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Open That Bottle Night – 2018 edition

February 25, 2018 1 comment

We all have THAT bottle. How I mean it, you ask? Simple. We all have bottles which have special meaning for us. This one was brought home from the vacation 5 years ago. That one was given by a generous friend with the recommendation to wait for a special moment to drink it. Those in the corner came from the parent’s cellar.  Ahh, these I found on a garage sale  – would you believe it? Oh yes, and those I got during a great sale – yes, one of each, as I couldn’t afford to buy any more of them.

Wine is a perfect vehicle for creating special moments. Maybe the best there is. But this also is a problem in itself. We get attached to those special bottles, always doubting if this is the right moment to open them and keep waiting and waiting for a perfect one. Yes, the wine improves with age, but nothing is forever. There is always a chance that at the proper moment, the wine might not be there for us anymore, and we might not be there for the wine.

To help people with THAT bottle dilemma, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the journalists behind Wall Street Journal’s Tastings column at a time, created a special event which they called Open That Bottle Night (OTBN for short) back in 1999, celebrated always on the last Saturday in February. Now, almost for 20 years, OTBN helped wine aficionados around the world to ease the pain of parting with those special bottles and actually enjoy the wine in its prime time (or at least that is the intent and the hope). 

The OTBN is truly all about the wine, so the oenophile gets its chance to agonize about the impossible choice, going from one bottle to another bottle and finding the reasons why this is not yet the time to claim for it to be THAT bottle. I went multiple times through all my wine fridges, joyfully finding and immediately grudgingly rejecting my choices. Three days later, I just grabbed two bottles which jumped to my attention and said “this is it! no more!”.

Let’s talk about our OTBN wines – there should be at least some reason for the wines to be “it”, right? So the white wine was interesting in many ways. First, it came to our house via the Secret Wine Santa exchange, courtesy of inimitable Drunken Cyclist. The wine is made out of the rare grape (Malvasia) which is absolutely uncommon for California; the wine is Skin Fermented, which seems now to be a popular term for what was known before as “orange wine” – the grapes are fermented in contact with skin, which is not typical for the white wine. Lastly, the wine comes from the Suisun Valley, which seems to be an up and coming region in California – for example, Caymus, a California wine powerhouse,  recently released the new wine called Grand Durif (Durif is original French name for Petite Sirah), made from the grapes grown in the Suisun Valley.

2015 Onward Skin Fermented Malvasia Suisun Valley (12.8% ABV)  – light golden in the glass (nothing says “orange wine”), beautiful tropical fruit on the nose – guava, passion fruit. On the palate, initially showed light fizz which went away in about 15 minutes. Cut through acidity, peppery spiciness, white underripe fruit, there is a touch of funk or maybe rather oxidative notes which hint at extended skin contact; overall – different and delicious (Drinkability: 8). Also much rounder on the second day. Probably requires food.

Now, the red doesn’t really have a story. I have no idea how did it make it into our house. Yes, it is a Brunello, which is generally good (one of the 3 big Bs of the Italian wines – Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello); Argiano seems to be a good producer even though I don’t know much about them. Lastly, the wine has good age on it, however, it is not much of an age for any of the big Bs. Oh yes, and it was my only bottle, which squarely puts it into THAT category.

2003 Argiano Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (14% ABV) – needed a bit of help from the decanter to open up (about an hour) – dark concentrated garnet color, no hint of age, deep tobacco and roasted meat on the nose, leather, cherry, cherry pit and a touch of plums on the palate. Right after opening, the wine seemed that it was either at prime or maybe already even past prime – after 3 hours in the decanter and a glass, the wine started closing, with fruit disappearing and fresh, young tannins taking its place. This wine would probably last for another 10 years – but I stand no chance to find out as this was my one and only bottle. Still, the verdict is simple – delicious (Drinkability: 8+/9-).

That sums it up, folks. I love OTBN, as the wine is meant to be drunk, and OTBN helps us to get THAT bottle out and experience it before its too late. How was your OTBN? Cheers!

Gardens of Singapore

February 6, 2018 15 comments

I don’t really have a “bucket list” (thinking about the etymology of the expression, it doesn’t even sound all that appealing). Instead, I have a “dream list” – places I truly want to visit and things I want to experience.

Believe it or not, but I can’t tell you how my “dream list” is formed. It is usually an article or pictures, which get stuck in the head, and then all of a sudden show up on that list. Such is the case with Singapore, and I can’t even tell you if it was any particular article or any pictures – all I know is that Singapore was definitely a dream destination for me for a long time. And then finally, the dream was realized – a business meeting brought me down to Singapore, with an open day for the sightseeing.

Singapore was definitely a place I wanted to visit – but I really didn’t know what to expect. So I’m not sure I can say that Singapore exceeded my expectations, but instead, I would have to say that I was blown away by what I saw. I felt that was living through the movie which was part beautiful science fiction, part thriller taking place in the Asian city (with all the little spots you really have to know about) – surreal is the word. No, I didn’t experience anything adverse, but the overall feeling was surreal.

Gardens by the Bay SingaporeSingapore is located 1 degree north of the equator – yes, that would definitely place it in the tropics. In turn, that also means that Singapore is really green – and it is happy to show it. On one side of the city-state, you can find Singapore Botanical Gardens, 159 years old tropical gardens, spanning 185 acres with many thousands of plants. It also hosts a National Orchid Garden with about a 1000 different orchard species. On another side of the town, you can find Gardens by the Bay, a $650 million project – 250 acres of land, hosting more than 250,000 different plants. Gardens by the Bay look nothing short of alien site landing, worthy of any science fiction movie – an absolutely stunning testament to human creativity.

