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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Madeira Breaks all the Rules

             Madeira's fortified wines are made in a method completely different from other wines

I’ve been on the Portuguese island of Madeira for the last several days with a group of Wine-Knows.  Madeira is unusual in many ways.  First, it’s closer to Africa that it is to Europe (same latitude as Casablanca, Morocco).  Second, the wine for which it is most famous (fortified wine) was discovered by accident.  But, the most remarkable distinction of this wine is that it breaches many tenets used in traditional wine-making.

Let’s start with some basic background.   Madeira’s wines, highly coveted in the 17th century, were being shipped all over the world.   The island was perfectly positioned on the newly opened trade routes to the Americas, as well as a long- scheduled stop on the important trade routes to India.  Its earliest wines, however, had a habit of spoiling at sea as they were being transported.  To stabilize them, Madeira wine-makers followed suit of their colleagues in the mainland’s Port area and added a small amount of brandy to alleviate degeneration.  Thus, the birthing of the island’s “fortified” wine.

Madeira winemakers learned other instrumental factors from the wines’ long trips at sea centuries ago that are used today to make their wines unique.   Wines returned to Madeira after a year’s voyage tasted better than when they had left.   During the voyage the wine would evaporate, oxidize and concentrate, creating something very different than the table wine that had been originally shipped. Winemakers today reproduce all of this but in a completely different way.

The Use of Heat:
Winemakers figured out that the intense heat of the ship’s hold was changing the wine into something completely different….and better.  Madeira’s wine is now actually put through a heating process to mimic the months spent in the hot cargo holds of old galleons.   Heat is a big NO for traditional winemakers who prefer cool cellars for storage.

Exposure to Oxygen:
Madeira goes against the grain of another basic principle of conventional wine-making:  avoiding contact with oxygen.  Viewed as a huge culprit, Oxygen can turn wine into vinegar, and create other various not-so-nice flaws.  Madeira, in contrast, works with oxygen.  In fact, the term “Maderized” has been coined to describe wines that have been exposed to oxygen.  Typically, these wines are darker brown, with caramel and nutty flavors, all of which are typically found in Madeira.
 
        Colors vary from light-caramel to deep-brown depending on oxygen exposure during aging.

Under-ripe Grapes:
Winemakers throughout the world pay great attention to the ripeness of grapes.  Ripe is not just sugar ripe, but physiological ripeness where all elements of the grapes are mature.  Madeira’s gentle climate often produces under-ripe grapes which creates a major challenge for winemakers.  While the amount of sugar directly corresponds to the amount of alcohol in the wine, unripe grapes translate to wines with low alcohol, and most importantly, with lack of an acid balance. 


Madeira is an example of wines that don’t represent the status quo of current wine-making…not only in its production but in the way it tastes.  If you don’t know Madeira, you should.   Start your journey with a dry Sercial as an aperitif, then work your way up through the sweeter wines that pair well with cheese and chocolates.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Europe’s Only Coffee Plantation

                    Gran Canria's coffee plants grow among orchards of luscious tropical fruits

Think of coffee and countries like Brazil, Columbia, and Indonesia come to mind.  If you’re a coffee connoisseur you may even know that parts of Africa such as Ethiopia and Kenya also produce some decent beans.  But, coffee in Spain’s Canary Islands?  Located a mere 150 miles off the coast of Morocco, the Canaries boast the world’s most northerly coffee plantation---and the only one in Europe.

I arrived a few days ago to the Gran Canaria island with a group of Wine-Knows. Today we visited a coffee plantation.  Coffee has been cultivated on this island since the 18th century.  Originally used as ornamental plants due to their pretty red berries, the plant’s beans are now roasted and sold commercially.

The coffee plantation is located in a lush green valley in the northwest corner of the island.  The valley’s hot and humid year-around micro-climate is instrumental in producing quality beans.  Only Arabica beans, indigenous to Ethiopia, are grown.  The coffee plants grow among tropical fruits such as guava, mangoes, and avocados---all of which provide the much needed shade to the somewhat delicate coffee.  This area is only 300 feet above sea level, hence, Canary’s coffee beans don’t have the high acid levels that its South American counterparts have (they are normally grown at heights of 3,500 feet).

