Your Guide to Cru Beaujolais, Plus Where to Buy it and Drink it in NYC

BeaujolaisBottles

If last week’s article on Cru Beaujolais piqued your interest, here’s my guide to the Crus, plus where to buy it and drink it in NYC.

Despite burgeoning quality, the Cru Beaujolais category remains relatively unknown to the general consumer, thus prices hang terrifically low. Skip the $11 Nouveau and other entry-level stuff. At twice the price, you get five times the complexity, structure, and balance, plus all the fruit, with Gamay grown in the granite and schist soils of the Crus.

Winemaking methods significantly affect flavors, and range from the region’s hallmark carbonic maceration (fermenting whole berries in closed tanks to produce a light, fruit-forward style) to Burgundian methods for more serious, structured wines (e.g., destemming the grapes). Interest in organic and biodynamic farming is growing, with a number of fine producers tipping into the natural winemaking category. As younger generations — and energized, historic families — pay closer attention to the attributes of their land and seek quality over quantity, Cru Beau will continue to be a category to watch.

The following list of villages includes expected characteristics in flavor and structure of the wines, with inevitable generalizations. Like anywhere, producer matters. Try to remember a handful of names (producer or region) or just ask your retailer or sommelier for assistance (find our three fave shops and restaurants, below).

The Ten Crus of Beaujolais
Brouilly Wines can vary greatly; it is the largest and most southerly of the Crus. Generally, expect soft and fruity wines with mineral notes. Producers: Georges Descombes, Domaine de Vissoux (Chermette), Jean-Claude Lapalu.

Chénas A small appellation, the wines are hard to find in the U.S. Known for red fruits, earthiness, and a heavier body/tannins. Sandwiched between Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent. Producer: Domaine Piron-Lameloise.

Chiroubles The high altitude contributes great acidity to the wines, which can be tart in cool years, or fresh, perfumed, and bright in sunnier ones. Producers: Daniel Bouland, Damien Coquelet, Cret de Ruyere.

Côte de Brouilly Small appellation in Brouilly on the slopes of Mont Brouilly. Structured wines with strong mineral character, cherries, and firm tannins that allow it to age. Producers: Chateau Thivin, Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun).

Fleurie Floral (think violets), rich, and round, some can be elegant and feminine, others more masculine. Prices higher than most. Producers: Sunier, Chateau de Fleurie (Barbet), Clos de la Roilette (Coudert), Potel-Aviron.

Juliénas Full-bodied, sturdy wines; sometimes rustic; can age. Flavors lean toward raspberries, cherries, and spice. Producers: Clos du Fief (Michel Tête), Pascal Granger.

Morgon Slightly less powerful than Moulin-à-Vent; mineral-laden wines come from the slopes of the Cote du Py. Known for a group of producers called the “Gang of Four,” protégés of natural wine pioneer Jules Chauvet: Jean-Paul Thevenet, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, and Guy Breton. Chamonard deserves to make it five.

Moulin-à-Vent Most powerful, tannic (for Gamay), and structured of the Crus, with classic fruitiness. Ages well. Producers: Jean-Paul Brun, Diochon and Domaine de Vissoux (Chermette).

Régnié The newest Cru, wines often have a soft, round, and spicy profile with light tannins. Generally drunk young to enjoy the strawberry and cherry notes. Producers: Charly Thévenet, Guy Breton, Descombes, Chateau de la Pierre (Barbet).

Saint-Amour Northern tip of Beaujolais with limestone soil similarities to southern Burgundy. Intense red fruits and florals with well-integrated tannins. Producers: Domaine des Billards (Barbet), Chateau des Rontets.

SaintAmour

Where to Buy
When you’re ready to stock up on a few bottles or even a case of wine, you’ll find the investment in Cru Beau is minimal; the finest bottles fall predominantly around the low- to mid-twenties price range. Sadly, producers are hardly paid what the wines are worth (in fact many are struggling), but until (or if) the market corrects, it’s a buyer’s paradise.

Chambers Street Wines (148 Chambers Street, 212-227-1434) Owner David Lillie pointed out several selections: Roland Pignard, Tradition, Morgon, 2012 for $22: “Certified biodynamic, it’s a beautiful wine showing complex red and black fruits with saline minerality.” Chignard, “Les Moriers,” Fleurie, 2012 for $26: “from very low yields…it has gorgeous raspberry, wild-strawberry and violet aromas and a beautiful light- to medium-bodied palate with bracing acidity.”

