dessert

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00mbx2i1br5bs_375x5008 years a Life
Think of the difference of 8 years of life – what you were doing 8 years ago, how old everyone was in their professional 20s when you were a teenager, how a toddler imagines the 9 year cruising around the neighborhood on their bicycle without training wheels or fear. Try and construct that gap in the adult world and you’ll arrive at a loss – octogenarians and those in their 30s have more in common. Careers, language, shared memories and locations – nothing that you can bridge between a newborn and an 8 year old.

Ocho – the latin answer to Ohio
It is with great pleasure that I am happy to report that the gap is bridgeable, that 8 years is not sufficient to keep the toddler off the bike. Eight times this year, I will be visiting the crossroads of America – the part of the country that is Southern and Northern, East reaching to West, the part that spectacularly shoots the arch with imaginary planes and daytime fireflies. It’s a year that I relish and savor and anticipate – the year of the horse and the auspicious numero ocho, a sign of good luck, of fortune foretold, a year of the vine and the wonders unknown.

Ellipsis
But on to the details, the excuse to go blog. Lidia, oh Lidia.

Groucho Wine
The Lidia we know from excessive refrain and hyperactive eyebrows apparently originates from Moldova, one of the least appealing country names on earth. Little is known of the country apart from three critical facts:
1. Romanians dislike it and tend to view it like the New Jersey of Europe, as if Romania were somehow the Park Avenue of Europe, a doubtful conjecture
2. The Russian bear laps up its wine like an intoxicated infant, an unimaginable supposition for a country beset with alcoholism rates that bend the life expectancy toward countries with perpetual anarchy.
3. Moldovan wine is very sweet.

Moldova and the Bear
Lidia is a grape that Moldovans grow, principally for Russian extract (85% of total wine exports from Moldova go to Russia) but occasionally for smuggling to other parts of the world that appreciate it less and consume it a LOT less. Moldova happens to be the poorest country in Europe and wine is an enormously disproportionate percentage of the country’s livelihood, where some say that wine exports are Moldova’s most lucrative export outside of its less viniferous expat community.

Taste
Sweet smell, plums and strawberry taste starts sugary and then turns dental quickly. Very metallic and bloody – truly a trip to the orthodontic chair where you receive a raisin at the end for surviving the procedure. Different and worth trying.

imageDetail Up!
Lidia, Four Seasons Collection – Dionysos-Mereni Estate Bottled, year and ABV unknown even though definitely a dessert wine, from Moldova

Random Googles

* Lidia grapes are only grown in Moldova, although even the entity created to publicize the virtues of Moldovan wine (Moldovan Wine Guild) have not deemed Lidia significant enough to include on their list of Moldovan Grape Varieties
* Lidia wine can also be encountered in large-ish containers similar to the Carlo Rossi containers you may have found in your local wine haunt
* Dig into Moldovan history just an inch deep and be prepared to be amazed. Transnistria, for example – where one quote should whet the curiosity bug sufficiently for further exploration —- “Transnistria’s economy is frequently described as dependent on contraband and gunrunning, with some labelling it a mafia state. These allegations are denied by the Transnistrian government, and sometimes downplayed by the officials of Russia and Ukraine.”

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carlos vii pedro ximenez alvear

Mermaids
This blog rarely discusses mermaids, but that is changing right now. Somehow, as a native English speaker, I think of mermaids and sirens as two different sea creatures. Mermaids being the really hot, friendly companions of sailors too-long at sea that likely originated from manatees. Sirens are the mythological Greek creatures with beautiful, intoxicating voices but hideous phases that caused Odysseus to lash himself to the mast rather than being sucked into crashing his boat on the two rocks that acropophiles will probably know the names of.

Las Sirenas
In Spanish, there’s one word for mermaids and sirens – las sirenas – and apparently the connotation is more of the ancient Greek connotation, but with some kind of latter-day comely sea maiden overlay. Basically, it’s a lot of overlapping meanings, histories, sounds and sights layered onto a single word. Pretty fascinating how some words have that depth of meaning where they encompass 1+ words of another language.

Eureka!
Anyway, listening to an ambulance shriek by recently, it struck me that this ambulance “siren” probably comes from the original Greek “siren” of the mermaid/sirena type. Never really thought about how those words overlap but it’s one of those connections that seems so obvious in retrospect that it’s incredible it’s taken 30+ years to make that connection.

