Friday, October 30, 2015

Magic Bubbles

                                                                                        Photo by Sam Hanna 
Dom Perignon was a monk at a French abbey in the 17th century.  He was also the abbey’s winemaker and is often credited (albeit erroneously) with inventing Champagne.  Legend has it that upon Perignon’s first taste of the sparkling wine he shouted, “Come quickly, brothers---I’m drinking stars!”   Today there are typically three different methods that are used to make these stars…some are less magical than others.  Let’s begin with the most magical.

The method used by Dom Perignon is referred to as  secondary fermentation in the bottle.  Once the blend is made, the wine is place in a bottle along with yeast and a very small amount of sugar to fuel the yeast.   Like in making bread, these yeast give off carbon dioxide (bubbles).  Typically, this carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during regular fermentation, however, in this secondary fermentation method the bubbles remain in the bottle as the cork prevents them from escaping.  This method is the most expensive of all methods. 

By law, all Champagne must be made via a secondary fermentation in the bottle.  (And, by law only sparkling wine made in the Champagne district of France can be called Champagne.)  French laws also have copyrighted this process as the “methode Champenoise,” and only Champagne producers can use this name.   Secondary fermentation in a bottle in other countries must be called something different even though the process is the same.  In Italy, for example, high-end sparkling wine from Italy's Franciacorta region that sells for close to $100 a bottle, uses the term “Metodo classico,” or classical method.  Cava from Spain is produced using this same process.

The second process to make a sparkling wine is called “charmant.”    With charmant the wine undergoes the secondary fermentation in bulk tanks and is then bottled under pressure.  This method is used, for example, in the production of Prosecco.  It is less expensive than the classical method Champenoise where fermentation occurs in the bottle.

The third way that bubbles are added to a wine is the least enchanting.  Similar to the process used in soft drinks, this last way involves simply the addition of carbon dioxide gas.  Inexpensive sparkling wines from all over the world are made in this fashion. 

Have a magical autumn, hopefully filled with stars and lots of bubbles.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rad Radicchio

         Several radicchios now have  geographical IGP status protecting them from "knockoffs"

Autumn has arrived and that means fresh radicchio.  Some may know that this plant is related to the chicory family, but may not know the story of how radicchio came to be.  According to the noted Roman Empire historian Pliny the Elder, it was the Egyptians who bred radicchio from wild chicory.   Pliny the Elder also tells us that radicchio was used medicinally B.C. for insomnia and for cleansing the blood---whatever that means.

Modern cultivation of radicchio began in the 1500’s outside of Venice.  It wasn’t, however, until the late 19th century that radicchio as we know it today was invented by a Belgian agronomist in the Venetian area.  Re-engineering a process that was used to whiten Belgian endive, the scientist developed a complicated process that yielded deeply purple pigmented radicchio.   

There are many different types of radicchio---it comes in several different shapes, sizes and colors.  Most are named after the Italian town in which they were first propagated.  The variety that is ubiquitous in the U.S. (maroon-colored and about the size and shape of a grapefruit) is called “Chioggia,” a coastal town just south of Venice.  Radicchio di Treviso, on the other hand, resembles a large red Belgian endive.  Both are now protected by the Italian government’s geographical laws …only radicchio grown in the respective towns can be sold with the town's name.

                           Radicchio di Treviso resembles a large red Belgian endive

If you are shopping in Italy, be aware that radicchio comes in colors other than reds and purples.  For example, there are several white versions and there is even a green radicchio that looks exactly like lettuce.  At a villa on Lake Como I made the mistake of grilling what I thought was romaine lettuce for dinner guests in hopes of making a grilled Caesar salad.  Imagine my surprise when it turned into grilled radicchio with Caesar dressing.  (Luckily, the dinner was a buffet in which the bitter radicchio played well with the sweet peppers of the main course chicken pepperonata.   Grilling the radicchio also decreased its bitterness).

                                  Green radicchio can masquerade as Romaine

While ancient civilizations long ago recognized the healthful benefits of radicchio, modern day scientists have confirmed its advantages for well-being.  The dark purple pigments are a good source of antioxidants (similarly to the pigments in red wine.)  There are also moderate amounts of several B vitamins, as well as minerals such as copper, iron, potassium and zinc.

Enjoy the sights and smells of autumn.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Is Wine Really Going to the Dogs?

A client of mine sent me an article a few months ago that piqued my curiosity.   Most of us know that dogs have an inordinately keen sense of smell (they’re used to sniff out bombs or explosives; to find smuggled drugs; to locate dead bodies after a disaster; or even to find truffles which grow under the ground).   But who has ever heard of dogs being used in wineries to sniff out wine defects such as TCA (the culprit involved in a “corked” wine)?   Indeed, dogs are being used not only in wineries to find TCA, but some thinking-out-of-the-barrel folks are also using canines to identify infected wood even prior to the barrel’s construction.

TCA (Trichloroanisole) is a chemical substance that can ruin wine.  While it typically comes from corks, it can also originate in the actual wood from which a barrel is made, from wooden pallets used in a winery, or even from cardboard boxes.  And, it’s extremely potent---one ounce of pure TCA would be enough to contaminate 10 billion bottles of wine, or more than five times California’s annual wine production.   That means a barrel of wine contains only a microscopic fragment of TCA.  Dogs, whose noses are thousands of times more powerful than humans, can detect these nano-like traces of TCA.

