Grappa, Tequila and Beer, Oh My!
Tequila continues to be a popular tipple even though prices have steeply risen due to recent agave shortages, spurred in part by huge demand in the U.S. Many brands have gone up in price as much as 30 percent just in the last 18 months. This has resulted in a sharp climb for margarita pricing. Seems that the days of the $3.50-$5 margarita are long gone, and will probably never return. Most trendy metropolitan bars, clubs and restaurants now routinely charge upwards of $7 for a basic margarita. "Call margaritas," meaning specific-brand margaritas, are as much as $12-$15. Where will it all end? My guess is that prices will increase only moderately through 2002 and will stabilize by the summer of 2003.
The distillers in Mexico who have access to agave are now often bottling Tequilas under several labels. This allows them to saturate certain key markets with several brands and affords them greater latitude in stretching the agave supplies they do have by making mixto brands, or Tequilas that are not 100 percent agave. This month we feature an excellent example of a Tequila distillery, Tequila San Matias de Jalisco, that offers 100 percent agave and mixto Tequilas under various labels: Pueblo Viejo, Carmessi, Sol Rey and San Matias. The San Matias line is mixto. Carmessi, Sol Rey, and Pueblo Viejo are 100 percent agave. How do they match up? Read on.
This month, we also take a close look at grappas from three elite Italian distillers. One of particular note, Castello di Barbaresco in Piedmont, is the home base for one of the wine world's stars, Angelo Gaja. Do his grape pomace distillates measure up to the acknowledged grandeur of his legendary Barbarescos, Barolos and Chardonnays? The ratings and evaluations tell the story.
Last, we at Wine Enthusiast realize that many of our subscribers also have a passion for beer. This month, we are adding reviewing beer to our list of pleasurable duties. Each issue of the Buying Guide will include from six to eight beer reviews, employing the same scoring system as the Spirits Buying Guide. Since the beers reviewed are offered for sale in varying formats, this section of the Buying Guide will not include individual prices. Neither will we include the alcohol level, since the vast majority of beers fall between 4-6 percent. When an alcohol by volume percentage is unusually lofty, we will list it. Cheers!
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100) HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Bonaventura Maschio Prime Uve Cru di Moscato Giallo, Harvest 2000 (Italy; Empson Inc., Alexandria, VA); 40% abv, $60. Translucent, showing insignificant sediment. The orange-tangerine, citrusy-tart aroma of Moscato (Muscat) gently wafts up from the glass; there is no more ideal grape for grappa than perfumey Moscato. Palate entry is tart, oil and piquant; by the midpalate the taste and texture deepen into a full-weighted, citrusy, oily and succulent experience. Aftertaste is orangey-grapey sweet, perfectly balanced. Outstanding grappa from start to finish.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Alexander Grappolo (Italy; Palm Bay Imports, Inc., Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $75. Clean, clear and sediment-free. The bouquet is elegantly subtle, firm, minerally, grape seed-like and even a touch banana-like; not a powerhouse aroma, but very pleasing and animated. It's obvious from the palate entry that this grappa shines brightest on the tongue as rich, grapey, and moderately oily tastes and textures enchant the taste buds. Aftertaste is extended, ripe, raisiny, light-bodied, and delightful.
Bonaventura Maschio 1999 Immature Brandy (Italy; Empson Inc., Alexandria, VA); 40% abv, $52. Absolute clarity. A full-throttle, evolved, and evocative bouquet highlights nuances of pineapple, nectarine, white grapes, citrus zest and new leather; aeration deepens the bouquet's layers of leather and citrus aromas. Palate entry features astringent tastes of grape pomace and acid; midpalate shows a sweeter, grapier side as the flavor turns ripe, sweet and black-raisin juicy. Aftertaste is long, moderate oily, and seed-like.
Bonaventura Maschio Prime Uve Cru Chardonnay, Harvest 2000 (Italy; Empson Inc., Alexandria, VA); 40% abv, $60. Limpid, with minor sediment. The aroma is neutral. Palate entry is oily, and the taste of ripe white grapes greets the taste buds; by the midpalate the texture is viscous and the flavor is concentrated and sweet. Aftertaste is intensely ripe, bittersweet and long. The taste and finish stages are so astoundingly intense that they easily redeem the closed-off aroma. Don't inhale. Just drink.
