New Perfume Reviews DSH Perfumes The Cannabis Culture Collection- It’s 4:20

The word collection when it comes to fragrance has been so overused that it has become meaningless. Except for the few perfume brands which actually understand the concept that a collection of perfumes should have some common theme or ingredient running through the different entries. One perfumer who continues to produce collections which are everything I could want from something called that, is Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Her latest collection The Cannabis Culture Collection examines marijuana from four very different perspectives.

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Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

As marijuana begins the long journey towards becoming legal in the United States there are two states which have voted to get ahead of the rest of the country, Washington and Colorado. Ms. Hurwitz lives in Boulder, Colorado and wanted to make a collection capturing all there is to smell about the cannabis culture which is slowly emerging into the light. The four fragrances capture different parts of the culture. The growing of it in controlled conditions in The Green House. Finding it in the wild among other growing things in Agreistic. Harvesting the buds sticky and redolent in I Love You Mary Jane. Finally smoking it up on a walk through the Colorado pine forest in Rocky Mountain High.

If you are in your mid-50’s to 60’s you came of age in an era when there were many amateur underground cannabis growers. Most of these were a rack of a few plants growing under an electronic grow-light in a small windowless room usually in a basement. Whenever I would walk into one of these I would be struck by an intensely sharp green smell paired with damp potting soil. The Green House is Ms. Hurwitz’s evocation of that accord. She uses a softly green accord to capture the sharp green quality while also evoking the humidity of the artificial growing environment. The soil accord is paired with a bit of patchouli to give it some texture. This is cannabis as it is seen by the one who grows it in secret.

I’ve also done my fair share of hiking and it was always a funny moment when I would stop for lunch among a field of wildflowers and see the distinctive seven lobed leaf waving among the color. For Agreistic Ms. Hurwitz imagines a field of lavender studded with cannabis here and there. Ms. Hurwitz chooses to use a fougere architecture for Agreistic but it has some very interesting twists. A mix of acerbic tomato leaf with juicy plum opens into a fougere heart of lavender, hay, and oakmoss. Just as you might be leaning back into the olfactory field of purple floral stalks you pillow your head on a stand of cannabis. This is a much more expansive accord than in The Green House as in Agreistic it feels like part of a natural mise en scene. This is cannabis out of the basement and in the open sunshine.

i love you mary jane

I Love You Mary Jane is the experience of picking through tight sticky buds of cannabis. If you’ve ever done that then you know the smell your fingers have after handling the buds? That is exactly what I Love You Mary Jane smells like. Ms. Hurwitz uses a fabulous assemblage of notes to form this accord most of them fruit. Grapefruit, blackberry, mango, apricot, are matched with rhubarb and blackcurrant bud. The grapefruit, blackcurrant bud, and rhubarb comprise a narcotic sourness over the lusher fruits. A bit of floralcy comes through with osmanthus and lily before patchouli brings this home. This is cannabis as it is being prepared to be smoked.

The first three fragrances deal with the smell of the growing cannabis plant. The final entry, Rocky Mountain High, is the pungent smell of it being smoked amid the high-altitude pines of the Rockies. Ms. Hurwitz has worked with some local distillers and one of those Eric Bresselsmith supplied her with a juniper oil. This is paired with chrysanthemum and together they wrap a hemp nucleus. To get the sort of stinky smell of the smoke Ms. Hurwitz adds a bit of natural skunk to add that level of reality to it all. Around all of this is a full suite of coniferous notes. This is cannabis being enjoyed in one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular vistas.

All of The Cannabis Culture Collection have 6-8 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

Once again Ms. Hurwitz has produced an intriguing collection which allows a perfume lover to explore cannabis from multiple points of view. I think many will find one of them to be their favorite. I have to say that I really like all of them but if pressed I Love You Mary Jane is my favorite. Just remember it is 4:20 somewhere.

