Monthly Archives: April 2009

Earth dog

terrier-in-vineyard
Actually, this post is about terroir, not terriers (French for “earth dog” because they chase rodents into burrows). As you can tell, they share the same root – terra, which means earth or land.

That is essentially what terroir is – a sense of place expressed in wine. It also applies to coffee and tea. Say it with me. “Ter-whah”.  Good, now you speak French.

This is a much-discussed word and no precise English equivalent exists. Major components of terroir include: Climate – sunshine, temperature and rainfall – all these will determine how the grapes will ripen and therefore how the wine will taste.   Wines from warmer climates tend to be juicier because the grapes get more ripe.  You can break this down further, too, to include the enviornment right around the canopy (the part of the vine above the ground) and it’s called microclimate.  Take it another step and you have mesoclimate, which refers to the environment of the particular vineyard – its aspect, elevation, slope, distance to water, soil types, etc.   The local grape varieties play an important role, too.  Some grapes simply perfom better than others in certain areas.  Other human decisions, such as selecting yeast cultures and certain winemaking practices will also affect the terroir.  Some winemakers may choose to use ambient or wild yeasts in their winemaking to enhance the terroir.  The use of oak has the potential to downplay the impact of terroir. 

The idea of terroir has formed the backbone of the appellation system in France – the idea that wines from particular areas are unique.  Winemakers in Burgundy do not believe they are making Pinot Noir that happens to be grown in Burgundy, but rather, that they are producing Burgundian wines that happen to be made from Pinot Noir.  They consider themselves wine growers as opposed to wine makers.  This idea spread to the rest of the Europe, so that winemakers outside of Tuscany can’t make a wine from Sangiovese and call it Chianti. 

Terroir also plays into the debate over Old World vs. New World wines.  Do mass-produced wines adjusted to American palates reflect any particular terroir?  If you have a super-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in your glass, would you be able to tell if it’s from California, South Africa, Chile or Australia?

Let’s practice using it in a sentence or two, so you’ll never be intimidated by the word again.  “I prefer Old World wines because they reflect a greater sense of terroir” or “The blue slate soils of the Mosel valley in Germany are partially responsible for the unique terroir of the region, imparting a strong mineral character to the wines.”

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Swirl it, sniff it and slurp it down

6-glasses-on-white-tablecloth1

Here are 8 easy steps that you can use to impress your friends and make them think you know how to taste like a pro.

1.  Look at the wine against a white background.  I’m already making the assumption that you have clean glasses as well as good lighting (and some wine).  You can remember the 3 C’s – clarity, color and carbon dioxide.  Do you see any particles?  Is it white or red or pink?  Pale or dark?  Does it have bubbles?  Feel free to use fancy words like straw yellow, old gold, garnet and brick red.  The white background will help you more accurately gauge the color as well as the opacity of the wine.

What does the color tell you?  Different grape varieties will make deeper or lighter colored wines because the color in the wines comes from the skin of the grapes.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo tend to produce deep red wines.  Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris are two examples that produce deep white wines (their skins are pinkish).  A deep color can also mean youth in a red wine or oxidation or barrel fermentation in a white wine.  Red wines lose color as they age, while white wines gain.

2.  Swirl the wine in your glass.  Yes, there really is a good reason for this.  You’re increasing the surface area of the wine by coating more of your glass as well as releasing some additional aromas that have been trapped in liquid form in the wine.

Tears are not a sign of quality in wine, but rather give clues about the wine’s viscosity and alcohol content.  Fuller bodied, higher alcohol wines often have more pronounced tears.  If you see pink stains on the side of your glass after swirling your red wine, it could be because the wine maker let his or her wine sit with the grape skins a little bit longer to extract more color.

3.  Take a few deep sniffs of the wine.  This is the most important part, so don’t be shy and get your nose right in the glass.  Is it restrained or pungent?  Does it remind you of anything you’ve had before?  Fruits?  Spices?  Vegetables?  Flowers? Wood?

As you practice, you’ll become familiar with common aromas found in certain varietals – i.e. Grüner Veltliner often has arugula and white pepper on the nose.  You can also gather clues about how the wine was treated – i.e. vanilla, baking spices and toast are common aromas found as a result of oak aging.

