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The Art of Tempranillo

May 24, 2018 7 comments

Source: Vintae.com

I love Tempranillo wines. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I had a wide range of Tempranillo – with the exception of Australia, I believe I tried most of the major renditions – Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Toro, most everywhere else in Spain, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington (am I missing something? do tell!). With all the love and respect to all the regions, if I have to put an order of priorities in that “list”, I would put Rioja first, Ribera del Duero very close second, but the competition for the 3rd place would be severe – in my world, of course.

I like wines of Toro, the closest sibling to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but it would be hard for me to place them higher than some of the beautiful Tempranillo renditions from Irwin Family Vineyards, Duchman, or Fields – considering the Toro wines I had in the past. Compared to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Toro is … well, maybe I need to explain why I keep mentioning Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro together all the time. These are the only three regions in the world where the absolute majority of the red wines is made out of the Tempranillo grapes. Yes, there are Garnacha and Graciano in Rioja, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Ribera del Duero, but still – most of the red wines in these three regions are made out of the Tempranillo, hence the constant comparison.

Out of the three regions, Toro is south-most one, with an expressly continental climate, low annual rainfall amounts, and significant range of day-night temperatures – which typically translates well into the flavor. Tempranillo is the grape of Toro, but similarly to Tuscany/Brunello, where you have Sangiovese and Sangiovese Grosso, Tempranillo in Toro is known as Tinta de Toro, a.k.a Tempranillo de Castilla, a.k.a. Ink of Toro. The grape is a bit smaller, with thicker skin, which coupled with growing conditions typically results, in massive, concentrated wines requiring extensive aging to become drinkable – I still have a memory of trying Alabaster made by Sierra Cantabria, one of the well-known producers in Toro, which was one of the most massive wines I ever experienced. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, Tempranillo is one of the favorites, so when the opportunity called to try 3 wines from Toro, I was definitely curious – and a bit cautious at the same time.

To ease things up, together with the 3 Toro wines from Bodega Matsu came a bottle of Rioja Reserva from Bodega Classica. While coming from unrelated producers, there is a common link between them – this link is called Vintae – a young company with a serious passion for the Spanish wine for the modern world. Vintae, started in 1999 by the Arambarri family, set on changing world’s perception of the Spanish wine as “boring”. To the date, Vintae unifies a collection of 11 different “projects”, all focused on showcasing the regions and the grapes.

Going back to the wines at hand, let’s talk about Rioja first. The wine comes from Bodega Classica, located in the heart of Rioja Alta. Rioja Alta offers a unique high-altitude setting to produce arguably the best Tempranillo of the whole of Rioja region. Couple that with more than 100 years old vineyards, and you are looking at some tasty opportunities in the bottle, as this Bodega Classica Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Reserva was. Here are my notes:

2013 Bodega Classica Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Reserva DOCa (13.5% ABV, $16.99, 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Graciano, 20 months in French and American oak)
Dark garnet color
Pepper, vanilla, raspberries, mushrooms, nice minerality
Medium body, good acidity, noticeable alcohol burn initially, went away in about 15 minutes, good fruit showed up, characteristic cedar notes, good acidity, round, soft.
8-, nice, just give it a bit of time to soften up at the beginning. The second day continued without changes. Good life expectancy, as expected of Rioja Reserva. And an excellent QPR.

Now, let’s go back to Toro. As I already said, in my prior experience, Toro wines were massive and concentrated, requiring long aging to soften and really show a beautiful expression of Tempranillo. And then there were wines called Matsu.

Bodega Matsu wines

Matsu in means “wait” in Japanese. As we all know, waiting is one of the favorite games of oenophiles. When it comes to the three Matsu wines I had an opportunity to taste, there are many different levels of “waiting”. The wines had been progressively aged for the longer times before the release – 3 months for El Picaro, 14 months for El Recio, 16 months for El Viejo. The grapes were harvested from the vines of different age (again, progressively) – 50-70 years old for El Picaro, 90-100 years old for El Recio, more than 100 years old for El Viejo. See, waiting here is clearly a part of the equation.

And then there are those ultra-creative labels. Not only labels commemorate people who actually worked to create the wines, they clearly identify what you should expect from the wines – in age, in style, and even in price. I conducted a little experiment, first with my kids, and then with the people on Instagram, asking them to identify the most expensive wine – nobody made a mistake, the labels speak very clearly to us.

