Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World’s Most Famous Wine Auction

    Hospice de Beaune in Burgundy

The third Sunday in November is often the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving in the U.S.  However, in the international wine scene, November’s third Sunday is almost sacred--- it’s the date of the world’s most famous wine auction.  This grand charity gala, known as the Hospice de Beaune, takes place in one of Burgundy’s most illustrious architectural buildings…the former 15th hospital in Beaune.  The hoopla of the auction, its dramatic setting, and the medieval cobblestoned city of Beaune all come together to create a magical experience.

For days prior to the actual auction, Beaune is a hive of activity with oeonophiles from around the globe celebrating…from black tie dinners in the city’s best restaurants to sophisticated affairs at chateaux in the surrounding countryside.  The final grand dinner at Chateau Clos Voegoet is pure theatre with more tuxedos and ball gowns than a New Years Eve at the Ritz in Paris.  Although it is not widely known, many of the events, including the auction, are surprisingly open to the public. It’s a fabulous chance to hob-nob with the world’s most prominent wine writers, the owners of Burgundy’s most famed wineries, celebrity wine lovers and Europe’s political movers and shakers.

Over the last 100 years, some of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards have been donated to the Hospital.  Currently, the charity owns nearly 150 acres of exceptional Premier and Gran Cru estates.  The venerable Christie’s auction house conducts the event which is now in its 153rd year.  The auction is important on two fronts.  First, proceeds go to charity.  Considering that last week’s auction raised $7.5 million bucks, that’s an impressive chunk of contributions for the local humanitarian coffers.  Second, prices during this auction have enormous influence in setting prices for all of Burgundy’s wine the year following the auction.  

France’s former first lady, Carla Bruni, was the guest auctioneer at the recent 2012 Hospice de Beaune auction.  For an extra $250,000 she offered to personally deliver the wine to bidders; or for an extra $300,000 her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, would join her in bringing the wine. (Carla, who is an Italian also offered to throw in some pizzas if the bidder added another $1,000).  A Ukranian businessman took Bruni and Sarkozy up on the offer by bidding nearly $350,000.

Coming with us to Burgundy in September 2013?  We’ll be staying in the charming town of Beaune and we'll be touring the Hospice de Beaune!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wines For Which I’m Thankful

There’s a plethora of good wines in this world.  Some stand-out for their quality-price ratio, others win over your heart because of the circumstances in which they were consumed.  Yet, more float to the top of our lists because they just plain knocked-our-socks off.  Here is my “Top 3” list for this Thanksgiving…culled from all of the above factors during my recent trips to Bordeaux and Piedmont, Italy.

Prinsi Gaia Principe Barbaresco 2007:  I’ve visited thousands of wineries around the globe.  One of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received was a month ago when I took the Wine-Knows group visiting Piedmont to Prinsi.  To say that this charming family rolled out the red carpet is an understatement.   Likewise, to disclose that their Barbaresco was sublime is no exaggeration.  Best news of all is its modest cost for a Barbaresco of $48…I know of no other Barbaresco for this price that even comes close.  Contact for the location nearest you.
Les Arums de Lagrange 2011:  OK, I admit it.  I have had a long-standing love affair with Chateau Lagrange…the people, the chateau and their wines.  I recently took a group to Chateau Lagrange in Bordeaux for a private dinner and Lagrange’s white wine, Les Arums, really pulled at the strings of my heart.  (Considering I typically prefer red wine, it’s fairly compelling that a white took center stage.)  The fact that this lucious white was perfectly paired with a with a pumpkin and chestnut soup didn't hurt.  Now for the good news.  It’s just become available in the US.  As the chateau’s production of this Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend is miniscule, you’ll need to see it out on  It’s a steal at about just over 20 bucks a bottle.

