Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere

Lately I have been pondering just how many options we have when it comes to sparkling wine.  You may think that Champagne and Prosecco are your only real options, but I am here to tell you that is simply not the case.  Sure, Champagne is the standard bearer, and Prosecco is your “cheap and easy” option, but consider there is also Cava, Sekt, Cremant, Franciacorta, American sparkling wine, and British Sparkling wine too.  Any of these bubbles can serve you well on a special occasion as well as with a bowl of popcorn, a bag of chips, and a good binge watching session.

Let’s break it down before you pop some corks:

How Sparkling Wine is Made:  There are two basic methods of making sparkling wine. The Traditional, or “Champagne Method”, and the Tank, or “Charmat Method”. Bubbles in sparkling wine are produced when the wine goes through a second fermentation (the first fermentation turns the sugars in the grapes in to alcohol).  In the Champagne Method, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing small, precise bubbles. In the Tank Method, the second fermentation takes place in a large tank (go figure), which produces larger, softer bubbles. The Tank Method is faster, produces more volume, and results in less complex wines.

Champagne:  Champagne is from the Champagne region of France; period.  A sparkling wine cannot be called ‘Champagne’ unless it is from this place. Champagne is located in the cooler part of France, north of Paris. These wines are made from one or a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier (a red grape).  Styles range from citrusy, crisp and bright, to toasty, rich and full.

There are what we call the “big Champagne houses” of France, for example Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Tattinger, and smaller Champagne producers such as Marc Hebrart, Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Peters, and Agrapart & Fils. The larger houses make consistent styles of Champagne that are easier to find out in the marketplace, but I would encourage you to seek out the smaller producers for better value and diverse styles. You really can’t get a decent Champagne for less than $50 so don’t fool yourself in to trying.

Cremant:  Cremant is sparkling wine from France, but from regions such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley, not from the Champagne region. Cremant is made from grapes that are native to the region where the wine is being made. For example, Cremant from the Loire (Cremant de Loire) can be made from Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and a few others. Cremant is made using the Champagne Method, and offers good value.  You can get a lovely Cremant for $20 bucks, give or take.

Prosecco:  Prosecco comes from Italy; the village of Prosecco to be precise. The grape used to also be called Prosecco, but in order to make sure that no wine outside of the Prosecco appellation could use the name, the grape became known by its alternative name, Glera. Prosecco is made using the Tank Method and is generally simple, crisp, and may have a touch of sweetness.  Not all Proseccos are created equal. If you want to find a Prosecco with a little more depth of character, then look for “Valdobbiadene” on the label. Grapes from the Valdobbiadene province grow on the cool hillsides and produce more complex wines.  You can find a decent Prosecco for $12-15 on up. If you are going to dump orange juice in it and make a mimosa, by all means go with a cheap one, but if you are going to drink it straight, choose one in the $15-18 range.

Franciacorta:  Also from Italy, Franciacorta comes from the Lombardy region in the north, bordering Switzerland. These bubbles are made in the Champagne Method and cost more than Prosecco. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the grapes used to make Franciacorta. Although northern, Lombardy is warmer than Champagne, France, resulting in slightly riper wines with fuller fruit flavors.  A good Franciacorta will cost you $25-40.

Cava:  Cava is the often overlooked sparkling wine from Spain. There is admittedly a lot of bad Cava brought in to the U.S., but there are good examples worth seeking out too. Cava is generally around the price of Prosecco, and is produced using the Champagne Method. Pronouncing the grapes, which include Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada, may prove challenging, but the fruity, citrusy flavors are bright and welcoming. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes can also be used. The name Cava comes from the caves the wines are aged in and not a region, so Cava can be produced in various areas around Spain.

Sekt: Sekt is synonymous with sparkling wine in Germany and Austria, and the standards for quality are loose at best.  Germans and Austrians drink a LOT of Sekt, but you don’t see much of it here in the states.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier are used, but indigenous German/Austrian grapes, such as Riesling, Kerner, Pinot Gris, Silvaner, etc. are also used to produce Sekt.  Most Sekt wines are made in the Tank Method and are low in alcohol with juicy pear and floral aromas and flavors. If you can find it, expect to spend in the $18-$30 range.

