Review: Stella Artois Cidre

Stella Artois Cidre Bottle

One of the more curious line extensions in recent years comes from Stella Artois, which after decades of making pilsner decided to launch a cider. Cidre was introduced in 2011, and came to the U.S. in 2013. Today it is one of the more widely available ciders — thanks, likely, to its ownership by Anheuser-Busch as well as the fact that it’s an easy crowd-pleaser. The U.S. Cidre is made in Baldwinsville, New York, “using apples picked from wine-growing regions in North and South America.”

As cider goes, this is made in a fresh, fizzy, and quite sweet style. The body is loaded with fresh apple juice, with overtones of lemon and orange. Again, it’s sweetness from the get-go, with just a touch of sour citrus to add a bit of balance, particularly present on the gently herbal finish. Positioned as an alternative to white wine (or, more likely, a wine cooler), Cidre fits well the profile of a poolside sipper, uncomplicated to be sure, but hard not to at least enjoy in the moment.

4.5% abv.

B+ / $9 per six-pack / stellaartois.com

Review: VDKA 6100 Vodka

Here’s the bullet points on VDKA 6100. It hails from New Zealand (the 6100 refers to the 6,100 miles from the U.S. (where the vodka was envisioned) to NZ, where it is made). It is triple distilled from a mash made not using potatoes, corn, or wheat but from whey — yes, whey, the by-product of milk production. Finally: Robert de Niro is an investor in the product, and “helped with the design, packaging, branding, and positioning of the product.”

The vodka is one of the lightest out there. The nose is lightly sweet, with just a mild touch of hospital character, but otherwise very clean and very neutral. The palate follows suit: Thin, almost watery at times, with very gentle notes of simple syrup, fresh cream, and a touch of lemongrass. Is the whey-cream connection all in my head? At times the vodka seems like it drinks a bit like melted vanilla ice cream.

The use of whey as a base for vodka has been getting a terrible rap in the press, and if you’re looking for a spirit with power and character, I can see why one would complain. This is vodka lite, with all the connotations that entails. For those looking for a truly neutral base spirit that can blend in with whatever mixers you throw at it, well, here it is.

80 proof. Aka VDKA6100.

B+ / $25 / vdka6100.com

Tasting the Beers of Devils Backbone: Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, Black Rock Milk Stout, Catty Wompus, and Trail Angel Weiss

devils backbone

Lexington, Virginia-based Devils Backbone has been cranking out craft brews for years, and earlier this year the operation was acquired by Anheuser-Busch. The company says that the Bud connection won’t stifle its autonomy, and that it will keep releasing daring beers for years to come.

That’s starting with the brewery’s new Adventure Pack, which includes Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, and Black Rock Milk Stout, all of which were formerly available only at the Devils Backbone brewpub. We’re reviewing all four of these below, plus a couple of one-off releases, Catty Wompus and Trail Angel Weiss, further on down the page.

Let’s start with the four beers from the Adventure Pack.

Devils Backbone Five Apostles Saison Belgian-Inspired Farmhouse Ale – A relatively alcohol-heavy expression of a saison, this fruity and spicy ale offers notes of coriander, overripe apples, and a smattering of baking spices, culminating in a finish not far from fresh baked gingerbread. A bit drier than I expected, but that’s actually a positive — giving this saison a truly refreshing finish. 6.9% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Pear Lager – A lager flavored with natural pear flavor. That’s not a combination I’ve ever asked for (or even thought much about), but it works better than expected. Gentle though unspecific fruit mixes easily with the up-front malty lager notes, with these two factions fighting for control for quite some time as the palate builds and then fades to its curiously fruity but distinctly beer-like conclusion. 4.8% abv. B

Devils Backbone Golden Stag Blended Beer – Designed as a hybrid of a lager and an IPA, and the combination works quite well. The IPA at first seems that it will win this war of styles, with heavy (though not particularly citrusy) hops, but eventually the big and malty body muscles its way to the forefront. Bold without being overwhelming. 5.5% abv. B+

Devils Backbone Black Rock Milk Stout – A traditional, black-as-night milk stout sweetened with milk sugar, though it’s not as creamy or as sweet as you might be expecting. Notes of coffee and well-roasted nuts take center stage, with gently soothing sweetness acting as a very modest foil to the proceedings. The finish has a slightly odd touch of sourness to it. Curious. 5.4% abv. B+

And here’s a look at the two one-offs…

Devils Backbone Catty Wompus – “A Belgian inspired India Pale Ale,” this expression offers the best of both of those worlds, starting things off with a foot deeply set in the IPA world, then slowly letting those Belgian Ale notes take hold. That means a good dose of hops start things off with a healthy level of bitterness before some more subtle fruit components — apples, apricots, orange blossoms — start to take hold. The finish is a refreshing but rounded and mouth-filling blend of both elements. Well done. 7.5% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Trail Angel Weiss – Made in the “Bavarian style,” which is really how all weissbier is made. It’s a little funky at the start, with some mushroom notes that aren’t perfectly in sync with the lemon peel and substantial malt character, but at least gives the beer a hefty, chewy, bready body, something that isn’t always in the cards in the world of weissbier. 4.7% abv. B-

about $17 per 12-pack / dbbrewingcompany.com

Tasting Sicilian Grillo: 2014 Tasca and 2013 Firriato

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Grillo is a Sicilian grape variety (thought to be a cross between moscato and catarratto) known best as one of the varietals used for the production of Marsala — but it can also be used to produce a lively table wine that echoes pinot grigio, but with a bolder and rounder body.

Recently we sampled two grillo bottlings, both from the Sicilia DOC. Thoughts follow.

