Friday, December 30, 2016

World's Best Sparkling? The Answer Will Surprise You

Imagine a blind tasting in Paris featuring some of France’s most illustrious Champagnes.   Eminent wine critics served as the judges.  The event was a haute couture of Champagne, with brands present like Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, and even pricey Pol Roger (so beloved by Winston Churchill that he named his race horse after his favorite bubbly).   Although Pol Roger placed third in the tasting, Churchill may have not been too displeased for the winner of the competition was a bubbly from England!

English “fizz” (as it is called in Britain), has been somewhat of a joke in the wine world…for those who have not tasted it.  I had the pleasure to visit a winery in 1999 and was surprised that their fizz was actually drinkable.  Lots, however, has happened to the wine industry in England in the last 15 years.  In fact, the top two wines in the above blind tasting were from England.

Why not England?  Stop and think.  Southern England, where the two winning wineries are located,  is about the same latitude as the Champagne countryside.  England also has limestone soils very similar to Champagne.  Moreover, England’s southern coast, is warmer than many parts of Champagne, thus riper fruit means more complex flavors.  The secret is out.  Champagne Houses such as Taittinger have bought land in England and are beginning to make their version of fizz.

Wine-Knows will be taking its first group to England in 2018, however, the tour has already sold out.  We have added another tour in 2019.  If you can’t wait until then, here are the names of the English fizzes that turned the Champagne world upside down:
                  ~ Hamilton Classic Cuvee, 1st place
                  ~ Nyetimber Classic, 2nd place

Have a fizzy New Year!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Olé! Baja Restaurant Update

                                 San Jose Del Cabo is a universe away from Cabo San Lucas
I’ve just returned from >2 weeks in San Jose Del Cabo in Baja, Mexico.  Although only 30 miles from Cabo San Lucas, this small colonial gem is entirely different from the maddening crowds and “Spring-Break mentality” of Cabo San Lucas.  I grew up on Mexican food in California’s agricultural rich Central Valley.  My last meal would definitely include some of my Mexican favorites.  In a nut-shell, I like to think of myself as somewhat an expert on Mexican food.  With that being said, here’s what floated to the top of my list for dining in San Jose Del Cabo.

Tropicana Restaurant

                                        Tropicana is sexy and seductive in an innocent way

Located on San Jose Del Cabo’s main street not far from the city’s central colonial plaza, this place has it all.  There is live nightly entertainment during high season, but the real reason to come is the food.  There’s a terrific Caesar salad made table-side (a dying art), plus the chile rellenos are excellent.  Margaritas are made from scratch---the only way to go.   The cost is moderate which makes this place a great bang for the buck.  Moderate

Don Rodrigo

                           From the street there's just a doorway...but a charming oasis awaits

A friend of mine picked this place to celebrate our mutual friend’s birthday.  It was so good that I returned the following week with another group.  On both occasions two different sets of diners loved this mucho romatico place.   The courtyard setting, under a canopy of trees and colorful bougainvillea with twinkling lights,  just oozes major atmosphere.  Another bonus is the live, soft music.  The menu specializes in fish, and the red snapper, as well as the tequila shrimp were the standouts.  The only negative was the service which was on both occasions a little dis-jointed.  Moderately expensive

Don Sanchez

                                             A definite do-not-miss for a special occasion

Located just across the street from the above Don Rodrigo (and just a few doors down from Tropicana), Don Sanchez was a wonderful surprise.  Although I had heard many good things about it I wasn’t expecting the quality I received.  First, however, let me disclose that this place offers more of an "international" menu.  I had a duck taco that was superb, along with a killer grilled Caesar salad that was one of the most interesting renditions I’ve had (for example, the salad was served with a prosciutto jerky, a tempura anchovy, “garlic chips,” and an out-of-this-world homemade tomato jam).  Another favorite of the table was the tamarind short ribs.  Service was sublime.  Diners can choose between a large alfresco tree-shaded patio, and a more formal indoor dining room.  Moderately expensive


                                         Upscale, authentic Mexican cooking

This restaurant is owned by the same owner as Don Sanchez so it’s no surprise that the quality was so high.  Also like its sister restaurant, service here is very professional.  Unlike Don Sanchez, however, this one specializes in traditional Mexican cooking.  Harbanero’s is located ½ mile from the central square on the outskirts of town.  I dined here twice, both times of which I left with a big smile on my face.   Order the shrimp cooked in garlic and butter…there’s no better rendition in town.  Moderate