How were the wines? Surprising. Probably the best Toro wines I ever had – without any regard to the pricing category. Here are my notes, so you can see for yourself:

2016 Bodega Matsu El Picaro Toro DO (14.5% ABV, $13.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 50 – 70 years old vines, 3 months minimum aging on the lees, concrete tanks)
Bright ruby color, noticeable legs, minimal rim variation
Young fresh berries, medium+ intensity, a touch of vanilla
Surprisingly light on the palate, pleasant tannins, fresh berries, very quaffable.
8-, might be the lightest rendition of Toro I ever had. The smell is a bit more complex on the second day. Palate nicely evolved, good balance, raspberries, no more impression of the young wine, lots of minerality.

2015 Bodega Matsu El Recio Toro DO (14.5% ABV, $21.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 90 – 100 years old vines, 14 months aging in second use oak barrels)
Garnet color, noticeable legs, minimal rim variation too
Sage, fresh raspberries, quite fruity, roasted notes, minerality, distant hint of cinnamon
Underripe plums, blueberries, thyme, nice herbal component, surprisingly light, still noticeable alcohol, needs more time
8-, needs time. Second day: 8/8+, velvety texture, well integrated, excellent balance, a touch of tobacco and espresso on the palate and ripe plums. Outstanding.

2015 Bodega Matsu El Viejo Toro DO (15% ABV, $46.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 100+ years old vines, 16 months in new French oak barrels)
Garnet Color, noticeable legs, rim variation is not extensive, but present
Sweet blueberries and raspberries on the nose, sage, sweet oak
8- first day, waiting for more.
Second day: 8, much evolved, more integrated, velvety texture, dark fruit, round, smooth. Will evolve further.

Here you are, my friends – the Art of Wine, from the label to the glass. Very impressive and thought-provoking wines, definitely worth seeking. Have you had any of these wines? Have you had Toro wines before? Do you have any Tempranillo favorites? Cheers!

Sequel in Reverse – More About Wines of Southwest France

May 18, 2018 3 comments

What’s up with the “sequel in reverse”, you ask? Easy. All we need to do is flip the timeline. This post is a continuation of the previous post about wines of Southwest France – however, the tasting I want to share with you took place almost 6 months ago, at the end of the last year 2017, hence the “reverse” notion.

Outside of the sequence of the events, the two tastings are perfectly aligned – they are both squarely dedicated to the wines of one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world – Southwest France.

I can’t explain why, but I feel that I need to make a confession. If you look through the pages of this blog – and there are a few here – I’m sure you will come to a conclusion that I primarily drink wines from California, Spain, and Italy, with an occasional sprinkle of everything else. And you will not be wrong. However, truth be told, my true love to wine started from French wines. I read the most about French wine and French wine regions. I was obsessed with trying to find an amazing Bordeaux for less than $10. Côtes du Rhône wines were a staple at the house. I spent countless hours in the France aisles of the wine stores (luckily, I was working in a close proximity of the Bottle King in New Jersey), looking for the next great experience with the wines from the Loire, Rhône, Bordeaux, Chablis, and others. French wines were “it” – unquestionably, a sacred territory. As the time was going by, and Bordeaux and Burgundy prices were going up faster than the weeds growing after the rain, the French wines moved mostly into a category of a rare encounter.

Wines of Southwest France

Last December was not the first time I participated in the virtual tasting about the French wines – but somehow, when I opened the box with these wines, something warm and fuzzy came over, and my first reaction was “ahh, I really, really want to drink these wines!”. There is nothing special about this particular set – no big names (I don’t believe Southwest France has much of “big names” anyway), no flashy, ultra-modern labels – and nevertheless, there was a promise of a great time in their simplicity and authenticity. These wines also perfectly played to my other “wine obsession” – the love to obscure and lesser-known wines, so altogether, I took a great pleasure in anticipation of the tasting.

As this was a virtual tasting, I had both the wines and time at my disposal, so unlike the previous post, here are my detailed notes in the usual format:

2016 Chateau Laulerie Bergerac AOC (12% ABV, $12, 85% Sayvignon Blanc, 15% Semillon)
C: Light gold
N: beautiful, fresh, medium+ intesnsity, honeysuckle, white flowers, peach
P: fresh, crisp, excelllent lemony acidity, white stone fruit, restrained
V: 8-, delicious, will be great with food and without, great QPR

2015 Domaine Elian Da Ros Abouriou Côtes du Marmandais AOC (12% ABV, $23.99, 90% Abouriou, 10% Merlot)
C: dark ruby
N: freshly chrushed berries, leafy notes, cherries, anis
P: ripe plums, sweet tobacco, eucalyptus, medium long sweet tobacco finish
V: 8-, would love to try it with an actual cigar. Needs a bit of time. And a new grape – Abouriou

2015 Domaine du Cros Marcillac AOP (12.5% ABV, $15.99, 100% Fer Servadou)
C: Ruby
N: earthy notes, mint, some medicinal notes (iodine?)
P: beautiful fresh pepper on the palate, tobacco, cherries – that pepper is delicious, love the wines like that
V: 8/8+, delicious, excellent QPR

