mexico, USA
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: August 17, 2012
ABV: 13%

After my mouth had a chance to descend back to ground level, it was recommended that I try the Vinters' Reserve Red. My kind readers may be wondering how I could fairly assess the merits of another red after being blown away by a different wine shortly prior. I myself was wondering just how the Reserve would perform. Excellently, it turns out. The Ruby Cabernet, a hybrid of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan, provides some clutch structure and depth, but the Tempranillo really shines through in the best way. The aroma is a refreshing blend of various red fruits and berries with blackberry in the forefront. The sweetness hits at the perfect angle. When sipped, the wine goes to work on the palate in the same way, full of delicious red everything. Strawberry has center stage now, and the wine is just an iota drier than when it was sniffed. Quite wonderful. Then, for the finish, the same notes briefly feint a linger before suddenly disappearing without a trace. Confound it, where did that flavor go? I want it back! Better have another sip… Ahh.

These La Chiripada wines certainly do have a way of including a dramatic flair on their way out.

At this point I took a tour of the winery. Josh Johnson, a second generation member of the La Chiripada family, was kind enough to show me around and answer some questions. They were only about a week into the harvest and had just begun the winemaking process that day. As a bladder press crushed some Chenin Blanc, it occurred to me that winemaking has none of the romance and double the coolness that everyone thinks. "See, most of these grapes won't be ready for harvest for another month or so," said Josh as he took a breather from washing tubs and pushing them onto a platform. "Actually, well, we've had a sort of drier season this year." He motioned toward the field of vines, which stretched from five yards in front of us to a point where, to the eye at least, they meld with the Río Embudo. "Maybe they'll be ready a little sooner."

Producer: La Chiripada

Name: Cañoncito Red
Varietals: Leon Millot 90%; Nebbiolo 10%
Region: New Mexico, USA
Vintage: 2011
Tasted: August 17, 2012
ABV: 13%

I returned inside to taste one more red before departing. This was unplanned, but I saw that the Cañoncito Red, an estate wine, includes Nebbiolo, and there was no resisting the urge to see how that grape fares on this side of the Pond. The 2011 opens with an enticing aroma of tart fruit. It was served chilled, and the nose combined with the refreshing coolness made me think right away of lounging outdoors on a hot day, eating a bowl of chilled apple and citrus slices, and sipping this wine. The palate is sweeter, and the texture smooth and thick. It has a long finish, which is also appropriate for lounging on a lazy summer day. The Leon Millot, another hybrid of European and American species, is a bit dominant due to the percentages. But the Nebbiolo really rounds it out great, and I was very glad to have tasted it.

The foothills of northern New Mexico have a great deal to offer. What with all of the museums, historical sites, shopping, culture, dining, music, dancing, walking, hiking, skiing, swimming, rowing, fishing, cycling, etc. to be done in the legendary expanse from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Taos and beyond, not everyone will find it important to stroll into a small town with barely a handful of paved roads and a couple of thousand locals, just to see if those particular hills happen to have anything special to offer that cannot be found elsewhere. That is a shame, because they do. The land of Dixon, though close kin to the larger Río Grande valley, is a splendor all its own. Fortunately, even those who do bypass the Turnoff on their way between Santa Fe and Taos can sip wine from La Chiripada. It will bring them to the real thing in spirit, if not eventually in person.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Do We Drink Tea?

I was sitting in my very gracious host's backyard the other morning, in a wooden Adirondack chair along a grassy bank of the Río Grande. It was warm, the sky was clear, and the wildlife was performing a traditional symphony. The New Mexico air, at 6,000 feet, was fresh, crisp, and delicious, and the way in which the residents of Embudo assiduously meld their comfortable abodes into original wilderness - expressly not vice versa - rounded out the purity of the experience. The scene was complemented by an apple that I picked on the way over and a cup of green tea. Perfect.

