Archive for January, 2010



Wine fanciers should be concerned about dramatic change in alcohol levels. It used to be the most common alcohol level ranged between twelve to twelve and half percent. Today, many winemakers, including prestigious French vintners, are reaching for sky-high alcohol levels between fourteen and sixteen percent. Blockbuster wines are made by vintners looking for bigger, fatter and less subtle wines that are less food-friendly, hotter on the tongue. It is more advisable to look for wines with finesse that partner better  with food. Always check the label for the percentage of alcohol, usually written in very small print on the right side of the label. If you care to experiment, try a bottle with fifteen percent or higher level of alcohol and judge if it has a deleterious, rather than companionable, effect on food. To be honest, on rare occasions in this writer’s opinion, in some wines crafted so well, the high alcohol level marries well with the flavors of tannin, fruit and acid.

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 and foodies beware.



Decanting  supposedly lets the wine breathe and release its aromas. Breathing is essential for animals and plants, but is it necessary for wine? Removing wine from its original bottle to another container is a holdover from the days when wine connoisseurs cellared expensive wines to age. Today, decanting is often done more for romance and cachet than for necessity, especially when most of us choose relatively new wines, rather than fine old Bordeaux.

It is true aromas develop with air contact. (Picture a happy genie stretching out after being locked in a bottle.) Some young wines can use a dash of decanting to open ope their flavors and develop their bouquets removing some astringency and tannins. Pretentious or ignorant waiters, like one who decanted a straw-covered bottle of Chianti, often ask if they should let the wine breathe. They removed the cork, a rather useless effort because air touches only the small amount of wine at the top of bottle’s narrow neck. The truth is wine constantly evolves as it is exposed to more air in a glass. However, pulling a cork half an hour before drinking can dispel off-odors, sometimes called “bottle stink.” When entertaining at home, it can be more convenient for a host busy with other tasks.

So why decant? What to decant? How to decant? Another purpose of decanting is to remove sediment, the ugly residue of tannins accumulating in the bottle.  Young wines generally throw off little sediment, so decanting should be reserved for older heavier reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon or some unfiltered wines. Decanting requires a steady hand and a good eye. First check if the sediment lies against the side of the bottle or at the bottom.

Always stand the bottle upright several hours to three days before or place it in a decanting basket that tips the bottle at twenty degrees.

The decanter must be absolutely clean and free from any bad smell or soap residue.Tilt the bottle against the light of a candle. A bulb or flashlight has less cachet, but both work equally well. Gently and carefully remove the cork. Wipe the inside of the neck of the bottle carefully. Pour the wine into the decanter in one go, checking constantly until the solid matter at the end of the pour starts to move into the decanter.  Remember gentle and careful are the operative words. It may be necessary to sacrifice an inch or more to leave behind the sludge that ruins wine.

Most importantly, remember it is old wines that need decanting. Yet very old wines fade quickly with too much fresh air after years of being bottled up for a long time.

Many wine lovers prefer to see the dusty old bottle on the table than to decant. There’s a to of pleasure seeing the label, the name of the winery, and the vintage date.



Today’s increasingly complex menu preparations require a committed partnership between chef and sommelier. The best interests of customers are served when the master of the kitchen and the keeper of the wine cellar work in harmony to determine the best match between food and wine. But often, food and wine professionals jealously guard their domains. The best interests of consumers are served when territorial turf wars and oversized egos are set aside. The partnership requires the sommelier to have a comprehensive understanding of the chef’s culinary creations, theoretically playing a supporting role to the chef with intimate involvement with the philosophy and ingredients that will pass through the kitchen door.
Restaurant patrons look to a wine steward for help deciphering a wine list loaded with unfamiliar labels and varietals from wine regions around the world. (Ah, for the simpler days of red- sauced Italian food and Chianti poured from straw-covered bottles.)
The exemplary partnership between thirty-year old Chef Chris Kostow and Sommelier Rom Toulon, a young transplanted Frenchman, at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley isthe best example of this working relationship. Chef Kostow’s contemporary French cuisine blends Napa Valley’s farm-to-table tradition into elegant culinary creations well received by patrons. He has been awarded two Michelin stars, as well as numerous other awards, and notices in many publications. Toulon brings his European insights and expertise to Californian and New World wines. He stays in constant touch with Kostow’s inventive a la carte, four, or nine course presentations. Each time the chef develops a new dish Toulon tastes between nine and twelve wines in consultation with his knowledgeable and well-trained wait staff before handing down a final verdict on a desirable pairing. Even after all that consideration, Toulon leaves room for savvy diners to express their personal tastes and choose from the restaurant’ extensive wine list. The remarkable undertaking between this chef and sommelier needs to be emulated in dining establishments across the country. A partnership like this is rare, but when it happens, a dining experience becomes immensely more enjoyable.