Flora Farms

                                    A drop-dead setting in this farm-to-table restaurant

Last, but in no terms least, is Flora Farms.  I’m not sure how in the world to ever convey the magnitude of this magical setting.  Let me suffice by saying this:  if you are a foodie and you’re any where close to San Jose del Cabo, you *must* go.   It’s a 15-20 minute cab ride up in the hills ($25 each way), but the moment you arrive you’ll understand.  This place could easily be in the Napa Valley or Tuscany in that it is so disarmingly gorgeous.  Moreover, everything served is either grown or raised on the farm, or nearby.  The real stars of the culinary show are two:   the wide of assortment of breads baked daily in their wood-fired oven, as well as anything made with the plethora a knock-your-socks off vegetables.   Expensive (when you factor in the cab), but worth every peso

Feliz Navidad, amigos!

Friday, December 9, 2016

A White Christmas

White Bordeaux completes the perfect White Christmas

I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.  While I love red Bordeaux, I’m thinking of dry white Bordeaux this year …perfect for San Diego’s warm December weather.  Perfectly timed for a White Christmas was a white Bordeaux tasting I just attended.  Held by a very sophisticated and savvy group of wine lovers (the Commanderie de Bordeaux of which I am a member), the blind tasting’s findings are below.

Before unveiling the winners, let’s review white Bordeaux.  Produced primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, these gorgeous relatively unknown wines also are often blended with Semillon.  While Sauv Blanc should be familiar to many, Semillon is often not.  One of the things I most love about Semillon is its luxurious, velvet-like texture.  Its flavor profile ranges from citrus in less ripe grapes, to tropical flavors in perfectly ripened grapes.  Mixed with the high acidity of Sauv Blanc, white Bordeaux can be a marriage made in heaven.

While extraordinary whites are made by some of the top Grand Cru Chateaux (e.g. Premier Grand Cru Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc which sells for about $850 a bottle), the Commanderie de Bordeaux tasting excluded all Grand Cru chateaux.  Eight members of our group tasted >10 bottles from the 2014 vintage.  Prices ranged from $28 to $14.  Here are the top three from our group's consensus:
  • 1st:  Chateau Charmed-Godard ($23)
  • 2nd:  Clos Floridine $26
  • 3rd:  Chateau Doisy Daene ($23)

The best wine of all tasted was disqualified because it was from the 2015 vintage.  Personally, this one was my hands-down favorite, however, the 2015 weather presented Bordeaux with much riper fruit than the year prior.  This gorgeous wine was made by Chateau Haut Mayne in Graves and offered a killer price quality ratio of a mere $12.  If you find it, buy a case or two.  It’s an extraordinary value.

If you don’t know white Bordeaux, you should.  Make your Christmas a white one this year!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Gourmet Gifts for the Holidaze

It’s that time of year for gift-giving.  Here’s a special list for foodies (and I’ve checked it twice).  Most gourmands would be thrilled to receive any of these luxurious goodies….all of which scream “Happy Holidays.”  Furthermore, many of the items can be ordered online and sent gift-wrapped.

Blue Stilton Cheese:  

William Sonoma imports from England (only during the holidays) a two pound wheel of Stilton.  But, it’s not just any Stilton.  It’s from Long Clawson Dairy, the best in the country.  The cost is steep, but the quality is amazing.  $70

Truffle Oil:             
There’s truffle oil, and then there is truffle oil.  Chinese poor quality knockoffs are flooding the market so make sure you purchase the real deal.   The best is made from white truffles (significantly more aromatic than black truffles).  A reputable producer from Italy is Urbani….which leads me to the next gift.

Truffle & Porcini Sauce:     
I have visited the Urbani factory several times with my clients during the truffle harvest.  Recently when I was there the owner of the factory suggested I try this over pasta for her idea of “fast food.”  I am now a regular customer and have it shipped from their New York store 10 cans at a time.  6 oz, $12.