The same thing happened with this wine. Pedro Ximenez is a hugely undervalued wine that I think makes consistently great (and crazy sweet!) dessert wines from all over the world. I’ve seen them in Spain, Peru, the Canary Islands, Australia and California and looks like Argentina and Chile grow it too.

Selenhos with their Sherry Fetish
It’s no secret among the cohort of friends that sherry is a style the Selenhos adore and the rest of us are unsold on (most of the group) or generally regard with suspicion (me). Fascinating story on the solera and pretty awesome how palo cortado is made, and there is tons of history layered up on sherry, but it’s still a big gamble when ordering it. And, unless I’m with a connoisseur like Selenho, it’s unlikely a bottle will be ordered for my table. Fortunately, for this story, the Selenhos insisted and we ordered the bottle you see above. Sidebar – pretty amazing typewriter ring in the photo courtesy of Selenhos.


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Sherry from Montila-Moriles?
Circling back to the sirena-ambulance connection, this bottle of what I thought was sherry is made from Pedro Ximenez grapes. Thinking sherry, I checked out what Montila-Moriles DO, which turns out to be close to Jerez (land of sherry) but actually separate. Montila-Moriles makes its wines in the same stunning solera system of Jerez (google it – seriously), but the wines from Montila-Moriles are not fortified, unlike their names from the south.

Amontillado Wine
The wine itself is Alvear “Carlos VII” Amontillado Montilla Moriles DO NV, a name hard to remember even for those used to weird-sounding names from Spain. The key bit of that long name though is Amontillado. Amontillado is a style of sherry in the middle – darker than the lighest style (Fino) and not as dark as Oloroso (the dark, sweet style I prefer). It starts life as a Fino but somehow the yeast protector that usually allows Finos to deliver dies (or is killed off) and the winemaker generally fortifies the wine up in alcohol to keep it from turning too bitter (oxidizing too quickly in wine-speak). That’s the sherry style of Amontillado in a nutshell.

Amontillado, that aha! moment
Cue the ambulance and have a good look at the word “Amontillado.” Looks pretty similar to Montilla-Moriles DO, right? Bingo – apparently, that’s where this style of sherry originated. So even though I was dead wrong about this Amontillado bottle being a sherry now that we know it’s from Cordoba a bit north of Jerez, there’s a pretty strong linkage between these two regions and styles. And the next time I pull out Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy short story on Amontillado and basement terror, it will be thinking of mermaids, ambulances and Montilla-Moriles.

Taste
I don’t recall exactly as it was quite a long time ago but The Wine Advocate description struck me as the most accurate of the 3 descriptions on this website dedicated to this particular wine (copying the description below). I remember sharp smells and earthy taste, really good with the more biting or pungent food and only ok with the blander foods. Lots of nuts too, especially almonds, which again threw me onto the sherry trail.

“From a 25-year old Solera system, its medium to dark amber color is accompanied by a medium to full-bodied sherry revealing loads of pungent, earthy, nutty notes, a slightly oxidized character, and a long, persistent finish.”

Detail Up!
Alvear “Carlos VII” Amontillado in a 25 year solera from Montilla Moriles DO NV in Cordoba, Spain

Random Googles:
* Five main grape varieties are grown in the Montilla Moriles DO: Pedro Ximenez (the most common by far), Moscatel, Airen, Baladi-Verdejo (aka Cayetana and mostly grown in Southern Spain) and Montepila (almost nothing online about this grape)
* Pedro Ximenez (the grape) meet Pedro Ximenez (the wine). Apparently the wine is a dessert wine made from raisins, a fairly labor-intensive process from the sound of it. Sounds kind of similar to how dessert wines are made in Italy (Vin Santo) and Cyprus (Commandaria) with laying out the grapes in the sun so they shrivel up before being pressed.
* Citrus flavors are common in dry Pedro Ximenez styles (kinda surprised by that) and fortified wines are more figs, dates and molasses (which sounds consistent with the ones I’ve tried)

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Moscatel de Setubal 2004 Jose Maria da FonsecaJokes in Canada
Someone once told me that receiving ice wine is a joke in Canada. Doesn’t seem like much of a punch line but in that quaintly Canadian way, even being the butt of a joke has an uplifting quality. Apparently though, ice wine is the most re-gifted present that exists in the frozen north. People just don’t open these rare treasures known as dessert wines.

Awkward Morning on Wednesday
I get it though – it’s high alcohol, they spoil easily and they’re really expensive. Even half a bottle of these dessert wines run pretty consistently in the $40-50 range. A nice present to be sure, although probably not what you’re opening on your own on a Tuesday with pizza, especially since finishing a bottle on your own could be pretty terrible for Wednesday morning.

