Follow by Email

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Best Value Wine Producers


The New Year is approaching and I can’t think of a better way to ring it in than addressing the subject of value in wine.  It’s true that value is in the eyes of the beholder.  That being said, here’s what my eyeballs tell me about wineries from around the globe that consistently have wines in their portfolios offering marvelous values >$20.

California
  • Joel Gott:  While located in St Helena, this producer sources grapes from all over the state, in addition to Oregon and Washington.   I particularly like his Sauv Blanc ($12), but I’m also a fan of his Cabernet “815” which sells for the bargain price of $18.

  • Churchill & Claiborne:  If you love bone-dry Alsatian wines, put this producer on your list for 2016.  I love their Gewurztraminer, but their Riesling also offers a good quality/price ratio.  Both wines are about 20 bucks.

  • Barrell 27:   This winery, located in Paso Robles, reminds me of “the little engine that could.”   Owned by a young, edgy group of friends, they deliver superb value over and over again.  With wine names like “Take the Bull by the Horn” and  “Head Honcho” you gotta love these wines.  $15-20 

Chile
  • Los Maquis:  Owned by a family that has been growing wine grapes for >100 years, this one knocks it out of the park with value.  Imported by Global Vineyards in the San Francisco’s Bay Area, Los Maquis has scores in the 90’s from Robert Parker, as well as high scores from a host of critics around the globe.  Try the Lien for just under $20.

  • Montes:  If Montes is on the list in a restaurant and you’re looking for an inexpensive wine, this one is a sure bet.  Made by one of South America’s top winemakers, Aurelio Montes, his “Alpha” series is a blockbuster.  I especially like the Alpha Cab Sauv.  $20


Argentina
  • Montes:  Aurelio Montes has been so successful that he has expanded his winemaking operations across the Andes.  There is no finer value than his Kaiken made from the Malbec grape at about $15.

  • Catena Zapata:   This producer is synonymous with quality and value.  One of South America’s most innovative, you can count on it to deliver a great bang for the buck in the $15-20 range. 

Australia
  • Yalumba:   The dollar is now strong once more in Australia so bargains abound if you know which wines to choose.  If you don’t know Australian wines well you can always bet on Yalumba. While this winery produces offerings in every price point, they offer a consistently good value in their >$20 wines.  My fave is their rosé which is crafted from Sangiovese.  

Portugal
  • Cabriz:  Portugal offers some of the best red wine values in the world and Cabriz is a stellar example.  At >$10 a bottle, this producer knocks it out of the park.


France
  • Domaine Felines Jourdan:  Bargains are present in this country, however, you need to get off the beaten track to find them.  The Languedoc-Rousillion, located in France’s southwestern corner along the Mediterranean, is pushing the quality/price envelope.  This producer’s Picpoul de Pinet is one of the best value whites I know.  $10


Italy
  • Poggio Tesoro:   Tesoro means “treasure” in Italian, and this winery is truly one.  While their reds are a little too pricey for this article, their Solosole Vermentino qualifies hands-down as a terrific buy at $15.




Wishing you a value-filled New Year. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Brilliant Bordeaux Bargains


I belong to a very high-end group of Bordeaux wine-lovers called the Commanderie de Bordeaux.  One has to be recommended to join, and then must be vetted via several personal interviews with members of the club. (Some of the questions I was asked were:  How large is your cellar?  What percentage of your wine is Bordeaux?  Burgundy?)  Many of their events are black tie and held in San Diego’s finest restaurants or at swanky private country-clubs….and older vintages of the top Bordeaux chateau are always served.  So, how could I turn down the opportunity to attend the Commanderie’s seminar on bargains from Bordeaux?

Each attendee was asked to bring a bottle of red from the 2011 vintage with a price of <$40.  Each person was asked to decant their wine for one hour prior to the seminar.  All wines were tasted blindly (always my preference).  Wines were tasted in flights of four.  Wines were scored in each flight with a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place rating.  At the end of the full tasting, the top three scoring wines were then re-tasted against one another and then re-ranked. 

Before I list the winner, let me say that the wines were quite diverse.  There were wines from both Left and Right Banks, as well as from Graves.   A few didn’t offer much in terms of aromatics.  Some were thin and didn’t have a finish.  As expected because of their youth, many had rough tannins.  A couple of the wines were inspid (my tasting notes indicated “no there, there” for aroma, taste & finish).
Here are the group’s top three scoring wines.  The first two wines are definitely worth buying, representing great quality/price ratio.  Both of these should be cellared for another 2-3 years minimum.
  • 1st place:  Chateau La Pointe (Pommerol)
  • 2nd place:  Chateau Montlandrie (Cotes de Castillon, just east of St Emilion)
  • 3rd place:  Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion (Pessac Leognan)

Hope you find lots of bargains in 2016!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Great Wine Gifts for the Holidays


It’s that time of year:  Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years---as well as hostess gifts for all of those holiday parties.  Below is a list of ideas for wine lovers on your list---organized by price.