Disclosure: this review was based on samples provided by DSH Perfumes.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Grossmith Sylvan Song- Fortnum & Mason Go Retro Nouveau

I am loath to recommend new perfumes which are exclusive to single points of sale. Then again when they are excellent perfumes I also feel it is my job to bring them to people’s attention. I have also found the ones which I am more pleased to write about are perfumes which actually have something of the exclusive store’s character within the construction. When I was at Pitti Fragranze I had the opportunity to try the new Grossmith Sylvan Song exclusive to London department store Fortnum & Mason.

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Amanda and Simon Brooke

Ever since Simon and Amanda Brooke revived the venerable British perfume house of Grossmith in 2005 they have been revisiting a tradition almost two hundred years old. In 1980 it disappeared only to have the Brookes bring it back to life 25 years later. The early releases have been reformulations of the early perfumes Mr. Brooke found and wanted to expose to a new audience. The Grossmith style has a big boisterous presence. If you like your perfumes quiet Grossmith isn’t for you. If you like your perfumes full of extroverted brilliant layers Grossmith is for you. Sylvan Song is a new composition by perfumer Celine Guivarc’h it feels like she is working off of an old recipe but it is an entirely Retro Nouveau.

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Celine Guivarc'h

Mme Guivarc’h makes an exceedingly floral heart which gives way to a smoke laden Oriental base and this is expertly balanced. One of the harder things to do when making a Retro Nouveau fragrance is not to get too caught up in the Retro so it feels “old” and not to get too modern that it loses any sense of having a vintage charm. Mme Guivarc’h lets the florals hearken back to yesteryear while letting the base and the smokiness bring a more contemporary flair to the end.

Sylvan Song opens with a brilliant point of light courtesy of bergamot. It is like a sunbeam across my senses as if to grab my attention. Once it has my focus, rose, ylang, and jasmine form a floral trio singing at the top of their olfactory lungs. This is floral power and each one of the flowers pick a part of the harmony to make beautiful music with. I love the way all of the Grossmith florals have a British stiff upper lip to them as they hold their ground almost defiantly asking the wearer to take them on their own merits. The beauty is found in its unrestrained floralcy. The base is set upon a foundation of incense smoldering and swirling smoke throughout the rest of the notes of vetiver, patchouli, benzoin, and musk. This base is the kind of smoky resinous base which has become popular over the last twenty years. Here it provides the Nouveau to the Retro of the flowers.

Sylvan Song has 12-14 hours longevity and above average sillage.

Sylvan Song is an excellent example of how a brand evolves without losing its heritage. Under the care of the Brookes Grossmith will thrive for many years to come. Sylvan Song proves that the old ways can be turned into new ways without abandoning the past.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample from Grossmith at Pitti Fragranze.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Blacklist

Every new television season I manage to pick up one or two new series which eventually get a season pass on my DVR. The sad thing is when it comes to the next new television season I find it is those that I watched the year before which I delete from my DVR to make room for the new potentials. In almost every artistic endeavor you can name, sustaining creativity and building upon it is extremely difficult. I imagine for a new television series it is even more daunting. When you film your original order of thirteen episodes you likely put all of your good ideas on the line. Then if you’re successful you’re asked for nine more episodes to complete the first season. Now what? The truly creative manage to get over this; others have problems and it is why you often see those final nine episodes of a freshman television series become so maddeningly inconsistent. Of the new shows I began watching last year one of them has not only come back stronger than when it began but it feels like it is peaking at the moment. That show is NBC’s The Blacklist.

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The premise of The Blacklist is that a one-time agent who had turned to a life of crime by becoming the man who brokers deals between international criminals turns himself in. The character’s name is Raymond “Red” Reddington and he is played by James Spader in one of the best performances on television. It is his performance which makes the show watchable even when the plotting gets a little too byzantine. The structure of the show is Red only works with one profiler in the FBI, Lizzie Keen played by Megan Boone. The mythology weaving its way through the show is about Red’s and Lizzie’s relationship. There is some connection and the show feeds the audience bits and pieces about it around the case of the week. Those cases are people who are on The Blacklist, criminals so careful the police agencies don’t even know about them. Every episode starts with a name. Sometimes they have supervillain like names The Kingmaker or The Alchemist; sometimes it is just the name of a person or group. By the end of the hour the titular villain is thwarted.