Paolo Scavino Barolo Rocche Dell’Annunziata Riserva 2007:  I’ve tried 3 or 4 times to get an appointment with this super-star Italian producer, but I’ve always been told, “Sorry, Signora, but it’s the middle of the harvest and we don’t accept visitors!”  As I’m always in Piedmont at the time of the harvest (because it’s also the time of the area’s ethereal edible----the white truffle), I’ve simply remained a loyal fan.  This year the winery finally said “OK, Signora…you can come with your group.”   (I think they did so just to get rid of me!).  But, after having tasted these wines at their birthplace, I now know that was not the case as their hospitality was genuine beyond words.  Moreover, every single one of these wines was stunning.  For a holiday splurge, however, my vote goes to their Barolo Rocche Dell’Annunziata Riserva.  ($95 @ 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Best Choices for Thanksgiving Wine

By now all of us are scrambling to finalize plans for Thanksgiving.  In addition to the seemingly endless decisions about the menu (brine the bird?  anyone dislike brussel sprouts?  new dessert recipe or my never-fail standard?) one of questions always includes which wine?   

Assuming you’re serving turkey, my suggestion is either a dry Gewurtzraminer or a Pinot Noir.  For the dry Gewurtzraminer, I recommend one from Alsace (this tiny piece of eastern France makes the best "Gewurtz" on the planet.)  Great producers with good penetration in the U.S. market include Trimbach, Weinbach, and Albert Mann.  Prices for these Alsatians range from $25-100, depending on if it’s a Grand Cru.  If you want an American Gewurtz, look no further than Claiborne and Churchill (California, Edna Valley).  This one is a steal at $20.

Pinot Noir can be pricey, especially those from Burgundy. But, don’t despair as there are some great American Pinots that won’t break your bank.  The best bang-for-the-buck coming in under 20 bucks is Point Conception’s Salsipuedes from Santa Barbara.  In the $30-40 range the following wines from California’s central coast represent solid value:  Melville, Stolpman, Alma Rosa and Alta Colima.  If you can spring for $50, I suggest Dehlinger from the Russian River in California.  Oregon is also making some good pinots in the $30-$50 bracket, including Drouhin and Ken Wright.  Want to try a reasonable international pinot?  Can’t beat New Zealand’s Craggy Range $30.  (The Wine-Knows harvest trip to New Zealand in 2014 will visit this producer.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Herbs of Provence

One of Provence's many outdoor weekly markets

Provençal cuisine (from southeastern France’s Provence district) has traditionally used many herbs which are often characterized collectively in France as "herbes de Provence."  No two blends are alike, but most contain a combination of the following aromatic herbs that perfume Provence: thyme, lavender, rosemary, fennel, marjoram, basil, sage, oregano and savory. 

The seasoning is quite versatile and can be used with meat, poultry, vegetables and fish.  My favorite ways to use herbs de Provence are with grilled foods, as well as a classical vegetable stew from Provence called ratatouille.  The mixture should be added to foods before or during cooking to infuse the flavors, but remember it’s pungent so a little goes a long way. 

While herbs de Provence can be found today in most American supermarkets, the mixture surprisingly was not even known in France before WWII.  Prior to this time Provençal cooks simply used individually the vast array of wild herbs that were gathered from the countryside.  A lot has changed.

Herbs de Provence is a generic term and is not a D.O.P. food (protected origin).  For example, by law Roquefort cheese can only be produced from cows in the town of Roquefort.  Furthermore, the cheese must be aged in the caves surrounding the town.  In contrast, herbs de Provence can be from anywhere.  Because its origin is not protected by law, many of these blends can come from Eastern Europe, North Africa or China---even the herbs de Provence sold in Provence.

On the 2013 harvest tour to France we’ll be in the Provencal countryside for several days.  You’ll have numerous occasions to sample the mixture from the region’s vast array of culinary specialties all the way from tampenade to the famous goat cheese crusted with herbs de Provence.  Bon appetit!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Carmenere---Chile’s “Lost” Superstar Grape from Bordeaux

                     Chile's dramatic vineyards with the Andes looming in the background

Carmenere is Chile’s signature red varietal.  Unless you’ve been to Chile you may not know this delightful wine as the grape is rarely grown outside of the country.  Even if you’ve been to Chile, you probably don’t know that carmenere was brought over in the early 1800’s from Bordeaux.  In the last part of the 19th century, however, all the vineyards in Bordeaux were wiped out by a bug called phylloxera*.  Bordeaux vineyards were not replanted with carmenere as the varietal had problems with ripening, as well as it often produced low yields.  Carmenere was thought to have been extinct.

