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An Evening With Friends

January 7, 2020 Leave a comment

What is your favorite part about wine? Is it the taste? The buzz? The sheer appearance of the bottle sometimes resembling the work of art? The joy of owning an exclusive object? The coveted status symbol?

My answer will be simple. My favorite part about wine is the ability to share it. Take a sip, reflect, have a conversation, preferably a slow-paced one. Friends are the best pairing for wine. Opportunity to share the experience, pleasure, and joy. Sharing makes it all worth it.

New Year celebration (the main holiday for anyone with the Russian upbringing) is a multi-step process for us. We like to celebrate the arrival of the New Year as many times as possible – the evening before the New Year, a midnight Champagne toast, the New Year’s day dinner, and more dinners shortly after (this is when the bathroom scales are the worst nemesis). Some or all of these dinners have to include friends – and it is the best when friends share your wine passion.

Such was our dinner on Saturday, bringing together a group of friends who truly enjoy what the wine world has to offer. We all contributed to the evening, both with food and wines, to make it fun and interesting. Below is the transcript of our wine extravaganza, with highs, lows, and surprises.

While we were getting ready to start our dinner, our first wine was something unique and different – how many of you know what Piquette means? It appears that Piquette is yet another type of sparkling wines. The story of Piquette goes back to 18th century France when the whole wine industry was in full disarray. Piquette is literally made by converting water into the wine – using water to rehydrate grape skins left after the wine production. We had 2019 Field Recordings Tang Piquette Central Coast (7.1% ABV, Rehydrated skins of Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc) which was made using this exact process – grape skins were hydrated in well water for a week, then pressed, after which a little bit of the table wine was added, and the wine was bottled with leftover yeast and sugar to continue fermenting right in the bottle. To me, the wine was reminiscent of cider – light fizz, fresh apple notes, cloudy appearance of a nice unfiltered cider. Would I drink this wine again? On a hot summer day – yes, why not, but this is not the wine I would actively seek.

It is difficult to assess the “uniqueness” of the wines. There can be many reasons for the “unique” wine designation – small production, wine not produced every vintage, the wine which is no longer produced. There are, of course, many other reasons. How about spending 10 years to finally make about 200 (!) bottles of a drinkable wine? Don’t know about you, but this is unquestionably unique in my book. And so there was 2017 Olivier Pittet Les Temps Passés Vin de Pays Romand Switzerland (14.2% ABV, Arvine Grosso). Petite Arvine is a popular white grape in Switzerland, producing nice, approachable white wines. On another hand, Petite Arvine’s sibling, nearly extinct thick-skinned Arvine Grosso (or Gross Arvine), is a nightmare to grow and to work with. This was the Arvine Grosso which took about 10 years to restore the plantings and achieve a drinkable result. The wine needed a few minutes to open up – then it was delicious, fresh, with a touch of underripe white plums, bright acidity and full-body, similar to Marsanne/Roussanne. I wish this wine would be a bit easier to procure and not just through a friend who lives in Switzerland…

I was happy that Stefano brought a bottle of 2008 Berlucchi Palazzo Lana Satèn Riserva Franciacorta (12% ABV) – I love Franciacorta sparkling wines, they always offer a playful variation of the classic Champagne. Berlucchi is the founder of the Franciacorta sparkling wine movement. This wine was also a Satèn, a unique Franciacorta creation, which is specifically made to be a bit gentler than a typical Champagne with the lesser pressure in the bottle. The wine was soft, fresh, delicate, and admired by the whole table enough to disappear literally in the instance.

The next wine was as unique as only inaugural vintage can be. Christophe Baron is best known as Washington Syrah master, with his Cayuse, No Girls, and Horsepower lines. But Christophe’s roots are actually in Champagne, so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that he decided to embrace his heritage. The first bottling, with a promise of many more, was as unique as all Christophe Baron’s wines are – pure Pinot Meunier, vintage, and bottled only in magnums – 2014 Champagne Christophe Baron Brut Nature Les Hautes Blanches Vignes Charly-Sur-Marne (12.5% ABV, 100% Pinot Meunier, 1613 1.5L bottles produced). I made a mistake of slightly overchilling the wine, but it came to its senses shortly after it was opened. The wine was nicely sublime, with all the Champagne traits present – the acidity, brioche, apples – everything balanced and elegant. This was definitely an excellent rendition of Champagne, but to be entirely honest, at around $300 it costs considering tax and shipping, I’m not sure it was unique enough to justify the price. Oh well… definitely was an experience.

Before we move to the reds, a few words about the food. The New Year celebration is a special occasion, which is asking for a special menu. Our typical New Year dinner menu is heavy with appetizers and salads. Our staple salads are “traditional” – Olivie and “Herring under the fur coat”. For the appetizers, we had red caviar, bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed Belgium endives, different kinds of cold cuts and cheeses, tiny prosciutto/pecorino sandwiches, and I’m sure some other stuff. Tea-smoked duck and delicious lasagna comprised the main course, then finishing with loads of baked goods and candies. Yeah, don’t even think about dragging me onto a bathroom scale.

Let’s get back to wine.

The next wine belongs to the “interesting” category. NV Channing Daughters Over and Over Variation Twelve Long Island (12.5% ABV, Merlot, Dornfelder, Syrah, 208 cases produced), a multi-vintage wine which is produced using Ripasso and Solera methods. The name “Over and Over” is emblematic of the production method of this wine – there are many manipulations which I will not even try to describe – you better read it here. I’m all for the fun and complexity, but my problem is that I tasted the standard vintage Channing Daughters red wines which were literally identical to this Over and Over wine. It is great to play with your wine, no questions – but only if the end result is different, and better than the individual parts. The wine showed very youthful, with fresh crunchy fruit and cut through acidity – but it was lacking complexity. It is not a bad wine, but I was not moved by it.

Next up – 1996 Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc AOC (12.5% ABV) – this was a happy wine. The cork came out easily in one piece, and the wine was perfect from the get-go. The perfect minty nose of Bordeaux with a touch of cassis, some hints of mature fruit on the palate, but only the hints – still good acidity, solid core, excellent balance – the wine to enjoy. Yep, was gone in no time.

