Monthly Archives: May 2009

One stop shopping

New Jersey. Home of Bon Jovi, the Boss and some pretty insane liquor laws. Take a look at this picture:

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If you look closely, you’ll notice greeting cards along the right hand side of the aisle. Sympathy cards as well as some birthday cards are probably best accompanied by booze, but this is not a thoughtful liquor store, this is a Rite Aid. As my friends and I were gearing up for a night of wiffleball and fajitas in the ‘burbs, we had to leave the grocery store in order to buy beer from the pharmacy.

I’ve shopped for a decent amount of alcohol beverages in my time, but I can’t say I’ve ever browsed for it under harsh fluorescent lighting while others in the same store were filling prescriptions or buying toilet paper.

Here’s another curiosity I encountered:

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The curiosity I’m referring to is not the idea of buying a 2003 Haut-Médoc from Rite Aid, but rather the security device affixed to the top of the bottle. I doubt the concern here is about counterfeit wine (similar looking devices can be hooked up using a USB cable to a computer to detect if the wine has been opened or altered).

Residents of New Jersey are not allowed to purchase any alcoholic beverages over the phone, via a mail-order catalog or from the internet if the producer or retailer is in another state. Perhaps the thinking is that these restrictions make swiping a bottle from the corner drug store more tempting? Or maybe it’s that the fancy razors and the addictive cold medicines are taking up too much room behind the counters.

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Thirsty alert

Lederhosen 2It’s almost time for Riesling Week!

Wines of Germany and the European Union are sponsoring the 5th annual Riesling Week 5/18-5/24 in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and Miami.  Over 80 restaurants and retailers are participating, offering treats like multiple Rieslings by the glass, flights of Riesling, tasting menus with Riesling pairings, discounts on bottles of Riesling and special in-store tastings.  For the full list of the goings-on, click here or if you’re in NYC, Tasting Table did it up by specifying what the restaurant or retail spot is offering.

I touched on Riesling in the post “sweetness is my weakness“, mentioning that it’s sadly underappreciated.  So, next week will be your chance to give it a try (or try more if you’re already in-the-know).  And here’s why you should:

1. Riesling is a sommelier’s secret weapon – it’s incredibly versatile with food:  hors d’oeuvres like cold meats, light cheeses, smoked fish (try with lighter styles); main courses like most seafoods, pork, poultry and veal (for heavier preparations, go for a full-bodied, dry style); desserts with a slight tartness to them or that contain fruit (many sweeter styles of Riesling are desserts themselves); cheese – harder ones with fruity, low-alcohol Rieslings and blue-veined ones with richer, sweeter styles; Asian dishes – many have a touch of sweetness which works well with wines that do, too – and the sweetness can help cut any spiciness.

2. Riesling is the fastest growing grape varietal in the United States (35.6% by volume, according to Destination Riesling), so you’ll probably start to see more of it when you’re out and about.  Germany’s the top producer, providing 60% of the world’s supply and in Austria, Riesling is the second leading white grape varietal (after Grüner Veltliner).  It has a special place in my heart because it’s one of the few grapes we can grow successfully where I’m from (the Finger Lakes).  New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Northwest are also doing a lot with it. 

3. Few other grapes can produce such a range of wine styles – bone dry to syrup-y sweet, with everything in between.  That being said, I want to briefly explain some things you might see on a German bottle of Riesling.  The overwhelming majority of German Rieslings are sold as Qualitätswein (quality wine), meaning they’ve passed analytical and taste tests.  There are two divisions of this Qualitätswein category: Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (don’t worry, you can just remember this as QbA) and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP). 

QbA wines must come from one of the 13 approved wine making regions in Germany (think Mosel or Rheingau) and reflect the style of its region (think terroir).  QmP wines meet all of the requirements of QbA wines, but are made from riper or overripe grapes, giving them a special attribute (Prädikat in German).  Generally speaking, riper grapes yield more concentrated wines.   So, when someone says Prädikat level, this is what it means:

Kabinett (KAH-bee-net): light to medium bodied wines and can be finished dry, medium-dry or sweet.  They average 7-10% alcohol.

Spätlese (SHPATE-lay-zuh): means “late harvest”, but don’t be fooled – these wines can be vinified dry, medium-dry or sweet, just like the Kabinetts, though they tend to be more concentrated with more intense flavors.

Auslese (OWSS-lay-zuh): means “select picking” – hand picked very ripe bunches of grapes – intense in bouquet and taste – often sweet, but can be finished dry or medium-sweet.  Dry Auslese can have over 14% alcohol.

