On the Trail

The Newest Clicquot Bottling: Extra Old!

Gary Westby
  Dominique Demarville pulling vin clair from foudre at Veuve Clicquot in Reims

Dominique Demarville pulling vin clair from foudre at Veuve Clicquot in Reims

I love being surprised by great Champagne. It is great to be reminded that no matter how many bottles one has tried, how many visits to the region one has made, there are always more surprises. The Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old Champagne is a spectacular surprise, and the best and most exciting bottling that I have had from this famous house since the 1988 Veuve Clicquot "Rare" Vintage Brut Champagne. This is the only Champagne that I have ever had that is composed exclusively of reserve wines. It has no vin clair from the vintage before the bottling in it- everything spent at least two years in tank before being bottled.

  The 1988 Cramant had to wait 30 years before coming to your glass

The 1988 Cramant had to wait 30 years before coming to your glass

When I visited Veuve Clicquot last year Dominique Demarville and I spent a couple of hours tasting his wonderful collection of reserve wines. We tasted the 1988 Cramant that is the oldest part of the Extra Old blend—he still has some left—and it was so profound that I took a picture of the tank. I wrote in my notebook at the time that it smelled and looked like it could have been a Chablis that was twenty years younger, as the only hint to its age was the spectacular complexity and finesse of the wine.

  Tanks and barrels at Veuve Clicquot

Tanks and barrels at Veuve Clicquot

The Extra Age, Extra Old opens up that collection of reserves for the Champagne lover to drink, and what a collection it is. Anchored by the 1988 Chardonnay from Cramant, this wine also has Pinot Noir from the Aube in 1996 and Verzy 2006. The youngest wines in the blend come from Ay with some 2009, and Ville-Dommange with some Meunier from 2010. In the end, the composition came out to about 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 20% Meunier. The wine was aged for three years on the lees, and the bottle that we drank also had a couple of years on the cork, as it was disgorged in June of 2016. The dosage is very low at 3g/l, but the age of the wines makes it show more like a dry brut than an austere extra brut.

  xtra Brut, Extra Old in the garden

xtra Brut, Extra Old in the garden

We had this Champagne with some mushroom pate that Cinnamon made out of hen of the woods and crimi’s from a local grower at the Menlo Park farmers market on toasts made out of the Woodside Bakery’s walnut bread. While the wine was clean, refreshing and bright the whole time, it also magically had vinous depth and complexity that on rarely encounters in current release Champagne. The subtle way that this power and depth presents itself is a testament to the blending mastery of Dominique Demarville, a cellar master at the top of his game. The savory, earthy flavors in the pate brought out the same in the wine, but without the food I might have missed them completely. 

Two days later, as I type this I can almost still taste the wine. It is certainly the longest finishing Champagne with an Extra Brut labeling that I have ever had. If you love Champagne, and have the budget for a treat, this small production release is one that I hope that you will try. I have never had anything like it, and the quality is top notch.

A toast to you! 

-Gary Westby

Delamotte & Salon with Mr. Pouchan

Gary Westby

We just had a visit from Mr. Mathieu Pouchan of Salon and sister house Delamotte and he brought us some incredible treats. Salon and Delamotte share a facility in the village of Mesnil, the southernmost of all the Grand Crus in Champagne, located in the southern part of the Côte de Blancs. The village is planted entirely to Chardonnay, and the grapes that come from this village are the most expensive and prestigious in all of Champagne. Mesnil is prized for adding longevity and freshness to blends but is also home to some of the greatest single cru Champagnes from growers like Launois, Pierre Peters and even big houses like Krug with their Clos du Mesnil. The first one of these was also made here, the single varietal, single vintage, single village Salon, with their 1921 Vintage.

Delamotte, which is right next door to Salon, became a sister property in 1988 when the family that controls Laurent Perrier purchased both. This small negociant is the 5th oldest house in Champagne, with history going all the way back to 1760. They are renowned for making fresh, bright and long finishing Champagnes with a large amount of Grand Cru Chardonnay, notably from Mesnil.

Mr. Pouchan poured the 2007 Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne next to an early disgorged preview bottle of the 2008 Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. While the 2007 was showing excellent creamy toast at 11 years old and drinking great, the 2008 is packed for the ages with extraordinary minerality, acidity and length. This is one collectors will want for their cellars and is sure to get huge write ups from the critics. If you want first crack, click through the link and get on the waiting list. I don’t have pricing yet, but expect to get product in May. For the meantime, we can all drink the 2007!


We also tasted the fabulous 2006 Salon, which was selected for longevity in this otherwise precociously ripe vintage. With no malolactic fermentation, this is the most spry, long and vivacious 2006 that I have tasted yet. It had an earthy quality that reminded me of great Ramonet Bienvenues Batard Montrachet’s that I have had, as well as the power that is always associated with those great white Burgundies. This is expensive stuff, but what a treat it was!

They will be releasing the 2007 soon, and expect the 2008 to come out sometime in 2020. Salon did not make 2009, 2010 or 2011, so we’ll have to wait for the 2012 after the 2008 is gone. We won’t see that until at least 2024!

A toast to you!

-Gary Westby

Grand Cru Corton

Jeff Garneau
  The K&L Burgundy team standing in a Corton vineyard

The K&L Burgundy team standing in a Corton vineyard

It’s hard to imagine anyone overlooking the hill of Corton. Marking the northern terminus of the Côte de Beaune, as vineyards give way to marble quarries, it rises above the surrounding countryside like a leviathan surfacing from the deeps.

Nearly 400 meters at its peak, the hill is crowned with 50 hectares of forest, the famed Bois de Corton. Below the woods, vineyards partially encircle the hill, covering the east, southeast, and southwest facing slopes at elevations of 250 to 330 meters. Chardonnay is planted predominantly on the white marl clay at the top of the slope, with more extensive vineyards found to the southwest. Pinot Noir flourishes at mid-slope, where the soil is reddish with less clay and more iron, occupying most of the southeast and east facing hillsides.

Flanking the hill – like loyal retainers paying patient court to a slumbering monarch – lie the three villages of Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton, and Ladoix. While each is home to villages and premier cru vineyards, they owe their reputations to the Grand Cru vineyards which climb the slopes above the towns. The precise boundaries of those vineyards have been a matter of some dispute since the first attempts to codify them in the 1930’s under the nascent AOC system. Given the financial incentives, expansion has generally been favored over retreat, with the result that today there are some 160 hectares of vineyards designated as Corton Grand Cru AOC, more than three times the size of the next largest Grand Cru vineyard, Clos de Vougeot.

