Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why You're Wrong (and I'm right) About Sweet Wine

So you don’t like sweet wine. Fair enough I don’t like sweet pie. Don’t worry I realize that sweet pie is a broad category encompassing many different styles and levels of quality. Sweet pie just disgusts me! Serve me sheppard’s, server me chicken pot but if you ever serve me apple I will leave your dinner party both disgusted and offended.

I suppose my hatred of sweet pie developed when I was about 17. I remember the night well. Up until that night, other than a few stolen nibbles here and there, I had never truly had pie. I used to see my parents serving pie to the guest at the dinner table, but as a child we always had to make due with hotdogs and hamburgers: pie was the forbidden fruit. At 17 everything changed. My friend, the son of an apple farmer, found a stash of pies in the cellar. They weren’t especially high quality pies; they were packaged and meant to be shipped to grocery stores around the country. We figured a few missing pies could be blamed to the rats that inhabited the cellar.

Ewwwww!
At first the taste was intensely sweet and pleasing. So easy to eat, and the high, oh what a high! All that sugar packed into juicy goodness with a light but oh so pleasing crust. It started with one piece and then another. The pie just tasted so good, we got carried away, we started playing eating games. After about a pie and a half each things start to get a little hazy, we may have taken it too far.

John was the first to go. As he shoveled that last piece of pie in his mouth, I could tell something was wrong, he went pale and then burst forth all over the floor. The next morning was hell, sugar should not be consumed in the volume it was the night earlier. The headache and the queasiness alone were enough to swear off pie for the rest of my life. But of course no one tries pie but once, and most of us learn to develop a healthy relationship with pie (assuming that is even possible).

My next encounter with pie was when I was finally invited to the grown-ups table at one of the family gatherings. My cousin, a little older than I, had a full helping of chicken potpie on his plate. As the pie was being served some of the other adults convinced my parents that I was old enough to have some pie. It was like nothing I had ever had before, the flavours were rich and complex, I didn’t vomit once and the next morning no headache or queasiness! It was at that point that I realized I love pie, I could eat savoury pie every night, but you will never ever catch me eating a sweet pie!

Alright you caught me I’m not talking about pie. From listening to my parents and other people of their generation talk I have reconstructed this story from the zeitgeist of the time. Back in the 60’s, 70’s and probably 80’s the market was awash with terrible sweet wine. Blue Nun, Baby Duck and Mateus are a few delicious (sarcasm) vestiges we have left of days gone by. Somewhere between the 80’s and the 00’s sweet wine became unfashionable and it did so with good reason. The swill that was produced for North America during the drinking days of the Baby Boomers was designed to appeal to the palates of the first soda pop generation.

Sweet wine got a bad rap. While there were still plenty of delectably delicious sweet wines being produced by some awesome Aryans these were the few not the many. The market was flooded with easy quaffing sweet German, and most proudly Canadian,* wine. The wine that gave all sweet wine a bad name was simple, cheap and probably what lead to your first, or your parents’ first hangover. That hangover seems to have lasted at least a couple generations.

Apparently this is a hangover?...  Wikipedia claims so, it must be true!.
I recently had the pleasure of introducing my parents and some of their siblings to GOOD sweet wine. There was a dinner party afoot and my parents were to bring some wine. I thought intently about devious schemes for the upcoming dinner party knowing the crowd would not be and easy one to please. All of them had sworn of sweet wine in general: sweet white in particular. Being a man who likes a good challenge I couldn’t simply choose to spring a Port on the crowd, it’s too red, they all like red! The wine I was after was Sauternes: the D-Day of sweet wines. Not only is it sweet and white but the grapes are rotten before being fermented… and I guarantee it will obliterate your sweet white prejudices! (You may however be less fond of the price.)

Being ever short of cash, I accompanied my parents on their wine-buying mission with my nefarious plan in mind. They bought several reds the shop owner had suggested, and one white (blasphemous) because one person attending the night’s dinner party liked white. Just as the sale was about to go through I asked the very knowledgeable shop owner (If you’re ever in Calgary check out Metrovino) if he could recommend a nice entry level (entry level because I couldn’t afford to pay and I didn’t want to get too extravagant on my parents dime) Sauternes. After the sale I convinced my parents to get some blue cheese to go with the Sauternes, a classic pairing, and away we went.

Well wouldn’t you know it, all those who had denounced sweet wine in the past had a change of mind. This was not a dinner party attend by a group of people who started drinking wine yesterday. This was a group who had gone their whole adult lives, 30 years or more, swearing that they hate sweet wine while extolling the virtues of dry red. The Sauternes had its work cut out for it; luckily it had hundreds of years of awesomeness to bring to the table. (Chateau d’Yquem anyone? Not that I’ve actually tried it but if you are rich enough and enthusiastic enough please send a cheque!)

Sauternes and what may or may not be blue cheese
The biggest surprise was the main detractor of the group, the man who swore he hated white wine, hated sweet wine, and hated blue cheese turned out to be the one who like all three of them the most. While I was most pleased that everyone was willing to give good sweet wine a chance it bothers me that were it not for the push of a semi-educated wine lover such as myself they all may have gone the next 30+ years continuing to believe that sweet white is to wine as bagel bites are to pizza. And should you be a cynic waiting to respond “but Josh you were there watching them, of course they were going to say they liked it!” I respond no one pours themselves a second glass of booze they don’t like unless they are A) an alcoholic or B) enjoy what they are drinking, and I can assure you none of these people are alcoholics the are much closer to the teetotalsome bunch.

