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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Presidents & Wine

                                           The birthplace of American Wine
Tomorrow is President’s Day.   Did you know that several Presidents were instrumental in shaping the course of wine in our country?  Several of our founding fathers were not only involved in efforts to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but were real bon vivants with deep appreciation of fine wines. 

Let’s start at the beginning.   George Washington drank 3 glasses of wine after dinner. While this wine was a Portuguese Madeira (a very “in” wine at the time), he was also quite interested in French wine with dinner.  Washington’s wine cellar included many chateaux still famous today, such as Mouton-Rothschild and Yquem.  Way to go, George!

Thomas Jefferson had a profound influence on the American wine industry.  Out of all the Presidents, Jefferson was certainly the most passionate about wine.  As the Ambassador to France, Jefferson toured many of the country’s most illustrious chateaux---his favorites were Burgundy and Bordeaux.  I was recently at Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux and in the entry way of the chateau was an oil painting of Jefferson.  According to records, Jefferson sent home thousands of bottles from the area for him and his friends, one of whom was George Washington.  

Jefferson, however, was much more than a consumer of French wine.  A definite wine geek, he took copious notes on the different French terroirs (soil types, drainage etc.). Moreover, he was the first American to attempt wine-making.  Jefferson brought home cuttings from France and began growing grapes for his own wine-making at Monticello.  He was certainly a dude with whom I would want to hang-out.

Fast forward >150 years to the Presidency of Richard Nixon.  While Nixon’s ethics and politics don’t leave one with a warm and fuzzy feeling, he was undeniably a wine aficionado.  At a time when jug wine and cocktails were the norm, Nixon drank the real-deal Champagne and Bordeaux.  Fine wines apparently put a big dent in his entertainment budget.  Considering it was tax payer dollars funding this, however, this may be another nail in his coffin.

Ronald Reagan loved wine.  Prior to Reagan, mostly French wines were served at White House special dinners.  But Reagan, who was especially crazy about wines from his home state of California, changed all of that.  At a time when the California wine industry was beginning to shine, Reagan helped further promote it on a more global scale by serving it to some of the world’s most prominent leaders.   BV Private Reserve was served to Prince Charles, while a Jordan Cabernet was on the menu at another dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth.  Nancy Reagan, on the other hand, was wild about Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and it frequently was served at White House events.

Have a Presidential Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Special Valentine’s Dessert

                                                              This cake is Southern Living’s most requested recipe

If you’re looking for a scrumptious way to celebrate Valentines, I’ve got just the recipe for you.  I had my first bite of this ethereal cake in Charleston two years ago when I took a group of Wine-Knows to Savannah and Charleston.  One of my clients ordered it at dinner and made the mistake of giving me a taste.  It was love at first bite.  I tracked down the next day the bakery , bought a huge piece (which I devoured on the spot), and have been a fan of the “Hummingbird Cake” ever since.

If you like homemade carrot cake (the moist version with pineapple and coconut), you’ll love this dessert.  Think carrot cake meets a great rendition of banana bread.  Published in Southern Living in 1978, Hummingbird Cake is the most requested recipe in the magazine’s <50 year history.  Over the years the cake has garnered a plethora of awards, including First Place at the Kentucky State Fair.  Just about every women’s Community Cookbook in the South has at least one recipe for this famous sweet.  Google currently offers nearly a million recipes---including one by the Queen of Southern cooking, Paula Deen.  There are even Hummingbird Cake videos on U-tube.

In spite of this cake being so strongly associated with the South, Hummingbird Cake actually originated on the island of Jamaica.  It appears the recipe was part of a marketing ploy in 1968 when Jamaica Airlines was launched.  The airline’s press package included various items about the island’s culture in hopes of enticing tourists to come to Jamaica.  Part of that press kit was the Hummingbird Cake, named after the island’s national bird.

Here’s the original recipe published in Southern Living

Have a sweet Valentine’s!

Friday, February 3, 2017

French Fizz Ed

                                          Fizzy Crémants can be great values 

If you’re looking for a reasonably priced bottle of French sparkling wine you should consider the country’s Crémants.   The word “Crémant” was adopted by regions outside of the Champagne district to distinguish their own fizzy wines after laws were enacted to prohibit other areas from using the word Champagne.  (Crémants, however, are made by the exact same process as a Champagne).  Crémant means “creamy” and refers to the fizzy wine’s texture.  Here are a sampling of some of the best regions for Crémants.  

Crémant d’Alsace

Alsace, which shares its western border with the Champagne region, is the largest producer of Crémant in France.   Crémant d’Alsace is made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the same grapes used in Champagne), as well as Pinot Blanc and Riesling. 

