Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost Abbey Angel's Share 2008 (Brandy Barrel)

Angel's share is somewhat of a specimen. Only available via mailing lists until this year, and now only in limited quantities at a few lucky beer stores. There is also a bit of a tumultuous story with the 2008, with reports of early bottling and unactivated yeast creating low carbonation levels. I was lucky enough to get 3 bottles of this stuff, one of which was put to the test through a preliminary assessment. The next two will be consumed at yearly intervals.

I can certainly attest that the carbonation tales are true: the yeast has either not had enough time to fully activate or there was some problem in bottling these. Nonetheless, this is still a good beer. The nose offers vanilla, chocolate, figs, raisins and a healthy dose of brandy.

The palate has loads of stewed fig, chocolate, port-like dark fruits, and a heavy brandy flavour. The alcohol is extremely noticeable at 13% abv - but as with many high gravity beers this should mellow with time. A challenging beer to consider this early, but thus far I have had better beer for a lot less money. Then again, if you drank a great Hermitage too young you might have a similar notion. Time shall tell.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$34 at Ledger's Liquors

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Russian River Beatification Batch 3

Another experimental beer from California - this time a cross between a lambic and a wild ale. This is one sour puppy with an apple heavy nose and a palate with pineapple, a touch of vanilla, lime and lemon. This is woody and very clean and has great layering - but man does it make you pucker. For me that's fantastic, others may be put off by the sourness, even though it is by no means out of balance. Another extremely drinkable beer with a reasonable ABV (around 6%), this is creamy with some obvious lactic notes. Love it.

$23/750ml at City Beer

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lost Abbey Saint's Devotion

I spent the last few days in California with a good friend of mine formerly of Vancouver and now of Chicago. Fortunately, he is also a beer afficionado so it was time to open some goodies I had been saving. Lost Abbey's Saint's Devotion is a wild version of their standard Devotion ale, spontaneously fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. The only way to detect the difference is the brown vs. green label: clearly a sign of the 'leetness' of this beer. I was lucky enough to pick up this rare beer at the Lost Abbey night at Toronado during SF beer week.

A yeast-tactic nose that smells like baking bread already promised some rambunctiously funky times ahead. The palate was certainly wild with lots of funky bread, must and apple notes. The bitter finish was slightly out of balance and less smooth than some of the other wild ale offerings we sampled during the week; however, this is an eminently drinkable beer with a clean and sharp palate. Air certainly helps to mellow this beer and warmth brings out the full complexity of flavour and balances the 'wildness' with the rest of the beer. 6.25% ABV.

Very Good+
$20 at Toronado

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pride Mountain Petite Sirah 2000

It's been quite a while since my last post - life has been incredibly busy, including a move back to Canada and the start of my bar admissions course. And what do I elect to do with my first quiet moment? Think about this great bottle of California grape extract. Petite sirah is almost quintessentially Californian - the politically incorrect sibling of Zinfandel. This was one of the last bottles I had in California before returning back to Vancouver.

Deep purple in the glass - like a crimson sunset. The nose is very grapey and jammy with plenty of blackberry, plum, kreosite and chocolate. With all that intensity the alcohol is prominant on the nose, and this wine has serious legs in the glass.

The palate is impressively structured given its sheer mass: not too jammy, but replete with fruit and massive tannins that are on the verge of overwhelming. While drinking just about right now, I could not imagine what this was like upon release. The extraction and concentration are so intense in this wine that the flavour almost becomes a texture. An absolute goliath of a wine.

Very Good+
$52 at Benchmark Wines

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Indelicate Aparatif: Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1986

Day 2 of the celebration, which in fact must be divided into two posts: what glorious times these are. I have been saving this bottle for several months for this specific occasion. Dunn is one of the most respected producers of age worthy Cabernet in the Napa Valley, producing a bottling from grapes at the Valley floor as well as the famous Howell Mountain wine. This is the Napa version of the wine, which I picked up at K&L - I could not help but jump at the chance to try a 20 year old wine from Napa by one of the few producers able to produce a product worthy of such age.

