Friday, July 5, 2024

Orange Liqueurs: What’s the Difference?

                                            All of these orange liqueurs are Triple Sec!

I don’t know about you, but we use a lot of orange liqueurs in this household.  At the moment, our lime trees are laden with a bumper crop so we’re making mucho margaritas that use orange liqueur.  Moreover, summer is here and one of my favorite desserts is anything topped with fresh berries and a splash of an orange liqueur.  Our bar is stocked with Cointreau, Grand Marnier, a dark & light Curacao, two different Combiers, and a few other orange liqueurs we've picked up.   But which is the best?  That depends.

                  I prefer Cointreau in margaritas for its bright orange flavors & clear color

There is a significant difference in these orange liqueurs and which one is used is dependent upon what flavors you want.  I'm going to take the two most popular in alpha order.  Cointreau is really a type of Triple Sec (Triple Sec is simply any orange liqueur).   In 1885 Cointreau was registered as a brand name in France.   Cointreau was originally marked as Cointreau Triple Sec, however, the name was changed after World War I to differentiate it from other orange liqueurs of lesser quality that were entering the marketplace.

           Note the somewhat darker color of the Grand Marnier Margarita on the left  vs the lighter Cointreau Margarita on the right

Distilled in copper stills, Cointreau in an unaged clear-colored liqueur.   It offers complex orange flavors due to its mélange of oranges from Spain and the Caribbean, both bringing different citrus flavors to the blend.   Cointreau also has little sugar, therefore, has a drier finish (actually “sec” in French means dry or little sugar).  As it has no color, Cointreau could be considered in a cocktail for its neutrality in color.  Its complex orange flavors is another reason for choosing it.

Next in the Triple Sec popularity lineup is Grand Marnier.  Simply put, Grand Marnier is Triple Sec mixed with Cognac in nearly equal amounts.  This liqueur was developed about the same time as Cointreau in 1880 by a Frenchman by the name of Marnier.  Using Triple Sec made of fruit from the bitter Caribbean orange, he mixed it with and Cognac and called it “Curacao Marnier.”  His friend, hotelier Caesar Ritz, suggested renaming it Grand Marnier and the rest is history.

             Grand Manier's Cognac backbone pairs beautifully with berries & a touch of mint

Grand Marnier’s addition of Cognac alters its flavor and color.  As Cognac is aged in an oak barrel, nuances from the barrel impart flavors to Grand Marnier such as vanilla, nuttiness, and caramelized orange.   Oak influence also changes the color of Cognac as it ages to a dark amber.  Since Grand Marnier is 51% Cognac, its color is also amber.  This may be a consideration in which orange liqueur one chooses.

Grand Marnier should be used when a richer, fuller bodied flavor of burnt orange laced with nuttiness complement a drink.  Its dark color should also be considered.  While many up-market margaritas are made with Grand Marnier, I prefer the more gentle, lighter and brighter orange flavors found in Cointreau, and I like that Cointreau does not affect the visual of the cocktail.

By now you should know that Triple Sec is not a specific brand but a category of orange liqueurs which includes Cointreau and Grand Marnier, along with a host of other brands.  So which orange liqueur should you utilize?  That depends!

Sunday, June 16, 2024

The New Darling of Wine: Pet-nat

                          Joseph Jewell's pet-nat Vermentino is perfect for a summer aperitif

There’s a new kid on the wine block called “pet-nat.”  Making its mark on wine lists everywhere, this effervescent kid isn’t actually new, but has deep historical roots in European wine-making.   Pre-dating even Champagne, pet-nat is thought to be the oldest method of making a sparkling wine.

Pet-nat is an abbreviated form for “petillant naturel,” a French style of sparkling wine.   Unlike Champagne which has undergone a second fermentation in the bottle to create its bubbles, pet-nat is bottled just before the first fermentation is complete.  This first fermentation actually continues in the pet-nat bottle, capturing the resulting bubbles of carbon dioxide and, therefore, making a sparkling wine.  Pet-nat’s fizz is more gentle than traditional Champagne, and its alcohol levels are more modest than other sparkling wines made via a second fermentation in the bottle which makes it perfect for warm weather.

Most Pet-nats are capped with a simple metal topper


Pet-nat can be made from any grape variety.  Aromatic varieties such as Riesling and Muscat do well, as do varieties that have good acidity.  Pet-nat, however, is not relegated only to white grapes.  Juicy Gamay also works well as fruitiness, freshness and early drinkability of Gamay translates well into pet-nat which is made to be enjoyed young when fruitiness and freshness are at their height.

