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Friday, October 20, 2017

A Burgundy Primer

                       Burgundy's Cote D'Or is home to some of the priciest cult wines on earth

Many serious wine lovers believe that some of the world’s greatest wines come from Burgundy.   Others would argue that Bordeaux is the pinnacle.  I don’t think you can compare the two.  Burgundy’s production is miniscule;  Bordeaux’s is mammoth.  Burgundy is boutique producers;  Bordeaux is large-scale chateaux.  Burgundy’s wines are quietly elegant;  Bordeaux’s are bold and massively-structured.  

The famous Cluny Abbey played an important role in Burgundy 

The Catholic monks, abbeys, and the monasteries have played an enormous role in shaping Burgundy’s wine history.  From 900 A.D., the clergy were actively involved in not only making and selling wine, but actually developing the notion of terroir (soil, microclimate, slant of the hill, drainage, wind, environmental pests, etc.).  Early on they learned that different plots of earth made consistently different wines.  

    Centuries ago monks surrounded vineyards with special characteristic with walls               

The monks mapped out an intricately complex quilt of vineyards throughout Burgundy which today are the basis for the region's Cru’s.  They built walls around each plot.  Wall in French is “clos,” thus many of Burgundy’s vineyards begin with the word “clos.”


                                           In French Burgundy is known as Bourgogne

Burgundy begins just 120 miles south of Paris.   The actual wine part of the region is a long, narrow area that runs about 150 miles in length.  Burgundy is composed of these five distinct sub-districts (north to south):
1)    Chablis
2)    Cote D’Or
3)    Cote Chalonaise
4)    Maconnaise
5)    Beaujolais

Two Great Grapes of Burgundy

Reds in Burgundy are made from Pinot Noir (the only exception is Beaujolais which uses the Gamay grape).  Difficult to grow, fickle Pinot Noir thrives in a narrow band of soil and climate parameters.  Red Burgundy is mecca for many oenophiles.  In fact, many in-the-know consumers feel that Pinot Noir is at its very best in Burgundy.

White Burgundy is made a 100% from the Chardonnay grape.  The Chardonnay varietal is actually is native to the Burgundian region of France.  While Chardonnay is a now a universal grape, white Burgundies are some of the most divine wines on planet earth---complex layers with a long finish.

Burgundy is Terroir-Driven
Every plot of earth has been painstaking rated for the quality of its terroir

Unlike Bordeaux where the pecking order is established by a chateau’s land holdings, Burgundy’s hierarchy is purely terroir based.   For example, Mouton Rothchild in Bordeaux owns many parcels in different parts of the huge wine region.  All of them may be used in the making Rothschild's wine as Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  In Burgundy, vineyards have been carefully mapped out into very small plots based on their unique terroir.   In contrast to Bordeaux, Burgundy "Cru" cannot be blended as their intent is to showcase the specific single vineyard and its terroir.

Stay tuned for future articles on Burgundy, including Pinots and Chardonnays that won’t break your bank, pairing Burgundy's wine with foods, and many other favorite experiences of mine awaiting you in Burgundy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Facts Champagne Lovers Should Know

                            A private dinner will be held at the producer of Dom Perignon

Wine-Knows will be taking its last group to Champagne (there are currently 5 spots available on this tour that will also visit Burgundy).  Below is important information that any serious wine lover should know about this oh-so-special bubbly.

  • Only sparkling wine made in the demarcated Champagne region of France can be called Champagne.
  • Wineries are call "houses."  The Veuve Clicquot company is referred to as the House of Veueve Clicquot.
Most Champagnes are a blend of these grapes

  • Champagne may only be made from the above three grapes (from left to right):  (1) Pinot Noir  (2) Pinot Meunier  (3) Chardonnay.
  • If a Champagne is Blanc de Blanc (white Champagne made from white grapes) it is 100% Chardonnay as this is the only white varietal of the three.  The often very slight greenish hue in these Blanc de Blancs is characteristic of Chardonnay wines. 
  • If it's a Rose Champagne, the wine can be made from either or both of the two red grapes allowed.  Rose, however, also can have Chardonnay added.