Beerenauslese (BARON-owss-lay-zuh, a mouthfull that’s usually shortened to BA): means “berries select picking” – individually selected, overripe berries – here begins your rich, dessert wines.

Eiswein (ice-vine): yup, you guessed it, ice wine.  these babies can stay on the vine as late as December (most harvesting in the Northern Hemisphere is Aug/Sept/Oct) – they’re pressed while frozen and excess water is discarded, leaving lots of sugar – sometimes they have the honeyed influence of botrytis.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TROCK-en-BARON-owss-lay-zuh, also known as TBA): “dry berries select picking” – these things have shriveled to raisins by the time they’re harvested and have definitely experienced noble rot – incredibly rare and considered among the world’s best dessert wines (their prices usually match this sentiment).

So, slap on your lederhosen, practice your pronunciation and go drink up.

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Tiny bubbles

If I could only drink one type of beverage for the rest of my life, it would be sparkling wine (sorry, bourbon).  If money were not an issue, it would be Champagne.  Most of you probably know this, but please only call it Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region of France. 

Prosecco, cava, crémant, spumante, sekt and your Korbel do not count – don’t be fooled because they put California Champagne on the bottle – that simply does not exist.  Besides the allowed grape varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – say MOON-yay), the aging requirements and the terrior, the most unique thing about Champagne is the process that traps those tantalzing bubbles in there; méthode Champenoise (Champagne method) or méthode traditionnelle (traditional method). 

I’m going to break it down for you.

1. The first key is to have grapes with high acidity and moderate sugar levels.  Here is the basic fermentation equation:

sugar+yeast = alcohol+carbon dioxide (+heat)

Low sugar in the grapes=low alcohol in the wine. This is important because two fermentations happen in the production of sparkling wine and high levels of alcohol are toxic to most yeast.  So, the base wine can’t have too high a level of alcohol or the second fermentation won’t take place.  Champagne is very far north in France and has a very cool climate, so this part is easy for them.

2. Now that we have our grapes, we have to press them.  The traditional press is a wide, shallow basket.  These are still used today in addition to the more modern bladder press, which has a gross name, but is very gentle on the grapes.  The juice is extracted in phases, called tailles (TIES), which translates to cuts.   The cuvée is the first press and contains the juice that is rich with sugars and acids (the good stuff from near the center of the grape pulp).  The second cut is called the taille (same word, new meaning here), which is richer in minerals and lower in sugar and acids.  This often goes into demi-sec Champagne because the additional sweetness will cover any coarseness.  The last press is the rebêche, which is sent to the distillery for spirits or vinegar. 

3. After pressing, we have to let the juice settle, called débourbage in French.  Sugar may have to be added at this point (chaptalization) because we want the must to reach an alcohol level of 10-11% in the base wine. 

4. Fermentation happens now; mostly in stainless steel tanks, some in oak.  The process is relatively warm – 60-70°F and quick – 7-10 days.  Malolactic fermentation may happen here if the producer so chooses.  This process converts malic acid (think citrus fruit) to lactic acid (think milk) and should be called a conversion since it’s not a true fermentation, but let’s not get too technical.  It makes the wine rounder, creamier and can add additional flavor and complexity.  Once fermentation is complete, the wine is racked, or separated from its sediment and moved to another cask or vat. 

5. Assemblage (if you want to be fancy, say ah-SEM-blahge).  Separate lots of wine are systematically tasted and blended to achieve and maintain the house style; house=producer= Krug, Bollinger, Billecart-Salmon, etc.  Assemblage is a vertical and horizontal blend, meaning it’s a blend of: vintages, grapes, crus – think Premier (prem-E-ā) or Grand – officially recognized as being of superior quality) and vineyard sites.

6. This is followed by fining – removal of matter, racking – moving to another container and cold stabilization – to counter physical, chemical and microbial changes. 

7. Now we have to “create the sparkle” or “set the foam” or as the French say, “prise de mousse“.  This step represents the second fermentation and traditionally, this takes place in the same bottle from which it is later served.   This is what sets Champagne or other sparklers made in the traditional method apart.  So, how do we get the wine to undergo a second fermentation?  Well, as the wine is being bottled, liquer de tirage (yeast, sugar and usually a fining agent) is added.  The yeast will start feeding on the sugar and thus spark a second fermentation in the bottle which will take place over the next 20-45 days.  Additional alcohol – about 1.5% – and pressure – from the carbon dioxide will be produced as well.  At this stage in the game, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (think beer). 