Of course, the duck on the menu is calling for the Pinot Noir, and what can be better than the Burgundy? 2007 Louis Jadot Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru AOC (13.5% ABV) was our designated match for the duck. The wine opened up beautifully, with succulent plums and a touch of smoke, a delicious, classic Burgundy. However, the joy lasted in the glass for about 10 minutes or so – next, all the fruit was gone, and while you know you are drinking wine, this wine had no sense of place of origin. I don’t know what happened – the wine closed up, needed more time, or was already at the last stretch of its life? Don’t know, and don’t think I will ever find out. Well, there is always another bottle, right?

Now, let’s talk about surprises. No, not the Chateau d’Yquem, which you would assume should qualify as a surprise – the 1999 Finca Villacreces Crianza Ribera Del Duero (13% ABV) was a real surprise. I heard the name of Finca Villacreces as one of the venerable Ribera del Duero producers, but I never had it before. When I was able to score this wine at the Benchmark Wine, I was very excited. The New Year’s celebration seemed to be a perfect opportunity to open it, especially as nobody had it before and we were all looking forward to getting acquainted.

The cork came out easily, in one piece with no sign of any issues. Once I poured the wine into the glass, on the first whiff, the scary thought instantly showed up – the wine might be corked. I tasted the wine, and it seemed just a touch off – it didn’t feel unquestionably corked, but the fruit was not coherent and the wine had sharp, raspy undertones which in my experience are associated with the corked wine. We moved the wine into the decanter and continued tasting it throughout the evening – it stayed practically unchanged.

This was not some random bottle I can get replaced at any store, so I really couldn’t just pour it out. And I’m an eternal optimist. So I used plastic wrap to cover the top of the decanter and left the wine standing there overnight. The next day, about 22-23 hours since the wine was opened, I decided to check on it. Oh my god. The wine completely changed. The hint of the musty cellar was gone. The mighty fruit appeared on the palate, layered, present, velvety and powerful, covering your whole mouth and making you extort “ohh, this is good”. I thoroughly enjoyed the wine after 24 hours in the decanter, and even the next day the tiny leftover was still drinkable. How is this possible? What has happened? I don’t have any answers, but if you have any ideas, please share.

We finished the dinner on the high note – 1988 Château d’Yquem Lur-Saluces Sauternes AOC (13.5% ABV). I’m you sure you don’t need any introductions here – Château d’Yquem is the Bordeaux legend, an absolute hallmark of the Sauternes region, with every other Sauternes wine simply measured against the Château d’Yquem. A perfect pop of the cork from this bottle was music to my ears. The nose and the palate of this wine were in full harmony – it was all about apricots. Fresh apricots, dried apricots, candied apricots – the taste kept moving round and round. The apricots were supported by clean acidity, which became more noticeable as the wine had an opportunity to breathe. Well, this was a short time window in any case, as this half bottle was simply gone in the instance. This 32 years old wine was truly an experience and a perfect finish to our great evening with friends.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. How 2020 started for you? What did you have a chance to discover over the last few days? Cheers!

Seeking Peace with Sherry

December 26, 2019 3 comments

Sherry, a.k.a Jerez or Xerez can be considered a graduation wine for the all-encompassing wine lover (pun intended or not, but I believe Sherry is actually a part of the last exam for the WSET diploma candidates, so you can read whatever you want into this). While Sherry has a very long history, it completely lost the clout it had in the 17th–18th centuries, and today it is more of a wine for the people in the know, a sort of the secret handshake for the true wine aficionados. “Do you like Sherry”? “Of course” – that answer would instantly create the bridge of understanding between the participants in the dialog.

Harveys Bristol Cream sherry

Sherry is fascinating. It is not just another white wine. It offers a very complex taste. Sherry production involves some elements of magic – identified as Flor and Solera. Sherry usually undergoes the long aging process in the barrels. Sometimes, the thin veil, a layer of yeast is formed on top of the wine aging in the barrel – this layer is called Flor. Flor is thick enough to protect the aging wine from the oxidation, but it also requires a very specific level of alcohol in the wine in order to survive. If the wine will finish its aging while protected by the flor, it will become a fino or manzanilla Sherry. However, the formation and survival of the flor is the thing of the mystery.

And then there is Solera. In the solera method of aging the wine, which is often used in the production of Sherry, the set of barrels is always topped off with the younger wine, moving wine from one barrel to another as the wine ages. The barrels are never emptied and never washed, thus if the solera was started 100 years ago, there will be traces of the 100 years old wine in your glass – how cool is that?!

Now, it is time for the hard truth. 7 or 8 years ago, I truly enjoyed the range of Sherry wines, starting from the driest fino and manzanilla, and all the way to the “liquid sugar” Pedro Ximenez – here is the article I wrote back in 2011; I also talked about Sherry in the Forgotten Vines series of posts. Today, I’m avoiding dry Sherry like a plague, as I’m unable to enjoy it much. When I’m offered to taste a sample of the Sherry, I usually have to politely decline. Talking to the fellow bloggers who are raving about their love of Sherry, I usually try to avoid making eye contact as much as possible, so I don’t have to share my opinion.

When I was offered a sample of a Cream Sherry, my first reaction was “no, I’m not touching the Sherry”. But then I thought “hmmm, Cream Sherry – this should be a premixed liqueur, like Baileys and Cream – I can probably do that”, so I agreed to review the wine.

When the bottle showed up with all the explanations, I quickly realized that I was wrong in all of my assumptions.

