October Cocktail Feature: Spooooooky Cocktails!

Week One 

For October we will be focusing on spoooooky cocktails for all your Halloween shenanigans.  Some might push you to try something a little more complicated, but don’t be scared!  They will be worth the work.  And some will be perfect to share with friends at your next séance or ghoul gathering.  Let those skeletons out of your closet, it’s time to party!

Violet Delights 

Fill a highball glass with ice, add grenadine, lemon juice, gin, top with soda water and a cocktail cherry.


 

Week Two 

We’re going to revisit that bottle of mezcal this week for a spooky smoky cocktail.  This one is a little extra work but will be worth it!  For an extra witchy vibe, repeat a mantra or set some good intentions while you muddle your ingredients.  Or hex someone, we won’t tell.

Kitchen Witch Smash 

In a mixing glass, add blackberries, rosemary, lemon juice and agave nectar. Muddle the ingredients together, squishing everything to release the juices.  Add ice, along with the mezcal and orange bitters.  Stir for 20 seconds and strain over ice into a mason jar. Top with club soda and garnish with fresh rosemary and blackberries.

 


Week Three

By now you probably have some apple cider sitting in the fridge ready for a new spin.  Here’s a fun fall take on the classic sidecar.  If you’re feeling adventurous, try this warm during your next chilly evening by the fire.   Or if you’re feeling lazy, simply warm up the apple cider, add cognac, and top with whipped cream for an easy treat.

Phantom Vehicle

Add all liquid ingredients to a cocktail shaker, top with ice, and shake until the shaker starts to frost and feels very cold to the touch (20 to 30 seconds).  Strain into a coupe glass and top with zest and brandied cherries.

 


Week Four

Trick or treat!  What’s this new creature at your door?  It’s cachaca, a Brazilian liquor made from distilled sugarcane juice.  This cousin of rum is a little funky and earthy and makes for a great cocktail.  But don’t worry, after a few of these you’ll be the fun kind of zombie not the brain eating kind.

Cachaça Zombie 

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Rinse an oversized whiskey tumbler with absinthe, add crushed ice, and pour in your strained cocktail.  Garnish with a lime wedge and mint sprig.

Liquid Necromancy: Old Duff & The Resurrection of Genever

by Sam Weisberg

Gather round, all ye of hardy constitution and eccentric drinking habits! ‘Twas the week before Halloween when Sam wrote a blog post about Genever; that elusive spirit of cocktail-lore, long figured to be lost to history. It’s a tale of an ingredient coming back from the dead, the resurrection of the crown jewel of the Cocktail Renaissance.

Editor’s Note: We’re gonna be nerdy and go through some history here. If you want to just know what the stuff tastes like, skip to the bottom of the article, or come visit us at the store this weekend—we’ll be pouring Old Duff Genever on the tasting bar.

Prologue: Minnesota, 1867

It’s 1867 and you’ve had a long, hard day farming sugar beets in Winona. You head over to your local watering hole, and, perhaps being a somewhat well-to-do farmer, you treat yourself and ask the bartender for a “gin cocktail.”

What you receive in your chilled cocktail glass is not a Martini. It’s not a gin-and-tonic, and, smelling it, it’s not even particularly piney or juniper-forward. You take a sip of the light-amber hued concoction… what you taste is not unlike an Old-Fashioned; there’s definitely sugar, definitely some sort of cocktail bitters, but that base spirit… it ain’t gin.

And that’s because it wasn’t gin. Or, at least, not what we’d consider gin today. The spirit—which you can see advertised here in the Winona Weekly Republican was called “Holland gin”—or, as they called it in Holland, genever.

brown windmill on green grass field under blue sky during daytime

The Long Road to Gin

Genever is old. Really old. Descended from medicinal juniper tonics that were being produced as early as 1269 CE, genever has been taxed as a recreational spirit in Holland since 1497! It is the parent spirit of both whiskey and gin, a fact that quickly becomes apparent after your first sip. Malty and rich, yet lightly flavored , genever is like the love-child of single malt scotch and English gin.

The earliest Irish whiskey recipes, dating from 1611, were for unaged, well-crafted grain distillate with a teensy amount of botanicals added for flavor, including juniper. That’s essentially a description of genever. The real stuff, what the Dutch would have called moutwijn, or, maltwine, is a distillate of grains (traditionally malted barley and rye—more on that in minute) with a small amount of juniper and hops (!) added for flavor.

That traditional style maltwine genever swept the (European-influenced) globe, at times becoming even more fashionable and expensive than Cognac. By the mid-1860s, genever was one of the world’s best-selling spirits—popular enough that it was even being shipped out to the fledgling Northwest Territory of the U.S., which would soon become Minnesota (see the 1855 ad above in the Winona Weekly Express).

clear drinking glass with brown liquid and green leaves

While Americans stuck to imported Dutch Genever (imports to New York in 1850 dwarfed English gin at a ratio of 450:1), the British attempted to make their own version of it. Unfortunately, British distillers couldn’t compete with the technique of the Dutch masters. To cover the harsher base spirit that many distillers produced, merchants would often sweeten the spirit with sugar and add additional juniper flavor. The resulting spirit is a poor facsimile of genever, but it became quite popular with the British public, who dropped the “-ever” and called it “gen,” which quickly transformed into “gin.”

That sweetened style of gin was known as “Old Tom” gin—and you can still purchase it today from a select few producers. For a time, true Dutch genever and Old Tom gin were interchangeable in the bartender’s arsenal, with the former taking the name “Hollands” in many recipe books. Up until Prohibition in the U.S., if you asked for gin in a bar, you’d probably be getting either genever or Old Tom.