This is the wine blog, yes – but I love photography, and flowers are some of my most favorite subjects. Hence let me inundate you with the beauty I was able to embrace last week. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Cheers!

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay SingaporeCloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay Singapore

Cloud Forest Gardens by the Bay Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

under the leaf…

National Orchid Garden Singapore National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

National Orchid Garden Singapore

 

One on One With Winemakers: Tasting The Stars

January 14, 2018 2 comments

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” – whether Dom Perignon said these words or not is not really important – but if you thought that we will be talking about the Champagne, you got it right! Also, plural mention of “winemakers” in the title is not a mistake – today’s “one on one” post is actually a double-feature.

The story of Duval-Leroy Champagne goes almost 160 years back, to 1859, when Edouard Leroy, wine négociant, met Jules Duval, grape grower – the rest is a history which you can read for yourself here. Today Duval-Leroy farms 200 hectares (about 500 acres) of vines, mostly in Premier and Grand Cru appellations, also using sustainable viticulture – Duval-Leroy is known as a pioneer of the sustainable grapegrowing in Champagne.

In 1785, “Heidsieck & Cie” company was founded with one dream – to create a Champagne worthy of a queen. After tasting the stars, Queen Marie Antoinette became the first “brand ambassador” for the Heidsieck Champagne. I don’t want to try to regurgitate here the rich history of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, you would be far better of reading it for yourself, but for all these years, Piper-Heidsieck story always included royal families, fashion designers, and movies. The bottle of Piper-Heidsieck was the first Champagne to ever appear in the movie in 1933. Since 1993, Piper-Heidsieck is an official supplier of Cannes Film Festival, and many actors and producers were recognized with the special Piper-Heidsieck Award at film festivals around the world.

Now, let’s get to that double-feature interview I promised. I’m running this “one-on-one” series of the interviews for about 3 years now. Until now, there was always a unique set of questions, prepared specifically for the particular winery and the winemaker. This time, I decided to play it a bit differently – ask the same set of questions of two winemakers – however, in this case, there is a great “common space” between the subjects of the interview – they both make Champagne!

I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with Sandrine Logette, Cellar Master of Champagne Duval-Leroy, and Séverine Frerson, Chef de Caves at Piper-Heidsieck, and here is what transpired:

[TaV]: What is your approach to the blending of Vins Clairs? How many Vins Clairs are typically comprising your most standard NV house blend?

[DL]: It is necessary to first think about the flavor profile you would like to achieve: the aromatic notes with its intensity and its descriptors, its mouthfeel, its volume, its angles, its power and persistence as well as the volume: number of bottles to produce, volume of reserve wines to use and volume of wine to save for future ‘liqueur d’expédition’. The vins clairs are tasted several times (at least twice) after the malolactic fermentation to familiarize ourselves with their characteristics. The first approach to blending is always a minimal concept; which is what I call it my ‘accounting idea’. It is tasted, assessed and compared to our first and last blends of this wine made in previous years. The vins clairs are then improved by modifying only one character at a time. The same improvement is repeated as many times as necessary to achieve the best result. We use about 45 to 55 vins clairs to produce our Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut Réserve.

[PH]: We blend over 100 crus to make Piper-Heidsieck’s NV cuvée: the Cuvée Brut. I think of the vins clairs (base wines) as spices stored in little boxes in her mind and I know exactly which boxes/spices (and proportions) I need to add to create the same taste every year.

[TaV]: Can you describe your “house style”?

[DL]: Our goal is to maintain the quality of our Brut  Réserve NV vintage after vintage:

  • A complex aromatic profile showing fruity notes of yellow peach, damson and subtle red berries along with notes of cocoa powder and toasted bread
  • An integrated, round and generous mouthfeel but yet elegant and fresh.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s wine style is fruity, structured and complex, with lots of deepness. It’s a champagne to treat yourself and to share with your loved ones. Champagne serves as a bridge between people. It triggers and enhances moments of sharing, complicity and joy. And we are the ones who strive to create memorable experiences. It is all truly wonderful!

[TaV]: Somewhat of a continuation of the previous question: I don’t know if you ever experimented with this, but I wonder if a panel of wine consumers (non-experts) would be able to identify your standard NV offering in a blind tasting?

[DL]: We have worked with a panel of French consumers who tasted our Brut Réserve NV. This panel was able to detect the fruity nose without going into details and recognize the roundness of the mouthfeel and the integrated acidity.

[PH]: The goal of our Cellar Masters is to maintain Piper-Heidsieck’s style, and make it recognizable. Our wines are fruity, structured and profound but also well balanced, straight and bright. In the case of the Cuvée Brut, it’s a seductive champagne that you can recognize on your palate right away. What gives it away is its notes of almond and fresh hazelnut that are very lively, subtle and light. It’s a very smooth an pure champagne with notes of fresh pear and apple with a delicate hint of citrus fruits (pomelo). You can also taste the blonde grapes and juicy white fruits that create the lightness of the champagne.

[TaV]: Similar question to the second one, only now for the vintage Champagne – can you describe your house style?

[DL]: Our vintage “house style” is given by the characteristics of that specific year which varies according to the weather, therefore, the quality of the grapes (acid-sugar balance – fruit richness). We do not look for our vintage cuvées to be identical year after year. We make the best vintage with what nature has to offer.

