Thursday, February 28, 2013

Waiter! There's a Flaw in My Wine!

We’ve all been there….an inordinate amount of time perusing the wine list and finally finding the perfect bottle.  The first course is on its way…the sommelier uncorks the wine and presents a small amount for tasting.   But, there’s a problem with the wine---you gotta be kidding!   Today I’m ranting about two things that can ruin a wine: cork taint and Brettanomyces (aka “brett”).  Both of these can wreak havoc on wines, irrespective of the wine’s price or quality.

A “corked” wine has an undesirable smell that is caused by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisol, or TCA.  The compound can develop in corks themselves which is the reason for the name (but it can also come from cardboard cases or wooden pallets; in fact, entire wineries can be contaminated with TCA.)  A corked wine smells musty or moldy and reminds many oenophiles of old musty books, wet cardboard, or a damp cellar.  Interestingly, it is estimated that as high as 8% of wines are corked.   

Brettanomyces, or "brett," is an unfriendly yeast….a close relative of the most common winemaking yeast.  Brett, like TCA, can ruin a wine.   At low levels, some feel this yeast can add complexity to the wines;  in young reds, for example, it can give bacon-clove-leather notes reminiscent of older reds.   At higher levels, however, it contributes obnoxiously strong barnyard notes, or the smell of dirty socks.

Brett is a winemaker’s worse nightmare.  It multiples quickly and is often difficult to recognize before it’s too late.  Once it sets up housekeeping in a winery it can be super tricky and very costly to eradicate.  Brett can permeate walls, floors and ceilings…it essentially has no barriers. In some cases the only answer has been to build a new winery.  The best way to prevent this yeast is immaculate sanitation practices throughout the winery.

The threshold of perception (and tolerance) for both TCA and brett vary from person to person.  There are some people who don’t notice these flaws, some who notice but don’t find them offensive, and others who might mistake one for the other.  Regardless, it’s up to the individual to decide if the wine is drinkable or should be sent back.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chile’s Red-Hot Wines

We’re leaving shortly for Chile and there’s never been a better time to visit this wine-centric country.  While the earthquake in 2010 devastated the industry, the wine business is coming back and moving in the right direction.   For many years quantity trumped quality in Chile.  This is not necessarily the case now.  Today, although the country continues to pump out value-priced wines, it has finally figured out that serious global wine consumers want high quality as well as a good value.

Chile may also be leading the pack for savvy wine production in that many of its grapes are organically grown…and wineries are being rebuilt with green practices in mind.   Even more compelling perhaps is the abundance of cheap land and an inexpensive labor force that allows Chile to out-value its American and European competitors.  It's no wonder that the top wine-producing chateaux in France (e.g. Mouton Rothchild)  have flocked to Chile to set up outposts.

The same year of Chile’s earthquake, there was another tremor in the wine world…but this one was felt around the globe.   In a blind tasting in New York two Chilean wines beat out two of Bordeaux’s Premier Crus, along with some of California’s much coveted cult wines and Italy’s mega-Euro Sassacaia.  The judges?  A sophisticated group of 100 that included top wine critics, sommeliers, and retailers.   The winning wines?  One was made from Chile’s signature grape, Carmenere (once a Bordeaux varietal),  the other was a Bordeaux blend (Cabernet + Merlot).

Chile’s new darling varietal, however, may be Pinot Noir.  While Chile’s hallmark grapes have been the warm varieties (e.g. Cabernet, Carmenere), the country boasts 3,000 miles of coastline and offers perfect growing conditions for the cooler varietals.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc all are thriving in Chile’s cooler maritime climates.  Chile is no longer a one-trick pony that knocks out solely muscular stallions.  It is turning out some well-pedigreed fillies that are sure to gallop away with world-wide recognition.

Viva Chile…I can’t wait to return!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

One of the World’s Most Romantic & Scenic

Many of you are probably expecting this article to be about France or Italy…both offer very romantico and attractive wine countrysides.   This Blog is about neither, but instead, a country that is on the other side of the globe.   New Zealand caught me totally by surprise. …dramatic beauty (a kind of Switzerland meets Tahiti), as well as mind-boggling landscapes all surrounded my majestic verdant peaks and empty, endless beaches.   A perfect place for romance.

