Archive for August, 2009

31
Aug
09

CHOCOLATE AND WINE: A PERFECT INDULGENCE

Chocoholics, those sweet-toothed confection addicts, would likely vote Valentine’s Day the year’s best holiday. Arguably the most popular square on the Hallmark calendar, February 14th is traditionally celebrated with fancy greeting cards, long-stemmed red roses and extravagant jewelry. But when lovers, either those in a new or a long-standing relationship, find diamonds and pearls surpass the realm of possibility, bonbons are a more practical and yummy alternative. Of course, real chocoholics don’t wait for a special holiday to indulge.
If the wrong chocolates can be an uninspired gift, it only takes a modicum of imagination to go beyond the ubiquitous heart-shaped box covered with red cellophane. It’s worth the extra effort to say “I love you” with luxurious artisanal chocolates.
Artisanal is the new, hot buzzword that covers a wide variety of products from cheese to chocolate. Artisanal chocolates are separated from the commercial by their producers’ dedication to freshness, high-quality ingredients and attention to detail. Those of us familiar with the flavor of ordinary commercial chocolates will be surprised by the experience of sensual, hand-crafted, preservative-free bonbons. Hand-made chocolates cast in imaginative shapes and decorated artistically seduce the eye as well as the tongue. Artisanal chocolatiers choose dark cacao beans from various geographic regions around the world, each with its own special flavor profile. Then luscious fruit and crunchy nut fillings take our taste buds to another level. Fine chocolates have consistent color and a satiny sheen, both of which are destroyed if refrigerated or kept longer than a month. Dark chocolate is nudging milk chocolate out of first place, making it the current flavor choice of consumers who look for a high butterfat content ranging between 61 to 72 percent and, happily, a lower caloric content since it contains less sugar and milk.
Chocolatier Joan Coukos, the innovative creator of Chocolat Moderne in New York City says, “Chocoholics are aware of cocoa’s biochemical reaction that releases endorphins. The sense of bliss it imparts is infinitely easier and more delicious than getting the same result at a gym.” Coukos reinforces the idea that chocolate-making is an art form. “I use hand-painted designs and imagery, like the Ingres nude that tops one chocolate in our luxury box.” That particular piece adds a sexy note to a day of love.
Pastry chef and chocolatier Norman Love was chosen over hundreds of competitors to create a special ultra-luxury line called “G” for the highly acclaimed Godiva company, whose gold boxes have come to represent luxe in the world of chocolates. Love says, “Godiva wanted to raise the bar by presenting visually appealing chocolates with singular, identifiable ingredients made with the finest raw products. Customers say the G line has a wow factor, too beautiful at first glance to eat.” The G line, like those of Chocolat Moderne, is hand-cast, painted and filled.
These treasures are guaranteed to warm a beloved’s heart, but to double the pleasure of Sweetheart’s Day pair the sweetest gift of all with a special wine. Some opine a glass of milk is the best complement to chocolate confections, but more adventuresome spirits will spring for a bottle of champagne, sparkling or still wine that satisfies both his and her palates. There are many heaven-sent partners guaranteed to transform an ordinary experience into an indulgent happening.
A good wine shop can help customers explore the adventuresome possibilities of serving chocolate with sparking wine and champagne, still or rare dessert wine, brandy, liqueur, Prosecco, port, sherry, and whisky. Carry out the day’s pink and red theme with a Rosé bubbly: Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine or Perrier Jouët non-vintage Rosé from France. Try the Italian sparkler, Mionetto Prosecco or a full-flavored, intense reds still wine like Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto D’Aqui . Try an aristocratic Bolla Amarone della Valpolicella for lush, port-like richness. Warre’s Otima, a light tawny Port, served slightly chilled, is an excellent companion to chocolate. Graham’s Ports, ranging in price, fit the bill with their excellent finesse and character. One chocolatier votes for Sandeman Founder’s Reserve port as a luxurious partner with dark chocolate, but he considers Eiswein’s as its truest mate, especially the superb Iniskillin, a Riesling with great aroma and attractive palate.

