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Friday, February 21, 2020

Crash Course on Australian Wines

I’ve just arrived in Sydney for some days of R&R between WineKnows’ tours to Vietnam and New Zealand.  Although I’ve been to Australia three times, it’s been a while so I developed a wine "cheat-sheet."  Included is an update on the country’s current wine scene, as well as a cursory review of its major wine regions.

First, however, a couple of points.  While Australia spent a bazillion bucks developing their wine brand “Shiraz” (their word for Syrah), the country has so much more to offer other than Shiraz.   Additionally, some of the best-selling Australian wines have caused a negative perception of Australia.  Yellow Tail and Little Penguin, two of the largest selling wines that are mass produced for novices, have turned off the serious wine buying American public.  A decade ago Australian wine sales in the US hit $1 billion.  Now they’ve fallen to $420 million.

Current Wine Scene

The style of Australian wines is undergoing change.  In the 1990’s and early 2000’s they were influenced by Robert Parker’s fruit-bomb, opulent, high alcohol wines in new oak (Australia’s Grange is one of the few wines in the world to have scored a perfect 100 Parker points).  But the tide is shifting.  In the last decade Australians are rediscovering what wines really work best with their climate, terroir, culture and lifestyle.  Wines that pair best with fish and seafood, as well as the popular Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, and those that can be enjoyed in the country’s popular food-on-the-barbie outdoor lifestyle are now in.  This leaves many high alcohol reds out.

Shiraz, however, remains the most planted wine grape and is equivalent to the combined total of all four of these popular grapes:  Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.  Cabernet Sauvignon follows Shiraz in number of vines which means Australia currently is big red wine country.   Factor in global warming which creates higher alcohol wines.  But, tastes are changing toward lighter style reds with less alcohol.  Pinot Noirs are often winning best in show beating out Shiraz and Cabernet.  Furthermore, Rosé sales are up.

Wine Regions
Australia is vast with huge differences in climate, geography and terroir.  It’s roughly the size of the US so consider the immense variations between grapes grown in Washington state and Texas, or the difference between Napa and upstate New York.   Below are some of the major wine districts.

Barossa Valley: 
Located in the country’s mid-south near Adelaide (think New Orleans in the US), the Barossa is associated with Shiraz, however, today there is also a fair share of white such as Chardonnay and Semillon.

Hunter Valley: 
Near Sydney (think Atlanta in the US), Semillon is widely considered the region’s iconic wine.  BTW:  Semillon is a white Bordeaux varietal with an unctuous texture.

Margaret River:  
On Australia’s west coast near Perth (think Napa in the US), this is Cabernet country.

An island off Australia’s southern coast, Tasmania is all about cool weather grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Reisling

Yarra Valley:
Located near Melbourne (think the gulf side of Florida in the US), this southeast area is known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines.

On this visit I plan to focus on the Hunter Valley and Tasmania.   As the Hunter is within shooting distance of Sydney there ought to be good availability of wines from this district in Sydney.  Moreover, I don’t know Hunter wines very well, and I’m a big lover of Semillon.   Also, I have not visited Tasmania but that’s not the only reason that it’s on my radar screen.  Tasmania is leading the country’s movement toward lighter reds such as Pinot Noir.   

Australia's fires have been horrific.  Why not show some down under support by buying some of their well-priced wines?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Falling in Love with Curry

                                           Red prawn curry had me at "hello"

Curry has cast a spell on me.  Even the word curry gives me goosebumps and makes my heart skip a beat.  Regardless of if it’s Malaysian, Thai, or Indian, curry has me head over heels.   A few years ago I even flew to Malaysia just to take a curry cooking class from one of the country’s most famous cooking teachers.   I am currently in Vietnam where some type of curry is on every menu.  I'm almost giddy. 

While I’ve  always known that curry was a blend of seductive spices and herbs, I didn’t know until my class in Malaysia that an authentic curry is made lovingly from all fresh ingredients (no powders of any kind).   Prior to the class the teacher took us to the local market where we procured a bounty of all the ingredients for several different types of curry.  The smells alone of the raw ingredients were intoxicating.

