Sunday, January 24, 2010

Voodoo Vino

I was raised in Austin, Texas.

Austin, as in the home of Whole Foods Market, all things natural and hippy. Austin, as in the most liberal city in the state.

Organic, natural, holistic and eco-friendly are terms I grew up hearing. And I'm pretty sure everyone has become familiar with the terms green and sustainable in recent years. However, biodynamics and biodynamic farming I was not to familiar with; these may not be too familiar to you either.

I have seen "biodynamics" it in print a few times, but the term did not mean to much to me because I really didn't know what the hell it was. On a recent trip in Oregon, my wife Lindsay and I kept hearing references to the biodynamic movement happening among wineries in the Willamette Valley.

Almost, if not all, of the wineries we visited were organic and fully sustainable, which isn't surprising considering how environmentally conscious Oregon is. But biodynamics is just coming into the general public's awareness, even in hippy-friendly Oregon.

Upon returning from our Oregonian adventure and conducting some research on my own, I was surprised to learn that biodynamics is not really new at all. The father of biodynamics is Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner is credited as creating the first ecological farming system.

So, what exactly is biodynamics you ask?

Basically the winemaker puts herbs in an old cut off cow horn and buries it in the ground. Then, after several months have passed, the winemaker digs the horn up on a full moon, but only if the groundhog has seen its own shadow. Then the winemaker makes a potion of magical tea, sprays said magical mixture on the vines, drinks some of the tea and holds hands with the field workers around a fire while Pink Floyd plays backwards on the iPod.

I'm kidding.

Well, sort of.

According to Wikipedia, "biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organism, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food."

In English, this means that biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming, in that it strives to keep chemicals and pesticides (those "external inputs") so that the resulting product is as true to its natural environment as is possible.

As explained to me by Bill Hanson, assistant winemaker at Panther Creek in Oregon, in biodynamics, heavy emphasis is placed on composts and manure. Methods that are unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as a compost additive and field sprays (teas) and the use of the astronomical sowing and planting calender.

In winemaking, biodynamics is really just optimizing the terroir. If you know anything about winemaking, then you'll recognize this term and its importance to winemakers. Terroir is the soil the vines are grown in, the weather conditions of the area, and the farming techniques used that make the grapes unique to the vineyard, which translates to the unique identity of the wines produced.

Superior terroir make superior wines. Biodynamics strives to make healthy soil and healthy vines, which makes superior wines.

So why isn't every vineyard employing biodynamics and why is it still a hush-hush topic, even in Oregon?

Well, most studies have shown relatively little direct effect of biodynamic practices on the product's superiority. However, the studies do note improvement to nutrient content of the compost, and field sprays (teas) contain substances that stimulate plant growth.

In addition, a lot of the biodynamics is based on faith and beliefs. Biodynamics is believed to transfer supernatural and cosmic forces into the soil and, ultimately, the wine.

Sounds kind of kooky, right?

You'd be surprised, though, by just how popular biodynamics is, even if it does come across as something a long-haired hippy freak would use to make sure their....uh..."crop" was as stellar as possible.

Today there are 529 biodynamic wine producers worldwide, with more converting to the practice everyday. Biodynamics is being used in vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungry, Austria, Switzerland, Chili, Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, New Zealand and right here in the USA.

In addition to working for Panther Creek, Bill Hanson, and his wife Linda, are also making their own wine. Libra Cellars, the Hanson's wine label, is completely sustainable and completely biodynamic.

My wife and I got a first-hand look at the process at Bill and Linda's vineyards.

They have massive water tanks that hold water collected from rainfall. Bill connects water lines to the tanks as needed.

The field preparations, or teas as Bill likes to call them, are a mixture of manure and crushed quartz. This mixture is stuffed inside of a cow horn and buried in a compost chamber in the spring and taken out in autumn.

Once dug up, the horn's contents are mixed with water and sprayed at a low pressure over the vines, which is done to help in the prevention of fungal diseases. Herbs used in the compost preparations are often used in medical remedies.

Some of these herbs are oak bark, stinging nettle, chamomile blossoms, yarrow blossoms, dandelion, valerium and horsetail. In a sense, Bill is a modern-day apothecary of the wine variety.

Bill says he is trying to balance the holistic development and relationship of soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system. And he manages to make some pretty fine wine in doing so.

We had the opportunity to try some of their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, both of which were exquisite. Both of the wines paired very well the salmon Bill grilled outside on the deck over looking the vineyard.

