Archive for May 18, 2016

A Quick Overview of Southern Iceland, Along with Some Cool Spirits and Beers

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Stepping off the plane and onto the tarmac, I was enveloped by the purest air that I had ever breathed. It was as if the constant stream of exhaust emitting from the multitude of commercial planes taking off and landing were fully contained in invisible bubbles.

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Iceland–that one word seems to convey a feeling of purity.  Inhospitable, but starkly beautiful, Iceland is a land littered with glacier-covered mountain tops, waterfalls, rivers, lakes,  geysers and thermal pools.

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The Secret Lagoon

The size of Kentucky or South Korea, Iceland is defined by its active volcanic systems that on one hand, provide cheap geothermal energy to its residents, But on the other hand, poses a very real threat to the lives of its roughly 334,000 inhabitants.  In fact, the historic volcanic eruption of 1783 was responsible for killing a fifth of Iceland’s population.

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Iceland seems to be a place where nature both brutally gives and takes. The romantic side of me conjures up images of Vikings, the original settlers of this inhospitable land located just outside the Arctic Circle. Independent,  fearless and individualistic, from a bygone era where forcefully seizing life, and in many instances, your future bride, was just how things were done.

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In some ways it is still possible to envision that time.  The people of Iceland today are the result of those initial settlers and the Icelandic language hasn’t evolved much since the ninth or tenth century when Iceland was first founded.

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So, you are probably wondering what this has to do with wine or spirits…or food, even?  I’m getting there.

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The clean purity of the waters mean that the fish are some of the best you will eat.  Anywhere.  Icelanders are rightfully proud of their pristine environment and glacier sourced water.  And as a result, they are able to leverage this asset in their beers, whiskies and liquor production, not to mention Icelandic foodstuffs.

In their quest for food independence, green houses along with geothermal technology are used to provide nutritious, pesticide and GMO free produce and spices for residents and export markets alike.  In fact, many of the distilleries are operated using only geothermal energy.  How is that for a zero carbon footprint? Bottom line, although you will pay a pretty penny for the privilege, you will eat some of the highest quality food obtainable anywhere in the world here in Iceland.

Case in point, my first meal in the country was at one of Reykjavek’s top restaurants, the Fridrik V. The five course tasting menu changes constantly, reflecting the availability of the freshest of ingredients.   Below are pictures without comment, after all, a picture says a thousand words.  Needless, to say, it was topnotch and a uniquely Icelandic experience.

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That brings me to the Scandinavian tradition of aquavits and other botanical infused liquors.  Here in Iceland, there are a few distillers producing interesting liquors using Icelandic botanicals or Icelandic fruit.  The most commonly available of such spirits seems to come from Foss Distillery, whose focus is in using birch sap along with adding birch twigs to their spirits for final maceration in the bottle.

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The first liquor I tasted was Foss’s Björk liqueur.  Made from distilled grain spirit infused with Icelandic birch and finished off with a touch of its native birch syrup with added sugar. Clocking in at 27.5% this liqueur is quite sweet.  It would make a great addition to a cocktail.

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Foss’s Birkir has nice viscosity, is nutty with just a whiff of cocoa powder alongside a woodiness imparted by the Birch twig left macerating in the bottle.  Finishing with just a perceptible amount of sweetness on the palate, this is delicious on the rocks or as part of a cocktail.

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Micro-distillery 64° Reykjavik Distillery has a line-up of interesting Aquavits and liquors.  One of their liquors is made with Crowberries, an Arctic berry. Their motto is to “use the very best seasonal ingredients; unspoiled and pure - steeped in Icelandic tradition – purify and distill those incredible flavours utilising renewable energy and crystal clear glacial water. Bottle them, and package beautifully.”

I have only been able to taste the Brennivin Akevitt or Aquavit.  Some light anise and caraway flavors, light pale lemon color.

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Flóki Young Malt comes from organic Icelandic barley grown in volcanic soil at the Artic circle.  This is young and a bit sharp, but interesting…

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I really like the Einstok Pale Ale, probably because it is light and crisp with some maltiness, but not too much.  This brewery blends a mix of American and European influences along with great Icelandic water to create this thirst quenching beer.  It is astonishing to know that until 1989, beer was illegal in Iceland!

For fun, I made a small video with some of the pictures and video I took when I was touring around Southern Iceland.  The dog in the video is Ozzy, the only Portuguese Water dog in Iceland.

Iceland is a very unique and beautiful place and definitely worth a visit!

Purefoy Arms: A Gastropub with a Spanish Twist

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Hungry and a bit lost driving in the Hampshire countryside, I was relieved to find a lone pub open for business and still serving lunch.

