Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What I Learned this Year

My first four learnings of 2013 were due to the exciting DNA work by scientists studying the origin of grapes.  However, there are several other cogent details I’ve picked up in the last 12 months.  Here’s my top 10 list, checked it twice…and yes, I’ve been both naughty and nice.

1. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between two grapes; Cabernet Franc is the father, Sauvignon Blanc is the mother.

2. Chardonnay is a cross between two grapes:  Pinot Noir is the father; Gouais Blanc is the mother.

3. The first Chardonnay grapes came from the Burgundy district in France.

4. The origin of wine grapes is actually Turkey---9000 BC!

5. New Zealand, while known for Sauvignon Blanc, is now focusing on Pinot Noir…and they are excellent.

6. Argentina, which holds the record for the highest vineyards in the world (5,000 ft), is now planting grapes in the Andes at >10,000 ft. 

7. While blending is the hallmark of Champagne, there are >400 cuvees blended to create Veuve Cliquot.

8. China will be the world’s largest wine consumer by 2016.

9. Wine consumption by the French has dropped >50% since 1975.

10. Saltiness in wine is due to the minerality of the soil 
     in which the grapes are grown.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Santa (Fe) Chiles

By Greg Ciurczak (Guest Blogger & Wine-Knows client) 

“Will that be green or red, sir?” I overheard the waitress ask the gentleman sitting at the table next to me.  “Hmmmm, I can’t decide,” he said.  “Okay, let’s make it Christmas,” he replied.   Christmas?  I thought to myself.  It was September in Santa Fe, so what was with the reference to the holiday? 

I scoured the menu and it was peppered with numerous meal selections offering green and red chiles but I did not see any reference to “Christmas.”  I ordered the Flat Chicken Enchiladas…a kind of local lasagna made with corn tortillas.  The waitress arrived, I gave her my order and on cue I received the same inquiry the gentlemen sitting next to me had received.   “Green or red, sir?”

I stared up at her blindly. “Excuse me?” I stammered.  “Green or red chiles on the enchiladas---which do you want?  Or, would you like both?“  “Both?” I answered with a question because I wasn’t quite sure.   “Okay dear, in the future, if you want both, just say Christmas.”  So there is was, the chile code deciphered; green and red chiles served together was a St Nick’s specialty.  And a culinary Christmas it has been since this remarkable chile awakening experience thirteen years ago.   

Although there are some two hundred varieties of chiles, my favorite is the New Mexico Green Chile, about 4-6 inches long.  Picked green in their “unripe” state (before turning red), the skins are tough.  They are often roasted which makes them easier to peel, but the most important reason for charring them is that it imports a delicious smoky flavor.  Tagged with numerous names like Big Jim, Rio Grande and Sandia, these chiles have a heat index ranging from mild to moderate or hot.  Throughout New Mexico they are offered with everything from burgers, pizzas, bagels and French fries…to haute cuisine worthy of a Michelin star.

Which wines pair best with New Mexico’s chiles?  Wine pairings with spicy recipes follows a rule of thumb that the spicier the food the colder and sweeter the wine.  Wines with lower alcohol and higher acidity counteract the burning sensation of chile.  This makes both Riesling and Gewürztraminer good choices.  Another wonderful option is a sparkling wine which pair wells with the heat of the moment due to its generally high acidity.   If you are thinking red, less oak & less tannins are desired.  Barbera or Beaujolais, along with Zinfandel will all pair nicely with spicy dishes.

You can find New Mexican chiles in your supermarket frozen foods department.  If frozen isn’t your thing, you may want to consider a visit to this land of beautiful high desert panoramas, extraordinary culture and captivating chile-based cuisine.   Can’t decide on when to visit?   Keep in mind Christmas.

Feliz Navidad!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013: Le Crème de la Crème

This year’s best-of-the-best is filled with many wines that I have known in previous vintages, but there are also several that I’ve never tried, along with some that I never knew existed.  The wines, ranging from $25 - $150,  represent four continents.  While I have had many wines this year that cost >$500, they don’t appear because the value for me just wasn’t there---and, to be honest, the $30 Chilean wine of Altair may have beat many of them in a blind-tasting.  I have included only wines that are available in the US.   (While I tasted many over-the-top wines around the globe, regrettably, several are not exported to the US and thus were not included.) 

The list appears in alpha order by country.  All wines represent significant value considering their quality.


