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Friday, September 21, 2018

New Zealand is on a Roll!

                                Wine-Knows 2020 winery lunch...salmon screams for Pinot Noir!

The Kiwis (as the New Zealanders refer to themselves), long known for their explosive Sauv Blancs, have another blockbuster for wine lovers.  Pinot Noir, now the country’s second most planted variety, is quickly moving to the forefront as New Zealand is establishing an international reputation for producing world-class Pinots.

Forty years ago, the finicky Pinot grape was not even on New Zealand’s wine radar screen.  The varietal grows in cooler climates such as France’s Burgundy, California’s Central coast, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  This South Pacific island nation’s maritime climate was a perfect match in many ways.  Oh, yes, and it didn’t hurt that the soils were found to be similar to Burgundy, the pinnacle for the Pinot cult.

In addition to weather and soil, the Kiwis have another advantage with Pinot Noir.  An important part of New Zealand’s terroir is its intense light.  This is due to a hole in the earth’s ozone layer near New Zealand which permits stronger ultraviolet rays.  While this is problematic for human skin, it creates lusciously ripened grapes.  Unlike Burgundy, where capricious Pinot does not often ripen adequately, New Zealand’s sunlight guarantees consistency.

Pinot Noir is currently grown in several wine districts in New Zealand, however, the grape’s first success was in Martinborough---located just outside of the country’s capitol, Wellington, on the north island.   The south island’s Central Otago wine region (home to the world’s farthest southern vineyards) is also turning out some fabulous Pinots.  

Wines made from Pinot Noir are typically higher in price than other varietals.  Here are three highly rated Kiwi Pinots that offer amazing value for their $30 price tag:

             1.  Mount Brown
             2.  Wild South
             3.  Jackson’s Vintage Widow

Ratcheting up to the $50-60 range, here are some Kiwi Pinots that may cause you to re-think Burgundy:

             1.  Ata Ranghi
             2.  Fromm Clayvin
             3.  Felton Road Calvert

Wine-Knows will be visiting all three of these latter wineries on their harvest trip to New Zealand in 2020 (March).  Come experience these unique wines and explore this gorgeous country.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Vietnam’s Cuisine is All About Harmony

                 Vietnamese meals are a treasure trove of color, texture and perfectly balanced tastes
Both cooking and eating are very important parts of Vietnam’s culture.  Like most things in their culture, the principle of yin-yang exerts a significant influence in Vietnamese life and food is no exception.  Harmony is key, so it’s no wonder that Vietnamese cooking respects the rules of balance.  The five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch) play a major role in creating harmony. 

                        Home cooks can be very clever in creating something from nothing

An important part of Vietnam’s cuisine is first “eating with your eyes.”   Dishes are very colorful, and often have decorative elements.   Fruit and vegetable carving is an art-form in Vietnam and markets are full of a variety of clever utensils that can quickly turn a carrot or radish into a swan or a flower.   Even in family homes the most simple of dishes are adorned with decorations.  In sophisticated restaurants, chefs create masterpieces carved from the country’s rainbow of tropical fruits or vegetables.

          Dinner in a Vietnamese family home is a symphony of smells, sounds, colors & flavors

The sense of smell is very important in Vietnamese cooking.   A variety of pungent aromatic herbs and spices are used to enhance smell.  Vietnam’s famous Pho soup broth is layered in its many hours of cooking with a variety of herbs and spices such as lemongrass, star anise, peppercorns, and ginger.  But the complex nose of the broth is just one of the smells.  Pho is always served with a side plate of garnishes including pungent purple basil, aromatic cilantro, fragrant mint, and a spicy-smelling chili.  All of these individual notes come together in tiny amounts to complete the balance.

     The complex broth of aromatic Pho is mixed with a melange of equally perfumed fresh herbs
The sense of sound can play into the enjoyment of a meal in Vietnam.  Crunchy sounds are an important part of Vietnamese dining.  Soft foods (e.g. noodles) frequently have something crispy for balance (such as peanuts).   Crispy fried shallots are sold in every store.  Another crunch element, these shallots often are used to top a soft rice dish, completing the perfect sound and harmonious textural bite. 

               Toasted white sesame seeds & peanuts create an unexpected crunch in this salad

Touch is also an important sense in Vietnam’s cuisine.  Egg rolls and spring rolls are both examples of hands actually touching the food.  Often served as appetizers to awaken the appetite, the sense of direct contact with the food is an important opening to the remainder of the meal.