The cases are pretty standard television fare. The performance of Mr. Spader is not. He excels at playing these morally ambiguous characters. He really became one of my favorite actors when he played the role of lawyer Alan Shore on the last season of the show The Practice before being spun-off into his own show Boston Legal. There is common ground between Red and Alan, besides the actor who brings them to life, both happily almost gleefully use unethical means to ensure positive outcomes. It is this ability to portray a character who contains a strong adherence to a personal ethos which makes Mr. Spader so much fun to watch. In The Blacklist he has never been better.

If you are looking for something to catch up on and binge watch as the weather turns colder I can highly recommend doing so with Season 1 of The Blacklist. Then catch up to the current season because it is only getting better.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Chocolate

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With Halloween just a week away my mind turns to candy and confections. Specifically my mind turns to chocolate; big piles of chocolate. Hershey’s, Kit Kat, Twix, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers; you get the idea. My dentist probably wishes I didn’t get the idea. For the next week there will be plenty of chocolate to eat. What if you’d rather wear some chocolate? There are some really amazing chocolate perfumes out there and these five are among my favorite perfumes with a prominent chocolate note. This kind of chocolate my dentist approves of.

When you speak of chocolate in perfumery you have to start with Thierry Mugler Angel created in 1992 by perfumer Olivier Cresp. It is the perfume which single-handedly created the gourmand category. It is a great perfume but when I want the Thierry Mugler version of chocolate I reach for perfumer Jacques Huclier’s A*Men from 1996. M. Huclier took the patchouli, caramel, vanilla, and chocolate base of Angel and stripped away all of the fruit and replaced it with strong black coffee and lavender. When I get the urge for chocolate my eyes always alight on my bottle of A*Men.

My favorite kind of chocolate is a dark chocolate and orange bar. Montale Chocolate Greedy by perfumer Pierre Montale in 2007 is just that. Chocolate Greedy has a bit of the bite of high percentage cacao dark chocolate with bitter orange. This is as simple a perfume as it gets but in that Montale over the top way it seems like much more.

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Serge Lutens Borneo 1834 by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake is a luscious mix of chocolate and patchouli. M. Sheldrake turns this as dark as it can get even adding in a few licorice whips to tint it even darker. One of my favorite of the entire Serge Lutens line it completely re-invents the chocolate and patchouli beat from A*Men into something much deeper.

I think it was 2009 when I discovered perfume Charna Ethier’s Providence Perfume Co. I am sure it was Cocoa Tuberose which was the first perfume I tried from the very talented Ms. Ethier. This all-natural perfume delivers exactly what it promises although if there was truth in labeling the cocoa would be in all caps while the tuberose would be in lower case. Ms. Ethier’s cocoa is rich and nearly overwhelming so it takes an extroverted white flower like tuberose to make any headway at all. It’s an uphill battle all the way for the white flower but once she gains a foothold the tuberose really proves to be an excellent companion to the chocolate. Ms. Ethier has delivered on the promise I felt when trying Cocoa Tuberose as she is now among the best independent perfumers working.

One of my favorite cold weather drinks is Mexican Hot Chocolate where high quality cocoa is dissolved in milk and adorned with cinnamon and chile powder. Perfumers Yann Vasnier and Rodrigo Flores-Roux capture the rich spicy drink as a fragrance in Arquiste Anima Dulcis. From the sprinkling of cinnamon in the opening into a piquant heart of not only chile pepper and cocoa but also clove and cumin with a hint of jasmine blowing in through the window. The heart of Anima Dulcis is one of the most unique gourmand hearts in the genre. It finishes with cedar and vanilla to soothe the palate.

