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25
Aug
17

Nature’s Alarm Clock and the Life Cycle of a Grapevine©

 

The weather has become so screwy it’s a wonder that migrating birds know when it’s time to come and go or when perennial plants and hibernating animals sense naptime is over. In vineyards, climate change has the potential to disturb the signals that tell dormant vines to get up and going. Changing periods of daylight alert many  plants, like grapevines, that are sensitive to the relative amount of day and night as seasons pass from one state to another. The amount of daylight during a 24-hour period also is important. Variations in air temperature and the angle of the sun also play vital roles. As warm air increases, plant hormones and cells in the tips of a plant’s root triggers the plants to send out new growth. In the case of grapevines, the appearance of buds tells watchful winemakers and vineyard managers the cycle of growth and renewal is beginning. Bud break is the first joyful sign the vines are alive.

John Williams, owner-winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, notes that timing is crucial for grapevines. He says, “ If a grapevine gets up too early in spring, it’s very existence is in peril from crippling frosts lying in wait for its tender young buds. On the other hand, if it decides to sleep in, it may find itself at a competitive disadvantage from adjacent vines eager to grab space in the sunlight. Waking up is one of the most critical decisions the vine will make all year.”

During the long dormant season that precedes new growth, a lot of activity takes place in the vineyard. Vineyard workers are out in the field with pruning shears, tying the vines to supports for stability. Pruning vines sets the stage for the season’s growth, guiding the vine to grow in optimum directions to capture sunlight and moisture.

After a few weeks of vegetative growth, vines develop bunches of small flowers. Each flower will develop into a grape berry. This is a crucial time since frost can damage the potential development of grapes. The pollinated flowers drop their petals and form into tiny green bulbs. As plants develop during the growing season leaf production vies with grape development. Vineyard workers make many passes through the vineyard managing leaf removal and imperfect bunches to assure a proper balance between shade, sunlight, and air circulation around the remaining bunches. All grapes, whether ultimately red or white, hide their true nature and stay green until the middle of summer. The development of pigment on the skins takes place slowly in a process called veraison. Then the grapes continue to ripen until it’s time for harvest, or crush.

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16
Aug
17

GARGLING AND GURGLING WITH WINE, NOT LISTERINE

 

 

As a wine writer and educator, I have been invited to innumerable wine tastings both here and abroad. An invitation to visit Dom Ruinart, one of the most notable producers of champagne, was one of my most memorable early wine-tasting experiences.

On an overcast morning in Champagne,  the French region that lends its proprietary name to its local sparkling wine, our group of writers were ushered to a sizable vineyard whose plants were loaded with ripe grapes. I was handed a sharp metal clipper and set to work, relieving the vines of heavy bunches of berries, aka grapes,  and dropping them in a plastic bin. Serious vineyard workers, many of them arriving like migrating birds from as far away as Poland for every harvest, moved quickly along parallel vines of grapevines. The experienced workers left me far behind as I diligently clipped one bunch of grapes  after another. At the third swipe at a sizable bunch, I missed the grape stem and accidentally took a slice out of my finger.  It would be a overstatement to say blood ran like wine, but I needed a large Band-Aid to cover the beau-beau, the French version of our boo-boo.  It was a relief to know that after a few backbreaking attempts at contributing my share, to realize our group was involved in an exercise to illustrate the difficulties of bringing in the harvest. We were relieved from the back-breaking job, moving on to the next important stage: watching the grapes de-stemmed and crushed, grape juice flowing into vats

Thankfully, it was time for lunch. It is the custom to serve vineyard workers a hearty midday meal. Our reward was to share in a bountiful feast of stewed pork and wursts served with local red wine. We toured the local area around Rheims, the region’s ancient capital, with its glorious cathedral, famous for its connection with Joan of Arc, and its’ spectacular post-war stained glass windows designed by Chagall.

Later we dined at one of the best restaurants in Rheims, a city known not only for its history and culture, but also for its cuisine. Producers and wine writers take wine tasting seriously. Small talk was limited as we sampled the variety of Dom Ruinart’s excellent house styles. The only sound was the buzz of appreciative mm’s and ah’s counterpointed by a polite, discreet sound best described as a mix of gargling and gurgling. I needed to know the reason for the collective noise. “Why and how do you make those sounds,” I asked naively. The more experienced writers looked at me as though I had fallen off the turnip truck.

Bertrand Mur, Dom Ruinart’s chief and gentleman extraordinaire (who unfortunately is no longer with us) explained to the group, perhaps assuming I wasn’t the only one at the table who needed some instruction on the art of wine-tasting. “Let’s begin together so we’re all on the same page. In general, all wine tasting requires a few simple steps. Step one: Check the color and clarity for champagne, red, and white wine. Two: in general, always gently swirl wine to release its aromas. But never swirl champagne.” He shook his finger at us. “Swirling destroys the bubbles it took so long to cultivate and for which consumers pay top dollar. Next:  lift the glass  to inhale the wine’s aroma. Much of what we taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Finally, swish the wine around the mouth and then gently gargle a soupçon of wine.” (New wine drinkers may  develop a compulsion to swirl  every glass of liquid they drink, including their morning orange juice.)

