Spicy Empanadas: Torrontes from Argentina

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This is another classic example of the old saying “if it grows together, it goes together”. Argentina’s most popular white wine, Torrontes Riojano can be a wine of intense florality and tropical fruit on the nose reminiscent of Viognier, but a body that is similar to Pinot Griggio and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the perfect Spring time wine, but can be drank at anytime during the year especially on occasions where spicy food is on the table.

Enter the Argentine spicy culinary tradition, the empanada. The empanada is orginally of European descent as it was served as a quick hearty dish for those on the go or hard at work. Due to the colonization of Latin America by the Spaniards, this Galician delicacy has been  transformed in Argentina as more of a dish best enjoyed at parties as an appetiezer and even as a main course at festivals. The empanada, which is a stuffed dough pocket similar to the calzone, can be stuffed with almost any kind of meat imaginable as well as vegetables and even fruit. The white wine Torrontes is a natural pair for this dish especially when it is seasoned with spicy chiles, black pepper, and cumin. The florality and peachy character of this wine tame any heat and its butter like viscosity compliments the richness of the fried dough of the empanada.

Bordeaux Second Wines: Bargains to Look For

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Ever since the 1855 Classification top growths of Bordeaux have been fetching the highest prices for any bottle in the region. It’s no secret that these bottles are worthy of their classification and very rarely does the quality of a bottle let you down. Barring a poor vintage, which given the marginal climate is a distinct possibility, any bottle from a top growth Chateau will provide you with the best chance for that earthy bretty nose that we all love and yearn for. But not everyone can or is willing to fork out top dollar for such bottles. So what can be done to pay a little less for a lot more? 

Many Bordeaux Chateau will produce a second label from fruit that isn’t as high in quality, but is still very representative of the style and terroir traditional to that Chateau. These so called second wines are excellent bargains and are by and large outstanding quality. Sure some can be between $40-$80 a pop, but compared to their $200 big brothers it’s quite the steal. Second wines aren’t quite marketed as much as the first labels but they are definitely worth researching. For example the going rate for Second Growth Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou is around $110.00 per bottle, but their second wine Croix de Beaucaillou retails at around $45.

Shall it Age?: 5 Tips for Picking Out an Ageworthy Wine

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Photo: Wine Cellars HQ

Not all wines are meant for aging and truth be told less than 5% of wines world-wide are produced with the intentions of making the bottle ageworthy. As a shift toward modern vinification techniques has occurred in recent decades, more bottles are being produced so that they can be enjoyed fairly young. Nevertheless there are a number of wines that you can rest assured will have developed complex layers of aromas and flavors over time and the following are tips on how to pick these bottles out.

1. Check the Price. Sure there are some bottles that you can get at bargain prices, but by and large those that are rather expensive and have several years under their belt fetch that price for a good reason. The high price of the bottle is a result of someone investing time and their cellar space. It’s highly unlikely someone would invest such invaluable assets on a bottle that’s going to crash after a couple of years. After all, if they sold a bad bottle their reputation as a merchant would be severely tarnished and in this business, reputation for high quality service is paramount as good reputations can be destroyed much easier than they can be built.

2. Buy wine produced with grape varieties with a proven track record for aging potential. Red wines that have shown to age the best are those produced from Nebbiolo (Barolo and Barbaresco), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir while those made from Cab Franc and Gamay are not the safe bet and should be consumed early. White wines with enough concentration of fruit flavor and acidity will age well such as those produced from Riesling, Chardonnay, and some Pinot Gris, but most white wines will die out early as they are much more susceptible to harmful oxidation than red wines.

3. Some styles other than still age well. Champagnes are safe bets for aging. The high acidity and pressurized bottle will ensure that your favorite bottles of bubbly will age for several years and even decades! It’s best to seek out the best producers. Look for Grower Champagnes!  Madeira wine has a nearly indestructible structure as a result of its vinification style so it is a safe bet for aging.  A majority of Port does not tend to age as well. Only the high quality Vintage Ports are ageworthy. Sherry does not improve with time as it has already undergone some oxidation as a result of its time spent in the solera.

