German Wine Pairing Dinner

It has been a few months, but our small gourmet dinner group finally got together for another wine pairing dinner. This time it was my turn to host, meaning I need to come up with the theme, and create the 5-course meal. As the Sommelier in the group, I always have the duty of determining the wine pairing for each course.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the process...all the recipes are researched and made with authentic ingredients (even if we have to import them) and made in the traditional style. In the past we have done Sicily, Spain, Tuscany, Nicaragua, Chile, Norway, Burgundy, to name a few. This night we gathered for a full German Dinner, paired with German wine and beer.

We decided that rather than focus on a specific region within Germany, that we would create a meal that represented Germany as a whole, and with items we could have some fun with. I have always wanted to try cooking a Christmas goose, so the menu was developed around that idea. What follows is a recap of each course, and the wine that was paired.

The goal of our small group is not only to have a great dinner, paired with the perfect wine, but to also learn new cooking techniques. Our first course was the perfect example. While a soft pretzel with mustard may not be a "glamorous" opening course, it was fun and tasty. My friends, Jeff & Lisa took this as their course, and described the process of making a pretzel, plus the challenges of getting the twist...which they gave up on, and created straight pretzels (which worked better for dipping in mustard anyway). I paired this opening course with German Beer. Originally, I had only purchased a lighter Hopfen Weisse (Wheat Beer), but added a Black Lager at the last minute. I found that the original choice of the Hopfen Weisse paired best with this course, enhancing the yeastiness of the pretzels and allowing the German mustard to come through.

For our first "sit down" course, we had a dumpling soup, made by Bruce & Kathleen. The dish is known as Maultaschensuppe in Germany, and is basically a chicken broth, with homemade meat-stuffed dumplings. The dumplings are more like a ravioli, but made in a slightly different assembly process. For this course, I paired a German Rose of Pinot Noir: 2012 Meyer Nakel Rose from the Ahr region.

By this time, the goose I was cooking was not quite done, so we had a bit of a break. I opened a bottle of German Pinot Noir, to sip, as we waited. Due to the cool climate, German Pinot Noirs are very light, with fairly high acidity.

The main course was a 12 pound roasted goose, stuffed with brandied fruit. I served this along with homemade bread dumplings. If you have never tried cooking a goose, let me give you a hint...cook it like a duck, and not chicken or turkey. It is dark meat, very fatty and rich. It can be served medium to medium rare. My recipe said to cook to 180 degrees, but I took it out at 161. Next time, I would take it out at 140, as I felt it was a bit overcooked. It wasn't dry, but I think it lost something with the extra time. The brandied fruit stuffing was very good, as were the dumplings. I went straight for the traditional goose pairing: Riesling. I wanted something with some fruit, but a bit of age. I chose the Dr. Hermann 2006 Spatlese "Herzley" from Mosel. Now, before you question going from beer to rose to red, then to a white, let me explain...this is a full bodied white, and came across much heavier than the pinot noir. The slight sweetness and fruit flavors paired beautifully with the rich goose, and fruit stuffing. This is a classic that everyone needs to try at least once in their life.

Following the European tradition, the fourth course was a cheese course. I had purchased five German cheeses from All were cows milk cheeses, and two were smoked. They were: Allgau Emental, Smoked Ammerlander, Cambazola, Rauchkase, and German Tilsit. Also on the cheese plate were blackberries, grapes, pecans and dark rye toasts. We paired this with a dark, fruity 2012 Dornfelder from Gerd Ansleman. This was a nice pairing, except for one cheese. The extremely strong and pungent Tilsit was overpowering, and I would leave that cheese out next time.

We ended the evening with  a dessert course of Frankfurter Kranz. My friends, Lauren and Mark created this dessert. It is a "crown cake" with layers of white cake and jam. The smooth, sweet frosting is covered with cherries and candied pecans. I paired this with a wonderful German sweet Riesling cross: 2005 Pfeffingen Beerenauslese Herrenberg Scheurebe. This worked great with the sweetness of the cake. We also ended the evening with Pharisaeer, and strong coffee, mixed with a sugar cube, Jamaican dark rum, and topped with whipped cream. Delicious!