             Vietnam's classical dipping sauce provides sweet, sour, salty, & spicy in each bite

Last, but not least is the sense of taste.  There are five elements that must be present for there to be harmony in the taste:   spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet.  Vietnam’s famous dipping sauce (nuoc cham) includes four of the five (bitter is missing), so this condiment always accompanies bitter stir-fried greens.   Everything on the plate is meant to be eaten in concert, creating the perfect balance in each bite.

                                    Duck ("cool") is often served with ginger ("hot")

While ensuring that all of the senses are awakened is vital in Vietnam’s cuisine, there’s also another critical tenet to the yin-yang balance---that of the heating and cooling properties of foods.  Spicy foods (such as ginger) are thought to provide “heat.”  These foods are always paired with other foods (or side dishes) that are considered to be “cool.”   Pickled vegetables, for example, are quite popular in Vietnamese dining as they are considered to be a cooling element.  Similarly, Vietnam’s ubiquitous fish sauce is considered warm, and it is always balanced by something cool.  The classical Vietnamese dipping sauce is a popular concoction that combines fish sauce with sugar and vinegar---both the latter ingredients are considered cool, thus they create the perfect balance.

                                         Vietnam 2020 tour has 8 seats remaining

Come and experience this culinary harmony with Wine-Knows on their food tour of Vietnam.  This trip will begin immediately following the celebration of the Asian New Year in February 2020---a very special time of year.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Can You Taste the Earth Move?

                    Burgundy's Grand Cru hills were created by earthquakes

Some of my favorite wines from around the world are from soils that were created by cataclysmic earthquakes.  The most famous earthquake vineyards are probably those in Burgundy.  Millenniums ago a tremendous earthquake in the area created Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards.  The limestone of the Cote’d’Or (the “golden hill”) was forced out of the bowls of the earth by such a seismic event.

Not far from Burgundy are Alsace’s vineyards---they were also created by an earthquake.  The small wine town of Ribeauville sits almost on top of one of the main fault lines.   In fact, there are two main fault lines that criss-cross with several smaller ones in Alsace.  This may be a reason why there is a huge difference among wines that come from vineyards that are relatively close together---different soils have brought to the surface from varying fissures in the earth’s crust.

Further south in France are the earthquake vineyards of Gigondas located in Provence.  But, earthquake vineyards aren’t limited to Europe.  New Zealand was created from powerful underwater earthquakes that caused the seafloor to push up.  Located at the intersection of two of the world’s major tectonic plates, both islands of New Zealand are earthquake in origin.

Let’s not forget the American continents.  The San Andreas fault in California is responsible for the soils of the Central Coast and Napa/Sonoma.  Chile has produced some of the largest earthquakes in the world (a 9.5 in 1960 and the more recent 8.2 in 2014).  The movement of this same tectonic plate millenniums earlier created the Andes, the world’s longest chain of mountains.  Both California and Chile are known for wines created from these earthquake vineyards.

While there is no scientific evidence that fault-line vineyards directly affect the quality of the wine, there is thought that geology does play some kind of role.  For example, it is known that shifting faults lines not only juxtapose different types of bedrock in the soil, but that they affect ground water and can form valleys.  Indirectly, this can effect micro-climates which do have a profound effect on the wine.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Burgundy or Bordeaux?

                            Burgundy has dramatic sun-facing slopes dotted with tiny wine villages

These two wines are dramatically different, as are the two distinct areas in which they are grown.  Bordeaux is masculine and bold.  Burgundy is feminine and gentle.  Bordeaux calls out for grilled meats.  Burgundy begs for fish with a delicate sauce.  Bordeaux is all about opulent chateaux and enormous vineyards.  On the other hand, Burgundy is about small parcels of land that have been passed down over generations.  The list of differences goes on and on.

                                    Bordeaux is all about grand, impressive estates


Many of the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy and are a result of the different wine grapes allowed by law within these two regions.  Bordeaux’s powerful wines come from the formidable Cabernet Sauvignon grape and the less muscular Merlot.  Bordeaux actually allows blending of up to five red grapes to round out its power-house wines.  Legally, things are very different in Burgundy.  Only Pinot Noir may be used in Burgundian reds---under the area's strict rules, blending is not allowed.  As Pinot Noir is much less tannic than its Bordeaux counterparts, the structure of a red Burgundy is significantly different (but equally compelling and complex), as are its flavor profiles and aromas.  Pinots are about finesse, not about strength.