Fleur de Sel:      

What foodie wouldn’t be thrilled with a gift of fleur de sel?   This special gentle French sea salt is harvested from only from the very top layer of salt.  It can be found in any gourmet emporium, or equally easy online.  $10-15 depending on size of container
Peppermint Bark Cookies:    

I could kill the friend who gifted these to me several years ago for my December birthday.  Let me start by saying that I am not a peppermint fan.  That being said, it was love at first bite for these scrumptious white chocolate morsels of pure bliss.  Unfortunately, William Sonoma has an exclusive lock-down on these and they cannot be purchased elsewhere.  The price is outrageous…and worth it for a holiday splurge.  $25                                                                                                                              

Happy Holidaze

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hearts of Palm Salad

                                                 A wonderful winter (or summer!) salad

I’m working on the finishing touches of Wine-Knows upcoming trip to Chile & Argentina.  Hearts of palm are a big deal in both countries and every day my lunch is a fresh hearts of palm salad (it’s usually served with a simple vinaigrette and tomatoes).   While fresh hearts of palm are unavailable in the U.S., Trader Joe’s and Costco carry the product canned.  Check out this  scrumptious salad, one of my most requested recipes.   

Serves 6-8 persons

Ingredients for Vinagrette:
  • Small clove of garlic
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (stems removed)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup good quality EVOO

Salad Ingredients
  • 14 oz jar of hearts of palm
  • 4 medium ripe, but firm, avocados
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1 head of Romaine lettuce
  • Optional:  if its tomato season, I sometimes add bite size pieces

Make the Vinagrette:  
Mix first 5 ingredients in a food processor, then slow drizzle in the olive oil with machine still running.

Assemble the salad:  
Drain hearts of palm and cut into bite size pieces.  Place in salad bowl, along with thinly sliced red onion.  Cut each avocado into about 6-8 pieces (as you toss the salad, the avocados will disintegrate a little, so start with larger pieces).   Add avocado and head of Romaine torn in bite size pieces.  Mix in salad dressing and gently toss.  Adjust for salt and pepper. (Add leftover Turkey for a main course salad).

Bon provecha!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Madeira, My Dear!

                                        Madeira's wine-making process is very unique

Although the volcanic Madeira Islands are closer to Marrakech than to Lisbon, Madeira’s wine-making culture is very much Portuguese.   Madeira makes two types of wine.  The most famous, their fortified wine, is the one this article will address.  Production of unfortified wine (table wine) has sky-rocketed 500% in the last decade and these table wines are rapidly improving in quality.  Table wines from Madeira, however, will be handled on this Blog separately in a future article.

The Islands of Madeira have a long and illustrious wine-making history, dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading from Portugal or Spain to the New World or East Indies.  Madeira wines, as well as the island’s tropical fruits, were loaded on ships for trade.  The wine we know today as Madeira was an accident.

The sea voyage was long, arduous, and hot.  To prevent wine from spoiling winemakers copied the practice of Port producers and added a little brandy to prevent spoilage.  On one of the trips, however, a wine shipment went unsold so the kegs returned to Madeira after several months of a round-trip journey.  What was in the barrels was very different.  Months of tropical heat had transformed the wine’s flavor. Locals very much enjoyed the new tasting beverage…and the rest is history. 

Today Madeira is noted for its unique wine-making process which involves heating the wine.  What also makes Madeira production unique is the aging process, meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage through tropical climates.  There are three main methods used to heat and age the wine.

  • Cuba de Calor:  Used for inexpensive Madeira, this process is for bulk aging done in stainless steel or concrete vats.  The tanks are heated to temperatures of 115-130 degrees Farenheit for a minimum of 90 days.
  • Armazem de Calor:  The second process more gently exposes the wine to heat and can last from six months to > one year.  Think sauna.  Large wooden casks are placed in a specially designed room outfitted with steam pipes. 
  • Canteiro:  This method is used for the highest quality Madeiras.  Wines are aged without the use of artificial heat.  Instead, wine is stored in warm rooms and left to age by the natural heat of the sun.  This heating process can last from 20-100 years. 

Because of its unique production process, Madeira is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived…even after opening.  With the holiday season just around the corner, the following are suggestions for pairing the wine with foods. Madeira’s powerful acidity cuts through fat, making it a noble companion to a creamy soup, fatty meat or game, custard, soufflé, and a rich cheese.  A holiday dinner with foie gras, roasted duck or goose, a velvety mushroom soup, or a decadent English trifle are all grand possibilities for the upcoming season to showcase Madeira.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

ABC---Anything But Champagne

                          Why not step out of the box and try some other terrific sparkling wines?

