Tuesday, January 12, 2010

East Coast Wineries Cassis Smack Down

According to wikipedia, “Crème de cassis is a blood-red, sweet, blackcurrant flavored liqueur, and is an ingredient of kir, an apéritif. The modern version of the drink first appeared in the Burgundy region in 1841, displacing "ratafia de cassis" from prior centuries. It is made from blackcurrants crushed into refined alcohol, with sugar subsequently added. While crème de cassis is a specialty of Burgundy, it is made in other cities of France, as well as in Luxembourg and Quebec.” It is also made in the northeast, especially after the folks at the Cornell Extension, and other agricultural extensions in New England, extolled the berries virtues for many years, insisting that a juice market would materialize. It never really did.

Currants, red and black, are winter hardy, and not susceptible to many of the diseases that plague grapes. A great crop for cold weather regions. So the untapped currant crop was good news for winemakers and consumers. As a result, numerous north east wineries have a quality currant fruit base to draw from, and thus, more and more wineries are making cassis.

So this last weekend, I called together my crack squad of tasters – Dominique DeVito, David Jackson and his lovely wife Kathy - and we had an East Coast Wineries Cassis Smack Down. The challengers were:

Putney Mountain Winery Vermont Cassis
Clinton Vineyards Cassis
Finger Lakes Distillery Cassis Liqueur
Tousey Winery Crème de Cassis

Admittedly, these are not all the cassis wines being made in the region. But hey, I just couldn’t get my hands on any more of them. I laid our four glasses in front of each person, and we started drinking from light to dark, and we started to drink.

First up was the Putney Mountain Winery Vermont Cassis. Putney Mountain Winery is an artisanal winery characterized in The Bennington Banner as “regionally renowned for its unique, high-quality wines”. This was the lightest in color of all the wines. It was the color of a nice Chianti. Not opaque in any way. I nice garnet colored clear wine. It smelled of currant, which was to be expected. It was a pleasant, sweet, and tart dessert wine from local, unsprayed black currants. While it was tart, the sweetness was enough that you could see yourself sipping it from a glass as a dessert all by itself. Lovely, really a lovely wine. It was the lightest, and most dessert wine like cassis we had all night.

Second up was the Clinton Vineyards Cassis. Clinton Vineyards, from Dutchess County, New York, are known mainly for three things – classic Seyval Blanc, great sparkling wines, and wonderful dessert wines. This is a Gold Medal winning, Cassis, famous throughout the Hudson Valley. This won a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. Best in Class. It is made from black currants. Made by the late owner Ben Feder, and his wife Phyllis, the Clinton Vineyards Cassis is a complete step away from the Putney version. Firstly, it was much, much darker - opaque. The nose was more pronounced. Powerful. It is a multi layered and complex taste with amazing fruit forward and great acidity. The wine was big, bold, fruity, and tart! Wow, did it leave you with a pucker. This is the kind of cassis I would personally like from a snifter. An intense wine. While some people might be overwhelmed by it, I found it richly rewarding.

Then came the Finger Lakes Distillery Cassis Liqueur. The Distillery specializes in handmade vodka, gin, whiskey, liqueurs, brandy and grappa. Their liqueurs are made by infusing their own spirits with local ingredients. All of their liqueurs are natural, with no artificial flavors. Their Cassis Liqueur is made in a traditional manner - by soaking local black currants in their own grape-neutral spirit, then sweetening to taste. The nose here was completely different. While the first two wines had alcohol contents of around 13% or so, the Distillery’s liqueur weighed in at a whopping 24%! The nose was a mixture of currant and alcohol. But this is a liqueur, as opposed to a wine, so one has to keep that in mind. This is much more or the level as Chambord, which is made from raspberries. This robust brandy has notes of cranberries, blackberries and raspberries. This was big, opaque, with a big, fruity, tart taste, and a wallop of alcohol. This is powerful enough for fabulous Kir Royals, as well as to be poured over chipped ice in a brandy snifter. A very big entry in the cassis sweepstakes.

Last came the Tousey Winery Crème de Cassis. Tousey Winery is located down in Germantown, New York. Owner Ray Tousey is a well-known and respected farmer and beekeeper in lower Columbia County. He is well known for his honey. Made by winemaker Bruce Tripp, the Tousey Winery entry was a little different. I was only 13% alcohol or so. And it was as big and tart and fragrant as the Clinton Vineyards. But while all three had been sweetend by adding sugar, Tripp’s secret ingredient was all natural honey – Mr. Tousey’s honey to be exact. A true estate cassis. This was a fabulous wine. A great new surprise.

Surprisingly, there was no clear winner. At least o wine was the favorite of each judge, and so no winner was declared – except for the judges. They were all winners…and so were the wines. Go out and buy these luscious wines for yourself.