4.  Taste the wine.  It’s helpful to think of mouthwash here, because you want the wine to hit all parts of your palate.  While the myth of the tongue map is not true, you do want to look for certain things in certain parts of your mouth.  You want to look for sweetness on the tip of your tongue.  You can gauge the acidity in the wine by how the sides of your tongue feel.  Are they tingling?  Do you feel like you might start drooling?  That means high acidity.  You can rate the tannins based on how the inside of your cheeks feel.  Are they dried out like someone stuck cotton balls in there or like when you oversteep your tea and don’t put any milk or sugar in it?  That means a high level of tannins in the wine.

5.  Concentrate on your perceptions.  Once you swallow or spit the wine out, the experience is not over.  The finish of the wine, especially if it’s a good one, will last long after you have it in your mouth.  What you’ll notice, too, are aromas coming up the back of your throat, so you might get some notes now that you missed in the beginning.

6.  Evaluate the wine.  Is the wine’s flavor bold and concentrated or is it subtle and understated?  Is is fruity?  Do you think any oak was used?  Think about the sweetness, the acidity, the tannins and the body.  A good way to think about the body of the wine is to think about milk.  Did the wine drink like skim milk or was it more like half and half when you had it in your mouth?  The body is esentially the weight of the wine.

7.  Think about the wine.  Will it taste better with food?  Is it appropriate for the season?  Is it worth the price?  And the most important question of all – do you like it?  In the end, even if you’re following all of these fancy steps, that’s all that really matters.

8.  Record your impressions.  Hopefully you’ll be trying lots of different wines and by keeping notes you can keep track of what you liked and didn’t like.  This will make you sound smarter the next time you go to your local wine shop or have a conversation with a sommelier at a restaurant because you’ll be able to say things like, “I prefer crisp, refreshing whites with high acidity”.

Even if you think you have a lousy palate, you just need practice.  The biggest obstacle for most people to overcome is the lack of vocabulary to describe what they’re smelling and tasting.  So, practice, practice, practice.  It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

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Say it, don’t spray it!

That, in essence, is the mantra of organic wine makers – let the soil and grapes speak, don’t soak them with fertilizers and pesticides, and when you’re back in the winery, manipulate the grapes and wine as little as possible.  Sounds pretty good right?  If you can find great wines that have been produced in an earth-friendly way, why would you drink anything else?

The question, however, is how can you tell if something is organic? And what does biodynamic, sustainable or natural winemaking mean?

To answer these questions, I went to “Defining Organic: Green Wine Demystified” with Adam Morganstern, editor of the Organic Wine Journal, at the Astor Center.  It was also a good opportunity to do some research on the competition – as you may know I teach wine classes at FCI.  While I came in with a good knowledge of these concepts, the lecture and the tasting conducted by Greg Wacks was enlightening and I left knowing more than I started with.  I also tasted some great wines.

Here are the Cliff Notes:

The terms organic, natural and biodynamic are confusing because they have multiple definitions and some of the practices overlap.  Let’s start with organic.  At its most basic level, it means wine from grapes grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers.   100 years ago, organic farming was the norm.  Industrial farming was an outgrowth of the World Wars – primarily stemming from technologies related to chemical weapons and bomb-making.  Scary right?  Chemical manufacturers needed new markets in the post-war years and found that many of their products could be applied to agriculture.  At first it seemed like a dream come true – in the first year or two of using pesticides the farmers saw tremendous growth.  Soon after, however, their soil was dead (i.e. not even earthworms).  So, the chemical companies then suggested fertilizers.  New diseases began popping up and the companies could then sell their fungicides.  So, a nasty and expensive cycle was born.  Organic practices intend to break that cycle.

earthworm

Natural wines have no official certification.  The general rule for natural wine is minimal intervention, but the catch is: what is practiced in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily reflect what is being practiced in the winery.  To formalize things, some winemakers have banded together and created loose standards:  small quantities of wine made by independent producers, handpicked grapes, no added sugars or foreign yeasts.   As a result, their wines are more sensitive to changing temperatures and must be stored with care.

