Priorat: Mysticism, Beauty, and Passion

“Since the beginning, our project in Priorat has been a combination of passion, mystics and beauty.”  Alvaro Palacios

Priorat 3

 The Staircase of God.  One of Spain’s greatest wine regions began as a small priory of Carthusian monks.  The landscape is at once extreme and spectacular.  Here old vines of Grenache and Carignan struggle for life on steep terraced slopes of slate and quartz.  But it wasn’t until a singular vintage in 1989 where a small group of dedicated and modern winemakers banded together and put Priorat on the world’s wine map.

Inspired, the pioneers soon set up bodegas of their own.  So why are these wines so special?  It is its particularly unusual soil, llicorella, a dark-brown slate whose jagged rock faces sparkle in the sun with their sprinkling of quartzite, that makes the best Priorat the almost chewable essence that it is.”  Jancis Robinson

 At Le Du’s, there are actual samples of the famous topsoil from L’Ermita vineyard in the glass of our check out counter.  Priorat deserves a mention in the same breath as any and all of the great regions of the world.  It also happens to be a perfect antidote for a freezing wind and the winter blues!

Buil & Gine Joangine Priorat Blanc 2012  $24.99

GineBright yellow-gold. Sexy, mineral-laced pear and melon aromas are complicated by floral and ginger nuances. Juicy, penetrating and perfumed in the mouth, offering lively orchard and citrus fruit flavors and suggestions of honeysuckle and fennel. Fleshy but dry on the back end, with a refreshingly bitter lemon pith quality bracing the long, focused finish. – Josh Raynolds

Buil & Gine is small family estate a stone’s toss away from the famous L’Ermita vineyard.  Their vineyards showcase the typical steep Priorat slopes, comprised of slate. Here we have a blend of 40% White Grenache, 36% Macabeo, 20% Viognier and 4% Pedro Ximenez, which is aged six months is French oak barrels before bottling. Until 1996 the family was involved in the grocery business grocers with winemaking ancestry.  They returned to their family tradition in 1996 and are now a leading bodega in Priorat. This is a fantastic wine for when the temperatures drop.

Alvaro PalacDofiios Finca Dofi 2010  $79.99

Greets the nose and palate with intense notes of bramble fruit interlaced with smoky minerals, violets, and Asian spices. Rich notes of blackberry and dried fruits coat the mouth and are further sustained by a racy acidity and edgy mid palate minerality.  Going further, candied and supple tannins guide the fruit, but are not overpowering. Layers of minerals, sweet ash, and dark fruit  unfold for a lasting finish that will convince almost anyone of the sex appeal of old vine Grenache.–Matthew Beaton

 Palacios is one of the biggest names in Spain, and his Finca Dolfi label reminds us of how and why he earned such a venerated reputation. It’s a taste of brilliance.

Clos Mogador 2011 $95.00

Opaque ruby. Captivating aromas of black and blue fruits, smoky minerals, incense and sexy oak mogadorspice. Impressively sweet and seamless, offering an array of berry fruit and floral pastille flavors underscored by juicy acidity. Finishes with smooth, palate-dusting tannins that fade quickly into the wine’s plush, mineral-accented fruit. This wine continues to show more finesse and freshness of fruit that I recall from a decade past, with no loss of flavor intensity.
— Josh Raynolds






Matthew Beaton

Le Du’s Wines

600 Washington St 

NY, NY 10014



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pierre Dupond “La Renjardière” Côtes du Rhône Rouge

dupond1We have a few more weeks to go before the snow melts and the sun greets us. NYC is experiencing some of the lowest temperatures in a long time so we need a wine to keep us nice and warm with a good amount of baked fruit and spice. We went on a mission here at Le Du’s to find that perfect “winter wine” and we did: Pierre Dupond “La Renjardière”Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2013. This magical wine appeared before us and we could not be happier.

