What’s Really In That Glass Of Wine?


A review of the Binyamina Reserve Unoaked Chardonnay 2011 and the Highland Park Loki 15-year-old single malt Scotch Whisky.


By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  May 9, 2013


binyamina2Last week we noted that a wine’s flavors are primarily the result of how and where the grapes are grown coupled with the skill of winemaker, and that wine is essentially free of additives. There are parts of the wine producing world where the nonadditive approach is simply common practice and well-established tradition, while there are other regions where this sort of nonadditive winemaking is actually regulated. Even where regulation prevails, however, there are sometimes stipulated allowances for certain invasive steps and ingredients.

In some regions for example, where grapes develop with low sugar content, the winemakers are permitted to add some sugar to provide more sugar than the grapes can do on their own for the yeast to ferment into alcohol (this is commonly referred to as “chaptalization”).

Another common additive is sulfur dioxide (SO2), generally noted with the slightly alarming all caps, “CONTAINS SULFITES,” on the back of most wine labels. Even though this sounds bad, sulfites are naturally occurring anyway because wine yeasts produce sulfur dioxide during the fermentation process. Indeed, wines with no added sulfites contain anywhere from 6 to 40 parts per million of sulfite already. Additional sulfites are added merely to preserve freshness and stop fermentation in fruits and juices. Sulfite use has been in vogue since Roman times. In modern winemaking, sulfur is used as an antiseptic to kill yeast, bacteria and molds, and sulfur is also used as an antioxidant because it can inhibit enzymes that cause oxidation.

Mostly though, as we noted last week, the most frequent “additive” to wine is simply the use of oak barrels, either as the vessel used for fermentation or, more commonly, as the vessel used for aging the wine. Various types of oak have diverse effects upon the wines. For example, American oak is thought to impart more vanilla flavors into wine as compared to French oak. The interior of the barrels are also “charred” or “toasted” by fire to various degrees by the cooperages, depending on the species of oak and the specifications of the client. It is up to the winemaker to choose the oak type, toast level and duration of contact with the developing wine. Occasionally, in any given harvest (“vintage” in wine-speak), some of the wine may be given, say, medium toasted American oak treatment while other wine might be given lightly toasted French oak treatment, and then all of the barrels will be blended together for the final product. Since oak barrels are expensive, some wineries merely add oak chips or staves of oak barrels to the stainless steel tanks in order to approximate some of the same effects of actual barrel Aegina.

The positive influences of oak are upon the color, body, texture and character of the wines. However it can also be used to mask flaws and, for a while, there was a tendency toward too much oak, resulting in some wines tasting more like twigs than fruit. Not surprisingly the pendulum has shifted. Now there are wines that the consumer had associated with oak-aging that are increasingly being made in stainless steel, with no oak influence at all.

Chardonnay has long been made into noteworthy wines without seeing any wood at all. The advocates of “unoaked” Chardonnays believe that the wood masks the wine and that unoaked more accurately expresses the nuances of the grape. A kosher Israeli example is the Binyamina Reserve Unoaked Chardonnay 2011, a vibrantly flavored wine expressing loads of peach, pineapple, orange and melons on a medium frame with a clean, mineral laced finish.

Spirits-wise, rather than leap headlong into another discussion of oak and whisky we thought we’d return to Kirkwall, Orkney, to the Highland Park Distillery, to discuss the latest new whisky.

Founded in 1798, Highland Park is the most northerly Scotch whisky distillery in all of Scotland. Like many Scotch distilleries, however, it seems convinced that some concept-driven marketing shtick is needed to help push product beyond their already highly regarded regular portfolio of whisky expressions. Why the industry can’t simply push quality and keep the shtick to a minimum is beyond us. We humbly suggest they stop adding water before bottling, eliminate the addition of caramel coloring, and stop the use of chill-filtration. In other words, why not simply offer us consumers the whisky more or less straight from the cask (or batch of casks)? How’s that for novelty? No fancy bottles or labels required folks. Honest.

Before we fall off our soapbox in a drunken stupor, however, we should note that we aren’t in the business of making or selling whisky, while the whisky companies are – so what do we know? Maybe shtick is what the public wants. All we want is good whisky.

Last year, Highland Park started a new line of limited edition whiskies called their “Valhalla Collection.” Here is how they currently describe the collection on their website: “…a range of four unique whiskies, released annually, taking inspiration from the legendary Nordic gods of old. Not for the faint hearted, only those brave enough to accept the challenge of Thor shall be rewarded with the ultimate experience; a whisky of divine power.”

Generally, such guff makes us cringe – but the first whisky released in the series, the 16 year old cask strength Thor, was actually really good. Also the totally unnecessary packaging remains cool (same packaging for this release). Alas, the high price tag was less cool, and this current release (named “Loki” after another Norse deity) is about $50 higher and has a lower abv. So we approached the latest “Valhalla Collection” release with some reservations, but high expectations.

For what matters most, of course, is not the packaging or the marketing hype, but the spirit within.

Highland Park Loki 15-year-old single malt Scotch whisky (48.7 percent abv; $249): Matured in a mix of used sherry oak casks and oak casks that previously held heavily peated whisky, this is an elegant, complex, rewarding whisky. While it still has some of the typical earthy, honey character of Highland Park, this one veers into new territory, with aromas and flavors of dried apricot, hard pear, dried pineapple, candied orange, lemon zest, raisins, cinnamon, ginger, subtle tobacco-like sweet smoke, toffee, honey, vanilla, weird but pleasant wafts of menthol, anise, and toasted almonds. The mouth-feel is smooth and creamy, then dries up a bit mid palate. We don’t recommend adding water, but doing so adds a briny element, increases the anise, ginger and cinnamon, but flattens some of the complexity. The whisky finishes long and absorbing, with a touch more spice atop the sweet, citrus elements. Overall, a really lovely whisky.

Given the asking price, we feel duty bound to highlight that excellent, arguably better even if more familiar, Highland Park whisky can be bought for less. On the other hand, this is a most worthy whisky and, hey, it’s only money. L’Chaim!

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