Within the Corton appellation, there are 28 vineyards, or climats, designated Grand Cru either entirely or in part. If 100% of the fruit is sourced from a single vineyard, its name may be appended to the designation “Corton”, as in “Corton-Clos de Roi” or “Corton-Bressandes”. While this may be true of any, in practice it is limited to the most prestigious of vineyards. Lesser climats are often labeled simply as “Corton”, in the same way as blends from multiple vineyard sites. For the white wines, no vineyard names are added. In addition to the lieux-dits, “En Charlemagne” and “Le Charlemagne”, there are seven other climats that are allowed to use the appellation “Corton-Charlemagne”. Any other may plant Chardonnay but it is labeled as simply “Corton”.

Grand Cru Burgundies are some of the most sought after wines in the world. Their reputation for quality and their relative scarcity drive demand, pushing up prices and making the best wines hard to acquire. The Hill of Corton, however, dominates the market for Grand Cru Burgundy in the same way it dominates the countryside north of Beaune – of the 2 to 3 million bottles of Grand Cru Burgundy produced in an average year, one in every three will bear the label “Corton” or “Corton-Charlemagne”. Yet when people are asked to name a top Burgundy Grand Cru vineyard, they think Montrachet rather than Corton-Charlemagne or Richebourg rather than Corton-Clos de Roi.

The best values, and the best prices, for Grand Cru Burgundy come from the hill of Corton. Anyone looking to add some bottles to their cellar would be best advised to begin there. Some top picks from a recent staff tasting:

2014 Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru $189.99

The Domaine was officially established in Beaune in 1811, though the family had been involved in the wine trade in Burgundy since 1731. The Bouchard family continued to run the Domaine throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, consolidating their holdings and their reputation. The Domaine was purchased in 1985 by Joseph Henriot of Champagne Henriot. The Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru is produced from 3.65 hectares of vines in Le Corton.

2014 Domaine Parent Corton-Les Renardes Grand Cru $99.99

Long family history in Pommard going back several generations. Anne Parent, along with her sister Catherine, has taken over responsibility for the domaine since the retirement of their father Jacques Parent in 1993. They produce 1er cru and villages wines in Pommard, Beaune, and Ladoix, along with Grand Cru Corton-Les Renardes (0.30 hectares) and Corton-Le Rognet (0.28 hectares).

2015 Domaine Louis Jadot Corton-Marechaudes Grand Cru $109.99

Founded in 1859 by Louis Jadot and run by his heirs for over a century. In 1985, the domaine and its associated negociant business was purchased by the Kopf family, owners of Kobrand Corporation, sole United States importer of Jadot Burgundies since 1945. Note: Located on the lower slopes of the hill of Corton, Les Marechaudes is split between Corton Grand Cru and Aloxe-Corton premier cru.

2015 Domaine Taupenot-Merme Corton-Rognet Grand Cru $149.99

Run by Romain Taupenot along with his sister Virginie, seventh generation vignerons. Their father Jean Taupenot, from Saint Romain, married Denis Merme, sister to Marie-France Perrot-Minot, whose son Christophe now runs that domaine. They farm 12.9 hectares in total, including Charmes-Chambertin and Mazoyères-Chambertin Grand Cru, as well as Chambolle Musigny, Morey-St-Denis, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Nuits-St-Georges villages and premier cru. The Domaine also includes (since 2003) the vineyards of the St-Romain branch of the family, Auxey-Duresses and Saint Romain villages and premier cru. The plot of vines on the hill of Corton (0.41 hectares of Le Rognet) was acquired in 2005.

2015 Domaine Faiveley Corton-Clos des Cortons Faiveley Grand Cru (Monopole) $199.99

From 3.02 hectares of vineyards solely owned by Domaine Faiveley in Le Rognet. Founded in 1825 in Nuits-St-Georges, this family-owned domaine has been run since 2006 by seventh generation Erwan Faiveley.

2015 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Corton-Les Bressandes Grand Cru $149.99

Established in Chorey-lès-Beaune in the 1880’s. Currently run by Nathalie Tollot. The Domaine produces three wines from vineyards on the Corton hill: Corton Charlemagne (from 0.4 hectares of vines planted in 1956 in the lieux-dit of Les Renardes), Corton (from vines planted between 1930 and 2008 in Les Combes), and Corton-Les Bressandes (from 0.91 hectares of vines planted in 1953 and 1955).

-Jeff Garneau

On the Hunt for Single Barrel Tequila

David Driscoll

Carlos Camarena needs no introduction to those familiar with fine Tequila, but for those of you who are still getting your feet wet: he's the man behind a number of outstanding brands on today's market; those baring the NOM number 1474 on the side label. His father first founded La Alteña in 1937 and, like any great winemaker, he's always been much more interested in the agricultural side of production rather than the distillation and began his career in the fields. We went down to his distillery in Arandas this past Fall to spend some time in the Highland fields with him, learning the intricate details of agave reproduction and the delicate ecosystem that supports their growth. Seeing that his world famous distillery was celebrating its 80th anniversary, Carlos was allowing select retailers to choose a limited number of single Reposado barrels to have privately bottled. Needless to say, it was an invitation we weren't going to pass up.


Like most wine enthusiasts shun the excessive extraction or manipulation of top quality fruit, serious Tequila drinkers want to know exactly what's being done with their Highland agave after it's harvested. With all of the tricks, shortcuts, and hijinks happening behind the scenes of our modern alcoholic world, it's tough to know for sure if anything is still real these days. Rest assured, however, that the production at La Alteña is pretty straightforward. The agave comes in from the field, it gets chopped up by these guys, and then it goes on a conveyor belt into the oven. There are two guys who collect the piñas and stack them in the oven for the steaming process, which cleans the bitter and somewhat waxy residue off the agave, while cooking and concentrated the sugars inside. Every Tequila made at La Alteña starts this way.


I've always found that Tequila has much more in common with wine than whiskey, and in visiting the various agave distilleries of Mexico that comparison holds true on the production side as well. Some distilleries are like sterile custom crush pads with nothing more than the proper equipment and truck loads of material being dropped off for preparation. Others are actual estates, surrounded by their own vineyards (or agave fields, in this case), with an atmosphere and an aura all their own. La Alteña is definitely the latter. It's like the Ridge or Stag's Leap of Jalisco, a heralded property that has continued to make quality liquid despite its growth and enhancements over the years. Any great wine's reputation will (and should) always begin with the quality and the location of its vineyards. In the case of La Alteña, the agave is planted in the vibrant red soils of the Jalisco Highlands, which create a much different flavor profile than those planted in the Lowlands.


Whereas Lowland agave produces a greener, more vegetal and herbaceous style of Tequila, Highland agave piñas tend to be larger, fruitier, and sweeter in flavor due to the difference in both soil types and climate. I've heard people compare Highland Tequilas to Highland single malts, but I've never liked that analogy. The classic Highland single malt profile has much more to do with stylistic choice than terroir. The difference between Highland and Lowland Tequila is more like the different between Napa mountain and valley-grown Cabernet. Due to the recent shortage of agave, many large producers (especially those using diffusers) don't distinguish between the geographical origins of their piñas, but that's no different than buying a bottle of red wine that says "California" on the label and one that very specifically indicates "Howell Mountain." When you buy a bottle of El Tesoro, you know you're getting Tequila made from Camarena family estate Highland agave.