First, there is no cream in Cream Sherry. It is simply a special style of Sherry – not dry, but not as sweet as Pedro Ximenez would be. The wine I got was Harveys Bristol Cream – and there is a slew of fun fact I would like to share with you, both about the Cream Sherry style and about this particular wine (courtesy of González Byass, a producer and importer of this wine):

Harveys Bristol Cream cream sherry“Did you know that Harveys Bristol Cream
1) …was first created and registered in 1882 by John Harvey & Sons in Bristol,
England, creators of the “cream” Sherry category?
2) …is not a “cream” liqueur, like Baileys, but a Sherry? They decided to call it
a cream Sherry because the richness rivaled that of cream.
3) …is a blend of more than 30 soleras of Sherries aged from 3-20 years? And
it’s the only Sherry made from 4 different styles of Sherry: Fino,
Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
4) …is the only Spanish product with a Royal Warrant from the Queen of
England since 1895?
5) …first came to the United States in 1933 and quickly became a best-seller.
6) …is best served chilled? We think it’s perfect at around 50°-55°F.
7) …is defined by its blue glass bottle and now has a label with a logo that turns
blue when Harveys reaches its perfect temperature.
8) …can be stored in the fridge for up to one month? Although it rarely lasts
that long.
9) …pairs really well with cookies, especially Oreos?
10!…is the number one selling Sherry in the world?”

Secondly, I happened to enjoy this wine! Beautiful mahogany color, more appropriate for cognac or nicely aged scotch, a nose of hazelnut and a touch of fig, plus unmistakable Sherry salinity. The palate shows caramel, burnt sugar, hazelnuts, a dash of sea salt and perfect, clean acidity, which makes this wine a real pleasure to drink. Add a fireplace to this wine over a cold winter night, or a cigar on the deck in the summer, and you got your thirst of guilty pleasure fully satisfied.

Will this be a pivotal wine for me to find Sherry love again? I can’t say it for sure, but I will definitely try. If anything, I’m now at peace with Sherry. And I’m off to pour another glass.

Festival of Lights

December 25, 2019 6 comments

I like love wine.

But wine has nothing to do with today’s post.

I also love photography.

I had been a photography fan for a long time, much longer than I had been drinking wine. No, I don’t pretend to achieve any amazing greatness in photography, but I still truly enjoy taking the pictures and then sharing my view of the world with the world.

The time around Christmas and New Year celebration offers a lot of great picture taking opportunities – decorations are everywhere. Yesterday we visited LuminoCity Festival in New York City, which was an absolutely delightful spectacle, full of … yes, light, and creativity. Different worlds came together, from the North Pole to Africa, all beautifully set at the Randalls Island in Queens, with no shortage of ingenuity with music, lights and motion providing non-stop entertainment.

Below are a few glimpses of this beautiful world, which I had a lot of fun taking the pictures of with my new toy – iPhone 11 pro. One day I will master a quarter of the features the 11 pro camera offers, and it will be a good day – for now, here are some of my best efforts.

If you are in New York or will be visiting, the Festival is continuing until January 5th – I’m afraid that most of the times are sold out, however. Well, you can still try and see for yourself.

Enjoy!

Magic of the Season

December 22, 2019 Leave a comment

While I don’t celebrate Christmas, its magic is not lost on me. When I saw an email advertising Christmas lights display at Longwood Gardens, the decision was quick – we should go and see it.

Longwood Gardens, also known as Dupont Gardens, are located in the town of Kennett Square in Delaware, a few miles away from Pennsylvania border. We had been regular visitors for a long time, as Gardens are absolutely beautiful. Some of our perennial favorites are the Fireworks and Fountains events, which are typically run during the summer – you can come with your own blanket and chairs, find a spot, and enjoy a beautiful display of colorfully lit fountains, working in full sync with the fireworks and classical music. However, we never attended A Longwood Christmas event as it is officially called.

Boy, was that the right decision. We got tickets for 4:30 pm (the event has timed tickets which are better be acquired in advance – the event was sold out for the day we were visiting), and this was a great choice of time as we still got a glimpse of the sunset and then enjoyed the Gardens. The lights, the music, and overall organization were nothing short of stunning – and what you see below is a gimps of our enjoyment.

If you are anywhere within the driving distance, the event worth a hassle – find the time before January 5th to visit and enjoy – or put it already in the calendar for the next year. I’m sure you will greatly enjoy it.

Here you go:

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens

It Might Be Gone Already

November 13, 2019 10 comments

Oenophiles are strange creatures. We love wine and derive out of it a tremendous amount of happiness, joy, and pleasure. We are also somewhat of a masochistic type. We like to torture ourselves around our beloved beverage. We can spend a lot of time trying to select a bottle of wine for a Monday night – multiply that by 10 if we are talking even about a casual Friday night. We need to take into account everything – the mood, the weather, who are we sharing the wine with, and on, and on.

One of the biggest problems we are always trying to solve is called “is it the time”. Yes, we know that it is a gamble. There is no science to know when the wine is ready to drink. And as we always like to enjoy the wine at its peak, we can take forever to decide on that right moment. And this is where the danger lurks – instead of getting the wine at its peak, we might be facing the wine which is … gone.

There are two types of special bottles we, oenophiles, get nervous around. There are those which we are trying to age to precisely hit the bullseye, the “oh my god” moment when tasting wine at its peak. The second type are those wines which we call “special”. “Special” is personal – a single bottle which reminds us of a wonderful trip or a moment in life, a special present from a dear friend, a super-rare or a super-expensive bottle we want to hold on to for as long as possible. Sometimes, this can be one and the same bottle which hits both characteristics. For the second type of “special” bottles there is the OTBN – ”Open That Bottle Night”, an event celebrated on the last Saturday in February, invented to help people to part with those special bottles. For the bottles we are waiting to become perfect… well, it might be the same OTBN, or maybe we just need to convince ourselves that “the time is now”.

This is what we decided to do, setting the theme for our wine dinner as “It might be gone already”. Usually, we set the rules for our tastings – what wines, what regions, what price ranges, etc. But for this dinner there were no rules – whatever anyone wants to have open, whatever the reason is to believe that the wine might be past prime (or not) – everything goes.

We managed to assemble a lot more wines than we were able to drink, so many of the wonderful bottles will have to wait until the next occasion. However, we still did great, finding lots of great surprises and enjoying the program very much. Here is my account of our tasting.

We started from a very simple wine – 2007 Saint-Hilaire Brut Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine from the Languedoc, from the winery which claims that they were the first to make the Methodé Traditionelle wines, before Champagne ever saw a first bubble in the bottle. This is one of my most favorite sparkling wines – it is inexpensive ($12.99 or so), and tasty. But – 12 years old? That sounds like a little much for a wine like that. Nevertheless, it was perfect – still fresh, still a good amount of bubbles, a touch of yeast – a perfect start for our evening.

