It All Depends Upon The Grapes – And The Winemaker’s Skill


Review of the Soreka Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and two single cask Kilchoman Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.


By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  – May 1, 2013


kilchomanOne question we are periodically asked is, “How do they get all those flavors into the wine?” The thought presumably being that the winemaker is somehow like a chef, creating finished dishes from a variety of ingredients besides just the primary one – that somehow winemakers add additional elements into their fermentation vats, perhaps throwing in some black cherries and pepper into the Syrah, or mixing some gooseberries into their Sauvignon Blanc.

Wine critics shoulder a fair amount of blame for this, since many of the “official” wine descriptors regularly invoked suggest a veritable pantry of ingredients. But the truth is that there are very few additives permitted in wine. What we taste is nearly entirely dependent upon the grape itself and the skill of the winemaker.

The flavors of a wine are a result of the chemical compounds that exist in the specific varietal along with those that develop during fermentation and aging. This is where the expertise of the winemaker is most critical. Once the grapes arrive at the winery there are various techniques available that affect the flavors and structure, starting with some very basic options like crushing whole grape clusters (stems and all) or pressing only the grapes (minus the stems). And there are nearly as many different ways to handle fermentation and aging as there are grape varietals. Winemakers, additionally, can do wonders with oak barrels, and even have various tricks available to them to help make the most of nature’s bounty.

The bottom line is that the aromas and flavors in a wine are a reflection, in any given vintage, of the actual grapes the vineyard produces coupled with the hard work and ability of the winemaker. At no time does the winemaker add additional fruits or seasonings. Sometimes the results can be surprising. We recently tasted Soreka Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – new to the U.S. market and produced by Israel’s Madmon Winery from grapes grown in the Shomron. While it had many of the classic Cab flavors, including dark fruit and cassis, along with good balance and a nice finish, its predominant characteristic was a nearly overwhelming essence of chocolate.

Spirits-wise, keeping with this theme of aromas and flavors that seem to expand well beyond the base ingredients, we thought we’d return to the world of single malt Scotch whisky. First, whisky is our favorite category of spirit, and second, because single malt Scotch is our favorite type of whisky. Further, Scotch seems to offer, in general, the greatest range of enjoyable aromas and flavors in the world of distilled spirits, and easily takes first prize for most enjoyable complexity. To better highlight this, we’ve decided to revisit the Kilchoman Distillery (pronounced kill-HO-man).

Kilchoman is a fairly new, tiny, farm-style distillery on the western side of the Inner Hebrides island of Islay, Scotland. The distillery, which was founded only in 2005, is named for the nearby small settlement of Kilchoman. Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be built on Islay in 124 years, and essentially overnight became a critical success, attracting a massive following among us whisky geeks and aficionados (a euphemism for alcoholics with expensive tastes).

Kilchoman was established at Rockside Farm near Machir Bay, when entrepreneur Anthony Wills teamed up with farmer Mark French to establish a modern re-creation of the farmhouse distilleries from which the entire industry began. Islay had a great many such farm distilleries during the 19th century. Construction began in 2002 and finished in 2005 when the stills were fired up. Rockside Farm had grown barley for many years, so it made sense to use this barley for the distillery.

The entire process from malting to bottling takes place on site; they even built a small traditional malting floor with smoky peat fire underneath the floor to malt the barley – making this one of only a handful of distilleries in Scotland that still uses floor malting for a percentage of their malted barley. In this way the distillery provides about 20 percent of the malted barley needed for total production, with the other 80 percent coming from the Port Ellen commercial malting house on Islay.

At the maturation stage, Kilchoman now employs mostly “first fill” used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, USA, and “first fill” used oloroso sherry barrels from Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain. The phrase “first fill” in Scotch industry speak denotes barrels that are being used for the first time for Scotch, obviously they were previously used by their respective owners for bourbon whiskey or sherry wine. Kilchoman still occasionally uses “re-fill” barrels, or barrels that had previously held Scotch whisky (which, of course, had previously held bourbon whiskey or wine).

Kilchoman has released several expressions, first as young, feisty spirit (too young to legally be called “whisky”) and then as young, heady whisky (it legally needs at least three years of maturation in oak in Scotland to be called “Scotch whisky”). There are also, now, some fantastic single cask expressions that some of the independent bottlers have released. Here are two beauties to seek out and try:

The Kilchoman 2006, five-year-old, single malt Scotch whisky (46 percent abv; $75): This absorbing, complex, delicious whisky offers aromas of pears and apples overlaid with various different types of smoke, allowing the fruit to swim in and out of focus, and take on a brandied, Calvados-like character, along with citrus, olive oil, sage, French vanilla, ginger, butter, beech wood and hints of iodine, followed up with flavors of sea brine, smoke and ash, peat, vanilla, toffee, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, citrus fruits, butterscotch and some sweet, nutty barley notes that dart in and out of the cavalcade of senses, finishing cleanly with notes of peat, malted barley, anchovy paste, smoke, ash and cream. This is a dazzling and remarkably smoky, peaty Islay Scotch whisky.

Single Cask Nation, Kilchoman 4 year old, Bourbon Cask (58.4 percent abv; $95; available exclusively to members of the Jewish Whisky Company’s – do yourself a favor and join without delay): This pale, limpid yellow-colored Islay whisky first strikes, in traditional peat-monster fashion, like an overfull ashtray crossed with a nearly dissipated coal-burning barbecue, with a touch of smoked kipper. An awesome melange of smoke, peat, iodine and brine, with the usual floral, earthy-stable and burnt-oak elements one expects from this distillery, though the brine seems a tad more pronounced than usual. The oily palate follows accordingly, thankfully. With maybe a little white pepper heat from the alcohol and perhaps a smidgen of banana, berries, chocolate and butterscotch, all with a thin veneer of dust. Water clears the dust a bit and zaps the heat, but we much preferred it straight (so if you add water, do so very sparingly). The finish is long, warming (more like black pepper on the finish), smoky, peaty and herbaceous. An amazing whisky that wallops well above its four years of age, and makes up in complexity whatever it might have lost in slightly youthful imbalance. L’Chaim!

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