Taste Profiles
                The entire Champagne region millenniums ago was covered by an inland sea

  • Champagne's limestone is composed of chalky layers, remnants of ancient sea creatures.  These highly porous limestone soils are easily penetrated by root systems of vines heading downward to seek water.  While water is brought up into the plant, so are minerals from the fossilized remains of sea shells.  Due to this, Champagnes offer mineral nuances.
  • Yeasts also play a critical role in the taste profile of Champagne.  Unlike non-sparkling wine, Champagne undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle.  Yeasts and a small amount of sugar to "feed" the yeasts are added after the initial fermentation has been completed and the wine has been placed in bottles.  Carbon dioxide is given off during this process but is trapped by the cork in the bottle, thus creating the wine's famous bubbles.   The spent yeast cells add flavors to the Champagne which are described as "bread dough,"  "freshly baked cake," or "brioche."

Land Ownership

Unlike most wine districts where the land is owned by wineries, 90% of Champagne is owned by grape growers.  Only 10% of the land is controlled by actual wineries.

Best Glass
                  Glasses popular in Champagne have tapered tops to enhance the aromas

In the Champagne region of France you rarely see the typical flute glass.  While flutes do help with the visual effect of the bubbles, its narrow top does not fully allow the aromas of Champagne to be appreciated.  While there are many variations, all  glasses in Champagne have the same tulip shape---wider bowls taper (but not near as narrow as the typical flute), allowing one to both swirl and capture the aromas. 

Changing Climate is Problematic

Temperatures in the Champagne region have risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 20 years.  This is especially an issue with fickle Pinot Noir which has a narrow band of cooler temperatures in which it grows.  Moreover, shifting rainfall patterns are posing further problems.

At the same time, England’s climate is also changing, with warmer summer and milder winters.  England is now experiencing a boom in the production of high quality sparkling wine.  More unnerving is the fact that several of France’s famous Champagne houses have purchased land in the south of England.  The country’s southern limestone soil is very similar to that of the Champagne region.

Protecting the Champagne Brand

            Many, from famous perfume producers to lingerie makers, have been successfully sued

An army of attorneys around the globe are employed by the Champagne professional association to protect the Champagne brand.  They’ve done battle with a variety of companies who made the mistake of naming their product Champagne.  A big no-no.

Have a bubbly kind of weekend.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Italy's King of Truffles

 White truffles are the gastronomic world's most decadent ingredient

This weekend Italy begins its official 2017 season for the world’s most expensive culinary item, the illustrious white truffle.  I may be 10,000 miles away, but I can almost feel the excitement beginning to pulsate as the annual festival kicks into gear.  Foodies from all over Europe are preparing to descend upon the town of Alba, home of not only Barolo and Barbaresco, but the epicenter of the White Truffle Festival.  The enchanting town will soon swell to nearly double its size as masses of gastronomic pilgrims pay homage to Italy’s "edible diamonds."

                   Colorful truffle hunters descent upon Alba to sell their products during the festival

Truffles are an exotic fungus, a kind of distant relative of the wild mushroom family.   They come in black and white, but the white version is overwhelmingly the most prized because of its intense aroma.  You can notice the intoxicating smell of a white truffle the minute you walk into a restaurant where even a very small truffle is being served.  The white truffle is also known to have the most intense taste of all of the truffle family. While black truffles are found in Umbria and some parts of France, the white truffle is only found in northern Italy in the district of Piedmont.

                     Wine-Knows forages truffles in the forest with two truffle hunters 

Unlike a mushroom, the tartufo (truffle) grows several inches underground.  This makes finding the hidden treasures challenging.  Truffles are found with the help of special breeds of dog.  The dog spends months at a doggie university (don’t laugh---there is actually such a place in Piedmont!).  The dogs are used for their keen sense of smell.   Due to the current exorbitant price of white tartufi, these specially trained dogs have become equally valuable (in fact, some have actually been stolen and held for a sizable Euro ransom).  No joke.