Affordable Liquid Dessert
Being a great fantasizer about dessert wines of all kinds though, I am happy to identify that there are at least a couple of affordable, small bottles available. Moscatel de Setubal certainly qualifies – the bottle that I bought was $12 I believe. The empty bottle you see above is one that my brother and I polished off on our front porch in Chicago on a sunny day, the occasion for which I have long since forgotten.

Memories… of Men and Moscatel
This weekend reminded me of that time though as that brother, along with all of my siblings, parents and significant others, came to visit. And yes, we had lots of beer, treats and wines. Moscatel de Setubal of another bottle was drunk and we left the bottle similarly empty at the end of the weekend. Apparently, Canadians don’t invite their relatives over very often… or (more likely) their relatives refuse to visit because it’s Canada. Just kidding – we all love Tim Horton’s.

Taste
Apricot, candied, rich, long finish. Some bosch pear and wildflower honey. The other one we tried this weekend (not this brand identified) also had a cool tea finish to it.

Detail Up!
2004 Moscatel de Setubal DOC, a fortified dessert Wine by Jose Maria da Fonseca in Setubal, Portugal

Random Googles:
* There are 9 types of Moscatel currently recognized by Wikipedia: Moscato Bianco, Moscato Rosa, this Moscatel de Setubal, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Ottonel, Black Muscat, Orange Muscat, Muscat Crocant and Moravian Muscat. Four down, five to go.
* Setubal is only 30 minutes outside of Lisbon – about the same as going to Sintra, the famous tourist destination thanks to Lord Byron’s poetry, just in the opposite direction
* Juan Maria da Fonseca also makes a really good dry red, Periquita. 🙂 for those who learned the word through slang in Brazil.

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RWC Madeira Savannah Verdelho

Least Favorite of the Best
Verdelho might be my least favorite Madeira grape, through no fault of its own. There’s little to dislike about the grape, seeing as it grows on Madeira, has a slightly sweet and mostly nutty flavor, and works with all kinds of foods – more foods in fact, than most grapes on the market.

Not quite taking on Molten Lava Chocolate Cake
And yet, Verdelho doesn’t seem to have a very strong or clear identity. Of the four noble Madeira grapes – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey – the first and last have clear identities that mark them as the ends of the Madeira spectrum. Sercial has that really nutty dryness going on, and Malmsey has to be one of the truly great grapes in the world. Seriously, I still haven’t found another grape that holds up to the molten lava chocolate cake… and wins.

Process of Elimination
Bual’s a pretty delicious grape too. Granted, it’s not KO’ing any seriously bad-for-you desserts but it’s sweet and complex, and comes in lots of styles from quite a few producers. Tinta Negra Mole has that under-dog image going for it since it’s not in the noble grape category, Bastardo has a name that just makes you want to love it, Moscatel’s all around goodness and Terrantez is really close to going extinct so it’s important to fight for it, even if its taste isn’t the greatest (sample size 1). So sorry, Verdelho – you’re nutty and complex, but it’s just not enough to avoid being the least favorite Madeira grape. Good thing you still beat most of the wines on the market.

Taste
Figs, burnt caramel, custard and brown sugar on the nose. Nutty and almonds but slightly sweet on the taste. Chewy and dry finish, with back of the mouth salivating and cleansing refresher on the tongue and teeth – how Zeus would brush his teeth.

Detail Up!
Rare Wine Company Historic Series – Savannah Verdelho Madeira in Madeira, Portugal

Random Googles:
* Australia has a long history of producing Verdelho in nearly all wine-producing parts of the country, where it has more of a honeysuckle and lime flavor than its European brethren.
* Verdelho is one of 82 permitted grape varieties in Port, and even makes the cut into the “Recommended” grapes for Port.
* Star Mixologists can even use Verdelho Madeira in creating their drinks

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Top 10 Dessert Wines
Time for a break, a year-end break from the countdown to 1,000. Because 2011 already has lots of Top 10 lists but doesn’t have a single one devoted to Dessert Wines. Because even the 12 days of Christmas need a break (Five GOLDEN rings!!!) before we get really excited about that partridge in the pear tree end of the song. Because 2011 had a snowstorm in October. And because this year, the year of the 2011, there is much to celebrate. Yankees losing to the Tigers in the Playoffs, dictators out of much of the Islamic world (hint hint Bashar), the expansion of the Peruvian food empire into New York City and lots of family visits and visiting family. Yup, a pretty good recap of the year… except:

Dessert Wines – simply the best
We haven’t even touched dessert wines yet. And dessert wines are really the pinnacle of wines. The wine that comes after the wine. The wine that led alpha men and kings to war, got them killed and then left all the beta men to mate with the hot-blooded Helens of Troy and Bernices left behind. Realistically though, dessert wine has created more widows than Samuel L. Jackson.

