Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wine miracles by the bucket (inside Paola di Mauro's kitchen)

In Italy, as you might well know, wine has always been a food, not necessarily something that you drink. The gastronomy itself is very regional, much of it as old as the hills, and probably even more of it as stylish or innovative as anything the Italians do. That’s the miracle of the Italian wine and food culture: its propensity to renew itself in delicious, and inspiring, ways.

The last time I was in Italy, which was always miracle enough for me (an overgrown kid from Hawai`i), I did what you do when you visit: get run off the road by the hell-bent natives, while meandering through those ageless towns perched impossibly atop craggy hills, awash in colors seemingly more golden, deeper brown, a more Sistine blue than anywhere else in the world; the natural light from above bouncing off shimmering lakes lying like giant mirrors under the sky.

I think the most beautiful lake of all may been the one called Albano, in the township of Marino located just twenty minutes outside of Rome. Some of the popes must have also thought of it as a miracle, too, since they built a summer home there on its bluffs -- an Italian “Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” or so I’m told.

This area around Lake Albano is also a posh neighborhood, complete with a history befitting its address along the old Appian Way, amidst a wealth of moneyed and not-so-moneyed-anymore marquis and, nowadays, even a fabulous underground wine restaurant. I dropped (literally) in that eatery, called Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli; and if you like sipping incredible (and incredibly reasonable priced) wines to acoustic guitars and violas in deep, vaulted cellars and tunnels beneath the Nuova Appia, you'll have a good time. I wouldn't be surprised if the pope, who still lives next door, has his own private underground entrance.

Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli

Practically across the street from the pope's palazzo and the Pagnanelli's restaurant is another miracle: the home of Paola di Mauro, one of the greatest cooks in Italy. I said cook, not "chef," since Paola's kitchen looks like anyone else's home kitchen; no high tech equipment or cold steel countertops, just pots, pans, bottles, wooden boxes, utensils and cutlery strewn about in cramped quarters. Then again, there lies the difference, because how many other home cooks have a little vineyard, a grove of olive as well as fruit trees, and a working winery just outside her kitchen door? But you have to forgive her for this since this is Marino, after all; a very old neighborhood that dates back to the days of fun and games at the Colloseum. Groves, vineyards, and meandering tunnels simply come with the territory.

It seems that in the mid-sixties Paola bought her property from another lady who was originally from Bordeaux in France. So French grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sauvignon blanc and sémillon are still to be found in Paola's vineyard, alongside native Italian varieties like trebbiano and malvasia di Lazio. It just made sense for Paola to continue to make wine from her backyard – at first, both reds and whites, for her own amusement, and then for family and friends.

And wouldn't you know: the wines of Colle Picchioni, the name of Paola's estate, soon became the darlings of the wine insiders' world. Gambero Rosso, Italy's equivalent to the Wine Spectator in the U.S., gave Paola's red wine (made from merlot and the two cabernets) its highest rank (a symbol of three "glasses"). The internationally known, and feared, wine writer named Robert Parker has been most generous with his own 90-plus ratings. And as little as they produce – less than 1,200 cases, a mere drop in a bucket in Italy's ocean of wine – Colle Picchioni can now be found in some of the toniest restaurants in the world, in places as far off as Tokyo, Berlin, Beverly Hills, New York, and (to Paola’s amusement) Disney World.

But the miracle is not that Paola's wines have become famous, nor the fact that she is actually better known – at least to the Italian food gastronomes who speak of her as reverently as Alice Waters does of Lulu Peyraud – for her cooking. It is also a miracle that she and her son, Armando, still actually produce wines in the fashion that they, rather than critics like Robert Parker, prefer. And this is wine that is meant to go with the food Paola cooks in her kitchen.

Let me be a witness. The first wine Armando poured for me – at the kitchen table while Paola was pan frying with pungent rosemary and olive oil – was a two year old Colle Picchioni Marino Bianco Donna Paola: a soft, dry, fluid white wine, rather light and almost oily on the palate. What it wasn't was something big, thick, oaky, fruity or awesome – none of the flag words for the most highly rated wines of today. It is, in fact, an old fashioned wine; small in stature and rather plain, or square; almost boring by the standards of contemporary, internationalized wine.

While we sipped and talked about their friends in Santa Monica, California (Valentino’s Piero Selvaggio is one of Paola’s culinary disciples), Paola brought over her white bean soup – made from a different bean, a little more fava-like, from the better known white beans of Tuscany – over which Armando drizzled olive oil and dried chile flakes, and then stirred in a tiny dollop of blood red paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers and olive oil. The taste was smooth, soothing, yet tingly and robust; each sensation intensified by the round, easy, mildly oily texture of the Colle Picchioni white. Call it a food and wine epiphany. It often is when seemingly simple things add up to something unexpected, like the roar of great waters (or in this case, unassuming wine) knocking you from the saddle on the road to Damascus.

Then Paola finished what she was cooking in the pan, bringing a ceramic pot to the table containing her "Roman lamb." Nothing cute about the name, since she lives in Rome and this is lamb; but lamb in the way she had been cooking it over the past thirty years: bony morsels with chicken livers and other odd ends, rosemary, dried anchovy, white vinegar, pepper, and generous doses of the all-pervasive olive oil (for a reasonable facsimile, please re this recipe for abbachio alla Romana)

"Now we will show you why in Rome we drink white wine with everything," says Armando, "even with red meat." And indeed, what was plain as the Italian hills was how easily the oil and herbs in the lamb pulled together with the soft, oozing quality of the white wine. "The dish is not a difficult one," added Paola, "but neither is the wine. Great wine and food is not always complicated."

That reminded me a conversation I had with the Italian winemaking genius, Riccardo Cotarella, just a few days before at his dinner table in Umbria. "Drinking wine is a pleasure,” he had said, “and so you should always judge a wine by how much pleasure you feel when you drink it."

Via di Colle Picchioni

The rare wines of Colle Picchioni may fulfill this elemental advice, but you needn't look far to find other wines that achieve the same thing: Italy's Frascati and Soave Classico, Sicily’s nero d’Avola, wines made from verdejo, tempranillo and garnacha grapes in Spain, the little torrontés of Argentina, picpoul and Cahors from South-West France, lembergers from Washington and Austria, Oregon’s disrespected syrahs, California’s underestimated petite sirah and near-forgotten charbono, the under-appreciated rieslings and even more misunderstood gewürztraminers and scheurebes of Germany… these and zillions of other wines that are bound to impress you more by their unconscious ease on the table than by any numerical ratings found in the wine magazines.

Have you already seen the memo? I apologize if it came from me, since I just can’t help thinking: the miracle of wine is that it is not at all a pot of gold shimmering in the hills – 90-plus point wines of astronomic prices that are that way mainly because they’ve become objects of attention of collectors who are really nothing more than syllogomaniacs (obsessive-compulsive hoarders) with money to burn and habit of believing everything they read – but rather, something as easy to find as your next good meal, at home or at the next stop along the road. As long as there’s decent, food worthy bottle of wine to go with it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wine Paring Series: Pairing Wine and Cheese

PartyDate: Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Time: 6:30pm - 8:00pm

Location: Alta Cucina Epicurean CenterStreet: 22 E 38th St

City/Town: New York, NY

Come to Alta Cucina’s Epicurean Center and learn to pair Italian foods with wines using three different methods. Each evening will showcase specific products paired with an exciting variety of corresponding wines.$30 – To reserve your seat, click to learn more about Italian wines while having fun? Come to Altacucina's Epicurean Center for a series of educational events on Italian wines. We're excited to offer you three different formats: one a wine social to learn something about wines while mingling with new friends, a second will be a series of wine/food pairings, and a third series will be an in-depth look at Italy's lesser known regions. The seminars will be led by a variety of Italian wine professionals.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trip to the Alto-Adige in September 2009 (1)

A nice welcome at the Hotel Laurin in Bolzano.

Inside the cathedral in Bolzano.

Laimburg Agricultural Research Center -

Laimburg Research Center - tour through their cellars

Laimburg Research Center - tour through their cellars

Laimburg Research Center - tour through their cellars

Laimburg Research Center - tour through their cellars

Laimburg Research Center - dinner

Laimburg Research Center - dinner

Laimburg Research Center - dinner

Laimburg Research Center - dinner

Laimburg Research Center - dinner - Say cheeese Roger!

...and there I was...