It wasn’t until the invention of the column still in the early-1800s that anything resembling the “dry gin” we know now began to come onto the scene. The spirit produced by a column still was lighter and crisper than the malty, fuller-bodied stuff that came off the old-school pot stills used to make genever. Column-stills also produced spirits with fewer impurities, allowing producers to bottle it with less and less sugar to cover up “off” flavors.

Real Dutch genever began a slow decline in popularity due to the dual tragedies of American Prohibition and World War I, but after the devastation of World War II, Dutch producers had to decisively pivot away from it to survive. The techniques of genever production were labor-intensive and the raw materials were expensive. Sensing a changing marketplace and a need for fast cash, Dutch producers went all-in on liqueurs and vodka for their export markets. Some distillers continued producing a bit of genever for local tastes, but the marketplace had changed—today, only a dozen or so distilleries remain in Schiedam, the historic home of genever production—down from the industry’s peak of about 250 distilleries in its heyday.

clear cocktail glass with pink liquid inside

Enter the Duff

The revitalization of pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes and techniques that has swept the U.S. over the past twenty to thirty years has been called the “Cocktail Renaissance.” History buffs, academics, professional bartenders, and at-home tipplers have all contributed to a wealth of information that has allowed bars to slowly but surely shift drinking culture in the U.S. back towards spirit-forward cocktails with high-quality ingredients. In other words: Negronis are in, Sour Mix is out.

Key to this transition has been the resurrection of (formerly) archaic ingredients like absinthe, rye whiskey, vermouth, and, now, genever, which were called for frequently in pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes, but, until recently, were mostly unavailable in the United States. Enter Philip Duff, a cocktail soothsayer who was on a single-minded mission to bring back genever. And not just any genever, but a true, 100% Maltwine.

courtesy of the Old Duff Genever Distillery

See, genever production hadn’t exactly stopped cold in Holland following the post-WW2 market crash; a few Dutch producers like Bols had continued to keep it in their product lines. But the product they were making, sometimes called jonge genever or “young” genever,  was a column-still product that didn’t really resemble the old-school stuff. It was lighter in flavor, more juniper forward, and, critically, the base spirit was not the traditional moutwijn blend of malt and rye, but a neutral grain spirit—more like a vodka.

Philip Duff set out to rectify this. Approaching a historic distillery in Schiedam with a historic genever recipe in hand, he contracted them to produce Old Duff Genever: a true Dutch genever with the historic seal of Schiedam (they’ve got a seal for everything over there) on the bottle, certifying it as the real-deal thing.

What the Heck Does it Taste Like

Old Duff comes in two varieties:

The green bottle Old Duff Genever ($36.99) is a modern-style genever. 53% pot-still Maltwine, 46% column-still wheat distillate. The column-still spirit lends a lighter touch to this bottling, which, combined with a broader botanical base that includes juniper, citrus, coriander, star anise, and licorice, creates a sip that tastes like a fuller-bodied, maltier style of London Dry gin.

This is the stuff to pull out for a party. Make long drinks like a John Collins (John for jenever!) with it, or sub it out for gin in a cold-weather G&T. Bottled at 40% ABV, it’s meant as an approachable first sip into the world of genever.

Old Duff’s black-label, 100% Maltwine ($49.99) on the other hand, is the real-deal genever experience. This is what genever would have tasted like in the 1800s. Made from 2/3rds rye and 1/3rd malted barley, and flavored with only juniper and English bramling hops, this authentic moutwijn is the missing ingredient in dozens upon dozens of classic American cocktails. It’s the missing link between scotch and gin, the middle-ground when you don’t know if you want whiskey on the rocks or a Martini.

Mix yourself up a Martinez, the predecessor of the Martini, with Old Duff instead of gin and sit back in bliss. Or try an Improved Gin Cocktail—essentially a genever old-fashioned—and learn what contentment is. The stuff is magic, and its ability to bring lost cocktails back from the dead is truly a Halloween miracle.

Our friends at Libation Project will be mixing up genever cocktails on the bar this weekend at France 44. Swing by to have a little taste of history, and then pick up a bottle or two for yourself so you can take your own crack at a little liquid necromancy this Halloween season. Proost!

Petite Arvine: The Best Grape You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

by Hailey White

It’s that time of year where the change of seasons begins, and you start to feel that slump into comfortability. Admittedly, I’ve been guilty the past few weeks (months? What even is time anymore) of sticking to those wines that I just know I love. I’ve had them a million times, they’re tried and true, and I don’t feel like thinking too hard about what to buy. Enter one of our lovely wine reps at Libation Project to get me out of that slump with a grape that I’ve read about once or twice, but never had the opportunity to taste, and wow. My eyes have been opened, and I’m excited to egg other people into trying it, too! 

The grape is called Petite Arvine, and it checks all of the boxes. It’s crisp and refreshing, still bright enough to not be a full-on switch from the high acid, mouth puckering whites that we all crave in the heat of the summer. At the same time, it has an incredible, rich ripeness of fruit and a creaminess to the mouthfeel that makes you think, “Okay, maybe I am alright with the impending cooler weather… Sweater weather isn’t so bad.” And there’s a reason that this gem of a wine has been hiding from us all for so long. 

Valle d’Aosta, located in the northwest corner of Piedmont
 

The grape is really just starting to come into itself as far as reputation goes. Prior to the 1990s, it wasn’t really grown much besides in the Valais region of Switzerland or in the Valle d’Aosta. And while historically it has had success within Valais, it’s Valle d’Aosta’s dry renditions that seem to be getting the attention more recently, particularly with the Grosjean family. Part of the reason that this grape might be considered a more “modern” phenomenon is due to the fact that it’s had a bit of a rocky history since its last heyday in the 1800’s.  

