A Toast to Drinking No Wine Before Its Time

 

A review of Capcanes Peraj Ha’abid 2008, the Glenmorangie Signet and the Ardbeg Alligator.

 

By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon

 

Washington Jewish Week  December 21, 2011

 

ardbeg AlligatorWhile it is true that most wine is meant to be consumed within a few years after its release, there are many wines that are created with aging in mind. In general, these wines have markedly noticeable tannins – the chemical compounds from the grape stems, seeds and skins that influence the wine’s color, structure and ultimately its aging ability.

 

Tannins are the compounds that give the “dry,” or bitter, taste that is similar to the sensations found in a cup of tea that has been allowed to steep for too long. Over time the more harsh, harder tannins eventually “soften” to become less apparent but still able to impart a desirable structure to the wine. In well-crafted wines, this process is integrated with a melding of flavors.

 

For those with enough patience and resources to acquire age-worthy wines, the rewards can be considerable. For most of the last century, finding age-worthy kosher wines was incredibly difficult. Decades of cheap, sweet-wine saturation meant that the kosher wine marketplace neither desired nor knew what to do with wines that truly benefitted from additional aging in the bottle. The kosher wine market has improved dramatically and matured considerably over the last 15 years. While no longer a fool’s errand, however, finding age-worthy kosher wines still requires some forethought.

 

A reasonable approach is to buy wines that have a track-record of aging well such as the kosher wines produced at the Celler de Capcanes.

 

Located in Spain’s Catalonia region, Capcanes began as a local wine cooperative that sold only bulk – non kosher – wine. In 1995, it was approached by Barcelona’s Jewish community to bottle a kosher wine which resulted in the installation of new equipment and modernization of the winery.

 

After that initial foray into kosher production, Capcanes has gone from strength to strength. For the past several years its kosher wines have been consistently among the best in the world including the excellent 2008 Peraj Ha’abib ($50), a deeply dark, full-bodied elegant effort comprised of indigenous Garnacha del Pais grapes mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carinena. Opening with red berry and spice aromas, it shows expressive raspberry, blackberry, cherry, coffee and mocha flavors with firm tannins, and a long, almost sweet red fruit finish. Hold this beauty for at least five years before enjoying at a suitably special Shabbos, Yom Tov, or other festive meal.

 

Unlike wine, pure high-proof spirits – those not blended with cream, fruit juices or other flavor enhancers – do not really age once bottled.

 

Sure, technically, the passage of time will likely entail some change, particularly if the bottle was exposed to extreme or prolonged temperature and light conditions. But then such conditions can ruin most anything potable. For the most part, however, whisky and related spirits once bottled and sealed do not change until opened.

 

Unlike wine, almost all the chemical compounds in distilled spirits are heat-stable. They were, after all, distilled at high temperatures to begin with, especially when compared to typical ambient storage temperatures. Further, spirits are high proof, 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) or stronger, and ethyl alcohol is very stable – rendering essentially insignificant any changes that might occur with considerable time (meaning decades) in bottle. That is, a well-sealed, well-filled, high-proof distilled spirit should taste almost exactly the same with 100 years of bottle age as it does today.

 

The distinctive flavor characteristics of any alcohol beverage are conveyed by the non-alcohol components – which is why quality vodka, or grain-neutral spirit, is essentially flavorless. In whisky production, for example, the grain based spirit is distilled at less than 190 proof (under 95% ABV), usually between 110 and 140 proof (55 to 70 percent alcohol). The non-alcohol components that remain come from the base ingredients as shaped by the production process (malting, fermentation and distillation), the shape of the stills and related paraphernalia, and then the all-important maturation in oak casks. This final stage gives the whisky all of its natural color and most of its flavor.

 

While tinkering is possible at any stage, the most dramatic results come from changes to the base ingredients and the management of the oak maturation. Two interesting and hugely rewarding single-malt Scotch whisky experiments come to mind: the Glenmorangie Signet ($200) and the Ardbeg Alligator ($100).

 

The Glenmorangie Signet was made using whisky distilled from a heavily roasted “chocolate” malt (so called because of the unusually dark or caramelized color of the malted barley from the roasting) married to aged whisky from back when Glenmorangie still malted its own barley on site (over 30 years ago).

 

The resulting whisky is huge and delicious. The Signet has lovely, complex notes of malt and chocolate. The wood is very much present, but plays nicely with this oily, hefty dram, creating something almost like a marmalade bitter sweetness on the tongue. Try it first neat, and give it 20 minutes to breath – the nose is just out of this world with additional notes of orange zest, nutmeg, oiled leather, ground coffee, and honey. Tastes super with ice too, though we don’t especially recommend drinking much of it with ice – the cold inhibits aspects of it, allowing other bits of the taste profile to shine through. A stunning joyride, with an contemplative dimension.

 

Ardbeg Alligator was crafted using a marriage of their standard 10-year-old with whisky that spent 10 years maturing in new, rather than used, American oak casks that were intensely charred inside – such that the cracked, heavily charred texture of the oak staves resembles the thick, scaly skin of an alligator.

 

However useful or silly the marketing-image may be, the final product is powerfully good stuff! Not as far afield from the flagship 10-year-old as we expected, though a bit more of a bruiser – with notes of chocolate, citrus, baked apples, something like cider vinegar, candied ginger, French vanilla, and something vaguely Asian-like on the spice front, with an appealingly soft mélange of smoke, smoked fish, charred oak, and glowing charcoal briquette notes, ending in an absorbing, long softly smoky finish. L’chaim!

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