                                Green veggie curry made the strings of my heart sing

Some of the components I knew (such as fresh ginger, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chiles, tamarind, palm sugar, shrimp paste, cilantro, fish sauce, cinnamon bark, whole nutmeg, and fresh bay leaves).  Others I had heard of but never used (fresh kaffir lime leaves, fresh turmeric and its leaves, coriander root, fresh fenugreek, as well as fresh coconut milk).  Then, there were components I had never seen or heard of such as aromatic galangal (a member of the ginger family).    

We made many different types of curry from the above ingredients.  One was Panang curry (named after the city in which the cooking class was taught, this is a red curry similar to a red Thai curry).  Another was a milder green curry (flavored with lots of cumin and turmeric, with additions of cinnamon and nutmeg).   Meat was used in a few, poultry in another, and vegetables in yet another.   All were labor intensive labors-of-love…all were cooked on outside stoves in 90+ degrees with 90+ humidity.  In spite of the difficult conditions, I haven't been able to stop thinking of the seductive flavors of these curries.

My love for curry is unconditional and eternal.   Happy Valentine’s Day!

Friday, February 7, 2020

Vietnam's Irresistible Coffee

          Vietnamese coffee emperor, Trung Nguyen, has amassed a fortune >$250 Million USD 
On my inaugural trip to Vietnam, nearly a decade ago, one of my first memories was the country’s marvelous coffee.  After a long international flight and an iffy night’s sleep in Hanoi, I remember heading down to the hotel’s breakfast room where I found my three girlfriends guzzling pots of this coffee…and all raving about how good it was.  I’m very picky about my coffee so I proceeded with some trepidation.  I was hooked at the first sip---there was something really compelling about Vietnam's coffee.

When breakfast was over I asked the server what brand it was and where I could buy it.   Seems the coffee Gods were looking down on me as the hotel staff agreed to actually sell me a bag.  The only issue was that it only came in large commercial packaging.  No problem.  I bought the equivalent of ten pounds and carried the beans throughout Vietnam, then on to Australia, and then finally back to the US.  I never regretted lugging a single coffee bean.  This stuff was the bomb!

Coffee was brought to Vietnam in the 1800’s by the French who colonized it until the 1950’s.  Today, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee on the planet, surpassed only by Brazil.   Walk around downtown Saigon and you’ll notice immediately that coffee is big business:  modern coffee houses abound and are loaded with upmarket crowds, and retail shops selling everything from clothing to electronics even have large displays of packaged coffee for sale.

               Coffee is such a ritual in Vietnam that it has its own special miniature brewing pot 

There is something very different about Vietnamese coffee.  When I first tasted it I remember being surprised by nuances of chocolate and even some nuttiness.  (BTW:  I’m not one for any type of flavored coffee.)   I’ve since learned that there is a miniscule amount of chocolate added (0.1%) but the real difference is that Vietnam grows an entirely different bean and processes in a different manner.

Most American coffee uses the Arabica bean, Brazil’s Holy Grail.  Vietnam, however, uses the more earthy flavored Robusta bean.  (Italian espresso often contains Robusta in the mixture of beans to provide a full-bodied drink.)   Like espresso, Vietnamese coffee contains a lot of caffeine…more than that made from the Arabica bean.  But, it’s not only the bean that makes the difference.  Vietnam roasts its beans at very low temperatures over a long period of time, allowing them to develop complex flavors.

Yesterday I arrived back in my beloved Vietnam.  This trip there will be no need to purchase a suitcase full of coffee as it’s thankfully now available in the US compliments of Trung Nguyen, Vietnam's international coffee mogul.  Seems I’m not the only one who is hooked on this enticing beverage.  Trung Nguyen, a multi-millionaire, now exports it to over 30 countries.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Parlez Vous Pinot?

Pinot Noir, named for its pinecone shape, is the ancestor of all Pinot varietals

Chances are even the most novice of wine drinkers have heard of either Pinot Noir or Pinot Grigio.  However, it's possible that even a few veterans may not know about Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Gris...or if there is a connection among any of these grape varieties.