Our three single casks have just arrived, showcasing both the high quality of Carlos Camarena's Tequila and the unique characteristics that single barrel bottling provides. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

-David Driscoll

Serious Merlot

David Driscoll
  Kathryn Kennedy winemaker Marty Mathis snaps a shot of the 2014 Merlot harvest in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Kathryn Kennedy winemaker Marty Mathis snaps a shot of the 2014 Merlot harvest in the Santa Cruz Mountains

As part of my continued education and understanding of California winemakers, I touched base recently with Marty Mathis, the owner and winemaker of legendary local producer Kathryn Kennedy in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. For those of you unfamiliar with the wines, Kathryn Kennedy was one of the original pioneers of California winemaking, earning her degree from Stanford at the age of nineteen and eventually founding one of the most iconic wineries in the state. She was inspired to plant a vineyard after moving to Saratoga and tasting a bottle of Martin Ray Cabernet, having seen similar Cabernet vineyards near her home. Kathryn planted her original estate vineyard almost half a century ago, and today Kathryn’s son Marty continues to specialize in Bordeaux varieties, continuing his mother’s heritage. Spending some time with him recently, I discovered he was planning on discontinuing one of the best wines in the entire portfolio: the Serious Merlot, one of the best and most honest expressions of the variety made in the entire state!  “In my thirty year career,” Marty told me, “I’ve probably crushed more Merlot than Cab—over thirty different vineyards from around California. Merlot is a fantastic variety, world class, but there’s not a lot of Merlot in the Santa Cruz Mountains, even though it’s better suited to the cooler climate.”

So why discontinue what is one of the “better suited” wines of the Kathryn Kennedy line-up? Because no matter how hard those of us who love Merlot try to fight it, the consequences of Paul Giamatti's fatal line in the film Sideways continue to effect the market more than a decade after its initial release. People still think Merlot is something to be avoided. “I called it ‘Serious’ Merlot because I hoped the Sideways effect had faded away a bit,” Marty continued; “I wanted something that could be considered alongside Pomerol and move away from the over-cropped California Merlot wines of the eighties. In our workings with small vineyards around Santa Cruz, we came across a few plots that we had used in our Small Lot Cabernet that we thought could stand on their own.” Those sites included two medium-sized vineyards around Lexington Reservoir, a residential vineyard in Saratoga, and another near Los Altos. Marty spared no expense in its creation, using all new French oak barrels for the nine month maturation. The result is immaculate; it’s a Bordeaux-like, Right Bank style of hearty red wine with dark, concentrated fruit, a full-bodied core of texture, and ample tannic structure for the long haul. The 2014 Kathryn Kennedy "Serious" Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot is one of the most perfect $50 bottles of California red wine I’ve had this year, yet we worked out a volume deal with Marty to get that price down even further. More importantly, this will be the last ever vintage of this wine, meaning these bottles will end up as historical testaments to real California winemaking, one that continues to be threatened by the perils of modern pop culture. 

-David Driscoll

On the Trail with Alexandre Gabriel

David Driscoll
alexandregab11 (1 of 1).jpg

As I've written before, my views on Cognac and the way the French mature their spirits have changed over the years since I first started visiting the region regularly. One of the biggest and, in retrospect, most embarrassing mistakes of my career was my misguided mindset that Cognac could be improved and better marketed to a new generation by adopting more of a whiskey-oriented approach. Single malt and Bourbon sales were peaking, whiskey fever was in the air, and we thought we could expand on that excitment by moving into new categories with a similar approach. Thus, we initially went into Cognac looking for single barrel brandies that were left to mature like Scotch or Bourbon, bottled at higher proofs and without any adulteration. Not only was this an incredibly pompous and arrogant attitude by someone without any training as a Cognac producer, it flat out didn't work. The full proof, single barrel Cognacs we purchased were off-balance, unshaped, and lacking in character. Not only did they fail to catch on with our whiskey fans, our customers who did like Cognac didn't like these new whiskey-esque editions one bit.

What went wrong, you ask? Besides the obvious naivete, we fell into the sugar trap. The rather misplaced mentality that unadulterated spirits are inherently better ultimately guided our decision-making, rather than the core philosophy that should be on the forefront of any buyer's agenda: flavor. Sugar is a very divisive issue in the booze world. Purists denounce even the slightest bit of added sweetener to their booze, believing the sole motivation behind doing so is to mask mistakes or flaws in the distillate itself. They see it as a con. As someone who gets more than his fair share of consumer email and feedback, I'm well aware of the rigidity that dominates this line of thinking. That being said, sugar tastes good. There's a reason sherry bomb single malts are all the rage and Port-finished Bourbons have become fashionable. They're sweeter and rounder on the palate, which is ultimately what most consumers want from their hooch. It's how the spirit is sweetened that becomes controversial.

While I originally thought that brandy would be the battleground for what is a complex and intricate debate on additives in alcohol, rum's re-emergence over the last few years has proven to be the current center of conversation concerning sugar in spirits. A number of labels have sought to establish themselves as additive-free in contrast to the sweetened brands that continue to dominate the market, taking up the modern whiskey mantle that fine spirits should never be tampered with. While it's great to have options as an aficionado these days, to immediately draw the conclusion that "unpure" spirits are somehow lower in quality than unadulterated spirits is a slippery path. It's an issue with many shades of grey in a world continually pushing for cleaner and quicker explanations in black and white. That's why I thought I'd sit down with Maison Ferrand's Alexandre Gabriel for a discussion about what the French call élévage, the careful maturation of fine booze. Seeing that Ferrand's Plantation rum selections are a huge hit with bartenders and tiki fans alike, despite the sweetened dosage, I figured he would be just the man to dig into that detail. Trained as a master Cognac blender, he's bringing the same savoir-faire to the maturation of rum and has plenty to say about the topic. 

Our recent conversation is below:

David: When and why did you decide to expand from Cognac into the rum market? What got you interested in the Caribbean? 

Alexandre: It’s almost like an unexpected love story. I’m trained in Cognac. I’ve been doing this now for twenty-nine years. I’m trained formally as a master blender and I own and run Maison Ferrand. The way people age Cognac is very different from any other spirit. My mother is a painter who was classically trained and she always told me about how the masters from the old days would travel from one studio to the next to check out the work of other painters, through Italy and France, wherever. To me, this is a model. I’ve learned from, distilled, and blended with a lot of different guys around the world and when I meet others in the trade I try to share this know-how of Cognac maturation, something we call élévage in France. When you have vineyards and make Cognac in Grande Champagne, barrels are used and reused again, then sold off for additional usage, because we’re all trying to achieve different things at different times. When you have a distillery in Grande Champagne it’s usually easy to find a buyer for your second hand barrels. 