dupond2The Dupond family have a long history in wine making not just in the Rhone Valley but also in Burgundy. In fact, their winemaking roots go back five generations to the 1860s. In 1880 Joanny Dupond established the La Renjardière vineyard, which is situated in the area just north of Chateauneuf du Pape. At the time this 309 acre vineyard was just full of large of oak trees. It was Joanny Dupond’s passion and ambition that allowed him to clear the area by hand and personally plant the vines.  He then renamed the vineyard La Renjardière. The driver’s keys to the winery are now currently in the hands of Hervé Dupond (fifth generation). The grape does not fall far from the vine because Hervé like Joanny brings the same obsession to excellence and selects only the highest quality grapes from the single vineyard of La Renjardière . Not much has changed as far as winemaking techniques go, and they continue to practice the same methods as when the winery was first established.

dupond360% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, 10% Cinsault

Pierre Dupond “La Renjardière”Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2013 – $16.99

“La Renjardière vineyard is deliciously balanced with an intense nose of rosemary and thyme that comes with a scent of violets. The wine has a long juicy finish of fresh plums and dried cranberries with a smoky taste and black pepper”. 

Yannick Benjamin

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tannat: The King of the Southwest

madiranEvery summer until the age of 18 years old I spent my summers in Bordeaux.  For both lunch and dinner there was always a bottle of wine on the table. Bordeaux is my love but I always like to creep around and taste something abstract and new. So I decided to go south of Bordeaux and try some Tannat from Madiran. I opened up a bottle of Château Bouscassé Madiran 2009 comprised of Tannat 60%; Cabernet Sauvignon; 25%; and Cabernet Franc 15% at my mother’s house and she made a delicious leg of lamb that would rival most of the top chefs in the city. The wine was sublime and made for a perfect pairing with the lamb.

Tannat is a red grape that comes from the South West of France and is grown primarily in the regions of Irouleguy, Tursan, and of course the heartland of Tannat-Madiran. Alain Brumont is a man of the land and is still, after all these years, one of the most passionate wine makers in all of France. There is no better ambassador for the region of Madiran than Alain Brumont; in fact when most people hear the word Madiran they bring him up:

“My philosophy is primarily governed by a series of uncompromising choices, all leading to the unique style of Château Montus, Château Bouscassé or Torus. These now legendary wines are the result of hard work and the constant search for singularity where the smallest detail can become all-important”—Alain Brumont

madiran2Tannat has a reputation of being a blending grape for either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot due to its firm tannins and rustic characteristics.  However,  Brumont’s passionate love for Tannat has make the grape more accessible by giving it a unique flavor that can only be found when it is grown on the soils of Madiran. Brumont inherited Château Bouscassé vineyards from his father in 1979, and the terroir here covers over 50 hectares of clay and limestone. It was Alain Brumont who gave Madiran the recognition that it deserved and now most people in the wine world associate the red rustic grape Tannat with Madiran.

Chateau Bouscassé Madiran 2009 $23.99

“An elegant expression of Madiran offering more body and depth than many Bordeaux at prices that reach well above the modest price for this wine. Fragrant with blackcurrants plum and spice. Wonderfully fresh on the palate with remarkably refined tannins”.   La Revue du Vin de France, Bettane & Desseauve 


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grain Whisky Redefined

miyagikyoIf you haven’t seen last week’s barrique on Japanese whisky, you definitely should give it a read.  It includes a great primer on the principal types of Japanese (and Scotch) whiskey.  To recap, these are essentially: malt whisky, distilled in a pot still from 100% malted barley, grain whisky, distilled from a combination of malted barley and other grains (mostly corn) in a continuous still, and blended whisky, a combination or blend of the previous two types, by far the most common type of whisky from Japan, Scotland, and Ireland.  A whisky is described as a single malt or single grain if it is the product of only one distillery.  This email is about a single grain whisky from one of the world’s most exciting distillers…

Grain whisky is one of the most misunderstood categories, partially because so little of it is available bottled on its own.  In Scotland, single grain whisky is a rarity, usually only of interest if it’s exceptionally old.   Scotland’s grain whisky production is largely considered an industrial affair, but the situation in Japan is far different.    Japan’s distillers make grain whisky with every bit of care and attention that is lavished on their world-famous malt whiskies, and the best single grains, though relying more heavily on wood for their character (such is the nature of the beast) are every iota as complex as the malts.   Nikka relies on a pair of antique Coffey stills imported from Scotland in the 1960s.  These were originally installed at Nishinomiya before being moved to Miyagikyo (also a malt distillery) in 1999 (pictured above).