If I come Trick or Treating to your doorstep give me candy but I’ll be wearing one of these favorite chocolate perfumes as I walk my neighborhood. Happy Halloween to all the readers of Colognoisseur.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of the fragrances I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Byredo Mojave Ghost-Desert Sunrise

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When I was hiking in the Desert Southwest of the US my favorite time of the day was just before the sun would come up. With false dawn providing a bit of diffuse light the desert never smelled so alive. This probably has something to do with it being the coolest part of the day. Before the sun and the harsh conditions bake everything to a crisp; in the hour just before sunrise the scent on the air reminds you that there is lots of life in the seeming lifelessness. Creative Director of Byredo Ben Gorham asked perfumer Jerome Epinette to make a perfume based on one of those flowers which survive in the desert, the Ghost Flower (Mohavea Confertiflora). The perfume is fittingly called Mojave Ghost.

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Sapodilla

When I received my press materials for this perfume that I expected to be about the desert there was listed an ingredient from the tropics which really upped my anticipation. This ingredient was Jamaican Naseberry or as it is called elsewhere, Sapodilla. I loved eating Sapodilla as a kid as it had the taste of brown sugar and cinnamon on a flesh which was apple-like. I always thought it was like getting cooked cinnamon apples off of a tree. When I would split the flesh of a sapodilla that mix of spicy sweet would meet my nose as I took my first bite. M. Epinette really enjoys using the entire arsenal of natural raw materials he has access to from Robertet and in Mojave Ghost he makes this tropical ingredient fit his desert milieu.

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Jerome Epinette

If you have spent any time at all in the desert there is an indigenous slightly spicy smell to it. The closest I can compare it to is cinnamon but so ethereal as to be a ghost of it. This is where the sapodilla plays its part as the brown sugar and cinnamon quality are right on top and M. Epinette adds in ambrette seeds to give a natural muskiness underneath the spiciness. This is very close to that smell I get from the desert. The heart moves into a bit of astringent floralcy with magnolia and violet over sandalwood. M. Epinette keeps this very sheer keeping it wraith-like in nature as it almost feels insubstantial only to coalesce again and gather some more presence. The base is cedarwood, amber, and clean white musk. All of the base notes are also kept on the ethereal side as well.

Mojave Ghost has 8-10 hour longevity but it is so sheer you might think it has worn off when it hasn’t. Sillage is moderate as you might expect.

Mojave Ghost is such a transparent perfume that I think for those who aren’t fans of this kind of opaque construction it might be frustrating. I am a big fan of a perfume which acts as a ghost flitting in and out of my consciousness ever floating on the periphery. Mojave Ghost is that beautiful moment just before the sun explodes over the horizon in an orange fireball in the high desert except the perfume lasts well into the light of day.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Byredo.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Annick Goutal Vent de Folie- Searching For A Pulse

There seems to be a pattern that all perfume lines which have been around for years go through. At first they are new and exciting. Then they enter middle age and very often they go through a mid-life crisis of sorts looking back to former triumphs via flankers and reformulations. Then there are two tracks which follow from here; either the line fades to irrelevance or it gets a creative rejuvenation. Annick Goutal is at this cross roads right now. The last good perfume release from them was Ninfeo Mio at the beginning of 2010. In the over four years since, the nine releases have been surprisingly poor. What is more surprising is the creative team of Creative Director Camille Goutal and perfumer Isabelle Doyen have remained intact. As a result the sample of the latest release Vent de Folie was not high up on my list to test. That changed when I was at Sniffapalooza Fall Ball and sniffed it there. Maybe just maybe the grande dame still had something to show after all.

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Isabelle Doyen (l.) and Camille Goutal

I am glad I returned to the press materials after having sniffed because there is a definite attempt to appeal to a younger perfume wearer. Vent de Folie doesn’t try to break out of the sheer fruity floral mode seemingly prized among that set. If there is a bit of a quibble with Vent de Folie is it is seemingly so safely constructed. A fruity top, a floral heart, and a woody musk base. This is the recipe of hundreds of perfumes all vying for that elusive young demographic. Despite that Mme Doyen manages to make this an interesting version of well-trodden territory.

