Irish Coffee

Originally published March 18, 2012.

Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.

-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee

 

Irish Coffee with Floated Cream

The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top.  The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.

Let’s discuss ingredients.

The Coffee – Use good coffee.  Brew it strong.

The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste.  I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.

The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast.  It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar.  I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar.  In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream.  The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home?  Maybe twice a year.  Use the good whiskey.

Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.”  In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.”  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat.  I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids.  I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.

Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB.  You can buy their milk at Planet Organic.  The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted.  They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat.  Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.”  If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour.  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.  Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose.  Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.

Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.”  In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits.  All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk.  The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.

These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post.  Sorry.

Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass.  Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.

Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee.  Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee.  If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.

Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug.  If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.

A complete recipe, if you’re interested:

 

Irish Coffee (for four)

Ingredients

  • 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
  • 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
  • 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
  • 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)

Procedure

  1. Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee.  Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
  3. Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
  4. Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.

 

Sampling a glass of Irish coffee

A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee.  Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.

Dunking oatmeal poundcake into Irish coffee

Merridale Cider

A couple years ago I visited Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.  With so many folks around Edmonton making cider, and many of them looking for the fastest, most efficient way to produce a year’s supply, I thought I’d post some details from a commercial operation.

The apples at Merridale are all old-world cider varieties, basically inedible out of hand, and absolutely nothing like North American grocery store apples.  They have names like Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, and Hauxapfel.  The varietals are categorized as either sharp, bitter, bitter sharp, or bittersweet.  Here “sharp” refers to acidity and “bitter” refers to tannin and astringency like you find in red wine, tea, and walnut skin, not true bitter flavour like you find in dandelion, radicchio, and hops.

A good cider is a balance of alcohol, acidity, tannin, and possibly sugar.  The exact balance changes with regional styles.  Traditional English ciders are usually bone dry and get their structure from acidity and alcohol.  Sea Cider’s Wild English is a great example (though it’s Canadian). French ciders can go this way, but there is a certain French breed that is sweet, with very little acidity, getting its structure more from tannin.  Cidre Kinkiz is one example of this style that is available here in Edmonton.  I really hate that cider.  Anyways.  All Merridale ciders are a blend of multiple apple varietals.

I was surprised to see the trees in the orchard.  I assumed that a commercial orchard would take pruning very seriously, as it gets more sunlight to the leaves and increases fruit quality and ease of picking.  The trees at Merridale have nice lateral growth but are not as manicured as I had imagined.  Not sure if it’s just too much work to prune such a large orchard, or these tree shapes give the most yield, or what.

A view of the apple orchard and a small beekeeping set-up.

In the fall the apples are harvested and washed before crushing.

This is the”1960s Bucher Mill” crusher.  The apples are loaded into the basin shown at right, under the red frame.  An auger or conveyor carries them up the ramp to the left, where they are dropped into the crusher.

The crusher at Merridale Cider.

Here’s a view of the crushing mechanism.

The actual crushing mechanism at Merridale Cider.

This is the press.  It’s an accordion-type structure supporting plastic sheets.  At each end is a hydraulic pump that pushes the accordion closed and brings the plastic sheets close together.  The apple mash is put into porous bags, and each bag is inserted between the plastic plates.  The juice falls into a trough beneath the accordion.The cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery

 

A close-up shot of the pressing plates on the cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery.

The juice from the first press is used for cider.  Juice from subsequent pressing is high in tannin and acid and reserved for distilling.  At Merridale 7 kgs of fresh apples can yield 4 L of juice.

Some of the cider at Merridale is chaptalized, notably for their Scrumpy, which is 11% ABV.  The natural sugar in their apples would only yield about 7% ABV.

Here are some of their fermentation tanks.

A large fermentation tank at Merridale Cider.

The finished cider is filtered at 1 micron using this contraption.  Merridale says that this filtration clears the cider of sediment without stripping the beverage of its fresh apple character.

The filter at Merridale Estate Cidery

Merridale cider is not pasteurized and is still very much alive when bottled.[1]  They use plastic bottles instead of glass (less explosion risk), and the bottles absolutely need to be kept refrigerated throughout distribution to prevent any undesired fermentation.  Bottling is done with a “1960 German champagne filler”.  I wish I had asked more about that machine.  CO2 is added at bottling.

Incredibly, I took no photos of their packaged product to show you, but you can check our their website.

It’s hard to find a truly dry cider (most are sweet, because, you know, only girls drink cider, and girls have to drink sweet things).  The Merridale Traditional and Scrumpy ciders are great, and quite dry.  They also make sweet varieties and even some pink ones containing berries.

Kevin made a video about Merridale, which is how we even knew to visit them in the first place.  We actually stayed at the estate for two nights in one of their yurts.  It was great to get a look inside an operation that produces craft cider and spirits.

 

Footnote

  1. I see on the Merridale website now that some of their ciders are indeed pasteurized, or available in both pasteurized and unpasteurized formats, so either they have changed their process, or maybe I misunderstood my tour guide.

Blood and Sand Cocktail

The ingredients and equipment needed to make an interesting twist on the classic Blood and Sand cocktail.This is the tedious origin story of a cocktail, or rather my version of a cocktail.

I’ll start apologetically and admit that I don’t know very much about cocktails.  I read one book about them last year (Imbibe!), and then started mixing them at home.  Probably no book has had such a deleterious effect on my liver and general health.  Anyways, I think the drink described in this post is delicious, but I acknowledge that it’s a bit over the top.  I have absolutely no idea how it would play in the real world with real bartenders and patrons.