Flatiron Wines (929 Broadway, 212-477-1315) The Cru Beau evangelists at Flatiron have a diverse array of bottles, like the elegant and earthy Michel Tete, Clos du Fief, Juliénas, 2011, showing savory beef bouillon and fruity cherry notes for $23, and Jean-Paul Brun’s bright, mineral-driven, raspberry-laced Domaine des Terres Dorées, Cote de Brouilly, 2012 for $22.

Astor Wine & Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) Cavernous and competitively priced, Astor carries a handful of options, including the dense, floral, cassis-imbued Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, 2013 for $22, and the vibrant and taut, cherry-soaked Domaine Des Billards, Saint-Amour, 2011 for a mere $20. A no-brainer.

Where to Drink
Cru Beau is a growing darling of sommeliers citywide. Three wine directors who love the stuff weigh in on their favorites.

Partner and beverage director at Racines (94 Chambers Street, 212-227-3400), Arnaud Tronche particularly enjoys:
Chateau Thivin, Côte de Brouilly: The wine has amazing purity, minerality, plenty of fruit, and can age.
Marcel Lapierre, Morgon: Round, joyful with bright fruit; it’s a classic Morgon.
Guy Breton, Régnié: Earthy with dark fruits; dense, complex, and age-worthy. A minimal amount of sulfur is added.

Sommelier at Claudette (24 5th Avenue, 212-868-2424), Seth Liebman’s list includes at least one wine from all 10 Crus.
Chateau des Rontets, Saint-Amour, 2011: A pretty wine; very soft and beautiful with a nice center of character and structure. It is organic and “natural” in that they do not add any sulfur.
Joseph Chamonard, Le Clos de Lys, Morgon, 1997: The wines from this Chateau…are nothing short of heart-stopping. The 1997 vintage is terrific, though lean and focused with high acidity. It demands your attention.
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Croix Rameaux, Brouilly, 2012: Not to be confused with Lapierre, Lapalu makes wines with guts and strength; they are great drinking and deserve global attention.

Lelañea Fulton, wine director for the Dirty French (180 Ludlow Street, 212-254-3000)highlights:
Damien Coquelet, Vielles Vignes Chiroubles, 2012: The stepson of Georges Descombes, he makes a mean Chiroubles Vieilles Vignes.
Stephane Aviron, ‘Côte du Py, Vielles Vignes’ Morgon, 2011: An old-school vigneron, his Crus drink much like Burgundies.
Pascal Granger, ‘Grande Réserve,’ Julienas, 2009: Granger produces wines of deep dark fruit and amazing structure. They are powerhouse wines.

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Tasting the New Frontier of Chilean Wine with MOVI Chile

GarageWineCo.Grapes

Lately, I’ve heard rumblings through the drinks media that a new breed of Chilean winemakers have been fighting to disabuse us all (consumers, trade, and journalists) of the notion that wine from this slender, rugged South American country is innocuous juice produced from a few grapes, in a few regions, by several large-scale producers for the mainstream, value-oriented market (or premium Cabernet, red blend consumer). Last night, I discovered one such group during a tasting of the wines of MOVI Chile.

Chile stretches like a gaping black hole in my drinking resume – I usually forget to consider Chilean wines when selecting a bottle for dinner probably because I don’t stock any in my wine fridge, and I’ve rarely written about the country chiefly because I can’t recall ever having a coup de foudre moment — that lightning bolt-to-the-heart, in love with a bottle, butterflies-in-the-stomach reaction — with any of the wines. But my exposure, thus far, has been limited to a few big brands, so I’ve been on a quest to find boutique producers in the NYC market. They have to exist, right?

My travels around the world repeatedly teach me that the U.S. market never depicts the full and rich picture of a country’s wine industry – there’s always a renegade group (often several) on the ground, somewhere, making gutsy wine, testing new terroir frontiers and uncommon grapes, and pushing against conventional boundaries of both viticulture and style. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to visit Chile (for wine anyway) to survey the scene on the ground.

Well, ask and ye shall receive. Utilizing the power of social media to query contacts about wineries that might fit the aforementioned category, within an hour, my question had been answered: a colleague connected me with Derek John Mossman Knapp of Garage Wine Company via Facebook. Serendipitously, his group, MOVI Chile, would be hosting the last NYC tasting of the year on December 2nd at a West Village restaurant near my house.

Credit: Garage Wine Co.

Photo Credit: Garage Wine Company

MOVI stands for Movement of Independent Vintners. The group has 24 members, and was founded by 12 of them in 2009. The members are: Acrobata,  Armidita, Attilio & Mochi, Catrala, Clos Andino, Corral Victoria, Erasmo, Flaherty, Garage Wine Co., Garcia Schwaderer, Gillmore, Kingston, Lagar de Bezana, Laura Hartwig, Meli, Merino, Peumayen, Polkura, Rukumilla, Starry Night, Trabun, Villard, and Von Siebenthal. (I don’t yet have a list of who is imported where.)

