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Thursday
Jan162014

New K&L Burgundy Exclusives

NOTE: This is also on K&L's wine blog.

As you all know, this isn't my official department, but I have taken a side role as the Burgundy assistant here in the Redwood City store due to my insatiable thirst for it. I figured our buyer Keith could use the help as he's usually answering phones and I'd pick up some pointers along the way. It's exciting to learn about, so I figured I'd share some of those lessons here on the blog for those interesting in learning a bit more as well.

As I mentioned before in the Comp Lit post, there's a finite amount of wine in Burgundy (about 62,000 acres) and the best wines are never brands, but rather vineyards. Due to Napoleonic inheritance laws, the best vineyards can be split between more than 100 different owners--many of whom sell their small lot (sometimes no more than a few vines) to negociants who blend them to make larger batches. For example, if they can get twenty different Gevrey-Chambertin producers to sell them grapes they can dump all the wine into one cuvee and still call it "Gevrey-Chambertin." That way they can sell 400 cases of one wine, rather than twenty different versions of it with different labels. However, much like with whisky today, there's a growing desire among consumers to taste the wine directly from the grower, rather than as part of a greater blend.

Finding small producers with whom we can work directly is our bread and butter here at K&L. Our wine model was the basis for what David and I set out to do in the whiskey department. Finding them in Burgundy, however, with demand already high and supply so very low, isn't easy. Most wines are spoken for long in advance and most producers already have contracts with a larger importer. Keith, however, has managed to find some outstanding growers from whom we can purchase directly and offer outstanding value to our customers. Two of them, Jacques Bavard and Chateau de la Charriere, were featured in today's staff tasting as we just received a huge shipment of new 2011 vintage wines. There was a ton of great wine in that bar this morning. If you're like me--interested in Burgundy, but not quite ready to start investing in $100 bottles you can't drink for ten years--then you might want to check some of these out. 2011 is looking to be one of the better vintages for the money, especially considering that the 2013 vintage--with its hail storms that destroyed a number of vineyards--will likely limit supplies for the future.

Your money always goes farther at K&L when you buy the direct-import stuff (because no one has ever heard of it). Before you start picking off the big guns, start with these more reasonably-priced selections to get more bang for your buck.

2011 Château de la Charrière Bourgogne Chardonnay Domaine Yves Girardin $14.99 - There's a lot of wine for your money in this bottle. It's earthier on the entry, but slowly eases into a rich and mineral-laden palate that finishes cleanly and with finesse. It's much more than a simple drinker. It's a hint of what makes white Burgundy what it is.

2011 Château de la Charrière Savigny-les-Beaune Blanc "Vermots Dessus" Domaine Yves Girardin $23.99 - I'm always a big fan of this wine every vintage. It's so light on its feet and fresh on the finish, but without sacrificing flavor or complexity. There's not nearly as much richness or texture as most fuller-bodied Burgundian whites, but there's a fresh fruit and floral note on the finish, possibly added by the small percentage of pinot blanc in the mix. Lovely stuff.

2011 Château de la Charrière Bourgogne Rouge Domaine Yves Girardin $15.99 - The pinot noir fruit for this wine comes from the village of Marange, which is south of the Cote de Nuits, near Santaney. It's important because it's where the so-called "Golden Slope" comes to an end--meaning the chalky limestone in the soil (part of what makes great Burgundy wines what they are) turns more brown. It's not so much a lesser wine growing area as it is just unknown. That's why you only have to pay $15.99 for this little gem. It's juicy and full of dark berries on the nose with a bit of structure and an earthiness on the palate. I love it for the price.

If you're Google-searching Yves Girardin, don't get him confused with his brother Vincent who is a big negociant in the region. Yves is a grower who and the wines are domaine-bottled.

2011 Château de la Charrière Pommard "Cuvee Tradition" Domaine Yves Girardin $34.99 - This is a combination of wines from four different sites around Pommard, from whom Girardin was able to source fruit. The nose is pure cherry with a meaty and savory note on the palate, along with dark fruit. It's mineral on the finish, almost with a hint of graphite. It's good now. It will be great in a few years and, compared to the $60 price tags we usually see for Pommard, it's a steal.