David: Because it’s considered the finest quality of Cognac?

Alexandre: Yes, but about twenty-two years ago for some reason there was a barrel glut in the region, so I had to think about going to another market to sell my casks. Scotland or somewhere else. At that time, the Scots were buying very cheap barrels from America, and believe it or not even sherry barrels were still inexpensive. My barrels in comparison were too pricey, so I didn’t sell anything. Then I thought about the Caribbean. I didn’t really know anything about it, but I thought: why not give it a shot? I knew Thierry Gardère, the former owner of Barbancourt, who just passed away a year ago. His daughter had worked for us at Ferrand in the past, so they bought some Cognac barrels and that’s when I started to fall in love with rum. To be honest, back then and before this founding trip to the Caribbean more than 20 years ago, some of the aged rum I tasted were not so impressive. Then I tasted rum straight from the still and I thought: this is great stuff. We can do something with this. We can bring rum to the standard of a great Cognac. I must say that rum has come a long way since then. It's not just Plantation, other distilleries are now doing a great job as well.

David: What are you doing differently with your élévage process versus what the average producer does with standard maturation in the Caribbean?

Alexandre: With Plantation there are three sides to it. One of the most important aspects is what we call "double aging." meaning aged first in the Caribbean and then aged further in Cognac. I wish I had invented this technique so that I could have a claim to fame, but this is a technique as old as rum. This is how rum was made in the old days, it was purchased and then transported. The U.S. as you know was built on rum. My daughter did an essay in college about the geopolitical role of rum in the early Americas and it’s fascinating. What happens with double aging are four crucial things. Firstly, you get to play with two different climates. If you’re a master blender this is heaven. You get to use a tropical climate which is like a tool. You have a high angel’s share, lots of humidity, and that heat designs the rum in a specific way. This is great during the early years, but after ten years it can get rather tired. 

David: You’re saying that it can mature too quickly in the heat?

Alexandre: Not exactly. What happens is that under a tropical climate you have a huge angel's share: 7% to 10% a year depending on the cellar. The angel's share, which as you know is the evaporation of the rum through the cask, is one element of aging and there are others as well. But when you lose 7% a year, after ten years you start losing some of the elements from the rum you would actually like to keep. But, if you bring that rum back to France then you have a cooler climate and you also have the seasons. Seasons are magical for aging, as the Bourbon guys will tell you. When it’s cold, the spirit retracts from the wood. Then when it’s hot it expands into the wood. That’s how we play with two climates. Also, at Cognac Ferrand, an old master blender thought me long ago how to use varied conditions offered our cellars. We have humid cellars and dry cellars. In a humid cellar, the angel share is predominantly alcohol, and to put it simply, it makes the spirit smoother. In a dry cellar, it is the opposite that happens: water evaporates faster than alcohol and it results in a brighter spirit. This is a great tool, but you have to taste your rum barrels regularly to check how they are evolving—a typical day at work involves tasting more than sixty barrels. The second aspect of double aging is the oak. In the Caribbean, they’re using mostly American oak. Back in Cognac, we then transfer that rum into French oak barrels. Now that we’ve purchased our own rum distilleries, we can go even further.

David: You guys bought West Indies Distillery on Barbados, I know. The other is Long Pond on Jamaica?

Alexandre: That’s right. We bought West Indies and a third of National Rum of Jamaica, which owns Long Pond and part of Clarendon or Monymusk. That’s a dream come true, by the way. Back to double aging though. American oak brings you upfront sweetness and then those flavors you find in whiskey like coconut and vanillin. French Limousin oak then gives you fine tannins and structure. That combination gives rum a great elegance and complexity. Some rums lack structure, they lack the ribcage that is given by the French oak. Empty American oak barrels also usually contain remnants of the spirit that was formerly aged within them, namely Bourbon or rye whiskey. That’s the third tool: the finishing. When we use empty French oak barrels, they still have the remnants of the Cognac. So far you have climate, oak, and the finishing. The fourth aspect has to do with the shipping of the barrels.

David: You mean the potential for ocean or marine aging?

Alexandre: You got it. In the old days I always tried to push our suppliers to ship to us in barrel and not in stainless steel tanks or plastic drums. They would always bitch and moan and sometimes do what they wanted to. But now that we own the distilleries, we get to ship from the Caribbean in wooden barrels every time, which is really a great thing. Imagine a liquid traveling in cask for three months, being shaken by the sea, with different temperatures and movement along the way. The liquid is rubbing against the barrel non-stop, day and night. A few master blenders had told me of the benefit of such a voyage. In fact, some of the best Scandinavian aquavits are shipped back and forth to the equator just for this reason. In our case, it is a one way trip from the Caribbean to France like people use to do it in the old days.

David: So these are the four aspects of double aging, but what now are the impacts of French élévage?

Alexandre: In Cognac, it is believed that it takes twenty years of training to really master élévage. In essence it’s proactive aging. It means to elevate, as it comes from the same word. Some people in the Caribbean still think aging means putting a spirit in a barrel and then coming back five years later, hoping it’s all well and good. To us, that’s like raising your child by throwing him onto the street and telling him: “come back when you’re eighteen.” If you treat a spirit this way, I think about 80% of the time it will be less than average and 20% of the time it ends up fine. I guess if you throw a kid into the jungle the odds are he will be eaten by a lion, but there’s still a chance he might become Tarzan and can speak to the animals.

David: That’s a hilarious analogy.

Alexandre: Some barrels make it through the jungle, but some don’t. I know this because even while I’m distilling rum in the Caribbean now, I’m still cherry-picking barrels from my friends. Some of them are great but some of them are empty because of an unattended leak, and others are unfortunately tainted. It’s crazy. In Cognac, it’s not like that at all. I think it’s because the base material for Cognac is so expensive. Remember, it’s made from grapes that have to be grown and managed in a climate that is not always cooperative—good producers nurture their spirit like their own child. At Ferrand and Plantation, we mature the spirit in different types of cellars. Some are bone dry and some are very wet. You do this by either allowing light in or by keeping it out, digging to various depths, and by keeping dirt as the ground to keep it damp or by paving the floor. In a humid cellar, there is a lot of water in the air so the alcohol evaporates first. That means the spirit mellows by going down in proof. In a dry cellar, you have the opposite, so the water evaporates first and the proof actually rises over time. If we start by aging rum in a dry cellar, it might become spicy in its character, so we may then decide to move that barrel to a more humid cellar. Or we might leave it there so that when blending time comes we can use that spice as an ingredient.

David: Blending is about having options, right?