                A dry Gewurztaminer is a lovely alternative for the holidays

Alsatian Gewurztraminer is a perfect pairing for holiday turkey.  I often serve a glass of Pinot Noir and a glass of this dry Gewurztraminer with holiday dinners and ask everyone to choose their favorite pairing.  Nine times out of ten, the Gewurz wins.  Favorite producers include Albert Mann, Trimbach and Weinbach.  Prices ranges from $25 to $75, depending on if it is a Grand Cru.

                                              Get in the holiday spirit with a Lillet cocktail

Lillet Blanc and Lillet Rouge.   Made in Bordeaux, Lillet is a delightful aperitif that has become very popular in the USA, particularly over the last 10 years.  The white version ("blanc") is distilled from Bordeaux’s Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion grapes; the red from the region’s Cabernet & Merlot.  I like to give the two bottles as a gift set and include a hand-written recipe for a divine cocktail that uses both (i.e. equal parts of Lillet Blanc, Rouge & tonic water with an orange slice).  $40 per duo

                                                 My first of many Aperol Spritzs, Venice

Sticking with the aperitif theme and another pair of bottles that are perfectly matched for gifting, Aperol and Prosecco are a match made in heaven.  An Aperol Spritz (a 50-50 mixture of the two) is all the rage in Italy.  While it originated in the Venice region, these colorful drinks have to be Italy’s most popular drink…outside of wine and espresso.  Love, love, love this drink.  $40 for the two
                                         World-class sparkling wine from Northern Italy

Ferghenttina’s sparkling wine comes in a sensational pyramid-shaped bottle designed by the owner of the winery.  (The bottle’s design maximizes the yeast’s contact with the wine during the second fermentation in the bottle which supposedly leads to greater flavors and aromas.)  But, it’s not only the bottle that is special.  Made in the exact method that Champagne is made in France, this Italian high-end version is no knock-off…in fact, it could compete right up there with the best Champagne houses.  Aged on the lees for three years, there is a rosé version made from Pinot Noir, or a white one made from 100% Chardonnay.  Both are real stunners.  $55-65

                           Nothings says the holidays like the real-deal French Champagne 

You can never go wrong in gifting a bottle of French Champagne. I have two recommendations, both non-vintage, that are guaranteed to win over even the most discerning oenophile.  First, is Ployez-Jacquemart, a small family-owned Champagne House that produces premier wines.  It’s difficult to find, but worth seeking out online for a great quality price ratio of about $50.  The latter is the most decadent gift on this list---a Champagne made by Baron Rothschild.  The Baron’s empire is in Bordeaux, however, he does produce a small amount of Champagne.  Dear friends gifted me a bottle of this deliciously rich and complex Chardonnay-dominant bubbly on a recent birthday (BTW, they bought it at Costco but I’ve learned that only certain stores received a few precious bottles).  $95-120

Happy Holidays!


Friday, December 4, 2015

Santa in Your Mailbox

The holiday season is descending and with a global digital economy this means specialty food-shopping is just a click away.  It’s no longer necessary to bring home your beloved treats from travels out of state or overseas--- most can be easily ordered online and within days be delivered to your doorstep.  Here’s a list (and, I’ve checked it twice) of my treasured foodie items that scream holidays.

                                  Long Clawson's Stilton is worth seeking out.

Stilton Cheese:   Yes, I know Trader Joe’s carries Stilton, but it can’t compare with the Stilton from Long Clawson Dairy in England.  I was so enamored with this cheese that I made a trip to England in the 1990’s to visit this dairy.  Williams Sonoma (catalogue only), carries a 2 lb wheel of it over the holidays only, however it’s $75.  Igourmet.com has the best price at about $20 a lb.

                                          I don't even like bacon but this one grabbed me.

Applewood Smoked Bacon:  I was introduced to this beyond-belief-bacon at a cooking class in Savannah, Georgia this year with a group of Wine-Knows.  The chef orders oodles of it directly from the family that has been smoking meats for nearly a century.  I ordered several pounds of it the night after the class while sitting in my bed in Savannah.  $13 per pound and worth every penny: www.Nueske.com.

                             The ideal accompaniment to any charcuterie platter.

