Monday, December 29, 2014

Tokaji: The Famed Wine of Hungary

Tonight on Chug, Zane makes his final stop in Budapest, Hungary. On this adventure, he chugs more high-octane beers and local spirits than any episode yet. Between local tripel and dubbel brews, Hungary’s version of moonshine, and cocktails in refurbished warzone sectors of the city, he somehow passes up the world’s first made sweet wine, Tokaji. A phenomenon of Mother Nature with aging potential greater than 200 years, Tokaji wine has been coveted by the likes of King Louis XIV, Bram Stoker, Thomas Jefferson, and Catherine the Great to name a humble few. This nectar of the Gods is considered among wine lovers to be the “Wine of Kings, and The King of Wines.” Tokaj has long been Hungary’s most respected and famous region so esteemed by the people, it is lauded in the Hungarian national anthem, “Tokaj szölövesszein nektárt csepegtettél.” Translation:  thank you God for dripping sweet nectar into the vineyards of Tokaj!
Tokaj Wine Region
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Cradled by the protective Carpathian Mountains to the north and east, Tokaj rests in the northeast corner of Hungary on the borders of Slovakia and Romania. Tokaj produces a range of wines, from bone-dry through late-harvest, to the extraordinary Esszencia, as well as the famous Tokaji Aszù at 3, 4, 5, or 6 Puttonyos. Despite the diversity of wine styles, the region is heralded for its nectar-like, botrytized Tokaji aszú wines (note the -on the end). The word Tokaj denotes the place, wheras Tokaji denotes the wine itself. The ham-shaped region spans 25 miles and is comparable in size to France’s famous Cote d’Or wine region in Burgundy. This tiny span of land specializes in three grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat Blanc (Sarga Muskotály).
Tokaji Wine Styles 
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
The Aszú (botrytized) wines for which Tokaj is most known are predominately made from Furmint grapes affected by a type of symbiotic fungus, Botrytis cinerea. This beneficial mold grows in very particular conditions that are analogous to the “perfect storm” scenario when cold and hot air collide. When the mold does grow in a controlled manner, it is referred to as the noble rot. In this instance, the mold dehydrates the grapes of their water content, thereby increasing sugar and flavor levels in the grapes. Even though it may seem odd in practice to think a mold is welcomed in a vineyard, similar to how people view the pesky appearance of white and green fuzz on their bread loaves, the mold facilitates the creation of spectacular wines with intense raisin flavors and honeysuckle aromas. The concentration of aszú is indicated in puttonyos. A puttonyo is a large basket used for harvesting grapes. The number of puttonyos of aszú grapes added to a 136-liter barrel of base wine was a traditional measure of sweetness levels back in the day.
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
The non-aszú Tokaji wines receive less attention than their sweeter counterparts, since they are not made with 100% pure aszú berries. These wines are referred to as szamorodni wines, literally meaning “as it was grown.” These wines showcase various levels of sweetness, most comparable to late harvest dessert wines, since they do contain a small percentage of aszú berries. Dry Tokaji wines have become more popular over the past 100 years and are made purely from ripened grapes not affected by the mold.
The Magic of Tokaj
The true glory of the region lies in the Aszú wines themselves and their magical tastes and smells. To sip a true Aszú Tokaji is to taste a piece of heaven. To understand the magic, one has to understand the unique geography of Tokaj and the indigenous grape, Furmint. Once past the beautiful suburbs of Budapest headed east, the Great Hungarian Plain stretches forward in a flat, almost featureless landscape full of sunflowers and corn crops. The town of Tokaji sits above the plain on top of an ancient volcanic cone situated in the undulating foothills of the majestic Carpathians Mountains—home to the sinister historical figure, Count Dracula. In Tokaji, the confluence of two rivers, the Bodrog and the Hernàd, meet and are responsible for forming the moist fogs that blanket the Tokaj vineyards in the late Indian summers characteristic of this area. The indigenous grape, Furmint, is perfect for the region by chance, evolution, or divine providence, who knows which? Either way, the grape begins maturing with thick skin that turns to thinner consistency as it ripens, allowing for the sun to evaporate more water content, making for higher sugar levels. Furthermore, the Furmint grape grows a second skin, unlike other grapes, later in the growing season allowing for longer hang times on the vine into October and late November. This is the crucial point in the season when the fogs start appearing and in turn usher in the noble rot.
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
This wine of legend has been in the making since the 1500s. Although war and political upheaval has slowed the production of these rare wines, the collapse of the communist regimes in 1990 allowed for the influx of money and winegrowers from around the world who are rallying around the cause of restoring the wineries to their former glory between the 18th and 19th centuries. If you can hunt a bottle down, it’s well worth the effort. One thing is certain, Zane could easily throw back a Tokaji wine with a smile and rush of ecstasy, versus a grimace and a belch backed by ethanol fumes!
ProTip: When visiting the Tokaj region, seek out a true Eszencia wine. This anomaly of nature represents a wine above 6 puttonyos in sweetness. Technically, these are not even true wines because of their enormous sugar concentrations. Eszencia is the juice of aszú berries that drips out of the fermentation vats where the aszú berries are stored. Drip by drip, the nectar is collected in small demi-john bottles and the wine takes close to four years to ferment. But once made, they will age for more than two centuries. Now that’s a Spiler wine!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Frascati: The Drink of Rome

