Vodka from the Vineyard

While some say grape-based vodkas go against the grain, others are busy enjoying them.


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If the base ingredient for vodka was the most controversial subject on this earth right now, I think the world might be a better place. But although it might not be front-page news, it's refreshing to discover that some fairly important people still have time to debate the subject.

In a recent attempt to convince the European Parliament to restrict the word "vodka" to spirits made only from grain, Alexander Stubb, representing Finland, said, "Vodka needs to be defined much like whisky." Scottish Deputy Enterprise Minister Allan Wilson didn't agree. He countered that the difference between the two drinks was that you could taste the raw materials in whisky, but not in vodka, and this led Stubb to accuse Wilson of launching a cultural attack, and of trying to claim that whisky was a better drink. Hopefully, this won't lead to a 21st-century Vodka War between Finland and Scotland. And hopefully, it won't lead to the demise of some of the spectacular grape-based vodkas that have been hitting the shelves recently, either.

Cîroc, a vodka made from Mauzac Blanc and Ugni Blanc grapes grown in the Gaillac and Cognac regions of France, was the first of this new breed of spirits to raise eyebrows in the U.S. "It can't be vodka. Must be grappa," said some folks. But I'm afraid they were wrong. Grappa and its French equivalent, marc, are made from the leftovers of the winemaking process, whereas Cîroc and the few other grape-based vodkas on the shelves are distilled from wine. And they are distilled to be so pure that they meet all the rules and regulations surrounding the definition of vodka. But that doesn't mean that they have no character at all. Far from it, in fact.

But does the base ingredient of a vodka really matter? Well, yes. Although I doubt very much that anyone on earth could tell the difference between half-a-dozen glasses of Bloody Mary, each made with a different vodka, the choice of vodka for more elegant drinks such as a vodka martini, or a refreshing shot of ice-cold vodka to follow a tasty mouthful of caviar, is of utmost importance. They vary incredibly in texture; their flavors, although delicate, can run from sweet to peppery, fruity to grainy, and rough to smooth. Grape-based vodkas tend to run on the sweeter side of the scale, though to label them sweet would be erroneous. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing new style of vodka, and mixologists worldwide are finding them to be ideal for cocktailian usage.

For instance, Sean Bigley, a bar manager at Bellagio in Las Vegas, likes to use Idôl vodka when he's creating new drinks. Idôl is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Burgundy region of France. It has a very delicate palate, and a surprisingly long finish for a vodka, making it a perfect vehicle for Bigley's Golden Idôl cocktail, a mixture of vodka, amaretto, crème de cassis and fresh lemon juice. Sounds like a sure bet to me—and that's something that can be hard to find in a place like Vegas.

Cîroc French vodka is made from grapes that have been left on the vine for an extended ripening period before being pressed, cold-fermented, and distilled five times, resulting in a very clean-tasting vodka with faint notes of citrus on the nose, and just a hint of sweetness on the palate. Two prominent mixologists, Frank Caiafa, bar manager at Peacock Alley in New York's Waldorf=Astoria hotel, and Paul Morganelli, bartender at ENVY, the Steakhouse at The Renaissance in Las Vegas, both find Cîroc to be a perfect ingredient to marry to ice wine. Morganelli keeps it simple by merely marrying three parts Cîroc to four parts of ice wine, shaking it over ice, and straining his White Diamonds cocktail into a chilled cocktail glass. Caiafa, on the other hand, goes to much trouble to make his Almost All Grape cocktail—it's made with muddled apricot and peach, ice wine, rosé and Cîroc. "[The] dessert wine is very sweet so I needed something to offset it. Domaine La Suffrene Bandol rosé has a great essence of strawberry flavor profile, but I guess any dry rosé will do," he says. "It's all about balance. Even the apricot is there to offset the peach. I feel it is a very elegant and special summer cocktail."

The French aren't the only ones making vodka from grapes—our friends in California are in on the act, too. The good folks at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California call for both grape and grain to make their much-hailed Hangar One vodka. Distillers Jorg Rupf and Lance Winters first make a vodka from Viognier wine, and then they blend it with a wheat-based vodka to produce Hangar One. It was the vodka of choice at One Market in San Francisco earlier this year, when beverage manager Steven Izzo created the Earthquake Cooler to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the quake that shook the city in 1906. It's a simple but very refreshing drink, made with Hangar One, lemon, lime and pomegranate juices, and a splash of seltzer.

California is also home to Roth Vodka, made from a proprietary blend of six grape varieties, including Chardonnay and French Colombard. French Colombard is a variety of grape that's often used to make brandy, and it's chosen because the acidity levels in the grape help boost the aromatics in the finished product.

Made at the O'Neill Vintners and Distillers plant in Parlier, California, by master distiller Tom Vitali, Roth Vodka boasts a silky body, with a slightly fruity-sweet palate that lends itself to cocktailian pursuits. "We will initially target sommeliers and ultra-premium wine lovers—two groups that we are highly experienced at reaching, and with whom we have a proven track record of marketing and sales success," says Bill Newlands, president of Beam Wine Estates, the company that issues Roth.

Unfortunately, the European Parliament has some topics more important than the base ingredient of vodka to debate, but I'm heartened to know that they still find time to talk about serious topics such as this. Meanwhile, we can sit back and sample some of these new grape-based vodkas, and be on the lookout for more. They're bound to appear soon, I think. Variety. It's the very spice of life.

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