What is it about wine?

What is it about wine that keeps you coming back?

I often ask people about their "aha" moment, when they realized how good wine can be. There might be a singular moment that sticks in your mind, or a number of them. Over the past couple weeks, I have been reminded of what keeps me coming back.

At one of our wine tasting events, I had introduced a number of "high altitude" wines. I wrote about this last week. Well, one of the wines was from the side of Mount Etna, in Italy. Usually, I do some research on the wines ahead of time, if I am not familiar with that particular growing region. I neglected to do my research on this wine, so assumed it would be something like a Nero d'Avola (a full bodied red wine that might be compared to Syrah). When I opened up the bottle, a lightly pigment wine pour from the bottle, and I was at a loss to explain what grapes my tasters were experiencing.

As it turns out, this was a blend of two grape varieties: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio. The wine was light with tannins, and appeared to be somewhere between a Pinot Noir and Barolo, or Barbaresco, in color (ruby red). It had some earthiness to it, but lots of cherry and red flowers. I found it very elegant, and most of surprising. It was not what I expected.

Last night, I had a bottle of Regnie. In the past, I had not been much of a fan of Beaujolais wines, but had rediscovered them with some of the more recent vintages of Morgon, and Moulin-a-Vent (Beajolais-village wines). I plan on writing an article about the wines of Beajolais in the future, but for now, the basics. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape. There are different levels of quality (just as in the rest of the Burgundy region in France). Most people think of Beaujolais Nouveau, when discussing this region, but if that is all you have tried, then you are missing some interesting wines. The village wines of Beaujolais, make for a great pairing with sausages. And, now that the weather is a bit warmer, the barbecue is out, and grilled sausages are an available dinner choice. The pairing of Regnie with sausages, is one of those majical moments when it all comes together.

Today, I received an e-mail, from a follower of this blog. He had found some old bottles of wine, with the labels intact, but knew nothing about the wine. He asked for my help. Unfortunately, I didn't have any answers about his mystery "Arrowhead Sparkling Burgundy" bottle, but it did start me researching, and now I am very curious about these old bottles. The history of wine in Southern California is extensive, and this bottle appears to be pre-prohibition.

Mystery wine photo
So back to my original question..."what is it about wine that keeps you coming back?" For me, it is surprise. I love finding new wines, and every year I get to experience a new vintage. It's a constant "reinvention" every year. I love learning about wine regions and history. I love the smell of the wine in the glass. Matter of fact, I think my favorite wines stay in the glass longer, as I continue to swirl and smell, and enjoy how the wine changes as it is exposed to the air. When I am in a restaurant, I love the surprise find on the wine menu. It's like a treasure hunt. That little "gem" that no one else has noticed. I like the excitement those finds generate. I like the experience of trying new wines and varieties, that help build the personal "wine database" that is stored in my head. I like wines that are interesting, and offer me a chance to find foods to pair with them.

As for that "aha" moment. For me, it was a 1978 Heitz Marthas Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It was my final days as a member of the Nestle family, and I was out to dinner with some of my sales people at the Stanford Court Hotel, on Nob Hill in San Francisco. We had order the specialty item: Smoked Prime Rib, at Fournou's Oven. The pairing was classic. I can still recall the taste, and the moment I thought, "wow, I never knew wine could be this good".

What keeps you coming back?

Wines with Altitude

Some wines have attitude, and others have altitude. Yes, you read that correctly, altitude, as in elevation.

There has been some discussion on whether or not grapes grown at higher altitude, taste any different from those grown at more normal elevations. I would guess that most of you haven't really paid much attention to where you wine grapes come from, much less, how high above sea level they were grown. I decided to put together a wine tasting event of only "high altitude" wines, to see if our wine club members noticed anything different. More on that a little later.

Catena Zapata Vineyards
One challenge is that there is no set definition on what is considered "high altitude". Is an elevation of 1,000 feet high, or just a hillside?, What if you move up to 2,000 feet? Most of the research into using high altitude vineyards, is being done by Nicolas Catena (owner of Catena Zapata) in Argentina. For 20 years, he has been locating microclimates at various elevations in the Mendoza region, usually above 3,000 feet.

According to research reports,  "chemical analysis of grapes from four high-altitude vineyards supports the position that the same variety, in this case cabernet sauvignon, offers distinct aromas and flavors when cultivated at differing elevations and in varying soils."