Blood and Sand is a classic cocktail, typically composed of equal parts blended scotch, orange juice (often blood orange juice), cherry liqueur (usually Cherry Heering), and sweet vermouth.  The standard version is delicious, but through a variety of circumstances I have developed a unique take on the drink.

Last year we hosted a private dinner at Little Brick.  The organizer wanted a custom cocktail served to welcome the diners, and she knew that the guest of honour loved big, peaty Scotch.  I racked my brain, and then the internet, to try and find a list of components for the drink whimsically called “For Peat’s Sake”, one of the signature cocktails served at Three Boars in years past.  Naturally, I wanted to copy it and pass it off as my own, under a different pun-name.  My brief, private brainstorm session for a new name was pretty embarrassing.  “Peat Sampras” was the best I came up with, which doesn’t even really make sense.

Unable to find a recipe or think of a clever name, I pondered the classic scotch-based cocktails.  I could think of only two: the Rusty Nail (Scotch and Drambuie…. an acquired taste) and The Godfather (Scotch and Amaretto).  Nate knew of a third: Blood and Sand, which sounded ten times sexier than the others, so I set out to make a Blood and Sand using a smoky Scotch, instead of the usual blended Scotch.

Most of the components were pre-determined by what we had on hand: Ardbeg (very smoky), a homemade cherry liqueur which would take the place of the usual Cherry Heering, Carpano Vermouth, and a bag of navel oranges. That was the form the drink took for the event at Little Brick, and really all that made it unique was that we used an Islay peat-bomb for the Scotch, and the cherry liqueur was homemade, with local cherries.  Otherwise, it was just a Blood and Sand.

Several months later I tasted a cocktail conjured up by Nich Box at District Café.  It was called Flatbush, and one of the ingredients listed on the menu was “saline”.  In other words, a salt solution.

I don’t know why, but this absolutely blew my mind.  It’s not so weird to put salt in a cocktail, now that I’ve had time to think about it.  After all, I’ve had margaritas with salted rims, and Caesars with Clamato and Worcestershire.  Salt in a cocktail, in and of itself, is not revolutionary.  But dissolving the salt right into the drink in such a measured, purposeful way, so that the drinker can’t dance around the salt as one might do with a salt rim…  it was an epiphany, and I really really liked it.

To Make Saline.  One part kosher salt and five parts water by volume.  Heat on the stove until the salt dissolves.  This is just about the most concentrated salt solution you can make by this method.  The 1:1 and 2:1 ratios common for sugar syrup are quite impossible with salt.  I might have learned this in a grade eight science class.  I had to relearn it when making saline.

The first drink that I tried at home with a touch of saline was the Blood and Sand.  Now, most people find the campfire-smoke flavour of Ardbeg too much to begin with, so by adding something as distinctive and unusual as salt, this is admittedly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

The drink tastes of salty, smoky cherries.  If you’ve ever had the salty preserved plums at a Chinese grocery store, you can imagine what this tastes like.  It’s peculiar, but delicious.  And I especially love that the hint of salinity puts the “blood” into the Blood and Sand.

Certainly not something that I would drink everyday, but still, a synthesis of which I’m rather proud.  In fact, I keep having this daydream in which I am a barkeep and maybe have tatoos, and someone comes in and asks for something that tastes utterly unique and unlike anything they’ve had before.  This is what I serve them in that fantasy.

 

Blood and Sand Cocktail, Button Soup-Style

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Ardbeg Scotch (or another suitably smoky Scotch from an Islay producer)
  • 1 oz Carpano Vermouth (or another suitably prestigious sweet, red vermouth)
  • 1 oz homemade cherry liqueur, preferably made from Evans cherries (or Cherry Herring, or another suitably delicious cherry liqueur)
  • 1 oz Navel orange juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/4 tsp saline solution (see description above)

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients on ice.  Stir swiftly until thoroughly chilled, about 20 seconds.
  2. This is where I might belie my ignorance of the cocktail craft.  I think the Blood and Sand is usually served “up”, ie. without ice.  I almost always take all of my cocktails, event classic “uppers” like a Manhattan, on ice.  Likewise for this number.
  3. Garnish with orange peel and sour cherry.

 

River City Kir

cider_cherry_liqueur_2.JPGSparkling hard apple cider with a splash of cherry liqueur: something so simple shouldn’t need a complicated origin story.

[Pauses awkwardly, before rapidly relating a complicated origin story]

A Kir is a French cocktail, a glass of white wine with a bit of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).  There are a number of common variations.  The Kir Royal, for instance, uses Champagne instead of still white wine.  The Kir Breton uses hard cider.  So this most recent invention was inspired by the Kir Breton.

I’ve tentatively titled this drink the River City Kir.  I’m open to other suggestions.  This is the first cocktail I tried with my homemade cherry liqueur.  It’s a knockout.  My cider is bone dry, and quite tart, so it takes the sweetness of the liqueur beautifully.  And the colour is fantastic.

I can see the River City Kir becoming my house apéritif for the summer months.

Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.

Switchel – Old-Timey Drinking Vinegar

And in my thirst they gave me vinegar

-Psalm 69:21

 

Switchel, old-timey drinking vinegar, make with apple cider vinegar, molasses, and gingerThis post is part of an ongoing fight against the tyranny of the lemon.