Bordeauxs in their youth offer dark fruit flavors such as black cherries, blackberries, black currants and plums.  These fruit flavors are often mixed with herbal or spicy nuances such as cedar, licorice or black pepper.   With some aging, however, Bordeaux flavors can take on leather or even cigar-box qualities.

            Bordeaux's color is dark

            Burgundy's color is light

Pinot Noir serves up a completely different experience.  Think lighter red fruits such as strawberries, cranberries, raspberries or red cherries.  Pinot can even take on slight earthy flavors such as mushrooms or wet leaves.  As the tannins in this grape are much less aggressive than its Bordeaux counterparts, the mouth feel of Pinots are much softer and the wine appears more elegant.


             Burgundy's monks built rock walls around each parcel of land to delineate its terroir

Hundreds of years ago (before Bordeaux was even a wine region) Burgundian monks invented the concept of terroir.  These wine-making clergy separated out like a patchwork quilt every little plot of earth in the small wine region of Burgundy.  They knew what parcels produced the best grapes and why.  They even built rock walls (called "clos") around each vineyard and recorded their findings on intricate maps.  These clos today form the basis for Burgundy's Premier Cru.  The monks took into account all of the elements that produce great wines:  soil, drainage, exposure to the sun, wind, topography, humidity, pests etc.  These are all components of terroir.

                            Bordeaux's gravel soils have been washed down from the Pryenees

Burgundy’s terroir differs considerably from that of Bordeaux which is located hundred of miles away on the Atlantic.   For example, the soil of Burgundy is limestone based, thus Burgundian wines have their hallmark minerality in addition to fruit profile.  Bordeaux, in contrast, has gravel and clay soils, hence their wines are quite different.  Weather is a huge difference.  Bordeaux in general can ripen its grapes which translates to full flavored, bold wines.   Pinot Noir is a cool weather varietal that doesn't require as much sun to ripen in Burgundy's cold climate. 

Wine-Knows will be taking their farewell group to Burgundy in June 2019.  We hope that you can join us to experience the land where the concept of terroir began, and to learn about the differences between a Burgundian Pinot and a Bordeaux-based Cabernet.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Kiwi Sauv Blancs

                           Sauv Blanc is the star of the show in the Marlborough wine district 

New Zealand has been historically a world leader when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc (SB) wines.  The classical Kiwi style is easily recognizable---a kind of in-your-face pungency of grass and citrus.  (One critic has even said that if you don’t like New Zealand Sauv Blancs, it’s because you were forced to mow the lawn as a kid).   

The Sauvignon Blanc grape is native to France.  The Loire Valley, known for its gigantic castles, is also famous for its SB.  In Bordeaux, the grape is mixed with Semillon to create an unctuous white Bordeaux.  But, it’s on New Zealand’s south island that the varietal morphs into something quite different from its heritage.   

Some of New Zealand’s most spectacular SBs come from the Marlborough wine region on the south island.  Producing >75% of all of New Zealand’s wines, this area’s flagship grape is SB.  Marlborough is a river valley that empties into the sea and its sandy-gravely soil makes for perfect drainage.  The low fertility of the soil also encourages concentration of flavors via lower yields.   The heavier soils produce the more herbaceous SBs, while its stonier soils left over from the river’s erosion impart more lush and tropical flavors.   Some scientists, however, think that a hole in the ozone layer over this region influences these bold fruit flavors.

                      Stony soils washed down over centuries by the river exert a strong influence

As in all wine, the weather plays a major influence.  New Zealand’s geography ensures that no vineyard is more than 80 miles from the coast.  This means maritime climates that are moderated by the sea---never too hot, but never too cold.  Such climactic factors ensure a long and steady growing season that allows grapes to ripen slowly.  Also, this allows for the development in balance between acids and sugars, one of the hallmarks of a well-crafted wine.

In my opinion the best renditions of Kiwi SBs are those that have tamed the grassy profiles to merely subtle background notes.  Dogpoint offers a well-made SB full of melon and passion fruit mixed with citrus and mineral flavors.  Often available at our local Costco for $20, it consistently delivers big in the quality/price department.  Greywacke (owned by the original winemaker at Cloudy Bay) also delivers a tremendous product in the same price range.  This one offers a superb rendition of well-integrated citrus, tropical, herbal, and mineral.  

