Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Tour and a Dinner Tasting at Mazzetti d’Altavilla

With tours, tastings, a coffee shop, full restaurant, and a store, Mazzetti d’Altavilla is the most tourist friendly Grappa distillery that we visited. This family business has everything that a Grappa lover could want. 

Elisa Belvedere Mazzetti met our group and offered us coffee in the coffee shop before we started our tour. She then led our group outside to what they refer to as Pomace Square where the deliveries of marc or pomace arrive from the wineries and are conserved in tubular containers that look like well fed giant white snakes. Inside of these tubes, the pomace is temporarily preserved in a vacuum to protect the freshness.

Next, we went into the distillery where the wine grape pomace begins its journey to become Grappa. Mazzetti d’Altavilla Distillery uses the discontinuous method which involves distilling in pot stills. They operate from September to January and are sustainable using solar energy for fuel. Grappa meant to remain clear and young will rest in stainless steel tanks until bottling.

The barrel room where Grappa is aged is underground and remains at cool temperatures naturally. They only work with used barrels to avoid excessive wood character in their Grappas. In the barrel room, the conversion of clear Grappa to gold or amber colored takes place while the spirit becomes more smooth and gains additional complexity. 

After the tour which also included a small museum featuring the 172 year history of the seven generations of Mazzettis that have made Grappa, we headed back up to the tasting room and store. The store and tasting room is open to visitors seven days a week with over a hundred items for sale. 
Visitors to the distillery can taste from the lineup seen on the back wall at the tasting counter. They also have Grappa soaked sugar cubes with an array of natural flavors to taste, these can be purchased for sweetening tea and coffee. 

Elisa Belvedere Mazzetti poured us a pre-dinner taste of the 3.0 Morbida as a palate cleanser before dinner. It was delicate and fresh with herbal notes. She then led us upstairs to the Materia Prima restaurant which signs refer to as a flavor lab. It is primarily used for tastings of Grappa pairings but it can also be booked for lunch, dinner, or group events.

The dinner:
Starter - Hot broccoli cake with cream of carrot, topped with crispy leeks with Fratelli Natta “Le Rose” Barbera d’Asti wine
First Course - Monferrato Agnolotti with Ferraris Clàsic Ruchè wine and Mazzetti Ardita L’Acquavite d’Uva
Second Course - Pork slow cooked in fresh Piedmontese pomace with rucked potato and sauce with Fratelli Natta “Mounteis” Malvasia di Casorzo wine and Mazzetti Grappa di Barolo Invecchiata -This one spent some time in barrel giving it a richer, spicier character.
Dessert - Bonet 7.0 served with the Mazzetti Grappa di Ruchè 7.0 which was aromatically intense with both floral notes and spice.

After dinner, we returned to the tasting room bar and enjoyed a few more tastes. Two of my favorites were:

Mazzetti Segni Grappa Riserva 5 anni di Invecchiamento - Rich and flavorful with blackberry and vanilla notes.

Mazzetti d’Altavilla Grappa di Moscato Vermouth di Torino Finish - Very intense and smooth from aging in wine barrels that previously held Vermouth.

A fantastic evening and a great ending for the Hello Grappa tour!
All of the Mazzetti products are highly recommended. The distillery is also a recommended stop for tourists in the Piedmont area who have an interest in Grappa.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Faled Distilleries and Spirito Verdiano

Next stop on the Grappa tour was in Parma at Faled Distilleries. Faled has been distilling spirits from local grapes Malvasia, Lambrusco, Fortana, Barbera, and Bonarda since 1945. Success in the region led the company to invest both in improving the plant, purchasing wooden barrels, and buying a 15th century castle to age their Grappa. 

They spent several decades expanding their market and their portfolio of products. In addition to Grappa, Faled makes brandy and liquor infusions including Nocino a nut flavored liqueur, Bargnolino which is berry flavored and Limoncino, a lemon flavored spirit. In the new millennium, they started a new brand of premium Grappa called Spirito Verdiano. The Spirito Verdiano line was created to showcase the grapes that have been a part of the region's wine making since ancient times. 

Giuseppe Scaltriti, Director of Communications, led us on the tour of the distillery followed by a tour of the Castle Roccabianca. The castle was originally started in 1450 and was finished in 1463 by Pier Maria Rossi. The fortress like building was originally built for his lover Bianca Pelligrini. The name of both the castle and the town comes from this union. In the 20th century, it became the aging house for Faled Distillery’s Reserve Grappa and also a place for the local ham, Culatello, to be hung to dry. Today, visitors to the area can tour the castle and see the restored artwork while learning the long history that the building houses.