British Sparkling Wine:  Sparkling wine from England is having a bit of a moment. It makes sense that the English should focus on sparkling wine; they don’t really have the climate for anything else. The weather and soils on the coast south of London are, in fact, quite similar to Champagne, and some Champagne producers are looking to purchase vineyards in England. The wines are made using the Champagne method. Until recently, you couldn’t find British bubbles in the U.S. but they are now making their way on to wine lists and in to retail shops in the states. The latest sparklers coming out of England are made from traditional Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with an English grape variety aptly named Bacchus. Some are made from traditional German varieties as well. English fizz is not cheap; look for bottles in the $50-65 range.

American Sparkling Wine: With no rules as to which grapes have to be used in sparkling wine, bubbles can be made almost anywhere in the U.S.  Most quality sparkling wines from America are made in California, and many Champagne houses have invested in California vineyards for this reason. The coolest areas, such as Anderson Valley on the North Coast, are best suited to sparkling wine production. There are also areas of Oregon and NY State that are befitting for making bubbles. Most American producers choose the traditional Champagne grapes and the Champagne method of production, and styles can vary as much as they do from Champagne. Expect to spend $30-50 for a quality American sparkler.

There are other wines with bubbles, including Lambrusco (sparkling red from Italy), Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (sweet sparkling wines from Italy), Pétillant-Naturel (trendy, naturally sparkling wines from anywhere), and of course sparkling wines from other countries (such as Australia and South Africa), but the above examples are the best place to start if you are looking for a “Champagne-like” experience.

Now you are ready to pop some corks. Just make sure to hold the cork and turn the bottle to slowly ease the stopper out. Contrary to popular thinking, a loud “pop” is not what you want to hear when you open sparkling wine, rather a faint “hiss”. And please don’t aim the bottle at you, or anyone else. Oh, and it’s up to you of course, but I like to drink my sparkling wine out of a regular wine glass.  It may not look as elegant, but you’ll get more out of the aromatic experience. I also like the Coup, pictured above.

Georgia On My Mind

I attended a dinner featuring Georgian wine and food earlier this week. No, not the Atlanta, Georgia-Georgia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. While there has been some buzz about Georgian wines over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to expect. Admittedly, I also did not know much about the country itself.

A Little Bit About Georgia (The Country)

Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is located on the Black Sea, bordered by Russia, Armenia, and Turkey. In square miles, it’s slightly smaller than Ireland, and the population is 4.3 million (Ireland’s population is 4.7 million). The terrain is mountainous, with many varying types of soils and climates. The Georgian language is very difficult for outsiders (it even has it’s own alphabet); other languages, such as Russian, are also spoken. Agriculture, including tea plantations, orchards, and vineyards, is an important part of the economy.

Winemaking in Georgia 

Winemaking in Georgia goes back 8,000 years (seriously, that is not a typo). The tradition of making wine, however, did not go uninterrupted.  Assaults and invasions from neighbors, including the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Arabs, at different points during Georgia’s turbulent history, had natives escaping their vineyards to safety. They did, however, preserve cuttings from their vines, helping to keep tradition alive.

The biggest difference between winemaking in Georgia, and winemaking anywhere else, is the use of giant clay pots, called qvevri (pronounced with a “k”). Although some Georgian winemakers currently use stainless steel tanks and oak barrels to make and store wine, the traditional method values the qvevri. These egg shaped vessels, similar to amphora in other wine regions, can hold as much as 10,000 liters of juice (more than 13,000 bottles of wine). In the time-honored method, the entire winemaking process takes place in the qvevri, from fermentation (turning the grape juice in to alcohol) to aging. The qvevri are not used to transport wine, as they are buried underground to stabilize the temperature.

The Grapes of Georgia

There are more than 500 grape varieties grown in Georgia. Some of the most common include:

  • Saperavi – A bold, dark red grape, and one of the few grape varieties that has red skin and red pulp (in most instances the pulp, or juice, inside the grape is clear).
  • Rkatsiteli – A white grape that results in full bodied wines with fresh acidity.
  • Takveri – A red grape used for dry, sparkling, and dessert wines.
  • Mtsvane Kakhuri – A white grape that produces dry, crisp wines.
  • Kisi – A white grape that produces amber colored wines with ripe fruit and floral notes.