So, for 2011’s Top 10 List of Dessert Wines please see below. Note that these are dessert wines tasted in 2011, by participants alive in 2011 and that none of these wines were created in 2011. Many were harvested years or even decades ago, and some of the craftsmen may no longer be with us. Their memory lives on however, and we pour out a (minute) splash for them in memory of their contribution to the dessert wine culture of the world.

#10) Bethany Old Quarry Fronti (Barossa, Australia)
All kinds of conradictions come up in this sweet White Port. Starting right there, “White Port” doesn’t really resonate. Port is this thick, dark wine from Portugal that comes at the end of the night with fat-cat cigars or strinky blue cheese. It’s not from Australia and not clear. Most certainly it’s not white. And yet, this White Port from Barossa, Australia shines as an excellent type of the kind of lighter style White Port that can sometimes be found. Granted it’s the minority of the Ports that are out there and the Portuguese will be squawking that it’s not a true Port because the Aussies crafted it outside Portugal but for memorable sips of sweet oranges, this is an extremely reliable reminder to try new styles.

#9) Late Harvest Riesling – Josef Vineyard 2009 by Hermann J. Weimer Vineyard (Finger Lakes, New York)
Parents usually lose the ability to create memories for their children sometime around the time they purchase their kids that first 10-speed bike. And what parent doesn’t crave those halcyon, pre-teen days? Fortunately, there’s a memory bottle parents can purchase for their children. This potion comes in a long green bottle filled with sweet citrus, green apples and fresh summer days. Best enjoyed on a summer afternoon in the Finger Lakes in the company of said memory-generating parents, it’s also available in most NYC wine stores. Even Fresh Direct has a non-dessert version of the wine.

#8) Ferrari Carano Eldorado Noir 2010 Russian River Valley Black Muscat (Sonoma, California)
When in a cellar, the rule is: avoid being surprised. But for every Cask-of-Amontillado-esque rule, there’s an exception, and Eldorado Noir happens to be that cellar exception. Only available at the Ferrari Carano cellar since it’s made from one rare type of Muscat grape and the cellar people drink most of it, this is a wine that makes you rethink Muscat wine. Sure, it’s fizzy in Moscato d’Asti and smells like all kinds of grapes in Muscat d’Alexandria but this Muscat is that ugly duckling come to swan. Nothing golden nor shiny in this one – it’s black on black. Black color on black raspberry, that is. But when the ugly duckling comes sliding down the glass and you pop a chocolate covered blueberry into your mouth, you’re in heaven. In that moment, no Muscat, nay – no wine, can compare with the decadence of swimming around the duckling lagoon in Boston with a blueberry in one’s mouth and a sweet song in one’s Black Eldorado Heart.

#7) Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine – 2006 (Niagara, Canada)
When you grow up in the frozen northern regions, you’re used to the cold. You do stupid things like winter camping – outdoors, with no tent, on the ground with a good sleeping bag and a tarp to keep you dry and allow you to melt the snow into a coccoon of warmth. At least, that’s the theory. You walk out onto Lake Michigan during the frozen months, you wear t-shirts when the weather gets above zero degrees celsius and you generally try to catch pneumonia as often as possible. But out of all those stupid, really cold months come some true moments of bliss. The sun blinds you through a million icicles all refracting light into tiny rainbows on the snow, adn you catch flashes of green and purple in between the snow that tells you spring is coming even before the first robin shows up. In between all those stupid, snowy moments, there are people out in those temperatures with frozen fingers and frost-bitten noses who are harvesting and pressing grapes to mash into ethereal golden droplets. This million icicle wine is Ice Wine and nobody does it better and more consistently than Inniskillin.

