If you’re interested in wine

If you’re interested in wine, especially wine with age, do yourself a favor and seek out the opportunity to taste the wines of Lopez de Heredia, one of the great Spanish Rioja producers that has been making extraordinary stuff for about 135 years now. I had the pleasure of visiting their winery a few years ago, so was thrilled to see that Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, great-granddaughter of the founder, would be in Atlanta and leading a tasting at Tower Wine and Spirits. That event was just last night, and it was another opportunity to experience the magic of this winery and the steadfast resoluteness of their聽approach聽to winemaking. The wines of Lopez de Heredia are different, unique, uncompromising and alluring. If you want simple sipping and easy enjoyment, these wines are not for you. If you relish experiencing history and being beguiled by a wine, Lopez de Heredia is worth seeking out.

Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia and a few of her family's wines

At last night’s tasting, Maria spoke to the history of her family’s winery and their dedication to doing things as they’ve been done for over 100 years. The wines of Lopez de Heredia are made for aging – they spend up to 10 years in barrel before being bottled, and then many years more in bottle in the winery’s amazing underground cellars for further aging. Current releases range from 1991 to 2005. Yes, you read that right, the current releases go back more than two decades and have been sitting happily in Lopez de Heredia’s cool, humid, mold-covered (good mold!) cellars in Haro, Spain.

As we began tasting, Maria pointed out a few unique aspects of tasting these wines. The whites are best served close to room temperature (slightly chilled) to allow the flavors to fully show their stuff. I’ve had them served cold before, and it definitely does the wine a disservice. She does not recommend decanting, but opening the bottle up a bit in advance will not hurt. These wines do evolve in very interesting ways over the course of an hour or two hours or even two days. Maria also shared that the wines are really made for food – yes, they are fascinating by themselves, but paired with some cheese, some meats, the enjoyment increases. (On that note,聽Tower’s Stacey Sondek did a nice job putting together an array of Spanish cheeses, smoked fish, prosciutto and more to accompany the wine).

The wines tasted last night included two Lopez de Heredia whites and four reds. Very brief tasting notes are below, but the overwhelming takeaway is that these are stunning wines of complexity and character, unlike anything being made in America or anywhere else in the world really (on the red side, you’ll see some similarities to older Burgundies, but Lopez de Heredia certainly has its own very distinct terroir). Lopez de Heredia also focuses on their two primary vineyards – Tondonia and Bosconia – and contrasting the two demonstrates the degree to which the wines from nearby vineyards can diverge, even with 聽very similar mixes of varietals in the bottle. Bosconia produces more earthy and powerful reds; Tondonia is lighter and more elegant.

I could go on and on about Lopez de Heredia, but will simply wrap up by repeating the recommendation that you seek out these wines for a singular experience. Tasting notes (rather haphazard, scribbled over conversation) follow, then a few photos to give you a feel for the winery and its evident sense of history in Rioja.

Low Octane: Session Beers, Suppressor Cocktails, & Low Alcohol Wine

In the worlds of beer, wine AND cocktails, dialing back is the new amping up. Those pumped up, roided out monsters may still have their fans, but it’s amazing to see the similarities striking forth in the worlds of potent (and not quite so potent) potables when it comes to crafting drinks that deliver maximum enjoyment, which can often mean less-than-maximum ABV. In an eerie parallel, even聽Carrot Top himself聽is taking up this cause and has committed to a steroid-free life of balance in line with this whole movement. THAT is proof positive that this thing has legs!

Wine? Jon Bonn茅 really pushed the聽conversation about paying attention to alcohol levels in wine聽with his piece in the San Francisco Chronicle almost a year ago, and has continued to keep the topic top of mind for readers and drinkers. Overblown 16% syrahs and cabs and zins are out; reeled-in pinots are in like Flynn (so says me). That’s not to say that wimpy or delicate are the end goal, but rather that flavor and balance can and do coexist in wines that are more in line with what wine looked like before the evil influences (and I mean EVIL!) pushed many winemakers to pump, pump, pump things up in the past two decades or so.