As with so many of our favorite grapes, we can chalk this up to the arrival of Phylloxera (the pesky vine louse that almost entirely upended the global wine industry in the late 1800’s), combined with the destruction from both World Wars. As a result of this and more, the size of vineyards, and with it the number of plantings of grapes in general, in Valle d’Aosta shrunk from over 3,000 hectares in 1800, down to a mere 635 hectares, making Valle d’Aosta the smallest region within Italy when it comes to wine production – a true underdog. Within that area, Petite Arvine is only planted in about 20 hectares of the region.  

courtesy of GrosJean Vineyards

Within such a small appellation, you can imagine that there isn’t a huge population of people, never mind of people making wine. The dozen or so wineries that exist in this tiny valley remain small, family run operations, which means they’re not pumping out mass amounts of wine. Instead, almost all of the juice made here is consumed locally by the community. While the downfall of this is that we don’t get the joy of drinking it all that often, the bonus is that most of these producers are more or less making the wine they want to make, and not catering it to the tastes of the larger, global population. The result is that these are wines that really speak to their locale of origin. Particularly, with a grape like Petite Arvine, this is important. It’s incredibly finicky and requires very specific conditions, and in fact is called “The Diva Grape” by many the because of its fussy nature. But what requires so much attention and work, yields a beautiful product.  

Grosjean first planted Petite Arvine in their vineyards in the 1980’s, and made the switch to organic farming in 2011. These days, they own just two hectares of Petite Arvine vines, producing roughly 15,000 bottles per year. Being in a mountain region, the slopes here are intense, with inclination at 70% in these vineyards. Considering these conditions, the family has had to take a lot of care in establishing terraces to keep vines from, literally, falling off of a mountain. Additionally, vines must be tended to by hand, since mechanization isn’t possible on slopes of these levels. Remember what I said about hard work?  

Petite Arvine vineyards at GrosJean

Because Petite Arvine ripens late in the season, they’re picked about a month later than other varieties grown in the same area, which you might argue helps lend some of the richness of fruit in the wines. Really, it’s the wildly bright and stunning sunshine in the region that helps to lend those juicier tropical fruit notes of pineapple and melon. That said, the aforementioned high altitudes help to keep these zinging with acidity. Grosjean ages the wines in partial stainless steel and neutral oak, an effort to preserve the beautiful blossoming aromas in the wine. It certainly checks all the boxes: Complex and full of fruit and aromatics? Check. Steely minerality and full of acid (hint: that means food friendly)? Check. Small, passionate producer making wine with the environment in mind? Check.  

So, if you haven’t realized by now, it’s Grosjean’s 2019 bottling of Petite Arvine — newly stocked on our shelves — that I’m so eager for, and it really is one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted in some time. I’m incredibly lucky that I have people walking into my place of work to enlighten me on things like this, but since not everyone has that person in their life, I’m here to be yours. Please, do yourself a favor and go pick up a bottle soon. It won’t disappoint! 

My Craft Cider Journey (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Price and Embrace New Things)

by Melissa 

Six years ago this week, I had an experience that changed my life. I know that is a bold statement, but it is very true. Six years ago, I went to the orchard/home where Milk & Honey Ciders was founded and got to be there for a day of apple pressing. 

Let’s take a few steps back before we go forward with this story. In the spring of 2015, I found out I have Celiac disease. As an avid beer drinker and deep fried cheese curd consumer, this news hurt. My husband and I would go to breweries, beer festivals, and bars for special beer releases on a regular basis. I had no idea what was to become of our “hobby” that we shared. One evening at our regular watering hole, our regular server suggested I try the cider on tap after I pointed out that we all knew it was a bad idea for me to switch to vodka, gin, or anything with a high ABV. That was my first Angry Orchard and my first step into cider. Over the next year, I tried several mass-produced ciders as those were all that was available when we went out. I also bought these mass-produced ciders at retail stores because the prices on other ciders were scary and I didn’t want to pay for something I wasn’t sure of.

courtesy of Milk & Honey Ciders

Then comes Spring 2016. Some friends and I were out for brunch, and I asked if they had cider. The server brought me something called “Heirloom” by Milk & Honey. This was the most incredible thing I had ever tasted! I had no idea that cider could taste like that – not sweet, but full of apple flavor and pure perfection. It was so good that I emailed them and told them I loved it and would be happy to do anything I could to spread the word about their cider. This led to doing tastings at liquor stores for them and eventually to the day on-site for apple pressing.

Melissa at Milk & Honey Ciders

Tasting a wonderful cider is an experience in itself. Seeing how much work goes into its creation is an even bigger experience. Watching the apples go down the belt, bad ones getting picked out by hand, as they go to the grinder. Listening to the mill grind those apples into small chunks that get transferred by a machine into the press. Seeing a layer of apple pomace put on the wooden press, wrapped in cloth, and that being repeated over and over until there is an impressive tower of layers. The machine that presses those layers down, sending the juice into the collection container under the press is an amazing display. As the juice gets put into the fermenters with yeast to begin their transformation into cider, the leftover pomace gets transferred into containers that, at least at Milk & Honey, get taken to a local farm for their pigs. All of this was done by a crew of ten people. Only ten!

courtesy of Milk & Honey Ciders

This is the day that I truly understood what craft cider is and why it costs more. Craft cider is all about people using various pieces of equipment to make cider–not machines making cider. I suddenly knew I wanted to get to know more about craft cider and the makers.

Minnesota is home to several craft cider makers that anyone can visit to get to know ciders. Keepsake, Sweetland, Minneapolis Cider Company, Urban Forage, Number 12, Thor’s, Sociable Cider Werks, Duluth Cider, and Wild State all showcase the varieties of apples and ciders that can come with making small batches. The cider makers are great to talk to and have amazing stories behind their ciders. I was so inspired by them that I got involved in the MN Cider Guild and decided to explore cideries outside of MN. Joining the American Cider Association and some Facebook groups taught me about ciders from all over the US. Attending CiderCon for several years exposed me to international ciders. This journey actually led to my husband and I taking a trip to Washington for a beer and cider vacation. Now we add local cideries to any trip we can.