·        Stonestreet Terrace Ridge 2011.  A blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, this 
     classical white Bordeaux pairing had me at “hello.”  I believe it’s the first time the 
     winery has produced it, but I do hope it’s not the last.  Thank you to our 
     neighbors, Lynne and John (both of whom are in the wine business), for 
     introducing us to this beautifully crafted wine. ($35)

·        Paloma Merlot 2008.   I had never heard of this Napa Valley winery, but  a
     friend of mine in-the-know had.  Since I’ve had it, other savvy wine folks have              sung the wine’s praises which makes me think, “Is San Diego that far from Napa          that I could have missed this gem?”  Thank you, Fred, for popping the cork on              this one!  ($65)


·        Altair Sideral 2009.   Altair produces only 2 wines, both of which are red Bordeaux blends.  Grown on the foothills of the Andes by a well-known French wine family, these wines are stunning.  For the ’09 vintage, Sideral (their less costly one), stole the show.  In fact, I thought my glasses had been switched but the winemaker confirmed that the less expensive wine was my favorite for the first time in the last 9 years!  A real steal.  ($30)

·        Maquis Franco 2010.  Maquis produces stellar, high value wines.  This one is 100% Cabernet Franc (thus, it’s name).  The vines were planted >80 years ago by the winemaker’s grandfather who always thought that his land was perfect for the varietal.  Lafite-Rothchild’s just-retired winemaker was the consultant on the first vintage of Franco…and he agreed!  In fact, Lafite’s former winemaker recommended that it be bottled as a single vineyard wine. ($75)

  •  Ployez Jacquemart d’Harbonville 1998.  Maybe it was the pairing with the scallops in a lobster sauce?   Maybe it was the private cande-lit dinner held for Wine-Knows in the home of the Champagne house’s owner?   I think I would have been just as ecstatic drinking it with tortilla chips in Mexico.  One of my fave producers, this was the best I’ve tasted from them.  ($150)

  •   Chateau Le Nerthe White 2011.  Yeah, yeah, I know Chateauneuf de Pape is famous for its reds.   Listen to this red wine lover when I tell you that this one surpassed the tasting lineup of eight of the chateau’s best reds…which is saying something as the reds were fab. ($45)

  • Domaine des Bosquets Gigondas Le Lieu Dit 2010.  For those of you who don’t know the southern Rhone’s Gigondas wines, you should.  Located near Chateauneuf de Pape, this producer had several stunning wines …this one, however, really grabbed me.  ($50)

New Zealand
  •   Valli Dolce Vita Late Harvest Riesling 2011.  Not a Riesling fan?  Not a late harvest fan?  Doesn’t matter as this one is the bomb.  Our last night on this year’s reconnaissance trip to New Zealand we chose the restaurant based on if they carried this wine.  Need I say more?  ($50---available in 375 ml bottles)

  •  Unison Pinot Gris 2011.  For those of you turning up your nose at a Pinot Gris because you’re thinking of some insipid Pinot Grigio from Italy, well…un-turn it!  This grape does wonders in New Zealand, and this winery’s rendition was dazzling.  ($25)

  • Trinity Hill Tempranillo 2008.  We returned to the winery three times during our visit to New Zealand to buy another bottle of this one.  Crafted by one of the best winemakers in the country, it’s no wonder why this wine has won just about every Kiwi award there is.  ($30)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Finest Capers are Sicilian

While capers have become an indispensable part of every foodie’s pantry, some may neither know that Sicily makes la crema de la crema of capers, nor how caper berries differ from capers.  For certain, few know of caper leaves.

Most caper lovers are aware that these culinary gems are actually edible flower buds of a bush.  Their wild bushes thrive in the Mediterranean, so it’s no surprise that Morocco, Spain and Turkey produce the bulk of the world’s capers.  While there are many countries from the tropics (where capers are thought to have originated) to Europe that produce the delectable buds,  the ones from Sicily are the most prized among the globe’s most sophisticated chefs.

Sicilian capers are packed in sea salt versus their briny counterparts from other parts of the world that are preserved in an acidic solution.   Packed in salt?  Don’t despair, as soaking them for five minutes in water will rid them of any salty taste.  Whereas a brine overwhelms capers, the Sicilian salt-cured technique produces delicately flavored morsels.  It’s no wonder in Sicily why their versatile, tantalizing capers appear in everything from antipasto, to pasta, and even gelato.

A few other important facts about capers:  less is more. The smaller the caper, the more concentrated the flavor.  Check out  the jar of capers in your frig or cabinet.  The label most likely will say “non-pareil.”  The smallest size of capers are called non-pareil.  Most capers sold in the US are non-pareil.  The general rule of thumb is the smaller the size, the better (and more expensive) the caper.

Another interesting note:  if the caper bud is not picked, it flowers and then produces a fruit called a caper berry.  Caper berries are significantly larger (the size of the average olive) and considerably milder in flavor.  They are also far less acidic.  One of the best salads we had on our recent Wine-Knows private yacht trip through the Greek Islands, was a salad made with caper berries.   The salad’s ripe tomatoes were acidic and the caper berries were the perfect match to downplay the dish's already acid profile.