We continued our bubbly explorations with something of a truly next level – 1990 Dom Ruinart Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Another perfect encounter – crisp, focused, a good amount of yeast and toasted bread – an outstanding vintage Champagne without a sign of age.

Italy is better known in the world as the source of great red wines. However, Italian whites shouldn’t be ignored. Jermann makes some of the very best Italian white wines, and these wines are unquestionably a world class. Vintage Tunina is a flagship wine, made out of a field blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and a small percentage of a local sweet grape. According to the notes on the Jermann website, Vintage Tunina can age for 7–8 years, 10 in the exceptional vintages. This 2006 Jermann Vintage Tunina Venezia Giulia IGT was 13 years old, and in a word, it was superb. Bright, vibrant, whitestone fruit and a touch of honey, medium+ body – an outstanding wine.

Our next white was 2007 Château St Jean Chardonnay Reserve Sonoma County – it was not as impressive as Vintage Tunina, but still was not over the hill, with a good amount of white apple, a touch of butter, and good acidity. I never had this wine before, and understand from the people who did that the wine was starting its journey down the hill, but it was still quite enjoyable.

I was trying to convince my friends that our next wine was not ready to be opened – 2011 Antica Terra Erratica Rosé from Oregon. I had 2010 last year, and the wine was mind-blowing (ended up being wine #2 on my Top Wines list of 2018). After being ostracized – “what are you talking about, it is 8 years old Rosé ?!?!” – I angrily pulled out the cork. 2011 was equally mind-blowing to the last year’s 2010. Pungent, lip-smacking, full of smoky cranberries and herbs, medium body – delicious. I don’t know for how long this wine can age, but I would definitely love to see it with at least another 5 years of age. Oh well…

Now, we are reaching practically a culmination point of the evening – 1966 Château Leoville Poyferré St. Julien. Well, it was conditionally the culmination point – when I received this bottle 2 years ago, the capsule showed a significant amount of wine stain, which is an indication of the wine potentially slowly sipping through the cork. But – it was 1966, so that alone deserves the utmost respect.

As we expected, the wine was past its prime. It had dark brown color in the glass – a color you expect to see on a well-aged tawny port, but not on Bordeaux at any age. The wine had the tasting profile of a nice hearty stew, but again, not the Bordeaux. To be entirely honest, I enjoyed a few sips of it (my friends refused it almost instantly), but this was definitely not the wine anyone should drink.

I’m not going in the right order, but let’s talk about maybe the biggest disappointment of the evening – 2010 Yves Boyer-Martinot Meursault-Perrier. 9 years old white Burgundy should be way too young to drink. But then the Meursault wines have a known issue – Premature Oxidation, or PremOx as it is often abbreviated. Fear of PremOx was a driving factor behind the decision to open this wine. Unfortunately, the fear was justified – kind of. The wine was not oxidized – but it was literally undrinkable. It showed a little sign of life at first, and we decided to decant it – however, it didn’t help. The wine showed very tired, some stewed plums, no vibrancy of any kind. Definitely not a good surprise.

Let’s get back to the red wines. Our next wine was 1978 Barbera. The label lost practically all of its color, so I don’t know who was the producer. But the bottle had been very important memorabilia – at the age of 9, our friend Stefano was helping to bottle that exact wine, so it clearly had a special meaning. The wine was still drinkable, had good acidity and some dark fruit. Not amazing, but well drinkable.

The next two red wines aptly compensated for all the misgivings of our tasting. 1997 Shafer Firebreak Napa Valley, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, was excellent. The core of the dark fruit and espresso, firm structure, excellent balance, the wine was alive and delicious. It is a pity that this wine is not produced anymore, as Shafer replaced all the plantings of Sangiovese with the other grapes – this was definitely a delicious wine.

And maybe for the biggest surprise of the evening, let me present to you 1995 Navarro Correas Coleccion Privada Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza. What, you never heard of this wine? Me too! Until our tasting that is. When originally acquired, the wine price was something under $10. So who would expect that 24 years old simple Argentinian Cab would age so beautifully? The wine was fresh, no sign of age, tart cherries on the nose, the same tart cherries, herbs and a touch of sweet oak on the palate – the wine was going and going. A tasty, totally unexpected, surprise.

We had to finish this tasting with a dessert wine, didn’t we? 1988 Franciscan Estate Johannisberg Riesling Napa Valley, as rare and precious as you can find, as this wine is simply not produced anymore. This wine was definitely at its peak – beautiful figs, honey, and a perfect dose of acidity – an excellent finish to our great tasting.

Let’s try to summarize our tasting. Out of 11 wines, 6 can be safely designated as an “amazing experience”. Three wines were “good”. Two wines were a flap. I would take it as a very respectful, and very successful outcome – I’m sure you can think of a lot more tastings with a much lesser degree of success and enjoyment.

Here you are, my friends. Feel free to copy the idea – if you have anything reminiscent of a cellar, I’m sure you got the bottles that might benefit from being open. Open now, before it is too late. Cheers!

What Do I Need To Know To Enjoy A Glass Of Wine

October 26, 2019 2 comments

Glass and the candleSo you are wondering what do you need to know to enjoy a glass of wine.

This is actually a very simple question. Let me give you a very simple answer.

Nothing.

Nothing at all. You need to know nothing about the wine.

You don’t need to know who made it, where was it made, how was it made, what grapes were used, how much it costs. None of this matters.

The wine in your glass is binary. You either like it or not. If you are not sure if you like it, then ask yourself another simple question: “do I want a second glass, or not?” If you want a second glass, then it goes into the “I like it category”. If you don’t – well, you got my point.

I’ve not been fictitious or sarcastic here. I’m very serious. Wine is food. No, it is not a necessity, it is rather a luxury, it is a food you can live without. But still, wine is food, with about 100 calories in a standard size glass of dry red wine. When you take a bite of steak, your impression is binary – you either like it or not. The same is with wine – when you take a sip, you either like it or not. End of story.