2011 Jacques Bavard Bourgogne Blanc $21.99 - A complete and utter steal. This is seamless wine. This wine should serve as the definition of what that means. It means it starts with fresh acidity, transitions flawlessly into rich texture and soft fruit, and then morphs into mineral and saline notes on the finish without a hitch. Top notch Chardonnay that left most of the staff buzzing.

2011 Jacques Bavard Monthelie Rouge $29.99 - This is always one of the staff's favorite wines and it's easy to see why. Just a gorgeous nose of fresh cranberry, a vibrant acidity on the mid-palate, and a fresh, fruity finish. Monthelie is a small village that lies between the better-known communes of Volnay and Auxey-Duresses in the Cote de Beaune. There are fifteen premier cru sites in Monthelie, but I've never tasted a wine from them as pretty as this Bavard.

Bavard is an interesting producer because he doesn't own most of the land from which he makes his wine, but he doesn't sharecrop either. Instead, he buys rows or specific plots from vineyards and then manages those sections to his own specific standards. In Burgundy this is called sur piece. It gives Bavard estate-like control without control of the estate. If he wants to pick earlier or later he's not reliant on the decisions of the grower.

2011 Jacques Bavard Meursault $41.99 - Meursault seems to get more expensive every vintage, as Burgundy fans are flocking to its richer mouthfeel and pronounced character. I'm not always a fan of that extra richness, but I found Bavard's version quite striking. It's clean on the entry with fresh fruit flavors and zippy acidity before moving later into richer, nutty flavors of toasted almond and mineral accents. I would be hard pressed to keep my hands off of this one, even though I know it will taste better in a few years. Great wine.

We have many more wines from Charriere and Bavard, so check out the website. These were just some of my personal favorites.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan152014

Lot 40 Rye Whiskey: The Rye You Never Knew You Needed

I can't say that I'm much up to speed on Canadian whiskey. I look at the Whisky Advocate reviews when they post them, and I read my friend SKU's reviews (his take on Lot 40 is here) when he gets a sample. However, when I read the write-up on the Advocate's 2013 "Canadian Whiskey of the Year," I found Davin de Kergommeaux's personal blog with much more information behind the brand. It was a heck of a tale and suddenly I was very interested in Canadian whiskey, even though I couldn't get it or sell it here at K&L. The story behind Lot 40 reads a lot like the American version of Pappy, albeit not quite as neurotic.

It would be another few months before I got the chance to actually taste the Lot 40. It just kind of showed up at the store. "Oh! I've been wanting to taste this!" I told my Pernod Ricard rep. Then it hit my lips. Then Kyle tasted it and jerked his head in my direction, giving me this "what the heck is this?" look, but in a good way. Then the staff went in to taste. Our Italian buyer Greg came out raving, saying "You need to buy as much of that as you can. How much is it? A hundred bucks?"

"It's gonna be around $60," I said.

"I'm in for two" he replied.

We've got a little in stock right now. We're getting a WHOLE bunch tomorrow. A WHOLE bunch.

This is a must-own bottle even if you just kinda like whiskey. And its got a great story. I won't bother to retread the history here, considering I'm no expert anyway. Just read Davin's blog post and then try and tell me you don't want one, too.

Lot 40 2012 Release Canadian Rye Whiskey $59.99

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan152014

Spirit Tastings Restart

Now that the holidays are over and I've had some time to recover, we'll be opening our tasting bar back up on Wednesday evenings to feature some of the spirits we know you want to try. Getting the chance to sample a whiskey before you buy it (for free) is a rare luxury these days, especially when limited edition bottles are flying fast and furiously out the door. However, I'm really excited about the selections we've got lined up for next week:

Wednesday, January 22nd, from 5 PM to 6:30 PM

San Francisco will host Pernod-Ricard and their two Canadian rye whiskey selections: the Lot 40 and the port-aged Pike Creek. Both are outstanding, in my opinion, but you don't need to listen to me. Go and taste for yourself.

