How America Caused – And Cured – A Winemaking Crisis

 

A review of Castel Rosé du Castel 2013 and Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

 

By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon

 

Washington Jewish Week  July 16,2014

 

Isle of Arran DistillersAmong the plethora of pests that winemakers must contend against, none has been more devastating than a sap-sucking insect named “phylloxera.” This tiny aphid-like bug destroys vines by feeding off the roots, thereby choking off the supply of nutrients to the plant and leaving it susceptible to fungal infections.
 

Initially limited to the United States, the phylloxera menace was inadvertently introduced to Europe in the 1850s by Victorian English botanists returning home with American vine specimens. By the 1860s, having already decimated English vineyards, phylloxera found their way to Europe where it quickly spread. Eventually phylloxera destroyed nearly 95 percent of the continent’s vineyards.
 

Considerable energy and resources were devoted to trying to figure out what was happening to the vines, and then, once identified, how to deal with phylloxera. A wide variety of desperate attempts were made by fraught farmers to stem the destruction, including letting chickens walk in the vineyard to eat the insects, and burying live toads below the vines to draw out the “poison.”
 

Eventually a solution to this veritable plague was found, ironically from the same source that introduced the blight to begin with: the US vineyards. Certain native species of American grapevines had already developed resistance to phylloxera. So horticulturalists figured out that they could graft their susceptible vines onto American roots to develop vineyards that were naturally resistant to the pest. Thus began a painstaking but ultimately successful grafting and replanting program that saved European winemaking.
 

There is still no cure for phylloxera, although vines grown in sandy soil are more resistant. In the 1970s phylloxera appeared in California because a rootstock developed to be more resistant to fungus and other diseases proved to be more susceptible to the insects. So these vineyards needed to be replanted as well.
 

While there are a few places that original pre-phylloxera vines still exist, the overwhelming majority of vineyards are a physical union of both the “old world” and “new world” winemaking regions. Thus, at a certain level, any prejudice toward European wines based merely on their history is silly. What matters most, at least to us and others of rational sensibilities, is what is in the glass! Thankfully, the world is filled with outstanding winemakers whose skills we can appreciate on a regular basis.
 

A fine kosher example of outstanding winemaking to enjoy while we meditate on the interplay of man, vine, terroir and history is the enchanting Castel Rosé du Castel 2013 ($34, from Israel’s Domaine du Castel winery), a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc that opens with strawberry and floral aromas leading into grapefruit, cherry, raspberry and strawberry flavors with tart citrus acidity for balance and a pleasing mineral infused finish. Expensive, but worth the splurge to enjoy on a warm summer evening.
 

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d revisit the single-malt Scotch whiskies of the Isle of Arran Distillery, one of a small group of still independent distilleries. Arran means “high place”, presumably because the island is geographically higher than the surrounding lands along the shores of the Firth of Clyde, off the west coast of Scotland between Ayrshire and Kintyre. The Isle of Arran is the largest island in that Firth, and is the seventh largest Scottish island. It is widely considered “Scotland in miniature,” because it is said to offer aspects of all the scenery in Scotland’s landscape: mountains and lowlands, glens, lochs and royal castles. Yet the Isle of Arran Distillery is the sole distillery on the island, and was only founded in 1995.
 

This island distillery is based in the village of Lochranza, and was established by Harold Currie, who was previously managing director of Chivas Regal and the House of Campbell (both internationally successful Scotch whisky blends).
 

For its first 12 years, until his retirement in 2007, the distillery was managed by Gordon Mitchell (who passed away in March 2013). Mitchell previously worked at Ireland’s Cooley Distillery. He established Arran as a delicate, creamy, unpeated malt whisky, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes.
 

In order to generate early revenue and whisky geek buzz, the Isle of Arran Distillery began releasing whisky as early as 1998, when it was only just old enough to be legally sold as whisky. Their first whisky that could be said to taste more or less “mature” was, however, their 2003 “Arran Non Chill Filtered” release. That same year they released their first finished or double-matured whisky – a Calvados finish, which sounds more interesting than it was (if our old notes are anything to go by).
 

After that, Arran quickly released a plethora of wine barrel finished whiskies: Marsala, Champagne, Port, Bordeaux, Chateau Margaux, Tokaji, Rum, Cognac, Cream sherry, Fino Sherry, Amarone, Fontalloro, Lepanto PX Brandy, Moscatel de Setubal, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Sassicaia, St. Emilion Chateau Fonplegade, and so on. Such flash is meant to keep people interested in “new” whisky releases, and at times—we suspect—to disguise too young whisky with an active European oak cask overlay.
 

Nearly all of these releases were at least interesting, and some were genuinely good – though more than a few were not, and we frankly stopped paying attention around the time Mitchell retired in 2007. This was most assuredly our loss.  Indeed, the days of too-young Isle of Arran whisky gussied up by European oak is likely behind the distillery. There are still plenty of wine finishes in its portfolio, but these are now better made and more consistently good.
 

The distillery has a little more age on it now, after all, and between on-hand stocks of mature whisky and over 15 years of production history and experience, the Isle of Arran whisky now brings something much more interesting and substantive to the party.
 

After Gordon Mitchell left, the distillery brought in James MacTaggart as distillery manager and master distiller who spent the 30 previous years  in a senior production capacity with Morrison Bowmore Distillers. Under MacTaggart’s steady, experienced control, and with the help of his small but stellar whisky-production team, the Isle of Arran Distillery has consistently produced some exceptional, brilliant whiskies. The whiskies tend to be delicate, creamy, unpeated, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes.
 

All of Arran’s single-malt whiskies are non-chill-filtered and presented without any caramel coloring. Chill filtration is designed to improve the physical clarity and brightness of spirits by filtering out emulsified oils that can cause clouding, but that also contributes to character and flavor. Filtering out the former also diminishes, even if only slightly, the latter. Thus a non-chill-filtered bottling is more natural and allows the spirit to retain as much of its original character as possible, cloudy elements and all. Like most single-malt lovers, we greatly prefer non-chill-filtered and un-caramel-coloring enhanced whisky – if only more producers followed such examples.
 

Here then is their standard- bearer whisky: Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($45; 46 percent ABV): this is a delightful, delicate yet lively whisky exhibiting rounded and full aromas of creme brulee, toffee, citrus fruit, pear, apple and something vaguely biscuit-like. These notes follow through on the palate, along with a honey and malty vanilla (semi) sweetness, and a mild spicy oak on the agreeably long finish. This is utterly pleasing, eminently quaffable whisky. L’Chaim!

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