I have had some absolutely terrible ciders. I have had some ciders that were so wonderful that I didn’t want the bottle to ever empty. I have joined cider clubs and cider trades. I have spent $2 on a cider. I have spent $45 on a cider. No two craft ciders are the same. In fact, no two years are the same for a cider. This makes cider drinking a never-ending adventure. It also supports small, independent businesses that are producing sustainable products.

If you have ever been cider-curious and want to start to dabble, please feel free to reach out to me and I would be glad to help you take those first steps.

MY TOP 5 CRAFT CIDER PICKS

Heirloom by Milk and Honey | $13.99/4pk

Orchard Blend by Minneapolis Cider Company | $9.99/4pk

Central Sands Cranberry by Restoration | $15.99/4pk

Brut Nature by Eden | $10.99/375ml

Brightcider by 2 Towns | $10.99/6pk

Soju vs. Shochu: What’s the Difference?

by Tom 

Soju is an often overlooked category in America. World wide, it hosts the world’s number one selling spirit brand (Jinro Soju) and makes up 97% of the clear spirit consumption in South Korea. It is a relatively low alcohol clear spirit made from different grains (rice, wheat or barley) and starches (potatoes or sweet potatoes) meant to be consumed chilled in a communal atmosphere usually accompanied by food, often spicy Korean barbeque. It can also be substituted into any martini, bloody mary, negroni, highball, or collins in lieu of another clear spirit for a lower alcohol option, as it usually sits between 12% and 30% alcohol instead of 40% plus here in the States. Consider it a lower alcohol, more viscous, slightly sweeter alternative to other clear spirits. There are very lax rules to soju from the alcohol percentages, additives, and flavorings.

Our soju:

  • The Classic: Jinro Soju. It is literally the best selling spirit brand in the world. Sip it chilled with family and friends. $12.99/750ML
  • The New Yorker: West 32 Soju. West 32 is an ode to New York’s Korea Town, and a good example of how far Soju can reach and how it can be made anywhere. $19.99/750ML

Soju’s cousin, Shochu, is quite the opposite. Their names are very similar, as the “so” and “sho” translate to burned, and the “ju” and “chu” translate to alcohol in Korean and Japanese respectively. These are distilled spirits, where sake is a fermented product, separating it entirely. Shochu is much stricter with its rules and regulations. It has a history dating back 500 years and has different appellations just like champagne and cognac. It is made with similar ferments, usually sweet potato, barley or rice. The big difference is purity, as no Shochu can have any additives and in the case of top shochu they can only be distilled once to show the purity of the distillate, designated as Honkaku. Shochu sits higher in alcohol than soju, usually between 25-35%.

Our shochu:

  • Mugi Hokka Honkaku Shochu. Made from Shooner barley and left to ferment for 17 whole days before a single distillation run in an atmospheric pot still in the Tensei Distillery in the Osaki Township in Kagoshima. If that’s not enough, they let it rest for five years in enamel tanks. Mugi Hokka shows notes of dark roasted coffee and dark chocolate. A perfect pairing for red meat, coffee and chocolate. $34.99/750ML

  • Colorful Honkaku Sweet Potato Shochu. Made from two different sweet potatoes fermented with two different Koji yeast strains by two different distillers! A very rare occurrence. Colorful is how they describe the nose and palate as it is flush with papaya, nectarines, great florality, and a soft vegetal smoke in the background. $52.99/750ML

Now for the hard part, where does soju and shochu go on the shelf? There is no right or wrong answer. We have created a shelf in between vodka and gin that houses spirits that fit a small category and definitely do not belong with liqueurs. Here you will find soju, shochu, aquavit, grappa, amongst other distillates. Go explore next time you’re in the shop!

Rick’s Take on The Greats of Piedmont

by Rick

From the earliest days when I began learning about the “Wine Business”, I eagerly explored the wines of the great regions of the world, save for one. Italy intimidated me for so many reasons. For one, Italian wines can be hard to love unless used correctly. They have a higher level of acidity and are almost always bone dry. As such, they show best when consumed with food. I cannot remember a time where I ever saw an Italian drinking wine without some sort of food present. In my early days, I, like many Americans, drank wine like a cocktail. Italian reds in particular do not often show well in this context.

Another problem for me was that there are so many different types of Italian wine and almost none of them bare any resemblance to wines I knew from my casual wine drinking days. Even worse, it seemed like the Italians were trying to be intentionally confusing in their naming conventions. For example, there is Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello. Three are appellations, one is a grape. The grape (Barbera) is grown in the same place as two of the wines (Barolo and Barbaresco) but not the third (Brunello). Oh, and Barbera grown in Barolo or Barbaresco cannot use that name on its label! There are other delightful quirks in Italian viticulture, such as the fact that there are at least three different types of Trebbiano (same name, totally different grape), or that there are two wine growing areas in Italy called Montepulciano. There is also a type of grape called Montepulciano. If one were to make wine from the Montepulciano grape in one of these regions, it would be illegal to use the word anywhere on the wine label. In the other, it would be illegal NOT TO! Is it any wonder why people get confused?

Despite these idiosyncrasies, I am glad I finally decided to learn about these wines. I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy on several occasions, and it was because of these tours that I finally began to unravel the mystery of Italian Wine. Italians know how to live well, and wine is as indispensable to their way of life as pasta, fashion, or soccer. One of the things that helped me navigate the quirks of their wine culture was when I came to understand that Italy is a country in name only. Most Italians I’ve met think of themselves first and foremost as coming from one of the many regions. They are Romans, Tuscans, Piemontese, Sicilians and Campanians, to name a few. Even within the many regions, there can be fierce rivalries between towns that are just a few dozen kilometers from one another. Two such examples are Florence and Siena in Tuscany, or Venice and Verona in the Veneto, but there are many others.

