Stress: Bad for Humans but Good for Grapes



A review of the Teal Lake Special Reserve Shiraz 2009 and the Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black Blended Scotch Whiskies.


By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  December 7, 2011



Johnnie Walker Double BlackOne of the interesting paradoxes of winemaking is that stressed grapes make excellent wines. Nutrient poor soils, minimal water, and wide temperature variations stimulate the vines to produce intensely flavorful fruit. With careful vineyard management and talented winemakers these grapes can produce some very special wines.


In a similar fashion, the Australian wine industry has been suffering from problems of nearly biblical proportions. Droughts, floods, fires, decreasing exports and the world’s financial crisis combined to adversely impact wineries all over the country. Many have closed, or were sold outright, while others had to refocus their efforts and curtail production.


One of the more popular kosher Australian brands, Teal Lake, has gone through its share of transitions. The brand originated in the early 1990s in California, as high-end domestic kosher wine made in a rented facility in Davis – it was here that one of us gained hands-on winery experience as a shomer Shabbos schlepper (Sabbath-observant laborer) working under the direction of a Rabbinic supervisor.


Before long the brand was acquired by the Royal Wine Corp., which arranged for the wines to be made in Australia by Norman’s Wines in the late 1990s, which only released three vintages before going bankrupt. The label was shifted to the Tandou Winery, which was then purchased by the Indian winery Chateau Indage and renamed Thachi Wines. Throughout this entire process the wines remained under rabbinic supervision but the quality seemed to vary.


The improved quality of the more recent releases has demonstrated the resilience of Aussie winemaking. An example is the Teal Lake Special Reserve Shiraz 2009 ($15), a medium-bodied mevushal effort that exhibits the classic Shiraz spiciness with alluring floral, licorice and berry aromas along with black cherry, red berry and earthy flavors that make it a perfect match for roasts, lamb and burgers.


Spirits-wise, we thought we’d look at a new whisky from a well-known whisky brand: Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky ($34) and the newer Johnnie Walker Double Black Blended Scotch Whisky ($40).


Johnnie Walker is the world’s most successful Scotch whisky, selling more than 130 million bottles every year.


Blended Scotch is simply a mix of malt whisky and non-malt grain whisky. Non-malt grain whisky is easier and less costly to produce, using large, highly efficient continuous distillation column stills, but the resulting spirit is thought to be lighter, less interesting and less full of character and flavor. Malt whisky, which is made of 100 percent malted barley, is comparatively expensive and slow to produce. It is made in a less efficient pot still, but is thought to render a more intense, more interesting flavor. Blends are generally designed to be consistently and cheaply reproduced, so that a recognizable brand can be produced in vast quantities without fluctuation in taste or quality.


The Johnnie Walker brand began when the eponymous Walker, aged 15, began a small grocery shop in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1820. He specialized in blending tea – a skill that would lead him to blending whiskies. Walker’s son, Alexander, joined the family business in 1856 and it was he and his sons who really transformed the grocery into a Scotch whisky empire. Though the Walker family cashed out in 1925, the brand had already become a colossus and today continues to dominate.


The whisky brand was originally called “Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky” and then “Walker’s Old Highland Whisky” with ‘Special’ and ‘Extra Special’ variants. In 1909 this was changed to “Johnnie Walker” “White,” “Red” and “Black Label.” The “White Label” disappeared around 1920, and then in 1936 “Johnnie Walker Swing” was introduced – the undulating bottle design was meant to cope with ocean waves, presumably, as felt in the first class lounges of transatlantic liners. “Blue Label” was introduced in 1992, “Gold” in 1995 and “Green” was introduced in 1997.


And now we have “Johnnie Walker Double Black” as the newest member of the Walker “family.”


We generally consider “Black Label” to be one of the very best blends on the market, a benchmark for the competition. The new “Double Black” theoretically takes the “Black Label” style as its base, adding heavily peated malts as well as whiskies matured in heavily charred casks in an attempt to muscle into the increasing thirst for smoky, peated whiskies. Messing with success can be a risky proposition.


Johnnie Black,” as it is affectionately known the world over, is a complex, 12-year-old blend of 40 or so grain and malt whiskies (including Cardhu, Cragganmore and Caol Ila). This is a fine balance of the smoky West Coast style with lighter Speyside malts, with the middle gap filled with Highland malts matured in sherry casks. The result is a beautifully blended, balanced, elegant whisky with some real ponderous depth and heft to it, with rich, full, complex, sweet aromas of honey, malt, apple and oranges, and a whisper of peat, the nose is followed through with big and bold flavors of orange, raisins, vanilla, cream, hazelnuts, almonds, some very mild smoke and lovely dark chocolate. The finish is long and spicy. A true class act.


Johnnie Walker Double Black recalibrates the balance, slightly enriching and deepening the smoky and peaty notes, slightly muting some of the sweet notes, while slightly upping some of the fruit. The nose is comparatively smoky and mildly medicinal, with barbecue and bonfire notes, vanilla, honey and lemon. The flavors are mostly rich and creamy, with restrained cereal grain notes, hefty malt, some spicy black pepper, a fuller kiss of peat, anise, apples, oranges, and some mildly alcoholic heat.


The finish is shorter, and a bit spry. The balance is there, but some of the elegance has been diminished by some slightly less mature-tasting malt notes. Double Black is distinctly a Johnnie Walker high-end whisky, not quite as elegant or as complex as Johnnie Black, and not nearly as smoky or as peaty as we expected, but still a richly enjoyable, absorbing whisky. L’chaim!



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