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31
Aug
09

BLOCKBUSTER WINES: THE FLOOZIES OF THE WINE WORLD

What’s going on with alcohol levels in wine? Every week, at a wine appreciation course I teach at Barnard College, I insist my students carefully examine labels, especially checking for the percent of alcohol. It used to be the average alcohol level ranged between twelve to twelve and half percent. Today, many winemakers, including prestigious ones in France, are reaching for sky-high alcohol levels of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen percent. Winemakers who make blockbuster wines are looking for bigger, fatter and more obvious wines.
Consumers should be concerned about dramatic change in style for several reasons. Wine aficionados should search for wines with finesse that are infinitely better partners with food. Next time check the label, and then notice how hot the high alcoholic wine feels in the mouth. Judge if there’s a deleterious, rather than companionable, effect on food. Also, blockbuster wines are rarely tasteful as aperitifs, and although the difference in percentages appears to be small, they have a more profound effect on absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream. Drivers beware.

Winemakers who are jumping on this trend ignore what should be a deep connection to the soil, choosing heavy irrigation and substantial fertilization rather than organic practices that permit soil and weather to speak through the grapes. The manipulated wines are, in the opinion a Napa vintner, subject to “grapes having a long hang time on the vine, producing higher sugar levels that convert to greater alcohol content. This is like Coke and candy bar feeding, that together with heavy length of time in oak barrels, reduces the natural flavors of the grape and specific vineyard sites.” This winemaker, known for his sense of humor as well as a serious commitment to producing fine wine, says blockbuster wines are like a girl with a boob job. He asks the consumer to cast a vote for an All-American natural beauty who Mom would be proud you brought home, rather than a brash floozie.

23
Aug
09

AN EARLY EXCURSION IN WINE-TASTING

As a writer, I’ve been invited to innumerable tastings both here and abroad. I remember my first important experience, sponsored by Dom Ruinart, the excellent champagne house in Rheims, France. A small group of writers were invited to pick grapes, watch them crushed, and partake of a hearty local dish of pork and wursts prepared for vineyard workers. We were invited to dine at Champagne’s best restaurants. We joined Dom Ruinart’s president for a tasting of remarkable sparkling wines. Since wine tasting is serious business, there was no small talk as we got to sample the variety of house styles.  The only sound was  the buzz of  appreciative “mmm” and ahh, counterpointed by a polite, discreet, but nonetheless recognizable sound of gargling and gurgling.

“Ah, why and how do you make that peculiar sound,” I asked naively. The more experienced writers looked at me as though I had fallen off the turnip truck. If anyone else didn’t know, they were smart enough to keep their questions to themselves.

“We swish the wine around the mouth to cover all areas of tongue and  mouth,” was the answer.  “Then you gargle a soupcon of wine.”

Easier said than done. Among that distinguished group, I lifted my glass and took a swallow. Champagne bubbles caught at the back of my throat, and I choked, spewing a mouthful of wine across the table. So much for sophistication.

I have since learned to gargle discretely. But I never fail to explain why wine is swirled in the glass (to aerate it, of course … except for champagne because we pay extra for bubbles and don’t want to dissipate them). Then the first sip is swished in the mouth and gently gargled. I tell participants in my wine courses they will develop the habit of swirling every glass of liquid they drink, including their morning orange juice.   Who said life was easy?

23
Aug
09

WHY WINE?

