The Essential Tool Of Blending
A review of the Shiloh Winery Mosaic 2007 and Talisker 10 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week December 12, 2012
Blending, as we’ve noted before, is one of the essential tools in the winemaker’s bag of tricks. Often winemakers find that many of their single varietals need a bit of help in becoming more balanced, fragrant or interesting. So they will add some other grapes to create a blend that is more expressive and appealing to consumers.
The Bordelaise have been blending the red grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot for centuries, while those in the Rhone have likewise refined the practice in Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the success of Champagne, both as a region and even as an image, is partly a testament to the fine art of blending (we say “partly” because without the bubbles, likely no one would care). The types and amounts of grapes permitted in blending are regionally restricted by French law, and many other countries have similar regulations. In most “new world” wine regions, on the other hand, the blending is left up to the creativity of the winemaker and the judgment of the consumer.
One Israeli winemaker who has seemingly mastered the art of blending is Shiloh Winery’s Amichai Luria.
The Shiloh Winery was developed by Mayer Chomer, a Mexican-born-and-raised Jewish entrepreneur, with Syrian Jewish roots. Chomer dreamed of starting a winery in Israel and was fortunate enough to find and hire the American-born and Israeli-raised Luria as his winemaker. Chomer tasted some of Luria’s homemade hobby wines, recognized talent and a kindred spirit, and gave Luria the opportunity to turn his avocation into a vocation.
Shiloh’s flagship Mosaic bottling contains varying percentages of their varietals depending on the quality and characteristics of the grapes from each harvest. The Shiloh Winery Mosaic 2007 is composed of 60 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc, 7 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Petit Verdot and 6 percent Sirah. It is a beautifully structured composition with dark cherry and plum aromas that are followed by currants, dark fruit, coffee, vanilla oak and slightly spicy earthy flavors. The balance and long finish are supported by generous but not astringent tannins which make it a wine to savor now or to cellar for future enjoyment.
Spirits-wise, amid seasonal contemplation of the more rugged side of the Maccabean revolt and victory, our thoughts centered on one of the quintessential classic single malt Scotch whiskies: Talisker.
Not only is the mighty Talisker one of our (admittedly many) personal perennial favorites, it is “classic” in more ways than one. Back in 1988 the United Distillers and Vintners company (UDV), now owned by international drinks giant DIAGEO, launched a marketing campaign called the “Classic Malts of Scotland” or “Classic Malts” for short. These are a selection of six single malt Scotch whiskies that were, and often still are, handsomely displayed together in bars and liquor stores – sometimes still seen presented on a trophy-style, polished-wood display rack with brass handles and nameplates.
The six “classic” single malts are: Dalwhinnie 15 (43 percent abv) from the Highland region; Talisker 10 (45.8 percent abv) from the “Isle of Skye” region; Cragganmore 12 (40 percent abv) from the Speyside region; Oban 14 (43 percent abv) from the “West Highland” region; Lagavulin 16 (43 percent abv) from the Islay region; and Glenkinchie 12 (43 percent abv) from the Lowland region.
Despite the fact that the Isle of Skye is an island, not a region, and that “West Highland” was not previously ever a separate region, and the collection has nothing to represent the Campbeltown region (since UDV didn’t own any Campbeltown distilleries), the campaign was a huge success. Indeed the “Classic Malts” marketing clearly helped foster greater interest in single malts in the United States, and likely contributed to much of the most unfortunate snob-appeal. While not all of these whiskies are equally exceptional, they are all very drinkable and two – Talisker and Lagavulin – are among Scotland’s greatest contributions to the world of whisky.
Talisker in particular has always held a certain place of honor. For one, it is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. For another, it was also the favorite whisky of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of such classic works as Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson even enshrined this in his poem The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad when he wrote “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay, or Glenlivet.” (At this time Glenlivet was the popular name for a part of Speyside, so this reference was likely to the region, like Islay, rather than to the distillery of the same name.)
Founded in 1830 and built in 1831 on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, the Talisker Distillery was completely rebuilt in 1962 following a devastating fire in 1960. The name Talisker is derived from the Scottish Gaelic “talamh sgeir” or “talaisgeir” meaning “land of the cliff/sloping rock” – a reference, presumably, to rocky cliffs near the distillery on the edge of Loch Harport in Carbost. The name also points to the Norse roots of the Isle of Skye, the Norse “T-hallr skjaer” means “loping rock/land of stones.” Skye’s history is replete with Norse invasions, struggles between the various Scottish monarchs and the various local Lords, and regular clan battles as the Macleods, Macdonalds and Mackinnons routinely chafed at each other’s holdings. The Macleod clan, of mixed Norse and Gaelic descent, is dominant today. Talisker whisky, for at least the last 80 years, has also been a major component of the Johnnie Walker family of blends.
More significantly, at least one of us agrees with wine and whisky writer Andrew Jefford that Talisker may even be the singular “whisky which might best incarnate the spirit’s ideal.” To try and understand where Jefford is coming from, consider Scotland itself. As Jefford memorably put it: “I never understood Scotch until I spent time in Scotland. Grand, open, airy, fearsomely ungentle, the landscape alone is rarely less than intimidating. When you add the trials of a nine-month winter punctuated by the cloud-laden, midge-bitten, repose-less interlude which passes for summer above the 55th line of latitude, and you sprinkle 40 to 120 annual inches of cold rain on the hopeful human spirit, then you begin to comprehend the rigorous necessity of whisky. No other drink matches it for combating not just meteorological woe but sublunary setbacks of all sorts. … My fellow whisky writers may try to convince you that you’re hunting for a sumptuous brocade of heather, vanilla, ginger and burnt raisin, but what you really want is a reason to go on living when the Furies have you in their sights, when you crave support in your battles with the enemy, or when extra rivets are needed to strengthen the relationships between you and your brothers-in-arms.” Exactly so.
Talisker 10 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (45.8 percent abv; $50-65 – so shop around): This is an energetic, vigorous, thunderous whisky, with billows of peat smoke, brine, iodine, mothballs and sweet citrus fruits on the nose, followed by oak-softened, though still edgy, black pepper, rich dried fruits, malted barley, toffee, more billows of peat smoke, and traces of licorice and honey, all of which powers through towards the balanced, warming, mildly smoky, slightly spicy and absorbingly unvanquished finish. Bold, vibrant, unique and complex with a little undertone of sweetness – this may very well be the essence of Scotland. L’Chaim!