I lifted my glass, swished and inhaled as directed, then attempted the gargle. Champagne bubbles caught at the back of my throat, and I choked, spewing a mouthful of bubbly across the table. So much for being sophisticated! After couple of tries, I learned to gurgle (or gargle, whichever you prefer) always discreetly.

 

15
Aug
17

GARGLING AND GURGLING WITH WINE, NOT LISTERINE Many years ago, during my early days as a wine writer and educator, I was invited to innumerable wine tastings both here and abroad. An invitation to visit Dom Ruinart, the remarkable producer of Champagne, ostensibly to help harvest grapes. Is as vivid in my mind today as it was long ago. On a gray morning In Reims, the heart of the French region that lends its proprietary name to its local sparkling wine, I was handed a sharp metal clipper and was ushered to a grapevine, the first in a long line that stretched for several yards. Serious vineyard works were already moving quickly along parallel vines of grapevines. I slowly approached one bunch of grapes, then another. At the third swipe at a sizable bunch of grapes, I missed the grape stem and accidentally took a slice out of my finger. Ouch! Blood ran like wine and I needed a large Band-Aid to cover the beau-beau, the French version of our boo-boo. The inexperienced American group failed to compete with experienced vineyard workers. It was a relief to know that after a few backbreaking attempts at contributing our share, we realized it was merely an exercise to show the difficulties of getting the harvest in. After we contributed a few bunches of grapes into baskets, we moved on to the next important stage, watching the berries de-stemmed and crushed. We joined the vineyard workers, many of them who arrived like migrating birds from as far away as Poland for every harvest. It is the custom to serve vineyard workers a hearty lunch. Our reward was to share in a bountiful feasted of pork and wurst stew and bottles of local red wine. Later we dined at one of the area’s best restaurants. Wine tasting by producers and wine writers is serious business. Small talk was limited as we sampled the variety of Dom Ruinart’s excellent house styles. The only sound was the buzz of appreciative mms and ahs counterpointed by a polite, discreet sound best described as a mix of gargling and gurgling. I needed to know the reason for all the mouth noises. “Why and how do you make that sound,” I asked naively. The more experienced writers looked at me as though I had fallen off the turnip truck. “First we inhale the wine’s aroma. Step two We swish the wine around the mouth to cover all areas of tongue and mouth,” was the answer. “Then you gently gargle a soupçon of wine.” Easier said than done. I lifted my glass, swished as directed, and attempted the gargle. Champagne bubbles caught at the back of my throat, and I choked, spewing a mouthful of bubbly across the table. So much for sophistication. I 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 a gurgle dissipates them. The technique is a boon to give a hint of what the wine offers. I tell new wine drinkers they will develop the habit of swirling every glass of liquid they drink, including their morning orange juice.

21
Jul
17

WINE IN THE WILD BLUE YONDER ©

 

Wine is becoming a major priority for a select group of fussy first and business class passengers jokingly referred to as “oeno-flyers” (as in oenophile, or wine lover.) These travelers show their preference for quality products even when soaring through the sky from one destination to another. A number of airlines are investing time and money to hire knowledgeable sommeliers to select wines with special labels that appeal to wine buffs that retain their qualities at high altitude and lower atmospheric pressure. The combination of these issues can change the tastes of both wine and food on a plane. Early on in the travel industry, airline executives spent time and money to find ways of making food that was palatable at sea level more tasteful on planes. As service expanded to include wine, they  were faced with the same issues of retaining aromas and taste earn choosing wines.

We usually describe wine in terms of taste, but in fact about 80% of taste is based on aroma. Since the sense of smell is the general introduction to a glass of wine, all the rules that apply on terra firma change when pressurized cabins and dry air on planes make it difficult for passengers to capture wine’s complex aromas and flavors. The constant loud drone in the cabin also negatively affects various flavor components. So what to look for when choosing wine in the wild blue yonder? Start with low acid wines free of heavy tannins, particularly reds. Instead look for lighter varietals, like Pinot Noir with fruity flavors and more accessible pleasant aromas.

Airlines face multiple problems once they find a wine that satisfies at high altitudes. No single producer can supply an airline that serves millions of bottles a year to its passengers. Cathay Pacific, for example, is said to have poured 1.5 million bottles year while United reports a staggering 7 million bottles. Qatar and Singapore Airlines claim their superior wines attract affluent travelers who want maximum comfort and pleasure onboard heading to and from their destinations.

 

20
Jul
17

“Sake” It to Me

 

Sushi restaurants are proliferating like cherry blossoms in spring across the U. S., challenging pizza parlors as a source for our favorite foreign food. Ironically, as young Japanese in their home country are switching to beer, whiskey, and wine, American customers are looking for an authentic alcoholic alternative to match with sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese dishes. No surprise then to see sales of sake, wine produced from rice rather than grapes, grow over 50% in the last decade.