Redwood City will host Ian Macleod, new owners of Tamdhu, who will be pouring their new ten year expression, along with the Isle of Skye 8 and 12 year old blends. I think the Tamdhu is quite tasty, but again you don't have to take my word for it. Come and taste!

See you there!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan142014

Catch Up

Just being out of town for a mere week creates a backload of tasting that needs to be done. It's a rough life being a spirits buyer; with all of these people trying to track you down and pour you booze that they hope you'll eventually sell. Here are some of today's highlights:

Glenmorangie Companta - This year's special release (coming hot on the heels of last year's Ealanta winning "Whisky of the Year" from Jim Murray) is perhaps the best usage of red wine enhancement I've ever tasted in a single malt whisky. Personally, I was never a huge fan of the Bordeaux-aged Bruichladdich or the Syrah-enhanced Murray McDavids. I've not once tasted a Burgundy-matured whisky that tickled my fancy. We tasted some last year at Edradour that simply puzzled me. The new Companta, however, is a marriage of both Clos de Tart Burgundy-aged Glenmorangie, with some unspecific Cote du Rhone-aged casks for good measure. It's really well executed and it's exactly what Glenmorangie fans want and expect from the distillery. The color has a beautiful reddish hue and the nose is brimming with bright cherries. That scared me at first because I didn't want cherry cough syrup in my single malt. The palate, however, turns chewy, cakey, and chocolatey with lots of mocha and spice on the finish. It's not sweet or supple, however. It's rather dry, earthy, and oily on the backend.

There's a lot going on inside that bottle and it doesn't simply taste manipulated or gimmicky. It's a real whisky that tastes like whisky, despite all the extra enhancement. Should be $99.99 and in stock by early next week.

Hakushu Heavily Peated - We've still got a bit of this left. I know consumers are hesitant to throw down a buck fifty for a peated Japanese malt without an age statement, but trust me--this baby delivers. It's a better version of Talisker 18: brighter, livelier, more pronounced smoke and lovely richness.

New El Dorado Single Barrel - I'm not sure that these are single barrel rums, to be honest. What they are, however, are single still rums and if you're familiar with Demerara distillers, that's a pretty exciting thing. I'll go into more detail on these later as they really need a more in-depth explanation. David and I just booked our tickets to Guyana today, actually. We're headed out to South America in a few weeks to visit these stills (along with the boys from Bar Agricole). I have to go get my vaccine for yellow fever next week! When you see what's really happening at El Dorado in Guyana I think these three selections will carry more weight. There's a Coffey still there that was built in the 1800s, made from wood that has only survived due to the humidity. One of these rums comes exclusively from that still.

Midleton continues to expand their selections, releasing more new items into the American retail marketplace. We're expecting the Green Spot and Redbreast 21 whiskies in early February, but right now they're parceling out a bit of the Jameson Black Barrel into key outlets. It's been on the East Coast for a while now, but it's finally showing up out in California. I normally don't carry much from the Jameson portfolio, but this one really stood out to me. It uses both older expressions of Jameson, and a higher percentage of pot still distillate, then recasks them into recharred Bourbon oak. Similar to the Mount Gay rum Black Barrel edition. It adds a richness and a spice on the finish that is often lacking in many other Irish releases, in my opinion. And it's in a liter bottle! Should be $39.99.

I was really excited to taste these. I had heard great things about the Lot 40 Canadian rye whiskey and those good things were confirmed. It has a pure and intense rye flavor, almost crossing over into an Indian spice or cocoa note, with a mouthfeel that remains supple and rich in texture. The Pike Creek finished in Port Wood is no slouch either. These will be welcome additions to a K&L category struggling to find new blood. Lot 40 should be about $59 while the Pike will be $33.

