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Olive oil, spirits, and wine...oh my!

It's been a hot minute since my last post, so I'll just spend some time catching up with my exploits in the world of food, wine, and spirits. My last post was about agave spirits, and I have been working hard to support this industry. From Blancos to Añejos and specialty mezcals, I've enjoyed some old friends and discovered new ones. In terms of cuisine, I spent most of the summer learning about and cooking food from the Middle East, and in particular Palestine. Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley's Falastin: A Cookbook has taken on a central role in my culinary repertoire. While there are so many wonderful recipes to choose from a few of my favorites are hummus with fried eggplant, chopped Palestinian salad, and Palestine's national dish Chicken Musakhan. I've also recently bought Heifa Odeh's new cookbook Dine in Palestine. She is the creator of Fufu's Kitchen #fufuinthekitchen, so congrats to her on her new book. I can't wait to start cooking with her recipes.

Learning to make pita bread was a must and discovering Palestinian Olive Oil was a revelation. If you have an appreciation for wine, it is hard not to become enamored with olive oil. Many winemakers in Italy also have olive groves on their properties, so wine and olive oil definitely go hand in hand. Much like the grapevine, olive trees are not instantly productive--it takes years before a viable harvest can be collected. And just likes grapes, there are many different subspecies of olive oil that provide nuances in flavor. Palestine has some of the oldest olive trees in the world, and the perfect terroir for olive oil production. It is also a way of life in Palestine--it is used in almost every recipe and is a major source of income for many. Unfortunately, it is under constant threat due to Israeli settlement expansions and the continued occupation of the West Bank. If you want to try Palestinian olive oil, and contribute to a good cause at the same time, you can do what I did and purchase a half-case of olive oil from Zatoun (arabic for olive tree) at zatoun.com. A half-case is $150 and a full-case is $275. If you're accustomed to supermarket olive oil, the price might seem high per bottle, but a part of the proceeds goes to replanting olive trees that have been torn up by settlers and to youth programs as well. You also will be surprised by the quality and not want to buy supermarket olive oil ever again. With subtle notes of grass and lemon on the nose, it starts off buttery and smooth on the palate with a peppery and herbal bite on the finish.

Palestine is also home to vineyards and breweries. The country's first brewery Taybeh was founded in 1994 by Nadim Khoury, who flew to Tunisia to seek permission to open the brewery from none other than Yasser Arafat himself. You can read the full news article here. They have recently expanded into winemaking. Grapes from Palestine are not only used in wine production, but in the production of arak, the Middle East's anise-flavored brandy. So far I have not been able to find beer or wine from Palestine, but I have purchased Golden Arak Ramallah. It's 50abv, but the traditional way to drink it is 1/3 arak to 2/3 water, so it's a nice sipper to accompany your meal.

While the flavors of Palestine (and the Middle East in general) might seem foreign at first, there are many similarities to other Mediterranean cuisines that make pairing Middle Eastern food with wine rather easy. Za'atar, the arabic word for a family of herbs including thyme and oregano and also the name for a spice mixture based on these herbs, and sumac are two major ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking that might jolt our palate at first taste. But za'atar is rather similar to southern France's herbs de Provence and sumac has a very bright lemony flavor--ingredients with which we don't have any trouble pairing wine. I've found that unless you are eating roast lamb or kebabs, light reds tend to work well across the board with this cuisine. Beaujolais, Bourgogne Rouge, or a village level Côtes du Rhône are all excellent candidates. With lemony za'atar chicken go for a crisp white wine to compliment the flavors or a smooth oaked chardonnay for contrast--and bubbly works perfectly as well. For something a little closer to home, you can't go wrong with Lebanese wine. Because of the history of French colonization, many wines made in Lebanon use traditional varieties from the South of France, such as Syrah, Cinsault, and Carignan. While Cinsault and Carignan are considered "lesser" varieties in France, they really come into their own in Lebanon to make some age-worthy wines. Chateau Musar (see my post Wines from the "Ancient" World) makes its flagship red blend from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan. For my birthday this July, we went to Saj, a Lebanese restaurant in New Orleans. It was a bring your own bottle restaurant, so I brought along Chateau Musar 2016. It has aromas of earth, charred wood, black currant, licorice, and (dare I say it) za'atar. These aromas continue on the palate with an addition of leather, black cherry, and black pepper. Beautiful in its youth, this is a wine that will definitely age well. I just bought another bottle, and I'm going to try and let it rest as long as my self-control allows. Other bottles I would recommend from Lebanon are Chateau Kefraya Les Bretèches and Chateau Ksara 2017. Arak is also popular in Lebanon: Arak Razzouk is a popular brand. While the Arak Ramallah from Palestine has a subtle aniseed flavor, the Arak Razzouk has a much more pronounced black licorice flavor.