Alto Adige Trip (22nd - 24th September 2009) - Institute of Masters of Wine

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The Austrian Wine Marketing Board is headed by Willi Klinger, Austria's answer to Kevin Zarley. Mr. Klinger knows everything there is to know about Austrian wine and conveys his message in a humorous, intelligent, honest approach. Listening to him makes you want to visit Austria and see the vineyards of Vienna and the rest of the country. Many trade and press groups have visited the small arisanal nation of Austria.
View the latest: www.winesfromaustria/winesummit2009/

Mr. Klinger positions Austrian wines in such a favorable light due to micro-climates on the Danube; cool weather from the north (Bohemia) and the precise geographic location that is on the same latitude as Burgundy and Champagne.

The climate dictates in Austria: Wine grows in the East, while you Ski in the West.

Austrian yearly production is 250 million liters.

Export production is 50-70 million liters.
Imports are also, 50-70 million liters.
There is no trade imbalance.

Vienna is the only major city in the world that has vineyards (1500 acres).

Germany, Switzerland and the US are the Top Three Importers of Austrian Wine.

Austria has 120,000 acres of vineyards and 9,000 bottling estates versus Australia's
400,000 acres of vines with only 2,200 bottling estates. It is obvious, through this illustration that Austria has numerous boutique wineries producing high quality wines in small batches.

Willi Klinger is a smart and very entertaining Austrian Wine Ambassador who would gladly entertain your questions regarding Austrian wines.
Feel free to e-mail him.

The tasting that Willi Klinger led consisted of 21 wines. Ten percent of wine produced in Austria is considered Organic, a solid increase of 7 percent over the past several years.

Our first taste upon entering the highly recommended BLAUE GANS (139 Duane Street NYC) we were handed a glass of fantastic Sparkling Wine using the delicious Schilcher grape. The wine was a NV Strohmier Rose (SEKT), which is imported by Frederick Wildman. BLAUE GANS paired the SEKT with smoked trout, which complimented the Strohmier Rose SEKT.
We were seated and the tasting began. Willi Klinger created a slide presentation that was used as a learning tool for all of the journalists present, including myself.

The 21 wines we tasted were in a league of their own. Each wine was unique and had characteristics that were special and new to my palate, due to the variety of many unknown grapes.

I could easily recommend all of the wines, but, won't. Those wines that stood out and are worth purchasing from your retail wine store are:


2008 SETZER Gruner Veltliner (12.5%) from Weinviertel DAC and distributed by Michael Skirnuk.

2008 HAJSZAN Gemischter Satz (12.4%) from Vienna and distributed by Darcy & Huber.

2007 MARKUS HUBER Gruner Veltliner ( 13.5%) from Traisental DAC and distributed byBoutique Wine

2006 PRIELER Pinot Blanc (14%) from Burgenland and distributed by Michael Skirnuk.

2006 ALPHART Rotgipfler (14%) from Thermenregion and distributed by Domaine Select.

2007 TEMENT Sauvignon Blanc (13.5%) from Sudsteirmark and distributed by Weygand-Metzler.


2005 WIENINGER Pinot Noir (13.5%) from Vienna and distributed by Winebow.

2006 WIENINGER Blaufrankisch (13.1%) from Mittelburgenland DAC and distributed by Frederick Wildman.

2004 REINISCH Sankt Laurent (13.5%) from Thermenregion and distributed by Cici Vino.

2006 MARKOWITSCH Red Cuvee (14.9%) from Carnuntum and distributed by Weygand-Metzler.

Austrian wines are ARTISANAL, AUTHENTIC and NATURAL. The vineyards have low grape yields of 3.6 tons per acre. The wines pair well with asian food as well as the Viennese regional cuisine.
Austrian Wine is positioned for the future..It's time to hop aboard, now...
Next stop is Vienna! ALL ABOARD!!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Trip Down Under

Australia is known for really great red wines – in particular, Shiraz – but yesterday, in Toronto, I found a great white wine, a couple of surprising non Shiraz red wines and a great dessert wine that I just had to share with all of you who read my blog.

Matt – one part of Plunkett Fowles – came all the way from Australia with a variety of their products to show us what the Strathbogie Ranges has to offer. The Strathbogie Ranges area of Australia is about one hundred and thirty kilometers north of Melbourne and is considered to be one of the “kindest” cool climate regions in South East Australia. Just an interesting fact about the Strathbogie Ranges to consider:

“In the coolness of spring the vines produce only small berries. The months that follow consistently offer low rainfall, cloudless skies and intense summer sun, giving rise to fruit that is dense in colour and flavour. Being inland, the Strathbogie are rarely plagued by autumn humidity so there is less pressure to harvest to beat the spread of plant diseases, helping to ensure we harvest under optimum conditions.”

From the sounds of it, the Strathbogie Ranges are a winemakers dream and, based on their wines, they definitely have a lot to offer. All of the wines from Plunkett Fowles were lovely but the one white wine that truly impressed me was their 2008 Wild Ferment Chardonnay. This particular wine is produced under their Ladies who Shoot their Lunch line and the way they describe this wine is unlike how most wineries describe their wines. Rather than describing the flavours and aromas, they choose to describe their wine in the way you would feel like a lady who has just spent the morning shooting her lunch. What strikes me the most about this wine are the complex flavours in the palate. Instead of using cultured yeast, as most wineries do, they have chosen to use the wild yeasts found in the vineyard to ferment this wine. It can be a tricky process but once a winemaker has mastered how to do this effectively, wild fermented wines can produce some amazing results. When tasting this wine, it struck me how similar the 2008 Wild Ferment Chardonnay was to a Barrel Fermented Chardonnay that was made in a barrel that was 2-3 years into use. As barrels are used year after year, the flavours they impart to a wine lessen and with this particular Wild Ferment Chardonnay there was just a kiss of oak which would equate to a 2-3 year old barrel. The palate was loud and powerful with flavours of citrus and mineral and a long, lingering, lemony finish.

Just as Plunkett Fowles has a very interesting Wild Ferment Chardonnay from their Ladies who Shoot their Lunch line, they also have a 2006 Stone Dwellers Shiraz which was quite enjoyable. Looking at the technical information on this wine you find that it is actually a blend of 98.5% Shiraz with 1.5% Viognier which is something that Australian wines have taken to doing regularly because it brings a nice floral aspect to a normally rich and silky palate. This wine is definitely everything I love about Australian Shiraz – jammy, fruity and a good spicy backbone that lingers on almost indefinitely.

Our next two wines – both reds – find us at Downing Estate Winery in Heathcote, Victoria. They exclusively produce red wines and, at this tasting, they brought along their Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2004 vintage. The Shiraz is chock full of berry flavour, vanilla, chocolate and plums. It is jammy and rich and spicy and everything a really great Shiraz should be. The Cabernet Sauvignon, although great now, will definitely benefit from additional aging – like, say, 8-12 years. It is already showing black currant, vanilla and bread aromas with excellent structure, tannins, more black currant as well as a few herbal hints. Just imagine how great this wine will be in a few years time.

We continue with more reds – this time from a winery called Black Jack Wines. As their website clearly states, “Blackjack is Red!!!” and all they do is red wines…and extremely well at that. The 2004 Cabernet Merlot has aromas of cassis, tea and the occasional hint of mint which carry on to the palate that is complex and firm with strong tannins and the ability to age this for several more years if you so desire. On the other hand, the 2005 Shiraz is very fruit forward with aromas of plums and other black fruit with a hint of chocolate weaving through it. The palate is tight and firm, shows an excellent balance of fruit and tannin, the right about of chocolate and the ability to age for anywhere from five through to ten years from now.

Now, of course, what would a tasting be without a dessert wine to finish it off? Well, Pfeiffer Rutherglen Wines did not disappoint. Made from 100% Brown Rutherglen Muscat grapes, is done in a late harvest style and has flavours of raisins and floral. It was highly suggested that I try this wine with some of the blue cheese and pecans and that was a great combination but if you are not a fan of blue cheese, why not try it out with some aged cheddar. I have often found that sweeter wines pair wonderfully with four or five year old cheddar.

Now, if you are interested in getting your hands on any of these wines, this is where it gets slightly interesting. Normally, in Ontario at least, most international wines are bought through the LCBO in either the regular stores or the Vintages program. In this case, none of these wines are in the LCBO at all but the gentlemen who were standing behind these booths said that if my readers are interested in getting their hands on some of these wines, they can contact them at the winery directly for importer information. Below you will find contact information for each of the wineries mentioned above.

Plunkett Fowles Wines

Downing Estate Vineyard

Blackjack Wines

Pfeiffer Wines Rutherglen

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not your daddy's zin (zinfandel's amazing food affinities)

One thing we know about California’s zinfandel: it is a far, far more food versatile wine than usually assumed.