2014 Château Lamartine Prestige du Malbec Cahors AOC (12.5% ABV, $17.99, 100% Cot (Malbec))
C: dark garnet
N: vegetative, tobacco, a touch of cherries
P: bright acidity, dark fruit, tart cherries and cherry pit, noticeable tannins.
V: 8-, pleasant, will work great with the steak, but needs time

2011 Château Bouscassé Grand Vin de Madiran (14.5% ABV, $17.95, 60% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon)
C: dark garnet
N: eucalyptus, forest floor, a touch of eucalyptus,
P: initial tannins attach, pepper, dark round fruit, excellent extraction, layers of flavor, firm structure
V: 8+, outstanding, powerful, balanced, needs time!

The Southwest France wines are a treasure trove for the wine lovers – they capitalize on tremendous history, experience, unique terroir and unique grapes, offering oenophiles lots of pleasure in every sip. Look for the wines of Southwest France – and you can thank me later.

The Region Which Started It All

May 15, 2018 8 comments

The wine had been made in the Southwest of France ( Sud-Ouest in French) almost forever – in terms of human life, 2,000+ years well classified as “forever”. The region is considered one of the “cradles of winemaking” in Europe, and it maintains its uniqueness and diversity today – for example, out of 300 grape varieties used in the winemaking in the region, 120 are not found anywhere else.

Of course, we know that winemaking started about 8,000 years ago, and not in the Southwest of France. So what’s up with “started it all” claim? Glad you asked! Let me explain.

We live in the times when the wine is a part of daily life of many. Drinking wine is a norm and normal, simply a part of the daily routine for many, not a luxury or a weird exception anymore. Yes, that’s how it was in Europe forever – but now I’m talking about the rest of the world, countries such the USA, and even China now heading that way. The demand for wine had been constantly increasing since the late 1990s, and even Great Recession of 2008 didn’t kill it (just shifted the “acceptable” price ranges). Is it all just a normal course of events? We can, of course, settle for this. However, I believe that on a deeper level, there are exact reasons, “tip the scale” moments for many things which seem to happen just on its own – however, sometimes it is not easy to identify those “reasons”.

Remember the impact of the movie Sideways on consumption and production of the Merlot in the USA? That movie was the reason for a huge slump after 2004, and production and interest to Merlot are still in the recovery mode even now, 14 years later.

Late in the 1980s, the world started talking about The French Paradox – French eat cheese and foie gras, cook with butter and duck fat daily, and nevertheless, the coronary disease rates are much less than in the countries with comparable living standards and much lesser fat consumption. Possible explanation? Red wine. French consume lots of red wine, and resveratrol, one of the prominent substances found in seeds and skins of the red grapes, acts as a defense against clogging of the arteries. That was the outcome of the extensive medical research study conducted in France, which became known in the world as French Paradox.

In 1991, CBS in the USA dedicated one of their popular programs, 60 Minutes, to the French Paradox, and you know how Americans are, right? We are always looking for an easy way out, so wine sounded like an easy enough cure, and I believe this became a pivotal moment which triggered a renewed interest in the wine. Almost 40 years later, it seems that the wine successfully keeps the momentum. And before you will attack me with all the facts from the latest research – yes, I’m aware of many articles pointing to the issues with the study. Whether French Paradox study conclusions were medically solid I have to leave to professionals to debate and decide on. But it was still that pivotal “tip the scale” moment which changed the perception of the wine for many in the world.

At this point, I’m sure you want to see the connection between the title, the Southwest of France, and the story of the French Paradox, right? Here it is. While attending the tasting of the wines of Southwest France, I was listening to the presentation by sommelier André Compeyre, who mentioned that Southwest France has the biggest number of centenarians in France and it was one of the main regions where the French Paradox study was conducted – here we go, now everything is connected and explained. Is it time for a glass of wine?

The tasting took place at the little store in New York called the French Cheese Board – what can be better than wine with a little cheese, right? Especially if both come from the same region, where they trained to live together for a few thousand years…

We started tasting with the sparkling wine, moved to the white and then red. As usual in such events, there was not enough time (and desire) for the formal notes, so below is the best I can offer. However, overall, the word is “outstanding” – the wines of Southwest France are well worth seeking – and you will not be disappointed.