Currently, there is no official definition or any wine laws about how to make pet-nat, with the exception of a few appellations in France.   Pet-nat is becoming increasing available and its growth seems to parallel the resurgence of the natural wine movement.  Both platforms share a similar philosophy of organic /biodynamic farming, avoiding Sulphur, using natural yeast, and little fining or filtration.

Why not host a pet-nat tasting?

One of my favorite pet-nats is made by Joseph Jewell Winery in Sonoma  (  Made from the Italian Vermentino grape (popular on Italy’s Tuscan & Ligurian Coast), this one, like its name, is a jewel.  You can order cases from the winery direct ($44 per bottle).   Another winner is Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca ($28) from Monterey county (   Malvasia’s stone fruit profile of peach & apricot is laced with pineapple and mandarins.  Yum.   But, no need to limit yourself to the US as pet-nats are made in Australia, Austria, France, South Africa and Spain!

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Cherries & Olives !

                                 Olives & cherries are definitely a Michelin-star combination

I have my dear friend, Linda Birnie, to thank for gifting me an exquisite jar of OLIVES & CHERRIES.  The recipe was developed by Michelin-star Spanish chef José Andrés (many of you may know him for his Herculean humanitarian efforts in founding the World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters).  I fell in instant amor with the unusual pairing and immediately made several jars.

I was surprised to learn after a little research that olives and cherries are actually related.  They belong to a botanical group called "drupes."   In this same family are also apricots, mangoes and peaches, as well as almonds, pecans and pistachios.

                                          This tapa came together in only a few minutes

Last night I served the olive & cherry recipe at a Spanish dinner party in our home with goat cheese and a sliced baguette.  It was a big hit.  A couple of weeks ago I used it as a side dish with BBQ chicken & roasted potatoes---magnifico! 

Here's the recipe.   Gracias Linda and a big o to chef José Andrés! 

Cherries & Olives

3 cup pitted cherries 
2 cup pitted olives (e.g. arbequina, manzanilla, or kalamata)
1/2 of an orange peel 

1/2 of a lemon peel
2 cloves garlic, smashed

2 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf (fresh preferred)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (or more!)
1/2 cup aged sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Wash the cherries, remove stems & pits.   With a vegetable peeler, remove half of the outer peel from the orange & lemon. Smash the garlic and remove outer skin. Combine all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl.   Cover with plastic wrap and marinate for 4 hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.  (If refrigerated, allow the mix to come to room temperature before serving for the best flavors.)

Friday, May 24, 2024

Everything You Need to Know About Oak

                                         The type of barrel toasting dramatically effects a wine  

Oak can have a profound effect on the wine in your glass, whether it be white or red.  It can change the color, alter the aroma, transform the texture, impact the taste, and even make a difference in the wine’s finish.   While I’ve attended hundreds of professional-level wine seminars, the most intriguing was a session on the effect of oak.   Although it was over twenty-five years ago, this seminar left an indelible mark on me.

                            Light toasting is made with a small fire for a short amount of time

During this “Effects of Oak” presentation, there were a dozen wines to taste.  It is important to note that all wines were the same vintage, made from the same exact grape mixture, and crafted by the same winemaker.  Six were white, the other half were red.  Where the wines deviated was their exposure to differing amounts of oak toasting as follows:

·        One white & one red had no oak exposure.

·        One white & one red had been in a “lightly toasted” barrel for 6 months.

·        One white & one red had been in a “medium toasted” barrel for 6 months

·        One white & one red had been in a “heavily toasted” barrel for 6 months

·        One white & red had been in a lightly toasted barrel for one year

·        One white & red were a mélange of all wines above.


   Heavily toasted barrels are sometimes used in stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon & Malbec

The use of differing toast levels on barrels can dramatically alter the aromas and flavors.  For example, a lightly toasted barrel imparts the delicate flavor of vanilla.  A medium toast can contribute more butterscotch nuances and cocoa.  A heavy toast ratchets up the intensity to espresso, smoky, and caramelized sugar.   But it’s not only the flavors that are affected by oak.   Tannins from the oak also affect the color and the weight of the wine. White wines aged in oak have a deeper intensity in color and texture than their non-oaked versions.  Wines aged in oak for a long period have a more viscous, creamy texture caused by the tannins in the oak.