Biodynamic wines are controlled by a certifying agency called Demeter.   Biodynamics is the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, literary scholar, educator, architect, playwright, social thinker and esotericist (busy man!).  The four basic principals are: a closed system of nutrients (composting, recycling), biodiversity on the property (plants, predators, prey – no monocultures), specific field sprays and composting, and the idea of creating a holisitic system where they manage the environment and let the plants take care of themselves.   So, yes, they follow the moon cycle, bury cow dung in horns, which is weird, but the ideas are based on hundreds of years of traditional farming techniques.

You might see one of these strutting around on a biodynamic vineyard:

chicken

All this, and we haven’t mentioned sustainable winemaking.  Again, there’s no set definition for it and it could reflect sincerity or part of a marketing plan.  It could also be viewed as “organic until something goes wrong”.  One person’s sustainable could include solar power and being carbon neutral while another person’s sustainable is simply changing to a more efficient lightbulb.

It’s important to keep in mind that many producers are following some/most/all of the ideas we’ve touched on here, but don’t always want to be labeled for it.  They want to be known for the quality of their wines, not for the method in which they were made.   Like in cooking, a chef wants you to enjoy your meal, not worry about whether it was prepared using an aluminum or cast iron pan.   Some producers might also disagree with some of the government’s standards (too low, dumbed down).  Plus, it can also be expensive to get certified, particularly if you’re certifying in multiple different countries.

To be fair, not all organic, natural or biodynamic wines are good.  Many are the product of bad winemakers.  Others suffer from quality issues that result from natural winemaking – there’s a reason most winemakers use sulfites.  Consistency can also be an issue – there is often bottle variability within one case of wine.  Some may enjoy not knowing what to expect when opening a bottle, but those of us in the hospitality industry serving these wines to our guests may not feel the same.

All this being said, those selected by Adam and Greg were great (all prices from Astor Wines & Spirits):

1. Domaine Carneros Brut 2005 (Carneros, California):  3 years practicing organic, now certified.  toasty, biscuity nose with great acidity and a fruity palate. $19.99

2. Seresin Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Marlborough, New Zealand): mostly biodynamic, though some grapes are sourced from non-biodynamic vineyards.  classic NZ Sauvignon blanc here – cut grass, passionfruit and peaches with a zippy tartness.  $21.99

3. Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner “Hefeabzug” 2007 (Wachau, Austria): had Demeter certification on back label as well as a paper neck tag (which is interesting because this is a well-known producer who doesn’t necessarily need the additional marketing).  arugula and white pepper on the nose with citrus and minerals on the palate. $26.99

4. Jelu Malbec 2007 (Mendoza, Argentina): practicing organic estate.  fruit-forward with cherry coke aromas and flavors, high acidity and soft tannins.  a steal at $9.99

5. Le Loup Blanc “Le Régal du Loup” 2006 (Minervois, Languedoc-Roussillon, France): natural winemaker.  50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre.  standout of the evening for me.  dark fruits, baking spices, cinnamon ribbon candy and barnyard.  $18.99

6. Tablas Creek “Côtes de Tablas” 2006 (Paso Robles, California): received organic certification in 2003.  this wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise.  juicy red fruits with leather and licorice. $21.99

7. Clos des Camuzeilles Muscat de Rivesaltes 2004 (Languedoc-Roussillon, France): vins doux naturel (wines made by adding spirit before fermentation is complete – this additional alcohol kills the yeast and leaves you with a strong, sweet wine) from natural winemaker.  dried apricots, orange blossom, the liquid from canned peaches. $22.99

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Love is best brewed cold

Coffee with all the parts you like (rich, full body, tantalizing aromatics) and none that you don’t (too much acidity, bitterness).   Is it possible?  Yes, with cold brewing,  it is.

I’m proud to introduce my official spring/summer (morning) drink.  And you can have it too, if you follow the easy and inexpensive steps below.

Yesterday, we went here:porto-rico

And purchased 1 lb. of this:

auggies-blend

Porto Rico is in my neighborhood and I like their coffees (I have a problem with them sitting out exposed to the air, but that’s for another day).  I chose the Auggies blend because it was a bit of a darker roast, which is a good way to go for cold brewing, since you still get all of the lovely roasted chocolate toffee notes without the bitterness produced by hot water.  Grind (or ask to have it ground) for a french press.  For a listing of other coffees I like, go here.