In beer, the term “session” is raging, both as a blowback to the ridiculously powerful craft beers that have dominated the scene for so many years now AND as a recognition that people simply like beers that allow them to have more than one and not be physically impaired for the night. It’s true. The 4% session beer that delivers on flavor and enjoyment seems to be the holy grail du jour, and I’m a seeker. Wild Heaven‘s recently released Let There Be Light is just another example of a craft brewer who had previously focused on beers that topped out at 8-10% ABV now turning towards the lighter end of the spectrum. Let There Be Light clocks in at 4.7% – not quite a “session beer” technically, but darn close, and a whole lot more hangover-friendly than their 10.5% Eschaton.

As for cocktails, Atlanta is ground zero for a movement that is all about lowering the octane level of craft cocktails, and Greg Best from Holeman & Finch is the maestro at the front of the orchestra of bartenders playing along. Starchefs.com just wrote about the movement today (dang, they beat me to it! and nice job, too), but it’s one that has been bubbling up for the past few months and is now picking up steam. If you’re a fan of vermouth or Sherry or Madeira as a base for cocktails rather than the sidekick (and I am), this is something to get excited about. And if you’re simply a fan of carefully considered cocktails, the cause is equally compelling. The suppressor movement is on, and I bet it will take hold in great cocktail bars from New York to Portland and back again. Put a bird on it.

So what does this all mean? What is this crazy convergence in the worlds of wine and beer and cocktails and insane Las Vegas comedians? I have no idea. But I think it is a sign of good things to come. A sign that moderation and the middle ground may yet hold sway in this extremist world we live in. A sign that reason and virtue will prevail over bombast and聽boastfulness. Or, maybe, it’s just a sign that we can simply enjoy one more drink and feel good about it. Yeah… that.

The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

Thirsty South has been covering the Atlanta drinking scene for a year now, and we must say that the state of the Atlanta sipping scene is STRONG. Whether you care about coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails, the past year has seen many good things. Here’s our take on the latest and greatest, with as many bad puns as we can fit in.

Coffee Is Roasting Hot, Percolating Wildly, Brewing Beautifully

If you need proof of how good, serious coffee is taking hold of this city, just consider that this past week Octane opened up the latest addition to its expanding empire: a new shop in Grant Park (check out their awesome espresso machine), joining the flagship Octane on the Westside and the mini-Octane “Pocket Bar” at the Bank of America Plaza as beacons of light in the haze of not-receding-fast-enough Starbucks-induced coffee coma. Meanwhile, Steady Hand Pour House is rocking and rolling and settling in nicely over in Emory Village. Empire State South is kicking what has to be the best coffee-bar-inside-an-award-winning-restaurant this side of the Mississippi. And Jason Dominy over at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters is emerging as one of craft coffee’s leading evangelists, with “coffee ambushes” all over town converting unsuspecting onlookers into Clever Coffee Dripping devotees. All praise the bean. On the downside? Why can’t there be at least one great coffee bar in Buckhead? (Octane, here’s your neighborhood for store number four)

Beer Is Hoppin’ and Growling Ferociously

The beer scene, even more than coffee, has truly gone insane (in a good way) over the past year. No one would have guessed a year ago that fresh growler fills would be available all over Atlanta, from Whole Foods to Hop City to Ale Yeah! to The Beer Growler and what seems like another new place every other week or so. The Beer Growler got growlers going in Athens last December and Hop City led the charge here in Atlanta, and there’s no stopping the trend now. It seems inconceivable that Ale Yeah! wasn’t even around this time last year, but now Atlanta has multiple world class beer shops (Ale Yeah! and Hop City in particular) to join its world class beer bars (The Brickstore and The Porter in particular). 聽And places like Tower and Green’s have continued to step up with great selections of their own. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bars and restaurants are putting more effort into their beer lists and supporting our local brewers more than ever. Speaking of… Jailhouse, Red Hare, O’Dempsey’s, Wild Heaven, Monday Night Brewing all hopped heavily onto the scene in the past year. Are you serious?!? This is crazy growth, and thankfully a lot of great beer is being churned out by these local upstarts who are standing proud next to stalwarts like Terrapin聽and聽SweetWater.聽Wild Heaven probably made the biggest splash, and their Avondale Estates brewery will be a welcome addition once they get it up and running, but Jailhouse is showing that they can also play with the big boys and make some of Georgia’s most adventurous beers.