I think what grabbed me was the opening fruity fusillade. It isn’t subtle. In truth I wouldn’t disagree heartily with someone who found it to be over the top. I think it is exactly that excessive layering of the fruity notes which made me give this a second chance because when Mme Doyen works in overdose she often provides interesting insights. For the top notes of Vent de Folie that is what happens for me. She combines blood orange, blackcurrant buds, and raspberry. Each one of these is present in high concentration. The blood orange at that level shows off more of its tartness. The blackcurrant buds show off the sticky green, almost urinous, quality. The raspberry provides a saccharine foundation. All together they sing in three-part harmony which I found lovely to listen to. Unfortunately the rest of the development is very straight forward as rose and geranium provide the floral foil to the fruit and cedar and white musks provide a clean finish.

Vent de Folie has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

For at least the first hour of Vent de Folie there was a vital pulse again in Annick Goutal. I was reminded when the line used to take risks. The remainder of the time I wore Vent de Folie the patient lapsed back into the creative coma it has been mired in. When you are hoping for a recovery though you will latch on to any small sign. Which is what I’m hoping for as perhaps Vent de Folie is a sign of better days and better perfumes to come.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample of Vent de Folie provided by Annick Goutal.

Mark Behnke

Book Review: Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel- Essential Oil Reading

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When I reviewed Mandy Aftel’s recent release Palimpsest she mentioned it was inspired by the research she did for her new book, “Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent”. I received my review copy a little over a week ago and spent this past weekend completely enthralled by Ms. Aftel’s new book. This is Ms. Aftel’s fourth book on scent and it is by far her most accessible.

Ms. Aftel starts off with an introduction on how she fell in love with making natural perfume after a number of previous careers. She realized that scent was important to her and that she wanted to learn how to create perfume. She immersed herself in the history of perfumery and after her years as a perfumer she has come up with a simple truism, “Scent is a portal to these basic human appetites- for the far-off, the familiar, the transcendent, the strange, and the beautiful-that have motivated us since the origins of our species.” That sentence encapsulates what great perfume does for me and what it aspires to.

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Mandy Aftel (Photo: Foster Curry)

For this book Ms. Aftel decided to focus on five raw ingredients: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each ingredient gets its own chapter. It starts with a history of the ingredient but there are delightful tangents as well. One of my favorites comes from the Cinnamon chapter where she found a set of five rules for perfumers in ancient Constantinople. It directs where the perfumers can ply their trade so the pleasant smells will drift up into the Royal Palace nearby. They are also directed that, “They are not to stock poor quality goods in their shops: a sweet smell and a bad smell do not go together.” I think there are some modern perfumeries which could be reminded of these old rules.

The last section of each chapter is dedicated to experiencing the ingredient as a raw material and it includes recipes for different fragrances and ways to use it in cooking. For an even richer experience for these last sections; on the Aftelier website there is a Companion Kit which has all five of the ingredients to allow you to actually play along as you read. I received one of the Companion Kits and it greatly enhanced my experience. Plus there is enough to allow the reader to choose to use some in whatever way seems apt.

Ms. Aftel’s previous career as a writer along with her experience as a natural perfumer allows for a perfect synergy as the author is also the expert. It is an important distinction when it comes to describing a sensory experience in words. I believe it is Ms. Aftel’s intimate relationship with these materials which allow for her to communicate about them so effectively and beautifully.

There are very few books which can reach outside the small circle of those of us who are obsessed with perfume. I believe Fragrant is going to be a book which does have a much wider reach because it is as easy to read as a true-life adventure. For those of us who love perfume and the raw ingredients within them Fragrant is going to give you new perspective on these ingredients. I learned so much I didn’t know about ingredients I thought I knew a lot about.

The section of my bookshelf which houses the books on scent and perfume that I think are essential is pretty small. With the publication of Fragrant it just got one volume bigger.

Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of Fragrant provided by Riverhead Books.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Frapin Nevermore- A Perfumed Toast to Poe

Wherever I have lived there is always a bit of a local mythology about things that go bump in the night. Now that I live in Maryland one of its most famous sons Edgar Allan Poe is a source of pride and inspiration especially as Halloween approaches. One of the more unique celebrations of Poe’s life was practiced for over seventy years. The tradition of the Poe Toaster who would show up at the gravesite in the early morning hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The Poe Toaster was dressed all in black with their face covered by a scarf carrying a cane. The Poe Toaster would lay three roses on the grave and pour a glass of Martell cognac raise a silent toast and leave the unfinished bottle next to the roses. The tradition started sometime in the 1930’s and ended in 2009 on the bicentennial of Poe’s birth.