NV Domaine du Moulin Mauzac Méthode Ancestrale Gaillac AOP (12% ABV, $15, 100% Mauzac) – very nice and simple. 7+

2017 Domaine du Tariquet Premières Grives Côtes de Gascogne IGP (11.5% ABV, $14, 100% Gros Manseng) – semi-sweet wine. It appears to be a traditional wine in the Southwest of France, which people are accustomed to drinking. It is possible that the wine was not cold enough when I tasted it, but I really didn’t appreciate it. If you like sweeter wines – this might be the one for you.

2016 Héritage Blanc Saint-Mont AOP (13% ABV, blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Arrufiac) – excellent, bright, crisp, but very complex and thought-provoking. A touch of grass, vanilla, ta ouch of honey on the palate, green apples, wow. Excellent acidity. Great complexity. 8. And let’s not forget 2 new grapes – Petit Courbu and Arrufiac

2017 Domaine de Joy l’Eclat Côtes de Gascogne AOP (12% ABV, $7, blend of Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Gros Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc)  – crisp, clean, superb. 8

2012 Château de Haute Serre Cahors AOP (13.5% ABV, $22) – superb, ripe berries, blueberries, round, delicious, acidity, vanilla, the backbone of minerality. 8+

2012 Château Montus Madiran AOP (15% ABV, $32.99, blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon) – smoke, campfire, tobacco, great concentration, powerful, excellent, great acidity, outstanding. 8

2011 Jean-Luc Baldès Triguedina Clos Triguedina Cahors AOP (14.5% ABV, $40, 85% Malbec, 10% Merlot, 5% Tannat, 12 months in oak) – touch of barnyard on the nose, delicious fruit, ta ouch of funkiness on the palate, great acidity. 8

2015 Domaine de Terrisses Terre Originelle Gaillac AOP (13% ABV, $16, blend of Braucol (Fer) and Prunelart) – beautiful Cabernet nose, crisp, cassis, Bordeaux style -outstanding. 8. and a new grape – Prunelart

2015 Réserve Bélingard Côtes de Bergerac AOP ($15, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot) – beautiful, warm nose, vanilla, cassis, beautiful, soft. 8

2013 Chateau Peyros Vieilles Vignes Madiran AOP (13% ABV, $18, 80% Tannat, 20% Cabernet Franc) – excellent, soft. 8-

2017 Domaine de Joy l’Eclat Côtes de Gascogne AOP (12% ABV, $7, blend of Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Gros Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc)  – crisp, clean, superb. 8

In addition tot he wines, we had an opportunity to indulge on the local cheeses of Southwest France – Ossau Iraty, Buche de Lucay, Bethmale Chèvre, Chabichou, Valencay, and Comté. Sorry, I’m not going to give you any individual notes, but all the cheese were superb. If you are like me and accustomed to the Comté cheese from Costco – that Comté in the tasting was the whole different game (go visit the store and taste, you don’t have to believe me).

There you go, my friends. Have you had wines of Southwest France lately? Any favorites you want to mention? Let’s raise the glass to many happy wine discoveries – and some red wine as a solution to all our problems. Cheers!

An Evening With Friends – In Singapore

April 6, 2018 10 comments

For years I had been following the Oz’s Travels blog, commenting from time to time on the great wine (and food) experiences described there. Over these years, we built a virtual friendship with Oz (Anthony), the author of that blog, with one recurrent theme “one day you will make it to Singapore, and then…”. As amazing as the life is, that “one day” actually happened about two months ago when my business travel finally brought me to Singapore.

Maybe you saw my very excited post about Gardens of Singapore – but the evening before I experienced all the gardens, I was able to meet, shake hands, and share a few (okay, more than a few) bottles with Oz and his friends.

Oz picked me up from the hotel with his friend Rob and we proceeded to the restaurant, where another Oz’s friend (also Rob), was already waiting for us. Then, there was food, wine, and scotch – but let’s take it all in steps.

First, the restaurant – newly open Garang Grill (a sequel to the already successful Garang Grill at another location). The restaurant allows guests to bring their own alcohol, which we took an advantage of – while restaurant provided glasses and decanters. During the course of our dinner, I  had an opportunity to experience a variety of creative dishes. Skewers of sauteed foie gras were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Luncheon meat fries (yes! talk about creative!)  were superb with delicious dipping sauce. I since made the same dish at home and everyone loved it. Crab rillette, steak – everything was delicious and tasty. Here is an account of our dinner – in pictures.

And then there was wine. What I love about Oz’s parties is the abundance of wine, and not just any wine, but nicely aged wine – and you know how much I admire the wine with a little (or not so little) age on it. Here is what went down:

1996 André Beaufort Champagne Grand Cru Ambonnay. Never had it and never heard of André Beaufort Champagne before. Meanwhile, this happens to be one of the oldest all-organic grape growers in Champagne. This 1996 was disgorged in 2014. The wine had great acidity, green apples, still perfect fizz, candied apples with a hint of cinnamon showing on the nose. Yeast showed up later. Excellent. That was a real treat.