[PH]: The Cellar Masters’ goal when creating a vintage champagne is to put a special year in a bottle. They want to take a snapshot of this particularly great year to keep it as a memory and reward the hard work of our vineyard team without forgetting about the Piper-Heidsieck style. Every vintage is different but they all answer to the Piper-Heidsieck style: wines that are fruity, structured with great depth. Our Cellar Masters took the best grapes from 2008 to put it in our current vintage: Vintage 2008 is a precise, elegant and free-spirit wine that showcases the greatest wines 2008 had to offer.

[TaV]: I would assume all (many?) of the Champagne houses have their “secret stash” of Champagnes which had not been disgorged yet – and the wines are disgorged on one by one basis, maybe for the special clients. Do you have such a “secret stash”? What are the oldest, not yet disgorged wines you have in your cellars?

[DL]: Of course, Duval-Leroy has its secret reserve Champagnes that are not disgorged and waiting in the cellar for that special request. Vintages such as 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 … are kept in bottles and magnums (not systematically in each cuvée).

[PH]: We do have old cuvées in our Cellars, our “secret library” contains old NV from 1980 to now and different vintages from 1982 and on.

[TaV]: Are the Champagne styles changing to address the consumer demand? For instance, I would expect that people would like to drink more of Brut Nature/zero dosage and Rosé Champagne. What do you think?

[DL]: The Champagnes’ style may slightly vary depending on consumers demand, but not fundamentally change. Champagne is an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which defines production rules and style objectives of quality.
We have seen a greater demand for Champagne Rosé and 5 to 10% sales increase over the past 10 years.
Rosé Champagne is an accessible Champagne, more obvious in terms of taste, festive by its color and more enticing.
The growing demand is also linked to the fact that Rosé Champagne has more personality and a specific identity. It is definitely easier to produce due to warmer weather in recent years.
We find an equally interesting demand for low dosage Champagnes. These low dosages are made possible because of a better integrated acidity naturally due to the wines richness and roundness.

[PH]: We do see some trends in the industry, people tend to be more knowledgeable about what they consume and younger generations like to be more informed. They become more and more wine experts so they ask to question about dosage, disgorgement dates … We have our cuvée Essentiel that works really well with wine experts since they have all the information they need on the label (disgorgement date, bottling date, lot number…) and it’s an extra brut. At Piper-Heidsieck we have a wide range of champagnes to please everyone, we have Rosé Sauvage, Essentiel (extra brut) for wine experts and connoisseurs, our Cuvée Brut, a vintage and Cuvée Sublime (a demi-sec). Our range satisfies all consumers, from non-experts to wine lovers and our entire range has complimentary food pairings.

[TaV]: Champagne seems to enjoy higher popularity overall over the last few years. Do you expect that trend to continue? Are the challenges for Champagne which need to be overcome?

[DL]: Of course we want this trend to continue and Champagne to remain the leader sparkling wine out there. In order to overcome any challenges, the Champagne region needs to continue improving.

[PH]: This trend will continue for sure. As mentioned before, the younger generation tends to be more and more knowledgeable about what they consume, especially for wines. They gain interest and want to develop their palate and their knowledge about wine. With more educated consumers that know the quality of champagne and tend to pair champagne with food more and more often we will keep seeing an increasing popularity in champagne consumption in the upcoming years.

The biggest challenge we will be facing is climate change. The Earth is getting warmer and the climate is changing making it even more difficult for us to ensure the quality of grapes as the years go on. With the unpredictable weather, our vineyard team will have to work even harder to protect our vines and ensure a high quality. At Piper-Heidsieck we already took measures to protect the environment as much as we can with recycling measures, reducing our water consumption and gas emissions. It’s a global concern and a challenge that will affect all industries in one way or another.

Another challenge would be the increasing sales of other sparkling wine, but it’s not too concerning as sparkling wines and champagne are very different products consumed for different reasons. As the consumers are getting more knowledgeable they can tell the difference between sparkling wines and champagne and they consume one of the other at different occasions.

[TaV]: What is your most favorite Champagne you personally or your house overall ever produced and why?

[DL]: My favorite is our Femme de Champagne tête de cuvée and specifically the 1995 and 1996 vintages. Very great vintages with beautiful and precise balance and a great aging potential.

[PH]: I actually don’t have a favorite champagne! It all depends on the moment, when I will open it and with whom! I will choose the Cuvée Brut for a festive aperitif with friends. I love the Vintage 2008 for an intimate dinner and the Rosé Sauvage in the summer with a barbecue.

[TaV]: Champagne rules allow using 7 different grape varieties, yet absolute majority only uses 3 from that list. Have you ever experimented with using any of those 4 leftover grapes? If yes, did you get any interesting results?

[DL]: Since 1998, we regularly vinify one of the old grape varietal of Champagne called ‘petit meslier and produce a specific cuvée: Précieuses Parcelles. Petit Meslier is a white grape varietal that grows well in soils rich in clay (a natural cross between Gouais and Savagnin) in the right bank of Vallée de la Marne.
It is a varietal that struggles to ripen, therefore has a mouthfeel marked by sharp acidity and aromatic notes of rhubarb.
I chose to vinify it in barrels to add some fine oak and spicy notes. Currently, we are working on the 2007 vintage with a low dosage of 4 g / l.
It is a cuvée of curiosity, interesting for its rusticity and for an unusual “Taste” of Champagne.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s Cellar Masters never experienced with the other grapes, because they only focused on those 3 grapes and developed an expertise in those grapes.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are produced absolutely everywhere in the world today. Have you tried any of the Methode Classique sparkling wines produced outside of France (Italy, Spain, South Africa, USA,…), and if yes, did you find anything you liked? You don’t have to love them, but maybe you liked just a little, tiny bit? 🙂

[DL]: Fifteen years ago, the Duval-Leroy family contemplated purchasing vineyards in England but decided otherwise. They’d rather stay focused on the terroirs of Champagne.