Wine Knows will be visiting both of the above wineries on its 2020 harvest tour.  Currently we have 7 seats available:

Friday, August 10, 2018

Vietnam's Best

                                  Nirvana for the country's best banh mi sandwich

Anthony Bourdain is to blame.  He spoiled me.  I keep wanting to prove him wrong, but I've not been able to do so after attempting many times.   Indeed, the best banh mi sandwich in Vietnam is in the seaside UNESCO village of Hoi Ann at Banh mi Phuong.  Believe me when I say their rendition of this sandwich is the bomb.   I’ve eaten there three times and I’m already dreaming of my return in 2020 with the next group of Wine-Knows.

Banh mi actually means bread.  France controlled Vietnam for nearly 80 years and settlers brought to the colony their love for baguettes.  Although the French were driven out in the 1950’s, the baguette remained.   A baguette is the basis for the banh mi, however, the Vietnamese version is always a single serving baguette. Rice flour is often used in conjunction with wheat flour making the Vietnamese adaptation more airy with a thinner crust.  It’s super crunchy and crispy. 

                                A sampling of some of the ingredients at Banh mi Phuong

The baguette is a critical component for the Banh mi but the inside ingredients also can make or break it.   The version I order at Banh mi Phuong has > 10 ingredients, all elements working in totally harmony.  First, there’s a thin layer of aioli, then a splash of the au jus left over from the roasting of the poultry and meats that will follow later on the sandwich. Then, a spreadable house-made pate. Last, there are tomatoes, pickled carrots and daikon, thinly sliced cucumbers, fresh cilantro, and finally a dab of fish sauce mixed with chili for the perfect kick.

                             The owner's daughter warms the scrumptious baguettes

At Banh mi Phuong huge baskets of baguettes are delivered every hour by bicycle from the local bakery.  They are warm on arrival, but this sandwich shop warms the baguettes in a small oven briefly before preparation…making the bread even crunchier. Hundreds of baguettes are served hourly here as there’s a constant parade of hungry folks night and day. 

Now for the bad news:  there’s always a line.   The coveted ten or so tables inside are always crawling with locals and tourists jockeying in concert for one of the few spots to sit.   Because of this, the small sandwich shop is surrounded by a swarm of parked motorcycles whose riders devour their banh mi atop their motorbikes.

Check out the few minute clip from Bourdain’s visit to Banh mi Phuong:

Friday, August 3, 2018

S.O.S. (Summer of Spritz)

                                                        My first Aperol Spritz in Venice

There’s no better way to ring in the arrival of summer than with an Aperol Spritz.  I first was introduced to this colorful aperitif in Venice about ten years ago on a summer’s evening at an outdoor swanky canal-side bar.   Every single table of Italians were enjoying a bright orange-colored drink in a wine glass filled with ice.  What was this popular mystery drink? 

“A spritz, Signora” our waiter informed me, and he then added “It’s very Venetian.” Sold!  All of us bravely ordered one, not knowing if we would make it past the first sip.  (I was thinking of the fiasco of ordering my first Negroni cocktail 30 years earlier on the island of Capri.  I wanted to spit out the first sip but couldn’t as I was on the terrace of the 5 star La Quissiana Hotel).  But, the spitz more than made up from my horrible earlier experience of trying a new cocktail.  Like everyone else at the table, I became an instant fan of the Aperol spritz!

A spritz is made from Aperol and sparkling wine.  Aperol is what gives the aperitif its unmistakable vivid orange color.   You can’t miss a bottle of Aperol in a bar or in a liquor store as its color commands attention.   Think brilliant neon orange. Aperol is a somewhat bitter aperitif distilled from a mélange of oranges, rhubarb and plants such as cinchona (related to quinine, it is responsible for Aperol’s slightly bitter taste, similar to that of tonic water).

The Venetian waiter was correct.  Aperol is very Ventetian as it is actually produced in the Venice area.  But, Aperol has exploded onto the American cocktail scene.  In a recent Bon Appetit there was an entire article on the "spritz."  According to the magazine, Aperol has created "a seismic shift."  Indeed, Aperol is appearing in endless concoctions.  Recently I’ve seen a Pimm’s Cup made with Aperol, an Aperol mimosa, and even an Aperol margarita.  But, Aperol has moved well beyond the US market.  I’ve seen Aperol in one form or another in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Fiji.

While I’ve experimented with creating my own Aperol renditions, I have to admit that the original spritz version remains my very favorite.  The recipe is super easy and only involves a few ingredients:  ½ Aperol and ½ sparkling wine with a splash of sparkling water…finish with a slice of orange and serve in a glass with ice.

Have a S.O.S. !