Did Julius Caesar wax rhapsodic about vintage XXI? No doubt he, like his elbow-bending countrymen, set about drinking up the local brew of his local patria and Rome’s conquered lands. Today’s Europeans don’t fuss over distinctions about wine. They buy the local product and drink it with every meal, doling out a teaspoon or two mixed with water to children, weaning them from milk to the preferred drink of adults. Wine is part of the European dining experience, and its popularity has spread to every region of the world. There are wineries in Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand. I have even visited a winery in China.
Americans are more tentative about wine than either their European or Commonwealth counterparts. They stubbornly cleave to the old adage “I know what I like,” that when translated means “I like what I know”. Americans are more comfortable with old stand-bys of soda and beer. Why bother with confusing wines, dazzling subdivisions of grapes, colors and hues, plethora of labels, green or clear bottles with high or low shoulders, stubborn corks versus pop-tops, and stultifying rules about food and wine pairings? Good old Colas, orange pop and root beer are predictable, unsurprising, reliable. Coke’s famous logo scrawled across its red and white can is recognizable whether you’re in Kansas, Morocco or China container. The cans’ contents taste the same, and they’re affordable for every pocket and for every age range. The familiar gasp of air escaping from the top of a can of soda is pretty satisfying and certainly easier than wrestling with a corkscrew and cork to get the liquid out of its container. Soda is dandy, or at least inoffensive, with most foods, its fizz is refreshing, and most of all, it’s always consistent. Macho Beer is high on the popularity list, frothy cold beer in a frosted glass, laid back straight from can by Marboro man types, college jocks, or hip ladies who want the buzz of a head of beer. Beer stands alone, needs no accompaniment, and is great with pizza and peasant dishes from Italy, France, Germany, as well as Chinese food.

So why wine? Wine is convivial. Opening a bottle and sharing it with friends or family (or even drinking a lonesome glass) lightens the spirit. Wine is a natural product, relatively low in alcohol and drunk in moderation can be a healthy addition to life. There’s a good deal of evidence that red wine help scour cholesterol from arteries and keeps our bodies healthy. The wide variety of tastes are an invitation to inquisitive spirits. Drinking a wine one has found to suit one’s palate is akin to renewing an old friendship. Trying a new label is adventurous, a reaching out to meet a new acquaintance. Personal taste is the best judge of choice whether in friendship or wine; some may fizzle, and others become life-long companions. If you’re daunted by too many choices in a wine shop or on a wine list, listen to the advice in this book. For starters, keep in mind there are only three kinds of wine; RED, WHITE AND ROSE.

23
Aug
09

HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN WINE

EVER DREAM OF BLENDING YOUR OWN WINE?

Where can an œnophile unlock the mystery of how grapes translate into an elixir, especially in a professional setting? Some wineries market shares in vines to a few lucky investors, but the return on their investment is delivery of bottled wine. Bennett Lane Winery, a new facility in Napa Valley near the quaint town of Calistoga, has a unique program. Club members who sign on for regular delivery of new vintages, or one time-visitors and small groups visiting Napa Valley can make arrangements to work with winemaker Rob Hunter. They have a hands-on experience of blending wine, while learning Hunter’s fine-tuning of several wines, including Maximus, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah blend, priced around $30. To fulfil a dream of making your own wine at a winery, contact http://www.bennettlane.com or call (707) 942-6684.
But some of us want the experience of making our own wine at home. A restaurateur we know makes Grappa infused with figs at his house. My father-in-law made his own wine in the bathtub. My husband and I bought a winemaking kit from Sears, Roebuck years ago with high expectations of following the step-by-step instructions with supermarket grapes. Voila, we thought. Scrumptiously delicious wine! Wrong! Ultimately the gloppy mess, which made our neighborhood smell like vinegar, went down the drain. Oh, if it was only that easy!
I’ve treasured the privilege as wine writer and educator to be invited on press trips to check out soils, prune vines, and work on de-stemmers. I’ve tasted newly pressed grape juice from stainless steel tanks and barrels that offer a promise of its future. But the most fun sessions focused on blending still and sparkling wines under watchful eyes of major winemakers, hoping my efforts turned into something palatable. The process was intimidating as a college senior’s final chemistry exam. I was bollixed by how much Merlot will soften a rough Cabernet Sauvignon, or whether Semillon adds flavor and backbone to Sauvignon Blanc. I’m glad I only write about wine, not to produce it, although in my secret heart of hearts, I’d love the challenge.

