Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Alsace: France’s Best Kept Wine & Food Secret

                                   Alsace is an architectural as well as wine & food treasure*                    

Ask well-traveled Francophiles if they have visited Alsace and the answer from many will be, “non.”    Serious wine-lovers will frequently add that it’s on their bucket list, and knowledgeable French foodies will remark similarly.  Alsace’s far northeastern location (bordering Germany) requires a significant trek from popular destinations such as Paris, Provence, the French Riviera and Bordeaux, but it’s a journey that should be made by all wine and food aficianados.


                                         Captivating Hansel & Gretel wine villages abound

Alsace is one of France’s hidden gems on many levels.  First, the wine is stunning.  However, because of the area’s close proximity to Germany, Alsatian wines are often mistakenly thought to be sweet.   Most of Alsace’s wines are dry.  Alsace is mainly a white wine region, on the other hand, dry reds are also produced.

                             Alsace has the largest number of Michelin star restaurants 

In addition, the Alsace area is a gastronomic powerhouse.   Alsace has more Michelin star restaurants per square kilometer than any other area in Europe.   One of France’s major foie gras producers, Alsace also entices the gourmet traveler with a cornucopia of ethereal specialty products such as truffle-studded foie gras, foie gras with cognac, terrine of foie gras, foie gras en croute and foie gras mousse.

     Artisanal boulangeries turn out out products not seen elsewhere in France such as Kugelhof (R) 

Also, Alsace is a food-lovers dream for cheese.  The year-around green Vosges mountains of the district create a perfect milieu for frommage from cows and goats. Alsatian cheese is one of the oldest cheeses in France.   Some historians believe cheese in Alsace can be traced back to the era of Charlemagne in the 9th century, however, others say cheese-making began in the 7th century in an Alsatian monastery.

                Wine-Knows will be taking a group this year Dec 6-16 for the Christmas Markets

The Alsatian region is also an enchanting architectural jewel.  A unique combination of French and German influences, Alsace’s villages are right out of Hansel & Gretel with brightly painted half-timbered houses, elaborate rot iron balconies filled with cascading flowers, and leaded-glass windows.  The entire region is a treasure trove of picturesque.

 

                                              Strasbourg is Alsace's wine & food capital

Wine-Knows has taken several groups to Alsace and has another tour planned in early December this year to the most famous Christmas market in all of France, Strasbourg.  The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg is a ground zero for gastronomy and Alsatian wine. While all of our tours for next year (2023) are sold out, we do have some openings on this year's pre-Christmas trip.  During the tour we’ll cross the border to visit Germany’s most famous Christmas markets (e.g. Nuremberg & Heidelberg).  Both Alsatian & German Christmas markets provide rich culinary experiences---foods from historic labor-intensive recipes, only made during the yuletide holidays, are very special delicacies.

www.WineKnowsTravel.com

 

 * This photo of Colmar is courtesy of Tripadvisor

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Give me Five! 5 New Grapes for 2022


Let’s get 2022 off to an exciting start with five new delightful wine grapes to try.  When I say new, I mean new to Americans---all of these varieties have been growing for centuries in Europe.   In fact, wine lovers who have traveled to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, the Greek Island of Santorini, northwest Spain, or Sicily may have sampled them, but essentially these varietals remain unknown to Americans.  The good news is that all of them are imported----and because of their obscurity, they are terrific buys (many at rock-bottom pricing considering their quality).

                                 Korcula island is home to both the Posip grape & Marco Polo

Posip, an intensely aromatic and flavor-chocked white wine grape, is Croatia’s best kept secret.   Grown exclusively on the Dalmatian coastline, this variety is indigenous to the island of Korcula (better known as the island where Marco Polo was born).  Posip is the result of two obscure grape varieties crossing in a Korcula vineyard.  This sleeper wine delivers tastes of figs, citrus, apricots and almonds, along with decent acidity.  I recently bought online a case of my favorite producer, Black Horse.  The name of the wine is Mega Vieta and the 2020 vintage is superb. ($20 per bottle)