The MOVI manifesto, subscribed to by all members, pledges to make wines on a small, human scale (not by specs for a supermarket) that tell a story and share the personality of both the soil and maker.

One stated goal is to “seek emancipation for independent vintners, to free them from the constraints of the volume driven suppliers and offer them the opportunity to be artisans without need for scalability.” However, their objective doesn’t involve lambasting or repudiating the current Chilean wine industry paradigm – there’s no question that it has helped focus a measure of international attention on the country — but to expand it and “complement it by providing breadth of choice”.

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By marketing themselves together, they harness the power and resources of the many to showcase the talents of the individual, and the farmer/winemaker can worry about the business of crafting wine, without wearing the additional hats of public relations rep, marketer, and salesman.

One representative from the group, Charlie Villard of Villard Wines, flew to New York to host the tasting of nearly twenty wines – almost every winery selected one wine for the event. An intimate group of local media and industry gathered at cozy, Latin-fusion restaurant Comodo for three hours of appetizers, wine, and discussion.

While the wines were not assessed in a flight format (as implied by the excerpts I’v scanned below), MOVI sought to introduce three broad concepts by which tasters could consider their wines. The first  idea, “The New Chile,” presented wines from recently explored terroirs and/or less mainstream grapes.

The New Chile Map

The second, “The Classics – Reloaded,” showcased red blends from historic regions, re-interpreted without “corporate constraint.”

Classics Reloaded map

The third concept, “Old is the New ‘New’ in Maule and Atacama” highlighted old, bush-head vines from soils farmed for centuries, only recently reinvigorated.

Old is the New New map

I tasted through most of the line-up, and finally had my coup de foudre moment with Chile. Let’s hope lighting strikes twice.

Here are my ten favorites from a stellar line-up of wines, in order of tasting. Apologies for the lack of bottle shots, but I didn’t have my camera with me last night. (All images provided by MOVI.)

  1. Meli, Riesling, Maule Valley, ’14: Striking peachy, stone fruit nose. Tropical notes on fruity palate. Lots of bright acid with a chalky, mineral finish.
  2. Sofia, Pinot Noir, Casablanca, ’12: Savory with black and red cherry nose. Hint of Elmer’s glue that blew off. Dried herbs, mineral tinged, good tension; fruit and earth in equipoise; the slightly charred wood finish makes me crave roast lamb.
  3. Villard, Pinot Noir, Casablanca, ’12: Deep, fresh black berry and a leafy herbal note on nose. The aromatics pop out of the glass! The palate smacks with fruit and vitality. Juicy, spicy, alive. The kind of Pinot I’ve been hearing about in Chile but hadn’t yet tasted. Lots of layers but very approachable. Could be a high-brow consumer hit.
  4. Attilo & Mochi Tunquen, Pinot Noir, Casablanca, ’12: Bright red fruit nose; classic Pinot aromatics. Hints of floral potpourri and spice notes on palate. Dried orange peel and brown baking spice. Quite elegant, fresh, and medium-bodied with a clean finish.
  5. Gillmore, Cab Franc, Loncomilla Valley, ’10: Berry fruit cough drop – like a Ricola on the nose. Herbs and deep, fresh black and blue fruit. The herbal note is a cross between eucalyptus and mint. Unusual. Medium bodied, with light, well-integrated tannins.
  6. Garage Wine Company, Cab Franc, Maipo, 2012: A complex, evolving nose. Floral with cherry, fresh pizza herbs, a savory leather note, hint of tobacco and spice. Medium body, good acidity, and integrated, slightly dusty tannins with a touch of grip. Really delicious.
  7. Trabun, Syrah, Cachapoal Valley, Requinoa, ’10: Aromas of a dusty, herbal tea shop in Chinatown. Ground, dried ginseng, layered over a black fruit, liqueur-like core. Nose belies palate which is all fruit with less nuance. Soft finish, could use more definition. Should be an attractive wine to many palates.
  8. Starry Night, Syrah, Maipo Valley, ’11: Pop of vibrant cassis and dark fruit on nose that nearly blows out my olfactory glands. Quite confected with a candied, smoked bacon edge. Ripe and rich and dense, but softens out and fades a little too fast.
  9. Vultur, Petite Sirah, Colchagua, ’12: Minty edged nose with confected black and red fruit. Very voluptuous on front palate but falls away softly on the finish, leaving a little tannin lingering behind. In like a lion, out like a lamb.
  10. Caballo Chileno, Carmenere, Maule, ’12: Herbs, spice, sandalwood, dried green peppercorn, and cherry. An intriguing nose. Palate offers additional hints of dried floral notes. Would love to taste this with grilled portobellos or roast duck.