Alexandre: Yes, in a way, but more importantly it is about creating a perfect taste and aromatic balance. A great blend should be better than any of its individual elements taken separately. That’s part of the process of élévage. Another aspect is barrel size. If the spirit is young, you may want to start with a small barrel. Then as it ages you may want to transfer it to a larger barrel to slow down the influence of the wood, but you still want the aeration. Then when it hits fifty years old you might want to transfer to an 800 liter barrel. Size is important and you want to play with these combinations. Another aspect is staving. Wood is an additive, right? Some of the flavor of the spirit comes from the oak. That addition of flavor is like salt and pepper on a dish, but you should never blend based on that addition. You should blend based on the substance of the spirit itself. Then you accent. So when we want to add some salt and pepper to a blend we may put the spirit into a barrel that has had only one or two staves recently re-coopered. Or maybe ten staves. We’ll decide depending on how much accent we want. Maybe we’ll change the cap of the barrel instead. We’ll toast the caps and then change them around. That’s the wood management of élévage. We call them zebra barrels at Maison Ferrand because they look like zebras with the different colors of the staves. 

David: That’s a lot more attention than most distillers give to their barrel program, especially here in the states. I have to imagine that extended commitment to care continues over to the dilution?

Alexandre: Oh man, I’ve seen some distillers dilute to drinking proof in a single pour process and it’s a disaster because it is a shock to the spirit! They should stick to full proof bottling. Good master blenders do it progressively, step by step, and with a lot of care. At Ferrand, I was taught by an old master blender to mature the dilution water itself in a barrel that once contained Cognac, so the water is softened in advance. 

David: That’s the same with the dosage process, right? You’re aging the sugar in cask as well?

Alexandre: That’s correct. That’s another part of élévage and a process that’s sometimes misunderstood. If you have a spirit that’s very neutral like a vodka or a stripped-down rum, the last thing you want to use is dosage. Dosage is like a pinch of fleur de sel. If you use a pinch of fleur de sel in a glass of water, then it’s going to taste like holy water. But if you use a pinch of salt in a flavorful vegetable stew, then the flavor of those vegetables is going to be elevated. I don’t know if you’ve ever tasted bread without salt versus bread with salt. We can do it the next time we’re together and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. 

David: I have actually tasted salt-free bread and I was shocked by how uninspiring it was.

Alexandre: That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Yet, do you ever really think about bread having salt? Because you shouldn’t taste the salt itself. 

David: I used to be much more puritanical about adulterated spirits in my youth, but it was my experiences in Cognac that changed my mindset. Tasting Cognac without dosage was very much like eating bread without salt. Only in very rare cases did it succeed. 

Alexandre: I like the word you used there: adulterated. I was doing a conference on this subject once. I said I will show a document from the West Indies Distillery that dates back to 1930. The puritanical thinkers of that time thought that rum producers using oak barrels to store the rum and mature it were adulterating it. They didn’t understand why someone would want to add oak flavor to the spirit. If you use wood as a maturation vessel, you do so to fine tune your spirit. If you use a barrel that once contained Port, for example, are you not adulterating? You’re adding some Port notes, right? 

David: I agree completely. It’s added sweetness that didn’t exist in the spirit originally. 

Alexandre: Go and tell a great chef that you’re a food purist and to not add any salt or sugar to your meal. 

David: I know you’re kidding, but people do that now. It’s becoming more and more normal to tell artisans how to do their work and it’s obnoxious. 

Alexandre: You grew out of that mindset and that’s great, but not everyone does. It’s like the teenage version of spirits knowledge. Unfortunately for us, however, more rum producers are using dosage for spirits that have been rectified or distilled to an almost neutral character. It’s horrible because it tastes like sugar water, which is giving the process a bad name. Understanding dosage, however, requires the customer to have a greater understanding of the process and to be able to separate those examples from what others are doing. Back to the Port barrel analogy, we have done tests and found that when you empty a barrel there is still roughly 3.5% of the previous liquid in the barrel. If it’s a wet barrel, then you’re now up to 5%. That’s a lot, but if it’s done right then it can be interesting. It’s not about the process so much as it is how you use it. 

David: When you’re using dosage and sugar, what are your guidelines?

Alexandre: The maximum allowed is sixteen grams per liter. Just to explain what that means, next time you drink your coffee you would have to split a number 4 sugar cube into twelve pieces and use 1/12th of that sugar cube in your coffee. That’s the limit in terms of quantity, so it’s very little. The quality of the sugar is also very important. You might want to infuse it with Cognac or rum and put that into a barrel and then age it. It takes up to five years to mature sugar that way. It depends on the spirit you’re working with and what you’re trying to express. This is what goes into being a master blender. For us, dosage is one of many different tools. When you feel it benefits to rum you use it, some other times you don’t. What truly matters is the quality of the rum. The nose, the taste. The complexity and balance. At the end of the day, this is what we work for.

David: And you’re applying those tools to rum now, using élévage to enhance Caribbean rum.

Alexandre: Yes, we’re combing that with the terroir of rum, something I find very interesting. Sure, we’re talking about climate and regional conditions, but we’re also talking about the hand of man. What is the regional know-how? In visiting these distilleries, I’ve learned fascinating things about yeast that I never knew before. If Cognac is the king of the barrel, then rum is the king of the yeast and fermentation. Every spirit has its angle, some part of the process we’re crazy about, and in Jamaica it’s yeast and fermentation. It was an eye-opener to me. They’re using special bacteria cultures—what they call the muck pit—in fermentation to turn some of the alcohol into esters. We do fermentation to turn sugar into alcohol, but they go a step further. I only know a few guys who really understand that technique. The first time I saw it I was struck by both admiration and horror, a combination of the both. I thought to myself: I want to know everything about this. We studied it like crazy. Last year I sat down with an old acquaintance at Long Pond that I now work with and he said to me: “Alexandre, you’re an owner now. I’m going to tell you everything about the muck pit.” I was so proud because we had figured about 95% of it out on our own, but there was this 5% that we could never have figured out. That’s part of the magic of Jamaican rum terroir and I love it. To be able to be part of this Jamaican heritage, as well as that of Barbados, and to try to preserve and maintain these traditions has been both fascinating and humbling. This is what we are trying to do with the Plantation range of double aged rums.