The nose here was surprisingly boozy, and had chocolate, licorice and blackberry. Despite 22 years in the bottle this nose was expressive and tremendously deep, and later took on some wet root qualities with air. The palate was much more acidic than I expected, but has incredible intensity of flavour, with notes of blackberry, raspberry, graphite, jasmine tea, and quite hefty tannins - I'm not sure the tannins could ever get softer after 22 years, so I suppose that is the style of this wine. This is more like a cross between Napa and Bordeaux than anything strictly Californian. The finish is very mineral intense and has notes of damp soily earth. However, this is not as complex or as balanced as I was hoping and while a very good wine, is certainly not worth the price I paid. Nonetheless, I couldn't feel down about this - after all it was only an aparatif to a much more incredible experience coming to this blog all in good time. If you do ever get an aged Dunn Cab, I recommend decanting for at least 2 hours.

Very Good+
$90 at K&L wine

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Greatest Beer in the World?

Today was a momentous day - the day I say goodbye to 10 years of post-secondary education and hello to my new Juris Doctor degree: yes, law school is now complete. As with any such momentous occasion, celebration must be extended over many days. This, given I just finished an exam a few hours ago, is my amuse bouche.

Westvleteren is considered by many to be not only the greatest Trappist brewery in the world, but also the producer of two of the world's best beers: Westvleteren 8 and 12. For those not in the know, Trappist breweries were traditionally operated by monks who use the proceeds to support their ascetic existence. Many of the Trappist breweries are now contracted commercial operations. Westvleteren, however, remains true to its origins. As such, one can only obtain the beer at the monestary on select days. Furthermore, the monks brew a limited amount of beer with no plans to expand. They make enough money to meet their needs and that's that. Accordingly, Westvleteren beers are extremely hard to come by and are perhaps some of the rarest in the world. Lucky for me I got my hands on two bottles of glorious monk's brew.

Westvleteren 8

Made in a dubbel style, this is really unlike any dubbel I've ever tasted. With a small but persistent head, this pours a cloudy dark brown in the glass. The nose is really spicy with some subtle fruit ester notes like plum and fig. Tasting this is quite unlike any other beer really - it's as if my Belgian dubbel jumped into bed with a wet temperate forest and produced a love child. The palate is slightly medicinal, has lots of spice and herbs, and finishes with a decent but very unique hop kick of grass and earth. I also got bread notes here, likely from the yeast. This beer is not at all sweet like many other Belgian beers, instead treading the line between subtle malt sweetness and the bitter complexity of multiple hop profiles. The finish here is disturbing in its length, which I measured at around 2-3 minutes. But, that's what hops can do. The booze is also very nicely integrated. In the end this has a sense of balance, restraint and provides the drinker with a profoundly refreshing dryness unheard of in Belgian dubbels. Just as the monk's would like it.


Westvleteren 12

The granddaddy of all Quadrupels and considered by many to be the best beer in the world. Unfortunately for me, my bottle had some carbonation issues which ensured less aromatics due to a dissipated head. Nonetheless, this was just as unique as its less alcoholic brethren. The beer poured a malty burnt caramel brown in the glass - almost like liquified caramelized sugar. The nose had dates, raisins and caramel and promised more depth and intensity than the 8. Accordingly, this beer is distinctly sweeter than the 8 but still a lot less sweet than many Quadrupels with its very full palate of raisins, dates, figs and caramel. This also had a moderate hop finish - less hoppy than the 8 - that added forest, mushroom, leaves and dirt. I am not sure why my bottle had so little carbonation, but overall this beer has a great fullness and completeness to the flavours, which is quite uncommon. There really is so much going on in this beer you can't grasp it all in only one bottle. Very good stuff, I only wish I got the fully carbonated experience.