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David Frossard

David Frossard the creative director at Frapin Perfumes had heard of this tradition and wanted to make a perfume as a homage to this. The perfumer he chose to work with is Anne-Sophie Behaghel. The result is the new release Frapin Nevermore. Mme Behaghel was going to be the right choice for this because as I read her bio on the Flair website it starts with, “I was born in Paris with the all-pervasive smell of concrete and the Metro in my nostrils.” It serves her well as she evokes a chilly night in a graveyard of concrete grave markers with roses and alcohol added in.

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Anne-Sophie Behaghel

Mme Behaghel sets the stage of a January early morning as she takes a combination of ozonics, aldehydes, and black pepper to create a frozen concrete accord. This is a bit of fragrant scene setting but it might be my favorite part of Nevermore. There is an almost frozen density to the opening moments. Next the roses come out to play as she mixes Rose de Mai and Damask Rose with a rose essential oil. The figurative three roses laid on the grave. As a perfume these three rose sources are blended into a heady middle stanza. As if the rose wasn’t enough Mme Behaghel dunks them in wine. I think this is an excellent choice because if she went with the cognac I think it might not have been as well balanced. The wine adds a deep ruby foundation for the roses to float upon. Now it is time for the Poe Toaster to make his escape and they do so in a swirl of ambrox, saffron, and cedar.

Nevermore has 10-12 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Nevermore is a fascinating perfume which manages to straddle a line between unabashedly old fashioned and completely modern. The opening accord could be used for an urban jungle perfume and along with the ambrox in the base that makes Nevermore seem contemporary. The wine and roses in the heart seem to hearken back to a day when those ingredients were the stuff of civility and refinement. All together Mme Behaghel makes Nevermore a fascinating study in perfumed storytelling. I think Poe would approve.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Jacques Zolty Van-Ile- Transitional Vanilla

For those of us who love niche perfume we have to be hopeful that the number of people interested in it continues to grow over time. For most who fall down the rabbit hole of artistic perfumery it happens through being introduced to the world from an avid perfume lover who will share. Or you might stumble across a boutique carrying brands you’ve never heard of and fall in love with one. That way requires expansion through word of mouth or chance. Over the past few years we have seen niche brands expand outward by ingenious partnerships with other more populist brands. Sephora has begun to offer some niche brands on their fragrance shelves again. The hard thing is that sometimes making the jump to something so different, from the mainstream, is a big leap. Sometimes it seems like if there was a bit of an intermediate step offered it might help make the transition a bit easier.

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Roberto Drago

I had this exact conversation with Roberto Drago who is well-known in niche circles as the creative director of Laboratorio Olfattivo. Sig. Drago is well aware that having a line of perfumes which can be seen as transitional would be good for business. Towards that end he has a line, he also creative directs, which attempts to do that called Jacques Zolty. These are meant to be easily worn fragrances which show much of what makes niche perfume interesting without becoming so complex as to be aloof. One of the most recent releases for this line has straddled this line brilliantly and is called Van-Ile.

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Cecile Zarokian

Vanilla is an ideal focal point for a perfume trying to complete this delicate kind of balancing act. Vanilla is a comforting familiar component to most who wear mainstream perfumes. Sig. Drago asked perfumer Cecile Zarokian to be the one to realize this. Mme Zarokian does a wonderful job of balancing this so that it carries widespread appeal to the longtime niche perfume lover and the person deciding to give something new a try.