 Essentially, the winemaker becomes the chef when choosing his oak “recipe.”  In lieu of marinating, grilling or poaching, salt and pepper, the winemaker chooses the type of oak, the amount of toasting, and the length of aging to create nuances in wine such as cloves, coconut, hazelnut, cinnamon, tobacco, cedar, chocolate and mocha.

Coming to Burgundy with Wine-Knows in September?   If so, you'll get to see the entire barrel making process, including the different types of toasting.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Mineral Tastes in Wine----HUH?

                              Bordeaux's iconic Graves district is named for its "gravel" soil 

If you are a wine geek, the above title will most likely elicit an enthusiastic response such as “totally.”  But, if you’re a regular human being (even a wine-lover) you will undoubtedly think, “Huh---wine tastes like rocks?”  The answer is yes…and no.  Let me explain.

The influence of minerality in the smell & taste of wine is found in the earth inorganic portion of the                                                                             sensory wheel

Yes, wine professionals are now using “mineral” terms to describe a wine.  You may see it in descriptor words such as “flinty,”  “gun metal,”  “pencil lead,” "steely," or even “wet stone.”  While wine does not, of course, taste like rocks some wines have a kind of stoniness.   Which begs the question:  who in the world ever tastes a rock?  The answer is, "I do!"  Years ago I was in a vineyard at the foot of the Andes in Argentina when the winemaker said to our group, “Find a rock, pick it up, and lick it.”  He wasn’t kidding so I did.  He then proceeded with an impromptu discussion on the mineral tastes in wine.  That was nearly 20 years in the past and I’ll never forget it.  (By the way, I tasted saltiness in my rock.)

                                              Umami is a Japanese word meaning "savory"

Think of minerality as the umami of the wine world.  Umami is the term for savoriness (mushrooms, miso, soy sauce, parmigiano-reggiano).   The fifth basic taste, it is not sweet, sour, salty nor bitter.  Try to describe umami.   It’s hard to describe, right?   Furthermore, some people experience the umami minerality in the nose of a wine.  Others, experience the umami minerality in the taste.

  Riesling is one of the varieties that best demonstrate mineralty in wine (the other is Chablis made in                                                             France from Chardonnay)

The million-dollar question is how does this mineral mystery taste get into wine?  We know emphatically that it is not from the minerals in the vineyard soil being absorbed by the vine. (Just as we know that other flavors found in wine….such as strawberries & grassiness, are not from the soil but are a by-product of fermentation).   Researchers are trying to unlock the minerality issue.  In the meanwhile, why not taste a rock to see what you think?  Or, simply purchase a dry Riesling or a French Chablis and have a go at it. These two types of wine offer compelling minerality.


Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Portugal’s Perfect Summer Drink

                 White Port & tonic is typically served in a tall glass filled with ice & a slice of lemon

Spring has sprung which means that summer is just around the corner.  If you’re looking for a new, super-refreshing summer aperitif, I have just the drink from you.   And, it’s easy-peasy as there are only two liquid ingredients!

                                          The view I had for my first White Port & Tonic

I had my first Port & Tonic at a famous restaurant owned by the illustrious Taylor-Fladgate Port company in the seaside town of Porto.  It was a scorching 100 degree day and the restaurant was a twenty minute walk from the only parking we could find.   Shortly after we were seated at the above table, we were served an unsolicited drink as a welcome gesture.   I was a raving fan with my first sip.  It was one of the most sublimely tasting and deliciously refreshing drinks I had ever had.  But, what in the world was it?  

I immediately called the server over and inquired.  “It’s a Port and Tonic, a classical summertime drink in my country” replied the waiter who looked as if he could use one himself as he was wearing a white tuxedo jacket…even in the air-conditioned dining room, I noted the ice in our water had already melted within a matter of minutes.

           My first Port Tonic was made of this wine, however, any available white Port will suffice

Like I said, this little jewel from Portugal is easy to make and has only two ingredients, along with an easy to remember 50/50 ratio.   The first ingredient is white Port.   It’s difficult to find in the US, but not impossible.  Also, because of supply and demand, white Port is inexpensive (<20 bucks a bottle).   Have the white Port ice cold, as once it’s poured over ice you don’t want to melt the ice and dilute this Port’s delicate flavors.  Next, pour in the same measure of chilled tonic (I always recommend Fever Tree).  Now, for the best part, drink!   