In conclusion, what is so great about the Westy beers is their balance and their incredibly unique flavour profile. I've never tasted hops like this in a Belgian style beer and everything is put together with perfection as no element overwhelms the other. Many Quads and Dubbels rely so much on sweet malts and fruity yeasts that they lose a little complexity and completeness. That is not the case with these beers, which have every feature of the brewing process in perfect harmony: malt, hops and yeast as a choir rather than a rambling crowd. Are they the best beers in the world? I don't know - at least not for my palate. Are they incredibly unique and worth trying? Absolutely. A great treat for this great occasion.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Vertical mini Epic with Stone

A couple weeks ago I found two vintage bottles of Stone's Vertical Epic, a beer with a different recipe each year and designed to be age. They started this series in the early 2000's and mean it to develop up to 2012. I also got my hands on a Stone 12th anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout. Stone is a nice older brewery from Southern California that I think has done a lot for the craft beer movement.

Stone Vertical Epic 07

Pouring with a moderate head, the colour on this beer is a cloudy molten yellow. Made in a belgian strong ale style. With a lot of spice, citrus, pineapple, banana and other tropical fruit on the nose, this smells fantastic and is amazingly layered. The palate was full bodied (I think about 9% abv), and yet smooth and creamy. I tasted the same flavours as on the nose, but think it is worth noting the very long lingering finish. Also, the flavour layering on the palate is really subtley integrated and the beer is exceptionally easy to drink. A fantastic effort.

$7/22oz at Ledger's Liquors

Stone Vertical Epic 08

Perhaps needing more age, this was made in a hoppier more American style than the 07. THe colour is straw-like and much lighter than the 07. The nose has a pleasant combination of floral and herbal hops and Belgian yeast aromas. The palate was quite a bit heftier than the 07, despite the colour difference, but it was also less complex and layered and the finish not as long (but I find this comes with age). While enjoyable, this just lacked the elegance of the 07, although in a year I bet this will be a very different beer.

Very Good to Very Good+
$6.50/22oz at Ledger's Liquors

Stone 12th Anniversary Bitter Oatmeal Stout

With the hops shortage in 2008, Stone was forced to innovate to provide bitterness to its beers. They did that here by adding a lot of bitter chocolate, which as any beer afficionado knows, is the perfect pairing for stout.

The colour on this very high alcohol oatmeal stout (9% again) was very dark brown and pretty much opaque. The nose had plenty of chocolate, with some cherry, fig and coffee as well. There was a detectable note of alcohol lingering behind all those aromas. The palate was creamy and highly roasted. I suspect a lot of chocolate malts were used in this beast. With lots of mocha flavours, this beer does not taste overly alcoholic, despite noticeable traces. Essentially this is a very flavourful beer that does not yet have a lot of complexity but is certainly great for the price. Not to mention that paired with dark chocolate, this is just hedonistically loveable.

Very Good (will improve with age)
$6/22oz at Ledger's Liquors

Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale

I love me a good sour ale, and the Flemish style is a great twist on the classics - one that is a good entry into sours generally with its balance of sour and slightly sweet. It's unfortunate that crappy sugared lambics have created a bad reputation for the sour genre, adding a cooler-style veneer to a drink that many have no idea was originally sour. While not a lambic, the Flemish sour has been given a similarly bad rap with the Duchesse du Bourgogne, which is carmelly sweet.

This beer on the other hand is made in the traditional style started by Rodenbach. With not much head (1 inch that dissipates fast), this beer has a nose with lots of cherry, strawberry, and a little balsamic. The palate is light and fluffy in texture and has a great concentration of fruit in the mid-palate - lots of cherries and strawberries and a little forest underbrush. The finish is short, but the flavour is robust and the price is right. Highly recommended as an intro to the world of sour ale.

Very Good+
$3/11.2oz at Ledger's Liquors

Friday, May 8, 2009

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 1998

The second of two aged Australian chardonnays I managed to get my hands on, this actually turned out a lot better than the Penfolds Yattarna, which is interesting given that in an earlier comparison of the 2003 vintage of the two I found my preferences distinctly on the side of Yattarna. These two continue to duke it out for the title of best Australian chardonnay.