Wines from Piedmont are among my personal favorites. Being a major fan of Pinot Noirs from Oregon and Burgundy, I’ve found the Nebbiolos from Piedmont tick many of the same boxes for me. Between the spice notes, the red berry fruit and the similar weight and texture, it’s hard for me to choose a favorite! Beyond the glorious Barolos and Barbarescos, there are other outstanding wines from this spectacular region. Barberas offer bright and fresh tart berry flavors with a texture that will make California Cabernet lovers swoon. Dolcettos, on the other hand, are the blue-fruited and light-bodied answer to Beaujolais. There are a handful of charming whites that hail from the land of truffles and hazelnuts, but this particular blog will focus on the reds.

To mine such a rich vein as the red wines of Piedmont, it is helpful to limit the discussion to a few exemplars of the many styles of production: G.D. Vajra, Fabio Oberto, and Oddero. Each of these houses have a definitive style and access to outstanding vineyards. They are also readily available in our marketplace and their wines are still reasonably affordable.


G.D. VAJRA

This classy family of introverts (a rarity in gregarious Italy) ply their trade a mere three kilometers from the ancient town of Barolo. They are the classic “sleeper” winery in that they are rarely mentioned by the fawning trade press or trophy hunters, yet their wines receive unfailing praise and honorable mention vintage after vintage. Their craftsmanship and humility are legendary among the many ancient families who have farmed in the area. There was no greater testament to this than when Luigi Baudana offered to sell his land to them, and only them, when he decided it was time to retire. This was despite the fact he had many wealthy and famous suitors offering him substantially more for his storied vineyards.

The house style of G. D. Vajra is one of accessibility at all stages of development. Even their most prestigious bottlings are generous and approachable with very little preparation once they are released. They could easily adjust their style to make more fashionable wines intended for long cellaring (and with substantially higher prices), but to them, the whole point of having vineyards in one of the greatest wine regions on Earth is to produce wine for the widest possible audience. That said, it is important to note that their wines are not intended for the “mass market”. They are, instead, wines made with a true sense of place but in a style (and price) that allows for nearly any palate or budget to indulge.

Exhibit A-1 is their remarkable 2017 Langhe Rosso ($16.99). This perennial favorite is a blend of four indigenous varietals: Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Freisa. We’ve been selling this wine for twenty years and somehow it has remained at roughly the same price with an even higher level of quality as when we first fell in love with it back in 2002!

 

FABIO OBERTO

Family dynamics can be complicated. Fabio Oberto knows all about this. He worked for years under his father, Andrea, learning the ins and outs of winemaking. As is often the case in winemaking families, various siblings take over aspects of the business. This was the plan at Oberto. Fabio would assume the winemaking duties and his sister would oversee marketing and sales. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Like with many farm families, children often decide they want the city life. That was the case with Fabio’s sister. She did not, however, share her plans with Fabio. In a maneuver worthy of a soap opera, she secretly convinced her father to sell the business, and NOT to tell her brother about it, rather than continue as a family winemaking operation. All of this took place when I was visiting Piedmont in 2016. It was hard to believe that such a thing actually happens in real life. The situation for Fabio looked grim.

Through a twist worthy of Hollywood, somehow Fabio managed to scrape together enough money to buy out his sister and convinced his father to allow him to take over the entire business. With herculean effort, he assumed all responsibilities and managed to get wine produced and sold under his own label, without missing a vintage. We at France 44 are very glad he did, as these wines are always strong sellers in the category. Fabio’s style follows in his father’s footsteps. His wines are plush, ripe, and hedonistic.

The 2018 Barbera d’Alba ($19.99) is a crowd-pleaser that will compliment a variety of foods. The tart Bing cherry fruit is wrapped in a rich body, smoothing out the bright acidity and emphasizing the signature freshness of this varietal to shine. Enjoy it with rich stews, duck breast or creamy washed-rind cheeses, like taleggio.

If you are looking for a great introduction to Barolo, the 2016 Barolo del Comune di Serralunga($37.99) is hard to top. Fabio made connections with many growers in the area during his years preparing to take over the winery. This wine is the fruit of those labors. Not only is it from the stellar 2016 vintage, but it perfectly reflects his winemaking style. The tannins are sweet, not green or dusty. The wine has good structure and balance while still delivering on his signature fruit-forward approach. The essential Nebbiolo spice notes are present without taking control of the experience. All in all, this is a wine that is ready to drink today but will also improve with some cellaring (5-7 years at least).

 

PODERI E CANTINE ODDERO

The modern origins of this outstanding producer begin in the 1950s, though the history of their cellar and winemaking stretch back a century before that. Giacomo, the patriarch of the family, was a pivotal player in the elevation of Piedmont wines to their current lofty status. He was also a major force in the burgeoning fame of other agricultural gems of the region, from cheese to hazelnuts to truffles. The Oddero cellar is located in the center of one of the greatest vineyards in all of La Morra, the legendary vineyard of Cannubi, and was an important (and very secret) Masonic meeting house for the province in the 19th century.

 

The house style is heavily influenced by the traditional method of winemaking in this area, which is to say that their wines, especially their Barolos, are more tannic and better suited to long ageing than early enjoyment. I can personally attest, however, that one’s patience will be richly rewarded. Oddero’s wines retain their primary fruit for an incredibly long time, with 15-year-old bottles still showing youthful vivacity and surprising grip… even from “ordinary” vintages.