                                         Santorini offers mind-boggling views & stunning wines

The second of the five new varietals is also from an island, but this one's located in Greece.  Santorini is certainly one of the most dramatic gems of the Mediterranean.  The Assyrtiko grape, like Posip, is native to the island on which it is grown.  Assyrtiko thrives in Santorini's  arid climate in inhospitable volcanic ash soil.  This wine is reminiscent of a Sauv Blanc with a lemon-lime profile with compelling mineral nuances.  Like Posip, Santorini's native variety brings the necessary acid to carry the wine's structure.  Look no further than Gaia or Sigalas for the best producer.  Plan on $25-30 bucks per bottle.

Keeping with the theme of islands, let's now move to the Mediterranean's largest:  Sicily.  There are two unknown grapes here that need to jump-start your 2022.  The first is a varietal called Grillo.  On a recent Wine-Knows' trip to Sicily, I couldn't get enough of this white wine which offers apple, citrus, and almond nuances.   I particularly enjoyed Valle dell'Acate's Zagra at <$20.

                         This Frapatto is named after haute couture designer, Carolina Marengo 

The second Sicilian varietal you need to try is Frapatto, a red wine grape.   Frapatto is, however, a light weight red so it works perfectly with fish, seafood and poultry prepared in a simple way without complicated sauces.    Think strawberries and cherries laced with a floral component.   One of my faves is Feudo del Pisciotto's Carolina Marengo Kisa.  It's available for about $30 buck.   

          Pazo Senorans is always a must-visit winery on Wine-Knows' Galicia tours (next trip 2024)

The last of the five new wine grapes is from the mainland of Spain, an area called Galicia in the far northwest corner of the country.   Albarino, the name of the grape and the wine, comes from the province of Galicia.  This grape is grown in Spain as well as Portugal.  In Galicia it reaches its pinnacle creating wines with a beautiful melange of stone fruit and citrus flavors.   I highly recommend Pazo Senorans who produces several Albarinos that range from $20-30.


Have an adventurous 2022 and try some of these unknown wines!


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Sensational Santorini

                                         Santorini is like no other spot in the Mediterranean

Winter has now officially descended upon us.  To bring some brightness to these dark December days I am writing a three-part series on my favorite Mediterranean islands.  Today we're traveling to the last island, Santorini.  This Greek jet-setting, jaw-dropping, pleasure-bomb of an island is unparalleled for sheer beauty.  However, Santorini also makes some stunning wines, offers archaeological ruins, and has some mind-blowing walks. 

          Grapes are grown close to the ground in baskets to protect against winds & conserve water 

Santorini has one of the most unique terroirs in the Mediterranean.   The entire island is part of a large volcano system---most of it underwater.  In fact, Santorini is part of a cluster of several surrounding islands that were formed millenniums ago by catastrophic eruptions.  This ring of islands is actually the tops of the underwater volcanoes that have collapsed into the sea, leaving only their tips exposed.     

                                 Gaia hosted WineKnows in their captivating "tasting room" 

Santorini's volcanic soil makes for some terrific wines that ooze minerality.   Summers are hot and there is very little water on the island, so the vines must send their roots deep into the soil to seek moisture.  On this journey penetrating deep into a soil rich in magnesium, iron, calcium and selenium, roots bring back to the plant fascinating flavors for their grapes.  There are several excellent wineries on the island.  My favorite is Gaia (who is even experimenting with aging wines on the ocean floor).  

                           The walk from Fira to Oia is one of the most spectacular on earth

But, there is so much more to Santorini than its wine.  The most compelling thing about the island is its mesmerizing natural beauty.  For walkers, there is no better way to appreciate its magnificence than the walk from Fira (the main town) to Oia.  This hike, which parallels the sea, is arduous and take >2 hours, but its worth every moment (and you can take the bus back to Fira).  Another don't miss is the archaeological ruin at Akrotiri, Santorini's version of Pompeii.  Destroyed by volcanic ash in 1,700 BC, this ancient town is worth a visit.