The holidaze are around the corner and in our house that means lots of bubbly.  We like to keep a variety of sparkling wine from around the world in our cellar for many reasons.  First and foremost, it’s all about quality-price ratio.  Most of the Champagnes we like are $50 - $100 per bottle.  There are a plethora of well-crafted sparklers out there for considerably less.  Second, the quality of the bubbles discussed below will surprise you.

The first bubbly may shock you.  It’s from England.  Nyetimber's sparkling wine sent shock waves throughout the wine world when it beat out many Champagnes in blind tastings.  (Remember, that Southern England is roughly the same latitude as the Champagne district).   Nyetimber (from West Sussex) even beat out fancy Grand Crus such as Billecart Salmon, which is one of my perennial faves. $50

The second sparkler is French.  It can’t be called Champagne as it is not produced in the Champagne district.   But, it is produced just across the border in Burgundy.  Cremant de Bourgogne is a good alternative for >50% less.  Try Domaine Charles Bauer for one of the best renditions.  $30

Having recently returned from Spain, I am smitten with Cava.  This sparkler is produced in the same labor-intensive matter as Champagne, must strict E.U. laws dictate that nothing on its label references Champagne.  We had some killer bottles of Cava that could wreak havoc on its French counterpart in a blind tasting.  Try Castell d’Age Aurelia Gran Reserva, a steal for $20.

If you want a knock-your-socks off bubbly that could seriously compete with the real deal Champagnes (and are willing to pay for it) then look no further than Italy’s Franciacorta wine district near Verona.  Ca Del Bosco produces earth-shaking sparkling wines in the $50-$80 range.  Ferghettina (from the same area) is also a jewel that shouldn’t be missed (and I love the shape of their bottle).  $40-50

Moving a little closer to home, the next bubbly is American….but it’s from a state that may shock you:  New Mexico!  No, I’ve not lost my mind.  This Champagne knock-off has also won lots of awards and would warrant a spot in an “ABC Blind Tasting.”  Gruet is the producer.  $30

Last, but not least, California’s Roederer is also one of my favorites.  Owned by a French Champagne producer, this American cousin is a terrific buy.  There's more good's readily available.  $20

Maybe an ABC tasting might be a fun way to celebrate the holidays?   Have fun learning your alphabet!

Friday, November 4, 2016

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve been a raving fan of Trader Joe’s for nearly 30 years.  In the 1980’s there was only one TJ’s in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Once a week I’d make the 30 minute trek.  Prior to relocating in 2009 to San Diego, I made certain that there was a TJ’s nearby our new home.  Suffice to say, I love TJ’s!  With the holidaze just around the corner, here are some of my favorite things---many of which are only stocked at this time of year.

  • Pumpkin Caramel Danish Kringle:  A friend in Arizona turned me on to this.  I could kill her for doing so.  While TJ’s carries the almond version most of the year, the Pumpkin is only available in the autumn…and it sells out immediately, so buy it if you see it.
  • Honey Crisp Apple Cider:  Another friend recently got me hooked on honey crisp apples, thus when I saw this fresh, unfiltered cider being offered as a sample I made the mistake of tasting it.  I’m now hooked (and, yes, it’s worth the 120 calories for one cup)!
  • Brie with Porcini Mushrooms:  How could I possibly resist buying this last week?   A marriage made in heaven.  Don’t miss.
  • White Stilton with Cranberries:  I buy a wheel of blue Stilton every year from a special farm (Long Clawson) in England and have it shipped.  Recently I tried TJ’s white version.  It also comes with dried apricots but I think I prefer the berry.
  • Hearts of Palm:  TJ's thankfully carries this year around and I always have 6 or 7 jars on hand at all times.  I’ll be blogging next month about a sublime winter salad I make with them and avocados.
  • Papparadelle (both plain & lemon):  Always stocked, this is my go-to pasta and I buy oodles of it at a time (providing it isn't already sold out).  It’s also my husband’s favorite.
  • Zonin Prosecco:  at $7 a pop, this is the perfect sparkler if you’re going to mix it into something.  Our favorite concoction to use it with is an Aperol Spritz.  We keep a case of this Prosecco on hand as with the amount of entertaining we do bottles disappear quickly when making our beloved Aperol drink.  This is a regular item and they sell an insane amount.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Brownie Points

                        Invented over a century ago, the brownie remains an American classic.