2014 Tasca Tenuta Regaleali Grillo Cavallo delle Fate Sicilia DOC – Bold in body and chewy at times, but loaded with notes of fresh lemon, sweetened grapefruit, and mild apricot. At the back of the palate, the wine offers brightness and acidity — slightly floral. Some lightly meaty notes, touched with sweet marshmallow fluff, come along on a gently woody finish with recalls a gentler expression of American chardonnay. (While this is 100% grillo, grillo-chardonnay blends (and other grillo blends) are common.) B+ / $18

2013 Firriato Altavilla della Corte Grillo Sicilia DOC – Also 100% grillo. A somewhat similar wine, though here we find a stronger fresh fruit component — with more distinct tropical notes — plus a touch of vanilla-scented wood influence. This wine would be easier to confuse with a pinot grigio than the Tasca, but on the whole I find it just a touch more enjoyable thanks to a higher level of acidity. A- / $17

Tasting the Pinots of Emeritus Vineyards, 2013 Vintage

Emeritus HR

Emeritus began in 1999 when the irascible Brice Cutrer Jones, founder of Sonoma-Cutrer, bought a coveted 115-acre apple orchard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Apples went out. Pinot noir grapes went in. The goal: Craft an all-estate-grown Burgundy-style wine “from scratch,” its grapes carefully dry-farmed for maximum flavor extraction — and to actually showcase the terroir of California. (This vineyard is said to be the largest dry-farmed vineyard in California.)

Today Emeritus spans three small vineyards (two in the Sonoma Coast), with each responsible for producing a single-vineyard pinot noir. Today a small group of writers sat down (via a web chat) with Jones and his daughter and partner Mari Jones to step through the three latest bottlings of Emeritus pinot, all 2013 vintage releases, and listen to Jones extol the benefits of dry farming… and rail against the commercial winemaking practices of the Napa Valley.

Thoughts on each of these wines follow.

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Pinot Hill Vineyard – The newest vineyard, about 30 acres on the northern end of the Wind Gap, planted in 2008 (before that it was a llama farm). Distinctly Burgundy style, with notes of bacon and pepper on the nose. The body is loaded with fruit, gentle raspberry and cherry notes, plus notes of tea leaf. The conclusion is gentle and easy, with light wood notes. A quiet nod to the Cote de Nuits. B+ / $55

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Hallberg Ranch Vineyard – Sourced from the original 115-acre vineyard discussed above. Brighter, more acidic, and with a clearer, though not overblown, fruit character. It’s a departure from the ultra-jammy style that’s typical of the Russian River, with a smattering of savory spices, and a finish that evokes crisp red apple notes. Really gorgeous, elegant, and fresh, it’s easy-drinking and light on its fight… but loaded with a depth of flavor that merits considerable thought. Definitively not your daddy’s RRV pinot. A / $42

2013 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast William Wesley Vineyard – Sourced from a high-elevation vineyard, a 30-acre plot that was originally a partnership with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of Domaine Romanée-Conti. De Villaine eventually backed out of the project, but the finished product nonetheless has some of his DNA. It’s heavily Burgundian in style, brooding on the nose with wet earth and some, big meaty notes, and tempered with touches of spearmint. There’s a density on the palate, loaded with notes of licorice, blackberry bramble, and some tar, which combines to make for a quite heavy pinot that might even be mistaken for syrah at times. That’s not a slight. Brice thinks of this as his winery’s “grand cru” bottling… and he’s not wrong in that descriptor. A- / $67

emeritusvineyards.com

Review: 2014 Treana Blanc

 

treana

Treana, from Hope Family Wines, is an iconic California red blend. Now comes Treana Blanc, a white blend to follow in its footsteps. Made from 45% viognier, 45% marsanne, and 10% roussanne, it carries a Central Coast appellation. This is the second vintage for the wine, which offers a slightly different blend than the original 2013 (which had no roussanne).

Very much Rhone-like in composition, the wine shows an aromatic nose of white flowers, buttered popcorn, and plenty of peaches. Those viognier-driven notes are more muted on the palate, letting more buttery-oaky notes come through, something like a traditional chardonnay. That body is a bit at odds with the racier and more fragrant nose, but somehow the overall construction seems to work fairly well — with the aromatics making a brief reprise on the finish. Worth tasting.

B+ / $24 / hopefamilywines.com

Review: Creyente Mezcal Joven

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This new joven mezcal is a blend of two 100% Espadin agave mezcals from different regions of Oaxaca (Tlacolula and Yautepec). It’s fitting, because the product is a parternship of two longtime mezcaleros – Pedro Mateo and Mijail Zarate – who have tinkered with classical distillation processes to come up with Creyente (Spanish for “believer”). Per the press release: “In separate distilleries, they begin by removing the pencas (leaves) and roasting the piñas (hearts) using an artisanal method with mesquite wood in a horno cónico de pierdra (stone oven) for three days. The roasted piñas are ground by hand using a molino de piedra (stone mill) to extract their succulent syrups, fermented in wooden barrels, then distilled in small copper stills. Finally, following distillation, the two mezcals are cut with natural spring water, blended with each other, and together they become Creyente.”

The crystal clear Creyente offers a classically smoky nose, studded with notes of lemon zest, black pepper, and overripe fruit. On the palate, more smoke leads to a relatively fruit-heavy body, lightly oily with notes of black pepper, furniture polish, and sweetened cereal. The finish sticks to the palate (and the ribs), with overtones of petrol, licorice, and smoky forest fire. Altogether it’s a rather classic, and surprisingly straightforward, mezcal, despite it’s unorthodox production.

80 proof.

B+ / $50 / no website