Duck Mousse Basque:  ‘Tis the season of indulgence and this decadent treat is sure to please even the most serious foodie.  Packed in a serving-ready crock, the mousse’s creamy and dreamy texture, along with its Port-infused flavor, are the perfect gift for the holidays. $10 plus shipping at www.dartagnan.com.

                                    William Sonoma's bombshell cookies.

Peppermint Bark Cookies:   I could kill the friend who brought me these as a gift as they are truly killer.  There are many knockoffs out there, but none can compare to those found in William Sonoma’s online catalogue (William Sonoma has an exclusive arrangement with their maker so that they cannot be sold elsewhere).  Outrageously priced at $25 for a dozen small cookies, they are the holiday bomb.  www.williams-sonoma.com.

                          American fruit cake needs to take a serious lesson from Italian Panforte.

Panforte di Siena:  Panforte is a very dense, honey spice cake chocked full of nuts and dried fruits.   The original recipe comes from the Tuscan town of Siena, however, nearly every town in central Italy now offers them for sale.  There are many online sources for them, but I suggest using Igourmet.com to reduce the shipping charges should you order the above stilton.  $20-30.

                                         Mostarda is found in every deli in northern Italy.

Mostarda:  Keeping on the Italian theme, this condiment from northern Italy makes for a great holiday gift.   Think of an Italian chutney and serve it with a cheese platter, or as an accompaniment to meat or poultry.  It comes in a variety of fruit flavors and combinations of fruits.   Igourmet.com carries several flavors, but I particularly like the fig:  $10.


Have a yummy holidaze.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thankful to Live in San Diego


‘Tis the season to give thanks.  While I’ll always be a San Francisco girl at heart, I am very thankful to have relocated to the splendor of San Diego six years ago.  What’s not to love about 70 degree year-round weather, swaying palms, and beautiful ocean breezes?   

I am frequently asked for advice on where to eat in the San Diego area and what the best accommodations are.  Here’s my list list of the don’t miss places.

Where to drink:

La Valencia Hotel (La Jolla).  It doesn’t get any better than a glass of champagne on the hotel’s gorgeous terrace.  If the fog has rolled in don’t despair as the inside parlor, overlooking the same view, is uber comfy.  Old-world charm at its best.
                                             La Valencia small terrace is a charmer.                               

The Del Coronado (Coronado).  This beach-front grand-dame hotel appears in nearly every travel poster on San Diego.  The “Del,” offers a perfect spot to enjoy an aperitif at the outdoor bar downstairs.  Over the holiday season you can watch ice-skaters on the rink that is brought in every Christmas---with the beach and breaking waves in the background.  Southern California at its finest.
                                    The "Del" is a San Diego landmark.


Mr A’s:   If you want a view of the city of San Diego along with some panache, head to this roof-top restaurant located just above the central business district and waterfront.  You’ll have front row seats to watch jets landing at the downtown airport, and a glorious place to view the setting sun over the city.  Excellent restaurant, and a delightful brunch.

                                             Mr. A's gets an A for sunset libations.

Island Prime:  Should you be looking for a place to imbibe or dine near the airport, this is without a doubt the best spot.  First, you’ve got jaw-dropping views of the harbor and the entire city skyline.  Moreover, the food is very good.  This is an extremely popular place that operates on a first-come-first served basis so plan accordingly.

                 Island Prime's "C-Level" is one of the best ring-side seats in town.

Where to eat: 

Market Restaurant (Del Mar):  For a fine-dining experience, look no further in all of San Diego county.   I especially love the short ribs.   Although we always bring our own, there's a fabulous wine list.  Keep in mind that reservations are essential.  Pricey but worth it.
                      To duplicate your magnanimous meal, you can buy the chef's cookbook.

Sbicca (Del Mar).  I love this spot, especially their outdoor terrace with peeks of the nearby sea.   Mid-week this spot is all locals chowing down.  Sundays and Mondays there is no corkage.  Happy hour prices are a steal. Love, love, love their burger.
                                           A definite OMG moment at Sbicca.

Jake’s ( Del Mar).  Right on the beach, this place has it all---  killer views, tasty food and friendly service.  Parking is difficult, but use their valet which is a good bargain for only $4.  Highly suggested for brunch or lunch.

                    Jake's windows open allowing so that diners can feel & smell the sea.

Flying Pig (Oceanside & Vista).  This retro-type diner serves up terrific food.  Using a farm-to-table concept, the immensely popular place is usually filled mid-week by 6:30 pm, so go early.  Fun atmosphere and super-duper food, especially their double pork chop raised from local piggies, as well as their freshly made pasta. 

                                     The 2nd Flying Pig just opened in Vista.

