How America caused – and cured – a winemaking crisis


Arran 10 alternate
Among the plethora of pests that winemakers must contend against, none has been more devastating than a sap-sucking insect named “phylloxera.” This tiny aphid-like bug destroys vines by feeding off the roots, thereby choking off the supply of nutrients to the plant and leaving it susceptible to fungal infections.

Initially limited to the United States, the phylloxera menace was inadvertently introduced to Europe in the 1850s by Victorian English botanists returning home with American vine specimens. Phylloxera destroyed nearly 95 percent of the continent’s vineyards.

Eventually a solution to this veritable plague was found: Certain native species of American grapevines had already developed resistance to phylloxera. So horticulturalists figured out that they could graft their susceptible vines onto American roots to develop vineyards that were naturally resistant to the pest.

Thus began a painstaking but ultimately successful grafting and replanting program that saved European winemaking. While there are a few places that original pre-phylloxera vines still exist, the overwhelming majority of vineyards are a physical union of both the “old world” and “new world” winemaking regions.

A fine kosher example of outstanding winemaking to enjoy while we meditate on the interplay of man, vine, terroir and history is the enchanting Castel Rosé du Castel 2013 ($34, from Israel’s Domaine du Castel winery), a blend of merlot, malbec and cabernet franc that opens with strawberry and floral aromas leading into grapefruit, cherry, raspberry and strawberry flavors with tart citrus acidity for balance and a pleasing mineral infused finish. Expensive, but worth the splurge to enjoy on a warm summer evening.

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d revisit the single-malt Scotch whiskies of the Isle of Arran Distillery, one of a small group of still independent distilleries. Arran means “high place,” presumably because the island is geographically higher than the surrounding lands along the shores of the Firth of Clyde, off the west coast of Scotland between Ayrshire and Kintyre.

The Isle of Arran Distillery is the only distillery on the island, and was only founded in 1995. This island distillery is based in the village of Lochranza, and was established by Harold Currie, who was previously managing director of Chivas Regal and the House of Campbell (both internationally successful Scotch whisky blends).

For its first 12 years, until his retirement in 2007, the distillery was managed by Gordon Mitchell (who passed away in March 2013). He established Arran as a delicate, creamy, unpeated malt whisky, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes.

In order to generate early revenue and whisky geek buzz, the Isle of Arran Distillery began releasing whisky as early as 1998, when it was only just old enough to be legally sold as whisky.

Their first whisky that could be said to taste more or less “mature” was, however, their 2003 “Arran Non Chill Filtered” release. That same year they released their first finished or double-matured whisky – a Calvados finish, which sounds more interesting than it was (if our old notes are anything to go by).

After that, Arran quickly released a plethora of wine-barrel-finished whiskies. Such flash is meant to keep people interested in “new” whisky releases, and at times – we suspect – to disguise too-young whisky with an active European oak-cask overlay.

We, frankly, stopped paying attention around the time Mitchell retired in 2007. This was most assuredly our loss. Indeed, the days of too-young Isle of Arran whisky gussied up by European oak is likely behind the distillery. There are still plenty of wine finishes in its portfolio, but these are now better made and more consistently good.

The distillery has a little more age on it now, after all, and between on-hand stocks of mature whisky and over 15 years of production history and experience, the Isle of Arran whisky now brings something much more interesting and substantive to the party.

After Gordon Mitchell left, the distillery brought in James MacTaggart as distillery manager and master distiller. Under MacTaggart’s steady, experienced control, and with the help of his small but stellar whisky-production team, the Isle of Arran Distillery has consistently produced some exceptional, brilliant whiskies. The whiskies tend to be delicate, creamy, unpeated, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes.

All of Arran’s single-malt whiskies are non-chill-filtered and presented without any caramel coloring. Chill filtration is designed to improve the physical clarity and brightness of spirits by filtering out emulsified oils that can cause clouding, but that also contributes to character and flavor.

Like most single-malt lovers, we greatly prefer non-chill-filtered and un-caramel-coloring enhanced whisky – if only more producers followed such examples.

Here then is their standard- bearer whisky: Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($45; 46 percent ABV): this is a delightful, delicate yet lively whisky exhibiting rounded and full aromas of creme brulee, toffee, citrus fruit, pear, apple and something vaguely biscuit-like. These notes follow through on the palate, along with a honey and malty vanilla (semi) sweetness, and a mild spicy oak on the agreeably long finish. This is utterly pleasing, eminently quaffable whisky. L’Chaim!

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