Monthly Archives: May 2009

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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It’s cool enough for 007

James Bond invented a drink in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale.

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.” (Ian Fleming, Casino Royale)

What a guy. This later became the Vesper Martini (named for his love-of-the-moment Vesper Lynd). You’ll notice that the recipe calls for Kina Lillet, which has not been available since the early 1980s, so Lillet Blanc or dry vermouth is often substituted.

Vermouth is a an herb-flavored fortified wine. Industry folks call it an “aromatized” wine. Many herbs and spices are used, but the more classic version is the almost dry, bitter drink with the strong aroma of wormwood and other bitter herbs. Yes, I said wormwood (artemisia absinthium), a major ingredient in absinthe and rumored to have caused hallucinations. Turns out that some poisonous chemicals were added to cheaper versions of absinthe in the 19th century to give it a more vivid green color. Also, keep in mind that the people reporting these “visions” were very thirsty bohemian artists.

The wormwood did however inspire the creation of vermouth. In the 16th century, a Piemontese man named d’Alessio began marketing a medicinal concoction after enjoying a wormwood flavored Bavarian wine called wermuth. The “medicine”, used to treat gastric ills, also became popular in French royal circles and was called vermutwein. So what we have today is the Anglicized form of the word, vermouth.

Modern large-scale production dates to the 18th century in Piedmont, close to the alps, which were a source for the necessary botanicals. Brands such as Cinzano, Martini and the French Noilly Prat never claimed any curative powers, especially during the early and mid 20th century, when cocktails containing vermouth were incredibly popular.

There are three styles of vermouth on the market today: extra dry, bianco/white and sweet/red. White vermouths are often referred to as French vermouths and reds as Italian, but it’s not always the case. It’s also not the case that red wine is used as a base in red vermouth; the color comes from the caramelization of the sugar used to sweeten it.

My favorite vermouth producer is Dolin, produced in the only controlled appellation for vermouth, Chambéry. Theirs are lighter, more elegant and just plain prettier than most of the commercial producers.

Here’s how I take my medicine at home:

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My Manhattan
(if you have a catchier name, please post a comment)

2 oz. rye – I like Rittenhouse 100
2 oz. Dolin rouge
4 dashes orange bitters

combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously (no stirring, of course) and pour into a chilled martini glass. we don’t usually have our act together to serve it with a garnish, but a cherry or an orange wedge would do the trick.

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Don’t call it rum

Call it cachaça (ka-SHAH-sa) if you’re talking about the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil or the key ingredient in the killer summer cocktail caipirinha (kie-pur-YEEN-yah). Most rums are made with molasses, while cachaça is made with fermented sugarcane juice.

Technically, cachaça is a brandy in the aguardente family – a strong alcoholic beverage between 29-60% alcohol obtained by fermenting and then distilling a sweetened must (vegetables, fruit, grain or cane). Aguardente translates to “firewater” or “burning water”, but fear not, there will be some refreshing cocktails at the end of this post.

The production of cachaça began soon after the introduction of sugarcane into Brazil, around 1550. It’s hard to say whether the fermentation of the sugarcane was by accident or was the work of a thirsty spirit.

It’s similar to rum in the sense that you can find both unaged (white/clear) and aged (gold from the barrel aging) versions. Look for notes of fresh sugarcane, flowers, citrus and perhaps some vegetal notes like cucumber or celery in an unaged cachaça; an aged one might also give you oak, toast, vanilla or sweet baking spices.

Classic Caipirinha
2 oz. cachaça
1 tsp. sugar
1 lime, cut in chunks
ice

muddle lime with sugar in a rocks glass, fill with ice, pour in cachaça and garnish with lime wedge

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A fun way to mix up this drink is to add fruit. My favorite is strawberry, but you could also try mango, pineapple or passionfruit. If you wanted to be fancy, you could infuse the cachaça with your fruit/vegetable/herb of choice.

You can also find this version at L’Ecole.

Going Green
2 oz. cachaça
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. lemon juice
2 pieces green bell pepper (each about the size of a quarter)
5 basil leaves
1 sugar cube
3 shakes salt

combine pepper, basil, sugar and salt in sturdy glass and muddle. add ice, cachaça, lemon juice and simple syrup and shake vigorously. do not strain. pour into a rocks glass, top with a splash of soda and garnish with a basil leaf.

Saúde!

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Don’t let this happen to you

If you’re planning on any summer fun at the wineries this year, mind the elevated grape stomping bins.  This was actually broadcast live on Fox.

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To decant or not to decant?

decanter

And the answer is: Decant!  No, it’s not that easy, but it’s close.  Here are some thoughts on how to decide.