Van-Ile is a very simple structure which opens with the figurative perfume version of “once upon a time” as citrus in the form of orange is what you encounter first. As Van-ile proceeds into the heart it uses jasmine as a safe haven but here is where Mme Zarokian offers a little something more as a nutty almond adds a toasty quality to the floral notes. It also is a great note to usher in the vanilla. The vanilla here is that of the vanilla orchid. Which means besides the immediately recognizable sweet vanilla there are also green flares throughout. Some oakmoss picks up and accentuates those green moments. It all finishes in a safe patchouli foundation.

Van-Ile last 8-10 hours with average sillage.

Van-Ile does exactly what it sets out to do as Mme Zarokian mixes the common with just a bit of uncommon. It allows someone who is familiar with mainstream perfumes to take a slight step towards the world of niche. For me I enjoy it for the simple good-natured companion it can be for a day of running errands because even someone who wears as much perfume as I do likes something a little less challenging once in a while.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Jacques Zolty at Pitti Fragranze.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Argentinian Malbec Wine

Location, location, location is a widely known axiom in real estate. It also applies to wine making as well. For great wines to be made it requires a combination of the right amount of sunshine, the right temperature range, and the right kind of soil. These considerations are all combined in a single concept called terroir. Terroir loosely translates to “sense of place”. When the term was first coined I suspected that it was more a marketing ploy by France and California to continue to promote the idea that they were the premiere wine growing regions in the world. It wouldn’t be until the early Naughts that I actually came to believe in the concept and it wasn’t a French or California wine that convinced me it was one from Argentina.

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Malbec grapes on the vine in Mendoza

The malbec grape was a widely used blending grape for the French and California red wines. It was primarily used to soften some of the rougher edges a particular vintage might produce. By itself malbec was never considered to be a wine on its own because it just didn’t have enough character. In France after a particular rough winter in 1956 where most of the malbec vines were lost vintners gravitated to other varietals when replanting like cabernet franc. In California the opposite happened as it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that malbec began to be produced in significant quantities for use as a blending grape.

I remember going to my favorite wine store in Boston and being offered this new wine from Argentina. i freely admit I’m a wine snob and so I expected this new wine from Argentina to be uninspiring. Except when I took my first sip the incredible texture and flavor made me reassess my thoughts on Argentinian wine making. When I asked what the wine was I was told it was Terrazas de los Andes Malbec. I was flummoxed; not only Argentinian but a flaccid tasting grape like malbec. How could this be? The answer was in the name of the wine I had tasted.

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Nicolas Catena Zapata

The introduction of the malbec grape came from French agronomist Miguel Pouget who brought some cuttings with him to Argentina in the mid-18th century. It wouldn’t be until 1994 when winemaker Nicolas Catena Zapata would decide to plant malbec grapes in the high-altitude of the Andes Mountains that these spectacular wines would be cultivated. His Bodega Catena vineyard is the result.

The region in the Andes known for this is called Mendoza. The vineyards that are in the region all exist from altitudes of 3,000-5,000 feet above sea level. The soil is also very flinty as you might expect from being on the side of a mountain range. You would also expect that being on the side of a mountain at altitude the grapes are exposed to a greater and more intense amount of sunlight. All of this is probably true and together they transform the malbec grape grown in Mendoza into one of the best red wines in the world. Terroir indeed.

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The malbec wine imported to the US is uniformly good and unlike most other big red wines is drinkable right away without further aging. These malbecs don’t have a lot of the tannins and harshness that require some mellowing by aging in the bottle. This quality makes them very accessible. What even makes them more accessible is the best malbecs are still available at less than $20 a bottle, often less than $15 a bottle. Compared to their French and California counterparts which are over a $100 a bottle these are fabulous bargains.

Malbecs go with any kind of meat dishes or robust tomato-based dishes. Whatever you would pair a cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux with a malbec will serve just as well. The best vineyards are Terrazas de los Andes, Bodega Catena, Trapiche, Layer Cake, and Cigar Box. So far I can say there hasn’t been a poor vintage yet produced which is another oddity as the terroir seems to be remarkably stable in the conditions for the grapes to grow.

If you’re looking for a great red wine that doesn’t cost a lot heading into the fall and winter you just need to head to the Argentina aisle in your local wine store and say “Malbec please.”

Mark Behnke