Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Brie…a Cheese with a Royal Past

                           Brie smoked on a cedar plank with roasted red peppers & herbs

In 1814 brie won the award for the best cheese in Europe.  While today it is one of the world’s greatest and most popular cheeses, brie has an ancient noble heritage.  During the French Revolution, Louis XVI’s last wish was supposedly for one final taste of brie.  More importantly, when Charlemagne was Emperor in the 8th century, brie was known as the “King’s cheese.”

Brie is named after the region in which it was originally made, near the town of Meaux, <40 miles east of Paris.  Called “Brie de Meaux” cheese from this area was granted an important protection of its origin by the French government in 1980 when it was awarded  a coveted A.O.C. (Appellation d’origine controlee).  Now only cheese from this district can be called brie in all of Europe.

Made entirely from cow’s milk, brie is 45% fat which accounts for its creamy, butter-soft taste and texture.  When perfectly ripe (a period of at least 40 days), it should be soft and flavorful, not runny or pungent.   The cheese’s white rind may be eaten---or not---it’s a personal choice of taste.

The real version of brie (Brie de Meaux) is rarely seen in the U.S. because it is made with unpasteurized milk---this cheese can only be exported to the US after it is aged for at least 60 days.  A cousin of Brie de Meaux, Fromage de Meaux, is made from pasteurized milk for export markets and is often seen in the US masquerading as brie.

The only way for Americans to experience perfectly ripened Brie de Meaux is to travel outside the country.  As the town of Meaux is situated near the Champagne wine area, participants on the September 2013 tour will have opportunities to taste the authentic version.  In the meanwhile, here is the recipe for the best brie dish I have ever tasted:

Brie on a Cedar Plank

·        6 inch wheel of brie
·        1 head of peeled garlic
·        ½ C olive oil
·        1 green onion
·        1 roasted & peeled red bell pepper
·        1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
·        2 tablespoons fresh thyme
·        2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
·        1 cedar plank for grilling

  • Soak the cedar plank in water (weighted down) for at least 4 hours to ensure it doesn’t burn when placed on the grill
  • Place peeled garlic cloves in a small pan with the olive oil and cook on low until garlic gets soft and a little brown (about 20 minutes.)  Drain and let cool.
  • In a food processor place the garlic, green onion, roasted red pepper, thyme, balsamic, and pepper…process until all ingredients are combined
  • Cut the top skin off the brie (most easily done if brie is very cold) and place it on the drained cedar plank
  • Cover the brie with the topping, piling it on liberally
  • Grill on a BBQ over medium high heat, cooking till the brie begins to melt

Friday, January 25, 2013

Argentina’s High Altitude Wines---the World’s Healthiest?

While red wine is known to exert a protective cardiac function, the exact mechanism has been unclear until recently.  Research shows that red wine is a potent inhibitor of a detrimental substance that wreaks havoc on blood vessels.  The villain, called Endolthelin-1, causes blood vessels to constrict and fatty plaques to form.  The hero, antioxidant polyphenols (found in skins of red grapes), block the formation of the harmful Endolethelin-1.  

Argentina boasts the world’s highest vineyards.  Grapes grown in Argentina’s Andes have demonstrated significantly higher levels of these beneficial polyphenols.  Vines grown as high as 5,000 feet has been shown to produce wine that is twice as potent in blocking the damaging Endolethelin-1 in contrast to grapes grown in the country’s lower vineyards.  In comparison to Chile, Argentinean grapes grown at lofty elevations provide more than triple the power in cardiac defense.  Moreover, Bordeaux wine only afforded a mere 10% of Argentina’s high altitude strength in preventing heart disease.

So, what is it about elevation that makes the difference?  Higher altitude vineyard sites are closer to the sun.  Grapes implement a defense mechanism against the sunlight intensity by thickening their skins, resulting in higher polyphenol levels.   Resveratrol, one of these polyphenols, has been shown to have great anti-oxidant properties.  Antioxidants have been shown in numerous medical studies to protect the heart.