Why do we drink tea? That is a deceptively deep question. Tea does not slake thirst; we have water for that. Is it for the caffeine? Coffee has more. Is it because it tastes good? So do beer, soda, and orange juice. Heck, if taste is the criterion, then we may as well go all out and drink chocolate milk all day. Perhaps we enjoy sampling the myriad fine varieties sourced from distinct origins and prepared in different ways. But surely coffee is good for that, too, and wine is even better. Ah, I know, it must be because of how tea makes us feel on the inside. Yes, it does make us feel quite lovely; more than just hitting the spot, it soothes and relaxes, focuses and sets straight, provides a key piece of the wherewithal by which we disengage the various forces in this world allied against our sanity. But, then again, so does a nice red wine with dinner, or cold lemonade suddenly offered up on a sweltering afternoon, or warm apple cider following a long morning of snow shoveling, or a nice, slowly-sipped, single-malt scotch after a long week of grinding out the same old nonsense.

The fact is, tea is very good for all of the above as much as anything else; except perhaps for quenching thirst or pumping us full of stimulants, tea takes a back seat to nothing. Even as I gave alternate examples, it was obvious that tea belongs by the very top of each list. But none of those criteria really gets to the heart of the question of why tea is consumed so much more than other beverages, why we love it so much, why it will never cease to be the ultimate liquid delicacy.

Perhaps that will always remain a mystery, one of those earthly phenomena on which mankind cannot quite put its finger. But at the risk of trying to describe something for which our mortal lexicon is insufficient, I would like to take a stab at it.

Tea is, to me at least, the consummation of nature's offer of harmony and balance. Growing tea is uncertain and painstaking work; picking it much more so. Once the physical labor under nature's auspices is complete, the mental labor under human tradition begins, and the leaves are treated in a very precise manner, made just right, as they have been for centuries. When consumed, the tea stimulates enough, but not excessively, and can even make us feel calm. It is healthy without posing as one of those "super-foods." It tastes good without being a sugar-packed blast of gastronomic garbage. It feels good without inducing that craven, pathetic state of hollow depravity with which we are all too familiar. Tea caresses the mouth, applying perfect proportions of tannins and mellow florals onto the taste buds, which come right on time as the nose is at the peak of appreciating the rich, smile-creating aroma. On its way down, the tea leaves just enough reverberation on the flanks of the tongue to let us know that we want another sip, without plastering the mouth in a mealy film as a desperate ploy to make us consume more. Hot on a cold day, tea is known to define coziness; on a hot day, drinking it iced can refresh with the best of them. It can be drunk plain or flavored to exquisiteness; it can be drunk alone or be the centerpiece of a social occasion.

Muscle and brain; nature and civilization; toil and reward; stimulation and serenity; health and humility; flavor and modesty; depth and ease; pleasure and control; heat and coolness; individual and community; balance and harmony.

And much, much, much delight.

Friday, August 10, 2012

2009 JP Azeitão Tinto

Producer: Bacalhôa

Name: JP Azeitão Tinto
Varietals: Aragonez 20%; Castelão 70%; Syrah 10%
Region: Península de Setúbal, V.R., Portugal
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: August 9, 2012
ABV: 14%

The 2009 JP Azeitão Tinto by Bacalhôa is a great red all-around, but perhaps the most fun that I am having in reviewing it is thinking of ways to describe its color. It is a rich red, strong; one cannot glimpse through it too easily. It is matte, yet deep; though it does not shimmer or gleam, it is quite powerful and entrancing. It is a red for the wealthy, connoting neither old money nor new money, simply a lot of money. A Cadillac CTS coupe could do no better with any other hue in the universe than with this red. It is a red that makes red velvet seem insufficiently red and insufficiently velvety.


The 2009 JP Azeitão Tinto is an example of the uniqueness of Portuguese wines. Syrah is grown almost everywhere and Aragonez is just another name for Tempranillo, but seventy percent of this wine is Castelhão, which, like most Portuguese varietals, was originally brought to that land millennia ago by the various Mediterranean empires looking for ever more soil to grow grapes and make the good stuff. Many varieties predate the Romans and even the Greeks, having arrived on Iberia's western coast with Phoenicians carrying Middle Eastern grapes. No wonder, then, that this wine does not taste like yet another blend of the same old Syrah-and-whatever.