It's also Hispanic Heritage Month, and one way to support the efforts and contributions of Hispanic people in the US is through food and wine. As I said, tequila and mezcal have been staples in my liquor cabinet as of late. Mezcal in particular is a spirit for wine lovers. From the different varieties of agave and their sensitivity to terroir to the traditional production methods used to make these mezcales artesanales, they offer much more complexity and nuance than your typical spirit. I've recently discovered the producer Montelobos, and I have tried their Mezcal Espadin Joven and Mezcal Tobalá Joven. The former is produced from Espadin agave from Oaxaca and the latter from Tobalá agave from the state of Puebla. Tobalá takes 12-15 years to mature and can only be grown from seed, producing very small pinas (agave hearts). Like old vines from a Premier or Grand Cru in Burgundy which produce small clusters of richly flavored berries, the results for Tobalá mezcal are stunning, with the price to boot--you're not going to find a Tobalá under $100 a bottle. If you're a mezcal enthusiast, this won't deter you--I literally froze in awe as I tried to decipher the aromas and flavors the first time I tried the Montelobos Mezcal Tobalá. It is a mixture of fresh and baked fruit with a backbone of savory notes, reminiscent of parmesan rind and petrol. If you're still skeptical, you can get the Espadin for $40. Also a superb mezcal, it has notes of citrus fruit, smoke, and wet grass.

Mexico also produces wine, particularly in the state of Baja, California, but I have yet to find any wine from Mexico available. The United States gained a third of its territory after the Mexican-American War, including California, Texas, and New Mexico. Many Mexicans decided to stay even after the acquisition, and they continue to make an impact in the wine industries of these states to this day. So technically any glass of your favorite Californian wine would do, especially if you do a little research and find a winery run by a Mexican-American. In fact, the Mexican American Vitner's Association website is a great place to find one. If you want to explore other Hispanic countries to celebrate, Malbec is Argentina's national drink. Alamos, Las Terrazas, and Catena are ready available brands that offer exceptional price to quality ratios. Pisco is a clear brandy made in Peru and Chile (the later also home to some excellent wines such as those made from the grape Carménère). If you're a rum drinker there is also a lot to explore. Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic all produce some top-notch rums. Pour yourself some Flor de Caña 7 year from Nicaragua and light up a cigar from Nicaragua as well and enjoy! Grander Rum highlights various Panamanian terroirs, producing rums only from small batches and single barrels. I've tried the 8 and 12 year small batch rums, both of which are filled with tropical fruit flavors and notes of hogo (that funky flavor common in Jamaican rums, from the French haut goût). Brugal 1888 is double-aged in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels and is a wonderful after-dinner drink with it's notes of toffee, chocolate, leather, dried fruits and brown sugar.