2008 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling Clare Valley. Australian Riesling is not a simple wine. I remember trying young Australian Rieslings many years ago, and putting them into the category of “I never want to drink this again”. It takes a bit of time to understand the beauty of the wine devoid of any sweetness and instead offering in-your-face acidity and minerality. But once you turn the corner, this becomes the style you crave. This particular wine at hand was, in many ways, an encounter with the legend. You see, Clare Valley is one of the best regions for Australian Riesling. Polish Hill is one of the very best vineyards. And Jeffrey Grosset is a legendary producer, one of the best winemakers in the world. Now you add a bit of age, say, 10 years – and you almost get heaven on Earth – petrol on the nose, restrained palate, minerality through the roof, great acidity, just a pure delight in every sip.

1994 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva. Behind damaged label was an excellent wine – still fresh, good fruit, good acidity, excellent. Still has time to evolve. Based on the color also still young – just starts showing age.

2005 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. This was my contribution to our lineup. Jordan needs no introduction to the Cabernet Sauvignon wine lovers. This wine was very good, typical California Cab. The wine had an interesting amount of sweetness, more than I expected – as it showed no age, I would assume it still needs more time to evolve. I have one more bottle from the same vintage – will have to wait with that one for a bit.

2008 Standish Wine Company El Standito Proyecto Garnacha Tintorera Yecla DO. This is a Spanish wine, of course – produced by Standish Wines from Australia. Yecla is the best known for their Monastrell wines – this wine, however, was made from the grape called Garnacha Tintorera, which is also known as Alicante Bouschet, which can produce massive, dense wines. This wine was no exception – excellent, restrained, good balance, good fruit, good acidity – and still in need 0f at least another 20 years to evolve.

2005 Dr. Loosen Erdner Prälat Riesling Auslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. You can’t finish such an evening without a dessert wine, can’t you? 13 years old Auslese by Dr. Losen – need I say more? The wine was amazing, great balance, a touch of candied plum, great acidity, fresh, simply superb.

This was the end of our dinner, but not the end of our evening. A short taxi ride took us to the unassuming building (well, it was dark, so maybe it is not as unassuming during the day) which happened to be a Rendezvous Hotel, one of the oldest in Singapore. After taking a flight of stairs up, we entered the room where my jaw literally hit the floor. The “room” was called The Auld Alliance – the scotch and whiskey bar (primarily) with more than 1,600 (!) different whiskeys available to taste and purchase. I never saw anything like that in my life, and the selection there was simply beyond words:

In addition to many whiskeys available by the glass, The Auld Association also offers a number of tasting flights – I had the one called “Smoke around the world” and it was definitely fun (I hope you don’t expect my tasting notes after 18 hours of non-stop travel and prior dinner with all the wines).

So this is my account of an amazing evening in Singapore. It was definitely a pleasure meeting Oz and his friends, and the whole evening was simply beyond expectations. Cheers!

Open That Bottle Night – 2018 edition

February 25, 2018 11 comments

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!

Cooking as an Ultimate Expression of Love, or Early Valentine’s Day Experiences

February 13, 2018 12 comments

I’m always happy to admit that Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. Of course this is a personal statement, and of course, I perfectly understand that I’m lucky to be able to say it wholeheartedly, as this is not a universal truth.

Outside of presents (which is fun), overpriced flowers and cheesy cards (nevermind all the heart-shaped chocolates, I don’t even want to mention those), Valentine’s Day is all about food and wine. Many years ago, we ditched the tradition of oversubscribed and underdelivering restaurants, offering strictly timed moments of celebration in favor of homemade dinners, which also include the whole family.

Valentine’s Day dinners at home offer a lot of pleasure in itself – you get to contemplate and select the menu, and you have an opportunity to touch lots and lots of bottles until you grab the one which somehow, magically, will become “it”. And then you get to cook that dinner, and most importantly, if everything works as you are hoping it will, you get an extra dose of happiness looking at the happy faces around the dinner table. By the way, if you need any wine recommendations for the Valentine’s Day, I wrote a few of them in the recent years – here and here are two of my favorite ones.

This year, Valentine’s Day dinner came in early – we will be leaving for vacation exactly on the February 14th, thus in order to maintain the tradition of family celebration, the dinner had to take place earlier – on Sunday before the Valentine’s Day. And so the next idea was – why don’t we start early on Sunday, let’s say with a nice breakfast?

What is your favorite celebratory breakfast meal? Eggs Benedict is definitely one of my favorites, so that was an easy decision. Smoked salmon is one of my favorite choices for the eggs benedict, so the prep for the breakfast started two days prior, first by making smoked salmon (you can find the recipe here).