 "The lower temperatures and higher solar radiation at these various altitudes make for more concentrated flavors in the wines," Catena explains. "Cabernet Sauvignon samples in the test included fruit from the Uxmal Vineyard at 3,100 feet above the Mendoza Valley in the Agrelo district, which was ripe with blackberry and cassis aromas and flavors; the same variety and clone from the Domingo Vineyard, at 3,700 feet, showed more spice and black pepper intensity. There is also a thought that the UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grape, and actually ripen the pips, so you end up with riper tannins. Additionally, the skins grow thicker in response to the UV light and lower temperatures, again allowing richer extraction during skin soaking and fermentation. This would lead to a higher intensity of phenolics (such as quercetine and resveratrol). This is typical of  grapes grown in stressful conditions.  The "stressful conditions" associated with high altitude are lower temperatures, higher UV radiation and  light intensity, less oxygen and carbon dioxide, and shorter growing seasons. For a full report on the findings in a 2007 symposium check out this article: Exploring High Altitude Viticulture.

Etna Rosso
Phenolics are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in grapes, which give a wine its profile. These include the flavor and color compounds and tannins, as well as hundreds of other complex chemical components which are vital to a wine's character.

Currently, the highest vineyards in the world are located in Argentina. They are located in the Salta region, and are located in the Altura Maxima vineyard at 9,849 feet. The wines are produced by Hess, under the name of Colomé.Another vineyard has been planted further up the mountain at 10,206 feet, and should be ready for it's first harvest this year.

Back to our wine tasting....the biggest challenge was finding wines to taste. Most wineries do not mention the altitude of their vineyards, so plenty of online research was done before heading to the wine shop. I knew that Argentinian wines would be on the menu, so Malbec, and Torrontes were a given. The highest vineyards in Europe had to be in the Alps, Dolomite, or Pyrenees mountain ranges, but I found the highest vineyards are actually located on Mt Etna, on Sicily in Italy (elevation of 10,992ft, with vineyards at around 3,600 ft.)

In the United States, I focused in on the Napa and Sonoma regions, looking at areas like Lake County AVA (vineyards at 2,000 to 2,400ft), Howell Mountain (1,600 to 2,200ft), Spring Mountain (2,000ft), Mount Veeder (400 to 2,600ft), Atlas Peak (1,400 to 2,400ft), Diamond Mountain (1,200 to 2,100ft) and Sonoma Mountain (600 to 2,400ft).

We ended up tasting the following wines: Fabres Montmayu Phebus Torrontes '10 (vineyards at 3,000ft); Chateau Chevalier Spring Mountain Sauvignon Blanc '06 (vineyards at 1,000ft); Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso '10 (vineyards at 2,200ft); Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec '08 (vineyards at 5,000ft); Don Miguel Gascon Malbec '09 (vineyards range between 2,000 and 5,000ft); Alterra Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon '04 (vineyards between 1,400 and 2,200ft); and Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon '04 (vineyards between 1,300 and 1,900ft).

Smith-Madrone Vineyards
The results of the tasting....positive comments on all the wines. Based on how fast they lasted, the most popular wines were the Gascon Malbec and the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon. The challenge with high altitude tastings is, there was no way to compare low elevation with high elevation, as the choices the winemaker makes during vinification would affect the final product. Personally, I felt that each wine had a little more fruit forward nose, and each had nice structure. I really enjoyed the Chateau Chevalier, the Tenuta delle Terre Nere, and the Smith-Madrone. So, was there an difference with higher elevation? My honest answer is, "I am not sure".

As more wineries explore higher altitude, it will be interesting to see if they tout their elevation. Right now, it takes a lot of research and a lot of shopping to find these wines (other than wines made in Argentina). I'm going to search for Colomé, and do some more "research".

Out of a deep sleep

The Winter is over, and Spring is here. It seems that when the weather begins to improve, I see more people out and about. The long cold winter is over, and we are all coming out of our winter slumber, and ready to move forward into the warmth of summer.

The same is true in the vineyard. Grapevines go through a cycle of slumber, growth, harvest, then slumber. This time of year the vines are in a critical and fragile state. Budbreak and flowering are beginning to take place, getting ready for a new crop of grapes, and ultimately the next wine vintage.

Last weekend (Easter, April 8th) I was up in the Central Coast, and spent some time wine tasting, as well as taking a look at the vineyards, to see where we were in the cycle. So far, this winter, and early Spring, have been pretty dry in California. Even so, the vines have started pulling up water from the earth, preparing for production. "Budbreak" is when the tiny buds on the vine begin to swell and create shoots and eventually leaves, that help the photosynthesis process.