Zane Lamprey chugs to Rome tonight, one of the world’s greatest cities for over two thousand years. As they say, “When in Rome, drink like the Romans.” Italy is a hotbed for fabulous wine production, and wine is the most imbibed cultural beverage. Thus, it’s worth taking a look at the most synonymous wine to Rome: Frascati. Romans refer to Frascati as the Golden Wine in reference to its color and its value. The grapes that make Frascati are grown in close proximity to the city, in the province of Lazio. The bustling metropolis stands in stark contrast to the surrounding pastoral scenes of Lazio, made up of farmland, mountain villages, and beachfronts that await those who venture outside of Roma. Compared to Italy’s more famous wine provinces, such as Piedmont and Tuscany, Lazio is not very well known for the simple reason that Rome consumes most of the Latium wine production, leaving little for the outside world.
Lazio: The Province to Rome
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Rome sits in the province of Lazio. The founding of Rome is mixed in legend and archaeological truths. Legend has it that Aeneas escaped the fall of Troy, sailed around the Apennine Peninsula, and landed in modern-day Lazio. Here, he bore a line of descendants that would eventually lead to Romulus and Remus. These two brothers decided to found the city of Rome on April 23, 753 BC, but after an argument, Romulus killed Remus. The more likely version is the city grew from settlements on the Palatine Hill that sprung up because the area at the base of the hill was most suited for pasture. The region of Lazio is so-named because the original inhabitants of the land were a group of people who called themselves the “Latini.” Sound familiar?
Frascati: The Wine of Rome
Steeped in history and legend, Frascati production dates back to the 5th century B.C. As the most mentioned wine in Italian literature, Frascati was the preferred drink of Ancient Rome as it passed over the lips of Cleopatra and Julius Ceasar on many occasions, later becoming the wine for Popes and the darling to Renaissance poets and artists. Frascati is made from a number of grapes: Malvasia di Candia, Malvasia del Lazio, Grechetto, Bombino Bianco, and Trebbiano. Each grape lends specific nuances, aromas, and flavors to the final blend. The wine itself comes in three forms: dry, sweet, or sparkling–the most popular being dry.
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
The grapes of Frascati can craft stunning, age-worthy wines, but most Romans associate it with serviceable white wine fit to serve in cafés throughout the Eternal City. The usual suspect is subtle in taste, flowery on the nose with a hint of citrus fruits on the palate, lending to a prickly or tart mouth feel–not too far off in flavor from the ubiquitous Italian white wine, Pinot Grigio. Despite Frascati’s reputation as a mediocre wine best consumed in café settings, modern day winemakers are embracing its potential through the use of more new techniques in the winery and the vineyards.
Interestingly enough, one of the hottest new producers on the Frascati scene, Piero Constantini, owns Rome’s most famous wine shop, Enoteca Constantini–a shop featured in Zane’s journey this evening. Constantini is one of the revolutionaries turning Frascati into a note-worthy white wine at his vineyard in Lazio, Villa Simone.
The wines themselves are best sipped on a hot summer evening paired with lighter pasta dishes and a medley of fish dishes. So when in Rome, drink like the Romans, or simply go seek out a bottle of Frascati at your local wine shop and see if it transports you to the Eternal City.
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels
ProTip: Coming soon in late February, Rome’s most venerated vegetable, carciofo romanesco, otherwise known as the artichoke. The best preparation of this veggie is “alla giudia.” This “Jewish style” artichoke is deep fried whole until its outer leaves are crispy and light and the heart is sweet and delicate. Shave a bit of Pecorino cheese on top, followed by a sip of Frascati. Ecco! A wine and food pairing fit for Romans.
Don’t miss Chug: Rome tonight at 7:30/6:30c!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fiji's National Drink