The Canary Islands were birthed from ancient underwater volcanoes, thus their soil is volcanic. (It’s no surprise that some of the most famous coffee-growing spots are in areas of current or historic volcanic activity, e.g. Indonesia and Central America). Coffee plants require a large amount of nutrients and volcanic soils offer an abundant supply of minerals which help the trees to grow.  The mineral-rich volcanic soil also contributes to the coffee’s unique flavor profile.

An island with year-around sunshine, a cornucopia of tropical fruits, plentiful fresh-fish, wine, and coffee?  I think I’ve found paradise.

Viva Canarias.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Wines of Provence

                               Provence offers many charms, including its wines

I'm on my way to Italy after a star-studded two weeks in Provence.  When many think of Provence they flash on images of colorful outdoor markets and fields of lavender.  Yes, I experienced these vistas during my stay but when I think of Provence I think of its wines---its true unsung heroes.  While I love Provence's Rosés, I’m really enamored with its spicy, full-flavored reds, as well as its elegant, tropical whites.  Hands down, these wines are some of the most underrated in France.  While most serious wine lovers know Chateauneuf-du-Pape, they may not be aware of the equally elegant wines of Bandol, or of Provence’s great quality/price ratios like the area of Vacqueyras and Gigondas.   Let’s examine the “non-pink” wines of Provence beginning with terroir, and then move on to its grapes.  

Provence is located in the South of France and the Rhone River, which cuts through it on its way to the nearby Mediterranean, exerts a tremendous influence on the terroir.  Vineyards nearest the river have mineral-rich soil washed down from the Alps.  Summers are hot due to beaucoup sunlight, so there’s no problem ripening grapes. Mighty mistral winds keep pests at bay.

Red grapes, which thrive in the heat, are dominant in Provence.  Varietals such as Syrah and Grenache are most popular.  Another “Rhone varietal” is Mouvedre. These three grapes often are blended together, in fact, they are often referred to as a trio by the name “GSM,” an acronym of all their first letters. While red wine accounts for about 35% of Provence’s production, white wine is 15% (the remaining 50% is  Rosé).  Major white grapes include Marsanne, Roussane, Viognier and Rolle (known as Vermentino in Italy).  Like the reds, white varietals are blended rather than vinified as a single varietal.

Provence’s superstar reds are from the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Located very near the Rhone River, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for its vineyards filled with large stones left from the flooding river. These stones provide superb drainage and reflect back the heat in Provence’s cold winters.  My favorite producers are Chateau Beaucastel and Chateau La Nerthe.   These are gorgeous, voluptuous, complex reds and whites….so wonderful that they make you forget all about their steep prices.

Further south is the tony little wine area of Bandol.  Located just a few miles from the Mediterranean, these elegant wines are an exception to the blending norm throughout other areas of Provence.   They are mainly made from Mouvedre and many are 100% varietal.  Check out Chateau Pibarnon and Domaine Tempier for some killer wines.

For a great quality price ratio consider the Provence villages of Gigondas and Vacqueyras.    Here are some great reds from the 2015 vintage well worth searching out:
  • Famille Perrin, Gigondas, L’Argnée Vieilles Vignes
  • Domaine Raspail-Av, Gigondas
  • Montirius, Gigondas, Confidentiel
  • Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux, Vacqueyras, Cuvée de Lopy

Looking for a terrific white from Provence?  Below are some wonder-filled options...and the first one is worth every Euro:
  • Domaine Pibarnon, Bandol
  • Clos Sainte Magdeleine, "Bel-Amre,"  Cassis
Onward to a seaside villa with Wine-Knows on Tuscany's Mediterranean...

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Week in Provence with Julia Child

                                                     Julia at her estate in Provence

I have had the great pleasure to meet Julia Child on three occasions.  The first was a cooking class during the 1980’s.  My second rendezvous was at a charity benefit of American Institute of Wine and Food.  The last time I met Julia was her 90th birthday celebration at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco.  Thus, when I had the opportunity to rent her home in Provence, I jumped on it in a flash!   That opportunity was four years ago when 2017 seemed forever away.  Now, I'm actually here.