But it wasn’t always like that. A couple of decades ago the country was still awash with pink colored “white zinfandel”; and focusing on the other two “fighting varietals,” chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, many of the mainstream California wineries went so far as to drop red zinfandel from their lineups. This may have been good thing, because all it did was dramatize the inevitable resurgence all the more; towards the end of the nineties, when artisanal producers began pushing their big red zins, recalling some of mammoth zins that came and went with the seventies. Like micro-minis, fondue, VW bugs and martinis, there are many things never really go away – they just come back with a vengeance.

But going back long before the grape’s pink wine heyday (remember, white zin wasn’t “invented” by David Bruce until 1969, then subjected to further experimentation shortly thereafter by Monteviña and Sutter Home), zinfandel was always a red wine, albeit an animal of different stripes. The previous generations - like Samuele and August Sebastiani, and the first two Louis Martinis (pictured below/left) - liked their zinfandel fairly soft, simple and restrained, yet with zesty fruit qualities practically begging for tomato sauced spaghetti.

But let’s not sell the old time zins short. It’s important to have good wine for spaghetti; not only that, but also for fettuccine tossed with mushrooms and Parmigiano, or linguine with clams, mussels, tomato, garlic, and earthy, grassy Pecorino. This is where the moderated zinfandel classics like Parducci, Louis Martini, Sebastiani, and coastal blends by Ridge Vineyards start to shine. If anything, ever since the days when spaghetti came to be called “pasta,” there hasn’t been enough of these lighter, snappier red zins to go around.

But let’s face it: as a variety of pure and distinct character different from anything else in the world, zinfandel really comes into its own when vinified into something big, huge, even humongous. The special characteristics of the grape – the sweet raspberry and blackberry jam, mixed as it often is with exhilarating whiffs of freshly ground pepper, cinnamon, clove, and oak like burning leaves of autumn – do not really become defined unless grapes are picked with enough sugar to reach alcoholic strengths of 14% at the least, and 15% or 16% to be even better.

I, for one, might prefer my red zin light and zesty, but I’m certainly no apologist for the big zins. I just take the logical course: drink the lighter zins with pastas, the bigger zins with the big meats, and the in-betweens with the in-between dishes.

To get a handle on the sensory components of latter day zins, let’s look at a one recent, widely lauded classic: the aptly named Earthquake Zinfandel made by Michael-David Vineyards in Lodi. What does an Earthquake have that most non-zins don’t?

1. A thickly corded musculature of tannin and alcohol (usually close to 16%). To heck with subtlety.

2. A heady nose, beginning with sweetly concentrated blackberry and bing cherry aromas, ripe without being overripe or pruny, underscored by pepper grinder spice and pungent, toasty, sweet oak.

3. A terrific balancing acidity – pushing the natural fruit qualities to the front of the palate – filled out by the wonderful feel of glycerol (a higher alcohol component), giving a velvety, viscous feel, and overall sense of balance despite the wine’s behemoth proportion.

For aficionados of this enthralling style, it’s gratifying to see Lodi’s ancient, fourth or fifth generation farmed vineyards – like that of Michael and David Phillips, Jesse’s Grove, and St. Amant – finally put to good use: turned into red rather than pink wines. Ridge Vineyards, among all others, deserves the credit for keeping the interest in full scaled Zinfandel alive during the dark days when pink zins ruled the roost; producing an uninterrupted series of single vineyard bottlings each year, notably from sites planted in the old Italian tradition of field mixing (zinfandel vines interspersed with grapes like petite sirah, mourvèdre, carignane and alicante bouschet, usually finding their way into Ridge’s final blends in varying yet generous proportions).

Taking up the torch, over the past twenty years Rosenblum, Ravenswood, Turley Wine Cellars, and Carol Shelton have been mining similar sources of old vines up and down the California coast, and are continuing to push the envelope insofar as zinfandel heft (16%-17% alcohol bottlings not unusual) and intensity. Still others – like Grgich-Hills and Robert Biale in Napa Valley, and Quivira and Nalle Vineyards in Sonoma – seem to consistently craft zinfandels of equal parts power and balance, while in the Sierra Foothills (Amador and El Dorado), fairly new names like Cedarville, Perry Creek, C.G. Di Arie, and Miraflores are leading the charge towards hitting that sweet spot intersecting raw power and varietal definition.

But are contemporary big Zs good enough for food? I wouldn’t argue if you say that beef is always best with cabernet sauvignon, but I’ve been amazed by how well a sturdy, sweetly berryish zinfandel goes with roasted prime rib bathed in horseradish tinged natural jus, or a simple charred sirloin doused in Tabasco. But how about this: thin slices of beef steeped in soy, palm sugar, sesame, garlic and ginger in the fashion of Japanese, Mongolian and Korean marinades, charcoal grilled or seared on a smoking hot iron, and plopped on steamy white rice. It is, in fact, the spicy, sweet berry concentration of typical big zins that allow these wines go where no cabernet sauvignon ever can on the table: with fusion or Asian style treatments of beef, in sauces based on soy rather than demi-glace or ketchup.

It’s also said that lamb calls for cabernet sauvignon, or else classic red Bordeaux. In the late seventies wineries like Clos du Val, Monteviña, and Carneros Creek made a number of positively black, jammy, cinnamon-and-pepper spiced Zinfandels, with pumped up body, oak and tannin; and that’s when I first discovered the joys of such wines with legs of lamb caked with sweet mustard, lamb chops grilled on the barbie with chunks of eggplant, and entire racks coming out of the roaster dripping with buttery bread crumbs and slathered with sweet mint jelly.

Then there is the “other” white meat: almost any variation of pork; from Italian sausages to chorizo, or from chops pan fried with pungent herbs (like rosemary and herbes de Provence) to roasts smothered in wine, herbs, or zesty barbecue sauces. Big zins and pork are such natural partners, you’d have to be either blissfully ignorant or a hopelessly effete snob to say that big, bad zins don’t make good “food” wines.

But will big zins age? The more pertinent question: who cares? After years of trying zinfandels cellared for ten or more years (including one marathon wine/food tasting, involving ten to twenty year old bottles of Ridge zinfandels with Ridge’s longtime head cheese, Paul Draper), I’ve reached this conclusion: there is nothing more delicious than a good, three to five year old red zin. After that, I just don’t think they get any better (older maybe, but not “better”).

In fact, I think I may prefer big zins right out of the barrel, having gone so far as purchasing full barrels over the years and serving them to my guests completely unbottled, in order to get wildest, most pristine zinfandel berry taste possible (being a part owner of multiple restaurants gives you that advantage). If anything, it’s safer not to lay down big zinfandels. After eight years even the finest begin to shed the explosive fruitiness that defines the grape.


A few more remarks on the food possibilities of zinfandel:
  • For bigger sized zinfandels (closer to 15% or 16% alcohol), bring on the fattiest or wildest, full flavored meats – venison, boar, buffalo, elk, and maybe even squab or goose – and slather them with the seasonings and spices (including hot chilies, if balanced with ingredients that are mildly sweet, salty, sour, etc.) you like, because zinfandel’s combination of tannin, acidic zest, and sweetly fruit forward flavors go where few other reds can.
  • The zesty fruit quality of moderately scaled (softer tannins and less than 14% alcohol) zinfandels actually makes it a good candidate for red-wine-with-fish combinations (providing you grill, sauce, or season the fish with zin-friendly methodology).
  • Variations of earthy tastes such as mustards and mustard greens (as underlying components that help reduce bitter tannins), bell peppers and chile peppers (can heighten grape’s peppery spice), peppercorns and corning (the grape’s “jammy” sensations can handle some salting), garlic and onions (accents the grape’s sweetness), caramelized beets (embellishes zinfandel fruitiness, as well as mushrooms and goat cheeses (zinfandel has just enough zest to balance acidity in Chèvre) all get along famously with zinfandel’s unique multifaceted profile.