But, hold on to your hat!  While Sicily may produce the best capers, Greece provides another addition to the caper's culinary prowess.  Greeks use caper leaves in many of their salads and fish dishes.  These tiny leaves of the caper bus, preserved in salt or a brine, are rarely seen outside of Greece so is you do spot a jar buy everyone you can.  They are the most delicate of all the caper bush's gifts and add an interesting, almost lemon-like component.  I would not be the least bit surprised if caper leaves don't become the next hottest gourmet product in the US.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hot off the Press: Terroir Update

                                   Chateauneuf de Pape's unique rock terroir

Terroir is a French word that has no translation in English.  Terroir is much more than a word----many believe it’s a concept at the very heart of wine-making.  Terroir is the sum of the total effects that the local environment has on making a wine unique: for example, soil, climate, topography, drainage.  Even the pests in the vineyard are considered part of the terroir.

Conversely, there are some who think the whole idea of terroir is a marketing ploy by the French to say that no other country in the world can produce wines that measure up to those in France.  Researchers at U.C. Davis, however, may have just  unlocked the door to scientifically understanding terroir.  Furthermore, they may have actually found a way to measure terroir through DNA testing of microbes of grapes.

Microbes grow on surfaces of all wine grapes.  These bacteria and yeasts can be friendly or unfriendly.  The friendly ones can be helpful to jump-start fermentation and can also powerfully effect the flavor of a wine.  The unfavorable ones can spoil it.   Scientists in the above study tested microbes associated with Chardonnay grapes from three different districts of California:  Napa, Sonoma and the San Joaquin Valley. They found in each area a set of microbes unlike the microbes found in the other two valleys.  These researchers next conducted testing on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the same three districts.   They noticed again a unique set of microbial communities in each of the districts.

How exactly these region-specific microbes contribute to regional variation of a wine involves taking the scientific evidence to the next step of proving how terroir actually gets into a bottle of wine.  For more on this fascinating investigation, check out the recent article in the New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/science/microbes-may-explain-some-of-the-mysteries-of-terroir-and-wine.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

Friday, November 22, 2013

Our Big Fat Greek Wine Faves

The charter of a private luxurious 110 foot yacht didn't hurt, but the recent Wine-Knows trip to the Greek Islands yielded some nice surprises for wine and food.  Below are the stars of the Hellenic show that are available in the USA and are inexpensively to moderately priced:

  • Island of Paros:   Produced by Moratis winery, this 2012 white was made from 2 grapes not known outside of Greece.  Great for your next summer Toga party!  Also, Moratis made a knock-out 2009 Paros Red...complex and worth seeking out.

  • Island of Santorini: 3 vintners on this stunning island made wines that would have pleased both Socrates & Plato:    
         1.  Boutari:  2007 Grand Reserve Naossa (from Boutari's 
              winery on the mainland) was chocked full of 
              plums & violet with hints of chocolate.  I really liked this 
              wine.  Another one that was very well crafted was their 
              2009 Kotsifali Syrah from the island of Crete, aged 1 year 
              in American Oak.

         2.  Sigalas:  The 2011 single vineyard Kavalieros had a great 
              finish.  The producer's Vin Santo (dessert wine) was an 
              excellent fig bomb.

        3.  Gaia:  If you like Riesling you would love their 2009 
             Thalassitis which evoked the mineral nuances often 
             associated with Riesling.

The next Greek yacht charter (2015) SOLD OUT the first day it was marketed to those who were on this year's waiting list. Stay tuned as we may be doing another one in 2017. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Best of Wine-Knows Harvest Trip to Champagne, Burgundy & the Rhone

Here's a summary of la creme de la creme from our September trip.  Superb quality/price wines have been so noted.


~ Ployez Jacquemart 1998 d'Harbonville

~ Moet Grand Reserve 2003


~ Jadot 2010 Mersault (white)   *GREAT VALUE*

~ Jadot 2010 Pommard (red)   *GREAT VALUE*

~ Drouhin 2009 Marquis Laguiche Grand Cru (red)

~ Domaine d'Ardhy 2009 Reynards Corton Grand Cru (white)


~ Domaine Bosquets 2012 Rose (Cote de Rhone) *GREAT VALUE*

~ Domaine Grand Devers Visan (white Cote de Rhone)  *GREAT VALUE*

~ Chateau Valdieut 2011 Clos Belvedere (Chateauneuf de Pape white)

~ Domaine Bosquets 2011 Reserve (Gigondas)

~ Chateau Beaucastel 2010 (Chateauneuf de Pape red)

~ Chateau Le Nerthe 2011 (Chateauneuf de Pape white)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sicily’s Superstar Winery

                                A winery,  a gourmet restaurant, a boutique hotel...an experience!