The most obvious reason to decant is to separate the wine from any sediment that has formed in the bottle.  Sediment won’t hurt you, but it doesn’t look pretty in your glass and can sometimes taste bitter or astringent.  Before winemakers knew how to clarify their wines properly, decanting was the norm.  Now, it is rare for inexpensive, everyday table wines to throw any sediment.  A common culprit is vintage port – it’s bottled early in its evolution, so it will often throw a heavy deposit.  Other aged red wines will too, because some of the solids have precipitated out as part of the maturation process.  We can save “which wines are ageworthy” for another posting, but if it’s in a box, a jug or if it’s colored pink, drink it up and don’t worry about decanting it.

The other main reason to decant is to aerate the wine and encourage the development of the wine’s bouquet.  Don’t laugh because I used the term bouquet – it’s been used since the first half of the 19th century to describe the perfume of the wine.  My dad likes to bust my chops about the difference between aroma and bouquet and while many authorities may have a differing opinion about when a wine’s smell stops being an aroma and becomes a bouquet, it boils down to this: aroma is the simple smell of the grape and bouquet refers to the more complex compounds which evolve from fermentation and bottle aging.  So there, pops.

Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible advocates decanting very tannic wines (think Barolo, Bordeaux, some Rhônes) and notes that it can be detrimental for more delicate wines (think Chianti or Pinot Noir).  Noted oenologist Émile Peynaud on the other hand argues that the action of oxygen dissolved in a sound wine when it’s ready to be served is detrimental – the aroma instead of being pronounced will be diffused and less marked.  He suggests only decanting when there’s sediment and just before serving.  Keep in mind that if you are following the steps from “swirl it, sniff it and slurp it down”, you’re aerating the wine as you agitate it in your glass.

Some folks claim that decanting softens the tannins in wine and experts have contested that decanting merely alters the perception of sulfites and other chemical compounds through oxidation, therefore making the wine seem easier to drink.  One thing we don’t have to argue about is the fact that a decanter looks darn pretty on your table (especially when it’s full of wine) and will get everyone excited for the meal.

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Fit me on the jitney

I have to admit that I’ve taken this title from the name of a nail polish, one that was my toe color a few summers ago. I’m using it because I rode a Hampton Jitney yesterday. But don’t be confused, I wasn’t on a bus full of aspiring socialites; I was with a bunch of chef instructors from the French Culinary Institute.

Mercer Tools sponsored a professional development trip for some of the instructors at my school and took us to Paumanok Vineyards, Peconic Bay Winery and The North Fork Table.

It was a special day at Paumanok because budbreak was starting on some of the vines, like this Sauvignon Blanc:

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The grounds at Paumanok are beautiful and I would’ve taken more shots had it not been for the constant rain. They have a deck overlooking the vineyards and it’s just begging you to sit out with a glass of wine. I think the trip might have changed a few minds that would have previously poo-pooed spending a weekend day on Long Island.

Kareem Massoud, the winemaker, tasted us through 3 whites, 3 reds and their late harvest Riesling.

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We tried the 2008 Chenin Blanc, the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2007 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay:

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I’ve used the Barrel Fermented Chardonnay in some of my wine classes before to show a good, local example of Chardonnay that exhibits well-integrated oak. You can still taste the apples, pears and melon instead of having the sensation of chewing on oak chips.

The unofficial crowd favorite of the day was the 2008 Chenin Blanc. Just bottled, it was bright, crisp and refreshing with lots of pink grapefruit. Luckily, the Massouds were willing to wheel out a few cases at the end of the tasting so several of us could make purchases.

We also tried the 2006 Cabernet Franc, the 2004 Grand Vintage Merlot and the 2005 Assemblage (this vintage was 44% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Petit Verdot). We’ll be pouring the Cabernet Franc by the glass soon at L’Ecole – cherries, earth and spice dominate this light to medium red. The reds of Paumanok recently got a nice write up in the NYT, so if you’d like to learn more, go here. The late harvest Riesling was also a hit – not too viscous, with great acidity and lots of peaches and dried apricots on the nose and palate.

The next stop was Peconic Bay, the third oldest vineyards in Long Island, with Chardonnay vines dating back to the late 1970s. Pascal, their Retail Operations Manager, led us through a tasting of their 2006 Steel Fermented Chardonnay, 2006 La Barrique Chardonnay, 2006 Riesling, 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 Lowerre Reserve Merlot and Polaris, their signature dessert wine.

The highlight of this visit was when we left the tasting room and went into the winery for some barrel samples:

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We tried their Steel Fermented Chardonnay again, this time the wine was still waiting for an additional filtration before bottling and the star of the show, their 2007 Merlot. It was juicy, with plums and cherries and plenty of chewy tannins. Conditions in 2007 were warm and dry and this will be a vintage to watch in Long Island. If you’re a fan of Wine Spectator, they’ve given the 2007 vintage in Long Island an A.

