Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Tequila Chronicles: When Is A Sauza Not A Sauza But Still A Sauza?

Here I am back at Cha Taqueria & Bar again. Which in and of itself is not at all a bad thing--especially when you can belly up to the bar, chat with a great bartender and get a fortifying favorite of Herradura Reposado Tequila (none better!) with an accompanying sangrita.

They make good sangrita at Cha too; spicy but not overly hot, with a nice balance of flavors and not sticky sweet. It's a great companion to the Herradura, and if you haven't had good tequila this way, you should. There's a reason the Jaliscans drink it this way, you know.

If you hit Cha at Happy Hour, you get one heck of a good deal. While I'm sipping on the Reposado and sangrita, they bring a large plate of blue cornchips smothered in queso fresco and black beans. And when I decide to go for a Happy Hour nosh and order the Guacamole, the freshly made Guac comes in a herkin' big molcajete with another huge mound of pico de gallo and two large tortillas stuffed to bulging with a combination of pureed potatoes and fresh melted cheese. Everything is fresh and everything is good.

All this sets me back a whole $20, mind you. Like I said: Heck of a deal.

But I'm here for a reason tonight, and this is just fortification for a tequila tasting put on at Cha by the amiable and well-informed self-professed "Mexi-phile", Clayton Szczech, of Experience Tequila!, an outfit that specializes in putting together some custom-designed trips down to Jalisco Province to tour Guadalajara, the Tequila area, and the resorts along the coast.

Clayton Szczech
So, properly prepared, I head over to the private area set aside for us and take a chair. Good thing I did, too, because pretty soon the area is filled up. Looks like a full---and enthusiastic---crowd for Clayton's little tequila tasting. Probably because of Clayton's reputation, I'm sure, for being a great presenter and commentator---but not hurt at all by the rumor that there's going to be some absolute killer tequilas showing up at the tasting.

We are not disappointed, for the very first tequila to show up is quite impressive. And the subject of this blog post. (Ha! You thought I would never get to the point, didn't you!)

And that would be the Los Abuelos Anejo. Also the answer to the question of the title.

When is a Sauza not a Sauza but still a Sauza? When it's Los Abuelos!

Explanation: Guillermo Erickson Sauza is a fifth generation descendant of this famous tequila family. But said family sold the company and family name trademark to a large megacorporation. So Guillermo Sauza can't make a tequila under his own name. This is a problem when you've literally got tequila-making in your blood, right?

So a Sauza is making tequila the very old-fashioned way, and calling it Los Abuelos, 'the grandfathers', because it's made like his grandfathers used to make it. This tequila is a small batch style, made artisanally. It even uses the old and laborious and inefficient method of crushing the agave fibers with a tahona, an ancient stone grinding wheel in a circular pit. More modern---and more volume driven---producers use shredders and conveyor belts.

This tequila is light-colored for an Anejo, and even with the age implied still shows the clear, pure agave influence with a strong peppery note and light anise flavors. It has a decidedly oily texture...or you might say creamy; that works too. The whiff of wood complexity is light-handed, and not at all dominating with the vanilla and toffee scents. As I said, a very impressive tequila.

Now, as if all this wasn't complicated enough already, with a Sauza not being a Sauza yadda yadda, of course it gets more complicated.

First, Los Abuelos is not available in Oregon. It is available in California, however, and in other states.

Second, even Los Abuelos will not be available for long---because for the US they are changing the name to La Fortaleza, after the location where the tequila is made, Destilleria la Fortaleza, an old fortification on a plantation that has been in the family for generations.

Los Abuelos or La Fortaleza---same stuff; just the name is changed. They're keeping the distinctive bottle, and the even more distinctive cap, which is an artist's depiction of the pina, the trimmed agave bulb that is ready to go into the oven to get slowly steamed and then laboriously and eventually turned into...tequila!