After presenting kava to the chief of the nearby Onduavillage, Zane is granted the honor of joining an exclusive traditional kava ceremony.

Bula! Welcome to Fiji, Zane Lamprey’s next stop on Chug! One of the most remote places in the world, Fiji is located in Melanesia in the South Pacific Ocean where the natives cherish a unique drinking tradition, the Kava Ceremony. Fiji Kava is used as a symbol to bring two groups of people together in order to break the barriers of unfamiliarity and to bond like neighborly friends. Following customs in Fiji, community leaders present Kava as a “host” gift when visiting a new village, at which point a specific protocol unravels.

Kava Ceremony

Zane discovers how two different communities of people gather and connect in a live Kava ceremony. The Fijian Kava ceremony is tied to numerous myths: that it makes you hallucinate, Fijians are obsessed with it, and it tastes downright loathsome. On the up and up, Kava comes from the root of the Yaqona (piper methsticum) bush, a relative of the pepper plant, and it happens to be one of Fiji’s biggest crops and exports. Kava is often mistakenly associated with Ayuhuasca, the hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon. Truth be told, its effects are mild and it does not put you into a trance. Kava will, however, numb your face, and in larger doses, it puts you into a relaxed frame of mind. Too much imbibing will put you into a deep sleep. Maybe this could be the Europeans answer to Absinthe, otherwise known as the Green Fairy. Most Fiji islanders drink Kava daily, which could account for their slower more relaxed pace in life, something referred to as “Fiji time.”

Kava is consumed in two ways on the Fiji islands. As Zane experienced the root beverage, it was consumed in a ceremonial style, but it is also a casual drink consumed on a daily basis by the locals—just as people would drink a glass of wine or a hot cup of tea when they mingle with friends, or simply unwind from the demands of an average work day. Crafting the beverage involves grinding up the root, and then straining the liquid with water, usually with a twisted up shirt, into a large communal bowl.

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ A. Tad Chamberlain

Bula! The Fiji Familial Greeting

Once the Kava is strained and mixed, words are exchanged in Fijian, followed by clapping. Zane claps once as the communal bowl is passed to him, then he chugs the drinks in one large gulp, followed by a series of three claps. Once the communal bowl passes around the room, everyone is now considered to be friends and the true partying begins with dancing, singing, and eating. So Bula! Bula! Say it once or twice as the locals do. It’s hard to say the words without smiling, because the word is spoke throughout the isles of Fiji. Bula originates from the Fijian culture and means anything from hello, goodbye, welcome, love and more. Ultimately, Bula mean LIFE: a blessing of health and happiness. So Bula to you, now Chug!

ProTip: Kava is not to be confused with Cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne. Cava is a sparkling wine made in the “methode champenoise” style, which is the technique used to make Champagne, but cannot be called that since it’s not made in the French region delineated as Champagne. Cava is similar to Prosecco, the Italian’s answer to Champagne, but it tends to sport more flavor and sophistication. Kava, on the other hand, is a native drink made explicitly to numb your face, or better yet, to bring people together. It’s a warming community beverage meant to promote peace, friendship, and overall political bonding of tribal roots

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Schnaps: Austria's Winter Cocktail of Choice

Schnaps: Austria’s Winter Cocktail of Choice

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling
Austria is the birthplace of one of the most influential turning points in the evolution of beer. 
Zane begins his journey in the ancient border town of Salzburg, a literal stones throw
from the German border and only about 70 miles east of the beer mecca of Munich Germany.