 

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Why You Should Drink Cru Beaujolais on Thanksgiving (and Every Day)

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Last week, a Beaujolais disciple emailed to say he would sic Ted Cruz on me if I recommend anything other than ‘merican wines on Thanksgiving, and this guy loves Gamay (and is a Canadian). But at the risk of offending patriotic readers (and inviting that Texas hound to track me down), I am committing to the following statement: Drink Cru Beaujolais on Thanksgiving.

While this is neither the first nor last time you’ll read “Beaujolais goes great with turkey! Stuffing! Football!” it’s a point worthy of unbridled proselytizing: Cru Beaujolais, not to be confused with the basic Beaujolais or the marketing machine known as Beaujolais Nouveau, offers absurd — nay, criminal — value, given its range of expressions, vibrancy of fruit, layers of complexity, food-friendliness, and sheer pleasure for a very, very low price.

Unfortunately, in the short term, any discussion of Beaujolais requires a preface for clarification, like Australian Shiraz. “Yuck,” you say? Exactly. The stigma attached to it — what people think Beaujolais is — and what Beaujolais can actually be are continents apart. Here’s a quick rundown of why.

Beaujolais is a region in central-eastern France (actually, the southern tip of Burgundy) which produces light-bodied red wines from the Gamay grape (Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, in full). Akin to Nebbiolo from Piedmont (Italy), the wines have an inimitable quality that comes from the unique match of grape to soil to climate, a/k/a terroir. Gamay just doesn’t taste interesting when grown elsewhere (except, perhaps, in a small pocket of the Loire). But unlike Barolo or Barbaresco, the heralded villages of Beaujolais — e.g., Morgon, Fleurie — are foreign, in both name and concept, to the majority of consumers who’ve mostly only known the wine as Nouveau.

In the medieval villages of Beaujolais, a long tradition of celebrating the harvest with freshly fermented wine took place annually in November. The wines were drunk locally and were rarely, if ever, exported. Michele Peters of NYC-based David Bowler Wine, an importer and distributor with a particularly strong portfolio of small-production Cru Beau, reflects on the tradition: “My first experience with Beaujolais Nouveau was in Paris. It was always a fun day and involved trying the newly released wines with friends and noshing on dried sausages.”

But a quaint custom with honest intentions became twisted into a marketing gimmick that would ultimately reduce perception of Beaujolais down to a synonym for cheap, young, mediocre juice celebrated more for the party than the wine (like a vinous vodka). Vignerons were not innocent victims: The willingness of many to compromise farming and winemaking standards for a chance to sit at the global table besmirched their own reputation.

Despite its connotation, the question of whether Nouveau has helped or hindered consumer awareness of Beaujolais remains up for debate. Lelañea Fulton, wine director for the Dirty French, believes “it overshadow[s] Cru Beaujolais and creates an ignorance surrounding Gamay Noir and the terroir of Beaujolais. Like Liebfraumilch of Germany, the extensive distribution of what can’t be seen as anything more than a lipstick wine can have a negative impact on the general public.”

Paul Grieco of New York’s Terroir wine bars, on the other hand, thinks “nothing overshadows the Crus of Beaujolais. Since the majority of us cannot afford the Grand Vin from further north…we can still get our Burgundian fix from the original Burgundian grape, Gamay.”

Peters finds a positive aspect of the Nouveau release each year: “It gives smaller retailers who rely on customer education a chance to teach [them] about the variety of Crus available.”

Which brings us to the 10 Crus of Beaujolais. Wines from these villages sit at the top of the quality hierarchy (of which Beaujolais, the region, has three tiers), each village offering an expression of Gamay considered distinct enough to warrant its name as the appellation. The village names are: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and St.-Amour. Immediately below Cru Beau is Beaujolais-Villages, and at the bottom rung sits entry-level Beaujolais.

Why are these wines still relatively undiscovered? First, they are labeled with their village names (although “red Beaujolais wine” is found in smaller print on the label), so consumers need to ask their retailer for help or have a few names memorized. Second, recognition takes time, especially in light of the region’s recent history. Finally, better vintners produce fewer bottles, so it’s harder to find. They are focused on lower yields, less manipulation of the wine, and expression of terroir. This philosophy makes for interesting, soulful wines, but is incompatible with large-scale production.

Peters has noticed an uptick, though, in interest: “Beaujolais sales seem to increase every year at every level, Nouveau, Villages, and Cru. Cru delivers the best value because you can spend $15 to $30 a bottle and keep the wines for years.”