GA Wine Is Winning, Atlanta Wine Shops (& Lists) Are Bubbly & Sparkling

The past year has seen some of Georgia’s wineries continue to impress in competitions and tastings, gaining broader awareness for their quality. Yonah Mountain got some great press for kicking Napa butt in a blind tasting. Wolf Mountain and Frogtown picked up a bunch of gold medals in Los Angeles and from the Tasters Guild International competitions, among many others. Closer to home, on the retail front, exciting boutique wine shops seem to be sprouting up all over town. Perrine’s, Le Caveau and H&F Bottle Shop all opened up in the past year, and all offer passionate perspectives and impeccable selections. They are everything that Total Wine is not, thank goodness. On the wine list side of things, Empire State South (again!?) introduced one of Atlanta’s most exciting lists, full of impressive Burgundy, Riesling聽and grower Champagne. Who could ask for anything more?

Cocktail Culture Is Strong, the Competition Is Stiff & Spirited

Getting a well made drink around town is easier than ever. Again, restaurants have shown that a bit of attention to their bar program can really pay off. And a spirited community of barkeeps (AKA mixologists) is stoking the collective talent and enthusiasm all around town. 聽H. Harper Station is our pick for the most noteworthy newcomer on the cocktail front, thanks to Jerry Slater and crew’s purposeful punch bowls and bourbon bravado. Barrel-aged cocktails hit the scene at Iberian Pig and Double Zero. And while Greg Best and team continue to set Holeman & Finch apart from the rest, Miller Union, Cakes & Ale,聽Abattoir, Leon’s, 4th & Swift, The Sound Table and Pura Vida all continue to churn out serious stuff from behind the bar. It’s a great list, but we could probably name ten more right behind them. Oh, and best use of shochu in a cocktail? Miso Izakaya, hands down. The only regret? That Pappy Van Winkle is just too damn hard to keep in stock.

In summary, it’s easy to see that the sipping scene is sizzling in Atlanta. The public is thirsty for excellence in all its forms, and thankfully we have purveyors, brewers, baristas and more ready to quench that thirst. We’ll drink to that.

Coming Soon: OMG Rye and More…

Industry events are a great way to get a feel for what’s “hot” (at least from a marketer’s perspective), and, if yesterday’s聽Quality Wine & Spirits聽“Holiday Show” is any indication, gin and rye are super hot. The “Holiday Show” is a showcase of the wines, spirits, and more that this great Georgia distributor carries (they are a distributor, so sell to liquor stores / bars / restaurants, not the public directly). The room was filled with wine from all over the world, and some of the very best artisan spirits available anywhere. It would be impossible to give a full account of all that was there, so I’ll try to share some of the highlights (and regrets of missing potential highlights) of what I tasted.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by two of my favorites – Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, who has been instrumental in bringing some incredible vermouths and other rare spirits to the US (Dolin, Cocchi, Zucca, etc.); and David Perkins of High West Distillery in Utah, who has been doing some great things with rye and interesting whiskey blends.

I was really impressed with High West’s new (coming soon!) “Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye.” The OMG is actually a play on “Old MononGahela” – a river in western Pennsylvania which ran through the heart of America’s original whiskey country – and this unaged 100% rye (20 % malted, 80 % regular) is meant as a tribute to the old ways. What really hit me was the yeastiness on the nose, and I mean that in a very good way, that balanced out the spicy rye. Perkins made a point of sharing that there are three yeast strains that go into this, and also offered a taste of a test single yeast version as well that didn’t have the same complexity of the finished product. There’s a lot that goes into figuring out a whiskey like this, and the attention to the yeast blend is really interesting (to me at least!), especially given that an unaged whiskey doesn’t have the flavor of the barrel to fall back on. This is a聽Wow. Highly recommended. I also got another chance to taste their 21 year old rye which has been out for a while, and it is simply spectacular.

Back to Haus Alpenz, I love their Cocchi Vermouth, Barolo Chinato, and Americano, but passed on those to try something new – the Rothman & Winter Peach Liqueur from Austria. This joins Rothman & Winter’s Creme de Violette as a knockout cocktail ingredient for those seeking something unusual, and the Peach will be much more crowd friendly (the Creme de Violette is extremely SUPER floral). Great intensity of flavor.