This blog is making it seem like I spend every weekend in Long Island – I’m two for two since A Thirsty Spirit’s inception. I can assure you I’m not being paid by their tourism board, but I’ll admit that it’s easy to get to (even without a van or jitney), green and has lots of tasty things to eat and drink.

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Woo-hoo for Weschlers

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Weschlers Currywurst opened in a sliver of a space in the East Village (1st Ave between 7/8) just a few weeks ago and is a German beer lover’s dream. It came about because its owner, Andre Weschler, missed the currywurst from his German hometown of Hamm. He must be doing right by the currywurst because in the few hours we were there, several German parties came by to eat, drink or just say, “Guten Abend!”

This is what’s currently on tap:

Reissdorf Kölsch: lean, clean and mean. clear golden yellow with refreshing bitterness and cereal malt on the palate.

Kölsch is a traditional German ale and the local brew of the city of Cologne (“Köln” in German). It’s one of Germany’s palest beers and tends to be less bitter than their standard lager, Pils. You can’t always find it in the U.S., but if you do, it’s likely to be either Reissdorf or Gaffel. It’s always served in a 0.2 liter (6 3/4 oz.) straigt-sided glass called a Stange (stick, pole or rod) like this:

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Hofbräu Original: citrus, grassy, delicate – very drinkable – good for your friends who like Budweiser.

Hofbräu ia one of Munich’s oldest breweries. They make a lager, a dark beer and a wheat beer – the original is their lager and follows the German Purity Law which states that beer can only be made from 4 ingredients – malt, yeast, hops and water. This is no longer enforced, but Hofbräu still abides by these standards.

Uerige: deep amber in color, full-bodied, aromatic with with notes of caramel and toffee.

This is a German style brown ale or Düsseldorf altbier that’s been brewed since 1862. Interestingly enough, the German bartender pronounced this yule-e-ger. He said the u followed by the e is the equivalent of a u with an umlaut (ü).

Radeberger was the 4th beer on tap. The brewery started in 1872 in Radeberg, a suburb of Dresden and was the first German brewery to brew beer exclusively in the Pilsner style. I’ve had it several times before (straw, apple, citrus, very refreshing), so I didn’t opt for it tonight, but I did observe the bartender making a cocktail by combining it with Sprite. This was unlike any shandy I’d seen before and he explained it was called “The Radler”, which means cyclist in German (light enough for them to finish the race?).

We tried this one offered by the bottle:

Schneider Weisse Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse: this was the star of the evening – orange, clove, banana, yeast. liquid gold in color – full and smooth.

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This is the German version of the collaboration between Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver and Hans-Peter Drexler, the brewmaster from Schneider. We ordered this one because our friend asked the bartender for the beer with the highest level of alcohol. I’ve got to get my hands on the Brooklyn version (different bottle, different hops used).

I know we’re supposed to be focused on beverages here, but it’s worth the trip for the sausage, too – currywurst, boar, chicken and apricot, and merguez were all juicy and delicious. The hand-cut fries made a nice showing, too. All of this greasy deliciousness was a perfect complement to the impressive roster of German brews.

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Get spritzed

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Even though it’s not looking like a great spring weather weekend, there’s no reason not to enjoy a tasty spring cocktail.

With less than half the alcohol, Aperol might seem like Campari’s teetotaling cousin, but it has a charm all its own. Aperol is in the bitters family, just like Fernet Branca, Cinzano or Dubonnet. It’s sweet with a bite, with notes of bitter orange and rhubarb. Aperol’s secret recipe of fruits, vegetables, herbs and roots dates back to 1919. The original recipe was developed by the Barbieri family in the Veneto region of Italy and it is now produced by the Campari company. You can enjoy it on the rocks, with sparkling water, as part of a wine spritzer or in one of the cocktails below.

Aperol Spritz
2 oz. Aperol
2 oz. Moscato d’Asti (sweet, low alcohol wine from northern Italy)
1 oz. orange juice
combine these ingredients with ice/shake/strain
pour into a rocks glass with ice and top with a splash of soda and garnish with an orange wheel

Spring Spritz
1.5 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Aperol
1 lime wedge
1 orange wedge
combine these ingredients with ice/shake/strain
pour into a rocks glass with ice and top with splash of 7-Up and garnish with an orange wheel

The first cocktail is close to a traditional spritz, but uses a dessert wine instead of a dry white or Prosecco. Moscato d’Asti is easy to find, inexpensive, effervescent and its sweetness plays nicely against the bitter orange character of the Aperol. The second cocktail isn’t technically a spritz since it contains no wine, but it’s still bright, refreshing and well-balanced because of the sweetness of the bourbon. Cheers, or as the Italians might say, cin cin!

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