Here, in Bill's own words, are what Libra Cellars is about:

• The main thing is that Libra represents balance….The origin of the word derives from the Latin meaning "balances" or "scales" and it is sometimes referred to as the Balance. The key to fine wine for drinking or cellaring is balance. We put the scales on the back label.

• The Sun enters Libra around the Autumn Equinox when day and night are of equal length. Thus, this is when the Earth and the Sun are in balance... When the Sun reaches this point, Spring and Summer have passed and the harvesters are weighing and balancing the fruits of their labor. Libra represents the zenith of the year and coincides with our harvest.

• The Greek mythology related to Libra is pretty cool. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of Agriculture or “all things growing.” Libra represented the Chariot that transported her back from the underworld bringing spring with her. Demeter of course is now the name of the official Biodynamic Certification. We also practice biodynamic composting methods and dabble with the spray preparations so the story is particularly interesting.
• Libra’s like gentleness, sharing, conviviality and the "finer" things in life…and they tend to be mischievous…

I will do a post and give detailed tasting notes on all the Libra wines when they hit the shelves soon.

Until then, check out some of the biodynamic wines available, and see if Voodoo Vino whets your palate.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Champagne! It’s not just for breakfast anymore…

Champagne, simply put, is a state of mind.

The name alone makes one think of a celebration, a victory, elegance and opulence.

Race car drivers pop champagne to crown a victory. Anniversaries and milestones achieved demand a bottle of champagne. Champagne is the drink associated with New Years Eve and other holidays. And who can forget the champagne toast?

In short, everyone loves champagne, but few really know much about it.

The name champagne is derived from campagnia, a Latin term for the countryside north of Rome.

What most people call champagne is actually sparkling wine. Only wines produced in the Champagne region 90 miles northeast of Paris can proudly use the name. Although effervescent wines are abundant throughout the world, true Champagne comes only from this region.

Legend has it that champagne was first made toward the end of the 17th century by a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon and the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers (property now owned by Moet & Chandon). The story goes that they invented the sparkling and foamy wine by accident. Because of the fact the region is the coolest wine-producing area in the world, wines were made in the fall and left to settle over the winter. The cold temperatures suspended the fermentation process by paralyzing the yeast before the grape sugar turned to alcohol. When the weather and yeast warmed up in the spring, the wine would referment and begin to sparkle, which was not taken very well by the local people and actually frightened the Champenois. Dom and the cellar master spent decades filled with frustration trying to produce wine like the rest of France. Eventually they gave up, embracing the bubbling wine that set them apart from the rest of the world.

In actuality, an English scientist named Christopher Merret was the first to document the intentional stimulation of the second fermentation process by English winemakers almost 30 years before Dom Perignon is said to have invented it.

Sparkling wines are made around the world by adding sugar to the bottle during a second fermentation called dosage. The amount of sugar added creates different levels of dry to sweet sparkling wine, with the driest being extra brut and the sweetest being doux.

The level of sweetness of Champagne is as follows:
  • Extra Brut – totally dry to very dry
  • Brut – very dry to almost dry
  • Extra Dry – slightly sweeter
  • Demi-Sec – sweet
  • Doux – very sweet

Brut is by far the most popular worldwide and the most produced.

The region of Champagne has approximately 85,000 total acres. Of this, 75,000 are vineyard acres. The region is subdivided into five growing regions: the Cotes des Blancs, the Vallee de la Marne, the Montagne de Reims, the Cote des Bars (sometimes the Aube) and the Cote de Sezanne.

What is important to point out and what I find interesting is that wines that come from the five different subregions of Champagne all seem to share qualities and flavor profiles. Of course, the different terroir, microclimates and soil compositions of the subregions make the wines unique.

Champagne is made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Some of the Champagne subregions don't grow all three of the grapes, resulting in yet another subtle difference between the Champagne regions.

Champagne is the most difficult and complicated wine to make. All champanges are blends of still (non-bubbling) wines. Sometimes as many as 60 wines go into one blend. The goal is not to actually make a blend that tastes good right away, but to imagine how the blend will taste years later after the second fermentation, when bubbles have developed and dosage has been added.

Not all of the Champagne Houses, or makers, grow all of the grapes they use and need. There are more than 300 Champagne Villages, or Crus, that supply the houses with grapes.

In the world of wine, mass-producing wine companies sell their wines far less than small-producing boutique wineries. The small handmade wines demand much higher prices because of their quality.

In the world of champagne, the opposite is true. The big-name and mass-producing houses get much more for their bottle than the smaller-producing houses. The funny thing is that the smaller houses usually grow their grapes (called Grower Champagnes) and are better at a lower price.