Scaltriti led us to one of the rooms where a tasting had been set up for us. Next to four different types of Grappa by Spirito Verdiano was a local wine made from the same grape. I really enjoyed this tasting, it was very educational to taste both side by side and see how the essence of the wine grapes had been captured in each of the Grappas.

The Tasting:

Spirito Verdiano Grappa di Malvasia - The pomace for this Grappa comes from a local sparkling wine, it was the most aromatic with nectarine, citrus blossoms, and a light nutty note with a subtle, lightly fruity taste. It was my favorite of these three.

Spirito Verdiano Grappa di Lambrusco - Light notes of sweet berry aromas and a clean, dry finish.

Spirito Verdiano Grappa di Fortana - Similar to the previous one with fruitier notes of sweet cherry/berry and a clean, dry finish. 

After the tasting,  Scaltriti treated us to a lunch at a nearby restaurant where we enjoyed some of the local ham and pasta dishes. After our meal, we sampled a couple of other products, the Spirito Verdiano Grappa di Gutturnio, the Spirito Verdiano Grappa delle Nebbie and the Nocino, a traditional liqueur from the area made from green walnuts. No notes taken on these three. All of these Grappas are recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Grappa Tasting at Castello Banfi

I couldn't have been more delighted that the Grappa tour would take me back to Castello Banfi. I stayed at the castle with my daughter back in the spring of 2015 when we did a mother/daughter trip through Europe following her graduation from college.

Castello Banfi is located between the Orcia and Ombrone rivers in the southern part of Montalcino in Tuscany. All of the pomace used in the production of the four Grappas comes from wines made from grapes in the vineyards surrounding the castle. After a vineyard tour and wine tasting at the winery, our group headed back to the on-site restaurant for lunch followed by a Grappa tasting.

Banfi produces four different Grappas, one is made from a blend of grapes and the other three are made from Brunello di Montalcino, a type of Sangiovese and the most important grape variety in the region.

The Tasting:
All of these Grappas were double distilled in a continuous still and have 45% ABV.

Grappa del Castello - Made from a blend of different grapes, this is their entry level clear Grappa and it is designed to be the most approachable. It has intense fruity aromas combined with a light herbal note, though dry, its flavors give a suggestion of sweetness.

Grappa di Brunello - Clean and fresh with no bitterness, this clear Grappa has more of the classic Brunello aromas of violets, herbs, and ripe red cherry with a subtle flavor. This is designed to be the most traditional of the Grappas they produce.

Grappa di Brunello Torre - The pomace for this clear Grappa was sourced from the highest part of the property and the grapes had undergone a long maceration before fermentation during the wine making process. This Grappa was very floral with violet and rose aromas along with fresh herbs and red fruit notes, the flavors seemed more concentrated on the palate.

Poggio alle Mura Grappa di Brunello di Montalcino Riserva - This Grappa was the most unique of the four due to the 18 months that it spent aging in Slavonian oak casks that had previously been used to age Brunello wine. The grapes that composed this pomace were also sourced exclusively from the property's premium Poggio alle Mura vineyard. It was golden in color with pronounced aromas of dried fruits with honeysuckle and a hint of vanilla. It was soft and smooth, elegantly dry and finished with a lingering note of honey. This was my favorite of the tasting.

All of the Grappas listed here are highly recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Grappa - An Educational Tour at Bonollo Distillery

The first stop on the Grappa tour involved getting a lesson in how Grappa is made at the Bonollo Distillery located in Torrita di Siena in the heart of Tuscany. Bonollo owns five distilleries located throughout Italy that distill 200,000 hectoliters of alcohol per year which is equal to 50 million bottles. Grappa is an alcoholic beverage of Italian origin and it is their most important product. They also produce acquavitae and brandy.

We arrived just as a truckload of pomace which is also called marc arrived at the plant. Pomace is the used grape skin and seeds leftover after winemaking. Our tour was taking place during the wine grape harvest so the distillery was operating in full swing. The distillation season is only about three months long. In addition to alcohol production,  they also collect the grape seeds during the production process to make grape seed oil, used both for cooking and in the cosmetics industry.