Where to stay:  
  • La Valencia Hotel (La Jolla).  If you’re looking for old-world character, it doesn’t get any better.  Located right in the heart of the village, their one bedroom “villas” are one of the most romantic places on the southern coast.  Expensive and worth every penny.
  • The Del Coronado (Coronado).   Coronado’s beach is one of the best in the area, and the Del is world-famous.  Be sure to ask for a room with a view…otherwise don’t bother.  If you can tear yourself away from the beach, there’s also a fabulous pool which is one of the best places I know for people watching.  5 stars with 5 star prices.
  • L'Auberge (Del Mar).  If you’re looking for a smaller and more intimate experience, the Auberge has your name on it.  Located near the beach, their well-outfitted rooms are the perfect spot for a secluded get-away.  Bring plenty of do-re-mi.


                                      L'Auberge offers  quiet elegance.

Giving thanks for all of the above very special places in my backyard.



Friday, November 20, 2015

Foodie Gifts to Bring Home from Paris


                                                       
Like many, I can’t stop thinking this week about beloved Paris.  Rather than to dwell on the obvious, I’m changing the paradigm and paying homage to the fantastique food-related products that this gourmand’s paradise offers.  And, for those of you attending next year’s trip to Bordeaux, I’m including only items that can be brought home in your suitcase.


                                                           Fauchon's pastries are art.

If you’re looking for one-stop shopping, the area around the Madeleine church is a gold mine for foodies.  Within a few blocks, you have culinary nirvana.  Let’s start first with the food emporium extraordinaire, Fauchon (Place Madeleine #24-26).   Fauchon has become so popular that it has purchased a nearby property and expanded.  The original location serves up Paris’ best window shopping for gastronomes…if you can possibly find a space to window-watch.  (It’s not unusual to wait several minutes in a line just to be able to photograph the window.)  Fauchon’s window display is mind-boggling:  everything from an Eiffel tower shaped foie gras studded with truffles to baked lobster on the half-shell topped with a small mountain of beluga caviar. Inside you’ll find a mind-blowing cheese department and cases of prepared food products for the most discerning gourmands. There’s even a small restaurant.

                             The makings for a perfect take-out lunch in the nearby Tulleries.

A second Fauchon (just a few doors down at #30 Place Madeleine), is a large grocery store.  Inside you’ll find packaged food products from all over France such as black truffles, lentils from Puy, candied chestnuts, and a mind-boggling selection of fleur de sel.  There’s also a good selection of kitchen gadgets and even cookbooks in English.

                       Who wouldn't be pleased with a small tin of pate as a souvenir?


Also on Place Madeleine (#17) is Caviar Kaspa.  You have to ring to be buzzed in the door of this spot, but don’t let that deter you.  For those who want to splurge for lunch, try the attractive restaurant upstairs with lovely windows that overlook the Madeleine.  Last, there’s even a mustard boutique (#6 Madeleine) where you can sample many different blends...several of which are unknown outside of France.

For serious cooks there’s a serious kitchen store that is frequented by many of Paris’ Michelin star chefs.  Don’t miss Dehillerin (18-20 Rue Coquilliere) but also don’t expect a lot of help from the staff. While there are sauce pans larger than a human,  there is also a great variety of small gadgets that make perfect gifts for foodie friends.

                                                Dehillerin is a chef's dream.

Last but not least, if you’re a tea lover you are obliged to make the trek to Mariage Freres.  While Fauchon carries Mariage Freres products, there’s nothing as special as visiting the original Mariage Freres shop at 30 Rue du Bourg Tibourg in the charming Marais district.  This old-world style boutique offers a mind-boggling selection of teas and a professional staff that are exceeding helpful.   My favorite is their Marco Polo blend but there must be over 50 to choose from...and the staff will let you smell them all.  If it’s lunch time, their jewel-box tea salon is a gorgeous spot to dine.   Better yet, take an afternoon tea break here---it will be one of your highlights.

                  Tea at Mariage Freres is one of the most sublime experiences in the city.

Viva Paris.  Viva la France.  You are in our hearts.

Friday, November 13, 2015

How a Wine Barrel is Constructed


One of the most interesting excursions Wine-Knows Travel organizes on several of our wine trips is an outing to a barrel-maker.  I’ve visited numerous ones around the globe and each time I continue to be mesmerized by the process.  Below is a recap of how a barrel is produced.

The procedure begins outside where cut planks cut from oak wood ("staves") are dried and aged for periods of 18-36 months.  This seasoning rids the wood from water and tightens the grains.
                                     Drying of the wood is a critically important first step.