  • Marinades in combination with wood or charcoal grilling, smoking and roasting to create caramelized flavors can “sweeten” the briary, berry taste of zinfandel, and round out its rougher edges.
  • Use of sweet/acidic fruits like tomatoes, berries, and cherry can also match the varietal profile and reduce the effect of tannins in young, unruly zinfandels.
  • The aromatic Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, sweet basil, marjoram and savory add contrasting notes to zinfandel fruitiness (but not so much fragrant herbs like mint, cilantro, dill and tarragon); arugula, cress, dandelion and other peppery/nutty greens play to the grape’s spiciness; and spare, thoughtful use of star anise, juniper, mace, ginger, caraway, clove, and seeds of anise, poppy and sesame can all work with peppercorns to embellish the sweetly spiced varietal character.
  • Plump sausage meats, with black or red peppers and seed spices; especially when used as meat stuffings (or plopped between buns, for that matter).
  • As with all fine wine and food matching, avoid extremes (like overdosing with herbs or overly complicated, multiple saucing) and imbalances (especially over-salting with rock salt or seafood stocks, heavy handed sweetening with sugar or fruits, or acidifying with vinegars, etc.). No big, burly red wine is 100% forgiving. In the end, it makes as little sense to detract from a zinfandel’s obvious charms as it would to clobber a simple dish with a super-sized wine.
  • Finally, while like most deep flavored red wines, zinfandel is easily complimented by deep flavored, firm, aged cheeses like Parmigiano, Pecorino, Manchego, Cheddars and Goudas, they will cross lines to softer cheeses given specific zin-friendly components. For instance, Italian herb crusted Chèvres and white truffle specked Boschetto al Tartufo merge effortlessly with the sweet berry jam qualities of even the biggest zins. By the same token, a Chili Pepper Pecorino’s subtle spice and grassy edge brings out the peppery spice in the varietal, while the deep, crystal-caramelized taste of "super-aged" Goudas (Beemster 18 Year Old or XO) underscore the richest zin's oak laden fruitiness.


The nineties were a zin-fruitful time for our restaurants. For a good ten years running we would visit De Loach Vineyards (in those days still owned by Cecil De Loach; but today, by France's Boisset Family) in the early spring following each vintage to taste, select, and then purchase a full barrel of one of their super-powered single vineyard old vine plantings from the Russian River Valley. The idea was to give everyone back at home a chance to taste a wine that had never been bottled, in all its wild, pristine, unrestrained splendor.

Because it normally took four to five nights for our guests to consume an entire barrel, we would pick the biggest (usually approaching 16%), blackest, spiciest De Loach zinfandel made each year – the essence of autumn! It was always an event, and a cloth staining mess, to pop in the spigot, and it was also the only day of the year when we would clear out space in the dining room for a live band. During the first few years, we focused on zinfandel and jazz combinatons, giving our guests a potpourri of choices – dishes loaded with zin-friendly components to savor and swing to.

Hawai`i's alto sax king, Gabe Baltazar

Our menu in October 1995:

Jazzed Up Menu for the 1994 De Loach Pelletti Ranch Zinfandel • Wood oven pizzette of braised lamb, artichokes, Feta and olives
• Cassoulet of Hawaiian escargot with oxtail, potatoes and spinach
• Cold smoked oysters with salmon roe, horseradish and sour cream
• Half moon pasta of beef shortribs with baby greens and roasted shiitake jus
• Fresh sautéed clams and New England lobster in zin laced natural stock
• Pan roasted pork medallions with vine ripened Big Island tomatoes, bitter mesclun and black pepper olive oil
• Herb roasted rack of lamb with sun dried tomatoes, capers and dill
Imu oven baked ‘ahi tuna steak crusted with pancetta corn duxelle
• Tapenade grilled ribeye of beef with red pepper aioli

After a few years we began to move away from sophisticated jazz, cutting loose with other themes as much for our musical pleasure as to expand on our culinary thoughts on zinfandel/food matching. I was particularly happy with our Spanish themed menu in 1996, matched to a ten-piece salsa band; all courses (except the dessert) focusing on how brightly the zinfandel fruit shines when contrasted by earthy, at times garlicky and even oily, ingredients:

Menu for the 1995 De Loach Pelletti Ranch Zinfa
Champinones marinated wild mushrooms
Almejas en salsa clams in garlic, olive oil and Nalo Farm herbs
Caracoles snails in onion, garlic and concasée
• Wood oven filet of ‘ahi tuna in big zin sauce
• Saffroned paella with mussels, clams and opakapaka (pink snapper)
• Cinnamon grilled rack of lamb in fresh mint butter and jus
• Bacon wrapped filet of Kulana beef in wild game offal sauce
Caramelo Miranda exotic fruit flan

In 1997 we made room for dancing and a Cajun-Zydeco band, well knowing what a rollicking accordian, soaring fiddle, spoons and frottoir (rubboard) does to heighten the blood pressure, which a black, unfiltered, unfined, unfettered zin does without any help at all. That year I think we had to pull some guests down from atop tables. But as in the previous year’s menus, the ingredients were particularly earthy; this time, in a thickened plethora of reddish/golden brown ingredients (like the color and texture of good roux), giving delicious contrast to the spiced-up red and black berry qualities of that year’s barreled zin:

Fais Do-Do Menu for a 1996 Three-Barrel Blend of De Loach Old Vine Zinfandel
Blue Plate Spéciale of barbecued shrimp with Creole tartar, bourbon stewed oyster, marinated calamari and crispy Louisiana style crab cake
• Crispy panéed veal with crab béarnaise and roasted red pepper sauce
Y Ki Ki style etouffée of shrimp, mussels, lobster and scallops with red beans N rice
• Bronzed baby Hawaiian swordfish with roasted pecans, jalapeño and brown lemon garlic butter
• Blackened rare filet of ‘ahi tuna with andouille, corn and creole mustard sauce
Terroirized bone-in ribeye of beef with rustic spice rub and natural blood jus
• Oven warm Hawaiian sweetbread and raisin bread pudding in bourbon sauce

Jumping to 1998, we brought out the oversized caps and tropical shirts for a reggae rhythmed culinary theme, highlighting a barrel from De Loach’s Gambogi Ranch – the biggest, blackest, juiciest, yet plainly delicious zin we could find:

Menu for the 1997 De Loach Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel

Z-Rad dutchy of scallion wrapped U10 scallop in ginger plum sauce, green zebra tomato carpaccio with mozzarella di bufala in caper mustard seed vinaigrette, half moon of ‘ahi tuna and grilled vegetables in sweet Maui onion jus, and Hangtown Fry oyster in lardon zin sauce
• Jerk chicken sausage rasta pasta with autumn root vegetables
• Tortellini of shrimp and prosciutto in roasted garlic jus and pesto butter
• Green herb stuffed baby artichoke and wilted spinach salad in warm balsamic vinaigrette
• Miso marinated hamachi (yellowtail) with wasabi mash in shiitake oyster sauce
• Mixed grill of peppercorn ‘ahi tuna, Hudson Valley duck, baby back ribs and Waimanalo corn
• Napoleon of lamb loin, truffled potato and portobello in zinfandel beet sauce
• Tropical fruit napoleon with guava jelly sauce

Zin-friendly mesclun

In 1999, our theme was Disco Zin, complete with flared, hip hugging slacks and disco balls. But it was also an even more serious night for zinfandel drinkers to not only experience just how food versatile this grape can be, especially when its pepper, clove, and berry jam qualities are allowed to explode straight from a barrel and into the glass. But in this particular year, Cecil De Loach also decided to bring some library bottlings from previous vintages of our barrel selection – a '98 from Gambogi Ranch – which prompted us to devise courses building up from older bottlings to the budding barreled zin. As it were, dishes focusing on the black-as-moonless-night, essence-of-blackberry jam qualities for which the Gambogi has long been known:

Disco Zin Menu for a Vertical & Barrel of De Loach Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel
• Fresh ‘ahi tuna tortellini in natural beef broth - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1994
Disco Wild risotto of wild mushrooms, wild rice and aborio with Parmigiano and truffled vegetables - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1995
• Nalo Farm mesclun salad with crispy gizzard croutons in warm balsamic vinaigrette - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1996
• Wood roasted salmon in “drunken” saké sauce with Waimanalo eggplant, tofu and scallions - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1997
• Rosemary pork loin skewers in fresh basil zinfandel essence - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1998 (barrel)
• Bittersweet Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate petits fours - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1998 (barrel)

Friday, October 16, 2009

It’s Harvest Time…

I love this time of the year – spending time with family and friends, the smell of Roast Turkey wafting from the kitchen, helping friends harvest their local vineyards, and the knowledge that in about a year, those grapes you helped harvest are going to be a delicious bottle of wine.

This year, I was helping my friends at Lacey Estates Vineyard & Winery harvest their Chardonnay. Each year it is different – my first year was Pinot Noir, last year was Baco Noir, this year it was a white grape. Just before we started picking early on a Saturday morning in October, I decided I should update my Facebook status to “Picking Chardonnay at Lacey Estates today”. Within an hour of posting that, I was receiving comments on my status like “And great Chard it will be!!” and “Excellent, always nice to open a bottle of wine that you know you had a hand in making.” Honestly, I could not agree more with these two statements. I have already tried Lacey Estates inaugural vintage of Chardonnay and, not being a major Chardonnay fan, I can unequivocally say that it is one of the best Ontario Chardonnay’s I have had in a very long time. As for the second comment, this is what I said, “Most definitely. I was thinking yesterday what a sense of pride winemakers must have when they finally have a chance to try the final product.” In fact, during the whole picking process – which is back breaking work – someone said to me that when it is in the bottle it all feels worth it.”’