The pomace must come from Italy, grapes from wine regions in other countries cannot become Grappa. After the pomace is delivered to the distillery, speed is of the essence. Fresh pomace makes fresher tasting Grappa. The pomace is moved into copper stills where steam is pumped in to collect the aromatic vapors which rise into a pipe to reach the distilling column. Pot stills work in alternating pairs which is called the discontinuous method. Coffey or column stills are continuous stills that are more efficient and, as the name suggests, work continuously. Both types are used at the Bonollo Distillery in Torrita di Siena.

The vapors are cooled and the condensation that results drips down in three parts - the head, the heart, and the tail. The head contains the most alcohol, it is discarded. The tail contains the oilier components that will be separated out. The heart is the good stuff and it is from what the Grappa is made. After distilling is complete, the heart is stored in either stainless steel tanks or oak barrels depending on what type of Grappa is meant to be made from it. Grappa destined to be clear and sold young will go into the stainless steel and Grappa that is meant to be aged will be placed into oak barrels which will add additional aromas and flavors and help it to become smoother.

After our tour, we did a tasting of several of the Bonollo products which were served with a side of local sweets and dark chocolate. Each had a uniqueness that came from the type of grapes from which it was made and the aging process it had been through. It was a very
informative tasting.

At the end of our afternoon, we were gifted a bottle of their Consenso
Classic Chianti Grappa to take back home. This dry and elegant Grappa displays cherry cordial aromas and flavors. Serve this Grappa chilled to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, it is an ideal partner with dark chocolate and perfect after a heavy lunch on a cold day by the fire.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Hello Grappa!

I went on a Grappa media tour in October. Before going, I really did not know much about Grappa, other than that it fell in the same category as Brandy. It had been briefly discussed years ago when I was taking wine certification classes though I don't remember actually tasting any at that time.

Then, a few years ago, a wine producer brought some to Houston when they did an event and did I taste one at that time, I was surprised by it. It wasn't the "firewater" that I had expected, it was a far smoother drink and a nice way to end a heavy lunch. Unfortunately, in the Houston area at that time, I was not finding Grappa on the after dinner drinks list at my favorite restaurants so I was not able to explore it more.

Almost 3 years after that positive experience, I found myself on a Grappa trail in Italy eager to learn more. The trip started with a rooftop party in Rome. Our group had the opportunity to meet some producers, taste an array of Grappa, and most importantly learn how the iconic spirit could be used in mixology to create a variety of cocktails.

Grappa has traditionally been used in Italy as a digestivo. It is typically consumed neat after a meal or served with coffee. It should always be served chilled. Young, clear Grappa should be served around 50 degrees Fahrenheit while aged Grappa which typically has an amber or golden color should be served a bit warmer at 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cocktails we were served were made with a young Cabernet Grappa. Young Grappa is clear, it has been aged for less than a year and does not spend any time in oak barrels. It should have a very clean aroma with hints of the floral and fruit notes that are displayed in the type of grapes from which it is made. In addition to the cocktails that we enjoyed, the bartender shared that Grappa also makes an easy replacement for the Vodka in a Moscow Mule and the Rum in a Mojito. Its versatility in cocktails is just beginning to be explored.

The Cocktails:
R&G Panoramic View - One shot of Grappa mixed with a splash each of cherry brandy and Aperol shaken and poured into a martini glass and then topped with Prosecco and garnished with an orange slice.

Angel by Night - Equal parts Grappa, Martini Red, and Campari shaken and poured into a lowball glass followed with a splash of soda and and garnished with a lemon slice.

Strawberry "Inn" Grappa Sour - Two shots of young, clear Grappa with one shot of lemon juice and a splash of strawberry syrup shaken and poured over ice into a lowball glass with a fresh strawberry garnish.

After partaking of the cocktails and a dinner buffet, attendees had the opportunity to try several aged Grappas to conclude the evening. While each one had something to offer, my personal favorite in the line-up was the Castagner Grappa Riserva 3 Anni which was nicely rounded with pleasant notes of baking spice and vanilla served in a balloon shaped glass to properly release the delicate aromas, absolutely ethereal.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Noble Taste - Crown Royal Whisky

  I met Stephen Wilson, Director of Whisky Engagement for Crown Royal in Houston last month. We sat down for a tasting of some of the brand's more popular offerings including the recently released Texas Mesquite Whisky.