That might have been the last word on carmenere unless a team of French scientists visiting Chile in the early 1990’s had not been troubled by the appearance and character of Chile’s merlot.  Upon careful analysis with D.N.A., it was revealed that much of the merlot planted in Chile was actually carmenere...traceable most likely to the cuttings that were brought over pre-phylloxera.

The name "carménère" in fact originates from the French word for crimson which refers to the wine's deep red color.   Carmenere is a member of the cabernet family of grapes, but its tannins are gentler and softer than cabernet sauvignon which means that carmenere is far more approachable while its young.   Paralleling its cabernet lineage, carmenere’s aromas and flavors include red fruit, spice and berries, but dark chocolate, tobacco and leather nuances may also be present. 

Carmenere is imported into the US and is becoming increasingly popular because of its terrific quality price ratio and because it can be drunk young.  Best producers?  I would suggest Casa Silva, Macquis and Montes Alpha (listed in alphabetical order, these are all under $15.)  Best year?  The 2009 was stunning and there’s plenty of it still around on places like, or 

Coming with us to Chile & Argentina for the harvest in March 2013?   There will be plenty of carmenere to sample, not only as a single varietal, but also blended with other grapes.  No doubt, you’ll return to the US as an aficionado of this lost varietal.

* If you want to learn more about phylloxera, check out my earlier posting on the bug that destroyed not only Frances’s vines, but all of Europe’s vineyards:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Salmon Screams for Pinot Noir!"

Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon’s winemaker, quipped this comment ten years ago during a private visit with a Wine-Knows group in the Champagne countryside.  This was one of the most memorable tastings I’ve attended.  It took place in the Abbey of Hautvillers where monk Dom Pérignon made his famous bubbly wine discovery.  The Abbey, closed to the public, is owned by Moët (makers of Dom Pérignon).  We had a vertical tasting of Dom Perignon dating back to 1975 served by a white-gloved waiter wearing a tuxedo.  The winemaker’s remark has since been etched in my brain as I’ve always thought this match was about as close to perfection as you'll find.

Meaty fish such as salmon and ahi tuna pair beautifully with Pinot.  That being said, it really depends on how the salmon is prepared.  Butter based sauces, for example, would probably pair better with a buttery Chardonnay (marrying similar flavors and textures.)  But, BBQ salmon achieves rock-star status when served with a Pinot Noir.  My much-loved rendition is salmon cooked on a cedar plank on the "barbie."

Because Pinot Noir is a grape that requires a lot of T.L.C. to grow, it is typically one of the more expensive varietals.  For California Pinots I prefer Dehlinger, however, my husband is a Williams Selyem fan (both of these are from the Russian River and are in the $50 range).  For a less expensive alternative, the Santa Rita Hills of California’s central coast are producing some terrific Pinots that represent a great quality price ratio ($30-40)--- I especially like Melville, Stolpman, Alma Rosa and Alta Colima.  On the other hand, if you’re a red Burgundy fan, one of the best-bang-for-the-bucks is Dujac in the $200 range.  Willing to spend >$500 on a red Burgundy?  I recommend Meo Camuzet.  If you want to keep it under $20, the best Pinot I’ve tasted in this category is Point Conception Salsiuedes (refer to my posting from September 5, 2012).

As for salmon, it goes without saying that fresh WILD salmon is the best choice for taste and health.  Farm-raised are higher in fat.  They are also often fed fish meal that can be polluted with toxic chemicals

If you are coming with us on the 2013 France tour we will visit both Champagne and Burgundy...and you are guaranteed that there will be salmon paired with Pinot.