Past is present: A unique Virginia wine evokes ancient techniques

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Ben Jordan’s War & Rust is an herb-infused digestif that gives a nod to the northern Italian Barolo Chinato. Photo: Tom McGovern Ben Jordan’s War & Rust is an herb-infused digestif that gives a nod to the northern Italian Barolo Chinato. Photo: Tom McGovern

Since the dawn of civilization, brewers and winemakers have flavored beverages with herbs, resins, honeys, fruits, meats, barks and spices.

In ancient Egypt, figs and honey helped jumpstart fermentations in amphorae, while chamomile and other herbs flavored the various wines.

In ancient Greece, resins coated the inside of the clay vessels and acted as both sealant and preservative. These resins also gave the wines a pine-like aroma and flavor, and in modern-day Greece, you can still find wines made in this retsina style.

Move west across the Mediterranean to ancient Rome, and you’ll find that some of the earliest doctors used infused wine as medicines and salves, calling them theriacs. The best theriacs took years to mature and boasted exotic ingredients such as opium and viper meat. The high cost of the recipe reserved them for the wealthy elite of ancient Rome, and theriacs enjoyed popularity among the likes of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In today’s northern Italy, theriac descendants called chinati are popular in Barolo. But unlike the ancestor of Barolo Chinato (hreb-infused Barolo), you will no longer find opium or snakes on the ingredient list.

Wine additives in the ancient world served very practical purposes—to preserve wine on long journeys, and substances such as resin and beeswax could efficiently seal containers. Medicinally, infusions were easy-delivery conduits to ensure a patient received dozens of healing herbs and barks in one serving.

These days, wine has a purity to it and does not often overlap with infused botanicals. Putting chamomile flowers in your Grand Cru Burgundy might even seem sacrilegious to some. But if you look closely, you’ll find a few modern-day manifestations of these age-old techniques. You probably have one in your home right now: vermouth. The popular aperitifs Dubonnet and Lillet, and the wine-based amaro and Cardamaro, are also made of infused wine. Wine infusions continue to function as aperitifs and digestifs in many restaurants and bars.

And here in our own backyard, Ben Jordan (winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison) makes his own unique infused wine called War & Rust. The wine is a nod to the northern Italian Barolo Chinato, and although this was the original inspiration for War & Rust, over the years Jordan has departed from Italy’s exact method and style.

He uses a solera-like aging system for the wine, bottling only a part of the production, then adding the next year’s wine to the remaining previous year’s wine. His is one of the only active soleras in Virginia, and it dates back to 2007. Because each iteration of War & Rust carries through in a small way to the next vintage, it has continuity from year to year, but Jordan does take liberties in changing the type of grape varieties and the exact ingredient recipe depending on what each vintage brings.

A solera is an interesting mental exercise in commitment for a winemaker.

“I made a half barrel for the first batch. It has followed me around in my day jobs, so these days there is a lot of cabernet franc, tannat, petit verdot, there’s even petit manseng,” Jordan says. As a solera, War & Rust is never fully complete, and as a constant work in progress it calls its maker to reevaluate quality, process and technique each harvest season.

Thus, each year’s new bottling is slightly different from the previous year, and Jordan has a devoted following of collectors who enjoy tasting War & Rust through its many subtle manifestations. In a way, following the infused wine through the years is a bit like following Jordan through a vinous autobiography in which we glean a snapshot of the fresh grapes and botanicals at his fingertips.

Each year, he infuses approximately 20 different ingredients in his wine, including cinchona bark, anise, myrrh, juniper, rose petals and chamomile. The cinchona bark in particular gives War & Rust a slight bitter taste that counteracts some of the sweetness in the grapes, making it one of the only local digestifs on the market.

If you find a bottle, try it with cheese and heed Jordan’s advice: “It takes 24 hours after opening to start to show, and I think it improves over a week in the fridge.”

Compared to the years of waiting for ancient Roman theriacs to mature, a week in the fridge will go by quickly.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

–Erin Scala