  Wilson shared the the story of how the brand was created in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Canada to tour the provinces. The whisky was stocked on their train for them to enjoy throughout their travels. The name, the shape of the bottle, and the bag were all designed to showcase the whisky as a royal gift. The popularity of the brand increased immediately after entering the American market. It is still the top selling Canadian whisky in North America.

  This original flagship blend set the standard for Crown Royal, it is comprised of five different styles of whisky blended together from many different years aged in many different barrels both new and seasoned to create the consistent taste and texture that aficionados have always enjoyed. The five whisky components of the blend each add something different to the final product, lightness and softness, juiciness, buttery notes, floral notes, caramel, chocolate, banana or a spicy character. Expertly combined together, they make up the classic Crown Royal profile.

  Wilson recommends tasting whisky in a certain way for comparative purposes. "I take a little sip, hold it in the center of my mouth before moving it around a bit to coat all the different areas before swallowing. Then, I breathe in across my tongue and engage the whole olfactory system."

  Crown Royal Reserve was launched in the early '90s as a thank you from the blenders to the people who regularly drink Crown Royal. It was designed to be an elevated version of the original, flagship blend. It is comprised of the boldest and, often, the oldest barrels of whisky which give it more pronounced aromas of baking spice and nuts while also contributing an added creaminess to the texture. Wilson feels the Reserve makes great Manhattans and other cocktails but prefers to drink it neat.

  The Crown Royal XO is a play on Cognac.  The original blend goes through a second maturation in Cognac barrels which gives the whisky a richer profile pulling in additional aromas and flavors. The seasoned Cognac barrels add fruit and spice nuances while also considerably lengthening the smooth, creamy finish.

  I was most excited about tasting the Crown Royal Texas Mesquite flavored whiskey which just launched in May of this year. Originally, it was intended to be a Texas exclusive but demand for the whisky has already brought it into the market in several other states. Unique to Texas is the blue bag with the Texas star on it, in other states, it is sold in a plain blue bag with just the Crown Royal signature logo. 

  Wilson shared that the new product has already become a favorite among mixologists adding a distinct smokiness to their cocktail creations. He noted that at several tastings, consumers reported loving it as cocktail component but after tasting it neat or served on the rocks, they preferred it straight. The Crown Royal Texas Mesquite is bold and rich with caramel and vanilla notes but the mesquite character adds an unmistakable uniqueness in the glass, the finish has a decided barbecue brisket quality that persistently lingers. 

  Wilson concluded, "We make whisky the Canadian way. It's all about carrying on the tradition that started in 1939. The whisky flavors and personality, everything you taste in the glass is by design. So, when I say, we make whisky the Canadian way, that is our style and we take a lot of pride in it. It's approachable and unique, it may be a lighter style but that doesn't mean it lacks complexity, that's what excites me and that's why I like drinking it and that's why I like talking about it."

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thursday, September 20, 2018

La Lucha in the Houston Heights

The much anticipated new restaurant concept from Chef Ford Fry opened this week in Houston. La Lucha is the chef's opportunity to pay respect to one of his favorite childhood restaurants, the San Jacinto Inn, that his family regularly visited for southern cuisine and other gulf coast favorites. It is the first restaurant of its kind in the Ford Fry family.

I just had my first meal there and I am excited to go back for more. My husband and I sat at the bar and each went with a wine by the glass. I ordered the Cleto Chiarli "Vecchia Modena" Lambrusco, a refreshinging and very food friendly light sparkling Italaian winewhile he went with a more classic choice of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne. We had great service at the bar from both Colton and Allie. They knew the menu well and were quick to discuss their favorite items.

We started with a side of watermelon that was dressed with Thai chiles, lime and fresh cilantro and an order of La caviar
and onion dip topped with chives and served with a half can of Pringles potato crisps. This combination was extremely tasty together. The fresh, sweet and spicy watermelon was an ideal contrast to the savory, creamy, salty goodness of the dip. We quickly finished both in record time barely maintaining against the urge to lick the dip container and wash it down with the watermelon juice in the bottom of the bowl. Luckily, our next course was quick to arrive

We decided to split a whole fried chicken which was served with biscuits, pickles and a choice of sauce. Colton shared that the green harissa was his favorite so we followed his lead and enjoyed the  fresh herb condiment alongside the crispy yet juicy bird. Predictably, we could not finish it all so were able to bring a couple of pieces back to our daughter at home as a late work day had prevented her from joining us that evening. We both felt that our drink choices had worked well through the entire meal.