We have available the 2017 Oddero Barolo ($54.99). This vintage was a challenging one for many producers. The crop was very short due to a brutal frost that affected nearly all of Western Europe, and the weather was hot and very dry. Nevertheless, those who knew what they were doing were able to produce wines of great quality. The 2017 Oddero will surely evolve gracefully over the years but is surprisingly generous in its youth. If you absolutely must drink it now, you will have to decant it for a good 90 minutes before serving it. My advice: Buy a few bottles. Open one now and have it with a glorious rack of lamb, then hide away the rest of the bottles and forget you have them for the next decade or two!

The Original Rauchbier of Bamberg

by Bennett

One of my favorite quips to describe the world of beer is that our only constant is change. In some ways this is true – a proliferation of advancement and excess has defined the last decade of craft beer – today we use terminology like triple dry-hopped, pastry and smoothie to define beer styles, something that would be considered ludicrous not long ago. In other ways it is false – the beer world is as the world itself, cycling through a sequence of predetermined seasons – winter-y stouts, spring maibocks, summer-y saisons, fall Oktoberfests. (In this analogy IPA and hard seltzer would be the sun and moon).

Each September that comes around, when it gets to beer blog time I think, “Oh boy, here we go… What am I going to say about Oktoberfest that I haven’t already said?” It feels like an obligation to acknowledge. Oktoberfest (or Wiesn) is, after all, the world’s largest folk festival – two full weeks of continuous celebration that annually draws millions of beer lovers from around the world. And it would have begun this Saturday.

But alas, in light of Munich again cancelling Oktoberfest celebrations for this year, it seems fitting that an Oktoberfest blog should be cancelled as well. So let’s break from the obvious cycle and shift focus to a compelling yet underappreciated beer style whose origin lies further north in Bavaria: the rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany.

Rauchbier translates literally to “smoked beer.” Smoked malt – more commonly associated with Scotch whisky – is what separates this style from most. Whereas Scotch uses malt smoked over peat (decomposed vegetative matter), lending notes of ash, iodine and earthy dankness, rauchmalz (smoked malt) for beer is kilned over a fire of aged hardwood, lending meaty, campfire and molasses-like characteristics. 

Schlenkerla Seal

Enjoying a rauchbier gives the drinker a lens into the past. Until modern indirect kilning methods were developed over the 17th to 19th centuries, all malt was dried either by air or fire. Fire kilned malt, which existed for at least 5,000 years prior, inevitably contributed smoky aromas and flavors from combustion gases passing through the grain bed. One could presume that any beer brewed with kilned malt during those few thousand years would have a smoky note to it. So why doesn’t more smoked beer exist today? Simply put, it is more costly to produce. Advancements in indirect malt kilning were easier to scale to an industrial size and involved less variables. Just a handful of brewers worldwide have preserved the history of smoked malt.

classic Märzen Rauchbier

Today, there are only two remaining traditional rauchbier producers in Bamberg. The Aecht Schlenkerla beers of Brauerei Heller-Trum are the most highly-regarded. Staunch in appearance with wide, cylindrical bottles like an upside down fermentation vessel, their parchment-inspired labels adorned with calligraphic font and red seal are both mysterious and foreboding. For many beer drinkers, popping the cap will be a dive into the unknown.

What’s in the name? In Frankish vernacular, aecht means “true” or “original” and schlenkerla – “the little dangler” – an endearing nickname for someone who does not walk quite straight. It is told that Andreas Graser, former brewery owner, sort of stumbled or shuffled as he walked – perhaps from an accident, or more likely a result of his frequent imbibing. Schlenkerla was firstly a name used by locals for the brewery’s timbered Medieval beer tavern, but it has grown to embody the entire operation.

The brewery now known as Aecht Schlenkerla has been producing beer in Bamberg since at least 1405. Today it is a 6th generation family run. They produce a small array of beers, mostly lagers, that feature varying degrees of smoky quality. What distinguishes Schlenkerla is that they malt all their barley in-house. 

Producing rauchmalz of the highest quality takes great care. The barley kernels are steeped and germinated like other malts then gently kiln dried over an open fire to impart smokiness. Kilning can take up to two days, as the malt temperature must increase slowly, not exceed a temperature where important enzymes for fermentability begin to break down.

Schlenkerla Smoke Kiln
Schlenkerla Smoke Kiln – drying of the malt

Only beech and oak hardwoods are used, as their lower resin content delivers a clean, balanced smoke profile. “Seasoning” or aging of the logs is important so the moisture content is ideal for smoking. As the smoke seeps through the grain bed, it slowly imparts itself through the husk into the endosperm. Important to note, the color of a smoked beer is not determined by its proportion of smoked malt. In fact, rauchmalz is rather pale in color. It is most often used as the base malt—the foundation of a beer—its main source of starches, proteins and enzymes. Color and added depth come from the addition of caramelized and roasted malts.

Interestingly enough, the yeast also plays a significant role in contributing smokiness to Schlenkerla beer. Yeast that has fermented a wort containing smoked malt will actually harbor these attributes and impart them into a new batch when re-pitched. Although the Schlenkerla Helles Lager uses no rauchmalz, its yeast sends a glance of smoke across the nostrils, quickly perceived on the palate before dissipating into a pure, smooth maltiness that German brewers behave perfected.

For me, fall is the perfect time to enjoy a rauchbier. Like the fire they were born from – upon first spark the smoke is deliberate, but as the flames crackle a malty balance is achieved. The trailing sips, like glimmering coals, the softest of crescendos.

Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen – $4.99/500ml | The original specialty of Bamberg brewed in the Märzen-style of lager. 

Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock – $5.49/500ml | A fuller bodied lager of bock strength with deeper malt tones.

Aecht Schlenkerla Oak Smoke Doppelbock – $5.99/500ml | A strong bock beer for celebration that showcases the unique quality of oak smoke.

Aecht Schlenkerla Helles (currently out of stock, check back later this fall!) | A quaffing lager that features the most subtle smokiness of Schlenkerla offerings.

