Sunday, November 29, 2009

Some Water, Some Wine...

So, I'm out for lunch with two friends. Table for three. A smart, upmarket Italian Restaurant in the CBD. I'm fond of this restaurant for many reasons, mainly for the consistently excellent execution of classic dishes, keeping them simple. I also love the place because it is not trying to be the next big thing – no deconstruction here, just great ingredients. I'm not let down. Lunch is excellent.

I'm a water drinker. Water, in my life, is omnipresent. I find comfort in feeling hydrated. So, I'm drinking water at lunch, still water, from a tall green bottle, imported from Europe. I agreed to do this when we are seated. I am aware that over the course of lunch, we drink three bottles of imported, still, water. I am surely responsible for two of them. I feel great. Hydrated! And then the bill…each bottle costs $9.90, totalling $29.70 for our Hydrogen/Oxygen combo needs. I am not surprised , yet I am disappointed. I am disappointed in the markup applied, disappointed in myself for not rolling with the filtered option, but mainly disappointed in our collective, blind, acceptance of what is surely the great swindle of our eating and drinking culture: imported water.

I am an advocate for the concept of terroir, the term used to describe specific characteristics of an organic product based on it's geography and surrounding climate. I have bored you with my take on terroir before – but here I am challenged by it's existence in my overpriced bottle of water, sitting quietly in the middle of the table. I usually use terroir as a reference point in my consumption of all things delicious…I just love knowing where things come from! But can water from Italy really represent itself? Could my palate, in all of it's confused wanderings, pick a Slovenian Mountain Spring from a Victorian Alp? I think not. Could anyone? The great Hugh Johnson? Michael Jackson of the whisky world? Our own Halliday? I know of a restaurant in Melbourne that once had on it's books, wait for it, a water sommelier, in charge of an 80+ water list. Post GFC, the position does not exist. I am confused. Are we getting completely stitched?

I know for sure that a certain water brand from Northern Italy (rhymes with man-whowantsapinot) has a sparkling water, that is widely distributed here by a local coffee company (rhymes with neo) that tastes salty. Quite salty. Annoyingly salty. Sodium is a listed ingredient in a typical water analyisis, but, that doesn't make it a desirable trait. I want to know what is. And then I want to know if it worth paying $9.90 for. Premium Australian Water from a spring bottled in glass? Probably cheaper, I hope.

I am not naïve to the differences in hard and soft water and ph levels that have consequences in farming, brewing, coffee making, etc. But imported water? Surley we have enough. Or maybe we don't. I haven't researched or dared to think of the environmental impact of shipping/ flying the millions of (glass) bottles that arrive on our shores each week. I know of one, from New Zealand, that is in a bottle that is really heavy, like, nearly a kilogram. Empty. So, I'm shitty about imported water. I think it's quite ridiculous and want to know why we can't do our own water, exclusively. Have the consecutive droughts hurt the springs? Do we have a secret pact with the EU that allows a wool for water trade scam? Is the Australian water factory closed? Am I taking crazy pills?

In other news, nearly every 2009 vintage white wine that I have seen, across many varieties from all over Australia, is looking really smart. That is a very general comment on a huge thing, but from what I can see, quality is up. Really up. There is some very good quality see-through booze out there! Buy it! Drink it with friends! Or on your own, in the shower.

Two for review:

Clonakilla is a wondrous thing. It is a winery. It feels like a humble, exclusive, Celtic influenced club for people who want to worship at the altar of Australia's best Northern Rhone inspired, Shiraz Viognier specialist, Tim Kirk. It is consistently the benchmark producer for Shiraz Viognier and Viognier in Australia, given it's access to high quality fruit and truly masterful winemaking. Kirk also produces, amongst other things, a nervy, high toned Riesling and an excellent Shiraz from another underrated Region in NSW, Hilltops. Clonakilla 2008 O'Riada Shiraz (Canberra, ACT, 14% alc/vol, $46 per bottle) is another, entirely new, beast. Warm red berry fruit, some really smoky notes and a nice look at the clean new oak on the nose. Still young and tight, over 2 days and nights this showed some lovely meaty characters and a good depth of flavour with lively acidity. Medium bodied, elegant and really worth the coin. Small producer doing great things. Super.