High altitude wines, however, may promote more than just cardiac health.  Resveratrol has been found to have implications for destroying human cancer cells.  This important polyphenol may also have “fountain of youth” inference as it has been shown to encourage cell survival during times of stress.

Altitude has become somewhat of a status symbol among Argentinian wine producers, each daring to plant slightly higher than his neighbor…in spite of the enormous finances required to build at this elevation, as well as the risk of frost damage.  Argentine vintner Nicolas Catena Zapata has been widely credited for elevating the status of these high altitude wines through serious experimentation into the effects of high altitude.  (Zapata’s daughter, who is a physician at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, has been key in orchestrating the research).  Those of you coming with us in March 2013 for the harvest tour, will have the good fortune to have a private dinner at the Catena Zapata winery.

Here’s to your health!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black Truffles from Provence

                                                    An enthereal truffle omelette

Black truffles are one of France’s most prized culinary specialties. A kind of an over-the-top subterranean mushroom, truffles have recently surpassed caviar as the world’s priciest gastronomic item.  In a Paris restaurant, for example, a few super-thin shavings of a truffle can add $100-$200 to the cost of a dish.  It’s no wonder these coveted edibles are often referred to as “black diamonds.” Approximately 80% of France’s black truffles come from the area near Provence. 

January is the height of the black truffle season in this southern area of France.  Local churches feature truffle masses…and there is nothing holier than an omelette de truffes.   Due to the skyrocketing cost of truffles and the increases in French taxes, the area’s outdoor markets feature clandestine-like financial transactions hidden from view of the average shopper. (The comparison to drug dealing is not far-off as the intoxicating scent of the globe’s most expensive food provides a dizzying head rush that feels almost addictive.)  It appears that truffles have recently become a part of the “black economy” in France, i.e. the “no tax economy.”

But, truffles have also become a part of the black market.  With supply of truffles rapidly declining, prices are stratospheric (a two pound white truffle from Italy sold recently for over $300,000).  This has brought organized crime to the truffle trade.  Prized truffle hunting dogs (whose keen sense of smell provide the only method by which these hidden delectables can be found) have been kidnapped and been held for ransom.  Truffle brokers are being held-up at gun point by professionals.  Knock-off truffles from China have also flooded the market…they look exactly like their European cousin, however, they offer none of the famous mesmerizing aromas or mouth-watering flavors. 

One of our favorite wine estates in Provence is Domaine du Grand Devers.  Its 60 acres of vineyards are surrounded by a forest of oak trees that have black truffles growing beneath them (truffles grow in symbiosis with the roots of oaks.)  Wine-Knows will be hosting a winemaker dinner at Grand Devers with the harvest-tour group this September.  While black truffles will not be in season, truffle products (e.g. local olive oil infused with truffles, truffle honey and sublime truffle pâté) will be available for purchase at the famous outdoor Provençal market that we’ll be visiting.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Greece’s Award-Winning Whites

                              The island of Santorini produces Greece's most complex whites 
In spite of its tremendous viticultural history, Greece remains virtually an unexplored terrain for modern-day wine drinkers.  This is due in part to the former foul tasting retsina wines, along with native Greek varietals which are difficult to pronounce.  Moreover, historically one Europe’s poorest countries, Greece didn’t have the economic infrastructure to build its wine industry until it joined the E.U. in the 1980’s. 

Thanks to financial incentives from the E.U., the Greek wine business has made significant progress.  Impressive new wineries look like they’ve been transplanted from Napa or Bordeaux.  Young Greek winemakers are armed with degrees from the best universities in France or Italy.  Quality initiatives abound including lower yields and improved management of the vineyards.  Most importantly, Greece is now making some spectacular reds and whites.  The most dazzling whites are from the island of Santorini.