This is Valentine’s Day dinner, so we need to up the game, right? What can elevate breakfast better than some crispy bacon? Yep, bacon it is!

Traditional Eggs Benedict are served on top of the English muffin. Truth be told, I don’t like English muffin – not with eggs benedict, not by itself. So my choice of bread? A fresh biscuit. I have friends who can easily whip a batch of biscuits on a moment’s notice, but I have my limits – thus buttermilk biscuits by Pillsbury work just perfectly for me.

Next, we need to make the Hollandaise sauce. It is somewhat of a tedious process, involving a double-boiler and some serious skills – unless you have a recipe from Suzanne, which is very simple and guarantees a perfect result – as long as you follow it precisely. The Hollandaise came out perfect, both taste and texture, so last prep step was to poach some eggs. All you need to do is to get hot water with vinegar to borderline boil (it shouldn’t be actively boiling, so take your time to adjust the heat) in a deep skillet, then carefully crack the eggs, set the timer and voilà. To my shame, I have to admit this is where I failed – I set the timer for 10 minutes (this is what I read in one of the recipes online), and this was a mistake – I completely overcooked the eggs. I believe the right time would be 5 minutes at the most.

Another important step – let the eggs cool off after cooking (ice bath recommended) – I didn’t do it, and as the result, Hollandaise was not covering the eggs properly – oh well, it was still really tasty. So the last step was to assemble the Eggs Benedict – the biscuit on the bottom, then smoked salmon, bacon, egg, and Hollandaise.

Now it is time to make dinner. More often than not, simplicity is your friend when it comes to food. Going the simple route, our Valentine’s Day dinner plan was simple – steak and potatoes.

For the potatoes, we have a recipe where potatoes are thinly sliced on the mandoline, then slices are stacked at the little angle and fried – it is a great recipe except that my fingers and mandoline are not great together, but love requires sacrifices, right?

And for the steak – you can’t beat the simplicity of the pan-fried filet mignon:

Where there is steak, there is also wine. As I mentioned, after spending good 20 minutes going through the different shelves of the wine coolers, I pulled out the bottle which happened to deliver an insane amount of pleasure – 2005 Neyers AME Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.

I like to know critics scores for the wines, but only out of curiosity – my buying decisions are not based on those scores at all. Besides, my own take on the wine rarely correlates with the critic’s opinion. Except for this wine – when I read Robert Parker’s description, to my surprise and delight, it was well aligned with the way I perceived it – so here is Robert Parker’s take on this 2005 Neyers AME:

” 93 points Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

The finest 2005 is the Ame (which means “soul” in French), a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon cuvee fashioned from a parcel of the estate vineyard in Napa’s Conn Valley. Perhaps because of that, it possesses more minerality along with licorice, black currant, and cedar wood notes. Dense, full-bodied, rich, and impressively endowed, with good acidity, tannin, and extract, this 600-case offering will be at its best between 2009-2018. Range: 91-93“.
I would only disagree on one point – “best between 2009 – 2018” – it is 2018, and while the wine was perfect, it will go on for at least another 10 years before it will show any sign of age – but I will not be able to prove it to you as this was my last bottle. Nevertheless – spectacular wine, impeccably balanced. This is the type wine which makes people say “OMG, from now on, I’m not going to drink anything else”.
We need to finish dinner with the dessert, right? So what comes to mind when you look at the egg whites left after you make Hollandaise sauce? Egg whites omelet? Sure, but this is pedestrian. Meringue? Yes, now you are talking! So our dessert of choice was Pavlova of sorts, which is, as I learned, one of the national desserts of New Zealand!
Here you are, my friends – our early Valentine’s Day dinner experience. Happy Valentine’s Day! Cheers!

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

For The Love of Chowder – 2017, 10th Anniversary Edition

October 6, 2017 2 comments

Last Sunday, October 1st, we had fun. Too-much-of-a-good-food, coma-inducing fun. The 10th Annual Chowdafest was on – the biggest and the busiest of them all (well, maybe not “all”, as I attended only last 3 – but for sure the busiest of the 3).

When I saw traffic slowing down on I-95 about two miles away from our exit, I jokingly said to my wife “see, they are all coming to the Chowdafest”. As we kept driving slower and slower, eventually pretty much succumbing to a complete halt, the smile disappeared from my face. The joke was on me, as yes, this was the traffic getting into the exit of the Sherwood Island Park, and it was moving really, really slow.

Chowdafest 2017All the fears of looking for parking for a long time quickly disappeared once we managed to actually enter the park, and then to find the parking within a minute. A quick walk, getting your hand stamped and – hello, chowder!

