Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tasting notes - Cantillon Gueuze

"Horse blanket. Barnyard. Old leather. Musty. Cheesy. Cidery. Fruity. Tart. Acidic. Lactic. Dry. Put them all together and you've found yourself a lambic. And a damn good one, at that." - Gregg Glaser

With the juggernaut of urbanization casually steamrolling throughout northern Europe, the brewers of the Senne River Valley have had more to worry about than the proliferation of powerfully advertised mass-market brands and the saccarification on the public's taste buds. Similar to the plight of the modern vintner, it's loss of habitat that stands as the Belgian wildbrewer's primary concern. Rather than the soil and irrigation issues that plague the winemaker, though, it's the quality and diversity of microorganisms in the air that's at risk of making historic lambic brewing a lost art.
The precise combination of wild yeasts and other microflora that populate in the "lambic valley", residing in the trees and old buildings' rafters, spreading through the breeze of the Brussels evening, is the soul of the lambic. And while kriek brewers in Belgium have had to contend with the virtual disappearance of their treasured Schaarbeek sour cherries, the modern lambic brewer faces a deforested valley along with old buildings being removed and renovated. Brewers who relocate their facilities will actually take timbers from the old location in the hopes that the resident microflora that gives their open-fermented ales their "house" character will come along for the ride.
With the knowledge that we may be among the last generation to enjoy truly wild lambics in the style that they've been made for ages, it's especially comforting to know that Cantillon is there to represent - and in full-on organic style, no less. Plainly, simply put, their Gueuze is a funkfest, in the classiest sense. The champagne of the horse-blanket and wild-mushroom set, it's a golden, effervescent masterpiece of wilderness. Cantillon still makes their lambics in the traditional manner, their gueuze being the result of a blend of aged with young lambic laid to rest and generate its gentle carbonation through a refermentation in the bottle - and it's a stunner. Deeply complex, dry and wine-y, acidic and challenging, refreshing but appetite-rousing, it's all the things history has taught us a lambic was meant to be.
First-time tasters who recoil at the pop of the cork, the cellar smells and mysterious vapors that emit from the bottle, need only allow it a moment to breathe before taking that first sip and begin to try to decipher the web of sensations that it provides. How something made only from wheat, barley, water, and aged hops could develop into something so fascinating to drink and ruminate over is amazing. That is, of course, until you realize that there's a mysterious blend of ingredients wafting past on the spring breeze.
For now, at least. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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