May 6, 2010
Last night, I attended a National Geographic Live! event with the fun title “A Come to Cheeses Moment,” about the art of pairing cheese with wine and beer. The speakers included wine expert Joshua Wesson, co-founder of the Best Cellars chain of wine shops (now owned by A&P), and Sweetwater Tavern brewmaster Nick Funnell, a softspoken Brit with a background in chemistry.
And the cheese factor? Well, Steven Jenkins, of course. He’s the cheesemonger for Fairway Market, the author of Cheese Primer, and a self-declared “idiot savant” who overcame a Velveeta-smothered childhood to become America’s first French-certified maitre fromager (master cheesemonger).
The event was presented as a competition between the two beverages, although in practice, the quick-show-of-hands voting system in a crowded room proved pretty darn inconclusive. But that’s the point, I suppose—it’s ultimately up to your own palate to decide what’s “best” when it comes to any kind of food and drink pairings.
“Anyone who comes in here with an open mind and an open mouth is going to be surprised,” Wesson predicted before the event, adding that even though beer might seem to be the underdog, its bitterness and “scrubbing bubbles” often refresh the palate better than wine, giving it an edge when paired with heavier cheeses.
“People assume it that wine and cheese go together better, and that red is better than white—but when it’s a cheese that’s very salty and full of fat, hanging on your palate, you really want something refreshing. It’s going to be very interesting to see if the refreshment factor trumps all the other factors.”
I considered that as we tasted the first cheese, a soft, rich scimudin that tasted lovely but left a buttery slickness on the roof of my mouth. The beer, a nicely balanced kölsch from Capitol City Brewing, was a good match for flavor, but Wesson had smartly picked a sparkling Saint-Meyland Brut (a champagne in all but name), and I thought the wine’s livelier bubbles cut through the fat better.
The wine wasn’t the liveliest part of the evening—my table was full of 20-somethings who had come out to celebrate a birthday, and after just one round they were already talking and laughing loudly enough to get scolded by a server. (Reminded me of a beer event I wrote about last year…good thing Mr. Shush wasn’t at our table!) I couldn’t really tell what the overall vote was in the room; but if our table was a representative sample, most of the rounds were a draw.
All of the beers came from within 150 miles of DC, although most are only available directly from the breweries, Funnell noted. The wines are fairly easy to find, but not the cheeses—Jenkins said he was still unsure until just a few days before the event whether the FDA would let some of them into the country (since they’re all unpasteurized, and rather obscure). “Some of these cheeses are so rare, they don’t even exist!” he joked. My favorite was the Spanish pico melero, an aged sheep’s milk cheese with a firm texture and a slightly sweet, nutty taste.
If you’re interested, the six pairings were as follows:
5. Cheese: Wildspitz (cow and goat; Switzerland)
Wine: Li Veli Passamente Negroamaro 2008 (Italy)
Beer: Devil’s Backbone Barleywine (Roseland, VA)
My verdict: Couldn’t stand this cheese, no matter what I drank it with; liked both drinks on their own—let’s call it a tie.
6. Cheese: Peralzola (sheep, Spain)
Wine: Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz 2009 (South Africa)
Beer: Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter (Frederick, MD)
My verdict: Sorry, I had to leave right before the final pour! But the blue cheese was outstanding.
March 3, 2010
On Saturday, one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history struck Chile, killing more than 700 people and destroying the homes and livelihoods of many more. In addition to donating to relief organizations, another way to help some are suggesting is to buy Chilean products, including wine, one of its biggest exports.
Chile is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wine (after France, Italy, Spain and Australia), and its wine industry has been badly affected by the 8.8 quake. Damage is still being assessed, and it’s too early to know what the extent of the long-term impact on the wine industry will be. But James Molesworth, an editor for Wine Spectator magazine, has been tweeting reports from wineries in the quake zone, and early indications are that many have lost inventory, buildings, or both (but, thankfully, so far, no loss of life among employees has been reported). One witness described the smell of wine along the roads in front of wineries.
Power outages, road closures and general upheaval will further complicate this season’s harvest, which, since it is late summer in the southern hemisphere, was scheduled to begin soon. As Eric Asimov writes on the New York Times wine blog The Pour, even if the grapes can be harvested, wineries that have sustained damage may not have the necessary resources to produce wine.