Never mind that the winery’s owner is a mega-Euro millionaire industrialist from Milan---he’s of Sicilian heritage, and he’s making some of the best wine on the Mediterranean’s largest island.  In the mid-1990’s, entrepreneur Vito Catania decided to return to his Sicilian roots and follow his passion to make wine.   This wild and crazy visionary purchased 200 acres of prime vineyards and began his innovative work to focus on the area’s little know, indigenous grape varietals…and the rest is history.  Gulfi wines are now some of the most-sought after wines in all of Italy.

Never mind that Gulfi winery has won about every European award, or that Robert Parker has scored them 95.  Last year Gulfi won the “Best Italian Wine Estate of the Year.”  Any connoisseur of Italian wine is now on notice that the new kid on the block, Gulfi, is a force to be reckoned with.  Indeed, Vito Catania is on the move with the same fervor that made him one of Milan’s top businessmen.

Never mind that Signor Catania just recently finished a multi-million-Euro winery.  He also built a drop-dead gorgeous visitor’s center, along with a boutique hotel and a gourmet restaurant.  Not at all uncommon in the Napa Valley, this is the first of its genre in Sicily.  Wine-Knows Travel has taken over the entire hotel for next fall’s tour, and we’ve scheduled a cooking class with the restaurant’s highly acclaimed chef. 

Never mind that Gulfi produces stunning wines.  Surrounded by hundreds of olive trees, the winery also makes beautiful olive oil.  There is also a magnificent garden on site from where most everything served in the dining room originates.  This is definitely a farm-to-table kind of experience.

Never mind that Gulfi is a gourmand and oenophile’s dream-come-true.  Check out the above view from the hotel’s private quarters.  Gulfi offers a little piece of paradiso for those who simply want to relax and take in the essence of Sicily.  

Viva Sicilia!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

New Zealand Restaurant Voted in World’s Top 20

                                                              Craggy Range Winery
Those of you who are coming on the March 2014 trip with Wine-Knows to New Zealand will have the good fortune to dine in one of the globe’s most extraordinary restaurants.  Named “Terroir,” this gourmand’s paradise caught our eye when we visited it on our earlier trip.  It was love at first bite. Little did we know, however, that this jaw-dropping restaurant would soon be voted in the Top 20 by a respected panel comprised of food and wine journalists, wine experts, and sommeliers…in consultation with France’s revered Michelin Guide.

What makes this Top 20 list even more interesting is that the professionals who chose these winners focused on restaurants that were owned by wineries.  Terroir restaurant is located in the Craggy Range winery.  One of the la crème de la crème wine producers in all of New Zealand, Craggy Range is located in the famous Hawke's Bay wine region on the country's northern island.  We thought that nothing could possibly top the tasting of their stunning viticultural lineup, but we were awestruck when we walked into the restaurant which boasted unobstructed floor-to-ceiling-views of the lake with the Craggy Range mountains in the distance.  And, that was before a morsel of food had even been served.

Standouts on the menu were the fish soup…reminiscent of a boullisbase.  In a rich broth flavored with saffron and filled with shellfish, it could have easily been served at a Michelin star restaurant on the French Riviera.  But, every element of the soup was sourced locally, as was the lamb and duck entrees that followed…both of which were exquisitely prepared.

For more details on these Top 20 winery restaurants, check it out: http://www.thedailymeal.com/20-best-winery-restaurants-around-world/101413

Friday, November 1, 2013

Clos de Mouches---a Knock-Out Burgundy

Drouhin's medieval cellars in Burgundy
If you’re looking for a mind-blowing wine for a special holiday dinner, look no further.  If you’re a white wine lover, get ready to be transported to Mecca.  I’ll be writing in a separate article in this blog about the best wines of our recent Wine-Knows tour to France, but I couldn’t wait to share this one from our stop in Burgundy. 

If you’re a history buff, the appeal of Clos de Mouches makes it an even more compelling choice.  First let me share that I tasted this in the medieval underground cellar of Drouhin….but his isn’t just any cellar by a long shot.  There are 2.5 acres of illustrious caves tunneled underneath Burgundy’s capital city, Beaune, during the 13th-18th centuries.  These are the very cellars in which the Drouhin family (as well as many other Burgundian winemakers) successfully hid their premier wines from the Nazi’s in WW II.  Drinking even bottled water here is a magical experience, let alone a Clos de Mouches blanc.

The story of how the blanc (white) Clos de Mouches came to be is also a little treasure of history.   The birth of the wine occurred in the 1920’s as France was struggling to recover from the first World War.  At this time, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were planted in the Clos de Mouches vineyard and often mixed together in the blend, but 90% of the Clos de Mouches parcel was Pinot.  One year, the Chardonnay did not ripen, so the Pinot was picked and vinified alone.  Then, a very unusual hot spell descended on Burgundy and the white grapes ripened…but it was too late to add them to the Pinot.  As it was a very small volume, Drouhin decided to try something unique and made a small batch just of the Chardonnay---it was too small of an amount to sell on the marketplace, so Drouhin intended to keep it for his family’s personal consumption.  If it hadn’t been for the winemaker taking a bottle to a friend, I wouldn’t be writing this article, as this white wine would never have been made again.