Fulton, too, has seen an escalated interest in Cru. “I have never been asked for Nouveau…I find that our list tends to attract consumers who want to experience different types of Cru and want to discuss it to understand the intricacies of it.”

Cognizance of Cru Beau is inevitable, given its affordability, quality, and utter deliciousness. For Fulton, “there is no other region that can produce Gamay Noir so boldly and beautifully as the Cru of Beaujolais. The amount of variation in the characteristics of the grape varietal from Cru to Cru is immense and stunning.” Sounds like a reason to drink Cru Beau not just on Thanksgiving, but any day of the year.

Here’s my guide to the ten Crus, including where to buy it and drink it around NYC.

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The 2014 Long Island Harvest Through the Lens of Macari Vineyards

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All photos by Carl Timpone

In case you missed my column Unscrewed, here’s a second chance to read about the 2014 Long Island harvest.

For the New York wine industry, nervous anticipation of fall isn’t about the return of fireside cocktails, knee-high leather boots, and felt fedora hats, or tacit permission to eat like a grizzly headed into hibernation. Autumn equals harvest, and depending on the quality of the growing season, which runs right up until the minute each cluster of plump berries is separated from its life-giving vine, that can be a joyous or heartbreaking occasion; a single, severe storm at or before picking can decimate a year’s worth of toil.

As the last grapes of the season were collected, I consulted the family and winemaker at New York’s Winery of the Year (awarded by the New York Food & Wine Classic), Macari Vineyards, for a report on the vintage and the future of Long Island’s 2014 wines. Prognosis: Expect deliciousness.

Winemaker Kelly Urbanik-Koch gave a resoundingly positive weather account: “We experienced a relatively cool and dry summer. We usually receive rain in September and October, and summer humidity is frequently an issue, but this year, humidity was mercifully lacking, resulting in little to no disease pressure in the vineyards.” Urbanik-Koch is one of few female winemakers in the region. She’s also young, at 34, making her a refreshing anomaly in the older, male-dominated Long Island wine industry.

The Macari family has owned and worked the 500-acre waterfront farm in the North Fork since 1963, although the winery wasn’t established until 1996. Joseph Macari Sr. planted the vineyards with his son Joe Macari Jr., fulfilling a lifelong dream that began in a Depression-era basement in Corona, Queens, where he made his first batch of wine.

A shining example of the term “family business,” Macari Vineyards is now run by three generations, including Joe Sr., now 87 years old, and each contributes to its success. Joe Jr. manages the vineyard and cellar teams, while his wife, Alexandra, oversees the tasting rooms and wine club and gives feedback on blending decisions. Their four children — Joe Macari (yep, a third Joe, and also a vineyard manager), Thomas Macari, Edward Macari, and Gabriella Macari — all keep the gears greased, especially during the intense, backbreaking hours required by harvest.

Gabriella, who oversees distribution and marketing, expects the 2014 wines to be elegant and expressive with intense and complex flavors due to a slow and steady ripening season. She said their biggest challenge of the year was being restricted in the amount of experimentation they normally do: “With such gorgeous fruit, we weren’t limited by nature, but rather time. All those healthy grapes kept us too busy pressing to think about anything else. It’s a good problem, but it made for a very laborious year.”

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Adding to the strenuous nature of vineyard work is the Macari philosophy of farming along biodynamic principles, a practice Joe Jr. incorporated long before the concept gained mainstream awareness. “We are by no means certified biodynamic and do not follow it rigidly, but we believe small implications have helped our vines tremendously,” says Gabriella. The family tends a herd of cattle that contributes manure to the composting program. They also keep bees and sell a small amount of honey to local restaurants, the remainder given as gifts to fortunate friends.

Continuing unintentionally ahead of the trend curve, the Macaris produce a low-alcohol Chardonnay they release right after harvest called Early Wine; it sells out quickly every year. (Low-alcohol wines have been a growing category around the country.)

However, it’s Long Island’s classic grape, Cabernet Franc (if there is a designated “classic” yet), that has the family excited about the new vintage.

When young, Cab Franc expresses North Fork terroir with savory herbaceous notes mixed with bright red fruits and refreshing acidity. With age, olive and dried herb notes can develop, while high-quality wines retain balance and acidity, have length, and develop silky tannins, like the Macari 1997.

“We opened our ’97 Cab Franc for a tasting last March at Astor Center and it blew me away,” says Gabriella. “The wine could have held on a couple more years. It’s proof that our wines have world-class longevity, and it is motivation for my family to keep producing the grape as a single varietal.”

For those eager to sample the vintage without waiting for the 2014 Cab Franc, not likely available until late 2017, Macari just released the Early Wine last week. The wine can be purchased in one of its two tasting rooms or on its website.