nikka coffey grainNikka Coffey Grain Whisky – $68.00

Both of Japan’s major whisky suppliers bottle a single grain whisky but it is Nikka’s singularly compelling version that is the first to be offered in the US.  Entirely appropriate, since I can’t think of a better bridge for American drinkers into the world of Japanese whisky.   Hauntingly deep Mexican vanilla notes meld with dark, syrupy corn, banana, creamy mango and salted caramel.  Though aged in American oak casks, some of which are new, there is no discernable wood tannin.   The overall flavor profile is charming and hedonistic, but also sublimely elegant.   Nikka’s whiskies all have a strong family resemblance in the form of a pleasingly viscous texture and deeply satisfying warmth.

The Coffey still (nothing to do with the drink coffee) is named after the man who invented it in the 1820s, sparking a revolution in whisky production.   Malt whisky was always a specialty product, but the introduction of blended whisky meant a whisky that was easier on the international palate and could be produced on a much grander scale.   A similar apparatus is used to distill most American whiskies, and I think fans of Bourbon, especially might find something interestingly familiar in this corn-based, column distillate from across the sea.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s the deal with Japanese whisky?

When I heard that the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s World Whisky Bible had ranked a Japanese whisky (Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, sadly not available in the US) I wasn’t surprised; I’ve been familiar with Japan’s world-class whiskies since before I started working in the business.  What struck me however, was the degree to which the mainstream (i.e. non-beverage-oriented) media picked up the story and made Japanese whisky part of the popular consciousness.  I can’t tell you how many inquiries I’ve received, even from people who were at most casual whisky drinkers, wanting to know “what’s the deal with this ‘Japanese whisky’?”

So… What’s the deal?

yamazaki1Japan’s whisky-making heritage dates back to 1923 with the founding of the country’s iconic Yamazaki distillery by Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru was the son of a sake-brewing family, ostensibly studying in Scotland to bring Europe’s latest and greatest advances in organic chemistry back to his family’s brewery.  Internships at Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries inspired him to return home, not to carry on his family’s sake business, but create Japan’s first commercial whisky distillery, Yamazaki, for the company that today is known as Suntory. (pictured: barrels of maturing whisky at Yamazaki)

 Despite being the progenitor of Japan’s whisky industry at Yamazaki, Taketsuru was not his own boss, and eventually fell out with the company’s owners over stylistic issues. He favored a rich, oily, lightly peated spirit, which they thought would overwhelm the Japanese palate and not sell very well.  He left to found his own company, now known as Nikka, and build the distillery of his dreams, Yoichi, in 1934.  The differences in both companies’ house styles carry forward to this day, with Nikka being known for round, warming, slightly smoky spirits, and Suntory’s slightly leaner, more angular products emphasizing treble notes of orchard fruit, mineral, and wet bamboo.

Most whisky in Japan is drunk with ice and either water or soda water.  Drinking whisky diluted with water, known as mizuwari, evolved from a traditional way of drinking shōchū, Japan’s indigenous spirit, and is a magnificent with food.  Whisky and soda, or highball, is experiencing a revival, especially among younger drinkers, and of course Japan’s bartenders can do magnificent things with ice, including hand-carved spheres that cool without excessive dilution.  My personal taste, and I think that of most Americans, favors enjoying these whiskies neat.

It’s not Scotch

If for no other reason than that it is not made in Scotland.  UK law and various international agreements are explicitly clear on this point.  Even the United States, which routinely thumbs its nose at place-based product designations, agrees that Scotch must be made in Scotland.

That being said, because Japan’s distilling culture has Scottish roots and operates within the same general model as Scotch, it’s useful to have some context to understand how they differ.  Scotch whisky is manufactured under a detailed set of regulations designed to safeguard its quality and authenticity.  Japan’s distillers adopt most of these definitions for their own product, though as a general practice or custom rather than law.  Theoretically, a Japanese distiller could produce bourbon-style whiskey or a pure pot-still whisky on the Irish model if they wanted.  (pictured: a few of Hakushu’s 24 pot stills)

hakushu2Malt whisky, the oldest type, is made entirely from a mash of malted barley, distilled in a pot still twice, sometimes three times.  Malt whisky originating at a single distillery (i.e. not a blend of more than one distillery’s products) is entitled to be called Single Malt whisky.  The relatively inefficient distillation process results in a product that retains a lot of the impurities that give the raw spirit its character.  Additional layers of complexity can be derived from the use of some amount of peat smoke to dry the barley after it is malted.