In the ancient world drinking vinegar was for the destitute and god-forsaken.  In fact, it was the last thing Christ drank before he gave up the ghost.

So it is interesting that in North America, before we had access to cheap lemons and limes, we made several thirst-quenching drinks with vinegar.  The most famous of these was probably switchel, a mixture of apple cider vinegar, molasses, and ginger, diluted with cold water.  Switchel was often given to farmhands during the hot harvest season.

I know drinking vinegar sounds really weird, but with balancing sweetness and water to dilute, switchel can be subtle and delicious.  A good switchel actually tastes like ginger ale more than anything, and you might not even realize that it contains vinegar if you aren’t forewarned.

If you are skeptical, I encourage you to try the extremely simple recipe below.  I make a switchel concentrate, which can be stored in the pantry and diluted with water as necessary.

 

Switchel Concentrate

Ingredients

  • 250 g fancy molasses
  • 250 g honey
  • 250 g apple cider vinegar
  • 125 g fresh ginger, chopped fine in a food processor

Procedure

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a pot over medium-high heat.  As soon as the mixture reaches a vigorous simmer, remove the ginger by passing through a fine mesh strainer.

Yield: ~650 mL switchel concentrate

To serve, combine each part switchel concentrate with about five parts still or sparkling water.  Serve over ice.

Aperitivo

Mise en place for Italian aperitivo.Aperitivo is the Italian word for aperitif.  Ostensibly it is a drink taken before dinner.

In practice it is both drink and food.  The fundamental idea of Italian aperitivo is that you order a drink and receive complimentary food.  That food may be a fistful  of olives, or it may be a no-kidding smorgasbord.  Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s talk about drinks, then about food.

A Simple Bar for Aperitivo

Amari.  If you can buy only one bottle of liqueur for aperitivo, it should be Campari.  Campari is a bitter liqueur of about 25% ABV, flavoured with obscure herbs and fruit (eg chinotto, the myrtle-leaved orange tree).  It was invented in Novara, Piedmont, by Gaspare Campari.  It was first produced en masse outside Milan, and has become affiliated with that city.

Campari is a bright, cherry red.  Slightly viscous.  It has an intense, smoky bitterness, and is syrupy-sweet.

Campari can be taken on the rocks, diluted with soda or fruit juice, or mixed into proper cocktails.

Vermouth.  Vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying plants.  It can be bone dry or quite sweet.  I think the most common brand is Cinzano (chin-ZAHN-o), especially their sweet, red (“Rosso”) vermouth.

Cinzano Rosso is 15% ABV and has a medium red colour with a russet hue.  It has a medium-intense aroma of herbs.  It is sweet with a bright, balancing acidity.

The bitter-sweet clash of Campari and Cinzano Rosso is the basis of several classic cocktails.  The Americano, for instance is one part each Campari, Cinzano Rosso, and soda water.  If you substitute the soda for gin, you have my favourite aperitivo, the Negroni.

negroni_2Negroni.  The apocryphal origin story of the Negroni has Count Camillo Negroni seated at the bar in Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919.  He asks the barkeep to stiffen his Americano by subbing soda with gin.

I feel like a real hack just re-typing stuff that I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, but there is a fantastic quip about the Negroni by Orson Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you.  They balance each other.”

Returning to original content: The most memorable cocktail I’ve ever had was a Negroni from Mr. Brown’s in Trastevere, Rome.  Unfortunately it’s memorable for the lurid conditions in which it was procured, not any nuance of flavour or composition.  Lisa and I were walking back to our apartment after a late dinner, and we finally encountered the raucous, lively Trastevere we had heard about.  Drinkers were overflowing from the bars and pouring onto the streets and campi.  The street was particularly congested in front of a placed called Mr. Brown’s, advertizing 5 Euro “to go” cocktails.  We pushed our way in and stood by the bar to get the lay of the land.  5 Euros didn’t seem especially cheap, until we watched the bartender mix a drink.  Bottles of liquor were inverted and held over plastic cups for 3-5 seconds.  The drinks were enormous and contained several ounces of liquor.  And it seemed you weren’t limited to hi-balls: you could order what ever you want.  Tequila Sunrise?  Sure.  Spritz?  The barkeep opened a new bottle Prosecco, projecting the cork through the air and striking a large bell hung over the bar.  Mojito?  He muddled fresh mint.  I ordered a Negroni.  My 5 Euros got me about 4 fluid ounces each of gin, Campari, and Vermouth.  Actually the drink was so large and purchased so late in the evening that I couldn’t finish it.  I put it in the little fridge in our apartment, and the next day I poured it into a glass of Prosecco, thus inventing the Negroni Spritz.

Tangent: If you replace the gin in a Negroni with bourbon, you have a Boulevardier.

 

aperol_spritzAperol Spritz.  While Campari and Cinzano Rosso are a delicious, versatile power couple, I think that the Aperol Spritz is actually the most common aperitivo in Italy.  I have no official statistics on this, but a short walk through any northern Italian city in the early evening will confirm my hypothesis.

Aperol is from Padua, in Veneto, and is flavoured with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other stuff.  It is 11% ABV, sweet, orange in colour, and faintly bitter, much less so than Campari.  It smells almost exactly like orange Triaminic.[1]  If you are unfamiliar with the sweet nectar that is orange Triaminic, think orange Kool-Aid-flavoured cough syrup.

