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Friday, April 28, 2017

Tantalizing Torrontes

                            
                                  Torrontes and the sea are a marriage made in heaven

I have had a big love affair with Torrontes for at least 15 years. Argentina’s signature white varietal, Torrontes is pure seduction.   I love it on so many levels.  First, because it’s a food friendly wine (good acid levels make it perfect for pairing).   Second of all, this sexy little fruit-bomb offers both an enticing nose as well as taste of some of my favorite summer fruits:  apricots and peaches.  Last, the wine has a sensual velvety texture.   I have written about Torrontes probably in 10 articles, however, on my recent trip to South America I learned something new I want to share with you.

Torrontes is a cross between the Muscat & Mission grape.  I’ve long been a huge fan of dry Muscat wines (especially those from Alsace).   The Mission grape was brought to South America by Spanish conquistadores who wanted to make wine.  Interestingly, the Mission grape was among the first also cultivated in the USA.

Torrontes, rarely seen outside of Argentina, is the perfect warm weather wine.  As we live in a near-perfect climate of year around 70 degrees in San Diego, we always have plenty of it on hand.  As we have just purchased a small hideaway for weekends on the nearby beach, we’re ramping up our stock.  With summer approaching quickly, you may want to consider doing the same. 

My favorite producer?  This year it was the 2015 Series A by Zuccardi.  Grown in the Salta region of the Argentine Andes in one of the world’s highest vineyards, this Torrontes is a steal at $15-20 a bottle.  In case you can’t find it at your local retailer, it can easily be obtained on the Internet.  For example, Wine.com currently has this vintage for $15...while there's a shipping fee, there's no tax.   (Be sure to order bottles shipped soon and always insist that the order be shipped on a Monday so that it's not sitting in some hot warehouse over a weekend).


Viva Torrontes!  


Friday, April 21, 2017

Tequila Vs Mezcal

               Agave plants are prepared for their painstaking cooking process in earthen ovens.

On a recent trip to Northern California friends took me to a hip Oaxacan restaurant in downtown Oakland, the new foodie’s mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Having lived in Oakland for 40 years prior to relocating to San Diego, I was ready to celebrate the city’s culinary renaissance with a serious margarita at this new Mexican restaurant.  I discussed the tequila options in detail with the waiter, and settled on a middle of the road quality from their list of >200 tequilas.  The drink I received blew my mind.

While I am a wine expert, my knowledge of tequila is somewhat limited.  Having grown up on Mexican food and visited Mexico close to 100 times, I’ve had my fair share of margaritas, however, I’ve never seriously analyzed tequila.  While I’ve developed a killer margarita recipe (one of my most requested), I’ve concentrated more on the ratios involved, and complexity using a mélange of different citrus.  The margarita I was served at this restaurant changed forever changed my future margaritas.

I knew the tequila in my drink was something completely different from what I have ever experienced.  What I tasted was a complex layering of something smoky.  Could I have mistakenly ordered a very old tequila that had been aged in wood which had a high toast on the barrel?  (Do tequila makers even use toasted barrels?)  

I called over the waitress to confirm my order and she affirmed that the margarita she had brought me was indeed the one I had ordered.  With further questioning she added that drink’s tequila was a young one and there was no wood influence.  I next asked her to bring the bottle.  Expecting a deep- colored tequila (from wood aging), the alcohol was perfectly clear.  Still perplexed, I asked if I could smell it.  Removing the cap, I found a neutral smelling liquid that was not even remotely related to what I smelled in my margarita.  I knew there had been a mistake with the tequila. The waitress suggested sending over the restaurant’s tequila expert.  Perfecto!

I struck, gold with the tequila guru.  He began explaining the tequila that was used in the drink and he, too, confirmed that it had never seen wood.  I handed my drink for him to smell.  The very first whiff he turned to me and said “You received a margarita made with the wrong alcohol.  Your drink is made with mezcal.”  He then proceeded to explain the difference between the two liquors, both made from the agave plant.

Mezcal is different from tequila in 3 ways:

1.  The biggest difference is the manner in which the two are made.  Premium producers of Mezcal roast the agave in underground pits over wood.  These earthen “ovens” cook, smoke, and carmelize the agave imparting a complex layering of these flavors.  This is exactly what I had tasted in my margarita.

2.  Another difference is that tequilia and mezcal are made from different types of agave.  By law tequila can only be made only from Blue Agave, however, mezcal can be made not only from the blue plant, but from more than 30 varieties of Agave.

3.  The last difference has to deal with laws dictating geographical constraints.  Tequila can only be produced in 5 specific regions, whereas mezcal has 9 distinct regions in which it can be made.

The knowledgeable staff person immediately brought me the correct margarita, however, after tasting the mezcal concoction the tequila margarita tasted dull and insipid.  Next, the staff expert brought a margarita made with half tequila and half mezscal (one of the favorites on the restaurant’s drink list.)  This was perfection!  A subtle hint of smokiness was present, but did not over-power as it had done in the original margarita I had been served.  This last one was the best of both worlds, laced with complexity but with only a whisper of a smoky profile.