His friend lived in Paris…and just happened to own the wildly popular Maxim’s Restaurant (3 Michelin stars).  The proprietor of Maxim’s took one taste of the Clos de Mouche blanc and told Drouhin he would buy every bottle available.  It was here in Maxim’s that the famous actor Maurice Chevalier fell in love with the wine and proclaimed it his favorite.

For all of you ABC’s out there (anything-but-chardonnay) hold on!  If anything will change your mind, this Premier Cru Clos de Mouche white is the one.  The 2010 vintage that I tasted in the magnificent cellars was complex and elegant, with notes of citrus intermingling with floral, almond, nutmeg and mineral.  This one had me at “hello.”   Thankfully, it’s widely available in the US and its price tag of $70-90 (depending on the vintage) makes it the perfect wine for a special occasion holiday event.

FYI…there is also a Clos de Mouches red by Drouhin made from Pinot.  While we’ve tasted it during the visit to Drouhin as well, it was the white version that made the earth of the cellars move for me…and I’m a red wine gal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Prosecco is CROATIAN in Origin !

DNA technology is responsible for apprehending criminals, curing diseases that were once thought incurable, as well as finally putting to rest the misleading origin of many of the world’s wine grapes.  Prosecco, an increasingly popular Italian sparkling wine, is one of the latest to have its birthplace accurately identified…and it’s not Italy!

First things first.  Prosecco is the name of the grape, but it’s also the name of the bubbly.  This wine comes from the hills outside of Venice.  A few years ago, this area was granted a special status (DOCG) by the Italian government.  Similar to the Italian wine laws that protect the coveted Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello de Montalcino, legally only grapes from the Prosecco area can be used to make the sparkler.  The law is meant to protect “knock-off” bubblies from being called Prosecco. 

Now, back to the DNA findings.  The Prosecco grape has been shown through genetic analysis to come from Croatia…probably the Istrian Peninsula which is contiguous with Italy.  (After World War I Istria actually became part of Italy, but it was given to Yugoslavia post World War II.  Yugoslavia was later carved up and the Istrian Peninsula became part of Croatia.)   Prosecco’s Croatian origin has caused quite a scandal in the European Union (EU).   The new Italian wine laws granting a protected place of origin (DOCG) to Prosecco have mandated that Croatia’s “Prosec” (a sweet wine) must change its name to something else as it’s too similiar to the protected name of Prosecco.  How ironic is that?  The grape ends up being Croatian by birth, but the Croats have to change the name of their wine to accommodate Italy’s wine laws.

The 2014 tour to Croatia has the option of starting in Venice.  Come have a Bellini (Prosecco mixed with peach juice)  with us on the Grand Canal, and then we’ll hop a short ferry to the Istrian peninsula where we’ll sample their Prosec….and we’ll certainly not touch the subject of EU politics.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sicily’s Fall Harvest—a Bounty for Wine & Food Lovers

Fall's plethora in Palermo's most famous outdoor market

October is idyllic in Sicily.   While summer is Dante’s inferno-hot and mega-crowded---especially in popular tourist spots---October brings cooler temperatures, as well as significantly fewer crowds.  The grape harvest begins in August and the picking continues through September.  In October wineries are in full swing with the new vintage—for an oenophile, it’s the perfect time to visit.  If you’re coming on the 2014 October tour we’ll be staying at one of Sicily’s most revered wine estates and we’ll have ample opportunity to watch up close all of the processes involved in making a wine.  But, wine is just one of the many culinary abundances of Sicily in the fall months.

Sea salt from Sicily is highly-prized.  The harvest begins in August and continues through early October.  Fall also is the season for Sicily’s pistachio and hazelnut harvest...these nuts frequently appear in Sicily’s traditional handed-down-over- generations dessert recipes.   But, perhaps the most famous of all of the Sicilian food products produced during the fall months is its olive oil.  The group visiting Sicily with Wine-Knows next year will be staying on an olive estate, and you will have the option to participate in the harvest and make the oil.

Sicily’s fall vegetables read like a who’s who of its gastronomic world.  Eggplants, onions and an array of peppers in red, oranges and yellow compose the holy trinity of fall dining.  One of the island’s most famous dishes is caponata (the Sicilian version of ratatouille.)   Sicily’s rendition includes capers, another jewel in the island’s culinary crown.  Sicilian capers, preserved in local sea salt, are coveted by Michelin star chefs around the globe.   Last, we can’t discuss Sicilian cooking without discussing tomatoes.  Early fall brings over-flowing market stalls full of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.  Late fall ushers in the year’s crop of sun-dried tomatoes that are used throughout the other seasons in many of Sicily’s classical dishes.