To those of you that have sworn off sweet wine, sweet white in particular I ask that you give it another chance. Unless you hate sugar you cannot truly say you hate sweet wine (unless, I suppose, you hate wine in which case you should have stopped reading some time ago). To say you hate sweet wine is akin to claiming you hate sweet pie. Just as not all pies are created equally not all wines are created equally. If you like cake you like sugar if you like sugar you like sweet things if you like sweet things and you like wine you like sweet wine: you just might not have found the sweet wine for you!

I’m not going to leave you bereft of suggestions for sweet wine you should try. But I will caution good sweet wine costs good sweet cash. The reason why cheap sweet wine is such crap is because it cost next to nothing to dump sugar into wine, this is not how it is done with good sweet wine. I feel I have already taken enough of your time trying to convince you to try sweet wine; I will leave the discussion about the difference of production between good sweet wine and swill sweet wine for another day. You can look forward to that article should you heed my advice on sweet wine…

Recommended Sweet whites:

Sauternes – really any Sauternes is going to be pretty good, it’s a sub region of Bordeaux and only produces sweet nobly rotten white wine. Typically a Sauternes will come in a half bottle (375 ml) and usually starts around $20.

German Riesling – Okay this is not actually a catchall, it won’t necessarily be sweet unless you look for the words Kabinett, Spatlese, or Auslese(there are others too but you better have a fat wallet to afford them). You also want to be looking for an Alcohol content of 10% or less because in theory all of these categories can be dry though they rarely are. One of my favourites is:
Leitz – Spatlese, 2007 ~ $33: this one blew my mind!

Tokaji – This is delectable wine from Hungary it’s going to taste awesome and it’s going to cost you. It will most likely come in a 500 ml bottle.

Ice Wine – A Canadian specialty. Other than the Japanese a lot of people don’t give it enough of a chance. Unfortunately it is insanely expensive… insanely. It is really good though, just don’t pour yourself a full glass it’s also insanely sweet.

Cave Spring Riesling 2008 – This is the Ontarian wine that I’ve been drinking whilst writing. Although not technically sweet, probably more off-dry, most people would consider this sweet. This definitely ranks amongst the best Canadian wines I have tried to date and the price is surprisingly good at $20. This wine could easily stack up against a German Riesling of the equivalent price. Well done Cave Spring, well done!

*(I am not recommending the following as a good sweet wine, this is simply a footnote from above.) Baby Duck: a proud Canadian tradition! Not only is this wine fully Canadian but as best I can figure, after much research, the grapes that it comes from are indigenous to our home and native land. While most wines are made from Vitis Vinifera grapes, which are native to the Middle East and Europe, Baby Duck seems to contain at least a portion (probably the lions share portion) of Vitis Something Canadian. I had a hard time trying to find out which grapes are actually used in production, if you know or care to argue with me leave a comment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pineapple Express! An Adventure to Hawaii with Spearhead Brewery

Spearhead Brewery is a new operation based out of Toronto. They represent a cool business case in the beer industry because, believe it or not, they don't actually own their own brewery.

There are generally two ways to go about making beer without a brewery of your own. One, is to pay someone else to do it at their own brewery and to pick it up and sell it when the beer is done being made. You hand over a recipe (or get them to write one for you), fork over some cash and there you have it. This is known as contract brewing. This happens all the time in the industry as brewers try to fill excess capacity to make money. If your equipment isn't being used right now to make your own beer then you could be making money brewing someone else's beer.

The second way this is done is quite similar. Guest brewing is pretty much the same thing as contract brewing, except you do all the tinkering in the other company's brewhouse yourself. This is for those who have the expertise to produce the beer themselves and don't want to put this delicate work into the hands of another. Guest brewing is often called contract brewing anyways although they aren't precisely the same thing.

A number of great beers are (or have been) brewed this way. Some notable examples are Denison's Weissbier many of Brooklyn Brewery products. This also happens all the time in big brewers through licensing agreements. This isn't necessarily good or bad for the quality of a beer. Brooklyn and Denison's are certainly excellent beers.

The Spearhead crew was clearly happy and excited after two years of planning, tweaking and hard work.  They were spread out across the bar in animated conversation with patrons. They looked happy. The patrons looked happy. Their glassware was evident across the bar and patio space of Gambrinus Bistro.

The debut beer on offer was their Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, a beer brewed with pineapple. Having read up on this in advance my curiosity was piqued. I had never had a pineapple beer before and it was certainly a bold direction to go in for a debut product. My glass arrived and I was not disappointed. Bold was indeed a good word for this beer.

Despite the pineapple addition, it was first and foremost a pale ale. This announced itself in the nose with a forceful air of pine and fresh seaside air. If you put a hop farm on a Hawaiian beach then you have the smell of this beer nailed. The orange colour of the beer took on a tropical kind of glow to it too.

The pineapple was very subtle and blended with the hoppy aromas nicely. It is worth noting that the juice is a late addition in the brewing process. This means that it is primarily being used for flavouring purposes. This is a lesson in fermentation and flavour. Fermentation changes the flavours of things in unpredictable ways. Not allowing an ingredient to undergo fermentation means that it will have flavouring effects more in line with the tastes we are accustomed to. Honey and maple syrup are good examples. Maple syrup tastes especially different once fermented out than it does when added late.

Tomas Schmidt and Martin Villeneuve, the brewer and CFO, were both gracious and passionate about the questions peppered at them by the patrons. There was a mix of beer geeks and people who came that day unaware of the launch. All were approached. Everyone seemed genuinely curious about the beer which is always a pleasure to see.

This was a solid beginning from a group that is clearly committed to hard work and trying new things. I wish them all the best in their Adventure, no matter where it might take them next.