A look at the Barkan Altitude +624 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week February 1, 2012
While there are many factors that can be manipulated to affect the quality of a wine, there is one fundamental aspect that cannot be changed: the place where the grapes are grown. The monks in France’s Burgundy region spent hundreds of years painstakingly characterizing and classifying the precise aspects of specific hillside plots in the Cote D’Or and the result is some of the world’s most profound wines. Matching the correct varietal to the local climate and geography is likely the most critical decision that will assure a winery’s success. It is exactly as the old the real estate adage goes: location, location, location.
Established in 1990 by Yair Lerner and Shmuel Boxer, Barkan Winery is Israel’s second largest producing nearly 10 million bottles annually at their Kibbutz Hulda facility, in Central Israel east of Tel Aviv. Barkan, like Carmel Mizrachi—Israel’s largest winery, has tried hard over the last few years to break away from its cheaper supermarket wines image. Barkan’s primary vineyard, the largest single vineyard inIsrael, is also in Hulda. But Barkan also gets grapes from the very best vineyards inIsrael, from the Golan Heights, to the Upper Galilee and the Lebanese border area, to the lower Galilee and Tavor, the Jerusalem mountains, and down south, around Mitzpe Ramon. The winery’s central location allows for quick grape delivery, to insure freshness and to maximize quality. Following a huge infusion of capital from the Tempo Group, Barkan’s majority shareholder, Barkan’s head winemaker, Ed Salzberg, and his winemaking team, Irit Boxter-Shank and Yotam Sharon, have begun producing an increasing variety of enjoyable, high quality kosher wines across the Barkan label range.
They have six different labels, including their “Altitude” Cabernet Sauvignon series that are made from grapes grown in vineyards of varying altitudes. The vineyards are otherwise essentially the same and the grapes are handled similarly in the winery. Therefore the differences noted between each of the Altitude Cabernets (+412, +624 and +720) are really the variations imparted by their unique micro-climates. We are fans of all three expressions, especially the Barkan Altitude +624 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($40) a deeply purple, satin smooth and full-bodied wine. It opens with dark plums and currants accented with spice and cedar, then moves seamlessly into blackberry, cherry, burnt orange and anise flavors and a long finish. Well-balanced, fruit-forward and on a firm tannin background, this is one to drink in a few years with your favorite steak or roast.
All this talk of altitude, reminds us—spirits wise—of the Isle of Arran single malt Scotch whisky. 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 Scotlandbetween 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 “Scotlandin 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 only 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 previously worked at Ireland’s Cooley Distillery. Mitchell established Arran as a delicate, creamy, unpeated malt whisky, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes. The whisky was young, but could be delicious and showed terrific promise.
After Gordon Mitchell left, the distillery brought in James MacTaggart as distillery manager. MacTaggart had spent the previous 30 years in a senior production capacity with Morrison Bowmore Distillers. The whisky making team at Arran is rounded out by Gordon Bloy, John Dowens and Graham Omand.
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. For the record, “cask strength,” or undiluted with water, is our other fundamental preference in whisky.
Although the Isle of Arran Distillery began releasing whisky as early as 1998, their first whisky that could be said to taste more or less “mature” was 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.
Seems we might have missed something these last four years. Indeed, the days of too young Isle of Arran whisky gussied up by European oak is likely behind them. There are still plenty of wine finishes in their portfolio, but we have every expectation that these will be more consistently good now, and we hope to taste them soon. The distillery has some age on it, 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. Indeed, if their flagship Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($45; bottled at 46%ABV) is anything to go by, Arran has truly come into its own as a brilliant whisky.
Here then is the Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch: this is delightful, delicate yet lively whisky exhibiting rounded and full aromas of crème brulée, 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 pleasingly long finish. This is a very quaffable whisky, and a fine (re)introduction to what the Isle of Arran has to offer. L’chaim!