Kevin, the bar manager, stopped by to check on us and we took the opportunity to question him about his favorites. He highly recommended the oysters, both raw and fried, paired with Mezcal as a top choice for him. As they have a great Happy Hour deal on the oysters, I imagine we will be back soon to test that out. Other items of interest that we saw going by were the fried shimp and the Pharmacy burger. We also watched Colton mixmaster up some cocktails that he assured us were not only refreshing but that also played well with the menu options.

To top off the evening, we enjoyed small dishes of soft serve ice cream. I had the vanilla topped with  crushed saltines while he had the chocolate sprinkled with crushed oreos. Simple and delicious.

As a born and raised native Houstonian, I am particular about my southern Gulf Coast cuisine. Chef Ford Fry, along with Executive Chef Bobby Matos have gotten everything right with this menu. This is no surprise as their restaurant on Westheimer, State of Grace, is one of my family's favorites as well. While I like to eat at a restaurant a few times before labeling it one of my top choices, I have no doubt that La Lucha is on it's way to making that list, I highly recommend it after one visit and I'm looking forward to returning soon.

Check out my thoughts on State of Grace here.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Mixology Class with Susi Zivanovic

Susi Zivanovic

I had a fantastic experience this week learning about the cocktail program at Perry's Steakhouse & Grille with beverage director, Susi Zivanovic. In addition to selecting the wines for the restaurants, Zivanovic creates all the cocktail recipes that guests enjoy at the many Perry’s locations. Zivanovic shared with the group that her philosophy for mixology involves high quality ingredients masterfully blended into well-balanced deliciously drinkable cocktails. She said that when she creates the different recipes, she chooses only premium ingredients - most importantly, she makes sure that there are no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners.
Invitees to this event started the evening with the Perry's Hog-Hatten. This drink was prepared by the true professionals behind the bar. This Manhattan-based cocktail is elevated with spicier Redemption Rye Whiskey instead of the more traditional Bourbon. This is combined with Vya Vermouth and is complemented with a Sugar in the Raw rim and some homemade bbq sauce. The drink is then garnished with a skewer of Perry’s Famous Pork Chop Bites alternated with Luxardo Cherries. We learned this mini-meal on your glass can also be added to any Manhattan cocktail of your choice for only $2. They suggest dipping the skewer in this drink which enhances the sweet and smoky flavor combination.

The Lemon Bubbles was the first cocktail that each member of the group created. This light and refreshing drink is a blend of Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Caravella Limoncello, and freshly squeezed lemon juice which is shaken together, poured into a Champagne flute, and then is topped off with sparkling Chandon Brut. 
The Lemon Bubbles cocktail was paired with the Bacon Wrapped Scallops. Together, this combination would be the perfect start to any evening at Perry's.

The Peachy Glen was our next shaken cocktail. It combines Glenmorangie 10 year old Scotch with Belvedere Peach Nectar Vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and stone fruit purée. This is poured into a coupe style glass which is then garnished with organic and edible flowers which provide a beautiful topping and an interesting flavor should you decide to consume them. To me, the flowers started off with a fruity flavor which then evolved into a more celery-like flavor. The fruity flavors of the Peachy Glen drink tasted even more delicious when paired with the Seafood Stuffed Mushrooms served over tomato cream. This was my favorite cocktail and pairing of the evening.

The Bourbon Bloom was our next cocktail. This drink starts with a muddling of blackberries and mint which is then shaken with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, St Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, and fresh lemon juice. The Bourbon Bloom’s flavor profile has many similarities to red wine which makes it an excellent pairing for the Beef and Bleu Crostini as well
as with any steak on the menu.

For the grand finale, Susi stirred up mini-sized Jameson Mocha Old Fashioned cocktails for the group. This blend of Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey, house-made coffee syrup and molé bitters played beautifully with the Chocolate Crunch dessert. This dessert is reminiscent of a Twix candy bar and the spicy coffee flavors of the Mocha Old Fashioned worked extremely well with it. I could imagine myself enjoying this while passing out Halloween candy at home.

Perry's Steakhouse and Grille is a family owned restaurant chain that started off in the Houston area. It has now grown into multiple locations across the country. The Perry family started with a butcher shop so the restaurant is known for its high quality USDA-aged Prime beef but the restaurants are also famous for the 7-Finger Pork Chop, a family recipe that has been perfected over more than 3 decades. The Pork Chop Bites skewer is an ideal way to get a small taste of this classic menu item.