Fermentation in qvevri is a natural and gradual process, where the juice of the grapes stays in contact with the skins for longer than in modern winemaking processes. This gives the wines a deeper color, and the whites can look almost amber. The whites I sampled tasted fresher than the color led me to believe they would. They were medium to full-bodied due to the lengthy skin contact, but were still refreshing, especially with the flavorful Georgian food. The reds were rustic, to be sure, but I could taste the pure fruit without any oak to mask the authenticity. Many of the wines are not yet imported so there is no real point in naming names.

The Foods of Georgia

The Georgian cuisine has been influenced by many cultures, such as Iran, Asia, and Turkey. Bread and dumplings, fresh cheeses and vegetables, pickles and oils, all taste unique based on the herbs and spices from the region, including coriander, mint, fennel, garlic, bay leaf, and clove, among others. At Oda House, a wonderful and traditional Georgian restaurant in the East Village, NYC, we sampled: Pkhali (chopped and minced eggplant, spinach, and leek with ground walnuts and spices); Lobiani (bread filled with mashed pinto beans); Imeruli (cheese bread); three preparations of Sulguni cheese (fresh, smoked, and with mint); and the ‘fan favorite’, a beet salad with parsley, prunes, chopped walnuts & mayonnaise-sour cream sauce. All of it was crazy delicious and well suited to the wines.

Books, Resources and Places to Try Georgian Wine & Food

Oda House  Restaurant NYC

Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus by Carla Capalbo

Wines of Georgia Website

Where to drink and buy Georgian Wine

I’m excited to try more wines from the region, and I’ll certainly be back to Oda House to sample more of the unique and flavorful food.

The 2017 Rosés Are Coming

Rosé season is coming up gang!

7981_content_roseActually, there really isn’t a “rosé season” per se; that’s just something we created in our collective minds. As if we can’t drink anything pink unless it’s spring or summer and the sun is shining. Nonsense! You probably drink white wine in the winter, right?! And many white wines are refreshing, just like rosé, and can be even lighter on the palate.

What is indisputable is that the new crop of rosés from the 2017 vintage are being released as we speak. Lots of pictures of pretty pink and peachy juice can be seen on Instagram, wobbling down the bottling line. It seems that anyone who has a wine label these days, considers it an obligation to make rosé.

2017 Long Meadow Ranch Anderson Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir coming down the bottling line.

Now that there is a veritable plethora of rosé options on your local wine retailer’s shelf, how in the world are you supposed to you decide? Besides the obvious strategies of buying by price and label (you know who you are), here are some things to consider:

DRY OR SWEET. Are you looking for a dry rosé or a sweet rosé? Generally speaking, most quality rosés on the market today are dry. If you think you are looking for a sweet rosé, do you really mean sweet, or do you just mean “fruity”?  If you want something sweet as cotton candy, then ask for that.  If you want something with lots of tropical fruit, talk about it that way. If you favor floral, citrus and mineral characteristics, use those words. This will help get what you want.

THE COLOR OF ROSÉ.  It’s tempting to choose a rosé based on color, but don’t put too much emphasis on that. Darker rosés somehow give the impression that they are sweeter (Hey Kool-Aid!), which is not necessarily the case.  More intensely colored rosés do, however, generally have more body because the juice of the grapes spends more time mingling with the skins.  (The skin of the grape is what gives a wine color; in all but a very few cases, the pulp inside the grape is clear.) Grape variety can effect color as well. You would expect a rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon to be darker than a rosé made from Pinot Noir, because the skin of the Cabernet grape is darker. A good start is to think about a red wine grape that you like, and try a rosé made from that grape.