From the Margaret River, this was a surprisingly vibrant and youthful yellow for a ten year old wine. The nose was toasty and buttery with vanilla, pineapply custard and lemon. In fact, I was a little disappointed when I first smelled the nose since it suggested more of the same Californian style chardonnay I have been having for months. However, with a little air the nose caught up to the palate, which was off in another, much more exciting, direction.

The first thing I noticed about the palate was the texture of the wine: extremely delicate. There was an amazing lightness to the wine despite its intense body and depth of flavour. I got lots of lemon, a little lime, pineaple, a touch of mineral brightness and a longish finish with a momentary feel of heat, which left with air. This is not a wine with dozens of flavours, but texturally it is whimsical and dances across the palate. One can also not help but mention that the structure and layering are just right to make restraint a fairly futile task. Each component is carefully and delicately built upon the others with precision and direction. This is not a wine that makes you guess about its intentions - rather it is a very well delineated path into a stunningly beautiful vista with bracingly fresh air.

Excellent to Excellent+
$51 at Benchmark Wine

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russian River Redemption

It seems I'm on a bit of a beer run these days - I suppose leading up to American Craft Beer Week next week: a Congressionally declared event no less!

This particular beer is one of Russian River's basic offerings, although it doesn't quite live up to their other great everyday beers such as Pliny the Elder or Damnation. This is a Belgian blonde style ale that is actually a bit more lager-like than I expected. It tastes like citrus fruits and bread, with a little apple to round it out. There is a small hop kick and some herbs on the back end too.

This is very simple, but well made, well carbonated and good with food. My rating below reflects my attempt to be 'objective', although if I relied entirely on personal preference I would rate this lower since it's not so much my style.

Very Good
$8 / 750ml at Ledger's Liquors

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

De Proef Flemish Primitive Wild Ale Batch #1 "Pig Nun"

Adorned with some Hieronymus Bosch monstrosities, this ferral beer is made in a unique style of brewing created in Belgium where wild native yeasts are used to "spontaneously ferment" the beer, which here seems to have started out as a blonde strong ale. Each batch is nicknamed after one of the strange creatures on its label - in this case a pig wearing a nun's habit.

I think this particular bottle, which I acquired at a Toronado cellar sale, had lost a little integrity in the cork as it came out a little too easily and the carbonation wasn't quite what I had hoped, thus giving the beer a significantly smaller head than expected. Nevertheless, all the classic blonde ale character was in the nose with lemon, sweet malts, and licorice root. The palate was where all the wildness came out, which was lesser than I expected, but still fantastic: bread, grains, biscuits, and a touch of funk gave the citrus and root flavours a real kick. Amazingly, despite the high alcohol (9%) this was very drinkable and clearly could be a great session beer (other than getting you hammered quickly).

The finish was very dry, and as the beer warmed it developed and changed its flavour profile with some pretty interesting funky and farm-like elements that are hard to describe. This is a chameleon on the palate and should be experienced by anyone who takes beer seriously. An outstanding creation. I can't wait to try some of the more recent batches with (hopefully) better carbonation than my bottle.

Note: De Proef also makes some great collaborative wild ales with American Brewers in its "signature series".

$15 at Toronado Cellar Sale

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chateau Leoville Barton 1994

I seem to be on a lucky roll with these aged wines - it would be great to be able to afford these things for real and actually fully stock a cellar with them. Alas I suppose that will only make me value the occasional moments of joy! For those unfamiliar, this is a Bordeaux second growth that ranks among the "super seconds", which are said to 'approximate' first growths in quality.

This wine exemplifies why Bordeaux is considered the greatest wine region in the world. It also exemplifies the sheer singularity of pleasure when a wine heavily impacted by vintage variation, bottle aging, and history actually reflects each of these elements in a seamless balance. There is subtlety, deftness and poise in a wine that accomplishes this, and I must say that after spending a few months drinking mostly Californian wine, it was almost a shock and awe experience to delve into this wine - so much so that I declared to myself that California really had nothing on Bordeaux in the end.

