Sunday, November 28, 2010

Absinthe the "Green Fairy" or "death in the afternoon"

 Ah! the Green Goddess! What is the fascination that makes her so adorable and so terrible?”—Aleister Crowley

Absinthe is a making a comeback, but there is a great deal of misinformation on our little green fairy  and what she supposedly does. We will get into the subject of hallucinations later. Absinthe is a high alcohol spirit; since it does not have added sugar it is not considered a liqueur. It can be colorless or can have the traditional green color, which is derived from the chlorophyll in the herbs used. Chlorophyll acts almost like tannins in a wine, creating a drying sensation at the side of the mouth. The green version is known as “la fee verte”.

Like gin, cold compounding can be used to make a lower quality Absinthe, by the addition of essences and color to pure alcohol. There are so called Absinthe coming from Eastern Europe that is made this way. I have had some that where totally undrinkable. Some call it assbinthe. The little fairy really does not show up in the bottle at all.

Redistilling with grand wormwood, anise and fennel and other botanicals produces a proper Absinthe. Grande wormwood gives a slight bitter taste, fennel contributes licorice and sweetness. Anise gives the distinctive and defining flavor. Distillation integrates the flavors, giving a more uniform flavor profile.

Absinthe has a reputation of being psychotropic because the thujone  present in grand wormwood. Studies have shown that there is just not enough thujone present in the bottle. There is also an urban legend that has Absinthe acting on the same area of the brain that is affected by THC. Once again an other study shows that is not so.  Our little fairy has just been getting some bad press. By the way sage and rosemary also contain thujone.

Where did all the railing against Absinthe come from, and why was the green fairy banned, the poor little thing. In the mid eighteen hundreds Absinthe was cheap and was eating into the French wine market. The French wine industry to protect its profits, came out with a campaign, somewhat like prohibition to outlaw Absinthe. The press was used to vilify the product any way it could. A quote from the period “ Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.” Now, don’t you just want to try a glass of whatever it is that can cause all that mayhem and destruction? The French wine industry used its political might with lawmakers to ban Absinthe altogether.Our little girl just about disappeared.
Typical ad comparing the families of wine and Absinthe drinkers

Abinthe also had a reputation as being bohemian, and a drink of deranged poets and artists. The fairy kept some strange company. Toulouse Lautrec was known to drink six bottles a day. Lautrec also invented the earthquake, three oz of cognac and three oz of Absinthe. If you drink that much of a high alcohol spirit, possibly you may get a little deranged. Lautrec and others where pointed out as examples of what Absinthe could do to the mind. Oscar Wilde had a quote “Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset" This was after drinking all day, mind you. Hemingway was quoted in letter “Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it”
Degas "The Absinthe Drinker"
Maignan "The Green Muse"

In 1912 Absinthe was banned in the US. France finally banned it in 1915. However in 1972 the law was changed in the US,  products containing less  than 10 milligrams of thujone, where ruled thujone free. It just took awhile for everyone to figure out that most Absinthes have less than 10 milligrams of thujone. Once everyone found out through testing the thujone level in most Absinthes, and being below the limit it became legal.

The traditional way of serving Absinthe is a wonderful ritual. A slotted spoon is placed over a glass, a sugar cube on the spoon and water dripped over the sugar cube. An effect called louching happens, the Absinthe turns cloudy. Some of the spoons are works of art in the own right and have become collector’s items.

Remarkably in British Columbia there is no upper limit on thujone levels.
We have a highly recommend Absinthe made in British Columbia called Taboo. As a side note Canada has never had a ban on Absinthe.

Death in the Afternoon

I like Hemmingway’s recipe so I will quote him directly.

“ Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly. I heartily recommend drinking less than five of these, and you may also try pouring the absinthe on top instead; some brands of absinthe will float for a time on the Champagne, and this makes a nifty visual effect.”
Be careful with knives if you are having more than one. You never know what that little green fairy will do!