Even before the earthquake, Chilean winemakers were having a bad year. As the Los Angeles Times reported just two weeks ago, the wine industry there has been suffering the effects of the global economic crisis. Although foreigners have been drinking more Chilean wine than ever, they have been shifting to cheaper wines just as Chilean producers were trying to make inroads into the fine wine category.
Chile, which has a topography and climate similar to California’s in many ways, has been producing wine for more than 500 years. Only since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the late 1980s, though, has Chile become a force in the international wine trade, establishing a reputation for good-quality, affordable wines.
Of course, climate and topography are not the only similarities between Chile and California—both are prone to earthquakes. Although the famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma counties mostly escaped damage from the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the lesser-known wineries in the Santa Cruz mountains, close to the epicenter, were not so fortunate; many buildings and inventories were lost. Silver Mountain Winery was completely destroyed, but within five years had rebuilt and was back on its feet.
Here’s hoping that the Chilean wineries, and the country as a whole, are able to do the same.
February 18, 2010
Chef José Andrés comes across as bright and lively; approachable, yet a bit dazzling—in short, the life of any party—and the same could be said for the Spanish wines he introduced me to last week.
“Spain is so funny, because historically, or at least when I grew up, people consider the best white to be a good red,” joked Andrés, who was born in the northern region of Asturias and was named today as a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef . “But I’m a big fan of whites. As a chef, I look for wines that tend to enlighten you; wake you up, almost like a sunny day.”
When I met Andrés at Jaleo, one of seven restaurants he owns in and around Washington, D.C., he was hosting a mid-day wine tasting to celebrate the launch of several Ribeiro wines in the U.S. market.
Never heard of Ribeiro, the “denomination of origin” (DO) wine region in Spain’s northwest corner? Don’t feel bad; neither had I. There’s scarce mention of it on most of my favorite wine blogs, although I spotted a few references to its neighbor, Ribeira Sacra. On a map I was shown, Ribeiro appears as a mere drop of red spilling across some 12 square miles at the base of Galicia, just north of Portugal.
But it’s a drop worth drinking.
Whites are Ribeiro’s signature, representing over 80 percent of the region’s average annual production, which totals 16 million kilograms from 119 wineries or bodegas. Seven of those were represented at the Jaleo tasting, including Casal de Arman, Viña Mein, Sanclodio, Nairoa, Coto de Gomariz, Docampo and Viña Costeira. (I only sampled the first three, since it was the middle of a work day and I’m not very skilled at spitting.) Most retail for less than $20 a bottle—a bargain, if you can find them over here. A few U.S. importers of Ribeiro include P.R. Grisley, Eric Solomon and De Maison Selections, though that’s certainly not a comprehensive list.
I enjoyed everything I sampled, but my personal favorite was Sanclodio, owned by acclaimed Spanish filmmaker José Luis Cuerda. His 2008 Ribeiro Blanco, a blend of five native grapes (treixadura, godello, loureira, torrontés and albariño) is lovely. Its soft, peachy flavors flirt with sharper citrus and mineral notes, wrapped in a whiff of honeysuckle—exactly what my imagination expected from the man behind a film titled “Butterfly’s Tongue.”
Andrés said he especially admires Cuerda and other Ribeiro winemakers who have helped revive the cultivation of some of the region’s lesser-known native varietals, like godello.
“When it’s a grape that has been in the area for centuries, maybe it’s the one that’s able to interpret the story of the earth better than any other one,” he mused. “And I think protecting the integrity of our history is the only way to preserve who we are. A grape might not change humanity all of a sudden—but it means something.”
July 24, 2009
Occasionally, winemakers find a silver lining in rotting grapes, but most of the time, rot is just plain rotten. It ruins the grapes’ natural taste and thus the flavor of the wine.
In the United States, one of the most common culprits is bitter rot (greeneria uvicola), a sneaky fungus that hides its presence until the grapes are ripe. As the unsuspecting grower prepares for what might look like a great harvest, the latent spores stage a coup, turning the grapes soft, brown and pimply in a matter of days.
