By Jim Clarke
January 2007

These are all wines (or beers or spirits) that I have recently enjoyed and which somehow-or-another stood out from the pack. Some were new to me, some were new vintages of wines I was previously familiar with, and others are quaffs that I have revisited and possibly even developed a new appreciation for.

SPARKLING: J Wine Vintage Brut 1998, Russian River Valley, California

Not the current release – though that itself is also quite enjoyable – the 1998 represents the first year that J Vineyards upped its on-lees aging time to four years, and the wine shows that it has the fruit and structure to accommodate the extended aging. Those fruits have broadened after a couple years on its side and today are showing themselves as notes of pear and quince. The wine has delicious butterscotch, honey, and hazelnut aromas; medium-bodied, it’s smooth and soft on the palate, with a clean finish.

Serve with: Scallops

WHITE: Ostertag Sylvaner 2005 Alsace, France

Outside of the four “noble” Alsace grapes (Riesling, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris) many Alsace wines tend to be acceptable, but not particularly distinguished (I’m thinking here of the Pinot Blancs, Sylvaners, and actually, most Muscats as well. Nobility be damned). However, I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s the effort in the vineyard (lower-yields, please) that’s the problem, not the varieties themselves. The Ostertag Sylvaner shows what can be achieved: lots of pear, nutmeg, and floral aromas, with a pleasant minerally base. It’s soft, but still crisp; not noble, but certainly enjoyable.

Serve with: Ham

RED: Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Stellenbosch, South Africa

While you could cite this bottle as an example of how South African wines tend to emulate the Old World (more earthy) rather than the New, there remains something distinctively Southern Hemisphere to it. I think it lies in those less fruity aromas, which are not so much earth tones as spice tones – lots of roast coffee, dark chocolate, and the like. It’s fairly full-bodied, but not voluptuous; good concentration and muscle make for depth, length, and class.

Serve with: Roasted meats

DESSERT: Hanahato Kijoshu Junmai Sake, Nihonshu-do, Japan

Most sake is meant to be served young, but this one is aged for eight years, giving a tawny color which hints at the flavors to come: walnut, maple syrup, honey, and fig. Not as sweet or rich as a Port, but offers a similar flavor profile in a less heavy package.

Serve with: Crème Brulée

BEER: Fischer Amber, Alsace, France

France is often an afterthought in the world of the beer-drinker, but just as German influence has affected the wines of Alsace, they’ve also lent a bit of umph to the beers. Fischer’s clunky, broad bottle and Grolsch-style top hints at a different sort of beer: a medium amber, and not too sweet. Good hoppy aromas (there are plenty of hops fields around Strasbourg, which fade into vineyards as you head south) are support by a concentrated maltiness and caramel notes. It’s a lighter style than other ambers, with less depth and richness; good when you want the flavor, but not the weight.

Serve with: Gingerbread

SPIRIT: Ardbeg 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

While other distilleries reign supreme in the 16 year or older categories, this may just be the best ten year Islay malt out there. It’s peaty and smoky, with citrus, seaweed, and iodine notes. It’s not rich, full, and creamy - if you want the bells and whistles of prolonged barrel-aging, look elsewhere. The Ardbeg shows its terroir without dressing it up.

Serve with: a drop of spring water, perhaps


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