Fortunately for most Long Island vintners and their fans, 2014 was an excellent vintage. If the best wines age as well as the 1997, made in an average year, then expect remarkable results.

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How to Drink Better Coffee? Treat it like Wine

BrazilCoffee ChampagneGrapes

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a respected wine journalist and Master of Wine that left me incredulous for this person’s surprising attitude towards coffee. Asked to expound upon the significant parallels between both drinks, a nascent but certainly timely topic, this industry luminary quipped, “The only thing I care about in my coffee is that it is scalding hot.” It wasn’t a joke; it was declared almost indignantly. This writer might as well have told me their favorite beer in the world was Bud Light. Maybe this Mad Men-era opinion was earned after multiple decades in the wine industry, but I like to think not; and if you think this way, you are woefully out of date as well.

How could a wine lover and educator, a connoisseur of flavor and devotee to complexity and origin, nonchalantly dismiss another comparably complex, fragile, and nuanced liquid gift from the earth?

I write Unscrewed, a Village Voice column dedicated to wine, and Filtered, also for the Village Voice, dedicated to New York’s ever-evolving coffee (and tea) world. These two realms share many parallels that wine lovers should appreciate. If you start to look at coffee like wine, you’ll drink better brew.

A Comparison of Coffee and Wine

Species and varietal classifications are key to understanding taste profiles
In the vinous world, grapevines Vitis vinifera (what we mostly drink) and Vitis labrusca (includes the Concord grape, and has earned a reputation for less desirable foxy aromas) are examples of high-quality v. working quality species. For coffee, that parallel is drawn between Arabica and Robusta.

Your local barista sells Arabica beans. She makes espresso with Arabica, pours your V-60 or Chemex with Arabica, serves drip from the Fetco with Arabica.

Robusta is considered a lower quality source. It’s mostly grown in Vietnam (when’s the last time you were offered a pour over originating in Vietnam?) and is used in many commercial blends such as Maxwell House, Yuban, and Folgers, whose cans of ground coffee still sell in supermarkets.

Within the Vitis vinifera subset of wine grapes, there are hundreds of varieties commercially cultivated for winemaking — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay are a few obvious ones.

Coffee’s equivalent of a “variety” is a cultivar. There are thousands of coffee cultivars within the Arabica species, important ones including Bourbon, Caturra, Typica, and the highly-prized, and priced, Geisha.

Each coffee cultivar exhibits certain, consistent flavor profiles but can still transmit the taste of a place, or terroir, when grown in different regions. Imagine the red berry flavors in a robust California Pinot Noir versus similar red fruits coupled with earthy notes in a lighter German version.

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Terroir matters
I recall a great quote by writer Gabriel Chase. When attributing terroir to the differences between cognac and armagnac outside of distillation, he likened the notion of doing so to inventing a God to explain the unknown.

Terroir (literally French for soil) attempts to reference the precise growing environment (geography, soil, general climate, plus specific weather patterns that vary to year) of a specific area that renders its wine inimitable.

How tightly that is defined depends on the region and grower. Terroir isn’t given much (try zero) consideration in the large, hot swaths of heavily cropped and irrigated industrial vineyards of Colombard and Ruby Cabernet in Central California. In Burgundy, however, very small plots of land have demonstrated very different terroir. One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of Pinot Noir on a high, sunny slope of Morey-St-Denis compared to a neighbor’s bordering land with forest shade and slightly different soil and mineral patterns, can produce dramatically different wines (the hand of the vigneron notwithstanding).

The concept of terroir is new to coffee and just being explored, but there are some commonalities with wine, especially as far as recognition of origin and the flavor expectations that come with it. For example, several Ethiopian regions are now famous enough that many enthusiasts intrinsically understand that Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, or Harar indicate quality when scrawled on a blackboard in their neighborhood coffee shops.

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Sensory Experience: Flavor, body, and acid
Around 200 flavor compounds have been discovered in wine. If you’ve ever been around a professional wine taster assessing a flight of Bordeaux, you may hear terms like cassis, cedar, and graphite bandied about. They’ll also comment on the body: light, medium, or full, and note the acid levels ranging from low to high.

Well, sidle up to a professional coffee cupper or Q grader and listen to the tasting notes they magically pull from a list of almost 500 flavor compounds found in coffee. More than double known to wine!

Just as red Bordeaux wines exhibit certain, consistent characteristics, so to do coffees. For example, recurrent elements found in Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe (mentioned above) are vibrant acidity, and citrus and floral notes, whereas coffees from Harar often have exuberant fruit aromatics, especially blueberry, apricot, plus spice notes. I can practically taste blueberry pancakes in some of the finest coffees of Ethiopia.