Crémant de Bourgogne

Burgundy shares its northern border with Champagne.  Made mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these fizzy wines can be excellent values.  Add a tablespoon of Burgundy’s Crème de Cassis and you have the region’s famous aperitif, a Kir Royale.

Crémant de Loire

Crémant de Loire was the first Crémant appellation to be recognized in France (1975).  Chenin Blanc, the hallmark white grape of the district’s still wines, makes many of the Loire’s best bubbles.  This fizz pairs perfectly with the area’s coveted oysters.

Crémant de Bordeaux

A fizzy wine in Bordeaux?  The sparkler is only a tiny fraction of this region’s production…and it rarely leaves Bordeaux.  The white version is made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the rosé from Merlot, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, as well as Malbec.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Island Fever

Maybe it’s all the rain Southern Cal has been experiencing recently?   Or, perhaps it’s just the cold?  Don’t know exactly why but I’ve been obsessing over island wines lately.  If you want to put a little sunshine in your glass, try some of these favorite island wines of mine: 

Wailheke, New Zealand

Located just a few hours by ferry from Auckland, this island (in addition to making some great wines) is a very romantic spot.  The star of the viticultural show is Te Whau winery’s “The Point.”   Only 1,000 cases of this killer Bordeaux blend is made.  The price is about $100 a bottle, but it could seriously compete with the Grand Cru Chateaux which sell for several times this price.   

Sardenia, Italy

Rugged and dry, the soils and microclimate of this island are perfect for growing grapes.  While water and fertile soils are needed for table grapes, an inhospitable environment such as Sardenia is the perfect situation for creating complexity (vines are forced to seek water and nutrients deep down in the soil).   The whites are the stars of the island’s show and Vermentino is the rock-star grape.   We buy cases each year of Argiolas’ Vermentino to serve guests poolside.  At about $15 a bottle, the well-priced sips of this one will make you swear you’re on the beach!

Santorini, Greece:

If you’ve been to Santorini, you know it’s a big OMG kind of place.  If you haven’t been, put it on your bucket list as this place is high on the Richter scale for spectacular beauty.   Created from a cataclysmic volcanic eruption a few thousand years ago, the island’s lava-based soil makes some of the world’s most interesting mineral-laced wines.   Gaia is a producer not to miss.

Mallorca, Spain

Palma de Mallorca's  airport is one of the busiest in all of Europe with nearly 20 million visitors annually.  Because of this, most of its wine, unfortunately, never makes it off the island.  That being said, if you’re visiting Barcelona, take a 30 minute flight to this dreamy place (from Madrid, it’s an hour flight).  Highly recommend Bodega Biniagual and Bodega Binigrau, located in the center of the island in the DOC district of Binissalem.  These boutique producers are among the best on the island.

Gran Canaria & Lanzarote, Spain

These two islands are located just off the coast of Morocco.  This June Wine-Knows is taking its first group to the Canaries.  The islands’ volcanic soils create some very interesting mineral flavors in their wines, but it’s not just about the minerality.  The island’s abundant sunshine also add enticing tropical fruit flavors to the whites.  If you can find El Grifo or Los Bermjos, they’re fab.  Olé!

Madeira, Portugal

After the Canaries, the group of Wine-Knows will be heading to Madeira.  While many think of the aged & fortified Madeira, this volcanic island is now producing some very good table wines.   Like the Canaries and Santorini, Madeira’s mineral-rich volcanic soils translate into very interesting wine.  These soils are quite well drained (necessary for creating the best wines) and there is little water (thus, roots have to search deep into the earth for hydration---bringing up with the water interesting flavors from the deep soils).   Best for table wines is Quinta do Moledo or Roca Branca, both made by the island’s rock-star winemaker Joao Mendes.

Corsica, France

We spent a week on Corsica a few years ago.  An overnight ferry’s ride from Marseille (or a few hours boat ride from Italy’s Tuscan coast), this gem offers a perfect getaway from the maddening crowds of the French Riviera, as well as Tuscany’s hoards.   It also offers wonderful wines, especially Vermentino.  While Americans haven’t really discovered Corsican wines yet, the French have.  One of the French Bibles of wine recently dubbed Corsica as the “most exciting wine region in France.”   Look for producers Arena or Leccia.   

Have fun….and don’t forget to the sun block!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Minestrone To Warm the Soul

We moved to Southern California for warm weather so let me confess right now that I'm not a lover of the cold.  That being said, the recipe below has certainly helped to ease the the chill of winter nights.  Moreover, it has one of my can't-seem-to-get-enough-of veggies, escarole.  How could something so simple (less than an hour of active prep time), so low in calories (terrific diet-food after the holidays), and so nutritious (lots of vitamins and fiber), taste so yummy?  This one ticks all of the boxes for scrumptious and healthy.