                    Mextaxy Mas, only a 10 minute cab ride from the main town, feels a world away

For me, another irresistible reason to visit Santorini is to dine at Metaxy Mas.  Located in the center of the island in a small rural village away from the hoards of tourists, this restaurant shouldn't be missed.   Metaxy Mas has it all:  fabulous food, a sexy setting (be certain to reserve for the terrace), and an authentically Greek feel.  The name translates to "between us," and between you and me, Metaxy Mas is a winner.

Breakfast at Anteliz is a special event.

Santorini is replete with a number of hotels and apartments in every price category, however, look no further than Anteliz Suites for a place to stay.  Located in the island's capital town of Fira (but away from the crowds), this spot delivers on every level....from breathtaking panoramic views and superb service (family owned, there is nothing these people can't do can't do for you), to wonderfully-outfitted rooms.  If you can spring for the Anteliz Master Suite, you'll enjoy 1,200 square feet of enchantment including a huge private terrace, however, even their regular hotel rooms are noteworthy.

Cheers to a healthy, sunny and travel-filled 2022!


Monday, December 20, 2021

Aegina---Greek's Magical Little Island

                             Only one block from the waterfront quiet backstreets enchant

This is my second in a three-part series on Mediterranean Islands.  With the winter solstice approaching, I am in need of some sunshine to brighten these dark days.   Memories of my recent trip to Aegina Island in Greece are still radiating warmth and illuminating my December.

                                           Marathanos beach is all of this and much more.......

Located only 20 miles from Athens, Aegina feels like it's on another planet from the frenetic-paced capital.   While I've been to more than a dozen Greek Islands, I've never been to Aegina.  As it was the pandemic, I was looking for an island without an airport---hoping that would mean fewer tourists.   I was right.  

                               Pistachio trees flourish on Aegina due to its special micro-climate

Although it's difficult to imagine, quiet little Aegina at one time was not only the most powerful naval force in Greece, but one of the most wealthy.   This first capital of Greece, Aegina was also the first place in all of Europe to mint silver coins.  Today this sleepy island is very popular with Athenians as a weekend getaway.  It has a distinctive Greek feeling, seemingly untouched by international tourism. 


Reasons to visit Aegina?

1.  Closest island to Athens (reached in < 60 minutes by hydrofoil)

2.  Mid-September Pistachio Festival---Aegina's pistachios are the most coveted in Greece 

3.   Good hiking (e.g. an ancient hilltop town, a grove of 3,000 year old olive tree, a 2,500 year old temple)

                                  Our apartment's terrace was the best seat in Aegina town

Where to stay:

  • Aegina town:   there's only one place to consider and that's a harbor side apartment with a 180 panorama of the entire waterfront.  The brand new apartment is managed by Dream Travel in Aegina, and it's listed on VRBO as the Pelaisos Apartment (where you'll find the glowing review of my stay).  Its location is the best spot in town and working with Dream Travel was a dream.
  • Marathonas Beach:  located 3 miles from Aegina town, this beach is popular because of its excellent swimming & its drop-dead gorgeous situation.  With shallow water protected from the winds, the sea here like a bathtub.  I suggest you contact Dream Travel to have them book your hotel as there are three or four possibilities.

     Ammos' salad with sheep cheese, oranges & Pistachios would please any Greek God (or Goddess)

Where to Dine

1.  Ammos is the number one choice on the island.   I am enamored with this place for so many reasons.  First is the food (one of the owners is Greek, the other is French), the second is the warm hospitality, the third is the stunning location on Marathonas Beach where you can dine on the sand.   The restaurant's motto is "The secret ingredient is always love."  There's a lot of love being served in this special spot. 

2.  Sti Fou-Fou, a casual restaurant & deli, has a large take-out business featuring rotisserie chickens.   If you rent the Pelasios apartment, it's only a one minute walk (located just behind the waterfront church).  Don't leave the island without tasting their baked eggplant with tomatoes.   