The soil temperature and the grape variety will determine where budbreak will occur first. Warmer soils will encourage earlier budbreak, than those in cooler soils. Even the soil type makes a difference. Clay soils tend to be cooler, and retain more water. These soils will delay budbreak, versus rocky soils which can actually retain the suns energy, and are warmer. Usually, the daily temperature needs to exceed 50 °F

Syrah, just starting to bud
The type of grape variety also has an impact on when budbreak will occur. Some early budding varieties are: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel. These are also early ripening varieties. Some early budding, but late ripening varieties are: Reisling, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, and Sangiovese.

On the other end of the spectrum are the late budding varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Both of these are also early ripening. The best known variety that is both late budding and late ripening is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Obviously, soil, climate, and aspect of the terrain are important factors in determining which varieties are best suited for planting.

The vineyard manager needs to watch his vines. Certain decisions must be made at this time, including the first fungicidal spraying (usually a copper based product). If the vineyard is biodynamic, a entirely different set of decisions will be made. Weather during this time is critical. Frost danger still exists, and once the buds push through, they are at risk of freezing. Last year, a deep frost at this time of year, wiped out about 35% of the central coast crop. So, why not try to delay budbreak? Well, if it occurs too late, the grapes might not have enough time to fully ripen, before the fall rains come, and the grower will be in an uncomfortable position of gambling on longer hang time, or picking unripe grapes, or even worse, loosing an entire crop. Just like this time of year, frost or rain at harvest can also have devastating consequences.

Viognier - with embryo clusters
While in the vineyards, I took a look at different grape varieties, all at various stages of growth. At one stop, there were three different varieties planted next to each other. The Syrah grapes were just beginning to bud. If you look very closely at my photos, you can also see how the tiny buds shown are pink, which is an indicator that bud break has recently occurred. Just across the road (literally 20 feet away) the Viognier grapes have fully budded, and are beginning the embryo bunch stage.

The embryo bunch stage is also a very critical part of the grape life cycle. These small green clusters are going to be the flowers that will eventually become the grapes. These are the first indication of the potential size of the crop. Usually, within eight weeks after budbreak, the tiny embryo clusters develop into flower clusters. Since we are not yet in the full flowering stage (usually some time in May), I will defer the discussion of the flowering stage for another article. But again, just like the budbreak stage, this time of year runs the danger of rain, wind and frost. Additionally, the vines can be affected by coulure or millerandage. All of these can dramatically affect the years' harvest and grape quality.

Everyone is closely watching the vineyards right now. Those of you who live in California know that we have rain and much cooler weather hitting us right now. The storm on Wednesday (April 11th) saw temperatures drop here in Southern California, and Friday's storm is supposed to be larger and cooler. Keep your fingers crossed. The next month or so, is critical to this years' wine vintage.

On the Culinary Backroads of Puerto Vallarta

Why is it, that some of the best food, is found in “hole in the wall” locations, or places you would have never thought of looking? I like to try local, traditional foods, so before leaving for Puerto Vallarta, I did an online search, and came across Arte Culinario on TripAdvisor.com

This week, I’d like to share a culinary experience unlike any we’ve done before.

Chef Mavi Graf - Arte Culinario
Arte Culinario offers cooking classes in Puerto Vallarta, but as you’ll see, it is more than a class.

Via e-mail, we arranged for a “class” with Chef Mavi Graf. We were given a choice of traditional or contemporary Mexican cuisine, or International fare. We chose traditional cuisine, as it is my feeling that before you can appreciate contemporary cuisine, one needs to understand the basics from where it came.

We were given a series of suggestions for traditional Mexican cuisine for review. For the purpose of shopping and organization, we chose Ceviche, Cochinita Pibil (Mayan-style pulled pork with black beans, rice, and pickled onions) and Tequila Flan.

Carniceria Zoraya
At 10:00 am we headed to the lobby of our condo complex, and it was hard to miss Chef Mavi in her traditional white chef’s uniform. The four of us then loaded into her Ford Explorer, and began our culinary journey. Off we went to buy the supplies for our chosen menu.

She took us to places in town that we wouldn't have seen without her. Our first stop was Carnicería Zoraya, a local butcher. The owner greeted us from the behind the counter, and presented us with a fresh pork shoulder and a bag of fried pork rinds “for the road”.