I admit it.  I’m a sucker for a great fudgy-ooey-gooey brownie.  In fact, it would be on the menu of my last meal.  Did you know that the modern day brownie originated > 120 years ago at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago?  Here’s the story.

The Palmer House has been an iconic property since 1871.  Famous on many fronts other than inventing the brownie, the hotel completely burned to the ground in Chicago’s Great Fire a mere 13 days after it opened.  Two years later the Palmer House rose from the ashes and made headlines:  it was the first hotel to use Edison’s recent invention, the light-bulb.  Moreover, it was the first hotel to use Bell’s invention, the telephone.  But, there’s more.  It was the first to use the “vertical railroad,” which we call today the elevator.  Now, for the hotel’s real star, the brownie.

This ethereal chocolate dessert was concocted in the kitchen of the Palmer House hotel in 1893, the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago.  Bertha Palmer, wife of the hotel’s owner, was involved in orchestrating the women’s activities at the Fair.  Mrs. Palmer asked the chef of her hotel to make a “ladies dessert:”  one that would be easier to eat than a piece of pie, was smaller than a slice of layer cake, and one that could be transported without issues to the Fair.  As Mrs. Palmer loved chocolate, it was a no- brainer for the chef. The brownie was born. 

This recipe, created over a century ago, is still served today at the Palmer House Hotel.  It remains one of their most popular desserts.  Check it out:

Brownie Ingredients:
1 lb  high quality, semi-sweet chocolate
1 lb butter
1.5 cups sugar
½ cup cake flour
8 eggs
2 cups chopped, toasted walnuts

Glaze Ingredients:
1 cup water
1 cup apricot preserves
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

Brownie & Glaze Instructions:
·        Preheat oven 300 degrees.
·        Butter & flour 9 x 12 pan. 
·        Toast walnuts in skillet, stirring and watching carefully so they don’t burn.  Cool. 
·        Melt chocolate and butter in double boiler over very hot water. 
·        Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients (without walnuts) in mixing bowl. 
·        Mix melted mixture with dry. 
·        Wisk in eggs, one at a time, beating about a minute for each egg.
·        Place in prepared 9x12 pan.
·        Sprinkle brownies with toasted nuts, pushing down to partially submerge.
·        Bake for about 35 minutes until there’s a 2 inch crispy brownie edge---the interior will be slightly jiggly.
·        Remove and let cool for 30 minutes.
·        Prepare the glaze by mixing water, preserves & gelatin in saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk until boiling, then boil for 2 minutes.
·        Spread a thin layer of the hot glaze over the cool brownies, then cool completely.
·        Place in the freezer for 3-4 hours. 
·        Slice and serve while very cold and firm.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Your Own “Personal Terroir”

                                      Science shows that each person smells different aromas

If you’ve been on a Wine-Knows trip, you know the word terroir works its way into the conversation several times a day----it doesn’t matter if we’re in the Southern or Northern hemisphere, or it’s a trip to Bordeaux, Tuscany or Australia.  To remind you, terroir is a French word that has no exact translation.  It is the sum of all parts that go into making a wine unique:  everything from the soil in which the grapes are grown, the micro-climate, the drainage of the vineyard, and even the pests in the local environment.   Is there such a notion of one’s "personal terroir?"  Is there something unique about each person that effects our perception of a wine?

Scientists in Spain believe there is.  Research has demonstrated that there is a physiological reason for the perceived differences in the aromas that we smell in a wine.  The reason has to do with our unique microbes that live inside saliva.  A minimum of 700 different bacteria live in our saliva and mouth.  No two persons’ makeup of these bacteria is exactly the same. The microbes are involved in chemical reactions resulting in different aromatic compounds in wine. Different bacteria cause different reactions and ultimately different smells for different people.

While more research is necessary to explore this notion of a personal terroir, the door has been opened to explore the idea as the olfactory equivalent of our fingerprints.  No two people smell exactly the same due to the difference in their unique bacteria makeup.  Next time the person next to you swirls a glass of Cabernet and speaks of “leather and cigar box” and you smell “chocolate and spices” it could very well be due to your personal terroir. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Got Gruner?

                        Wine-Knows will be staying in this fairy-tale Danube village on its 2018 trip

I’m just home from a whirlwind trip to Austria & Hungary----a “reconnaissance” for the 2018 Wine-Knows’ harvest trip to these two countries.  While I had visited Austria and Hungary some years ago, profound changes have occurred in the countries, including changes in their wine industry.  What hasn’t changed in Austria, however, is that many of its wine districts continue to be Gruner-centric. 