8. Aging takes place sur lie, or on top of the dead yeast cells.  They’re trapped in the bottle, remember?  As the yeast cells break down, they break open, releasing amino acids and this is what gives Champagne that toasty, nutty bouquet.  Concurrently, the carbon dioxide is dissolving more and more into the wine, creating smaller and smaller bubbles.

Here is a picture of sediment in a bottle:

Sediment in Champagne bottle

9.  Next, we have the riddler.  Not the enemy of Batman, but the person or machine (not called a riddler, but called a gyropalette) that rotates the bottles while they’re aging.  In French, this process is called remuage.  By hand, it takes three months; with a machine, it takes about a week.  The idea is to gradually move the bottle from a horizontal position to a vertical one in order to collect the dead yeast cells in the neck of the bottle. 

Here is the rack that houses the bottles in a manual system:

Sur Point Aging

Here is someone demonstrating riddling by hand:

Sample Riddling

10.  Now, we’ll remove the sediment and this is called disgorgement (dégorgement).  The bottles will be chilled to reduce the pressure, the neck will be dipped into an icy brine solution to freeze the sediment into a plug of slush, the bottle is turned upright, the crown cap is removed and the internal pressure shoots the ice plug out of the neck of the bottle. 

Here is a picture of a frozen plug:

Ice Plug 2

11.  Some wine is lost during this slightly violent process, so we’ll replace it with the same or a similar cuvée and this is called the dosage.  The amount of sugar here will determine the final sweetness of the Champagne – Brut, Sec, Doux, etc.

12. Final aging – for non-vintage (NV) Champagne, it’s 15 months and for vintage, it’s 3 years. 

There, now you understand how Champagne is made.  To celebrate, sing along with Don Ho.

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What a treat

Jerome Quiot

Unless you’re a wine nerd, you probably won’t recognize the gentlemen in this photograph.  On the left is Jérôme R. Quiot, the owner of several estates in France, including Domaine du Vieux Lazaret, Domaine Houchart and Château du Trignon.  On the right is Josh Miles, my friend and wine rep from Martin Scott Wines.

Yesterday my staff and I had the pleasure of welcoming Jérôme to L’Ecole to speak about his wines.  I spend a good deal of time around French folks because of my job and Jérôme is one of the more charming ones I’ve encountered, saying things like, “You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not from around here.”   Now this might not sound terribly charming to you, but I’m the type of person who enjoys popsicle stick jokes.  The important thing here is that he makes some darn good wine. 

The Quiot family has been making wine since 1748 (they’re now on the 11th generation) and Jérôme works closely with his wife Genevieve, his daughter Florence and his son Jean-Baptiste.  Jérôme explained to me that he honors his family’s working relationship by putting out the Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Cuvée Exceptional Red.  It’s not made in every vintage and it’s based on certain barrel selections in the cellar, but what makes it exceptional is that his whole family has to sit down and agree on it.  His wife doesn’t care much for barrel aging, his daughter likes floral, expressive wines, his son wants robust wines and he said his own vote doesn’t count for much.

Here are some highlights from the tasting:

From Domaine Houchart:

1. Blanc 2008.  Mainly Clairette with some Rolle (this is the same as the Italian Vermentino).  Vibrant, lively and persistant with notes of citrus, white peach, cantaloupe and minerals.

2. Rosé 2008.  Mostly Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon.  A perfect example of why dry rosé is so good.  If you don’t drink it, you should – it’s food and wallet friendly and goes down easy (especially when consumed outdoors).  This one was salmon colored with notes of strawberries, raspberries and orange peel with a crisp, but round mouthfeel. 

3. Rouge 2006.  Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  A great summer red.  It was structured, but not too tanic with cherries and a healthy dose of spice.

The label design on the Domaine Houchart bottles was inspired by a dress that Jérôme’s grandmother wore.  It was crinoline (usually a combination of horse-hair and cotton or linen) with a corset-style top.  He told me to picture Gone with the Wind

From Château du Trignon:

1. Rasteau 2005.  Mostly Grenache with a touch of Mourvèdre.  Fresh and lively with ripe berries.  Undertones of herbs, spices and wood.  With Rhône wines, you’ll often hear people talking about herbes de Provence – things like basil, fennel, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme.  This may seem obnoxious to you, but it really is possible to smell and/or taste these things in wine.  Take a whiff through your spice cabinet and file a little smell memory for yourself and the next time you have a wine from southern France, see if you detect any spice.