If as little as 10 percent of infected grapes make it into a pressing, it can make the whole batch of wine undrinkable (the taste, as the name implies, is horribly bitter). Obviously, this is a problem!
But a Louisiana microbiologist named Tony De Lucca has come up with an unusual solution: Cayenne pepper. Well, technically just one component of it, a saponin called CAY-1 that he named and patented in 2001, along with several colleagues at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. They’ve been studying its anti-fungal properties ever since, and have discovered dozens of promising applications for both agriculture and medicine.
Recently the group reported another victory for CAY-1: This potent little pepper compound can be a lethal foe for bitter rot.
This discovery was prompted when a local vineyard called to report some diseased grapes. The scientists collected samples, isolated the fungi and put each type in a test tube with varying concentrations of CAY-1. It proved highly effective against greeneria uvicola, as well as several secondary pathogens.
“It begins to kill within ten minutes (in the test tube),” says De Lucca.
He’s been fascinated by medicinal plant compounds for a long time, he adds.
“If you look in other cultures, particularly in hot areas around the equator, they use a lot of spices, and I think they use it in part to protect against bacteria. Things like thyme, oregano and garlic have some really potent anti-microbials.”
Much more testing and a commercial backer are needed to develop CAY-1 into a marketable product, but it could potentially become an organic alternative to common synthetic fungicides. (And no, the wine wouldn’t taste like pepper!)
“I think nature is just chock full of stuff like this,” De Lucca says. “It’s just a matter of looking.”
For another angle on the connection between spice and fungus, check out this recent Smithsonian feature about the chili-hunting ecologist Joshua Tewksbury.
July 17, 2009
Vintners in two of the world’s biggest wine-producing regions, California and South Africa, have been fretting lately, and not just about the global recession. At least the economy affects all grape-growing nations more or less across the board. But the problem these winemakers have is decidedly site-specific: something seems to be happening to their terroir (the geographic characteristics of their growing region) that has them terrified.
Strange flavors are not necessarily a bad thing in wines. For instance, some good Bordeaux are described as having hints of leather. But certain aromas are decidedly rank and have no business being in your beverage. Among these, I would have to say, is burnt rubber.
That’s the bouquet ascribed to many South African wines by a tart-tongued British wine critic, Jane MacQuitty of The Times of London. As Barry Bearak reported in the New York Times, MacQuitty caused a stir in 2007 when she wrote that many of the reds she tasted from the country were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber and dirt odour.” She later called several top-rated South African wines “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.”
This scathing string of adjectives stung the region’s winemakers, who felt the burnt rubber comments portrayed all South African wines as being, well, tarred with the same brush. Now scientists in the department of viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University are trying to figure out the source of the acrid aroma, and if it even exists. As molecular biologist Florian Bauer, who is heading the team, told Bearak, “We were not even sure what smell we were looking for. This research is a response to an ill-defined description in a newspaper.”
The subjectivity of flavor (and the suggestibility of tasters) is another problem. André van Rensburg, the winemaker at the Vergelegen Wine Estate, said critics at tastings “talk each other into a frenzy… If one of them picks up the taste of apple, the other guy says, ‘Yes, yes, and I taste cinnamon too.’”
Meanwhile, the question vexing winemakers in California’s Sonoma and Mendocino Counties is not what’s affecting their terroir, but how to deal with it. The rampant Northern Californian wildfires of 2008 subjected their grapes to a significant amount of smoke, according to an article by Jon Bonné in the San Francisco Chronicle. Although white wines have been relatively unaffected by the smoke, red wines, which contain more of the compounds from the grape skins, are more likely to be affected by “smoke taint.”
A smoky aroma is not necessarily a bad thing in wine. In fact, sometimes winemakers age their product in toasted barrels specifically to capture the scent. But, Bonné wrote, an ashy taste on a wine’s finish “can be bitter and almost throat-scratching.”
Australia, another significant wine-producing country, dealt with a similar wildfire problem in 2003. Winemakers there used reverse osmosis and other filtration techniques to remove the smoky compounds, a path being pursued in some California wineries.
Others are taking a laissez-faire approach, and allowing the smoky undertones to stay, Bonné says, as a “signature of terroir.” As one winemaker told him, “Each vintage has its character and talks about the place and the year. That’s a big part of honest winemaking.”