Cinco de Mayo is around the corner.  Go buy a bottle of high-end mezscal and a good quality tequila.  Experiment.  Enjoy.  (And, if you should ever be in the Bay Area, don’t miss Calavera restaurant in Oakland).

Viva Mexico!



Friday, April 14, 2017

Piedmont: Birth of Slow Food…and More


Regrettably, Piedmont is not on the destination list of most American tourists.  This may be in part due to Rick Steves, who has yet to include this gem of an area in his popular books and television travel programs.  Grazie, Ricardo!  Even if you’re not a foodie or a wine-lover, Piedmont offers many gems.  If you’re a foodie or oenophile, Piedmont may just be the most exciting region in all of Italy.



Most foodies know about of the Slow Food movement, but how many knew it began in Piedmont?  The opening of a fast food restaurant in the heart of Rome in the mid-1980’s touched a real nerve with a journalist from Piedmont.   Shortly thereafter, the writer began Slow Food.  Today, the organization is in 150 countries and its mission is to preserve traditional and regional cuisine.

                           Wine-Knows will watch the birth of artisinal chocolate at a rock-star producer

Piedmont’s traditional cuisine is a treasure-trove of culinary delights.  Home of the premier white truffle, the world’s most expensive gastronomic item, Piedmont is also the area for some Italy’s finest chocolate and hazelnuts.  In addition to high-end artisanal chocolates, even Nutella and Ferrero Rocher are made here.  The area is also the source of Italy’s most illustrious rice.  Preferred by many Michelin-star chefs throughout Italy for risotto because of its firmer texture, canaroli rice is grown in Piedmont.

                Piedmont's Alps provide the perfect situation for a plethora of cow, sheep & goat cheeses 

Piedmont means the “foot of the mountain.”   The foothills of the Alps shared with France and Switzerland, also produce some outstanding cheeses.  Even in a country recognized for its cheeses, Piedmont is a standout.


                     Eataly offers a cornucopia of the very best food products from all of Italy

The Piedmont district is the birthplace for Italy’s most famous food emporium-kitchen shop, Eataly.  Think Williams-Sonoma meets Whole Foods, with the addition of some mind-boggling dining venues such as a mozzarella-bar, wood-fired pizzeria, seafood eatery, and a pasta-centric restaurant.

Last, but not least, Piedmont is the pinnacle for several of Italy’s most magnificent wines, Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines are some of the country’s most complex reds…and expensive. 

Wine-Knows will be visiting Piedmont next autumn (2018) at the time of their world-renown Truffle Festival.  One of the highlights will be a private truffle hunt into the forest with a “trifalou” (truffle hunter) and his dog.   Foodies will be thrilled with visits to Piedmont’s super-star chocolate-maker, as well as a producer of canaroli rice.  Naturally, we won’t miss Eataly…and there will be a dance-card sprinkled with the district’s world-class wine producers.  At the moment, there are only 5 open spots on this trip.    www.WineKnowsTravel.com




Friday, April 7, 2017

Chile & Argentina 2017


Wine-Knows had a rock-star lineup of wineries on our recent trip to the southern hemisphere, so choosing favorites is daunting.  Both countries continue to push the quality envelope.  While there continue to be bargains, there are also world-class wines with commiserate world-class pricing.   All below are available in the US, especially online (listed in alpha-order with US pricing).

  • Casa de Uco Malbec (2013).  Compelling, beautifully complex. $45


  • Catena Zapata Nicasia (2012).  A serious wine in every way.  $135

  • De Martino Las Cruces Single Vineyard (2014).  Mingling of old vine Malbec and Carmenere.  Complex with long finish. $45


  • Koyle Cab Sauvignon (2013).  Fabulous complexity with smooth tannins considering its young age.  Terrific buy.  $20


  • Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc (2015).  A warm weather Sauv Blanc oozing with tropical flavors.  A steal.  $15


  • Los Maquis Cabernet Franc Gran Reserve (2014).  Beautiful fruit, spices, herbal & floral.  One of the best values on the trip.  $20


  • Los Maquis Franco (2011).  100% Cabernet Franc. Chile’s best Cabernet Franc and it could compete on the world stage.  $100


  • Vina San Pedro Cabo de Horno (2014).  Killer Cabernet with well integrated tannins and a heavenly finish.  $45


  • Vina San Pedro Altair (2013).  This one had me at “hello” but didn’t stop all the way to “goodbye.”  Serious wine.  $100
 
  • Zuccardi Torrontes Series A (2015).  Grown in one of the world’s highest vineyards in the Andes, it’s a perfect summer wine.  $15



Friday, March 31, 2017

Brazil's Sexy Cocktail


Just pronouncing Brazil’s most famous drink can be daunting (Kai-pee-reen-Yah), but I guarantee that it is well worth the linguistic effort.  I am currently at a glitzy two-floor penthouse on Copacabana with a group of foodies, all of whom are clients of Wine-Knows.  Our week here is coming to a close, and you can rest assured that the ten of us have made a major dent in "Caipirinhas" over the last seven days.