The nose is profoundly expressive and layered beyond imagination. I don't enjoy long lists of descriptors, but here my consciousness of smell was wakened by graphite, violets, licorice, cassis, a bit of barn, layers of earth, black cherry and a bit of tomato vine. And all of that just on the nose! It is not often that one can nose a wine for minutes without taking a sip and keep experience new aromas. Astounding.

The palate mustered a bevy of skills to show its deftness, but also was as soft and eloquent as a Shakespearean sonnet: wood, tomato, pencil shavings, earth, tart blackberry and licorice were the operative motives. A great 90 second long finish completed the wine with earth, minerals and a rooty licorice lacing. Quite a fantastic wine, but in the end the nose is what took this oh so close to the upper echelon.

Excellent to Excellent+
$70 at K&L

Monday, May 4, 2009

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 1995

Yet another vintage acquisition for me here in California, I was pretty darn excited to open this 14 year old chardonnay with a reputation as being one of the best in Australia.

The colour on this beauty was a deep yellow with browning qualities that showed a bit of age. Luckily the nose was still very expressive with wood, nuts, metal and minerals suggesting something quite dense and layered. I have to admit, however, that as much as I liked this wine I was somewhat less impressed with the palate, which seemed to have a bit too much oak compared to recent vintages of Yattarna. Nonetheless, this was bright and citrus happy with some nice spice qualities from the oak. I also got some really unique fruits like perhaps some exotic melon aromas (winter melon?).

The textured smoothness on this wine was also extremely impressive and perhaps the best part of the wine. The other critique I have besides perhaps a touch too much oak (this is by no means driven by oak), is the lack of complexity in the flavour profile, which really was in the end predominantly lemon and lime with a touch of pineapple. The 2003 version of this wine I tasted a while ago had much more of a minerally element and greater brightness and precision. Nonetheless, this shows how well Yattarna holds up to some long term aging.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$59 at Benchmark Wines

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Pair of Dogs

Brewdog is an extreme brewer from Scotland, specializing in barrel aged stouts. I managed to get my hands on two of their brews, and put them to the test over a few days. It's nice to see that the craft brewing bug has spread from the US and been embraced by like minded individuals from other countries.

I started with the Brew Dog Paradox Speyside Imperial Stout, which was aged in whisky barrels. Sitting at 10% abv, the nose on this was very chocolatey and inviting with hints of whisky vanilla coming through. The palate was very smooth, with no noticeable alcohol and plenty of bitter chocolate, vanilla and herbs. This almost tasted like a 'cream soda' beer and was quite refined in taste, even with the candied elements. I appreciate that the booze was dialed back in the flavour (probably due to the barrel aging), but also how it gave thickness and body to the beer. The barrel aging is quite subtle and far less intense than some of the extreme barrel aged stouts from the US. And, as a bonus, this is a great pairing with chocolate.

Very Good+
$10 USD

The second beer was the Brew Dog Paradox Port Dundas Imperial Stout, aged in port barrels. I found this very soft on the nose and somewhat closed. There were some strange metallic notes coupled with dried dark fruits (probably from the port barrels). The palate was broader with raisin, chocolate, caramel, and plenty of cigar and tobacco. Again, this was very smooth for a 10% beer, but I found it a bit one dimensional and less interesting than the Speyside. I also didn't get a lot of port characteristics on the palate. Maybe these would expand with age, but as of now this was a bit simple. However, as with the Speyside this paired amazingly with chocolate.

Very Good
$10 USD

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Russian River Damnation 23

Damnation 23 is essentially an oak chip aged version of Damnation, made every 23 batches. While oak chips in wine can produce some incredibly disgusting results, in the hands of a deft brewer, oak chips can add a subtlety, complexity and creaminess to a beer that is really quite exceptional. Luckily Russian River brewer Vinnie Cilurzo knows how to make beer and balance all the important elements.

