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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.




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.





Since my early days as a wine writer and educator, I’ve been invited to innumerable wine tastings both here and abroad. One of my most memorable experiences was sponsored by Dom Ruinart, the excellent champagne house in Rheims, France. A small group of writer-colleagues was invited to pick grapes, watch the berries de-stemmed and crushed, and then partake of a hearty local dish of pork and wursts prepared for vineyard workers.

Later we dined at one of Champagne’s best restaurants. Wine tasting is serious business so there was no small talk as we got to sample the variety of Dom Ruinart’s house styles. The only sound was the buzz of appreciative mmm’s and ahh’s, 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 wine 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 soupçon 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 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. That first moment gives 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.


A Plug for Chilean Wines

What’s special about Chilean wines? The fact that they are often delicious, and as a general rule, inexpensive, makes them an unbeatable combination. Who can resist products that are pleasing to both palates and wallets?

Land and labor costs are still relatively low, so wines from the narrow spine that runs down the western coast of South America can be produced at a moderate price, many selling between $10 and $20 a bottle. This combination of value and taste make them serviceable and very attractive, particularly for everyday drinking and large parties.

Cortez and Spanish conquistadors introduced grapes and wine-making to Chile four centuries ago. Until the last decade or so, Chile was considered the worldwide wine team’s rookie player until serious winemakers realized the area’s potential. European and American investors like Robert Mondavi recognized that grapes thrive in excellent soils of several regions in the central valley around Santiago with its Mediterranean climate of warm, dry summers and cool nights. A Chilean, Augustan Hunneus, a wine entrepreneur who bought several wineries in Napa Valley, California, has bought land and started a winery in his native land. Investments in technology married modern wine-making techniques to good vineyard management. This unbeatable combination has catapulted the country’s wine industry into the Big League, with some dynamite wines. Chilean reds haven’t batted home runs on every occasion, but they are coming off the bench as significant players. Whites, trailing a short distance behind, are good bets, since constant fine-tuning is bringing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc up from the minors to a point where they can compete favorably with world-class players. Much of this has to do with the passion and pride of younger, enthusiastic Chilean winemakers who are practicing to hit home runs.

Labels to look for: Casa Lapostolle and Concho y Toro, Chile’s largest winery, whose inexpensive reds wines are marketed under the label of Casa Concha, Also look for Santa Rita and Carmen labels as well as Veramonte’s whites. Be aware that some high-end wines top out at $40 a bottle or more.

Personal note: my all time favorites come from  Casas del Bosque Estate Winery in chile’s Casablanca region. Grant Phelps, a Kiwi transplanted from New Zealand,  started his career as a flying winemaker making wine in Ibiza, Hungary, and Cyprus,. He finally  settled down producing a  fantastic terroir driven Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Noir. Phelps understands the particular soil quality and climate of the region, and spends valuable time at harvest deciding the optimum moment to pick, generally at night when low temperatures retard fermentation. Blending, an art in itself, is one of Phelp’s strengths. Call Puro Chile in Manhattan to see if they list the shops that carry Casas del Bosque wines.


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

The weather has been so screwy it’s a wonder that migrating birds know when to return or when perennial plants and hibernating animals sense naptime is over. Climate change has the potential to disturb the signals that tell dormant vines to get up and going. Changing amounts of daylight alert photoperiodic plants that are sensitive to the relative amount of day and night from one season to the next and in a 24-hour period. The changes in air temperature and the angle of the sun also play vital roles. As the amount of 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, winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery, notes that timing is crucial for grapevines. He says, “ If a grapevine gets up too early in the spring, its 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 and typing the vines up 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 the grapes. Then, the pollinated flowers drop their petals and form into tiny green bulbs. The plants grow vigorously in the next months and leaf production vies with grape development. Canopy management requires leaf removal, shoot thinning, and other techniques to assure a proper balance between shade, sunlight, and air circulation around each bunch, requiring many passes by workers through the vineyard. Crop thinning or culling imperfect bunches gives grapes left on the vine all of nature’s benefits during the growing season. All grapes are green until the middle of summer, hiding their true nature from all but the trained eye until the development of pigment on the skins in the process called veraison. And slowly, it’s time for harvest, or crush.