BTW:  if you’re feeling adventurous, I suggest a quick third ingredient, a lemon wedge. White Port is slightly sweet but the bitter tonic, along with the acid of a lemon, perfectly balances the drink.


Saǘde !

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Douro Valley’s NON Port Wines

                       Wine-Knows will have a private dinner at this very spot of the winery 

Up until nearly twenty years ago, Portugal was synonymous among serious wine aficionados with Port.   The grapes for all Port are grown in the Douro Valley some eighty miles inland from the seaside town of Porto.   While non-Port (table wine) was always produced in the Douro, it was made only for local consumption.  But, all of this has dramatically changed.  Case in point:  the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2023 listed in the coveted eleventh spot a table wine from the Douro Valley.  Indeed, the Douro Valley has become a rock-star for their non-Port wine.

       This boat, once used to transport Port barrels downstream to Porto for shipping, will transport                                          Wine-Knows to our 1st Douro table wine tasting

The biggest change moving the Douro Valley from a Port-only area to a dual focus of Port, as well as table wines, occurred in the 1990’s after Portugal entered the European Union.  EU funds became available for supporting businesses that wanted to expand, as well as new wine producers who saw the promise of the Port grape region for making table wines.   It wasn’t long before Port wineries started to offer table wines on their shelves, and new winemakers armed with serious credentials from universities flocked to the rugged region with the sole purpose of making great quality table wine.

      Our 1st winery has a Relais & Chateau hotel but Wine-Knows will be staying at the former villa                                 of the renowned Taylor Port family, located directly on the Douro River

Fast forward to 2004 when Robert Parker gave an earth-shaking 95 points to a Douro Valley table wine.  That same year the highly regarded Decanter Magazine (Britain’s version of Wine Spectator), gave a Gold Medal to a Douro table wine.  Then, in 2010 the Wine Spectator listed in their Top Ten Wines in the World a Douro Valley wine in its ninth position.  In less than twenty years, the underdog Douro Valley catapulted itself to the world stage for non-Port wine.

          Wine-Knows' last night in the Douro will be a private dinner with this winemaker

Wine-Knows will be spending two nights in the Douro Valley this autumn and will be visiting two super-star wineries.  Both properties produce some of the Douro’s highest scoring Port, as well as table wines.   Wine-Knows are being hosted for a private dinner at one of these wineries, and a full line-up of their most prestigious wines will be served.


As they say in Portugal, bom apetite!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

How is Port Different?


The Douro Valley's stone terraced vineyards are now a United Nations World Heritage Site (UNESCO)

Port is made in a completely different manner than other wines.  To understand the difference it’s important to understand the wine’s historical origin.  Port wine originated in the Douro Valley which lies in Portugal’s northeast corner near the Spanish border.  The Romans, who invaded Portugal before the birth of Christ, brought with them a depth of wine-making knowledge.   They pain-stakingingly constructed stone terraces which allowed vineyards to be built and worked on the Douro Valley's inhospitably steep hillsides.  

            This 17th century map shows the many countries to where Port was shipped from Porto

Port wine received its name from the city in Portugal from which it was first shipped, Porto. Barrels of wine were transported by small boats from the wineries of the Douro Valley down river to Porto.  Located where the mouth of the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Porto played an important role in exporting Port to the remainder of Europe and the world.  This leads to Port’s biggest difference from other wine.  Let me explain.

                  Port wine was taken from Douro Valley downstream to Porto on the Douro River

Port is a “fortified” wine which means that alcohol (e.g. a spirit such as brandy) has been added.   In learning about Port, it’s important to understand why this alcohol was originally added.   During the 17th century,  England (a country of French wine lovers), had levied a huge tax on French wines.  It didn’t take long for British wine importers to look for alternate sources.  Voila!  The first wines shipped by boat from Porto arrived in England spoiled.  Someone had the genius idea of adding Brandy to the wine to preserve it during its long maritime journey.  The Brits loved this new high-octane edition of Portuguese red wine and Port was born.  The rest is history.

Today, alcohol is added to Port half-way during the fermentation of grapes in the Douro Valley.  The alcohol actually stops fermentation.  During fermentation sugar is converted into alcohol.   Stopping fermentation midway means there is still sugar remaining in the wine.  This is why Port is sweeter (100 grams per liter of sugar) than regular wine (dry wine has <1 gram per liter).  Since a brandy type alcohol is added, Port is also higher in alcohol (20%) than table wine (12-14%).