METHOD TO THE MADNESS.  If you want to get a little advanced, ask about how the rosé was made.  In the Direct Press method, grapes are gently pressed until skins from the grapes turn the juice a pinkish color. When the desired color is attained, the juice is transferred to a tank to rest. Direct Press rosés commonly highlight floral characteristics and are delicate and aromatic. In the Saignée method, rosé is produced during the process of making red wine.  At a very early stage in the red winemaking process (2 hours to a full day), some of the juice, which is starting to develop color, is bled off to make rosé. The remaining juice and grape skins will continue on to make red wine. These rosés tend to be less aromatic, rounder, and fruitier in flavor. Some rosés use a combination of the two methods.

DOES AGE MATTER? Rosé wines can age. Let’s just get that out of the way so the wine geeks don’t cry foul on me. There are rosés from the Bandol region of France that age well, Spanish Rioja rosés that age well, and certainly rosé Champagnes that stand the test of time. Most rosés you’ll find in your local store, however, are going to be from the previous year’s vintage (2017), or one year older (2016).  Many of the rosé wines that are built to last will cost you more than $25. The vast majority of rosés under $25 are made to be drunk young and fresh, within a year or two of the vintage date.

Whether you are looking for a wine to sip by the pool, quaff on the porch, enjoy with a plate of salumi and olives, or pair with a more serious meal, there is a rosé out there for you. Cheers!

High on High Street

IMG_0793The first stop on my latest wine road trip was to the home of the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Soon after I arrived and checked in to the Kimpton Monaco, I made my way past the vendors hawking championship gear on Market Street, towards High Street on Market.

High Street on Market is part of the High Street Hospitality Group, which also owns a.kitchen+bar and Fork in Philadelphia, and High Street on Hudson in New York. I have eaten at Fork, which was excellent, and High Street on Market is Fork’s more casual cousin.  High Street is open all day, from coffee and pastries to cocktails and pasta. My memory of Fork was that everything was exceptionally flavorful, so I was ready to have my taste buds roused once again.

I ordered a glass of Folk Machine Chenin Blanc, a Loire-inspired white from Mendocino, California, from the all-American wine list while I looked over the menu. Mineral-driven, citrusy dry white wines are my jam, so this was the perfect choice to fire up my appetite. A lot of things on the menu sounded to me as if they wouldn’t go well together, so I solicited the help of my server. Once he convinced me that it was okay to eat chow-chow alongside wild boar ragu, I was ready to order.  I started with the sunchokes, a dish from the section of the menu called “snacks”.  Sunchokes are one of those things that call to me from any restaurant menu. A root vegetable from the sunflower family, they have an umami flavor and a crunchy bite. These came roasted, with a texture that reminded me of eggplant, with slices of crisp, raw sunchoke mingled in.  Delicious.

Clockwise: Crispy Broccoli, Pasta with Wild Boar Ragu, Sunchokes

My selection from the “plates” part of the menu arrived with my sunchokes. I chose the Crispy Broccoli with Chow-Chow and Scallion. The dish arrived looking like a giant tempura chia tree but the combination of flavors was so addicting that it was difficult to put my fork down. Chow-chow is a sort of fermented relish and it balanced out the lightly fried crunchiness of the broccoli very well. I took a break from my broccoli to order a glass of red wine in anticipation of my pasta course. This time I chose a spicy Cabernet Franc, in keeping with the Loire-inspired theme, from Ravines winery in the Finger Lakes, NY.

My pasta dish was Burnt Grains Campanelle, which is a bell-shaped pasta made from burnt wheat. The nutty-flavored pasta was dressed in wild boar ragu and parmesan. The dish was really rich, perfectly seasoned, and ridiculously flavorful. I overheard the ladies next to me talking about how their pastas had more flavor than most pastas. If I had heard that at any other time, I may have rolled my eyes, but as I dug in to my Campanelle, I knew exactly what they meant.

You may have noticed that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so I didn’t even deign to look at the dessert menu. Instead I finished my glass of wine and took the long way back to the hotel, to walk off my very filling but heavenly tasting meal.

High Street On Market

308 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19106

How to Hold Your Wine Glass Like a Pro

I don’t want to be “that person” who gets all judgey about how you hold your wine glass. If you want to palm that glass of Rosé like a basketball, well then you just go right ahead. It will get under my skin, but that’s not your problem.