                                            Dogs are vital to finding the buried truffles

The pleasure of indulging in a white truffle comes at a mammoth price which has escalated dramatically over the last ten years.  In the last few years the prices have ranged between $6,000-10,000 US a pound. Just what the price for this year will not be known until the festival begins tomorrow.  It’s all about supply and demand.  The demand seems to be never-ending.  

Wine-Knows will be attending next year's Truffle Festival in Alba.  There are only two spots remaining in the group.   Come and experience the magic of this special culinary festival with us.

Friday, September 29, 2017

EATALY….A Gastronomic Shrine

                             Eataly in Istanbul offers a cheese & ham counter worthy of Caesar

Ten years ago Eataly opened in a former vermouth factory in Turin.  Today there are more than 35 locations around the world stretching from Rome to Tokyo and even to Dubai.  It’s appropriate, however, that the first Eataly opened in Italy’s Piedmont district.  Piedmont is home to the Slow Food Association, a kind of Noah’s Ark of Italy’s heirloom foods that was born in outrage to the first McDonald’s opening in Italy back in the 1980’s.

                               Chicago's wine department sells the best of Italian vino

Eataly’s founder, an Italian bazillon-Euro magnate, grew up in a household involved in the grocery business.  His extended family were artisan pasta makers.  After selling his electronics firm, he took the old-fashioned concept of a food-hall and turned it into the greatest foodie emporium on planet earth.   Before doing so, however, he toured all of Italy’s regions looking for its best local food products.  He found a cornucopia of producers making foods the old way…everything from boutique pasta located in the boot of Italy, to capers from an island off the coast of Sicily.

                                 Eataly in Florence serves up a serious array of breads

Think of Eataly as a Whole Foods on steroids, then add a William-Sonoma Super Store, a cooking school, several dining venues (including a mozzarella bar, a wood-fired oven featuring to-die-for breads and pizzas, and a pasta cafe), as well as a second-to-none culinary bookstore.  I spent several hours in Rome’s three story Eataly (built in a once derelict bus terminal on the outskirts of town).  I ate lunch, shopped for dinner ingredients (to be whipped up that night in my rented apartment), bought most of my Christmas gifts, and simply wandered from department to department in awe of the mind-boggling array of Italian foodie-related products.

                              Eataly, regardless of location, has multiple dining venues

Eataly is finally opening a long-awaited outpost in Los Angeles late this year.  My birthday is in December and I’ve already made plans to spend it at their new location.  I’ll celebrate with a cooking class, but will leave plenty of time to explore, marvel, and shop for holiday goodies.

Viva Eataly!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Enticing Valpolicella

                                  Sensational Lake Garda is home to Valpolicella wines

How can you possibly go wrong with a wine district whose name means “valley of many wine cellars?”  Another no-brainer:  its location is between the magical cities of Venice and Verona.  Last, add to the equation that the stupendously beautiful Lake Garda is part of the wine region.  Valpolicella is compelling on all of these levels, and many more.

Wines have been made in the Valpolicella district since the time of the ancient Greeks before the birth of Christ.  In 1968 the region was awarded its own DOC (appellation) by the Italian Government.  Since then, parts of the district have been bestowed a further award by the granting of a special DOCG to the area's Amarone wines.  (Amarone, the region’s pricey flagship wine, will be discussed soon in a future article.)