                     Port can be a mixture of different grapes as well as wine from different years

The second significant difference is that Port is a blended wine.  While other wines are often blends of different grape varieties, Port is not only a mixture of many diverse grapes from many different vineyards, but also is a blending of several different vintages of the same wine.

                      Wine-Knows will taste a lineup of several Ports in Porto & the Douro Valley

Thirdly, Port is also unique in that it is made in several styles.  These different types of Port are based on the quality of the grapes, as well as how long it has been aged.  Here are some examples of the most well-known styles:

  • Ruby is the least expensive and less complex Port.  It is aged for only 3 years in the bottle.  Ruby is often served chilled as an aperitif.

  • Tawny is named for its amber color.   This Port, aged in barrels for at least 3 years, offers more complexity.  Tawny can also be served as an aperitif, or offered at the end of the meal.

  • Vintage is only 2% of Port's production.  It is made in the best years by only the top estates.  Bottle-aged often for decades, it is known for having explosive aromas and rich, concentrated flavors.  Vintage Port's classical pairing is with a blue cheese.


Wine-Knows will be visiting Porto this September and will be tasting Port at two of Portugal’s most famous wineries.   But, our Port education won’t end there as we will travel up river to the Douro Valley for two nights.  During our stay we'll visit another two wineries and actually see the dramatic steep vineyards that were originally carved out by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago.  The Douro's vineyards are so special that they have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations (UNESCO).



Saturday, March 23, 2024

Spain's Culinary Gems: Padróns & Piquillos

                              Smoky roasted red piquillos are flavor bomb toppers for these tapas

I have many favorite food items from Spain, but padrón and piquillo peppers are definitely in my Top Five gastronomic Spanish ingredients.  Go into any tapas bar in northwestern Spain (Galicia, Toro, Rueda) and you’ll see the ubiquitous small green padrón peppers represented somewhere in the lineup of tempting bite-sized morsels. Continue to the eastern part of northern Spain (the Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine districts) and the bright red piquillo will most likely be on every menu in some type of form.  Neither of these peppers are hot so they can be utilized in a wide variety of dishes, or eaten simply by themselves.

                            Padróns are a main-stay on restaurant menus throughout Spain

The shiny green padrón pepper is named after the town of Padrón in Galicia, Spain (home to the famous Albarino wines).  But, the padrón is not native to this area.  In fact, it’s not even native to Spain.  The padrón pepper was brought back to Spain from South America by the Conquistadores.  Monks in Galician monasteries began growing them and the padrón became immensely popular in the local region.  Today, tasty padróns are known throughout Spain.

                                     Once cooked, tiny padróns are the perfect small bite

What makes padróns so popular?  Typically served after a quick sautée in olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, padróns are intensely flavorful and sublimely sweet.   That being said, there is an occasional hot one among the bunch.   Regardless of the one-in-ten that can be quite spicy, padróns are addictive.   In fact, their popularity has been brought back to the Americas.  In the last few years San Diego farmers’ markets have been featuring padróns.  (If you can’t find them, however, shishito peppers are a good substitute).

                                       Very mild Piquillos are roasted over fire

Piquillo peppers, the same color as our red bell peppers, are much smaller than bells (usually 2-3 inches), and have thinner flesh.  Like bells, they are sweet and have no heat, however, Piquillos---unlike bells--- are not eaten raw.  Instead, they are roasted over fire which gives them complex smoky flavors.   Because of their small size, they are perfect for stuffing with everything from goat cheese to tuna or even minced lamb.  Their dimension also makes a piquillo perfect for a tapa.

               These peppers, available on Amazon, are protected by law to prevent counterfeits

Piquillos are native to the Rioja region in northern Spain not far from the Pyrenees mountains and the Basque district.  They are critical to the region both economically and culturally, so much so that they have been awarded a protected status (PDO) by the European Union.   This means that only this variety of pepper, grown in the Rioja, can be called a piquillo.  (Like PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano, PDO Roquefort cheese, and PDO San Marzano tomatoes, the guaranteed origin of a product is everything for a customer to knows he is buying the real-deal and not a knock-off.)

Coming on Wine-Knows' sold out trip to northern Spain this autumn?  You’ll taste both padróns and piquillos.  In fact, our first night in Porto, Portugal the restaurant has padróns on their menu.   Seems like the padrón’s popularity has crossed the border from Galicia, Spain to northern Portugal.  If you're not coming to Spain with Wine-Knows, both piquillos and padróns  are available in the US.

Buen Provecho!