The Aperol Spritz originated in the province of Veneto, supposedly during the Hapsburg occupation of the region.  (“Spritz” is the German word for fizz).  It is a mixture of Prosecco, Aperol, and soda water poured over ice and garnished with an orange.  According to the Aperol website the classic ratio for the Spritz is 3-2-1 Prosecco, Aperol, and soda.

 

Food at Aperitivo

When ordering a drink for aperitivo you can expect at the very least a small bowl of olives and potato chips.  You might also receive finger sandwiches, little pizzas, or cured meat and cheese.

Occasionally the food is set out on a buffet.  Maybe some crostini with a variety of spreads, or a large bowl of pasta.

Some advice for students looking to use aperitivo as a meal-replacement: look for starch.  Pasta, toast, whole-grain salads, these starches have sustained most of humanity for most of history, and they will sustain you.

 

Cicheti

Aperitivo plays out a bit differently in Venice.  You can get the usual cocktails, but it is more common to drink an ombre, a small glass of wine.  And instead of receiving complimentary food you can purchase small one- or two-bite cicheti (chi-KEH-tee).  Cicheti can be simple and elemental (roast bell peppers, cheese, olives, et c) or full-on composed hors d’oeuvres (octopus carpaccio and olive spread on a crostino).  Escaping the hideous tourist maze to enjoy a plastic cup of Valpolicella and a bite of food is one of the best ways to enjoy Venice.

 

Footnotes

1. Well before Lil’ Wayne and other southern rappers made it cool, I had my first experience abusing cough syrup.  I was three years old, and the story has become a Suddaby family legend.  When I was a toddler my mom kept a few bottles of Triaminic on hand.  Red Triaminic was for a cough.  Orange for a runny nose.  The red one was disgusting so I was always careful to stifle my coughs.  The orange one was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted.  Like ever.  It was candy that you could drink.  It tasted kind of like McDonald’s orange drink concentrate.  So one day I climbed onto the counter and reached into the medicine cabinet, opened the bottle, and put it to my mouth.  The exact amount I drank varies depending on who tells the tale.  Mother caught me mid-act, tore the bottle from my tiny hand, and immediately called poison control.  They said that I would get drowsy, then fall asleep.  Mother only needed to jostle me every so often make sure that I was still able to wake up.  If I didn’t wake up she should call 911.  (That’s actually the advice they gave.)  As I remember we went to the park that afternoon and I fell asleep on the tire swing.  I think everything worked out all right, though.

Rye Whisky

Rye whiskey makes the band sound better,
Makes your baby cuter,
Makes itself taste sweeter.  Oh, boy!

-The Punch Brothers

 

I have friends that get mad when I say this, but Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye.  Unlike, for instance, Bourbon, which has very specific requirements for the grain bill (at least 51% corn), Canadian whisky is not highly regulated.  Actually you can read everything that the Food and Drug Regulations have to say about Canadian whisky in about 90 seconds, here.  Basically to be called Canadian whisky the drink needs to be made of cereal grain (no mention of specific types like barley or rye), it needs to be at least 40% alcohol, and it needs to be aged in small wood for at least 3 years.  That’s it.

That being said, many of the common Canadian whisky brands (Royal Reserve, Alberta Premium, Crown Royal, et c) contain rye.  But since “rye” isn’t a regulated term, it’s hard to know how much is really in there.  50%? 10%?  The truth is that the main ingredient in most Canadian “rye” is corn and wheat.[1]

Producers rarely specify exactly what grains they use and in what proportions, and they almost never make mention of what non-cereal ingredients are contained in their whisky.  Caramel, for instance, is such a common additive that the Food and Drug Regulations mention it explicitly as a permitted ingredient in Canadian whisky.

One notable exception is Alberta Premium Rye, which says right on the label is made with 100% rye.  For most of my drinking life I never gave this whisky much thought: the 750 mL size comes in a cheap, dated cut-glass bottle, and retails for about $20.  Then one day I was listening to CBC radio while driving and heard Englishman Jim Murray, author The Whisky Bible, say that he considers Alberta Premium one of the best whiskies in the world.  I nearly drove off the rode.  His words exactly: “One of the top six whiskies in the world.”  You can listen to the interview here.

I’ve always grouped those cheap Canadian whiskies together: Crown Royal, Royal Reserve, Canadian Club… Could Alberta Premium really be so much different than the others?

I designed a blind tasting.  Well, not really a blind tasting: maybe a myopic tasting.  I bought a bottle of Alberta Premium and a bottle of Royal Reserve.  I put tape on the bottom of two glasses and labelled one AP and one RR.  I poured the whiskies into their respective glasses, then closed my eyes and hummed Uptown Funk while shuffling the glasses back and forth.

When I opened my eyes I had two glasses of whisky in front of me.  I knew one was AP and one was RR, but I didn’t know which was which.  I tasted each and came up with this:

Whisky 1:

  • very pale, bronzy-gold, lustrous
  • on the nose: medium-intense aroma, loads of butterscotch, butter, light brown sugar
  • on the palate: medium weight, medium burn, slight sweetness leaving palate, a lingering tingling burn

Whisky 2:

  • colour almost identical to first, maybe a hair darker, more brown
  • on the nose: some butterscotch, but more grassy, with spices like black pepper, bay, and vanilla
  • medium-full mouthfeel, slightly oily, low-medium burn – less lingering burn than first

Conclusion

  • These two whiskies are not radically different.  They both exhibit typical aromas of caramel.  Whisky 2 is arguably more complex, with some spice notes.