With all of the hard work going on in the vineyards at this time of the year, it is very easy to think with longing towards the end of the day and the wonderful meal set to take place at the end of the day. You know, in a way, this is one advantage that – I think – Canadians have over Americans. All of the wine producing regions in North America are in full harvest mode but, for us lucky Canadians, this is also the time of year that we have Thanksgiving while the Americans have to wait a month and a half for their Thanksgiving feast. Canadian Thanksgiving weekend invariably falls half way through harvest time in Ontario so there is almost always a harvest party to enjoy if you are not joining a family celebration for the weekend but, in my family, we always have this wonderful, delicious moist Roast Turkey with all the fixings.

Now, I am sure a lot of you have heard the old adage when it comes to wine pairing – “White Meat, White Wine; Red Meat, Red Wine.” This is the one time of the year that I like to show people that you can completely break those rules and go bold with a Red wine with your Turkey or Ham. A number of years ago, a friend came to me to ask me for a recommendation on an Ontario wine for Thanksgiving dinner so I decided to give him my ultimate change of mind recommendation – Willow Springs Baco Cab Franc. Now, unfortunately, the winery does not make this as a blend every year but they do make each of these wines individually so buy a bottle of each, and blend it in a decanter together. This year, another wine friend of mine (and his) asked him what his wine choice was for a turkey. It turns out he still does the Baco Cab Franc blending…it must be a favourite with his family. So, with this in mind, let me share with you some of my favourite wines to pair with your next Turkey dinner.

Rosehall Run Vineyards 2006 Rosehall Vineyard Pinot Noir
$29.75 per bottle
I speak from experience when I say this one pairs extremely well with Roast Turkey because we had this with our Turkey dinner on Sunday. Black cherry and mocha aromatics give way to a fruity, smoky palate. It has an almost barely there structure to the palate but with the slight tannins and grip to the finish, this wine will be ready to drink anywhere between 2009 and 2012.

33 Vines 2007 Cabernet Franc
$24 per bottle
Quite simply – a really great wine! I love the colour in the glass – it is an inky purple almost black colour. The aromas scream blackberry, jam, violets and currants with a slight hint of herbal at the end. Before you even take your first sip of this wine, it is screaming to be paired with chocolate…and who are we to deny a wine that?

The palate has a hint of spice at the tip of the tongue but only if you are trying it without any chocolate. It is mostly jammy but with a good base of currants and black fruit to bring complexity to the flavours. The great thing about this wine is that not only does it pair extremely well with Roast Turkey, it also is a wine that begs for chocolate so you could easily keep going with this wine through dessert.

Lacey Estate Vineyards & Winery 2007 Baco Noir
$20 per bottle
Baco Noir is one of those great Ontario wines that is over the top fruit in both the aromas and the palate. It is that fruity nature that makes it a perfect match with Roast Turkey and, especially, cranberry relish. Lacey Estate’s Baco Noir is currently sold out but it is definitely one that, year after year, will pair beautifully with Turkey or Ham plus all the fixings.

Cattail Creek Estate Winery 2007 Cabernet Franc
$18.00 per bottle
Cabernet Franc tends to have the fruitiest character of the Cabernet grapes – cherry, plum, black fruit all abound in typical Cabernet Francs and this wine has all three. In this particular version, they also mix and mingle with cigar, tobacco, vanilla and that oh so wonderful chocolate flavour to make this a truly complex wine. Out of all the red wines out there, this one would probably be the heartiest that I would pair with Turkey or Ham but if you do not want a hearty Chardonnay, this is an excellent choice for you.

Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery 2005 Baco Noir Reserve
$24.95 per bottle
In the last two years you keep hearing how the 2007 vintage was absolutely outstanding for Ontario wines. Well, two years prior to that – the 2005 vintage – Ontario made a name for itself with red wines specifically. The intensely hot summer was great for the red grapes allowing them to have concentrated fruit flavours and aromas. Consequently, you have a wine here that is super fruity, has great structure to it (i.e. does not taste “wimpy”) and more than holds up to any kind of heavy meal like roasts tend to be.

Chateau des Charmes 2007 St David’s Bench Gamay Droit
$16.95 per bottle
Gamay Noir is the lightest tasting of red wines available in North America and the Gamay Droit clone is unique to Chateau des Charmes winery. Gamay is typically a very fruit forward wine, not at all heavy, and pairs well with a wide variety of food dishes. The major flavours and aromas are cherry and berry fruit but there are the added components of spices, pepper and tannins making this a very interesting wine.

Stoney Ridge Estate Winery 2006 Reserve Cabernet Franc
$17.95 per bottle
Like the other Cabernet Franc mentioned above, this wine has some major fruit components. A combination of cherry, cedar and bell pepper aromas with flavours of red berry fruit, vanilla and oak, this wine definitely has all the necessary components to pair well with either turkey or ham. This wine has the ability to age for another 4-5 years if you so desire.

Remember, if you have already had your Thanksgiving dinner, try some of these wines out the next time you have a big family dinner. You will be amazed at how well red wines go with white meat. Cheers,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The positive taste of brett in wines and food matching

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. One of the controversies that emerged in the 1990s concerns an extremely common, but often glossed over, taste factor in wine called Brettanomyces; often shortened to “brett” in the parlance of winemakers.

Brett is basically one of the many natural species of yeast that begins to make its presence known in red wines after fermentation, while they are aging in the barrel. Although I have found few vintners anxious to discuss it, the winemaking community has long known that Brettanomyces, more than anything else, is largely responsible for the earthy, leathery qualities long associated almost exclusively with European wines, although it is by no means foreign to New World wines.

During all my years of California wine judging, in fact, picking out wines with subtle or excess brett has been as routine as picking out wines with notes of volatile acidity, oxidation, madeirization or hydrogen sulfides. Not too long ago, many wine writers and restaurant/retail professionals were still shamefully misrepresenting this attribute to consumers as aspects of terroir or climat – that is, resulting from unique environmental conditions of specific regions and vineyards – and would speak of it in reverent, and sometimes even mystical, terms.

The “glove leathery” nuances found in red Burgundy, the “sweaty saddle” common in Spanish reds and South-West French reds (like Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Madiran and Saint-Chinian), and even the handsome, leathery complexity common to many of Bordeaux’s grand crus: all of this is essentially the manifestation of a component that oenologists generally classify as a “spoilage” yeast. At worst -- when left uncontrolled in wineries (judicious use of sulfur dioxide is the most effective method of suppressing brett) – Brettanomyces laden wines begin to taste “mousy” or metallic, or else barnyardy and all-too-often, manure-like.

Brett is common to wines coming out of fairly new wine growing regions – like many cold climate grown New Zealand and Australia pinot noirs – where winemakers are just beginning to get a handle on their craft. Yet strong leather, even manure-like manifestations of brett are also common to fairly well established regions, among new and old wineries alike. Examples: cabernet sauvignons coming out of Chile (like the ultra-premium Errazuriz and Domus Aurea), Australia’s Barossa Valley (Torbreck, one of the better known of those producers), as well as California (from Robert Mondavi to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Château Musar from Lebanon’s Bakaa Valley – one of the darlings of the British wine trade – is particularly rife with this character. Even more distressing is the fact that many of these high brett wines retail in the $50 to $100-plus range – as if having this stinky “European” taste qualifies for ultra-premium pricing!

In the nineties Brettanomyces became something of a controversy within winemaking circles when more and more New World producers began to supplement their technology with traditional, Old World methods of vinification: particularly things like natural yeast fermentation, minimal sulfuring and cellar intervention, and greater tolerance of high pH levels (the level of wine’s acidic strength) than previously accepted. In wine judgings, as a result, we would find higher incidents of brett in categories such as “small production pinot noir” (case productions of, say, 500 or less). The goal, of course, was to utilize European style handcrafting to achieve more intense, unbridled natural flavors, particularly when sourced from special vineyards. Letting the terroir, so to speak, speak more loudly in the glass.

I would often find these small batch wines to be very attractive, but many others the opposite – almost repulsive. Why would many vintners deliberately skirt the fine line between subtle and excess brett; between love and hate? My personal theory: because wine writers tend to have a higher tolerance of brett than ordinary consumers (who usually believe whatever writers tell them anyway). If wines that retain, say, French-like or “rubber boot” qualities garner higher ratings from certain well known writers, why not? Do the math: high scores + critical success = greater demand, higher prices and financial success.

