February 13, 2012

Two Wines From Errazuriz (Chile)

Yeast. It's everywhere. It floats around, looking for sugars to eat and makes every surface grubby. Like children.

This "ambient yeast" may have helped us invent baking thousands of years ago by invading an Egyptian bowl of warm water and ground grains, but it can be a real challenge for winemakers.

In order to reliably convert the sugars in their crushed grapes (the "must") to alcohol and CO2, winemakers select specific varieties of yeast, usually a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, according to the climate, wine-making style, and the kind of grape they are using.

The problem with relying on ambient yeasts to do this important job is that there are so many strains floating around. The winemaker can't be sure that the ones that take over the fermentation will be hardy enough to survive the build-up of their own output as they convert all the sugars. Or they might add unpredictable flavours to the wine. Brettanomyces is notorious in the wine industry for leaving an animal, "barnyard" scent.

The benefits of using ambient yeasts, however, also come from their unpredictability; they can add complexity to a finished wine. It is interesting, then, to see a large winemaker like Errazuriz take a gamble* on ambient yeasts and release a Wild Ferment Chardonnay.

This comes from the Casablanca Valley (see map below) where the ocean-influenced climate slows the build-up of heat with morning fog, and cooler night temperatures encourage complexity in the balance of acids and sugars.

And it's such a good Chardonnay. It has a little toasted oak influence but it is gentle and rounded by the malolactic fermentation. There is a classic, lemony backbone all the way through with some lovely, delicate flavours developed by the ambient yeasts. Restrained and complex, this one unfolds leisurely over a long finish.

At only $22 here in BC, it's a great way to experience a risky and rewarding style of wine-making.

*Okay, we know they aren't just throwing the doors open and risking their entire production on whatever floats in, but it makes a better story.

Carménère also makes a great story. Originally one of the six Bordeaux varieties, Carménère has found unique expression in Chile, especially in the Aconcagua valley in the warmer north.

Surrounded by ocean, mountains and desert, Chile escaped the Phylloxera plague that devastated vineyards across Europe in the 19th Century. As a result, some of the Carménère vines growing there now are among the oldest in the world.

Imagine how frustrating it must be for a winemaker to try making one kind of wine only to have it come out tasting like something completely different. This is exactly what happened, because for a long time Carménère vines in Chile were mistaken for Merlot, which didn't help it build much of a reputation.

Of course that reputation is being put right these days by bottle after bottle of high-value Chilean Carménère that arrives in our stores, and this effort by Errazuriz is a perfect example.

The Aconcagua valley stretches from near the coast to much further in-land, following the Aconcagua river. While not coming from pre-Phylloxera vines (the vines were planted in 1992), this Single Vineyard Carménère is a great opportunity to try the pure expression of a small terroir at a very affordable price.

It really delivers that expression: black fruit, pepper, tar and tobacco, with a rich, full mouth-feel, a well-balanced backbone of tannins and acids and a velvety, flavourful finish. While we drank it, the initial fruity nose coalesced into secondary complex aromas that had us scrambling for descriptions. It held together beautifully over an hour or more, never faltering for a moment.

At $23 here in BC, this is really a great example of Chilean Carménère.

Map of Valle de Casablanca and Valle de Aconcagua, Chile.

February 10, 2012

Coffee: The Pour-Over

When we last left our heroes, they had roast the beans, then some better beans, then tested their grinder and were finally promising to actually make the damned coffee.

We take you now to the final installment: Actually Making the Damned Coffee.

These are some Very Important Points that dictate how we do this:
  • coffee freshness
  • how much coffee
  • what kind of filter
  • how much water
  • water temperature
  • timing
Just skip to the end if you're bored already, but you'll miss all the fun.
Twenty-eight grams of Honduran beans from Kafka's. Their beans come from Hermiker, and the roaster's notes are here. They were roast 5 days before we bought them. The bag looks beat-up because we re-used it. Long story, nvmd.

One of the coffee-related gifts we gave ourselves this Christmas is a Swissgold filter basket. While gold isn't chemically inert, it doesn't react with the colloidal* flavour particles in the coffee. A paper filter absorbs them, but this one lets them through.

Some people like the extra particles and oils that the Swissgold filter allows into your brew, but others don't.

We have tested this filter against two kinds of paper filters and with three different kinds of beans: Honduran, Nicaraguan and Costa Rican. We prefer the Honduran in the gold filter and the others in paper.

Gah. This is taking so long! I just want a cup of coffee, not a Wikipedia article!

The set-up: coffee pot, pour-over cone, filter basket. A ceramic pour-over cone would be nice, but it needs to be pre-heated and is not essential.

Grind dem beans, dem beans!

Grounds in the basket.

Pre-heat the pot in the microwave.

A folded towel insulates the scale against the hot coffee. Probably not an issue, but it also makes a firm base for the tower of equipment.

We use the i-Pod's built-in timer, but you can also get some helpful apps specifically made for brewing coffee. We started with a free one from Intelligentsia Coffee. They also have helpful brewing guides in the app and on-line (PDF). We did notice that they never actually say how many cups each method makes, which could lead to some embarrassing situations. This specific site is a great resource for brew methods, too.