Most countries' respective wine laws make for great case studies of how sound criteria can produce arbitrary results, and Portugal's are no exception, to judge by the 2009 JP Azeitão Tinto. Portuguese wines fall into four tiers of appellation. The lowest is table wine; vinho regional ("regional wine," of which Península de Setúbal is one) is one notch above that. Embedded within the Península de Setúbal region are two sub-regions with the highest level of appellation, but alas, the grapes used to make this wine grew outside those boundaries. Evidently, the Portuguese appellation system tells us nothing about how good the wines actually are.

This tinto opens with a nose mostly of redcurrant. It is a mild aroma, and yet roomy enough to fit a medley of other notes here and there - peaches, McIntosh apples, tree bark - that together give the impression of walking through a grove of deciduous trees shortly before autumn. The palate is much stronger than the nose; here one begins to experience the 14% ABV. The prominent note is pomegranate. Is that a hint of cherry? Yes. And that other note, is that spearmint? No, that is just the wine giving the taster a swift kick in the tongue. Surprisingly, there are not too many tannins. Medium bodied, the JP Azeitão comes off at first like a dry wine, but that is just a bit of dissembling on the part of the spice. It is actually sweet, a feature that is reinforced as the wine goes down the throat nice and smoothly. The finishing notes are plum, cherry, and strawberry.

After twenty minutes of breathing, the wine pulls a fast one on the taster by flipping one hundred eighty degrees. The palate is much mellowed, but the nose picks up a real bite, giving off aromas of plum, redcurrant, and hibiscus. The body is still medium but, with simple flavors of cherry and red berries, the wine is smooth on the tongue. There is some vestigial spice left, but not very much at all. The finish, still going down easy, is blackberry.

So, Portugal's appellation system rates this delicious, complex, versatile, playful wine, full of personality, energy, and spunk, engaging to the max, as hardly above a quaffer. Tsk-tsk to Portugal's appellation system.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gentle Brew Windsor Blue Blend

Type: Windsor Blue Blend
Origins: Brazil 50%; Sumatra 50%
Roaster: Gentle Brew
Roast: Dark Brown
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Gentle Brew has a wonderful spot right on Park Avenue in Long Beach, New York. The combination coffee shop/café is nicely decorated, yet simple; there is nothing to distract from the wonderful cups of coffee that they prepare and serve.

When I first went in there some weeks ago, I did not realize right away that they actually roast the coffee themselves, but I really should have known. There are a dozen or so different types of machines for brewing coffee, grinders (all prepared coffee is freshly ground), tables and chairs, some artwork, and shelves stocked with hardware and packages of coffee. And one will get around to admiring all of that shortly after marveling at how awesome it is that there are huge sacks of raw coffee beans right in the middle of the store. I had thought that those were just a nice aesthetic touch.

"Hey, not for nothing, but is this coffee expired?" I asked, pointing at a date on a package of coffee that was, at the time, three days in the past. Turns out that it was the date on which the coffee had been roasted, something written on all packages. "Oh, cool. So how do you get it here so quick?" (I have my moments. That was not one of them.) They patiently explained that they prepare everything on premises, beginning with the raw beans. And indeed they do it all: beans from the world over, light/medium/dark, regular and decaffeinated, on and on. In other words, sourced globally, roasted locally. It was even mentioned, without my asking, that they can do custom roasting.

So, I have been going there quite often to have a cup of coffee and relax, but then I thought that I would like to take a packet of coffee home and try it on the press. So I did. And man, it is excellent!

The Windsor Blue blend opens with a smooth aroma – yes, the aroma is so rich that it has a positively smooth feel to it – of earthy tones and hints of cashew and citrus. The taste is on the bitter side, with negligible acidity and a bold flavor of earthiness plus a slight touch of smoke. It is very smooth and very rich, and maybe a little bit syrupy. It finishes nicely with notes of cashew. The flavor fades seamlessly, leaving the mouth in a bit of suspense. Was that last bit of nuttiness a farewell gift or a portend of things to come? Eh, best to leave that question to the philosophers and just enjoy another sip of the good stuff.

