Tasting the Chenin Blanc Wines of South Africa, 2016 Releases

chenin blancs

South Africa is making a name for itself with chenin blanc — or at least it’s trying to, and recently a number of vintners from the region banded together to showcase how chenin blanc was evolving in the country. (More chenin blanc is planted here than in any other country in the world.)

During an online tasting event, six wines from the region, ranging from the 2013 to the 2015 vintage, were introduced and tasted. These wines exemplify a wide range of styles, but the “house style” for South African chenin blanc offers crisp minerality along with a big enough body to stand up to food. In the U.S. you can think of chenin as a bit of a middle ground between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Designed to be versatile, it has a lot in common with modern pinot grigio, though it is usually a bit less fruity.

So, is chenin blanc from “.za” worth a look? Thoughts follow on the full half dozen.

2013 Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc – Fresh and crisp, with slate-heavy, stonelike aromatics. The fruit here is simple and restrained, showing light peach notes, with ample minerality on the finish. B+ / $20

2015 Bellingham The Old Orchards Chenin Blanc – Considerably racier, balancing heavily perfumed aromatics with a slightly meaty backbone. Far more tropical than the typical chenin blanc tasted today. B+ / $22

2015 Stellar Winery The River’s End Chenin Blanc – The balance feels off on this wine, veering into astringent notes. Things open up in time, but I never got past the almost mothball-like aromatics and the heavily meaty body. C+ / $15

2015 Terre Brûlée Le Blanc – An exotic tropical note takes hold right from the start, with heavy pineapple notes fading into notes of guava. Somewhat atypical for chenin — though the perfumy aromatics remind you of its provenance — with a lengthy, fruit-forward, and rather heavy level of acidity. A favorite. A / $15

2015 Solms-Delta Chenin Blanc – Classic chenin blanc on the nose, lightly perfumed and showing ample mineral character. Almost textbook from start to finish, the wine takes those classic rocky slate notes and layers on notes of peach and pineapple, leading to an impressively lengthy finish. A- / $15

2014 Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc – Take a little of all of the above and you’ve got Beaumont’s chenin blanc, which showcases floral perfume notes, fresh pineapple fruit, and a touch of beef jerky. Lovely balance on the whole. A- / $32

wosa.co.za

Review: Drinkmate Home Carbonation System

Drinkmates Full Front Angle

The SodaStream home carbonation system has been around long enough to become a beloved kitchen companion for many — but the device is famous for one very stern rule: It is only to be used to carbonate water.

Of course there are myriad other beverages out there that could stand the fizzy treatment. If you want to make a spritzy margarita, carbonated coffee, or some faux-secco, officially you would be out of luck with the SodaStream. (That said, scofflaws abound.)

Enter the Drinkmate, which has no onerous threats of voiding your warranty if you put anything besides water in it. In fact, Drinkmate encourages fizzy mixology (“carbonology,” they call it) and provides a variety of instructions on how much CO2 to pump into various types of drinks.

In practice, Drinkmate works a lot like SodaStream, though it lacks the maturity and finish the older device now offers. A can of CO2 pops into the back. A custom container clips onto the front, and the user presses a button up top to inject bubbles into the canister. The trick is a special adapter fitted with a release valve that prevents disastrously messy over-foaming, a problem that many cite when trying to use the SodaStream to carbonate things other than water.

It takes some doing to carbonate a lot of beverages. I spent nearly 10 minutes turning still rose into sparkling rose, with only so-so results to show for it. A sparkling margarita was much more successful from a technical standpoint — and more fun to drink too.

While Drinkmate runs about $20 more than a SodaStream (CO2 canisters are also pricey) and lacks some of the bells and whistles of the more mature device, for mixology tinkerers who want to push the boundaries of what they can carbonate, it’s a reliable and capable device that works as advertised and won’t make a mess out of your bar.

And of course, you can also use it to carbonate water should the mood strike.

B+ / $110 / idrinkproducts.com [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Fabrizia Limoncello, Blood Orange Liqueur, and Italian Margarita

fabrizia

Inspired by Italy, Fabrizia is a line of liqueurs and ready-to-drink products produced in Salem, New Hampshire. Small batch and all natural, let’s see if Fabrizia can go toe to toe with the real stuff from the Old World.