The Damnation 23 smells a lot like a Belgian tripel, but is rounder and fuller on the palate, with an almost lactic quality to the beer. Pouring a moderately browned yellow, this had lots of herbs, citrus, cream and vanilla when tasted. There is really an amazing mouthfeel here, and the lactic qualities introduced by the oak chips give the beer an outstanding ability to pair with smoky BBQ flavour. A great way to make a tripel, and as with all Russian River beers, the carbonation is just about perfect.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$13/22oz at City Beer

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Day in Santa Barbara County: Foxen Vineyard

Foxen is as close to hippy as you get in California wine - a shack on the side of the road (they are building a new and fancier tasting room) these guys play unfortunate host to the Happy Hour crowd because of Sideways' success. Nonetheless, they make some pretty interesting wine and I was happy to visit them, especially since it took me a good 30 minutes to drive there from my last winery through some absolutely stunning scenery.

Foxen Canyon Scenery

I got to taste 2 whites and 3 reds during my visit, starting with the 2007 Vogelzang Vineyard Viognier, which had a round and floral nose with notes of caramel and vanilla. The palate was quite powerful for viognier, and a bit alcoholic. I got plenty of orchard fruits, especially peach, and a dry finish. However, I found this too alcoholic (at 14.8% ABV) and fruity for Viognier. Good+ to Very Good. $25.

I was also disappointed by the 2007 Tinaquiac Vineyard Chardonnay, which was dry farmed and aged in 25% new oak. This Chard saw 100% malolactic fermentation and it showed with a nose of roasted hazlenuts and pineapple. The palate was rich and heavy with pineapple and peach. There wasn't enough acidity in this wine, which gave the roundness of the fruit too much forwardness and not enough finesse. Good+ $32.

Luckily the reds provided much better quality and were lots of fun to boot, starting with the 2007 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, which had a nose with tons of earth, spice and strawberry. The nose had lots of cool rock and earth components, but I could still feel the alcohol quite significantly, which detracted from the otherwise pleasant flavour profile. Very Good. $34.

I enjoyed the 2005 Range 30 West Santa Ynez Valley red blend with its 63% merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot. The nose was heavy on the black currant and mint, and the palate was filled with lots of plummy fruit, caramel and blueberry. Very Good. $35.

The best wine of the bunch was the 2006 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley, which seems to be on a roll these days with high quality Rhone varietal wines. The nose here was smoky, minerally and filled with lots of rocks and soil. The palate was sweet up front, but opened nicely with earth on the finish. This is also a lot fruitier than the nose suggests with blackberry jam predominating. I think with a bit of age this will become quite good. Very Good. $44.

The winery

And that was the last winery of my wonderful day in Santa Barbara County before I spent many hours making the drive back to Berkeley. If you ever have the chance, I highly recommend a wine journey to Central California. It's good value, down to earth, and has some stunning scenery.

Bodegas El Nida Clio 2006

Spanish wine you say? Really? Apparently from the Jumilla region, I couldn't get any sense of terroir off of this absolutely lush wine-candy. This is a super high scoring Parker wine that has gone from costing around $20 USD to $45 ($90 in Canada) in a matter of 2-3 years. I suppose that's what consistent 95+ scores will do for a winery. This, however, is certainly set to be controversial.

The colour was a nice pretty purple, reminding me a little of one of the many beautiful sunsets that grace English Bay in Vancouver. The nose here was like raspberry and cherry candy, with vanilla custard poured on top. A very big and very oaky palate made this a cream puff kind of wine, with a deep and extracted quality to the fruit. This had tons of chocolate, cassis, cherry and raspberry as the driving force, but managed to retain a decent amount of acidity so as to avoid being overly sweet and flabby. At 30% Cabernet and 70% Monastrell (Mourvedre) there is almost no way to detect any varietal characteristics. This is not ideal for food because it is so extracted, candy-like and alcoholic (15.9%), but it is great for the style.

If I can be so bold, I would call this a Spanish version of Mollydooker's Carnival of Love, which if you have tasted and enjoyed The Boxer is a much more complex and better structured version of that wine. In fact, I might even say that I like this better than the $100 (even in the US) bottle of Carnival of Love. I can see why Parker would give this a good score for if you are into the style, this is a great value wine (at least for those lucky US residents).

Very Good+
$45 at K&L