Monthly Archives: December 2019

Ocean Beach brews

Kilowatt brewery, Ocean Beach, San Diego

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In the hip neighbourhood of Ocean Beach, where all the streets run down to the sea and are lined with lime and lemon trees, Kilowatt is one of several local breweries. To be precise, the bar in Ocean Beach is their tap room; the actual brewery is in nearby Kearny Mesa.

IMG_7092As I walk in, I am welcomed by loud metal music and a very friendly guy behind the bar, Mikey. Kilowatt may be a small-batch brewery, but their selection of beers is hugely impressive, including their alcohol levels! I’ve recently been a rather big fan of pale ales, India or American style. One thing I’ve noticed on my trip to California is that their pale ales tend to be a lot stronger than those back home in Europe. 7% and up is standard, and you get double and triple IPAs that go up to a whopping 11-12% ABV!

Kilowatt is a family undertaking: it was only five years ago that a brother and sister from Cleveland, Ohio and their spouses decided to make beer. What started out as a tiny garage project quickly grew into a successful business. Today they have two tasting rooms besides the brewery in Kearny Mesa. Mikey, my expert guide as I select from a long list of beers, had started out as the guy by the entrance checking people’s IDs. Now he’s behind the bar, and loves the social aspect of it. He has been converted from vodka-soda mixers to beer, but when I ask him if he’d like to make his own some day, he says he prefers life behind the bar. ‘Brewers tend to be a bit antisocial, whereas I love the interaction with people’, he says.

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I taste a flight of four that I hope will be representative of what this brewery, a Google favourite, does. The beers generally have several hops, up to five varieties. All these are listed on the ‘menu’ above the bar for the discerning drinker.

I start with a Cucumber Sour. Sours I’ve never come across before, and as Mikey explains, they’re essentially spoiled beer. When back in the olden days the monks were rolling all those barrels, and everything took a loooong time, things sometimes went pear-shaped and the beer got spoiled. The new trend is to consider these sour beers as a quirky alternative and not as waste to be poured down the drain. Their alcohol level tends to be low and they are often flavoured, and the Kilowatt sours, Mikey tells me, are much more user-friendly than some really extreme ones produced by other breweries.

My cucumber sour has very low alcohol, just over 3%, a distinctly cucumber nose and flavour, and a bit of salinity. I say cucumber but I’m actually wondering whether it’s more melon – have you ever noticed how similar the two taste? Delightful toasty grainy finish. This sour is definitely sour, as if someone had poured in the juice of a couple of lemons, without the citrusy flavours. But not at all bad, and because of the low alcohol it feels very refreshing!

IMG_7097The Kilowatt Pale is an APA of 5.4% alcohol. It’s got a classic style with tropical fruit and pretty intense hops. Very enjoyable, but not terribly unique, I’d say.

Then on to a hazy gold beer, Mikey’s favourite, the Hazezoose Hazy IPA. Alcohol 6.69%, unfiltered. Tastes bready, malty, is less intense on fruit and has a long, hoppy finish. Does it also have a vague flavour of wet kitchen cloth lurking in the background…?

My fourth is the 250 KWH IPA, with fairly high alcohol at 7.4%. Malty nose, palate feels creamier, heavier, richer than the others. More malt too, and less fruit, though tropical notes still come through both on nose and on palate. The warmer the beer gets, the more pronounced the coffee-malt character is. Spicy, hoppy finish.

Then as a bonus I am offered their Mexican Lager – and it’s lovely. Flavoursome blend of malt and corn. The malt brings toasty grainy flavours, the corn sweetness. Delicious!

And then a second bonus, for the road: the OB Bubble Dubbel, with Belgian yeast (OB = Ocean Beach). Well, the name is no coincidence: Bubble Dubbel starts out with a distinct flavour of bubble gum. That’s overtaken, however (and fortunately), by Belgian beer characteristics, that sweet luscious richness. Pretty dark for a Belgian beer, this one has a dark amber colour, coffee on the nose, and a long finish, where again the bubble gum appears, mixed with rich roasted flavours. Alcohol 8.4%.

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Blue Danube

A London tasting of Blaufränkisch wines from central Europe

Blaufränkisch in Austria, Lemberger in Germany, kékfrankos in Hungary, frankovka in Slovakia and Croatia… the grape variety that has so many different names and which can be produced in so many different styles is still little known in the UK. Its many faces include youthful and sometimes brutally acidic wines at one end of the spectrum, and velvety, mature, full-bodied meditative ones at the other. Luckily for the curious, the organizers of this walk-around tasting, Wines of Hungary, had also included two masterclasses in the programme, plus a fascinating open-table tasting of rosés made from the grape variety.

