The Ideal Wine For Pesto

 

A review of the Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and some news about American whiskies including Jim Beam.

 

By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon

 

Washington Jewish Week  August 6, 2014

 

Jim Beam BourbonOne of us has a summer garden that has produced an abundance of basil. A leafy herb initially cultivated in India, basil migrated both west and east becoming a featured component of Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. There are many different types with the “sweet” variety customarily featured in Italian dishes while the more pungent Thai, lemon and “holy” basils are utilized in Asia.
 

Basil is best used fresh and added late to recipes, especially as drying and cooking causes the flavors to dissipate quickly. Despite its culinary fragility, basil is very popular and surprisingly versatile. Indeed, basil leaves can be found simply grilled as a garnish, featured in summer cocktails, whipped into sauces or even made into an ice cream dessert. One of the most classic uses of basil, and one of our favorites, is to make pesto.
 

A combination of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and cheese, pesto was created in Italy’s northwest Genoa region. There are some variations that use olives, coriander, arugula, peppers and the like, but we are purists. Our preferred recipe is the one in the The New York Times Jewish Cookbook: 1 cup of loosely packed basil leaves, ½ cup pine nuts, 2 cloves of garlic, ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese, all of which is blended in a food processor until smooth, and then slowly add a ½ cup of good olive oil until it becomes a thick puree.  This recipe is easily doubled or tripled too. The rich, but not creamy, green and pungent flavors of pesto make selecting a matching wine a bit of a challenge.
 

Anything oaked like a California chardonnay needs to be avoided. Ideally the wine should have bright fruit flavors, and have good acidity to show through the boldness of the pesto. An especially good choice is a Sauvignon Blanc that has a bit of its own acidic zing and fresh herbaciousness, like the kosher Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($20) that exhibits citrus and melon aromas along with grassy, lemon, grapefruit and gooseberry flavors within a frame of crisp acidity and minerals along with a lengthy finish. A terrific summer wine that would perfectly accompany a pesto pasta salad, it can also be enjoyed with grilled chicken and fish.
 

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d return to American whiskey for a moment. A recent press release from the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), a non-profit trade group, announced: “More than 5 million Bourbon barrels are gently resting in Kentucky warehouses for the first time since 1977, as production of the signature spirit continued its remarkable resurgence in 2013.” Indeed, as the KDA’s release went on to note, Kentucky’s distilleries filled 1.2 million barrels in 2013, the most since 1970. In the last 15 years, bourbon production has “skyrocketed more than 150 percent,” and by the end of 2013 there were 5,294,988 barrels of whiskey ageing in Kentucky. Further, “when you include brandy and other whiskies (e.g., rye, wheat)” produced in Kentucky, “the state’s total barrel inventory was 5.9 million at the end of 2013, the highest total since 1975.” Nor is this boom limited to Kentucky. In Tennessee, for example, there are more than 2.2 million barrels aging at Jack Daniel’s (the company sold 11 million cases of their flagship “black label” by the end of FY2013, or April 30, 2013).
 

All of which sounds jolly enough, and it is undoubtedly currently a great era for bourbon and American whiskey generally—both for consumers and producers. As our friend and bourbon industry journalist Charles K. Cowdery noted, however, there is a “cautionary tale” to be found in the 1970, 1975 and 1977 dates.
 

As Chuck put it: “American whiskey sales began to trend down in the late 1960s after growing steadily since Prohibition’s end. Although production began to decline after 1970, it didn’t decline as much as sales, so inventories kept growing until 1977. This created a whiskey glut that lasted for approximately 20 years.”
 

American whisky producers, not just in Kentucky, recall these years with some measure of dread. From about 1980 to 2000, the glut years, many, if not most, producers dumped much older stocks of mature whiskey into their non-age-statement whisky releases. Sure, there were some producers who simply released older expressions to the market and there were a bunch of very reasonably priced 8- to 12-year-old bourbons available as a result, but an awful lot of excellent whisky was simply dumped into the standard expressions. Since nobody knew how long the glut would last, those that released older whiskies tended to do so as line extensions which could be easily stopped without damaging the brand. This meant that whiskey enthusiasts enjoyed a lot of very good whisky at very reasonable prices. But nothing was selling well. Likewise the enthusiast market, such as it was, did not expand; the industry was not doing well.
 

Of course, both gluts and shortages are natural, even inevitable, to an industry that relies upon predicting future demand over a five, ten, or fifteen year period. Consumers often pine for gluts, as price wars are typically an early response to diminishing demand. But a prolonged glut would actually be very bad for consumers. Producers are in the business to make profit and so tend to switch from less profitable to more profitable activities upon discovering that they’ve planned poorly. Now over the last three years, the eight largest US whiskey producers (accounting for something like 90 percent of all American whiskey produced at present), have announced more than $430 million in re-investment in distillery operations and expansion; industry wide capacity may well double by 2020, and production will likely grow more than 50 percent.
 

This booming whisky expansion is also playing out similarly across the global whisky industry as a whole. Like Scotch, where more than $3 billion has been spent on expansion and industry wide production has increased by 20 percent and is still growing. Similarly, Ireland, Japan, and Canada, whiskey producers are also growing and expanding. There are also hundreds of new small “Craft distillers” cropping up in 30 odd countries around the globe.
 

An estimated $4 billion is being invested to expand the future of all of this whiskey activity across the industry. Hopefully this is all finely calibrated towards solid demand estimates by careful production planning. Most of the estimates we’ve seen suggest that over the next five years consumer demand is expected to grow about five percent. So… Well, hopefully this global whiskey boom stays strong a long while yet, and that the next glut will be both short and mild…
 

Meanwhile, consider a classic, inexpensive standby like Jim Beam.
 

Jim Beam White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (40 percent abv; $15) is a medium bodied, young whiskey, probably around 4 years old (this is hinted at by the pale amber color). Yet it lacks the harsh edge and fiery burn that is usually associated with young whiskey. A bit dry and orange-fruit-like on the nose with maybe a hint of vanilla and caramel, the whiskey has a slightly syrupy mouth-feel, with lovely notes of buttered toast, hints of brown sugar, subtle cinnamon and whispers of vanilla. The Jim Beam wild yeast strain gives this whiskey an odd, though enjoyable, sour funky or gamey sort of finish—but in a good way. White Label is straightforward and uncomplicated yet versatile, as enjoyable straight as it is as a mixer. Delivers well above its weight! L’Chaim!

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