-David Driscoll

California Clarity – Part II

David Driscoll
  Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County

Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County

Part two of my California story begins in Sonoma, rather than the Santa Lucia Highlands. To be honest, it actually begins in Medellín, Colombia where winemaker Bibiana González Rave was born and raised before moving to France in search of her wine education. When I say she "moved to France," I mean she packed up a bag, took a flight to Paris, caught a train to Cognac, and sat in the office of the Angoulême School of Viticulture and Enology until the dean agreed to accept her as a student. She had no appointment, no contacts in France, no real grasp of the language, and no previous experience working with wine at that point. She did, however, have a passion, intensity, and tenacity for proclaiming her intentions, a combination of traits I recognized in her immediately as the head of admissions at Angoulême likely did when he was first confronted with her determination. He had no choice but to let her in at that point because she wasn't going to take no for an answer. After finishing her initial technician diploma, Bibiana followed that up with a degree in Oenology from the University of Bordeaux, working harvests at Château Haut-Brion and other top estates in the area. After picking up additional experience in both Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, alongside a stint in South Africa, she made her way out to California and worked her way up into a head winemaking position at Lynmar Winery in the Russian River region. It was in Sonoma that she finally found her heart's terroir and the ability to make wines that truly expressed her soul's intentions. So she decided to put down roots. 

sonomahillsojos3 (1 of 1).jpg

"When I think of Sonoma, I think of farming and how that lifestyle connects the community," Bibiana said to me when I asked why the region spoke to her. While all of Northern California's major wine-growing regions originally began as farming communities, Sonoma has pushed back against some of the moneyed-interests one finds today in Healdsburg, along with the changes those investments have had on both the flavor profiles and price points of Napa's top wines. There's still a desire to make food-friendly, balanced, and climate-driven wines among Sonoma's best winemakers, which brings me back to Bibiana. Not only does she want to to make expressive wines from Sonoma County, she wants to make them accessible. Hence, her newly-established label Alma de Cattleya, a project focused on sub-$30 options that exhibit the crisp, cool climate character of Sonoma County fruit with a message geared toward consumption rather than collecting. Virtuoso performances from the world's best vineyards still dominate much of today's terroir-driven fascination in aficionado circles. More and more drinkers are being taught that absolute purity goes hand in hand with quality. Yet, as ambitious producers scramble to collect parcels from the most coveted vineyard zip codes, Bibiana's Alma wines are focused on value and quality as a general expression of Sonoma, rather than capturing the embodiment of site-specific fruit. That's not to say she's not interested in the individuality of California's top vineyards. Her incredible single vineyard wines (made in incredibly small quantities) are part of her higher-end Cattleya label, but what's driving her passion with the Alma portfolio is very similar the story I wrote about yesterday concerning Jeff Pisoni's Luli label: she wants to make wines that speak to the soul of the region as a whole, and that people actually living in Sonoma can afford and enjoy regularly with friends and family.

sonomahillsojos2 (1 of 1).jpg

There's another fact about Bibiana that I need to mention at this point: she's married to Jeff Pisoni, son of Lucia maverick Gary Pisoni and winemaker for all Pisoni-related projects. Together they make a collaborative label called Shared Notes, but the Cattleya project is her baby (along with the two young children she and Jeff share). Through her relationship with Jeff, along with her own professional contacts throughout Sonoma, Bibiana has forged friendships with growers all across Sonoma and its from those small farmers that she sourced much of the fruit for the Alma de Cattleya wines: a delightful rosé of Pinot Noir, a textural Sauvignon Blanc, an impeccable Chardonnay, and a blistering Pinot Noir. Sourcing affordable, high quality fruit in California today is no easy task, especially with the single vineyard craze at an all-time high. For example, if Bibiana buys fruit from a lesser-known site and the wine she makes from that vineyard gets a great review, it might motivate the grower to raise his price the next time around. It turns out that big scores and glowing critical reviews can lead to higher-priced grapes as well as bottles. "There's a tendency for some growers to think the fruit is all that matters," she explained; "As if the quality of the wine is guaranteed before the wine is even made and the winemaker has no role in that expression." For that reason, long-standing friendships play a big factor in the small Sonoma growing community. In Bibiana's case, it helps that she's well-connected and well-liked. But it's also her capability and potential to make something truly wonderful with their fruit that has growers excited about working with Bibiana these days. 

sonomahillsojos4 (1 of 1).jpg

And here's the other issue: Bibiana's wines are indeed getting big scores and glowing reviews, so keeping her new under-the-radar label a secret for K&L customers won't be easy for long. Her outstanding 2016 Alma de Cattleya Sonoma County Pinot Noir notched a sold 90 point score from the recent issue of the Wine Spectator (and a 91 from the Enthusiast), while her lone Santa Lucia Highland expression—the 2014 Cattleya Wines "Soberanes Vineyard" Syrah—grabbed an incredible 97 point score from Jeb Dunnuck who wrote: "I suspect it's the greatest wine made to date from this site." I tasted both with Bibiana yesterday at her winery office and was completely won over by both their freshness and their quality for the price. Her value-oriented wines were indeed superb values and her entire range of top-shelf wines tasted both expensive and meticulously cared for. I'm hoping to put aside a large chunk of the 2016 Alma de Cattleya Chardonnay for our wine club members in the near future as I thought it was downright brilliant, rich and surprisingly weighty for for something that fresh. I'm not only excited to bring her wines to K&L, I'm excited to drink them at home with my wife and family members. Of course, that was Bibiana's intent behind the Alma project in the first place, to get us all fired up about sharing these wines with our loved ones, rather than burying them in our cellars in anticipation of the perfect moment. It's another very Sonoma-esque aspect of her vision: quality without pretense or pageantry. That's exactly what I'm after these days.

-David Driscoll


California Clarity – Part I

David Driscoll
  Pinot noir grapes growing at Pisoni Vineyard

Pinot noir grapes growing at Pisoni Vineyard

I set numerous career goals for myself at the start of January as I was determined to make 2018 a breakthrough year for my rather stagnant evolution. I've been passionate about wine appreciation since around 2007, but over the last few years I've spent more time fussing over sales numbers and invoices than broadening my horizons and refueling my reserves. That needed to change, I decided; especially if I hoped to remain an enthusiastic ambassador for my customers. My first hope was to completely revamp the K&L wine club and start using the monthly newsletter as a way to educate both customers and myself about some of the industry’s best under-the-radar producers. As a former teacher, I can tell you that one of the best ways to learn more about any subject is educating others about the same information. My second ambition was to focus our marketing narrative away from the informationally-obsessed, statistical appreciation of wine and towards the actual drinking of it. I wanted to work closely with producers who talked more about why they enjoyed making wine and less about which iconic vineyard they sourced their fruit from. The third and perhaps more pressing objective I had in mind this year was to learn more about California wine as a whole. After more than ten years in this business the irony is not lost on me that I’m a veteran of the wine trade, working and living near California wine country, yet with a giant, meteor-sized hole in my awareness of the local market. I wasn’t going to buy a book about Golden State winemaking, however. Nor was I planning to spend my mornings pouring through trade magazines or amateur blogs. If I was going to do this right, my knowledge would have to come from first hand experience. Face to face contact, like we used to do before the iPhone was invented. Thus, it was time to hit the road.