This is why you might read about, say, a 2006 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste ($40-$80 current retail) that is rich, velvety, full of cigarbox and blackcurrant fruit, but also positively oozing with barnyard animal-like aromas and flavors. Yet all you read from Robert Parker (who gives it a 92) are words like “classic crème de cassis,” “pure personality,” and “beautiful density.” Jancis Robinson (who gives it 17.5 out of 20) chimes in with phraseology like “overlay of spice” and “all-over-the-palate experience.” But nary a word about the obvious brett. Why? Like I said, I think most of the better known wine writers either don’t smell it or just don’t care when they do. It’s bad enough (if you don’t enjoy the smell of barnyards in wine) that they’re swaying you by meaningless numerical scores; but when they don’t even mention it in the descriptions… don’t get me started!

Not all writers, of course. One of the more vociferous critics of brett when it occurs in California wines has been Ronn Wiegand, an influential MW/MS. One morning he told me, “As far as I’m concerned, Brettanomyces is a serious flaw that tends to blur grape and regional distinctions. I never really liked it in French wines, and I certainly don’t think it belongs in California wines.”

There has to be some irony to the fact that after many years of being compared unfavorably to French wines, California wines are being knocked when they taste too much like them. David Ramey (pictured, right), one of the California winemakers Wiegand admires most, once shared this perspective with me: “In my experience wines that are known to be made as naturally as possible, like France’s Beaucastel and Pichon-Lalande, are often found to taste ‘better.’ No question, Brettanomyces plays a part in these wines - so where’s the problem?” At the same time, however, Ramey makes it very clear that "it's not a wise commercial policy to make wines with brett for the American market, so we have a zero brett policy here at Ramey Wine Cellars, despite working with native yeasts, high pH's and bottling unfiltered -- the classical means of elevage include techniques that eliminate brett in one's cellar."

Tony Soter, one of the winemakers I admire most, and whose wines at Etude were never been accused of being French-like, takes a more tolerant stance: “This is a sad issue, because it takes all the mystery out of those great French wines that, frankly, I love.” As for his own wines, Soter admits, “I’ve played with Brettanoymyces, although at relatively low levels, because it does compliment a wine somewhat. The point, however, is that ultimately it should be wine drinkers, not writers, who should decide what they like, and whether brett in a wine is good or not.”

In one of his old newsletters (now compiled in his book, Inspiring Thirst), Kermit Lynch went so far as to say that the opposite of a "bretty" wine is the type of sterile, unnatural wine he has long decried, calling the nitpicking of wines with animal, underbrush, leather or even barnyard aromas an insiduous "Attack of the Brett Nerds." Lynch has plenty to beef about because knee-jerk reactions to brett are often confused with earthy yet enthralling manifestations of garrigue - in Southern French wines in particular, time honored distinguishing marks of terroir - with this spoilage yeast; which is easy to do because of sensory similarities (for example, simply rub a twig of fresh rosemary between your fingers, and you'll retain an animal-like smell on your fingers that is pungently organic, and most definitely not brett-related).

And in fact, besides Beaucastel and Pichon-Lalande there are many, many other wines of the world that are produced with subtle qualities of brett that amplify, and thus improve, natural fruit and other organic elements, adding up to magnificent expressions of terroir: for me, the mysteriously deep, dark Madiran by Château Lafitte-Teston immediately comes to mind; so does the massively scaled Domaine de la Granges de Peres from Languedoc, the spice-box scented Gigondas by Domaine du Cayron, the magnificently deep reservas of Spain’s Tinto Pesquera, the powerful yet pillowy textured Falesco Montiano by Italy’s ingenius Riccardo Cotarella, Antinori’s legendary Tignanello, and on the home front, Randall Grahm’s groundbreaking string of Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volants… the hits go on and on.

How does that song go? If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right… so maybe we need to take the bull by the horns, and talk about how we can match foods with the finer brett laced wines of the world, working with the yeast to come up with something even more exciting.


Not only is Brettanomyces a welcome complexity in many wines, its presence can make for some interesting food food matches. Some guidelines and experiences:
  • First, there is probably nothing you can do from a culinary perspective with wines in which brett is way over-the-top – riddled with a pervasive aroma of leather to the detriment of fruitiness, or else a basically unpleasant, barnyardy stink. Excess brett – like excess alcohol, acid, volatile acidity, tannin, oak, or any other elements – will not make a dish taste better, and nothing you can do to a dish might make the wine taste better (and for you “breathers” out there: no amount of time in a decanter will rid a wine of stink either). Unbalanced wines of any sort always have a low percentage chance of working with food.
  • However, wines with subtle brett qualities can be quite useful. I’ve enjoyed softer, moderately scaled reds with leather or even gamy undertones in seafood settings; particularly fish or shellfish with strong marine notes of earthy quality. Who wouldn’t, for instance, prefer a light, snappy sangiovese based red over any white wine with pasta and mussels in an herb scented tomato sauce? Earthy red Bandol is often served with bouillabaisse laced with saffron (one of the most complex earthen spices of all) to delicious effect, especially with dabs of garlicky aioli; and in the Bay Area, I’ve enjoyed some funky, small batch pinot noirs with The City’s many variations of earthy and saline cioppinos.

  • For deeper, sturdier red wines (like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, or Southern French style blends) tinged with brett, gamy meats like venison and leg of lamb are no-brainers, and meaty birds like squab, pigeon, Muscovy duck and even goose are not a bad idea either. But you can play with lightly gamy notes in a wine with any meat, gamy or not, with the use of earthy ingredients such as wild mushrooms, organ meats, bone marrow, lardons or pancetta, homemade sausages, horseradish and fennel, root vegetables, earthy varieties of Chèvre, cumin and tumeric, and in more elegant settings, truffles (and truffle oil), foie gras, or with creative use of the trufflish Mexican delicacy, huitlacoche (corn smut, which I once enjoyed in a ravioli with crimini, spinach and achiote chili sauce).
  • Use of pungent, fatty or chewy organ meats — like tripe (especially cut thick, as in meñudo), liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, tongue, beef tendons, and the rind, belly, feet, chitterlings, trotters and head meat of pork – are all of the right textural and aromatic “stuff” for earth toned wines.
  • Just as use of fruit (fresh or dried) in dressings, finishing sauces, or condiments compliments a gamy meat, it goes a long ways towards brightening the fruit qualities of red wines with low key brett. Vegetables that are naturally sweet (like beets and yams) or slightly sweetened (squash and onions) can do the same.

Some brett-laced wine and food matches we have known and loved:
  • In Berkeley, a succession of mildly gamy 20 year old reds (a Chave Hermitage, followed by a Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Tempier Bandol) with a potato casserole generously layered with black truffles
  • At the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon, a pungent, essence-of-wild three-mushroom tart with a soft, fragrant, yet distinctly leather glovish Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
  • In a South Australian wine country restaurant, a lamb’s brains in mustard sauce with a wildly earthy Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
  • At Bay Wolf in Oakland, a ravioli of wild mushrooms and spinach in an aromatic porcini broth with a lush yet meaty-game nuanced Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir
  • At Matsuhisa in Aspen, an ankimo (monkfish liver) paté with caviar and a bright strawberry, blackberry, pepper and leather laced Torbreck Juveniles (Barossa Valley grenache/shiraz/mataro)
  • At home in the Islands, an oyster stuffed game hen in a ragout of giblets, onions and porcini with a leather-on-lace Allegrini La Grola Valpolicella
  • In one of our Island restaurants, a lusty confit of duck, roasted garlic and offal in a white bean cassoulet with a mild but pungent, unsulfured, unfiltered, un-nothinged Morgon by Foillard
  • In my most recent home in the Rockies, a simple cube steak pan roasted with alderwood smoked salt, cracked pepper and sweet-hot paprika – and finished with a smothering of shallots, mushrooms and red wine deglaze – with Spain’s Dehesa la Granja, brimming with sweet blackberry coated in leather and roasted meat
  • Home again in the Rockies, a saddle sweat scented cumin laced ground bison chili served with Hebrew National dogs and Cheddar; finding a natural match with a virile, suede nuanced and textured Altos las Hormigas Malbec from Argentina
  • One final home remedy – spinach pasta with chopped chorizo and sweet onions in classic, Italian herbed tomato sauce and generous shavings of earthy Pecorino, washed down with a zesty, leather wrapped cherry toned Peppoli Chianti Classico by Antinori
But maybe you don’t dig snails, monkfish liver, lamb’s brains, cioppino, or the taste of Brettanomyces in your wine. That’s your call. After all, in the end that’s all that matters.