Various entertainers (and one *gasp* wine professional) holding the bowl of the wine glass, and a few unsuspecting characters holding the glass by the stem (#winning). 

You’re not to blame; there are plenty of people on television, and in the movies, who coddle their wine glass like it’s a hot cup of tea. Maybe the media is trying to reflect the real world and not trying to be “correct”, but they are still guilty of perpetuating the problem.

So, why is there a right and wrong way to hold a wine glass anyway? If there is a stem on the glass, it’s there for a reason. You hold the glass by the stem so that you don’t alter the temperature of the wine in the glass. Let’s assume for a moment that your glass of wine is the perfect temperature for drinking. That is, for red wines, around 65 degrees, and, for whites, around 52 degrees. By grasping the glass by the bowl, your body temperature will warm up the glass quickly and alter the taste of the wine, making it less enjoyable. It’s akin to drinking your piping hot cup of tea or coffee after it has cooled down too much. This leads to a less satisfying experience — for most.

Holding the glass by the stem also helps avoid greasy fingerprints and ugly smudges on your glass and makes it easier for you to swirl your wine around in the glass without making a mess.  I’m sure you’ve been with a friend who clutches the glass by the bowl and tries to swirl the wine vigorously, only to splash you with a spindrift of Pinot Noir.

If you want to look like you know what you’re doing when someone takes a picture of you with a glass of wine, hold it by the stem. Behind closed doors, do what’s comfortable for you. Now at least you know why there is a proper way to hold the glass, and it’s not all about snobbery. I’m sure you already know that you shouldn’t parrot the people you see on television, or in the movies. You know things are upside down when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are doing it wrong, and Will Ferrell and some chick from The Bachelor are doing it right.


Hungry Girl, Hungryroot

I am by no means a vegetarian. But most meal services I have tried (especially the ones that don’t require 40 minutes of prep work) offered up flavorful proteins with bland side dishes and lifeless vegetables. I can cook a piece of chicken or roast some pork pretty easily — I’m not THAT lazy — but I am at a loss for quick, satisfying sides with the exception of roasting a few vegetables. That’s why I decided to try Hungryroot, a plant based meal service that delivers a variety of products with recipe ideas for quick and easy breakfasts, lunches, sides, mains, and even desserts.

My first box included things like banana bread overnight oats, lemon artichoke quinoa bowl, sweet potato ribbons, kalebeet blend, chickpea alfredo, and black bean brownie batter. All this and more, with enough for two portions of each, for $65. This may seem pricey, but I know myself and I recognize the fact that if I stop in to Whole Foods to pick up a few avocados, I’ll emerge with $80 worth of groceries. Every. Time.

Just a few of the items in my delivery.

The box arrived well packed with ice and included a recipe book with simple steps to make seven different dishes.  The packaging itself is bright, whimsical, and just plain adorable. All the products are gluten free and dairy free with no trans fats, no preservatives, limited added sugar, and low sodium. I don’t have a thing against gluten, or dairy for that matter, but I am happy to indulge in a healthful way — and nothing will stop me from putting an egg on it.

Upon opening the box, the first thing I did was prepare my Banana Bread Overnight Oats for the following morning.  All I had to do was stir in some almond milk and yogurt, shake in a little cinnamon, and put it in the fridge to be ready in time for breakfast. It’s not that difficult to make overnight oats in general, I’ll admit, but this was effortless and the end result was delightful.

The first dinner “recipe” I tried was the Sweet Potato Pad Thai. The instructions had me heating olive oil in a skillet, adding the provided sweet potato ribbons and pea snaps, mixing in some prepared Thai peanut sauce, and finishing up with a pinch of salt and pepper. Voila, dinner is served.  In the interest of full discloser, I cooked up a chicken sausage and served it alongside the Sweet Potato Pad Thai. The meal was enjoyable and satisfying.

Hungryroot Recipe Book

The second “recipe” I tried was for lunch — the Lemon Kale Caesar Salad. Again I had to break a big sweat in the kitchen mixing the kalebeet blend with the lemon artichoke quinoa bowl, and mixing in some chickpea alfredo sauce.  The salad was creamy and bright and I devoured half of it and was surprisingly full.  Today, I am going to add a hardboiled egg to the leftovers. Because I am crazy like that.