pisonipinot2 (1 of 1).jpg

If you're wondering just how broad and unshaped my understanding of California was, I'll tell you something embarrassing that I just discovered yesterday: for the last decade I've thought the Santa Lucia Highlands region was just north of Santa Barbara, well south of San Luis Obispo along the Central Coast. It wasn't until I sat down with winemaker Jeff Pisoni yesterday that I realized the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA starts just south of Salinas and extends along the Sierra de Salinas mountains for about fifteen miles into Steinbeck country. Whoops. Jeff is the son of legendary California winemaking pioneer Gary Pisoni, the man who introduced low yields and meticulous vineyard management to the Santa Lucia Highlands back in 1982. While Jeff’s father and brother Mark live near Gonzales and continue to care for Garys' Vineyard and Pisoni Vineyard, Jeff is the family winemaker and has the fruit transported north to Sonoma where the Pisoni winery is now located. Here I was thinking Jeff had to truck all that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the southern half of the state, when it’s really just an hour south of San Jose. I met Jeff at his Rohnert Park facility yesterday to taste through his entire portfolio and begin the process of correcting my many misconceptions.

pisonipinot3 (1 of 1).jpg

As Jeff was pouring the Pinot, I had him take me through Santa Lucia Highlands 101, which coincidentally starts by heading south on 101 towards Monterey. If you’ve ever driven to the Central Coast from the Bay Area, the first thing you notice about the area around Salinas is the abundance of lettuce along the freeway. The Salinas Valley is known as “the Salad Bowl” by those who work in agriculture because of its unique climate during the growing season. “There are more sub-70 degree days there during summer than in any other part of the country,” Jeff told me as he unfolded a map of the state on the table. You need consistently cool and dry weather to grow lettuce properly, and while the Salinas Valley gets plenty of fog, what it doesn’t get is much rain. “It’s like a cold desert,” Jeff added. These same cool conditions extend into the hills of the Santa Lucia Highlands, a string of vineyard sites located beyond the produce fields to the west of 101, resulting in wines with plenty of aromatics and acidity. Because it never gets too hot, the wines never get too ripe. Tasting through both the Luli and Lucia portfolios with Jeff, there was one underlying consistency through all of the wines: vibrancy.

pisonipinot4 (1 of 1).jpg

In order to understand what makes the Pisoni wines so special, you have to understand a bit more about Jeff’s father Gary. Jeff brought out a scrap book his dad made him as a gift one year, showcasing the family legacy through various photos and wine labels. It was one of the most tender and revealing family documents I’ve ever had the pleasure of looking through, and it did exactly what Jeff had intended: it gave me a better insight into who his father was. The first part of the Pisoni story does not actually begin with Gary, but rather his parents Jane and Eddie who came to the region in 1952. Gary grew up working the land with his father, learning its intricate ecosystems, and developing a love for his family's many acres. After catching the wine bug and developing an obsession with Burgundy, he convinced his parents that they should invest in planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards up in the nearby mountains. Everyone thought he was crazy, as is usually the case in these stories. Gary has been described as crazy more than once, however. When you read an article about his winemaking, it generally includes a number of synonyms describing his commitment to quality in the vineyard. While other farmers were growing crops in for maximum volume, Gary was pioneering an entirely new way of thinking as it pertained to California’s wine potential. Over thirty years later, his vineyards have become some of the most renowned sites for Pinot Noir in the entire state and today that passion for farming and winemaking extends to both of his sons, Mark and Jeff. 

pisonipinot5 (1 of 1).jpg

After learning exactly how Gary Pisoni developed these varied pieces of land and what made each spot unique, I was very excited to taste through the Lucia wines with Jeff, the Pisoni family label that features numerous single vineyard expressions from the best SLH (that's short for Santa Lucia Highlands) sites. The intensity of both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from these individual locations is truly something that anyone interested in California's unique terroir-driven wines should experience. However, returning back to goals one and two, I was here as the K&L wine club director to learn more about Jeff's Luli project with sommelier Sara Floyd, a label meant to showcase the brilliance of the SLH appellation as a whole, rather than simply highlight its best plots. None of the fruit used in Jeff's Luli wines is sourced from any of the Pisoni family vineyards, which of course begs the question: then from where did he get it? As Jeff answered that question, I began to fall more and more in love with the wines and the philosophy behind their intent. Because Jeff's family has been farming in the region for over sixty-five years at this point, you can imagine they know a number of other growers nearby. Jeff's brother Mark alone spends hours each day walking through the various vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands, so you can also imagine he has a pretty solid insight as to where one might find some pretty good fruit. Thus, the Luli wines are made from the fruits (pun intended) of the Pisoni family's networking labor. Together they reached out to their community and purchased additional grapes from local growers they've known for years, if not decades. The overarching goal with the Lull expressions was to make a more affordable line-up of SLH wines without sacrificing quality, integrity, or any of the regional characteristics one should expect to find in any higher-end cuvée. Tasting them side by side with the Lucia wines, I can safely say that goal has been accomplished.  

If you're curious as to what constitutes a classic Santa Lucia Highlands profile, I'd highly recommend grabbing a bottle of the 2015 Luli Pinot Noir, because for $19.99 I'm not sure there's a better California value on the shelf. It's absolutely loaded with red fruits and spice, but it's never overtly sweet or jammy in any way, shape, or form. There's a liveliness to the aromas and the flavors leap across the palate with vivacity; that's what I consider textbook SLH Pinot Noir when successfully realized (I do know what the wines should taste like, even if I've been long confused about where they actually come from!). I ended up polishing off a bottle of the 2015 Luli Chardonnay last night with my wife for Valentine's Day, savoring the supple fruit and flowery flavors, bolstered by a crisp finish. If you're a K&L wine club member, I'd expect to find a bottle of Luli Syrah in the pool of membership options later this summer. At this point, I'm completely enamored with Jeff's wines, his family's history in California, and the value proposition he's committed to while producing top notch stuff.

Now I just need to find another few hours to tell you about his wife, Bibiana. There's a part two to this charming Pisoni story.