I hope this simple recap of our German wine pairing dinner will inspire you to try one on your own. Either copy our menu, or create your own. Have fun with it. If you can't afford to go to Germany, dress up the table, buy a couple Oktoberfest music CD's and make an evening of it...just like we did!

Clones, Hybrids, and Crosses

This weeks' blog sounds more like a title to some type of science fiction novel, or something having to do with Dolly, the sheep, but is in fact an important part of wine study. While we don't often talk about hybrids and crosses, clones are mentioned more and more in the production of wine. If you have tried any Pinot Noir lately, you most likely encountered a reference to the clone used in the making of the wine. But, what are hybrids, crosses and clones?

Let's start with the most basic: "crosses". Essentially all grapes are crosses. A cross occurs when two varieties from the same species of vine "cross", to make a new variety. So, a cross is produced by fertilizing the flower of one variety with the pollen of another variety, thus creating a new variety. This is followed by the planting of the grape seeds that are the product of the cross-pollination. These crosses can be the result of human intervention, or natural. Most of the human made crosses have been less than spectacular, but the most notable would be Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault), or Müller-Thurgau (a cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale - which is itself a cross between Pinot and Trollinger). Outside of Germany and South Africa, there aren't too many man-made crosses that stand out. On the other hand, natural crosses have created some of the finest wines in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact a natural cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Recent DNA research has led to a better understanding of a grape's parentage. In her new book, "Wine Grapes", Jancis Robinson has put together the most detailed research into the subject. Her book is a "must have" for those interested in grape varieties.

Vidal Grapes at Inniskillin
"Hybrids" are the same as crosses, but different. While crosses are between two varieties from the same species, hybrids occur when two different species of vine are crossed. Originally, hybrids were done due to the fact that some American vines are quite resistant to powdery mildew. American vines are not wine grape vines (Vitis Vinifera), so by creating a hybrid, the old world wines might be more resistant to certain diseases. There aren't many successful hybrids on the market, and hybrids are actually banned in Europe for commercial wine. But hybrids are important in some other regions of the new world, in particular in North America, where vitis vinifera grape vines struggle to grow. If you have ever tasted any wines grown in the midwest, east coast, or Canada, you may recognize these hybrids: Vidal (making some of the sweet dessert wines of Canada), Baco Noir, or Seyval Blanc.

Pinot Noir clone at Melville Winery
Cloning is different from both crosses and hybrids. A Clone is defined as “a vegetative propagation of a single parent plant”, and is a process where individual vines are selected from a grape variety on the basis of certain attributes. Do to genetic instability, most of the older grape varieties have a tendency to mutate, adjusting to their location, climate, terrain, etc. As these grapes mutate, the winegrower and winemaker may notice subtle differences in the growing process, or the taste of the juice. If it is a desirable change, then the natural instinct would be to encourage that mutation to propagate. One of the best known examples is Pinot Noir. Today, there are somewhere between 300 and 1000 different clones in Burgundy alone. Today, you can go to almost any Pinot Noir vineyard, and they will tell you what clones they have planted. Many will tout their clones on the label of their bottle. “Dijon”. “Pommard” and “Swan” give indications of where the clone was propagated (While Dijon and Pommard are in France, “Swan” is named after Joseph Swan who propagated the clone in the Russian River Valley). Others are simply called, “Clone 113” or “Clone 115”. Each clone has its own style and personality, and it is up to the vineyard manager and the winemaker to determine what best suites their needs.

“Selection massale” is the opposite of cloning, where growers select cuttings “from the mass” of the vineyard, or a "field blend". If you are a believer in terroir, then the question becomes, is clonal selection a good thing, or does Selection massale better reflect the terroir of the vineyard? Your taste buds and nose will help you decide. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

2014 Family Winemakers Follow up

On Sunday, March 9 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the FamilyWinemakers of California event at the Pasadena Convention center. This year, there were 158 wineries pouring some of their best wines. The doors opened at 1:00 for trade and media attendees, then opened at 3:30 for the general public. Most wineries continued to pour wine right up to closing time at 6:00. During my five hours walking the aisles, I was able to taste over 50 wines, met with numerous winemakers and owners, and even caught up with one of my Sommelier students, who was just hired as a Somm for a yet unopened restaurant in Los Angeles.

