Lillet. Kina Lillet.

Vespter MartiniFrom the book Casino Royale (Chapter 7), by Ian Fleming:

“A dry martini,” (Bond) said. “One.  In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

A few chapters later, Bond names the drink the Vesper Martini, in honor of Vesper Lynd, a Special Agent at M-16, who of course turns into a love interest, at least until it is revealed that she is a double agent.

While James Bond, double-agents, and strong cocktails might seem to be the key points of this story, as a true student of spirits, I am even more intrigued by the mention of Kina Lillet…so I decided to do a bit of detective work myself.

Lillet BlancLillet is a French aperitif that has been produced since 1872 in the town of Podensac, France, just south of Bordeaux. Lillet is based on Bordeaux wine that has been both aromatized (flavored with herbs) and fortified (strengthened with distilled spirits).  Lillet is made with the typical grape varieties of the region: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle for the Blanc; Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for the Rouge and Rosé.

Lillet is approximately 85% wine, sweetened and fortified with various citrus liqueurs, flavored with orange peel, and aged in French oak barrels. Lillet also includes Cinchona bark from Peru, the “secret ingredient” that contains quinine, as is used in tonic water, thus making Lillet a “cousin” of Vermouth and technically an aperitif known as a quinquina.  Lillet actually contains very little quinine, and no other botanical flavorings besides citrus fruit, making it one of the mildest quinquinas in terms of both botanicals and flavor. Other brands of quinquina include Dubonnet, Cocchi Americano, and St. Raphaël.

The original Lillet, once known as Kina Lillet, was re-formulated in 1986 to make it a bit less bitter and a bit less sweet, is now known as “Lillet Blanc.” Lillet Blanc is a light, refreshing, fruity drink that is crisp, sweet, and somewhat floral. Lillet Blanc is popular as an aperitif in France, served chilled or on ice with a garnish of lemon, lime or orange.

Maison du Lillet now produces four versions of its product, including Lillet Blanc. Lillet Rouge, released in 1962, might remind you of the sweet, fruity red wine flavors of James BondLambrusco.  Lillet Rosé, released in 2012, has a grapefruit-edged bitterness and is the sweetest of the four products. Reserve Jean De Lillet 2009, vintage-dated and based on Sauternes, is the newest (and most expensive) product, released in 2013.

Aspiring mixologists who want to make an authentic Vesper Martini may want to use Cocchi Americano instead of Lillet Blanc in the recipe, as purists insist that Cocchi Americano is closer in taste and flavor to the original Kina Lillet, being stronger in quinine and therefore more bitter than today’s version of Lillet Blanc.  After all, you wouldn’t want to disappoint Mr. Bond.

Maison du Lillet – http://www.lillet.com/

 

Neither Petite nor Syrah…Petite Sirah

Petite SirahZinfandel and Malbec, take a seat…the big dog has arrived.  I hold in my hand a glass of Michael-David Vineyards “Earthquake” Petite Sirah.  This wine looks like red crude oil, weighs as much as a linebacker, blasts flavors like a blow torch and leaves some cotton on the roof of your mouth.  Despite the name, there is nothing petite about Petite Sirah. It’s not a small version of the grape known as Syrah.  And, for the record, the “i” in “Sirah” isn’t a typo – but if you spell it with a “y” that’s ok as well.

So, if Petite Sirah is not petite and not syrah, what is it?  The grape is one of those vinous mysteries, solved CSI-style with the miracle of modern DNA testing in the U.C. Davis laboratory of Dr. Carole Meredith.

What we call Petite Sirah, it turns out, is a very old variety born and bred in the 1870’s by a French Nurseryman named Dr. Francois Durif.  It seems that the good doctor wanted to create a grape that had the flavor components of Syrah and the resistance to powdery PS on the vinemildew of a grape known as Peloursin. He crossed Peloursin and Syrah and named the resulting grape, like any proud father, after himself.  Durif became a minor success, was planted in quite a few vineyards, and was used as a blending grape in Rhône Reds.  But, alas, Durif never really became a major French variety as it failed to produce high-quality, distinguished wines in the South of France.