A Winemaker’s Skill Leads To Great Wine


What makes the difference between ordinary wine, sometimes jokingly called plonk, and truly great wines with complex characteristics? The current explanation dictates terroir is determined by terroir, those elements nature provides, such as soil, the amount of sun, rain, wind, and the influence of nearby rivers or oceans. The magic that comes to grapes starts when the vines derive various flavors from a soil’s characteristics. It seems counter-intuitive, but a great wine’s concentrated flavors are the consequence of grapes grown in mineral-rich soils that are often volcanic or strewn with pebbles and rocks, forcing the vine’s roots to dig deeper to find water extracting flavors from a soil’s various strata. In contrast, deep, loamy, soils produce grapes without character and flavor since the roots stay closer to the surface, reducing the opportunity to extract complex characteristics. Winemakers at large- scale wineries are less fussy about soils since they prefer optimum quantity over optimum quality while vintners with a goal of complex wines choose soils that give their vines a head-start.

A vineyard manager can moderate some of the issues surrounding soil ‘s fertility in order to achieve grapes with more concentrated flavors. Soil and terroir are part of a three-legged stool. The winemaker is the third leg of the stool, one who is challenged by each vintage and goes through the infinite steps that start at harvest and ends in the bottle. A winemaker brings acumen, training, philosophy, artistry, patience, and aptitude to the task. To say wine is totally determined by nature is akin to saying a Beethoven piano concerto flows from the keyboard without the pianist, or paints jump onto the canvas without some help from the painter.

Good wine can’t be made from behind a desk or by committee. An individual winemaker infuses wine with passion, heart and soul personal style. A vintner interested is producing the best wine possible must be committed to managing every detail starting in the vineyards, overseeing every step of the way from spring to harvest in the fall. Each vintage creates endless nail-biting moments that start in the early spring when frost or hail can impact negatively on grape buds. Countless decisions along the road to getting wine in the bottle is fraught with potential problems. Picking too early or too late changes the wine’s profile. Harvest is the most pressured, hectic time when a year’s income often rests on crucial last decisions in the fall. But issues of fermentation, decisions about barrel aging age, what kind of barrels will help wine’s flavors, on to bottling, and finally to getting the wine to the consumer are questions a talented winemaker must deal with through the winemaking cycle that starts over again when spring rolls around.



Pairing Wine and Cheese


Cheese and wine have a centuries-old tradition as a made-in-heaven match. Most often wine continues to be the beverage of choice when serving cheese. Gastronomes insist there is a scientific reason for the combination. Balance in the mouth is achieved because the high fat, high protein in cheese is modified by the wine’s astringency.  W like to think the combination rests on the fundamental idea that wine and cheese have a something in common. They both start as raw products that go through fermentation. One great advantage of their union is that cheese and wine can be enjoyed with little or no preparation.

Few hard and fast rules exist to dictate which wines go best when faced with the wide spectrum of cheese and myriad wine choices. That said, here are  several suggestions, understanding that they are the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg because the problem comes about when following the advice of cheese experts who recommend an assortment of different styles when serving cheese to company.

Therefore, one way to simply the situation is to match wine and cheese from the same region, although that requires some intensive research and a level of sophistication. There’s a lot of room for crossing over the boundaries set by “experts.” In general, white wines go better with many cheeses than reds. As a rule, young, fresh cheese like Triple or double cremes, fresh goat cheese, mozzarella and ricotta match well with crisp, fruity white wines –  Vouvray from the Loire Valley with its light sparkle, Sancerre, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc, Champagne or a sparkling wine like Cava. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are perfect with creamy blue, bloomy rind and Alpine cheeses, brie, and gouda that begin to show more intense flavors. Sweet wine like a Gewurtztraminer contrasts very well with a cheese with high acidity, some blue cheeses, and Munster.

Within the red category, fruity, light red wines such a Pinot noir are especially suited to soft cheeses, especially goat cheese. Very salty cheese looks for a wine with good acidity. Roses and Beaujolais complement  soft goat cheese and buttery styles. More full-bodied reds like Merlot, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent choices with Gouda, Cheddar and other hard, aged cheeses with sharpness and complex flavors.

My personal advice is to uncork a favorite bottle and get it to the right temperature. Unwrap the cheese and take it out of the refrigerator bringing them to room temperature. And if this is all to confusing, serve beer.






January 2018
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