The Caipirinha cocktail is a distant cousin of Mexico’s margarita, but the Brazilian rendition is made with the country’s flavorful sugar cane "rum."  (Sugar cane was brought in the mid-16th century from Madeira to Brazil by Portuguese immigrants, and is this rum is now the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil).  If you think Caipirinha is hard to pronounce wait until you try to say the name of the rum: Cachaça (Ka-SHAH-suh).

A huge amount of Cachaça is consumed in Brazil in the form of Caipirinhas.  These perfect girl-from-Impanema drinks are made from muddled lime, superfine sugar (which dissolves completely), and Cachaça.   This yummy elixir ironically began in the early 1900’s as a medicinal cure for the flu.  Today it is still used in Brazil as a home remedy for the common cold. 

Cachaça is available at most liquor stores in the US, including BevMo.  There is no substitution for Cachaça, so if you can't find it move on to something else.  Here’s a recipe to begin.  Like most recipes, however, you can tweak it to adjust to your taste.  A word of caution:  remember that Cachaça is high octane…a little goes a long way.

Ingredients:
  • ½ of a juicy lime, cut into small piece
  • 1 teaspoon of super fine sugar (don’t even think of using regular granulated                       sugar as it will not dissolve)
  • 2 oz of Cachaça

Directions:  Put lime and sugar in a hard-bottomed rocks glass.  Smash them with a wooden spoon to release as much juice as possible, as well as the flavors from the rind.  Add ice and Cachaça, stir and serve.

Caipirinha is hard to pronounce, but easy to make and fun to drink.  Move over Margaritas and Mojitos.

Viva Rio!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Carmenere---Cabernet’s Ancestor

           Wine Knows had a private dinner at the top of this mountain, birthplace of Purple Angel

I’m in Chile with a group of Wine-Knows.  We’ve been drinking a lot of their Carmenere varietal and I’m falling in love with it all over again.  For those who don’t know Carmenere, it was brought to Chile in the 19th century by the French.  At the time it was a popular grape planted throughout Bordeaux and was reputed to have produced excellent wines.  But, the phylloxera bug wiped out most all of the vineyards in Europe in the late 1800’s.  Bordeaux replanted with Cabernet and Merlot as the Carmenere grape was difficult to ripen. 

Carmenere was thought to be extinct until it was “discovered” in Chile in the 1990’s by a French team of scientists who visited Chile.   The French researchers were troubled by the appearance and character of the Chilean Merlot grape.  DNA analysis revealed that much of Chile’s Merlot was in fact the “lost” Carmenere grape from Bordeaux.

Genetic research shows that Carmenere is an early ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon.  It shares many of the flavors of Cabernet:  red fruit, chocolate, tobacco and leather.  On the other hand, Carmenere’s tannins are far softer than Cab Sauvignon, making Carmenere much more approachable when young than Cabernet.

Carmenere means "crimson" in French, so it's no surprise that its color is a deep crimson.  In addition to a less tannic structure, Carmenere also offers another element I particularly enjoy:  spiciness!   Moreover, it also offers herbaceous notes (most often green bell pepper).  Both of these nuances mean that Carmenere pairs well with international dishes such as Mexico’s molé, Middle Eastern lamb prepared with mint, spicy Cuban-style roast pork, as well as Italy’s veal piccata (briny capers, lemon and garlic).  In short, Carmenere is a very versatile food wine.

If you haven’t experienced Carmenere you should.  If you’re ready to splurge, there’s none better than Montes’ Purple Angel which will set you back $60-70, but this is a world-class version of Carmenere by one of Chile’s most revered producers.  Montgras, on the other hand, served Wine-Knows a fabulous price/quality ratio last week (available in the US for about $15).

This “lost” varietal needs to found!  I highly recommend that you pick up several bottles and conduct a Lost Varietal Tasting among fellow wine lovers. 



Friday, March 17, 2017

Pisco Sour

                                                         Chile's beloved aperitif

I am with a group of Wine-Knows touring the vineyards of Chile.  There’s only so much wine one can drink.  Besides, who could ever pass up another of Chile’s super-stars, its Pisco Sour?  Made from a type of grape brandy, this stunning aperitif has it all going-on!

The Pisco alcohol actually originated in Peru, but is now made today by both countries.   Spanish settlers in Peru in the 16th century began distilling the left-over grape must into a high-octane alcohol to mimic their native country’s brandy.  Soon its neighbor Chile began producing the spirit.  While Peru currently out produces Chile 3:1, Chile has much more stringent production rules for its Pisco.  In fact, Chile’s Pisco has its own D.O. zones---Pisco can only be produced from grapes grown in these two specific geographical areas of Chile.  Moreover, there are many Chilean laws to ensure quality.

There are many cocktails made from Pisco but my favorite by far is the Pisco Sour.  Think a type of blended margarita where Pisco replaces Tequila.   Another difference is the addition of an egg white (which thickens the texture but doesn’t have much influence on the taste).  The Peruvian version has the addition of bitters, however, the Chileans leave out this component. 

Need a recipe?  Check it out:  http://wineknowstravel.blogspot.com/search?q=pisco

The good news is that you don’t have to go to South America to enjoy a Pisco Sour.  It is becoming more and more popular and is available in many liquor stores (BevMo carries it). 


Viva Chile!