NOTE:  If you want a more filling soup you can add pasta or potatoes.  Also, if you still have your turkey carcass in the freezer, it can be added to boost flavors.  If you really want to be decadent, drizzle pesto on the top before serving with a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano.   (Serves 8)

  • 1/3 pound sliced pancetta, chopped
  • 3 medium red onions, chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1/3 cup EVOO
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 28-ounce canned tomatoes
  • 3 quart hot water
  • 5 cups coarsely chopped cored Savoy cabbage
  • 5 cups coarsely chopped escarole 
  • 1 piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (about 3 by 1 1/2 inches)
  • 2 (19-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained 
  • salt & pepper

Cook pancetta, onions, celery, and carrots in oil in large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally while preparing the chard.

Cut out stems from chard and chop the stems, reserving leaves for later.  Stir stems into pancetta mix with garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until all veggies are tender and begin to stick to bottom of pot (about 45 minutes).  

Push veggies to side of pot, then add tomatoes paste to cleared area and cook, stirring constantly until paste begins to caramelize (a couple of minutes).  Stir paste into veggies and cook, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes---do not let paste burn. Stir in tomatoes with their juice, breaking them up with a spoon.  Next, add hot water, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pot.

Bring to a simmer.  Stir in cabbage, escarole and add the cheese rind.  Simmer, covered, until greens are tender about 40 minutes.  Coarsely chop chard leaves and stir into soup along with beans.  Simmer, partially covered, 10 minutes.  Discard ring. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Champagne Trivia for 2017

                                         One of the many Wine-Knows' trips to Champagne

Here are 10 facts that the Champagne-lover needs to keep close at hand for cocktail trivia in the New Year:

1.      The classic Champagne coupe glass (rarely used now) was modeled from a mold that was supposedly made from the breast of Marie Antoinette.

2.     A regular serving of Champagne produces about 100 million bubbles before it goes flat.

3.     Champagne was not “discovered” by Dom Perignon…this monk actually tried to remove the bubbles in a batch of wine that had “gone bad.”

4.     The Champagne region, France’s most northerly wine district, lies at the northern edge of the world’s grape growing latitude.

5.     Only the following 3 grapes can be used to produce Champagne:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

6.     Veuve Clicquot is named after the widow of a winery owner ("veuve" means widow).

7.     The biggest bottle of Champagne is 40 times the normal sized bottle and is called a Melchizedek.  The second largest bottle is a Nebuchadnessar which is half the size of the Melchizedek.

8.     Your chances of dying from a flying Champagne cork (which can reach a velocity of 40 miles per hour) is greater than the chance of death by the bite of a poisonous spider.

9.     Only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region can be called Champagne (one exception is California’s Korbel which was grandfathered-in).

10.     Two English sparkling wines beat out some of France’s most prestigious Champagnes in a blind tasting in Paris (refer to last week’s Blog).

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2016

World's Best Sparkling? The Answer Will Surprise You

Imagine a blind tasting in Paris featuring some of France’s most illustrious Champagnes.   Eminent wine critics served as the judges.  The event was a haute couture of Champagne, with brands present like Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, and even pricey Pol Roger (so beloved by Winston Churchill that he named his race horse after his favorite bubbly).   Although Pol Roger placed third in the tasting, Churchill may have not been too displeased for the winner of the competition was a bubbly from England!

English “fizz” (as it is called in Britain), has been somewhat of a joke in the wine world…for those who have not tasted it.  I had the pleasure to visit a winery in 1999 and was surprised that their fizz was actually drinkable.  Lots, however, has happened to the wine industry in England in the last 15 years.  In fact, the top two wines in the above blind tasting were from England.

Why not England?  Stop and think.  Southern England, where the two winning wineries are located,  is about the same latitude as the Champagne countryside.  England also has limestone soils very similar to Champagne.  Moreover, England’s southern coast, is warmer than many parts of Champagne, thus riper fruit means more complex flavors.  The secret is out.  Champagne Houses such as Taittinger have bought land in England and are beginning to make their version of fizz.

Wine-Knows will be taking its first group to England in 2018, however, the tour has already sold out.  We have added another tour in 2019.  If you can’t wait until then, here are the names of the English fizzes that turned the Champagne world upside down:
                  ~ Hamilton Classic Cuvee, 1st place
                  ~ Nyetimber Classic, 2nd place

Have a fizzy New Year!