Tonight on Chug, Zane visits Austria for a first-hand encounter with cold-weather concoctions, local beers, and a unique way to down freshly made wine in frosty cold mugs. Since most of the Northern Hemisphere is hunkering down for winter right this very moment, Zane’s encounter with Austria’s choice winter tipple, Schnaps, proves relevant for those in need of staving off Jack Frost.

What is Schnaps?

In a country where the cocktail scene is not embraced like pink Cosmos, Manhattans, and dirty martinis are in the States.

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling

The word itself is derived from the Germanic languages and literally means, “swallow.” Genuine Schnaps resembles nothing of the cordial-like American version, spelled with two “p”s (Schnapps), in flavor or in customary drinking style. Schnaps is meant for sipping, not chugging, and the flavors are not masked by loads of sweetness as found in peppermint, peach, or cinnamon Schnapps—common suspects in the States. Similar to various eaux-de-vie, like France’s calvados (made from apples) and Eastern Europe’s slivovitz (made from plums), Schnaps is a distilled fruit brandy varying from 64-85 proof. Zane breathes fire after downing one of these puppies, and rightfully so. Schnaps puts hair on your chest and warms your belly—could be the reason locals herald it in Alpine mountain towns. Overall, Schnaps is enjoyed by many Austrian adults in a controlled setting, and is not to be confused with the debased American version mostly consumed by youth in a hazing-like, shot slinging frenzy.

History of Schnaps

Ancient Romans brought the art of fruit cultivation to the region of Austria. Fruit orchards thrived in the colder, Alpine states where grape vines could not grow. Ample sunshine, coupled with cold weather, makes for fruits high in acidity and aromas, but not necessarily fruit with sugary sweetness, as compared to a ripened peach from Georgia or South Carolina in the U.S. Most berries and fruit from the Alpine heights are not delicious in their natural, non-distilled state. History shows potable water led to illness, due to bacteria and unsanitary handling, and that people recognized medicinal qualities in spirits. Thus, fruits were often converted to alcohol.

Distillation technology became widespread in Austria in the 18th century with the invention of the copper pot still. During the harvest season, a communal mobile still would be transported by horse and cart among the households. The practice of Schnaps crafting was even endorsed by Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, the Holy Roman Empress and ruler of the Austria-Hungarian empire during the 1700s. The production of fruit brandies proved to be perfect for taxing and revenue generating for the government.

Types of Schnaps

Austrians drink a myriad of Schnaps flavors such as apricot, Williams pear, plum, cherry, raspberry, and wild cherry. Zane even sampled an Enzian Schnaps, known in English as Gentian spirit, which is made in the Alpine regions from the roots of gentian flowers. Two of Austria’s most famous producers of Schnaps are Hans Reisetbauer and Alois Goelles, who grow their own fruit versus purchasing it from countries abroad. They use more than 80 percent natural and organic fruits.

How to Serve Schnaps

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling

Traditionally, as soon as Austrians completed the Schnaps production process, the drink was bottled immediately. Families kept the bottles on hand to readily serve visiting guests or enjoy after a meal. Schnaps should be served in an eau de vie or grappa glass (Italians form of brandy), which are tulip-shaped glasses. A sherry glass serves Schnaps drinkers well, too. San Diego may possibly possess the only Schnaps bar in the US. A former LA restaurant, Bier Beisl, did frequently showcase food pairings with Schnaps, but the restaurant is now closed and slated to re-open in a new location. With such a disparity of Schnaps representation in the States, the best way to experience how the warming elixir passes ripe fruit tastes and aromas over your tongue is to buy a ticket to Austria. While you’re there, you can add a kick of caffeine at a genuine Viennese café.