Don't Miss: 

Whatever you do on this unique island, do it with Xeni Petritou-Triantaffillou.  Xeni is much more than a guide---she is a published author, gifted artist, and an extraordinary resource on the history of the island.  (xeni-pet@otenet.gr)       

                    Islanders still maintain many of  Palaiochora's  1,000 year old family chapels

  • Palaiochora:  built in the 9th century by islanders whose seaside village was the constant prey of pirates, this decaying hilltop town is filled with a huge number of still functioning private chapels.  This place is hauntingly special & involves lots of stairs.

 The hike to the grove of 3,000 year old olive trees shouldn't be attempted without a guide

  • Eleonas:  a high mountain valley of ancient olive trees, it is reached by a fairly arduous one hour uphill hike from Marathonas Beach.  

                         The temple offers panoramic views of the mainland<20 miles away

  • Temple of Aphaia:  this sanctuary was built 500 BC and has a superb museum.

Stay tuned for the last in my December series of island escapes, another Greek Island... Santorini!



Friday, December 10, 2021

The Best of Mallorca

                        Mallorca can entice even the most discerning of foodies & Wine-Knows*

As the dark days of winter approach, I intend to keep the sunlight of summer flourishing with a trio of posts about three special Mediterranean islands.  Mallorca, located less than an hour's flight from Barcelona, will be the first.  The other two idyllic islands are in Greece; one is reachable only by boat, the other is a jet-setter's paradise with many daily flights and a parade of boats from ports all over the Mediterranean.

                         Dramatic coves, serene beaches & countryside dotted with windmills enchant

I've been fortunate to visit Mallorca six times, the most recent of which was with a group of Wine-Knows in September.   Mallorca is a large Spanish island (approximately 50 by 60 miles), but most parts of the island are easily reachable within a 60-90 minute drive of Palma on decent roads.  There's enough to do on the island to warrant a week's stay, and those who can eek out 10 days will be happy they did so.

                                          Old world haciendas & lush vegetation abound 

The most compelling reasons to visit Mallorca?   Here are just a few.....
  1. It's a wine lover's dream---indigenous varietals not seen else where.  Furthermore, they wines are moderately low in alcohol and reasonably priced!
  2.  While the island is immensely popular, there are still drop-dead gorgeous beaches & coves with few tourists.
  3.  Mallorca's culinary fabric is like no other.   There's a strong Moorish influence (think Morocco & its Cashah), along with a definite Greek, Roman and mainland Spain gastronomic impact.
  4. Gorgeous scenery abounds.  The countryside is dotted with Don Quxiote windmills, hilltop stone villages, a mountain range that has been declared by UNESCO as a cultural treasure, and there are >300 miles of beaches.
                           
 Pedestrian only streets in ancient villages are perfect for walkers

What Not to Miss:
  1. Palma's cathedral----this one is unlike all others.
  2. Palma's indoor market Olivar---a foodie's one-stop shopping paradiso.
  3. The mesmerizing Caves of Drach (and lunch in nearby in sweet Porto Christo)
  4. The ancient Roman walled town of Alcudia---be sure to walk the old walls.
  5. Charming Santanyi's Saturday market.
  6. Es Trenc gourmet sea salt (you can visit!)
  7. Porto Soller (highly recommend the old fashioned train ride to & from Palma)
                             This 17th century palace in downtown Palma is now a luxury hotel

Where to Stay:
If you have a week, I highly recommend at least 3 nights in Palma (especially if you're recovering from jet lag), and then an escape to wine country from where you can reach all parts of the island in less than an hour.  The eastern shore is another option for overnighting if you have time.
  • Palma:   Boutique Can Sera Hotel, located in the historic center, offers old world splendor.  5 stars.  https://www.cancerahotel.com/
  • *Wine Country:   Look no further than Torre Santa Eugenia, an old estate that is now a lovely hotel with a don't miss restaurant.  https://www.sa-torre.com/en/
  • Sa Pletassa:   Within easy shot of the Drach Cave, Santanyi, two superb wineries, and  Es Trenc sea salt, this reasonable rural property offers charming accommodations with pretty grounds.  The Swiss owner's hospitality can't be beat.  https://en.sapletassa.com/
   The Moors, who brought rice & saffron to Mallorca, left a huge imprint on the island's gastronomy 