Fabrizia Limoncello – A relatively mild limoncello, cloudy and light in hue, but also fresh and sweet with a slightly sour finish that offers more citrus zest than juice. As the finish fades some herbal notes evolve, both expected (lemongrass) and less so (rosemary). This really doesn’t hurt, though, giving the liqueur a clean character — not altogether common with often super-sweet limoncello — that is quite welcome. 54 proof. A- / $18

Fabrizia Blood Orange Liqueur – Essentially limoncello made with blood oranges instead of lemon. Orangecello isn’t a new idea, but blood oranges are a unique spin. Here the spirit leans more toward sweetness, that juicy orange character really taking the reins. The finish makes a return to heavier, sour notes coming along later in the game, along with a slight bitterness on the finish. As it fades, I catch some notes of mango and, again, savory herbs, though less clearly than in the limoncello. A welcome change of pace. 54 proof.  B+ / $18

Fabrizia Italian Margarita – A ready to drink cocktail made with tequila, lemonade, and Fabrizia’s limoncello. As you might think, it’s much more lemon-focused than the typical margarita, but the tequila notes do make an appearance, more powerfully than you’d expect from a ready to drink product. Think of this more as a tequila-spiked lemonade — fresh, moderately sweet, and otherwise just about on target — which may or may not sound completely refreshing. 28 proof. B+ / $12

fabriziaspirits.com

Review: Zinfandels of Edmeades, 2013 Vintage

 

EDMEADES

Edmeades is a Mendocino-based part of the Jackson Family Vineyards empire, with a heavy focus on zinfandel. (Nay, an almost exclusive focus on zinfandel.)

Today we look at three of Edmeades’ single-vineyard expressions of the grape, all from the 2013 vintage.

2013 Edmeades Zinfandel Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyards – Heavily fruit forward, this is a traditional zin with all the trimmings. Raisiny fruit? Yes. Notes of chocolate? Yes. Somewhat flabby body with a lengthy finish that shows off some vegetal overtones? That too. Overtones of caramel and blackberries add a little to the experience, but not enough to elevate this out of the rank and file. B / $31

2013 Edmeades Zinfandel Mendocino County Shamrock Vineyard – The raw and jammy fruit notes find some balance in the form of slightly sour balsamic notes, which really kick up as the lengthy, slightly chalky finish emerges. Old World in structure, this wine still suffers from a somewhat flabby body, but it’s engaging and intriguing enough to merit some exploration. B- / $31

2013 Edmeades Zinfandel Mendocino County Gianoli Vineyard – Sizable chocolate notes, along with notes of licorice and cloves, given this zin some character, but it doesn’t always fit perfectly with the densely fruity core, which is lush with berries and plum jam. Again, a rather unctuous and flabby body makes this less refreshing than one might like, though its complexities are interesting enough to merit a glass or two. B+ / $35

edmeades.com

Review: 2015 Hahn Pinot Gris Monterey County

Hahn-PG15-Bottle-Image

2015’s pinot gris from Hahn has arrived. It’s a fresh and lively but straightforward white, with notes of mango backed up by a core of apples and pears. A touch of sweet baking spice adds complexity but keeps things from falling into the overly sweet side of the fence — despite a few marshmallow notes on the finish.

B+ / $14 / hahnwines.com

Review: Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

Bains bottles white US

We’ve seen a number of products from South Africa lately — lots of wine, and even liqueurs and brandy — but this is our first South African whisky review.

The bottle won’t tell you much, but Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky is single grain whisky made from 100% South African yellow maize (we call it corn!). It is column distilled and matured in first-fill, ex-bourbon casks for three years, then transferred to a second set of casks for 18 to 30 months, making this roughly a 4 to 6 year old spirit.

The nose is fairly harmless, restrained but showing some early notes of butterscotch, salted caramel, and ample but not overwhelming popcorn character. The body tends to mash these all together into a hearty caramel corn element — you would be easily forgiven for assuming this was a young American bourbon. That’s a statement that comes with a lot of baggage, but Bain’s doesn’t come across as overly grainy or vegetal. Give it a little time at least and the palate settles into a groove that offers notes of vanilla custard and caramel sauce, layered atop that heavier popcorn base. Initially a bit disjointed, things get quite integrated and soothing as the whisky opens up with time exposed to air, the way things can often happen with younger, but well-made, bourbon.

If you love bourbon, you’ll at least like Bain’s Cape Mountain — and you might even find a real soft spot for its charms.

86 proof.

B / $30 / bainswhisky.com

Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

JBW_OLD_NEW

It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com