Sauvignon Blankety-Blanc: A Complicated Love Affair

by Karina Roe

The world loves Sauvignon Blanc. Bright, citrusy flavors, mineral freshness and that wild, herby edge make this zesty wine easy to love. New Zealand has barreled its way onto the international wine scene within the last few decades with its electrifying Savvy B’s (please don’t ever use that term in real life), chock full of grapefruit, passionfruit, and Kiwi sunshine.

And then there’s Sancerre, ready and waiting for the folks who desire a less in-your-face expression of the grape. If “minerally” is your descriptor of choice and you feel you could do with less enamel on your teeth, Sancerre’s screechingly-high acidity, chalky raciness, and barely-there fruit is right up your alley.

We sell a lot of these two wines, and the sales never seem to slow down no matter what season we’re in. But if you’ve been in France 44 (or any wine store) within the past few months, you may have noticed that your favorites haven’t always been there for you.

New Zealand’s woes have been many: there have been aftershock effects from the European wine tariffs a couple years ago and the inability to satiate thirsty countries, the country completely closed their borders to fend off COVID-19 and so shut off a lot of shipping routes, and extreme spring frosts in 2020 resulted in a 30% crop loss… just to name a few challenges.

Sancerre has been battling similar weather wars in recent years, with the devastating 2016 and 2017 vintages being the most horrific. Since then, recovery has been slow but steady, but prices have increased exponentially. When you combine these challenges with those pesky tariffs and an international market that just can’t get enough of that classy “Sancerre” name on the label, it’s easy to understand why a bottle of Sancerre under $30 is now considered a bargain.

But we don’t believe in stories that don’t have happy endings, especially when there’s wine involved. Wine makes people happy, so as long as there’s wine around, the endings are bound to be happy too.

Sancerre and New Zealand have vast, loyal followings, and they will continue to produce as much Sauvignon Blanc as they can squeeze from their vineyards. (France has strict laws about expanding appellations, and New Zealand is an island, after all.) But Sauvignon Blanc is produced in nearly 30 different countries around the world, each with their own unique expression of the grape. The future might be murky for Sancerre and New Zealand, but it’s bright, shiny, and pretty dang delicious for your own palate’s journey.

Here are a few of our personal favorite “alternative” Sauvignon Blancs ripe for exploring:

Domaine Jean Teiller Menetou Salon Blanc - PlumpJack

DOMAINE TEILLER MENETOU-SALON | Loire Valley, France | $23.99 | For those of you Francophiles that are nervous about stepping too far outside your comfort zone, try Domaine Jean Teiller from Menetou-Salon—a literal stone’s throw away from Sancerre. The soils are quite similar with their chalky, marine-fossil stones littering the vineyards (see picture). The plots are slightly farther away from the river and have less elevation than Sancerre, which helps in producing slightly plumper, riper wines with beautiful floral and peach notes. Domaine Teiller is completely hand-harvested and has been certified organic since 2017, assuring excellent quality. And as we all know, good grapes make good wine.


VON WINNING SAUVIGNON BLANC II | Pfalz, Germany | $24.99 | If you’ve never met Amy Waller (or really any of the rest of our wine staff), the first thing to know about her is that she’s a German wine freak. She moonlights for Wines of Germany as a German Wine Ambassador, and she has singlehandedly doubled our German wine section since she first started working for us. This makes for great anguish as we try to jam yet one more German wine into a tiny section, but great delight in carrying world-class producers like Von Winning. This minimalist/perfectionist producer attributes his success to “not doing the wrong thing at the wrong time,” which means: let the grapes do the work and don’t get in the way. The Pfalz is a sunshiny region in western Germany, and this wine is pumped full with bright lemon zest and lemongrass. If we haven’t yet hammered home that Germany isn’t “just Riesling,” this stunning wine will definitely do the trick.


Leah Jorgensen Sauvignon Blanc 2018 | MadWine

valls_feastly_111

LEAH JORGENSEN SAUVIGNON BLANC | Rogue Valley, Oregon | $24.99 | Really, this blog post was written as another excuse to wax poetic about Leah Jorgensen, the Pirate Princess of Oregon. We love to support Leah for so many reasons: She’s a badass boss lady, living out her Rogue Valley wine dream exactly the way she wants to. She’s funny, used to do standup comedy, and loves pulling pranks. She’s deeply tuned into her heritage and roots, and weaves it all perfectly together with the present. Her single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect expression of this, giving a vision of what the Loire Valley used to be before stainless steel and super-techy wineries were a thing. This Sauvignon Blanc has deep flavors and is more complex than you might expect, and the lees aging and stirring presents a gorgeous richness to counteract the flintiness and bright acidity.


Le Sot de l'Ange "ALZ" Vin de France Blanc 2019

BONUS ALTERNATIVE: LE SOT DE L’ANGE ALZ | France | $29.99 | We couldn’t resist putting in one last oddball for the ultra-adventurous Blankety Blanc drinkers out there. These guys go beyond what is traditional for Loire Valley wines. They don’t merely add new chapters to the canon of classics; sometimes they scribble over what’s already been written. This certified-biodynamic estate (extremely rare in this part of the Loire) is extremely thoughtful in making sure the wines they make are imprinted with the land they come from—the terroir of each individual plot of land. ALZ is an off-the-wall expression of Sauvignon Blanc… and Chardonnay… and Chenin Blanc. The crazy thing about this wine is that you can truly taste all three grapes separately if you focus on them individually, but they meld together in a strangely perfect way, too.

September Spirit of the Month: Aquavit

Aquavit is a Scandinavian spirit that is traditionally flavored with ingredients such as caraway, cardamon, fennel, or dill.  You can easily substitute aquavit into your favorite whiskey, gin, or vodka drinks for a tasty new variation.  Through September we will feature some of our favorite aquavits and show you how versatile it can be!  Let’s leave the lutefisk to the Nordics and broaden our savory cocktail arsenal with that dusty bottle of aquavit instead.

