Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guadalupe El Salvador

Name: Guadalupe El Salvador
Origin: Ahuachapan, El Salvador
Roaster: Irving Farm
Roast: (unknown)
Varietals: Bourbon; Catuai
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

There are elitists who cannot help it, and there are elitists who do not want to help it; I am of the latter variety. I often eschew trendy things - which, much like celebrities, seem to exist merely for their own sakes these days - just because they are trendy. This is not to say that I am under the illusion that more obscure things are necessarily better; to avoid something just because it is trendy involves no more rigor of thought than to gravitate towards it for the same reason. But setting myself apart from the masses does feel good - great, often - and so I continue upon that path. It is a habit, in other words, based on aesthetic, not philosophic, convictions.

It is therefore rare indeed to hear me ask, "What's popular these days?" But in a craft coffee roaster's shop, there is no avoiding the fact that that is a wise question to pose. Firstly, if the roaster is a good one, it is hard to go wrong with just about any variety. Secondly, anybody inside the shop, in all likelihood, posseses faculties of epicurean discernment well above those of the unwashed masses. So if it does so happen that an elite clientele with inevitably diverse preferences is generally congregating around one or two beans in particular - id est, if there is something popular or trendy - then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these beans are receiving so much attention for good reason. And indeed, I have never visited a gourmet roasting house in which this did not prove to be true.

I had the pleasure of conversing with Dan Streetman of Irving Farm lately. The timing coincided with a favorite season of his, the arrival of Central American harvests. So, while congratulating him on his recognition by the SCAA, I took the opportunity to ask him what some of Irving Farm's popular Central American coffees are. The answer: Santa Isabel Guatemala and Guadalupe El Salvador. Sounds pretty good! I picked up some Guadalupe beans the next time I was in the store, and brought them home to brew.

What emerges is a coffee of a light oaken color. There is no specific orange tinge, but much like a blend reviewed here some months ago, it is of such a hue as to remind us that brown is really a shade of orange. Most remarkable about the coffee's appearance, though, is the complexity of its opacity. It is perhaps the most obscure translucence possible without abandoning translucence altogether. At first glance it appears opaque, but not quite viscerally so, and upon closer inspection one sees that, if one were to travel through a great body of the liquid, one would not at all be hard pressed to expect to find a light to guide one to the surface.

The Guadalupe El Salvador opens with an aroma of earthy notes, but soon expands into fruit and spice, and remains smooth throughout. There is some sweetness, but one has to dig deep to get to it. The moderate level of acid works well here. When sipped, the coffee is smooth, with simultaneous notes of earthiness and sweetness at first. There is some chocolate there. Slight florals and citrus appear over time, but they do not compete for dominance, simply complementing the primary earth and sweetness. Tannins are moderate, and acid is low. The coffee rides a fine line between rich and medium-bodied, and continues to flow smoothly down the throat. It is alive on the tongue and palate, but that is not to say jumpy; it is just that one can feel the freshness. As the sips go on, more and more citrus surreptitiously slips into the flavor, as does a vague scattering of spice. Are these notes beginning to compete for primacy after all? Compared to their counterparts a few minutes earlier they are certainly aggressive, yes - and yet, generally speaking, they are no threat to the earthiness and sweetness, which have a comfortable hold on the positions of principle flavors. The coffee's finish bears mention here: rather unexpectedly, it offers notes of white table grapes and chocolate.

It is not altogether mysterious that this fresh, dynamic coffee should be popular among clientele at Irving Farm. Far from yet another obnoxious example of silly nonsense being popular just for being popular, we have in the Guadalupe El Salvador an exemplary instance of high quality and prime taste rising above worthy competition on the merits. Trend-followers, trend-setters, and even my fellow crotchety, haughty trend-eschewers would all do well to pick some up and learn from the example of what popularity really ought to be about. In the process of all that, enjoy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Aiace Riserva 2007

Producer: Castello Monaci
Name: Aiace Riserva
Varietals: Malvasia Nera 20%; Negroamaro 80%
Region: Salice Salentino D.O.C., Italy
Vintage: 2007 Riserva
Tasted: April 1, 2013
ABV: 14%