As in prior years, I had received a list of all the wineries that would be in attendance. I put most of my attention on the Central Coast, and wineries that I had either not heard of, or had not visited. I also focused on Zinfandels this year, in particular old vine Zins from the Sierra Foothills.

Le Belge Chocolatiers
The doors opened a little before 1:00, and we picked up our tasting glass. The convention hall was set up with long rows of wine tasting tables. Above each table was a sign, indicating the winery.  Along the outside edges of the hallway were water stations, and large platters of cheese and crackers. The south wall had a large display of fine chocolates. The back wall was set up with the iSip (or VIP) tasting area.

Dawn Wilson, Martian Ranch & Vineyard
We walked the rows of wine tasting tables, to get the “lay of the land”, and see who we knew. We stopped by Ampelos Cellars and talked briefly with Rebecca and Peter Work). I have known these winemakers for a long time, and have always enjoyed their wines. This time we only tasted their Rose of Syrah, and I am convinced, they make one of the finest roses in California. All their wines are biodynamically produced. Along the same lines, one of my new favorites is Martian Ranch & Vineyard. Nan Helgeland, the owner, and her wine club manager Dawn Wilson, both spent a lot of time filling me in on some activity at their property. Craig and Mike (the two winemakers) have moved on to another property, but their new winemaker, Graham Tatomer, stepped right in, and things are looking very good for this up and comer. They were pouring their 2013 Rose of Syrah which had just been bottled the prior week. Only 437 cases were produced, and already 25% of the total production has been sold. Keep an eye on Martian Ranch & Vineyard (and taste their wines too).

Some of the "picks" of the day:

Janell Dusi
I tasted a lot of Zinfandels during the day, but there were some standout wineries that you may want to check out. The old vine Zins at Sobon Estate were very jammy. The 2011 Rocky Top Zin is produced from 85 year old vines, and had a deep dark berry nose and taste. For those that like fruit, this is one to try. I am more of a lighter style Zin person, and like a bit of spice, and lower alcohol levels. My favorite Zinfandel of the day (and I went back for a second pour) was J. Dusi from Paso Robles. The 2011 Dante Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel was my pick of the day.

One of the surprise finds was a Pinot Noir from a Paso Robles winery.  Derby Wine Estates has vineyards in both Paso Robles and some coastal vineyards around San Simeon. Their 2010  Coastal Vineyard Pinot Noir had the crisp acidity you expect from a cooler growing region, and had an almost Burgudian quality to it. On top of that, Ray Derby is just one of those guys that you like talking to. Down to earth, and loves what he does.

For those that like to collect wines, and look for a wine that will hold and age, check out The Farm Winery. This is a small production winery, making less than 700 cases a year. They don’t have a wine club, or a tasting room. You can purchase the wine at select wine shops, or through their website. The wine for collectors to look at is the 2010 Cardinale, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. This wine can hold for another 20 years.

 I enjoyed the 2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. I must admit, while I hadn’t had this particular Sauvignon Blanc, I have been enjoying fruit from their vineyards for years, as they supply grapes to Dragonette Cellars, and I love their Sauvignon Blanc. So naturally, this wine tastes “familiar”. The Happy Canyon AVA is producing some excellent fruit!

In five hours, I was able to visit 20 wineries. Every winery had wines worth writing about, but I really wanted to focus on the stand outs. I won’t write reviews of them all, but want to give “honorable mention to:  Beaucanon Estate (nice Cabernet Franc), Benovia Winery (2011 La Pommeraie Pinot Noir), Black Sears (2006 Howell Mtn Cabernet Sauvignon). Center of Effort (Pinot Noirs), D’Anbino Vineyard & Cellars (nice people, and an interesting fortified Cabernet Sauvignon, called Portamento),  Field Vineyards (2004 Katarina Cabernet Sauvignon), Frogs Tooth Vineyards (2010 Petit Sirah), ONXWines (2011 CRUX), Venteux Vineyards (2010 Tache le Verre Santa Barbara Syrah), The Price Book, Hiatus Cellars, and Hearst Ranch Winery.