So far, I am very pleased with the products, the flavor, and the ease and flexibility of the meals. I even tried a spoonful of the Black Bean Brownie Batter (you can bake it, but why bother?) and it was dangerously delicious. I don’t have a sweet tooth per se, but sometimes you need a little treat, and this was not overly sugary because the sweetness comes from almond butter.

Hungryroot is a subscription service, but it is easy to manage your deliveries. This is important for me because I travel so much. It’s also very easy to customize what’s in your box so you can always be trying new things, or stick to some of the products you loved in past deliveries. I will keep it up when I’m in town, and probably continue adding in a little protein as well. Tonight, it’s Deconstructed Carrot Shephard’s Pie… Bon Appétit!


On Corked Wine, and Trusting Your Instinct

I’ll try to keep this short. I don’t want to belabor the point, and there’s probably 1,000 articles on the topic already.
Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 12.48.10 PMI had an experience with corked wine this past week that made me question my professional integrity. Actually, I didn’t really question my credibility (I mean, sh*t happens) but I was irritated that I missed that one of the wines in my bag was corked. I was tasting with a restaurant account and the wine director called it out before I could even get my nose out of the glass. I must have had an inclination, because I lingered over the aromas longer than usual, but I wasn’t confident enough about it to speak up. Much of deciphering if a wine is corked or not is trusting your instincts, and that’s where I went wrong. I mean, if I sniffed my half & half a few times because it was questionable, I probably wouldn’t pour it in to my coffee, or yours. Same idea.

In my defense, the wine was only slightly corked. In fact, it probably would have squeaked by some of my other customers. But that doesn’t do anyone any good because a slightly corked wine has zero personality.  Cork taint mutes the fruit aromas and flavors and prevents the wine from being its best self. That means you aren’t going to enjoy drinking the wine and, for me, it means I’m not going to be able to sell it.

If a wine is extremely corked, you should be able to tell right away, by the smell alone. If the wine smells like wet cardboard, damp newspaper, musty basement, or your puppy running in to your arms after coming in from the rain, chances are it’s corked.  If a wine isn’t horribly corked, you might have to taste it before you’re sure. Although it really is more about the aroma, a corked wine will taste flat and lifeless and can confirm your suspicions. You may even get the sense of moldiness on your tongue (blech). Have no fear, drinking corked wine won’t make you ill, it just won’t taste very good.

So, what to take away from all of this? If you’re at a restaurant and think your wine is corked, speak up. Usually the Sommelier or server will confirm your suspicions and get you another bottle. Try not to mistake a wine you just don’t like with a wine that is genuinely corked. That’s not going to help when you get another bottle and it tastes the same.

If you purchase a wine from a retailer and you think it’s corked, return the cork to the bottle and take it back to the store if possible. Honorable shop owners will give you another bottle once they confirm it’s corked. Don’t bring the wine back with a few ounces left in the bottle and claim you kept tasting it to make sure. Not cool.

If you’re interested in what “corked” actually means, the culprit is a compound called TCA. It can be formed when a natural fungi, which is present in the bark of cork trees, comes in to contact with substances that are found in bleaches and other products that are, ironically, used to sanitize and sterilize wineries. If the cork is infected, the wine becomes infected. There is also the possibility of TCA contaminating an entire cellar or winery, finding its way in to barrels and boxes and wreaking havoc.  Depending on who you ask, TCA affects 2%-5% of all wines bottled with natural corks. This means you’re sure to experience a bottle, or a few, in your lifetime.

Of course, there are other faults that occur in wine. Besides cork taint, the other fault you will likely come across is cooked wine. Wine becomes cooked when it is exposed to extreme heat. A cooked wine will smell dull, with more raisiny aromas than fresh fruit, and will taste flat or stewed. If a wine is stored improperly — near the kitchen in a restaurant, in a hot basement of a wine shop, or in the trunk of your car or your hot apartment with radiator heat — it will suffer from heat damage.

At the end of the day, if you think something is wrong with your wine, trust your instinct — just like you would with that sour carton of milk.