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!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Longest Lunch Line in Paris

                                                  A worth waiting for luncheon experience

I’m a type A personality---obsessed with time.  So, when I head out for a meal knowing that there’s going to be a long wait in line you know that it’s gotta be terrific food.  To top it off, this place isn’t even French---which is another cardinal rule that I break (typically, I always eat the local cuisine).  So what is this place that compels me to visit each time I’m in Paris and break so many of my tenets?

You can’t call it a restaurant, a bistro or even a café…how do you say “dive” in French?   The place is called L'As du Falafel, a falafel joint in the hip Marais district not far from the Place de Vosges.  (In case you don’t know what a falafel is, think of it as a Mediterranean meatball made from garbanzo beans and herbs).   For me, a falafel is one of the yummiest foods  invented and this version is nirvana.  Served at  L'As du Falafel as a Mediterranean sandwich,  it comes in pita bread topped with thinly sliced cabbage, diced cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, grilled eggplant, a tahini-based sauce, as well as an optional hot sauce.  Order “the works” from the take-out window, then wait for your name or number to be called.  For <$10 you’ll have a mouth-watering, ooey-gooey meal that you’ll never forget.


If you can’t stomach the thought of a line eating into your precious time in Paris, or  the idea of eating a messy sandwich on the street with 20 others doing the same thing, then you might want to consider L'As du Falafel’s inside tables where you can order a full array of Middle Eastern dishes from a waiter.  I did it once, but it wasn’t the same rite of passage as the take-out window experience.  Furthermore, it’s more expensive and the one time I did not it took almost as much time to get my food as the long line outside.


There are several falafel places on this tiny pedestrian street which is located deep in the heart of the City of Light’s Jewish district.  L'As du Falafel, however, stands head and shoulders above the rest in my opinion.  While it’s tempting to try the others as they have no line, something always seems to be missing. 

David Lebovitz, Paris’ most famous food blogger, listed L'As du Falafel in his post titled 10 Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn't Miss in Paris.  In fact, it’s his #2 recommended spot.   That was three years ago so I’m sure that the lines of foodies has expanded exponentially since then.   I just arrived in Paris and the apartment we’ve rented is only a few blocks away…. I’m heading over early to hopefully avoid the longest lines.


L'As du Falafel

34 rue de Rossier

(just look for the line…but never go on a Saturday as they’re closed)

Metro:  St Paul