Valpolicella is both a wine-producing district and a wine.  Red is the dominant color.  Reds are made from a combination of grapes, all mostly unknown to Americans.  Corvina, the main varietal, is blended with other grapes such as Rondinella and Moninara.   The most basic level Valpolicellas are light-bodied, lower in alcohol, and noted for their cherry flavor.  Valpolicella Superiore wines, however, must be aged a minimum of one year in oak barrels.  The Superiore is more complex and offers more structure along with more intense aromas of dried cherries.  Often times the Superiore version is made using an old wine making method in which the aristocratic skins remaining from the area’s powerful Amarone wines are mixed in with Superiore must and undergo a secondary fermentation.

Both levels of Valpolicella wines frequently offer great quality/price ratios on wine lists.  Equally important, these wines pair well with most foods.  The Superiore is especially nice with grilled poultry and meats, and can stand up to pastas that use strong cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Wine-Knows will be in the Valpolicella district next year on its Northern Italy & Truffle Tour in early October 2018.  Moreover, we’ll be staying on the historic estate of one of the area’s best Valpolicella and Amarone producers, Serego Alighieri (descendants of one of Italy’s most famous authors, Dante Alighieri).   Availability on this tour is just two spaces.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Country that Shaped the Wine World: ENGLAND !

Many of you may be scratching your head regarding how England could have played such an unparalleled role in the historical development of wine.  Indeed, Bordeaux, Champagne, Port, Marsala, and Madeira wines all owe their existence today to the English.  The reasons for this are intriguing and encompass royal kingdoms, dowries, shipping fortunes, and wars. 

Southwest France becomes part of the British Empire

                           Eleanor of Aquataine's dowry gave England control of Bordeaux

Let’s start with how profound the English influence has been in the Bordeaux wine business.  Queen Eleanor (wife of France’s King Louis VII) was one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Europe during the 12th century.  She later married King Henry II of England.  Her dowry comprised all of Southwestern France, including Bordeaux.  This royal union of France and England produced many things, including one of Europe’s most famous monarchs (Richard the Lion-hearted, Eleanor and Henry’s son), as well as the English love affair with Bordeaux wines.

As the entire region of Bordeaux came under English rule, King Henry extended favorable trade privileges to Bordeaux's merchants to ship their wines to England.  This allowed Britain to receive Bordeaux wines far in advance of other European countries, and at far better rates.  While Bordeaux wine wasn’t cheap, it was the preferred beverage of the English upper class and monarchy.  Profits were massive as volume was extraordinary.  Records from the early 1300’s show that wine shipments between Bordeaux and England accounted for the largest shipping traffic in the world at the time. 

The English birthed the Port wine industry 

            Port was shipped downstream on small boats for loading on England-bound ships

Then, came the Hundred Year War between England and France.  By now the English were smitten with Bordeaux’s red wines which essentially became unavailable during the war.  English importers sailed further south to the northern part of Portugal for their red wines.   As the shipping journey was considerably longer than from Bordeaux, alcohol was added to prevent spoilage during the lengthy journey.  As British demand for Port (fortified wine with alcohol) grew, London merchants and their families moved to Portugal to oversee their empires and control their costs.  Interestingly, many of these original English families still control the Port industry today (e.g. Croft, Dow, Graham, Symington and Taylor).

The Brits put the bubbles in Champagne

                                     2 absolutely profound elements were added by the Brits

Now, let’s fast forward from Portugal to the Champagne district of Northern France.  In the 1600’s the wine produced in the Champagne countryside was “still” wine….there were no bubbles.  An English physician and scientist by the name of Christopher Merret was the first to discover how to make sparkling wine.  (This fact is often incorrectly attributed to the French monk Dom Perignon).   The Brits further played another role in the groundwork for the Champagne industry.  It was England’s Royal Navy that invented the thicker glass bottles to prevent Champagne bottles from exploding under the higher pressures.  Without these two important English contributions, Champagne as we know it today wouldn’t exist.