Week 1:

Aquavit Mule, aka Dala Horse

In a copper mule mug filled with ice, combine:

Garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint.


Week 2:  Local pairing 

Aquavit can also be enjoyed chilled or over ice. This week we recommend trying Skaalvenn Aquavit with Northern Lights Blue Cheese from the Cheese Shop.  Each batch of Northern Lights Blue is hand crafted in small batches with fresh ingredients and milk from local Brown Swiss cows who are allowed to graze on pasture all year long, which helps create a rich creamy texture and delicious flavor.  The cheese is aged for a minimum of four months, longer than most blue cheese, which adds to its creamy texture and peppery taste.  This cheese will pair nicely with Skaalvenn’s Aquavit, which is distilled from wheat and flavored with caraway, fennel, orange peel, and aged in oak barrels.


Week 3: Nordic Summer Cocktail 

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill ¾ with ice, shake until chilled, strain, and serve with an orange twist.

 

 


 

 

Week 4: 

AkvaCran & Tonic 

Fill a tall glass with ice; add aquavit, cranberry juice, and lime juice; top with tonic water and garnish with a lime and sprig of mint. 

Malt in Beer: Back to the Roots

by Kayla

Malt is one of the most essential ingredients in beer. In my last blog, I wrote about bacteria in beer, and how it’s responsible for some of your favorite sours. This time we’re talking about malt, because it’s really the unsung hero of beer, and is usually overlooked when compared to hops. The average beer consumer is seeking out the latest hop variant, and we can all trust our own favorites from Yakima Valley in Washington and Willamette Valley in Oregon. So, let’s give malt a try. I promise it’s just as exciting!

Locally in the malt world, Rahr Malting Company has been running the show in Minnesota for over a century. Rahr was founded on Lake Michigan in 1847 by William Rahr, and is currently located in Shakopee, MN by the 5th and 6th generation of the Rahr family.  I had the privilege of touring the facility, and saw the process that barley goes through to become the grains that are used to make your favorite beer. I am beyond grateful for the experience and seeing how much care goes into the process of getting to the beer you love. 

In Germany, Weyermann® Malt is 4th-generation-run by Sabine Weyermann and has been in production for over 140 years in Bramberg, Germany. They are currently one of the largest European malt suppliers in the US. 

IREKS also in Germany was started by Johann Peter Ruckdeschela in Kulmbach, Germany over 160 years ago. Currently IREKS is run by a group of family companies. 

 Other maltsters are Country Malt Group, Briess, and Simpson to name a few. A maltster is a maker of malt for grains used in brewing and distilling. They work with the farmers that grow the barley, and the microbiologist at the brewery as well as the brewer. 

So why are maltsters and what they do so important to beer? Malting separates the starch from the barley and has to go through 3 stages so it can be used in brewing: Steeping, germination, and then kilning. 

Steeping takes 2 days and it’s a process that soaks the grain in water on and off for 8-hour intervals. It helps activate the enzymes that help the roots of the barley (called ‘chits’) to become more visible and ready for germination. 

Germination is the second step and this removes the barley from the water and keeps it moist for another 3-5 days. It sits in a giant bed that every so often gets sprayed to keep it from drying out, allowing the endosperm to convert to a soft, chalky form. After this process is done it’s time for it to be kilned. 

At the kilning stage the barley is “green.” It’s kept at 176℉ for about 2-4 hours, which helps to preserve the nutrients for fermentation, making the enzymes dormant and stopping the modification. Now, it’s up to the maltster to decide the flavor profile of the malt and pick how dark or light the malt is going to be. There are way too many possible malt varieties so since it’s Oktoberfest season, we’ll talk about German malts, which is a preferred malt for making your favorite Oktoberfests. 

My two favorite malts are Munich and Vienna German malts. Weyermann® and IREKS come to mind, and are also in some of my personal favorite Oktoberfest and Festbiers. The top three beers in no particular order that I think you should try with these malts are: 

Lupulin Oktoberfest Mӓrzen Style Lager | Big Lake, MN | $10.49/4pk | The malts they use are Ireks Vienna, Ireks Munich, Prairie™ German Pilsner (Cargill Salzgitter), and Weyermann® Caramunich 3 (a hybrid of Caramel and Munich malt). This beer comes in at 5.5% ABV. The richness of the malt really shines through and gives it some depth. I love mӓrzen style beers because the combination of the kilned malt and the specialty malts give this beer the toasty aroma with a rich taste. This beer reminds me of when the mid months of fall are here, and the leaves are just starting to fall. All of us Halloween geeks are preparing our costumes and looking forward to the spooky season. 

Receptional - Utepils Brewing

Utepils (Ooh-ta-pilz) Receptional German Festbier | Minneapolis MN | $8.99/4pk | The malts they use for this beer are Weyermann® Pilsner and Munich malt. Coming in at 5.9% ABV, this Festbier is pretty drinkable for being almost 6% ABV. The beer is light and refreshing, with a cracker ,pretzel, and biscuit malt flavor. It’s perfect for the beginning of fall when it’s still kind of warm outside and you want to have a fire, or sit outside and enjoy the changing of the seasons. I get excited when I see this beer, because it reminds me that fall is just around the corner!

Schell’s Oktoberfest Mӓrzen-style Festbier | New Ulm, MN | $9.99/6pk or $15.99/12pk | The malts they use are Pale, Munich, and Vienna. Coming in at 5.8% ABV, it’s pretty similar to the Lupulin. The malt character has some depth, rich, and smooth, except they use Pale malt instead of Pilsner. This beer would definitely be perfect for a great Labor Day weekend to celebrate that fall is on its way!