-David Driscoll

Into the English Countryside

David Driscoll
englishcidercountry1m1 (1 of 1).jpg

In the Spring of 2016, I headed west one morning from London's Paddington Station, taking the train to Taunton in Somerset near Devon where my colleague Ryan Woodhouse is from. Through a few different word-of-mouth references (Ryan’s family included) we had heard rumors of an English apple brandy distillery that had stocks as old as twenty years and Calvados-like spirits of serious repute. Ryan and I had even spent an afternoon perusing their website from the Redwood City office we share, wondering what the products tasted like. We didn’t waste much time pondering, however. Within a day, Ryan had phoned his dad who was keen on taking a drive to check the place out. By the end of the week we had made an appointment to visit the farm of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company with plans for Mr. Woodhouse to pick us up from the station. Due to a bad leg, however, Mr. Woodhouse was unfortunately ordered to maintain strict bed rest, so distillery owner Julian Temperley himself was there to pick us up from the train station in his 70s-era Bentley on our arrival. With a farm consisting of over 180 acres of apple orchards, Julian has been distilling brandy and making cider since 1989 when he was granted the UK's first ever cider-distilling license. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and hit the road in style. I could tell from the get-go this guy was a character as he whisked us around hedgerows and through windy country roads, devil may care for the speed limits. 

englishcidercountry1m2 (1 of 1).jpg

Back at the Temperley home we met with Julian's wife Matilda and were treated to a fascinating lecture on the history of Somerset cider and the importance of its economic role over many centuries. Their country house is one of the most wonderfully-eclectic and artistically-kooky places I have ever been, something out of a late-sixties era Pink Floyd photoshoot (I would later learn that their daughter is world famous fashion designer Alice Temperley, so everything started to make sense). I could have spent days there, reading books, talking about music, looking at art, and hanging out with Matilda, but we were there to discuss business. Cider production in the UK dates back to the Romans, but the West of England in particular has a number PGIs—protected geographical origins—where the orchards are treated like Burgundian vineyards, each with its own particular terroir. Cider and the taxation of it was once quite a political issue (and still is today depending on who you ask). Julian told us of an old 18th century grandfather clock he owns that has an inscription reading: “No excise on cyder.” To say that folks in West England take the production of cider seriously is an understatement. If you’ve ever talked to an Iowan about corn you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Apples are a way of life.

englishcidercountry1m4 (1 of 1).jpg

The stills were steaming at full speed when we entered the distillery itself, where my colleague Jeff Jones and I began our tasting. Two wood-fired pots burning away just like I’d seen in Normandy so many times before. The property is delightful; a rustic ranch with hundreds of acres of orchards behind it, each inter-spliced with numerous varietals of apple. We went in the house for a cup of tea first and a chance to sample a few selections while getting a better understanding for the operation. Julian produced a few glasses along with two bottles of pommeau—one labeled Kingston Black Apple Liqueur and the other called Somerset Pomona. “The Kingston Black is the aperitif,” he told us, filling our glass with the chilled liquid. I raised it to my nose and took a whiff. All I could think of in that moment were my friends the Camut brothers who make the best apple spirits I’ve ever tasted. The aromas were just pure and enticing on the nose. “The Pomona is the digestif,” he added. “You can pair this with a cheese plate a the end of a meal like you would a port. It’s been barrel-aged.” 

englishcidercountry1m3 (1 of 1).jpg

After our introductory course over tea, Julian took us down into the cellar to look at the barrel room. Much like a single malt distillery, Somerset is using hogsheads, sherry butts, and port pipes to age its brandies. The core range includes three, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year expressions, each with its own unique character. The three year is juicy and bursting with energy. The five year is more subdued and mellow. The ten year is refined and elegant, The fifteen is hauntingly beautiful. The twenty year is rich and robust with notes of sherry intermingling lightly on the finish. The line-up as a whole is a giant slam dunk. The prices are more than reasonable. I was ready to cut Julian a check right then and there. “How is no one selling this in the U.S.?’ I whispered to Jeff.

englishcidercountry1m6 (1 of 1).jpg

We've since rectified that issue. The five and ten year old brandies have just hit the K&L shelves, after two years of paperwork and licensing, and both are simply outstanding in flavor and value-to-quality. Most importantly, they don't taste like Calvados or American Applejack, but rather have their own unique character. The term "cider brandy" most certainly applies here as both have warm, spice-driven flavors of pure apple cider in their foundation, bolstered by delicate accents of vanilla from the oak maturation. The five year is simultaneously bursting with apples, while maintaining a mellow and almost creamy finish. The ten year has even more oak, but in addition more of a brown apple note that never comes across overly fruity or sweet. They're both dry and robust, but maintain an incredible elegance from front to back with a slight chewiness from the sherry and port maturation. Considering their price points, I'm already wondering if I bought nearly enough!

englishcidercountry1m5 (1 of 1).jpg

Matilda was kind enough to prepare lunch for us, so we sat at the wooden table in the windowed-terrace looking out over the orchards, feasting on fresh bread and local cheddar, while getting to know one another. I did the cheese pairing with the Somerset pommeau that Julian recommended, thinking: “I could really get used to this.” I was also satisfied in hearing Julian’s philosophy on cider and brandy is much like a winemaker's—he strongly believes in blending for balance of acidity and flavor. “Single varietal ciders are an abomination!” he said at one point with a laugh. All in all we spent about four hours with the Temperleys, drinking various apple spirits, eating delicious food, listening to their incredible stories, and enjoying the bucolic splendor of Western England. We didn't stop with just the brandies, either. The Temperleys also make incredible liqueurs using the apple eau-de-vie as a base macerated with local fruit. The cherry and black current expressions were part of our recent shipment and already have the K&L sales staff going ballistic. 

It's taken us two years to get the wonderful products of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company to our stores, but it was worth every bit of the effort put in. I've already reached out the Matilda about getting a second shipment ready as I think these are going to blow out of here once the word gets out. These are true farm to table spirits that live up to every bit of the hype. 

-David Driscoll

Exploring Together

Heather Vander Wall
winemapsops (1 of 1).jpg

You’ve all heard recently about the exciting things happening with our wine clubs, with David getting involved, but you may not know that we also are offering a “Personal Sommelier” service. Basically, this is an opportunity to connect with one of our staff members and explore wine (or spirits, or beer!) together. I’m pretty excited about what we’ve got going here. You’ve seen our adventures around the world as you’ve followed us On the Trail, and you know how our endless love for the grape and the grain is constantly bringing us in contact with new and exciting regions, bottling, and producers. Well, here’s a chance to taste along with us.

What we’re doing with this service, is connecting you with your own K&L “Somm”, who works with you on a monthly basis to find wines, beer, or spirits for you. For us, it’s what we love. When we discover something we’re over the moon about, we want to share that with you. But let’s be clear: this is all on your own terms. Maybe you want a full case of cellarable wines once a month, or maybe you just want a best new find under $15. That’s what this program is all about—sharing our favorites with you in a personal way, based on your own interests. Also, we love a good challenge—say you’re a Pinot lover, and you want to explore other varietals that have some of that character. Well, we love it. We’ll scour our inventory for something fun and interesting that you might not have run across before. Take a quick look at our “Sommelier” page. This might be something you’d like to try!

On the blog you’re getting a snapshot of great producers, wines, or experiences, but it’s really only a small piece of our day-to-day. There are so many more varietals, wineries and regions that we’re exploring here at K&L, and we’d love to share that with you, personally. Pick out your own “Somm” from our K&L staff, and start the tasting adventure with us!

-Heather Gowen