How is this possible? Really it has to do with tradition and advertizing dollars. The 24 Grande Marques, or famous brands, such as Moet & Chandon, Perriet Jouet, Krug, Clicquot, Roederer, Tattinger, Mumm and Pommery, account for 60 percent of all champagne sold.

The age of the Small Champagne Grower is here. In part due to the shaky economy and to neglect of the terroir of the region, the big-name houses are facing hard times and are not adjusting to them as the small grower house have.

What this means to you the consumer is instead of buying the bottle of bubbly you always have on New Years or your anniversary at the same inflated price, try a bottle from a smaller grower house. The champagne will be amazing and you might be able to buy two for the same price.

In a near future blog post I will list some excellent small-grower champagnes to try as well as a breakdown of the 5 subregions of Champagne. I will also list an around-the-world account of sparkling wines from various countries including Spain, Italy, Chili, Argentina, United States and many more.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This Wino Can Cook!: Goat cheese stuffed endive, pork tenderloin and shiraz

A couple of years ago my wife Lindsay and I were in Rome and we had a phenomenal meal that I have wanted to recreate ever since. The dish, baked endive with goat cheese, is extremely easy to make and is absolutely delectable. It was actually served as an entree (at a French restaurant in Rome, go figure) but we decided to recreate it as a side dish served with pork tenderloin and homemade garlic mashed potatoes.

Obviously, it's best to start with the tenderloin first, as you will need to marinate the pork overnight.

Clean excess fat off of a couple of pork tenderloins. I like to make more pork than needed for the actual meal because it makes great leftovers (sandwiches and sliced into salads).

Put the tenderloins into a heavy storage ziplock bag. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Take a port wine of your choice and pour into the bag to cover the tenderloins. If you don't have a fresh herb garden at home, get some fresh herbs from the store and add to the bag to flavor during the marinading. Use what herbs you have available and toss them in whole with stems and all. I used fresh oregano and fresh thyme. Refrigerate the tenderloins overnight.

Once the tenderloins are marinated remove from the bag and heat a heavy skillet. Also preheat your oven to 300 degrees. When the pan is hot add enough olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter to cover the pan. Next add a little bit of chopped garlic and heat. Just before the garlic browns, add the tenderloins and sear, rolling the pork to get a good sear all around. When the tenderloins are completely seared, remove from heat and set aside.

Gently rinse the endive with cool water and separate it into individual leaves. Plan for each person to eat 3 or 4 leaves, as endive tends to be small. Next spoon in goat cheese of your choice into the leaf pocket of the endive. I used an herbed goat cheese. Letting the goat cheese sit out at room temperature for about 15 minutes before you plan to use it makes it much easier to spread. Season with salt and pepper and place the leaves in a heated skillet with olive oil. Heat for a few minutes, constantly moving the leaves around the pan. The endive does not need to be browned that much; you are just adding a little color.

Next put the skillet with the pork tenderloins into your preheated oven for around 20 to 25 minutes. Watch the pork so that it does not over cook. The endive skillet also needs to go into the oven to cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Be sure to watch the cheese; when it begins to bubble and brown it is ready. While the pork is cooking, baste it with the juices in the pan.

While the pork and endive bakes, prepare mashed potatoes or some wild rice. Lindsay and I like to add parmesan cheese and lots of garlic to our mashed potatoes to give it that little kick.

When your pork is finished, take it out and let it rest for 5 minutes. This is very important with pork – it keeps the meat juicy. While pork is resting, deglaze the pan with a little wine to get all the little bits of seared pork from the pan and stir it over low heat to create a light sauce. Slice the pork into medallions and arrange on a plate. Spoon some of the sauce over the pork and arrange several endive cups next to the medallions.

I paired this meal with a shiraz from Australia, Hill Of Content.

Tasting Notes: Ruby red in color, vibrant, jammy nose with earthy qualities, lots of spice and dark fruits make this shiraz a great pick for pork and any other roasted meats.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One for the Road: This Pat Green's Not from Texas

On a recent trip to Oregon, my wife Lindsay and I visited Patricia Green Cellars. The winery is located outside of Newberg and is tucked away off of a dirt road on a beautiful hillside. No sign marks the winery is there and they work off of appointments. When you get there you will be amazed by their tasting room and gift shop. Not really. They don't have one. But they do make kick ass Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs. 