It really is interesting how much history of culture and civilization there is to be divined from a single word. For example, a principle grape of Salice Salentino D.O.C. is negroamaro. On the face of it, the word breaks down simply enough: negro derives from "black," amaro means "bitter," ergo "negroamaro" refers to a dark, bitter grape. And indeed the wine is often so; maybe that is all there is to say about the etymology here after all. A little snooping around outside the box, however, turns up the interesting fact that the suffix -maro is rooted in the Ancient Greek, and modern Salentine, word for "black." "Black-black," perhaps the grape is really called. Heck if the color does not approach such dark depths, and besides, while negroamaro does ferment into wine that includes notes of earth and herbs that may be considered on the bitter side (among many other notes), that would be an odd way to name a beverage that is, in totality, one of the sweet and pleasant drinks in life. The Ancient Greeks, furthermore, planted grapes in most of the motable wine regions around the Mediterranean before the Romans took over such tasks, including in Salento, the peninsula forming the heel of Italy's boot, towards the bottom of which Salice Salentino D.O.C. is located. Snooping around yet further, we find that before even the Greeks arrived in Salento, the Illyrians got there and made a wine called "merum." Mention of this merum is found here and there among Mediterranean literatures for the better part of a millenium, up through the days of the Romans. Technical records, to the poor extent that they exist, are sketchy, but it is plausible that negroamaro was used to make merum. In that case, then, we may have nothing less than "black merum" comprising eighty percent of this beverage here before us today. And who knows what the philologists, anthropologists, and ampelographists will discover next? Absent proof one way or another, we may consider it plausible that any number of civilizations brought negroamaro to Salento at almost any point over the last seven or eight millenia.

Fascinating, really. It is truly remarkable how a single word often contains more history and wonder just waiting to be discovered than an entire sentence that spells something out.

Castello Monaci named this estate bottling after Telemonian Ajax, Ajax the Great, cousin to Achilles and hero of the Greeks in the Trojan War. A blurb in Italian on the back of the bottle discusses how Ajax "distinguished himself time and again" with his "inherent strength and great valor. Powerful, imposing, and quite handsome, he remained calm and collected." (Translation mine.) Ajax was, generally, an intense person, as his falling out with Odysseus and mortal derangement illustrate. But Castello Monaci does well to remind its patrons of the hero's almost superhuman ability, on the battlefield, to keep his abundant energy away from his nerves, housing it instead within his massive limbs. He was thus a paragon of both strength and poise where it counted most. In that respect, it was very keen indeed to name this wine after Ajax.

The Aiace Riserva is a deep red wine, more garnet than ruby. The 2007 has just the absolute slightest hint of orange around the edges. We can certainly get the maximum out of it by drinking it now, without worry that it is not quite ready - but, were we to leave it until 2014 to open, we would be forgiven for looking at it then and thinking that we just hit the beginning of peak drinking age.

The aroma is full of sweet reds, primarily cherry and strawberry, and some purples, principally dried plum. There is even a fig come over to play. Not as heavy as most aromas with so many components, this aroma does lack any sign of the oak casks in which the wine has aged.

The first thing one notices when tasting the wine is how smooth it is. There are some initial notes of vanilla - there are those casks - and some redcurrants and plums. After a couple of sips, the vanilla fades away, and the fruits take over. The Aiace Riserva is medium bodied. It thereby is strong enough to have bold flavors, but it does not allow those flavors to run rampant about the mouth; rather, it keeps them to a gentle, easy glide as they flow smoothly down. The finish is cherry and plum, and I wish it lasted longer.

After breathing for twenty minutes, the wine drinks optimally. In the nose there are some purples and darker reds: plum, cranberry, pomegranite, fig. Still, though, the aroma does an impressive job of staying light. A couple of vanilla and toffee notes are to be found, but the fruits dominate. The palate is slightly richer than it had been earlier, though the tasting notes have not shifted too much at all. The redcurrants have morphed to slightly lighter reds, but they carry the depth of darker reds. The finish has not changed, nor, sadly, learned to endure longer.

Does this wine have an undercurrent of explosive emotions just waiting for a good reason to pop to the forefront of tales and adventures recounted and examined by laypeople and scholars all over the world for millenia to come? Probably not. After even a couple of hours, the wine remained cool and composed. But on the other hand, any time that I am drinking it is a time that counts - precisely the type of situation in which the warrior Ajax would have been the last to even flinch. Beautiful, powerful, poised - and with ends that come way too soon - Ajax the wine and Ajax the hero have an extraordinary amount in common. Open a gripping narrative of his exploits, pour a glass of the good stuff, sit back with both, and enjoy.