Gruner Veltliner is flat-out a spectacular varietal.  While it has long been a favorite choice of many fine-dining sommeliers, this white grape could become the next Holy Grail of the wine world.  Blind tastings of “Gruner” by international experts have shown that Gruner can outrank top white Burgundies such as Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne.  In fact, professional tasters often mistake top Gruners for white Burgundy (Chardonnay).

One out of every three vines in Austria is Gruner Veltliner.  The grape has a long history in the country as the Romans were vinifying it shortly after the birth of Christ.  It achieves rock-star status, however, in the region of the Danube River on steep, gravel terraces.  Gruner is a beautiful melding of minerality, along with a profusion of seductive peach and nectarine in best vintages with beautifully ripe grapes.  But, in years of less sunshine, Gruner’s citrus mélange mixed with gentle spices also makes an attractive wine.  Regardless of vintage, the varietal offer gorgeous acidity to make for a gorgeously balanced wine.

Got Guner?   If not, you must search out the following which were my favorites on the trip that are available in the USAAll are family owned and operated wineries.  Each represents a superb quality – price ratio, with Muller being a steal for the price.  All are from Austria's castle-dotted northern Danube area just west of Vienna where Gruner reaches its pinnacle.

Listed in alpha order:

~  Bernard Ott:  Stein and Rosenberg (both 2015)

~  Hirtzberger:  Axpoint (2015)

~  Muller:  Kremser Kogl (2015)

~  Salomon Undorf:  Pfaffenberg (2015)  

Friday, October 7, 2016

Volcano Wines in Hungary?

                                       Wine-Knows will be touring Hungary in 2018

I've just visited one of the world’s most unique wine districts---it is also one of the smallest.  Hungary’s tiny hill of Somló belongs to an exclusive collection of wine areas around the globe that are totally volcanic (think of Greece’s enchanting Santorini, Sicily's Mt. Etna, the Canaries, or Madeira----all islands).  Somló, however, is an aberration as it is hundreds of miles from the sea.

Ten million years ago Somló was an underwater volcano in a very shallow inland sea.  It erupted and spewed enough molten lava so that it rose out of the sea to a height of nearly 1,500 feet.  The spewed mineral-rich lava was mixed with bubbling gasses from super-heated air deep in the earth’s strata.  The gas penetrated the cooling magma into relatively crumbly, coarse soils that have eroded over the millenniums.  These friable soils today allow water to be delivered to the roots of vines very slowly, a lifesaver during a dry growing season when vineyards must rely on groundwater to survive. The coarse soils are also fast-draining, perfect for vines.  Equally compelling, the mineral-laden soil also contributes interesting minerality to the wine.

Although Somló is a mere 1,200 acres, the hill has over 1,200 individual wine-producers.  This is special soil and everyone for miles around wants a piece of the action.  There are only two sizable producers;  everyone else is a boutique winery, or simply making a wine for home consumption.

Somló is white wine country.  Pronouncing the grape varietals can be a challenge (Juhfark, Olaszrizling, Furmint and Harslevelu---the latter two of which are also the grapes of Tokaj.).   But, drinking these magical white wines is pure bliss.  I’m charmed by Juhfark’s  brilliant, deeply concentrated yellow color and its almond-like finish; Olaszrizling’s high-acidity;  Furmint’s honey and white flower essences; and Harvslevelu’s liquid sunshine of melons and citrus.  Wet stone nuances abound in all.

Blue Danube Wines is the exclusive importer for all Somló wine to the USA.  While Somló may be a little wine district, its white wines are huge in pleasure.  Looking for something new and enticing for a dinner party?   Somló could be your crowd-pleaser.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Mad About Tokaj

    A special micro-climate of wet and warmth creates the perfect environment for Botrytis.

I landed in Hungary a few days ago and I'm currently in the town of Mad, deep in the heart of the Tokaj ("TOCK eye") wine district.  A few hour’s drive east of Budapest, this wine country is is so special that the entire district was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Everything is wine-centric in Mad, including things such as the "Botrytis" Hotel. Golden ripe fruit is hanging on the vines and the autumn colors are painting the leaves.  Magic is about to happen.

