Review: Château Kefraya Arak

I have a question: why is pastis cool, but ouzo… very much not?

Is it because the former bestows a certain Gallic chic, like Alain Delon in a fedora smoking Gauloise, while the latter has airs of Tom Conti in Shirley Valentine?

If so, that’s a shame. Because ouzo’s just a stop on the road to the tipple of the Paris of the East: Arak.

Arak (not to be confused with arrack, which is another beverage altogether) is the traditional spirit of the Levant. It’s made with with grapes and flavoured with aniseed on its second distillation, out of a typical total of three. It throws a white suspension when mixed with water (the so-called ouzo effect), ideally at a ratio of two parts water to one arak. And the very best of it is aged in clay amphorae.

I first tasted Arak over 20 years ago on an archaeological trip to Syria, long before the horrific civil war which destroyed pretty much everything worth visiting and continues  without end, its death toll now uncountable. Each evening would end with a couple of araks, served in a small glass over a cube of ice with water on the side, the most memorable of which was served in the bar of The Baron Hotel in Aleppo, which apparently still stands even though it’s currently not open for business. (How can you not enjoy a drink in a place that has hosted Agatha Christie and Laurence of Arabia?) I was hooked.

Because there’s something ancient and romantic about arak. There’s something about its anise-y smell that seems to conjure other scents that are not there, of sun-baked stone and cypress trees, of hot winds and desert sands. Which is surprising because arak is not subtle. If you don’t like aniseed, this is not for you.

If anything, it’s closer to old fashioned absinthe than to its cousin pastis. It, too, is made with green aniseed. Unlike pastis, it is not bottled with sugar. And like absinthe, it sometimes comes in at quite a high ABV. In the case, we’re talking 53.1%.

Château Kefraya’s is the arak I keep coming back to. As with vodka, there’s not an awful lot of serious distinctions to be made between araks—they’re clear spirit, after all. Except for the fact that there is. Château Musar, for example, makes their distillation from the Lebanese white grape varieties Obaideh and Merwah. Kefraya favours Cinsault, a red grape. Mussar also distills four times, and brings in the finished spirit at a 53%ABV. I can’t believe that 0.1% really makes that much of a difference, so I guess it’s down to the grape.

As to the drinking itself, Kefraya’s arak offers a solid, mid-palate punch of aniseed with tingly notes akin to Szechuan pepper on the finish. It is really most beguiling.

So, if you’ve been at the Ottolenghi books, and you fancy making his roast chicken with clementines and arak, or his buttered prawns with tomato and… arak, you can of course just buy the 20ml miniature you need for the recipe and be done with out.

But you’d be missing out.

Review: Wiston Brut NV

So here’s something off-topic: I am a big fan of Alsace Pinot Noirs. They are delicate, interesting, occasionally austere, and sometimes they’re not very good. But when they’re great… well…

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This is because of the weather. They have great terroir in the Alsace. But the weather is, in wine terms, somewhat unreliable. And this makes the production of a truly great Pinot Noir round that way …

[Sporting Metaphors Alert]

… akin to a Usain Bolt world record, going through Eau Rouge flat out on full tanks, hitting an ace on your second serve to win a fourth set tie-break at the Wimbledon finals when a double fault will lose you the game.

It takes commitment and nerve and an absolute precision confidence in what you’re doing.

So… what has this to do with English wine, you ask.

I will tell you.

It is often said that England’s South Downs have terroir that is geologically similar to Champagne, and that thanks to global warming, our French cousins “better watch out” because with better weather comes riper grapes blah blah.

This is an argument that doesn’t hold water. Or wine. For two reasons. 1/ Alsace shares a geologically similar terroir to Pfalz in Germany, where a sexy little micro-climate gives the Pinot a banging ripeness that Alsace, in most years, can only dream of. And 2/ England’s “hotter summers” seem to bring us a washed out ripening season, which is no friend to the grape.

I bring all this up because I have long been enthusiastic about English wine. I see it as a quixotic endeavour, and I love the passion behind it. But, at every English wine tasting I have ever attended — and we’re going back to the 80s here, when I did the vendage for a couple of autumns at a vineyard not far west of Oxford — there’s always that sensation that you’re saying nice things as you would to a backward child. You know, you want to be supportive. Unless it was about that Pinot Noir I tried at Denbigh’s in the late 90s, which reminded me of the old joke about what Budweiser and getting it on in a canoe have in common.

All of this slightly apologetic, “oh, jolly well done” feeling evaporated when I tasted Wiston’s NV Brut sparking English wine. For the first time, no apology was necessary. In fact, if you change “cleared” for “made”, I felt rather like Christian Slater at the end of this little scene here:

The Wiston itself is complex, zingy and fresh, with the yeasty, bready notes you would expect from a sparkling made with the three main Champagne grapes and in the Champagne style.

But there’s another thing going on here. This is a wine that is not trying to be something else.

Most of the other English sparklings I’ve tried, like Nyetimber and Chapel Down and so on, taste like ersatz champagne. And they carry a price tag that means the wine in the bottle does not live up to the positioning.

Wiston walks with confidence, greets you warmly with a firm handshake and a steady gaze, and is resolutely itself.