Other things you’ll need to make this at home:  large liquid measuring cup (or any large non-reactive container, including a stainless steel pot), another large container (could be another liquid measuring cup), storage container for the final product (glass milk bottle works really well), strainer, any manual drip coffee filter set up like Melitta or Chemex ,coffee filters, patience.

Instructions:

1. In a large liquid measuring cup (or other container), combine 1 lb. of french press ground coffee with 10 cups of cool water (I used water from my Brita filter)

water-into-coffee

2. Stir to ensure all parts of the grounds are wet
3. Here’s the hard part: wait at least 12 hours (there’s no need to stir during this time – you can just leave it out, covered, on the counter)
4. Pour the slurry through the strainer (simple, hand-held pasta strainer will do the trick) into your other large container.  This step will remove large particles which could clog your coffee filters and slow the process
5. You can press the wet grounds that are trapped in the strainer to extract more coffee
6. Pour the strained coffee through your coffee filter.  This may take awhile depending on your set-up.  We used a Chemex because it has a larger capacity and you can fill it to the top and come back 20 min. later.  Chemex also uses a thicker filter, so you’ll get rid of nearly all of the suspended solids.  You may have to use 2 or more filters because they can become clogged with this much coffee flowing through them

coffee-into-chemex

7. Now pour the resulting coffee into a storage container.  We used this (Ronnybrook glass milk jar):

coffee-into-jar

8. The coffee will keep over a week in the fridge with little change in its flavor

Congratulations – you now have over 1 liter of coffee extract.  I call it coffee extract because a) that’s what it is and b) it is too strong for most people to drink straight.  So, what to do with it then?  Well, for hot drinks, try 2 parts hot water with 1 part coffee extract (basically like making an Americano).  If you have an espresso machine, use the steam arm.  For cold drinks, try using cold water and/or cold milk with the extract.  I’ve been filling a glass with ice, pouring coffee extract about 1/3 up the glass and then topping it off with milk.  Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about sugar – the coffee is so darn good, you don’t need it!

If you like to get fancy, try making a coffee cocktail by subbing the cold brewed coffee in place of espresso for a martini (not a true martini, but usually vanilla vodka, simple syrup, chocolate powder, etc).    If you like to get extra fancy (of if you like your coffee really strong), make some ice cubes out of the coffee extract.

So, why should you bother with cold brewing?  It’s environmentally friendly, you’ll save money (at least $2 for each iced coffee you know you’ll consume in the warmer months), the coffee extract travels well (we even threw some in a water bottle to take camping), the acidity content is lower (key if you have a sensitive stomach), perhaps not everyone in your household wakes up or wants coffee at the same time and the most important reason of all: it just tastes good.

If this is a little too DIY, the  Toddy Cold Brew System can help you out.

Look how happy these two are together:

coffee-and-milk

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Get schooled

outside-shot-banners

 

 

 

 

 

 

wine-map-8-wines-amphi

 

Fundamentals of Wine starts this Wednesday 4/29 and runs 8 weeks from 6:30-8:30 pm.  Our goal is to demystify wine and have fun while doing it.  We’ll taste 6-8 wines per class, from over 12 different countries.  You’ll be swirling and sniffing like a pro (but not a snobby one) in no time.  This class is great for industry folks (brush up on those regions, varietals and wine laws) as well as for more serious connoisseurs (feel more comfortable with a wine list, organize your cellar).  For more information and to sign up, go here.

 

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More on IBU

hops

This is not really something you need to know (unless you’re a beer nerd), but I wanted to clarify and expand my initial definition.  A beer’s IBU is measured by the amount of hops used and their acid content.  So yes, the higher the IBU, the more bitter the beer.  This can be misleading, though and I’ll give you an example.  If you look through the tasting notes on my previous posting, you’ll notice that the Cherry Imperial Stout has the highest IBU number and I didn’t mention anything about it being bitter.   The malt sweetness in this beer is playing against the bitter hops. 