Santorini is one of the most breathtaking islands in the Mediterranean.  If you’ve seen a jaw-dropping Greek travel poster involving the sea, or an extraordinary picture of a Greek island in a magazine, chances are the photo was taken on Santorini.  The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, some 3,500 hundred years ago.  This explosion left behind a well-drained volcanic soil rich in minerals…add abundant sunshine and you have the perfect conditions for creating complex wines.

The island’s star grape is Assyrtiko (a seer tee ko).  Other than small amounts of the varietal that have been transplanted on the mainland, Assyrtiko is only found in Santorini and a few nearby islands.  Some believe the white varietal may be indigenous to Santorini, others think it may have arrived on the island with the Phoenicians.  Stunning dry and sweet wines are made from the grape.

Assyrtiko from Santorini has racked up countless international awards including Wine Spectator scores in the 90’s, a recent gold medal from Decanter (Britain’s equivalent of the Wine Spectator), and another gold medal from Bordeaux’s International Challenge of Wine.  The varietal is the only white grape in the Mediterranean known to achieve ripeness while still maintaining its acid structure.  This not only makes it a dream to drink but the high acidity makes it perfect to pair with food.  In addition, the wine’s subtle aromas of honeysuckle or citrus combined with intense minerality from the volcanic soil add layers of complexity that can charm even the most sophisticated connoisseur.

If you’re one of the lucky 12 persons who were able to snag one of the coveted spots on the private yacht that Wine-Knows has chartered in 2013, we’ll be visiting Santorini.  In the meanwhile, don’t let the hard to pronounce names like Assyrtiko deter you…buy a bottle of one of the following award-winning producers.  As Socrates once stated, “Try it, you’ll like it!”

  • Gaia (Decanter Magazine 2012 Gold Medal for dry wine)
  • Arghyros (Decanter Magazine 2012 Gold Medal for sweet wine)
  • Boutaris (this producer has wineries in several parts of Greece, so make sure it’s from Santorini)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Empanadas from Chile & Argentina

  Beef, onion & egg empanadas cooked in an outdoor wood-fired oven

One of my favorite culinary treats I’m waiting for on the upcoming tour to Chile & Argentina are empanadas (em pon naw duhs).  Many countries have their unique version of a stuffed bread or pastry—in the U.S. we call it a “turnover,” in Italy it’s a calzone, in China they refer to it as a pot-sticker, and in India it becomes a samosa.  In Central and South America it takes its name from the Spanish verb empanar (which means to wrap or coat in bread) and is called an empanada. 

Brought by Spaniards and Portuguese settlers to Latin America in the 17th century, the empanada in this part of the world is made from bread dough stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables or fruits.  While wildly popular, they are now served in homes only on special occasions because of the work involved in making them.  Shops specialize in making empanadas in the larger cities and they are available with many flavors and fillings, both savory and sweet.

In Argentina empanadas may be served as an appetizer or as the main course.  The dough is usually wheat flour and the fat is from beef due to Argentina’s mammoth beef industry.  Fillings, however, vary from province to province.  In the wine region of Mendoza, the stuffing is typically hand-cut beef with onion & hard boiled egg, however, in other areas olives & raisins may be added to chicken or ham.  Along Argentina’s vast coastline, empanadas can be made from seafood or fish.

Argentina’s empanadas are usually baked, however, they can be fried.  My favorite Argentinean version is served at the Zuccardi winery (  The dough is extremely light, a kind of melt-in-your-mouth affair.  The flavor is colossal because they are baked in an outdoor oven fueled with all kinds of wonderful woods that enhance not only taste but their aroma.  Clients coming on the tour with us are guaranteed to have these ethereal morsels when we visit the Zuccardi family for a glorious Sunday luncheon.

A highlight of the trip will be actually learning how to make empanadas in Argentina.   We have arranged a cooking class at the Culinary Institute in wine country.  The empanadas will be savory ones that will be served as tapas to begin our dinner, however, the recipe can easily be adapted to serve as an entrée, or changed to include fruit and morph to a dessert.

