A review of the Agur Special Reserve 2008 and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Glenrothes, #30.68.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week August 29, 2012
Shuki Yashuv, owner and winemaker of Agur Winery in Israel, followed a somewhat convoluted road into wine.
Yashuv’s parents migrated from Eastern Europe in 1920; his father became a delegate of the Jewish Agency. Even though he was born in Tel Aviv in 1955, his family traveled wherever the Jewish Agency determined, so Shuki spent much of his early childhood in Brazil, Mexico and Austria. He returned home to do his army service.
After the army, Yashuv studied European history and spent time in academia as a historian, before eventually pursuing his then passion: woodworking. After 20 years as a master cabinetmaker, his passions took him to wine and the artistry of winemaking. Yashuv began to collaborate with Ze’ev Dunie, the filmmaker turned winemaker (who eventually went off to establish Israel’s boutique Sea Horse Winery), and together they explored winemaking in the Moshav Agur area of the Judean Hills (near Beit Shemesh). In 1997 Yashuv, his wife Evelyn and their two daughters moved from Jerusalem to Moshav Agur. Yashuv established the Agur Winery in 1999, with Dunie’s assistance and with help from the late Ronnie James, the pioneering winemaker at Tzora Winery.
Yashuv is considered a winemaking maverick. He believes that the best way to express the essence of the Judean Hills is by blending grapes, and he eschews single vineyard and single varietal bottling. He calls his blending a “caress.” The most recent harvest included eight different varietals, each ripening at different times. Agur’s current annual production of 30,000 bottles is released under the Kessem, Reserve, Blanca and Rosa labels. The winery became certified kosher in 2007.
Kessem is translated as “magic” but it is also the Hebrew initials of the principle grapes in the blend; Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (there is usually also a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blended in). The reserve wines are specially selected from the vineyards and usually see a bit more barrel aging. Blanca is a blend of Viognier and Johannesburg Riesling and the winemaker claims that he actually “listens” to his rose wine – generally a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – while it ferments.
The delicious Agur Special Reserve 2008 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It opens with red plums and cherries that continue until the lingering finish along with lovely raspberry, currant and blackberry flavors. Accented with a pleasant earthiness and slight spiciness, it has considerable grace and style which demonstrates that Yashuv’s passions are matched by his artistry. As a shmitta year wine, the 2008 vintage is easiest to find and best enjoyed in Israel – preferably at a visit to the winery.
Spirits-wise, following the slightly maverick vibe that memory of tasting wines with Shuki Yashuv elicits, we thought we’d consider a single cask, single malt selection from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America (SMWSA) – one of the greatest independent bottlers of single malt Scotch whisky.
The society’s whiskies are more like liquid history, than regular whisky. Each cask yields but a few hundred bottles, and once the cask has been emptied, that’s it. You may never taste another whisky like it ever again. The society is about discovery, not commercial branding or product consistency. SMWSA whiskies are to be enjoyed in the here and now, showcasing the whisky’s particular merits, warts and all, without pretension, and without marketing.
Founded in Edinburgh Scotland in 1983, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is now an international membership organization that bottles and sells single cask, single malt whisky, free of dilution, coloring, and chill-filtration. The society purchases individual casks of whisky from more than 125 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, and now throughout the world, simply bottles them, and then retails directly to its members. The society also runs three private members’ rooms in the U.K., and in several international locations. The American branch of the society also does tasting events around the country – their next “Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza” in D.C. is scheduled for Oct. 30 (details at www.singlemaltextravaganza.com; we’ll see you there).
Of course, one needs to first join the society to have the privilege of purchasing one of their bottlings, but for those of us with the whisky bug – this is an easy, though not inexpensive decision. Check out the details at www.smwsa.com (should you decide to join tell them Josh London, member #5956 sent you).
Since the SMWSA is more about flavors and character than brands and distilleries, they bottle their whiskies without explicit regard for the whisky’s parent distillery or single malt brand.
Consequently, the whisky bottles are labeled with a simple numbering system and fanciful flavor-name. Our SMWSA bottling this week is Cask No. 30.68 called “Long, hot sweet delights.” The number 30 is their numeric code for the Glenrothes Distillery in Scotland’s Speyside region, and the second number is the number relevant to the current cask – so this whisky is from the 68th cask of Glenrothes that the society purchased.
SMWSA 30.68 “Long, hot sweet delights” (60.6 percent abv; 10 years old; only 120 bottles allocated to the U.S.; $95): This lovely, amber-to-pink colored, complex whisky presents an earthy almost meaty vibrancy on the nose, with rich notes of pepper, sweet honey, nuts, toffee, and a lot of alcoholic heat. A splash of water helps push the alcohol aside and opens it all beautifully and vividly, with that same earthy vibrancy on the tongue and at the back of the throat, with additional sweet taste sensations of stewed fruits and some hot peppers. The finish is creamy, rich and rewarding with more of that earthy, meaty, savory quality and a sweet raisin-like backdrop that lingers nicely. L’Chaim!