Among our favorite varietals for Thanksgiving is pinot noir. It is a notoriously finicky grape that can be difficult to grow and challenging to vinify, but it’s also responsible for some of the world’s greatest wines. It prefers cooler growing conditions and has been planted nearly everywhere in the world with variable success. Except, of course, in France’s Burgundy region where the resulting wines can become ethereal and profoundly complex.
Pinot noir is a medium-to-lighter-bodied wine that expresses a broad range of aromas and flavors, depending on its growing conditions and the skills of the winemaker. Its multifaceted, fruit-driven nature also makes pinot noir a very food friendly wine that complements a wide range of fare.
For this year’s holiday celebrations consider opening the Tzuba Pinot Noir 2010. Beginning with scents of red and black berries, it has layers of red cherry and raspberry flavors that mingle nicely with earth, smoke and a minerality appreciated best in the long finish. Created from estate grown grapes in the Judean Hills, it is one of the finest Israeli pinot noirs and an excellent choice to match diverse dishes.
Kibbutz Tzuba is home to the thoroughly modern Tzuba Estate Winery, located 700 meters above sea level and just one kilometer from the ruins of the Crusader-era Belmont castle that overlooks the property. Originally the kibbutz only grew grapes, preferring to sell them to local wineries, including Domaine du Castel. The winery was established in 2000 and released its first vintage of 30,000 bottles in 2005. While it still sells most of its grapes to several other Judean Hills wineries, Tzuba has been slowly expanding its production since 2007 under the supervision of winemaker Paul Dobb, an ex-pat South African who was also responsible for planting the original grapevines in 1996. Tzuba releases its top-tier reserve Metsuda (“fortress”) wines when conditions permit, while its other wines are found under the Tel Tzuba label. The nearly 150 acres of vineyards also include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but also some more exotic (for Israel) varietals such as sangiovese, grenache and mourvedre.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d revisit the whiskies of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS; the American branch is simply the “Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America” or SMWSA.com). The annual “Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza” was hosted by the SMWSA here in D.C. last week. Before that, we had an opportunity to sit with the charming, knowledgeable, unassuming, enthusiastic and seemingly indefatigable Ms. Georgina (“Georgie”) Bell, the SMWS’s global ambassador.
Bell’s love affair with whisky began during her university days, at Edinburgh University by day, working in Edinburgh’s bar and nightclub trade by night. She also has a diploma in distillation from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, which is, strictly speaking, not necessary in her roles as global whisky promoter for the society — but it sure helps.
As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the SMWS and the 20th anniversary of the SMWSA, Bell is traveling the globe, visiting SMWS branches, talking to consumers, whisky enthusiasts, assorted journalists and whisky-geek flotsam and jetsam like us. She clearly knows her clientele and so came equipped not merely with expert knowledge and witty repartee but also, far more importantly, with some excellent bottles of premium, single-cask single malt whisky. Obviously she had our undivided attention with the first gurgle of whisky from bottle to glass.
Founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1983 by Philip “Pip” Hills, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is now an international membership organization (more than 26,000 members and branches in 19 countries) that bottles and sells single-cask, single-malt whisky, free of dilution, artificial coloring, and chill-filtration. The society purchases individual casks of whisky from more than 120 malt whisky distilleries, simply bottles them without any manipulation or artifice, and then retails each directly to its members. They essentially just tap the barrel directly into bottles.
Each cask will render anywhere from 100 to 600 bottles, depending upon size, age and the whisky’s maturation conditions. So each bottle is not only naturally limited, but is essentially a pure if rarefied expression from the parent distillery and the quality of the cask. As Georgie put it, “Each cask, in a sense, acts as its own representative, narrating its story, its flavors, and, in a sense, its own personal journey for us to enjoy; and very often that story and those complex flavors are not what you’d otherwise expect from that distillery.” Thus the society’s whiskies are practically liquid history and often liquid poetry, rather than regular whisky. Once the cask has been emptied, and the bottles sold and drunk, that’s it. You may never taste another whisky like it ever again. Further, as Georgie notes, the Society “has the widest selection of single-cask, single-malt whiskies found anywhere in the world, with new whiskies offered to members roughly every three to four weeks.”
The society also runs private members’ rooms in the U.K. (in Edinburgh and London), and through strategic partnerships, Society whiskies can be found in a variety of other bars around the world. Likewise, here in the U.S., they’ve launched (so far) three “Society Spots” at prominent whisky bars across the country: Chicago’s Drumbar, Seattle’s El Gaucho and the always awesome Jack Rose Dining Saloon (2007 18th St., N.W.) here in Washington, D.C. Only society members can purchase society whiskies, but anyone can taste them at a Society Spot. The American branch of the society also does tasting events around the country, like the annual Extravaganza.
Membership, and the privilege of actually purchasing a SMWS whisky, is open to all who can afford it ($229 to join, with a subsequent annual renewal of $60; the welcome pack includes whisky and membership includes a subscription to their insightful and entertaining in-house magazine, Unfiltered). Check out the details at www.smwsa.com (should you decide to join tell them Josh London, member #5956 sent you). You will not be disappointed.
Now, since the SMWSA is more about flavors and character than brands and distilleries, they bottle their whiskies without explicit regard for the whisky’s parent distillery or single malt brand. Each bottle is labeled with a simple numbering system and fanciful flavor-name.
Without further ado, here are just a couple of the wonderful whiskies Georgie poured for us:
SMWS 66.44 “New Balls Please” (10-year-old from the Ardmore Distillery; only 190 bottles; 56.9 percent abv; $95): We don’t get the title, but whatever. This is a real beast of whisky: meaty, full flavored, textured, and a little dirty and unpolished the way whiskies of yesteryear were (before technology helped eliminate most imperfections). With notes of slightly muted peat, floral notes of violet and hibiscus, soy sauce, and a touch of sulfur — though in a good way, this slightly savage whisky delivers on multiples levels, its “flaws” delightfully in full bloom, beckoning further interaction. Water reduces some of the heat and turns down the volume a bit, teases out a slightly nail-varnishy quality (though not exactly in a bad way); it also unleashes some of the more typical caramel and vanilla notes. Mostly though, don’t bother cutting this mouth-watering, magnificent beast with water — it only seems to upset it.
SMWS 1.170 “Gingerbread man selling sweet delights” (19-year-old whisky from The Glenfarclas Distillery; 680 bottles; 56 percent abv; $150): This unctuous, sweet whisky offers notes of caramel, vanilla, toffee, dried dates, candied if still slightly racy fruits, and some nice black pepper and zippy, oaky spice, with a long, warming finish. The addition of a little water helps draw out even more of the complexity, cuts some of the initial, more forward, sweetness while expanding the mid-palate and widening the finish. An absorbing, delicious, simply lovely whisky. L’Chaim!