We will also have several renditions of empanadas in Chile.  Chilean versions have a wide range of fillings but the three most popular are beef, seafood or cheese.  These are considerably larger than the Argentine variety, usually with one empanada being enough for a meal.

My favorite place in Chile for an empanada?  Hands down it goes to the private catered dinner we’ll be having at the Montes winery (  The setting will be a mountain-top open-air dining room with a panoramic view of the setting sun over the entire Colchagua valley.  The beef empanadas will be cooked over a wood fire and served as appetizers… with a glass of one of Montes’ killer wines.  Viva la empanada!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Burgundy's Grape Varietals

In contrast to many regions in France, there are only a few grape varieties that are grown in Burgundy.   Moreover, unlike several other French wine regions, Burgundy varietals are rarely blended.  A general rule of thumb is if it’s white, it’s made from 100% chardonnay; if it’s a red Burgundy, it’s 100% Pinot Noir (one of the few exceptions, is Gamay, which is used almost exclusively in the Beaujolais district of Burgundy).

Chardonnay grapes account for nearly half of Burgundy’s vineyards. (Up until recently, this variety was thought to have originated in Burgundy, however, DNA testing shows that the two parent grapes of Chardonnay are the indigenous French Pinot Noir, and the Croatian grape Gouais Blanc.)  If it is an expensive Burgundian white, you can bet that it is pure Chardonnay.

Burgundian Chardonnay is known simply as “white Burgundy.”   These Chardonnays have minerality notes.  (This is not surprisingly as 70 million years ago Burgundy was a seabed and the petrified remains of a multitude of shellfish from this ancient sea floor have created Burgundy’s premier limestone soils---the cause of the wine’s mineral-like nuances.)  White Burgundies tend to be much more austere in style (high acidity, mineral-like notes, with soft nuances of lemon and green apple when young) than the fruit forward Chardonnays of California.  (Grown in a warmer climate and often influenced by oak and malo-lactic fermentation, new world Chardonnays tend toward lush profiles of pineapple, tropical fruits, vanilla and butter).

Chablis, the northern most district of Burgundy (located only 60 miles south of Paris), produces iconic white Burgundies that transcend the variety from which they are made.  The Chablis version of Chardonnay owes much more to the local soil and climate rather than the grape.  (Chablis is cooler and has more minerals in its earth).   Producers in Chablis, furthermore, avoid malo-lactic fermentation and the use new oak, which further differentiates Chablis from the Chardonnay made in the more southerly parts of Burgundy. 

Pinot Noir, the main red varietal of Burgundy, accounts for nearly 40% of the grapes that are grown.  While Pinot Noir is grown all over the world, the varietal’s origin is thought to be Burgundy.   The grape reaches rock-star status here and these wines have a loyal, almost cult-like following of oenophiles.

“Red Burgundy” is made exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape.  The best Burgundian reds generally come from the Côte d’Or (“the golden slope”).   Located about 250 miles southeast of Paris, this is the “money-honey” district and home to some of the world’s most expensive reds.  Thirty–two of its thirty-three vineyards are Grand Cru.  Pinot Noir represents over 90% of the production.

In comparison to the new-world style, Pinot Noir from Burgundy is much more restrained.  Weather strongly contributes to this disparity (in California, for example, fruit typically ripens fully due to ample sun, whereas, in Burgundy grapes struggle to ripen.  Fully ripened grapes are replete with sugar, however, at the expense of acid which balances out sweetness and provides structure.  Furthermore, when all of the sugar ferments into alcohol, new world Pinots can have very high alcohol levels.)  Burgundian reds are prized by connoisseurs because of these differences.

Other main Burgundian varietals include Gamay used to produce Beaujolais’ light, fresh, fruity and easy to drink red.  Aligoté, a white grape, produces a dry, light white, and is also used to produce Burgundy’s sparkling wine, Cremant.