Grain whisky is made from a mash containing malted barley, but nowadays usually comprising mostly corn, by means of a single continuous distillation in a column still.  The column still yields a blander, mellower product that costs much less to make and can be made in much greater quantities than malt whisky.

Though both Nikka and Suntory produce and bottle exceptionally unique and compelling grain whiskies,  where it really finds its niche is as the base for blended whisky, the combination of one or more (usually several) malt whiskies with one or more (usually one) grain whiskies.  In the context of Scotch whisky, far more malt whisky is sold as a component in blends than as single malt.  While distillery-branded single malts are the most recognizable and prestigious product, in Japan as much as in Scotland, they are far eclipsed in commercial importance by the blends.

Looking to the future… and to the past

Unlike Scotland, where there are dozens of players of various sizes, some owning one or more distilleries, some merely blenders or independent bottlers, Japan’s whisky industry is dominated by two major firms, which are very much consolidated enterprises.  So while a blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker might contain malts from a dozen or more different distilleries, some owned by its parent company (Diageo) and some not, Japanese blenders must source all the components for their final product in-house.  Japan’s distilleries each craft several distinct styles of distillate, in order to give their blenders a diverse palette from which to work.   Suntory’s Hakushu 12, for example, is a blend of unpeated and heavily-peated spirit, while Yamazaki 18 is not merely an older version of Yamazaki 12, but a completely distinct (though related) spirit.   There is a great deal of experimenting with yeast, barley strains, fermentation times, etc. and the art of distilling is in a state of constant refinement.

yoichiBut Japan’s distillers are just as likely to mine the past for inspiration. Nikka’s Yoichi distillery boasts the world’s only coal-fired pot stills used for making whisky. (pictured: a stoker at Yoichi distillery)  The company’s companion distillery, Miyagikyo, features a pair of old-style Coffey stills, imported from Scotland, which they use to make a distinctive full-bodied grain whisky, as well as something called a Coffey Malt, which is a column-still whisky distilled from 100% malt.  This style has since died out in Scotland, where column-distilled whisky cannot be called malt, but persists in Japan.  The Japanese also experiment with different yeast strains and different wood types, most notably the distinctively aromatic Mizunara oak native to Japan.  Mizunara oak is not the most effective material for making whisky casks, but its unmistakable fragrance leads most distillers to use small amounts of Mizunara-aged spirit in their whiskies.

It’s an excellent time to be a Japanese whisky lover.  Japan’s distillers never stop tinkering with their product; one gets the sense that they’ll never be satisfied until it’s the best it can be, and perhaps not even then.   The major players have now been joined by some exciting newer distilleries just now making it onto the export market.  We’re constantly seeing and tasting new releases and I look forward to talking to you more about them.  Kampai!


Posted in Uncategorized

There is more than Port in Portugal: Exploring the Douro Valley

crasto1 Sometimes you have turn to the old to find the new. This is especially true in the wine world where regions that have been producing wine for centuries are still undergoing their own creative revolutions and changes. A perfect example is the Douro Valley in Portugal, a region traditionally celebrated for its port, but has recently surprised the world with excellent unfortified wines—both red and white. In fact out of Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2014, three of the Top Five Wines came from Portugal.

As venerated wine writer Matt Kramer comments on Portuguese wines: “They are brilliant, brilliant wines with an incredible future.”

crasto2I, personally, explored the rebirth of this wine region over a lunch with Manuel Lobo, the winemaker of Quinta do Crasto, whose estate is a leading light in the valley. Crasto’s lineage dates back to the 17th century as a Port house. They still produce port, but their table wines have been the recent focus of attention. Throughout my lunch Crasto’s sophistication and detail was evidenced throughout the entire lineup of wines t hat I was fortunate to taste alongside Manuel. But one wine in particular stood out as a clear example of why we should all pay attention to what is going on in the Douro:

Quinta do Crasto Reserva Old Vines 2012 $46.99

A crastolabelcomposition of red and black fruits flirts with notes of star anise, wood smoke, and pipe tobacco.  Plenty of concentration and depth here, but the wine still conveys a clear definition of fruit with polished layers and tannins.  In this sense the wine is intellectually stimulating but at the same time, still pleasurable and amicable.  I found this fitting because that description matches the overall impression I had of the lunch: intellectually engaging and pleasurable overall. Showing well now, but can be cellared for 5-10 years.