I had the pleasure of hosting a virtual wine tasting this past Saturday for some friends back in Madison, Wisconsin. I elected for an overview of some of the main red wine regions of the world and their respective grape varietals, choosing four "Old World" wines and four "New World" wines. I'll list the wines here if you want to conduct a little exploration of your own:

  1. Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza

  2. Antinori Peppoli Chianti Classico

  3. Edouard Delaunay Septembre Bourgogne Rouge

  4. E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rouge

  5. Catena Malbec Mendoza Argentina

  6. Mount Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet

  7. 19 Crimes Shiraz

  8. Barista Pinotage

With this list, I obviously had to leave out some very deserving countries and regions, but I managed to hit Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, California, Australia, and South Africa. Out of three powerhouse red-wine producing regions of France (Bordeaux, Bourgogne, and the Rhone), I chose to leave out Bordeaux not as a slight to the region, but simply because of my predilection for Syrah and current Bourgogne obsession. With a couple of exceptions (notably the Mount Veeder Cab), the wines run in the $10-20 range, so you can taste around the world for around $170 with this list depending on local prices. The first four wine regions and styles are a must have in your cellar (or leftover wine box or fridge or wherever you store your wine) for everyday consumption. At the very least one of the styles. Why? Because they are so food friendly. They also are not the top wines of the regions so you don't have to put much thought into whether or not the occasion is special enough to warrant popping the cork. I have not tried the Delaunay Bourgogne, so I cannot vouch for its quality, but Marques de Caceres, Antinori, and Guigal are all excellent producers with a good pedigree of quality wine production--in particular Antinori, who's family has been making wine for 26 generations.

While I won't say that every 19 Crimes variety is a success, they know how to produce a crowd-pleasing Shiraz. It's certainly New-World in style with big jammy fruit notes, but some spice and tobacco notes keep the wine reigned in. And for the price, you really can't complain. You're getting what you pay for, if not more. If you've never heard of Pinotage, it's a crossing between Pinot Noir and Cinsault created in South Africa. Barista is not a shy wine, with big fruit flavors and lots of coffee as well. This is a very popular style of Pinotage, made using heavily toasted oak staves. For those wanting a little more structure and restraint in their red wine, the Mount Veeder Cabernet is a great selection. The current release is the 2018 vintage, which I have lying in my cellar. I tried the 2017 vintage last year, so I had to rely on my virtual learners for their impressions of the current release. The consensus was that it was a very good wine. Certainly drinkable now, the 2018 will get much better with age however, as 2018 was the best Napa harvest in the 2010s. See Wine Spectator's current issue to learn more about Napa Cabernet. I particularly liked their article on the Mountain AVA's in Napa Valley. Because of very poor volcanic soil and other excellent qualities of terroir, these mountainous regions produce wines with excellent structure and ageability. This, combined with the fact that they are in general more difficult to farm and harvest, leads to higher prices. That being said, I ran into a Spring Mountain District Cabernet at Sam's Club for $16. It's Sam's club's private label, Member's Mark, which much like Costco's private label brands is the source of much debate in terms of quality. It seems to have the trappings of a mountain Cabernet, without the actual complexity and structure. It has fairly intense aromas of vanilla, cherry, and raspberry, with notes of fennel, cinnamon, and coffee. It is balanced and certainly not a fruit bomb. It is just lacking the complexity and length expected from mountain Cabernet. Because of the vagaries of California wine law only 85% of the wine has to be made from Cabernet grown in the Spring Mountain District, so I'm guessing that 15% is some other grapes from more economical regions in Napa. Otherwise, I'm not sure how they can get away with a $16 price-tag. Regardless, it is a nice intro to the idea of mountain Cabernet without having to break the bank.

On a more personal note, I have decided to wait to pursue the WSET Level 4 for the moment. Wine and spirits cost money, as does Level 4, and money requires work. So I've decided to become an assistant teacher at my alma mater high school in the hopes of gaining my license next year to be a full time teacher. With built in holidays and Summers off, I'm hoping to save up enough money to continue with my wine education in the next year or two. Also, baby number four is due in December...another girl. We can't wait to meet Teresa Rose! My wife and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary in September and her birthday recently as well, so we have had plenty of opportunities for good food and wine. She wanted sushi so I had to go out and buy a nice crisp Riesling to pair. Darn...the things you do for love.


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