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The fact that Blaufränkisch is well known in Austria, Slovakia, or Hungary will not surprise anyone. But in this tasting I also came across a wine that was produced in southern Spain! The Malaga-based winemaker of German origin, Friedrich Schatz, has produced a biodynamic Lemberger (as Blaufränkisch is typically called in Germany) which, thanks to the Mediterranean influence, displays friendly, tamed acidity and ripe fruit. Some exhibitors came from Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and even Australia. Most of them have no representative in the UK as yet, and the main rationale for the tasting was to draw the attention of the market to these wines.

Since Blaufränkisch is the main component of the bikavér wines produced in Eger and Szekszárd in Hungary, what could have been more appropriate than a masterclass comparing different styles of Bikavér? We tasted six wines, of which I particularly liked the Bodri Bikavér Faluhely Selection (2016) from Szekszárd, the Superior Bikavér (2017) of Ferenc Tóth from Eger, and another Eger wine, the Nagy-Eged-Hegy Grand Superior of St Andrea.

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Bikavér, or ‘bull’s blood’, is not unknown in the UK market. Its somewhat dodgy history goes back a few decades, when British off-licences were inundated with the cheap, poorly made plonk following a boom of industrial-scale wine production in communist Hungary. Its bad reputation must be overwritten and a new one established, the representatives of both Bikavér regions stated. An important step in this process is avoiding the use of the name ‘bull’s blood’ on the British market, this term carrying such negative connotations for the more mature generations.

csm_blaufraenkisch_02_3a5a50546aBlaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety, has enormous acidity, and is prone to overproduction. All these explain why great care and attention are needed both in the vineyard and in the winery if one is to produce a high-quality wine. The powerful colour and tannins of the grape are some positive features, which also contribute to the ageing potential of the wines. At the Danube tasting there were several wines where I felt that the acidity has not been harmoniously integrated into the overall personality of the wines; the unruly, sometimes overwhelming acidity can easily oppress all other characteristics. At other times it was the overuse of oak that created an imbalance. All in all, my impression was that it is not easy to produce an outstanding wine from Blaufränkisch grapes. At the same time I was delighted to see the large number of well-made wines. When I asked Elizabeth Gabay MW, an expert of central European wines, about this somewhat uneven playing field, she explained that in past decades Blaufränkisch was commonly used as a workhorse variety, producing lots of rustic, unsophisticated, overly acidic wines. It is this past inheritance that needs to be superseded by contemporary winemakers – and many seem to have succeeded in this.

Egri_Bikavér_Superior_2015All the wines I tasted on the stand of the Bodri winery of Szekszárd, for example, had a lot of structure and concentration. One reason for this, as I found out, was that they always leave a few bunches to ripen right until the end of the harvest. These then arrive at the winery with very high sugar levels and lend body and density to the wine. Another common feature of these wines is a spicy flavour reminiscent of cloves and Christmas cakes, which, apparently, is due to the spicy character of the Hungarian oak barrels used at the winery.

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I was equally impressed by the Garam wines of Frigyes Bott. These beautiful wines from 2018, as young as they may have been, already showed a lot of harmony and softness, in contrast to the sometimes rough tannins found elsewhere.

As a late-ripening, high-acidity grape, Blaufränkisch is an ideal candidate for the production of rosé wines. Elizabeth Gabay had put together an exciting flight of around twenty rosés, mainly from Hungary. Rosé has had a bit of a bad PR, though this may be changing today – nevertheless I believe that to produce a good rosé wine is one of the loveliest challenges for a winemaker. Creating a balance of ripe but very fresh fruit, lightness, and lively acidity is an art in itself. Blaufränkisch is particularly suited for this because even upon reaching full phenolic ripeness, the grape still contains an abundance of acidity. Fizzi Miska and Soproni Rosé by the Vincellér winery, Just Enjoy by Frigyes Bott, and Tagyon-hegy Rosé by the Martinus winery all have different personalities, but each of them is spot on.

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It is difficult to tell how successful Blaufränkisch wines will be in the UK. While many of the wines at the Blue of the Danube tasting were very competitively priced, these tended to be the less convincing examples. Those that were really interesting and well made may, I fear, prove too expensive for the British market – too expensive, that is, for consumers who will have never heard of either the wine regions or the grape variety in question. As a niche wine for discerning drinkers, though, Blaufränkisch could certainly hold an attraction.

 

Wild Wines

RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019

About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.

Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.

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What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.

RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.

Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.

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For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.