And if you want a great, very personalized trip to Tequila Country, check out

If you want some great, super-fresh and nicely priced Mexican food and spirits in Portland, check out CHA!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Movia Veliko Bianco 2002 (Collio, Friuli/Brda, Slovenia)

Movia Veliko Bianco 2002 (Collio, Friuli, Italy; Brda, Slovenia)

In a world of me-too wines that dull a poor palate to bored resignation, when you begin to yearn for something...anything...that's startling and different and quite deliciously unlike the thudding sameness, you do at times stumble upon brilliant surprises. For all the dominant sameness of market driven mediocrity and profit dominated similarity, there are dangerous people out there doing dangerous things to the status quo.

One of the most dangerous is Ales Kristancic, an Italo-Slovene winemaker from Brda whose family straddles the government-drawn border between Italy and Slovenia while paying very little attention to it. Kristancic is that most dangerous and disruptive of men---a reactionary, a rebel, a restless and never quite still force of nature who wants to make a very personal, distinctive, unique style of wine.

He succeeds magnificently. Kristancic farms his grapes with great rigor, insisting on being sustainable, organic, and biodynamic to naturally produce the most intense fruit possible. Then he takes these grapes--some familiar to us, many hopelessly obscure to all but the most devoted oenologues---and ferments and ages them in a decided nod to ancient techniques.

Veliko Bianco is perhaps the finest example of this. It is a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Grigio, and a touch of Sauvignon Blanc, and the wine is fermented naturally and slowly, then aged in the full presence of oxygen in oak casks for up to three years. Under Kristancic's patient hand the wine matures in a manner much different from most. All the young, pretty, baby fat fruit is slowly burnished away, and the wine becomes more compact, more concentrated, more intense, more mineral and stony, almost tough and slow to yield itself up.

With this wine all the soft, pretty things have been stripped away, and what is left is firm and tight and powerful and essential. At first, it's like sucking on a hard candy, like trying to strip the flavor out of a lemon drop, jaw muscles tensing and bulging to force out that piercing, sharp stiletto of pure lemon intensity that suddenly and entirely fills your mouth and gently burns up to your nasal passages.

...So far this may not sound like a pleasant experience, eh? But it is, truly it is; and there's more reward on its way...

Once it opens up, the pale golden Veliko continues to power out incredibly concentrated and crystalline flavors that slowly, delectably yield interesting complexities---crystallized honey, preserved Meyer Lemon, tart quince, tangy apple with bitter skin, almond paste, even a wisp of pressed white flowers---without ever fading or waning in intensity. And you feel as if it could just go on forever.

There are no gobs of fruit here, no lush, perfume-scented pillows of hedonistic excess laced with soaring alcohols and raisiny richness. Rather than surrendering to the blandishments of this wine, you have to engage with it, be patient with it, and wait for it to show its stuff. And it does.

What more can I tell you about Veliko Bianco? Oh, yeah: it's always a bit of a surprise when I get to the bottom of the glass with this wine; I get so wrapped up in the enjoyment of it I tend to lose track of the little details, until suddenly I have to pry the bottle from someone else's hand to get a refill.

Now that is the sign of a damned good wine!

[Here's the website for Movia. Unfortunately it is currently only in Slovenian, although they are working on an English version. Even so, it's interesting and entertaining to browse through, with videos and gorgeous pictures.]

Friday, February 12, 2010

On The Ineluctible Gravitational Pull of Burgundy

I am in a room with, quite literally, hundreds of wines from dozens of places. A smorgasbord of vinous delight is laid out in front of me. I have an empty glass and endless horizons of sensory delight defined by tables groaning from the weight of countless bottles, and hours to go before the doors close.

I wander. I sample. I reflect. I enjoy. I learn.

Australia, Chile, Argentina, California, Washington, Oregon, Italy, Germany, Austria, Alsace, Bordeaux, Languedoc, Loire...I try them all.

But all the while, I know, deep in my heart, there are a couple of Burgundies in the room. And I know that even as I wander and taste, I am slowly circling in, drawn by the irresistible pull.

Finally, duty done, I drop all pretense and head back to the Frederick Wildman table, where I spotted a couple of classics. Now, I'm not tasting. I'm no longer sampling. And I'm not interested in analyzing. This is Burgundy. I'm drinking.