Also, hops aren’t the only culprit – roasted malts (think espresso), lower serving temperature, higher carbonation and a low residual sugar content can all make a beer seem more bitter.  Bitterness makes a beer refreshing and is necessary to balance out the sweetness of the malt.  It is also the backbone of the beer’s structure – think tannin or acidity in wine.   So, please don’t think of bitter as a dirty word.

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Have van, will travel (for beer)

This weekend marked the inaugural camping trip for our 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon. We purchased it in December and up until this weekend had only slept in it in someone’s driveway. Inspired by the middle-of-August temperatures, we reserved a site at Wildwood State Park in Wading River, NY.

Shortly after arriving at our campsite, we realized we were less than 25 miles from a brewery that started out as “two guys with a dog, a van and a dream”. Granted, we were a guy and a girl and we had no dog, but we had a van and we were thirsty. The tasting room at Blue Point Brewing Company is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 3-7 pm and Saturdays from 12-7 pm. And by tasting room they mean they give out free beer and lots of it (take note, Brooklyn). They do offer tours on Saturdays as well (1 and 4 pm), but we opted for the tasting part.

Blue Point Brewing CompanyWe bellied up to the bar and tasted through all they were offering on tap that day. Here’s what we found:

(you can find definitions of IBU and ABV at the bottom)

Golden Ale (16 IBU’s, 4.39% ABV): light gold in color with a crisp, clean, mineral taste. slight floral and citrus note with a malty finish. great for a day in the sun.

Toasted Lager (28 IBU’s, 5.5%ABV): this is their award-winning, flagship brew. pretty amber color. reminded me of grape-nuts, which might be due to the fact that they make it with 6 different malts. it is toasty, too, because of their direct-fire brew kettle. round, creamy and delicious.

Pale Ale (36 IBU’s, 5% ABV): yellow grapefruit and pine on the nose, with just the right level of bitterness and floral notes on the palate. rich, full and well-balanced.

Bruins Bitter (19 IBU’s, 4.9% ABV): yeasty, just like the smell of bread rising. would be better from a cask – too cold and carbonated here.

Blueberry Ale (14 IBU’s, 4.39% ABV): like a summer trip to Maine (lots of wild blueberries there). I do not care for fruit beers of any kind, but if I had to drink one, this would be it. they use 132 lbs of blueberries in each batch.

Oatmeal Stout (30 IBU’s, 5.2% ABV): chocolate, toffee, Quaker oats on the nose. rich and creamy with a campfire or smoked bacon finish. “tastes like it has fat in it” or “the lowest calorie bacon you could have”.

Hoptical Illusion (60 IBU’s, 6.3% ABV): rich, copper color with notes of pine, ruby red grapefruit and red bell pepper. would make an excellent Christmas beer, but I’d be happy to drink it anytime.

“Black and Blue” – 3/4 Oatmeal Stout and 1/4 Blueberry Ale: like having pancakes and bacon. the bartender shared her favorite comment about it, “some guy told me it tasted like he had eaten a blueberry muffin when he burped it up later”. classy. the ale lightens and brightens the stout. it’s punchy (both because of the light and bright and because it’s sweet, ripe fruit).

Rastafar Rye (48 IBU’s, 7.25% ABV): this is a rye pale ale and I thought the most interesting of the bunch. similar to the oatmeal, but less toasty (like provolone vs. Parmesan in terms of intensity). drinks like a stout, but finishes like an IPA – a Jekyll and Hyde brew – smooth, then bites.

Double Pilsner (48 IBU’s, 6.48% ABV): mean, lean and clean and goes down dangerously easy for the alcohol content it has. like Pilsner Urquell’s sexier cousin.

Cherry Imperial Stout (67 IBU’s, 9% ABV): like an iced coffee you’d want every day during summer. rich, smoky, fruity. wouldn’t have guessed cherries had been added had it not been in the title (just a fruity coffee aroma and flavor).

It’s very satisfying when local things are done well. You can find a rotating selection of Blue Point Brewing Company’s beers here.

IBU = International Bitterness Units – the higher the number, the more bitter

ABV = Alcohol by Volume – the higher the number, the sooner you should hand over your car keys

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