2. Gigondas 2005.  Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault.  Stewed fruits, cloves and coffee notes.  Fresh, yet powerful (think tannin structure).

The Quiot family began farming the Trignon property in 1986 and have refined and expanded the property as well as installed a wine cellar that operates primarily by letting gravity do the work.

From Domaine du Vieux Lazaret:

1. Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) Blanc 2007.  Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc (Josh thinks this would make a fine name for a dog; I agree), Roussanne and Clairette.  My favorite from the day.  Round, full, slightly nutty with peaches, white flowers and lemon.  Only a touch of barrel aging, so the fruit really comes through.

2. CDP Rouge 2006.  The 13 varietals allowed by law, with a majority of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault.  Only 15% was aged in barrel, so you get a lot of deep red and black fruits as well as some sweet baking spices. 

CDP (shat-toe-NOOF-duh-pop) means the “Pope’s new castle”.  In the 14th century, the papal court moved from Rome to Avignon.  Domaine du Vieux Lazaret is here and it’s the family’s oldest holdings.  The name refers to a former hospital that was used to quarantine and treat patients during the major epidemics of the 17th and 18th centuries.  The plagues killed 30% of the population (and we were worried about swine flu).  People had to spend 40 days in seclusion before entering the village. 

Jérôme explained this was a good way to deal with the situation because after 40 days you were either fine or dead. 

Quiot Wines

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Ruby blossom

Elderflower Cocktail

The Dolin Dry has been nagging me, especially since I did the vermouth posting a few days ago.  I knew I wanted to get it in a cocktail and on the list, but I hadn’t come up with anything special to do with it.   The inspiration came in the form of ruby red grapefruit juice, which we had leftover from an event. 

I got behind the bar and unlike every other time I’ve tried to make a cocktail, I got this one on the first try.  I chose DH Krahn gin because a)they’re really nice guys and b) it’s very tasty – sweet citrus, coriander and ginger – just the spicy hint that I thought would balance out the ruby red. 

Next, I wanted a floral component, so I chose St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur.  The elderflower blossoms are handpicked in the foothills of the Alps in a 2-3 week period in the spring and delivered via a specially rigged bicycle to the distillery.  They claim to have a secret method of extracting the essence from these flowers without producing any bitterness. Pretty romantic, huh? 

I use the Dolin Rouge all the time, especially for Manhattans, but I thought the lighter, more crisp Dry would add the perfect amount of herbaceousness to the concoction.  I was on the fence as to whether the cocktail needed a touch of sweetness (I hate sweet cocktails), so I compromised by tossing a cherry into the bottom of the martini glass.

Come by and enjoy this with us starting tonight.

Ruby Blossom
2 oz. DH Krahn Gin
1 oz. Dolin Dry
1 oz. St-Germain
1 oz. ruby red grapefruit juice

Combine all ingredients over ice in a shaker, shake like you mean it, strain into chilled martini glass, garnish with a cherry and fantasize about frolicking in the French countryside in Spring.

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King of the wine frontier

davy-crockett-cYes, Davy Crockett makes wine. In fact, he’s currently celebrating his 20th anniversary in the business. Don’t get the wrong idea – this is no coon-skin-cork swill – this is good stuff. Fess Parker is his real name and before getting into the wine business he was an actor best known for playing Davy Crockett (catchy theme song here) and Daniel Boone.

Today I was at a lunch hosted by Tim Snider, his CEO and son-in-law, Lauber Imports and Dendor Wines, to honor the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard.

The winery and vineyards are located in Santa Barbara County, a region made famous by the 2004 movie Sideways. Throughout the film, the main character Miles (Paul Giamatti) poo-poos Merlot and praises the virtues of Pinot Noir. Believe it or not, Britain’s The Sunday Times reported that the film had a direct impact on wine sales in the western part of the United States – Merlot sales dropped 2% and Pinot sales went up 16% following its October release. Amazing that people would follow the advice of someone who chugged from the spit bucket.

The cooling winds from the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and the abundant sunshine make Santa Barbara County a great region for Pinot. But after what I tasted today, I think it’s an even better region for Rhône varietals (think Grenache Blanc, Syrah). Fess Parker makes many different wines at different price points, from value wines to single vineyard wines and one of them is even called Frontier Red.

Here’s what we tried:

1. Epiphany Grenache Blanc 2008. creamy texture with notes of lime, melon, minerals and wet dog (in a good way) backed up by bright acidity.