First, Maison Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos 2006

Years ago, a wine friend named Rahsaan was rendering a tasting note and uttered the now-famous descriptor "salty lemon oyster shells". No one was quite sure exactly what Rahsaan meant at first, but it made sense. Salty lemon oyster shells indeed: sounds like a spot-on descriptor for this Grand Cru Chablis.

If all Chardonnay were as good as this, I'd be drinking a lot more Chardonnay. It is the pure essence of the grape, absolutely transparent, with nothing masked or overly manipulated. A few truly fine wines have that special combination of saturated---but by no means over-ripe--- fruit and piercing acidity in perfect suspension with each other. This is one of those wines.

With one sip I am instantly transfixed by this Chablis, held in thrall, gently rolling the wine across my palate so I can relish the aroma, the taste and the texture. This is a wine of precision and elegance...does that sound contradictory? It's not. This is crystal to other wines' glass.

It's hard to give up even the small remnant of the Chablis from my glass, but I must if I am to get the next Burgundy, and so I sacrifice.

The next wine is Nicolas Potel Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Marconnets 2007.

Up front confession: I have always loved the light elegance of the Pinot Noir of Savigny; it's one of my favorites of the Cote d'Or. Where other plots and communes have force majeure (Corton), or are more sturdy and plain-spoken (Pommard), or are silky and rich (Echezeaux), Savigny is light, cherry-fruity, with gentle mushroomy earthiness. It just suits my palate each time I try it.

This one is no exception. It's a seductive little red and rests gently on the palate with it's soft cherry-berry fruit and just-so acidity and easy-going earthy, loamy, undertone. And true-to-type, it finishes long and warm and whispering.

This is a wine to linger over. It would shine with a meal, of course, but it doesn't need one; it is wondrous and satisfying all by itself, a fireside wine, a late night wine, or as the Italians say, a vino da meditazione. And with this wine, meditation would (sorry)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Family Feudi...

In my callow and wasted youth I spent far too much of my time on clunky, clumsy, oaky chardonnays, and far too little of my time on wines like this. More fool me.

I did, however, come to my senses and discovered the joys of the white wines of Campania, primarily through the firm of Mastroberardini. Ahh, the Greco di Tufo, the Fiano da Avellino, the Lachryma Christi...but most of all, the Falanghina.

And that's because, essentially, there wasn't much besides Mastroberardini available. Don't get me wrong: Mastroberardini was fine, but I would've enjoyed a little variety. Eventually, the rest of the world caught up with the wines of Campania, and they became quite popular and well distributed, and more brands started showing up.

But the firm that, to me, generated the most excitement was Feudi di San Gregorio. And it turns out Feudi and Mastroberadino weren't all that far apart in many ways. What sealed the deal, however, was during a trip to Italy with friends when we stopped in a pizzeria in Emilia-Romagna, run by a chef from the Apulia, who was aggressively pushing the wines of Campania...and specifically, the wines of Feudi di San Gregorio! The Falanghina became our picnic wine to accompany our prosciutto, parmigiano, ciabatta and olio, and to assist in our lolling through a languid afternoon.

Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio, Campania, 2007
Somehow, in a wonderful congruity of wine and marketing (trust me, those two aren't always all that congruent, sad to say), the Feudi di San Gregorio label says it all about what's inside the bottle; those bright mosaici adorning the severely structured label imply what the wine delivers abundantly.

The Falanghina is an altogether brilliant and delightful wine, crisp and lively on the palate, laced with flowers and fruit and all things sunshine-y from the Campanian summer, but braced with brisk acids and minerality from the crumbled volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius. It has a delicate aroma of fresh flowers---if fresh flowers were perked up with a splash of lemon juice, that is, for there is a lovely bright citrus cocktail there, with flavors to match.

There are two aspects to this Falanghina that I love. First, there's that intense fruit/brisk acid/stony minerality that stay in such perfect balance. Second, there's that wonderful clean line of flavor that results from that balance, a bright piercing quality that never fails or falters.