Tokaj (or Tokay) is the sweet wine made in the Tokaj wine region.  It’s the world’s oldest botrytized wine.  Botrytis is a fungus that attacks sugar-laden grapes with the help a special micro-climate.  During the autumn a morning mist is created by the convergence of two local rivers; and, the wet mornings along with the warm afternoons create the perfect storm for the Botrytis fungus.  Like in the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, “noble rot” (aka Botrytis) thrives in these conditions.  Grapes are attacked by the fungus which bores microscopic holes through the skin of the berry to get the sweet nectar.  What is left is a shriveled, concentrated grape filled with uber-sweet juice, high in acidity (which balances the sugar) and filled with beguiling aromas caused by the interaction with the noble rot. 

People in the Tokaj district long ago recognized they had a very special sweet wine like no other.  In 1757 the monarchy made a law that established geographical boundaries for the sweet wine region.   This was the world’s second appellation system (Chianti, the first, was legally demarcated in 1716.)  Tokaj didn’t stop there, however. Vineyards were then classified based on quality, and it all was approved in 1772.

From the 17th to 19th centuries Tokaj graced the tables of royalty throughout Europe.  In the late 1800’s, however, Tokaj fell victim to the phylloxera bug that destroyed the vineyards throughout Europe.  World Wars I and II didn’t help.  Nor did Communist rule.  Knock-off Tokaj from other countries further worsened the situation.

But, Hungary is on the move again supported by moneys from the European Union to reinvest in its prized Tokaj wine district.  The E.U. has cracked down legally on others in Europe using the protected name Tokaj.   Moreover, the E.U. has recently invested 330 Million Euro for viticultural improvements moving the local wine industry into the 21st century.

Nectar coming from the Tokaj region’s grapes is mentioned in Hungary’s national anthem---a testament to the importance of its sweet wine.  A deep Topaz in color, these luscious wines are truly a golden national treasure.  Tomorrow I head to the actual village of nearby Tokaj so stay tuned for my "mad-about" favorites from this special region. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Ambiguity of Wine

If you’re a serious wine lover you have no doubt heard about the tasting that changed the wine world---the Judgement in Paris.  There have been books written about it and movies made about the tasting that turned the wine world upside down when two American wines (a Napa Cabernet and a Chardonnay) beat out many costly Bordeaux & White Burgundies.  But, have you heard about the riveting follow-up tasting, the Judgement in Princeton?

This second tasting closely modeled the original 1976 event in Paris.  The tasting was blind.  Several of the iconic Bordeaux vineyards (e.g. Chateaux Mouton- Rothschild and Haut-Brion) were represented.  The nine judges were French, Belgian and American wine experts.  This tasting also had a huge twist.  The American wines were all from New Jersey.  While French wines won in both red and white categories, they narrowly squeaked by wines that cost pennies on the Euro of the French wines.  It is interesting to note that the two winning French wines were ranked in the last position by at least one of the judges.  Moreover, wines like Mouton-Rothschild received scores all over the map:  some judges rated it as low as 11 (out of 20), while another rated it 19.5. 

So what do these two hallmark tastings tell us?   When tasted blind, world-class wine is in the eye of the beholder.  But, hold on, there’s more.

The University of Bordeaux gathered over 50 wine experts for a mischievous tasting and asked them to give their opinion on two glasses of wine:  one was white, the other was red.   What the connoisseurs didn’t know was that they were both the same white wine—red coloring had been added to one.  Several of these knowledgeable wine lovers described the red-colored wine with words such as “jammy” or “red fruit.”

Another experiment from the same researcher at the University of Bordeaux was even more damming.   This time he upped the ante by taking a middle of the road Bordeaux and pouring it into two different bottles:  one had the label of a fancy Grand Cru chateau, the other a label of an ordinary “table wine.”  If you’re following the drift of this article, it will be no surprise to you to learn that the experts described the Grand Cru bottle with illustrious words indicating a pedigree, while the exact same wine poured from the table wine bottle was referred to as “faulty,”  “weak,” or “light.”

Preconceived notions play a big part in wine and that is exactly why I prefer to taste everything blindly.  These studies also point out another salient point:  if wine experts can’t often tell the difference between a several hundred dollar bottle of wine and one that cost less than twenty bucks, why pay for the more expensive one?  Even more important, relying on expert opinions may not be your best bet in deciding on what wine to purchase.  Trust yourself and purchase bottles you enjoy!