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The pub was warm and inviting, a fire burning in the big brick hearth, wooden country-looking tables and chairs mixed with more contemporary style furniture; the place had the casual elegant air of a bygone era.

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On the chalkboard near the bar,  I was astounded to see written the range of Lustau sherries on offer.   Sherry?!

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Not really in the mode of drinking too much as I had to drive, I was interested to see the wine list offering English Sparkling wine by the glass and an assortment of other mineral driven, food friendly wines by the glass.

It was then that I realized that the Purefoy Arms was no ordinary pub.

The establishment’s owners combine Spanish tapas concepts with British pub staples and all done to the highest of standards with the best of ingredients.   The menu changes all the time, but most items have a Spanish twist like their Candover pheasant served with red cabbage, morcilla & potato croquette and wild mushrooms.   Not surprising, their sister restaurant Pulpo Negro is, in fact, a Spanish Tapas bar, located in a town about 15-20 minutes away.

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I started off by ordering the Chorizo Scotch Egg, a pub favorite, but with the added dimension of Spanish Chorizo.  It came out piping hot, the chorizo flavors married well with the egg and breading, my only complaint being the sauce was a touch bland.

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The olives were some of the plumpest, sweetest and juiciest olives.   I ended up ordering two orders of this.

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The pea soup tasted as good as it looks.  It seemed like it was just cooked to order, as it had a fresh out-of-the garden taste and was pureed to perfection with a garnish of ham.

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The hamburger was well-done and satisfying, but given all the other great things on the menu, probably not the best or most interesting choice.

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The fish in the fish and chip dish was crisp and the fish nice and flakey.  The mushy peas were fresh.  All in all, a solid version of a pub classic.

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There are truly some interesting items on the menu that need more exploring, examples from their February menu including sparkling Albarino…And, rabbit and clam paella with serrano ham!   The desserts didn’t sound half bad, either and there is a chocolate room on premises for those with a sweet tooth.

Video from Elixrr’s Visit to Hattingley Valley Wines in Hampshire, England

World-Class Sparkling Wines Found at Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley Wines

Hattingley Valley Head Winemaker, Emma Rice

Hattingley Valley Head Winemaker, Emma Rice

Hattingley Valley Wines has a problem; they don’t have enough wine to satisfy all their customers. Established in 2008, its first harvest in 2010, Hampshire based Hattingley Valley has already developed an enviable reputation of producing outstanding English sparkling wine.

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Right out of the gate, two of their first releases garnered world-wide recognition, the first being their 2011 Kings Cuvee, which was awarded number one English Sparkler in Decanter Magazine, and then its 2011 Rose Sparkler which won Decanter Gold.

No fluke, the awards have kept on coming in. And now, just five years in, Hattingely Valley’s wines are available throughout the UK and in around ten export markets.

“We know that some of them are the best in the world for sparkling wine, simple as that,” said founder and owner, Simon Robinson, speaking about Hattingley Valley’s selection of sparklers.

Hattingley Valley Wines was the brainchild of owner and founder Simon Robinson and the result of his desire to diversify his existing commercial farm.

“I had been interested in wine, for many, many years, and English Sparkling Wine had been getting a reputation for good quality product. So, the key to this was finding the right people to help us,” said Robinson.

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Owner Simon Robinson Taking Part in Blending Trials

Enter winemaker Emma Rice, the next key figure in the Hattingley Valley wine story. After completing wine-making gigs in Australia, Tasmania and California, Rice came back to the UK to regroup and map out her next move abroad.

But, seeing the burgeoning, dynamic English wine industry unfold before her eyes and meeting Simon Robinson changed all that. Now, Head Winemaker at Hattingley Valley, Rice is an integral member of the Hattingley Valley team.

Rice caught the wine bug at 18 with her first taste of Krug’s 1979 vintage cuvee — somehow fitting given that her current wine-making focus is in making world-class, traditionally-styled sparkling wines.

Although, influenced by Bollinger and Krug, Rice hopes that customers recognize that Hattingley Valley’s English sparklers have a “unique style” all their own. What those who have tasted Hattingley Valley wines know, is that Rice has succeeded in making balanced wines that express the pure and elegant fruit unique to England.

20160212_080116Consisting of 22 hectares of vineyard, located on 6 different sites in Hampshire, Hattingley Valley also sources grapes from partner vineyards consisting of up to 60 different lots scattered across the country. There is no doubt these lots add to the complexity of Hattingley Valley’s wines.