Absinthe CocktailsAbsinthe: History in a BottleAbsinthe: History in a BottleA Taste for Absinthe: 65 Recipes for Classic and Contemporary Cocktails

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ponderings on Points, Amarones, and Arias

 I am taking a few day off from work, so tonight I feel justified in picking something special to celebrate a clean desk and being home. A bottle of Amarone is definitely appropriate. The bottle I decide on is an Amarone Negar 1961. Yes the vintage is right, 1961.

It was a great year for Italian wine in 1961 – rain and sun in perfect balance. John Kennedy was president of the USA. The Berlin Wall was under construction. Maria Callas was 38 and at the height of her career. Sophia Loren was starring in El Cid, and I was all of nine years old.

The label is a little worn and torn. The fill level looks promising – still mid neck – although there is a little sediment. The cork seems to be okay – solid and removes easily without crumbling. Should I decant and risk adding too much air? I pour a glass to see what has happened to this 40-something wine.

The color is amazing – dark red, with a little orange and brick red on the rim. The nose is equally remarkable – still lots of fruit left on the nose, black cherry with truffle, and a little sherry oxidization odors in the background. A few swirls of the glass and the oxidative aromas disappear.

The taste and finish on this wine is surprising, still full of black cherry, truffles, and forest floor with a finish that lasts for minutes. The tannins are like silk, and there are not enough descriptors to describe the mouth feel and full body. The acidity must be holding this wine together.

Now, there is a caveat to this story. I love Amarone, so there is a built in basis here. But points and ratings have no relevance to this wine. It is, quite simply, a great wine. It is like the Callas aria playing on the stereo – powerful yet filled with grace and finesse. It is an Amarone at its heights. Yes, 1961 was a good vintage year for Italian wines.One bottle left.

This Amarone is a perfect example of why I  hate the point system. Is this a 98 or only a 97 point wine? After all, how do you define the difference of a single point? Or has this venerable liquid actually achieved the enviable position of 100 points despite its initial hint of oxidation? It is only two additional points after all.

And if we were to rate it as a 98, would that make it comparable to the 2004 Cabernet Blend IX Estate from that received a 98 point nod from Robert Parker? Hmmm, let’s see. A three-year old blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot from Napa Valley versus an Italian Amarone with almost half a century of love, care, and passion in its provenance. Somehow, the comparison just doesn’t work – although I suppose one day, some scientist, somewhere in the world, will come up with a formula that proves you can actually make a meaningful comparison between apples and snow peas.

Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of ItalyGrandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest WinesMatt Kramer's Making Sense Of Italian Wine

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What is in My Gin and Pink Gin

   Have you ever wondered how your favorite Gin gets its flavor?  Two very important components of this process are the various types of stills to choose from and the method used for adding flavor components. I will be following up with an article on the very different types of still used. For now, there are two basics methods to add flavor, one good the other not so good. Adding flavor compounds or essences to pure ethyl alcohol produces compounded gin. Cheap and not that great, compounded gins are not allowed to put “distilled gin “ on the label. That nasty lemon flavored gin from your youth was probably a compounded gin. No need to get into this any further

 Redistilling neutral spirits with juniper and other botanicals makes a true distilled Gin.  Every producer of gin has their own recipe, and therefore its own flavor profile. Botanicals are natural herbs, spices, peels, seeds or even rose petals. Each botanical brings different notes to the flavor profile.

 Juniper legally is the only required botanical, Juniper adds some pine notes and lavender and a touch of heather.
 Coriander is the second most commonly used ingredient and is used in a most of the premium gin brands. Spice pepper and some floral notes  predominate,depending on the source. Indian coriander has the most citric notes. Grains of Paradise also lends peppery and a chocolate note.

 Angelica root lends a musty earthy note, but in a good way.  It balances the floral notes with its dry woody taste as well.  Orris root has violet and scented notes.  Cassia brings cinnamon tones to the mix. Anise is sometimes used for the slight licorice taste in some premium Gins.  Throw in nutmeg, fennel, vanilla and cloves as well.  The possible list of ingredients can be numbered in the hundreds.