The Reserva comes from gnarled vines of indigenous varieties over 70 years in age.  Crasto practices sustainable viticulture and the domain is in the process of becoming certified organic.


Posted in Uncategorized

The Most Jamaican of Rums

Popular consciousness of rum is so dominated by a few mass-produced, mass-market products that you’d almost think there’s no such thing as an artisanally-crafted fine sipping rum, but this would be a mistake.  For better or worse, sugar cane spirits are inextricably bound up with Europe’s colonial past, and the blending of cultures that resulted have given rum a striking array of styles, each with its own unique story and many that can go head-to-head with the world’s greatest brandies or whiskies.

In Britain, rum historically was strongly associated with the Royal Navy, which issued a daily ration to sailors that continued until 1970. In the age of sail, space was tight, and stewards could not risk ruining precious gunpowder with accidentally spilled rum.  The Navy therefore requisitioned rum that was 57% alcohol, a strength at which the spirit would still allow gunpowder to ignite after soaking.  This also served as a way of testing the alcoholic strength, as a successful ignition was a guarantee that the product was “up to proof” (hence the term).  That 57% benchmark carries forward to this day; In the UK “100 proof” or “Navy Strength” refers to a spirit that is 57% alcohol by volume.

Revived from dormancy under the guidance of renowned drinks historian Dave Wondrich, this blend of Jamaican pot still rums is the very definition of old school.  An equal blend of two styles of heavy pot still rum, its components are shipped in barrel to England to be blended and bottled in London.  No molasses or spirit caramel is added to Smith & Cross, so it has a deep amber color, lighter than some of the more familiar Jamaican rums.

Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum$30.00smithcross.skinny

The full-bodied Wedderburn rum (aged approx. 6 months) supplies some vivid floral elements and an earthy, molasses-y funk.  The lighter (but still quite chunky) Plummer rum is aged for 18 to 36 months and fills in the top end with subtle barrel spice and wonderful caramel apple, mango and vanilla.  Three years is about as long as you really want to age this style of rum lest the vivid, ripe tropical notes be overwhelmed by the wood.

Rum as we know it is an artifact of the sugar trade.  The Portuguese brought sugar cane to the New World from the Azores in the 16th century, and before long countries from Spain to Sweden were planting it to satisfy Europe’s insatiable sweet tooth.   Since rum was originally conceived as a way to use up the molasses that was left over from sugar refining, each colony developed unique styles based on the peculiarities of the home country.  The French had developed a domestic sugar industry based on sugar beets, so did not need cane sugar from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique flooding the market, so these islands became known for a product distilled directly from fresh cane juice, called Rhum Agricole.  Austria had no tropical colonies, but its thirst for rum was such that they were forced to develop a substitute made from grain alcohol and added flavoring.  The British initially shipped cut sugar cane from the West Indies to New England to be refined.   But after the revolution they were forced to relocate production closer to the source, giving rise to unique styles in Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, and, my personal favorite, Jamaica.   Jamaican rum is typically the fullest, most ester-laden rum in the Caribbean and is unique in relying on spontaneous fermentation rather than the ubiquitous cultured yeasts.   These have the full spectrum of sugarcane-derived aromas and express an inimitable sense of place.

To me, rum is most at home in cocktails.  During the tiki bar craze, bartenders created secret drink recipes based on fruit juices, various complex flavored syrups, and rum.  One of the major themes was drinks using more than one type of rum in the same drink.  When was the last time you saw a drink with more than one whiskey or more than one gin? Such is the diversity of rum that the iconic rum cocktail, the Mai Tai, uses both dark (usually Jamaica) and light (usually Trinidad) rums, plus a float of overproof rum.  Wonderful in egg nog or hot toddies, in planter’s punches or daiquiris, and marvelous on its own (or with a little water), Smith & Cross is a staple of my home bar, and deserves a place on yours.



Posted in Uncategorized