Friday, January 31, 2020

Parlez Vous Pinot?

Pinot Noir, named for its pinecone shape, is the ancestor of all Pinot varietals

Chances are even the most novice of wine drinkers have heard of either Pinot Noir or Pinot Grigio.  However, it's possible that even a few veterans may not know about Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Gris...or if there is a connection among any of these grape varieties.

Indeed, all of the above Pinot grapes are related.  Their common name is a French word meaning "pinecone," which comes from the shape of their bunches of grapes (small berries tightly clustered together in the form of a petite pinecone).  Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio (aka Pinot Gris) are not only related but DNA shows that all three of these grapes are identical, except for a tiny mutation that changed their skin color.  Pinot Noir's skin is black and so named after the French word black, noir.  Pinot Gris/Grigio has a greyish colored skin thus the names which means "grey" in French and Italian, respectively.   Pinot Blanc gets its name from its whitish skin (white in French is blanc).   

Pinot Noir is the founding member of this ancient noble French family of grapes.  One thousand years older than the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Pinot Noir is not only one of the oldest wine grapes, but is the primary ancestor for many of today's wine grapes.  Pinot Noir has a high propensity to mutate.  It has birthed over 150 different varietals.

Pinot Blanc is just one of the many grapes that have descended from Pinot Noir.  Sometime centuries ago a vine of black Pinot accidentally mutated and produced a shoot of only white skinned grapes.  This single white cane was probably grafted to create a vine that produced only blanc grapes.  Voila.  Pinot Blanc.

Pinot Meunier is also a descendant of the original granddaddy grape, Pinot Noir.  One of the three grapes allowed by law in Champagne, Pinot Meunier is dark skinned and contributes aromatics to the Champagne blend.  Both Pinots Gris and Grigio (the same grape but called different names in different parts of the world) are morphed offspring of Pinot Noir.  

A toast to mutation and le santé in 2020!

Friday, January 24, 2020

New Zealand Wines You Gotta Try in 2020

                            Hawke's Bay Gimlett Gravels are from milleniums-old rivers

Looking for interesting new wines for 2020?   I'm on my way shortly to New Zealand and I’ve got ten don’t miss wines from the country's North Island---all of which are imported into the USA.  These carefully chosen “gotta trys” come from two different wine regions. 

The first district, Hawke's Bay, is one of the country’s warmest grape growing areas.  Hawke's temperatures make it a popular spot to grow red varieties, although a good amount of Chardonnay is also produced here.  The wine area is composed of sub-regions, the most famous of which is the Gimlett Gravels.  These deep, free-draining gravels have only a thin layer of topsoil over them.  Most of the Hawke's Bay red wines listed below are from this special terroir.

The other quality wine district on New Zealand’s North Island is Martinborough. This area is a much smaller and cooler, and the focus here is Pinot Noir.  In fact, New Zealand has long been known for its signature varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot, however, has now gained a huge momentum and is rivaling Sauv Blanc.  The country’s best Pinot is from Martinborough.

Below's your list for 2020, listed alphabetically by producer.

Ata Rangi (Martinborough)
  • Pinot Noir:  scored consistently high by international critics, this is one of the best examples of the magic of New Zealand Pinot.  $55

Elephant Hill   (Hawke's Bay)
  • Airavata Syrah:  Airavata is the powerful God of Elephants in Hindu.  This wine is a powerhouse with a long, silky finish.  K&L in San Francisco has it for $50.
  • Hieronymus:  A blend of Merlot and Malbec with a small amount of Cab Sauv mixed in.   Only made in exceptional years, this one is a near-perfect wine.  $50
Palliser (Martinborough)
  • Sauv Blanc:  along with the cooler variety Pinot Noir, this winery also produces a terrific white that is a great price for $20 bucks a bottle.