  Some producers use orange and citrus peels. Different peels are chosen to add different flavors. Citrus peels also work well with coriander.  Most of the producers try and keep their recipe as house secret, but if you know the basic profiles of the botanicals, you can figure out which botanicals are used.

Hendricks uses most of the botanicals as well as cucumber and rose. Bombay Sapphire as well as the common ingredients also uses Spanish lemon peel, and Cubeb Berries.These  berries have pine notes, which I taste as a background after taste. Tanqueray does not disclose their recipe other than listing, coriander and angelica. They are not quite so reluctant a let you know that Number ten has white grapefruit and chamomile. Plymouth Gin is not so shy in listing their mix of botanicals, they use fewer junipers and more sweet orange and lemon peels  ,which add more essential oils, along with the usual suspects of orrisroot and angelica. The citrus gives Plymouth its full-bodied fruity taste.  Aviation Gin as well as the regular stuff lists Indian Sarsaparilla as well which works well in some cocktails.
  I think I need to mix a drink after all of this.
 Pink Gin Cocktail  

                                            4 Drops of Angostura Bitters
                                            2 Oz Gin
Swirl the bitters in a chilled Martin glass; add the gin, and a twist of lemon for garnish. Plymouth gin was the traditional brand for this cocktail but Hendricks works with the bitters as well. This drink was supposedly a favorite of the British Navy in the nineteenth century. There is the out form of this cocktail where the bitters are discarded after the swirl in the glass.
The Savoy Cocktail BookThe Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the ClassicsThe Book of Gins and Vodkas: A Complete GuideGin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva the Eighteenth Century Gin Craze

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ode To Terrior and Tasting Notes

I hate tasting notes. Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. I dislike tasting notes – intensely.

Actually, I’ve written hundreds of tasting notes. I’ve written them on restaurant coasters, on the back of business cards, on program guides, and on god only knows what else. I have also spent many evenings in class writing tasting notes and have committed to memory the WSET systematic approach – I’m sure I can now write a note so anyone who has taken the WSET program would be able to pick out the wine I’m describing.

And I read other people’s tasting notes. Books on evaluating wine fill my bookshelves – lots of pages and hundreds, more likely thousands of hours of reading. I peruse glossy wine magazines, newspapers, and the Internet although many of those entries make me want to cry – bad grammar and a total lack of information. I’ve discovered Wine Spectator even has a game: match the wine with the tasting note plus a silly tasting note generator – fun for a while but the novelty wears off soon.

The problem with most tasting notes is that they don’t actually tell you anything. They don’t put the wine in any context. Is it typical of its type or region? Is it a wine for sipping or one that needs food to be enjoyed more fully? And is there something horribly wrong with saying whether you actually liked it or not?

Most tasting notes are all very politically and technically correct. You put the wine in a glass – preferably the same ISO glass every time so you have a benchmark for comparison. You go through the list for whatever system you use, dutifully comparing what’s in your glass against a series of standards. At the end of the exercise, you allocated points or stars or say it is – or isn’t – technically correct.

Sure, what you’ve just written will remind you, at a later date, whether the vintage you just had tastes like black pepper and blackberries, whether it has some sweet vanilla overtones, or perhaps the zing of lime. But when you get right down to it, most of your efforts have basically been useless.

Where in all these notes is the soul of the wine, the “Ahhhh” that is a truly outstanding wine? Where in these notes is the terroir, the art of the winemaker, the joy and pleasure?

Give me some indication of how the wine affected you. Did you love it or hate it? Was it perfect for sitting on the front porch on a sunny afternoon? Would you buy it for your wife or for yourself? Is this a wine you would take to Mom’s for dinner?

The notes I write for myself tend to descriptors and adjectives that aren’t techno or politically correct. They are about the people I had the wine with, the food or the music that went with a particular bottle of wine. My favorite Amarone I describe as “Sophia Loren dressed in silk and eating black cherries.” Another I describe as “Callas hitting a perfect high C in a Rossini opera.”