Mariscos Plazola - Chef Mavi
The next stop was the fish market at Mariscos Plazola inside the Mercado 5 de Diciembre. Here we picked up fresh sea bass and tuna, but could easily have added Red Snapper, shrimp, or octopus, as everything was presented fresh and on ice. The staff in the market were happy to answer any questions, and Chef Mavi obviously had developed a great relationship with the owners. While we were there, we didn’t know it, but one of the people we met, we would see in a couple days, as the restaurant owner of Costa Chica (one of the best seafood values in Puerto Vallarta).

Coconut stand
As we traveled the cobblestone roads, from market to market, Chef Mavi shared stories about the local community, pointing out where to find the best lamb or oyster tacos. As a local resident, her experiences, and knowledge were insightful and entertaining. The "hole-in-the-wall" businesses, lining the roads in this old town, are the heart of the community. She pointed out a sidewalk business that serves fresh coconut water, so we stopped and had a drink from freshly macheted coconuts. The green coconuts also supplied one of our appetizers: the soft flesh was scrapped from the coconut, sprinkled with lime juice, salt and chile flakes.

Spice Shop
No Mexican menu would be complete without some fresh tortillas and fried corn chips, so a stop at Tortilleria Aries for some maize (corn) tortillas was a must.

Our next stop was across town to the spice shop. As we pulled into the parking area, Chef Mavi pointed out the local church: Iglesia del Pitillal. She had told us about the large statue of Jesus that had been carved out of a large tree. It is worth the stop. Across the street is the spice market. Amazing! The smells coming from the shop, and the variety of herbs and spices were great. Here we learned about
Jamaica (Hibiscus flower), which we would later have as a refreshing tea.

Fruteria Montero
Next was the local produce market: Fruteria Montero. I found it “funny” that all the locals were in here shopping for their produce. Why was this “funny”? It was right behind the big new Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. In the United States, these big stores put the small guy out of business…apparently not in Mexico!

Our final stop was at La Europea, a Spanish owned liquor store, where we picked up a bottle of Licor de Damiana, for the Tamarind Margaritas. I also picked up a bottle of Mexican wine (a chardonnay/chenin blanc blend) to pair with our Ceviche.

Agua de Jamaica
We arrived at Chef Mavi’s home, where her assistant, Rosalba, had already begun the cooking process, as many things needed to be done before our arrival. We settled in at the breakfast bar, looking into the kitchen, and were presented with guacamole and chips, fresh cheese, and our coconut along with a glass of Agua de Jamaica.

Arte Culinario Ceviche
Chef Mavi then proceeded to make ceviche, and showed us three different styles, using the fresh local sea bass, but adjusted for different regions. If you don’t know the difference between traditional and Acapulco style, then you need to take this class. The third style was served as the first course of our meal. Additionally, we tried an oriental style ceviche made from the fresh tuna. There was also a shrimp ceviche that we ended up taking home with us, and later in the evening had with a couple of cold cervezas (which worked great as a pairing due to the habanero “kick” in the ceviche).

Chef Mavi w/ Tamarind/Damiana Margaritas
We saw all the techniques in making the menu we had selected, and then were invited to move to the balcony of her home. The table was beautifully set, overlooking the Marina below. The “sexy” margaritas were served. It was the first time I’ve had a tamarind margarita, served in a martini glass, and rimmed with sugar and chile pepper flakes (they are addictive….matter of fact, I am now on a quest to find tamarind paste here in the U.S.).

Cochinita Pibil
We saw wonderful things during our shopping trip that we would probably never have seen without Chef Mavi's guidance. She knew the best places for fresh ingredients. This is probably the most authentic insight into the local culture you will find. Not only will you get a tour of the local markets, and a great meal, but you will become part of the “family”. As Chef Mavi, her husband Kirk, and their daughter Cristina Lugo, told us, we will “always have friends in Puerto Vallarta”.

Balcony view of the Marina
My only regret is that we didn’t meet with Chef Mavi and Cristina earlier in our trip. The tips on restaurants and markets that Cristina gave us came in handy for the remainder of our visit.

The cost of this full day (which went from 10:00am to about 5:30pm) was on the higher end of the quoted $110 to $150/person, But when you look at it, you would probably spend that much on a nice evening out. But you get so much more than just a meal. You get to learn about food, culture, and shop for the fresh food in multiple markets. And, you’ll now have friends in Puerto Vallarta.

Muchas gracias Chef Mavi y Cristina
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