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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.

Tasmania: 
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.