[PH]: Today sparkling wines are developing, but  Champagne stays the luxurious sparkling wine of reference.
It’s always interesting to discover other regions – for example, I tasted high quality sparkling wines from Italy, Spain and Hungary and even if we are in the sparkling wine category they all had they own style and authenticity!

Time top drink some Champagne, isn’t it?

First, I wanted to try NV Duval-Leroy Rosé Prestige Premier Cru (Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend) and NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay) side by side, as both are Rosé Champagne. There was a dramatic difference in appearance and taste profile. Duval-Leroy, in a word, was sublime. Delicate pinkish color, just a light salmon pink, whiff of the toasted bread, vibrant acidity on the palate, touch of lemon – seductive, and yes, sublime. Sauvage, on another hand, means “wild” in French – and that exactly how the Piper-Heidsieck was. Strawberry pink in the glass, fresh tart strawberries and a touch of yeast on the nose, and then generous toasted bread, granny smith apples and strawberries on the palate. Truly different and delicious in its own right.

NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay, 10-20% reserve wines) was, in a word, classic – generous, voluptuous, touch of toasted bread and yeast, full mouthfeel, golden delicious apple sweetness, good minerality, very present and excellent overall.

Three Champagnes, three different wines, each delicious in its own right, each worthy to be a star of a special celebratory dinner or a quiet evening for two. And two conversations about the wines, the passion, the style, the stars. We spoke enough today; if you are still reading this, thank you and cheers!

Christmas at Newport Mansions

December 25, 2017 16 comments

New England has no shortage of beautiful places, full of history and character. One of such beautiful places is the town of Newport in Rhode Island. For as long as I live in Connecticut, Newport is always a “goto” place to visit, at least once a year. While Newport’s history generally aligned with the one of New England, with first inhabitants appearing there in early 1600, it shot up to prominence in the late 1800s, when the town became The Destination for the summer residences for all of the wealthiest families in the USA (you can read about history of Newport here).

While those summer residences were called “cottages”, they are typically known today as Newport Mansions. Just to give you a frame of reference – the biggest “cottage” in Newport, The Breakers, has 125K sq. ft. of total space, out of which about 62.5K sq. ft. are livable – yep, that’s one summer cottage. Each mansion is built in its own, unique style – the architecture, the features, everything was done in the unique fashion with lots of attention to the details.

We always visited Newport during spring, summer or early fall, exploring mansions, walking along the coastline and enjoying delicious fresh seafood. All along those many visits, I always saw the ads for Christmas at Newport Mansions, but somehow, the plans never worked out to go and see it – until this year.

We were planning to visit our friend in California, leaving before Chrismas and coming back shortly before the New Year. But my wife couldn’t take the time off, so we decided to split the vacation into two parts, and first spend a few days in Newport, to finally see the Christmas decorations.

Similar to the visit to Copenhagen earlier this year, the weather didn’t cooperate – almost freezing rain on the way to Newport, and then the rain for the whole Saturday. Well, that didn’t stop us from getting tons of pleasure from the stunningly beautiful mansions. We visited The Breakers, Rosecliff and Marble House – out of these three, The Breakers and Marble House were specially decorated for Christmas; Rosecliff didn’t have any special decorations but was hosting an exhibit of the works of the Pierre Cardin, which was an interesting addition to our program.

From here on, let me simply inundate you with the pictures of beautiful Christmas at the Newport Mansions. And yes, put it on your bucket list – you will not regret it.

Our Saturday morning view:

Newport, RI

The Breakers fully compensated for this:

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The Breakers

The view from the window at The Breakers, usually magnificent, was rather gloomy:

The Breakers

The Breakers

But still, the decor was there:

The Breakers

The Breakers were the home for Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad magnate – of course a little train exhibit is the most appropriate – and fun!

The Breakers

Rosecliff – in the cake

The Breakers

The Breakers – cake version

The Breakers

The Breakers

Next, the Rosecliff:

Rosecliff

Rosecliff

Rosecliff

Rosecliff

The biggest dancing floor in all of Newport Mansions

Rosecliff

RosecliffAnd Pierre Cardin’s Exhibit:

Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin

Sunday morning looked a lot better:

Newport, RI

Visit to the Marble house provided a beautiful ending to the trip:

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House

Marble House, Cake edition

Marble House

That’s all I have for you, my friends. Merry Christmas!

Drink Local, North Carolina Edition – Chatham Hill Winery

December 15, 2017 1 comment

Chatham Hill WineryOnce again, I was on the road. And as you know, if I have the slightest chance, I will look for the local wine. If I can also throw in a winery visit – that becomes a double pleasure.

In these terms, this time around, it was exactly a double pleasure. While visiting Raleigh in North Carolina I managed to squeeze in a short visit to the North Carolina winery call Chatham Hill, located in the town of Cary (about 20 minutes from Raleigh-Durham airport).

I had an opportunity to try North Carolina wines for the first time a few years ago while connecting through the Charlotte airport. I had favorable impressions after the first experience, thus was definitely looking forward to the opportunity to expand my “wine map” of the 50 United States.

The Chatham Hill Winery was founded in 1998. When Chatham Hill Winery opened, it was the 14th winery in the state of North Carolina – today, there are more than 185 wineries and 525 vineyards there. Chatham Hill was also the first urban winery in the North Carolina –  they don’t own any vineyards. The absolute majority of the wines at Chatham Hill are made either from the North Carolina grapes, coming primarily from the Yadkin Valley AVA, or from the grapes shipped from California (Lodi).