And, yeah, I bought the JP Wiser's too. For $22 why not? It's more like blended Scotch in flavor than rye whiskey, in my opinion, but it's such a value option I figured we should give it a chance. If the Whisky Advocate can afford to hire an entirely new Canadian whiskey columnist, then I can afford to buy a case of $22 Wiser's whiskey.

Look for all of these later in the week.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan142014

The "Kentucky" Bourbon Industry

My buddy Chuck Cowdery wrote something very poignant yesterday concerning the Suntory buyout of Beam:

"The reality is that there is no bourbon industry. There is a worldwide distilled spirits industry, in which bourbon whiskey is one product category. Ultimately, everyone will sell everything everywhere and it may not really matter where the corporate headquarters is located."

I did my share of internet perusal after the news was announced and there was the typical knee-jerk backlash about "this bottle of Maker's Mark" being someone's last and whatnot. The fact that Beam was no longer in "American hands" was an outrage and a travesty. As someone who works for a local business, I'm all for people wanting to support their neighbors and their fellow nationals. I make an effort to do so myself. However, Beam wasn't some tiny American enterprise catering solely to the domestic market. Beam was an American company in possession of its own foreign distilleries, focused intently on the global picture. They owned Laphroaig and Ardmore in Scotland. Cooley distillery in Ireland. The famed French Cognac house of Courvoisier. The Sauza and El Tesoro Tequilas in Mexico. Can you imagine how the people on Islay felt when Bowmore went to Japan? When Laphroaig went to the Americans? How excited they were about Bruichladdich until it took the French corporate money and never looked back? Like Chuck said, there's no such thing as a Scotch or Bourbon industry anymore -- they're simply categories in an overall global portfolio.

But all romanticism and ideology aside, is anyone going to argue that Kirin wasn't the best thing to ever happen to Four Roses? Seagram's, a longstanding North American stalwart, had completely butchered the brand, turning it into the laughing stock of the blended liquor shelf. Jim Rutledge--one of the most red-blooded Kentucky guys I've ever met--thanks his lucky stars every day that Kirin took over the operations. It allowed him to get back to doing what he did best: making traditional American Bourbon. If you talk to Jimmy and Eddy Russell, they're overjoyed that Italian giant Campari decided to jump in, buy the brand, and build them a brand new, state-of-the-art distillery (one that Rutledge himself is envious of). Suntory is a company that values tradition and history as highly as their global revenue. I don't see too many changes in store for Jim Beam, especially considering they've been representing Beam in Japan for years (many brands import foreign companies without owning them, i.e. Remy's representation of Edrington's Macallan and Highland Park here in the U.S.).

The global market is a scary place, but it's the reality of today's spirits industry. Because of the internet and the ability to spread information easily, many of us enthusiasts are aware that other countries are in possession of some rather fine booze. That helps to create a global demand for even the most esoteric of products. Look at the American fascination for unavailable Japanese malts, or the Parisian interest in American Bourbon. Or like when David Hasselhoff's PR team told him he was going to tour Germany as a singer. "Germany?" I imagine he asked. "Dude, you're HUGE there. They'll pay to see you." they told him. Those in search of greater revenue will always seek to expand their market abroad. The demand for fine spirits has become a global phenomenon; hence, why the business itself is no longer a local one, but a global pursuit as well.

Which Kentucky "Bourbon" companies are left? Brown-Foreman: the publically-traded, NYSE company that owns Jack Daniels, Woodford, and Old Forester, but also the French liqueur producer Chambord, Canadian Mist, and the Mexican tequila Herradura. Sazerac: the owner of Buffalo Trace, Barton, and Bowman, headquarted in Louisiana, which also owns the Mexican tequila Siete Leguas, Caribou Crossing Canadian whiskey, and Tortuga rum--distilled on the Cayman Islands. And who could forget the family-owned Heaven Hill company as well: owners of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, as well as the legendary French aperitif Dubonnet, Ansac Cognac, Arandas tequila, and the Brazilian cachaça Agua Luca.

Of course, there's the up-and-running Willett distillery. They only make Kentucky whiskey, but none of it will be available any time soon.

-David Driscoll