Winemakers who march to a different drummer

Joshua London harvests peat for the Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay in Scotland.
Joshua London harvests peat for the Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay in Scotland.

It is often said the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to begin with a large one. Indeed, winemaking is an inherently risky business. The weather, obviously, is unpredictable. Furthermore, wine is subject to complex market forces, stiff global competition and the vagaries of consumer tastes. The prudent approach, it would seem, would be to stick to well-established winemaking formulas and techniques.

Well, not according to Shivi Drori and Amnon Weiss, the owners of Gvaot Winery located in Israel’s Shomron region. They blend together grape varietals with apparently little thought as to what is considered “usual.” Drori and Weiss have released to market such atypical wine blends as chardonnay and gewurztraminer, and cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The results of these experiments are surprisingly good, reflecting both the superior nature of their vineyards and their skill in anticipating the ultimate results of these combinations.

They even mess around with pinot noir, a grape that is seldom blended as a still wine in order to preserve its balance, delicate flavors and sense of terroir (though in sparkling wines, such as Champagne, pinot noir is typically blended with chardonnay and pinot meunier).

Their very first release in 2009 was 100 percent pinot noir, but the next year’s iteration included 10 percent merlot. For their most recent release, they went with 95 percent pinot noir and 5 percent petit verdot, a late ripening varietal more commonly blended with cabernet sauvignon. The Gvaot Gofna Pinot Noir 2011 has more earth, floral and coffee aromas than the previous vintage, along with strawberry and red berry scents. A medium-bodied delight, it shows layers of delicate red fruit including raspberry and cherry along with earth and hints of leather, plums, herbs and spice in the lingering finish.

Gvaot currently produces 30,000 bottles annually of blends and single varietal wines in three levels, beginning with their flagship Masada label followed by Gofna and Herodian. Winemaker Shivi was trained as a plant molecular biologist, not as a classic winemaker, which may explain his fearlessness when combining varietals.

Spirits-wise, one of us recently returned from a short but very full whisky-tourism trip to the island of Islay, Scotland — home to more distilleries than schools! Actually, it is not that large an island (the population hovers around 3,500). So, we thought we’d spend a little while exploring the Scotch whiskies of Islay. Don’t worry, we’ll space it out — not everyone, after all, likes smoky, peaty whiskies. Also, some of the notes taken on location may require a bit of time to decipher fully. (Only kidding — honest).

First up, we thought we’d start with a general discussion of Islay itself. The island is something of a mecca for whisky aficionados. Islay (pronounced Eye-luh, Gaelic for island) is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. By plane it is about 20 minutes directly west of Glasgow — a journey available twice a day (there and back; depending on weather).

Until one begins to venture forth from the airport to any of the Island’s eight distilleries, it can be very difficult to grasp the nature of the distances involved from place to place, or even from coast to coast. In fact, while not wholly insignificant, the distances are hardly great. If it took more than 30 minutes to get from any one location to any other, it was probably less to do with distance or what passes there for congestion, as it was to simply driving slowly to admire the mostly breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

The most popular characteristic feature of Islay malt whiskies is the pronounced presence of peat smoke. Until one has smelled peat, or smelled and tasted the effects of peat smoke in whisky production, it is a hard descriptor to wrap one’s head around.

Peat is a Celtic term for compact decayed vegetation, decomposed over thousands of years by water and partially carbonized by chemical change. Found in the cool wet uplands and bogs that cover vast amounts of Scotland and Ireland, the vegetation at the heart of peat includes moss, heather, sedges and rushes. Over time, the vegetation decomposes, gets waterlogged, sinks to the bottom, piles up, compresses and carbonizes. Once it becomes a super thick, rich mud, it can be usefully harvested. When dried, peat is a satisfactory, if pungent, fuel source. It is the traditional fuel for the kilns in which malted barley will later be fermented and distilled into whisky. Think of peat as an earthy, smelly, poor-man’s coal.

The smoke generated by peat is robustly aromatic and tarry, transferring and imbuing these compounds (phenols) to the whisky itself, as determined by how heavily peat is used in the kilning of the malt. It is this peat smoke, or “peat reak,” as it is commonly termed, which helps divide whisky drinkers into those who hate and those who love smoky whisky — there seems to be no middle ground among enthusiasts. But reading about peat is no substitute for experience. Taste a smoky, peaty Islay malt whisky and it’ll all make sense. Consider, for example:

The Laphroaig 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $50). Although everything else in the Laphroaig lineup is released at higher proof and is not chill-filtered, and undoubtedly the 10 years is much improved at higher proof and nonchill-filtered (as evidenced by the always awesome cask strength versions of the 10 year old that are widely available), this flagship expression is nonetheless utterly fantastic. It is, in turn, soothing and stupendous, and familiar and reliable, yet complex, deep and dreamy. It enraptures with its heady yet nuanced mix of iodine, smoke, sea brine, and sweet malt; with its oaky backdrop and whispers of vanilla; and with its rounded, oily, subtle and ever so slightly drying finish. Yet it is a dram with enough of a medicinal, fish oil, seaweedy presence to keep one grounded and alert, like a good-natured thump from an older brother or an old school chum. Not for all tastes, obviously, but this is serious, brilliant whisky. L’chaim!

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