English merchants promoted Madeira

                                            The Brits had a love affair with Madeira island 

Next, there’s Madeira wine.  Like Bordeaux, Port and Champagne, the English played a pivotal role in the Madeira wine business, especially in the shipping of these wines to the rest of the world.  One of their most popular routes was to the British Colonies in America.  Madeira was considered to be the most important wine of the colonists.   In fact, it was so popular that George Washington used Madeira to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Marsala’s Origin is English

                    While Marsala can be an aperitif or dessert wine, it is also used in cooking

Marsala is another wine that owes its global success to the English.   A fortified wine, like Madeira and Port, Marsala is credited to a British merchant in the mid-1700’s who first added distilled spirits to the local wines surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily.   This fortification with brandy was used to keep the wines from spoiling during their voyage on the ship back to England.  Marsala became so popular in England that British merchants soon descended on Sicily to increase production and commercialization of the beverage.

The Brits seed the New World

                 The British Empire in the 18th century reached nearly every corner of the globe

In addition to promoting wines in the American colonies, the Brits were also influencing wine habits in their Empire.  Settlers from Britain immigrated to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and with them they brought vines for making wine. Centuries later, while no longer a part of the British Empire, these countries are known for producing quality wine.  And, their wines are widely exported back to England.

England is finally making its own wines

                    Churchill would be thrilled with England's new-found sparkling wine fame

Today, after more than 900 years of influencing the development of the modern wine business, England is finally producing its own wines.  While production is still relatively small, English wines have captured the attention of the wine world by winning competitions and acing out many of the globe's most prestigious brands. England's sparkling wines have been getting lots of traction, beating out in blind tastings famous Champagne houses such as Veueve Clicquot, Tattinger and even Winston Churchill's favorite Champagne, Pol Roger.

In summary, more than any other nation in the world, England has influenced throughout history the course of wine.  Wine-Knows will be visiting England in June 2019.  Join us to learn about England’s impressive new lineup of wines, in addition to Stilton cheese and Bombay Gin.  The trip is detailed at

Friday, September 8, 2017

Harvest Terms You Need to Know

September in the Northern Hemisphere is a huge month for winemakers.  Wine lovers should be aware of the following vocabulary, especially if you’re visiting a winery:

  • Alcoholic fermentation:   the conversion of grape sugar to alcohol

  • Battonage:  stirring the wine during fermentation so that the liquid has contact with the lees (the solids)

  • Brettanomyces:  bad yeast that causes wines to spoil

  • Brix:  measurement of the amount of sugar in the grape

  • Carbonic maceration: fermenting whole clusters of grapes that have not been crushed

  • Fining:  process used to clarify the wine (egg whites are used by many)

  • Free-run juice:  juice that has not been pressed but obtained simply by the weight of the grapes themselves

  • Malo-lactic Fermention:  Known also as “ML,” this is the conversion of harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid

  • Must:  unfermented grape juice

  • Lees:  sediment that occurs during fermentation (includes spent yeasts, seeds & other solids)

  • Racking:  process of separating the wine from the sediment by moving the liquid to another barrel

  • Saignee:  French term which literally means “to bleed,” this is the process of removing some of the unfermented grape juice to increase the wine/skin ratio

  • Sulfites:  chemicals that prevent spoilage of wine

  • Tannin:  compound found in the seeds, skins and stalks of grapes

  • TCA:  abbreviation for the destructive chemical that causes cork taint

  • Topping-off:  process of filling a wine barrel that has lost wine due to evaporation

Friday, September 1, 2017

Grape Harvest 101

The wine harvest has already begun in many regions in the northern hemisphere.  There is basic vocabulary that any wine lover should know about the harvest.  This week we’ll concentrate on pre-harvest wine terminology and important facts.  Next week, we’ll address the process of actually making wine.

Green Harvest  

                             Extra fruit is pruned from the vine during green harvest

This type of “harvest” actually takes place early in the summer.   Bunches of grapes are removed from the vine, sacrificed in the name of quality (the unripened grapes are literally cut and tossed on the ground).  Fewer grapes on the vine means those that remain receive all of the nutrients, thus producing more concentrated, more complex wines.   It’s the concept that “less is more.”