Kermit Lynch, the original wine adventurer
(photo by Peter DaSilva, The New York Times)

A winery named Curtis

Nestled atop the hills, beginning the wine tasting trail that is in Santa Barbara County, is Curtis Winery. Their tasting room is a must-stop destination to get your tastebuds started before embarking on the windy path through all the great wineries in the area. Their specialties are Rhone style wines cultivated from the fantastic soils of the Santa Ynez Valley that is in Santa Barbara wine country. Rhone wines originate from the Rhone region in Southeastern France. The varietals produced there to make Rhone wines are typically blends of mouverdre, sryah, grenache and cinsault. Curtis nails these wines with excellent depth and varietal expression, specifically with the Heritage Series, which consists of a beautiful cuvee, blanc and rose wine.

The 2006 Curtis Hermitage Cuvee bursts out of the bottle with a huge bouquet. Spice in the nose from the syrah grape along with the rich, lush, ripe fruit of dark cherry and pomegranate add a long silky finish. Its complexity makes this wine a must-try wine for this year, a gift or great food pairing wine for lamb a roasted beef dish, delish!

The 2006 Heritage Rose is an equally complex blend of the same grapes. Mouvedre, cinsault, grenache and syrah lend themselves well to rounding out this wine into to a pleasurable drinking experience. With strawberries, pomegranate and citrus fruit, it has much more structure than normal for a rose, which shows itself in the finish. It is an excellent accompaniment with light dishes such as a spicy halibut or a parmesan crusted tilapia.

Now is the BEST time to visit, seeing as their Calypso Fest is happening this weekend, October 17th. It is a yearly celebration to stop and enjoy wine and food while Curtis has been busy during harvest time. More info can be found at

The assistant winemaker to Curtis Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barabara wine

country is Ernst Storm. Along with crafting fantastic Rhone style wines there, he has been building his own label called “Noble Storm. Ernst embodies the wines he creates from his own cultivated background, working and studying at such wineries as Amani in South Aftrica, before eventually moving from the Sierra foothills in California to find his niche in Santa Barbara.

The limited Sauvignon Blanc is just labeled “STORM”, a fantastic swallow of a citrusy, crisp

fruit in a excitably acidic wine. A California kiss of oak added but more pomelo, grapefruit with some lime zest that bursts on the palate like a soft New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Light and refreshing, this wine from Santa Barbara is hard to come by, but should be on the menu at every coastal seafood restaurant. Oysters, grilled fish, prawns, or even chicken pasta would be an excellent pair for this well-balanced white. And be sure to look for more varietals, like Pinot Noir or Syrah, under this label.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I recently attended a BLIND tasting of Austrian Red Wines led by Austrian wine export, Michael Thurner (Wine MBA) and hosted by Christian Kesberg of the Austrian Trade Commission. Mr. Thurner is the President of Austrian Fine Brands and presently resides in Singapore, with hopes of capturing the Asian audience with his extensive portfolio of Austrian wines.

Austrian white wines have been the talk of the trade, as of late, since 2003 when Austria introduced a new classification system similar to that of France and Italy. The system is called the DISTRICTUS AUSTRIA CONTROLLTUS or DAC. The new system simplifies the difficult, complicated system of the past. With the red and white signature caps on the bottles, Austrian whites have made great strides in placement in the American market. The reds have not, as of yet.

The blind tasting conclusively demonstrated that the red wines of Austria belong in our wine stores, as well as on our wine cellars. Imagine mixing in a 2004 Chateau Mouton Rothchild Pauillac; a 2004 Chateau Magaux Premier Grand Cru Classe ; a 2004 Chateau Lafleur Pomerol and a 2004 M. Chapoutier Le Pavillion Ermitage into the blind mix of Austrian reds. Michael Thurner's psychology worked, as the usual suspect wine writers from the New York City area
were prey to higher standards of reds set by Mr. Thurner. He dazzled our tastebuds with obscure Austrian reds that matched and often exceded their French counterparts. On most occasions the Austrian reds beat the French classics in taste, aroma and style. We were amazed at the results and now, have a belief in the Austrian reds, as the new wines of the future.

It has taken many years for a new red catagory of wine to appear. The Austrian reds have filled that need.

Austrian reds range from cool climate elegance to Super Austrian wines. There are four major red grapes in Austria:
ZWIEGELT ( the most abundant grape)

BLAUFRANKISCH ( possibly the best grape>spicy and tannic)

ST. LAURENT ( soft and herby for Pinot Noir)

BLAUER PORTUGIESER ( soft and used mainly for table wines that are drunk immediately)

These grapes produce some of the great wines of the world. If you cannot find Austrian reds in your local wine store, please ask your wine merchant to order these exciting wines.

This is a short list of Austrian reds that will introduce you to 'The Next Big Thing":
2006 Markowitsch Pinot Noir Reserve

2004 Johanneshof Reinisch Saint Laurent Holzpur (spicy red)

2004 Markowitsch M1 (Merlot)

2004 Weninger Verathina (super Austrian)

2004 Arachon T. FX.T. Evolution

For further infomation feel free to contact Ms. Stephanie Artner of the Austrian Trade Commission at:
212- 421-5250 or via e-mail at


Sunday, October 11, 2009


On October 13th & 14th the U.S. DRINKS CONFERENCE will take place at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel located at 36 Central Park South.
This year's exciting and necessary conference is for wine, beer and spirits executives with responsibility for the U.S. market. Strategies will be presented from leaders in the field, including, Mike Berkhoff (CEO of BevMax Corporation); Chris Adams (CEO of Sherry-Lehmann); Bill Earle (President of National Association of Beverage Importers); Serge Lozach (Managing Director SOPEXA USA); Leonardo LoCascio (Presiedent and CEO of Winebow) and William Slone ( CEO of Beverage Media Group), just to name a few.
Please go to for a complete list of speakers, pricing and agenda.
The agenda is intriguing. Sessions covering topics that are critical to the industry include:
US Market Overview: Entry, Economics and Approaches; US Spirit, Wine and Beer Overview: Structure, Trends, and Consumer Behavior; How to Launch your Brand: Allocating Budgets and an Overview on Social Media Marketing; Panel Discussions including: What made these Brand Introductions Successful?; What's all of this talk about social media marketing?; How does a new Supplier develop a relationship with a Distributor?; How to enter the US Market? and Legal Do's,Don'ts and How To's.
This conference is a must for wine, beer and spirits executives with responsibility for US Markets, as well as those purchasing execs with export responsibility.
Case histories will be discussed with candid insights and lessons to be learned. The current market data and research US consumer trends will be discussed.
This promises to be a special event with insight from top professionals, shared, honestly with peers in the industry. Please go the website and look at the agenda and speakers. It will be worthwhile and may help shape your companies future.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chile Travels North

Once a year, just before Thanksgiving - Canadian, that is - the Wines of Chile tasting makes its way to The Distillery District in Toronto. You can always be guaranteed that some good value wines will be found because Chilean wine is almost ridiculously priced lower than most wines available on the market today. Although it is easy to find wines that are so-so, disjointed or, in some cases, overpriced for what is in the glass, I certainly found a large number of white wines yesterday that were amazing and fit into the great value category. Now, last year, after looking back at my blog entry from the 2008 tasting, I saw that I only found two really outstanding wines but this year, there are seven plus three that, at the very least, earn an Honourable Mention. Check out my reviews below as well as ordering information.

Vina Botalcura 2009 El Delirio Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
$13.95 per bottle
Available through H.H.D. Imports Inc.
Aromas of stone fruit, pears, herbal and floral with flavours of gooseberry and citrus – mostly lemon. There is great balance and a lively mouthfeel to this wine that makes it thoroughly enjoyable. At $13.95 a bottle, this is definitely one of those wines that would pair well with a number of seafood or fish dishes, although I would avoid anything that has a cream sauce with this wine. Definitely one of many good value wines tasted this afternoon.

Vina Carta Vieja 2007 G7 Gran Reserva Chardonnay
$17.95 per bottle
Available through Small Winemakers Collection
The aromas on this wine are really, really subtle but you can detect slight creamy, buttery aromas and slight stone fruit. The flavours are a continuation of the creamy, buttery aromas but with a distinct thread of minerality weaving its way through. A slight hint of peach, apple and pear on the finish makes this a truly lovely wine. Would be great with Roast Chicken or Turkey or any cream sauce pasta.