Indeed, all of the above Pinot grapes are related.  Their common name is a French word meaning "pinecone," which comes from the shape of their bunches of grapes (small berries tightly clustered together in the form of a petite pinecone).  Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio (aka Pinot Gris) are not only related but DNA shows that all three of these grapes are identical, except for a tiny mutation that changed their skin color.  Pinot Noir's skin is black and so named after the French word black, noir.  Pinot Gris/Grigio has a greyish colored skin thus the names which means "grey" in French and Italian, respectively.   Pinot Blanc gets its name from its whitish skin (white in French is blanc).   

Pinot Noir is the founding member of this ancient noble French family of grapes.  One thousand years older than the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Pinot Noir is not only one of the oldest wine grapes, but is the primary ancestor for many of today's wine grapes.  Pinot Noir has a high propensity to mutate.  It has birthed over 150 different varietals.

Pinot Blanc is just one of the many grapes that have descended from Pinot Noir.  Sometime centuries ago a vine of black Pinot accidentally mutated and produced a shoot of only white skinned grapes.  This single white cane was probably grafted to create a vine that produced only blanc grapes.  Voila.  Pinot Blanc.

Pinot Meunier is also a descendant of the original granddaddy grape, Pinot Noir.  One of the three grapes allowed by law in Champagne, Pinot Meunier is dark skinned and contributes aromatics to the Champagne blend.  Both Pinots Gris and Grigio (the same grape but called different names in different parts of the world) are morphed offspring of Pinot Noir.  

A toast to mutation and le santé in 2020!

Friday, January 24, 2020

New Zealand Wines You Gotta Try in 2020

                            Hawke's Bay Gimlett Gravels are from milleniums-old rivers

Looking for interesting new wines for 2020?   I'm on my way shortly to New Zealand and I’ve got ten don’t miss wines from the country's North Island---all of which are imported into the USA.  These carefully chosen “gotta trys” come from two different wine regions. 

The first district, Hawke's Bay, is one of the country’s warmest grape growing areas.  Hawke's temperatures make it a popular spot to grow red varieties, although a good amount of Chardonnay is also produced here.  The wine area is composed of sub-regions, the most famous of which is the Gimlett Gravels.  These deep, free-draining gravels have only a thin layer of topsoil over them.  Most of the Hawke's Bay red wines listed below are from this special terroir.

The other quality wine district on New Zealand’s North Island is Martinborough. This area is a much smaller and cooler, and the focus here is Pinot Noir.  In fact, New Zealand has long been known for its signature varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot, however, has now gained a huge momentum and is rivaling Sauv Blanc.  The country’s best Pinot is from Martinborough.

Below's your list for 2020, listed alphabetically by producer.

Ata Rangi (Martinborough)
  • Pinot Noir:  scored consistently high by international critics, this is one of the best examples of the magic of New Zealand Pinot.  $55

Elephant Hill   (Hawke's Bay)
  • Airavata Syrah:  Airavata is the powerful God of Elephants in Hindu.  This wine is a powerhouse with a long, silky finish.  K&L in San Francisco has it for $50.
  • Hieronymus:  A blend of Merlot and Malbec with a small amount of Cab Sauv mixed in.   Only made in exceptional years, this one is a near-perfect wine.  $50
Palliser (Martinborough)
  • Sauv Blanc:  along with the cooler variety Pinot Noir, this winery also produces a terrific white that is a great price for $20 bucks a bottle.

Sacred Hill (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Helsman:  A huge wine made from a blend of Cab Sauv and Merlot with a little Cab Franc sprinkled in.  $42
  • Deerstalker’s Syrah:  Knock-out aromas & a great finish.  $42

Te Mata Estate (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Sauv Blanc Cape Crest:  This elegant barrel fermented wine has a little Pinot Gris & Semillon included.  $25
  • Elston Char:  an opulent example of what this varietal can do.  $35
  • Coleraine:   one of the area’s highest Parker scoring wines, it's a medium bodied wine with silky tannins.  60% Cab Sauv,28% Merlot & 12% Cab Franc.  $77

Trinity Hill (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Homage Syrah:  one of the iconic red wines of the Gimlett Gravels.  $75

