November 11, 2010

Nocino update

You may recall my post from July about nocino, the green walnut liqueur made in southern France and Italy and, more and more it seems, Portland, Oregon.

It all started with my friend and Guild Winemakers co-conspirator Anne Hubatch and family holding their annual nocino party on the last weekend in June. That's traditional nocino-making time, when walnuts are sizeable but still immature, the way you want them for nocino.

The Hubatch party had been featured prominently in Mix magazine in 2009, complete with instructions on making your own nocino. We were invited to this year's party but because of the crazy cold and wet spring, the walnuts weren't ready for nocino until mid-July. By then, I'd gotten my neighbor Edward's permission to harvest lots of walnuts from his front yard tree. So with a ladder and tree trimmer turned walnut harvester, I drew the attention of the kids on the block in my quest for perfectly underripe walnuts. With lots of help, I gathers several dozen and took them home to make nocino. After quartering the walnuts, I simply put them into two jugs and poured in white wine, vodka, everclear, cloves, cinnamon sticks, fresh orange peel and varying amounts of sugar as a test. The jugs were intentionally not filled all the way, then left out in the light, heat and cold to oxidize as much as possible over four months.

It's November and time to strain what's become a brackish liquid and check on progress of flavor and aroma development. I'd periodically open and close the tops of the jugs to give a sniff and to get more air in contact with the liquid, to help tame the fierce tannin from the walnuts. Thing really unripe bananas, and think of the oxidizing process as a slow cooking that helps sweeten and cure things until they are delicious. At least that's the idea. Along the way, things smelled great but quick tastes showed lots of raw tannin. I hoped time would help calm that down.

Now, I strained the nocino first through a fine mesh strainer and then again through the strainer lined with cheese cloth. I did a good job catching bits of sediment and the occasional wedge of blackened walnut, which you can see here. The fragrance of the nocino filled the garage where I was working and I couldn't wait to taste the nearly final product.

First I tried the half sugar jug, pouring a bit into a dessert wine glass and holding it outside to get a good look at the color in natural light. This sample was fairly bitter and tannic, definitely in need of either more time, more sugar, or most likely both. Then I tried the full sugar jug and it was much fuller and smoother, if a touch too sweet. I found it interesting that the full sugar batch on the right, which started out lighter presumably because there was less air in the jug (more full because of more sugar), now it's darker. Seems like the sugar caramelized to a browner color while the lower sugar jug on the left maintained more of a honey color, with some browning in the middle but noticeably less than the other.

I originally thought I'd end up bottling the two batches separately, but I found that a mix of the two samples was best of all. Now I'm thinking I'll blend them, but for now I kept things separate. Here are the two jugs of stained nocino in the middle, bracketed by the original jugs with stains on each showing the original fill levels., before I shook out the walnuts (which didn't take more than a minute for each jug). I'll let the strained nocino sit for a few more weeks to settle out more sediment, then perhaps strain again and pour into little bottles for keeping and giving. Neighbor Edward will get some, as will the Hubatch family. I'm definitely saving some for the future. I've seen that nocino can improve dramatically for a few years. But I'm sure a few other bottles will find their way into other hands. Nothing like nocino for the holidays.

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