Next, the aged staves are cut with precision using a computer.  As there are no adhesives used, it is critical that all parts of the barrel fit together perfectly to ensure a faultlessly tight seal. 
                       Dried staves & a metal hoop begin to form the neonatal barrel.

Additional metal hoops are used to apply pressure in the shaping process:


The "head" of the barrel is next carefully prepared.
            The barrel's head is also cut using laser-beam accuracy to prevent any leakage.

The barrel is now placed over a fire.
                                         Heat is used to further bend the staves into shape.

Heat is also used for “toasting.”  Winemakers can order “light,” “medium,” or “heavy” toast.
                                      Different toasts add different flavors & aromas to wine.

The charred barrel is now ready for the final phase of finishing by the addition of new metal rings.
                      The final shaping is extremely labor intensive & requires great strength.

But, the barrel's interior also undergoes intense final scrutiny.
                                            A toasted barrel is prepared for its other head.

Exterior decorative touches such as a chestnut rim may be added.
                 Traditional chestnut rims are expensive but are thought to protect against pests.

Bottom heads are finally added to complete the package.
                                This Bordeaux barrel is almost ready for sale.

Everything in the barrel's construction is expensive---from the aging of the wood to the skill required by numerous artisans who are involved in its birthing.  Now you know why France's oak barrels sell for nearly $1,000 each.  If you're among the lucky travelers who are coming on the harvest tour to Bordeaux next September, at Chateau Haut Brion you will be able to view the barrel-making process as this chateau has its own workshop. 

Santé




Friday, November 6, 2015

Magnanimous Membrillo



                         Membrillo paired with Manchego is a perfect appetizer or dessert

If you don’t know Membrillo you should.   Although it is popular in Europe, my first exposure to this over-the-top edible was in Argentina.  I remember the exquisite setting, with whom I was dining, and the very moment its wondrous flavor made its way to my mouth---the earth moved.  

Membrillo is made from quince.  In fact, it’s a gourmet rendition of a very dense quince jam.  In Spain it is served as a dessert, but you can also find it on Spanish breakfast tables used as a topping for toast.  As a dessert, however, it is typically paired with cheese.  In my Argentine introduction to Membrillo, it was served with a mild local, soft cheese.  In Spain, however, it works beautifully with the country’s salty Manchego.   Add a few nuts and you have the perfect autumn dessert.

                   While it is difficult to find quince in stores, farmers markets often have them

I so love Membrillo that one of the first things I did upon moving to the San Diego area was to plant a quince tree.  I can now see why this beautiful fruit captivated European artists in the 18-19th centuries when botanical prints were so popular.   Quince blossoms are beautiful, its fruit is interestingly shaped, and its inside is an artist's dream.  Regrettably, quince has fallen out of favor in the US.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that quince cannot be eaten without being cooked---the fruit is very astringent raw.   

                                                                     Quince as art

It’s quince season so I’m making Membrillo this month.  It freezes well so that my freezer will soon hold the 2015 “vintage” of this luscious delectable.  Below is the recipe I use.  If you don’t have access to quince you can buy Membrillo online.  Also, if you’re coming with us in 2016 to Spain, you can be assured that it will be served on probably more than one occasion.


RECIPE
  • 4 pounds quince, washed, cored, roughly chopped  (not necessary to peel)
  • 1 vanilla pod, split
  • 2 strips (1/2 inch by 2 inches each) of lemon peel (only the yellow peel, no white pith)
  • 3 Tbspns  lemon juice
  • About 4 cups of granulated sugar (exact amount will be determined during cooking)

Place quince pieces in a large saucepan (6-8 quarts) and cover with water. Add the vanilla pod and lemon peel and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook until the quince pieces are fork tender (30-40 minutes).

Strain the water from the quince pieces. Discard the vanilla pod but keep the lemon peel with the quince.  Purée the quince pieces in a food processor, blender, or by using a food mill. Measure the quince purée. Whatever amount of quince purée you have, that's how much sugar you will need.  (So if you have 4 cups of purée, you'll need 4 cups of sugar.)

Return the quince purée to the large pan.  Heat to medium-low.  Add the sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has completely dissolved.  Add the lemon juice.
Continue to cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1-1 1/2 hours, until the quince paste is very thick and has a deep orange pink color.

Preheat oven to a low 125°F. Line a 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper (do not use wax paper, it will melt). Grease the parchment paper with a thin coating of butter. Pour the cooked quince paste into the parchment paper-lined baking pan. Smooth out the top of the paste so it is even. Place in the oven for about one hour to help it dry. Remove from oven and let cool.


Store by wrapping in foil or plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator (or freezer).

Viva membrillo!

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)

$30-40
  • 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?