Emile Peynaud
, writing in his book The Taste of Wine, is able to put techno and art together. He talks of how Bordeaux tasters describe their wines with references to their mistresses, while those from Burgundy use analogies about their wives. Alas, this style of comparison is no longer seen as “correct” although his techno notes still set a benchmark in the wine world.

Most of the wines I drink for pleasure are ones that come from a special “someplace” or are made by small wineries. I guess I am looking for the art of the winemaker. Maybe one day I will find a way to put that in a tasting note.
Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America's Guide to Wines of the WorldSecrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine ProfessionalsGreat Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Great Champagne Quandary: An Afternoon with Pol Roger

Do we really need a celebration to have Champagne? Why is it that typically there has to be a wedding, birthday, or New Years to pop open a bottle of bubbly? Champagne pairs well with food, so why not open a bottle simply while prepping dinner?

Somehow, though, most people feel as if they need some rational to reach for a bottle of bubbly.

Mind you there have been some who could find excuses easily. Coco Chanel is said to have only drunk Champagne on two occasions – when she was in love or when she was not. Churchill started his day with Pol Roger – a bottle a day just to get things going. Someone, I’m not sure who, said you needed Champagne as much in defeat as in victory.

Sunday, I decided that being a rainy and dark   afternoon was reason enough to have a bottle of Champagne. But not just any bottle, the day merited a great bottle of bubbles.
Surprisingly, I experienced a nagging sense that I was being decadent or doing something over the top. There were, after all, accomplishments and achievements over the last few months that I hadn’t yet taken time to acknowledge or celebrate. To hell with it, it was Sunday afternoon and I was alive and well – that was reason enough.

Now all that was over with, the question became what to have? Something with just a little edge – a Blanc de Blanc with a little power to it. I considered the two bottles of Salon but they need a little age. I’m also still using the notion that they are investments to justify the inclusion in the cellar.

Since there were no other bottles of Champagne in the wine fridge or in the rack, it was off to the liquor store. On the way, I still had to fight off that annoying sense of needing a reason.

After exploring the latest new arrivals at the liquor store, I found a bottle of Pol Roger vintage Blanc de Blanc – a 1999. All the grapes from this cuvee are from grand cru vineyards in the Cotes de Blancs. All the bottles have undergone hand remuage. The 1999 vintage was warm, and the rain came at the right time. Good vintage, good grapes, good producer. This was just what I was looking for. By the time I got home, the nagging went away.

The bottle went into the ice bucket immediately, and after what seemed to be a suitable interval to show some decorum, the bottle was opened.

The bubbles were very fine and persistent to the eye, a wonderful light gold color. The nose was at first toast and almonds, then after a few moments floral notes started coming to the forefront with a secondary note of iodine or seashore if you prefer. All good so far, in fact the nose was quite wonderful.

On the palate the acidity was well balanced by the 10.5 grams of residual sugar. The palate as well started out toasty, but not as yeasty as I’d expected. The floral got a little more specific and became all violets. The bubbles remained persistent in the glass. The finish was long, and it had a nice edge right till the end of the bottle. Seafood – oysters especially – would be a good food match.The Pol Roger went well Kettle Valley Potato chips by the way.

And there’s no question that being Sunday afternoon was reason enough to have this excellent Blanc de Blanc.

Retail was $88 at the LCB, but this Champagne seems to be available for around $80 on the net.

I’ve heard a quote of uncertain origin – in victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it – attributed to Winston Churchill but more often to Napoleon. Who knows, perhaps it was a grand case of plagiarism. 

However, one of my favourite quotes is from the grand lady of Champagne herself – Lily Bollinger. When asked when she drank Champagne, her famous reply was:

I only drink Champagne when I’m happy… and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – I unless I’m thirsty.

Frank Haddad CSW CSS   thanks to every one who has subscribed so far. Blanc-de-Noir48KAV6DA4U5Y
The Finest Wines of Champagne: A Guide to the Best Cuvées, Houses, and Growers (The World's Finest Wines)The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (P.S.)Uncorked: The Science of ChampagneUncorked: The Science of Champagne Chanel: Her style and her life