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Wine and coffee quality both begin in the farm
Vintners confess that wine is made in the vineyard, and the same holds true for coffee. Just like seasonal harvesters of grapes, coffee farm workers have to learn how to properly pick ripe fruit, sort the good from the bad, and care for the beans to prevent mold or desiccation. Pruning, spacing, pest management, and watering are among the many considerations for coffee farmers, just like grape growers, to control and optimize, and both are susceptible to flavor variability due to seasonality, as well as devastating weather that can wipe out their crops and livelihoods for the year.

Geography
Wine grapes grow within a certain band of latitudes, the 30th to 50th parallels. Excessive heat shuts down grape development. High humidity promotes disease in the vineyard. Frigid weather kills vines during winter. Grapes need defined growing seasons with moderate winters for dormancy. (Although this notion is being challenged with so-calledNew Latitude wines.)

Coffee, also, has geographically productive limitations. The plant prospers in tropical regions, at altitudes generally above 3,000 feet which provides consistency in temperature, sunshine, rainfall, and also better drainage.

Seasonality
Grapes harvest occurs once a year. The concept of seasons applies to coffee harvesting, too. We all likely expect to drink a cup or two of coffee every morning, but we must forgo the notion that it will be the same coffee every day, unless we drink coffee with a heavy roast or from those aforementioned supermarket containers. Kenya’s crop arrives around late winter through spring whereas beans from Central America should arrive from spring through mid-summer.

Other flavor influencers
Compare the result of stainless steel storage versus new French barrique for wine, to the length of time and degree of heat used when roasting coffee. If a winemaker puts a subtle Pinot Noir for two years in new French oak, that Pinot won’t emerge tasting like fruit alone. If a roasters chars a delicate coffee (one could argue most coffees are delicate when green), until it looks like oily, black stones, you also won’t taste the primary fruit character of the coffee. That beautiful blueberry note found in your Harar? Transformed into toast.

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I could carry on comparing grape mutations, hybrids, and crossings to coffee cultivars; the effect of hand-harvesting versus machines on grapes and coffee cherries; large, commercial farms versus small, estate grown fruit; and add that home brewers should remember beans are perishable and need to be stored properly, like your wine, but you’ve probably got enough to consider. Just remember, that coffee is a delicate product, as Nobletree’s John Moore said, it’s a “miracle it actually makes it to your cup.”

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Alquimie: The Most Ravishing Drinks Magazine in the World?

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It looks like my days of hoarding handsome magazines have returned.

Wrapped in plain brown paper, my first copy of Alquimie arrived from an unfamiliar overseas address. Pulling it from the packaging with the excitement of an unexpected gift, I thumbed through the weighty edition’s pages, and instantly felt a potent nostalgia for the days of print. Is Alquimie the most ravishing drinks magazine to publish in the last decade?

While adopting a model of print media and shipping the cumbersome result around the world from its founders’ base in Australia sounds like a great way to turn any size pile of money into a smaller one (like owning a vineyard!), the team behind it hopes a readership yearning for beautifully written content and presentation, will support the effort.

Alquimie’s motto “breathing new life into drinks” certainly pertains to the physical attributes of the magazine, although it’s more reminiscent of a journal with its quarterly publishing schedule, matte cover, and heavy paper stock.  Each page shows careful, artistic intention both in layout and gorgeous photography. This tactile approach, meant to lure a base of practical romantics who long to hand write notes with the smooth comfort of a Mont Blanc fountain pen between the fingers, but succumb to email for the majority of their correspondence, will charm them (me) as intended. To address that important practical side, however, they’ve developed a sleek website.

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Fortunately, the authors, sourced from the founding team and journalists around the world, write articles as compelling to read as they look on paper.

The current edition (its third) tackles a diverse landscape of topics ranging from coffee, Armagnac, whisky, and little-known Swiss grape varieties. Food, integral to the experience of drink, also receives treatment: this quarter, author Tony Tan explores the sub-regional cuisines of China. In a section devoted to tasting and reporting on spirits and wine called The Palate, they review boutique Champagne, consider the nuances of vodka (nuance being the operative word), and compare notes on several value wine recommendations through the lens of professionals v. the lay taster.

Supplementing their subscription fees, Alquimie offers an interesting addition to the traditional media model: they sell wine. Josh Elias, the Editor in Chief, handles the selections, and although he says there isn’t a strict criterion on how he chooses the bottles, the people behind the projects share a similar narrative in that they are “small producers doing things a little bit differently.”  The wine subscription offer applies primarily to Australian residents unless foreigners have the wallet for astronomical, overseas freight charges.