What can I tell you about Chowdafest 2017, outside of the fact that it was a great fun? The format was somewhat the same as the last 2 years I attended – there were again 40 restaurants, competing for the “best” title. In addition to 4 of the staples – Classic New England, Traditional (Rhode Island and Manhattan), Creative and Soup/Bisque, the new category for added for the Vegetarian Chowder. Everybody had a ballot and a pencil and were rating chowders on the scale from 7 to 10.5. The ballots were processed right at the event (I saw that magic for the first time – there are few pictures for you down below), and the winners were announced two days after the event – you can see the names of the winning restaurants here.

Unlike last year, the weather was amazing. And I guess the weather, coupled with a great promotion and the 10th Anniversary nature of the event, really drove a lot of people over. Some of the lines required 10+ minutes waiting, but I really can’t complain, as everything was flowing very efficiently. Here it is, the weather and the people:

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

What a day!

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

You can’t ask for a better weather

Chowdafest 2017

Beautiful day, isn’t it?

Overall, everything offered was very solid – of course, some were better than the others, but the level was quite high – I only had 4 soups rated at 7, and 3 out of those 4 had a burned flavor. Many soups were really, really delicious. in addition to all the chowders, there were lots of other food offered for tasting – potato chips, cheeses, sodas, iced teas, juices, ice cream – there was definitely something for everyone. Here are my notes – in pictures, of course:

These are some of my favorite decorations:

Chowdafest 2017

Pouring chowder requires focus!

Chowdafest 2017

… and smile

Chowdafest 2017Now, some of my absolute favorites:

Our House Bistro from Winooski, VT – all those condiments, super-tasty:

Truffle mushroom bisque from Old Post Tavern in Fairfield, CT and traditional chowder from Two-fifty Market in Portsmouth, NH:

Here are the winners in the traditional category – Pike’s Place from Seattle, WA:

Last but not least, may be the biggest surprise of the day – vegetarian Smoked Corn & Squash Chowder from Harvest Wine Bar in Westport, CT:

Here you can see all the results getting tallied in the real time by the folks from Blum Shapiro:

Here you can see my vote (yep, with a few stains on it):

Chowdafest 2017 Final VoteComparing my thoughts with public opinion, I’m very happy to see Our House Bistro winning Creative Chowder category with Fried Seafood & Sweet Potato Chowder, and with Old Post Tavern taking top spot in the Vegetarian category with Truffle Mushroom Bisque and Harvest Wine Bar taking second place in the same category with Smoked Corn & Squash Chowder.

I can also get on board with B.R.Y.A.C taking the second spot in Classic New England Chowder category, but Pike’s Place winning that category for the 3rd year in the row simply baffles me – their chowder was overdone – super round and super creamy, it lacked the real burst of flavor of the classic New England clam chowder which both B.R.Y.A.C and Two-Fifty Market had perfectly visible. My only theory is that people get intimidated with all the medals at the Pike’s Place stand, and simply don’t want to be wrong when they think that so many people were right before.

Anyway, this one is done and we can already start thinking (and drooling) about Chowdafest 2018 – I know it is early, but still, mark your calendars for Sunday, September 30th, and see you there!

Guest Post: 5 Wonderful Reasons Why Should Go a Culinary and Wine Vacation for Your Next Travel Getaway

September 7, 2017 2 comments

Today I want to offer to your attention a guest post by Lystia Putranto,  a personal & professional development blogger for BookCulinaryVacations.com. Lystia is a lover of travel, a self-professed foodie, and an amateur cook who admittedly spends way too much time surfing the web.

As the last quarter of the year is around the corner, many of us are taking advantage of this time to plan our next great adventure. If you happen to be a food and wine lover and you’re on the hunt for travel ideas, there’s no better way to indulge in your passions than by going on a culinary and wine focused vacation!

For starters, did you know that by 2015, 77% of leisure travelers can already be classified as culinary travelers? This trend has continued to rise and is predicted to rise even higher in the coming year. So, if you have yet to join in this exciting (and not to mention delectable) bandwagon, it’s about time that you do so.

As a lover of travel, food, and wine, I can personally attest that there’s much to gain and experience through this unique type of holidays. But if you’re not yet convinced, on this post, I’m sharing with you five of the many wonderful reasons why you should sign up for a culinary vacation too:

1.      You’ll Discover New & Exciting Flavors

In order to truly make the most of our travels, keep in mind that we can only grow and enrich our lives by doing something we have yet to try. So instead of setting yourself up for yet another touristy sight-seeing trip, why not try (and taste) something different for a change?