ProTip: For the swanky, dare to pair a small glass of fruit flavored eau de vie with a pan-seared pork loin marinated in juniper, rosemary, and thyme served with roasted pear and braised red cabbage. With a red-fruit based Schnaps, like raspberry, finish the meal with a chocolate torte. Now that calls for a toast! Prost! As the Austrians would say it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Chug Through Australia's Famed Wine Regions

Next stop on Chug: Sydney, Australia. Zane discovers the beer drinking culture in one of the world’s skimpiest clad beach towns, Bondi; and then chugs up the Chain Gang Trail to the town of Wollombi where the locals meet and bond over Jungle Juice, a drink made to make you quiver. Little does Zane realize, he is encountering a cultural shift that is redefining Aussies and what they drink.

Beer: Australia’s National Drink of Choice

Think of alcohol in Australia life and you most notably think of beer, “hard-earned thirst needs a big, cold beer.  Yet, the Australian national drink of choice is quickly becoming wine. Just 50 years ago, Aussies consumed twenty times more beer than wine, while today consumption has narrowed to only three times more beer than wine by volume. Wine might not have been the beverage of choice to the working class population, but wine was on the forefront during the early colonization days of Australia, and is making headlines again.

Coming of Age: Australia, A New World Wine Power

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling
Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, European powers colonized new regions, particularly the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. To European immigrants, these countries represented “lands of opportunity” where they could be free to buck traditions practiced in their homelands. These areas became known as the “New World,” making the mother ship of Europe, the “Old World.”
Ironically, Australia boasts the oldest exposed soils in the world, found out in the Great Western Plateau. It’s in this vast no-man’s land where Australian Aborigines set out on their own “walkabouts”—a term they use for wandering the bush when embarking upon a spiritual journey. If Zane were to take his own “walkabout” and chug his way from Sydney to the world’s most isolated outpost, Perth, it would take him four days and three nights, but he would see some amazing wine country along the way.

Australia’s Notable Wine Regions

First stop: Hunter Valley. On the outskirts of Sydney in the New South Wales territory, this viticultural area is home to Australia’s oldest vineyards founded in 1831. Best quality grape grown here is Semillon, a white grape that produces low-alcohol, long-lived dry whites. Critics dub this white, “Australia’s unique gift to the world.” Nothing beats its mouth-watering, racy acidity with lemon-lime aromas that develop into more toasty, honeyed characteristics with age. For sweet lovers, Semillon crafts some of the world’s most cherished dessert wines in Sauternes, France; but, it’s well worth trying the dry version of this chameleon grape.
Chugging right along to central Australia, the Indian-Pacific rail stops in Adelaide, situated in the middle of the South Australia territory. Just north of the metropolis sits Barossa Valley, the famed homeland of Australia’s king of grapes, Shiraz. Australia’s most famous wine is crafted here at Penfold’s, and is known the world over as Penfold’s Grange. As expected from Shiraz, this wine is unctuous, bold, rich, and age-worthy showing off notes of black pepper spice, eucalyptus undercurrents, and black jam bliss. Red wines from Barossa almost always can be pinpointed by their characteristic scent reminiscent of Vick’s Vapor rub. Eucalyptus trees neighboring the vineyards release a menthol-scented oil that settles on the grape skins and gets incorporated into the crushing vats. Sure makes for an unforgettable smell in wine that’s quite yummy.
Last stop is a surfer’s paradise and is the farthest outpost in the Western Territory. With world-wide notoriety for its surfing breaks, Perth is home to the Margaret River wine growing area, and is unique with its Mediterranean climate and constant cool sea breezes. No land mass sits between here and Antarctica. Because of this factor, some of the most sublime Chardonnays are produced here. They can in turn be sipped with fresh caught treasures from the sea, a food and wine match made in heaven. Wine juice fit for the Gods can be discovered at Leeuwin Estate. Their Art Series Chardonnay gives off flavors of ripe, golden pear skin, peach, savory toasted almonds, and white nectarine.
Here in the Land of Oz, something’s brewing, and it’s not the obvious. Wine is steadily overtaking the national rate of beer imbibing, and has been taking the world by storm. Let’s toast to that!
ProTip: Venture outside of the vast world of cheap Australian wine, usually sporting a cute animal on the label, and visit a privately owned wine shop. Soak up recommendations on the up and coming producers in Australia that put Yellow Tail to shame