#6) Lustau Península Palo Cortado Sherry (Jerez, Spain)
There’s no forgetting that first love. The one who you watched stars with or drove around in the pickup with for hours because the mall wasn’t really calling to either of you. Even when she’s more memory than flesh, more forgotten lyric than stable chorus, she remains your first love. Because she’s the one who taught you how to kiss and not tell, how to try out new things that you just plain hated, and what to say when nothing else made sense. Because that’s sherry, or at least my experience with it. Awful in many regards, and just plain icky in many others, but then there’s that one that doesn’t have cooties and smiles at you and you actually enjoy it. Palo Cortado from Lustau became that first love this year. Full of nuts, pecans and a bit of citric fun – this is a standout wine (not just Sherry, a standout wine). And that’s not because of the fascinating chemistry of Palo Cortado. And that’s not because of the unbeatable pairing of Palo Cortado and Old Amsterdam cheese, which must be my favorite pairing of 2011, hands down. This is because Sherry became something more than a cooties-infecting beverage, and you never forget your first Sherry.

#5) Commandaria Keo St. John (Troodos Mountains, Cyprus)
The discovery that Cyprus makes wine shocked me a bit this year. So, I bought a bottle and was shocked again when their wine turned out to be really delicious and have huge flavors of raisins. Combine that with intriguing historical anecdotes and it’s a dessert wine that deserves its status among the Top 10 of the year. Still haven’t tried other wines from Cyprus but am quite excited to see if they match this first one.

#4) Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Tawny Port (Douro Valley, Portugal)
All brothers should visit Portugal. Because when brothers visit Portugal, they discover Oporto, a beautiful city in the north of the country that sits on both sides of the Douro River. And when brothers discover Oporto, they discover one side of that Douro River that has nothing but port lodges on one side. And in those port lodges, enormous tanks full of sweet, ancient port reside so someday a brother can buy a bottle for their brother, making him exceedingly happy. This Taylor 10 Year Port was the welcome-home bottle that we opened because it was his favorite of the trip. Silky and long-lasting was how I remembered the wine but sometimes evenings and wines blend together so much it’s hard to say whether one’s truly objective. Taylor 10 Year is etched forever as the Brother Timmy Welcome Wine. Drank on the day of the October Blizzard with ice cream and nothing but ice cream for dinner.

#3) Madeira Blandy’s 5 Year Malmsey (Madeira, Portugal)
Everyday bottles of wine are extraordinarily difficult to find. It’s not like you just grab a cold beer from the fridge and 12 ounces later, the bottle’s empty. With wine, it’s 750ml so you better have a friend or two to assist on that bottle. If you cook for one, you’re looking at maybe one bottle a week. And committing to one bottle for a week causes commitment-phobes moderate angst. So, there’s the Bota Box method that works for long-term delivery. And there’s the Madeira method. Madeira, fortunately, doesn’t go bad. Ever. Wines will change after even a few days and even ports will start changing after a week, a month, who knows – but point being, they start to go bad too. Madeira just never does, and this Malmsey Madeira is my go-to Madeira. It’s sweet, cuts through chocolate cake like an acidic buzz saw and you can enjoy a glass on any day of the year. In a year of becoming slightly more obsessed with madeira, this staple in the cabinet is a Top 10 Dessert Wine.

#2) Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos “Red Label,” Royal Tokaji – 2007 (Tokaj, Hungary)
James Joyce once narcissistically stated that if Dublin disappeared from the face of the earth, it could be recreated just based on the description from his novels. One taste of this rightfully-famous dessert wine from Hungary, and you’re already recreating an apricot in your mind, you’re wishing you could sail away in a flying apricot next to James and his Giant Peach because you know that your Giant Apricot is rocking the melody and James and his Giant Peach are the harmonizing vocals on this dessert wine.

#1) Madeira Rare Wine Company Charleston Sercial (Madeira, Portugal)
Madeira is fast turning into an obsession, even though I’ve only started scratching the surface of the incredible elixir known as Madeira. So when there was the chance to try the Sercial style of Madeira (the driest and lightest of the four typical styles), I jumped. What was supposed to be an afternoon of watching Buster Keaton with my brother became an afternoon of trying out numerous wines, the most built-up of which was the Sercial Madeira. Fortunately, the Sercial Madeira is a Taj Mahal of wines. By that I mean (borrowing poorly from Rushdie), that despite all the hype and the stories and the build-up of Sercial Madeira, the actual, physical “thing-in-itself” exceeds the mythology and the liquid in the glass is itself a transfixing, memorable experience. Share that type of experience with a brother visiting from Minnesota at the beginning of a long day of creating stories for future decades, and Sercial develops a new layer of mythology for future generations.

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