Stay tuned for the upcoming blog posting on Sicily’s capers.…once you’ve tasted their salted version, you’ll never return to the brined capers popular in the US.

Viva Sicilia!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cork v Screwcap---New Zealand Takes the Lead

We’ve all been there:  a special bottle of wine---ceremoniously opened for a special event.  BOOM!  The wine smells horrible with an unmistakable odor of mold.   The culprit is tricholoranisole, more commonly known as TCA.  In short, the wine is “corked.”   TCA is caused by defective corks and it is estimated that somewhere between 5-8% of wine has some degree of this cork taint.  New Zealand winemakers, however, have bucked a huge tradition by switching to screw-caps…even on their premium wines.

Screw-top enclosures have been used on food products since the 19th century, but they weren’t used for wine bottles until the 1950’s.  A few Australian wineries were among the early adopters, but the adventuresome New Zealand wine industry was the first to adopt screw-caps in masse.  Market-conscious American vintners are still testing the treacherous waters of public opinion.  The tradition-driven French are less receptive, as are most Europeans.

Is this resistance all about tradition?  Some of you might be thinking “No, it’s because the slow passage of oxygen through a porous cork allows the wine to age better!”  Others might be pondering that the metal of the screw-top could react with the wine and create problems.  Neither of these has been proven to be true.

Flying in the face of tradition, for the last 10 years the Kiwi’s have been leading the effort to convert to screw-caps.  Currently, over > 90% of New Zealand’s wines are made with metal enclosures.  The country has been on the cutting edge of debunking the myth that screw-caps are substandard.  There are plenty of studies now that offer ample evidence that spending money to seal wine with anything other than a metal cap is a significant risk.  New Zealand has also discredited the argument that screw-cap use is economically motivated as screw-cap equipment requires a significant financial investment.

As there is a lack of data on the ability of wine to age over decades with a metal cap, no one knows for sure what the long term effect of screw-tops will be.  Personally, I will gladly follow Chubby Checker’s  “Let’s do the twist!”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Croatia---the New Tuscany

                                                       Croatia or Tuscany?  Croatia!
First the bad news: Croatia is no longer a best-kept secret.  But, the good news is that it if you’re a lover of Tuscany, you’re going to fall head-over-heels for northern Croatia.  I find Croatia’s Istrian peninsula (which borders Italy) has a Tuscan feel reminiscent of the Tuscany I found during my first visit in the mid-1970’s…before this spectacular countryside became the darling poster-child of all of Italy.  Much of the Tuscany I loved is no longer.  Istria, however, catapults me back to the Tuscan countryside of 40 years ago with its jaw-dropping rolling hills dotted with castles, boutique wineries, artisanal olive oil producers, and a flourishing foodie scene---all with significantly fewer tourists and surrounded by a blow-your-mind coastline of epoch beauty. 

Like Tuscany, Istria has a long tradition of wine-making.  Similarly to Tuscany, it focused for years on quantity rather than quality.   In Italy, the change came in the 1980’s as the Tuscans began experimenting with international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and adopting stringent quality control practices.  In Croatia, the quality initiatives didn’t begin until post-communism in the 1990’s, when a wave of young Croatian winemakers began pushing the envelope.  Applying the latest wine technology, hiring well-known international wine consultants and reducing their yields, the Croats started winning international awards paralleling what the Tuscans had done earlier.

The same can be said for olive oil, another staple of Tuscany. The Istrian peninsula has always depended on olive oil for its cuisine, but, like its Tuscan counterpart following World War II, the quality could have been better.    In the last 20 years, >145 olive oil producers have sprung up in Croatia’s Istria…most of them small-scale, but all focused on the best extra-virgin oil.

Croatia’s breathtaking seaside is not the only added bonus when compared to Tuscany.  The Istrian peninsula has a magic gastronomic bullet that Tuscany does not---the much coveted white truffle.  Referred to as “white diamonds” in the culinary world, white truffles do not grow in Tuscany (black truffles, which are present in Tuscany, are much inferior to the white).

Now that the secret is out, I hope that you can join us on our trip to this special part of Croatia before the hordes of tourists change it like they’ve changed my beloved Tuscany.  Check it out at http://www.wineknowstravel.com/.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

One of the World’s Most Expensive Spices

                                                      Green cardomom is the highest quality

I’ve just spent 10 glorious days on a foodie’s trip in Turkey.  While I’ve always been a raving fan of cardomom (also spelled cardomon), I was reminded during this decadent tasting journey of how much I adore the spice.  It was used throughout the country in their cuisine in everything from coffee to desserts, and many dishes in between as a savory component.