This is great wine on a sunny summer day. Or it's a great wine when you need to be reminded of a sunny summer day. Best to keep some on hand, just in case a rain cloud might come your way.

Holy Schnikies!!! A Great Seafood Wine...From The Mountains!

If you're looking for a wine that's not everyday, one that resides well off the beaten path, one that provides some exceptional pleasures from a grape you may never have known existed...then I have a wine for you.

Les Cretes Petite Arvine Blanc Vigne Champorette 2006 is from the tiny wine producing region of Val d'Aosta...or Vallee d'Aoste, they are officially bilingual here with Italian and French---waaay up in the northwest corner of Italy, tucked away in the Alps within sight of Mont Blanc.

This mountainous alpine zone doesn't produce much wine, and what it does produce is primarily consumed locally. There's little land allocated to vineyards, farming in this cold climate is tough, and most of the growers are more hobbyist or traditional.

The people at Les Cretes, however, are very serious about what they do, and they do it exceptionally well. The Les Cretes Chardonnay is considered, and rightly so, one of the premier Chardonnays coming out of Italy. But I am an absolute sucker for the Petite Arvine.

The rather bold yellow/gold color is impressive, and it conveys very well the variegated pungent aromatic attack of the wine when it first hits your nose, with a waxy floral scent followed by some intense citrus fruit, then boring in with tart apple, quince, pineapple, mango and preserved lemons.

All of this follows through right into the flavors in a very complex mouthful, all wrapped in solid acidity to give the wine body and structure. Les Cretes Petite Arvine is a white wine that I expect will age gracefully for several years, showing ever more complex and intriguing aspects as it does so.

This is one of those mouth-watering, saliva-starting, make-me-hungry wines that would be powerful and vigorous enough to stand up to meats and mustard sauces, but I instantly thought of what a truly wonderful companion this could be for a mixed seafood boil, with lots of shellfish and crustaceans. A perfect seafood wine from the Italian/French Alps. Who knew?

So if you're looking for something unusual, something out of the ordinary, look no further and give this lovely Petite Arvine from northern Italy a go. And start looking for some seafood right now. A little Dungeness, definitely some prawns, rock lobster/langostinos, maybe some Manilas, a few handfuls of mussels...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One, Two, CHA CHA CHA!: There's a new Tequila in Town.

When I hear "Let's go to the taqueria", I visualize a utilitarian taco bar with the usual run-of-the-mill tacos and burritos and a crusty bottle of Tapatio on the side.

Or maybe a cart with a door in the side and a wooden table out front.

So when I got invited to CHA Taqueria & Bar in the Northwest District for the Portland debut of a new tequila, I was a little puzzled.

Shoulda remembered this was Portland, and things are not always what they seem.

CHA Taqueria & Bar is what you might call a "way upscale" taqueria, and an even more way upscale bar. Not only is this place turning out some great food, but it has a marvel of a bar that's stocked with about as many tequilas as you can imagine.

There's no mistaking the focus on this place. When you walk in you see the giant wall of tequilas behind the bar---which usually has crowds of people belly up to it---and your mind is inexorably drawn to it. Pretty soon, your body follows.

The restaurant is open and spacious and welcoming. Since I was there for a tequila tasting, I can't speak to what comes off the menu, but I can testify that the various and sundry apps that came out of the kitchen were delicious---freshly made ceviche was a standout, but the chicken in salsa verde was pretty close behind it. I was told the owner is a fanatic about quality, and insists on sourcing organic meats and produce; that insistence on quality is abundantly evident. I'll definitely be back to CHA for the food.

And tequila head that I am, I'll HAVE to come back for the tequilas. So many beautiful bottles...

I was there to sample Antiguo, a new brand of tequila from the venerable firm of Herradura.