And as might be expected, the estate mostly focuses on the traditional Champagne varietals of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with special emphasis on the early ripening Pinot Noir clone Pinot Noir Précoce or Frühburgunder, a key ingredient in Hattingley Valley’s award winning sparkling Rose.

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The estate currently features four sparklers in their line-up; a Classic Cuvee, Rose, Blanc de Blanc and their top of the line sparkler, the King’s Cuvee. Each cuvee has its own distinct style and place in the range offered at Hattingley.

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Rice explains, “for the Blanc de Blanc we’re looking for the very finest, purest, elegant Chardonnay of characters, then with the Rose we are very much looking for a really lovely balance between the Pinot fruit, acidity and then the sugar at dosage and a very, very delicate color,” continues Rice.

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“With the Classic Cuvee it’s very much more a rich style designed for earlier drinking, so there’ll be a higher proportion of the barrel fermented juice in that and it’ll be more of a balance between the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, designed to be released after 12-18 months on the lees,” says Rice.

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“Then we have our Kings Cuvee, 100% barrel fermented, it comes from our own vineyards and is completely dependent on the vintage for its style,” explains Rice.

Of course the English terroir plays a major role in the making of top notch sparkling wines. “We have a perfect climate here in some respects…The climate here creates grapes that are perfect for sparkling wine at this time,” declares Robinson.

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Much of England’s and Hattingley’s best vineyards are made up of Seaford Chalk soils similar to that found in Champagne. However, England’s growing season is cooler and longer than Champagne’s, with England’s season often ending three to five weeks later on average than in Champagne. This allows the grapes to grow slowly, developing complex flavors without the risk of losing precious acidity. As a result, the English terroir has the potential to create complex sparkling wines with significant aging potential.

Like Bollinger and Krug, winemaker Emma Rice is not afraid to use oak barrels in Hattingley Valley’s range of sparklers, musing that Hattingley Valley likely uses a higher proportion of oak than other English estates.

“One of our key signature wine-making techniques is the use of [old] oak barrels…Using barrels and having a lot of lees contact and relatively oxidative fermentation does help to soften the acidity.”

With the acids sometimes clocking in as high as 14 grams per liter in any given English wine vintage, learning to tame the high acidity inherent in English grapes is a top priority. However, when accomplished and ripe grape levels are achieved, there is a fresh minerality and a depth of fruit that sets English Sparkling apart from many of its cousins in Champagne, which can seem a tad flabby and lacking complexity by comparison.

“In Champagne we have a challenge with global warming,” says Champagne vineyard consultant Romain Henrion, adding “It’s too warm, so the malic acid burns very fast.” It is these acid levels that are responsible for giving some of the freshness and zippy acidity expected from the best traditionally made sparkling wines.

By contrast, England’s variable, maritime climate produces at times too much acidity and can have difficulty in obtaining the ripeness level needed for sparkling wine, despite the fact that sparkling wine is made best with “under-ripe grapes.”

“It’s more about temperature and the light… because when it’s cloudy there is no photosynthesis in the vineyards and when there is no photosynthesis there is no production of carbon matter,” explains Romain Henrion, highlighting the difficulty of obtaining grape ripeness in England.

It goes without saying that working in viticulture in the UK is a character builder.

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Vineyard Manager, Jim Bowerman

“We are on the extremity of one of the most northern regions there is growing high quality wine” said Hattingley’s vineyard Manager Jim Bowerman, adding “It’s definitely the place to be if you want challenging grape growing conditions,”

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“The biggest challenge we have in the UK is the climate…Site selection is key,” according to vineyard manager Jim Bowerman, adding “A lot of our viticulture is about maximizing the exposure of the leaf to the sunshine at every opportunity, and the bunches. We are looking for a perfect gain through the summer so we get that ripeness by October. “

The English wine industry is still young and there is no doubt the full capability of the terroir is still being explored. Nonetheless, the future for English viticulture seems bright. More acreage is going under vine all the time and new players are entering the market, most notably Champagne house Taitinger who recently announced its intention to invest in an English operation.

“I think English wine will grow substantially in the next 20-30 years and will be as available as Champagne,” said an upbeat Simon Robinson.

It will be interesting to see how the industry continue to develop. The best of English sparklers have shown they can already go toe-to-toe with some of the best in Champagne. In the meantime, there is no denying that players such as Hattingley Valley are producing some compelling sparkling wines that will please the most discerning of consumers.

“I just hope people enjoy the wines we create as much as we enjoy making them,” said Hattingly Valley founder Simon Robinson.

–Christine Warner

Also, check out the Video!