Another coffee-specific Christmas gift to ourselves: a fancy-panty kettle with a spout designed for a slow, controlled pour. We have found that 455 grams of water ends up with just the right amount of water for our coffee if we take it off the boil right away.

Most pour-over methods suggest a water temperature between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. This is one of the rare occasions where we prefer to use Fahrenheit since the smaller increments allow for greater control.

At last! Pouring the hot water! Only 65 grams to start, though; just enough to soak the grounds.

The "bloom" will rise and let the grounds release their CO2. Coffee that was roasted less than a week before needs to rest for at least 60 seconds at this point. Coffee older than 7 days can rest for less time, but not less than 30 seconds.

During the bloom/rest, the kettle is returned to a low burner, heating back up to the magic temperature range again.

When the bloom is finished we start the final pour: s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, in circular motions, keeping the water level constant, soaking all the grounds and staying clear of the edges.

The pour should take two full minutes.

For 28 grams of coffee the added water should be about 415 grams. We poured a little too much here while fiddling with the camera. (We don't want to spoil the ending for you, but things worked out just fine.)

The Swissgold filter is a bit fragile, we hear, so we gently tap out the grounds before giving it a good rinse.

At long last, we pour from the pot into mugs that were pre-heated in the microwave.

Some people think that anything added to coffee adulterates the taste, but there are so many ways to enjoy it. We have it black for a week or two, then with a little milk or cream. Different beans and roasts show variations on their flavour profiles with each style. We have dropped sugar completely, however, and it's wonderful.

Now that we have this method down, do we do this every day? Absolutely not. We still love our little stove-top moka pot/caffettiera and a microwaved mug of milky instant coffee is a real pleasure.

The fun is in trying a new system and dialing in the variables and the process until you can get a reliable brew. Trying different beans and roasts is just like discovering new wines; when you get it right they reveal all kinds of wonderful flavours.

Not everyone is happy about the rise of the pour-over method, though, especially as a business model.

*Murano Glass is another example of a colloid, which coincidentally has gold chloride added to create its signature ruby colour.

February 6, 2012

Burns Supper: Adoration of the Haggi

Our wonderful hosts improve on the traditions of the Burns Supper every year.

The Cock-A-Leekie soup was rich and aromatic, with a couple of prunes like sweet, dark treasures.
 The Haggis was piped in and toasted brilliantly. There had been "an incident" during the boiling stage but an understudy had been thoughtfully prepared. It was sent in without a hitch and a star was born. And then eaten.

The Piping In and Brian's Address To A Haggis

A serving of the Great Chieftan, topped with a cranberry and thyme sauce which was as delicious as it sounds and looks.

A hearty winter's feast, including the tasty and wonderfully named "bashed neeps" at the bottom left.

 The Cranachan was particularly good this year with thick whipped cream and tangy raspberries.

There was wine, of course, but some of us actually paired the whole meal with only the golden grains, moving with careful pours from the sherry-steeped highlands down to the dark, smoky peat bogs of Islay, where it's warm and sleepy.

Glenfiddich 12
McClelland's Speyside
Lismore 21 The Legend
Abelour A'bunadh
Talisker 10
Jura Superstition
Finlaggan Old Reserve

 The readings and toasts were both fun and a welcome reminder of the evening's namesake. Greg, the maker of haggi, is seen here in the spotlight performing his paper-craft stage reading of What Will I Do Gin My Hoggie Die? This man sets the bar so high we have to take his word that it's still up there somewhere.

One-night-only sideburns were very much in fashion; a trend we hope to see continue. Apologies to those not photographed. We don't like the camera to intrude, and the low lighting (as it should be) sadly didn't allow for many successful snaps.

With such good friends, great food and readings, it was as wonderful a Burns Supper as anyone could dare to wish.

February 1, 2012

Burns Supper: Preparing the Haggis

There is a man named Greg who knows how to do things, or at least knows enough to act confidently when setting out for parts unknown.

When last year's wee, brave haggis had been had, the question was floated: "shall we make one next year?"

Greg, who, for all we know, has been making haggis for decades and quietly releasing them into the wild, answered without a moment's hesitation, "yes, we shall." And so the job was his.

And when the winter solstice was once again four weeks behind us, he gathered his dark materials, alerted the authorities, positioned us that we might observe but not intrude, and set out with actions deft and bold.

Diced onions and so on were put on to sweat.

Steel cut oats were gently toasted.

The liver, kidneys and heart were lifted from their boiling broth...

and diced with lamb confit.

All the above were invited in, with a generous dollop of duck fat.

The stomach knotted...


and knotted again.

And there it suddenly was: a thing of beauty!

Greg did all this while regaling us with tales of the mystical East and mixing cocktails of his own invention until we ran out of hyssop. If our memory is correct, and we are quite sure it isn't, he then bundled us into his barouche and bid his manservant take us home.

Next: The Adoration of the Haggi
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