Durif migrated to the United  States in the 1890’s, where it fared somewhat better.  Durif thrived in the California sun, was easy to grow, and produced a high yield of  four to eight tons per acre in the Sierra Foothills and Central Valley of California.  In those days, Durif was a major player in the red blends of the Golden State.  If we could go back in time to the days of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, we’d be able to detect a bit of the deep, dark red fruit and dusty cinnamon flavors of Petite Sirah in there…maybe even dominating the blend.

However, in the early days of California wine making, many vineyards were field blends – a variety of grapes grown together in one vineyard with little regard to varietal pedigree and the name “Durif” got lost along the way, much like what happened to Carmenère in Chile.  Later, when someone needed a name for the variety, the grape was named “Petite Sirah.” We can only assume this was due to its Syrah-like flavor and the small size of the grape – the only possible explanation for the moniker “petite”.

Those small grapes grow in big clusters with very thick skins and high tannins.  A good Petite Sirah has a deep red color, a hefty, somewhat “rustic” feel and substantial but ripe Earthquake Petite Sirahtannins. Walk carefully around this wine…it can pack quite an alcoholic punch, sometimes reaching as high as 15%.  In the bottom of the glass you will find rich fruity aromas including of sweet plum, blackberry, cherry, currant and cassis.  Take a sip and you’ll notice the rich fruit flavors…I think this wine defines the term “jammy”. Go ahead and take another sip…look for the flavors of black licorice, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, vanilla, and cedar.  This wine can be quite complex…you might also find aromas and flavors of herbs, violets, brown sugar, orange peel, clove, and cinnamon.  It’s got a lot going on.

Petite Sirah is still grown in France, although like many a local celebrity, it was never much appreciated in its home town.  Australia has a few vines, as well as Argentina, Chile, Israel, and recently, Washington State. The one region to really take to Petite Sirah is California.  The grape is grown throughout California and does particularly well in the warmer regions of the Golden State such as the Sierra Foothills and Lodi, where, in the words of the back label of Earthquake Petite Sirah, it makes a wine that is “over the top and shattering to the veins!”  I couldn’t agree more.

Land of Two Seasons: The Mediterranean Climate

Olive LeavesThe area around the Mediterranean Sea, home to miles of sun-drenched beaches, mild winters, olive groves and (of course) fabulous wine, has been a cultural crossroads since the dawn of civilization. The beautiful weather, with the four seasons seemingly compressed into two, is surely one of the major reasons why so many people decided to make this region their home.

The comfortable climate typical of the Mediterranean Basin is found in many other areas throughout the world, including California and Baja California, the Central Coast of Chile, Southwest and South Australia, and the Western Cape Region of South Africa.  We serious students of wine will easily recognize these areas as major wine producers, and, of course, areas blessed with a Mediterranean Climate.

The Mediterranean Climate, known as a “dry-summer subtropical” climate under the Köppen climate classification, is generally found between 31 and 40 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, on the western side of continents. The climate can be summarized as “warm, dry summers and mild, rainy winters.” The climate zone can extend Mediterranean Climateeastwards for hundreds of miles if not thwarted by mountains or confronted with moist climates, such as the summer rainfall that occurs in certain regions of Australia and South Africa.  The furthest extension of the Mediterranean Climate inland occurs from the Mediterranean Basin up into western Pakistan.  In contrast, areas of California and Chile are constricted to the east by mountains close to the Pacific Coast.

The oceans and seas bordering the land areas with a Mediterranean climate work their moderating magic and keep the temperatures within a comparatively small range between the winter low and summer high.  Snow is seldom seen and winters are generally frost-free.  In the summer, the temperatures range from mild to very hot, depending on distance from the shore, elevation, and latitude. However, as anyone who has experienced Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds will tell you, strong winds from inland desert regions can bring a burst of dry heat to even the mildest season.