Another revelation… New Zealand also happens to make fabulous wine.  I’m not a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, especially the grassy herbaceous style.   That being said, I was surprised to find so many Sauv Blancs that were made more in the tropical fruit genre that I enjoy.   Several of them were stunning.   One of my favorite producers was Terra Vin (particularly loved its floral as well as mineral notes, along with its great finish, however, I would have preferred for it to have a little less alcohol).  A deserted beach and two glasses of this well-crafted Sauv Blanc could be a true recipe for some starry-eyes.  

An additional stand-out white was the Viognier from Trinity Hill.  Bone dry, this winner is grown in the South Island’s stony soil.  The winery also made one of the best values we found in our 10 day reconnaissance.  We ended up going back three times to buy additional bottles of their Tempranillo….a steal for $35.  Since then, we’ve found out that this wine has won too many international competition medals to count.  A real Spanish version of romantico.

Trinity Hill’s winemaker has a wife who also makes wine.  (Hard to believe all that talent in one family.)  Her wines are made under the Bilancia label and are show-stoppers.  We found her Pinot Gris (well structured with an intoxicating nose and a fabulous finish) and Late Harvest Viognier (a pineapple and apricot bomb that is only made in the best vintages) to be outrageously grand.  And, what’s more romantic than husband and wife winemakers?

We loved the wines of Unison so much that we ended up inviting the winemaking team to our home in San Diego and they took us up on our offer in August 2012 when we hosted a winemaker dinner.  Their Bordeaux blends are exceptional, worthy of any passionate celebration.

The most romantic and most breathtaking wine district in New Zealand was not near the sea, however, but instead in the middle of the country near an idyllic lake surrounded by year-around snow-capped mountains.   There were many excellent producers we visited but Valli’s Riesling really pulled at the strings of our hearts.  We loved it so much that we chose it for our last night’s dinner…overlooking the lake at Queentown at one of the area’s best restaurants.  Very romantic.

Stay tuned for more details about our 2014 trip to New Zealand.

Happy Valentines Day!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Greek Feta

Greece has graced us with numerous gifts (democracy and philosophy to name a few), but the country has also contributed to the culinary scene with Feta, a briny cheese made from a combination of sheep and goat milk. While the first historical writings can trace Feta as far back as to the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 AD), artifacts from the 6th century BC provide even earlier references to the process of Feta cheese-making.  Greek mythology, however, indicates that the Cyclops of  Polyphemus invented Feta well before either of these periods.

The word “feta” has an interesting genealogy.  It is derived from the Italian word fetta which means “slice,” (thus, the word fettucine which is thinly sliced pasta). Fetta, in turn, is of Latin origin and means “bite” or “morsel.”  Whether Feta is of Greek or Italian origin, the cheese is now protected by European Union law and only cheeses made in specific areas of Greece can be called Feta.  Legal doctrine also dictates that Feta must be made from at least 70% sheep’s milk---the remainder must be goat.

Feta is made in large blocks and cured in a salt brine which accounts for the cheese’s salty profile (this can be lessened by washing the cheese).  After a two month period, Feta is available for sale but the blocks remain submerged in the brine even in the grocery store.  70% of all cheese consumed in Greece is Feta.  It is used as a table cheese and in everything from the famous Greek salads to pastries.  It is well known for its use in phyllo-based dishes such as spanakopita (a heavenly spinach pie) and tyropita (a divine cheese pie).  It can also be grilled, or served plain with a drizzle of olive oil and topped with oregano… wild oregano grows abundantly throughout Greece.

Those of you who have secured one of the coveted 12 spots on this Fall’s private yacht tour of the Greek islands (the trip is sold out with a long waiting list) will experience Feta in the above food specialties…all paired with well-crafted red wines from the Greek mainland.    The yacht’s chef will demonstrate how make several dishes with Feta and if you’re adventurous you’ll be able to join him shopping in port for Feta, as well as just-plucked from sea fish and garden fresh produce.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Latest Culinary Craze from South America

I’ve long been a fan of paprika, however, this one is like no other.  I was introduced to Merquén in 2006 in Chile.  One of the country’s best chefs used it in salmon dish at a lunch I attended….it was love at first bite.  I was so enamored with the seasoning that I had our driver stop at the nearest supermarket in Santiago where I bought every bag they had…all 25.  I gave them to all my foodie friends back home, but not one had ever heard of it.