Where to Eat:
  • *Torre Santa Eugenia (see wine country):  this magical old wine-cellar setting trumps every other spot on the island.   Fab in every way.   https://www.sa-torre.com/en/
  • L'Ambigu (Palma):  This has become my fave in a town of many favoritex.  Top notch service & food for its moderate cost.    https://www.elambigubar.com/
  • CanCapo.  Located in an off-the-beaten-track village (near Sa Pletassa above), its charming central square position over-looking the church, & a terrific owner make this a don't miss.  http://www.restaurantcancapo.com/

Best Wineries
  • Binigrau:  the standout wine in this standout winery is Nounat.  If you're a white wine lover, look no further than Nounat---a blend of a native varietal & Chardonnay.  
  • Mesquida Mora:  owned by a charismatic female winemaker, highly recommend a tasting here because of its glorious vineyard setting.  
  • Mandia Vell:  one of the oldest estates on the island.  Bottles wine in unique stone containers.
  • Son Prim:  Great value.  Their Merlot is a stunner for <$20.

Later this month will be my two favorite Greek Islands.



Saturday, November 27, 2021

Piquillo Peppers are Perfect for the Holidays!

Piquillos stuffed with lamb were a big hit in a recent tapas cooking class I conducted on Mallorca

Looking for something different for your upcoming December culinary festivities?  If you're also interested in a scrumptious item that will beguile even the most discerning of your foodie friends, then look no further than the holiday-red piquillo peppers from northern Spain.  Piquillos are sweet and smoky flavor bombs that can be served in multiple ways.                        

                    Piquillos stuffed with goat cheese infused with herbs make a perfect holiday starter

While they're now becoming increasingly popular in the US by those-in-the-gastronomic-know, these peppers were essentially unknown in the US twenty years ago.  I know because that's the first time I tasted them in Spain and returned home on a mission to find them.  Thank heavens for the Internet and for importers of specialty Spanish food items.  Fast forward twenty years later and even Amazon is carrying them.  Once you taste a piquillo, you'll understand what all the hoopla is about.

                                        Crab stuffed piquillos epitomize the Christmas season

So what is so special about these bite-size peppers?  Piquillos are slow roasted over a wood fire, thus their distinctive smoky flavor.   They are then peeled and grilled again for extra flavor.  Last, they're de-seeded by hand prior to being packed into jars or tins with olive oil, or a simple brine.  While they are small in size like a chili pepper, piquillos are definitely more like red bell peppers in flavor than actual chili peppers.

Piquillos are met to be stuffed and make a perfect couple of bites for a holiday tapa.  They are often filled with seafood, cheese or meat.   I particularly like them filled with minced lamb laced with a host of Middle Eastern spices like tumeric, cumin and mint.  (Top them with chopped chives or parsley and you have Christmas on a plate.)  On the other hand, just the peppers themselves are wonderful in an omelette, pasta, risotto, or even used as a sauce.

                                            Brighten up bland-looking chicken over pasta with piquillos

While Piquillo peppers scream "holidays," I use them year around.  They are an especially great addition to a Fourth of July party (stuffed with an herb infused goat cheese), or a Spring fling piquillo puree served with Spring veggies like radishes, asparagus, fennel, and artichokes.

Happy holidaze! 


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Top 7 Wines 2021

I've just returned from nearly two months in Europe where I tasted several hundred wines.  My travels took me to Croatia, Greece, Spain and Italy.  I've narrowed down my list to my favorite seven that are available in the US (I know they are available, as I just ordered at least a case of each).  Availability aside, each one of these is an excellent wine.  Many are bargains, but all are worthy of every penny regardless of their price point.  An added bonus is that most are made from grapes we don't have in the US, so they present an opportunity for wine lovers to explore unknown varietals.