4. Take advantage of tastings. Many merchants will let you taste wine prior to selling you a case or bottle. Allocation permitting, you will be able to personally evaluate the quality of the wine that is being sold. This is how you can tell the difference between a high quality ageworthy wine and a low quality dud. If the tannins are tight and the fruit is lacking, you should pass on the bottle. If the tannins are astringent and the fruit is concentrated, you’ve found a bottle worth sitting on as those tannins will soften over time and the flavors will develop complexity with age.

5. Seek out a handful of reputable producers and winemakers to buy from. Buying wines from artisanal wine shops ensures that wine you are buying has been carefully selected by a group of trained tasters who can provide you with a solid foundation of names to follow. Additionally they should be able to guide you to a bottle from an exceptional vintage so consult them on their knowledge of vintages as well.

Dishes Cooked With Truffle: Nebbiolo

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photo: pork belly drizzled in truffle oil, a dish produced by Evan and Jen Doughty. Photo by John Gottberg

If there’s one culinary treat that highlights the fare of Northern Italy it is truffle. Fields in Piedmont are well protected and kept secret from the general public. Extents to protect the location of these sacred fields is further kept hidden by night time only harvests wherein specially trained dogs and sometimes pigs are led into the woods to sniff out the prized truffles.

Piedmont’s other treat comes in the form of outstanding and ageworthy red wine. Of all the wines produced in this region, those produced from the grape Nebbiolo are held in the highest regard. It is the grape used to produce the King of Italian reds, Barolo. Though the Barolo is the highest quality premium red produced from Nebbiolo it isn’t the only wine produced from this grape type. More affordable bottles labeld “Spanna” or “Langhe Rosso” are produced from Nebbiolo and they are the perfect pick for pairing with foods drizzled with truffle.

I have the pleasure of an outstanding Sunday meal tradition that takes place in the company of my brother and sister-in-law. The deal is that they cook and I bring the wine and one of the finest dishes we have had recently is a butternut squash ravioli sprinkled with arugula, parmigiano reggiano cheese and drizzled with truffle oil. The food by itself is out of this world by itself, but if paired with a good Langhe Rosso such as Roagna’s 2004 Langhe Rosso, the dish is outstanding bringing out a smoky and heady earthiness from the wine that is sure to provide an ethereal culinary experience. If truffle isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Try any Nebbiolo-based wine with slow braised stews or meats and even thick pastas as the richness of these dishes marries rather well with the bold and tannic wine.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Harvest/Vintage Report 2000-2011

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2011: Rainfall into mid June delayed bud burst and fruit set. The amount of rainfall was nearly a third above average promoting a cooler than average growing season which saw delayed development of the vines during the growing season by several weeks. The cooler growing season boded well for sparkling wine producers but it remains to be seen how still wines will show. Rating: ?

2010: Rainfall delayed flowering and fruit set by two weeks. Cloud cover prevented frost damage in 2010 and meticulous canopy management was necessary to avoid mildew and problems with pests. Veraison was pushed back anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. The first day of harvest saw a heat spike from August 24-25 and as a result some sites saw many grapes sunburn due to the earlier thinning of the canopy to adjust to the cooler growing season. The result was a late and shortened harvest with low yields. Rating: Remains to be seen

2009: An outstanding year with rainfall levels about two-thirds the normal amount and a steady mild/cool growing season. No threats of frost either. Great hangtime for the grapes in 09 promoting an excellent balance of sugar to acid. Rating: 89 D/H

2008: Less than normal amounts of rainfall in the winter promoted drier grounds during the beginning of the growing season.  Budbreak was early starting in the middle of March. One of the worst frost seasons on record with over 20 frost warnings issued throughout the season. Heat spikes in May and heavy winds and additional rainfall made things difficult for farmers. Close monitoring of irrigation was critical as the dry season started two weeks earlier than usual. Yields were small but those berries that survived the season were balanced and concentrated in flavor. Rating: 95 D/H

2007: Bud break was in mid to late March.  An early spring with low precipitation ensued promoting drier soils. A mild summer with temperatures largely staying below 90 degrees led to a steady growing season. Veraison occurred in mid July and heat spikes occurred around Labor Day but were cooled off by good night time breezes. Some areas of the valley were able to harvest by the end of September, but most dragged the harvest through October until weather permitted a good time for picking. Rating: 98 D/H

2006: Heavy rainfall  and cool temperatures during the spring prior to the growing season delayed budburst. A ten day heat wave was experienced in mid July and led to sunburn of some clusters, but these were fortunately easy to remove during green harvest. Mild temperatures during the rest of July and August led to the harvesting of concentrated fruit with great flavor. Rating: 92 D/H