Chatham Hill winery produces a good number of different wines, both dry and sweet, with the total production of about 5,000 cases per year. With this production, it is considered a “medium size” winery by the North Carolina standards. I tasted through many wines the winery offers, but took rather scarce notes, so for what it worth, here is a roundup:

Chatham Hill Winery Whites

2013 Chatham Hill Winery Chardonnay Yadkin Valley North Carolina ($18) – a bit unusual, big body, good balance, nice overall

2015 Chatham Hill Winery Riesling Lodi California ($16) – not a traditional style, doesn’t speak Riesling to me, but still quite drinkable

2014 Chatham Hill Winery Perfect Harmony Yadkin Valley North Carolina ($25, unoaked, 70% Chardonnay, 30% Viognier) – dry, playful, tropical fruit notes

Chatham Hill Winery Reds

2012 Chatham Hill Winery Cabernet Franc Yadkin Valley North Carolina ($20) – soft, round, very pleasant

2014 Chatham Hill Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Yadkin Valley North Carolina ($20) – beautiful, smooth, blackcurrant on the nose and the palate, layered, great extraction, excellent wine overall and lots of wine for the money. Clearly my favorite wine from the tasting.

2013 Chatham Hill Winery Merlot Yadkin Valley North Carolina ($16) – excellent balance of fruit and acidity, dark fruit on the palate, very good overall

2015 Chatham Hill Winery Malbec ($18) – a bit sweeter than previous few wines, but refreshingly light for the Malbec and very pleasant overall.

2015 Chatham Hill Winery Petite Sirah ($22) – good fruit, good acidity

Chatham Hill Winery Muscadine Yadkin Valley North Carolina (11.5% ABV, $15) – Not sure what the vintage was, the wine was just released and not available yet for the public – raisins and dry fruit medley on the nose, touch of Isabella grapey profile on palate, clean acidity – very nice effort

I find trying local wines to be truly a humbling experience, always bringing out great surprises – that Cabernet Sauvignon was just a pure, varietally correct, stand out – would happily drink it again in a heartbeat.

The wine is simply an expression of passion and art, and there are truly no limits to the creativity and obsession wine lovers share, anywhere you go. Drink local, my friends!

 

 

 

And Winter Gracefully Arrived

December 12, 2017 13 comments

The winter arrived in Connecticut, and arrived in a very graceful way – the snow was coming down on Saturday – not too hard, just right. We probably got about 6 inches, and that snowy Saturday followed by a beautiful, sunny Sunday, with the beauty of the first snow, crisp, fresh, white. No work commute was affected, no schools closed – the very graceful arrival of the winter.

What you see here are a few pictures, from my walk around the neighborhood, all captured with the trusted iPhone. Enjoy!

Environments of Wine

November 27, 2017 4 comments

We all love to wax-poetic about the wine – about the magic in the glass, about the liquid which can transport us through time, bring back memories, change our mood, brighten up any happy moments in our life and put smiles on our collective oenophile faces in the myriad of mysterious ways.

With all that magic, it is easy to forget that first and foremost, the wine is an agricultural product. The grapes are grown in exactly same way as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, wheat, apples, and potatoes. Same as with any agricultural product, the success of growing the grapes depends on many conditions which we collectively call “the environment” – condition of the soil, conditions of the plants, climate/weather conditions, availability and quality of the water, avoidance of diseases and pests, ability to protect plants and fruits from animals and birds and many other factors.

 

Fall in the Vineyards

Once the grapes are successfully grown and harvested, this is where similarities with most (not all) of the rest of the agricultural products end, and grapes start their transformation to become that magic in your glass. But let’s leave that aside for now, and let’s get back to the grape growing environment.

Every year, the same process starts anew – with the first warm weather, the dormant plants come alive. The branches which looked completely dead just a day ago, are breaking with the tiny green leaves, and then at some point, a tiny clusters of future goodness show up, taking all the nutrients from the soil and the air, getting bigger and changing color from young green to golden and purple, until the time comes to collect them all and start creating the magic.

Every year, to get from the naked branches to the beautiful, sun-filled clusters, the vines have to be taken care of. They need enough water, they need enough sun, they need enough nutrients in the soil, they need to be protected from frost, excessive sun, mildew, and rabbits. The grape grower has to decide how to provide all of this. You can water the plants when you think you need to. You can bring in synthetic fertilizers. You can spray your vines with pesticides which will kill bugs and mildew. For many years, this is how the grapes were often produced, especially when they were produced in the large commercial quantities.

Little by little, grower by grower, winemaker by winemaker, the realization started that this might not be the right way to go. The chemicals and pesticides often bred resistance. Overfertilized and overwatered grapes simply lack the flavor and can never become the magnificent wines. With this realization, wine industry started changing its ways – the wines became “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable” and even “natural”. All of these terms relate to the environment where the grapes are grown, but they are not interchangeable – organic is not always sustainable, and sustainable doesn’t equate organic. Let’s take a deeper look.

Sustainable might be my favorite term. There are many wine regions which define their own so-called “sustainable practices” – Australia, New Zealand, California, Oregon, Canada – all have their own sustainable practices defined, and for all I know, all those practices might be slightly different, but I’m sure they are all pursue the long-term relationship with the Mother Nature. Sustainability means that whatever we do to grow grapes successfully today, should ensure that the future generations will be able to continue to do the same with equal success. While we tend to the vines, we shouldn’t harm that environment, that habitat – use natural deterrents for the pests, use only natural fertilizers, ideally, generate our own power (think solar, for instance), be very cognizant about discarding the waste, or maybe have no waste at all, allowing land to rest and recuperate – the list can go on and on and on. At the same time, sustainable doesn’t mean organic – for instance, if you believe that one time use of the pesticide is warranted as the best way to deal with the problem (before it spreads or worsens), the sustainable rules will generally allow for it – but not the organic. All in all, the goal of sustainability is to leave the environment a little bit better than it was before – and I definitely like this approach.