Sticking to the row of spirits producers, I got to try a LOT and also passed up the chance to try a lot more that I would have loved to sample. There was simply too much. Some of the things I tried that were very impressive:

Pur Likor Blossom
, Elderberry Liqueur, Germany: for all you St. Germain fans, finally a worthy alternative, very expressive

Neisson Rhum Agricole Vieux Reserve Speciale, Martinique: crazy good aged rhum, a treat to try this

St. George Terroir Gin and Dry Rye Gin, California: two stellar and unique gins, the former is like a hike in Northern California, gaining its “terroir” from using local botanicals, and the latter is an intriguing bridge between gin and rye, aggressively spiced with juniper and the rye’s peppery notes

Small’s American Dry Gin: a new entry from the folks behind the wonderful Ransom Old Tom Gin, this one has a great, crisp spice profile made with a bit of raspberry!

I regret not having tried the Bas Armagnacs from Marie Duffau and Dartigalongue (how often does one get to try those risk free??) as well as the聽Chaffe Coeur Calvados (ditto).

On the wine side, I missed out on a lot, but just about all the wines from Jon David Headrick Selections were excellent, especially the Dosnon & Lepage Recolte Rose Champagne and the Claude Riffault Sancerre “Boucauds.” I somehow missed out on the聽Hirsch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the聽Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir; so it goes at a massive event like this.

I was happy to walk away after much swirling and spitting with at least a few things to seek out in the future, as well as an appreciation for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for these producers trying to get their products out into the hands and mouths of the people.

Photos of some of my favorites follow, including some great oysters and ridiculous TRUFFLE MAYO there to accompany the drinks. Thanks to Quality for the opportunity to taste:

Madeira’s Family Reunion

This post starts with the shaky premise that you, dear reader, are familiar with both Madeira (as in the wonderful old fortified wines produced in the Madeira Islands) and Madea (as in the crazy old African-American woman played by Tyler Perry in many a movie). There are more similarities than just the name – both can be outwardly sweet with an acidic backbone, both are known for getting better with age, both are… OK, who am I kidding? You’d have to pay me to watch a Madea movie, a lot, or at least ply me with a bottle or two of vintage Madeira.

Madea Goes To Jail
No, this is not Mannie Berk

My first real introduction to vintage Madeira came earlier this year at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, thanks to a tasting conducted by Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Co., a leading player in keeping the flame of Madeira going. This particular tasting included some fabulous Madeira from 1968, 1922, 1912, 1875 – yes, you read that right. They were phenomenal, and got me hooked into learning more about this uncommon wine. I bought THE book on the subject (again, Mr. Berk is doing the good work, this history itself is fascinating), and set out to buy a few bottles that would help me continue to learn about (and enjoy) the various types of Madeira. A great way to get to know a bit about Madeira is the “Historic Series” from The Rare Wine Co. – non-vintage bottlings that “reflect the style and complexity of the great vintage wines” and also are named after the US ports that favored specific styles in the 1800’s. Madeira was very popular pre-Prohibition, especially in port cities with a direct trade link to Europe and the ships that stopped in Madeira to pick up casks of wine. Us Southerners get the Charleston Sercial and the Savannah Verdelho – Sercial and Verdelho are different varietals, both on the drier end of the Madeira spectrum. Northerners have the Boston Bual (on the sweeter side) and New York Malmsey (the sweet end of the spectrum). 聽The theory goes that the cold nights of the North favored sweeter Madeira, while the heat of the Low Country called for a drier wine.

Just this week, a bunch of bottles arrived on my doorstep, and I can not wait to give these a taste. I chose a range of ages, and a range of grape varietals, to try to get a good perspective on Madeira in all its glories. 聽Besides being a fabulously complex wine, a great wine to pair with food, and simply utterly intriguing, Madeira offers the added benefit of long life. Once you open a bottle, it will basically maintain its quality forever (at least, that is what I’ve read). So opening a special bottle can provide many opportunities for enjoyment over time. I’m looking forward to testing that theory out. More to come, I need to get back to my TV to watch some Tyler Perry…

Some nice vintage Madeira from The Rare Wine Co.
"Very Fine and Old"
The Charleston Sercial from The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series