Unfortunately, many consumers order generic sake in the same way they might call for a glass of bar wine without realizing its vast and complex possibilities. Inexpensive sakes are light years away from their excellent counterparts just as vin ordinaire differs from great Cabernets. Top-of-the-line rice wines have complex fruit flavors and aromas produced by breweries of significantly individual wines.

Adventuresome consumers who like sake and who are interested in quality should search out special Ginjos, or extra-special Daiginjos. Their producers use time-consuming. traditional methods to attain flavorful wines with finesse, starting with carefully polished, special starchy rice with a translucent coating instead of ordinary table rice. The first step reduces the rice to 60% of its original weight. After that, it requires a delicate process of fine-tuning and hands-on attention to timing that accounts for the cost of $30 to $85 a bottle.

Try an adventuresome jump to a lean, focused sake that makes an excellent partner to Western dishes. Despite the current preference for warmed sake in the States, aficionados of` sake affirm it tastes better served cool. Some believe heating a superb, top of the line sake amounts to a sacrilegious as serious as warming a fine Bordeaux. Sake can be enjoyed in a wine goblet as well as the cups most often served in a Japanese restaurant.

 

 

22
Jun
17

TRY ALSATIAN WINES. YOU’RE GONNA LOVE ’EM©’

Andre Soltner, former owner/chef of the three-star restaurant Lutèce and peripatetic teacher and lecturer on food, is a passionate advocate of Alsatian wines. He brags about the charming villages, cathedrals, and great museums of his home province, and is a reliable source of information about the great food and phenomenal wines of Alsace. Several years ago, he guided us on a gastronomic and wine tour of this charming area of gray stone villages in Northeastern France. Its wine have been prized for centuries. Unfortunately, its strategic position between Germany and France made it a constant battleground bounced back and forth like a coveted ball in a soccer game. Its dialect reflects its flip-flop heritage, as does its winemaking, prized for certain varietals grown in Germany, like Riesling. Over time, its French heritage won, manifesting itself in a passion for good food and wine.

By the 16th century, Alsatian wines were the most popular in Europe, until continual warfare and disease brought about a long period of decline. Since World War I, Alsatian winemakers were rewarded with official recognition by the French government with its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, a sign of outstanding quality and consistency.

A mosaic of soils and its dry climate, protected from rainfall by the Vosges Mountains, dictate the success of aromatic, fruit-driven whites. Pinot noir, a red grape that flourishes in a cool climate and six white grape varietals — Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat d’Alsace, Tokay Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer — are wines with subtle variations in aromas and tastes. Sometimes, they are blended to make a wine called Edelzwicker, a perfect match for the region’s hearty, flavorful cuisine.

When we crossed the region, past half -timbered houses that reminded me of a fairy-tale landscape, we were blown away by the wines created at the Zind-Humbrecht winery, Olivier Zind-Humbrecht treated us to a tasting of wine I consider among the most outstanding that ever passed my lips. I still recall the simple room where Olivier  generosity gave us an ample tasting, no doubt due more to dropping Soltner’s name than to my wiring credentials. (Alsace wineries, like many in France, do not have tasting rooms.) The memory of those amazing wines that come from a number os small vineyards  light up my heart when I see any of the winery’s production on a wine list or in a wine shop. Trimbach, a larger producer, is another very reliable producer.  One of my favorite varietals, besides the region’s Riesling is the golden Gewurztraminer whose bouquet is as rich as a Chanel perfume. Gewurztramineris the perfect partner for foie gras, and cheese, both soft and blue, Asian cuisines, and many desserts. Seek out Tokay Pinot Gris.

The best news is that Alsatian wines are very affordable. Reach for a recognizable, tall, slim, narrow-shouldered bottle for an absolute treat.

 

 

04
Jun
17

Wine at 35,000 Feet ©

 

Some passengers, jokingly referred to as “keno-flyers” make wine a major priority for their choice of airline. Fussy first and business class travelers often select an airline with an excellent list, paying particular attention to labels. Some airlines are investing time and money to hire knowledgeable sommeliers who look for wines that hold up well at 35,000 feet.

It’s tricky to pick good wine that retains its taste at high altitude so sommeliers need to select wines low on both acid and tannins with fruity flavors and pleasant olfactory qualities. They do better than wines with high tannin profiles in the blue yonder because pressurized cabins and dry air numb the taste buds. Altitude and lower atmospheric pressure also dull the senses, making it difficult for passengers to appreciate wine’s complex aromas and flavors. The sense of smell is also compromised, akin to trying to discern flavors with a cold, since almost 80% of taste is determined by smell. Loud noise, like the constant drone inside an airplane’s cabin, plays havoc on our palates by intensifying or dulling different flavor components, particularly with reds. The combination of these effects alters the tastes of both wine and food on a plane.

However, once a wine works well at altitude it’s difficult to find enough bottles from a single vineyard or producer to supply an airline over a long period of time since the number of bottles served to passengers each year number in the millions. Cathay Pacific is said to have served 1.5 million bottles in a recent year while United reports doling out wine on planes from 7 million bottles. Other airlines, like Qatar and Singapore Airlines claim their images are tied to perception about the quality of wine served aboard the planes, thereby attracting well-heeled travelers.

 




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