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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. !

Friday, July 27, 2018

The World’s Southern-Most Vines

New Zealand is a country of magnificent beauty.  Luckily, one if its most stupendous settings is a wine region on the south island.   Anchored by the charming city of Queenstown, this area offers breathtaking natural beauty…in every direction.   Imagine crystal clear alpine lakes, dazzling river gorges cut by millennium-old glaciers, wild verdant forests, and jagged snow-capped peaks.   For years Queenstown has been popular among extreme sports enthusiasts (hang-gliding, mountain-biking, white-water rafting …even bungee-jumping was even invented in the area).   Now, its audience has expanded to include wine and food lovers.

The Central Otago wine region (as the wine district is called) is home to the globe’s most southern commercial wine region.  Located on the 45th latitude, it is further south of the equator than South Africa, Australia, Chile or Argentina’s wine areas.  In the 70’s it was thought to be too cold to make wine in this region, but all of that has radically changed.  Queenstown’s surrounding vineyards are now making some show-stopping wines.

Vineyard plantings in area of the Central Otago district expanded in the 1990’s after research showed that this region could produce world-class wines.  In 1996 there were only 11 wineries.  Today there are more than 130.  Varietals that thrive best in cool climates have been planted.  Pinot Noir accounts for nearly 80% of the current vines, along with Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc, and Riesling.

Here are my favorites from Central Otago, all of which are available in the US.  These are well-crafted wines, and many offer fairly good value.  Listed in alpha order:
  • ·        Felton Road Pinot Noir or Chardonnay
  • ·        Maude Point Pinot Noir or Riesling
  • ·        Mt. Difficulty Long Gully Pinot Noir
  • ·        Two Paddocks Pinot Noir
  • ·        Valli Pinot Noir (Bannockburn, Gibbston or Bendigo vineyards are all good)

Why not buy a bottle and soak up some of the area’s stunning scenery in your glass?  Or, buy all of the above and host a wine tasting party of wine made from the world’s southern-most vineyards?   A third option is to join Wine-Knows on its last trip to New Zealand for the harvest in March 2020.   Come experience up-close-and-personal the majestic splendor of this exquisite area.   Learn about and enjoy these extraordinary wines from the pros.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Perfect Summer Duo

One of my pet summer-time wine blends is Marsanne and Roussane.   Rarely vinified as a 100% varietal, these two white Rhone grapes create a perfect marriage of color, aroma, flavor and texture.   I believe that a Marsanne and Roussane blend is a spot-on example of Aristotle’s quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  That being said, let’s examine those parts.

The Roussane grape produces a powerful white wine.   Probably named for its russet-colored grape skin, Roussane creates a deep golden wine.  On the nose, this Rhone varietal offers floral notes, along with peaches and pears.  When allowed to fully ripen there can even be pineapple and mango.  Less ripe fruit offers more delicate herbal nuances. Usually quite rich in texture, Roussane can develop an almost exotic silky, or velvet-like body.  

                                Roussane's color pigments deepen the color of its wine

Roussane in some ways could actually be thought of as a red wine masquerading as a white.   By that I mean that Roussane has a good tannin structure.  These tannins also allow Roussane to age more than other whites without such a tannin structure.  Great Roussanes such as those from the Rhone’s Hermitage, are opulent, elegant, complex, and evocative wines.  

Marsanne, like Roussane, is native to the Rhone Valley.   The most planted white grape in the Northern Rhone, Marsanne also produces deeply colored wines that heighten in color intensity as they age.  Flavor profiles include a nuttiness (think almonds), along with white flowers and citrus or melon.  Like Roussane, Marsanne also has an impressive rich texture.  

                                  France's Rhone Valley is the birthplace of both grapes

While both of these varietals are the back bone of the Rhone Valley’s white wines, they are also grown along California’s coast, Washington state, British Columbia, and Australia.   Most of the time the two grapes are paired together to create the perfect cuvee.  Marrying the best qualities of the duo often produces a fabulous mélange for the summer….or winter!   Here are some of my favorite Roussane-Marsanne blends from the central coast of California:  Jaffus, Sine Qua Non and Stolpman.

Enjoy your summer!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Vietnam---One of World’s Healthiest Cuisines

I’ve been organizing the Wine-Knows’ 2020 tour to Vietnam and I’m already dreaming of my third trip to this magical country.  While Vietnam does make wine due to its historical roots as a French colony, it’s the nation’s food that pulls at the culinary strings of my heart.  

Traditional Vietnamese cooking is well known for its fresh ingredients, along with its minimal use of dairy, red meat, and oil.   With nearly a 2,000 mile coastline, fish is a common ingredient in the diet.  There’s also a huge reliance on herbs and vegetables.  Because of this, many believe that Vietnam’s cuisine may be one of the healthiest diets on the planet.