Windsor Blue is a coffee person's coffee. This is not to be confused with a café person's coffee, which has its perks (pun definitely intended), but which can be described as cute, decorative, chock full of so many flavors and frills that there is barely any room left for the brew – in short, an accessory to a larger, somewhat removed scene. No, Windsor Blue is definitely for coffee people: rich, original, authentic, all about the coffee. It is rugged without being brash. It does not try too hard; it does not have to. It tastes just like a real cup of coffee, and that is that.

The fact that Windsor Blue is a coffee person's coffee should come as no surprise, since Gentle Brew is owned and operated by coffee people. They know exactly what they are doing, they love to talk about coffee, and they are finding much well-earned and well-deserved success. Mazel tov to the whole excellent enterprise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Guayakí Organic Traditional Yerba Mate

Origins: Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil
Type: Yerba Mate
Purveyor: Guayakí
Preparation: Two teaspoons put into an empty mug (about eight-ounce size), no bag or steeper, a little cold water added, stirred with a bombilla, rest of mug filled with approximately 150-degree water, sipped with bombilla

Yerba mate is really cool. It is a tisane in that it is not Camellia sinensis, but it is naturally caffeinated, and it certainly tastes more like a beverage that was meant to be brewed than like a dessert tray pureed with a little too much water and sugar, as many herbals are apt to taste. The traditional drink (or, at least, a traditional drink) of the Native Americans in sub-tropical South America, yerba mate remains a staple there, and has found its way to much of the rest of the world as well.

Yerba mate is traditionally drunk out of a hollowed out gourd. I have one, but it is a pain in the neck to clean, so I use a mug. I do, however, use the bombilla, also part of the tradition, which is a metal straw through which the liquid is drunk. (For those wondering, it is indeed possible to burn one’s lips on it, but that is unlikely to happen more than once.) Preparation should be as described above when using loose tea. The cold water helps manifest many elements of the tea, including not only compounds such as caffeine and anti-oxidants, but also those that give the tea is lovely flavor. After the hot water is poured in, there is no need to wait more than a few seconds for the tea to steep. It is ready to go.

A fancy-schmancy example of a gourd & bombilla.
Guayakí has done some remarkable stuff with yerba mate, but I generally prefer the simple and original things in life, and therefore keep the "traditional" version in my home. The leaves are chopped in all ways, with some fragments the size of a SIM card, and others practically powder. They are pale greenish tan, not at all unlike the color of American military uniforms between Desert Storm and the present day.

Yerba mate has an aroma and flavor all its own, and it is much more difficult to describe than the notes of coffee or black tea. The steam coming off of the tea smells very earthy, very malty, and very woodsy, with a tinge of smokiness. The color of the liquid, which is a little bit thinner and lighter in body than a brew made from Camellia sinensis, is the same as the color of the leaves. The flavor is bitter, but smooth, consistent, almost tannic even. It has plenty of malt, and a hint of the floral. Both the aroma and flavor, but especially the aroma, will make one reminisce about spending time outside in a wooded area after a rain, though one will not be able to put his finger on exactly what situation that was. (This has been confirmed by many.) The liquid has minimal structure, just enough so that the flavor can do all the heavy lifting; and indeed, while the body is light, the flavor is rich. It goes down easy, being so light in body, and leaves an aftertaste as smooth and consistent as the tea itself. The sipper will want more.

The good news about wanting more, by the way, is that yerba mate can be re-steeped much more often than Camellia sinensis. The mug or gourd can be refilled three times without too much effect on the flavor’s strength.

In the middle of making some notes on the flavor, I realized that I had forgotten to note the aroma of the dry leaves. Imagine my shock to discover strong fruity tones where the liquid offers only malt. The dry leaves are earthy, and even woodsy, but where with the brewed liquid there are flowers growing wild, here there is only fruit to decorate the flora.

Yerba mate is hardly unknown or unheard of in North America, but it still does not get the attention that it deserves. To tea lovers, people who like variety in what they consume, and anyone who would not mind an alternative pick-me-up for the morning or afternoon (its caffeine is quite effective), I definitely recommend getting some of this delicious beverage right away. Enjoy.