So, check out the wines I mentioned above, and also go the Family Winemakers of California website, to check out all the members. Also watch for their next event, and block out the time to attend. It is well worth the expense!

Does Vintage Matter?

When it comes to your wine purchase, is the vintage Important? You’ve heard the word “vintage” but what does it really mean?

In winemaking, vintage usually refers to the year the grapes were grown. So, if you see a wine with a vintage date of 2004 on it, then you can assume the grapes were grown during the 2004 growing season. Now that makes perfect sense, unless of course you are looking at a wine from the southern hemisphere. Think about it….wines in Australia, for example, have a growing season that runs from about October to April. So what year do you use? The year of harvest is what is on the label. 

Okay, so we have that same bottle of 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. All the grapes were harvested in 2004…..wait, not so fast! Most countries allow a vintage dated wine to include a portion of wine that is not from the year denoted on the label. Old World wines (European Union) only requires that 85% of the wine be from grapes in the denoted year. Australia and New Zealand follow the European requirements. In the United States, the requirement is also 85%, unless it is a designated AVA (i.e. Napa Valley or Paso Robles), in which case, it is 95%. In Chile and South Africa, the requirement is less stringent, only 75% required for vintage-dated wine. 

So, if you’ve got a bottle of wine and there’s no vintage date (often seen on wine lists as NV – “Non Vintage”), you can assume that the wine was made from grapes of several years’ harvests, or at least, did not meet the minimum requirements. This is a common practice for winemakers seeking a consistent style of wine, often referred to as a “house style”. Champagne is the most common NV wine, as the producer blends many years together, to maintain a certain flavor profile. That is not to say there aren’t any vintage Champagnes, as there are. Wines from the best vintages often sell for much higher prices than those from average vintages. Vintages wines are assumed to improve with further aging in the bottle. This has led to a misperception that any vintage dated wine is of higher quality, and capable of aging. While that would be great to believe, it is simply not true. There are some very poor quality vintage dated wines.

But why should you care about the year? 

If you live in California, you know we have a drought, and it has been an unusually warm winter, which has tricked the grapevines into early bud break. As I write this, the weather has turned to heavy rain, and is accompanied by cold weather, creating a much higher risk of frost damage or damage to the vine. Those little buds are very fragile and subject to damage during pruning if they have popped out of the wood. This would lead to a reduced crop, or possibly a poor crop. If you remember the weather right now, when the 2014 vintage is released, you’ll know why it tastes the way it does.

The importance of vintage, however, is often disputed. There is no doubt that cooler regions do see fluctuations in quality, a warmer growing season can produce riper grapes, while a colder growing season might produce lower sugar levels, and higher acidity. Extremely hot growing season can also produce flabby wines. The best example of where vintage makes a difference is Bordeaux. This growing region can easily be influenced by the weather during the growing season.

There is an argument that due to new winemaking techniques and the use of irrigation (particularly in the New World) has created a more uniform style of wine, that doesn’t vary much from vintage to vintage. Some even argue that there is not difference between vintages on New World wines. I am not one of those believers. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you have read about some of the vertical tastings dinners I have conducted, and there is a difference between vintages (a vertical tasting is a series of wines from the same producer, over a number of different vintages, i.e. 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 – which would be a 4-year vertical).

Back to Bordeaux….many wine collectors are concerned about vintage, as the best Bordeaux wines will age for decades in the bottle, and actually improve. These wines can be extremely expensive, and you have to have the patience to hold on to them, as well as cellar them under proper conditions. And, isn’t it nice to know the age of the bottle you have in your cellar? Inexpensive wines are typically meant for early consumption, so vintage is probably not as important. But, even with the inexpensive wines, it might be good to know the vintage. If you had that wine before, and you liked it, you can look for it again. If your wine shop is out of that vintage, and you still have one of the older vintages, try tasting them side by side, and see if you can taste any difference, or does that winery make a “house style” that is the same every year?

The importance of vintage is one about which disagreement can be expected to continue. For me, it does matter, particularly for Old World Wines.