Picking favourites is hard. But here I go. Little Creatures Pale Ale (Fremantle, Western Australia, 5.2% alc/vol, $21 per six pack) is, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, hop for hop, top for top, the best beer in Australia. It makes you stop and look at the glass, as if something is, well, really good. It has a super bright entry, lovely long malt mouthfeel and most of all, resounding bitterness. There is an underlying respect for this beer in brewing circles based on it's (over) use of the cascade hop and the aforementioned bitterness. Over the last 5 years, this beer has been made more, distributed widely, consumed by all manner of people and yet still retains a consistently high level of quality, a rarity in these global times. The brewery, a gorgeous old warehouse perched on a dock, does not excel at any of it's other styles. But here, they made a beer which pioneered the American Pale Ale style in Australia. It is a benchmark, often copied, rarely matched. The overt hop use gives an amazing and strong aroma, it is clean but also packed with tropical fruit flavour and it is so, so good with single malt whisky. There may be technically better and more unique beers made in Australia. But value for money, Little Creatures Pale Ale is the best. Brilliant.


Friday, June 26, 2009

I'm a little teapot, short and...

Fancy a stout? I thought so. My heart beats fondly for stout. The name alone stirs up a bit of excitement, a little wonder, a hint of the expectant dark and brooding flavours to come. Strong…Brave…Proud…these are the words originally associated with the first "stouts" produced in Great Britain in the early 1700's. Indeed, with alcohol levels hovering around and above 7% alc/vol, it can be a formidable drink. I remember harbouring a great deal of reticence when I first flirted with stouts…I had a mad preconceived idea that it would send me a bit loopy, or possibly make my head explode. Only with some time, a lot of respect and numerous thoughtful pints do I now regard stout as one of the great drinks on the planet.

As most will know, a dark beer is dark because a portion of the barley used in making it has been roasted. Roasted malts are common in all sorts of ale production and stout is a wonderful extension of those roasty and toasty flavours. What continues to fascinate me in this saturated world of booze is that we can get such far reaching and different styles of drink(stout & lager, crisp white & bold red) using essentially the same ingredients each time. Assuming that quality ingredients are always used (not always true), all good beer is made using malt, water, hops and yeast. Similarly, wine is made from just grape juice and yeast, with only oak use and skin contact contributing other nuances into the drink.

This leaves us with, I think, only two other factors that contribute to the overall flavour and substance of your beer or wine; human intervention and terroir. Terroir (French, pron: tear-wah) is a topic very close to my heart, but not to be discussed heavily in this column, for it is quite subjective and I can get a bit carried away. Terroir, in my language, relates to the immeadiate geography and ecosystem that influences a certain place. This can include soil type, rainfall, local flora and fauna, prevailing winds, airborne wild yeasts, etc. The influence of terroir is so often the very thing sets some drinks apart from others. A hardcore example of terroir would be the whisky which featured in a previous barkeep review…only that spirit tastes like that and it does so because of it's remarkable geography…I swear you can taste the soil. Human intervention is quite obvious really, in that all of these things come together in a packaged product thanks to the team of men and women who create recipes, pick, roast, crush, ferment, stir, clean, bottle, label, etc. Winemakers and Brewers attain rock star status for their concoctions and rightly so. But surely it's the place and the produce that deserves the accolades? No? Maybe?

What's all this got to do with your small bottle of dark and moody strong beer? Currently more relevant in the wine industry, terroir and the human creative elements are vital and exciting. Stout (and beer, oh and most drinks) from all over the world tastes different because of its terroir. An old snoozer story from the heart of Dublin would have you believe that Guinness is so unique due to the water used coming from the mighty river Liffey, which cuts the fair city in half. Now that would be a tale in terroir, if it were true. All I know is that Guinness Draught consumed in Ireland tastes nothing like what the rest of the world drinks…it is far better…and that has to be because of the other elements; grain, temperatures, wild yeasts in the air maybe?

Increasingly we are seeing courageous shows of strength from small brewers and their beers, in particular their stouts; labelling the story of their brew, detailing malt regions and hop varieties used, reaching for flavours that are unique, strong and thoroughly enjoyable. I know that I do go on, but the future of good booze absolutely relies on us caring about where it all comes from. Local commercial stouts are generally great, they offer a lot of bang for your buck and are quite often a great option when faced with a fridge full of blandness. I drink stout a little slower, if only to enjoy the richness a little longer. There is good scope to match stout with a variety of foods, most chocolate with 70% cocoa or more will sit comfortably in the mid palate. Search the Scullery for a cheap cut/slow cooked/braised recipe…there is much joy in a rich stout sitting alongside such dishes. I love most whisky sitting next my stout also…a malt frenzy! The old fable of stout being fabulous for pregnant women is no doubt true. Yes, it's great with oysters. The addition of lemonade to make a "portogaff" freaks me out a bit, but people love it – maybe freshens the entry up a bit. But best of all, regular consumption of good quality stout makes you smarter, helps you run faster and makes your hair smell like cinnamon. Yes, I made that up. Go stout!