I wasn't even sure we were at the right place until we walked into the cellar and saw the PGC logo on a box on the floor. Then this dog came charging at us at full speed barking like crazy, only stopping when he got right up to us, where he sat down and patiently waited for some lovin'.  We found out later that this Korgy-Border Collie is none other than Chompers the 'guard' dog. 

As we walked a little further into the facility we saw a guy dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans talking to a few people over a small wooden table covered in wine bottles and wine glasses.
He was friendly enough and greeted us warmly. We told him we had set up an appointment and that we had come all the way from Texas to taste all Patricia Green Cellars had to offer. He pointed to the rack of glasses and and started talking about the history of Patricia Green Cellars. 

It turns out that he is Jim Anderson, Patricia Green's partner of 14 years. They met while both working in wine sales for different companies and struck a lasting friendship. 

Now they make killer award-winning Pinot Noir and produce two Sauvignon Blancs. Their approach is truly Burgundian; on all 15 of their Pinot Noirs, the vineyards from which the grapes originate are more prominent on the labels than the PGC logo. They have several Pinot Noirs that are from estate grown vineyards that they own, while several Pinot Noirs come from vineyards that they oversee. 

They make some really amazing wine and Patricia and Jim are truly hands-on people. They work the fields, make the wine and run all facets of the business. 

After Jim let us try all of their current wines in production, he let us try some barrel samples using a wine thief. 

I was very surprised by the barrel samples. They were already quite drinkable, showing nice fruit and smooth, mouth-filling tannins. It was really interesting how each barrel sample from each vintage was a truly different tasting experience. 

Patricia and Jim explained to us that they use grapes from vineyards that are miles apart, which, in the Willamette Valley, means the grapes come from different micro climates and are grown in soil that varies depending upon location in the valley. While they use the exact same methods to make their different Pinots, they ultimately let the grapes' terroir speak for itself, resulting in Pinots that have their own unique identity. 

Case in point: they did a little experiment and made and a Pinot Noir using grapes from Sonoma, California. Interesting, right? Jim didn't tell us we were tasting the Sonoma Pinot Noir to see if we noticed. Both Lindsay and I mentioned that it was very different from the 13 or 14 other Pinot Noirs we had already tasted. Of course, once Jim let us in on the California secret, it made perfect sense. The Sonoma Pinot had a nose and finish that was reminiscent of tomato juice and rootbeer. I kid you not. 

Some Patricia Green Cellar wines that you must try are:

2007 Pinot Noir Notorious ($70)
This is a vivid red with powerful bouquet of berries and dark fruit, rose petals,vanilla and spices. Tasting the wine reveals raspberry and blackberry flavors that have hints of floral and cola. This is a well-structured wine with smooth tannins and lingering notes of berries and floral spice. It is extremly balanced and is the only wine that has been exposed to 100% new oak barrels.

2007 Pinot Noir Croft Vineyards ($30)
Bright red color with a nose that is a blend of cherry and red berries. The bouquet is also complemented with nice notes of licorice and violets. Tasting this fine Pinot you will notice cherry skin flavors, minerality and silky tannins.

2007 Pinot Noir Estate Vineyards ($36)
This is their second largest production wine with 1900 cases produced. It displays medium red color and has a nose that is earthy with hints of floral and cherry. This wine is a powerhouse, displaying dusty tannins with layers of spice and cherry skins.

Patricia Green Cellars
15225 NE North Valley Road
Newberg, Oregon 97132
*Be sure to check out their website – it's hilarious.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Wino Can Cook!: Mexican Snapper & Pinot Pairing

Living on the Gulf Coast, we have a lot of fresh fish at our disposal. One of the dudes I play golf with every Tuesday enjoys cooking as much as I do, and we often trade recipes while navigating our way around the course. My friend Frank Stone is also an avid fisherman and is always coming up with different ways to cook his catch. This recipe is one of Frank's.

This a great recipe because it is simple and takes no time to prepare and it tastes awesome. You could substitute snapper for almost any firm white fish, but snapper is probably best if you can get it. Freshness is the key. Buy the freshest product you can get if you are not able to catch it yourself.

This dish can be done on a grill outside or in the oven. I like the the oven method because of the simplicity. I will mention that if you plan on cooking indoors with the oven method remove the skin so all you have is a clean filet with no bones. Otherwise, keep the skin on the deboned filet and cook skin side down if you're going to use a grill.

Preheat your oven at 350 degrees and open a bottle of wine so it can begin to breathe. Feel free to have a glass while you cook too.