Then I looked at the tape on the bottom of the glass to see the identity of each: Whisky 1 was RR and Whisky 2 was AP.

A rye revival has definitely been afoot the last several years, and there are many craft sipping and mixing ryes coming out of the US, labels like Pendleton and Masterson’s.  The hilarious, unfortunate fact is that many of these are actually made from rye whisky that is distilled in Canada and exported in large quantities to be bottled elsewhere.[2]  I’m not saying that our cheapest Canadian whiskies deserve the solemn admiration accorded single-malt Scotch, but I do think that our low estimation of these products has a lot to do with packaging and marketing (or lack thereof).

For some shockingly thorough info and tasting notes on Canadian whisky, I highly recommend this site: www.canadianwhisky.org.

A bottle of Alberta Premium Rye Whisky

 

Rye whiskey makes the sun set faster,
makes the spirit more willing,
but the body weaker.

-again, Punch Brothers

 

Way up on Clinch Mountain I wander alone,
I’m as drunk as the devil, oh let me alone.
You may boast of your knowledge an’ brag of your sense,
‘Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence.
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, you’re no friend to me.
You killed my poor daddy, God damn you, try me.

-Tex Ritter

 

1. This fascinating article from The Globe and Mail.
2. Ibid.

On Spirits

brettosSpirits are distilled beverages, made by concentrating alcohol and other volatile, aromatic compounds to make heady, shelf-stable drinks.

The sheer number of different types of spirits available in most liquor stores can be confusing.  What, for instance, is the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?  Or tequila and mezcal?  Why is all Cognac brandy, but not all brandy Cognac?  These questions can be answered by knowing a few things about how liquor is made.

All spirits can be classified using the following four pieces of information:

  • region of production;
  • ingredients, including the base fermentable material and any other flavourings like spices or caramel;
  • distillation details, including type of still used, number of distillations, and other nuances; and finally
  • aging method, if any.

Region of production.  Some spirits must be made within defined geographical boundaries to carry a certain name on the label.  The most famous examples are Scotch (which must be from Scotland…) and Cognac and Armagnac (from the areas around the French towns of the same name).  The argument for the protection of regional designations is that subtleties in the water, ingredients, even the air, give the product a distinct character.  Regional designations are always accompanied by specifications on the ingredients and processes using in production.  For instance, Cognac must be from the Cognac region, must be made from grapes, must be aged for a certain period of time, and so on.

Ingredients.  All spirits begin as some sort of food that has sugar in it, whether fruit like grapes and apples, grains like barley and rye, or even sugar itself, in the form of cane juice or molasses.  The first step in converting these foods to spirits is to turn them into a fermentable liquid.  This is self-explanatory for grapes: you crush them to make juice, and there is in fact already yeast on the skins that will start to metabolize the natural sugars.  The process is a bit more complicated for grains: generally you need to malt, kiln, grind, and mash them, just like when making beer.

Interestingly, the base fermentable is not always important in categorizing the spirit.  Vodka, for instance, can be made from rye, or potatoes, or a number of other diverse ingredients.  Some spirits are categorized not by the base fermentable, but by how it is flavoured.  Gin can be made from any type of grain, but must be flavoured with juniper and other aromatics.

Regardless of the ingredients, yeast is added to the base fermentable liquid, and over the course of a week or two it metabolizes the sugars, creating ethanol as a byproduct.

After fermentation the mixture (now called wash) is relatively low in alcohol, somewhere around 5-15% alcohol by volume (ABV).  ABV is determined by the quantity of fermentable sugar in the original liquid.  There is, however, a ceiling on alcohol content with natural fermentation.  Even if we were to pour a bag of sugar into our grape juice or barley mash, we could only ever get an ABV of at most 17%.  Alcohol is a toxin, and fatal to yeast in such a high concentration.  We must concentrate the alcohol and aromatics by distilling the liquid.

Details of Distillation.  Distillation makes use of the different boiling points of the different components of a liquid.  Water boils at 100°C at sea level, and ethanol at about 78°C.  By heating a mixture of water and ethanol to a temperature between these two, then capturing and condensing the vapour, the distillate will have a much higher ethanol concentration than the original liquid.  The ethanol, being easily evaporated, is called a volatile component.  Often used to describe someone who flies off the handle, in the present context it means easily evaporated.  Non-volatile compounds, including sugar and pigments, are left behind.  All pure distillates are therefore dry (not sweet at all) and colourless.

What makes distilling challenging and interesting is that there are thousands of volatile components in fermented liquids besides ethanol.  Some are more volatile than alcohol and boil off at lower temperatures.  These are called heads, or foreshots, and are always undesirable in finished spirits.  They include methanol, acetone, and are generally nasty and toxic.  Other compounds are less volatile than ethanol, boiling off at higher temperatures.  They tend to be long, fat-like hyrdrocarbon chains, and are called tails, or feints.  They contribute harsh flavours that are desirable in small amounts in some styles of spirit, notably whisky.  They also contribute to mouthfeel, producing the oily texture of some spirits.  Tails are also known as fusel oils, and include butyl and amyl alcohol.

The art of the distiller is inviting the right volatiles to the party, while keeping out the undesirables.  The guest list depends on the style of liquor they are making.  Vodka, for instance, is a very neutral spirit, prized for it’s clean flavour.  (One of the first Smirnoff ad campaigns in North America was: “No taste. No smell.”)  Eau-de-vie and schnapps, on the other hand, are prized for their strong aromas of fresh fruit.