Bonaventura Maschio Prime Arance Acquavite d'Arancia Orange Brandy (Italy; Empson Inc., Alexandria, VA); 40% abv, $51. Clean and pure. Orangey perfume is tart, citrusy and zesty; a seductive perfume that's more astringent than ripe or sweet. Palate entry comes off neutral; it isn't until the midpalate that the taste buds flirt with attractively tart and authentic orange-pulp character. Ends astringent, clean, fresh, long and intensely orange. This terrific product is a revelation.
Castello di Barbaresco Darmagi Grappa (Italy; Paterno Imports, Lake Bluff, IL); 45% abv, $35/500 ml. Clear, clean. Lovely, aromatic opening bouquet is pear-like and off-dry; the unripened pear base aroma expands only slightly as delicate scents of nectarine and white raisins emerge. This is a fey, almost fragile, grappa bouquet that features fruit more than spirit. While the aroma may be dainty, the flavor is more assertive; by the midpalate the oily texture comes into play, underpinning the sweet ripe pear, nectarine and white grape elements. Concludes tart, stone dry.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Alexander Grappa Distllato di Vinacce-Pomace Distillate (Italy; Palm Bay Imports, Inc., Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $23. Clear as rainwater. Begins aromatically with a lively freshness, a pleasant fruitiness that's more dry than sweet; further ethereal aromas emerge, most prominently unripened pear, grape pomace and white raisins; a delightful bouquet with a light touch. Palate entry displays a spirity warmth at the tip of the tongue; midpalate is soft, plump, ripe and engagingly fruity. Aftertaste is moderately long, easy and mildly fruity.
Alexander Grappa di Cabernet (Italy; Palm Bay Imports, Inc., Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $27. Limpid and pure. Opening sniffings find a round red-berry bouquet that's surprisingly well-developed; time in the glass adds pronounced, medium-weight scents of paraffin and wet stone. Palate entry shows a ripe, grapey richness that's just a hint sweet; midpalate is firmly structured, grapey, mildly sweet and suitably fresh. Finishes off-dry, with tastes of ripe red grapes and acidic pomace.
Bonaventura Maschio Prime Uve Nere Acquavite d'Uva - Diluted Immature Grape Brandy (Italy; Empson Inc., Alexandria, VA); 38.5% abv, $62. Shows the pale yellow-straw hue of a Sauvignon Blanc. Opening aromas call to mind olive brine, wet potting soil and wood resin; more exposure to air adds vegetal/garden-like scents, including pine needles and sap—an odd, but strangely pleasant bouquet. Palate entry is resiny sweet; midpalate features wood resin and a heightening of the sap-like sweetness. Concludes delightfully woody and semisweet.
Castello di Barbaresco Magari Toscana Grappa (Italy; Paterno Imports, Lake Bluff, IL); 45% abv, $35/500 ml. Rainwater-clear and pure. Opening nosing passes find piquant and spirity scents; with every nosing pass there's something else popping up, like complimentary scents of black pepper, uncooked escarole, spinach, gunpowder, wet slate, fennel and granite. Palate entry is ripe, fruity and concentrated; by the midpalate, the taste turns sweet, grapey and fat in texture. Finish is oily, viscous, fruity sweet and extended.
Castello di Barbaresco Rennina Brunello di Montalcino Grappa (Italy; Paterno Imports, Lake Bluff, IL); 45% abv, $35/500 ml. Pure and translucent. Early aroma is peculiar but not offensive, with scents more akin to boiled vegetables and rubber tires than grape pomace or distilled spirit. Palate entry is fruity-grapey sweet and full-textured; midpalate highlights the natural oiliness of the spirit and the ripeness of the grape pomace. Aftertaste is long, a touch orangey (as in marmalade) and gently sweet. Displays a lot of finesse once in the mouth.
Castello di Barbaresco Gaia & Rey Grappa (Italy; Paterno Imports, Lake Bluff, IL); 45% abv, $35/500 ml. Limpid, but with lots of black-gray sediment. Puzzling smells of cardboard, fabric and rubber pencil eraser are detected early on; air contact doesn't make the aroma more accessible. Palate entry is pleasantly sweet, oily in texture and grapey; midpalate displays a flash of spirity warmth and sweetish tastes of ripe grapes and ripe red pears. Finish is a touch raw, heady and fruity.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Carmessi Reposado 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $30. Straw/gold tint. A textbook, fully developed reposado bouquet right from the start; clean aromas of herbs, dill, citrus rind and subtle hints of light brine, green olive and light oak. Palate entry offers lean, but not austere tastes of wood and semisweet agave; midpalate features focused, astringent tastes of agave, steamed asparagus and olives. Aftertaste is brief, lean and dry.
Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2002 Barrel Select Anejo 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Productos Finos, Ltda, Hartford, CT); 40% abv, $110. Aged in newly charred French and American oak barrels. Bronze/topaz color of an amontillado Sherry. Emits astringent and alluring aromas of jasmine, peppercorn, popcorn and distant agave; while not an overpowering bouquet, it's still potent and multilayered. Palate entry offers succulent tastes of sweet agave, oak char, maple and resiny oil; though the midpalate features a taste of rich dark caramel, it isn't sweet or candied. Finishes lush, elegant, bittersweet and extended.
Pueblo Viejo Blanco 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $25. Sparkling clear; shows some sediment. Aroma is zesty, pleasantly piquant, but not heady or prickly; exposure to air encourages further aromas including green pepper, pickling brine and lead pencil. Palate entry is dry and peppery, then at midpalate there's an explosion of off-dry licorice/anise flavor. Ends long, keenly dry and refreshing. What silver Tequila should be: crisp, herbal and fresh.
Pueblo Viejo Reposado 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $30. Pale flax/straw yellow hue. The minimum of nine months in wood shows up right away in the opening nosings, as piney, woodsy and gently sweet scents make a positive impression. Palate entry is dry and crisp; midpalate highlights succulent tastes of sweet oak, licorice and vanilla. Concludes astringent, sinewy and medium-long.
Sauza Hornitos Reposado 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT); 40% abv, $17. Pale straw/flax hue. Concentrated, off-dry, peppery and pulpy in the first sniffings; later whiffs detect seductive scents of licorice/anise. Almost wine-like at palate entry as it begins with zest, then at midpalate turns full-weighted and elegant with soft, semisweet flavors of peaches, apples, pears and black pepper. A top-flight, full-throttle tequila that still runs rings around many a $50 or more "cult" reposado or anejo. No cult here, just authenticity. Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Pueblo Viejo Anejo 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $45. Attractive light gold/apple juice color is unblemished. The aroma focuses squarely on the agave; air contact stimulates aromatic activity in the pleasing forms of light vanilla and red pepper. Palate entry is smoky and charred, with a backnote of sweetness; midpalate point is candy-sweet and oily. Finishes warmly, spirity, toffee-sweet and oaky.
Sol Rey Anejo 100% Agave Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $390. Aged in wood for approximately six years. Deep honey/gold color. Opening nosings detect understated anise, prickly pear and barely discernible dill; after another eight minutes, round, supple and intriguing aromas of agave, sulphur, minerals and licorice. Entry is plump, oily; midpalate is mildly sweet, not as woody/resiny as I expected or hoped. Aftertaste is long, keenly vegetal/cactus-like and dry.
San Matias Reposado Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $25. Pale flax hue—moderate sediment; the nose in the first stages is peppery and herbal—aeration does little except add a heady/spirity note to the green pepper and dried herbs; the palate entry is dry to the point of being very lean, then at midpalate there's a bit of flavor in the atypical forms of cocoa and cane sugar; the aftertaste highlights the mildly prickly spirit; run-of-the-mill; suitable for mixing.
San Matias Gran Reserva Anejo Tequila (Mexico; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $40. Smashing gold color. Initial sniffings reveal little except for mild pine/cedar and uncooked asparagus; aeration doesn't help in terms of encouraging greater aromatic depth or expansion. Palate entry is peppery and semisweet to sweet, even a touch oily; by midpalate there's a trace of hard candy sweetness that lies on top of the pepper and oiliness. Aftertaste is muted, mildly sweet in a vegetal/weedy manner and long.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Black Douglas Ale, Broughton Ales Limited (Scotland; Phoenix Imports, Baltimore, MD). Deep mahogany/nut brown color; extended sand-colored head. Opening bouquet offers scents of dark malt, baked and spiced pear and cocoa bean; last whiffs feature deep-roasted malt, black coffee and bittersweet chocolate elements. Palate entry is textured—almost smoky—and intensely malty; midpalate turns a bit sweeter as the malt overrides the hops, providing a luscious flavor phase. Aftertaste is sweetly malty, almost nutty, and very long. Serve at cellar temperature (58-62F).
Czechvar Premium Czech Lager, Brewery BBNP Ceské, Budejovice (Czech Republic; World of Wine, Ltd., Lafayette, CA). Rich amber color; silver-white foam. Dry, wafer-like notes of barley and brown rice at first; later nosings are sweeter and maltier. Palate entry shows a velvety texture and moderately sweet taste; midpalate bursts with firm, properly hoppy and wafer/cracker-like tastes. Ends up grainy, more dry than sweet and refreshing.