Best Quality /Price:  Black Horse Winery's Mega Vieta, 2020 (Croatia)

                                                       Mega Vieta is a "Major Victory"


This gorgeously crafted white wine is from the Croatian island of Korcula.  It's made from their indigenous Posip grape, a variety rarely seen outside of the Dalmatian Coast.  This highly aromatic wine is complex with citrus and stone fruit flavors.  It is balanced and offers a quite good finish.  I found the wine online at CroatianPremiumWine.com at <$19 per bottle, including shipping and tax.  In my book, that's a steal for the quality of this wine.

Best Rose
There are actually two stunners in this category:  one from Greece's Santorini Island, the other from Spain's Rioja.

                                             Gaia's Rose would please even Dionysus

  • Gaia 14-18 Agiorgitiko Rose, 2020 (Greece).   I know and love this producer.  In fact, we have visited Gaia three times with groups of Wine-Knows on Santorini.  When I saw their Rose in a Greek wine shop, I grabbed a bottle.  It was so good that I immediately went back for two more bottles.  The grape, Agiorgitoko, is one we don't have in the US.  I ordered a case online from WineMadeEasy.com.  The cost was another amazing bargain ringing it at $18 per bottle, including tax and shipping.

  • Muga Rose, 2020 (Spain):  I had this wine at a restaurant in Spain overlooking Gibraltar:  on my left was the Mediterranean, on my right the Atlantic, and 9 miles in front of me Morocco.  I'm a great fan of Muga (have visited this Rioja producer with too many groups of Wine-Knows to count).  The Rose was so good that we returned twice to the same restaurant and re-ordered it each time.  The 2019 is available at multiple shops on WineSearcher.com for $15 per bottle (plus shipping & tax).  I'm waiting for that gorgeous 2020.

Best Summer White: Valle dell'Acate Grillo Zagra, 2020 (Sicily)

Getting Wine-Knows to this remote winery was a challenge, but their quality wines were worth the trek

This gem is a great taste of Italy on a warm summer's day.  Made from the Grillo grape (mostly unknown outside of Sicily), think of this variety as the Mediterranean's Sauv Blanc.
Stainless steel fermented, it boasts a lemon & apple profile.  Several stores on WineSearcher.com have it for about $20 per bottle (plus tax & shipping).  


Best of the Best
These wines were my three favorites out of hundred of wines, regardless of whether they were imported.  Luckily, all are!   They range in price from $30-70.  When considering their complexity, all are great buys.

                       This wine was served at a Wine-Knows private dinner held at the Planeta Estate

  • Planeta Cometa Fiano 2019 (Sicily).   Planeta is one of the premier producers in Sicily.  The moment this wine hit my mouth I was smitten....actually, it was more like I was completely seduced.  This serious white wine is a complex bomb of apricots, nectarines and peaches, laced with back-notes of flowers and herbs.  Expect to pay $50 a bottle for this the real-deal sip of Italy.   I ordered the last 18 bottles from Saratoga Wines in New York, however, WineSearcher.com has it available at multiple locations.  Don't miss.
                             Unfortunately this magnum was empty & only for display 
  • Nounat by Binigrau (Mallorca).  I've been in amor with this white wine for the last 5 years.  A combination of Chardonnay & the island's native grape Prensal Blanc, Nounat is simply one of those wines one cannot forget.  The problem is that everyone loves it and it's very difficult to find.  Currently, the 2015 is the only vintage available online in the US, but I think it's a little over the hill.  I'm watching for the 2021 to arrive and so should you.  It's about $30 per bottle, but I would pay a lot more for it.
                              Passopisciaro's grapes are grown at 3,000 ft on Mt Etna

  • Contrada G by Passopisciaro, 2019 (Sicily).  Grown on the slopes of an active volcano, these grapes make a deep, rich, complex red that is sure to cause the earth to move under your feet.  Made from a native variety only grown on Mt. Etna (Nerello Mascalese), this wine is most expensive on my list of favorites.   It's $70 a bottle.