There are countless types of stills, but there are three important, classic styles used in commercial distilling.

Pot still.  A large pot that holds the wash is heated.  Vapours rise from the pot into a vertical pipe called a gooseneck, or swan neck.  This pipe then narrows and bends towards the horizontal in a section called the lyne arm.  Vapour then descends into a condenser.

The first liquid that dribbles out of the condenser contains the heads, which are discarded.  Next the happy hearts are dispensed.  Finally the tails, which may or may not be desirable in small quantities.  The distiller evaluates the spirit to separate the heads, hearts, and tails depending on the style of spirit being made.

Charentais Alembic Still.  Most associated with Continental, aromatic spirits based on fruit, such as brandy and eau-de-vie.  Important features include the “helmet,” a bulbous top on the boiler functions as an expansion chamber, which holds back the heavier volatiles, and lets the lighter fruit aromatics through.

Usually the vapour passes by a pre-heater, containing the wash for the next batch.

Like a pot still, heads, hearts, and tails come out of the condenser one after the other, and have to be separated at the distiller’s discretion.

A sketch of a Charentais alembic still

Continuous still.  Most associated with industrial distillation of neutral spirits.  As the name suggests, this still does not operate batch by batch, but with a continuous input of wash.

The cool wash descends and is heated by the rising vapour.  Instead of heads-heart-tails differentiation being a function of time, as with batch stills, here it is a function of height.  The more-volatile heads come out the top of the still, and the less-volatile tails out the bottom.  The spirit is taken out somewhere partway up the still.

A sketch of a continuous still

The number of passes through the still is also important.  Scotch, for instance, is generally twice-distilled, while most Irish whiskey is thrice-distilled.

Aging method, if any.  The most important question here: is the spirit aged in wooden barrels?  All distillates are clear and colourless when they first come out of the still.  The colour of brown spirits like whisky and brandy develops during barrel-aging.  Besides changing the colour of the spirit, aging in wood makes the drink smoother, and can lend distinct aromas and flavours, notably the vanilla and caramel notes found in bourbon.

Based on the four points discussed above, we can now simply and accurately define every major style of spirit.  A super-quick survey:

Whisky

  • Region of Production: There are no controls on the term whisky, but its most famous sub-varieties are regional designation: Bourbon is from the US, Scotch from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, and Canadian whisky from Canada.
  • Base Fermentable: Whisky is always made from grain, but the exact ingredients vary widely.  Bourbon is based on corn, and Scotch on barley, for instance.
  • Distillation Details: Traditionally made in a pot still that allows certain tails through.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.
  • Contrary to popular thought, Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye whiskey, though it does generally contain a good does of rye.  It pains me to admit, but Canada is the least regulated of the four classic whisky regions, and therefore the least distinct of the group.

Vodka

  • Region of Production: There are no regional controls for vodka, but its homeland is Russia.
  • Base fermentable: Any number of base fermentables can be used.  Basically the cheapest source of calories available.  Rye is the most common, but potatoes and wheat are also used.
  • Distillation Details: Most commercial varieties are made in a column still, but pot stills can also be used.  Often distilled several times for clean flavour.
  • Aging: Not aged, or aged very briefly, but never in wooden barrels.  Vodka is always clear.

Brandy

  • Region of Production: “Brandy” itself can be made anywhere, but it is understandably most common in wine regions, and certain types of brandy are regional designations (Cognac, Armagnac).
  • Base Fermentable: Grapes are fermented into a mediocre wine that is later distilled.  The term “brandy” is also broadly applied to other distillates based on fruit.  For instance, while the Normans have a word for apple cider distillate (“Calvados”, see below), but the English do not, so we often call it “apple brandy.”  This is perfectly acceptable.  Imagine if the English language did not have the word “cider,” and we had to call fermented apple juice “apple beer.”
  • Distillation Details: Premium brandies like Cognac are made in Alembic Charentais stills.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Calvados

  • Region of Production: Specific parts of Normandy and Brittany, in France.
  • Base Fermentable: Apples, or sometimes pears.
  • Distillation Details: Alembic still
  • Aging Methodl: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Gin

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from Holland and adopted with enthusiasm by the British.
  • Ingredients: Usually a neutral grain spirit that has been flavoured with juniper and other exotic aromatics like grains of paradise.
  • Aging Method: Almost never aged in wood.  Almost always clear.  (There are some exceptions by craft producers like Victoria Spirits.)

Rum

  • Regional of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from the Caribbean and other cane-growing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Sugar cane juice, or molasses, or a blend of the two.  Often caramelized sugar is back-added to the distillate for sweetness, colour, and body.
  • Aging Method: Large commercial brands of rum are not usually aged.  The best rums in the world (like this one) are always aged in wooden barrels.

Eau-de-Vie and Schnapps (true schnapps)

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term.  Schnapps is common in German-speaking regions such as Germany and Austria.  Most French regions, notably Alsace, use the term eau-de-vie.  Switzerland can go either way.  Etter is a self-described eau-de-vie, even though it is made in the largely German-speaking Swiss town of Zug.
  • Base fermentable: Any manner of fruit, including apple, pear, apricot, plum, and cherry.
  • Distillation Details:  The best examples use an Alembic still to capture the aroma of the fresh fruit.
  • Aging Method: Not aged in wood barrels.  A clear spirit.