We all know what “organic” means – only all natural elements are allowed in the whole entire process of getting from the first leaf to the harvested grapes – all organic fertilizers, all organic pesticides and so on. Do organic means better grapes? Yes, but only in the sense of absence of any harmful, bad elements. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean you would maximize grapes’ potential by utilizing dry farming. Organic doesn’t mean you will discard the waste in the ways least harmful to the environment. Organic doesn’t mean your power was generated in the sustainable ways. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for organic, but… I guess you understand where my preferences are.

Biodynamic? First, taking about biodynamic winemaking can be an endless endeavor – if we are talking about the magic of the glass of wine, biodynamic principles might be the most in tune with the subject of magic. Are the biodynamic methods sustainable? I believe they are to the largest degree as the end goal here is to create harmonious habitat, the best possible environment for the grapes and all other living beings to grow happily and successfully. Is biodynamic the same as sustainable? Probably not, as sustainable methods still cover more elements, such as power which we mentioned. But all the kudos to the biodynamic practitioners and their perseverance with magic.

Colors of Fall - grape leaves

And now, let’s touch on the most controversial “environmental affiliation” of them all – natural wines. It is interesting to see the first reaction of many people when they hear the term for the first time – “natural wines”???? “All wines are made from the grapes, aren’t they all natural”? The idea behind natural wines is low intervention. During the grape growing part of winemaking, the process is somewhat similar to the sustained/biodynamic principals with the exception that some of the rules are made absolute, like no irrigation under any circumstances – but unlike all other methods, where there are external bodies which certify and enforce the rules, the natural wines are the truth in the eye of the beholder – the winemaker, in this case – whatever the winemaker believe “natural” means, that is what she will be practicing.

The wine was first made about 8,000 years ago. Nobody would ever tell if it was sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural – we can only guess that it was made from grapes. But if we want the wines to be made for the next 8,000 years, we need to take care of the environment. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic – let’s leave this place a little bit better than we found it, for all of those who will come after us.

This post is an entry for the 36th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC36), with the theme of “Environment”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith, Translation, Once Upon A Time, Memory, Eclipse

And if you really like this post, please vote for it here: #MWWC36

Art and Science of a Perfect Cup of Coffee

November 3, 2017 4 comments

Shearwater Coffee BarPlease close your eyes. Oops, no, not for real – please keep your eyes open to read, but do it at least in your mind. Imagine the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee – the unique smell in the air which nothing else can compare to. Sometimes that is the smell of a new day. Sometimes, it is a quiet moment in the afternoon. Sometimes, it is winding down the evening. Was this hard to imagine, even if you didn’t close your eyes? If you love coffee, I would bet that was a very easy exercise. And I hope you do love it, as coffee is what I want to talk about today.

I love comparing coffee with wine. Similar to the wine, coffee has a dependency on its area of origin. Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Costa Rica, Ethiopia – each region imparts its own unique tasting profile. Similar to the wine, sustainability, and coffee growing process matter. Similar to the wine grapes, the best coffee is harvested by hand. Similar to the wine grapes, the coffee beans are sorted to achieve the best quality and consistency. Most importantly – similar to the perfect glass of wine, a perfect cup of coffee delivers lots and lots of pleasure.

Notice how I went from coffee bean growing to the coffee cup, skipping a few steps in between? Those few steps are what differentiates coffee from wine, making coffee ultimately a more complicated subject. Before you jump off a chair and click away, as the writer here clearly a lunatic, please allow me to explain.

Once the good quality grapes are obtained, they are pressed, fermented, aged, and finally, bottled. The bottle is the final form in which wine will reach you, the consumer. Now, to enjoy the glass of wine, all you need to do is to pop that cork (twist the screw top, if you insist), pour the liquid into the glass and voilà! Yes, there are few extra steps and hurdles which oenophiles happily enact for themselves to enjoy the wine “more better”, but really – unless someone does something really stupid, like leaving a wine bottle for a day in a hot car, the good wine in the bottle will easily translate to the good wine in the glass.

The things are different when it comes to the coffee. The final product of the coffee grower is dried green beans. Before coffee can be enjoyed, it has to be roasted and brewed. Roasting typically takes about 20 minutes, and those 20 minutes can either create a thing of beauty or an awful, terrible concoction which one can drink, but never able to enjoy. Brewing also offers multiple opportunities to convert those beautifully roasted, full of promise and anticipation beans into a dull or simply bad tasting brown liquid.

The process of coffee brewing is where the aromatics and flavors are transferred from the roasted beans to the water, which results in your final object of desire, a perfect cup. Before brewing, coffee beans have to be ground. The way coffee will be ground depends on what type of coffee would you like to drink – espresso requires the very fine grind, so higher flavor concentration can be achieved. For so-called “drip coffee”, the coffee particles are typically very coarse, as water is not pushed through the coffee with the high pressure, as it is done for the espresso. Now, let’s leave espresso aside and talk about the “drip coffee”, the one which we consume most often.