VineyardIn addition to the influence of water, specific atmospheric conditions create the Mediterranean climate. Every area that enjoys a Mediterranean Climate is located near a high pressure cell that hovers over the ocean or sea.  These high pressure cells move towards the poles in summer, pushing storms away from land. In the winter, the Jet Streams shift the cells back towards the equator, drawing stormy weather inland.

The long, dry summers of the Mediterranean Climate zones limit plant growth for much of the year, so the natural vegetation of such areas has adapted into evergreen trees such as Cypress and Oak and shrubs such as Bay Laurel and Sagebrush.  Trees with thick, leathery leaves and protective bark such as olive, walnut, citrus, cork oak and fig are also abundant, and as those early settlers in the Mediterranean Basin figured out – grapevines thrive here as well.

 

 

Klevener de Heiligenstein and the Alsace Eleven

5.10-Klevener-1441-ZvardonThe grape known as Klevener de Heiligenstein is an enigma. It is an allowed grape in the Alsace AOC, but can only be grown in certain places.  It has nothing to do with Klevner, as Pinot Blanc is often called in many places, including Alsace.  In Germany and Italy, Klevener de Heiligenstein is often called Traminer. However, Klevener de Heiligenstein should not be confused with Gewurztraminer, even though the two grapes appear identical while on the vine and they produce similar wines. Got that?

So, now that we are clear on what Klevener de Heiligenstein is NOT, let’s talk about what it is.

Klevener de Heiligenstein is a pink-skinned grape variety that is also known as Savagnin Rose or Traminer.  In Alsace, the grape is also called Rotedel or Edelrose. There are currently about 240 acres of Klevener de Heiligenstein planted in Alsace, where it is made into a concentrated wine of good acidity with a characteristic hint of bitterness on the finish.  While not overly aromatic, the wines are often described as similar to Gewurztraminer in terms of a slight spiciness and a rich texture.

It is known that the grape was originally brought to the town of Heiligenstein in 1742 by the mayor of the town, Erhard Wantz. It is believed that the cuttings Mayor Wantz Klevener 1742possessed came from vineyards planted near the Italian Alps in Lombardy.  Mayor Wantz was a big fan of the grape, and petitioned Le conseil des Echevins de Strasbourg for permission to plant the grape in the region. He won the right to plant his grapes, and soon the wines were well received and even earning higher prices than other wines of the region.

In 1971, the Klevener de Heiligenstein grape was approved for use in Alsace AOC wines.  However, it is the only grape in Alsace that has geographic restrictions placed on it. As such, it is only allowed to be used by specified vineyards in the village of Heiligenstein and four of its neighbors, including Bourgheim, Gertwiller, Goxwiller, and Obernain.  A grandfather clause allows specific vineyards outside of these regions to use the grapes in AOC wines until 2021; however, outside of the 5 approved villages, plantings or re-plantings are no longer allowed.

KlevenerAmpelographer Pierre Galet claims that Klevener de Heiligenstein is a pink-berried mutation of Savagnin that traveled to Alsace, Germany, and other parts of Central Europe.  But here’s where the story gets interesting…Savagnin Rose, aka Traminer, aka Klevener de Heiligenstein, apparently, somewhere along the way, went through a secondary mutation that became Gewurztraminer.  It makes sense, as Gewurz is often thought to be the musqué, or highly aromatic, version of Traminer.

The Alsace 11: The curiosity known as Klevener de Heiligenstein is often referred to as the “phantom” grape of Alsace.    The other 10 grapes of Alsace, as every serious wine student should know, are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Muscat, Chasselas, Auxerrois, and Chardonnay.  Chardonnay is also something of an outlier, as it may only be used in Crémant d’Alsace AOC – the sparkling wines of the region.

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