Mezcal

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but confined almost entirely to Mexico.
  • Base Fermentable: Agave, specifically the swollen, central bulb of a mature agave plant that has had its flower stalk snipped.  The bulb is cooked, then crushed and shredded to extract a sweet liquid.
  • Distillation Details: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging Method:  Some mezcal is aged on wood, some is not.  It is partly a stylistic decision.  Cheap industrially-produced mezcal usually gets its colour from caramel, while very fine examples are aged in wood.

Tequila

  • Tequila is a kind of mezcal produced in certain delimited areas of Mexico, using only blue agave.
  • Tequila has different classifications based on aging method.  Blanco is un-aged, or aged very briefly in stainless steel tanks.  Gold tequila gets its colour from caramel.  Reposado and añejo tequilas are aged in wooden barrels.

Grappa, Marc, and other Pomace Spirits

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but most common in wine-producing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Grape pomace (the skins and seeds left-over after pressing grapes to make wine).  Really cheap examples will use true pomace mixed with a bit of water and sugar.  Really fine examples will actually use grape juice, but from later pressings.
  • Distillation: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging: Most often a clear spirit.  The Cretain pomace spirit raki is often aged on wood.  And there are some amazing Grappa di Barolo that are barrel-aged.
  • In Greece the most common word for pomace spirit is tsipouro.
  • Other notes: Grappa is often a little rough around the edges, but quality examples like Nonino Grappa showcase the natural aromas of the grapes from which it is made.  Nonino Grappa di Moscato, for instance, has the distinct lemon balm aroma of the moscato grape.

Valpolicella

A view of Valpolicella vineyards and Lake GardaAmarone is the most fashionable Italian wine in North America.  I’m in no way qualified to make such a sweeping statement, but I think the shelves of boutique wine shops offer ample testament.  The wine is rich, concentrated, age-worthy, and expensive.  It is by its very nature more pricey than most other wines: made from partially-dried grapes, it requires more kilograms of fruit to produce a litre of wine.  The absolute cheapest bottles in Canada cost about $40, but most mid-level bottles sell for around $60.  My first taste of Amarone was in the home of a self-impressed eye doctor.  It was delicious.

Amarone is from Valpolicella,[1] a small region in northeast Italy, just outside Verona.  Valpolicella is an old word for an area that doesn’t have a modern administrative function, and so doesn’t appear on most political maps.  Outside Italy the term Valpolicella is always used in connection to wine production, but the people who live there will patiently explain that it is a place with a long history and a unique identity within the Veneto.  My instructor in this lesson was Davide Canteri, who offers wine tours of the area.

Almost every written source I have, including the Oxford Companion to Wine, says that the word Valpolicella comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek, and means “valley of many cellars”.  I asked Davide about this, and he said if he were being completely objective he would have to admit the origin is unknown, but that the “many cellars” etymology is definitely not correct, and was clearly invented by advertising executives.  (“Why would the name of this region have a Greek word in it?”)  He then offered a few other possibilities that he thinks are much more probable (though admittedly less sexy).  One involved the regional word for puddles.  Another was based on the word for maiden, as one of the local coats-of-arms features a young woman kneeled in prayer.

Valpolicella proper is comprised of three adjacent valleys, their principle towns being Fumane, Marano, and Negrar.  They are northwest of Verona, and east of the Adige River.

In the 1960s the Italian government set out to codify its wine regions and methods of production in a system similar to the French appellation laws.  In several parts of the country the permitted production areas for specific wines were expanded well beyond the traditional borders so that more winemakers could benefit from labelling their wine with a famous name.  Valpolicella, though traditionally confined to the three valleys east of the Adige, was expanded west of the river, all the way to Lake Garda.  According to Davide, this enlargement was first met with resistance from the producers in the original region.  The silver lining is that the enlargement increased production to a level that allowed Valpolicella wines to be sold all over the world.  If it hadn’t been for the enlargement, Davide says, North Americans may never have heard of Valpolicella.  But it also means that consumers need to know more about the producer, and where exactly their grapes come from.  Wine produced in the original region is labelled Valpolicella Classico.

Valpolicella wines are made from a mixture of several grape varieties, the three most important being Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.  Corvina literally means “crow” and refers to the dark colour of the grapes.  This variety holds the highest regard.  It produces wine with the best structure, but its yields are low, so it is supplemented with other higher-yielding varieties.  Rondinella is the second most renowned grape of the region.  Rondine is the word for swallow (the bird), and rondinella means little swallow.  Davide said this is because late in the season these grapes tend to split, and then resemble a swallow’s tail.  Molinara is the third most important variety.  Unfortunately I don’t have a cute bird story about this grape.  These three varieties are the backbone of viticulture in Valpolicella, but there are dozens of other local varieties that are permitted.

According to the wine cognoscenti, vine-growers in Valpolicella and the rest of Italy are faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand they can grow a huge amount of ordinary grapes that will produce ordinary wine, or they can grow a small amount of high-quality, flavourful grapes that will make better, more concentrated, more expensive wine that can be exported.  These grape yields are determined by vineyard site, the grape variety planted, and viticultural details like how the vines are trained.  Vines grown on rocky slopes, for instance, have lower yields than vines grown in flat valleys with rich, loamy soil.