We arrived today to begin a special week’s homage to Julia.  There are 10 of us who have come to pay tribute, all serious foodies and Julia groupies.  All women, each carefully chosen for Wine-Knows’ inaugural tribute to Julia.   Each one of us is armed with our favorite Julia recipes to prepare during this seven day feast in honor of Julia.

We have divided ourselves into pairs, five cooking teams of two femmes.   We will visit several different outdoor markets to procure our products.  As Julia wrote her ground-breaking two-volume books, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for the American housewife who shopped in supermarkets, we’ll also visit the area’s largest supermarket to buy our many kilos of butter and liters of cream. 


Some teams picked their Julia recipes over a year in advance.  Julia’s bouillabaisse was one of the first things chosen.  Slow-roasted veal shanks in red wine was also snapped up much in advance.   One team is deciding on the fly (based on weather) between Julia’s cassoulet with duck confit (for colder temperatures), or her classic coq au vin (if the weather is warmer).  Another pair are gourmands but don’t fancy cooking complicated recipes---they have chosen salade Nicoise, a simple but gorgeous salad of grilled ahi tuna, tomatoes, green beans, eggs, olives, and potatoes.  Still another two-some will cook Julia’s thinly-sliced veal cooked in a butter and wine sauce.

                                    Julia’s bouillabaisse with a white wine from Grand Devers

Each couplet is responsible for one dinner, with a backup team assigned to help with prep, serving, and cleanup.  Wines are also part of the pair’s responsibility.  Considering the above foods, plans are underway for some to serve Champagne, while others are eyeing Provence’s Grenache or Syrah.  Still others are looking at wines from Southern France’s most illustrious district, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  There’s word on the street that one of the pairs will be concocting a special Julia cocktail, with ingredients beginning with the letters “J,”  “U,” “L,”  and “I.”  The last ingredient in the drink is “A” for Aperol.

This trip will be repeated twice in 2018, and both weeks have sold out.  Another trip has just been added for June 2019.  Are you a Julia fan?  If so, this is a trip of a lifetime to be able to spend a week on the estate in which she wrote her famous cookbooks.  For more information, check it out:

http://www.wineknowstravel.com/julia_child_2_itinerary.htm


Viva Julia!


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Cassis

    View of Cassis's harbor from my apartment

Many folks know Cassis…the black currant liqueur that is used to make a Kir (or a Kir Royale when made with sparkling wine).  A few may even know the tony village on the French Riviera by the name of Cassis.   Those worldly gourmands who know both the drink and the seaside town often think that the liqueur is so named because it comes from the village of Cassis.  Wrong.

Crème de Cassis is actually made in Burgundy, 300 miles north.  As of 2015, this black-colored liqueur is protected by France’s geographical laws.  Cassis is now officially referred to as Crème de Cassis de Bourgogne (Burgundy).  The new designation guarantees the Burgundian origin of the fruit, as well as the minimum quantity of berries that is required.   Like France’s other food and wine laws, it guarantees the authenticity of what’s in the bottle so that the consumer knows that the product is not a knock-off from another part of France, or Europe, or for that matter, China.

Now, back to the village of Cassis where I arrived today.  If you’re looking for a heavenly spot to recover from jet lag, look no further.  But, Cassis beckons for many reasons.  Cassis is not on the radar screen for most Americans.  Reason one.   Next, Marseille’s airport is only 30 miles away making it an easy-to-get-to first stop.  Reason two.  Another attractive feature is that Cassis is small and quaint….without the crowds and noisy discos of St Tropez or Cannes.  Reason three.  But one of the most compelling motives to visit, is for its breathtaking beauty. A big reason four.

                                          The calanques can be reached by foot or boat.

Cassis is drop-dead gorgeous.  A large part of its magnificence is due to the “calanques.”  It is thought that the calanques were formed by ancient streams that dried up a millennium or two ago. Today, the remnants are narrow, fjord-like inlets carved into steep white limestone cliffs, France’s highest sea cliffs.  While there are many organized boat tours to view these calanques, I prefer to go by foot for several reasons.  Most importantly, boats are not allowed to enter the calanques so boat visitors can only appreciate them from afar.   While walking to the farthest calanque requires a good hour from the village (and some parts of the trail are a little difficult), one can opt for a 20 minute walk from Cassis to the first calanque.  As there are spectacular panoramas around every bend, walkers to any of the calanques should allow extra time to take photos and soak up the splendor.