Now, let’s get things straight. I’m not trying to invalidate here the whole wine ecosystem, where millions of people are studying and make their living around the oldest continuously produced beverage in the world. I’m not saying that wine is a simple subject. Depending on one’s life outlook, nothing is simple in this world, and the wine has unlimited levels of complexity (simple fact – at the moment of this writing, there are only 269 (!) Master Sommeliers (highest distinction of wine knowledge) in the world). Nevertheless, for a casual encounter with a glass of red, white, or pink liquid in the tulip-shaped glass, there are only two possible outcomes – “I like it” and “I don’t like it”.

Yesterday during the wine dinner I asked my neighbor at the table if she enjoys the wine we were drinking. “Well, I don’t know enough about wine”, she started, instead of simply answering the simple question – “yes, I do”, or “no, I don’t”. I heard this answer many times, and I find it instantly annoying. There is nothing you need to know to enjoy the wine in your glass. You don’t have to be a chef or a food critic to say if the omelet in front of you is tasty or not. The same is with wine – it either tastes good to you or not.

There is definitely a lot of intimidation around the wine. There are wine magazines that tell you what you should be drinking today. There are wine ratings – “here is an excellent wine for you – it got 95 points from Robert Parker”. You have no idea who Robert Parker is, but you would never admit it, “ahh, of course”. There are knowledgeable friends who tell you “try this – you are going to love this”. There are sommeliers and wine stewards at the restaurants who tell you that this is the best wine for your dinner tonight (nevermind that this is one of the most expensive wines on the list). All these things are part of the intimidation around the wine, and yes, it is very hard to say “hmmm, I don’t like it” if Robert Parker said that he did. But – you really have to learn to trust yourself. Everyone’s palate is different. There are only 4 basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter – we can skip the umami for this conversation) – but everyone perceives those tastes differently, has different sensitivity to each one of those (if you ever had to reduce salt consumption, you know that after a month or so of such a low-sodium diet, any restaurant dish comes as oversalted). And so what you taste is completely unique to you, and it is only you who is entitled to state “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, without any regard to any professional opinion in the world.

Again, I want to repeat my statement – you don’t need to know anything about wine to know if you enjoy it or not. But – and it is a major, major, supersized but – you might want to know about the wine as this might simply increase your level of enjoyment of that same wine. But even in this case, you don’t need to become an expert to better enjoy thye wine. You can start simple. When you find the wine you like and enjoy, take notice of the producer and the name of the wine (there are many apps today which can help you simplify this process). This can help you next time at the restaurant, trying to select wine from the list – once you see the wine you already tried and liked, this instantly reduces intimidation. Of course, it will also help you in the wine store, so you will get the wine you know you liked.

vinca minor cabernet sauvignon back label

Maybe once you recognize some producers, you might start taking notice of the regions the wine is coming from. You might find, for example, that you are usually enjoying white wines from Germany and red wines from Piedmont. This knowledge can help you further in your quest for the enjoyable wine, as even when you have your favorite producer and wine, you might not be able to always find that specific wine at a restaurant or in the store. In this case, you can use that knowledge to select the wine from the different producers but still from the same region, as this still increases your chances of liking the wine.

You don’t have to stop at the producer and region, and you can continue your wine knowledge acquisition literally forever, as the subject of the wine is endless. Vintages, vineyards, single vineyards, blocks and plots, grapes, blends, terroir, climate conditions, winemakers, oak regimen, age of the vines, visits to the wine regions, and on, and on, and on – all of this knowledge might help you enjoy the wine more. I can even take it further and tell you that all this knowledge might change the perceived taste of wine, as, for example, trying the wine made at the winery you visited can trigger happy memories, and definitely make the wine to taste even better – to you. Very important – this knowledge will only change the way the wine tastes to you. If the friend you are sharing dinner with never visited the winery, he or she can’t necessarily share your excitement and wholeheartedly say that they enjoy the wine if they don’t. And that’s okay. Everyone’s palate is different, and tasting and liking of the wine are strictly individual.

Remember this next time you are at a restaurant. If you know about the wines, don’t intimidate your friends. they don’t have to like what you like. At the same time, if you know nothing about the wine, don’t get intimidated by anyone or anything. “The truth is in the eye of the beholder” – if you don’t enjoy the wine, it is your truth, and it is nothing to be ashamed of or to worry about. Everyone’s palate is different. End of the story.

I hope you learned today everything you need to know to enjoy a glass of wine. Which is, literally, nothing. And nothing should be standing in your way of enjoying the wine in your glass. Cheers!

 

Spain’s Great Match 2019 – A Mixed Bag?

October 17, 2019 Leave a comment

I love Spanish wines.

Anyone who reads this blog for a while is aware of this. Spanish wines have a special place in my heart, as even today they are some of the best-kept secrets in the wine world, allowing those in the know to enjoy amazing wines still at reasonable prices (some of the best QPRs around).

For many years I had been attending Spanish Wine Tasting in New York, called Spain’s Great Match. I usually attend the early morning seminar, and then go for the walk-around tasting – here you can find my reports from 2014 and 2017 events.

The seminars at Spain’s Great Match are meant to showcase some of the best and interesting Spanish wines. 2014 event was an absolute stand out in this regard, as this was a special event celebrating 30 years of Spanish wines in the USA. The wines served in that seminar were way beyond amazing.

The 2017 seminar was also quite good – maybe not as good as 2014, but still, very, very good. Now, before I will report on the 2019 event, let me talk a bit about the setting.

Mercado Little Spain

The event took place in one of the trendiest New York neighborhoods, Hudson Yards, at the recently opened Mercado Little Spain. Mercado Little Spain is conceptually similar to the Eataly, with the space filled with all possible produce, food and drink options which you would otherwise find…yes, in Spain. So the setting itself was outstanding, creating the right atmosphere to enjoy Spanish wines as they should be.

Now, let’s talk about the seminar, which was called “Vinos de Vanguardia: Wines on the Cutting Edge”.