2005: The year of the vintner. The quality of wine produced this year depended on vineyard management decisions and it seems the valley saw a very fruitful and successful year. What started with showers late in to the Spring ended with cooler than average summer months that promoted even ripening and balanced fruit. High berry counts and cluster weights were observed due to the lack of stressful conditions the season had to offer. The lower than normal sugar levels in the grapes meant that there was higher acidity that will allow these wines to be more ageworthy than most of the other vintages listed. Some wines can be aged for up to 10 years and still show signs of development. Rating: 95 D/H

2004: The growing season started earlier than expected due to warmer Spring time temperatures. Mild temperatures throughout the summer led to the development of balanced lighter than anticipated clusters with good aromatics and well structured tannins. Other than a small heat spike in September the growing season promoted a steady even ripening. Rating: 91 D/H

2003: A challenging season that saw heat spikes in March and one of the wettest Aprils on record. Cool temperatures during spring promoted a late onset to the growing season but a long mild summer led to small but concentrated berries. Rating: 92 D/H

2002: Average rainfall throughout the growing season that was long, mild, and dry otherwise promoting good hangtime allowing for the development of good aromatics and concentrated, but well balanced fruit. Rating: 96 D/H

2001: Earlier flowering was encouraged due to a couple of heat spikes in March. The hottest May on record and one of the top three hottest Junes on record promoted rapid ripening and led to a harvest that took place about three weeks ahead of normal time though cool August nights allowed for the sugar ripening to level off and allow for good hangtime prior to the onset of harvest. Rating 97 D/H

2000: Fruit of outstanding quality was produced and this was largely due to the exceptionally uneventful Spring and Summer seasons. Cool and even ripening season persisted with only a couple of heat spikes in June. Harvest took place through mid October. It should be noted that there were was a wide range of quality production this year as some were really great while others were not as great so the average rating is slightly skewed in the negative. Rating: 86 D

All harvest reports were written based on the information provided by the Napa Valley Vintners Association as well as the Wine Institute

Ratings were given by a Vintage Chart for Napa Valley Cabs provided by Loren Sonkin

Analyzing Wine for Quality: Clarity and Brightness

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Photo: Thomas Bray

Like all things requiring a certain degree of skill, tasting wine to determine quality is a task that does not come easy and requires a great amount of repetition and guidance. With that in mind there are some aspects of the skill that come easier than others. One of these simple procedures is examining the wine’s clarity and brightness.

Holding the wine up against a white background and under natural light is typically paramount for visual analysis, but isn’t as important for this step. Examine the wine first for clarity. All wines of high quality generally are very clear and do not present as hazy and opaque. Nine times out of ten your wine will be clear so this should not be as much of an issue. If the wine is hazy, you should consult whoever sold the bottle to you on why it appears this way. This may be a result of a specific style of winemaking, but it is generally recognized as a flaw.

The next step is to next determine if the wine is at its prime or nearing its death. This can be determined by examining the brightness, or the wine’s ability to reflect light. Wines that reflect light clearly and brilliantly are generally preferred as this indicates youth as well as higher levels of acidity that are desired for aging some styles of wine. Those wines that present as dull and are lacking clarity may be closer to the end of their road and should be bought with reservation.

Moschofilero: The Greek Wine sure to make the Biggest Splash this Year.

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Photo: Luciano Pignataro

As our culinary horizons broaden and diversify with each passing day there exists the need for a change of pace regarding our beverage selection. We need something new to satisfy our desire for novel palatable experiences  and this Greek export seems to be the perfect remedy. Moschofilero (mosko-FEE-luh-roh), or “Mosko” as Mark Oldman referrs to the Greek grape in his book Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine, is a grape with a pink/purple skin that produces a refreshing rosé-like wine that is the absolute perfect alternative to Pinot Griggio.

Its Greek roots are also reflected in its seeminly effortless ability to pair with Mediterranean foods including anything from a Greek salad with olives, feta, and fresh tomatoes to something with a little flare such as some spicy seafood diablo. Just like the Greek white Assyrtiko, Mosko is low in alcohol and high in refreshing acidity making it the perfect wine along with Txakoli for the warmer days of Spring and Summer.