Cardomom is an intensely aromatic, complex, and utterly beguiling spice that is indigenous to India.   It is often one of the secret components in India’s most flavorful curries.  The Scandinavians (who were a strong maritime power during the time when Constaninople was the center of the universe and the epicenter of world’s spice market), use cardomom in many of their sweet breakfast breads, cookies and other baked goods.  I first learned to appreciate the spice over 30 years ago in a Middle Eastern cooking class where it was a component of a rice dish, as well as the baklava.

On a recent visit to Istanbul’s fascinating Spice Market I saw an array different types of cardomom.  It was here in speaking with a vendor that I learned that cardomom seeds come from a plant that belongs to the ginger family.  Prices clearly indicated that the green cardamom was the most valuable---when I smelled it I knew why as the green seeds were much more pungent.  Black seeds, although aromatic, didn’t deliver the complex profile of the green.   Ground cardamom could be purchased, however, it quickly looses its flavor so it was not recommended by the spice merchants. 

Looking for cardomom in the US?  If you live in a large metropolitan area, I suggest a Middle Eastern market where the seeds are likely to be fresher since the spice is frequently purchased for their cooking.  Do keep in mind that cardomom  is surpassed in cost only by saffron and vanilla---but a little goes a long way so the cost is really negligible considering the  flavor it provides.  

If you’re wondering what to do with  cardamom, just substitute it in lieu of cinnamon.  With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, for example, it could easily be used in a pumpkin pie, or for that matter in a home-made cranberry sauce or chutney.   Once you’ve smelled cardamom and tasted it, there will be no turning back.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Donkey Changed Wine?

Pruning for lower yields is one of the hallmarks of quality

As legend has it, it all began in 345 A.D. with Saint Martin (one of the Catholic Church’s three patron Saints of grape growers and winemakers) who lived in the Loire Valley of France.  Saint Martin wasn’t just a Saint.  He was a winemaker involved in the trenches making wine.  A mistake made on Saint Martin’s watch, however, altered the path of making quality wines.

Saint Martin rode on his donkey to the fields located not far from his monastery where he and his brothern monks grew grapes for wine.  As was common during this period all over Europe, monks were the winemakers and the monasteries counted on sales of their wines to fill the church’s coffers.   It was early September and the grapes were almost ready for picking.   He tied up his donkey securely and then proceeded to inspect the rows of vines and the readiness of the grapes. 

Hours later when Saint Martin returned, he found much to his horror that his tethered donkey not only had eaten all the fruit off of every vine that the animal could reach, but he had chewed several vines right down to their trunks.  Saint Martin rode back to the monastery and shared the unfortunate news with his brothers.  Many thought the vines would die.  None of them dreamed what would transpire the following year.

As the monastery’s vineyards began to bud with new growth, a strange phenomena happened to the rows that had been devastated by the donkey.  These vines were growing far better than any others in the vineyard!  By the end of summer, the fruit on these once desecrated vines was not only the largest, but the best tasting in the vineyard. From this point on, the monastery began “pruning” their vines after the harvest.  The lesson was not lost on the monks---as centuries passed, pruning has become a mandated part of every grape grower’s routine.

Pruning grape vines follows the philosophy of quality over quantity, similar to that of thinning a fruit tree. The idea is that if one reduces the number of fruit that a plant must grow, the plant will put more energy into developing each remaining fruit into higher quality.  In contrast, unpruned wild vines typically produce smaller grapes that are sour in flavor.

As in many things in life, mistakes have created some of the biggest opportunities. Wine, itself, is thought to have been created by grapes that were mistakingly left for weeks unattended.  So was Roquefort cheese which was supposedly invented when a shepherd in France left his uneaten lunch in a cave and returned a month later to find it filled with blue mold.  As a wine lover, I want to go on record to say “merci beaucoup” to that donkey of Saint Martin’s.  Bravo!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chateauneuf du Pape: Like a Rolling Stone

The Wine-Knows group is in the Southern Rhone where we’ve leased a wine-making chateau near Chateauneuf du Pape from which to explore this world-class wine district. Our group recently visited two of the area’s crème de la crème properties:  Chateau Le Nerthe and Chateau Beaucastel.  At both venues we were taken into the vineyards to view “the stones.”  Called in French ‘galets,’ these are an important part of the famous wine appellation’s terroir.

Galets are remnants of Alpine glaciers that have been carried down over milleniums by the nearby Rhone River which has often over-flowed it banks.  The constant churning by the Rhone is responsible for the rocks’ rounded, almost polished characteristics.  As the river has receded, it’s left in its wake land that is sometimes yards deep with these tumbled stones.  These galets have several important effects on making the appellation’s world renown wines. 