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

As you can tell from the name, the idea was to present a unique and different side of Spanish wines. Yes, I get it – Spanish wines might be relegated by “ordinary”, “predictable”, and “same all, same all”, and the seminar was designed to break that myth and to show the forward-thinking of the Spanish winemakers.

I don’t discriminate against any type of wines – natural, low intervention, “orange”, unoaked, unfiltered, canned, boxed, all is good. I’m willing to try absolutely anything – at least one time. When I taste the wine, I trust my palate, and that sip will be simply binary – I will either like the wine, or not. Yes, temperature, air, of course – I’m willing to give literally an unlimited amount of time to the wine to show itself properly – but at some point, the wine has to deliver what it is supposed to deliver – a pleasure. That’s all I’m looking for in wine – pleasure.

I’m sure the wines in the seminar were hand-selected to represent the avant-garde thinking of the Spanish winemakers. However, for me, only 3 wines out of 8 delivered that pleasure, and two out of those leftover 5 were not only boring, but they were also off-putting. I rarely call wines “bad”, I typically say that the wines are “not for me”. So these 2 wines were truly not for me – here are the notes:

2018 Can Sumoi Xarel-lo DO Penedès (100% Xarel-lo)
Golden
Great acidity, sour apples, an unusual ting of a fermenting fruit
Mostly acidity, a bit violent to my taste. Fresh lemon acidity, devoid of any sweetness. The bitter-sour finish lingered. It might be a food wine, but I would definitely prefer a Muscadet if I really look for food-friendly acidity.
Natural wine, the panel was talking about a sense of place and so on, but one can relate to that only if one is visiting, and without that “place” connection the wine was … well, you got my point

2018 Tajinaste Blanco DO Islas Canarias (90% Listán Blanco, 10% Albillo)
Golden color
Fresh grass, underripe white plums, distant hint of a grapefruit
Fresh acidity, Meyer lemon. Unfortunately, boring.

2018 A Coroa Godello DO Valdeorras (100% Godello)
Golden color
Whitestone fruit, a touch of lemon
Good acidity, distant hint of buttery notes, but this was mostly it – the acidity. This wine might well be improved with time, judging by the acidity, but at the moment, boring.

2016 Enrique Mendoza La Tremenda DO Alicante (100% Monastrell)
Garnet
Beautiful intense nose of fresh berries, a touch of iodine
Tannins-forward, tannins mostly take over the wine, some fruit present. Not great.

2018 Bodegas Ponce Clos Lojén DO Manchuria (100% Bobal)
Dark garnet
Touch of roasted meat, violet, very inviting floral aromatics
Beautiful pepper note, fresh berries, medium body, open, inviting, short finish. First good wine in the tasting.

2016 Marañones 30.000 Maravedies DO Vinos de Madrid (90% Garnacha, 10% Morate/Syrah)
Ruby
Hay and cherries, light
Tart, tannins forward, mouth-puckering, cherry pits on the back end. Maybe a food wine, and maybe it will improve with time. Ok wine for now.

2015 Alberto Orte Atlántida VT de Cádiz (100% Tintilla)
Dark ruby/garnet
Beautiful open inviting nose – sage, ripe plumes, thyme, lavender – one of the most herbs-driven aromas I ever experienced
Beautiful palate, herbs with a complex interplay, fresh berries, delicious. Second excellent wine in the tasting.

2015 Guímaro Finca Meixeman DO Ribeira Sacra (100% Mencía)
Garnet
Mostly closed, a touch of cherries, hint of currant leaves
The beautiful playful palate, crunchy wild blueberries, lots of herbs, medium body, medium+ finish. Also one of the best in the tasting.

As you can tell, Bobal, Tintilla, and Mencía were excellent wines which I really enjoyed – and all these wines are uniquely Spanish. When it comes to Spanish wines, you don’t need to try too hard – Spain offers lots of unique and delicious wines – but oh well, this was fine anyway.

Right after the seminar, we went back to the main floor, which was all converted into the walk-around wine tasting space. Spanish food was carried around, from famous Jamón to Manchego cheese to Spanish omelet to Potatas Bravas and more. I have to say that Gazpacho was my favorite bite without a doubt, but overall, there was no shortage of food.

Mercado Little Spain

Spanish Cheeses at Mercado Little Spain

Mercado Little Spain

Spain's Great Match 2019

I have to honestly say that in my 5 years of attending these “Spain’s Great Match” events, the “big guns” never showed up in the tasting – I don’t mean Pingus, Clos Mogador or Vega Sicilia, but even more accessible staples such as La Rioja Alta, Lopez de Heredia, Emilio Moro, Alto Moncayo and many others never made an appearance outside of occasional representation in the seminars. This year’s event was not an exception, with really minor representations of the better-known wines. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of excellent wines available, but been a bit spoiled (sorry), I just made a quick round, mostly looking to taste the new vintages of the wines I already knew, so I’m not going to inundate you with a long list of my wine recommendations.

In no particular order, here are the wines I tasted and liked:

Sparkling and white:

2017 Martinsancho Bodegas y Viñedos Martinsancho Rueda DO ($15) – this is one of the best Rueda wines, and it is a lot of wine for the money
2016 CUNE Monopole Classico Rioja DOCa ($27) – deliciously complex, oak-aged white Rioja
NV Anna de Codorníu Brut Rosé Cava DO ($15) – an excellent glass of bubbly for any occasion
NV Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad Penedes DO ($30) – this wine never disappoints, and a beautiful bottle makes it a perfect gift

Red:

2016 Viña Real Crianza Rioja DOCa ($16)
2014 CUNE Reserva Rioja DOCa ($29)
2012 CUNE Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($39)
2012 CUNE Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($80)
2016 Teofilo Reyes Crianza Ribera Del Duero DO ($37)
2018 Bodegas Divina Proporcion 24 Mozas Toro DO ($16) – a nice rendition of powerful Toro Tempranillo, good value
2010 Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta Reserva Rioja DOCa ($38)
2014 Bodegas Sonsiera Pagos de la Sonsiera Rioja DOCa ($38)
2016 Bodegas Valderiz Ribera Del Duero DO ($25)
2014 Boada Campo de Bueyes Crianza Ribera Del Duero DO ($15) – might be my favorite wine from the whole tasting. Approachable, round, delicious. Great value.