16
Aug
09

DEALING WITH THE WINE LIST AND/OR THE SOMMELIER

Wine lists are mind-boggling, especially since no two are alike. Sometimes, wine lists have been changed by the time you revisit a favorite haunt. It makes picking a wine daunting, almost as if you’ve been thrown into an familiar lion’s den, needing to deal with a bunch of new lions after you’ve tamed the old ones. Be of good cheer. Hopefully, many wine lists contain well-advertised, familiar standbys produced by wineries churning out thousands of cases of generally safe, if undistinguished choices.
Unfortunately, not all restaurants have knowledgeable waiters, and if you’re lucky, there might be a sommelier who can help a confused consumer. A friendly sommelier (and sometimes that’s an oxymoron) can point our a good pairing for the food you’ve ordered or the best buy on the carte de vins. It means relinquishing embarrassment over asking for advice. Instead, he or she might think, “What a canny consumer.”

Restaurant prices are generally marked up somewhere between two and a half to three times. (No wonder people seek out BYOB restaurants.) The best idea is to avoid choices at the low and high ends of the price point on the list. Go the middle route, and look for good value at the low end of the middle range.

Basic rules about wine and food pairings aren’t meant to be ten commandments inscribed in stone. Rather the hackneyed rules are meant to be  pliable suggestions. In general, white is appropriate as an aperitif or an accompaniment to appetizers, as well as fish, shellfish and light chicken dishes. Reds are perfect matches with filling entrees: meat, poultry and certain fish, like tuna, salmon, and bluefish. So how to pick a white? Fruity, well-crafted Sauvignon Blancs from Napa or New Zealand’s Babich, are my favorites, better than over-manipulated, over-oaked Chardonnays for my particular taste buds, but then who is to say what makes your mouth happy. Pinot Noirs are safe bets, especially from California, Oregon, and Burgundy. And let’s not ignore the current hot red—Merlot.

Be brave if there isn’t a helpful waiter or wine steward. Remember my advice: buying a bottle of wine isn’t a permanent commitment. It’s just a bottle of wine, and chances are, it can convert an ordinary experience into a convivial moment.

16
Aug
09

CALIFORNIA: THE GREAT GRAPE STATE

Wine producers, growers, and regional representatives recently hosted a luncheon for press, trade, and consumers called “California Wine Rush ” in concert with California Wine Month, an event dedicated to highlighting the quality and diversity of California’s wine culture. While the state’s total wine production falls behind that of France, Italy, and Spain, American consumers choose California wines for two out of three bottles.

Around four thousand six hundred grape growers and two thousand seven hundred family-owned and operated wineries represent regional viticultural counties throughout the state.  Strange as it seems, Napa Valley, arguably the most prestigious and well-known wine-growing community, produces only three percent of California’s total production.  Forty-six of the state’s fifty-eight counties, including Amador, Carneros, Livermore, Lodi, Mendocino, Monterey, Paso Robles, Napa, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma produce a diversity of wine grapes that stretch beyond Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel and Riesling indicate an adventurous jump to other grape varieties in a wide range of styles and prices. Around one hundred fifty wines at the “California Wine Rush” ranged in price from $10 – $140 per bottle and demonstrated the food-friendliness of California wines.

Good news in these troubled monetary times include some interesting facts about the overall contribution by California’s wine industry to the American economy. The  industry employs 875,000 jobs nationwide, with $19 billion in retail sales in the U.S. in 2007, (excluding exports).

California Wine Rush emphasized sustainability, a key initiative across the state’s wine-growing regions. Karen Ross, President, California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) said, “Simply put, sustainability means that we grow and make wine in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the livelihood and needs of future generations.” California’s Sustainable Winegrowing Program—based on a code of two hundred thirty-two best practices covering every aspect of winemaking and winegrowing from ground to bottle— was created in 2002. Since then, many growers and vintners adopted these socially and environmentally responsible practices that go hand in hand with consumers’ growing interest in organic and sustainably-grown wines. For more information on sustainable winegrowing, log on to sustainablewinegrowing.org. For information pertaining to winery visits, log onto discovercaliforniawine.com for interactive regional wine maps, interviews with vintners and growers, and explanations about wine-making.




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