With a new destination comes plenty of delicious local eats & drinks. Through culinary holidays, you’ll get an amazing opportunity to explore a variety of new and exciting flavors through its delicacies and locally produced beverages – and yes, in many sought after destinations such as France, South Africa, Chile, and California, this certainly includes a whole lot of wine!

As you already know, food is almost always much more delicious and authentic when we enjoy it in the country or place of origin. You’d also be interested to know that some local dishes and ingredients are extremely rare and would not be easily found anywhere else in the world so this the time to take full advantage of it.

2.      You’ll Expand Your Knowledge

Looking to deepen your culinary and/or wine knowledge? During a wine vacation, for example, you won’t only be tasting the various wine that the winery produces, you’ll get to learn all about wine far beyond what you would learn in a wine tasting event such as how to harvest grapes as well as the steps of the entire wine production right up to its bottling process.

3.      You’ll Learn How to Prepare Authentic Delicacies

Image credit: Alila Manggis Bali

What makes culinary vacations stand out from the usual “run-of-the-mill” vacations or food tours is that you also get the opportunity to prepare them from scratch yourself! This way, you can learn to recreate them back home. That is the simple yet powerful beauty of a hands-on cooking experience.

As a self-professed foodie, I adore all type of cuisines – but I must admit that Thai food is amongst my top 3 favorites. So, on my last trip to Thailand, I decided to sign up for a cooking class in Bangkok to learn how to prepare authentic Thai dishes such as Tom Yum Goong and Pad Thai.

In the end, not only did I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, thanks to the warm guidance of the school’s professional instructors, I was also genuinely impressed how fun and easy it all was!

As an added bonus, some cooking vacations may include visits to the local markets where you get to purchase the ingredients for your meal or even pick your own fresh produce straight from their own farm. In this case, it’s not uncommon that everything you make is farm-to-table ready, making your holiday that much more special.

4.      You’ll Make New Friends

Image credit: Porto Club Travel Services

Whether you prefer traveling solo, with a partner or in a group, through a cooking vacation, you are bound to meet plenty of new people. This includes both locals as well as other travelers from all corners of the globe. This is your chance to cultivate a better understanding of the diverse culture and languages of the world. Who knows? Perhaps some of the people you meet on your trip may just end up becoming (new) lifelong friends!

5.      You’ll Immerse Yourself in the Local Culture

Image credit: Cris Puscas

They say that travel is the only thing that one can buy that makes us richer. I personally believe this to be true. It allows us to learn more about what our beautiful world has to offer. And there’s no better group of people that will be able to teach us a destination’s local culture than the locals themselves.

Culinary travel allows you to center your trip on cultural immersion – meeting the locals, sampling local cuisines and beverages, and indulging yourself in the local ways of life. It’s an experience that will not only tantalize your taste buds but also one that will open your eyes and mind to a whole new perspective of seeing the world.

For The Love of Chowder – October 1, 2017 – Be There Or Else

September 5, 2017 Leave a comment

chowdafest logoSo the time has come to put your chowder face on … wait, is there such thing as a “chowder face”? I know there is a “game face” and a “poker face”, but “chowder face”? Okay, don’t want to make it too complicated – if you like chowder, then happy face with an ear to ear smile is all you need, as 10th annual ChowdaFest is coming up in mere 3 weeks!

On Sunday, October 1st, starting at 11 AM, at the Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut, 40 restaurants (click for the list) will compete for YOUR vote to become Chowda Champions! I attended two of the past competitions, in 2015 and 2016, and I can tell you from the experience – you don’t want to miss this event. Chowdafest is an incredible amount of fun, good time and good food.

This year, the participants will compete in 5 categories:

  • Classic New England Clam Chowder
  • Traditional Chowder (Rhode Island and Manhattan)
  • Creative Chowder
  • Soup/Bisque (think Lobster Bisque)
  • Vegetarian (new category for 2017!)

2017 Chowdafest will go way beyond Chowder – you will also be able to sample artisan bread and sauces, salsas and chips, farm fresh ice cream, yogurts, cheeses, and lots more.

Just to give you an idea of what was happening in the past years, here is a brief summary:

Chowdafest collage

Everybody get a spoon, a pencil, and a voting chart – you can rate all the chowders on the scale from 7.0 to 10.5, and the best restaurant in each category will be tallied up shortly after the event will end. In case you are curiuous, here you can find the list of the past winners of the Chowdafest.

That’s all I wanted to tell you, my friends. Mark your calendars, cancel whatever non-essentiall activities you had for that day, and just be there, with your family and friends, briging a good appetite and the desire to have fun. You can get your tickets on the Chowdafest website – the link is here for your convenience (note that AAA members get a good discount).

For the love of Chowder – cheers!