In terms of price versus quality, or the QPR as we like to call it, Spain still remains unbeatable, and it still remains more of a secret for a casual wine lover. Well, I guess it is all better for us – those who discovered the secret already.

What was your favorite Spanish wine discovery as of late?

For The Love Of Chowder – 2019 Edition

October 15, 2019 2 comments

Last Sunday, purveyors of the humble soup, also known as Chowder, assembled at the Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut, for the 12th annual festival, the Chowdafest. 29 restaurants, mostly from New England, with a notable exception of Pike’s Place restaurant out of Seattle, Washington, competed in 4 categories (New England Clam Chowder, Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian) – and a few thousand (“a few” here might be 2, 3, 5 – the last number I heard was 12) of people came to have a good time, and to help to identify the best chowders.

My empty ballot held in place by muffin pans – an essential tool of chowder lover at Chowdafest

Before I will inundate you with pictures, as usual, let me give you my brief personal take on the event.

For the good part, there were plenty of tasty soups to go around, and an absolute majority of the soups I tasted were quite good. There were also lots of tasty giveaways, with Natalie’s All Natural Juices as my personal favorite.

For the not so good part, the event felt really, really crowded. This was my 5th Chowdafest, and all previous years I was able to visit the absolute majority of the stands within about 2 hours. This time around, I simply gave up at some point, as the lines were just unsurmountable. I believe there were two reasons for that – first, the weather was so-so, and people didn’t have much else to do on that Sunday. Second, and more important – there was lesser number of participants in the competition, thus even the same amount of people as usual had to line up to the fewer number of stands – this year, there were 29 restaurants competing versus 37 last year, and 40 in the two years prior. My last gripe would be with scarcely decorated stands – in the prior years, there were a lot more seasonal decorations seen everywhere – this year, the decorations were quite limited.

There was a good number of vegetarian soups presented, such as Gazpacho from Rory’s in Darien. Cast Iron Soup from the Cast Iron House in New Haven rightfully won this category as it was one of the very best soups in the competition.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder from the Ribbon Cafe was one of the most creative at the Chowdafest 2019, served with a cheese wonton:

As always, the Chowdafest went way beyond just the soup – Michelle’s Pies were an excellent addition, and as I mentioned, Natalie’s Natural Juices (Beet Orange was my personal favorite) were an excellent thirst quencher.

There were also some very creative tasting approaches at the Chowdafest, such as this one:

Here you can see a glimpse of the prizes, all made by the local artist, Wendy Marciano:

Let’s talk about the winners. For the 5th year in the row, Pike’s Place out of Seattle took the 1st place in the New England Clam Chowder category. Also for the 5th year in the row, Our House Bistro from Winooski, VT took the Creative Chowder category with its Drunkin Pumpkin Seafood Chowder. Gates from New Cannan, CT won Soup/Bisque category with its Crab & Roasted Corn Bisque, and Old Post Tavern/Cast Iron Chop House from New Haven, CT won Vegetarian category with its Cast Iron Soup. You can find all the results here.

I have to say that I’m convinced that Pike’s Place wins the competition not just because they make the best soup (in my opinion, they are not), but because they also provide the best service. While this was one of the most coveted participants, Pike’s Place stand was practically the only one without a line – they were very efficient in pouring out and simply carrying around their chowder on the large trays, so it was easy for everyone to try it without the need to stand in the long line.

I guess that’s all I wanted to share with you. Before we part, I will show you my ballot which is shamefully incomplete, but this is the best I could do:

I’m already looking forward to the Chowdafest 2020 – I hope it will be the best and the tastiest and maybe not as crowded as the one this year.

Why You Don’t Want To Miss Chowdafest 2019

September 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Really, why would you want to miss the Chowdafest 2019? If you like chowder or any form of nice, hearty soup – and note, it can be vegetarian soup as well – you can’t have an excuse good enough to miss the 12th annual Chowdafest festivities on October 6, 2019, taking place at the usual place – Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut, from 11 AM until 3 PM.

I attended Chowdafest for the past 5 years, and when I’m suggesting that attending the event is well worth the effort of rearranging your Sunday around it, I’m simply speaking from experience (take a look my reports from past Chowdafests here). Chowdafest is a lot of fun – it is not only soups and chowders but lots of samples of cheese, bread, sauces, juices, tea, coffee, ice cream, and more. It is literally fun for all ages (yes, you want to teach your kids what tasty food is from an early age).

Chowdafest 2017

One of my very favorite creative chowders – and a winning one!

At the Chowdafest 2019, 30 restaurants will be competing for the titles in the 4 categories – New England Clam Chowder, Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian. Half of the 30 competing restaurants will be participating for the first time, and I’m definitely looking forward to trying new soups such as Mexican style Shrimp Posole Soup, or Buffalo Chicken Noodle Soup. But probably the main question is – will Pike’s Place out of Seattle, Washington, win the classic New England Clam Chowder category for the 5th year in the row? Well, you will need to be there to see it and be a part of it.

I hope I solved for you the problem “What to do on Sunday, October 6th”. See you at the Chowdafest!

 

Judging Wine

September 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Let’s do some math. There are about 8,700 wineries in the USA. Some wineries make only 2–3 wines, but this is quite rare. Some wineries make 10, 15 or more, especially if you will take into account all the “winery-only” specials. Let’s average, say, at 10 (I’m sure I’m reasonably conservative here). In this case, we are talking about roughly 87,000 different wines. Produced every year. In the USA alone.

How do we choose the wines? Presented with an average selection of at least a few hundred bottles even at a small wine store, we need all the help we can get to select that one bottle we want to drink tonight. One of such “helpers” is so-called ratings. Ratings are professional wine critics’ opinions, generally expressed in the form of the numbers (points), from 50 to a 100 – 89 points, 95 points, 100 points. Those ratings are produced by several wine publications (magazines and newsletters), such as Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and a few others. Let’s say there are about 4 main publications in the USA (there are lots more, of course, if you will attempt a full count, but let’s just stay with the major ones). Now, to produce the ratings for all 87,000 wines among 4 publications, working 365 days a year (no breaks!), it will be necessary to evaluate about 60 wines per day, every day – and these are just wines from the USA, based on our rough assumption of 10 wines per winery. Mission impossible – and mission unnecessary.