In Valpolicella the traditional way to train vines is up onto a pergola, about six or seven feet off the ground.  Modern international wine-makers prefer to use the Guyot method, where the vines are cane-pruned and trained along wires, closer to the ground.  If you think that this is an esoteric or trivial difference in viticulture, consider this: pergola-trained plants yield about 15 kg of grapes per vine, while Guyot-trained plants yield about 4 kg of grapes per vine.

That being said, as you leave Verona and drive through the endless vineyards of the Veneto, you will notice that some vines are trained on pergolas, others in the Guyot style.  Later you will discover that good wines can come from either camp.

From Verona we drove to what Davide calls the heart of Valpolicella, the small hamlet of San Giorgio, which is perched on a hill with beautiful views west towards Lake Garda (photo above).  In the centre of this town is a medieval church, formally called Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella.  It was this church as much as the vineyards that Davide wanted to show us.

The church, like most buildings in the old town, is made of burnished white stone.  It has a blockish bell tower, and an elegantly crumbling cloister.  Excavations on the adjacent hillside have revealed evidence of a Bronze Age civilization.  There was also a Roman building on this site.  In fact, some of the stones from that pagan temple had been salvaged and re-purposed during the construction of the church.  You can still make out the fragmentary Latin inscriptions.  A stone baldachin carved by Lombards arches over the main altar, and along the walls are frescoes painted as early as the 11th century.  There’s one of Adam eating the bad apple, one of St. John, a scene from the Last Supper, all in the flat, slightly contorted medieval style.

I know: this kind of architectural palimpsest can be found all over Italy.  In Rome there are numberless examples of Christian churches and monuments built with odds and ends from Roman ruins.  But in Rome and in the Vatican that construction was done so lavishly, and on such an impossible, monumental scale, that they are now part of the collective cultural heritage of the western world, and congested tourist destinations.

San Giorgio is a living church.  Davide went to mass here when he was little.  The hot September afternoon when we were visiting a wedding had just ended.  We had to drop coins in a box to switch the lights on.  I could have touched the thousand year old frescoes on the wall.  (I didn’t…)

Yes, here was the same story told throughout northern Italy of Bronze Age pagans, Roman imperialism and collapse, barbarian invasion, medieval Catholicism, and Venetian domination, but here that story was told on the smallest, most personal scale.  A trip to Davide’s boyhood church was an intimate, humble gesture, something that I wasn’t expecting on an outing marketed as a wine tour.  I guess the point is that while wine is an important part of Valpolicella, and central to its identity, it really is only one facet of the region.

Anyways: right now we’re talking about wine.

After we left the church we went to a winery.

It is called Salgari, after a famous Italian author.  I had never heard of him, let alone read any of his books.  He was described to us as an Italian Jack London, a writer of adventure stories.

We started our tour with a quick visit to the vineyard closest to the house.  The vines were festooned on pergolas.  It had been a miserable vinatge across northern Italy from the Veneto to the Piedmont, grey and damp and cool, but the harvest was underway.

In the house we peered into some cement tanks built into the ground.  We also stuck our heads into an old cellar, musky and pungent with the smell of wet earth, with a fat salami and some ancient bottles of wine.

Finally we sat for a tasting of the four main styles of wine made in the Valpolicella.

Valpolicella is the standard, dry wine of the region.  A red, made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and possibly a number of others including Molinara.

The most famous wines of the region are made from grapes that have been partially raisined.  After the ripe grapes are harvested, they are spread out on mats in airy attics and storehouses to dry for three to six months, during which time they typically lose about 40% of their weight in moisture.  Only once the sugars have been concentrated in this manner are the grapes crushed and fermented.

Recioto[2] is the traditional premium wine of the region.  It is a sweet red made from partially-dried grapes.  It ferments for about 25 days, but then fermentation is arrested to preserve a good deal of sweetness in the wine.  In modern wine texts Recioto is presented almost as an historical curiosity, a footnote, important only because it is the ancient progenitor of Amarone.  These dismissals notwithstanding, the folks at Salgari unflinchingly stated that Recioto is (still) the most important wine of Valpolicella.

Amarone is the current darling of the region.  Like Recioto, Amarone is red, and made from partially-dried grapes.  Unlike Recioto, it is fermented until it is completely dry.  This takes quite a while: usually forty to sixty days.  The great irony of Amarone is that historically it was considered a mistake: a ruined Recioto, a Recioto scapà, which means a Recioto that has fled or run away.  According to Davide the first time Amarone appeared on a label was in 1935, when the Cooperative Cellar of Negrar marketed a Recioto scapà as Recioto Amarone.  Amarone literally means “big bitter,” though the wine is not bitter in the conventional sense: it’s bitter  in that it is not sweet.

Ripasso is simple Valpolicella wine that has been aged with some of the pressed grape skins leftover from Amarone production.  It therefore has a bit more depth and complexity than a straight Valpolicella, without the concentration and price tag of an Amarone.  Ripasso wines are dry.

We sat at a table, three tourists, Davide our guide, and two members of the family.  The proceedings took the form of a formal tasting: empty glasses lined before us on a mat.  Each wine poured.  We smelled, tasted, discussed.  But truthfully it was not a formal tasting.  It was social.  There were cheeses and salami and olive oil and bread on the table.  And we talked about all sorts of things besides the wine.  Most memorably, what Italian food is like in Canada.

Formal tastings are for suckers.

 

  1.  “val-poll-i-CHELL-a” – with the same “ch” sound as “cello”
  2. “re-chee-OH-to”