Coming with us to New Zealand in February 2020?   Wine-Knows will be visiting all ten of these producers and you can taste the best of the best in person!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Where’s the Beef? Wagyu & Kobe

                                            American Wagyu must be at least 50% Wagyu

I was a guest at a recent holiday dinner party.   In addition to being an extraordinary decorator, the home’s owner is an accomplished cook and a lover of wine.   As I was bringing the wine for the main course, I inquired about the menu:  my friend was splurging on a prime rib of Wagyu beef, so we dug out two bottles of 1995 Lynch Bages for the table of six.  Everyone present was quite knowledgeable about wine (all had even visited Lynch Bages in Bordeaux!).  But, no one knew many details about Wagyu, or for that matter, how it differed from Kobe.

Both Wagyu and Kobe are native to Japan.  Let’s start with Wagyu.  Interestingly, Wagyu literally translates to Japanese beef (“wa” meaning Japanese, “gyu” meaning cow).   Originally used in agriculture, these cows over centuries went through a selection process where the cows with more physical endurance were selected and bred.   Seems these stronger cows had more intra-muscular fat cells (aka marbling) which provided a readily available source of energy.   There is some evidence that this separation into the Wagyu genetic strain occurred as much as 35,000 years ago.

Modern Wagyu beef in Japan, however, has been cross-bred with European breeds since the 1800’s.  Wagyu first came to the USA in 1975 when someone in Texas imported a few for breeding.   Much of the meat produced was sent to Japan, but in 2003 Japan prohibited importation.   It didn’t take long for America’s chefs and gourmet cooks to discover Wagyu’s unique taste and tenderness because of its highly marbled meat.

                                        All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe

So, how does Wagyu differ from Kobe beef?  As Wagyu means Japanese beef, all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.  Let me explain.  Kobe is like an appellation such as  Champagne, or Prosciutto di Parma where only sparkling wine from France’s Champagne district can be called Champagne, and only Prosciutto from pigs raised in a demarcated area in Parma, Italy that have been raised according to strict laws can be called this highly protected name.  Similarly, Kobe beef must come from a certain breed of cattle that have been born, raised, and slaughtered in a certain province of Japan.  Furthermore, Kobe is subject to rigorous Japanese grading that includes fat marbling and overall quality. 

Currently there are approximately only 3,400 cows in the Kobe area of Japan, so how is it possible for Kobe beef to appear on so many American menus?  It’s not.   At best, these are American Wagyu cows.  At worst, they are beef from who knows where.  Currently, there are few laws about what can be called what.  There is also misleading nomenclature such as “Kobe-styled” beef.  Moreover, even if it is real Wagyu beef from the USA, the US Department of Agriculture only requires that the cow be at least 50% Wagyu.

Instead of saying “Where’s the beef,” we should be saying “What’s the beef?”  and “from where is the beef?”

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Cocktail to Warm Up Cold January

Pears are a wonderful winter fruit.  One of my favorite salads at this time of year is made with pears, roasted nuts and Stilton cheese.  But, pears can also be an absolute stunner in an aperitif.  This recipe, made with pear vodka, is sure to warm up anyone on a chilly winter's evening.

Another ingredient in this luscious pre-dinner drink is an elderflower liqueur by the name of St Germain.  If you don't own a bottle buy one as the flavor is truly delightful (and the Art Deco-inspired bottle alone is worth the price).  Elderflowers are very tiny fragrant flowers, and their essence has long been popular in European baked goods.  While I have loved the elderflower floral profile for some time, it recently skyrocketed to fame when Megan Markle chose it as the flavor for her wedding cake.

The recipe below can be tweaked to fit your preference for flavors (e.g. you may want to increase the St Germain and decrease the vodka).  Also, the amount has been designed for a Champagne flute or a martini glass...both hold the same amount (which is less than a wine glass).

Pear Elderflower Aperitif (per glass)
  • 1/2 jigger pear vodka
  • 2 teaspoons St Germain
  • 1/3 cup good quality sparkling wine
  • Thinly slice ripe pear
Serve with a slice of front of a roaring fireplace.

Happy 2020!