So who is behind Alquimie? Four colleagues who consider themselves friends first, business partners second, according to Josh. The other three publishers and founders are James Morgan, Photographic Director; Nicholas Cary, Creative Director; and Raul Moreno Yague, Chief of Contributors.

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I emailed Josh a few questions to learn the impetus behind Alquimie’s creation, and to ask what they believe they add to the global beverage conversation. We also addressed favorite cocktails, up-and-coming producers in Victoria, Australia, and how Josh would like to be traveling in two places at once (Sicily and Piedmont).

What inspired the creation of Alquimie?

We wanted to produce a print publication that we could read ourselves. We couldn’t relate to the existing offerings. We wanted to produce something a little more democratic, less authoritarian with more of a focus on the narrative (the narrative of the story & the document). Drinks require context. Be it a dining table, or a time in history. The concept of ‘drinks in a vacuum’ never made sense to me.

What was your previous (or concurrent) profession?

I am a law graduate, who worked in a family business in the fabric industry and then spent nights working as a sommelier in fine dining. My grandfather quite rightly calls me a jack of all trades, master of none. Though, I’m studying the Master of Wine qualification at the moment, which hopefully means that one day I’ll prove him wrong. Alquimie occupies most of our time at present. Even when we are doing other tasks, working other jobs, it is on our minds.

How did you decide on the name?

It was about creation and narrative. We wanted something that hinted at a story and a science combined. We felt Alquimie — the original french derivation of Alchemy — ticked those boxes.

Did friends or family have doubts about taking the print channel, including global shipping?

For sure they were skeptical but I guess part of that comes from being protective. In terms of the evolution of print and the changing of that industry, we believe that the timelessness of our publication, our careful selection of tried and tested subject matter differentiates us from other, timelier magazines. We aim to be a reference piece. Our publication doesn’t mention current events or index the ‘hottest new releases’. Alquimie is not a guide or an index for instant answers, it is an opportunity to sit down and let your mind wander. I think our family and friends relaxed once they saw and felt the magazine. The quality of the finishes helps to create a universal acceptance of quality. Much of that is due to James’s photography and Nic’s design. They make my job, as a drinks writer, very easy.

What are you attempting to add to the world of drinks publishing? What did you think was missing?

I think it was missing accessibility and a sense of context. As an industry, drinks publishing is fairly good at communicating about the product, in isolation. However, wine media, as an example, are very much focused on the projection of their ‘objective truths’. To this end, the writing can be somewhat authoritarian and dictatorial. We wanted to step away from that style. It doesn’t benefit the consumer who may be trying to develop their own palate or embrace the beautiful variables to be found in drinks, of which there are many. Such is the problem with that phenomenal addiction known as ‘wine-scoring’. It doesn’t answer any of the ‘why’ questions. Rather, it encourages blind following. It also has the consequence of shortening the conversation with the consumer. It unduly simplifies the product to the point which, I believe, is somewhat disrespectful to the people who put all the effort into the growing, making and marketing of their product.

We prefer to talk about fewer products, giving each of them the respect that they deserve. These points are true for writing about coffee, water, spirits, etc. However, wine is a good example because I believe it to be the most experienced drink, in terms of communication. Our decision to write about all drinks, also helps to break down a few of the expected ‘norms’ associated with wine writing.

What’s your favorite type of wine? Cocktail? Nightcap?

In terms of wine, I’d say that I drink either of pinot noir or nebbiolo most often. However, I try to taste widely in order to keep my palate sharp. As for spirits, I’m a sucker for Armagnac; the heat, the warmth and the sweet, spicy flavors. An old bottle of Darroze doesn’t go astray. As for cocktails, an old fashioned or a negroni are the two that you’d most likely catch me drinking.

What’s new or unique to the drink world in Victoria, Australia that people should know about?

Patrick Sullivan, BobarLinnaea winesMelbourne Gin Company, Four Pillars Gin, and Madenii Vermouth. First and foremost, these are great people. Secondly, they create products with unique personality. They have curly edges and stark flavours. Most of all, they are delicious.

If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?

That’s hard. I’d say Sicily. Usually I’d say Piedmont because Barolo is my favourite wine region. However, there is such an amazing array of viticultural styles across the island. From the zesty whites and structured reds of Etna, through to the floral reds of Vittoria or the rich fortifieds of Marsala. The seafood and the pasta dishes are sensational and a welcome accompaniment to the wines. Not to mention the beach, the sun, and the architecture. Rock formations poking out from the sky blue water…. Getting carried away here….

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Postcards: First Look at Union Station and the Crawford Hotel in Denver, CO


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Union Station and the Crawford Hotel in Denver, Colorado

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