         While grapes may appear ripe & have sufficient sugar, other elements may not be ripe

This is not as simple as it sounds.  It’s not just about the sugar level of grapes (known as “brix”).  Physiological ripeness, a fairly recent concept, is the key.  This means that all of the chemicals, not just sugar, inside the grape are mature.  These chemicals include components such as acids, tannins, and the phenolic components in the grape’s skins that are responsible for color, aromas and flavors.


                             The change of color, Verasion, signals the approach of the harvest

This is a French word that has become part of the English vocabulary relative to wine-making.  The term is used to describe the actual change of colors in the berry from green immature fruit to their fully ripened color.  While this color change is one element in ripening, there are many other processes occurring inside of the berry to make it physiologically ripe.

Ripening Differences Among Grape Varieties

Different varitetals ripen at different times.   Dry white wine grapes ripen earlier than most reds.  Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.  Tempranillo, from the Spanish word temprano which means “early,” is the earliest ripening red grape in Spain.  Sweet wine grapes are the last to be picked so that sugars can be maximized.

Tune in next week for a primer on the need-to-know terms associated with the wine-making process.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Italy’s Premier Bubbles

                      Nearby Lake Iseo & the Alps both help moderate the wine district’s climate

Serious lovers of Italian wines know that in addition to Barolo, Barbaresco, and Super-Tuscan, Franciacorta’s sparkling wines ranks among the primo wines produced in all of Italy.  If you have never heard of Franciacorta you’re in store for a magnifico experience, especially if you’re a connoisseur of top of the line French Champagnes. (BTW:  Don’t even think, however, of putting Franciacorta in the same category as Prosecco.  Franciacorta is about complexity, depth, breadth, finesse, and terroir.   Light-hearted Prosecco is about simplicity.)

The Franciacorta wine district is located approximately half way between Venice and Milan.  Although relatively unknown on the world-wide sparkling wine market, it’s well known among knowledgeable European wine consumers that Franciacorta produces Italy’s highest quality bubblies.  But, Franciacorta hasn’t always famous.  While this district had been producing wine for centuries, it was only for local consumption.  In the 1960’s experiments showed that the terroir was perfect for sparkling wines. Franciacorta was officially recognized as a serious sparkling wine district in 1967 when it was awarded a DOC (its own wine appellation).  Over the past 60 years the district’s growth has been impressive and quality has been pushed to the maximum.  Franciacorta is now a coveted DOCG, Italy’s highest honor for a wine district.

Like Champagne, the Franciacorta bubbles are produced with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Both wine areas use the same labor intensive process (Methode  Champenoise) where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle.  In both wine districts sparkling wine is bottle-aged on its lees (spent yeast cells).   This aging of wine on its lees is a crucial step in the process of creating quality.  Because of E.U. laws protecting the Champagne brand, this method of making sparkling wine in Franciacorta is called Metodo Classico.  

There are two distinct differences between Franciacorta and Champagne---the first being scale, the second being history.  Champagne produces 100 times more bubblies than Franciacorta (in fact, some of the larger Champagne houses actually produce ten times more bottles than all of Franciacorta wineries combined).   While Champagne has been producing sparkling wine for about 350 years, Franciacorta is a bambino at a mere 60 years. 

Pricing?   Like Champagne, Franciacorta is not inexpensive.  Franciacorta sparkling wine begins in the $40 US range and leaps up to nearly $150 for its priciest single-vineyard bottles.   My favorite Franciacorta producers (in alpha order) are:  Bellavista, Ca Del Bosco, and Ferghettina.  

Next Fall (2018) Wine-Knows will visit Franciacorta on its tour through Northern Italy which begins in Venice and ends in the wine area famous for Barolo and Barbaresco (Piedmont).  This trip has been perfectly timed for Italy’s most famous foodie event, Piedmont’s Truffle Festival.  There are only two spaces available on this trip.  For details visit