Tonight I’m celebrating my week’s stay in this sweet fishing village by ordering a Kir Royale----Cassis in Cassis!

Sante.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bouillabaisse

                                               An array of fish & seafood are used
      
I’m heading in a few days to a fishing village located on the Mediterranean in France, and I'm already already dreaming of Bouillabaisse.  This classical French fish stew is synonymous with dining on the French Riviera.  There’s hardly a restaurant on the water in Marseille or St Tropez that doesn’t offer this complex dish.  Those who don’t have it are typically simple eating places that can’t afford the costly seafood, fish and saffron---not to mention the long, slow cooking process to make the Mediterranean’s most flavor-filled fish dish.

Many think that Bouillabaisse originated in Marseille but research shows otherwise.  This quintessential French fish chowder actually has its roots in the Greek civilization.  It was Greeks living on the western coast of Turkey who founded Marseille in 600 BC.  These ancient Greek sailors brought with them a recipe for a fish soup that is similar to France’s Bouillabaisse.

The fish stew of the original Greek settlers became very popular in the early days of Marseille.  As Marseille was growing into a powerful port city, the fishing industry became its biggest economy.  The fish that the fishermen couldn’t sell was brought home for wives to add to the family’s fish soup.  Most of the fish that didn’t sell were those with bones so Bouillabaisse morphed into a rich stew because of the flavors added by these bones, fish heads, and other unsightly fish parts that could not be sold.
                                                                                              
Another change in the dish occurred when the tomato was brought back from the Americas in the 16th century.  They were soon added to the broth for flavor, color and acidity.  In the 19th century Marseille had become very prosperous.  Bouillabaisse, once a poor fisherman’s dish, was reinvented with the addition of pricey saffron, and began appearing in upscale restaurants.    

I will be preparing Julia Child's version soon at a “Week in Provence with Julia Child.” To get in the mood I'm watching Julia's French Chef TV show:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuiTwik0vvU 

Bon Appetit!




Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Birthing of a Provençal Rosé

                                    Rosés in Provence are made in 2 distinct methods
I’m leaving shortly for Provence.  At this time of year Provence is synonymous with Rosé.  For centuries, Rosé has been a staple in southern France’s district of Provence.  Today, however, Provence is the world’s leading district for dry Rosé production (accounting for nearly 50% of the region’s wines).  While there are three different ways in which a Rosé can be made in some regions of France, in Provence there are only two methods for creating a Rosé.
Let’s start with the basics.  Vinifying a Rosé starts with red wine grapes.   Clear juices from the grapes are kept in contact for a short time with the darkly pigmented skins.  Once the juice becomes pinkish (or a deeper salmon or coral) from contact with the dark skins, it is then removed from further interaction with the skins. 
Now, let’s discuss Provence’s two ways of birthing a Rosé.  The first method is called “saignée,” a French term which means “to bleed.”  The saignée method literally “bleeds” or siphons off some of the grape juice during the making of a red wine fermentation.  (The remaining red wine, now quite concentrated, is then fermented separately from the Rosé).  Among many current Rosé purists, saignée is viewed as merely a by-product of a more complex red wine.   Nonetheless, this method remains popular in many parts of the world and the resulting Rosés can be superb. 
The second method in Provence involves a direct pressing of the grapes, with the sole purpose of making a Rosé.  Soon after the red grapes are harvested they are pressed, separating the juice from the skins.  Because the contact with the juice and skins is minimal, these “pressed” Rosés tend to be paler than those of saignée. This technique is especially popular now in Provence and continues to grow in popularity with winemakers around the world.  Many winemakers prefer the direct press method as they are able to have the final product (Rosé) in mind from the picking of the grapes through vinification (in contrast to saignée where red wines are the final product). This means grapes can be harvested at the optimal period for a Rosé versus a Grenache or Syrah.
Here’s a list of my favorite Rosés from Provence in alpha order:
  • Chateau Bormettes Instinct Parcellaire
  • Famile Negrel Petite Reine
  • Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles
  • Domaine Ribotte Cuvee Anais
  • Chateau Salettes 
  • Chateau Valentines Huit

  Have a Rosé-colored Sunday!