What else is there besides ratings, to help our poor, indecisive selves? Well, how about some awards? If you ever visited some lesser-known wineries – maybe on Long Island, or in Finger Lakes, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, etc – have you noticed a display of the bottles wearing straps with various medals around the neck? Those are the exact awards we are talking about. How the wineries get those? By participation (and winning) at the various wine competitions, in the USA or even in the world.

There are about 70 of major (or better known) wine competitions in the USA, plus probably hundreds of lesser-known, more regional wine competitions. Wineries submit their wines for the competitions. The wines are grouped into the categories (white, blend, Chardonnay, Merlot, Dessert, etc), and get rated in a blind tasting within those categories by the wine judges. The best wines in the categories can subsequently compete for the “best in show”, “best red”, “best dessert” and so on. And then wineries get to brag about their awards and to display the medals, sometimes at the winery, and sometimes even on the labels – I’m sure you’ve seen those.

Wondering how the wine judging is done? Let me give you a first-hand account, as I just attended my second wine competition as a judge – at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival – obviously focused on the wines of Hudson Valley.

As we mentioned, the wines are judged blind, with only a variety (or blend composition) and vintage known for every wine. The wines are split into the categories such as white and Rosé, red, dessert, fruit, and can be split into varieties within the categories, each category presented as a separate flight – for example, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for reds, or Chardonnay and Riesling for the whites. The wines are assessed at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival according to the American Wine Society wine evaluation chart, which you can find in its entirety here. According to that chart, the wine can get the maximum of 20 points comprising of the following categories

  • Wine color – up to 3 points. This is an easy one – as long as your 1-year-old dry Riesling is not a deep golden, or not hazy/cloudy, it is 3 points.
  • Aroma and bouquet – up to 6 points. The 6 points are awarded if the wine is absolutely on point for the varietal expression.
  • Taste and texture – again, up to 6 points. To get 6 points the wine should be varietally perfect.
  • Finish – up to 3 points. Here the long and enjoyable is what is required to qualify for 3.
  • Overall impression – up to 2 points. Here is an opportunity for a judge to express his or her personal opinion about the wine – nah, okay, or wow.

The assessment of the wines done in the flights, where each wine is individually labeled with a code. The judges are working in the groups of 3, with each group having a captain who manages the group’s work and fills up all of the final decision forms. While the wines in the flight had been assessed, all judges keep it quiet and filling up the form. Once the flight’s assessment is finished, the wines are been discussed one by one, to arrive at a final score for the wine. Based on the score and opinion, the recommendations can be made for double gold, gold, silver, and bronze, as well as for the inclusion into the best of show tasting.

Once all the flights are done by all the judges at all tables, the results are processed, which takes about 30 minutes. During this 30 minutes break, it is a perfect opportunity for judges to walk around and see a bit of the show floor before it gets ultra-crowded. Here are some of the pictures of what you can find on the show floor of the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Festival. These are the things which attracted my attention, and I can tell you that the bacon salsa you see below was superb. Both single malt and rye whiskey which you can see below were good, but not $100 good as it was the show’s asking price. And how about those cans and wine labels!

After the break, the final part of the judging is set up – now the wines are judged for the best in category (best red, best white, etc), and then all of the best in categories are included into the “best in show” tasting. Best in category and best in the show are judged by all the judges at all the tables by the show of hands, and each judge can vote only once.

Best in Show tasting flight

An interesting by-product of all the voting is the title of the “winery of the year” for the region – I don’t know the exact formulae, but it is determined by the number of wines awarded the medals, taking into account how many wines were submitted versus how many wines got awards, and the type of those awards – for example, it is better to submit 2 wines, one of which will take double gold, versus 4 wines, out of which 2 will take silver.

That’s all there is to it – now you know all about the wine judging.

 

Here you can see our list of flights, and some of my notes. I have to honestly tell you that somehow I liked the wines from last year a bit more than the wines from this year – but then last year our red wines flight was Cabernet Franc, and this year it was Merlot – and Hudson Valley produces better Cabernet Franc than Merlot (personal opinion, of course). Also, last year we tasted no DPMs at our table – in case you never heard the term which I learned last year, DPM stands for Don’t Put in your Mouth – and DPM can happen anywhere, it has nothing to do with any particular region.  So last year we got lucky, and this year, we were blessed with two – one wine was completely spoiled (can’t describe it, just terrible, like a spoiled fruit), and the second one tasted like it had cheese blended in the wine – as one of the judges said, “I like cheese with my wine, but not in my wine”. Anyway, bad wines happen anywhere in the world – nothing else there is to it.

Overall, however, I have nothing to complain about, it was fun and successful tasting, and we completed our work with no issues.

Debbie Gioquindo, Chair of the competition, deep at work

I will not be repeating here all the results – you find them all here, on the website of Debbie Gioquindo, Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition Chairwoman for the past 12 years. For my personal favorites, 2017 Millbrook Castle Hill Vinyard Chardonnay Hudson Valley was absolutely spectacular – it is hard to believe the Chardonnay of such a world quality can be produced in Hudson Valley (I mean no disrespect, but you have to taste this wine to believe it) – perfectly Burgundian with a distant hint of vanilla and butter. 2015 Glorie Farm Winery Cabernet Franc was simply perfect – an excellent rendition of the Cabernet Franc, the grape which Hudson Valley mastered to perfection for a while – and it was the Best in Show wine. And the Baldwin Vineyards Spiced Apple, entered in the fruit wine category, simply blew my mind with its perfect expression of a drool-inducing apple pie – the one you eat with the spoon directly from the tray, and you know you are not supposed to do it, but you can’t stop yourself…

In case you want to see it, here is the aftermath of the competition:

After the wine tasting...

That’s all, my friends. This was definitely a fun experience, and I’m already looking forward to the next year’s event. Cheers!

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