It doesn’t hurt that their winemaker, Dermot Sugrue, is obscenely talented and supported by a team with a clear vision, from the owners down, to help him deliver time and again.

But what he and the Goring family have achieved at Wiston is the creating of a genuinely English wine from great terroir and frequently unreliable weather.

That puts me in mind of a great Alsace Pinot Noir. And that makes me very happy.

“Why Do You REALLY Like That Bordeaux?”

This piece, from Obi Wine Kenobi himself (aka Joe Fattorini), is really worth a read to find out why American wine drinks arguably prefer bigger, riper wines while Europeans… don’t.

The answer? Heuristics.

When you read his stuff, it’s easy to see why Joe was recently named Wine Communicator of the Year. It’s not just his knowledge of wines, grapes and winemakers, it’s his ability to make Freakonomics-like connections between things entirely unconnected to wine and, well, wine.

When I had lunch with him recently, he had me thinking about not only the subtle triggers restaurants use to encourage us to buy (more) wine, but also the psychology of the wine list itself, and the social pressure it brings with it.

Even so, connecting evolutionary psychology with our choice of tipple is rather inspired. I can’t help thinking that there might be a book in it.

Over to you, Joe.

What The Hell Will It Take To Make Sherry Cool?

One of the most annoying things about January is that it demands of every writer a list of what they think will be on trend in the coming year. Almost all of them are wrong. But everyone does it anyway because… it’s expected.

If you cast your eyes back over these lists, you will notice that, every year since about 1979, there has been at least one “this is the year of the Sherry Resurgence” or some variation on the theme.

The reality has sadly been one of a gradual decline, especially in the UK, whose market has driven the sherry business for generations, to the extent that sherry sales halved between 2006 and 2016.

I find this baffling, because the drinks biz’s biggest open secret is this: if you want value for money, buy sherry. The next biggest is that it’s really hard to find a shit bottle of sherry. More often than not, you’ll find something spectacular.

However, change, perhaps, is in the air. Last year, those clever clogs over at Majestic said something interesting. Their sherry sales were up. By a staggering 41%. Because of hipsters.

Now, I never thought I’d say this, but I think this could be A Very Good Thing™. Like most of my generation, I have something of a visceral loathing of those bearded twats in Hoxton drinking out of jam jars, but they could be exactly what my beloved sherry needs.

Why? Because every one of those Sherry Resurgence articles of yore always leads off with the rather negative apology that says something a bit like this: “Isn’t sherry wonderful… no, really… there’s much more to it than that God-awful bottle of alcoholic sugar-water you remember lurking in your Granny’s cupboard.” Which puts you off before you’ve read any further.

The thing about hipsters is that they don’t care about any of this. They think everything they grow, wear or taste is something they’ve discovered for the very first time and no one has ever ever EVER thought of it before. One of them probably bought a Zippo lighter in a vintage store and then persuaded themselves that they’d invented fire.

Sherry is deserving of all the love it can get. Even Harvey’s Bristol Cream. And I really don’t care who provides it. So, if the hipsters really are pushing up sherry sales, more power to them.

I can see only one downside.

They could push the price up.

Here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 Sherries:—

  • La Gitana Manzanilla — bone dry deliciousness with a hint of salinity, this will enhance your best day, and brighten your worst;
  • Tio Pepe — ground zero for fino, a sherry that plays with the straight-batted grace of David Gower;
  • La Ina Fino — formerly made by Domenq, now by Lustau, those great saviours of historic sherry;
  • Valdespino Fino Inocente — as much as I love the others, this is possibly my favorite fino of all time;
  • Gonzalez Byass Del Duque Amontillado — a rich, nutty VOS (very old sherry, seriously), this is a real winner for Gonzalez Byass
  • Valdespino Tio Diego Amontillado — with 12 years under flor and 6 in barrel after oxidation, this packs a flavour punch like no other… it’s just sublime;
  • Williams & Humbert Dos Cortados — supple, spicy and glorious;
  • Waitrose Solera Jerezano Palo Cortado — what, you say, Waitrose? Yes. Made for them by Lustau (from sherrys at another rescued bodega), this might just be the best value for money bottle of wine in the country;
  • Lustau Emperatriz Eugenia Oloroso — so approachably delicious it’s easy to forget how complex this is. It’s also one of the best olorosos I know to convert the doubters;
  • Emilio Hidalgo Oloroso Gobernador — savoury to the point of meatiness, this is serious (and seriously good) stuff.

[Picture credit: Tamin Jones]

Tonight—The Wine Show

The new season of The Wine Show starts this evening on Channel 5 at 7pm. And jolly good it is too. I know this because I’ve seen it. I also know this because Kay (the wife, and all-round top food writer) did the catering and dragged me along to help out. Which meant, among other things, rising at five to drive to the nearest industrial boulangerie for everyone’s breakfast and not driving into the villa’s formal fountain. Which also happened.

This season, Joe Fattorini does his level best to educate Matthew Goode and James Purefoy, and us too. And once you’ve seen him in action, you’ll understand exactly why he is the IWSC Wine Communicator Of The Year. Alas, you won’t get to see his marvellous collection of T-shirts with obscure movie references printed upon them, nor his collection of hats. But hey, you do get to see him in lederhosen, which is surely a win in anyone’s book.