Take an oven-safe lasagna style dish or cake pan and coat the bottom with olive oil. Season both sides of the filet with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Place filets in the dish, leaving space between the filets. Squeeze the juice out of a fresh lemon over the filets and spoon your choice of salsa over the filets. You can use homemade salsa or some from the jar. I prefer a medium heat salsa. Next sprinkle crushed corn tortilla chips over the filets. I usually have several bags around the house and crush the chips right in the bag. Cover the filets just enough to add a good crunch. Then sprinkle the filets with shredded cheese. I use pre-shredded Mexican blend cheese, but use whatever cheddar you want. The final step is to top the filets with jalapenos. You can use fresh sliced or pickled jalapenos. Slice them or chop them. The amount of peppers you use depends on how much heat you want.

Put pan in the oven for about 15 minutes. Watch to see when the cheese is melting and beginning to brown a little. Remove the pan and let the fish rest for about 3 minutes. Using a flat spatula, gently lift the filets onto a serving dish or individual plates.

Serve the fish with a nice Mexican style rice or a saffron rice.

Snapper filets, deboned and skin removed (unless cooking on a grill)
Salt & pepper
Garlic powder
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Medium heat salsa (from a jar or freshly made)
Corn tortilla chips, crushed
Shredded cheddar cheese
Jalapenos (fresh or pickled)

I paired this fish with a King Estate Signature Pinot Noir ($27-$29).

Tasting Notes:
In the glass this pinot displays a beautiful ruby red color. It has aromas of raspberries, bing cherries and strawberries. There are subtle hints of floral and spices. At first taste you'll immediately notice bing cherries and ripe plums. It is a very typical Oregon pinot with its jammy qualities with spice and currant notes and layers of caramel and vanilla. This pinot, for the money, is a steal. It is soft and elegant; smooth tannins fill the mouth with a very long finish.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Aerators... do they work ?

Ever notice how a bottle of wine seems to taste better after the second or third glass? Or how a bottle will seem to open up and reveal more complexity and smoothness? That's because it does taste better – the wine has had time to be exposed to air. Decanting the bottle of wine into a decanter will introduce the wine to oxygen, but you need to wait to fully appreciate it to the fullest. Decanting is also a great way to separate sediment from the wine on older vintages.

In the past couple of years aerators have been making quite the buzz in the wine community. At first people did not know if it was marketing hype or just another gadget for cork dorks. I own several different aerators and was not thrilled because they did not do much to improve the aromas and taste of the wine to justify the effort.

I now have a couple that really do improve the wine and are well worth the effort. You will find the wine displays a better bouquet, enhanced flavors and a much smoother finish – exactly what a decanter can do for your wine after a couple of hours but instantly.

Aerators are a must for special older vintages but are excellent for improving the quality and smoothness of everyday wines.

Now don't expect your aerator to transform your bottom shelf $3 bottle into a top shelf gem. It just won't do that. But it will let you enjoy your wine to its absolute optimum potential immediately. 

Of the aerators I've tested, several worked much better while several cost quite a bit more. Coincidentally, the ones that worked better cost more. The adage "you get what you pay for" applies here. Some of the aerators are hand-held devices and some attached to the bottle's opening. The devices that are held over the decanter or individual glass seem to work better. The wine is exposed to air leaving the bottle before it even touches the aerator, giving it a head start if you will. The ones that mount to the bottle's end do not work as well in my opinion, as they don't seem to accomplish anything beyond what you'd already get from pouring straight from the bottle.

The other type of aerator I've used are devices that fit into the top of a decanter. As the wine is poured from the bottle onto the device it moves the wine to the walls of the decanter, exposing it to air. These work better than the aerators that fit onto the bottle but cannot work for an individual glass.

Below I've listed some aerators I've tried before that you might want to check out on your own. I've listed them in order of most improvement to the wine to least improvement. The top three all have similar design and actually work very well. I've put the top three in order of best price. *All prices based on those at Spec's in Galveston.

  • Vinturi (black) hand-held over glass or decanter   $42
  • Vinturi (white) hand-held over glass or decanter   $44
  • Decantus hand-held over glass or decanter   $50 
  • Menu attaches to bottle   $30
  • Final Touch attaches to bottle   $25
  • Menu Selection attaches to bottle   $20
  • Epic Decanter Funnel rests on decanter   $19
  • Prodyne Crystal Decanter Ball rests on decanter   $15
  • Metaller (stainless steel funnel) rests on decanter   $13
Decantus also offers a stand for its hand-held aerator that costs $16 that works with the Vinturis as well.

I'm giving the win to the Vinturi because it works as well as the Decantus but is less expensive.

Yes they do work !