Three for review:

I am happy to report that our most famous local stout, Coopers Best Extra (Adelaide, SA, 6.3% alc/vol, $5.99 per 750mL bottle) is looking really good. Some purists will tell you that this beer has changed a lot (for the worse) in the last decade, but as it stands, this is a fine example of stout. A vibrant yellow/cream head gives way to a load of nutty and mushroomy flavours, really growing on you with each mouthful. A good deal of carbonation masks some of the smoothness that you might be looking for and chocolatey sweetness is not a real feature, but there is balance and the malt is robust and sound. Honest booze.A stout that will surely blow your mind is available for a very limited time on tap (at the best pub in Australia) and in the rarely found bottle. Moo Brew Russian Imperial Stout (Hobart, Tas, 8% alc/vol, $30 per 330mL bottle, $8 per 185mL butcher) is so good, it's ridiculous. The bottled version is rested for 9 months in used French oak barrels, whilst the draught version is kegged before this process. I had a butcher. It is serious booze. A creamy and quite subtle nose and entry, a wave of bitter chocolate and luscious coffee then arrives, all the while braced with a vodka like spine of gentle, controlled alcohol. The pure and silky malt flavours are sustained and almost elegant. Truly great.

Sinha Stout (Ceylon, Sri Lanka, 8% alc/vol, $18.99 per 4 pack, 330mL), the quintisessential summer stout, is a lean beast hails from Sri Lanka. One of the only true tropical stouts in the world, this is lovely stuff. It smells a little woody/stalky, but that blows off and the palate leads with a long, fine trail of savoury character, clean dark malt flavour, a little richness, all awash with firm bitterness. It is quite thirst quenching, yet retains its stout sensibility. Intriguing.

Special mention must go to Rogue Ale's Chocolate Stout (Oregon, USA, 6.2% alc/vol, $20 per 750mL bottle), which makes the popular Young's Double Chocolate look like a mid strength milk drink. They put chocolate in the boil. Crazy kids.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The jounery, the search...

I love the journey. I love the search. I love the sense of discovery and the series of emotions that accompany a truly unique drink.
A strange whisky-fuelled euphoric moment, a mysteriously brilliant cup poured from a pot of fabulous tea, the most refreshing beer you have ever swallowed…whatever it may be, the search for more understanding of what you drink, what it's made from, who makes it and where it comes from, is a noble one.

Do you care as much as your intense author? Do you like the anonymity of consuming liquids that are just available everywhere? At your local, colour coded-shop-that-has-all-the-brands-i-have-been-told-to-buy-at-let's-go-crazy-prices-because-no-one-else-could-sell-it? If you do, that's great, but I bet a longneck of stout that if you have navigated your way to this tiny little page that you care about what's in your glass…