2. Fess Parker Santa Rita Hills Ashley’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2006. ripe apple and pear with a round, full mouthfeel. toasty, buttery, oaky, but not overdone.

3. Parker Station Pinot Noir 2007. I found this wine online for as low as $8.99. I’m always afraid of inexpensive Pinot Noir because it tends to be gross, but this was good juice. cherry cola and violets with light spice and a nice earthy quality.

4. Fess Parker Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002. this wine is no longer available, but Tim showed it to us to illustrate how the winemaking style at Fess Parker has changed over the years. this was a big, concentrated, highly extracted wine – more like a Syrah then a Pinot, with notes of stewed fruits, leather and mushrooms. Go figure that it was in the top 15 Pinots from California in Wine Spectator upon release and got a 93 from Robert Parker.

5. Fess Parker Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006. this was the grown-up, elegant, well-balanced version of #4. here, they began striving for prettier, more food-friendly styles of wine.

6. Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah 2005. blue and black fruits with smoked meat and black pepper.

So, like I said, this was no (Daniel) Boone’s Farm hogwash, but you might consider taking a bottle on your next camping trip – or maybe just enjoy one with your next dinner in the city.

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Sweetness is my weakness

Actually that’s not true. I’m more likely to order a second appetizer or a cheese plate instead of dessert, but I do really like sweet wines.

Sweet wines, like Riesling (REES-ling), are underappreciated. They’ve experienced short periods of popularity dating back to ancient times; the most admired wines of classic Rome were white and sweet and in the Middle Ages, several city states in Italy like Venice and Genoa profited from producing sweet wines. After that, the Dutch Wine Trade was making sweet loot from the sweet wines of western France in the late 17th century.

So, how do you get a sweet wine? Well, the most common way is to add some form of sweet grape juice and then stabilize it, so the yeast don’t start feeding on the additional sugar, which would start a second fermentation. The best sweet wines, however, are made by concentrating the sugar in the grapes. You can do this three ways.

1. noble rot, where a fungus pierces the skin of the grapes and sucks out the excess moisture (this category is called botrytized wines because the technical name for the fungus is botrytis cinerea)

Grey mould or noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) infection on English

2. Process frozen grape clusters, either by letting the grapes freeze on the vine or by using a freezer after harvest (this category is eiswein)

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3. Dry mature grapes on the vine or after picking (this category is dried grape wines)

Drying grapes

What counts as sweet? Wines taste sweet mostly because of the residual sugar they contain, but our perception of this can be altered by acidity, tannins, presence of carbon dioxide and serving temperature. Alcohol can also taste sweet. For example, a Chardonnay with only 2 g/l of residual sugar that is high in alcohol can taste sweet, while a sweet Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley) that contains over 30 g/l of residual sugar may taste dry when it’s young. Two other complicating factors: different terms are used in different languages to describe sweetness and only sparkling wine producers are required to indicate the sweetness level of their wines on the label.

I’ve recreated a chart I found helpful in The Oxford Companion to Wine:

Residual Sugar (RS) g/l English French German Italian Spanish
up to 4 (or not exceeding 9 as long as the acidity is within 2 g of the RS) dry sec trocken secco or asciutto seco
4-12 medium dry demi-sec halbtrocken abbocato semiseco
12-45 medium
(or medium sweet)
moelleux lieblich amabile semidulce
at least 45 sweet doux süss dolce dulce

So, why don’t more people like sweet wine? New wine drinkers often prefer some residual sugar in their wine, so perhaps sweetness in wine has become associated with a lack of sophistication. Others might fear that a dessert wine will be too sweet or cloying, but as long as there’s enough acidity to balance the sweetness, it will be anything but.

Here’s a food and wine pairing trick to try – pair a sweet wine with something sweet for dessert and together, both the wine and the dessert will seem less sweet. This is not intuitve for most people – 1+1 does not equal 2.

Here are some of my favorite matches: chocolate-based desserts with Banyuls (a fortified wine from southern France) or Tawny Port, nut-based desserts with Oloroso Sherry or Vin Santo (dried grape wine from Tuscany) and fruit-based desserts (especially berries) with Moscato d’Asti (a sweet sparkler from northern Italy) or Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (a vin doux naturel from the Rhône Valley). Many sweet wines, like Sauternes (botrytized wine from Bordeaux) or Madeira are brilliant with a cheese course if finishing savory is more your style.

Let your preconceptions go and have a little something sweet. They’re some of the best wines in the world.

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