A corked wine is often described as a “musty basement” or “wet newspaper.” Ironically one of the other descriptors  is that of a “wet dog.”   Regardless of how you describe it, TCA ruins a wine.  Although the cork industry has stepped up to the plate in decreasing “cork taint” by implementing better quality control procedures, it is still estimated that 2-4% of all wine is corked.   If you haven’t experienced it, you’re one lucky dog.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Pinot Noir---The World’s Most Expensive Wine

   Romanee Conti produces the priciest wine on the planet.
While many may think Bordeaux is the globe’s priciest wine, they would be somewhat close geographically…but otherwise, incorrect.  The top honor goes to a Pinot Noir from Burgundy.  In fact, in the “Top 10” list of the most costly wines, eight of them are Pinots from Burgundy (a Bordeaux doesn’t even appear until the 12th position).  Let’s take this opportunity to sharpen our knowledge of the Pinot Noir grape and its characteristics.

Pinot Noir is a subtle varietal.  If Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon is big, bold and masculine, Pinot is gentle, elegant and feminine.  The Pinot grape is actually quite small with a very thin skin---thus this varietal is far less tannic than the much larger and thicker skinned Cabernet.  Pinot’s lighter color is also a result of its diminutive skin (like tannin, color pigments are also found in the skin). 

The Pinot grape yields a completely different flavor and aroma profile than the Cabernet-based wines.  In general think lighter red fruits versus the deeply-colored ones of Cabernet.  For Pinot aromas, also consider red fruits---strawberries are often dominant in the varietal’s nose, but so are cherries.  (While Pinot depends on the terroir in which it grown, Red Burgundies typically offer up earthiness in the nose, whereas California Pinots can add cotton-candy nuances to the aroma.)  Red fruits continue onto the palate, but Pinot is not a one trick pony---depending on the terroir and wine’s age, there can be wonderful nuances of leather and even gentle cigar box smells.  The varietal can even offer up floral flavors such as violets or roses.  Spices, such as licorice or clove, can be found as well.

Pinot Noir is a fickle grape that needs near perfect conditions in which to grow.  Moreover, the grape’s thin skin makes it susceptible to pests and diseases.  Both of these factors are reflected in Pinot’s price.  Although Pinot tends to be one of the priciest varieties, there are still bargains to be found.  Here are my faves, all with a high-quality price ratio:

$20 or less:
  • Point Conception Salsipuedes (Santa Barbara County)
  • Decoy (Anderson Valley---owned by Duckhorn, one of Napa’s longstanding powerhouse’s for Merlot)

  • Gloria Ferrer Estate (Carneros)
  • Greywacke (New Zealand) 

$50 range
  • Ata Rangi (New Zealand)
  • Dehlinger (Russian River)
  • Merry Edwards (Russian River)

One last note about Pinot Noir…it is one of the only 3 grapes allowed by French law in Champagne.  In fact, there are many Champagnes that are 100% Pinot.   Need I say more?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Good Morning, Vietnam!

                                                   Vietnam has an amazing beer culture.

Beer has been part of Vietnam for over a century.  French who colonized Vietnam in the latter part of the 19th century brought with them not only expertise in wine-making, but also beer-producing.  The first brewery, established in the 1890’s, is still operating and produces more than 2 billion liters of beer annually.  As alcohol levels in Vietnamese beer are low (typically 2-4%), it’s not unusual to see locals imbibing as early as 8 am.

I am not a beer aficionado but after my trip two years ago to Vietnam I can see how one could become hooked on this beverage.  Beer was everywhere we went throughout this long and slender country---from the finest restaurants to street-food stalls.  Locals were consuming it on every street corner---as were well-dressed business men.  It seems like beer is morphing into Vietnam’s coolest, hippest drink as upscale beer shops are springing up on nearly every corner not already occupied by a street vendor selling beer.

For the tourist, the variety of local and regional beers can be overwhelming.  First, it appears that each city has its own beer named after the town:  there is Bia Saigon (“beer from Saigon”), Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue etc…  To complicate matters further, there are many producers of beer made in their name-sake city.  Moreover, the increasing beer culture has led to a glut of microbreweries.  Some have adopted the more traditional European styles, while other microbreweries specialize in home brews called bia hoi.

Bia hoi, the people’s beer,” is consumed in frightening quantities by everyone from street vendors to Vietnam’s newly richSometimes called “fresh beer,” it is an unpasteurized, unpreserved product made before the sun rises and often consumed prior to sunset.  Throughout the day motorcycle delivery men can be seen in large cities delivering bia hoi  in everything from 100 gallon drums precariously perched on their mopeds, to mountains of sky-high piled small plastic jugs.  Much of it comes from large breweries, however, mom-and-pop producers flourish as well.  At about 15 cents a pint, it is often cheaper than bottled water.

Just this year the first book on Vietnamese beer was published in English.  Beer Guide to Vietnam was written by Jonathan Gharbi.  The book describes every microbrewery and brew pub in Vietnam, as well as other beer establishments.  But in Hanoi (where bia hoi is king) pay attention in finding them---many are simply known by their address (often missing), or even the intersection they inhabit.  New ones pop up and old ones close to relocate a few blocks away.  No worries, it will be a fun treasure hunt…and a beer will never far away.

For those of you who are coming on the February 2016 trip to Vietnam with Wine-Knows, we will be sampling some of the country’s best.  Here is a list of some of their highest rated beers:  Bia Hanoi, 333, Saigon Special, Bierre Laure, and Saigon Red.  You can be sure that bi hoi (the people’s beer) will also be on our list of must-trys.

Bottoms up!