Antioxidant fresh herbs

                                 Many dishes are served with a side plate of fresh herbs

Many Vietnamese dishes are accompanied by a large platter of fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint.  Lettuce leaves serve as a wrap for many items (like a burrito) and the herbs are placed inside the wrap along with whatever is being served.  

                                    This egg roll is wrapped in lettuce with purple basil & mint
Herbs have been used throughout history as a medicine.  We know today that they exert an antioxidant influence and contain essential oils, vitamins, and other important substances that help protect our bodies against infection, as well as boost our immunity systems.

Mind-boggling array of nutritious fruit

Vietnam is located in a tropical zone with long hours of warm sunshine, as well as humidity---both of which create nirvana when it comes to fruit.  Not only is there a tremendous assortment, but the Vietnamese pick their fruit ripe.  This has a big influence on why every fruit tastes so better in Vietnam.  It’s no wonder that people from China drive hours by car (or ride the bus) to the Vietnamese border to stock up on these extraordinary fruits.

Tropical fruits have long been known for their promotion of health.  High in essential vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fiber, they are a staple in the Vietnamese diet.  Fruits are served raw, juiced, used in salads, mixed with main courses and are served in desserts.


                                            Jackfruit can grow as large as 80 lbs!

One of my favorite fruits from any country is Vietnamese.  While we don’t grow it in the US, due to the vast Vietnamese population in California the fruit is now being imported.  Called jackfruit, if you don’t know it, you should!  This fruit is a party in your mouth.  Offering a mélange of big-time tropical flavors, it tastes somewhere between a pineapple, a banana and a cherimoya (another tropical fruit found in many countries including Vietnam). 

Jackfruit is definitely a love-at-first bite kind of fruit.  It is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, in addition to fiber and protein.  While it does contain some fat, it’s not the bad saturated fat that leads to cholesterol buildup in our arteries.

Very little saturated fat

Unlike Americans, the Vietnamese eat very little saturated fat.  While beef and pork are used, they are used in small portions---abundant vegetables and fruits are mixed with the proteins.  Fish and seafood are used, as is tofu---all appear in concert with vegetables and/or fruits.  In spite of their French linkage, there is no cheese or butter.  Also, very little processed food exists.

Vietnam February 2020

Enrollment on the trip is now open and there are only 7 remaining spaces.   Timing is immediately following their famous New Year celebration when the country is still filled with colorful decorations, and when the weather is the mildest in the tropics.  Come experience Vietnam's healthy way of eating with Wine-Knows!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Zucchini Flowers

                            Soon to be served as an appetizer at our villa rental on Lake Como

Somehow the 4th of July always marks the beginning of summer for me.  Luscious tomatoes are available in nearly every color of the rainbow, stone fruits are at their prime, wonderfully ripe melons abound, and farmers markets are over-flowing with zucchini flowers.   Over thirty years ago I fell in love with zucchini flowers on the island of Capri in Italy.  In fact, after having been served them one night for dinner, I so fell in love with them that I signed up for a cooking class at the restaurant during the week that I was there just to learn the chef’s secrets for zucchini flowers.

                            The Vietnamese version was dipped in batter and then panko

Since that time I’ve had zucchini blossoms prepared in several different ways and in several different countries.  On a recent trip to Vietnam I was served them in a family’s home.   Stuffed with minced pork and fried in a coconut-milk batter, they were sublime.  In France I’ve had them stuffed with goat cheese in a Michelin-star restaurant, and filled with scallops in another.  Both French renditions were baked and then topped with an ethereal sauce. 

                                        Simple pleasure...and a sure crowd-pleaser               

My favorite way to this day, however, is the way in which I was initially served them in Capri.  Over the years I’ve tweaked the recipe to resemble a more tempura-like batter by using cornstarch.  I’ve also lightened up the batter (and added to the taste profile) by using beer for the liquid.

A couple of tips:
1.       Having your oil at the correct temperature (375 degrees) is essential.  This   is important so that the flowers do not absorb the oil.
2.      Immediately salt the flowers when they are removed from the oil (this helps the salt adhere).

Recipe for 24 flowers (plan on 3-4 per person if they’re small;   2-3 if they’re large)
  • 3/4 cup of corn starch
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • enough beer to make a thin pancake batter consistency (if you add too much beer, just add a little more corn starch)
  • EVOO (enough to fill about 2 inches of a skillet)
  • salt

1. Make batter
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in skillet
3. Dip each flower in batter and fry until golden brown on both sides 
4. Drain on paper towel and salt immediately

Buon appetito !