Two years later Merquén (also called merken), came out of the culinary closet at the Fancy Food Show in NYC.  The biggest culinary extravaganza probably in the world, this show boasts over 6,000 booths of gourmet products.  Who’s Who of the cooking world attends.  In 2008, Merquén became one of the stars of the show when one of Chile’s star chefs used the spice in a cooking seminar.

Merquén is a mixture of dried and smoked Chilean peppers that has been seasoned with toasted cumin, coriander seeds and salt.    The base of this ethereal seasoning is a smoked pepper  “cacho de cabra.”  These green peppers are left to hang on their vine until  they turn a deep crimson color, then they are painstakingly smoked over a wood fire.  The process is long and arduous.  The results are magic.

The spice is indigenous to the Mapuche, the native people of Central Chile. The paprika-like blend adds heat, an intense smoky flavor, saltiness and a subtle but complex aroma to foods.  It is commonly found on just about everything from meat and seafood to vegetables, savory pies and stews.  At the Fancy Food Show they even used it on cheese…and it worked.

Merquén has been embraced by Chilean and international chefs which has led to Merquén-infused olive oil, Merquén flavored pepper, etc.  It’s now being used as a dry rub for meat, fowl and fish, as well as added to cerviche, as well as on peanuts or olives.  If you’re not coming on the March tour to Chile & Argentina, you can find it online at under "merken."

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Grapes of Champagne

Whether or not you’re joining the Wine-Knows harvest tour to France’s Champagne region this fall, all oenophiles should know something about the grapes used to make the world’s most famous bubbly.  Three main varieties are used in Champagne.  Two of these grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are well known to wine lovers around the globe.  The third, Pinot Meunier, is relatively unknown.  Champagne is a blended wine, thus all three varietals frequently appear together----each one contributing a unique note to the final blend.  

Pinot Noir, the famous red grape of nearby Burgundy (Champagne & Burgundy wine districts are actually contiguous), contributes body, structure, aroma and a complexity of flavors to the blend.  While this grape lacks the color and intensity it has further south in Burgundy, these elements are not required to make the delicate sparkling wines of Champagne.  Pinot Noir accounts for approximately 40% of the grape plantings in Champagne.

The second most widely planted grape in the Champagne district (33%) is Pinot Meunier.  A red variety related to Pinot Noir, the Meunier version is softer and more perfumed than both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It adds fruity and floral profiles to the blend.  Pinot Meunier is an especially valuable varietal as it is less prone than the other two grapes to the damaging frosts that frequently wreak havoc in Champagne, France’s northernmost wine growing region.  In addition, this grape ripens earlier than its counterparts, therefore, is less risky if there are early autumn rains.  The downside?  Champagne made from this grape does not age as well as those made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.  Furthermore, Pinot Meunier does not offer the elegance and finesse of the other two varietals. 

The third varietal in the trio is Chardonnay---the only white grape used in Champagne.  Responsible for producing killer white Burgundies, this variety rarely attains full ripeness in the Champagne district.  While Chardonnay provides finesse, delicacy and acidity to Champagne, most of the time it does not impart the fruit flavors that are typical of this varietal in warmer areas.   

Rarely is Champagne made from only one variety.  Nearly 90% of Champagne is made from a blend of both dark-skinned and light-skinned grapes.  Less than 5% is made from only white grapes…this wine is called “blanc de blanc,” and literally translates to “white from white.”  This Champagne is 100% Chardonnay.   Blanc de Noir,” on the other hand, means “white from black.”  This wine is made exclusively from the two Pinot varietals.

Future postings will discuss the process of making Champagne, vintage vs non-vintage Champagne, as well as important history associated with the bubble industry in France.  Stay tuned.