First, the  galets are extremely hard and dense which means that they retain the daytime heat and then release it back to the vines during the colder nights.  This natural system of “incubation” hastens the ripening of the grapes, and protects the vines from the extreme cold during the winter.  Second, this top layer of rock debris from ancient mammoth ice fields serves as a protective cover to help retain moisture in the soil during the dry, hot summer months.  Last, the upper stratum of tumbled stones means that the vines must send their roots far down to seek water and nutrients retained in the lower levels of earth.  In the deeper layers of terrain, the vines not only find water but come in contact with several different minerals that add immensely to the wine’s complexity.

Chateauneuf du Pape is legendary for its world-class wines.  While there are numerous factors that contribute to the making of these special wines, none, perhaps, is more influential than the galets.  In some ways, it’s all about the stones.  


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Croatia’s 90 Point Parker Wines

Croatia has been producing wines as far back as the fifth century B.C.  My first visit was in 2009.  In preparation for this inaugural trip, I did a sweeping analysis of their current wine scene.  In this assessment I discovered that Robert Parker had dubbed Croatia as the next up-and-coming wine country.  Shortly thereafter, Parker published his first-ever review of Croatian wines.  His team scored  3 Croatian wines in the 90’s.  Below are the comments:

  • 2007 Tomac Amfora – 90.   From North Croatia, this Chardonnay (50%) sweetie is blended with local varieties from the Plesivica region. It has a fine minerally nose with limestone, orange-blossom, lychee and gooseberry. Good definition. Ripe on the entry with touches of butterscotch, vanilla pod and frangipane.  Intriguing.

  • 2006 Kabola Amfora – 90.   This Malvasia from Istria has a light nose of honey, melted butter and nutmeg, succinct and well defined. A touch of dried honey on the entry, waxy texture, hints of lanolin and hazelnut, leading to weighty, dried fruit, nectarine and smoke tinged finish. Excellent.

  • 2008 Trapan Winery Uroboros – 90.    Another excellent wine from this Istrian producer, light and floral on the well-defined nose: green apple, white flowers, watermelon and a touch of apricot. The palate has a ripe entry, lovely balanced and poise with well-judged acidity on the finish. This is a sophisticated, very well-crafted Croatian wine from Bruno Trapan.   One to watch!

Since that time, Croatian wines have won numerous international awards and have received accolades from other top wine writers such as Jancis Robinson of the U.K.  In 2014 Wine-Knows is heading to Croatia where we’ll be visiting the crème de la crème producers.    The trip is perfectly timed for the grape harvest as well as the white and black truffle season.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Woman Who Changed the Course of Champagne

                                                 The widow Clicquot (Le Veuve Clicquot)

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected farther who was involved in textiles and politics.  At 21 years old, she married Francois Clicquot.   Six years later, in 1805, her young husband died leaving his widow a company involved in banking, wool, and Champagne.  At the time, it was unthinkable for a woman to work outside the home, let alone a young widow (veuve in French) from an affluent family.  But, that didn’t stop the Veuve Cliquot.

Never mind that the Napoleonic wars were in full swing.  Never mind that she was not a business person.  Never mind that she knew little about Champagne, or wool, or banking for that matter.  With the deck stacked completely against her on every front, she persevered.  Her first decision was to focus solely on the Champagne part of the company and let her father-in-law deal with the other components.  A very wise first move, indeed.

With laser-beam attention, she immersed herself in the process of making Champagne.  At the time, Champagne was cloudy (due to sediments from dead yeasts that had created the bubbles).  With an eye on aesthetic details, Madame Cliquot invented a process that would change Champagne to a clear wine.  Known as “riddling,” this remains a critical technique and is used today by every producer of Champagne.  The widow Cliquot, however, was only getting started.

Against all odds, she was the first Champagne company to sell its wine outside of France.  Considering Napoleon was wreaking havoc on most of Europe at the time, this is even more laudable.  But, she didn’t stop there.  She pioneered the making of rosé Champagne.  Moreover, she used her visual senses once again---this time she was the first to use a colored label on a Champagne bottle (all of her competitors used white labels).  Today, the bright yellow label of Veuve Clicquot Champagne has become a symbol of their brand.

While Veuve Cliquot championed the entire industry of Champagne, she did so much more.  She was the first business woman in France.  To pay homage to her contributions, the entire company was renamed in her honor.  The Widow’s story is beautifully chronicled in the intoxicating book, “The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar Mazzeo.  You’ll recognize the cover immediately as it’s the same color as the company’s neon-yellow colored Champagne labels. 

Those of you here in France with us will tomorrow enjoy a private tasting led by the winemaker at Veuve Clicquot.  And, you’ll be able to view the widow’s desk set much as it was the day she died in 1866 as they have now made a museum of her office from where she made magic.

Vive le Veuve!