It used to be the custom to order a wine by country … think France, Italy, or the United States. Europeans take immense pride in appellation designations like Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace, and Chianti. Today, there is an on-growing, insistent demand for American winemakers to identify themselves by differentiating wines by specific place in order to educate consumers about a particular viticultural area called an appellation.
The rules governing appellation designations set harvest dates; regulate irrigation; the amount of wine produced from each ton; aging in stainless steel tanks, barrels, and bottles; the addition of sugar, and minimum levels of alcohol. Rules also determine a varietal name, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, guarantees the inclusion of a minimum of seventy-five percent of a specific grape. Vintners take pride in the astoundingly different wines produced competing appellations. Bottle labels proudly declaring these associations and bearing the name of a particular grape, rather than generic terms like vin de pays or table wine, are considered more prestigious, infer better quality and often bring higher prices.
Appellation requirements vary from country to country. European countries have stringent regulations to ensure wines qualify for appellation designation, while in general American regulations are more lenient. A varietal name, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, guarantees the inclusion of a minimum of seventy-five percent of a specific grape.
Although California is replete with appellations, Napa Valley’s thirteen smaller areas have the most pizzazz, including notable names like Atlas Peak, Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, St, Helena, Spring Mountain, Stag’s Leap, and Rutherford. Each winery patriotically claims its appellation to be a star, and claims its wines superior because of a sense of place, a community of spirit, and a common terroir – a term winemakers use to describe geographical features, soil composition, sunshine, fog and rain. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms designates American Viticultural Areas, or AVA’s. As the number of appellations continues to emerge in wine-growing regions across the world, these designations are both a boon and source of confusion for wine buyers.



Spain is one the largest wine-growing regions in the world, with more land devoted to grape cultivation than Italy and France. Yet it’s taken a while for Spanish winemakers to catch up with the global competition for high quality wines, and for the public to learn to appreciate their efforts. The country’s vintners, using modern techniques and better vineyard management, entered the international race to produce great wine. Spanish wines, like Albarino, are reaching new benchmarks in production and quality.
Albarino, beloved by Spanish consumers, is a premier white wine produced in Northwest Spain. This varietal scores high as yet another wine worthy of attention beyond its country of origin. The thick-skinned grape thrives in the harsh climate and acid soil of Rias Biaxas, the second poorest area in Spain, isolated by mountains and ocean. Five major Rias Baixas zones, include Val do Salnes, O Rosal. Condado do Tea, Soutomaior, and Ribeira do Ulla. Each has a unique terroir, with soils comprised of granite, slate, and sand, and a wide range of temperatures from freezing to 104 degrees. The region’s terroir is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and an average of fifty-five inches of rain in spring and fall, the highest rainfall in Spain that exceeds England’s proverbial record. An average of two thousand hours of summer sun moderates spring and fall’s relentless damp weather to control problems like mildew. New Albarino clones and a pergola system of growing vines resolve other disasters that decimated vineyards 1851, 1885, and 1899. The varietal had all but disappeared until local winemakers were pushed by restaurants and customers to recreate the white wine. Albarino was replanted and today close to two hundred bodegas produce the wine. Many of the smaller producers bottle estate grown wines while others sell their grapes to cooperatives and large-scale producers.
Albarino is mostly bottled with one hundred percent of the varietal, but is also blended with other local grapes. Loureia adds flowery and balsamic aromas, while Caino Blanco, a grape on a par with Albarino but less well-known, adds complexity and structure to the wine. Oak is occasionally used to make the wine more full-bodied, but new oak in particular negates some of the wine’s most desirable characteristics. Labels offer information as to whether it is one hundred percent Albarino or a blend. Whichever, Albarino is a scrumptious, serious white wine, fresh on the palate, one that deserves attention because of its intense floral and citrusy aromas, strong gold color, and well-balanced acidity, coupled with hints of pineapple, mango, melon, citrus, and mineral flavors on the palate. It is a sprightly companion for summer drinking, perfect as an aperitif or when paired with veal, chicken, seafood, and shellfish. Think of it as a great partner for the all-American lobster shore dinner.
Although Albarino is a specialty of Rias Biaxas, other viticultural areas, like California and Virginia, are working hard to produce mouth-watering wines from this thick-skinned grape. Havens Albarino 2007 from the Carneros region of Napa Valley, California and Chrysalis Albarino from Middleburg, Virginia are two examples of the way the grape adapts to different subzones, with quite different flavors than those from Spain.
Look for wines produced by Terras Gauda O Rosal, a luscious blend at around $24. Don Olegario Albarina, at $20, and Laxas Albarino at $18. Condes de Albarei, a large cooperative, a value at $15. Palacio de Fefinanes with lovely complex flavors sells for around $19. Lagar de Fornoelos Albarino Rias Baixas Lagar de Cervera, at $19. Another reliable name to look for is Marques de Cáceres, a large-scale producer whose white wine prices run the gamut from $7.99 to $19.99. These affordable wines offer immediate enjoyment, with a shelf life of up to five years.

January 2010
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