Vina Concha y Toro 2008 Trio Reserva White
$12.95 per bottle
Available through Select Wine Merchants
Please note that at the moment, this wine is currently not available anywhere. Select Wine Merchants advised that it is slated to be a part of the Vintages March release so you will have to wait but I can guarantee you that if you enjoy white blended wines, this is definitely one you have to try.
This wine is a blending of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc although, in previous vintages, instead of Pinot Blanc, Riesling has been used. The aromas on this wine are huge and plentiful like – I believe – any white blend wine should be. Lots of citrus aromas – mostly mandarin oranges and lime but there is a healthy mix of fig and grapefruit to add complexity. The palate has great balance to it and along with the aromas mentioned above there is a good threading of minerality through the flavours. There is an almost lively structure to the palate and a great finish making this wine a definite must try and must buy!

Vina Concha y Toro 2007 Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay
$17.95 per bottle
Currently in Vintages, CSPC #342857
The LCBO is currently showing 50 bottles available throughout Ontario of this wine. If you are interested in purchasing this wine, do so quickly!
This wine was barrel fermented on its lees in 1/3 new French Oak and 2/3 second and third fill French Oak barrels making this a rather big, over the top Chardonnay. Aromas of pear, fig and hazelnut meld seamlessly onto the palate where they are super concentrated, have great balance and a silky smooth texture. It has a vibrant mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish. Super Yummy and although it is a little higher priced than what I would call a value wine, it is definitely worth every penny they are charging for it.

Vina San Pedro Tarapaca 2009 Castillo de Molina Sauvignon Blanc
$14.99 per bottle
Available through Diamond Estates Wines & Spirits
This is every aroma and flavour of Sauvignon Blanc known to man wrapped up into one wine. Mineral, citrus, green onion, gunpowder and even a touch of sea salt are the aromas that greet you when you swirl this wine in your glass. The flavours are more of the mineral and fruity character you find in the aromas but along with the green onion there is a rather distinctive hint of thyme and then a very tart finish. Just like tannins will give you a pucker feeling in your mouth with a red wine, this particular white wine gives you the pucker feeling from the distinctive lemon finish.

Vina Santa Rita 2009 120 Series Sauvignon Blanc
$10.45 per bottle
Currently in LCBO General List, CSPC #23606
This is not my first time trying this wine. Back in July I attended a label redesign release party for Santa Rita wines and the 120 Series was a major part of that party. The aromas and flavours of this wine are mostly grapefruit and lemon but with slight hints of tropical fruit and herbs. What the bottle does not tell you is that the winemaker added in 2% Semillon to add some complexity to the wine which is where those tropical fruit aromas come from. In addition to the typical Sauvignon Blanc flavours of citrus, lemongrass and gooseberry, the 2% Semillon adds pineapple, mango and papaya to the flavour. Although the term “fruit bomb” tends to be associated exclusively with fruity RED wines, this white wine could easily qualify for that term.

Vina Santa Rita 2007 Medalla Real Chardonnay
$18.95 per bottle
Currently in Vintages, CSPC #303628
In most cases, Chardonnay goes through the crusher/destemmer when it comes in from the fields. In the case of this particular Chardonnay, 75% of the grapes went through this process but the remaining 25% went through whole cluster pressing instead of ever spending time in the crusher. This whole cluster pressing might account for the interesting olive green colour in the glass, since Chardonnay, and especially oaked Chardonnay, tends to have more of a goldenrod yellow colour. The aromas are a very interesting combination of both fresh and dried fruits as well as mineral. The palate has distinctive flavours of tropical fruit, slight creaminess and a backbone of peaches and nectarines.

Vina Valdivieso 2007 Single Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay Wild Fermented
$22.60 per bottle
Available through Carriage Trade Wines & Spirits
I have never been a major fan of Chardonnay and the other Chardonnay on the table from this winery was definitely not one that caught my attention in the way that this Single Vineyard Wild Fermented Chardonnay did. In general, a lot of wineries shy away from using wild yeast to ferment any of their wines. If you do not understand the complexities of wild yeasts it can be an extremely tricky and sometimes disastrous result to what could be a really great wine. Now, that is not to say you should never try it and if a winemaker knows the process and tricks to working with wild yeast then as a consumer you will have the opportunity to try a very interesting wine.

The aromatics on this wine are, simply put, powerful! Grapefruit, citrus marmalade, vanilla and a major mineral component are the major aromas in play here and they continue on to the flavours where there is major fruit concentration and balance. The mineral component from the aromas is definitely the backbone of the flavours in this wine and then there is this delightful and pleasant spicy kick in the finish.

Vina Caliterra 2009 Reserva Sauvignon Blanc
$8.95 per bottle
Currently in LCBO General Listing, CSPC #275909
Sauvignon Blanc with a tropical fruit aroma – guava, grapefruit and tangerine abound in this glass. These aromas transfer on to the palate where there is a mingling with mineral and then a crisp, lemony finish. The lemon is not overpowering though – it is just a perfect kick of refreshing crispness right at the back of this wine.

Vina Caliterra 2008 Reserva Chardonnay
$8.95 per bottle
Currently in LCBO General Listing, CSPC #257147
I did something yesterday afternoon after I left this trade tasting that I have never done in all the fifteen years I have been a member of the food and beverage industry. I went and bought not one, but three, bottles of this wine which I had just tasted less than two hours previously. It is not a conscious decision on my part – it is just something I have never done. This wine impressed me enough that, without first checking to see which LCBO stores in my area might be carrying it, I just went to the closest LCBO to the train station.

The aromas are tropical fruit – mostly pineapple – with the distinctive creaminess that tells you that this wine spent just the perfect amount of time in oak barrels. The flavours on this wine can only be described as WOW!!! Just about every type of tropical fruit you can imagine – pineapple, mango, papaya, even a bit of banana and many more I could list – with just the right about of cream and crème fraiche. This wine sells for $8.95 a bottle but they could easily make a killing in the stores even pricing it at $20 a bottle.

Now, there were three wines that deserve honourable mentions. The first one is actually more of a situation than an actual wine. When we arrive at tastings like this, aside from getting our tasting glass we are given a booklet where we can make our tasting notes in. They list all of the wineries, with their contact information and – for international wines – their importer’s information and all of the wines that are available at their tables that day. When it is a large tasting it is always smart to take a moment to glance through the booklet and see if there is anything really unique or really outstanding that has to be tried. At yesterday’s tasting the one wine that caught a lot of people’s interest is a Gewurztraminer. Vina Nativa is based out of Santiago, Chile which has a large German population and, combined with the fact that their winemaker was educated in Europe, they have planted one of the most well known German varietals out there. I would not call this an outstanding wine and, at this point, it is not available for purchase in Ontario but I think they deserve a mention for making an effort at trying a cool climate varietal in a decidedly hot climate winemaking region. Hopefully, at some point in the future, this wine will come into its own and be an exciting new varietal for this region.

Now, the other two wines that deserve honourable mentions from the tasting are the two red wines that I had a chance to try after trying hundreds of white wines. Please read the tasting notes below:

Vina Santa Alicia 2008 Reserva Malbec
$11.95 per bottle
Available through Eurovintage International Inc.
Chilean Malbec is very, very different from Argentinean Malbec which is definitely the more known of the two in terms of Malbec producing regions. If you are looking for a red wine that is out of the ordinary, this is definitely a wine you should stop and look at. Aromas of bell peppers, prunes, herbal and even a hint of cocoa, the flavours are similar but also add cinnamon and floral to balance it out. The mouthfeel on this wine is full and plush – it’s almost as big as a Napa Cab – while the tannins are well structured, rounded and complex.
They are showing this wine as not yet available in Ontario but if you contact Eurovintage, they may be able to give you a better time frame on when you will be able to get your hands on this wine.

Vina Santa Alicia 2006 Gran Reserva Carmenere
$18.95 per bottle
Available through Eurovintage International Inc.
Carmenere is a grape varietal that is almost unique to Chile. It used to be in Europe hundreds of years ago but disease knocked the entire crop away and now can only be found in Chilean vineyards. Although it can be commonly confused with some of the heartier red grape varietals, it does have some unique qualities not found in others. The aromas are mostly spice, coffee and raspberry while the mouthfeel is big, round and supple. This particular Carmenere could easily be confused with an Aussie Shiraz given the aroma and flavour profiles but, at this price, it is clearly Chilean. One thing you can always say about Chilean wineries – they know what they are good at and they do not mess with it.

How Hungarian Cabernet Franc Changed My Life by Philip S. Kampe

My Dad was known to his friends as ‘Cab Franc.’ You see, his name was really Joseph and all of his social time with visiting frien...