It turns out that there are many factors which are matter here, on the way to arriving at that perfect cup – temperature of the water (to the single degree of Fahrenheit!), the ratio of water to the coffee and the speed of extraction (how long the water will stay in contact with the coffee grinds). Just for you to understand: the ideal coffee brewing temperature is 201°F – and 203°F will result in the burnt taste! You need to maintain the ratio of water to coffee at 15.5 to 1 (15.5 grams of water per 1 gram of coffee). And you need to spend about 4 minutes making that perfect cup. How about it? Will you ever look at your morning coffee cup the same way again, after I shared with you all this information? Well, didn’t mean to scare you, honestly – all you need to do is just to taste the difference.

A couple of years ago I talked about a visit to the Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters, the organic coffee artisans in Trumbull, Connecticut, where we learned about intricacies of the proper treatment of the fresh coffee beans from Ed Freedman, the owner of the company (here you can read about that experience). This year, Ed decided to deliver a full [proper] coffee experience to the people by opening Shearwater Coffee Bar in Fairfield in Connecticut. I had an opportunity to visit it few month ago and get exposed to the science and art of a perfect coffee cup.

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Jason The Barista is ready for action

Shearwater Coffee Bar

The choice is yours

If the words “coffee bar” elicit an image of Starbucks in your head, shun that away please, as the Shearwater Coffee Bar is nothing like. Similar to the regular bar we are all used to, you can sit in front of the barista, have a conversation and watch as your beverage of choice is unhurriedly prepared in front of you. Unlike a typical bar, you sit comfortably on the normal height chairs, not on the “bar stools” which are not so much fun to get on and off. But if you ever observed a cocktail master who produced a drink which made you say “wow”, this coffee bar delivers exactly the same experience.

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

At Shearwater Coffee Bar, you have a choice of coffee to begin with – different origins, different roasts. Then you can choose your method – Pour Over, Chemex, Siphon – of course,  espresso and cappuccino are available too if that is something you want.

Once you decide on what you want, the magic begins with the grinding of the coffee beans and then putting the glass vessel on the scale. The coffee goes in, the water is dispensed at the exact temperature (201°F, remember?), and then poured over (if you asked for Chemex or Pour Over), while the barista is carefully watching the scale. A few (4!) minutes later, the magic is complete and coffee goes into your cup – can you smell the aroma?

We tried Pour Over and Chemex coffees – the were some slight variations but I wouldn’t dare to try to give you any differentiating descriptors. Jason, our barista, also attempted to make a siphon coffee (this technology actually comes from Japan, where the fine art of coffee is well recognized). In the siphon method, the water is heated from the bottom, and once it reaches a proper boiling point (which is not truly “boiling” temperature), it should slowly percolate up and travel slowly through the coffee to gently extract the flavor. Something went wrong, the water went through too fast, and Jason refused to pour us that “bad” coffee. Well, this is why we are talking about art here – and if the artist is not happy with creation, it goes down the drain.

The creativity at Shearwater Coffee Bar doesn’t stop here. First, you have the cold brew. The cold brew is when coffee is made without heating up the water. It takes about 18 hours to make coffee using cold brew method – but the resulting coffee is much less acidic compared to the standard coffee cup, thus people who can’t drink regular coffee because it is too acidic for them can perfectly enjoy the cup of the cold brew.

Now, let’s add a little bit of nitrogen (yep, you heard me right) to the mix, and you got … the Nitro! Do you like Guinness beer? If you do, then Nitro is your drink, as it is a coffee which looks like beer with a perfect thick foam on top, tastes like beer (yes, it makes you say “ahh” after a sip) – but has no alcohol in it, so you are really not limited in how many Nitro you can consume before driving back home.

So what is your take on a perfect coffee cup? If you are looking beyond just a punch of caffeine and a bite of a pronouncedly bitter taste, then you should really seek the art and indulgence of a delicious drink, taking as much of the pleasure as it can offer. Don’t take my word for it – visit Shearwater Coffee Bar and see taste for yourself. Cheers!

Shearwater Coffee Bar
1215 Post Road
Fairfield, CT 06824
https://www.facebook.com/ShearwaterCoffeeBar

Ph: (203) 955-1098

Behind The Label

September 18, 2017 13 comments

We eat with our eyes first – everybody knows that. We drink in exactly same way. While looking for the wine to buy, we always start from the label. Of course, sometimes we might be looking just for the specific producer’s name – but way more often than not, wine consumer is lured by the appearance of the bottle before anything else. We let the bottle speak to us.

Wine producers always knew the effect of the bottle appearance, and always tried to design attractive and appealing labels – think about Château Mouton Rothschild, for example, which started their “Artist” wine label series back in 1945. 20-25 years ago, the design, and most importantly, production capabilities were limited both in style and the cost. But not today- there are literally no limits to how creative the wine bottle design can get in today’s world. It is hard to tell what exactly makes the wine label instantly attractive, but we all can recognize that special label when we see it. I shared my fascination with the creativity of the wine labels on the multiple occasions in this blog – here is one example for you.

You don’t have to agree with me, but I see creative wine labels as objects of art. Art at large is a form of the human expression. Art takes lots and lots of different forms – beautiful building, successful surgery, a sublime glass of wine, a flower, a painting. I’m sure there are countless studies written on the subject, and I will not even try for the slightest bit to delve into it, but I’m convinced that art as a final expression always has its source, the origin, it is inspired – and this leads to the fundamental question – what inspires the art? I will leave you to ponder at that, and meanwhile, let me turn our conversation towards the … wine, of course.

Vilarnau Barcelona Cava When I saw the label of Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé, my first reaction was “wow, this is a beautiful bottle”. The next question was – what does it mean? Yes, I read the description connecting Vilarnau Trencadís Edition cavas to the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí, but I still wanted to understand the true inspiration behind this label. I reached out to the winery, and asked a few questions – here is our short conversation:

[TaV]: Vilarnau produces Cava since 1949. When Trencadís labels were used on Vilarnau Cava for the first time?
[V]: We launched the Trencadis labels at the end of 2014.