For those of you who go down to Mexico, Antiguo Reposado is well known; it's one of the most popular tequilas in the country...which is saying something, because it has been available to the public only since 1995. They've been making it since 1924, but Antiguo was made exclusively for the Herradura family and guests at their hacienda and not released commercially until 1995, in celebration of the 125th Anniversary of Herradura.

Antiguo is now available in the U.S. market, and it's already taking off. It's a softer, silkier style of tequila that's on the floral side, and I expect the American market will love it---both for its gentle style and its attractive price.

The Blanco is fresh and clean and bright, with a pure agave character and just a hint of pepper and anise.

The Reposado is more mellow and rounded, with barely a hint of color, a slight citric note, and a smooth texture and lingering delicate flavor.

The Anejo, with just a bit of aging, shows very little wood---it's a great tequila for those who like a little more body and development but don't want overwhelming vanilla-caramel tones.

You can find all three at CHA.

So if you're looking for fresh, sustainably grown Mexican food and a dazzling array of tequilas, go to CHA Taqueria & Bar on NW 21st. You can hang at the bar, sample some great food, and try a choose-your-own tequila flight. It's a heck of deal...and I can promise you'll have a wealth of tequilas to choose from.

You might say hello to the guy standing next to you too. It might be me.

CHA is located at

And you can find them on the web at

Monday, February 1, 2010

So I'm sitting at the bar, and this pig walks by...

No, literally. A pig walks by.

I'm sitting at the bar in Clyde Common (, in the hip Ace Hotel in downtown Portland. It's a Euro-style bar/restaurant that happens to have not only a great bar scene but good food as well.

Jonny, the 'tender of the hour, gleefully responds to a "oh, whip me up something with....tequila!" and shortly presents a deliciously bitter-but-not-too-bitter aperitif cocktail that fits the moment. It's a blend of Herradura Blanco Tequila, Cynar (Italian Artichoke bitter aperitif), and Regan's Orange Bitters. It's amazing because the drink is wonderfully bitter in an aperitif way, but the Herradura spice and florals come through nicely, and artichoke veggies match beautifully with the agave, and the orange fruit of the Regan's rounds everything out. Great drinks don't have to be---and sometimes shouldn't be---extremely complicated or fussy.

Then, in a thoughtful touch, as a nosh, Jonny delivers up a small side of farro salad, with a little radicchio rosso and just a couple of slivers of fresh pink grapefruit...and the food is exactly balanced with the drink!

So where's the pig I mentioned at the start of all this, you ask? Patience, patience; I'm almost there.

Appetites properly stimulated, we order up some food off the perpetually fresh and always changing lunch menu, and soon I'm sitting there with this aromatic and gorgeous grilled baguette stuffed with chunks of tender pork, lavished with spicy grilled broccoli rabe, and topped with gooey provolone cheese. Oh, and there's a side cup of one of the best spicy lentil soups I've had lately, just as counterpoint.

As I dive into this sangwidge, the pig walks by. Weird, huh?

No, I wasn't hallucinating, and it wasn't a trashy woman. It really was a pig walking by.

Not by his own volition, mind you. One of the chefs was hefting an entire pig carcass into the open kitchen area. The staff there is pretty persnickety about their food, and they like to prepare everything from scratch, so they don't buy cuts---they get the whole hog! Then they work away at it, using the various parts as needed, not wasting anything, until said porker is gone.

I looked at the pig. I looked at my pork sandwich. I said a sotto voce obeisance to the gods in gratitude for what I was about to receive. Then, carnivore that I am, I dived right back into that sandwich.

And it was good.

For dessert one of my lunch companions succumbed to the Parfait, an old style soda bar glass filled with house-made Fernet Menta ice cream, silky-rich chocolate pudding, meringue, some crumbles, and cream. I didn't get to taste it, but said companion pronounced it delicious as he was vigorously scraping the remnants of the concoction out of the glass to get the last bit of flavor.

In a moment of weakness (I have those a lot), I opted for a combo---a shot of espresso, and a request for Jonny's Manhattan, which he makes with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Carpano Formula Antico, and a touch of Luxardo. And a maraska cherry as garnish.

Damn, it's good.