In Australia, and all over the world, big booze companies (think Fosters, Lion Nathan, Coca-Cola) own, control and distribute a hell of a lot of brands of beer, wine, spirits, soft drinks, energy drinks, juices and, of course, water.
Advancements in technology and the reach of globalisation helped to fuel huge growth for these companies. Relentless advertising, super slick packaging and lower prices put these big company products at the front of people's minds and their bottle shop counters. Taxing week at work, no time to think, just want a drink, grab a bottle from the shop, smooth, slim bottle, "premium", "reserve", whatever, I'll take it. Oh look, if I buy sixty, I'll get an umbrella…
I fear the acceptance of mediocrity. An acceptance of "Aussie Lager" that is near flavourless. An acceptance of "Aussie Red" that has a Panadol-like aftertaste. An acceptance of "Imported Beer" that is absolutely nothing like the traditional drink of the malt fermenters of said region. An acceptance of heading down to a "Garden" and paying exorbitant prices for drinks that faintly resemble their better, tastier, more flavoursome and often more environmentally ethical cousins. There's a small brewery in Victoria who pay their staff a dollar for every day that they ride their bike or catch public transport to work. There is also a large brewery in Victoria who are widely advertised and distributed…all their beers taste nearly exactly the same and are much cheaper. I know where I will spend my money...
I think about the travellers. I have been one, in another country, trusting my own tastes, thinking that something is amazing…what if the Dutch guy at the "Garden" for one night only thought that his beer that is "Extra Dry" was an Australian flavour icon? He probably doesn't care! But I do!!!
The choice is sometimes taken out of the equation…I know what I will be faced with at the bar when I head to my "local" AFL stadium this winter. I also know that when a winemaker is also the grower, the farmer, the cellar-hand & the cleaner, the booze is always better. Always.
I'm not suggesting we boycott everything that is big and brand-built. These companies have their place in the market, but I think that there is so much more value for money and flavour driven products that we can find. What can you do? Spend a little more. Buy local, and I mean really local; not from brands that appear on television selling us their version of "local". Anyway, if they can afford to be on television, they could probably afford better ingredients.
Two For Review:
I was recently handed a cold bottle of Carlton Crown Lager (Melbourne, Vic, $17.99/six pack, 4.9% ABV), something that I would not ordinarily look to consume. With the most open mind that I could muster, I drank this beer as I would any. It has a sweetish entry, followed by some disturbing tang, carrying the aroma of a wet/old jumper. The mid palate is full of much of the same and there is no discernable malt character that one would expect from "Australia's Finest"…in fact this beer does not showcase any pleasant malt or hop flavours whatsoever. It finishes dryish, while the aromas and aftertaste left in your mouth are akin to the smell of a really old and dirty farmshed. The slogan is a lie and they should be made to change it. There is possibly no worse beer in Australia than this.
Islay is a small Scottish island that lies about 40km north of the Irish coastline. The inhabitants of Islay are very good at two things; bird watching and making, in my opinion, some of the most amazing Whisky that you will ever get your hands on. Whilst there are various styles produced by the eight distilleries on the island, my favourite is the heavier peated, medicinal-like salty beasts that offer so much value for money, providing your palate with the most excellent onslaught of flavour and intensity. Laphroaig Quarter Cask (Islay, Scotland, $109/700mL, 48% ABV) is a whisky for the ages. I am still on a journey with the whisky thing, but I know a unique (see article, above) piece of booze when I see it. It smells of mandarin and toffee (to me!) and threatens to flatten the nasal passages with it's fireplace warmth. Mouth filling smoke and malt are the hallmarks of the palate, there is also some sweetness and an almost carrot like vegetal finish. Sheer power, with finesse and length. Every time I drink it, I see more. Truly great.
Coming soon: A trilogy on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also, a good hard look at Stout.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What The Barkeep Loves...

I love wine, I love beer. I love whisky, whiskey and other weird and wonderful concoctions that are usually fermented, distilled, or fortified. I am honoured to be your Barkeep at the Scullery Bar, an extension of the fabulous and fearless Scullery.

I love Riesling. Of all the wondrous grape varieties and their blends/co-ferments, I think Riesling delivers flavour and versatility to the glass more often than not. For so many years it was merely the juice of a cask, condemned to the barbeque table with plastic cups. On the comeback and very good value in most bottle shop fridges, it can be dry or off dry or sweet, lean or full, perfumed or herbal, with varying degrees of minerality. Riesling is best consumed fresh from the current vintage, but with the advent of the Stelvin closure can be cellared confidently. Aged Riesling hits a muted "lull" after about 3 – 4 years, developing then into sometimes amazing wines; deep, rich and delicious things of patience. I eat a lot of aromatic Thai & Vietnamese dishes and Riesling is the perfect accompaniment. My rule of thumb is the more chilli heat, the sweeter the wine should be. Dry Riesling hovers around 1 – 8 grams(of residual sugar per litre of wine), whilst the 20 – 40 gram mark will be the at the sweeter end of the spectrum. Don't be scared of these wines though, the German's pioneered the sweeter stuff…when they have enough balancing natural acid, they can be remarkable and tend to be lower in alcohol(around 11°). There are quite a lot of modern Australian examples of this style and the smarter producers are labelling their Riesling's with residual sugar levels clearly. When confronted with a wall of white wine that looks lifeless and boring, buy Riesling.

Two For Review:

The first wine to render me speechless this year was a mouthful of Frogmore Creek 2007 Riesling(Coal River Valley, Tas, $24). Kindly poured to me by a publican who trusted James Haliday's rave reviews of this wine so much as to order a couple of dozen direct from the winery, it was, quite simply, profound. Surely sold out by now, it had a flavour profile that went from green apple to mandarin to lime juice and back again(9gRS/L). Lovely acid. Great Length. Stunning.

Mesh 2008 Riesling(Eden Valley, SA, $28) is an example of a wine that nearly sells itself, given the profile of it's makers. Ultra dry(1gRS/L), I just don't love this vintage like I have some others. Lovely and fresh, very structured and quite complex, it just seems to be all lemon & lime with not much aromatic appeal. And a faint bitter note to finish. Annoying.

Thanks for dropping by the Scullery Bar. See you soon.