Sacred Hill (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Helsman:  A huge wine made from a blend of Cab Sauv and Merlot with a little Cab Franc sprinkled in.  $42
  • Deerstalker’s Syrah:  Knock-out aromas & a great finish.  $42

Te Mata Estate (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Sauv Blanc Cape Crest:  This elegant barrel fermented wine has a little Pinot Gris & Semillon included.  $25
  • Elston Char:  an opulent example of what this varietal can do.  $35
  • Coleraine:   one of the area’s highest Parker scoring wines, it's a medium bodied wine with silky tannins.  60% Cab Sauv,28% Merlot & 12% Cab Franc.  $77

Trinity Hill (Hawke’s Bay)
  • Homage Syrah:  one of the iconic red wines of the Gimlett Gravels.  $75

Coming with us to New Zealand in February 2020?   Wine-Knows will be visiting all ten of these producers and you can taste the best of the best in person!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Where’s the Beef? Wagyu & Kobe

                                            American Wagyu must be at least 50% Wagyu

I was a guest at a recent holiday dinner party.   In addition to being an extraordinary decorator, the home’s owner is an accomplished cook and a lover of wine.   As I was bringing the wine for the main course, I inquired about the menu:  my friend was splurging on a prime rib of Wagyu beef, so we dug out two bottles of 1995 Lynch Bages for the table of six.  Everyone present was quite knowledgeable about wine (all had even visited Lynch Bages in Bordeaux!).  But, no one knew many details about Wagyu, or for that matter, how it differed from Kobe.

Both Wagyu and Kobe are native to Japan.  Let’s start with Wagyu.  Interestingly, Wagyu literally translates to Japanese beef (“wa” meaning Japanese, “gyu” meaning cow).   Originally used in agriculture, these cows over centuries went through a selection process where the cows with more physical endurance were selected and bred.   Seems these stronger cows had more intra-muscular fat cells (aka marbling) which provided a readily available source of energy.   There is some evidence that this separation into the Wagyu genetic strain occurred as much as 35,000 years ago.

Modern Wagyu beef in Japan, however, has been cross-bred with European breeds since the 1800’s.  Wagyu first came to the USA in 1975 when someone in Texas imported a few for breeding.   Much of the meat produced was sent to Japan, but in 2003 Japan prohibited importation.   It didn’t take long for America’s chefs and gourmet cooks to discover Wagyu’s unique taste and tenderness because of its highly marbled meat.

                                        All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe

So, how does Wagyu differ from Kobe beef?  As Wagyu means Japanese beef, all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.  Let me explain.  Kobe is like an appellation such as  Champagne, or Prosciutto di Parma where only sparkling wine from France’s Champagne district can be called Champagne, and only Prosciutto from pigs raised in a demarcated area in Parma, Italy that have been raised according to strict laws can be called this highly protected name.  Similarly, Kobe beef must come from a certain breed of cattle that have been born, raised, and slaughtered in a certain province of Japan.  Furthermore, Kobe is subject to rigorous Japanese grading that includes fat marbling and overall quality. 

Currently there are approximately only 3,400 cows in the Kobe area of Japan, so how is it possible for Kobe beef to appear on so many American menus?  It’s not.   At best, these are American Wagyu cows.  At worst, they are beef from who knows where.  Currently, there are few laws about what can be called what.  There is also misleading nomenclature such as “Kobe-styled” beef.  Moreover, even if it is real Wagyu beef from the USA, the US Department of Agriculture only requires that the cow be at least 50% Wagyu.

Instead of saying “Where’s the beef,” we should be saying “What’s the beef?”  and “from where is the beef?”

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Cocktail to Warm Up Cold January

Pears are a wonderful winter fruit.  One of my favorite salads at this time of year is made with pears, roasted nuts and Stilton cheese.  But, pears can also be an absolute stunner in an aperitif.  This recipe, made with pear vodka, is sure to warm up anyone on a chilly winter's evening.

Another ingredient in this luscious pre-dinner drink is an elderflower liqueur by the name of St Germain.  If you don't own a bottle buy one as the flavor is truly delightful (and the Art Deco-inspired bottle alone is worth the price).  Elderflowers are very tiny fragrant flowers, and their essence has long been popular in European baked goods.  While I have loved the elderflower floral profile for some time, it recently skyrocketed to fame when Megan Markle chose it as the flavor for her wedding cake.

The recipe below can be tweaked to fit your preference for flavors (e.g. you may want to increase the St Germain and decrease the vodka).  Also, the amount has been designed for a Champagne flute or a martini glass...both hold the same amount (which is less than a wine glass).

Pear Elderflower Aperitif (per glass)
  • 1/2 jigger pear vodka
  • 2 teaspoons St Germain
  • 1/3 cup good quality sparkling wine
  • Thinly slice ripe pear
Serve with a slice of front of a roaring fireplace.

Happy 2020!