[TaV]: What was the inspiration behind the Trencadís labels?
[V]: This form of mosaic is very famous in Catalunya, Spain. Inspired by the Park Guëll in Barcelona and the famous artist Gaudí. Vilarnau is the “Barcelona Cava” and we felt it was fitting to use such an iconic design to decorate the bottles.
Trencadís’ is a type of mosaic used in Catalan modernism, created from broken tile shards. The technique is also called ‘pique assiette’. The mosaic is done using broken pieces of ceramic, like tiles and dinnerware. The Catalan architects Antoni Gaudí and Josep Maria Pujol used trencadís in many projects, among which Barcelona’s Parc Güell is probably the most famous. Vilarnau being so close to Barcelona (not only geographically, but also with heart and soul), it was natural to pick up this typical artistic theme for our winery.

[TaV]: Are the Trencadís Cava target the specific market, or do they sell equally well world-wide?
[V:]: We are currently exporting this label to almost 30 markets (principle markets being the USA, UK, Germany, and Belgium) and the number is growing as consumers love the design and the wine.

[TaV]: Do you have plans to add any new wines to the Trencadís series?
[V]: When we first launched we only had the Brut Reserva NV in the trencadis design but we have added the Rosado Reserva to the range two years and the Brut Nature Vintage and Demi-Sec last year

[TaV]; Do you have plans for any other “creative label” designs under Vilarnau name?
[V]: Barcelona is a constant inspiration to us and we are full of ideas, however, we have so much to do with the Trencadis design that we probably won’t launch anything new for the next 2 years or so.

Vilarnau Barcelona Cava glasses

The beautiful label is very important, it sets the expectations and makes you anticipate more from the wine. But – the content of the bottle is better to support the beauty of the label, or the joy of wine drinking will quickly dissipate.

I’m happy to say that the NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva Trencadís Edition Rosé D.O. Cava (12% ABV, SRP: $15, 90% Trepat and 10% Pinot Noir, 15+ month in the bottle) didn’t disappoint. Beautiful intense pink color, classic Sparkling nose, with a touch of yeast and toasted bread on the nose, supported by fresh tart strawberries and lemon notes on the palate, crisp, succulent and invigorating. A perfect sparkling wine by itself, and at a price – almost an unbeatable value. (Drinkability: 8-/8).

What do you think of Art of the [wine] Labels? Do you have some favorites? Cheers!

Wing’s Castle – Love, Genius and Perseverance

August 9, 2017 11 comments

“I want you to marry me. And I will build you a castle”. These were the words of 23 years old Peter Wing back in 1970, when he proposed to Toni Ann, standing in a middle of an empty green field in Millbrook, New York. Peter was born and raised a farm boy, and had no idea about construction, never mind building medieval castles, but a promise is a promise.

Wing's Castle

Of course, today you can task trusted Google with getting you all the instructions for DIY castle building enthusiasts. However, in 1970 Google was not even conceived. That didn’t stop Peter – book by book, rock by rock, piece of scrap after piece of scrap, the dream was coming along. Peter and Toni didn’t have money to simply go and shop at the “all for castle builders” aisle at the local Home Depot. Instead, they got whatever pieces they could from the demolitions sites, from houses to buildings to the roads. If you look at the castle rooftops, they look perfectly authentic, similar to what I saw recently in Copenhagen – you will have to do some serious sleuthing to see that those can be old copper sinks and bathtubs – and same goes for most of the parts which together equate to a beautiful castle.

Peter had to conquer many professions to build the house of his dreams – bricklayer, carpenter, plumber, blacksmith – but the castle was growing. When we met Peter about 8 years ago, he was already famous – Wing’s Castle was featured on the Discovery channel and was well known as a unique attraction (the way the castle was built, with lots of small corridors and tight corners, it was also an ideal Halloween destination). Peter had plans for opening a Bed and Breakfast as part of the castle, which would make his and Toni’s life easier.

Last weekend we visited the Wing’s Castle again for a tour with a group of friends, which was run by Toni – we learned that Peter died in the fatal car crash about 3 years ago. The Bed and Breakfast is mostly operational now, with Charles, Peter and Toni’s son, finishing construction of the last guest suite, which will complete the Wing’s Castle – well, or not. I’m sure there will be always ideas to make the castle just a little bit better, don’t you think?

Take a look at the pictures below – look at all the little details and think about all the love and perseverance which went into this lifetime of work. This is the genius of the humankind, the never ending desire to create – forever and ever.

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

View of the valley from Wing's Castle Single Stone Picnic table at Wing's Castle

Outdoor decor at Wing's Castle

Let’s take a look inside:

And a few moer:

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Let’s go shoot some targets?

 

Wing's Castle

 

Peter Wing's Autoportret at Wing's Castle

Peter Wing, self-portrait

Wing's Castle

 

Wing's Castle

Beautiful mosaic…

The latest addition, B&B Guest Suite:

B&B Guest Suite Wing's Castle

B&B Guest Suite Door Wing's Castle

B&B Guest Suite at Wing's Castle

 

 

Wing's Castle

Find the drill bit

And now my favorite – rooftops:

Rooftops of Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Wing's Castle

Rooftops of Wing's Castle There you have it, my friends. If you are are visiting the area, Wing’s Castle well worth your attention, simply as a proof that people can achieve whatever they will set their mind to. Do you have your favorite love story to share?